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Chapter Text

By FlukeofFate (YorikoSakakibara)

By a-sirens-lullaby


Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain, came awake with a sudden start and a strangled shout of alarm. It was utterly dark, and his shout echoed in the stifling blackness. He tried to blink his eyes, and found it made little difference.

"Peace, Child of Durin," said a voice, and he gritted his teeth.

"What is this place?" he asked, and the voice chuckled.

Where was the Hobbit? Where was the frozen lake? Last he recalled, he had been bleeding to death at the edges of the silent battlefield. His madness had passed, but it had exacted too high a price. His family was spent and gone, his nephews cold and stiffened in death and rent with many wounds. Their soft-handed and great-hearted Burglar had forgiven him, even as he wept over Thorin's broken body.

He did not deserve such forgiveness.

"You have come to a place of rest, Thorin son of Thráin," said the voice, and Thorin blinked furiously, trying to make out the voice's owner in the gloom. His excellent Dwarven dark- vision did not seem to be working, and he began to push himself up onto his elbows. He was unclad, and his skin shivered and prickled in the icy darkness.

"Explain," he snarled. "And show yourself!"

"Patience," the voice chided. It did not sound angry at Thorin's disrespect. Rather, it sounded fond, even fatherly. "Do calm yourself. Your sight will return."

"Where am I?"

"As I said, you are come to a place of rest. Here you may finally find peace."

"Peace? There shall be no peace in me until I have your answer!" Thorin growled. He was tiring of these riddles. "Speak plainly! Where am I? I was last upon the withered heath before the gates of Erebor. Have you moved me? What have you done to steal the light from my eyes?"

"Perhaps I erred when I made you so hasty," mused the voice. "I say again: Calm yourself! I will not repeat it another time - three times is quite enough. And you are old enough to think better of asking such foolish questions, unlike your chattering nephews. However did you manage to control that temper of yours? They are nearly as curious as Hobbits, and that is no understatement."

"There is a trick to it," Thorin said as a strange and horrible suspicion began to dawn. "You listen for the words they do not say. Those are the important ones."

"Ah. Naturally."

Thorin steeled himself, and then asked, "Am I dead?"

There was a pause, and then the voice said, not unkindly, "Yes."

His ribs clenched tightly around his heart, and Thorin's head dropped against his chest as he murmured, "I am in the Halls of my Forefathers."


Thorin squeezed his eyes shut. Of course, they couldn't possibly be his eyes, not really. This was not his hand, clenched into a shaking fist by his side. The heart hammering fit to break his chest apart was not his own. This was a body remade, renewed and purged of all its mortal flaws and weakness. No wonder he could not see – his eyes had never been used before.

Here he would wait until the Breaking of the World, when the Dwarves would rebuild Arda Marred and restore her to her full glory. Here he would grieve for his sister and cousins, left behind to deal with the results of his madness and pride. Here he would bow under the weight of his shame, knowing he had stolen his nephews' bright young lives before they had even seen a century. Here he would break beneath the guilt of what he had done to a cheerful, peaceful, gentle creature who had only ever sought to help him.

"Are you my Maker?" he eventually croaked.

The vast presence moved closer, and he shuddered as the power within it stroked at his mind and brushed over his new skin. "I am."

Thorin opened his new, useless eyes and glared into the darkness. "Then why, may I ask, did you make me so flawed?"

The voice was silent.

The anger flickered and then caught alight in Thorin's breast, and he pushed himself up onto new and shaking legs, weak as a newborn deer's. Thrusting his jaw blindly before him, he flung his shame and grief and rage into the darkness. "Why my damnable pride? Why my temper, my resentment - why my foolish stubborn arrogance! Why the madness that plagues our Line? Why did all I do, all I hoped, turn to ash before I had even grasped it? Why did my family break, time and time again?"

The mighty Vala of Stone and Craft was silent.

"Tell me!" Thorin roared.

"You forget yourself, King Under the Mountain," said the voice, and it sounded sad rather than angry. "My work was not flawed. You were made strong and hardy and slow to change, loyal in friendship and long in enmity. Crafts of all kinds come easily to your hands, and you can feel the earth beneath you and hear her songs, can you not?"

Thorin's fingernails dug into the soft new skin of his palms. "You know I can."

"That is how I made you," said the voice of his great Maker. "And that cannot be altered. Rather, it is the work of the Enemy that mars all it touches."

Thorin frowned. "What Enemy? Mordor was destroyed by the Last Alliance in the days of Durin the Fourth, and no great power save the dragons has arisen since."

The voice was silent for a moment more, as though he was struggling with some old and terrible injury. "You recall your father's ring?"

Thorin blinked. "Aye, the Ring of Power. Yes?"

"There were seven of them once. Four were swallowed up by the Firedrakes. But three, including your father's, made their way back to their original smith."

Thorin scowled. "I do not understand."

"You will." The voice – Mahal – was filled with ancient melancholy. "I made you strong to endure, my child. And you have. Against all the works of the great Evil, the Dwarves never capitulated and ever remained their own masters. No Dwarf ever became a wraith. No Dwarf ever lost his will to the Shadow. But the Enemy is ever wily and cunning; he finds other ways to work his will. And so the seven rings worked in other ways, unseen ways, upon my children. Thus over the long, long years the love of craft and beauty that I gave you was slowly twisted into a desire for jewels and metal."

"I never wore that ring," said Thorin.

"But your father did. And his father before him, and his father before him, from the day Celebrimbor gave the ring to Durin in his third life onwards," said the deep, sorrowful voice. "I watched your line slowly drift under its spell, and I grieved. The descendants of the first of my children, the greatest of my seven sons, strong and enduring and steadfast – and yet the Enemy had touched you after all."

"I never," Thorin repeated through gritted teeth, "wore that ring. My madness was my own."

"Was it?" asked the voice gently. "The ring aside, do not forget: gold that a dragon has slept on has a power of its own. The great Worms were created in ancient times by an even blacker and more powerful evil. They were made to be the downfall of the Dwarves, and so they remain your greatest challenge."

Thorin was silent for a moment, and then he raised his head slightly. "My father's ring was but a ring, and the dragon but a dragon. Why then did I lose myself at the very moment I should have been strongest?"

Mahal sighed. "These are secrets long hidden, soon to come to light. You will understand soon enough. Let go of your anger and shame, Thorin son of Thráin. There are many here who love you."

Thorin's throat snapped closed, and his teeth ground together almost painfully. "Will you not explain?"

"It is too close to me, my son," said Mahal, and the fatherly, powerful voice moved away into the crushing darkness. Sorrow echoed in the stones as he spoke. "One who was dear to me betrayed me utterly, and all his works are now turned to darkness and deceit. I cannot speak of it."

A flash of insight came to him, and Thorin said aloud, "the one who made the Seven?"

"Aye," Mahal said, and his soft laughter trembled in the air like distant rumbling thunder. "Thank Eru I made you sharp. Put aside all your self-recrimination. It has no place here. Your sickness was not of your choice, nor even of my design. It is done now."

"It will never be done," Thorin said coldly, even as his insides twisted and twisted again. "Not until I have made my amends."

"What use are amends in the House of the Dead? Greet your loved ones, and wait for the renewal of all things. Your travels and hardships are done, and your homeland restored. You died well, my child."

"I lived less well. And amends are not of use," Thorin spat. "That is not the point of them!"

"True!" Mahal laughed again. "Very true!" The mighty Vala fell quiet for a moment in thought, and Thorin breathed harshly with the force of his anger. Then Mahal spoke, and his voice shook with power:

"Very well then. For the love I bear you and for the woe the Shadow has wrought in you, I shall give you the means to make your amends."

Thorin's heart leapt into his throat.

A strange blossoming warmth began to suffuse Thorin's chest, filling him with fire unquenchable as Mahal continued to speak. "All my children may see their kin and friends yet surviving in the lands of the mortals beyond the mists. I will give you the power to reach them."

"Reach them?" Thorin took one blind step forward, a hand pressed to where that strange fire burned above his hammering heart. "You mean, I may speak to them? Truly?"

"No, that you may not. I cannot take back the Gift of Ilúvatar once given. You may not pass through the mists to touch the living."

"Not even to beg for their forgiveness?" Thorin asked with a certain sinking hopelessness, knowing the answer already.

A huge hard hand, gnarled with work, gently laid itself on Thorin's shoulder, and he shuddered uncontrollably at the sensation. His maker's hand – such power, and such love in that touch. "I am sorry you cannot let go of your grief, my child."

"You also made me stubborn, if you recall," Thorin retorted to cover his trembling awe, and Mahal's smile could be felt in the silent thunder of the air.

"Aye, that I did." The hand let go, and Thorin swayed slightly, drunk with wonderment and sorrow and dread.

"But," the Lord of Craft and Stone added, "you will be able to reach their deepest mind. The mind beneath the waking thoughts, the subconscious flow of their selves – that you may touch."

Thorin let out a long breath filled with bitterness. The sleeping mind, the subconscious. That was not ideal. But better than nothing.

"Now, there are some here who have waited eagerly to meet with you."

"Fíli? Kíli?" The shame was a noose around his throat, and Thorin's new-made eyes smarted with sudden unshed tears.

"Amongst others who have waited far longer," said the Vala. "Be well, Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain. I will meet with you again."

And then the overwhelming sense of his presence was gone.

The darkness pressed in on him, and Thorin took another hesitant step forward. There was good stone beneath his bare feet, and the slap of his soles against it echoed through the nothingness.

"Fíli?" he tried. "Kíli?"

The darkness and silence was absolute but for the rasp of his breath in his lungs. Thorin took another step, and another.

Then young excited voices were echoing through the darkness towards him. Thorin managed a laugh that was part-sob.


"Everyone, this way! Found him, finally, how many sepulchres are there in this place?"

"Mahal only knows. Actually, he probably does. We should ask."

"Thorin, you are not going to believe it!"

"We met Durin! Actual Durin! He's here!"

"Again. Not a bad arrangement – get born, live, die, rest up a bit, and then have another shot at it in a couple of centuries' time."

"Speaking of, did you see that shot I made in the battle? Wasn't it amazing? I bet it goes down in history. Even Bard couldn't better it! I'd like to see that blond Elven twit match that."

"Kíli," Thorin choked, and stumbled forward into the darkness. "Fíli..." Two bodies as familiar as his own hands barrelled into him and he clutched at them even as he stumbled backwards.

"Careful now," said a rough, beloved voice, and someone caught his elbow. "Father, get him some clothes, his eyes don't work yet."

"Ach, get 'em yerself, lazy sod." The voice of Thrór was as gruff as ever, and Thorin turned towards him, his sightless eyes wide.

"Grandfather, you're..."

"Aye," said the last true King Under the Mountain. "I'm here. Saw it got you too."

Thorin bowed his head over his nephews as hot humiliation raced over him. "Yes."

"Not your fault, lad," said the Dwarf holding his arm. "Not your fault. Not like you ask for these things to happen."

"Besides," said Thrór, and old shame tinted his voice as well, "you beat it in the end, didn't you? You died with your own mind. You were stronger than me."

"And me," soothed the Dwarf beside him, and the strong and so-familiar hand on his elbow tightened in reassurance.

"No, it wasn't me. It was..." Thorin wanted to protest, to speak of Bilbo, when the Dwarf holding his elbow cleared his throat and wrapped his other arm around Thorin's trembling shoulders.

"We saw, m'lad," he said gently. "We know."

The hand on his elbow was unblemished, new and unscarred, but it was unmistakable. Thorin grasped it tightly with his other hand, and the rumbling chuckle in his ear made his eyes sting. "Father," he said faintly. "Father, I'm so sorry. I abandoned you, 'adad. I thought you long dead..."

"Steady now, inùdoy," said Thráin gently. "Steady. Never mind me. You've had a hard road and a long one, but you've time to rest now."

His father. His great and splendid father, a Lord and Prince, who bore the tattoos of a warrior across his brow. His father – his head noble and proud and his beard long and fierce, his one good eye relentless and his hands like steel bands. His father – his poor, mad, half-blind father, trapped and starved and witless for nine long years in the dungeons of Dol Guldur.

"Rest," Thorin repeated in a strangled voice. "No, I don't..."

"Yes, you can," said his father. "Don't you think on it longer. I would have given me up as well. Let it go, my son. There's time to rest here. Time to heal."

"You did well, nidoyel," said Thrór. "You gave our people back our home. You gave them back their hope and their pride and their heritage. Not a bad legacy. Not a bad way to leave the world."

"I left them to deal with ages-old enmities, a home scattered with carrion, a cursed treasure and a dead King," Thorin said bitterly, and Thráin squeezed his arm sharply, his hands as rock-hard and as powerful as in Thorin's earliest memories.

"Do you forget all your lessons? We're not the only branch of our line. It's time to leave your burdens to others now."


"Thorin," said Thráin, a smile colouring his voice. "Don't make me wroth with you. Here now, what's this? Tears, my son? Well, let them fall where they may! There is time for tears here, too."

"Are you maudlin old men quite finished?" snapped another. "Let me through, or I shall make you and by Mahal you won't enjoy it!"

"Best move out of the way," Thrór muttered, and Thráin chuckled again.

"Aye, she won't be patient much longer."

"You mean she can be patient?"

"Don't insult my wife, you old coot."

"Stop nattering, you pair, and move. Oh, look at you," murmured the new voice, a soft, feminine voice, and Kíli yelped as he was pried from Thorin's grasp. "So much older. So much harder. Oh, my handsome lad. My brave, brave boy."

Thorin couldn't halt the cry that left him at the feel of the hand that came to rest on his face. The smell that enveloped him was as real and warm as the hand, and his whole soul cried out at it: the sweetness of the oils she used for her hair and beard, the sharp tang of copper and wood-smoke from her forge, the warm living scent of her skin. "Mother," he said, and he knew he was weeping openly. She wrapped him tightly in her embrace, and carded her hand through his hair.

"I'm very proud of you, my Thorin," she said in her low, strong voice, and he pressed into her hand as she held him close. "So very proud of you."

"By the way, Grandma is kind of terrifying," Kíli said, and then he yelped as the lady Frís, daughter of Aís, Princess Under the Mountain and wife of Thráin, presumably pinched him.

"Behave, young one," she said sternly, pulling back to stroke Thorin's face again and thread her fingers through his close-cropped beard. "I'll get to you two in a moment."

"Terrifying," said Fíli admiringly. "I kinda see where Mum gets it from, now."

"Our grumpy little Dís as a mother," said a young, laughing voice, a voice that rang like bells. "Let Middle-Earth tremble."

Thorin froze. Frís' hand gentled him, smoothing over his hair as though soothing a skittish pony.

"Aye, he's here," she murmured. "He's been insufferable, waiting for you all this time."

"I'm very cross with you, nadadel," said Frerin, Prince Under the Mountain. "You took your time. What, were you lost again? You made me wait one hundred and forty years. Have you any idea how rude that is?"

"Thorin, rude?" Fíli laughed. "Perish the thought."

Thorin couldn't speak. His mother's hand was on his face, his nephews clinging to his arms. His father was practically holding him up, his grandfather was patting his shoulder, and his brother's arm was carelessly slung around him. Frerin, Frerin.

Frerin, by Jeza-Red

"You're blubbing," said Frerin with a tender sort of mischievousness. "My perfect big brother, blubbing. Like a big mopey Elf. Did you mess up your hair? Did somebody break a twig?"

"Shut up," Thorin choked, and Frerin threw back his head and laughed his silver laugh and oh, Thorin had missed him, missed him so much.

"You shut up," he said gently, and then Frerin was pulling his braid and abruptly Thorin was struck with a memory so vivid that he reeled with the strength of it, sent back to a hazy, golden time when he was five years old and the new baby kept chewing and tugging at his hair.

"Frerin," he gasped, and his brother's warm hands were tugging at his braids, pulling him forward until their foreheads rested together. Frerin, the day to Thorin's night, so very young, so small, only forty-eight. His skin was unlined and Thorin's fingers traced his thick straight brows, his bladelike Durin nose, his merry eyes, his short full goatee braided upon his cheeks.

"You look old, brother," he said. "And tired."

"I am," Thorin sighed, allowing Frerin to take some of his weight from Thráin. "I am so tired. I thought I would have time, a few decades at least..."

"See, this is what happens when I'm not around to stop you from brooding," Frerin said gently. "You turn into a mopey Elf. It's really rather pathetic."

Thorin grunted. Then he drew back his head and butted his brother sharply, and his mother's soft laughter rang out.

"Boys," she said, and that was the exact same tone she had used when Thorin was only twenty and Frerin fifteen; two lads bickering instead of watching their six-year-old sister.

"Your head has gotten harder," grumbled Frerin.

"Or yours is softer," Thorin retorted, and an incredulous laugh bubbled out of Kíli.

"I'm dreaming, yes?" he asked of no-one in particular. "Thorin doesn't tease. He got brought back wrong. Mahal made a mistake."

"Oh, you think you two were bad?" said Thrór archly. "These two had you beaten."

"Why do you think he already knew most of your tricks?" added Frerin. "We thought up that stuff a century before you two."

"It was always your idea," Thorin muttered.

"And you always led the way," Frerin said, and nudged him. "Such a dutiful Prince!"

Kíli wailed aloud, and Thorin could just picture the look of betrayal on his face. "Everything I knew is wrong," he moaned.

Thorin smiled through his tears and Fíli chuffed a laugh. "Poor Kíli. He's pulling at his hair again."

"Tell him to stop. He doesn't have hair enough to spare," Thorin said, and Kíli's outraged yelp made him smile all the harder.

"You look dreadful," said Frerin conversationally. "All covered in tears and red-faced and your braids coming undone."

"And whose fault is that?" Thorin immediately retorted, and felt rather than saw Frerin's grin.

"I have a bone to pick with you," said Fíli into his ear. "Why didn't you or Mum ever tell me I looked like your mother and brother? I always thought I was the odd one out!"

"In this family?" Frís snorted. "When it comes to odd, we are rather spoiled for choice."

"Dear," said Thráin, rather stiffly. "Not in front of the grandchildren."

"Loss of respect comes with the territory," said Thrór. "Get used to it. Thráin, nidoy, where's your mother?"

"Keeping the rest away. She didn't want to overwhelm him all at once."

"You weren't so nice to us," accused Fíli. "Mobbed us, you did! I thought we were under attack at first! I punched my own father on the nose!"

That surprised a true laugh out of Thorin, thought it hurt his chest. "You hit Víli?" he said.

"He did. And I stamped on Grandfather's foot," said Kíli.

Thráin cleared his throat. "And bit my hand," he added sternly.

"Well, you try being blind as a bat and naked as a mole and having your dead grandfather commenting on your lack of beard, see how you like it," Kíli grumbled.

Thráin huffed out a laugh, and Thrór made a long-suffering noise that Thorin vaguely recalled from long dreary Council meetings in which Fundin never seemed to shut up. "You didn't know any of us, great-grandson," the King said patiently. "Not outside of stories. But our Thorin is going to meet with Dwarves he hasn't seen in centuries – his great-uncle, his cousins, his friends."

"It's usual to keep the first greetings to the immediate family," explained Frerin. "Otherwise it gets a bit overwhelming. Grandmother will be along in a moment."

Kíli made a grumble of assent that Thorin recognised as a grudging 'oh all right'. He reached out into the blackness, his hand stretching for his youngest nephew, and Kíli stepped back into his arms easily. "Kíli," said Thorin and stroked back Kíli's mad, snarled hair – unbraided as always – even as he pulled Fíli closer against him. The Dwarves in his arms were young and strong, tall and straight, even as he remembered them. Visions of their bloodless faces and their rent and broken bodies kept dancing before his mind's eye. A great stone lodged itself in his throat and made it hard to breathe. "Fíli. I'm so sorry," he whispered against the side of Fíli's head. "I'm so sorry, my boys. Forgive me, oh, my nidoyîth. I wanted so much for you, undayûy. I wanted..."

"Oh, it's Thrór all over again, someone stop him," groaned Frís. "We're going to drown in the combined guilt of the Line of Durin before we ever lay a stone of Arda Remade."

"He's here now," said Frerin gently. "He'll heal."

"It'll take time," said Thrór, his tone sombre.

"It always does," sighed Thráin.


Chapter Text

He was wrapped in a soft shapeless robe and led to a smaller room. He could tell it was smaller from the sweet, tinkling echoes. It smelled like good deep rock. There was a bed.

He slept like the dead.

When he woke, his mother was there. He could barely make out her face through blurred vision, but her smile shone through his blindness and was just as glorious as it had ever been. Her soft wheat-gold hair still curled around her face, and her eyes were still exactly the same shape and colour as his own. He was glad – he had wondered if old, long-nursed grief had warped his memories. Frís helped him dress and took his hand, before leading him out into a great buttressed Hall and a dizzying array of Dwarves and heat and noise and laughter.

It took some getting used to.

Dwarrows centuries-dead greeted him, and as his sight returned he occasionally found himself brought up short by a familiar face or a vague family resemblance. Surely that was a Durin nose – surely those were the family ears! He walked around in a haze of recognition and bewilderment.

Thorin's grandmother, Queen Hrera, fussed and tutted over him more than she ever had as a young dwarfling. It took all his patience to refrain from reminding her that he was in fact older than her now, and had more white in his hair and beard than she had ever managed. Not that she would have listened, anyhow. The women of his family had always been even more mulish than the men. Fíli and Kíli smirked a lot whenever she managed to corral him and tweak his cheek.

He had his revenge when Hrera descended on them in turn and promptly began to plait Kíli's hair.

A Dwarf with a multitude of honey-coloured braids and a puckish, mischievous face came near, and Thorin's mouth opened on a soft intake of breath. Then he grabbed the Dwarf's shoulders and drew him into a rough embrace. "Víli."

His brother-in-law silently pressed their foreheads together. "Thank you for raising them," said Víli son of Vár. "Thank you for being there when I could not."

Thorin fumbled for Víli's hand and grasped it tightly. "They are the best of my life," he said, and Víli's eyebrows rose and the ghost of the impish grin that had captured Dís' heart passed over his lips.

Víli, by a-sirens-lullaby

"Then maybe we should go and rescue them from Hrera."

Thorin looked back at the grouching Fíli and the moaning Kíli. "No. It's good for them."

Víli chuckled and folded his arms, watching his sons complain and grouse. His eyes were fond and his smile grew until it was the spitting image of the grin that Kíli had inherited. "So it is."

His grandfather's dear friend, the stoic and dependable Nár (who had braved Moria for love of Thrór), clasped Thorin's wrists and told him that he was a Dwarf amongst Dwarves, a hero of their people. His old Great-Uncle Grór, first Lord of the Iron Hills, slapped at his back and told him 'well done!" His Great-grandfather Dáin the first, slain by a cold-drake before Thorin's birth, grinned at him from ear to ear and pumped his hand until his fingers went numb.

His cousins Náin and Fundin, both Burned Dwarves of Azanulbizar, instantly crowded him with enthusiastic pleas for news of their sons. Though Mahal had mentioned that any Dwarf in the Halls could watch over their kin at any time, it appeared that the immediacy of his tales was greatly appreciated and sought after. Though it tore at his heart, Thorin told them all that he could remember. His old cousin Farin, father to Fundin and Gróin, was quiet and calm, a smile tugging at his lips as he listened to the stories of his four heroic grandsons of the Company – Balin, Dwalin, Óin and Glóin.

Gróin was the worst of the lot, however. He was so proud of his grandson he was likely to explode, and asked Fíli and Kíli for any tales of their young playfellow at any and every opportunity. At these times, Thorin would take the opportunity to slip away and explore.

The Halls of Mahal were of sweet ringing rock, and the busy sounds of pickaxes and hammers tapped away at all hours. Though thousands upon thousands of Dwarves swarmed the Halls, none seemed crowded and each had room enough for their needs. It was all a mystery to Thorin. Where were the Halls located? Aman, yes, obviously -but where? Were these great mines and workshops located in the Halls of Mandos, the Doomsman of the Valar? Or did the Dwarves bide their long years of waiting within the mountains of Mahal, their maker?

And for that matter - whence came the wood for the forges? Where the cloth for the clothes? Where the food for the meals? No Dwarf could tell him, and most seemed grudgingly resigned to never knowing. Thorin's temperament was not well-suited to such mysteries, and he began to eye each meal suspiciously until his mother told him to stop it and eat.

As his strength and sight returned, great and wondrous things were revealed to him. There were graceful corridors of twisting stone carved into such intricate delicacy that they seemed made of snow or feathers, and yet they were harder than dragonscale and older than the foundations of Khazad-dûm. His father showed him vast vaulted halls, their ceilings covered in curling golden patterns and with pillars of purest white marble carved into ancient designs. Víli, Fíli and Kíli dragged him through crystal caves that shattered the darkness into dancing prisms of light at the merest flicker of a lamp. His grandmother showed him a cave where water dripped in a musical cascade like hundreds of tiny silver bells chiming at once. His mother took him to deep and velvet-dark mines that yielded the greenest emeralds he had ever seen and mithril like the pure bright soul of the earth, held in his cupped hand.

His brother dragged him through workshop after workshop, and Thorin had almost lost his composure at the cunningly wrought works of beauty and skill that flourished under the hands of the greatest of their race. Narvi of Khazad-dûm worked beside Bar of Belegost and Telchar of Nogrod, and marvels blossomed beneath their hammers and chisels. Frerin laughed openly at his astonishment before dragging him onwards to gape at yet another wonder.

Frerin, by Aviva0017

Finally his brother slowed before a great arched door wound about with pearls, diamonds and mithril, and his shoulders stiffened as though he was about to plunge himself through fire. He took Thorin's hand and led him through into a round stone chamber. The walls were curtained in limestone formations – white, alien shapes that reminded him of the drape of fabric, or even of soft white wings, fluted and graceful. The roof was covered in white stalactites that dripped like melted candle-wax towards a great mirrored underground lake. Dwarrows were seated around it on carved stone benches, gazing deeply into the water.

Some were smiling gently, whilst others wept into their beards.

"This is the Chamber of Sansûkhul," Frerin said softly. "This is Gimlîn-zâram, the pool filled with starlight from no earthly sky. Here we may watch our loved ones left behind in Arda."

Thorin gave his brother a quick glance. Frerin's normally merry face was solemn, his bright blue eyes dark. He noticed Thorin's regard and the corner of his mouth twitched ruefully. "I spent a lot of time here," he said, "sitting upon that bench. That one just over there. I watched you and Dís and Dwalin and Balin, watched you all grow older. Older, and harder... and colder." He swallowed hard, and tugged absently at his forked beard. "Mother and I nearly broke down when you finally smiled again after Fíli's birth. We'd almost forgotten what it looked like."

Thorin did not speak, but he clasped his brother's shoulder in wordless support.

"Did you want to see?"

Mahal's promise leapt to mind, and Thorin hesitated. The strange warmth that had suffused him still burned in his chest as though made of banked embers, and he touched the place over his heart with tentative fingertips. The sleeping mind, the subconscious. But how? How was he to reach his people across the sundering seas and from the Halls of the Dead?

Frerin quickly added, "you don't have to. Look, I mean. No-one's forcing you to."

"I will look," Thorin said heavily, the words feeling as though they were being pulled from him with pliers. His feet were leaden as he stepped to one of the benches and sat. The water was a dark glass sheet before him. It did not reflect light nor the stalactites above them, and no stars beckoned in its depths.

"What do I...?" he began, but Frerin hushed him and took his hand.

"Just watch," he said softly.

Thorin frowned, glaring at the water. Nothing was happening. This was foolishness. Perhaps it was one of Frerin's pranks, a waste of –

A pinprick of light began to pulse in the black depths of the pool, and he gasped. The light was joined by another, and yet another, growing in radiance until finally a galaxy of bright stars winked and whirled beneath the silvery surface of the water.

"You see it, then?" Frerin murmured.

"I think so," Thorin said in awe as the stars blazed forth. "It's beautiful."

"It is," was the soft reply.

The stars grew too bright to look at directly, and he squinted as he tried to make out the pool against the glare. Abruptly, the light was gone, and Thorin was left blinking in the aftermath.

A familiar Dwarf was sitting before him, his head cradled in his hand.

"Dwalin!" Thorin cried in shock, and started forward to his oldest friend and cousin, but his arm passed straight through the body of the loyal warrior. The hand in his clamped down like an iron shackle.

"They cannot hear you," Frerin said, tugging him back. "They cannot feel you. They yet live, and we are but a dream of who we were."


"He cannot hear you," Frerin repeated. "Our cousin is as much a ghost to us as we are to him."

"No," Thorin growled. "I was promised. Mahal gave me a gift. I can reach them."

Frerin shook his head. "We all think so at first."

Thorin turned back to Dwalin, who was smoothing his hands over his tattooed pate. His nose was reddened, as though he had been weeping, and one of his eyes was packed tightly with cloths, while a bandage was wound tightly around his ribs. "I did not know he was injured," Thorin said.

Frerin snorted. "Would Dwalin ever say?"

"You bloody fool," Dwalin sighed, and scrubbed at his face before standing awkwardly and making his way with careful steps to a shelf. There he pulled down a flask, tore out the cork with his teeth, and took a long swig.

"Somehow I don't think that will help, brother," came another familiar voice. Thorin whirled to see Balin in the doorway, his white hair covered by a filthy bandage and part of his magnificent beard cut close to reveal a nasty, jagged cut along his cheek and jaw. "And I'm fairly certain it wasn't in Óin's orders."

"He's got his medicines, I've got mine," Dwalin growled, and took another sip.

Balin heaved a sigh, before limping over to the bed and sitting upon it with a pained grunt. Thorin stepped back out of his way, and only then realised where they were. Erebor.

"We are in Fundin's old quarters," he murmured.

"They must have begun the restoration," Frerin said, equally hushed.

Dwalin sat down beside his brother and handed him the flask. "Your beard looks ridiculous," he said, and Balin hummed as he took a dram.

"Aye, azaghâl belkul, and you move like an old gaffer of three hundred."

"Better than some."

"True. Nori will not be so stealthy in future, I fear, not with that steel peg for a foot."

"That'll stop his thieving," Dwalin grunted, and snagged the flask back.

"Nori lost a foot," Thorin said in blank horror. Sly, vain, clever Nori had lost a foot. Dwalin and Balin were injured. How had the rest of his company fared?

Balin held his fingers over the mouth of the flask to stop his brother from drinking, and Dwalin glowered at him with one good eye. "You've been hiding yourself here, nadadith," Balin said gently. "The others wonder and worry about you."

"I'm fine," Dwalin snapped. "Tell them not to waste their time."

"You're not," Balin said. "You're mourning. It is natural, brother."

Dwalin snarled, and his fists bunched. "Nothing is natural now that they are dead!"

Balin shook his head. "That isn't what I meant. It isn't right that they are gone, but it is right that you miss them. I miss them too. So do the others. They wish to share their grief with yours, so that we can heal around our great wound together."

"They didn't know him like we did," Dwalin said, his face mottled and angry. His lips tightened and his throat bobbed rapidly. "They did not grow up with him, did not share all his hardships..."

"Maybe the others were not so close as us," Balin said, and with a gentle hand brought his brother's forehead against his own. "But they shared their lives in other ways. Dori brought up his brothers in the poverty of Ered Luin, just as he did for Fíli and Kíli. Ori used to trail after the lads like a lost pet. Bofur and Bombur lost Bifur's words to Orcs, just as he lost Thrór. Glóin was in the same training group as Dís, and the pair of them would terrorise Dáin every time he visited – don't you remember?"

Dwalin was still for a moment, and then his head bowed.

Balin smoothed his hand over Dwalin's patterned head. "We travelled with them – shared their meals, their songs, their dangers. We all braved trolls and orcs and wargs and goblins and spiders – even barrels - together. The others have a right to their sorrow, and they wish to comfort you in yours. They... he did not belong to we two alone. He belonged to all of us. He was our King."

"Aye, our King," Dwalin said bitterly, and his eyes closed so tightly that deep furrows were carved in his skin. "Our friend, and our King."

"Shazara, Dwalin, or I will finally take your head, you old sot," Thorin managed through numbed lips. Frerin pulled him close, and Thorin buried his face against the warm, living shoulder, breathing harshly.

"Are you all right?" he murmured.

"I," he rasped. "I did not think they would mourn."

Frerin seemed surprised. "Why would they not?"

Thorin raised his head and glared, and Frerin sighed. "Gold-madness or no, Thorin, you were their friend. You were their King for a century, ever since Father disappeared. They loved you. Of course they mourn."

Thorin buried his head again, and Frerin tugged on his braid comfortingly.

"Come on. Close your eyes. There are others to see."

Thorin closed his eyes, and when next they opened he was looking out at a hall covered in a sea of sluggish bodies. The hundreds upon hundreds of wounded were filling the air with their groans and cries, and Thorin bit down on a cry of his own as he saw the carnage the orcs had wrought.

Óin looked exhausted. His curled braids were frayed and his eyes were deep black pits in his sunken face. Glóin, Dori and Bilbo moved around him with mechanical movements, washing the wounded, feeding them, boiling water and smearing ointment on injuries. In a corner in a great rotted chair sat Nori, tearing cloth to make bandages. His left leg came to a shocking stop below his knee, and a metal peg – obviously Bofur's work – sat half-finished beside him. Amongst the beds trudged Óin, drooping and ceaseless, his hands never still as he stitched and cut and wrapped. None of them spoke.

The sight of the Hobbit, his eyes haunted, caused a great surge of regret in Thorin's breast. Bilbo drifted through his tasks as though he were the ghost and not Thorin. His curly head was wrapped in a cloth. Every now and then Glóin would rest a comforting hand on his thin little shoulder. The memory of the contented, proper little fellow 'bobbing on the mat' he had met in the Shire all those months ago suddenly struck him, and he tore his eyes away. He could not ever forgive himself for what he had done, though Bilbo could forgive him a thousand times over.

Glóin paused over a pallet, and Thorin dimly recognised the unmistakable shape of Bombur. The large, friendly Dwarf was wrapped in bandages from the thigh downwards, and in his sleep his face was screwed up in pain. Glóin chewed on his lower lip for a moment, before signalling Dori. The silver-haired Dwarf nodded and came to hold down Bombur's shoulders with his powerful hands. They met each other's eyes, and then Glóin cut away the bandages.

Bombur's eyes flew open, and he screamed. Underneath the cloths, a black putrescence was creeping up Bombur's leg. With a sickening swoop in his belly, Thorin recognised orc-poison. Glóin uncorked a bottle and began to massage the stuff into Bombur's leg, ignoring his shrieks of pain. Oozing pus came gushing from the wound, streaked with black, and Glóin sighed.

"Need to open it again, do you think?" he said dully.

Dori's face sagged, though his voice was brisk. "Yes indeed we will, Mister Glóin. This time, however, I'll do it. Your sewing is atrocious, if you'll pardon me saying."

"I'm a banker, not a weaver," Glóin retorted.

Bombur mercifully passed out. Thorin clamped his teeth together until they creaked, and his eyes flew to Bilbo. He was carefully spooning soup into the mouth of Ori, who was hunched over as his breath wheezed and rattled. It appeared that there was blood in his lungs, and from the look of the poultice against his face he had narrowly missed losing his nose. Lying on the pallet beside Ori was Bifur. He lay insensate, his body twitching every now and then. The axe-head he had carried for decades had been torn from his skull, and his head was packed in bloody rags.

Occasionally Óin would examine a wounded Dwarf only to turn away with a wooden expression. That Dwarf would be made comfortable, given potions to make their sleep as painless as possible, and left alone to drift out of the world.

Through his shame Thorin wondered how many new residents of the Halls there were that he was responsible for.

Frerin put his hand on Thorin's upper arm. "Come on."

With a final look at the Hobbit, Thorin closed his eyes.

When next they opened, he was looking out into the honeycombed and vaulted audience hall of Erebor with its towering paths of stone, and his cousin was slumped on the throne, glowering. His wild red hair was scraped back in a queue rather than in his customary flowing braids, and above him yawned the hole where the Arkenstone once shone. Dáin seemed to have aged a century since Thorin had last looked upon him. His hand moved restlessly as though grasping for his great red battle-axe, Barazanthual, as he listened to the Elven Princeling speak.

Dáin II Ironfoot, by FlukeofFate (YorikoSakakibara)

"We will help," the Prince was saying. "My father has agreed. We shall send food and medicines to Bard, and he can send them to you. I doubt your people will trust them should we bring them directly."

"That's a change of tune," remarked a voice, and to Thorin's great astonishment Bofur was hunched beside the throne, his arms folded and the pitiful remains of his hat crammed on his head. His normally cheerful face was pulled down into lines of suffering, and the light in his eyes was cynical and cold. "Thought you didn't believe in helpin' us."

The Prince gave Bofur one of those ageless inscrutable Elven stares. "A friend made me see it clearly," he eventually said. "This is our fight."

"A convenient time for you to finally see sense, now that the dragon's dead and everything lies in ashes," Dáin growled.

The Prince inclined his head regretfully. "We will help," he repeated.

"Elves," said Frerin sourly. "Always too early or too late."

Bofur seemed to agree wholeheartedly. He pulled his tunic straight with a sharp jerk and a contemptuous snarl, and stalked away.

Dáin watched him go with weariness written all over his face, before turning back to the Elf. "Forgive him, Prince Legolas," he said. "He suffered at the hands of your... hospitality, shall we call it? And later, of course, it seemed that Men and Elves alike would happily clamber over their corpses in order to steal that which rightfully belongs to our people. Dwarves do not quickly forget an injustice."

"I hope Dwarves will also remember that we fought for them, in the end," said Legolas quietly.

"Aye, possibly, possibly." Dáin sighed loudly and pulled a sheet of parchment closer. "Don't hold your breath though, laddie."

Legolas' mouth tilted upwards the very smallest amount.

"Is Dáin... signing a treaty?" Thorin spluttered in outrage. "He is! Dáin, stop that! Cast this traitor Elf out of my mountain! Throw him from the highest peak!"

Frerin rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't speak of throwing anyone from anywhere, if I were you."

Bilbo. The guilt suffused him once more, and Thorin's mouth snapped shut.

"That was cruel," he hissed.

"So were you," Frerin pointed out. "Dáin will do what he must. The Elvenking is powerful, and Mirkwood stands between Erebor and the southern kingdoms of Men. Erebor needs his goodwill for trade, if nothing else. At least this son of his doesn't seem so bad."

"This son of his threatened to kill me!"

"And you handled the situation with such tact and diplomacy, I'm sure. Dáin knows that Erebor is the watchtower of the North. It guards all free peoples, not just the Dalefolk and Dwarves."

"But Dale..."

"Is a ruin, and may be one for some time," Frerin interrupted. "In the meantime food must come from somewhere, and the Elves have it and the Men do not. Open your eyes, nadad. He's right. You may not like it, but Dáin is better at this than you. He has ruled the Iron Hills ever since Azanulbizar – a hundred and forty years of peace and prosperity. He's a proven leader and politician, and he knows this stuff inside out – better than you or I, wanderers that we were."

"How do you know this?" Thorin said, rounding on his brother. "You hated lessons!"

Frerin shook his head in exasperation. "Because I have watched – watched for decades upon decades. How d'you think?"

Thorin grunted and turned back to Dáin. The grizzled old warrior nodded to the Prince, who bowed in response. Then the Elf left, his robes flowing out behind him as upon silent feet he walked down the long and broken stone walkways.

Dáin rubbed at his forehead before standing and making his way past the throne to the door set behind its base, opening it and stepping into the King's antechamber. There he paused and leaned heavily upon a table, and only then did Thorin notice the bandage wrapped around his leg. Blood was seeping through it.

"He is wounded," he said. Frerin raised his eyebrows.

"You know Dáin. Wouldn't show a weakness if his life depended on it. That Dwarrow is iron all the way through."

"Stubborn idiot," Thorin said as Dáin massaged the edges of the wound with his huge fingers.

"It's a proud family trait," Frerin grinned.

"You stubborn idiot," Dáin suddenly said, and laughed aloud in his gruff voice. Thorin blinked.

"Did he just...?"

"Would have had my head for this, wouldn't you cousin?" Dáin continued, his eyes fixed on some distant memory. Thorin followed his gaze to where the crown sat on its bed of rotted silks. "Thrown me from the peak of the Mountain, no doubt. Well, I dearly hope there're no Elves where you've gone to. Else you'd be even grimmer in death than you were in life! Instead, you trap me in this damned stinking place and leave me to deal with this mess. Me dealing with them bloody enigmatic weed-eaters and those pompous, grasping Men – and don't get me started on Wizards! If you were here before me, Thorin, you stiff-necked bastard, I'd cut you down myself, so I would!"

"Durin's hammer and tongs," Frerin whispered. "Did he... do you think he can..."

"I told you," Thorin said thickly, "Mahal gave me a gift. They will sense my words in their deepest minds."

Frerin stared at him.

"I know." Thorin closed his eyes. "I am unworthy."

"Not that," Frerin said. "You must watch what you say! This is a power no Dwarf should have."

Thorin frowned. "Why? They cannot hear my words as you do."

"You could influence them without their knowing," Frerin said, his bright youthful face unusually serious. "You must be careful, Thorin. They could act without knowledge of their actions."

Opening his mouth to retort, Thorin abruptly recalled the subtle power of the gold and his desperate determination to see the treasures of his people safe in Dwarven hands. Troubled, he turned back to Dáin. "Aye."

But Dáin was gone. In his place lay a weeping Dwarrowdam, her head thrown across her crossed forearms, and her dark hair, streaked with silver, splayed about her shoulders. The room about her was neat and modest, nothing like the ruined grandeur of Erebor. This was Ered Luin.

"Oh," said Thorin faintly.

"She did this after Azanulbizar as well," said Frerin, his voice subdued. "For months and months. You – you didn't see – you were travelling back from Moria with the dead and wounded. She stayed strong in the face of the court and she guided our people in our grandfather's absence. But she wept in the silence of her rooms."

The sole survivor of Thrór's line sobbed into her sleeves, and in her cries of despair was a deep and echoing loneliness that shook Thorin to his core. "Sister," he said miserably, the guilt an almost physical ache. "Sister, please stop. It is all right. It will be all right."

"No!" Frerin said sharply, and pulled Thorin's face back to his. "If she can hear you deep within, tell her what she needs to hear. Tell her!" His brother took a painful breath. "Tell her as I wished I could."

Thorin stared wretchedly at Frerin, his lost brother, here with him in the shared embrace of death. Then he looked over at Dís, their stubborn, steel-willed baby sister. "I..."

Dís wrapped her arms around her body and let out a long, low moan. A message was crumpled in her hand. Her eyes, darkest brown like Thráin's and Kíli's, were awash with tears that streaked down her cheeks to soak her intricate pattern-shaved beard, and her strong Durin nose was reddened from her crying.

"Dís," Thorin began hopelessly, and then looked back at Frerin.

"Gather your courage, O King Under the Mountain," he said in an low voice. Thorin straightened his shoulders and then hesitantly, tentatively sat beside his sister. He halted for a moment to gather his racing thoughts, and then he began to speak.

"Dís," he said gently. "I love you. I'm sorry I left you. I'm sorry I took your boys away from you. The Halls are a marvel, and we will wait for you. Víli is here, and he longs for you. Fíli and Kíli are here, and they miss you desperately. Oh Dís, you should see them with Frerin. It is a catastrophe waiting to happen, just as you always said. Mother speaks of you often, you know. And Father is here, and he is himself again. Grandfather and grandmother, Fundin and Gróin and the rest. We're all here, and we love you. We'll watch over you until it is your time to join us. We will wait for you. But you must also wait for us."

He paused, and then he lifted his hand to hover it above her grey-streaked hair. "Little sister," he murmured, "I wish I hadn't left you all alone. It is one of my deepest regrets, and I have so many. Oh, so very many. I will not blame you if you hate me."

Frerin watched silently as Thorin tried to stroke Dís' hair, and his hand passed directly through the long, tangled locks.

"Live on for us, namadith," Thorin said, and his throat closed around the words, making them sound thin and reedy. "Wait for us. Lead our people back to our home."

Dís blinked back her tears, and her hand tightened about the crushed message. "That prideful fool," she rasped, her voice harsh with weeping.

"Aye," Thorin said, and smiled through a fresh storm of shame. "A prideful fool who loves you. Though I die, that will never change. No veil of death can stop it."

"Nothing ever stopped him," she said, and buried her face in her hands once more. "Why did he never stop?"

"Line of Durin, sister," he said, and swallowed roughly. "A proud... family trait."

"Damn the Line of Durin to the nethermost pits of Moria," she hissed into her palms, and her voice began to rise with barely-contained anguish. "Damn our line, and damn our pride, and damn our name, and damn our blind, wilful madness! Let the dragon have Erebor if it would bring them back to me! I would have them here! How am I to go on alone? My sons are gone! My brother gone! Our line is spent and I am alone!" She whirled and took up a cup on her dresser and flung it against the wall with a cry of rage and misery.

"You will go on," said Thorin. "You will, daughter of Kings, best of sisters. You are as stubborn as the rest of us."

She collapsed across her bed, and her tears began anew. Thorin stood and sighed.

"Months, you say," he said grimly.

"Months," said Frerin.

"Do you think I reached her?"

"I think it might take a few more attempts," Frerin said wryly.

Thorin sighed again, and closed his eyes.

When next he opened them, he was upon a parapet looking down over the gates of Ered Luin. He blinked tiredly, the hollow ache under his ribs throbbing as though it was a second heart. "But who is there left? Who of our family have we not seen?"

Frerin inclined his head. "Ah, of course. The least and littlest. And certainly one of the loudest."

"Who...?" Thorin turned.

A burly young Dwarf, not even seventy, was stacking wood for the braziers that would warm the night-watchmen. His bright red hair was pulled back into workman's braids, his short beard thick on his cheeks and tied into two small braids that stuck out either side of his chin. His face was set and pale. "Glóin's son," he said in surprise.

"Aye," said Frerin. "Did you forget him?"

"Once the quest was joined I did not give anything else much thought," Thorin said, and moved closer towards the young Dwarf. "So this is Glóin's star. I never spent much time with the lad, though he knew Fíli and Kíli well. He is almost grown."

"He's but sixty-two, even younger than Dáin's boy," Frerin said, scratching at his beard. "He wished to go with you, if you remember. He thinks himself quite ripe for an adventure, but his father forbade it. It was quite a scene. I thoroughly enjoyed it."

Studying the youngster's face, Thorin saw traces of the Durin line in his straight brows and wide shoulders, and in the stubborn set of his ears. His nose however was not the sharp blade of the Longbeard clan but the round snub of the Broadbeams, and he had the fiery hair and beard inherited from Glóin's Firebeard mother. "He favours his father," he mused.

"Lad!" came a shout from below. Gimli wiped off his sweaty forehead and leaned over the parapet to see where the Captain stood leaning on his pike in the courtyard. "Are you finished with the wood?"

"Nearly!" Gimli called back. He had a man's voice, deep and rough and touched with the accent of Thaforabbad, like Glóin's and Óin's. "What is there to do after I am finished?"

"Water for the ponies," the Captain said. "The patrol will be back in a couple of hours."

"Aye, and the water will be ready," Gimli said, and went back to stacking the wood.

"Does he not yet know?" Thorin wondered.

"Gimli?" Frerin raised his eyebrows. "He knows. Look at how pale he is, and the spots of colour on his cheeks."

Thorin watched the young Dwarf work for a moment longer, noting the mechanical movements and the dogged persistence that kept one foot stepping in front of the other. "The lad is mourning his playfellows, and seeks to exhaust himself with work rather than weep," he said.

"I have wept long enough," Gimli muttered to himself. "Aye, and loudly too! Work is what is needed. Work will tire my mind and keep my thoughts quiet."

"Thorin!" Frerin's eyes widened in astonishment. "He hears you!"

"He hears me well, even more clearly than Dáin or Dís," Thorin said slowly, and he tilted his head as he studied his youngest cousin further. Gimli laced his fingers and made the knuckles crack loudly, and then he hefted a sawn tree-round to the block and unslung a wood-axe from his belt. A strong boy, then. "He must be quite a perceptive lad. Glóin does well to be proud of him."

"My father would do well to send for me," Gimli suddenly growled before hewing at the wood with a smooth and practised swing: Dwalin himself could not have bettered it. Thorin was taken aback at the young Dwarf's proficiency. Between each stroke, Gimli kept up his angry mutterings. "My uncle will need my help. I would comfort my cousins. I should have been there. They were greater than I, and more important. I should have defied my father. I would have protected them. I would have bought their lives with mine, if need be! No Lord of the Iron Hills should sit the throne of Erebor!"

"Lofty ambitions," Frerin said, and leaned against the parapet. "See that swing? He's a natural axeman, and already a talented warrior. Dwalin trained him along with our nephews. It was rather entertaining to watch them - they are both equally as pigheaded as each other."

"He's a Dwarf, of course he's pigheaded," said Thorin. "And he's a Durin as well, so there's another strike against him. What else of his character?"

Frerin shrugged. "He's honest, and kind when he wishes to be. His loyalty, once given, is diamond-hard and mithril-true. His faithfulness is absolute, and he never breaks his word. This one will be a fine Dwarf-Lord. Still, he is but a child, and can be quick to anger, impulsive and occasionally rather brash."

This child is fourteen years older than you ever were, Thorin thought. Aloud, he said, "So just like you, then," and Frerin grinned, though it was somewhat dimmed by the suffering they had seen.

"I was never so loud."

"You were louder, believe me," Thorin said, and turned back to Gimli, who was chopping away with a will. "So. There is still a young one left. Not all our children are spent."

"Not all," agreed Frerin. "Dáin's son Thorin rules the Iron Hills as regent, and Glóin's star still shines."

Gimli stacked the last of his wood, and then leaned heavily on his axe as he lifted his ruddy head in the thin late afternoon sunlight. "Ah, my friends," he said softly. "Gaubdûkhimâ gagin yâkùlib Mahal. I will miss you. May they never forget you."

Thorin's eyebrows lowered, but before he could say more, he blinked and was whirled away.

The pool lay sparkling before him, the stars winking and fading in the depths. Thorin's neck was stiff, and he straightened with a groan before touching his face with his fingertips. His cheeks were wet.

Frerin stepped beside him, and pulled him up by the arm. "Are you all right?"

Thorin gazed at him for a long moment, and the weight of all his mistakes was heavier than the Mountain. "No," he said, and turned away.

Frerin gently took his hand and led him from the pool. Thorin thought on all he had seen, and bowed his head. Ruin and despair had been left in his wake, and his sister, cousins and companions were left with the whole terrible, sorrowful mess.

The only flicker of light in the darkness was a muttering young Dwarrow who chopped wood with a warrior's swing, who wore Durin's brow and a Broadbeam nose and the bright red hair of the Firebeards.

Chapter Text

The days passed slowly. Two Dwarves who had died during the Battle of Five Armies (as they were now calling it) bowed to Thorin upon meeting him, and at least another six punched him square in the face. His grandfather patted his shoulder consolingly.

"You should have seen this place after Azanulbizar," was all he said.

He was shown to a work area in the smithies, and though the metals were the finest and purest he had ever worked with, he did not have much heart for craft. Mithril and silver made him melancholy, and the sight of gold filled him with a self-loathing so great he could taste it in his mouth. Only copper, steel or iron would he shape. Occasionally Thráin would work beside him, though they spoke but little.

Frerin did not come to the forge. His brother evidently sensed that Thorin needed time after what they had seen, and left him to his own devices. When he was not in the smithy Thorin spent time with his mother and nephews. Fíli and Kíli made him smile again, though it was strained. His mother comforted him as no other could, her fingers busy on her harp as she played old, peaceful songs from his childhood, untouched by any sorrow.

Eventually, however, Thorin could put it off no longer, and he made his way back to the Chamber of Sansûkhul to dive back amongst the drowned stars.

He went to his sister first. Dís still wept. He could not reach her through her mourning. He sat with her for long hours, watching her thin grey face grow ever thinner and greyer, and pleaded with her to eat. She did not.

He left, his heart heavy.

In Erebor, there was a funeral. Thorin watched as they laid the Arkenstone on his cold, dead breast, wrapped his parchment-white and stiffened fingers around the hilt of Orcrist, and sealed his body and those of his nephews in the tomb.

Bilbo cried bitterly the whole time.

As the white stone passed over Fíli's rent and rigid corpse, Thorin covered his mouth with his hands, pressing them so fiercely against his bloodless lips that he could feel the shape of his teeth beneath. With a savage curse he closed his eyes and fled that sight.

He opened them again to see a tavern in the halls of Ered Luin. There, unhappy and bemused, he watched his fiery young cousin get roaring drunk. Gimli sang and danced, drank and laughed, and sat slumped behind his tankard with his head in his hands. At one point he sent a powerful blow straight into the teeth of another Dwarrow for some slight made against his father's Company. The two eventually went staggering home arm in arm singing a bawdy marching song that the lad really should not know at his age. Compared to the hollow, wretched desolation of Erebor, Gimli seemed to burst with life, filled with youthful vigour and strength. His energy was contagious, and Thorin emerged from the starlit waters feeling somewhat lighter.

He returned to the forge and bent to his work with a renewed will. He finished a sword. It was his finest effort.

Then he steeled his heart and plunged into the pool again.

Dís did not weep any longer. She sat still as stone on the chair of Ered Luin, approving baggage train after baggage train and convoy after convoy that left for Erebor. She did not sense him. Her eyes were like chips of ice in her face.

Thorin begged her to hear him, but she was as unreachable as the moon.

Work was proceeding apace on the Mountain. Everywhere he looked Thorin could see the devastation caused by the dragon and the echoes of his folly. Even as the Kingdom slowly began to rise from mourning, Thorin could barely look at his living companions without seeing the light of the gold-sickness that had once danced in their eyes. No-one had been as thoroughly lost as Thorin himself, of course, but he had dragged them all behind him into his madness nevertheless.

To see the guilt and grief in their faces made his own grow until it felt like a stone chained around his neck.

Bifur lived. Under Bofur and Bilbo's steady care, he slowly began to improve. The scar on his forehead was a hideous thing, a great dent inches deep. He did not speak at all, and even Iglishmêk escaped him at times. Now and then he would pause in mid-motion, and the frustration in his face bordered on fury.

Bombur would carry a limp for the rest of his life. He seemed resigned to it, and bent himself to the task of carving a great walking staff. It had many cunningly concealed compartments in which he kept spices, forks, sweets and biscuits.

Ori was out of his sickbed as soon as Óin gave him permission, though a racking cough continued to plague him. He immediately began to help Nori with relearning to walk. The former thief was sullen as he clattered about their rooms. With each of his arms looped over the shoulders of his brothers, he winced and cursed with every rattling step until finally he roared with anger and resentment. Ori stood his ground, all his shyness and uncertainty burned away in the fires of battle. He faced his brother's rage calmly until Nori had exhausted himself, and then helped him back to his chair. Dori made pot of tea after pot of tea, lips white and stiff, before carefully plaiting the drained and silent Nori's red-brown hair back into its elaborate braids. Then the Brothers Ri held onto Nori's hands tightly until he felt able to cry.

Dáin quickly appointed Glóin, Óin, Balin and Dwalin to posts of power. Balin was the Seneschal and First Advisor, Glóin the Treasurer, Óin became a Councillor and Dwalin gained command of the Army, such as it was in its reduced and pitiful state. There was some grumbling from the folk of the Iron Hills, but Dáin pinned them with his gimlet stare until they were silent.

When Balin's beard had nearly grown back, his Company said farewell to their Burglar. Bilbo was grave and his face was drawn as he embraced them all in turn and told them to call in on him if they were ever near the Shire. He smiled wanly. "Tea is at four o'clock, but any of you are welcome at any time!"

Óin patted the little fellow's head, and Dori pressed a bundle of embroidered and folded linens into Bilbo's hands. "What's this?" he said, and opened one before letting out a laugh. "Pocket-handkerchiefs!"

"Well, you never know," Ori said, and ducked his head, coughing. There was a vivid red scar running along the side of his soft young face.

"Travel safely," Balin said, before pulling the Hobbit into another tight embrace. "You are always one of us, Bilbo Baggins, khazâd-bâhel, Dwarf-Friend. Be you well."

Bilbo's chin trembled, and he clutched at Balin's coat with shaking fingers. "I wish..." he said in a tiny little voice.

"I know, laddie," Balin murmured. "We all do."

With a sigh, Bilbo pushed himself away and straightened his little jacket and swordbelt. Thorin's fingers drifted over the Hobbit's features, and he wished too, oh how he wished.

Bofur chucked him under his chin, and then took his ragged hat and dropped it on Bilbo's curly head. "Here," he said. "Keep a hold o' that for me. I'll be around to collect it one o' these days."

Bilbo gave him a watery smile and fingered the brim. "I'll do that."

"Hobbit," said Dwalin, and cleared his throat loudly. "Not sure if anyone's said this t' you at all." Then he bowed before the astonished Hobbit and said, with all sincerity;

"Thank you."

"Aye." – "Thank you, laddie." – "We can never thank you enough." The rest of the company also bowed low. Bilbo looked upset and flustered.

"No, you mustn't," he said, and he wrung his little hands. "No, please, my friends..."

Balin rose and winked at Bilbo. "Khazâd-bâhel."

"Oh, for goodness' sake," Bilbo snapped, and mopped at his eyes with one of his new handkerchiefs. "Dwarves! Overdramatic, the lot of you! Oh, I am going to miss you all dreadfully."

"Bilbo," Gandalf said gently. "Time to be off."

He turned his head to look out over the deep purple expanse of Mirkwood and the spires of the Misty Mountains in the distance. "Here," he said softly, "and back again."

Then he turned back to the remainder of Thorin's company and wagged his finger at them. "Wish I'd never met you," he said, and gave a sad little chuckle. "You've been a thoroughly terrible influence. What will they make of me, back home? Who will I be now?"

"You're our Burglar," said Dwalin gruffly, and several others chorused their agreement. "Any of 'em give you trouble, you send me a raven. I'll sort 'em out."

"Where will I find a trained raven in the Shire?" Bilbo snorted. "Besides, I rather think I can handle it myself, nowadays. But thank you for the offer!"

"I'll be through in a year or two," Glóin promised. "I'll be travelling back to Ered Luin to collect my family. Bombur too. We'll stop by. Don't forget!"

With a leg-up from Dori, Bilbo crawled astride his pony. "I'll lock up my dishes specially," he laughed. "Farewell, my friends! Write as often as you can!"

"Get going lad, or we'll be out here all day," muttered Nori, his face thunderously unhappy.

"Yes, quite," Bilbo mumbled, and he fidgeted for a moment with his reins. "Nasty business, this travelling. Yes, best to get it over and done with."

"Kill a goblin or two for me!" said Bombur.

"Oh, but don't get too close!"

"Aye, and watch out for Trolls!"

"And giants!"

"And rivers!"

"And spiders!"

"And Elves!"

"Send me a copy of that herb-lore book, if you would be so kind!" That was Óin.

"And the recipe for fruitcake you mentioned," Bombur added.

"Oh, and if you please, anything you have on the history of Hobbits and the Shire!" And that was definitely Ori.

"Goodbye!" And with that, Bilbo turned his pony – he was still a rather atrocious rider – and began to trot away, the Wizard and the Bear-Man keeping pace.

Thorin took a last look at their brave little Burglar to whom he owed so much. "Farewell, Bilbo Baggins, respectable gentlehobbit of Bag End," he said half to himself. "Farewell, wise and kindly child of the West." He drank in the sight of the curly head, the bold bare little chin, the small leaf-like ears, the shrewd eyes and sharp tongue, clever hands and large furry feet. "I am sorry," he added, his voice nearly a whisper.

Bilbo abruptly stopped and faced the Mountain, and his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Farewell, Thorin Oakenshield," he said, his face lifting. "And Fíli and Kíli! May your memory never fade!"

Thorin jerked back as though struck, and then closed his eyes hurriedly. When he blinked awake in the Chamber of Sansûkhul, he staggered through the pearl –studded arch and back to the dark, warm closeness of his chamber, where he would sit with his hands and eyes clenched for hours.


"Fíli," Thorin said, and put aside the knife he was detailing; a match for the sword. The pommel was giving him trouble. "What is it?

Fíli nervously tugged at a moustache braid. "Frerin told me something."

Thorin sighed. "Do I need to hit him?"

Fíli scowled. "Very hard. Repeatedly."

Frerin and his nephews were having a disagreement. Frerin had tried to convince Fíli and Kíli to call him 'uncle' as they sometimes did Thorin, but they constantly forgot. As Kíli had complained, 'I can't call a Dwarrow thirty years younger than me uncle. It just feels wrong!' Frerin would not desist, however, and his nephews were treated to all the delights of his younger brother's most annoying habit – nagging. Needless to say, they were quickly growing irritated. Thorin had a wager running with Gróin that Kíli would land the first blow.

"Really?" Thorin fixed Fíli with a stern look that he knew well, and the younger Dwarf shuffled his feet.

"Well. Possibly. Is he always this annoying?"

"Worse than Kíli at twenty-five?" Thorin offered, and Fíli shuddered.

"That can't be possible."

"All that aside, what did he tell you?" Thorin wiped off his hands, and then leaned against the workbench.

"He said..." Fíli hesitated, and then burst, "he said you can talk to them. That sometimes they hear you, in the sleeping thoughts beneath the waking ones."

Thorin froze, and then put down the cloth slowly. "Yes," he said. "Yes, Mahal granted me a boon."

"Why you?" Fíli cried. "Why you and not me or Kíli?"

Crossing to his nephew, Thorin took his shoulders. Fíli clutched at him, and Thorin could feel him trembling. "Is this about your 'amad?" Thorin said quietly.

"She cries and cries," Fíli said, his voice tense and dark. "When she isn't crying, she is nothing but a shell, a statue. She is so very alone, Thorin, and I hate it!"

"I do too." Thorin tucked Fíli's head beneath his chin. "I have tried, nephew. She heard me a little at first, in the freshest storm of her grief. Now she is stone and hears nothing but her own loneliness."

"Does nothing help?" Fíli said, sounding very small.

Thorin stroked Fíli's thick yellow hair. "Nothing that I have found."

"Why did Mahal give you this gift?" Fíli said. "A gift that doesn't even work?"

"I think perhaps it is because I shouted at him," Thorin said thoughtfully, and a short bark of laughter escaped Fíli.

"You yelled at our Maker," he said, and shook his head against Thorin's shoulder. "You're unbelievable sometimes."

A wry smile pulled at his lips. "So I've been reliably told. Anyway, I shouted at him and he said that for the injustice of our deaths and the love he bore me, he would give me a way to reach them to make my amends. It is uncertain and inconstant, but he cannot pierce the walls of death further. Some hear me better than others. I believe it is because they know themselves well and are at peace with their own hearts."

"Hmm," Fíli said, and pulled back to frown up at his uncle. "Who hears you?"

"Dáin does, now and then. Occasionally Balin, Dori and Glóin as well, and Dwalin quite frequently. And Gimli most of all."

"Gimli?" Fíli's mouth dropped open. "Our little cousin Gimli?"

"He's not so little anymore," Thorin said, raising his eyebrows. "The lad has more beard than Bofur, is broader than Nori and is most certainly taller than you, though not as tall as Kíli. I judge he's over four foot six and has further still to grow."

"I know, I know, but he'll always be little Gimli with the terrible temper to me," Fíli said, shaking his head. "Gimli hears you! Well, that is a shock." Then Fíli's eyes lit up. "Oh!"

"I know that look," Thorin said suspiciously. "That is not a reassuring look."

"Gimli is still in Ered Luin, yes?" Fíli grabbed at Thorin's tunic in his excitement. "Where Mum is! You could get him to comfort her! They're cousins, he knew us, and she wouldn't be so alone, I'm sure it would help, oh, talk to him – please, please try!"

"I will not 'get him' to do anything," Thorin snapped, and shook Fíli off. "I am done with leadership and command, Fíli. I have proven to be unworthy of it. Besides, I would not influence the lad to do anything that he would not normally do. That would be the basest form of coercion, and such things are a great evil."

"Gimli would help her if he knew!" Fíli pleaded. He was practically trembling with desperation, and his breath was coming quite fast. "I'm dead, you're dead, Kee's dead, we're all dead! I can't be there for her, and neither can you – but someone has to. Gimli is there, and as distant as the connection is, he is still a Durin, still family; the only family she has left in Ered Luin. He was our friend! He called her Aunt! They're both alone, and you could fix that. Remind him of her, that's all. He'll do the rest, I know he will! Help her. Help them. Just... just try! If not for me, then for Mum. Please?"

Their eyes met.

Thorin dropped his head. "For the love I bear you, and the woe the Shadow wrought in you," he murmured, and sighed deeply. Of course he would do as Fíli asked. He owed the lad everything and more, after all that he had stolen from him.

"You'll do it?" Fíli leaned forward, hope shining in his face.

Thorin rubbed at his face with nerveless fingers. "Yes," he said, and then he reached out and gently tucked one of Fíli's braids behind his ear. "Yes, I'll try. For you and your brother, and for Dís."

Fíli whooped and raced to the door, his boots ringing against the stone. "I'll get Kee! Don't go into the starlight without us, we're coming too!"

Thorin watched him go with a sinking feeling, and wondered what exactly he had let himself in for now.

Fíli returned in only minutes, Kíli skittering behind him. Their faces were alight with hope, and Kíli immediately blurted, "is it true? They can hear you?"

Thorin ran a hand through his hair. "It's true, but-"

Kíli let out a hoot of joy and punched the air in triumph.

"But," Thorin repeated, "they cannot hear my words directly. The mists that divide Arda from Aman cannot be so easily pierced. They only hear me in their subconscious mind, and even then many do not perceive me at all."

"But some do," Kíli said.

"Some," Thorin agreed, his expression guarded.

"Gimli hears him," Fíli interrupted breathlessly. "And Gimli is in Ered Luin."

"What are we waiting for?" Kíli let out another delighted whoop and grabbed Thorin's wrist. "Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

Thorin pulled backwards, his greater weight keeping him immobile against Kíli's enthusiastic towing. "My forge..."

"Will still be here when we come back," Fíli said with a lilt of impatience. "The fires are not lit, and the knife doesn't have legs. You promised, Thorin."

Thorin debated with himself the wisdom of pointing out that really, he hadn't promised, and then decided against it. He allowed himself to be dragged to the Chamber of Sansûkhul. Kíli was biting his lips in excitement as he stared at the waters of Gimlîn-zâram, and Fíli's face was pale but earnest. With another sigh, Thorin took their hands and allowed the starlight to claim him.

When the light faded they were looking at Dís. Kíli's breath caught, and Fíli's mouth tightened, but neither spoke. Nor did they have to. Dís' back was stiff and her hands were still and white-knuckled as she sat motionless behind her jeweller's table. No gems or broken pieces lay before her, and she was staring at the rolls of felt that contained her tools with unfocused eyes.

"She just sits there," Thorin said dully. "Sits and sits." Fíli squeezed his hand.

"Let's find Gimli," Kíli said, his voice unusually grim, and Thorin closed his eyes, willing the sight of his lost and shattered sister to vanish.

Opening them, he found that he was looking at the young Dwarf in question. He frowned slightly. He'd never been able to direct the waters of Gimlîn-zâram to show him particular Dwarves before, and he glanced over at Kíli who looked equally perplexed.

"Maybe it's because there are three of us and we all wanted to see the same Dwarrow?" he suggested.

Fíli shrugged. "Perhaps."

Gimli was in the middle of a practice duel. His opponent was an older Dwarf of approximately Balin's age, whom Thorin vaguely recognised.

"Clever, lad," the older Dwarf puffed. "But the old man here has a few tricks up his sleeve that you might not have seen."

"I look forward to them," Gimli retorted, and his axe blurred around him. He was truly skilled, the axe moving in the tight, whirling arcs that required coordination, finesse and extreme muscular strength.

"Good!" his opponent praised when Gimli blocked a savage underhanded swing and reversed it, immediately leaping to the attack. "But do you know this one?" And his hands moved rapidly, the axe spinning for Gimli's neck.

"Ah, Náli!" Gimli growled, and brought the handle of his own weapon up before his face. The clash was deafening. "You will have to do better than that! Dwalin would have had me defeated and mopping out the barracks by now!"

"Not enough of a challenge, nidoy?" Náli raised an eyebrow and laughed. Then he whistled sharply to the other students waiting on the benches that circled the training ring. "Lóni, come here. Let the both of us together teach our fine young warrior a lesson!"

Gimli stepped back, his eyes wary as he hefted his axe. Another young Dwarf stood and moved onto the practice ring. He was heavier than their young kinsman, with a shock of thick brown hair on his head and a square-cut beard. He grinned. "This time I will finally beat you, Glóin's son," he said.

"Aye, and rivers will run backward and Elves will live underground and Dwarves will roost in trees, Laín's son," Gimli retorted, rather rudely. Fíli and Kíli immediately broke out into snickers, and Thorin smiled despite himself.

"I see what you mean about his temper," he murmured to Fíli, who flashed him a quick smile.

"That idiot isn't going to beat him," Kíli said, before peering back at Thorin. "Is he?"

Thorin considered. Gimli was the better axeman, but Náli was more experienced and the other youngster, Lóni, had weight and reach on his side. "I don't know. Let us see how he fares."

Kíli needn't have worried. Gimli scythed the axe towards their feet, and they were forced to jump awkwardly to avoid it. Náli stumbled, and Gimli was on him in a second, tapping the flat of the blade against his teacher's head. "Dead," he said cheerfully.

"Aye, but so are you," Lóni growled behind him, and Fíli let out an involuntary cry as Lóni's axe came spinning towards Gimli's head. The redheaded Dwarf ducked and twirled, and his axe fairly danced as he slammed the butt directly into Lóni's belly, forcing all the air from his lungs.

"Yield?" Gimli demanded, his blade held to Lóni's throat.

Lóni nodded, his face sullen.

"That was well-fought," Thorin said, as Gimli leaned his axe against a weapons-rack. Then he walked over to a table where cloths were folded for the students, and bread and ale sat waiting for Náli. There he took up a towel and began to wipe down his sweaty face. "Very well-fought. Frerin was not wrong about his talent."

"I wonder how he does with a sword," Fíli said, tilting his head speculatively. "I wish I'd –look out!"

For Lóni had pushed himself from the ground and launched himself towards Gimli's back, his axe held above his head to deliver a mighty stroke. "Sudûn!" Thorin roared, forgetting himself in his outrage. "Shekith!"

Gimli moved instantaneously. He picked up a cup of ale and span, throwing it full in Lóni's face. As the other boy sputtered, Gimli lashed out with his fist and caught him square on the nose.

"Ikhuzh!" Náli snarled, and Gimli froze, his hand drawn back for another blow. "Gimli, Lóni, what is the meaning of this?"

Lóni, clutching his bloody nose, muttered, "I wanted to finish the duel."

"The duel was finished!" Náli stamped over and pulled at the young Dwarf's ear. "You yielded the match to Gimli, and so lost the contest. To attack an unarmed Dwarrow with his back turned is a coward's move, and I have taught you better than that. Laín will be hearing of this, mark my words!"

Lóni winced. Gimli folded his arms. "And me?"

Náli glared at him. "You could have disarmed him easily, and yet you chose to strike him. A just warrior does not toy with a weaker opponent simply to enjoy it. Neither does he indulge in petty revenge!"

Gimli's scowl was ferocious.

"Gimli, you will clean this mess you have made. Lóni," and Náli shook the ear pinched between his fingers, "you will be on a week of night-watches, and I will see all of you at dawn." A groan rose from the assembled ranks of students. "The rest of you have these two to thank for our early start! Let that teach you to think before behaving so rashly in future. Am I understood?"

Both lads hung their heads. "Yes, Náli."

"Then go to it," Náli said, and released Lóni's ear to stalk out of the door. "At sunrise, remember."

The assembled youngsters moved out after him, and several dark glares were aimed at Gimli and Náli as they left. Gimli glared back before turning to his opponent, who still clutched his bloody nose.

"All right, sorry," he said ungraciously, and picked up another cloth. "Here. No, don't tilt your head back, you'll swallow your own blood and it will make you ill. Lean forward, it will clot eventually. What in Mahal's name were you doing?"

"Wanted to win for once," Lóni grumbled, but he let Gimli press the cloth to his face. "I have some skill, but no-one can see it in the shadow of yours."

"You're an idiot," said Gimli bluntly. "You're good, yes, but still an idiot. You're bigger than me, and you could have had me if you'd kept me at a distance. Look, why don't we practice together? I could use a taller opponent anyway. I want to surprise Dwalin when I see him next."

Lóni laughed sourly. "I am no Dwalin."

"You'll be as tall as him, so I don't see why not," Gimli said, and shook his head. "Idiot."

"Yes, I'm aware," Lóni growled. "I don't need you to keep pointing it out."

"Hold that to your nose, I have to clean up all this ale." Gimli eyed the mess and grabbed another cloth before hunkering down on his knees and beginning to soak up the spilled ale. "I'm not going to apologise for being good," he said as he scrubbed, blowing a lock of fiery hair out of his eyes. "Neither am I going to feel sorry for a Dwarf who tried to axe me in the back! But a training partner with more strength and reach than me – now, that is of interest. You can get the recognition you crave so badly when you knock me on my back fair and square. What do you say?"

Lóni's eyes had lit up behind his bloody cloth. "Aye, as you say, that is of interest," he replied.

"Then we have an agreement." Gimli sat up and threw the soaking cloth from the ring, taking another one. "Ugh, I smell like a brewery and I haven't had a drop! This work makes a Dwarf thirsty. If your nose has dried up, shall we go share a cup at Borin's?"

"I shouldn't," Lóni said, and his shoulders slumped. "I have night-duty."

"Ah, yes. Another time then. Go on, get washed up. We'll begin tomorrow, is that to your liking?"

Lóni nodded, and then attemped to smile. "Thank you Gimli. I'm sorry."

"Aye, and so you should be, making me spill all this fine ale. Such a waste!" Gimli laughed, and waved as Lóni left.

"Is old Borin's tavern still running then?" Kíli wondered, and then quailed at Thorin's sudden dark look. Fíli gave a weak little laugh and hushed Kíli with a hand over his mouth.

"Just... an academic interest, Thorin."

"Yes, never stepped foot in it ourselves," Kíli said, muffled by Fíli's palm.

"Or broke a table."

"Or a lamp."

"Or Borin's teeth."

"Lies and conjecture."

"Must have been two other Dwarves that looked like us."

"Yes, and with the same names. Imposters, no doubt."

Thorin rolled his eyes to the ceiling and prayed for patience.

Gimli kept scrubbing at the wet stones, his shoulders bunching. He stopped at one point to scratch at his short red beard, before attacking the floor once more. Thorin stepped forward, seeing his chance.

"Gimli," he said, and stopped in cautious surprise as Gimli paused momentarily, his head cocking as though hearing something just out of earshot. Thorin looked back to Fíli and Kíli, who nodded eagerly.

"Gimli," he said again, and once more Gimli stopped. This time, however, the lad pushed up onto his knees and frowned.

"Is someone there?"

"Barufûn," Thorin said, and crouched down before the young man. "Your cousins are with you, Gimli son of Glóin. Fíli, Kíli and Thorin. We are here."

Gimli blinked, and then he shook his head sharply. "Surely I can't get drunk from a few fumes," he said to himself, and Kíli snorted.

"You're not drunk, lad," Thorin said, and shook his own head in disbelief. "We're here."

Gimli squinted, peering straight past Thorin. "Must be imagining things. I can't be drunk and I do not think I am mad..."

Fíli smacked his forehead with his palm.

Thorin resisted the urge to do the same. "Not mad either, cousin. Mahal grants us this, that we can see you from beyond the mists. To me he gave a greater gift. Some may hear me."

"I'm of Durin's line," Gimli continued, his brow creasing with worry. "I could be mad. I'm too young for it, though."

"Steady," Fíli said quietly, putting a hand on Thorin's shoulder as he shook with anger and shame.

"You are not mad," he said shortly. "Only very, very dense."

Gimli's eyes narrowed, and he began to look around the room. "If this is you, Lóni," he snarled, "then I must say it is in very poor taste!"

"Oh for Durin's sake!" Kíli exclaimed.

"Not a prank either." Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and reined in his temper. "I am Thorin, son of Thráin. I was killed three months ago and passed beyond the borders of Middle-Earth. The Halls of Mahal keep my sister-sons and I until the worlds' ending. From this place we may see our friends and kin when we wish - and we are standing right before you, you young fool!"

Gimli sprang to his feet, the colour draining from his face. "King Thorin," he breathed, and then he rubbed at his head. "Why... why did I say that?"

"Careful, Uncle," Kíli said in a tense undertone.

He nodded, and then grasped his nephews' hands before bending all his concentration on the perplexed boy before them. "Gimli, remember the Lady Dís. Remember the woman whom you called Aunt, and now sits alone. She lost more than you, kinsman. Remember the Lady Dís."

"He was her brother," Gimli whispered, and then he pulled at his vibrant hair. "Oh, I am such a fool! Of course my conscience would not let me rest until I had seen her. I lost my cousins, but she lost all she had left in the world. Not drunk, not mad, not tricked, but surely a blind and selfish fool!"

"He... he thinks you're his conscience," said Fíli blankly.

Thorin looked at him helplessly.

Gimli bit down on his lip and then looked at his tunic and ale-stained trousers. "Can't be wearing these to visit a Princess," he muttered, and, gathering the wet cloths and his axe from the rack, he strode purposefully from the training room.

Following him, the three dead Dwarrows were able to see just how empty Ered Luin had become. Gimli led them through familiar tunnels and corridors that had once bustled with activity. Now it seemed that Thorin's Halls were slowly emptying once more; only the young and the old seemed to be left. Gimli halted outside a set of apartments that Thorin recognised as Glóin's, and he pushed open the door. "Mother!" he yelled as he entered. "Gimrís? Where are you?"

"Gimli!" hissed a feminine voice, and Glóin's wife Mizim thrust her head through a door. "What sort of racket do you call this, storming in here and shouting!"

"That's Glóin's wife?" said Kíli, stunned.

"Aye, Glóin's silver jewel. He told you she was a famous beauty, didn't he?" Thorin smiled. Mizim had broken many a heart before finally finding her One in Glóin. Even Thorin had wasted a few sighs over her. Her figure was still strong, sturdy and proud and her eyes were still exquisite, though fine lines now traced the corners and white threaded through her pale hair and beard.

"How'd a boulder-faced shrub like Glóin end up with a Dwarrowdam like that?" Fíli said, eyes wide.

"He was kind, honest and respectful," Thorin said. "And he made her laugh."

Gimli batted away his mother's hands. "Not now, 'amad, I need my good tunic! I need the golden hair clasps Grandfather made me! Where do you keep them?" Gimli threw the sodden rags into the fire and began to rummage through carven boxes and upon shelves. "Gimrís? Can I borrow your comb?" he hollered as he continued to search.

A young Dwarrowdam of maybe fifty years stumbled into the room, rubbing at her eyes. Her hair was just as fiery as Gimli's, and her face was as lovely as her mother's, even though it was creased in a scowl.



Gimrís, by Jeza-Red

Fíli immediately fell silent, his jaw dropping open.

"She's a diamond," Kíli declared fervently.

"You'd fight a million duels to court that one," Fíli agreed.

Thorin gritted his teeth. "You are both dead."

Kíli gave him a wounded look. "That was uncalled for."

"Brother," the lass growled. "I hope you have your axe on you, because after waking me you are going to need it."

"Gimrís, not now! The comb, please – I need it, I must look my best."

"You smell like a tavern," Mizim said with a disdainful sniff.

Gimli growled under his breath. "I have not had a single drink! I threw Náli's ale in the face of an idiot hothead – oh, never mind, I'll find it all myself!"

"All right then, you ill-tempered bear, you can use my comb. What's the big occasion?" Gimrís said.

Gimli made a soft exclamation of satisfaction and brought out a soft blue formal tunic embroidered with gold and black thread. He looked up. "I must see the Lady Dís," he said seriously. "I have neglected a duty."

Mizim's eyebrows drew together. "The Lady Dís does not wish to see anyone, and what duty?"

"Well, not a duty then, but a kindness," he said, dragging off his tunic and struggling into the new one. It was slightly too small, but Gimli either did not care or notice. "I realised that we are her only family this side of the Misty Mountains, and it falls to us to comfort her. We lost our King and our Princes, but she has lost her brother and her sons. With all else she has lost, it is no surprise she locks herself away except for the morning audiences. She is utterly alone, and I think I should see her. Fíli and Kíli were my friends, and they would want me to."

"Told you," Fíli murmured. Thorin grunted.

Mizim looked uncertain, but Gimrís' face cleared as understanding dawned. "Do you think I should come too?" she asked.

"If you like," Gimli said, shrugging. "But perhaps one Dwarf at a time? I would not wish for a crowd if I were her."

"That's very thoughtful, Gimli," Mizim began, "but do you suppose she would even wish to see you? She has not spoken to you since you were quite young."

"Aye, and I called her 'Aunt' and she bounced me on her knee, I remember," Gimli said, and splashed water over his face. "If she does not wish to see me, then I will try again another time. She has been left alone all this time and so she must feel that she is alone. She should know that we think of her and that she is still cared for as a Dwarf, not just as the Regent of Thorin's Hall. I am not her son or her brother, but I am family and I care. And I loved them too."

In the silence that followed, the grip of Fíli and Kíli's hands tightened on Thorin's to the point of pain.

"Well, I'll go next time," Gimrís said, and then tutted at her brother's wet and wild mane. "You look ridiculous. Sit and I'll braid it for you, you look like a pony caught in the rain."

Gimli's lips quirked, and then he looked up at his mother. "I may not be home for dinner," he said.

"I suppose you must do as you feel you must," Mizim said, and then kissed Gimli's forehead before smoothing the tunic down over his shoulders. "You're a good boy, my son."

He squirmed away, batting at her with wet hands. "Mum, I am sixty-three soon! I am not a boy!"

She snorted. "You are such a boy, Gimli. I'll find your clasps. I hope you still fit your engraved boots."

"Come on, you haystack, let's make you less hideous." Gimrís said, brandishing her comb. Gimli gave her the fed-up look of an older sibling before sitting before his sister. She began to weave his hair into a long, thick plait that followed his spine. "Great Mahal, Gimli, what are you keeping in here? It feels like a nest!"

"I had practice!" he said, scowling.

"You must have been fighting a thornbush. And those trousers don't suit that tunic either. You won't be able to wear it much longer, you know. Your shoulders are about to come through the seams."

"Not my fault," Gimli said defensively. "I grew too fast."

"You ate too much, you mean," she said, and he sent an elbow back into her stomach.

"I had to eat, I was growing!"

She pulled his hair sharply in retaliation. "I'm sure. Wear the black trousers, the ones with the patterns sewn into the hems. Did you want to wear the steel ear-cuffs?

"I should, they were a gift from Cousin Balin," he said, and ran a curious hand over the top of his hair. She smacked his hand with the comb.

"Not til I'm done," she snapped. "Keep your mitts off it."

"Gimrís, you are a tyrant," he grumbled. "Do you think I will still fit that belt with the garnets?"

She snickered. "Only if you wore it around your fat head. Hold still, stop wriggling! You're making it all crooked."

Fíli and Kíli were snickering as well, and even Thorin could not help the small sound of amusement that escaped him at the sight of Gimli's thoroughly irritated face.

With a loud sigh Gimli subsided, his thumbs plucking at the ale-stained patches on his trousers. Mizim returned, her hands full, and together mother and daughter threaded a set of golden barrel-clasps into Gimli's bright hair. Then Gimli struggled into a new pair of black trousers (also slightly too small) and took out his plain and serviceable ear-cuffs and replaced them with a set which Thorin recognised as Balin's familiar work. A pair of warm fur-covered boots with engraved toe-guards followed, and the belt was found and promptly rejected.

"Will I serve?" Gimli said, holding out his arms.

Mizim smiled at him, and threaded two golden beads onto the short tufting braids of his beard. "You look very handsome," she told him.

"For a troll," Gimrís added cheerfully.

"Gimrís!" Mizim snapped. Her daughter rolled her eyes.

"Fine, sorry. You look nice, big brother." Then she punched him lightly in the arm. "It seems you're not a complete waste of space; you're doing a good thing. I get to wear the gold clasps next time, all right?"

"Only if I get to braid your hair," Gimli said, a wicked glint in his eye. Mizim gave the long-suffering sigh of all parents.

"Get moving before you grow out of your clothes altogether," she said. "I'll leave bread and cheese out for you in case you come home late and haven't eaten, all right?"

"Bread and cheese?" Gimli said plaintively, and then straightened at Gimrís' amused look. "I mean, thank you, Mum. Thank you both!"

With that he was moving, striding purposefully from the family's apartment and making his way through the city to the lowest levels. He did not falter. "Where are we?" Thorin hissed, following closely behind. "I do not recognise this part of the Halls."

"Don't tell me you're lost!" said Kíli.

Fíli hid a smile behind his hand. "The iron mines begin just to our left, and the audience chambers are coming up ahead. Our old rooms are not far, but these passages weren't really used by any except the miners. Gimli must have done some work here."

"Mining?" Thorin frowned. "His father is a Lord. He does not need to mine for a living."

"Thorin, everyone worked, even you. You took on blacksmithing, I was a jeweller like Mum, and Kíli was a bowyer. No doubt Óin took Gimli into the mines; I know he still treats the miners now and then for their injuries."

Thorin abruptly recalled that Óin had originally damaged his hearing in a mining explosion. "Ah. But a miner? He does not seem to have the patience for iron excavation and refinement."

"He wanted to be a surveyor or a stone-mason when we were little," Kíli said. "He likes caves and rocks."

"He would be in raptures over the Chamber of Sansûkhul," Fíli agreed.

"Hmm." That was unusual. "He does not have a craft, then?"

"Time enough to choose a calling when I am old and can no longer swing an axe," Gimli murmured, startling them all. "There is so much to learn about the world. Why would I limit myself before I have found that which makes me happiest?"

"Shhh!" Kíli hissed.

"Durin's beard, he senses you so clearly," Fíli said, and he ran a hand through his hair. "I never would have believed it if I hadn't seen it."

The corridors became familiar again, and a fluttering sense of apprehension began to claw at Thorin's belly. Gimli stopped at a painfully well-known door and pulled the new tunic straight, before taking a deep breath. "Here we go," he said to himself, and knocked.

It opened, and a Dwarf with the crossed axes of a guard upon his back peered out at Gimli. "Yes?" he grunted.

"Gimli, son of Glóin," Gimli said with a polite bow. "I am here to see the Lady Dís, if she will."

"The Lady sees no-one," the Dwarf said shortly, and began to close the door. It stopped on Gimli's heavy engraved boot, and the younger Dwarf gave the guard a pleasant smile.

"Announce me," he suggested. "Perhaps she will make an exception."

"Are you deaf, boy? The Lady sees no-one," the guard with impatience, and kicked Gimli's foot away.

"Perhaps I should make myself clearer," Gimli said, still smiling. "Gimli of the Line of Durin, here to see his cousin, if she will."

The guard's sneer dropped like a stone. "I'll announce you."

"You do that."

"All right," Thorin said. "Now I believe the boy is related to me."

Kíli's laugh was a little high and shrill.

Gimli waited, his fingers fidgeting over the embroidery at the edge of the too-small tunic. Wisps of his short thick beard were already beginning to escape the gold beads, and he chewed on his lower lip absently. The guard returned with a perplexed look on his face, and he eyed Gimli with suspicion.

"She'll see you," he said. "But don't expect her to be pleasant."

"I don't expect her to be anything other than as she is," said Gimli with admirable calmness. "What's your name?"

The Dwarf raised an eyebrow. "Anchar son of Borchar."

"Thank you, Anchar."

The guard's other eyebrow rose. "You're welcome, boy."

"Kind, when he wishes to be," Thorin murmured, remembering Frerin's words. "Aye, and forgiving."

Anchar led Gimli to a room beside the audience chamber, and opened the door. "Gimli son of Gróin, Lady," he said respectfully, and nodded to the lad to enter.

"Actually, it's Glóin," mumbled Gimli. "Gróin was my grandfather."

"I know who you are, child," came a voice. "Come in."

To the three children of Thráin, they had said, Mahal gave one a voice of golden thunder, one a voice of silver bells, but the third – the third had a voice of mithril and diamonds, more lovely than the voices of Elves and as pure as the snowmelt from the peak of the Mountain.

Dís' beautiful voice was dead. She sounded lifeless and hollow, her voice a dull echo of what it had once been. Gimli entered with a glance to the guard, and Anchar nodded to him once before closing the door. Dís was seated before a fire, her eyes fixed on the flames. She did not look up as the door clicked closed behind the guard.

There was an uncomfortable silence, and Gimli walked further into the room, his dark eyes wide. "Hello, Aunt Dís," he said eventually.

"It has been a long time since you called me that, son of Glóin," rasped Dís.

"True," Gimli said. "I won't fit on your knee anymore."

She smiled, but there was no warmth in it. "Indeed, you are no longer a child. Why are you here?"

Gimli blinked, and then he looked down at his hands. "You're not my Aunt," he said slowly. "You're my cousin. And we... we lost some of our family. There's just me and Gimrís and you, because everyone else..."

"Is dead," Dís croaked, and finally looked up from the fire. "Everyone is dead. My whole family, but for cousins like you. My sons, my last brother, my One, my father... we were so proud, so strong. Well, Mahal has punished us for our pride, at least."

"No!" Gimli blurted, and he took another couple of quick steps towards her. "Not everyone is dead!"

"You?" Dís laughed. It was utterly unbearable to hear. "Your sister? Balin, Dwalin, your father and uncle? You are not my family. We are relatives, no more than that. No, my family is dead and gone. The line of Thrór is ended."

"They're not all dead," Gimli repeated, and he lifted his eyes to hers. "There's you."

She froze, and then sagged. "Me."

"And that's why I'm here," Gimli said, and took one more step. "Because there's you. You're not my mother or father or uncle or sister. We're not close. But you're my family, and I once called you my Aunt. I would call you Aunt again, if you would let me."

Fíli took a sharp, short breath. "Careful, cousin," he breathed.

"Is this pity?" Dís stood, and her hair tumbled down around her shoulders. She looked like a wild woman, her dark eyes red and hard. "Pity for an old woman left alone? You can keep it!"

"Not pity," Gimli said, defiantly standing his ground. "I would not dare pity you, Lady."

art by fishfingersandscarves

"Then what?"

He hesitated, and then blurted, "I don't know. It is hard to put into words. The others – in my training classes – they do not even speak of them. But they were my friends, my cousins, and I miss them! I wish I had gone with them; I wish my father had let me. I'm just a remote cousin, not a Prince, not a warrior, I'm not important - but I have some skill, I could have done something! They should have lived. They should have lived to see their home restored!"

Dís stared at him for a long moment, her face draining of all colour as she took in his red cheeks and raised chin, his balled fists, and the angry tremor of his voice. Then she staggered backwards and collapsed back into her chair.

"Mother!" Kíli cried, and turned to Thorin. "Help her!"

"Wait," Fíli said harshly. "Wait."

Gimli acted immediately. He rushed forward and poured a cup of water from the jug upon a side table and knelt before her, holding it up. "Lady Dís?" he said, his voice more gentle than Thorin could ever had imagined coming from the mouth of this brash young Dwarf. "I am sorry. Here."

She took the cup with trembling fingers. "You mourn them," she said faintly. "You mourn them, not your Princes. Your friends."

"Aye," Gimli said, and lowered his eyes. "My cousins. And, despite what you say, my family."

"Kíli pulled your hair," she whispered. "Fíli hid your toys."

"And I kicked his shins for it, too," Gimli said, and smiled at his feet. "I miss them. Fíli hid my toys, but he showed me his new swords when he had finished his training, and taught me how to use the throwing axe, and how to spot the flaws in a gem, and all the different ways to knot rope. Kíli pulled my hair but he also gave me his old drafting tools when he had finished with them, and showed me how to play the fiddle and how to carve and string a bow. They were the ones who first took me drinking and it was Fíli who guided my steps and Kíli who held my hair back when I became sick. They looked after me. I was only their loud young cousin scurrying at their heels, but they looked after me. I looked up to them."



Gimli and Dís, by miliabyntite

"They were fond of you," she said thickly. Gimli lifted his head and their eyes met – two pairs of dark eyes, the eyes of Thráin, the dark eyes passed down from Náin the Second, last King of Khazad-dûm.

Kíli's eyes.

"Your brother made me my very first axe, for my fiftieth naming day," Gimli remembered, and Dís huffed.

"Plain as plain, no doubt."

"Not a single decoration on haft or blade," Gimli agreed, "but perfectly balanced."

"Thank you," Thorin managed through a throat blocked with his heart.

"He never had much patience," she said, her eyes growing distant. "He could wait a century for a sign, but hated spending the time to put more than three braids in his hair."

Gimli snorted. "Oh, Kíli's hair."

To Thorin's amazement, she laughed – rusty and unused, but a true laugh. "Kíli's damned hair. I used to struggle with him every morning to at least get most of it out of his eyes. Mahal only knows how he ever aimed at a target through that curtain."

"I feel I should be offended," Kíli said.

Fíli gave him a sad half-grin. "The truth offends no-one but you, brother."

"Don't look at me," Thorin added. "I remember the fits you had when your mother brought out a comb."

"I miss them," Gimli said again, and sighed heavily. "No-one understands why I am so angry, or why I train every day until I am exhausted. I struck another in the nose today, and I should know better, even if he does not. I have not been to the mines in weeks. I sat at the table in Borin's where Kíli and Fíli used to drink with me. The jokes are still carved into the wood, and Borin's teeth are still missing. I felt as though I could reach out and touch them, so close was that presence. But they are gone, and I am here, and it should not be this way."

"He felt a presence?" Kíli said, and blinked.

"Did you go to Borin's with Gimli?" Fíli hissed, and Thorin plastered a look of innocence on his face. Apparently it wasn't terribly convincing, because Fíli snorted. "You old hypocrite."

"I forgot that there were others who knew us," Dís said wonderingly, her fingers clutching her cup. "Not as heirs of Durin's line, but as Fíli and Kíli, sons of Víli and Dís."

"Fíli and Kíli, my cousins and friends," Gimli said in a low voice. "I should have been there."

"I would not have used your life to buy theirs," she said, and her other hand reached out and touched Gimli's thick red hair. "Don't be so hasty to throw it away, nidoyith."

He smiled ruefully. "I'm not, not really. But what is a miner, a banker's son, compared to a Prince? What is my life compared to what theirs has bought?"

"A miner, a banker's son," she said, "can have a great heart. A miner and banker's son will go on to do great things, Gimli son of Glóin."

She set down the cup of water, and took Gimli's hands. "I would like it if you called me Aunt again," she said softly.

Gimli said nothing, but his hands tightened on hers.

She leaned forward until her brow briefly rested on his, and then she pulled back. "Will you tell me more?"

"Gladly." Gimli settled at her feet and launched into a tale of three Dwarflings and a hammer 'borrowed' from Dwalin. Dís listened closely, and laughed at the terrible predicament the three found themselves in; at the clever plots put into practice that only compounded the problem tenfold; at Dwalin's outrage when the hammer was finally recovered and the terrible injustice of the punishment (polishing every weapon he owned until it gleamed). Her eyes were glossy, but she no longer wept. Her hand remained on Gimli's vibrant hair, and every now and then she stroked it absently.

Finally Gimli finished, and looked up at her. "Aunt Dís?"


"Gimrís said she would come with me next time. Would you like that?"

She blinked as though coming awake, and then she smiled. It was still tinged with her fathomless sorrow, but she no longer looked or sounded more dead than alive. "That would be lovely. How old is your sister now?"

"Fifty-four," Gimli said with a shudder.

"Ah, the fifties. I feel for your poor mother, with two Dwarrows under the age of seventy in her home."

"I am very mature!" Gimli protested, and Dís laughed softly.

"Indeed you are. Bring Gimrís, and I will tell you of the time my brothers and I stole Dwalin's favourite toy Oliphaunt."

Gimli choked on his breath, and then laughed loudly and merrily. "Aye, that sounds like a tale not to be missed!"

She stood, bringing him to his feet, and then touched the seams that strained over his shoulders. "You have grown out of this tunic. Perhaps Fíli's -" she stopped short on her son's name and then closed her eyes, her lips tightening.

"Give him mine, Dís," Thorin said suddenly. "Keep your children's fine things and the memories they hold. He'll be as broad as me; give him my feast-day tunic. I never wore the thing anyway."

She frowned. Both Fíli and Kíli turned to Thorin, their eyebrows high and their mouths open in surprise.

"Aunt Dís?" Gimli ventured.

"My apologies, akhûnîth," she said, opening her eyes and squeezing his shoulder. "I was lost in thought. My brother's things still gather dust and moths, and you will be of a size across the shoulders in a few years. You should have them."

"No," he protested. "I could not wear the clothes of a King, it would be..."

"But you could wear the clothes of a cousin," she said, and squeezed his shoulder again. "I will have them sent to you. No, don't refuse! He would be glad to be rid of them; Thorin hated formality. Too many painful memories. He'd much rather wear his armour and spit in the eye of public opinion."

Gimli closed his mouth. "If you say so," he said dubiously, "then I will take them with thanks. My mother is tearing her hair out trying to keep me decent lately."

She tugged a braid at his chin, just as she used to do to Fíli's moustache. "I know the feeling. Kíli used to grow out of a tunic as I watched - it nearly drove me to drink."

Gimli winced, and Fíli rubbed at his mouth. "I know that feeling," he said in sympathy. "Ouch."

"I should go," Gimli said reluctantly. "It's late."

He made to bow, but she stopped him by pulling him into an embrace. "Until next time, Gimli."

He stiffened for a moment in shock, before hugging her tightly. "Soon. The day after tomorrow? I have practice in the afternoon, but..."

"I look forward to it," she said, and drew back to lightly touch his Durin brow. "Go, your mother will be worried."

He nodded and made to leave. Dís stopped him at the door by calling his name. "Aye?" he said, turning back around.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "Your use-name fits you well."

He gawked, forgetting himself for yet another moment, before he grinned broadly at her and left.

Thorin watched his sister sink back down into her chair. She rubbed her face with her hands and sat motionless for a few moments. Fíli and Kíli pressed closely to his sides as they stood, not three feet away from her, and yet as unreachable as Eärendil's star. She let out a long, shuddering breath and then she gripped her knees tightly with her hands.

"Well, brother mine," she said to herself. "Let's see what you have stored away then."

Chapter Text

Thorin finished his knife, and began work on a pair of boot-daggers. Just to thumb his nose at Dís, he embedded chips of emerald in the handles and engraved the patterns for 'honoured family' along the blade. He could be decorative when he chose. He ended up gifting them to Fíli, and was therefore obliged to create a set for Kíli as well, lest he get deafened by complaints of favouritism.

And then, of course, Frerin wanted a set as well.

Nothing else changed in Mahal's Halls. Nothing ever changed in Mahal's Halls.

Thorin had been a very active Dwarf his whole life. He had very rarely been stationary, forever journeying or working or building or planning. Remaining in one place was proving difficult. He turned his hand to more and more projects, but very little kept him satisfied. As the years turned and the second anniversary of the Battle of Five Armies came and went, he began to forge the links for an entire hauberk of mail simply to give himself something to do that was not staring wistfully at the waters of Gimlîn-zâram, longing in vain for the colours of Middle-Earth.

Two years, and Erebor was becoming a hub of activity. His Company had risen to prominence, due to their great wealth and the reputation their Quest had given them. Ori was working to restore the histories that had been damaged by the dragon. His people had so little of their history left to them after wars, dragons, Balrogs and exile after exile that it was a blessing there was anything left at all. Dori had become a very powerful member of the Weaver's Guild, and was tireless in promoting Guild interests. Nori had set up a gambling den and tavern of some scandalous repute, and sat with his ears open each night, passing every tidbit of information to Balin.

Bofur was a great favourite amongst the few children of Esgaroth who had settled in Dale. He had begun a large venture, trying to establish the toy-markets of Dale that had once been the wonder of the North. Bifur worked beside him most of the week, but on all other occasions Bifur could be found with Ori. The young Dwarf was trying to help Bifur regain his words, but the process was very slow. Bifur's understanding of Ancient Khuzdul was now confused and he frequently used a completely unrelated word when he meant something totally different. He would then revert to Iglishmêk, but all too often he could not find the right signs. With Ori's help he had shown a little improvement, and Bofur and Bombur assisted when they had the time.

Bombur was king of the marketplace of Erebor. None could even come close. He sat at his shop and watched every sweet cake and meat pie and jam roly-poly walk off the shelves. Bilbo's larder that night in Bag End had certainly made an impression, and Thorin recognised several Hobbitish dishes alongside more traditional Dwarvish fare. Bombur's limp was no better, but his walking staff had become a sort of calling card amongst the other traders. He often had a string of linked sausages or a bag of sweets hanging from the end.

Óin was still being kept busy with the wounded of the battle. No Dwarf or Man was still in danger, but many had sustained complications. He had appropriated a room that Thorin vaguely remembered as being a guardsman's barracks, and had outfitted it as an infirmary. There he doctored and cared for those Dwarves whose families could not, and trained a small group of younger Dwarves in herb-lore and medicine with all the irritability and snappishness of a drillmaster.

Balin and Glóin could be seen at loggerheads most days. Dáin had approved one fourteenth of the treasure to go to Bard for the restoration of Dale and Esgaroth, and the new Master of Laketown was becoming rather demanding and grasping when it came to the selection of the gold and jewels. Glóin strenuously disagreed with using priceless heirlooms and historical artefacts centuries old as no more than currency in their trading with the Men and Elves. Balin shook his beard angrily and asked if Glóin would be the first to volunteer to eat them? Glóin would bellow that this wasn't a siege and it wasn't about the damned gold, this was about their heritage and traditions; would they give up their history and culture so readily? Balin would ask, cold as ice, if Glóin really thought that Balin of all Dwarves was not aware of the cultural significance of some of the items, Balin had watched much of it forged with his own two eyes, had known the makers himself, and hadn't Balin been at Azanulbizar for Mahal's sake? Glóin would bristle, his beard doubling in size (which was quite a sight) and snarl that Glóin had been at Azanulbizar as well, what had Azanulbizar to do with it? Balin would seethe, and Glóin would fume, and the next day they would do it again. Thorin watched this with a sinking sense of déjà-vu.

Dwalin drank at Nori's tavern, and did not speak often. He ran his troops with whiplike efficiency, and was fast gaining a reputation as totally humourless and a really dangerous fellow to cross. He had added three new tattoos to his collection – one over each brow and another spanning the bridge of his nose. Thorin almost choked when he saw them, and his heart reached out to his old friend. They were the symbols chosen for Thorin, Fíli and Kíli at their births and inscribed on their beads and clasps. He spent all his time training his soldiers, working the patrols and organising the rotas. His deputy was a Blacklock Dwarrowdam named Orla; stout, stern and nearly as severe as himself.

Erebor was depressing, and Thorin was restless.

He tried to watch Bilbo, puttering around his garden doing something incomprehensible to tomato plants, and failed. He fled within seconds.

He ended up watching his fiery young cousin more and more often. Gimli was amusing, and he was also very rarely motionless. The lad seemed never to stop, tirelessly moving from mine to training room to Dís' chamber to his home, laughing and shouting and roaring the whole time. He began to put on bulk quickly when the mine supervisor started him on hauling ore to the refinery. Simultaneously, his training grew more intensive and he began to work with the heavy double-bladed battle axe rather than the single-bladed spinning axe. True to all predictions, he grew into Thorin's tunic in a matter of months. The lad would never be tall, but he made up for it in sheer muscle.

Dís and Mizim seemed to be getting along splendidly. It was an intimidating thought.

Every now and then, Thorin would catch a glimpse of that curious, perceptive and compassionate soul at the heart of the lad. The day Lóni knocked Gimli down, he immediately sprang to his feet and grabbed Lóni's arms and began to dance in triumph. "You did it!" he crowed. "Flat on my arse and no mistake! Told you that you could do it!"

Lóni grinned sheepishly as his defeated opponent celebrated his victory far more enthusiastically than himself.

Gimli even began to show some signs of a rather poetic disposition, singing to himself as he dragged cart after cart of iron ore from the mines to the upper chambers where he poured them into the vast cauldrons for refining. He would make up little chants to keep the work from becoming dull, their beat echoing with his footsteps along the dark tunnels. Thorin had found himself humming along more than once, and had even caught himself singing one as a hammering song as he forged yet another link for his chainmail hauberk.

Death had (unsurprisingly) slowly become a rather numbing routine, and so when Glóin, Bofur and Bombur suddenly disappeared from Erebor, Thorin was caught utterly by surprise. He found them camped beyond Mirkwood on the plains north of Beorn's house. Their ponies stood grazing in the glade behind them, and their bedrolls surrounded a happily blazing fire.

"How many?" Glóin said, astonished.

"Eleven," Bombur said with a little blush. "Oh, no – it'll be twelve by now. Alrís will have given birth to the last, what... a year and a half ago?"

"It'll be two years by the time we reach Ered Luin," remarked Bofur.

"Sweet merciful Mahal, how does she do it?" Glóin muttered. "I could barely stand having two crying bairns in the house, let alone twelve!"

"Well, the eldest is sixty soon. She and the older lads help with the wee ones."

"Sixty?" Glóin gave him an amused look. "You and Alrís got started early, didn't you?"

Bombur's blush deepened.

"Your wife has all my admiration," Glóin said, stoking at his merry fire. "Twelve, Durin save us. How did you keep them all fed and clothed?"

Bombur shrugged. "I'm a cook, Alrís is a tanner. We managed."

"Bifur and I helped," Bofur said. "Still, our shares are going to come in right handy. Little Birur or Bofrís aren't going to grow up poor like we did."

Glóin frowned slightly, and he nodded without speaking. Thorin knew how he felt. The poverty of the Ur family had been very confronting when it was unearthed during the Quest, and though no Dwarf of the Blue Mountains had been wealthy, to come face-to-face with a truly poor family had only driven home the importance of their mission.

"Suppose you're looking forward to seeing your two?"

"Aye, my bold lad and my lovely little lass," Glóin said and smiled. "Mizim wrote. Gimrís has begun an apprenticeship in glass-blowing, and apparently Gimli has made friends with the Lady Dís. The audacity of that boy!"

"The Princess?" Bofur shared a glance with Bombur. "Now there's a surprise."

"I know, couldae knocked me down with a feather when I read it. And you, Bofur? Did you never think to wed?"

Bofur shrugged. "Always wanted to. Wanted a One, wanted kids, the whole vein of ore, you know. Been lookin' my whole life, but never found 'em. Not all of us are as lucky as you or Bombur. Guess I'm on my own."

Bofur looked so gloomy for a split second, he seemed like an entirely different Dwarf. Bombur put his hamlike hand on Bofur's shoulder before sending a quick glance to Glóin and shaking his head.

"Oh. Well, a pity that." Glóin stretched theatrically and then scratched at his leonine mane. "Should turn in soon, lads. Night's drawing on. I'll take first watch."

"And leave me with second? No fear!" Bombur said. "I'll take first, and you can get up in the middle of your sleep instead."

Thorin couldn't help but smile. This was an old argument: Second watch was the most unpleasant and least desirable of the three. No-one liked having to interrupt a sound sleep to stay awake for a few hours, and it led to itchy eyes and short fuses the next morning. In fact, on their first journey, 'second watch' had become shorthand for 'bad-tempered'.

"You had first watch last night, you lump," Bofur said and prodded his brother's side. "I'll take first, Glóin has second, and you can have third – and I'll expect breakfast to be ready for us when we wake!"

"Here now, I didn't-" Glóin began to protest, but subsided with a grumble when Bofur pointedly leaned back against a tree.

Bombur and Glóin settled into their bedrolls, and Bofur took out a whittling knife and a half-finished Dwarf warrior-toy. With a little lurch and a muffled laugh, Thorin recognised the unmistakable outline of Dwalin. "I hope you realise he will kill you," he told Bofur.

"Ah, he's a best seller, I'm makin' him famous," Bofur mumbled. Thorin shook his head.

"Lads?" Glóin said sleepily. "What's the first thing you're going to say to Bilbo when you see him?"

Bombur hummed for a moment and then mumbled, "ask for that cheesecake recipe."

"How did I know it was going to be something like that?" Bofur said, grinning.

"I like cheesecake," Bombur said with a shrug, and rolled over. "Then I'll be huggin' our Hobbit, and then we should have a little party."

"No burping, he doesn't like burping," Glóin said, his voice becoming slurred. "I'll be givin' him a hug too. Poor wee blighter, Dwarves coming and interrupting his life again. Never thought I'd look back on that party with such fondness. Then I'll be placin' myself and my family at his service for twenty generations..."

"'Obbits dun live that long. One Dwarf generation. Half."

"Oh. I didnae know that." Glóin fell silent, and then he said, "Well, I'll be huggin' him anyway. Bofur?"

"I'll be gettin' my hat back, to be sure," Bofur said, his knife busy carving a tattoo into the miniature Dwalin's brow. "An' aye, I'll give the little fellow a hug as well. Thought I'd make him a flute, y'know. In case that Hobbit-hole of his gets too quiet now and then."

"It'll be right fine to see him again," Bombur said drowsily.

"Agreed," Glóin said. "Well, night lads. Tomorrow's another day, and we'll be seein' old Beorn and his menagerie soon enough."

"Green food," shuddered Bofur. "Rest up, we'll need all our strength."

"Honey-cakes," Bombur mumbled, and dropped into a snore.

"Come in, come in!" Bilbo said, beaming so widely Thorin half-feared he was going to strain his face. "My goodness, look at you all, aren't you a sight for sore eyes! I suppose you're thirsty?"

"Aye, laddie," said Glóin, "but first there's a little something we all promised to do."

"What's that then? I hope my poor plumbing is safe this time – I've only just got it sorted out again, you know."

"We're makin' no promises when it comes to plumbing," said Bofur, grinning, and then the three Dwarves were picking Bilbo up and squeezing him tightly in a great hug. Bilbo squeaked loudly, before throwing his arms around as much of them as possible.

"Oh, you ridiculous Dwarves," he said mistily. "I have missed you. Now put me down - gently, if you please!"

Bombur smiled at him and wiped at his eyes with the long, thick plait that circled his neck. "You look well, Mister Baggins. Hardly changed a bit!"

"I get by, I get by," he said, thrusting his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets and rocking back on his heels. Thorin noted that the buttons of the waistcoat were now gold, and that Bilbo's hair was a little longer, and his eyes were a little older and sadder. "I'll go broach a barrel of ale. It's from the Ivy Bush, you know. Finest beer in the Westfarthing! I think I have a barrel of Old Toby stored away as well. I'll check. Oh! Do make yourselves at home. Well, you usually do, don't you?" He laughed.

"Not a shy bunch, as a rule," Bofur agreed.

"Will you be staying long?" Bilbo asked as he scurried away. His voice echoed through the smial, and the three Dwarves blinked and looked around in confusion. Stone-sense and a knowledge of echoes did not exactly translate to a Hobbit-Hole, it seemed.

"Perhaps a few nights," said Glóin. "It's been a long road."

"And it's not over yet," muttered Bombur, leaning heavily on his staff.

"Well, put down your packs, hang your cloaks on the pegs, take off those awful heavy boots of yours and go and warm yourselves up. The fire's lit, and I've plenty of food. We'll make a little celebration of it, what do you say?" Bilbo reappeared clutching an ale-barrel with both arms and struggling under its weight. Bofur took it from him and tucked it under an arm.

"Exactly our thinking," he said, and winked. "Hope you've a few more o' these."

Bilbo waved a hand. "Oh, enough, enough. We'll get by, won't we lads?"

"Aye, it'll do very nicely," Glóin said.

The four settled in. Bofur's hat was presented with much pomp (Bilbo had cleaned it off as well as he could, which was not very), an endless procession of food appeared, and soon a merry little gathering was progressing in Bilbo's drawing room. Again, very little had changed, except now there was a small Elvish dagger mounted over the fireplace instead of a Hobbit's portrait. Thorin could remember standing at that hearth and staring into the flames as he sang.

"He's had Sting engraved," he remarked to himself, ghosting his fingers over the little sword that had saved his life.

"Yes, I had that old thing engraved in Rivendell on the way home. Don't any of you complain about the Sindarin or I'll take it down and use it," said Bilbo placidly. "Pass the scones?"

Bofur looked about. "What's a scone?"

"Oh, call yourself my brother," Bombur said scornfully, and handed the basket to Bilbo (after snagging three for himself, of course).

"So, how are things under the Mountain?" Bilbo took a bite of his scone after liberally topping it with jam and cream. "Everyone is well, I hope? I receive a letter now and again – it quite scandalises my neighbours when a Ranger comes stomping up Bagshot Row – but it isn't the same as being there."

"We're all fine," Bofur said, spearing a slice of pork with his knife and taking a bite. "Everyone is as well as they were last you saw us."

"Some of us are better than we were, at least," Glóin said with a sigh, sitting back and taking out his pipe. "Ori's cough is gone, and he's now in charge of all official records and letters as well as sortin' the histories. Barely see the lad except at Council, he's that busy. Dwalin ended up losing the eye, but he sees so well out o' the other you'd never notice."

"Well, except for the diamond," Bombur added. "He got a new one made out o' glass, and they put a diamond in the centre. It shines when the light hits it just right. Scares the life outta the younger lads."

"Dori's waging a one-Dwarf hostile takeover of the Guilds, and Mahal help you if you get in his way. He'll end up Guildmaster at this rate, an' he's so strong everyone'll be too scared to cross him or else they'll get walloped on the head. An' poor ol' Óin is still bein' worked to the bone," Bofur continued. "He's training up a whole heap of the young 'uns. Says he's fed up with always havin' to patch idiots up, so there should be idiots to treat them."

"Bifur?" said Bilbo tentatively.

Bombur and Bofur looked at each other, and then shook their heads. "Not much improvement there I'm afraid, Bilbo," said Bombur sadly. "He drifts away more an' more often. Now and again he simply goes blank. We just wait for him to come back to us, and let him know we're glad when he does."

"I'm sorry," said Bilbo, and looked down at his scone.

"Well," Bofur said eventually. "Nori's made himself a new leg. It's quite a thing. He keeps a dagger in it, y'know. And a set of lockpicks. And a pack o' cards. And a leather cosh..."

Bilbo smiled. "He would."

"He's still keeping his tavern and reporting to Balin, and Balin's still keeping Dáin in the loop," said Bombur, stretching out his legs and passing Glóin the pipeweed. Glóin growled.

"Balin's still a pigheaded old fool," he grumbled, and Bofur made frantic 'don't ask!' signs behind his back. Bilbo nodded quickly and changed the subject.

"And the mountain? How's the restoration going?"

"It's still a lot of work," Glóin said, taking out his tinder and flint and lighting up. "Got the main public areas cleaned up and habitable, an' most o' the houses, but a lot of damage was done to the structural integrity o' the whole southern quarter, including the throne room. It's going to take decades to excavate and prop and rebuild. We've been usin' the battlements or the inner bailey for audiences most o' the time."

Bilbo swallowed, and Thorin looked away. The battlements of Erebor were not his favourite place in the world.

"And how about you, then, Mister Baggins?" Glóin said, and slapped the Hobbit's knee. "Been keeping well? Impressing all the little Hobbit lasses with your tales?"


"Now, now, our Hobbit is a gentleman," said Bofur, a twinkle in his eye. "He'd never be kissin' an' tellin'."

"I, er..."

"Look at him blush!" Bombur snorted. "Red as a ruby and no mistake."

"Actually," Bilbo managed to say, "I don't suppose I shall ever marry, and I don't really mind, to be honest."

"Oh," Bofur said, and tipped his head. "I'm sorry. Found her and lost her, did you?"

"Him," Bilbo mumbled.

Thorin's heart momentarily stuttered, and then it began to gallop.

"Oh," said Glóin, and then put a careful hand on Bilbo's back. "I'm sorry, laddie."

Bilbo waved a hand. "It's all done and over now," he said, and smiled, though it was very wobbly. "It's not really the done thing around here, sad to say, and he wasn't... well, he couldn't... anyway. I'm odd enough as it is; I don't really need any more rumours flying about the place. Goodness knows he wasn't the type of fellow to settle here in Hobbiton. He'd have caused a general panic!"

"Not a Hobbit, was he?" said Bofur softly, and Bilbo stiffened.

"I'll... I'll just see to another barrel, shall I?"

He scurried out of the door, and Thorin stared after him. His head was spinning.

"I knew it," mumbled Bombur. "Knew it."


art by fishfingersandscarves


"Well, that's one mystery solved too late," said Glóin sadly, and puffed at his pipe, staring into the flames. "Funny though, isn't it? A Hobbit and a Dwarrow. I suppose I hoped he'd never figure it out. It would have been kinder for him never to know."

"Pair o' fools," said Bofur with unexpected viciousness, and Bombur patted his brother's shoulder.

"There now. As Bilbo said, it's all done and over. Not like there's anything to be done about it now."

"Found his One though, didn't he?" Bofur growled, and his hands tightened around his tankard. "Found him and they were right for each other but they waited too long an' they hurt each other without the chance to make it right. An' now it's all too late, and they'll never be together."

"Bofur," Bombur began, and then gave up on words and dragged his brother into a bear-hug. Bofur was stiff at first, but eventually relaxed in Bombur's embrace.

"Birashagimi," Bofur eventually said, and Bombur chuckled.

"Westron, Bofur. You know it annoys Bilbo."

"Bilbo should be used to being annoyed by now," Bofur said, muffling his voice in Bombur's thick shoulder.

"Believe me, I am," Bilbo said dryly from the door, his hands wrapped around a couple of bottles. "What have you dreadful Dwarves been up to now?"

"Oh, terrible scurrilous things, you'd be amazed," Bofur said brightly, pushing himself away from Bombur and digging inside his jerkin. "Now, I made you a little somethin' on the way, where'd I put it..."

Bilbo set the bottles down and Bofur handed him the little polished flute. "Why, it's just like yours! Thank you, Bofur, how tremendously thoughtful!" He brought it to his lips and tried a few tuneless notes. The fourth squeaked loudly, and he jerked the flute away from his lips with wide eyes and a muttered Shire curse (ridiculously tame though they were). The three Dwarves fell over with laughter, and Bilbo cleared his throat and chuckled self-consciously. "Well, yes, perhaps that might take just a little more practice."

"I'll teach you a few songs before we go, eh?" Bofur said, and wiped at his eyes. "Then that way you won't scare away all the birds."

"Oh, I don't know," Bilbo said, smiling. "Rather an effective way to get rid of nosy visitors, wouldn't you say?"

Thorin's heart was still racing, and he stepped closer, standing behind Glóin's chair in order to watch Bilbo's face. The Hobbit had obviously been badly surprised by the question, and he hadn't quite regained his composure. His face was pale and there was a tightness around his eyes that hadn't yet dissipated.

Bilbo had only known thirteen Dwarves. Three of them were dead.

His heart pounded in his ears, drowning out the sound of the little wooden flute. Thorin's head fell into his hands.

No. No, it could not be so. Bilbo had been dear to him, yes, but...

He clenched his eyes tighter, and the stars devoured him and spat him back out into the Chamber of Sansûkhul.

Bilbo and Thorin, by lacefedora



His underground sense of time told him it was late, but Thorin could not move – did not move. He sat on his customary bench and listened to the thrashing of his heart against his ribcage, his mind flying to pieces.

He had no idea how long he had been sitting there when a hand on his shoulder brought him back to himself. He raised his face from his hands, blinking his stinging eyes. His face felt rubbery and numb, and his heart had not slowed at all. In fact he felt rather light-headed.

"Uncle?" Kíli's voice said worriedly, and the boy's face swam into view.

"Did you know?" Thorin croaked.

"Did I know what?" Kíli said, confused. "I came to get you, it's dinner-time. You've missed the midday meal, and Grandmother..."

"About me," Thorin said, and licked his suddenly-dry lips. "And Bilbo."

Kíli frowned, and then, quick as Gandalf would light his staff, his expression became guarded. "What about you and Bilbo?"

"Don't toy with me!" Thorin roared, his voice bouncing from the beautiful limestone curtains and wings that cascaded over the walls. "Did you know?"

Kíli had stepped back at Thorin's sudden shout and his chin snapped up. "Yes," he said steadily, "everyone guessed. But nobody knew."

Thorin stared at his nephew and then turned away, his hands fisting in his hair. "Go now," he said through gritted teeth. His heart was about to smash its way through his chest. "I will not be eating."

"Uncle," Kíli said, taking a step forward before halting and sighing deeply. "At least you knew him," he said. "At least you had that."

"I knew nothing," Thorin said, voice cracking. "Fool that I am. I had him in my arms, and I could not see him!"

He sank back down on his bench and covered his face with his hands once more.

He could hear Kíli's boots scuffing along the stone of the Chamber, and then his nephew's hand tentatively touched his shoulder. He ruthlessly strangled the sob that tried to claw its way out of his throat.

"So you didn't know," said Kíli quietly. "That explains a few things then."

He sat beside Thorin, his hand still resting on his shoulder. "You know," Kíli said into the silence, "you always used to seem so perfect to me. Invulnerable. Implacable. I never thought about what everything had cost you. I never knew what you had lost. Before? You were Thorin, my King and Uncle, a great war hero who had kept our people from starving and given us the best life he could."

Thorin allowed his hair to spill over his face to hide the tears that were seeping between his fingers.

"Now I can see all the things you had to lose," Kíli said, and he sounded thoughtful and rather pensive. "All the things you had to give up. All the things you never even considered having for your own, because you had to be bigger than that. You had to be a King and a hero and a symbol for us all. You had to keep on giving us hope and leading us onwards, all alone. There was only you. Mahal wept, Thorin – I had no idea. You were but ninety-five when Thráin disappeared. That's, what, twelve years or so older than Fíli? And suddenly you were the King of a homeless and wandering people! My mother would have helped, but then Fee and I were born... and everyone else was dead. Just you, on your own. For a century."

Kíli huffed a little laugh, and leaned against his shoulder slightly. "I remember, when we were a little older, you had to stop being Uncle Thorin and start being Thorin instead. I was so hurt; oh, I was so angry! But Fíli told me to stop grumbling, and eventually I just accepted it. Now I know why you had to do it. You had to stop being only ours. You couldn't belong to us. You had to be everyone's.

"So when we formed the Company, you had to be everyone's, not just ours. When we confronted the Goblin King, you had to protect us all. When Azog had us cornered, you tried to buy everyone some time. When Thranduil had us captured, you stood between him and everyone else. In Laketown, you spoke out for everyone. You always placed yourself between your Dwarves and whatever it was we faced. And I never realised – I never got why it seemed so effortless to just go along with it."

Thorin allowed his hands to drop into his lap, and stared at them for a long moment.

"So, you see, it isn't a great failing on your part," Kíli said earnestly, and he leaned his scruffy chin on top of Thorin's shoulder, patting his back clumsily. "You had to belong to all of Durin's Folk from the day Thráin went missing. Why should you expect to belong to one person alone? Why would you expect to have someone of your very own?"

"You all knew?" Thorin said again, and Kíli made an irritated sound.

"Trust you to ignore everything I just said! I'm sure I'll never sound so wise ever again. I wish Balin could have heard it."

"Kíli," Thorin tried to keep the growl from his voice. Kíli dug his pointed chin into his shoulder.

"All right, keep your scowl on." Kíli tipped his head until the side rested against Thorin's, and he picked up Thorin's hand and began to study it absently. Thorin allowed him to, distantly watching his hand get prodded and poked at as though it didn't even belong to him. "We guessed. After the Carrock you just seemed... more open. I couldn't believe it, and everyone else seemed just as confused. You've never really opened up to anyone before; I mean, even Dwalin thinks you're a bit closed-off. But there you were, actually seeking Bilbo out. You asked him about himself. You told him things about yourself! You wanted his advice – you, wanting someone's advice! You even smiled at him! The pair of you fought like a cat and a rat at times, but it never mattered, not really. You always drifted back together."

Kíli paused, and then he fitted his palm against Thorin's, comparing their sizes. Kíli's was far, far smaller – and would never grow any larger. Then he said slowly, "For the first time since Fee and I were small, you didn't belong to everyone equally. You were giving one person more of you than anyone I've ever seen."

"Kíli," Thorin said, and folded his fingers over Kíli's with a shuddering sigh. "What you are saying... I. I never gave it much thought. I loved you, I always have. I tried to do right by you, nidoyel. But. I had to do my duty by my people. I had to. I had to give them back their pride and their home. It is – was - my only purpose. Now I find that there could have been more than duty for me... and it is too late." He set his jaw and gazed down at their clasped hands, and his heart finally stopped clattering and juddering only to sink deep into his belly like a stone. "It is hopelessly late."

"No, see, that's where I think you're wrong," Kíli said, and nudged him. "You're dead, right?"

Thorin glowered at him.

Kíli grinned. "Bilbo's still out there, still alive, and we can look after him. It's not likely that much is going to happen to him in the Shire, but you never know, do you? So. We take care of him until it's his turn to pass through the mists."

"Bilbo is a Hobbit," Thorin reminded Kíli. "He cannot come to the Halls of Mahal."

"Right. Bilbo is a Hobbit. Bilbo has fifty or so years to go. That's nothing to a Dwarf, but," said Kíli, and he smiled innocently, "how annoying do you think I can be in that time?"

Thorin stared at him. "You... you cannot..."

"Well, if you can shout at our Maker, surely I can make a nuisance of myself?"

Chapter Text

"Dwarves of Erebor!"

Dís stood at the gates of Ered Luin, her eyes flashing and her hair streaming behind her in the cool spring breezes. The last caravan to Erebor watched her attentively, their faces bright and eager.

"We are going home!" she cried in her ringing voice of diamond and mithril, and a mighty cheer rose up from every throat. Turning, Dís began to walk away from the worked-out mines and the crumbling halls of Belegost that had sheltered them in their poverty, and raised her face to the East. She did not look back. Wagons rumbled along in her wake as she began to march.

"Now there's a proper Dwarrowdam," breathed Frís. "Oh, my brave daughter." Thráin took her hand, and with wet eyes together they watched their last surviving child lead their people away from their reduced and pitiful lives towards the rising sun, and Erebor.

Thorin looked back over the great train of Dwarves, carts, ponies, goats and even a flock of sheep that stretched out behind his sister. Old Dwarves walked doggedly beside wagons that were pulled by oxen and draft-ponies, their gnarled old hands wrapped around axes that had not seen use in decades. Families crowded in amongst their furniture on top of the wagon beds, and the older children eyed the guards and warriors that flanked the caravan with inquisitive and awed expressions.

"Keep up, keep up!" Glóin bellowed to a heavy cart that was dawdling. The foothills of the Blue Mountains slowly slipped behind them, and before them rose the little rolling hills of Emyn Uial and beyond that lay the great sheltered valley of the Shire. "Got a long way to go as yet, my lads!"

The Dwarves began to sing as they marched, and soon Thorin was humming along:

And her beard was as soft as the downy wing
Of the birds that fly home at the call of spring,
O! Why did I leave her, why did I roam?
For now and forever I'll be marching home!

[The Dwarves' Walking Song, performed by notanightlight]

"I've not heard that one before," Gimli remarked, trudging alongside his father.

"T'is an old traveller's song, son," Glóin said, and as he had every time since returning to his family, his face creased with bemused pride.

His reunion with Mizim, Gimrís and Gimli upon his arrival at Ered Luin had been nothing short of spectacular. Glóin had wrapped himself around his wife and held onto her tightly, burying his face in her pale hair. She put her hands either side of his head and drew it back, tracing the old scar over his brow with her thumb before kissing him deeply and gently. "Hello, you old bear," she said softly, her hands slipping into his mane of wild red hair. "You're late."

"Jewel," he said, and his eyes misted over. "More lovely than ever you are, Mizim, crown of my life, light of my heart."

Mizim, by Jeza-Red

"Don't think you can sweet-talk me into forgiving you, now," she scolded him, before kissing him again. His hard, craggy face softened as she rested her head against his chest for a moment. He took her hands and kissed them one after the other before turning to his children – and his mouth slowly formed the shape of an 'O'.

Thorin privately thought his expression was hilarious. Frerin, of course, didn't keep such things private. His brother keeled over backwards, laughing his head off.

Glóin's amazement was justified. Nearly three years wrought quite a change in a growing Dwarf, after all. Gimrís now appeared more queenly than ever, all gold and topaz, the fiery sun to her mother's pale moon. And Gimli was no longer a lad. He was a strong and sturdy young khudz, his arms thick with muscle and his beard lengthening rapidly. Glóin had gawked for a moment longer before Gimrís was hurling herself at her 'adad and Gimli was doing likewise, and Glóin was buried beneath the bodies of two mostly-grown Dwarves and groaning.

"Oof! You are too heavy for me now, off with you!" he wheezed, and Thorin chuckled at the sight of the bristly and imposing old warrior spluttering and choking for breath. When he was pulled to his feet once more and had regained some dignity, he took a delighted, reverent breath and touched the faces of his children with his great thick hands. "Now, look at these two giants!" he said softly. "Who is this brawny young warrior with the mighty beard? Who is this stout and strapping beauty with the hands of a craftswoman? Where are the wee badgers I left behind three years ago?"

"We missed you," blurted Gimrís.

"Missed you so much," echoed Gimli, and Glóin tugged them close and held them tightly.

"Inùdoy, nathith," he said against their hair, his eyes squeezing shut. "Gimli my son, Gimrís my daughter. I missed you so, my treasures."

Mizim bit down on her lip and wrapped her arms around them all. "Don't you be going off on any more fool Quests," she said in a low voice, and Glóin only tightened his embrace.

Bombur's reunion with his family had been far louder. Alrís didn't even have a chance to greet her husband before a veritable horde of Dwarflings swarmed Bombur and Bofur, shouting at the top of their lungs. Bombur's children buried themselves against his warm and hefty body, snuggling close, investigated his walking staff with curious and grubby fingers, pulled at 'Uncle Bofur's' hat and begged for a song and a sweet and a story. Bombur tried to kiss and tickle all of them at once, his seldom-heard booming laugh ringing out over the din. The oldest of the tribe patiently pulled the smaller ones away, and finally Alrís was able to give her husband a smacking kiss and show him the new baby, now two years old – a boy she had named Albur. He was a chubby, chuckling little thing with brown hair and eyes that danced like sunlight on water. Bombur gave the little one a whiskery buss on the top of the head, and then wrapped one arm around Alrís again and pulled her against him for another ringing kiss.

"Hello, love," he said, and rubbed his face against hers. "I missed you, my dumpling."

"What have you done to your leg?" she said breathlessly.

He shrugged. "Got poisoned. Don't recommend it."

"Poisoned, Daddy?" gasped one of his middle children, his eyes wide as saucers.

"Don't get too close to orcs," Bofur said succinctly, and a chorus of 'ooooh's rose from the crowd of children.

"Hospital food," Bombur said in disgust, and Alrís threw her head back and laughed and laughed.

It was because of his leg that Bombur had relinquished his pony and chosen to drive a wagon. Children festooned him, and he could be heard telling them recipes and stories as he guided the shaggy, sure-footed draft-ponies. His reviews of Elvish cookery were particularly colourful.

At night, Dís would walk amongst the wagons and carts and check the perimeter and the watches herself. The many campfires made the valley of the Lhûn appear like a bowl full of golden embers. Then she would return to her place at the head of the train and take her rest. Now and then Gimli or Gimrís would join her, sometimes Mizim, but most often she was solitary, a tall, straight sentinel watching over the scurrying of the Dwarves below. With her hand on the pommel of her sword she stood guard over them, her eyes sad and fond and determined.

Thorin stood at her shoulder and looked over their people, returning to their home at long last. "Thank you, sister," he murmured. "I love you, nadadith. Look after them for me, would you?"

She tucked a braid behind her ear and sighed.

Thorin took to watching the journey with religious dedication. He still had to make his amends, after all, and although he had made a start he was still not convinced that he had done enough. His family joined him on occasion, but like Dís he was very often alone. His time became structured and orderly: his meals, his forge, his family and the Chamber of Sansûkhul.

It was slow going. Travelling with so many wagons and children meant that the caravan moved at a far more leisurely pace than Thorin's Company had set. Bofur especially seemed to chafe at the 'dawdling', as he called it, and often ranged ahead with his mattock on his shoulder. Occasionally he brought along one of Bombur's elder children, and once or twice he brought Gimli (to that lad's great excitement). Nothing happened, although they did spy a party of Elves making their way to Mithlond, the Grey Havens, where they would depart Middle-Earth forevermore.

"That's an Elf?" Gimli said, wrinkling his nose. "And here I thought they were supposed to be fair and glorious! Hmmph. They're all stretched and faded."

Bofur chuckled. "Don't be fooled. They might look like skinny, insipid twigs, but they're stronger than they appear and their eyesight is much better than ours in daylight. An Elf will put an arrow through your eye as soon as look at you."

"No beards at all," Gimli muttered under his breath, and shuddered.

The caravans forded the River Lune with great care and began to follow the Old North Road, built in the ancient days of the Kings of Men, passing south of the Emyn Uial. Eventually the grey and rocky lands gave way to little green rolling hills, grassy sheltered valleys and carefully tended farms. Even further to the south, smoke rose from little chimneys. Thorin glanced around at the peaceful, plentiful land and felt something clench somewhere in his stomach.

As dusk drew near, Dís signalled for them to make camp on a hill covered in nodding dandelions and clover. Bees hummed merrily from their nest in a lone apple tree covered in blossom, and birds piped in the distance from a nearby wood. Bombur shared a pointed look with Glóin.

Glóin shrugged. "He'll be here. He promised."

"Which way is Hobbiton from here?" Bofur shaded his eyes with his hand. Bombur's eldest was wearing his hat. She was a jolly Dwarrowdam of sixty called Barís, with dimpled cheeks and a sunny smile, and she marched along behind her uncle with one of her siblings on her shoulders.

"South-east," said Glóin after a moment. "And there! Look!"

A little figure was making its way along the winding paths between the little hills, running as fast as its large woolly feet could carry it. A pack full to bursting bounced on its back, and his hands were waving excitedly.

"Ho, Bilbo!" Glóin shouted, waving back.

"Is that a Hobbit?" whispered Gimrís to her brother.

"Again, no beard!" Gimli said, and shook his head in sympathy.

Bilbo came to the head of the caravan, puffing and holding one hand to the side of his chest. "Oh, it's been a little while since I ran quite that hard, and carrying so much too!" he said ruefully. "Hello again! My goodness, I see what old Odo Bolger was so excited about. There are an awful lot of you, aren't there?"

With that the Hobbit was engulfed in a hug, and there was much back-patting and smiles all round. Bombur tapped his forehead to Bilbo's, and Bofur tousled the curly hair as Glóin beamed at him.

Thorin felt his father come to stand beside him. "So that was him?"

Thorin nodded silently.

Thráin regarded the Hobbit for a moment, and then he grunted and put a heavy hand on Thorin's shoulder. "I'm sorry, my son."

Thorin just kept gazing at the brave little soul that could have - should have - been his. Thráin's powerful fingers tightened on Thorin's shoulder.

"I'll leave you be," he said kindly. "We're here if you need us, Thorin. Remember that."

Thorin nodded again, and swallowed around his dry throat. Thráin's fingers squeezed once more, and then he was gone.

"You should hear the ruckus down at the Green Dragon," Bilbo was saying. "Poor old Odo is convinced it's an invasion and has the whole pub in an uproar. Half of Brandy Hall – that's the Brandybucks, by the way – want to come out and see for themselves. The other half want to sound the Horn-call of Buckland. The Bracegirdles are wringing their hands and fainting, the Grubbs are calling it none of our business, the Boffins are trying to organise a welcoming party, and the Tooks are giggling up their sleeves and egging everyone on indiscriminately."

"And the Bagginses?" said Bombur, smiling.

Bilbo laughed gaily. "Are pretending they've never even heard of Dwarves, or dragons, or adventures, or rich mad cousins. Whenever someone brings it up they begin talking loudly about the weather or about pie-eating contests or Farmer Maggott's dogs or some such. It's terrifically funny."

"We don't normally pass so close to the Shire," said Bofur, "but seein' as it's the last load, so to speak, we thought we'd suggest a detour."

"So all of the Blue Mountains are emptied?" Bilbo looked downcast. "Oh. I hoped you'd be coming back and forth for some time."

"Well, we've got our home back now, haven't we?" said Glóin, and patted the little fellow on the back. Thorin wanted to chop his hand off.

"I suppose," Bilbo said, and his shoulders slumped.

"Here, Bilbo," Bombur said into the ensuing silence. "You should meet my family! That's Barís, my eldest, and over there's Bomfur, Bolrur, and Bofrur, my terrible little trio of redheads, and the two big dark-haired lads there are Barum and Barur; then there's Alfur and Alrur and Alfrís and Bomfrís tormenting that poor pony. Barum, stop that lot, would you, before the pony dies of nerves? And over there is my lovely wife Alrís, and our two littlest ones, Bibur and Albur."

Alrís sketched a bow, her arms filled with squirming child. "At your service," she called cheerfully.

Thorin was a little dizzy after all those names.

Bilbo seemed to have no trouble with such a crowd, and bowed to Alrís, smiling. "At yours and your family's – although I may be a little pressed to accommodate so many. Good gracious me, Bombur! I'd think you were part-Hobbit!"

"I like your feet," announced one of the horde of red-headed Dwarflings.

"Why, thank you," Bilbo chuckled. "They are indeed very respectable feet, even if the rest of me isn't. How long do you plan to stay camped here in the North-Farthing?"

"We'll be on the move almost immediately," said Glóin apologetically. "Tomorrow morning, most likely. You know how it goes."

"My word yes," Bilbo said, and then sighed in disappointment.

"Well, let's make the most of tonight then, shall we?" said Bofur.

Bilbo perked up. "Yes, yes, quite right! I brought a few little things for us to share, though now I hope they'll stretch far enough..."

"We've seen how Hobbits eat," said Glóin dryly. "I'm fairly sure we'll do fine, laddie."

"And just think, Bilbo! No washing up!" Bofur nudged him. Thorin wished everyone would stop touching the Hobbit.

Bilbo rolled his eyes theatrically. "Thank heavens!"

"What did you bring?" Bombur asked, rubbing his hands eagerly. "Cheesecake?"

"Here now! First you have to meet my set," said Glóin. "This is my lad Gimli, and my lass Gimrís. Over there tying down the cart is my darlin' Mizim. Mizim, come here! Come meet our Burglar!"

"I'm a little busy, you daft old bugger," she snapped, "in case you haven't noticed!"

Glóin gave them a sheepish grin. "She's the jewel o' my life, she is."

Mizim, by gremlinloquacious

"I'll go and help her," said Gimrís, touching her father's arm. Glóin nodded and patted her hand, and she went to help her mother secure the oilcloth and the ponies.

Gimli and Bilbo regarded each other curiously. "Hello there – Gimli, was it?" Bilbo said. "Bilbo Baggins, at your service."

"Gimli son of Glóin at yours," Gimli said automatically, and then tipped his head, studying the Hobbit with an expression of slightly-disturbed fascination. "Doesn't your face get cold?"

Bilbo burst into giggles.

Glóin tugged at his own beard to hide a smile. "Ah, Gimli m'boy, Hobbits don't grow beards."

"Oh, some do, but only those of Stoor families," Bilbo said, still giggling. "Even then, it's nothing for a Dwarf to boast of. I remember catching you all staring at me for the first couple of weeks when you thought I wasn't watching. And for the record, not one of you is any good at being sneaky – well, except Nori, but the rest of you were not exactly subtle about it. Was it my poor naked chin, then?"

"That and your riding, laddie," Glóin said, and then snorted at the Hobbit's expression of half-amusement, half-exasperation.

"Were we that rude?" said Bofur, grinning.

"You barged into my house, pillaged my pantry, drafted me into an adventure and sang an extremely insulting song," Bilbo said, poking Bofur in the side. "Staring was the politest thing any of you did!"

"Ah, my apologies?" mumbled Gimli, scratching at his head.

"No harm done," Bilbo reassured him. "And to answer your question: Yes, my face gets quite cold indeed, which is extremely inconvenient - but it dries wonderfully quick compared to yours!"

Bombur clambered down from his wagon with slow and careful movements. Gimli and Bofur came to help him, and he eased his weight onto his leg before grabbing his walking staff and limping forward. "So what did you bring us then, Mister Baggins?"

Bilbo's eyes lit up, and he dragged his bulging pack from his back. "I've got cheese, apples, bread, beer, three pies, a leg of lamb cooked in the Long Cleeve style, a cured ham, a great plum duff, and a whole brace of presents in here for you to take to the others. I'm afraid it's rather a lot to carry."

Bofur and Glóin shrugged, and Thorin tried not to smile, he really did – but what Bilbo considered a lot to carry was barely noticeable to Dwarrows. He'd never really understood how hardy and strong a Dwarf could be, even after so much evidence. The Hobbit dug through his overstuffed pack, and made a soft 'aha!' sound.

"Here." He pushed a bundle of papers into Bombur's hands. "All my mother's recipes. She was a Took, you know, and collected recipes from all over the Shire, all the way as far east as Midgewater."

Bombur looked down with wide eyes at the crushed bundle and then pressed it protectively against his chest. "Bilbo!" he said, and his mouth opened and closed like a fish.

"Oh, hush, it's the very least I could do," Bilbo said, ducking his flushed face. "Now, I have... here!"

He handed Bofur a strange configuration of sheepskin and dyed leather, with neat little stitches in the Shire-fashion around the edges. "It's your hat, do you see," Bilbo said, anxiously wringing his hands. "I bought the skins from the Proudfeet, and I had it copied by Bell Gamgee. Yours was such a wreck, after all, and I thought you might like to have a new one. I do hope I haven't upset you?"

Bofur slowly opened up the folded brim of the new hat, dyed a handsome red-brown, and suddenly smiled. He pulled it onto his head, lifting his chin and tugging at the flaps. "What do you think, lads?"

"Oh, thank Mahal, I was going to burn the old one in his sleep," said Bombur with relief.

"Aye, very proper!" Glóin said and nudged Bilbo. Thorin growled under his breath. Would nobody stop touching the Hobbit? "Looks like a mine full o' diamonds, don't he?"

"All right, don't lay it on too thick," said Bofur agreeably. "Thank you kindly, Bilbo. It's a right fine hat. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if a hat made by a Hobbit turns out to be lucky!"

"Glóin, this is for you." Bilbo handed him a polished wooden box, its lid and sides carved with leaves and grapes. Glóin admired the carving for a moment, and Bilbo huffed. "Well, woodworking is probably the only Hobbit craft that you fellows might appreciate. Still, it's not empty. Open it."

Glóin cracked it open, and Gimli peered over his father's shoulder to look inside. "Pipe-weed?"

"Not just any pipe-weed, my dear Dwarf. That is Longbottom Leaf. It's the year of '32 – a very good year indeed!"

"My dear Hobbit!" Glóin said, and eyed the box with new appreciation. "I am deeply in your debt!"

"Oh, think nothing of it!" Bilbo said, beaming. "Now, if you wouldn't mind... here, Gimli, would you give me a hand?"

Out of Bilbo's pack came the wrapped ham and lamb, the pies, the pudding and the cheeses, apples and a tightly-stoppered jug. "Now," Bilbo said, straightening his coat, "the inks are for Ori, and the bottles are delicate, so be careful! These herbs are for Óin. So are these notes. I translated a couple of healing texts from the Elvish - and it was a lot of work, so don't you dare throw them away! Ah, this is for Dori. It's an embroidery pattern-book from my Aunt Hildigard, and some of those patterns are old enough to impress even Dori, I dare say. I hope he can get some use out of it."

Bofur opened the little book and smiled down at the curling designs with their friendly motifs of flowers, leaves and vegetables. "Who knows? Perhaps Hobbit stitching will become the new exotic fashion. You could start a trend!"

"I fervently hope my trend-setting days are done, thank you very much," said Bilbo dryly. "Now, this is for Nori, from one Burglar to another."

Bombur's forehead creased as he took in the candlesticks, the cheese-knife and the little silver gravy-boat. "What's this?"

Bilbo rubbed a hand through his hair and smiled a trifle wickedly. "I discovered after I got back that it wasn't only my frightful relatives who were a little too free with my belongings. A certain light-fingered chap had made off with a few small things on the night of the party. I thought he might like the rest of the set, with my compliments."

Glóin burst out into roars of laughter, and even Gimli snickered. Bofur clapped a hand over his eyes and wasn't able to speak for a moment as his face began to turn red. "Oh, he'll hate that!" Bombur gasped. "He's been found out, and he didn't even manage to pinch the lot! Oh, he'll be prickly for a month!"

Bilbo looked smug. "That was rather the idea."

Bofur pulled his new hat down over his eyes and waved frantically at them to go on as he panted, trying to get his laughter under control.

"I had this made for Balin," Bilbo said, bringing out a curious little pot. "Look at the sides!"

Glóin, Bombur, Gimli and Thorin (Bofur was still trying vainly to stop laughing) peered closer to the little thing, and then Glóin exclaimed, "why, that's the contract!"

"Certainly!" Bilbo said, turning the thing so they could see it. "Derimac Brandybuck is quite a clever potter, don't you think? I wrote out what I could remember of my contract and told him to paint it on the sides. Poor Derrin, his usual work is flowers and ducks and the occasional pumpkin vine; I don't think he was expecting all that about laceration, evisceration or incineration any more than I had."

"Did he faint?" asked Bombur, leaning forward eagerly.

A wheezing little sound of glee came from under Bofur's hat.

Bilbo paused, and then he sighed. "Yes."

Thorin choked on his own laughter as the members of his Company erupted once more. Glóin and Gimli ended up with their arms slung around each other's necks, while Bofur collapsed to the ground with his heels swinging into the air. Bombur wiped his eyes while Bilbo clutched at his sides and gasped.

As their laughter began to subside, Bilbo choked out, "Nope!" and that set them all off again. Bombur began to lean heavily on his staff, and Bofur pounded at the ground once or twice with a fist. Glóin was making tea-kettle noises and Gimli had to take on more of his father's weight. The poor lad was beginning to look rather red in the face.

"All right, all right!" Bilbo managed to say between his chuckles, "Well, on with it! I wasn't sure what to get Bifur, until I remembered that he was a toymaker before he was a miner. And so," He brought out a curious little thing with cogs and wheels. The assembled Dwarves peered close with exclamations of interest. "Yes, isn't it clever? It's a model of the Old Mill down at Hobbiton, you know. You can pour water in here, and the wheel turns and it grinds away."

"Well now," Bombur said as he gently took the model in his thick-fingered hands. Bofur peeked out from under his hat. His face was bright red. "Bofur, look. Isn't tha' a dear little thing? My little lads would like that, they would."

"An' being Hobbit and all, it'd seem pretty special and out of the ordinary," Bofur said, smoothing down his ruffled moustache. "Wonder if we could make a model Bag End?"

"Oh no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no! If I have an entire generation of Dwarves trooping through my house, I will hunt you down and sting the pair of you!" Bilbo said sternly.

Bombur closed his mouth with a snap, but Bofur looked entirely too innocent to be believed.

"Last one," Bilbo said, tutting and turning back to his nearly-empty pack.

"Dwalin," murmured Thorin.

"Dwalin," said Bombur in the exact same tone, nodding.

"Glad to see one of you pays attention," Bilbo sniffed. "Ah, here we are!"

"What on earth, laddie?" Glóin squinted at the myriad of brightly painted horse-chestnuts, string threaded through their middles.

"Traditional Hobbit weaponry," Bilbo said, a gleam in his eye. "I in particular have some skill at it. If you must know."

"No," said Bofur in disbelief.

"Not...?" said Glóin.

"Conkers?" Thorin said, utterly incredulous.

"Conkers?" Gimli echoed, and then he blinked in confusion.

Thorin cursed his lapse of attention.

"What? Has one of you been telling tales?" Bilbo put his hands on his hips and grinned at them. "I'd challenge you to a game, but it's really not a fair fight."

"Oh really?" Glóin said, his chest puffing out. "Mighty sure of yourself there, Mister Baggins. Well, we'll soon see about that!"

Before long, Bilbo had all four, plus Gimrís, Barís and Mizim, squabbling over a game of conkers. The jug was opened to reveal a strong spirit that was met with general approval ("perhaps not for the young ones; that's Gaffer Gamgee's home-distilled apricot brandy, you know!") and the cheese and ham were quickly unwrapped and passed around. The Dwarrows threw themselves into the game with their usual healthy competitiveness, but Bilbo hadn't exaggerated his skill. He was winning easily, and grinned triumphantly every time his horse-chestnut knocked another out of the game.

Thorin watched with a certain sense of bemusement. "And they do this for sport?" he muttered to himself. "Peculiar folk."

"Here now, that's mine! You cheated!"

"No, I'm the green one – you're the blue one!"

"Any idiot can see that this one is teal. Honestly, call yourself my brother?"

"Gimrís, lay off! Hah, that's three to me!"

"Too bad, I'm on seven."

"Glóin, can't you...?"

"Best not to get involved, laddie."

Bilbo leaned back, sighing with satisfaction and slapping his knees. "And that's the game to me!"

"Are all Hobbits so good at throwing and aiming at things?" Bofur said, staring dismally at his halved horse-chestnut. He hadn't won a single round.

Bilbo shrugged. "Bit of a hobby, really."

The commotion had brought some attention to the group. Many of the other Dwarves sent curious glances over to the Hobbit and his odd little game, his bare face and furry feet. Thorin bristled at their interest and barely restrained himself from barking at them to show their Burglar the proper respect.

The gawking stopped abruptly when a tall Dwarrowdam in a fur-lined hood came through the crowd to check on all the fuss. Dwarves and Hobbit all fell silent, and Dís raised a dark eyebrow at the game on the ground.

"Gimli?" she said, turning to him.

"Ah, hello Aunt Dís," he said, scrambling to his feet and brushing off his trousers. "Just passing the time."

The corner of her mouth twitched, and she turned to where Bilbo sat on the grass, fidgeting with a chestnut. "Will you not introduce me?"

"Ah, aye, of course," Gimli said, and cleared his throat. "Dís, daughter of Frís, I make known to you Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. He's a Hobbit," he added unnecessarily.

"I can see that, akhûnîth," she said, her mithril-pure voice lilting with amusement, though her face barely moved. "Dís. At your service."

Bilbo pulled himself upright and tried to look as dignified as a Hobbit can whilst holding a horse-chestnut painted bright yellow. "At yours and your family's."

Dís smiled at that, rather sadly. "You already have been."

There was an awful silence, and then Bilbo burst out, "You look so much like him."

She froze, and then she dropped her eyes.

Bilbo's mouth worked soundlessly, and then he also looked down. "I'm sorry," he mumbled wretchedly. "I shouldn't have said that. I'm always sticking my foot in my great silly mouth."

Thorin couldn't stop himself from taking a short, sharp intake of breath, his hand reaching out to touch Bilbo's shoulder. His fingers passed through it, and he bit down hard on his lip until the sour taste of iron flooded his mouth.

Dís lifted her head again as she took a breath. "Yes, we were very alike," she said eventually. "Although my brother was taller, and he had our mother's eyes."

"Oh, of course... I..." Bilbo wrung his hands together. "I just..."

"Calm yourself, Master Hobbit," she said, and then she bowed to him with all the poise of her rank and all the dignity of a Queen. "Thank you for all you did for us. For them."

Bilbo sniffed loudly, and his face was screwed up against tears, his clever little hands balled at his sides. Thorin knelt before him and ghosted his hand over the back of Bilbo's arm. "Thank you, Bilbo," he echoed.

"I didn't..." Bilbo managed, and then he buried his face in his palms. "Oh dear," he quavered. "Oh dear, oh dear..."

"Gimli," Thorin said desperately, "help him."

The young Dwarf shifted his weight between his feet for a moment, looking uncertain. Then he said, "Mister Baggins was showing us a Hobbit game, Aunt Dís."

All heads turned to him, and he flushed as red as his hair, before ploughing on bravely. "It's a mite tricky to get the hang of it, but I was starting to see how it was done. D'you want to try it?"

Bilbo blinked, and Dís looked rather perplexed. "If Mister Baggins is amenable?" she said, turning back to the bemused Hobbit.

"Certainly," he said, giving Gimli a long bewildered stare. "It's called conkers."

"Aye, it's dreadfully fiddly," said Bofur, finally finding his voice.

"I'm the best at it," said Gimrís proudly.

"Except for Bilbo here!" Gimli said immediately, and he crossed his arms over his broad chest, scowling. "And you gloat."

"Gloating's all part of the fun," Gimrís said with a toss of her bright head. "Not my fault you couldn't win a game against a dead orc."

"Gimrís!" Mizim snapped.

"Here," said Glóin and handed Dís the red horse-chestnut, his hands gentle as he gave up his place. "Sit down, cousin. I'm going to see if I can find Bombur a chair."

"Oh, don't bother on my account!" Bombur protested, but tucked by his side, young Barís nodded vigorously. Bombur grunted and poked his daughter in the shoulder, and she wrinkled her nose.

"Your leg's going to get all cramped sitting like that, Dad. Best to stretch it out."

"Aunt Dís?" Gimli said softly, and she hesitated for a moment before sitting down beside her young cousin and patting his knee.

"Don't fret about me, young one," she said. "Time for your sister to watch her back."

"All right then, if that's everyone?" Bilbo said, and picked up his yellow horse-chestnut.

Much, much later, the rumblings of hundreds of sleeping Dwarves drifted through the pleasant Shire air towards the star-studded night. Bilbo was rolled snugly into a blanket and curled up between Bofur and Bombur's bedrolls for old times' sake. Thorin sat opposite them as Bombur's snores shook the ground, and felt something in him begin to uncurl and loosen.

He leaned back and looked up at the sickle moon, and almost – almost – felt alive. It could have been any night of the Quest, really. It could have been just another night on the road, guarding over his rumbling, sleeping Company. Just himself, and the snores of his people, and the calls of night birds under the watchful night sky.

"Just like old times," Bilbo said with a yawn. "My word, those stars are bright. Oh, I have missed all this!"

Bofur rolled over and poked his head out from under his blanket. "Well," he said slowly.

"Hmm?" Bilbo sounded half-asleep already.

"You could come with us."

Thorin's head whipped back to them faster than an Elven arrow.

Bilbo seemed equally shocked. "What?"

"Come with us? I know the others'd be thrilled to have you back, and I know you miss us."

Bilbo blinked, and then he let out a sigh full of melancholy. "I can't," he said, and there was true regret in his voice. "Bofur, I'd love to stay with all of you, but I just can't. Erebor, it... it's too big. It's too empty for me."

"Fillin' up pretty fast from all accounts, I hear," Bofur said.

Bilbo's smile was anything but happy. He swallowed hard and said, bravely if hoarsely, "It's not that sort of empty."

"We could even make you a little room an' cram it full of doilies..."

"It's empty because he's not in it," Bilbo interrupted shortly, and then he rolled over and tucked himself deep inside his blanket.

The anger rushed back in a flood. The illusion of watching over his Company on their Quest was just that – a lie, a figment of his delusional mind. Thorin was dead, not alive. Thorin had been dead for three years, and still his guilt and grief and rage tore at him. He stared uselessly at the patchwork of Bilbo's blanket, and the familiar twisting sensation knotted in his belly. "I will look after you," he said. "I will make my amends."

Bofur was still, and then he patted Bilbo's back. "I'm so sorry," he said softly.

"Yes, well," Bilbo sighed, straightening slightly and resting his head against his hand. "I should really trade in that 'lucky number' title of mine, shouldn't I? I had all the luck in the world, but it wasn't enough."

"Never is," Bofur said in a voice that was nearly a whisper.

"You won't need luck, I swear it," Thorin vowed fiercely. "Mahal be my witness! You won't need luck. You've got me."

Chapter Text

Thorin kept his word. He visited the Chamber every day. Bilbo kept on with his life, busily pottering around his little Hobbit-Hole and garden, blithely unconcerned with what his neighbours thought of him. He lent his mithril-shirt to a museum, although Hobbits called it a 'mathom-house'. From what Thorin could understand, a mathom was something that was meant to gather dust; interesting, but impractical. A mithril-shirt, impractical! He shook his head at the ridiculousness of it. Truly, Hobbits were preposterous little creatures!

Erebor underwent several ferocious winters. The restorations slowed to a halt as Dáin fed all their efforts into keeping the Mountain supplied and warm. Dori redirected his tireless Guild campaign into organising foraging and hunting schedules, and Bombur spent hour after hour in the marketplace, ladling out bowls of soup and thick hunks of bread to all and sundry. Óin, poor fellow, threw up his hands in disgust at the new onslaught of illnesses and threatened to retire. Nori's leg gave him a great deal of trouble in the biting cold, and he complained vociferously to any who would listen.

Gimli was immensely proud when his beard finally reached a respectable length. He kept it tied into two workmanlike braids, his thick moustache plaited into it. His hair he kept back in a queue at most times, preferring not to fuss with it, though on special occasions he brought out the golden barrel-clasps his grandfather had made.

Seven years after the final departure from Ered Luin, Bifur woke up in the Halls of Mahal.

Thorin waited outside the welcoming sepulchre, Fíli and Kíli by his side. The miner had been steadily declining ever since the Battle of Five Armies, and it was remarkable that he had lasted so long. A testament to Dwarven durability, Thorin supposed.

It had been hard to watch. Towards the end, Bifur had been barely present, drifting away to some distant place where no-one, not even his cousins, could reach him. His words had disappeared, as had his iglishmêk. He placidly followed where he was guided, and he had to be helped in everything; in dressing, in feeding, in washing.

Yes, it had been painful to watch.

His parents Kifur and Bomrís and his uncle Bomfur (the father to Bofur and Bombur) were greeting him, and Thorin wondered how that worked. Did Mahal let you know in some way? Or had they discovered it as Thorin had, peering through the waters of Gimlîn-zâram?

Eventually the door opened and Fíli looked up. "He's here!" he said, gripping onto Thorin's hand.

"Shhh!" Kíli said, and Thorin shot them both a look.

"Allow him some space," he said sternly. It had been ten years, but he still recalled how disoriented and overwhelmed he had been. "He has just met our Maker and his parents, and will be—"

"Zabadâl belkul!" cried a joyous voice, and Thorin was rudely interrupted by a heavy, entirely naked body slamming into him and bowling him over. "Zabadâl belkul, melhekhel!"

"Bifur!" Thorin managed, spitting out white-and-black streaked hair. "Bifur, calm down!"

"Zûr zu?" Bifur grabbed Thorin's shoulders and smashed their heads together. Thorin reeled, stars sparking before his eyes.

"Ach! Stop, wait-"

"Abbad, abbad, sakhab!" Bifur crowed, and then patted at Thorin's face. "Ah, melhekhel, Thorin-zabad. Sakhab at you, I never thought I'd see you again, and so unchanged. Why, you could skin me wi' that glare! Does a body good to see it."

Thorin stopped struggling and stared at him, dumbfounded. "Bifur... you're speaking Westron."

"Am I?" Bifur blinked, and then he smiled. There was a faint red scar where once there had been a huge stomach-churning dent in his skull, and he seemed far more lucid than Thorin could remember him ever being – if still rather odd. "Oh. So I am."

"And you're naked," Fíli added.

"On top of Thorin," Kíli sniggered.

Bifur beamed at them, pushing away from Thorin and exclaiming, "Lads! Fíli, Kíli, shamukh ra ghelekhur aimâ, how wonderful it is to see you!"

"Good to see you too," Kíli told him, pulling him to his feet.

"Be even better if we hadn't seen so much of you," Fíli mumbled. Bifur simply laughed and tugged the boys into a hug, throwing his arms around their necks and holding on tightly.

Thorin pushed himself up and rubbed his forehead. "Well, it seems you slip back into Khuzdul every now and then," he said to himself, before smiling at the faces of his nephews as they tried to extricate themselves from Bifur's ebullience. Raising his voice he said, "Perhaps we should find you some clothes..."

"No perhaps about it," Kíli wheezed.

Bifur jerked away suddenly to stare at his hands with a perplexed expression. His eyes were completely focused for the first time in ten years. "Oh, yes." Then he raised his eyebrows and looked down at himself with apparent surprise. "Aye, all right. Although I could get used to this, you know. Rather... freeing. You should try it."

"My eyes," moaned Fíli.

"My brain," whimpered Kíli.

Abruptly Bifur tensed, his head jerking up and his eyes widening. "Wait, 'ikhuzh! 'Amad, 'adad, uncle Bomfur... where are they?"

"Behind you, Bifur," said an amused voice. "The Maker recreated your birthmark, I see."

Bifur laughed and leapt for the three Dwarrows, and then he dragged them over to Fíli, Kíli and Thorin, naked as the day he was born. "Here now - Mum, Papa, Bomfur - this is my King. Thorin, this is..."

"I know them, Bifur," Thorin said, and gingerly patted the Dwarf on his bare shoulder. "I met them before you woke."

"And I hit His Majesty on the arm for taking my boy and my nephews on such a ridiculous quest in the first place," muttered Kifur.

"We should get you fed, my little magpie," said Bomrís in her soft, withdrawn voice, shaking her head as she smoothed her hands over Bifur's face and beard. She was a thin, quiet, black-haired Dwarrowdam with large dark eyes and work-roughened hands. She bore little resemblance to her younger brother Bomfur, with his creased and beaming smiles and his loud jolly laugh. "Hold still now, dearest."

Bomfur, father of Bofur and Bombur, by FlukeofFate (YorikoSakakibara)

Kifur chuckled. "We need to put something on you before Mahal changes his mind."

"Food?" Bifur said quizzically as he allowed his father to pull the shirt over his wild hair. His mother brushed it away from his face gently, her fingers lingering over the little red line on his forehead. "We can eat here? Somehow I didn't really think eating happened in the Halls of my Ancestors..."

"Aye, we eat," Thorin said, trying and failing to repress a smile. "There's food, and plenty of it."

"Oh." Bifur frowned for a moment, and then he brightened. "Are there flowers?"

Kifur, Bomris and little Bifur, by chess-ka

"You idiot!"

Dáin groaned as he shut the door behind him, and threw the crown into the corner of the King's antechamber. Thorin stalked after him, incandescent with fury.

"You absolute idiot!" he snarled again. "The gold is cursed, Dáin, you utter naive fool! And he gave it to that grasping, oily, despicable Man – what did you think would happen?"

The door flew open, and Dwalin stormed in, followed by Óin. "You idiot!" he thundered.

"That's our King," Óin muttered.

"You idiot, your Majesty," snarled Dwalin, teeth snapping around the words.

"No, Óin," Dáin said wearily, "he's only saying what you're both thinking."


"Oh, for Mahal's sake, get your bloody trumpet," Dwalin hissed, before rounding on Dáin again. "What did you think you were doin'? That Man was touched with the Dragon-sickness, any fool could see it!"

"I was honouring our agreements," Dáin said with a sigh, rubbing at his forehead. "I gave it to Bard in good faith."

"And he gave it to the Master o' Laketown in good faith, who ran off with it in bad faith!" Dwalin folded his arms over his chest and glared at Dáin.

"Thank you!" Thorin said, throwing up his hands in disgust, and then he turned to glare at Dáin as well.

"What would you have done, eh?" Dáin said through gritted teeth. "We needed that good will. Not up to us what Bard does with his possessions!"

"Those were the valued and cherished works of our ancestors," Óin said stiffly. "My great-grandfather Borin made that helm. Now it's lost out in the Wastes somewhere, an' we'll not ever be seein' it again."

Once again Thorin felt the yawning pit of guilt open up in his belly. "Always, it comes down to gold," he said bitterly.

"Always about the gold," echoed Dwalin, his brows knitting and his face like a thundercloud. "Our heritage is the gold, and the gold is our heritage, and we cannot separate the two."

"He wore it when the Dwarves of the Grey Mountains faced the Cold-Drake. We cannot make its like anymore. We've lost the skill," mourned Óin.

"Well, it's gone," Dáin said brusquely. "And we'd best get used to the idea. It was gone when we gave it up to Bard."

"We shouldnae have given up Borin's helm," muttered Óin, lifting his chin.

"Aye," Dwalin rumbled. "That was no mere pile o' trinkets."

"I was forced to give up the armour forged by my own great-grandfather, Dáin the first of that name, killed by that self-same Cold-drake," said Dáin steadily. "It is all we have left of a great king and a bygone era, but I relinquished it. You are not alone in this. I hear and understand you. I know it isn't just a pile o' trinkets. I know it isn't greed or the gold-sickness that's makin' you come in here and shout at me. I had Glóin and Balin roaring at each other for weeks over this. One fourteenth share, cousin – it is a vast amount. No matter how we tried to carve it, we could not avoid parting with some of our more precious artefacts."

"Do they demand more?" asked Dwalin, his glare intensifying.

"Nay, barufûn. There's enough of us now to withstand even two armies," Dáin said with a wry glance up at him. "There'll be no sieges at the Mountain in these watchful days."

Dwalin grunted and then he sat down heavily. "Men!" he sneered. "Never understood 'em, never will."

Óin's face was fixed and craggy, and his eyes were bright with outrage. "That gold is our inheritance and identity and culture and history, given shape an' form," he said fiercely, shaking a fist towards the south. "Elves and Men may covet it – but they cannot understand what it is to see your people's work, the craft of their hands... the breastplates of great kings or the diadem of a little princess, the things your father's father's father made and touched and wore... and to simply coerce them from us under the threat of starvation and war!"

Thorin let out a long, slow breath. "No," he said in barely a whisper, "under the threat of withholding that thrice-cursed stone."

Dáin held up his hand and waited patiently. "Calm yourselves, cousins. This is not the fall of the dragon. They are not homeless, and nor are we. We do not live in fear of each other, and the trust between our peoples grows – slowly, to be sure, but it grows. We prosper. They would be fools to jeopardise our alliance with more demands."

"Aye, they can't demand our treasures from us now that we number more than thirteen and a Hobbit," spat Dwalin.

Dáin quirked an eyebrow. "I think Bard is beginning to understand us a little better, you know. He wouldn't go a-demanding these days."

"Aye, he got what he wanted the first time 'round!" said Óin resentfully, and he smashed his fist against his leg. "If only they'd come unarmed - if only they'd sent the damned Elves away – if only they'd asked and not demanded! We would have negotiated!"

"Shazara! No need to dredge up the whole ill-fated disaster," said Dáin, and his eyes were weary. "We are honourable Dwarves, and we have fulfilled our agreements with Men. We had to part with some of our history to do so, and they were betrayed by one of their own. Thus the armour of the King I was named for lies in the Wastes somewhere, along with Borin's golden helm and the ruby belt worn by the lost Prince Frór, and the corpse of the Master of Laketown. So it is, and there is little we can do about it now."

"You're a damned fool," said Dwalin bluntly.

Dáin laughed his raspy laugh. "Aye, probably. But practical."

Thorin staggered backwards before landing heavily back on his stone bench in the Chamber of Sansûkhul.

"No," he said in a hoarse voice, and his guilt and shame wrestled against the long-held urge to protect his people. "I was wrong. I was wrong."

But Dwalin and Óin had a point. He had wanted to save his people's inheritance, and he had been furious at the condescension of the Bizarûnh and their arrogant demands. He had indeed offered to negotiate with Bard for the ransom of the dragon and the treasures of Dale, if they came unarmed and without their traitorous Elven escort.

They would not listen, and insults had flown back and forth until Thorin could barely see through the red haze of his rage. Thieves, robbers and carrion-crows, the lot of them! In a towering fury, he had asked Bard what (if anything) he would have left for the Dwarves, had he found the Mountain empty and every Dwarf dead. Bard had not answered the question.

And then Bilbo had stepped into the whole convoluted, tangled debacle.

Gold-sickness, he thought miserably. Can it ever be separated from the desire to protect my heritage? Am I never to know if I am weak or strong?

Oh, my Bilbo, what a mess we wrought.

He put his face in his hands and wept.

Years passed, and Thorin watched.

He finished a suit of plate armour. It was attractive; functional, and deadly with clean lines and smooth polished surfaces. He placed it on a stand in the corner of his forge and lowered the helm over the top holdings and then tipped his head, regarding it critically.

This had been his life. Beauty in skill, yes – but warlike, a life of defence and offence and bloodshed in battle, entirely Dwarven. He frowned at it, and then he began to wonder what a Hobbit might find useful and beautiful.

He turned his hand to a set of buttons, and failed rather dismally. Undeterred, he tried a plough. It was a definite improvement.

"What is that boy doing?"

Thorin shook his head in amusement. "Your guess is as good as mine."

They watched as Gimli, eighty-nine years old and full-bearded and as merry a warrior as had ever lived, clambered up the steep slopes of the Lonely Mountain with his full armour on.

Gimli, by Lacefedora

Hrera looked politely incredulous. "He must be touched in the head. That one has had too much sun."

"He's a fine young Dwarrow," Thorin said, and then he wondered why he felt the need to defend him. Surely he hadn't become so fond of the lad?

"Fine young Dwarrow or not, he's going to get sunburnt," she predicted.

She was not wrong. Gimli was reddened and peeling by the time he made it back down from the summit, and Hrera tutted over the state of his braids. "Terrible," she said disapprovingly. "Look at that! Has the boy never used hair oils in his life?"

"Probably not," Thorin said. "He dislikes primping and frippery, as he calls it."

Gimli kept moving through the bustling corridors of Erebor. Voices called out to him, and he raised his hand in greeting and kept moving. Though he was no doubt tired he did not slow at all, and began to hum one of his favourite walking songs. His legs moved rhythmically and unceasingly.

Finally he began to slow outside a crooked sign shaped like a six-pointed star emblazoned with a pair of crossed hook-pointed knives. Beyond the sign was a stone courtyard full of scattered tables, and Dwarves scurried between them carrying platters with tankards of foamy ale.

A cheer greeted Gimli as he neared one table in particular, where approximately seven rowdy young Dwarves, all under a century old if they were a day, sat chattering and drinking. Picks, hammers and tools sat scattered and propped around them, and many faces were covered with grime.

"Is this really appropriate behaviour from the Line of Durin?" said Hrera. "Tsk! Dreadful place. Tell him to leave, Thorin dear."

"It is a tremendously appropriate place," Thorin told her, folding his arms and looking out over the tired and happy faces of his people, relaxing and making merry. He could feel the corners of his mouth uptilting the very slightest amount. After twenty-seven slow, painstaking years of rebuilding and privation, harsh winters and hard work, his people made merry in the halls of Erebor.

Hrera pursed her lips. "Very well," she said finally. "I'll reserve judgement. But mark my words, young Gimli had best behave himself!"

"So, my friends!" Gimli said, and rubbed his hands together. "So! I was the first to make the summit and back, where are my winnings?"

The group of young Dwarves lounging at the benches of Nori's tavern looked up. "Is Lóni not with you?" one said.

Gimli shrugged. "I beat him. His mark was not there, and I have left mine where none could miss it. 'Gimli son of Glóin' is now carved at the peak. I hope you realise that you are drinking in a Mountain with another Dwarf's name on it. I should start charging you rent!"

"I suppose that makes you King, then!" one laughed. Gimli rolled his eyes and waved that away.

"No fear! I would have to be blind drunk to want to be King. Have you seen Dáin lately? He looks like granite pounded by giants! Besides, there are five others in the succession before me, and all of them are very dangerous to cross."

There was a burst of laughter. "Aye, presuming you managed to get past Dáin-"

"-and Barazanthual," interjected another, and the assembled all shuddered at the name of the great red battle-axe.

"—then there's Dáin's son, the Stonehelm," laughed another.

"What's this my dainty ears do hear?" said Nori, clumping towards them with a tray of tankards and a creased grin. "Our Gimli versus the Stonehelm? Now that I'd pay to see."

"No you wouldn't!" cried a Dwarf. "You'd be running the books, you old crook!"

"Aye, we'd be paying you!"

Nori winked. "Pack of lies it is, my dears, and I'm ashamed to know you."

"This is not appropriate conversation," Hrera said with towering dissatisfaction.

"I'm not fighting Thorin Stonehelm or anyone else, so lay off, you bunch of rats, and let a body wet his whiskers!" Gimli laughed, shucking his helmet and struggling out of his surcoat and chainmail. "Climbing mountains is thirsty work!"

"See here, Nori, apparently it's Gimli's mountain now," said one of the youngsters, taking a tankard from Nori and nudging him.

"Aye, it's my mountain," Gimli said, taking a sip of his ale and leaning back on his bench in satisfaction. "I very graciously allow you all to live here, of course, and I suppose I'll let Dáin keep running the place for me."

"Oh, now I understand the talk of fighting the Stonehelm," Nori said, stroking his beard. "Well then, I'd give you two to three odds on Gimli versus the Stonehelm, but in the third match, I'm afraid, it's gonna have t' drop to one outta nine."

"And why, may I ask?" Gimli said indignantly. "I'm the finest axeman of my age in the whole of Erebor!"

"Indeed you are, my little Lord," said Nori slyly, "but in the third match you'd be fightin' Dwalin son of Fundin, an' I don't much fancy yer chances."

A groan rose from around the table, and Gimli shook his head. "Alas!" he laughed. "Well, I'd have to bet against myself - and you've already done so well out of me too, you old villain."

"Knew you'd beat Lóni," Nori said in satisfaction. "All right, boys, pay up."

With some grumbling, the assembled drinkers handed Nori a few coins. "Thanking you kindly," he said, grinning broadly. Biting hard on one, he nodded and then slipped them into a pocket. Sitting himself down at the table, he eased his metal leg out in front of him and a knife abruptly appeared in his hands. He absently spun it around his fingers as he raised his braided eyebrows, now liberally streaked with grey. "Well, my brave lads? Not taking me up on my very generous odds?"

Gimli took another sip of his ale and licked the foam from his moustache. "Me, fight Dwalin? You've got to be joking. He taught me most of what I know. I'd be warg-food before the day was out."

"You'd be warg-food before the minute was out," said a Dwarf, and Gimli puffed out his chest in indignation.

"I'll have you know I'd last at least twenty." He suddenly grinned. "Seconds."

The table roared with laughter, and Gimli was nudged and slapped on the back. Nori lifted an eyebrow at his red and wind-burned cheeks, and tugged on one of the braids of his beard. "You're going to want something on that face of yours," he said.

"Like a bag," sniggered a Dwarf, and Gimli kicked him under the table.

"What," said Hrera with massive dignity, "am I missing? Because what I can see is your third cousin once-removed drinking in a shoddy little tavern with his rowdy friends."

"Is that what we are?" Thorin said, looking at Gimli with some surprise. "Third cousins. Indeed."

"Thorin, darling," Hrera said with a warning in her tone.

He looked back at his grandmother, taking in her tapping foot and the glint in her hazel eyes. "Nori was one of my Company," he said simply, and her face immediately softened.

"Oh, I see," she said, and looked back to where the thief was amusing the lads with knife tricks. "He lost that leg at the Battle, then?"


"I'm sorry, my dear." She patted his cheek comfortingly and sighed. "Oh, you stone-faced Durin men. If you would only say!"

"Grandmother," he growled, and she simply laughed and tweaked his cheek some more.

"Here now, what's this about your brother, Nori?" called one of the youngsters, and the call was echoed by several around the table.

Nori rolled his eyes dramatically. "Do you mean the mother-hen or the scribbler?"

"Dori, of course – is it true?"

"Which part?"

"That he punched out the head of the Miner's Guild in order to become Guildmaster, and broke his jaw!"

"Oh that," Nori said dismissively. "Yeah."

There was a wistful silence, and Thorin covered a smile. Dori would be the first High Guildmaster who was not of the Miners or Smiths Guilds in over five hundred years.

"Oh, don't look so stunned, Dori only broke his jaw a little bit," said Nori. "He'll have to get a couple o' gold teeth too, but it's not like he got his throat slit or nuffin'."

A little sigh echoed around the table, and Thorin shook his head at their longing expressions. His weaver companion was the epitome of Dwarven male beauty, after all, with his silvery hair, classic Stiffbeard nose, thick legs and stout frame. Unfortunately for his many admirers, he was one of the many Dwarrows whose heart was given to their craft. Dori loved his weaving, his brothers, his wines and his tea, and had as much interest in romance as he had in cross-country skiing. Furthermore, he had a punch like a charging oliphaunt.

"Nori, please don't take this the wrong way," said one of the Dwarrows, a trifle dreamily, "but your brother is a gold vein in a mud mine."

"I'll tell him you said so, shall I?" Nori said pleasantly, beginning to clean his nails with his knife.

"Ah, how much do I have to give you not to?"

Nori grinned wickedly. "Let's see your money and I'll name my price."

"You idiots really need to find a new obsession," snorted Thorin – and Gimli chuckled under his breath.

"Tell him, and we'll have Ori, my father and uncle, my cousins, Bofur and probably even Bombur down here to glare at you and cheer Dori on," he said, his eyes dancing with mirth. "I'd like to place a wager, if I may?"

Nori winked at him. "Better believe it, little star. The Company sticks together."

"The Company are weird," said a youngster after a pause.

"That too!" Nori laughed. "Who's for another one then?"

At that moment a remarkably tall and dishevelled Dwarf trudged into the courtyard, his face beet-red and his brown hair dripping from under his helm. "Gimli, you swine!" he roared.

"Hullo, Lóni," said Gimli pleasantly. "Did you enjoy the view from the top of my mountain?"

"I should tear your beard out!" Lóni said, slumping down beside his friend, "but I'm far too tired. Nori, have a heart, an ale please? I will knock some sense into this rogue when I have my breath back."

"Oh, fine words," Gimli mocked him amiably. "You couldn't knock me down with my eyes blindfolded and my hands tied together."

"I should tie your hands together, you wretch," Lóni said gruffly. " 'Gimli son of Glóin, in the year 2968 of our King Dáin II Ironfoot,' carved in runes two hands high into the peak of Erebor! And if that weren't enough, you had to add, 'Lóni son of Laín here suffered a humiliating defeat at his hands.' You son of a mangy orc! I could strangle you!"

"Disgraceful," Hrera said absently. "I'll wager you a silver clasp for one of your daggers, Thorin dear? On Gimli to win, of course."

Thorin was too busy laughing to answer.

"Well, my friend," Dwalin said gruffly to his reflection, tugging at his grey-streaked beard. "Today I'm finally older than you."

Thorin sat beside him. "A hundred and ninety-six. You've beaten me by one. Gamilûn Dwalin, they'll call you."

"A hundred and ninety-six," he sighed, and then he grunted. "Anyone who mocks me had better like the taste o' my knuckles."

Thorin smiled to himself, a small sad smile. "Mukhuh turgizu turug usgin."

"Older than Thorin now." He shook his head. "Ach, Mahal's mighty balls, don't get sentimental," Dwalin growled to himself. "Orla'd tan yer hide if she saw you whining about yer good fortune."

"Dwalin, bâheluh," Thorin said quietly.

They sat together in silence. The pair of them had never cared much for words.

Neither had they ever really needed them in order to speak.

Balin stood straight and proud, his beard bristling. No trace of his usual kindly humour could be seen in his eyes. "It cannot stand," he said in a low, hard voice. "It cannot be tolerated any longer. Let me go, my Lord. I'll take back our ancestral Halls from those orc-scum, and we will have our sacred places again."

"No," Thrór whispered, and either side of him, Thorin and Thráin pressed against his sides, holding him up as he sagged between them. "No, it is folly... such folly. Durin's Bane stalks those halls, and the orcs that slew me grow in numbers. Stop this madness. Stop it I say!"

"Thorin, inùdoy," said Thráin, looking up at his son with pleading eyes. "Don't let that accursed Mine take any more of our people. Don't let it ruin them. Thorin, please."

Thorin met his father's horror-filled gaze and set his jaw. "Aye," he said, and his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and looked over to where Frerin sat, studying his hands with a haunted expression. "Aye, we need no more Azanulbizars."

Dáin straightened on the throne, his manner stern. "We shall have no more Azanulbizars," he said, and Thrór let out a gusty sigh of relief. "Balin, we need your wisdom here. You can't leave me alone to deal with Thranduil and Glóin both."

"Thank Mahal for your gift, m'lad," sighed Thráin, gently cuffing Thorin's head with one great hand.

"We have spilled enough blood trying to retake one home," Thorin said, trying not to look at Frerin. "No more should be spilled to retake another."

Balin's shoulders tensed. "The people speak of it with longing. They whisper that we are growing strong again, strong enough to take back Moria and return it to its glory. King Dáin, our most revered and hallowed Halls, the waking-place of Durin himsel-"

"D'you think I don't know?" Dáin slid down on his throne and rubbed at his brow. The crown had placed a near-permanent dent on either temple, and it looked like it gave him a headache after a few hours of use. Thorin was secretly a little perturbed. Would he have hated it so much?

"My Lord," Balin grated, and Dáin interrupted him with a raised hand.

"Durin's beard, Balin, I can read as well as you can! Yes, Dimrill Dale and the clear waters of Kheled-zâram are barred to us. Yes, the Endless Stair and the mithril mines are lost and in the hands of filth. Yes, the great Halls of Feast and Forge are stolen, and the Seven Levels and Seven Deeps are the home of orcs and monsters. But Balin! We have a home now. Erebor flourishes once again, and the Iron Hills prosper. What did you risk your lives for, if not this?"

"I risked my life for my King. I risked my life because he called," Balin said, drawing himself up and speaking with quiet authority. "Now – now I understand why he wished for this, why he had no other choice. It is a horror than cannot be tolerated, and a shame upon us all."

Dáin sighed. "I am not that King."

Thorin's hand tensed on Thrór's arm. "I did not have the chance to be your King, Balin," he muttered. "I was a warrior first; a soldier who led his people in exile. Statecraft, politics, treaties, compromise, diplomacy – I never practised any of these. Dáin knows more of Kingship than I ever did. Listen to him, not to the memory of my vain pride! Moria is a glittering trap, a fool's hope. Do not do this!"

Thrór shook with anger and long-remembered horror. "Do not do this, son of Fundin," he echoed in a rasping voice.

Dáin slammed his hand against the armrest of the throne. "If the people whisper of Moria with longing, then they also speak of it with dread! It is barely a hundred and seventy years since the head of Thrór was thrown at Nár's feet. Barely a hundred and seventy years since the devastating War between Orcs and Dwarves – an' damned if we haven't fought another great battle since! D'you suppose that we might see at least one generation die peacefully in their beds?" he demanded.

Balin's lips tightened until they were white as his beard. "No Dwarf would choose such a death."

"And yet I would see it happen," Dáin said. "Mahal's bloody hammer, Balin! We have a home, and yet our numbers grow only slowly. No, Balin son of Fundin. I will not approve of Dwarves throwing their lives away."

Thorin watched with a sinking sense of regret as Balin stiffened in outrage. The old advisor turned on his heel and stalked away, and Thráin patted Thorin's shoulder. "Here," he said quietly. "Help me with your grandfather."

Thorin glanced over at his uncharacteristically-still brother, glaring at the backs of his hands. "Frerin..."

"He'll be all right, lad. It takes him like that sometimes." Thráin touched Thorin's shoulder again, and then together they pulled Thrór back to his feet.

Chapter Text

Thorin had been dead for thirty-eight years.

The preparations for Gimli's hundredth birthday had been lavish. Glóin spared no expense for his beloved star, and the gifts were everything a young warrior could want.

Thorin made a special point of witnessing the lad's celebration. Fíli and Kíli spent all their time gawking at Gimrís, and Frerin did naught but complain that he couldn't drink the very fine spirit Bilbo had sent from the Shire for the occasion. Bifur was entertaining himself by walking through people. It was a very unnerving sight.

Balin gave him a fine new brigandine, the shoulders decorated with golden-plated mail, the links embossed with the ancient patterns for the Line of Durin and for the Longbeards. Gimli's eyes glowed with appreciation at the work, and he put it on immediately. Dwalin gave the lad a helm to match, with fierce cheek-guards and golden knotwork. Dáin gifted him a full hauberk of steel mail, and Gimli exclaimed loudly as he lifted it. It was no new work – the mail was obviously from the treasure of Thrór. He eventually found the maker's mark, and sat down sharply. It had been made by none other than Náin II, his royal ancestor. Dís handed it to him, as Dáin could not leave the evening audiences until much later.

"I cannot accept this," he breathed. "It is too much!"

"You can and will, little star," Dís said, shaking her head affectionately. "You would be foolish not to! Now, here is my gift, and Mahal's blessing on your naming day."

"Thank you, Aunt Dís," he said, dazed as he accepted it. The bag fell away to reveal a pair of very familiar throwing axes. He looked up, his eyes wide and white. She smiled.

"Fíli would like you to have them, no doubt," she said.

Behind her, Fíli's shoulders straightened. "Yes, he'll use them," he said to himself. "They'll serve him well, I think."

Gimli looked back down at the axes, and then carefully slipped them into his boots and stood. "Thank you," he said, and swallowed.

"Don't try running with them for too long," Fíli said to his cousin. "You'll scrape all the skin off your ankles!"

The Ri Brothers had banded together and had made him a beautiful warm woollen travelling surcoat with a matching pair of trousers. The stitching around the edges was hardy and strong, and the colour was a warm rusty brown that made the red of his beard appear brighter. "Thank you!" Gimli said, and held it up to admire the gold thread interwoven through the edges.

"Here now," said Bombur. "This is from all o' us."

His wife Alrís was a tanner, and she had made Gimli a tooled leather belt with crossed straps for the new throwing axes. Gimli made a wordless sound of delight as he pulled it on over his new brigandine and belted it firmly. "You have all been in league with each other, I see! Now I am kitted from head to toe!"

"Not quite, my son," said Glóin with a fond smile. "Here."

Gimli's face lit up with joy and love when his father handed over his axes, with his blessing. "Truly?" the lad – well, he could no longer in any way be called a lad – breathed.

"Wield them well, my son," Glóin said, and bent to press his leonine head against Gimli's. "Proud of you, nidoy."

"Thank you, 'adadel," Gimli said in a voice that was tight with pride and happiness. "Thank you."

Gimrís, ninety-two years old and as stunning as the sun, made a noise in the back of her throat. "Well, here," she said brusquely, handing over a package. "I made it."

Gimli took the package and unwrapped it carefully. Revealed was an exquisite glass goblet with Gimli's name etched on the base in Cirth, and a pattern of stars around the rim encrusted in diamonds as small as the tip of a needle. "Gimrís," he said in awe. "You made this?"

She bristled. "What, are you calling me a liar?"

"No, no!" he laughed, and tugged her close for a hug. "It is glorious, a masterwork! You could gain your mastery with this, and you give it to me?"

"Well," she said, uncomfortable in his embrace, "I suppose you're not completely awful."

He rolled his eyes, and then he leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Namadith. You're not always a brat."

"That's as close as they'll ever get, I suppose," Mizim said with a sigh, dabbing at her eyes.

Gimli held up his goblet proudly. "Do you see what my sister has made? Isn't it remarkable?"

"Now, there's a piece of work," said Bombur. "Look, Alrís! Come see what Gimli has!"

"A moment, dear, Albur has gotten into the roast boar and is trying to make himself sick by eating the whole thing himself," Alrís called back cheerfully, bustling after her brood. "ALBUR SON OF BOMBUR, GET YOURSELF DOWN HERE THIS MINUTE!"

Alrís, daughter of Gerís. Doll created by godofmischieffoal.

"It's a fine piece, Miss Gimrís," said Bombur, giving her an awkward little bow. It was becoming harder and harder for poor Bombur to walk. His injury and age were beginning to catch up to him. Eventually, Thorin feared, the large friendly Dwarf would become restricted to a chair.

"My lad!" Óin roared effusively, coming to grab Gimli's shoulders. It seemed he had been sampling the ales a little too freely, and his beaming face was flushed. He weaved on the spot as he stood, his knees loose and wobbly. "Nidoyel, may yer beard grow ever longer and longer, my nephew, khuzd belkul, our grumpy little Gimli! A hundred years old! Ach, Glóin, Mizim, you remember the day this one came a-squallin' into the world? I knew then we'd have a fighter on our hands - and what a voice! A set o' lungs on the bairn that echoed even in my ears!"

"Aye, and is that why you dropped him?" Glóin said, his eyebrow arching. Mizim folded her arms, her eyes glinting rather dangerously. Óin let go of Gimli's shoulders like hot coals.

"Ah, er..."

"Óin dropped the baby?" said Bombur incredulously.

"Aye, right on his precious wee head. Lucky he's a Dwarf, or it could have hurt him!"

"Lucky he landed on his head, you mean," Gimrís said. "Did the floor tiles crack?"

Gimli scowled at her.

"He wouldn't stop wriggling!" Óin said. "I hadn't delivered a babby before. He was the first – I was nervous!"

Mizim made an incredulous noise at the back of her throat, and both eyebrows lifted almost to her hairline. "You were nervous!?"

"All that red hair, just like our ma," Óin said, his face creasing fondly in remembrance. "He weren't impressed with his first look at the world, and he sure let me know it. What a set o' lungs!"

"All right, you can stop now," Gimli said crossly.

"You pair were no help at all," said Mizim, shaking her head and laughing. "Y' hadn't finished with me, and there you were dropping the baby!"

Gimli rolled his eyes to the ceiling, before covering his face with both hands and groaning loudly.

"Poor little mite, dropped on his head - an' Mizim swearin' a blue streak an' all, an' Glóin about to faint wi' first-time-father jitters," Óin crooned, patting the mortified Gimli's cheek. "Still, it didn't faze him at all! He just roared at me some more, an' when I picked him back up he straightaway soiled himself all down the front o' my apron t' teach me a lesson."

Kíli and Frerin caught each other's expressions and exploded into howls of laughter.

"Please," Gimli said very stiffly. "Stop."

Gimrís was trying in vain to muffle her snickers by biting down on her hand. Gimli scowled at her. "You wait til it's your turn. Eight years, sister. Watch your back."

"Aye, not long until you've reached your centenary, little lass," said Glóin, smiling at her.

She tossed her head. "If you tell such stories about me, I'll put an emetic in your food."

"Tell such stories about who?" Bofur said as he came towards them, smiling. "Did I miss a joke?"

"About our fiery lass here," said Óin. "My niece Gimrís."

"Oh right, forgot you had a..." Bofur trailed off as he turned to Gimrís, and his eyes widened hugely. "Niece."

Gimrís eyed Bofur right back, her lower lip slack and her usually sarcastic expression strangely young and open. Glóin and Mizim both took a step back, eyes narrowing. Bombur's mouth dropped open in astonishment as the two continued to stare at each other.

Kíli glanced between them, and then he whimpered, "Oh no!"

Óin carried on blithely. "Oh, aye! She's a glassblower, you know, an' she's been workin' with me at the healin' school. A right proper apprentice she is! An', of course, I don't have to pay so much for the glasses and jars we need, which is not t' be sneezed at. A penny saved is... well, it's saved, an' that's good eh?"

"Your niece," Bofur said, his voice oddly weak.

"Gimrís, aye." Óin squinted at Bofur. "I'm sure you've met."

Gimrís nodded her head. "Yes, we did," she said, and she bit down on her lip. "I was a child."

He laughed softly. "You beat me at conkers."

She laughed too, her cheeks faintly reddening. "You look different."

"You're not in your travelling things," he said, and then he smiled. "You grew up."

She dropped her exquisite eyes. "I'm ninety-two now."

"And I saw her first!" Fíli snapped. "Thorin, tell him to keep his grubby hands to himself!"

Thorin shook his head. "Not for all the world."

"If you do," Bifur added, his face alive with gladness, "I will knock out every one of your teeth."

Bofur's breath caught, and then he smiled, though there was no happiness in it. "Well, it's a celebration to remember, don't you think? You must be proud o' your brother. Hope you've been able t' chat to someone more interestin' than these old men."

"You're not old," she said quickly – too quickly.

"Hundred an' sixty-one," Bofur mumbled, still staring at Gimrís. "Old enough."

"That's not old," she said, smiling gently at him, her lovely face aglow.

"Khuzd tada bijebî âysîthi mud oshmâkhî dhi zurkur ughvashâhu, oh, never thought I would live to see the day," Bifur said happily.

"You didn't," said Fíli sourly.

"Oh, hush," Thorin told his grousing nephews, a lump in his throat. "Bofur is falling in love, his dearest wish, and they have the time to be together. That is no small thing."

Fíli looked back at Thorin, and then his eyes softened in understanding.

"What in the name of Durin?" Gimli said to himself, his nose wrinkling. Then his breath caught and he looked back at his sister in shock.

"Don't interfere," Thorin said to him sternly. "This is something Bofur has longed for. I would see him happy."

Gimli made a confused little sound under his breath, and then shook his head and wandered off in search of his friends.

"D'you want an ale then?" Bofur blurted, and then he pulled his hat down over his eyes. "Mahal save us, that was embarrassing. Oh, I'm babbling somethin' awful. Don't listen to me."

She laughed again and took his arm, threading her hand through the crook of his elbow. "No, don't be embarrassed. You're ridiculous."

He groaned.

She pinched his elbow and smiled gently. "And it's charming. I like it."

Bofur made a squashed-animal noise, and Thorin chuckled.

Gimrís chuckled as well, though she sounded rather nervous. She tipped her vibrant head, her eyes shining and her cheeks still tinted pink. "Um. Bofur? I - I'd love an ale, please."

Bofur peeked out from under his hat to gawk at her hand resting upon his arm with a stunned expression, and then he smiled so brightly that Thorin actually ached to see it. As Bofur led Gimrís away to the barrels, he sighed deeply. "At least one of us will see their wish fulfilled, my friend," he murmured. "I wish you all the luck in the world."

"You sentimental old thing," Frerin sniggered, poking his side. Thorin ignored him with as much dignity as he could muster – which was a lot.

Glóin drew Mizim aside. "Did what I just think happened actually happen?"

"You've got eyes," she said under her breath. "Yes, our daughter is diving headlong into courting faster than a dropped hammer, and you, you old bear, are going to respect her wishes and leave Bofur alone, d'you hear?"

"I wouldn't hurt him!" he protested. "He's of the Company! I'd just... I'd just scare him a little."

"You won't shame our daughter that way," she hissed. "It's her life to do with as she pleases. We'll support her. Bofur's a good Dwarf. Great Mahal, Glóin, you've known him for forty years!"

"He's seventy years her senior," he grumbled.

"And that's nothing. Alrís is forty years older than Bombur! For heavens' sake, King Dáin is that much older than Queen Thira!"

"I don't like it," Glóin said, and aimed a glare in Bofur's direction.

"You don't have to," she said, and pinched his chin, turning his head back to face her. "Gimrís does. I know you're a protective old bear, Glóin, but you're going to have to let go of her eventually."

He scowled, and then he sagged. "Aye. Just didn't think it'd be so soon."

"She's been of age for twenty-two years, you sweet old fool," Mizim said gently. "Come now. Today is for Gimli. We can forge the path for our daughter another day."

Glóin took her hand and kissed it, before tucking it against his chest. "Aye," he said heavily. "Aye, my jewel." Then he grunted. "Better Bofur than a few others I could name."

"That's the spirit," she said, and kissed him.

Thorin watched them go, and then his attention was caught by a crowd of Dwarves all whispering in hushed and excited voices, their heads close. Gimli was amongst them, drinking ale from his beautiful new goblet. His old teacher Náli and his dear friend Lóni were also with them, and Lóni's new husband Frár was a silent rock at his side.

To Thorin's surprise, Ori was also there. The scribe was very rarely free of his many duties to Dáin or to the records. Dáin must have given him the evening to attend the celebration.

"...Flói says that their numbers are much reduced," one of them was saying as Thorin approached. "We could take it back! Imagine it!"

Gimli frowned. "The battle was nigh forty years ago."

This was waved away. "Dáin will not give us leave willingly," said another. "But I hear Lord Balin means to start a colony with whomever will go!"

Thorin's blood froze in his veins.

"The orcs can't possibly have repopulated the Misty Mountains so quickly," Frár said in his deep, quiet voice. "We must take this chance to seize what is ours."

"How many are going?" Gimli asked.

"About sixty, sixty-five so far," said Náli, the old white-haired training-master.

"Too many," Thorin whispered. "One Dwarf is too many, let alone sixty-five!"

Gimli frowned.

"We have Lord Balin!" said Lóni with satisfaction. "Where he leads, many will follow. Everyone knows how wise that one is."

"Except when he lets his damn-fool love of tradition get the better of him!" Thorin said, his anger rising.

"Are you all set on it?" Gimli asked, taking a sip of his ale.

"Aye," said Náli.

Gimli's eyebrows shot up. "Ori?"

"I'm going," Ori said calmly. He was little-changed physically from the Dwarf who had blustered and fretted in Bilbo's dining room so long ago, but his manner was vastly different. This Ori was less innocent and a great deal more confident. Thorin wished that one had not come at the expense of the other. "It's an opportunity a scribe and historian can't possibly pass up."

"It would be something indeed to see the wonders of Khazad-dûm," said Gimli thoughtfully.

"No, cousin!" Thorin all but shouted. "Do not go to that cursed place!"

"The wonders we will see," said Lóni wistfully. "Walking in the footsteps of Durin himself. The Endless Stair, the Seven Levels and the Seven Deeps, the Halls of Feast and Forge..."

"The Balrog," Thorin spat.

Gimli's shoulders tensed. "Aye, but what of Durin's Bane?"

Many faces blanched, but several Dwarves scoffed loudly. "An ancient thing long turned to dust! We have naught to fear from old tales!"

"We reclaimed Erebor from a dragon," Ori said, the corners of his mouth tilting. "Thirteen Dwarves and a Hobbit. I learned, y'know, what it is to have a cause, and the nerve to back it. You just got to get a bit o' iron in your spine."

"Ori," Thorin said helplessly, and then he scrubbed his face with his hands. "No, not Ori. Youngest of us all, little Ori in your knitted gloves... Ori, you are but a hundred and eleven! I cannot... Ori, in Moria, your brothers..."

"Frár?" asked Náli, his old white chin thrust out in challenge.

"Where Lóni goes, I go," Frár said simply.

"Gimli, will you go with us?" Lóni said, grabbing Gimli's arm, his eyes alight with excitement. "Just think – we will reclaim our ancient home, you and I!"

"Kinsman," Thorin said wretchedly. "Please, Gimli. Please. You have only just reached your first century. I would see you reach another naming day – I would see you reach a grand old age and find the peace and happiness I could not. Gimli, son of Glóin, you are his star! Your mother and sister would weep. Dís would be devastated. Gimli, ikhuzh! Please, do not do this! Please – pride is the most foolish of reasons to die!"

Gimli's head lowered and he took a deep breath before letting it out slowly. "I do not fear the darkness," he said. "I do not fear the deeps of Moria. I would look upon the Endless Stair with my own eyes, and see the Halls of Feast and Forge, and gaze from the bridge of Khazad-dûm into the Unending Chasm."

"Then come with us!" Lóni said. "Frár and I will go, and Ori will join us. Flói is coming, and Náli! I hear Balin is even trying to recruit some others of the Company. It just needs you, Gimli – we could do with your axe and your laughter by our side!"

Gimli wetted his lips, and Thorin's heart pounded loudly in his ears. "Cousin," he said again, "cousin, I would not see you lose your bright young life and wake in these cold Halls. Not again. Not if I could help it. You are dear to me, azaghîth, little warrior. I could not bear to see you die."

It was a sobering realisation. He was fond of Gimli, and the thought of losing him was a hammer-blow to the stomach. The lad had first been simply a curiosity; a brash, loud, boisterous youngster who heard Thorin's voice better than any other Dwarf, and there ended his use to him. Then Thorin had found him distracting, a balm against the crushing boredom of death and the depressing gloom of newly-reclaimed Erebor. Then he had been amusing, and Thorin had begun to look forward to his antics and merry laughter.

At some point in those thirty-eight years, Thorin had come to love the lad. He'd watched him grow from an impulsive and rambunctious adolescent to a poetic, insightful, witty, faithful, and steady Dwarrow. Gimli was dear to him. He could not be prouder of his achievements if he had accomplished them himself.

"Gimli," Thorin said in a low, pleading voice. "Inùdoy."

Gimli took another sip of his ale and licked his moustache clean. Then he set his goblet down on a table and turned back to Lóni. "I will stay here," he said finally. "Perhaps one day I will visit your colony. But my heart still belongs to my family and to the Mountain. After all, is it not mine? It's got my name written at its peak; I can't very well leave it for some other Dwarf to claim!"

Lóni looked disappointed. "I cannot convince you? Your uncle seems interested..."

"Aye, well, my uncle is more than a little deep in his cups," Gimli laughed, and clapped Lóni's back. "Ask him again when he is sober!"

Not long after Gimli's nameday, Dwalin was completely blindsided by a proposal of courtship from his deputy, the stony, severe Orla. He had been so surprised he actually said yes.

Orla, by Jeza-Red

Thorin was mystified. He never would have considered his old friend and cousin as a prospective partner to anyone at all, and had long thought Dwalin totally devoted to his warcraft and soldiery. At first glance Orla appeared much the same. She had a dark grim face which showed no signs of ever smiling, rough warrior's hands suited to wielding an axe or spear, a shock of wild Blacklock hair tied in a utilitarian topknot, and a level stare that could cut through steel.

To Thorin's astonishment, they appeared to be quite content. Neither was terribly demonstrative, neither liked to waste words, and they were both dedicated warriors. Together they were quiet and tender, compared to the steely, stern mask they had to present to their soldiers.

One of Dwalin's troops made the mistake of joking about the relationship.

No-one made that mistake ever again.

Upon a cold night three years after Gimli's centenary and almost forty-one years after the death of Smaug, Thorin entered the pool of Gimlîn-zâram to sit by his dearest friend's side. He could not reach out and steady Dwalin's shoulder, but he hoped his words could reach out and steady his nerves.

"Strength to you, Dwalin," he murmured. "My right hand, you have never lacked courage. It will be fine; you'll see."

Dwalin bunched his tattooed fists against his knees and stared at the fire, unmoving.

Finally Óin pushed the door open with his shoulder, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses. "All right, you can stop yer frettin; here's who was makin' all the commotion," he said, smiling.

Dwalin accepted the squalling bundle, his huge hands awkward and shaking, his face awed and white. Óin patted his shoulder.

"A healthy boy," he said simply. Dwalin's one good eye began to glisten and his face began to crumple as he stared down into the face of his son.

"Congratulations, my friend," Thorin said. "He's a handsome lad. Thank goodness he looks nothing like you."

Dwalin looked up. "Orla?"

"She's fine. Recovering beautifully," Óin reassured him, and Dwalin looked down at the boy again. His hands trembled as they examined the tiny little hands, the downy little chin, the squashed nose and red face with its soft chubby cheeks. A shock of dark brown hair graced the baby's head, almost reminiscent of Dwalin's old mohawk.

"Hello, my boy," he said softly. "Hello Thorin, son of Dwalin."

"Oh, you did not," said Thorin in disgust.

Five years after the birth of Wee Thorin (as he was now commonly known), Nori died.

It had been sudden. A game in his tavern went awry, and with his missing leg he did not move in time. The Ironfist Dwarf plunged his knife straight into Nori's throat, and he died almost immediately, a look of shock and irritation on his face.

"You bloody stupid noble twit," were Nori's first words to Thorin, and he lowered his head and laughed softly.

"Aye, guilty as charged. But at least I wasn't killed over a rigged game of conkers."

"Don't mention that game," Nori snapped, and then reached out blindly to grasp Thorin's hand. Thorin took it firmly, and then dragged the thief into a hug.

"Welcome, Nori son of Zhori."

"Tashf!" Bifur snapped, and then launched himself at Nori and wrapped him in his arms. Nori gasped as all the air was knocked out of him.

"Mahal below, what the..." he choked."Bifur, hang on a bleedin' second, let a body get his breaf back..."

"He's a little excited to see you," said Fíli dryly.

"Nah, really? Do tell," Nori managed.

"D'you think he'll do that to each one of the Company as they arrive?" Kíli wondered.

"Yes," Bifur said emphatically. "I will, and stop talking about me as if I weren't here."

"Wait a mo, he's speaking in Westron...!"

"He does that now," Kíli said. "It's getting him to stop that's the trick. Hello Nori!"

"Hello, my likely lads, and don't you sound fine. I don't suppose you two boys can tell me where a Dwarf can find a tavern in the afterlife? Dying really takes it out of you, and I'd like to put it back, if you get my drift."

"Everything you could ever want is here," Fíli said expansively, slapping Nori's back. Nori made to brace himself, but then seemed to remember that he had both legs, and relaxed.

"Except the obvious," Kíli added.

"Well, I'd like a ticket back to all my lovely money. Me dears, I seem to suddenly be a little embarrassed in the ol' funds department. You wouldn't begrudge your old mate Nori a drink, would you?"

Thorin rubbed his temples, understanding Dori's frustrations for the first time. Nori was picking Bifur's pocket by feel, even as they spoke. Not even dying could change him.

Dead, yes. Retired? Never.

There was a surprise in store for Thorin the next day when he paid his regular morning visit to Bilbo.

"Who in Mahal's name is that!?" he snapped the minute he laid eyes on the young lad. He was barely grown, probably still underage, and his curly hair was quite dark though his complexion was very pale. He had large blue eyes and a vaguely sad air. Two heavy bags were looped over his shoulders.

"Frodo?" Bilbo said, leading the way into Bag End with a satchel in his arms. "Frodo, m'lad, did you want to choose your room first?"

The young Hobbit nodded silently, and followed Bilbo through the smial towards the bedrooms. Thorin followed, fuming.

"Is this one all right?" the boy said, opening a door. Bilbo beamed, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling. Thorin wanted to trace them with his fingers, to kiss them and feel them pucker beneath his lips as Bilbo laughed.

He wanted to know who that young whelp was, following Bilbo around like a lost puppy!

"Any one you like, dear boy," Bilbo said. "That one is a particularly good room if I do say so myself. It was mine until I grew up, you know, and it has a tremendously useful loose floorboard underneath the bed. Good for all sorts of things, that."

The boy looked confused, as though hearing such things out of the mouths of adults was not something he was used to. "You... don't mind me having a secret hiding place?"

"Heavens no, Frodo m'boy. I have so many secrets they positively leak out of my ears; why in the world would I mind you having secrets of your own? Come on, put your bags down, and let's go see about elevensies, shall we?"

Frodo put his bags down on the bed gingerly. Thorin scowled at him.

Bilbo tossed the satchel onto the bed almost as an afterthought, and put a friendly arm around Frodo's shoulders. "Now, it might be a bit quiet here after Brandy Hall, I'm sure. There's only me, and I'm an odd old duck and very set in my ways. We'll just have to get used to each other."

Frodo was staring with puzzled fascination at all the maps and pictures on the walls as Bilbo led him down a corridor. Thorin stamped after them, his face a thundercloud.

"What's that?" Frodo said, awed, as they turned a corner and a picture of Rivendell was revealed directly opposite.

"Hmm? Oh, that's the valley of Imladris, my boy. I used to visit now and then; practice my Sindarin, you understand. Although I'm sure Elladan was making fun of my accent last time."

"Rivendell!" Frodo took a step forward out from underneath Bilbo's arm, his large blue eyes wide. "Do you think I will ever see it?"

Thorin folded his arms and glared at the back of the boy's head.

Bilbo laughed, tugging Frodo away. "Perhaps, perhaps! For the meantime, I'd much prefer to see the kettle boiling!"

Thorin watched Bilbo putter around his kitchen as the boy studied the picture further. Forty-eight years after the Battle of Five Armies, and Bilbo had not aged very much at all. His hair had turned flyaway and greyish but it was still as full and curly as ever, and his face was a little lined but not parchment-thin, spotted or soft with the passage of time. He was still quite sprightly, especially for a Hobbit that was fast approaching a hundred years old.

"There's muffins in the pantry, Frodo!" Bilbo called to the lad in the hallway, and the boy blinked, shaking himself out of his fascination with the (blasted, cursed) Elves' sanctuary.

"Yes, Uncle Bilbo!" Frodo said with one last longing look at Rivendell, before racing down the corridor. Thorin's lips parted on a soft breath of surprise.

Then he berated himself for an idiot and a fool.

"An uncle?" He turned to Bilbo. "I didn't know you had siblings. How could I not know that about you?"

He was a little disconcerted. Thorin wanted to know everything about Bilbo. Everything. He could not fulfil his promise otherwise.

Bilbo hummed under his breath as he put together the table, pulling milk and sugar out of his cold-store and taking down a jar of biscuits. Then he leaned on his kitchen table. The veneer of energy washed away, and Thorin could see just how tired his Hobbit looked.

"It's the right thing to do," Bilbo said to himself, and he touched the second place setting with a gentle forefinger, a pensive little smile crossing his lips. "Poor lad, he was lost amongst all those hooligan Brandybucks. He's an adventuresome and clever young Hobbit, and he deserves better than to be all on his own in the middle of a crowd. My cousins would want me to provide for him, and who better to inherit this old place?"

"A cousin then," Thorin murmured, and then he smiled. "And confusion to the Sackville-Bagginses."

Bilbo's smile widened and he dropped his head and snickered against his chest. "Ha! Lobelia will beat me about the head with her umbrella when she hears the news."

"The blueberry muffins, Uncle Bilbo?" came a shout from the hallway.

"That's right!" Bilbo shook himself out of his reverie. "And if you wouldn't mind, do pick up a cheese and perhaps some of the raspberry preserves. I have some lovely bread from Michel Delving, and I think we should make a little party of it, don't you? We can celebrate you coming to live with me!"

Frodo returned with his arms laden, and the two Hobbits set their food out as the kettle began to whistle. Thorin hovered over Bilbo's shoulder, watching as his little knife sliced through tomatoes and pickles with practiced ease. He'd long grown used to seeing Bilbo's proficiency in the kitchen, though it never failed to make his mouth quirk. Why was one blade so different to another? Perhaps he should have suggested that the Burglar dice his enemies.

"There!" Bilbo brought over the tomatoes and pickles along with a little dollop of relish and the cheese. "Quite a feast! Shall we?"

Frodo carefully wrapped a potholder around his hand and brought over the kettle, and Bilbo lifted the teapot lid for him to add the water. Then the two of them settled in, and Thorin resigned himself to waiting. Nothing interrupted a Hobbit at mealtimes.

Eventually Bilbo pushed his plate back and sighed in contentment. Thorin was pleased to see that he had eaten more this time than he had previously. For a Hobbit, Bilbo had remained strangely thin and his appetite had never quite recovered after his 'adventure'. "Now, Frodo-lad," he said, picking up his cup of tea. "I'm not going to insist on any sort of rules or anything silly like that. At twenty-one you're quite old enough to decide for yourself what you want to do, and you're a sensible sort. Besides, as I said, I'm rather odd and old and set in my ways. We'll sort it out as we go, what do you say?"

Frodo's blue eyes lifted from his plate, his mouth full. He swallowed hurriedly. "Yes, Uncle Bilbo."

"Good lad! I'm sure we'll be able to make room for each other's little peculiarities. I do have a few requests, if that is all right?"

"Um. Yes?" Frodo looked slightly lost, and Thorin realised that the boy wasn't used to having his opinion sought after. He folded his arms with a grunt of approval. Bilbo would be good for him.

"Eat whenever you're hungry, and don't bother with permission! You're welcome to any room in the smial, and you and your friends may explore as much as you like. Only, if I'm in my study, please try to keep the noise to a dull roar? And don't mess up the order of the papers on my desk! I know it looks like pandemonium, but it's actually a very careful system. I know where everything is, and everything is where I want it. Um. Oh yes! Rummage about as much as you like. I've got lots of curious little things from my travels. Most of them have a story attached and I'm not shy about telling them, so come and ask! I dare say I have too many belongings, so if you break anything you'll be doing me a great favour. If you'd like to read anything, don't hesitate! Any of the books are yours to go through. I have some lovely books, you know."

"I saw," Frodo said, fidgeting with the tablecloth. "Most of them are in Elvish."

Bilbo blinked, the teacup halfway to his mouth. Then he put it down in the saucer with a click! "Bless me, of course! You can't read Elvish, can you? Well, would you like to?"

Frodo's eyes widened to impossible size, and then he nodded quickly. "Oh, yes please!"

Thorin made a thoroughly irritated noise under his breath. "Ach, khuthûzh!" he growled, and gritted his teeth.

Bilbo raised an eyebrow. "If I were able, I'd teach you more than just Sindarin, Frodo-lad, but I'm afraid my Quenya is rather shoddy and I never learned more than a few words of Khuzdul. Mostly swearing, which is unfortunate."

"What's... Khuz...?" Frodo looked awed.

"Khuzdul," Bilbo corrected him. "The secret language of the Dwarves. Don't let them know I know!"

Frodo laughed delightedly. "Uncle Bilbo! When will I ever get to meet a Dwarf? I'm just a Hobbit!"

Bilbo sobered quickly, and he put his hand over Frodo's. "Frodo Baggins," he said, his face very, very serious. "There is no such thing as just a Hobbit."

"Oh, you know," Frodo said, and squirmed uncomfortably at Bilbo's sudden, piercing attention. "I'm just Frodo. I'm not anyone special."

Bilbo squeezed Frodo's hand sharply. "My dear lad," he said solemnly, "I'm just Bilbo Baggins, and Bilbo Baggins is just a Hobbit. And I am telling you right now, Frodo m'boy, that there is more to Hobbits than anyone ever expects."

Thorin smiled to himself. "Even stubborn, blind, arrogant Dwarves."

"Even idiots with their great heads stuffed firmly up their backsides," added Bilbo, his mouth twitching. Thorin started in surprise, and then shook his head, laughing softly beneath his breath.

"Blasted creature." How he wished... oh, how he wished. His arms ached to hold the infuriating little Burglar. He wanted to touch Bilbo's curly hair, and to feel those nimble little hands against the nape of his neck. He longed to kiss that quick and clever mouth, to nip that sharp tongue with his teeth. "Blasted, ridiculous, absurd Hobbit."

"I dare say you'll know plenty of folk who will tell you otherwise," Bilbo continued. "Ignore them. You can meet Wizards and Elves and Men and perhaps even Dwarves if you want to, and never mind what the narrow-minded have to say! The world is very big and full of wonderful things, Frodo-lad, and we are very small. But small can make a big difference, I have found.

"So keep that head high! You are a fine Hobbit, and that is no bad thing to be." Bilbo patted Frodo's hand once more, and then sipped his tea. "Oh, drat, it's cold. Well, that will teach me to wax philosophical during elevensies; I must remember not to do it again."

Both Frodo and Thorin laughed, and Bilbo smiled at the boy, pleased he had made him more cheerful. "You'll forget," Thorin told him fondly.

"Fine, so I may forget," Bilbo conceded. "I'm old. I'm allowed a little forgetfulness here and there."

"You're not that old, are you Uncle?" Frodo asked.

"Old enough, and I'll thank you not to ask cheeky questions!"

"...And if you please, Great Maker, I'd be personally obliged if you'd see your way to having a Hobbit live here in the Halls. He's a nice Hobbit, and he doesn't smell or anything. I told you about him last time. And the time before that. And the time before that. And the time before that..."

"I recall."

"He doesn't take up any room hardly at all, and he's got nice hair, and he has even less beard than me. Frankly we could do with a few more clean-shaven fellows around to make me feel better. Why did you make me with such a bare face? It's so embarrassing!"

"If I gave you a beard, would you leave me alone?!"

"Oh! Oh... difficult choice. No, no – Uncle Thorin first. I'm a loyal Dwarrow, and he deserves to be happy. I hope he knows what a supreme sacrifice I'm making for him."


Chapter Text

The first was Flói, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped.

"Such fools," he whispered, and his voice was hoarse and full of horror. "We are such fools. Blinded to everything but our pride..."

It was as though Flói's arrival was the leak that began a flood.

Dwarf after Dwarf, pale-faced and shaking, woke up in the Halls of Mahal. Their useless, blind eyes all stared in terror, each telling the same story.

"They cannot get out!" screamed a Dwarrow named Kúlin as he woke, and his shouts rang through the Halls, echoing over the ringing of hammers. "They cannot get out! They cannot get out!"

Thorin held onto Fíli and Kíli's hands as tightly as he dared. Frerin clung to Frís, his head in her lap and his eyes haunted. She stroked his hair gently and sang to him. He stared ahead as though he could not hear anything but Kúlin's desperate cry.

Dwarf after Dwarf after Dwarf...

Thráin took up a battle axe and hurled himself against the walls, roaring with old, old outrage and fear. A flicker of madness danced in his eyes, and his open mouth did not form the shape of a roar, but of a scream. Thrór wept soundlessly into his beard. Hrera clasped his head tightly to hers, her eyes also wet as she murmured to him in a voice too soft to hear.

Dwarf after Dwarf after Dwarf after Dwarf...

"We found Durin's Axe," said one in hollow, empty tones. "We found Durin's Axe."

He did not need to name its price.

Too many, too many in rapid succession. Thorin squeezed his eyes shut and begged Mahal to watch over them. His children were lost in darkness too deep even for Dwarves, and they could not get out.

Balin's kindly face was creased in sorrow and guilt, and when he heard Thorin's voice he crumpled like a puppet whose strings had been cut. "My fault," he gasped, his sightless eyes filled with guilt. "Thorin, laddie, how can I go on? It is my fault, I led them to that place! How can I go on?"

"As I did," Thorin said low, and pulled him to his feet. Balin's fingers clutched at him, trembling and clawlike. "As I did. We go on because there is no other choice."

"There was a choice!" Balin cried, and Thorin held his old advisor close and wrapped his arms around him as tightly as he dared. Balin wept and wept until his voice cracked.

"My fault," he croaked.

"You could not know, any more than I did," Thorin said, and Balin's face twisted.

"Don't you dare make excuses for me, Thorin Oakenshield," he rasped, utter self-contempt making his voice harsh and biting. "I thought I could see the beauty of Kheled-zâram and the wonders of the Dale without reckoning upon the Orcs. Five years only - and an arrow in the back! Two hundred years ago I fought in that very place alongside you. I saw what that place cost, and in my arrogance I thought I could escape its toll. Moria, the Black Pit – well did the Elves name it!"

"Shh," Thorin said, and Balin buried his head against Thorin's shoulder and shook violently. "Shh, Balin, gamil bâhûn. Shh. It is done now. You can rest. Let it be – let it go."

"Aye," Balin said bitterly. "Rest. Let it go. Like you have?"

Thorin was silent.

"Thought so," said Balin with savage misery, before he began to weep once more. Fundin met Thorin's eyes and he shook his head in silence, before taking his son's shoulders and leading him away.

Dwarf after Dwarf after Dwarf after Dwarf after Dwarf. And still they arrived, their eyes wide and white in fear, their words tripping over each other as they shook in terror.

"Mahal, save us," Fíli whispered, and Kíli's quick laughter was absent.

Frár arrived, howling for Lóni. He fell to his knees and was promptly sick before them, and his pleas for Lóni became weaker and weaker as kind, gentle hands led him away.

Náli arrived, his old white head bristling and his face distorted with fury. "The drums!" he roared, blindly attacking any who stood before him. Frerin had his legs, and Thorin and Bifur tried to hold his arms, but the old warrior was given the strength of five in wrath and his panic. Eventually it took eight Dwarrows to subdue him, and only after Thráin had finally knocked him out.

Lóni arrived, and he seemed lost and nearly childlike in his anguish. "Frár," he said, his voice small and hollow. "Frár, we should not have... Frár, Óin took the rest to the West-Gate. Ori is all alone. Ori is all alone..."

Ori is all alone.

Thorin met Nori's eyes. The thief was nearly bloodless, his sly face drained and white. Without speaking a word, they turned and began to race for the Chamber of Sansûkhul.

"We're coming!" Kíli shouted, and two more pairs of boots began to ring on the stone of Mahal's Halls. They barrelled through the corridors and crashed through doors, pushing others out of the way as the breath slammed into their lungs. The pearl and diamond arch beckoned ahead, with its graceful filigree of mithril runework, and Thorin skidded to a halt before the crystalline waters of Gimlîn-zâram, panting harshly.

"Ori," Nori said, and the others nodded.

"Óin," Fíli said, and Thorin's heart squeezed painfully. My cousin.

"Aye. To it," he said curtly, and together they let the starlight swallow them and spit them back out into a world of shadows and madness.

The drums pounded so loudly they rattled Thorin's jaw. Movement stirred in the darkness, and the chittering of orcs sounded in the air. He grasped blindly for a hand, and found one fumbling in the dark nearby.

"Fíli, Kíli?" he breathed.

"It's me," said Nori, his voice tight. "I fink the lads are to our right."

"Uncle?" said Fíli, and he sounded as frightened as a Dwarfling. "I can't find Kee."

"I'm over here, but I don't know where here is," Kíli said, and Thorin held on tightly to Nori's hand and reminded himself that he was already dead.

"Come over to my voice," he said, trying to project steadiness and calm. He kept his tone low and commanding. "Come here, my nidoyîth. It's all right. Nothing can harm us, remember?"

A touch at his leg made him jerk, and then he recognised the sigh of relief as Kíli's. "Here," he said, and reached out to cup Kíli's wild head. "Here I am. Nori and I are both here."

Fíli slumped down beside them, and the lad was shaking. "I don't like this," he said.

"No-one does," said Nori shortly. "Come on. We're either near Óin or Ori."

Even their excellent dark-vision was close to useless in the stifling blackness that surrounded them. The clatter and clash of weapons nearby made Thorin's heart pause in its mad rhythm, and he squeezed down on Nori's hand sharply.

"I heard it," he said.

"Look ahead!" shouted Kíli. "I can see light!"

"It's Óin," said Fíli. "Oh, Mahal wept, please no – it's Óin, and he's alone..."

"No, not alone yet," said Thorin, making out the shapes of other Dwarrows in the dark. They were fighting back the orcs, striking in a frenzy at their pale and bulbous eyes. The great ilthildin doors of Khazad-dûm stood partially open before them, and the starless sky shed no light to guide their way.

"Yet," said Fíli grimly.

"They may yet make it out!" said Thorin, desperately hoping it to be so. The orcs shrieked and screeched, and another Dwarf fell, his eyes bulging as blood poured from his mouth. He slumped onto the steps, and then rolled into the water beyond the doors with a splash.

"That was Urgin," said Nori, faint with horror. "He owes me money, the swine."

"Push them back!" Óin roared, his staff flying about his head. In his other hand he held a short stabbing sword which flickered and darted out with the speed of a striking snake. "Push them out!"

The drums shook the floor beneath them, and Óin dispatched yet another orc. His grey beard was tangled and matted, his curled moustaches clotted with blood from his nose. His armour was rent at the shoulder. A large orc with insect-like features launched itself at him, and he lurched upwards and kicked the foul thing towards and out of the open doors before stabbing it in the face.

"I... I don't think they're trying to get out," said Kíli, and Thorin swallowed.

"No," he said. "They're trying to push the orcs out."

"Can we help them?" Fíli demanded, and Thorin tried to bring moisture to his parched mouth.

"They are in Moria. They are beyond any help I could give."

"Thorin," said Nori suddenly. "There's something in the water!"

With an eruption of vile gases and terrible groaning growls, a vast shape lurched from the pool of brackish water. Sinewy and whiplike tentacles squirmed and writhed towards them, and Kíli let out a shout of horror. The shout became a scream as the tentacles parted to reveal a huge and horrific body, with a ring of yellow teeth yawning for them. Dwarves and orcs alike screamed in terror as the tentacles grasped them and brought them into the air. The creature swallowed a Dwarf whole, before biting the head from an orc and hurling the rest of the corpse to dash to pieces against the cliffs of Khazad-dûm.

Then a tentacle wrapped itself around Óin's leg.

He shouted in alarm and rage, and stabbed through it. The tentacle dropped to the ground and twitched. The gruff, jolly old medic sagged in weariness and leaned heavily on his staff, whole and unharmed. Kíli punched the air and whooped, and Fíli sighed in relief at Thorin's side.

"Thank Durin," he said weakly. "He can't..."

The water exploded. Tentacles came boiling from the murk and gripped Óin's arms. He was lifted high into the air, struggling feebly as tentacle after tentacle wrapped around his body, coiling around his legs and slithering obscenely over his face. Thorin reached out and grabbed his nephews. "Don't watch!" he commanded them, turning their heads to him and clinching them as hard as possible in his arms.

"Thorin!" Fíli sobbed, and Kíli's wails were high and thin.

The old Dwarf's howl became a shriek, followed by a wretched gurgling sound that quickly became the crunch of bone and armour.

Thorin closed his eyes, and tried not to be sick.

He knew they had moved from the West-gate by the sudden lack of orc-sounds and screams. He stood, trembling and nauseous; his eyes still clenched shut and his arms tight as steel bands around his trembling nephews. The drums sounded in the deep, sending tremors through the rock beneath their feet.

"Ori," said Nori, his voice catching in his throat.

Thorin opened his eyes.

Ori sat with a candle, his eyes bruised and hopeless. He was leaning up against a tomb of white stone and scribbling frantically in a large book.

"He's so young," Nori said, and his face was ugly with repressed emotion. "He's so damned young, why the hell did Dori let him do this? Weren't he s'posed to look after him? He promised our Mum he'd look after him!"

"He did," Fíli said, and he reached for the thief, but Nori shook him off. "He did. He's never stopped. But Ori's a hundred and twenty-seven, Nori. He's not a little Dwarfling anymore.."

Nori's hands clenched, and he bit down hard on his lip. "My little brother," he said indistinctly. "Helped me every day for eight months after the battle. Helped me learn to walk again."

"We know," Thorin said softly. "We saw."

Nori snorted loudly, and roughly knuckled tears from his eyes. "Then you saw me shoutin' at him when all he wanted to do was help me. Mahal. He's so young."

"Aye." Thorin purposefully did not look at Fíli or Kíli. "He is."

Nori's laugh was a little hysterical as he crouched down before his brother. Ori did not look up, his hand skittering across the page. "S'pose you'd know all about that, wouldn't you? Y'know he wanted to find someone, one day? Me and Dori never wanted romance - Dori don't get any urges that way and won't hear of it, an' I prefer to take care o' business myself, but Ori..." Nori's face momentarily crumpled, and he ruthlessly schooled it back. "Ori's such a soppy romantic. Loves a love story. I used to tease him about it."

"Nori," said Kíli sadly.

"We can't do anything!" shouted Nori, standing abruptly and whirling on them. "Ori's goin' to die, and he'll die all alone, and..."

"He's not alone," said Fíli in a weak voice. "We're here."

"Fat lot of good it's doing him," spat Nori, and he turned back to his brother with tears in his eyes.

When Fíli opened his mouth to say more, Thorin quickly shook his head. Fíli glanced at him and fell silent. They stood as silent witnesses as Nori wrung his quick-fingered hands, gazing at his little brother as the tears began to roll into his beard.

The door to the chamber flew open with a crash, and two Dwarves came streaking through. "They are coming!" one gasped.

"Quick, get this door closed!" the other barked. Doom, doom, said the drums.

Ori scribbled faster and spoke without lifting his head. "Where're the others?"

"Gone," said the first Dwarf, his breath coming fast and his eyes full of tears of rage. "The Watcher took Óin – oh sweet Mahal, that sound. The waters are all the way up to the gate!"

"We cannot get out," Ori said calmly, still writing. "We'll go down fighting. Like Óin."

"He died screaming," said the other Dwarf flatly.

Ori looked up, and there was a wild fire in his eyes. "If I'm going to die in this foul place," he snarled, "I am going to sell my life dearly, you understand? I'm takin' as many of those bastards with me as I can!"

"Yes, Ori," said the first Dwarf, his spine straightening. The other reeled, his head in his hands.

Ori crossed over to him and slapped him, hard. "Understand?" he growled. "We give 'em a taste of Dwarvish iron right up their jacksie!"

He picked up a fallen axe and thrust it to the Dwarf, who took it with nerveless fingers. "All right. So we're about to die," he grated, and sent a glare over to the first to speak. "You, me and Grechar. No getting out of it. But they're gonna know." He nodded to his book, his jaw set and his face grim. "One day. Not soon, nah – but one day. One day, they'll know what happened here. We won't be forgotten."

"We won't be forgotten," repeated Grechar.

The Dwarf with the axe tried to speak around his sobs, and Ori glared at him. "Dróin?"

He licked his lips. "We won't be forgotten."

Thorin dragged Fíli and Kíli close, and watched with heavy heart as the youngest of the Company returned to his book, his hand clenched around a hammer and a fire in his pinched and tired face. Ori bent to his writing, his braids fraying and his woollen scarf askew. He wrote and wrote, his eyes alight with determination. Clever, meek, polite Ori, son of Zhori, youngest of the Brothers Ri.

"You won't be forgotten," he whispered.

Kíli took a long, slow breath and let it out against his brother's hair. "Brave Ori."

"Brave Ori," echoed Fíli.

The doors of the chamber rattled, and the drums pounded out their song of death. Nori wept openly, his hair escaping the elaborate braids.

"You do not have to watch this," Thorin said, and Nori swallowed hard, his face wet and blotched.

Then he turned to the doors, which shuddered. "Yes I do," he said, and lifted his chin.

Doom, doom, sang the drums, and the doors splintered around the lock. Ori wrote one last line, the words sliding down the page, and then he whirled around with his hammer to crush the ribs of a charging orc. Another went down under Dróin's axe, and then, like sand before a wave, they were gone, swallowed beneath the swarm of orcs.

Thorin reached for Nori as he howled in anguish. With all three in his arms he squeezed his eyes shut. Doom, doom, the drums mocked, and the starlight rose and blinded them and threw them back into the cool tranquillity of the Chamber of Pure and Perfect Sight.

Nori would not let go of his brother for anything in the world. He would barely even allow their mother Zhori to approach. No-one could get past the protective and anguished thief to greet the new arrival to the Halls, and so Thorin welcomed Ori as best he could, fended off Bifur's attempted exuberant welcome with a shake of his head, and turned to grip Óin's hand.

"Hello, cousin," he said quietly, and tried not to picture the terrible sight of this Dwarf wrung out like a rag between foul writhing limbs. The ghastly sound would haunt him forevermore.

"Eh?" Óin peered forward, blinking his useless eyes, a blanket wrapped around him. His hair had returned to the light brownish-red Thorin could only barely recall in his earliest memories. "Thorin! Well I never. Good to see – ha! Well, this is a turn-around isn't it? I cannae see a blessed thing, but I can hear you perfectly!"

"Idmi, my friend and cousin," he said, and the bile rose in his stomach. "It is... it is good to see you too."

"Not precisely what I was expecting," he said, and sighed heavily. "What a lot of fools we were."

"Perhaps you can convince Balin," Thorin said. Óin shook his head sadly.

"Doubt it. He was their Lord, Thorin. You know what that means."

"Yes." Thorin had more knowledge than most of what it meant to take on all that guilt. "Yes, I do."

Óin sighed again, and anger briefly passed over his face. "It could have been so beautiful, so glorious," he said in a soft, longing tone. Then his shoulders slumped and his head dropped to his chest. "Bunch of deaf, overconfident fools. Dáin tried to warn us, and we did not listen."

"You had hope," murmured Thorin, and Óin squinted towards his voice.

"Oh, aye? Well, we're good at that – hope in the face of hopelessness!" He nudged Thorin, a faint sad smile creasing his face. "Eh?"

Thorin forced a smile. The horrors he had seen were not so easily dismissed, and he envied Óin's joy at reuniting with those all around him. It would have been a balm.

Gróin and Haban steadied their son as he wobbled on his unsteady legs. Haban turned his face to hers and carefully tucked an escaping wisp of hair back into his curled and braided beard. Gróin huffed under his breath and pulled Óin into a tight hug - and Óin choked. At that noise Thorin pressed a hand to his mouth. It sounded too much like -

He turned and strode from the sepulchre as swiftly as he could, making his way straight for the Chamber of Sansûkhul to dive back through the glittering waters. Erebor. He needed life, and Erebor, and Gimli.

At one hundred and fifteen, Gimli no longer laughed as readily as he once had, and his quips had become less light-hearted and gruffer than before. Now and then Thorin caught him staring into the middle distance, his brow furrowed as though wondering where his uncle, cousin and friends were. He wrote diligently every four months, and stubbornly refused to consider why they never wrote back.

Thorin grieved to see his merry laughter so diminished. Gimli was as bright and fierce and joyous as his namesake. Gimli should be merry. Gimli should always laugh.

Still, one thing was guaranteed to make him smile. Nearly eight months ago in the summer of 2993, a small curly-haired creature had been born to Bofur and Gimrís. He was a beaming, chuckling little chap with bright brown eyes, Bofur's nose and chin, dark red hair and the Durin brow. They had named him Gimizh, or 'wild one', and Gimli utterly adored him.

Wee Thorin was not so enamoured, and scowled at his younger cousin ferociously every time he laid eyes on him. Dwalin was beginning to regret the name he had chosen. The comparisons were inevitable.

Thorin was rather proud. His scowl had passed to a worthy successor.

Gimli took hold of the tiny, chubby hands in his axe-worn ones and made them clap together. "Now, Gimizhîth," he told the baby, and Gimizh looked up at him with toothless delight, "shall we sing a song, you and I?"

"Pull his beard, my son!" called Gimrís from the next room. "You'll get a better tune out of him!"

"Your mother is a terrible, terrible Dwarrowdam," Gimli said solemnly, clapping Gimizh's pudgy hands together. The baby made an indistinct noise of excitement at the sound of Gimli's voice, and tried to co-ordinate his hands himself, and failed. "Ah, ah, no. I think that might be a wee bit ambitious at this stage. Let's stick wi' me doing the hard work, what do you say?"

"You are truly ridiculous with that child," Thorin told him, shaking his head in amusement and folding his arms. The knot of nausea and horror in his belly was gradually beginning to unravel.

"Ach, well, I'm his uncle, I'm allowed," Gimli muttered under his breath, and then he gave his little nephew a besotted smile. "How could anyone not be charmed by this little gem? They'd truly have to be made o' stone."

Thorin chuckled, and conceded that the baby was possibly a very dear and sweet baby, but Fíli had been far more charming. The horrible sound of Óin's death was beginning to take its proper place in his memories, and he relaxed slightly as he regained his equilibrium.

Gimli could be counted upon for such things.

"Now, shall we see about that song?" Gimli said, poking the chubby belly. "Your father would like this one – it's for mining. Perhaps you'll swing a pick or a mattock one day, with such big strong arms as these!"

Gimizh's mouth opened wide and pink around a bubbling chuckle as Gimli tickled under his arm. Then Gimli sang quietly, his voice rumbling, and he clapped the little hands together as he did:

Bijebruk! Bijebruk!
Sort the iron from the muck!
Pile it in the rattling truck,
And take it to the fire.

Âdhhyîr! Âdhhyîr!
Can't wait til I'm out of here!
Sipping on a frosty beer,
Is all that I desire!

[Gimli's Ered Luin Mining Song, performed by notanightlight]

"That is not suitable, brother mine," Gimrís said from the doorway, and Gimli rolled his eyes.

"He can't understand a word of it yet. He simply likes the rhythm."

"Well, I liked it," Bofur called cheerfully from the kitchen. "Was it one o' yours, Gimli?"

"Aye, from Ered Luin," he said and allowed Gimizh to crawl over his legs. "Made it up when I was sixty-something, I can't remember now."

"Here," Gimrís said, hiding her twitching lips. "You're going to be used as a climbing post in a second, and I need to get him washed."

"I don't mind," Gimli said, but he reluctantly handed the baby over to his mother.

Gimrís shook her head, settling him on her hip as Gimizh cooed and gnawed messily at his fist. "Between you an' Dad, I don't know who's the bigger sap."

"Dad," said Gimli immediately. "There's more of him than there is of me."

"Gimrís, m'ruby! The water's ready!" Bofur called from the kitchen. "Where's my darlin' little man then?"

"All right, my lad," Gimrís said to her son, hefting him on her hip. "Your least favourite part of the day: bath time."

"She's a cruel woman," said Gimli, clucking in sympathy, "but it has to be done."

"You could take your own advice, troll-face," she said and nudged Gimli in the back with her knee. "Your braids are a disgrace. Did you come here straight after patrol?"

"Well, I killed a warg," he said carelessly, and leaned back against her legs to peer up at Gimizh and pull faces at him. "I had to let him know, didn't I? What with all the terrible lies you're going to tell him, I have to make sure he knows what a mighty warrior his uncle Gimli is."

"What a mighty fathead, you mean," she said dryly. "I hope to Mahal you washed your hands."

"What do you take me for?" Gimli put a hand on his chest in mock-hurt, and then crossed his eyes at Gimizh. The baby squealed and giggled.

"You know how much I enjoy yer loving sibling affection, and normally I'd be cheerin' you both on," said Bofur, poking his head around the doorway, "but the water's gettin' cold."

"Courage, nephew," Gimli said gravely, and Gimrís kicked him before taking her son to his bath. "Cruel woman!"

Bofur appeared again, wiping off his wet hands on a towel. "You stayin' for dinner? Only I think Alrur and Alfur are comin' over..."

Gimli rubbed at the spot on his back where Gimrís had kicked him, and then squinted up at Bofur. "I think I'd rather take Gimizh's place," he said with a snort, and Thorin echoed it.

Bombur's son Alfur had developed a crush on Gimli. It was nothing serious, simply a puppyish wide-eyed fancy and certainly not the mithril-true One love, but it was enough to make Gimli rather red around the collar. He tried to be gentle with the lad and had kindly stated his complete lack of interest. Alfur had nodded sadly and said he understood, and then the boy had mooned and moped after Gimli for the next two months.

Gimrís teased him mercilessly, and Bofur thought it was the funniest thing in Arda. Poor Gimli did a lot of spluttering and tried to remain aloof and distant; however, aloof and distant were not really traits that came easily to him. Thorin felt for the poor Dwarrow, he really did – but it was indeed amusing.

Gimrís and Bofur, by Jeza-Red

"Don't blame you," Bofur said, grinning. "All those calf-eyed looks, you'd think we were servin' up beef."

"I'll go down to Nori's," Gimli said with a shrug. "Alfur can't get me in there. He's too young."

"Hark at the noble Line o' Durin," Bofur said and curtsied, fluttering his eyelashes. "What a dignified and respectable royal family I joined. Me, a simple miner and toymaker."

"I told you that you were marrying beneath you," Gimli said, and ducked. Right on cue, a sponge shaped like a little axe flew over his head.

"Get out, y' great lummox, before I make you do laundry!" Gimrís snorted, wet baby and towel juggled in her arms. Gimli kissed her cheek before knocking his shoulder against Bofur's.

"And scare off the free childminder? Where's all the financial savvy Dad always drones on about?" he laughed, and bussed the sopping wet baby on the head. "Try not to soak up too many of her lies until I see you next, my akhûnîth."

"Get!" Gimrís said, and flicked the towel after him. Waving, Gimli left the small family and began to make his way from the upper courts to the lower levels, where Nori's tavern still stood.

It had been renamed since Nori's death, but no-one had taken any notice. The place was still 'Nori's', and probably always would be. The notoriety and fame of the Company was not likely to die down in a mere fifty-three years.

Gimli sat at his usual table and signalled the server. "What's on tonight?"

"Mutton stew," said the youngster, and Gimli wrinkled his nose.

"All right," he said grudgingly. "Can I get a plate of that, some bread and a tankard of ale please?"

"At once, Lord Gimli."

Gimli winced. "Just Gimli, lad."

The young fellow smiled sheepishly and rushed off.

Gimli sighed and tapped his heavy fingers on the table-top. Lóni's name, Gimli's, Flói's and Frár's were scratched into the surface, and the floor was marked and scraped by the drag of Nori's metal leg.

"Well," he said to himself, "this is a familiar scene. Names on a table top, and Gimli son of Glóin left alone."

Thorin sat beside him and took in the worried crease between Gimli's straight Durin brows. "Don't look so glum," he said gently. "They're not as far away as you think. Though I'm sure Nori would be flattered that you think of him."

"Wonder what Nori did with that evil-looking knife of his," Gimli mused, tracing patterns over the table-top with the droplets left behind by the last tankard to rest there. Then he snorted at himself. "Maudlin already, and I haven't even tasted a sip of ale! Ach, I need company. Perhaps I should consider Alfur after all!"

Thorin grimaced. "If you do, I wash my hands of you," he warned. "He's a fine boy, but he is a boy. You are a grown Dwarf of a hundred and fifteen years old."

"Oh, I cannot even joke with myself nowadays!" growled Gimli in frustration, and Thorin shut his mouth with a snap. "I miss my friends. They laugh and smile."

"You make me smile," Thorin said, and without thinking he reached for Gimli's broad and brawny shoulder. "You have always made me smile, little star."

His hand passed through. Thorin let out a long breath of disappointment, and left Gimli to his meal.

Dori poured the hot water and swirled the teapot, once, twice. His eyes were distant and unfocused. His movements were mechanical as he took his tray and sat down at his loom.

He picked up the shuttle, before placing it back down and staring at the latticework of threads. Reds and browns with a smattering of white and purple vibrated underneath his breath, and he lifted his thick hand and stroked the wool once, twice.

"That'll be a tapestry," Nori said, and his normally cheeky, sly voice was subdued and sad.

"It's us," Ori said, and pointed out the purple. "See? He's weaving us. That's me, that'll be you, and there's Dori's hair..."

"Ah," Nori said, and his shoulders slumped heavily. "I never did have the patience to see into the weave like you two."

Ori wrung his hands together. "Who's he looking after now?"

"I don't envy 'em," said Nori, and he swallowed audibly. "All the nagging and fussing and inconvenient questions."

Dori touched the reddish brown of the wool, where Nori's hair would be, and took a noisy sip of his tea. Then he picked up his shuttle and it began to clack against the loom. Tears stood in Dori's eyes.

"There has never been a time he has not looked after you," realised Thorin, and though Nori's jaw rippled he said nothing to refute it.

"He's all alone," Ori mourned. "Dori's never been alone. He's always been there – always looked after us."

Dori dropped the shuttle with a clatter. His hands landed on the table and gripped hard as his chin trembled and his eyes watered. The wood under his fingers began to creak.

"Mother Dori," said Nori bitterly. "Our Mum died when I was fifty, you know, and Ori was only ten, no more than a baby. Dori tried to raise us the best he could."

"I think he did a fine job," said Thorin.

Nori raised a disbelieving eyebrow. "Yeah? From your mouth to Dwalin's ears, then."

"Dwalin blamed Dori?" Thorin frowned.

"Nah. Dori used to blame himself for my business activities. Said it was all his fault for not doing better by me."

"And then he'd swear black and blue and up and down that I wasn't going to go the same way," Ori said, rubbing at his nose with his sleeve. "Remember? 'Royal by-blows we might be'..."

Nori joined in. "... 'with three fathers and no mother and poor as tinsmiths besides, but we can still have pride in our work and our manners. That's what makes a Dwarf a Dwarf'."

Thorin glanced at Nori sharply. "Royal by-blows?"

"King Óin I, and the concubine Ymrís," said Ori succinctly.

Recalling his lessons, Thorin winced. "Ah."

"Dori didn't like to bring it up outside the three of us," said Nori, watching his brother hunch over his powerful hands, the wood of his table splintering as he struggled to contain his tears. "He din't want people to whisper 'bout us for yet another reason. Bad enough that none of our dads ever stuck around."

"His looks brought enough attention," said Ori, and he sniffed. "Can you imagine how bad it would have been if they'd known we were descended from Ymrís? How they would have treated him?"

"Thank Mahal for that punch of his," said Nori. "Here, remember when that old fool wouldn't take no for an answer? He said they'd take you away, that Dori wasn't able to care for you unless he found a partner. I bet that slimy git's still eatin' through a straw."

"Mother Dori," whispered Ori, and he swiped at his nose again. "He was the only mum or dad I ever knew."

"Wish he hadn't been so obsessed with what people thought," Nori sighed, and Ori glared at him through reddened eyes.

"Half of that was you, Nori. You, and your horrible friends, and Dwalin rapping on our door every couple of days..."

Nori looked away. "Yeah, I know."

"He doesn't even know I'm dead," Ori moaned, and then Nori swore loudly under his breath and tugged his youngest brother into a rough clinch. Then the thief looked up at Thorin, his lips white and two spots of colour on his cheeks.

"Please," Nori begged, and Thorin put a hand on his shoulder and nodded wordlessly.

"Tell him," said Ori, and his fingers clutched at Nori's jerkin. "Tell him we love him. We're waiting. We love him. We're all right, and he's... he's..."

"Tell him he's a fussy old mother-hen, and that Ori's not wearing his scarf and that I'm making plenty of trouble," said Nori, and he laughed a raspy, painful-sounding laugh. "That should make him happy."

"Dori likes to feel needed," said Ori softly.

Thorin looked over at the beautiful Dwarf. His silvery hair was escaping his elaborate braids, and he had broken the table, snapping it in two. "Everyone does," he murmured.

The teapot had shattered all over the floor.

Older Dori, wearing his brothers' mourning marks, by Aviva0017

Chapter Text

Frodo grew like a weed. He was a curious young fellow, and as cheerful and adventurous as a Hobbit could be. Thorin rather approved of his loyal friend Samwise, but the Took and the Brandybuck were far too reminiscent of Fíli and Kíli in their rambunctious thirties. He could barely look at them without wanting to scold them.

Bilbo grew older, but barely showed it at all. He became a little reclusive as the years turned, and took to writing in his study more and more often. Thorin read over his shoulder. It never occurred to him that he shouldn't.

"Here now, my beard has never been that long!" he protested at one point, and Bilbo tsked.

"It's called artistic licence," he muttered to himself, but he crossed out the line anyway.

Thorin and Bilbo, by Yetyoucomfortme

Time stretched and stretched, and Bilbo lived on and on and on. He prepared for his eleventy-first (as he called it) birthday party with the greatest of glee, chuckling and muttering to himself day and night and rubbing his hands in anticipation. Bofur sent a whole cartload of toys from his shop to hand out as birthday-presents for the little ones. Thorin had never quite understood the Hobbit practice of giving gifts upon one's nameday – but each to their own.

The surprise was carried off in fine style, and he stayed to enjoy some of the confusion. Hobbits were so prim and easily shocked, and their astonishment was rather entertaining. Eventually, Thorin arrived at the door of Bag End just as Bilbo was leaving. He watched with a small smile as his Hobbit picked up a favourite walking-stick and began to make his way down Bagshot Row, singing as he went.

"Safe travels, my Burglar," he murmured, and turned to enter Bag End just one last time. This Hobbit-Hole was where it had all began and he would say his farewells for old times' sake.

His eye was caught by the ring, sitting innocently on the stoop. He bent to study it. Bilbo's little gold ring? Why had he left it behind?

"Well, Thorin Oakenshield?"

Thorin whipped around in shock. Gandalf was still standing by the fireplace, looking absurdly huge amongst all of Bilbo's things. "You... you can see me?"

"Of course I can see you," Gandalf said. "You're standing right there, aren't you?"

Thorin took a step forward, his eyes wide. "No-one has seen me. No-one has ever seen me! Not in sixty years!"

"You certainly haven't been coming to chat with me or Radagast then, my dear boy," Gandalf said, casually stealing some of Bilbo's fine pipe-weed and packing his pipe. "How many times must I remind other folk that I am a Wizard!"

"I cannot believe this," Thorin said, stunned. "Do you always see us?"

"I don't spend a great deal of time in one place, as a rule, and so I never stay long in lands where a Dwarf's spirit might linger," Gandalf said, stretching out his legs and lighting his pipe. He blew a smoke ring. "And no, not always, to answer your question. It is a matter of perception, and such things require concentration. Sometimes I may look at a Dwarf and know that he or she is no longer in the world of the living. I don't always know them, of course. Certainly not as well as I knew you."

"Sometimes I wonder if either of us knew me at all," Thorin said darkly, and sat down on a chair. "I cannot believe it. Wizards can see me."

"All of us who were once servants of the greater powers still have some of our gifts," Gandalf said, raising a bushy eyebrow. "And not all of us are friendly."

"I was not aware you were," Thorin snapped back, and Gandalf chuckled.

"Oh yes, Master Oakenshield. Compared to others, I am indeed friendly. Or at least I try to be a friend."

"I suggest you require more practice," Thorin growled.

"Possibly, my dear boy, possibly." Gandalf blew out another smoke ring, and then fixed Thorin with his piercing blue stare. "And is that why you are here, watching Bilbo's little performance? Being a good friend?"

Thorin's teeth clamped together.

Gandalf smiled. "I see. How are things in the Halls?"

"As always, they are beautiful," Thorin said grudgingly, "and unchanging, and full of the dead. I long for the colours of Middle-Earth, and spend as much time here as I can spare – which is a great deal, because, once more; dead."

"And do you intend to keep watching Bilbo?" Gandalf leaned forward. He seemed very intent on the answer. Thorin hesitated.

"I will always watch Bilbo," he said eventually. "I owe him a great debt, one that can never be repaid. I will care for him and keep him safe."

"Thorin, my dear fellow, as you have taken great pains to point out, you are dead! What on earth can you possibly do?"

His chin lifted sharply. "Mahal gave me a gift. My life was marred by shadow, my death unjust. I do not know how many others have been given this power, but I was blessed thusly. The living may on occasion hear me. Not clearly, and not always. But their subconscious can hear my words."

"Well, well," Gandalf said, his eyes narrowing and his mouth gnawing thoughtfully on his pipe-stem. "I wonder why Lord Aulë did such a thing... he can read the signs, and he knows his pupil..." the Wizard stared into the flames and began to mutter and mumble under his breath as he thought.

Thorin waited for the old Wizard to finish. When he did not, he left in disgust. Maybe he could catch up with Bilbo before he got too far.

Dís ran down the corridor. Thorin met his father's eyes, and together they raced after her. He could hear Frerin, Frís and Thrór following closely behind.

She flung back the doors to the audience chamber as she entered, her heavy skirts sweeping back behind her and her grey hair flying. "Dáin!" she called, and the King turned to her. "Dáin!"

"Dís, what is..." he began, but she shook her head curtly.

"There is a stranger at the Gates."

He paused. "Not one of the Bizarûnh?"

She made a harsh sound in the back of her throat. "He bears a message."

Dáin frowned, and then he seemed to recognise the fear that danced in Dís' eyes. "A message from where?"

She swallowed, her chest heaving. "Mordor."

Thráin gasped and staggered. Thorin's hand shot out, and together he and Frerin steadied their father.

Dáin's face, withered and old but still full of strength, paled dramatically. "Mordor!" he repeated in amazement and dread. "But Mordor is no Kingdom! Darkness gathers upon the plain of Gorgoroth, true, but the Lord of that land fell three thousand bloody years ago!"

"And still he says Mordor." The Lady Dís, First Advisor to the King, lifted her head. Her mouth was taut and her face pinched, but still she stood tall and proud. "Could it be true? Could the evil that once lived there live again?"

With a long, shuddering breath, Dáin met her eyes fully. "I have had reports from the lands of the South," was all he said, and Dís let out a guttural cry of horror.

"Eru save us, Mahal protect us," she breathed. Her crystalline voice was shattered in fear.

"I must meet with him." Dáin braced himself and closed his eyes tightly for a second, before drawing his old body up. "What sort of message?"

"He will only speak to the King," she said, and her hands fisted themselves over and over again at her sides. "He wears black and rides a black horse. He is as tall as Men, and he speaks with a male voice, though he hisses like a snake. That is all I know."

Thráin began to tremble. "Cousin, don't go down to him," he begged. "The deceits of the Enemy – you cannot begin to know their terror! They broke me, Dáin – he lied, and he broke me!"

"Shhh, 'adad," Thorin said, and smoothed a hand down Thráin's forearm. "Mother, Grandfather..." Frís and Thrór nodded bleakly.

"We'll look after him," Frís said quietly, and she took her husband's hand. "Come here, Thráin love. It cannot return. The madness can never touch you again."

Thrór shivered and then sent a quick look at Thorin. "I'll collect your Company."

Thorin nodded, and then he looked back at Frerin. "Get the lads."

Frerin nodded.

Glancing back to Dís and Dáin, Thorin set his jaw. "I'll stay here?"

"Aye," Thrór said, and laid a comforting arm around Thráin's shoulder. "We meet in my forge. Bring us all the news you can."

"Get him out of here," Thorin told them, before returning his attention to Dáin and Dís. Around him, his family disappeared, fading into the background as the Pool of Gimlîn-zâram reclaimed them.

"...down to him," Dáin was saying, his eyes cold and angry. "I would not be so foolish."

"Neither can you refuse him," Dís said harshly. "The servants of Mordor do not take no for an answer!"

"Stall him," Thorin said, and both his sister and cousin paused momentarily. "Stall him! Buy Erebor some more time. We must send for help!"

"Well, first we should see what he wants," Dáin said, and he picked up the crown and placed it on his wild white head. As it touched his hair, Dáin seemed to bow under its weight before standing taller again. "I will speak from the south battlements."

Thorin's heart sank. Would he never escape those awful, cursed battlements? There he had spied a dragon, and there he had lifted his hand against his Hobbit. Now he would watch his cousin face down a messenger of the Enemy of all free peoples.

Glóin already stood upon the ramparts, his eyes unforgiving and his armour gleaming. Dwalin stood behind him, and his face was grim and stony. The Prince Thorin Stonehelm, a Dwarf with the Durin profile, a thick neck and long loose black hair, nodded once as he saw his father and the First Advisor approach. The wind was harsh upon the southern arm of the Mountain, and Dain's magnificent white beard was tugged by its icy fingers as he made his way to the battlements and peered over. "Messenger," he said curtly. "I am Dáin, second of that name, called Ironfoot, son of Náin and King Under the Mountain. What is your message?"

"King Dáin," said the messenger with a bow. Its voice hissed and rasped, and Thorin shuddered at the sound. "I bring you greetings from Lord Sauron the Great."

"I have no need of greetings," Dáin said.

"Careful," Dís whispered.

"You are wise, Lord," said the messenger in his hissing voice.

"Wise or not, I am busy," said Dáin curtly. "Say your piece, messenger!"

"My Lord Sauron the Generous wishes for your friendship, O King Under the Mountain!" said the messenger. His horse snorted and rolled its red eyes. "You are a great Lord of Dwarves and have made your Kingdom powerful and secure in but a few scant years. Together we could make an alliance to ensure it survives in peace and prosperity for all time!"

"And what would be the price of such friendship?" Dís spat, and Dáin shook his head sharply. She subsided, but her eyes flashed.

"We do not speak to the Advisors of the King, Lady, but to the King himself," said the messenger. "And to the King we say: this friendship costs you nothing. We would be allies and friends for all time, bringing riches and gain to both our peoples. All my master wishes for is a small token of your good will."

"What token?" Dáin asked warily.

"A mere trifle, my Lord. And in return, Sauron the Lord of Gifts would give you such treasures as to make you the envy of all your forefathers. Rings of Power he shall give, as in days of old."

As Thorin's pulse thudded in his ears and the fury began to rise in his gullet, he was struck by the thought that it was just as well his father had already left.

"Such a trifle must be valuable indeed, to gain such a reward," Dáin said, his tone carefully even. "I ask again, what is this token?"

"We wish for anything you know, O great King, concerning Hobbits."

Thorin's blood froze.

Dáin was still as stone, and his wrinkled face expressionless as the messenger continued. "My master would have anything you know concerning them; where they live, what they are, and so forth. For we know that one of these was at one time known to you."


"Don't tell them anything!" Thorin cried, and he leapt for Dáin and grabbed for the fur mantle he wore. His hands passed through it, and he threw his head back and roared. "Don't tell him anything about Bilbo! Don't you dare!"

Dáin was silent, and Dís' face was troubled.

Thorin panted, shaking with the after-effects of his shock and anger. His hands were trembling. His face felt slack and numb as he sank to his knees on the cold stone battlements.

"It is such a small thing," the messenger said, his voice curling insidiously. "Catch this little thief – for so my master called him – and get from him, willing or no, a little ring, the least of rings, that once he stole. Do this, and three Rings that the Dwarf-sires of old possessed shall be returned to you, and the realm of Moria shall be yours for ever. Tell us news of him only, and you shall have great reward and lasting friendship from the Lord. Refuse, and things will not seem so well. Do you refuse?"

Dáin remained silent.

"Don't," Thorin managed. "Dáin. Bilbo saved our kingdom. Bilbo gave us our home back – the home you have done nothing but protect! We cannot answer that with such a betrayal! We are honourable Dwarves!"

Dáin shuddered. "I say neither yea or nay," he said hoarsely. "I must have time to decide."

"Consider well, but not too long," said the messenger. "I shall return three times for your answer."

"The time of my thought is my own to spend," Dáin retorted.

"For now," whispered the messenger, and he turned his horse and cantered away towards the forest.

Thorin stared at his cousin and sister, his mouth dry and open and his hands loose before him. "Dáin," he started to say, and then clamped his teeth together to stop their chattering.

Dís stepped closer to the King. "What now?" she said in a low voice.

"He'll be back," Dáin said harshly. "And he will repeat his offer."

"He wants Bilbo," said Glóin. "Why would the Eye of Mordor want Bilbo Baggins?"

"A little ring – the least of rings," Thorin mumbled, and his pulse abruptly sputtered to a halt. After the deafening thudding in his ears, the sudden silence was shocking.

"Wantin' isn't gettin'," growled Dwalin. "We're honourable Dwarves. We don't repay those who've helped us with deceit and betrayal. We don't treat our friends that way!"

Thorin's head whipped up, and he looked at his dearest friend with surprise and rising hope.

"Moria, what did he mean about Moria," muttered Glóin, and Thorin's breath escaped him in a whoosh. "Balin and Óin have retaken Moria, he cannot..."

"The power that has re-entered Mordor has not changed," said Dáin, turning to them. His eyes were alight with anger and fear. "It still lies and lies! Lord of Gifts he calls himself. Aye, and all of them poisoned! We've never trusted 'em, never will, and their gifts always betrayed us in the past. We won't be so thick again."

"What shall we do?" said the Stonehelm, his arms bunching in readiness.

"You, my lad, are goin' nowhere, so stop thinking it. You're needed as Ambassador to the Dalefolk. They have to be kept abreast of this and you're the Crown Prince, so start actin' like it," Dáin said bluntly. The Stonehelm sagged. "We need help. We need advice."

Advice. The word pricked a memory. Advice. "Lord Elrond," said Thorin aloud.

"Lord Elrond," echoed Glóin, and then he tried to look at his own mouth in astonishment.

"An Elf!" scoffed Dwalin, but Dáin met Dís' eyes, and then he raised a hand.

"Wait, that's not a bad idea," he said. "We send some young brave warrior to Lord Elrond, get some advice, and send word to Bilbo Baggins at the same time. He's living there now, isn't he?"

"Aye," said Dwalin. "He left the Shire sixteen years ago. Hate to think how the poor thing's been eating all this time."

"All right," said Dís, and she set her shoulders. "Who do we send? Who can we trust?"

There was a ringing silence.

"Da, you don't suppose I could..."

"Thorin my boy, if you don't stop thinking it, I'll have you doing all the paperwork from now until Durin's Day!" Dáin barked.

"Send Gimli," Thorin said in a whisper. It quickly rose to a roar. "Gimli is the only one I can trust. Send Gimli!"

"Here, what about Gimli?" Dwalin turned to Glóin, who paled.

"Don't you go volunteering another man's son like that! Just because yours is underage..."

Dáin's eyebrows rose. "Wait, Gimli is..."

"A hundred an' thirty-eight, yes, and he's my son!"

"And he's the best axeman in two centuries..."


"...except for Dwalin here."

"Aye, and still my son!"

Dís looked troubled, her hands clenched tightly around the folds of her gown. "Glóin," she said, and reluctance dripped from every syllable. "Glóin, I think it must be him."

Glóin turned on her, his face purpling. "That's my son!"

"Who else would you trust with this mission?" said Dwalin simply. "Who else is good enough?"

Glóin hesitated, and then he scowled. "Don't see you volunteering."

"And when war comes back to Erebor? What then? Besides, I'm nearly two hundred and fifty, Glóin," Dwalin said, and lifted his head into the light. The diamond in his glass eye glittered, and every scar stood out upon his tattooed skin and completely bald head. His arms were still hugely muscled, but his beard had turned the colour of a winter's sky. He smiled ruefully. "Was a time you wouldn't have been able to stop me. Now?" He gave a rusty laugh.

Glóin paused, staring desperately at his cousin. "My son," he said weakly, "My star." Dwalin laid a huge and heavy hand on his shoulder.

"Glóin, he's ready. He won't thank you for leavin' him behind, not this time."

"Aye." The leonine white head dropped. Then it snapped back up. "Well, I'll go with him then. At least to Rivendell. This needs a Dwarf-Lord as well as a warrior. My boy's good, but he's no diplomat."

Dáin said gravely, "If you're certain. These are not safe times to be travelling over the Misty Mountains."

"There are no safe times to travel over the Misty Mountains," grunted Dwalin. "Never thought I'd say this, but I wish the damned Wizard were here."

"Glóin?" said Dís. "Cousin? Are you sure? You are not a young Dwarf."

"Bilbo's been my friend for nigh on eighty years," Glóin said indignantly, his beard puffing up. "I have to warn him!" Then he sniffed. "An' I'm twenty years younger than the gaffer over there."

Dwalin growled under his breath.

"Then that's what we do," said Dís with a sigh, and she looked over the ramparts to where the rider was barely visible against the treeline far below, before he was eventually swallowed by the forest.

Thorin sank down in relief, his head in his hands. "Oh, my friends," he breathed. "Oh, Gimli. Oh, Bilbo."

Thorin's vow rang in his ears. I will look after you. I will make my amends. The pulse hopped and raced in his throat. He could feel the icy fingers of fate stretching out to crush them all.

The Great Enemy, Mahal had said, nearly eighty years ago. The one who made the Seven. Sauron the Great, Gorthaur the Cruel, Annatar, Lord of Gifts, the Abhorred, the Shadow, the Deceiver, the Lord of the Rings.

And he wanted Bilbo.

Thorin strode into his grandfather's forge, his eyes hard and burning. The frantic babble died down as he entered, and Balin stepped forward, his kindly face pale as chalk.

"Laddie, is it true?" he said. "Is it the Enemy?"

Thorin looked at him grimly, before nodding his head once. "It is true."

Balin let out a stifled cry of distress, echoed by Kíli, Nori and Bifur. Ori's narrow face went slack in horror, and Frerin bit down hard on his lip.

"Tell us," said Thrór, looking up. "What happened after we... left?"

Thorin did not look at Thráin. "They have turned the messenger away unanswered," he said, keeping his voice as even as possible. "They will send an envoy to Lord Elrond Half-Elven of Rivendell, to ask for his wisdom and to warn Bilbo."

"Bilbo!" exclaimed Nori. "What does the Enemy want wif our Hobbit?"

Thorin met Kíli's gaze. His nephew's face was touched with his fear, but his eyes were full of sympathy for his uncle. Thorin took a steadying breath and turned away. "A little ring," he said hoarsely. "The least of rings."

"Bilbo's ring?" Fíli said incredulously. "That little gold thing that turned him invisible?"

"The messenger asked for anything regarding Hobbits, but he chiefly wishes for that ring. He offered three of the Rings of Power in return for it," said Thorin, drawing himself up tall in order not to betray his trembling. Both Thráin and Thrór sucked in a breath.

"Three!" Ori said in awe. "Three of the Seven!"

"One of which he took from my hand," Thráin said, bitterness and rage and misery in every line of his face. "The Ring of Durin III, gifted to him by Celebrimbor himself."

"We do not need his gifts," spat Thrór. "We have seen how he pays his friends! He is ever a betrayer."

"Dáin, what does Dáin say?" Thráin turned to Thorin, his massive hands fisted. "They will tempt him, I know it."

"We don't need a bloody ring o' Power," growled Óin. "We're Dwarves. We find our power in the earth, not in some damned fool treacherous bit o' jewellery made by a shadowy snake!"

"You cannot understand!" Thráin roared, standing. "They have their own will!"

"Aye, an' so do we!" Óin stood also.

"Ma mahabhyùr rukhs katakhigeri," Bifur snarled, and the assembled Dwarves all began to talk at the same time, their voices rising in anger.

"Ikhuzh!" Thorin thundered. They all began to sink back into their places, though many of their faces were still stained with anger. "You are fighting over nothing! 'Adad, Dáin does not want the Rings. As he once said, Dwarves do not quickly forget an injustice. It is three thousand years since Durin the Fourth discovered Sauron's treachery, and in return we marched with the Last Alliance and crushed the power of Mordor. We do not forgive, and we do not forget. We will not trust the Lord of Gifts again."

Thráin slumped, his eyes sliding shut. Frís and Frerin went to him and took his mighty hands, gripping them tightly.

"What did the messenger say to that?" asked Hrera, her hazel eyes cold.

"Nothing, because Dáin told him nothing," Thorin said. "They stall him. He will return to Erebor three more times."

"Rings," Óin said, pulling at his beard. "And what else? That cannae be all."

"The friendship of Lord Sauron," Thorin spat, and Balin hummed under his breath.

"And if this friendship is refused, and Dáin tells him nothing of our Burglar?"

Thrór pierced him with his gaze. "And then?"

Thorin spread his hands. "He made no direct threat. But the intent was clear. If after the third time he remains unanswered, war will be upon them."

Balin frowned. "Why our Burglar?" he wondered. "Why that little ring?"

"Who wouldn't want a ring that turns you invisible?" Nori shrugged. "Come in very useful, that."

"Why would Lord Sauron, who is definitely not a sneak-thief or petty scoundrel such as yourself, wish for Bilbo's little golden bauble?" Balin said with barely-concealed exasperation.

Nori rolled his eyes. "Let's ask the walking library. Ori?"

Ori nodded and cleared his throat self-consciously. "Well, it's no Ring of Power – it has no stone or markings. The books all say they had stones and runes."

"They did," Thrór said shortly, and laid his hand on Thráin's shoulder. Thráin grunted.

"The black messenger will be back, and soon," Thorin said, and his hands gripped the workbench tightly. "It is a five-month journey to Rivendell from Erebor."

"Who does Dáin send?" asked Thráin in a rasping, halting voice.

Thorin glanced at Óin. "Glóin and Gimli are going, with any that will join them."

Óin sprang to his feet once more. "My brother, and my nephew, to cross the Misty Mountains against the will of Sauron?!" he roared, and Nori and Bifur also leaped up and dragged at the healer's arms, holding him back. "Did you suggest this, Thorin?"

He stood his ground. "I did."

"You...!" Óin's eyes bulged, but Balin nodded thoughtfully.

"Gimli is the best choice." He looked up at Thorin with a shrewd expression. "He's honest, brave and a mighty warrior. He will be the best choice to protect Bilbo."

"Can the Enemy reach Bilbo in Rivendell?" Kíli blurted. Balin shook his head.

"Nay, lad. Lord Elrond keeps the valley safe. Not sure how, but it is protected against all evil. That's been known for centuries."

"Can't believe we're goin' to the Elves for help," grumbled Nori. Bifur huffed in agreement.

"Why Glóin?" Óin said, his expression sullen. "Why my family?"

"Gimli for Bilbo's sake, and Glóin for Erebor's," said Thorin grimly. "He is a better ambassador than any other choice. He is a Dwarf-Lord and a Durin, and he is calmer than the Stonehelm and younger than Dwalin or Dís. Besides, mighty as Gimli is, he is no diplomat."

"Gimli, though?" said Frís, wrinkling her nose. "Little Gimli?"

To their astonishment, both Ori and Nori laughed. "Little!?" Ori choked.

"I think you are in for a surprise, Grandmother," said Fíli in amusement. "Gimli is as broad as Thorin, as strong as Dori, has a beard you could lose a field-mouse in, and can wield a double-headed battle axe with just one hand."

Frís blinked. "I see."

"Gimli will protect Bilbo," Thorin said, and a shiver raced up his spine. "He is the only one I trust with such a task, as I cannot do it myself."

"And he hears you better than any other in the world of the living," said Fíli pointedly.

Thorin nodded. "Yes. He hears me well."

"Will it truly be war, do you think?" said Kíli, his eyes wide. Thorin swallowed through a throat made tight and painful.

"I fear so," he muttered. "War will come to Erebor."

Balin sighed gustily. "Again. Twice in a generation. These are evil times, my friends."

"Is this it, then?" said Frerin, sounding very, very young. Thráin's hand tightened on his.

"Not just Erebor," said Frís, her perceptive eyes on Thorin's face. "Not just Erebor. The Enemy will never be satisfied with one small corner of Arda. This is the war that will cover the lands in darkness. Mordor will rise again."

Frís, by Jeza-Red

Thorin's chest rose and fell as he tried to calm his breathing. Then he said, "the war that began so long ago is now approaching. The war for Middle-Earth."

"Well, good thing we're safe in Aman," remarked Nori, and he was silenced by an elbow from Ori.

"Sauron wants Bilbo," Thorin said, and the words caught in his throat and choked him for a moment. "I cannot allow it to happen. I swore to protect him and all he loves. I cannot fail him."

"Dushel tasatizd bâhûn," muttered Bifur. "Our wee Burglar."

Thrór stood. He crossed to Thorin in silence, his eyes flinty and stern. Thorin was struck by the memory of his mighty grandfather, Thrór son of Dáin, King Under the Mountain, riches dripping from his fingers and beard and the crown set upon his head; stately, wise and magnificent.

With a sudden jolt Thorin realised that he had taken direct control of this council. For all his talk of relinquishing leadership and command, with two Dwarf-Lords and two true Kings before him, he had taken charge as though it were the most natural thing possible.

Thorin lowered his eyes as Thrór neared, and Thrór reached out and lifted Thorin's chin.

"Your father told me," he said softly. "It's this one, isn't it? The one the Rider wants."

Thorin nodded once, and then let his eyes drop again.

"You mean he knows?" he vaguely heard Ori whisper, only to be hushed by Fíli.

Thrór tilted his regal head, considering. Then he pinched Thorin's cropped chin with gentle fingers. "Why, my child?"

"I owe him," Thorin said, his voice low. "I owe Bilbo Baggins everything. I took so much from him, grandfather. I stole his peace and his comfort and his safety and his contentment, and in return he helped me gain my heart's desire and claim my home. And... and I was blind to what we might have been, and he has been alone ever since. I can never repay the debt I owe him."

"But a Hobbit?"

Thorin bristled. "Yes, a Hobbit, a fine, brave, loyal Hobbit! And a Hobbit is no bad thing to be!"

Thrór smiled faintly. "Well, no accounting for taste, grandson. Still, we'll do all we can. We'll not let anyone harm your Halfling or anything that's dear to him. We watch with you."

"We watch with you," said Balin, and stood, his shoulders straightening.

"If you lot think I'm leavin' my nephew under the eye of you miserable rogues, you've got another think comin'!" Óin declared.

Frís stood, her face resolute and her eyes fixed on Thorin. "My son," she said. "We follow your lead. We'll watch and report, and your gift can do the rest."

"I told you," Thráin said gruffly, coming to stand by his wife. "We're here if you need us, boy."

"Well, you're going to need us," Fíli said with a stubborn jerk of his chin, and Kíli nodded rapidly.

"Definitely going to need us," he echoed.

"Ra shândabi!" Bifur slapped his legs and then held up a fist, punching the air.

"Well, I s'pose I wasn't doing anything important," said Ori, and Nori's eyebrow quirked upwards.

"Ori... we're dead."

"That Gimli boy is a fine warrior, but he needs someone to remind him to comb his hair and beard more than once a month," declared Hrera.

Frerin also stood and slung a careless arm around Thorin's shoulders. "All right, big brother," he said. "We're all in."

Thorin looked about him at his friends and family, Dwarf-Lords and Kings and miners and tinkers and thieves, and he felt the old steel enter his soul once again. He had relinquished command, but here it was again in his hand. So be it. He was a warrior and a war-leader, and the greatest war that Arda would see in three thousand years was upon them. He could feel the fire burning behind his eyes for the first time in seventy-six years.

Drawing himself tall, he felt the mantle of Kingship settle around his shoulders as it had never truly done in life.

"Then we begin," he said, and the faces of his people shone before him. "For Erebor, and Bilbo."

A roar answered him. "For Erebor, and Bilbo!"

Chapter Text

"Bloody Elves."

"Shut up, Óin, I can't see!"

"Why would you want to?" Óin folded his arms and settled back, glowering. The Elves around them milled, graceful and serene and remote. "All you can see is more bloody Elves."

Thorin, Balin, Óin, Ori, Nori, Fíli, Kíli and Thráin stood beyond the circle of chairs, listening intently. Seeing Bilbo at this great meeting had made Thorin's heart clench painfully. Bilbo's hair had turned white, and his face was finally showing signs of his very great age. He moved slowly, and spoke but little. Much of the talk came from Gandalf (who was either ignoring the Company or unaware of their presence) and Lord Elrond (the smug, self-satisfied Elven git). Bilbo and Frodo both appeared terribly small amongst this council of free peoples and mighty lords, and Thorin wanted to snarl at each one of the damned Elves (and especially that arrogant Man) who looked at them and turned away with dismissal in their eyes.

Gimli looked very uncomfortable, his face set and glowering. Glóin's expression was grim and calm, even though Thranduil's get sat but a few seats away. They were both in formal attire – their gold clasps adorning their beards and their hair unbound. Thorin absently noted that Gimli, once again, had forgotten to brush his.

First Glóin gave the news of the Mountain. Gandalf hummed in thought and his eyes narrowed under his bushy brows. Thorin waited impatiently, but no-one in the Council had anything useful to say at all.

"Erebor will see war," he sighed to himself.

"It was always going to happen," said Balin heavily. "There is no avoiding it."

"I had hoped that one of these great Lords might give us some hope," Thráin said, eyeing the Elves darkly. "Too much to ask of a bunch of weed-eaters. I should have known better."

"Twice in a generation," muttered Óin. "Evil days indeed."

"Um, excuse me, be quiet please!" hissed Ori. "They're speaking about the old days!"

"What old days?" Fíli craned his neck. "Óin, get down, I can't see a thing!"

"Move then! I'm fine where I am."

"Who's Isildur?" said Kíli, frowning.

"A King of Men, a Númenorean," Ori said scornfully. "Don't you know anything?"

Nori snickered.

"Oh, and you're so smart," Kíli said, sticking out his scruffy chin. "So when'd he live?"

"At the end of the Second Age, and the beginning of the Third, dimwit," Ori snapped. "He was one of the Men who established the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor."

"Arnor?" Fíli raised an eyebrow. "What's Arnor?"

"I cannot believe you pair," growled Balin. "You have both forgotten everything I taught you!"

"Including how to be quiet!" said Thráin, and at the sight of their grandfather's stern face, both Princes fell silent.

There was much talk of the Rings of Power, and Thorin allowed his mind to wander. He let his gaze drift to Bilbo. The old Hobbit was wrapped in a shawl, and he looked small and doll-like on the oversized Elven chairs.

"So what is Arnor?"

"Shut up!"

"Bring forth the Ring, Frodo," said Elrond, interrupting Thorin's thoughts, and he whipped his head around to stare at the youngster. Bilbo's ring, that innocuous little thing, landed on a plinth with a disproportionately loud sound. He frowned at it, and then at Frodo, who was retaking his seat with a huge sigh of relief.

"So it is true!" the tall Man said, his eyes intent on the ring.

And then Thranduil's spawn murmured, "Sauron's ring - the Ring of Power!" - and Thorin felt his knees buckle.

The Man was still speaking, but Thorin could barely hear him.

It wasn't one of the lesser baubles scattered through the world. This little thing that Bilbo had carried for nigh on sixty years was the Ring of Sauron, the ruling ring, the One Ring.

Through the high-pitched buzzing in his ears, the thought came that it was no wonder the black messenger wanted Bilbo so.

The other Man, grim and weathered, cloaked in Elvish garb, was revealed as the Heir of someone or other. Thorin could barely muster the effort to care, still stunned and reeling at what his Hobbit had blithely carried and used for so long – to avoid unpleasant visitors, of all things!

He turned again to look at his Hobbit, old and creaking, and knew then what it had done. It had prolonged Bilbo's life. One hundred and twenty-seven was a vast old age for a Hobbit, and yet Bilbo had only begun to show true signs of the passage of time when he left Hobbiton, and the Ring.

The Ring.

"Did I hear that correctly?" asked Balin incredulously.

"Isildur's Bane," whispered Ori. "Oh sweet merciful Mahal, grant them strength."

Thráin snarled under his breath, shifting his weight between his feet and his hands clenching and unclenching. His shoulders bunched with barely-restrained violence.

"Destroy it," Thorin breathed. "This foul thing... it has tainted - it must be destroyed!"

"Well, what are we waiting for?" growled Gimli, and he drew his father's double-headed battle axe.

With a savage cry he rushed forward and brought the axe down in a blow that Dwalin would be proud of. Thorin's breath caught as Gimli was thrown backwards and a steely ringing sounded in the air, whispering and coaxing.

"Is he all right?" Óin said anxiously. "Is he all right?"

Gimli pushed himself up onto his elbows and shook his head to clear it. His father's axe was shattered.

"Yeah, the idiot's fine," said Nori. "Can't say the same for Glóin's old axe, though."

"The Ring cannot be destroyed, Gimli son of Glóin, by any craft that we here possess," said Elrond. Thorin glared at the damned Elf. Not a hair out of place on him, not a glimmer of concern, as though Gimli had not just risked himself to be rid of the thing. "The ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom. Only there can it be unmade."

The first Man – Boromir – began to explain (with admirable patience, Thorin thought) why this was lunacy. Mordor was no Hobbit walking-party. Thorin listened with half an ear and carefully watched Gimli haul himself to his feet and brush himself off. He seemed to have taken no lasting damage.

Then of course, Thranduil's damned son had to speak up. "Have you heard nothing Lord Elrond has said? The ring must be destroyed!"

"Oh, now you wish to help!" Thorin snarled, turning on him. His blood was boiling. Bilbo had carried the One Ring; the One Ring had touched his Hobbit, altered him; he had crept past Elves and spiders and even a dragon with the aid of that foul, evil... His anger sought an outlet. It found one. "Do you intend to hold to your word? Or will you turn away again? You elves with your false promises and your false friendships... you cannot be trusted with this thing!"

"I suppose you think you're the one to do it!" Gimli leapt back onto his feet, his face thunderous. The room erupted, and Balin groaned, his head falling into his hands.

"Well, that's torn it," he muttered. "Thorin, laddie, you might want to think about doing something about that temper of yours. Say, perhaps holding on to it?"

"I will be dead before I see the ring in the hands of an Elf!"

The Elf raised an elegant eyebrow. "Indeed? Then may I offer my assistance, Master Dwarf?"

Gimli's head lowered, and his massive bull-like shoulders bunched in readiness. "Ha! You couldn't fell me if you tried, you skinny twig. You haven't the strength. You could not bear this thing half a mile!"

The Elf squared up to the Dwarf, looking coolly down his nose. "I would do better than a grasping, greedy mole, stone-headed and stone-hearted," he sneered.

"Stone-hearted?" Gimli bristled. "Better that than faithless! Never trust an Elf! They will promise friendship, and then turn upon you! Fair words can hide foul deeds. I know you, Wood-Elf, and all your fickle kind!"

"Oh, this is going swimmingly," muttered Glóin with heavy sarcasm, sinking down into his chair and covering his eyes.

This Elf was not as impassive as Thranduil, and his face grew angry. "A Dwarf would seize this thing and keep it for his own! Gold is your only love, is it not? Avarice is all you know, you little stone-grubber. No doubt it seems natural to you."

"Fine talk from the son of one who stood armed outside our gates, demanding our people's treasures at siege-point - and with no word of apology for my father's imprisonment!" Gimli roared.

"Khathuzh, sakhabizu heden!" Bifur shouted.

"Thorin, I think this might be getting out of hand..." mumbled Ori.

"Treacherous Elf!"

"Greedy Dwarf!"

"Deceitful weed-eaters!"

"Filthy rock-lovers!"

The noise was becoming deafening, and Thorin turned to see Gandalf's eyes lingering on him. The old Wizard looked profoundly disapproving – and afraid. "The Ring," he said gravely, and Thorin somehow heard him over the uproar. "It thrives on such discord. The Enemy delights in our mistrust, Thorin son of Thráin. He loves our pride and our conflict. It only adds to his gain."

Thorin stared at him, and the foul whispering in the air mingled with the din until he could not determine individual sounds from each other.

"I will take it!"

The clear voice rang over the clamour, and Thorin blinked.

"I will take it!"

Frodo was walking forward into the midst of all the bickering Big Folk, his face pale and pinched, but resolute. "I will take the Ring to Mordor!"

All fell quiet, and faces turned to the Hobbit in surprise.

The sudden silence felt like a long exhale, and Thorin glanced back at Gimli. He was standing with his lips parted, and he looked somewhat ashamed of himself.

Thorin grimaced. That was not an auspicious beginning. "I am sorry, azaghîth," he murmured.

Gimli's shoulders relaxed, and he lifted his chin. "That was not my finest moment," he said to himself.

"Nor mine," said Thorin, and smiled ruefully at his star. "Pride was ever my downfall. Learn from me, and do not make it yours."

"Though..." Frodo was saying, and his blue eyes were large and fearful, "I do not know the way..."

"Oh my sweet Maker," said Kíli in a rush, and he grabbed onto Fíli's jacket. "He's so little, isn't he little? So little and brave!"

"He's taller than Bilbo," Fíli pointed out, trying to pry Kíli's fingers off.

"He's littler than me!" Kíli said defensively.

"I give up on you," Fíli sighed, and allowed Kíli to continue to gush and grab at his arm.

Thorin caught sight of Bilbo's face as Gandalf stepped forward and pledged himself to the young Hobbit's protection. He was utterly aghast, thrown back in his chair as though struck. His skin looked greyish and pale, and he was gazing at Frodo in horror.

A rush of realisation swept over Thorin. "Frodo is the son of your heart," he said blankly.

"Frodo-lad," Bilbo managed, and his hands gripped his shawl tightly. "Oh, Frodo-lad, what have I done to you?" His voice rose sharply and plaintively, and his eyes were brimming with fear for the boy. "What have I done to you?"

"Thorin," said Thráin in a low voice. "A word."

His father drew him aside and muttered, "They cannot harm Bilbo here in Rivendell. Elrond's power keeps this land safe. But Frodo is a Baggins, and a Hobbit from the Shire. They will be hunting him the minute he steps foot beyond the valley."

After a moment, Thorin nodded curtly. "This mission is too important."

"You know what we must do, son," Thráin said, and his powerful hands landed on Thorin's head in blessing and reassurance. "Go. Do it."

He took a breath and turned back to his Burglar.

"Bilbo," Thorin said, and knelt before the Hobbit, keeping his eyes on the wrinkled old face. "Bilbo..."

"Oh, please," Bilbo whimpered, and Thorin could not stand it a minute longer.

"We will protect him for you," he promised. "I vowed to look after you, and those you love. I will watch over him. I swear it."

"Please, Ilúvatar, Mahal, Kementári, protect him," Bilbo whispered. "Elbereth Gilthoniel, watch over him – oh, forgive me! Forgive me!"

"I swear it," Thorin vowed, and lifted a finger to ghost over the lines of Bilbo's face.

Then he stood and strode over to Gimli. "Gimli, inùdoy," he said, his voice low and dark and full of determination. "You know what must be done. This is the battle of our Age, and you shall be our Champion. Go. Son of my heart, will you protect the son of his?"

Gimli stood, planting his feet as a Dwarf should. "And my axe!" he said loudly, and he drew his father's walking axe and glared up at the Elf. The Elf, for his part, ignored him with aloof disdain.

The Man of Gondor also chose to stand with them, and Frodo looked achingly small amongst them. And then Hobbits were scurrying out of the bushes to insist on going as well, and Bifur exploded into howls of laughter.

"They can't be serious?" Nori said, his braided eyebrows rising almost to his hairline. "Four Hobbits?"

"Well, we had one, it worked for us," said Óin, shrugging.

"Right, yeah, one was a good number, one was plenty of Hobbit in my opinion. Four's going to mean a lot of pocket-handkerchiefs, is all I'm sayin'."

"I don't think Peregrin Took has used a handkerchief in his life," said Thorin dryly, watching as the youngest of the Hobbits made a fool of himself - again.

"You shall be the Fellowship of the Ring," announced Elrond, and Thorin resisted the urge to roll his eyes. A grandiose name for nine walkers. Simply 'the Company of Frodo Baggins' would have sufficed.

This seemed to signify the end of the Council. Many of the great Lords stayed to talk between themselves in quiet voices. Frodo helped Bilbo down from his too-high chair, and Thorin watched them leave with worried eyes. Bilbo seemed nearly transparent with grief and horror, his face even older than before.

Then he heard Gimli's voice rumble, "Master Elf, if I may?"

He turned to see the son of Thranduil look down his nose at Gimli, his face expressionless but his eyes flashing with irritation. "Dwarf. What have you to say?"

Gimli's jaw tensed, but he did not rise to the bait. "I wish to apologise. My words were hasty and ill-chosen. I would not set out together on such a Quest with them still between us."

Thorin felt his mouth open. Kind, aye. And forgiving, his thoughts from long ago whispered.

The Elf looked puzzled – and suspicious. "I see. In which case, I also rescind my words, and offer you my apologies. Your name?"

"Gimli son of Glóin," Gimli said, offering the barest minimum of a bow. Thorin couldn't help but note that he had omitted the customary greeting.

"Legolas Thranduilion," the Elf said, inclining his head only slightly. Thorin glowered at him. That Elf had held him at arrow-point and threatened his life! How dare Gimli offer his apologies to the creature!

"Well met, Elf," said Gimli, ignoring the name.

The Elf's lip curled in distaste. "Obviously not."

Gimli's beard twitched, as though he was also suppressing a sneer. "Well, at least there's room for improvement, aye?"

Frís found Thorin in his smithy, much later. He had begun work on an iron skillet, and it had been going well. He had cast the initial shape, and though the pig-iron was not as noble a metal as he normally shaped, he found it fluid to work with and it bent to his will easily.

He turned the half-finished work over in his hands. Here the pan, where a Hobbit might cook bacon or tomatoes or eggs or mushrooms or those little flat cakes that Frodo liked so much. Here the handle, where a Hobbit's hands would grip sure and steady and confident. Possibly a wooden handle, to reduce the conductivity of heat. Hobbit hands were nimble but soft. Here a divot in the rim, for pouring, and here a maker's mark: Thorin, son of Thráin. Here around the sides, a wrought pattern of Dwarvish knotwork, each knot surmounted with Hobbitish flowers.

"Are you all right?" she said softly, sitting beside him. He grunted.

She took the skillet and turned it, eyeing his guide-marks and the decorations around the sides. "Oh, Thorin," she sighed.

"Hobbits have a language for their flowers, much as we have ours for gems," he said, and his voice was deep and distant even to himself.

"What are they?" she said.

He paused, and then he took her hand and guided it over one of the flowers. "Berrirose," he said. "And rainflowers."

"What do they mean?"

He smiled and did not answer.

Frís put the pan aside and turned his hand over. There was a burn from the casting process on the heel of his palm, and she made a 'tcch!' sound under her breath.

"I am fine," he said, taking his hand back. "I am well."

"That I don't doubt," she said, and looked up at him. He had gained his father's height, and he towered over her. "I worry. I'm your mother; it's my privilege to do so."

"I'm older than you," he reminded her, and she arched one wheat-blonde eyebrow.

"You are still my son and I know you, my surly little Prince. Talk to me."

He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Bilbo carried the One Ring. He carried it for sixty years. I have watched over him all this time, and I never..."

Her blue eyes, the same hue and shape as his own, softened. Then she pulled his head down and kissed him on the brow. "You are not responsible, Thorin," she said. "You are not responsible for every bad thing that has happened in this world. The Ring has its own will, and it chose your Hobbit. That he has kept his own heart and his own mind speaks very highly of him."

"He never would have found it if I hadn't..."

"Oh, for Mahal's sake!" she said, frustrated love passing over her face. "Do you know how hard it is to watch you constantly flay yourself for things that are not your fault? You have made mistakes, certainly – but this is not yours to claim. Gandalf was the one who chose Bilbo Baggins, or have you forgotten?"

Thorin's breath paused on an exhale.

"I thought so," she said. "Please, Thorin, stop this. You are a good soul, and a mighty heart. Stop tearing yourself apart with remorse."

"But... 'amad, I..." Thorin didn't know what to say, and his words came out strangled and half-growled. "I don't – never knew that..."

She put her fingers over his mouth, and then let them card into his cropped beard, combing gently. "I saw my son again at that meeting. I saw my brave, valiant, determined boy - the Dwarf who led a forgotten people to safety, rallied a hopeless battle, and stared down two armies with nothing more than the strength of his will. Don't lose yourself again in your guilt, dear one. Don't take on the burdens that are others' to bear. No-one is strong enough for that."

He blinked, and then he let his head fall forward against her shoulder and let out a long, shuddering breath. Her arms wrapped as far as they could around his shoulders, and he stayed there for a long moment, breathing in that scent that spoke of safety, of love and home.

Then he straightened and pressed their brows together. "Well then," he said. "Back to work."

She smiled.

"Here now, Gimli," Glóin said, his gruff voice cracking. "Here's the tinder box, and here's my old pipe. Hobbits grow the finest pipe-weed in the world, and they're not stingy with it. I would be cruel indeed to deny you the chance to taste it. Ach, look at you boy, your braids are crooked! Did you tie them with your eyes closed? Did you even brush them?"

Gimli stood still and allowed Glóin to unravel one plait, his old gnarled fingers moving in the patterns of a lifetime. "I doubt any will care whether I have brushed my hair or not, Dad," Gimli said.

"Well, I care, and so would your mother," Glóin said fiercely. "You're representing the pride of our people now, son. You should look as a Dwarf-Lord should."

"All these tall folk and Elves, they cannot tell whether I am a Dwarf-Lord or a tinker," Gimli grunted, lifting his chin so that his father could gather more of his thick beard into the braid. "Why I need to wear my clasps and braids for such an ignorant lot..."

"Ignorant they may be, but they are our allies," Glóin said, tugging sharply on the braid he was weaving. "Mahal knows they can't even tell a Broadbeam from a Stiffbeard, but you will comport yourself as befits my son and a Dwarf of Durin's line. Remember, what you do here not only reflects upon you but upon all Dwarves everywhere."

Gimli sighed, and allowed his father to unravel his other braid. "Yes, Dad."

Glóin huffed. "When you say 'yes, Dad' in that tone of voice I half-believe you are a lad of sixty again, and not a Dwarrow more than twice that age."

Gimli reached out and touched the onyx and gold beads caught in the snow-white fall of Glóin's hair. "I feel like a lad of sixty. I am but one Dwarf, Dad, I cannot represent all Dwarves! It is too much to ask, I..."

"Ach, shh. You'll do fine," Glóin said, and he tied off the second braid and stood back. "There. Oh, nidoyuh."

Gimli lifted his head, his newly-done braids sliding over his broad and powerful chest. He remained still, letting his father look his fill. Then Glóin leaned forward and clasped Gimli's face in his hands, and spoke a quiet word. Gimli closed his eyes and exhaled slowly.

Watching, Thorin was profoundly shaken. He had heard that word.

He was almost certain he had just heard the true and secret name of Gimli, son of Glóin.

Glóin pressed their heads together for a moment, and then he kissed his son's brow gently. "Remember who you are. Stay as safe as you can. Protect the Ringbearer. Keep an eye on that Elf, and don't run into any bloody trolls or any o' that nonsense!"

"I have letters," Gimli said, reaching into his brigandine and fishing out a bundle of papers. He cleared his throat. "One for Mum, and one for Gimrís and Bofur, and one for Gimizh. That one, the one in blue paper, is for Aunt Dís. There's also a note for Dori, and another for Bombur and Alrís, and the last is for Dwalin, Orla and their lads. I have a letter to be sent to Dáin too, if I..."

Glóin took them, and then he wrapped Gimli in a bear-hug. "I love you, boy," he said, low and fervent. "I am so proud of you. So, so proud of you."

Gimli buried his face in Glóin's beautiful white beard, and clung to his father with all of his enormous strength. "I love you too, 'adad."

"Don't you forget to contact us when you can," Glóin said against Gimli's hair. "Protect that Hobbit with all you have. He's the only hope for all our peoples."

Gimli nodded against Glóin's beard, before forcing himself to let go and stand back. "Well," he said, and then he cleared his throat. "We leave within the hour. I should... I..."

Glóin smiled and nodded. "Go, azaghâl belkul. Go on and help save the world."

Gimli shouldered his pack, gripped his father's walking-axe, slipped the throwing axes and his decorated bearded axe into his leather harness, clapped his helm on his head, took one last, anguished look at his father, and tore himself away.

Glóin stared at the empty, open door for the space of two heartbeats, before sinking down onto the too-high bed.

Thorin hesitated, and then he sat down beside his cousin. The silence left behind in Gimli's wake washed over them.

"So who's the Man?" asked Óin, scratching at his stomach as he, Ori and Thorin trudged along behind the trailing Hobbits.

"Which one?" said Ori.

"This one. Either one. I wasn't listening really."

"The most important Council in centuries, and you weren't listening?!"

"Too many Elves."

Ori sighed and pursed his lips. "The one with the horn is Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor. The one with the long stride is Aragorn, and he's the Heir of Isildur."

"Oh." Óin squinted up at them. "Poor things, barely a scruff between 'em. The Gondor one shows a bit o' promise, but the Isildur one's as bad as Kíli. How do they tell each other what they do and who they are wi'out a beard to braid?"

Ori shrugged. "P'raps they ask?"

"Sounds a bit dull."

Gimli walked behind Aragorn in silence, his eyes darting around at the unfamiliar trees and his hand on the haft of his axe. The helm Dwalin had given him was on his head, and his heavy boots stumped rhythmically against the crackling leaves underfoot. The Men also walked heavily, and Thorin looked back at where the Hobbits followed, nearly noiseless as they pattered barefoot through the leaves.

The Elf was ranging ahead. His soft shoes made very little noise though he was not as eerily silent as the Hobbits. His eyes were narrowed as he peered through the wood, and on occasion he swung into the branches to gain a higher vantage point.

They slept in the middle of the day and moved throughout the night, relying on daylight to keep the sleepers safe from orcs. Upon the second day they camped in the western lee of a hill to avoid any prying eyes from the East. It was a good thing Gimli had brought his father's flint, as Gandalf disappeared shortly after they had made camp.

"Where's he off to?" asked Pippin, frowning. "A funny time to go sight-seeing!"

"My father said Gandalf comes and goes as he will," Gimli said, and smiled at the little Hobbit as the tinder caught. "Not to worry, Master Peregrin! You have myself and Boromir and Aragorn to protect you."

"And Legolas," added Aragorn, his eyes gleaming with mirth. "Do you forget Legolas, Master Gimli?"

Gimli grunted and did not answer, piling leaves and twigs around his nascent fire.

"Oh, Gimli," Thorin said and rubbed his face with one hand, trying to repress a smile. "I have been influencing you for far too long!"

"Now Mister Frodo, sir," Samwise was saying, handing over a dried strip of meat. "It's not exactly a fry-up, but it'll tide us over until Mister Gimli's got that fire up an' going."

"It's ready when you are, Master Samwise," said Gimli, stepping back to show the neat little firepit with its merry blaze.

"Now, that's a thing!" Sam scratched his head. "I'm no stranger to lightin' fires myself, but that took no time at all! Why, it felt as though I'd barely blinked!"

"Fire has ever been a good servant to Dwarves," Gimli said, and tugged off his heavy gloves to warm his hands by his fire.

"Here, Mister Frodo, get yourself a bit closer. That wind is not playing around!" Sam said, and then turned to where Merry and Pippin were digging through his discarded pack. "And you two, get out o' there! I don't want to have to explain to Strider why we ran out o' food not two days out of Rivendell!"

Merry looked somewhat ashamed, but Pippin looked completely unconcerned. "Well, I won't be bothered," he said cheerfully. "I'll have a full stomach, and there's very little that's disagreeable about that!"

Gimli chuckled. "My father once told me that there were seven meals a day for Hobbits. Is it true?"

Pippin's eyes lit up and he sat down opposite Gimli, sticking his thumbs into his weskit in an important manner. "Now, there are two schools of thought on that," he said, nodding solemnly. "Some, the more enlightened, believe that there should be upwards of seven meals. Why, what if you get peckish between Second Breakfast and Elevensies? What if you wake up in the middle of the night with turkey sandwiches on your mind? What if supper is not really satisfying the first time around, so you want to give it another chance?"

"Enough, enough!" Gimli laughed. "I see how it is. The enlightened amongst Hobbits would advocate eating all through the day and most of the night, if it were at all practical!"

Pippin beamed, pleased to have made the Dwarf laugh. "Absolutely!"

The Elf's head had turned at Gimli's deep, booming laugh, and a tiny crease had formed between his dark brows.

"How many meals do Dwarves have, then? Are they like Men, or are they more sensible about matters?" asked Sam, putting his pan down on the flames.

Gimli leaned back, his eyes twinkling. "I'm sure you'd think us very foolish indeed, Master Gamgee. We normally have only two or three meals a day, though we may easily go without."

"Two or three!" Merry looked aghast. "And Bilbo travelled all that way with – oh, the poor old Hobbit!"

"We didn't starve him," Thorin grumbled, and behind him Óin made a noise of indignant protest.

"How on earth do you keep going on so little!" Pippin said, scooting closer to the fire and staring at Gimli with wide eyes. "I'm sure I'd waste away to simply nothing. Two or three- or nothing!"

"Shameful, is what it is!" Sam declared, waving his spoon about.

Gimli held up his great hands and laughed. "Peace, peace! It is what I need, no more. If you fed me like a Hobbit I'd soon be as round as I am tall!"

"I can't believe you are as strong as you are," said Merry, prodding at Gimli's prodigious arms. "Why, I'd disappear completely!"

"Isn't natural," Sam grumbled, his spoon jabbing at his sizzling pan.

"It's perfectly natural for a Dwarf, which I am," said Gimli, grinning at the young Hobbits. "I'll keep to what a Dwarf knows and leave all expertise in eating to Hobbits, where it obviously belongs."

"And what does a Dwarf know, then?" Pippin said eagerly and he tipped his head, gazing at Gimli with avid curiosity.

"Pippin, don't be rude!" Merry said, tugging at his cousin's jacket and raising his eyebrows meaningfully. "Sorry, Master Gimli, it's just that we've never met a Dwarf and Pippin here," he dug an elbow into Pippin's side, "has absolutely no sense of the appropriate."

"Oh, and you do, a'course," Sam muttered beneath his breath. Frodo smiled faintly.

"No offense taken, Master Merry," Gimli said, leaning back and lighting his pipe. "I don't mind at all. There's a lot o' lies spread about our folk," and Gimli sent a dark look over at the Elf, "and it's good to get the chance to combat 'em."

The Elf was startled by the sudden attention, and his eyes snapped from the little gathering to the forest once more.

"Well now," Gimli mused, puffing on his pipe. "What a Dwarf knows. What a Dwarf knows."

"Rocks and stones, no doubt," said the Elf dismissively, and Gimli raised an eyebrow.

"Aye, rocks and stones. Do you expect me to be offended?"

The Elf remained silent.

"Rocks and stones are not dead, Master Elf," Gimli continued. "Each has their own song, and we can feel it beneath our feet and under our fingers. Everything yearns. Everything has beauty inside it, and it longs to be let free. The meanest of stones struggles to become, and we cannot help but sense it. Each Dwarf is drawn to a craft, and we find beauty and wisdom in the work of hands and minds. We are taught our history early and the songs and chants of our people. Each clan has their own ancient traditions, you know. We love music well, and dance. My grandmother was a famous axe-dancer. She could keep four spinning at one time! My father's folk, the Longbeards, are more likely to mine gold or iron, but the Stiffbeards love silver best and make many cunning things from it."

"Do you have a craft?" asked Boromir, interested despite himself. "My apologies – but I have never heard one of your secretive race speaking so openly before."

Gimli waved the apology away. "No, I have not found that which makes my hands sing," he said easily. "I'm still in the prime of my years, however – plenty of time yet!"

"How old are you, Master Dwarf?" Aragorn asked.

"Oh, I turned one hundred and thirty-nine a few months ago," said Gimli, blowing a smoke ring.

Aragorn looked taken aback. "And here I thought myself amongst the oldest of our party. It seems that between you and Legolas and Gandalf, I am a mere child."

"I expect we all look like children to those two," Gimli said.

"Bilbo once told me of a language," Frodo said.

Gimli's eyes narrowed. "Aye, there is a language, passed down from our Maker."

"He said he wasn't supposed to know," Frodo said, and he smiled faintly. "You know Bilbo."

"I met him once, when I was but a lad," Gimli said, and snorted. "It doesn't surprise me that he knows of Khuzdul. Aye, that's the name of it. We alone of all speaking peoples did not learn our tongue from the Elves, but from our Great Maker himself. It is sacred, and I will not speak more about it."

"Your maker?" said Merry artlessly. "You mean someone makes Dwarves? Is that a craft?"

Gimli started, and then he laughed long and loud. "Ah! If it is a craft, then the best craftswoman I know is Alrís daughter of Gerís! She has twelve children, a remarkable feat amongst Dwarves."

"Twelve is a commonplace enough number in the Shire," shrugged Pippin. "My mother was a Banks, you know, and she was the third of eight."

"We do not increase quickly," Gimli said, still chuckling. "Ah, me! I must tell Alrís and Bombur when next I see them."

"Bombur's wife," Frodo said, his eyes flickering with recognition. "Bilbo told me about him. He was one of the Company."

"Indeed he was."

"So who made Dwarves? If not lady Dwarves," pressed Merry.

"Dwarrowdams," Gimli corrected, and the three younger Hobbits repeated the new word slowly.

"They were not intended," said Legolas.

Gimli froze. And then he said, carefully, "not by the One who made all else. No. We were created by other hands."

"Dwarves were never meant to be," Legolas said, his Elven eyes flashing. "They mar the song of Arda with their discordant notes."

Legolas, by fishfingersandscarves

Thorin growled, and Óin's hands clenched. "No," Ori said softly. "Don't influence him. They must be a Fellowship, and that can't happen if Gimli loses his temper every two seconds."

"Gimli can lose his temper without any help from me," Thorin retorted, glaring at the Elf.

"We are an ancient race, made by Mahal in the days before the Elves awoke," said Gimli stiffly. "He longed for companionship, and so he made creatures other than himself and taught them to speak. The One who made all else discovered us, and told Mahal that his creatures were not wanted. And so we are not wanted, not understood, forever apart from the other races of the world."

Sam's mouth dropped open. "Now, that's cruel, plain cruel," he muttered.

"T'is the way of things," Gimli said, and tapped the embers from his pipe on his heavy boot. "We will be granted a place in the music at the end of all things, for so we were promised. But until then, we are not wanted and we know it." He looked up at the Elf defiantly. "There are some who delight in reminding us. Still, what are we to do about it? Cease to exist? No. All things yearn to become. Even the meanest of stones strives, and Dwarves know it better than any."

"Does it ever make you angry?" asked Frodo quietly.

Gimli nodded his bright head. "Aye, sometimes. But what use is anger? We were made strong to endure. And so we do."

The Elf looked troubled for a moment. Then he stood and said, "I will scout this area."

"Do that," grunted Gimli, and he rolled himself into his blankets. In two to three seconds he was snoring.

"He didn't wait for supper," Sam complained.

"That was well said," murmured Ori.

"He spoke of Mahal," said Óin, shaking his head. "Shouldn't have done that."

"The little Hobbits were curious," said Thorin. "He seems fond of them. Their curiosity does no harm."

"That damned Elf is going to be trouble," Óin predicted. Thorin sighed.

"I fear you are all too correct," he said, glaring at the trees where the Elf had disappeared.

Before the stars released him, he stopped in on Bilbo. The old Hobbit was seated in a huge chair, far too large for him, and his feet swung above the floor. He had a blanket over his knees, and his head was nodding on his chest.

"Hullo my dear," Thorin said softly, and crouched down before him. "They are well on their way. The Hobbits grow fond of Gimli, and the Men are strong and valiant. Your son is safe."

Bilbo's head nodded lower, and a faint expression of grief flickered over his face.

"You look so tired, my idùzhib," he said with as much tenderness as he could muster. Thorin was not good at expressing his care, and the words did not come easily. But for Bilbo he would try. "You should make your way to bed. I have them. I will not fail you."

He lifted his hand and carefully rested it above Bilbo's. Only a breath of air was between the warm, living, wrinkled flesh of the Hobbit and Thorin's cold ghostly palm, forever caught in the vigour of his prime. His hand was so much broader and stronger than Bilbo's, and closing his eyes he imagined that he could feel the thin and papery skin, the soft buttery texture.

"So old, my Bilbo," he said, and looked up into the Hobbit's drowsing face. "I never thought to wonder why you lived on and on and on. I only thought to curse the fate that kept you from me for so long."

He lifted his other hand and allowed it to drift through the wispy white spiderweb of Bilbo's hair. "I am glad you grew old," he said in a low voice. "Whatever the reason, I am glad one of us did. Still, I find I hate that you grew old without me. Would you laugh at my grey beard, I wonder? Would we barricade ourselves against each winter, wrapping ourselves in your quilts and complaining about our bones? Would we grow more alike as time passed; my mannerisms becoming yours, your words becoming mine?"

Bilbo's lips moved, and Thorin sighed soundlessly. "Fruitless to wonder. Still. How I wish, Master Burglar. How I wish."

Bilbo mumbled under his breath for a moment, and then the sounds became words.

I sit beside the fire and think
Of all that I have seen,
Of meadow-flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been.

I sit beside the fire and think
Of people long ago,
And people who will see a world
That I shall never know.

I sit beside the fire and think
Of words I never said,
Of promises and wishes made
All locked up in my head.

I sit beside the fire and think
I hear him now and then.
But still I wait to hear that knock
Upon my door again.

Bilbo and Thorin in Rivendell, by bambz-art

Chapter Text

"Is this what you meant? The secrets long hidden?"

The voice of Thorin's Maker was heavy and soft, less of an oppressive weight than before. "Aye, my child. They come to light now."

Thorin touched the side of the giant anvil, at least twice his height. Once, Durin had awoken on that anvil, new-made and wide-eyed, his soul fresh and unused. Perhaps Durin had stood here where Thorin now stood, at the foot of their Maker, also asking why is this so?

"One who was close to you," Thorin remembered the words from long ago. "One who betrayed you utterly."

"My student," said Mahal, sorrow hanging in the air like smoke. "He had another name, once."

"Sauron," Thorin said. "Sauron was your student."


"Did you know that my Bilbo had his Ring?" Thorin's hand tightened on the strange wood of the anvil's foot. "Did you?"

Mahal paused, and then he said, "Yes."

Thorin's heart sputtered in its rhythm and his hands ached for his sword. Then his eyes slid shut and he bowed his head. What could be done? What could his Maker do? The Valar had left Middle-Earth lest they destroy it utterly. By his own vow Mahal was bound.

"You learn patience, my son," Mahal said softly.

"I have had eighty years to learn it," said Thorin, bitterness welling upon his tongue. "I wait and wait to make my amends. I wait and wait for my Hobbit. I wait. Patience has been a lesson taught to me by ungentle hands."

"Your Hobbit," Mahal repeated, and sighed.

Thorin looked up. As always, the face of the great figure was indescribably beautiful, indescribably ancient, and somehow indistinct. He could never remember the exact details of it afterwards. "Did you think I would not find out?" he said in a low, tight voice. "I may not be given to self-reflection, but I was bound to know my heart eventually."

"So you have realised it at last," said Mahal, his hand lowering to lift Thorin's chin and turn it this way and that. The touch was fond, fatherly and a little critical; a craftsman observing a fine piece of workmanship. Thorin steeled himself against his usual shudders. The touch of his Maker was full of such power and love... it was difficult to bear. "I am sorry you could not know it in life, my son."

Thorin stared, and his pulse jumped in his throat. "You knew."

"I made your heart, Thorin." Mahal's hand, huge and hard from work, smoothed over the fall of Thorin's hair. "Though you buried it in obsessions and vengeance and guilt and gold, I know when it beats with love."

Suddenly Thorin needed to lean heavily against his hand upon the great anvil. "You knew."

Mahal smiled, and Thorin could feel it as a blossoming warmth in his belly and chest. "He chose to follow you - to save you - he who has never followed another. Perhaps you should consider that."

Thorin could not help but let out a small gasp at that, his throat tightening like a noose around it and making it sound choked and strangled. "He chose me. Me. He could have chosen another, he could have been loved and happy his whole life! Instead he remains faithful to a ghost who cursed him and threw all his loyalty away!"

"Shh," Mahal's voice cut straight through Thorin, and he shuddered. The hand against his head braced him, holding him up. "Shhh, child. You know better than to do this. Shh."

Thorin took a deep breath, and then another. Finally he was able to speak again. "Why?" he asked hoarsely, and perhaps Durin had felt like weeping as well.

"Some things are beyond even my doing, Thorin," said his Maker.

Thorin bowed his head once more.

Mahal's hand nudged his chin up again. "You have made good use of your Gift so far. Stay true to your promise, my son. Even in the blackest hour we may find a star to guide us."

Thorin could feel a faint, unhappy smile tugging at his lips. "A star. Very subtly put."

"Aye." The hand withdrew, and Thorin peered up at the great, rough face with its tender expression. "Stay with him. Your Hobbit is tied to the Ring, and now so is the fate of all of that Company. Our fierce young star has his own part to play in this. He is a Dwarrow all alone, and yet I feel that he is about to step into something that will change the Khazâd forever."

Thorin let out a long, shaking breath, feeling his heartbeat in the bone of his clenched jaw and neck. Then he turned away. He would go to the pool of Gimlîn-zâram and see Bilbo again. He would sing to his Hobbit until he fell asleep. He would do as his mother ordered and not think of his guilt any more.

"Thorin," said Mahal, "one last thing."

He paused, and looked back. The great Vala of Craft and Stone seemed to be, for lack of a better word, embarrassed.

"Please, call off your nephew?"

Thorin smiled. "Some things are beyond my doing." He bowed low, and then he left.

They were a fortnight out of Rivendell when their fortunes changed.

It began innocently enough. The Man Boromir had taken it upon himself to teach the two youngest Hobbits a thing or two about swordplay. There was less swordplay and more giggling than Thorin felt was strictly necessary.

"Foolishness," he muttered.

"He's just sour because he bet on Pippin," said Nori. "Any twit could see that Merry's the more vicious one."

"Did you seriously just call a Hobbit vicious?" asked Óin incredulously.

"Comparatively vicious," said Nori. "Pippin thinks all of this is great fun, whereas Merry's got more of a clue, y'see?"

"Vicious Hobbits," Óin said, shaking his head. "That'll be the day."

"They're doing well," said Balin, studying their form. "Boromir is a good teacher."

As Pippin kicked the Man's shin and they went down in a pile, Thorin fought a smile. "Perhaps he needs to take a few lessons himself."

"The Shire! For the Shire!" cried Merry and Pippin, clambering over the Man and whooping their triumph.

Boromir cried out in surprise, and then his rarely-heard laughter pealed out over the valley. It was good to hear him laugh; Boromir should not always be stern duty and concern for his people. Thorin identified with his worries far too closely, and he knew the dangers of losing oneself in them.

Then Aragorn stepped in and promptly got himself tripped for his troubles.

Frodo laughed at the ridiculous sight of two Men overpowered by two Hobbits, and Thorin was also relieved to see him in a better frame of mind. He was still pale at times, and occasionally the wound in his shoulder pained him. Thorin had nearly exploded when he had discovered that Frodo was stabbed by a Morgul Blade. Not even his nephews would go near him for a day.

The (damned, cursed, blasted) Elf suddenly stood and moved to perch on a tall rock, his eyes fixed on the horizon. The wind caught his pale gold hair as he seemed to pierce through the miles with his gaze, swift and sure as one of his arrows.

"What do you see?" Gandalf said, coming to full alertness.

"What's that?" asked Sam, frowning. His sausages sizzled away in the pan, ignored for the moment. Thorin turned and squinted. There was a dark shape moving in the sunlight from the East.

"Perhaps a wisp of cloud." Gimli suggested, and he went back to whetting the edge of his axe. Thorin had already told him he was using too much water, but the stubborn lad refused to listen.

"It's moving fast," said Boromir, stilling the Hobbits with his hands, "and against the wind..."

"Crebain, from Dunland!" the Elf cried, and Gandalf stood immediately.

"Hide!" he bellowed.

"Take cover!" said Boromir, ushering the Hobbits under a scrubby bush. Gimli immediately rolled underneath an overhanging ledge of rock, and Aragorn and Frodo threw themselves beneath a small cliff and lay very still.

"How could he see that?" asked Nori as the evil-looking birds swept over the escarpment where only seconds before there had been a party of nine walkers. "They were bleedin' miles away!"

"Elves see well in daylight," said Ori. "Really, really, really well."

Gandalf emerged, his face drawn into lines of anger and determination. "Spies of Saruman. The passage south is being watched."

He turned to the great shining peak of the Redhorn, glinting like blood in the sun. "We must take the pass of Caradhras!"

"Too close to Moria," said Balin, and he looked at Thorin with grim purpose. "Far too close."

"I know," Thorin replied, a sinking feeling in his stomach as he watched Gimli shoulder his axe and begin to pick up his pace, his face alive with anticipation.

The Elf fell into step at the back of their Fellowship, and Gimli glanced backwards. "That was well-spotted," he said gruffly.

"It is nothing to those who have eyes," said the Elf, waving a hand in dismissal.

Gimli laughed. The Elf turned to him more fully. "Why do you laugh?"

"Try the feat again in full darkness, Master Elf, and we will discover which of our party has eyes," Gimli said, grinning.

The peaks of Barazinbar, Zirakzigil and Bundushathûr rose high in the icy winds as they passed the borders of Hollin, and Gimli paused to take a breath and gaze upon them.

Balin and Thorin followed his gaze, and behind them Frerin swore softly.

"Why do you stop?" asked Pippin worriedly. "Are you ill?"

"I could do with a breather myself," said Sam, hitching his pack and tugging on Bill's lead. "This land isn't half hilly."

"No, I'm not ill, Master Pippin," Gimli said, patting the youngest Hobbit's shoulder with a fond smile. "Just taking in the view. Those mountains are special to us – to Dwarves, that is. I've only seen them once before, and that was nigh on eighty years ago."

"Eighty years," said Merry, and he shook his head. "All right, since you're handing out the lessons, what's so special about those mountains then?"

Gimli lifted his head, and his deep eyes were distant and longing. "We've worked the image of those mountains into gold and song for generations upon generations. There is Barazinbar, cruel Caradhras, which Men call the Redhorn. Beside him stands Zirakzigil and Bundushathûr, or Silvertine and Cloudyhead. In their arms lies the valley which we cannot forget: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, and underneath them lies mighty Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, called Moria by the Elves, the greatest kingdom of Dwarves there has ever been."

"That," said Balin disapprovingly, "was far too much Khuzdul for the ears of Men or Hobbits, let alone the Elf. What has Glóin been teaching this boy?"

"We make for the Dale," Gandalf told him. "If we take the Redhorn pass, we shall come down the Dimrill Stair into the deep vale of the Dwarves."

"There lie the dark waters of Kheled-zâram," said Gimli wistfully. "There lies Durin's Crown, and there my cousins gave up their lives. My heart trembles that I might look upon it soon!"

Gandalf chuckled. "May you have joy of the sight, my good Dwarf!"

Frodo paused, and then he looked up at Gimli. "Your cousins?"

"Aye," Gimli said, and tucked a wisp of red hair back under his helm. "My cousins. Fundin, who was the father of Balin and Dwalin, and Frerin, who was brother to both Thorin Oakenshield and Dís, Lady of the Mountain."

Frodo's eyes turned to him, full of wonder. "You were cousin to that King?"

"He's heard of you, brother," Frerin whispered. "Perhaps Bilbo has been carrying tales?"

"Only the good ones, we trust," Balin said.

"There were plenty of the bad to choose from," Thorin muttered.

Gimli laughed. "I am related in one way or another to the whole of Bilbo's Company, yes."

"But that would make you a Lord!"

"Ach, I don't do anything with the honour," Gimli said, and began to trudge forward again. "My father is a Lord. I am but a warrior."

Thorin gave Gimli a hard look. "You are far more than just a warrior, nidoyel. You are more than your blade, do not speak of yourself that way!"

"Lords and Kings and Princes everywhere we look, Mister Frodo!" Sam whispered. "I'm beginning to feel a mite small, if you take my meaning."

"Not to worry, Master Hobbit!" Gimli said, and he smiled warmly at the gardener. "I am but Gimli the Dwarf, and that is enough of a title to content me!"

"Pride isn't his weakness, that's for certain," said Balin thoughtfully.

"Gimli? He has pride, and plenty of it," said Frerin.

"Aye, that he does. But it is pride in his people and in his family, not so much in himself. No, there's not a scrap of vanity in the lad," said Balin.

"Thank Mahal," Thorin said, still scowling at him.

"Hurry up!" Aragorn called. "The snows come fast in these woods, and we must press on if we are to make Caradhras before he buries us."

"Cheerful sort, Aragorn," Gimli muttered, and kept walking.

By chance Gimli ended up walking behind the Elf, and he kept his head down as they made their way through the empty lands of Hollin. They had kept their distance from each other since that first camp, to the benefit of all involved, Thorin rather thought.

"Why do you let them pester you with their questions?" the Elf asked. "They chatter constantly. Even the patience of the Elves would be stretched."

"Ah, they're but children," Gimli answered cautiously. "And they remind me of loved ones long lost."

The Elf missed a step, and then he looked back at Gimli. "Now and then I forget that mortal frailty," he said, his voice also careful. "Who were they?"

Gimli lifted his eyes and took a breath. "Do you ask because you wish to know, Master Elf, or do you ask to make polite conversation? Because one is welcome and the other is not. I would not speak of them if I did not have to."

The Elf said something in his liquid tongue, before saying, "it is both. Did you lose a young one?"

Gimli shook his head. "I have no wife or husband waiting for me. Nor children. I have not been so blessed."

"Then friends perhaps?"

"Aye, friends, family," Gimli said, and then he sighed and seemed to relent. "The young Hobbits remind me of my cousins Fíli and Kíli. They were so young and bright, and they were cut down before they had even seen a hundred. Kíli was very like Master Pippin – always curious and cheerful, if not always wise. Merry is more like Fíli, more aware of the responsibilities he faces. I had not thought to think of them here, but there it is."

The Elf was silent for a moment, and then he said, "my apologies, Master Dwarf."

"We never tell Fíli or Kíli," said Thorin. "Never."

Frerin looked bereft. "But-"

"No, Frerin. You cannot tease them for reminding Gimli of Hobbits or vice-versa. Or I shall tell them about the incident with the cheese and the bedclothes and the crown and Father's beard."

"Killjoy," Frerin muttered.

"Gimli! Legolas!" Aragorn shouted. "Keep up!"

"I am not made for speeds such as these," Gimli grumbled. "No wonder they call him Strider."

Legolas raised an eyebrow. "You do stump along, don't you? What good may you be, then? You do not have speed nor size on your side, Master Dwarf. What can you offer?"

Gimli squinted up at him from underneath his helm. "Now that was not so polite."

"Since we are discarding propriety right and left, I felt it did no harm to ask," Legolas said. "You can hardly dislike me more than you already do."

"Hmph." Gimli kept walking for a few moments of silence while Thorin tried to skin the Elf with his glare. How dare he! Gimli was a fine, loyal, noble Dwarrow and a superb axeman!

Then Gimli took off his glove and held up his hand wordlessly, spreading it before his eyes to show the Elf. He had the great, thick fingers of Glóin and Thráin: broad and powerful. Digging into his belt-pouch he brought out a small golden bead. Then, between thumb and forefinger and with barely any apparent effort, he squeezed it flat.

Tossing it to the Elf, he began to hum an old walking-tune as he stumped along behind the Man of Gondor.

Legolas lifted the disc to his eye, and then he bit down upon it experimentally. His eyes widened, and he looked after Gimli with an astonished expression before following after the Fellowship.

The bead he slipped into his pack.

"It is a strange fate that we must suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing..."

Thorin stared at the Man, and his heart sank like a stone. "No. No. Not again."

"Such a little thing..."

Knuckling his eyes, Thorin wanted to roar his outrage at the uncaring grey sky, at the Valar, at the fates, at the retreating Fellowship. "He only wishes to save his people!" he snarled. "Why must you test us this way – and why must we always, always fail!"

"I still say Frodo looks like Thorin," said Fíli stubbornly.

"I think you're crazy," said Kíli, tossing his head. "Frodo is tiny! And adorable! No-one could ever call Thorin adorable!"

"Not if they valued their head," Thorin growled at them, and his nephews simply laughed.

"No look, it's his eyes, see?" Fíli said. "They've both got blue eyes."

"So does the Elf, and no-one's suggesting he's anything like Thorin," retorted Kíli.

Thorin snarled wordlessly, and his ridiculous nephews both scurried after the Fellowship, snickering, their feet leaving no mark in the new-fallen snow.

Caradhras was doing his best to repel his unwanted visitors. The snows fell every night, deep and thick, and the Hobbits were sinking up to their hips in places. Each camp, they tried to help each other with their cold-numbed feet – Pippin and Merry, Sam and Frodo. Thorin worried for them, but he would not suggest the obvious option to Gimli for all the mithril in Khazad-dûm.

Unfortunately, that was precisely the issue at hand.

"My cousin is just below us," Gimli muttered. "He would feed and supply us richly, and we would be out of this forsaken snow. Cold I can handle – I am a Dwarf of the North, and the cold is a familiar enemy. It's this constant being wet that will drive me mad!"

"Would you kindly be quiet, Gimli!" Gandalf barked. He met Thorin's eyes and they shared a moment of commiseration. Leadership was hard enough without the continuous griping.

"Gandalf, we could go through the Mines of Moria! Why do we risk this road?" Gimli said, and Thorin sucked in a breath.

"No," he said. "No, Gandalf! You must not risk the Mines. They are not safe!" He prayed that this was one of the occasions when the Wizard could hear him.

It appeared that luck was on his side. Gandalf said, "No, Gimli. The Mines are no place for the Ring. I would not take that path unless there were no other choice."

"But my cousin Balin rules there, with my friends and my uncle Óin!" Gimli cried, and Thorin's heart ached for him. "I have not seen them in long, long years; Lóni, Frár and Flói, gruff old Náli and dear little Ori. They would give us warm welcome, and Balin would feast us and help us, I know it!"

"There's a word I like," said Pippin.

"What, help?" said Legolas.

"Feast," said Pippin with relish.

"I'm pretty fond of 'warm', myself," said Sam.

"We should take the Gap of Rohan, and make the way south to the White City," Boromir said stoutly. "We should not have taken this path."

Boromir required watching. Thorin had calmed himself with a great effort, and had observed the Man closely after that incident with the Ring. Thorin knew the obsession with gold – none better! He had seen a spark of that flame alight in Boromir's eyes, fanned by desperation for his people.

And that feeling, Thorin also knew well. Too well.

"We do not aim for Minas Tirith, but for Mordor," Gandalf said, and he turned to lead them on. Boromir glowered and shouldered his shield, and fear for his people flickered briefly over his face.

The path got even rougher in a shallow dip against the side of the mountain. The snow turned to deep drifts and beneath it there were the dead and slimy remains of grass-roots, treacherous underfoot. The Hobbits did better with their bare feet, but Gimli's heavy hobnails were of little use and the Men fared even worse.

"It's slippery as a fish! If I could only get my feet onto solid rock," Gimli grumbled.

"I wish this lot would go off to Hobbiton!" Sam puffed, swiping snow away from his face. "Folk might welcome it there."

"If I was tucked into my bed watching it snow through my nice, thick windows, I'd like it better as well," Merry said.

Aragorn held up a hand, his hard face intently listening. "Is that the wind?"

Gandalf peered through the swirling flakes, and then bent his head. "Wind or no, we must press on."

It was tiresome going. The Men pushed the snow aside with their long, strong limbs, creating a path for the sodden and shivering Hobbits. Gimli trudged through regardless, his helmet at times barely visible through the bleak expanse of blinding whiteness. Pippin seemed rather fond of the Dwarf, and stayed close – though that could have been for the warmth. It had been remarked upon that compared to Hobbits, Elves and Men, Gimli seemed remarkably warm. "Your fires must have heated your blood, Master Gimli," said Pippin, his teeth chattering as they made a pitiful camp against a cliff.

"Blood or no, this fire will not light," Gimli replied glumly. "The wood is wet."

"Stand back," Gandalf said, and a spark of green and blue flame rose from his staff and the wood hissed and spat and sputtered.

"Well, if any are watching, I have now written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from here to Rivendell," he said, knocking the snow from his hat and pressing his back against the cliff that was their shelter. "Pass this around. Drink sparingly! We may have need of it again."

"Is it that Elvish cordial?" Gimli said suspiciously. "Hmmph. I'll pass."

"Oooh," said Pippin, and he reached for the bottle with eager little hands.

"Wait, you greedy thing!" scolded Sam. "Mister Frodo's half-frozen, and you've been clinging to that warm Dwarf like a barnacle. Begging your pardon, Mister Gimli."

Gimli was watching the blue-and-green fire with a doubtful look. "No offense taken, Master Gamgee. Little Hobbit, wait your turn. I dare say Aragorn and Boromir have more need of that stuff than you or I."

From where he stood lightly on the surface of the snow, Legolas tilted his head. "You have been near-swallowed by the snow, Master Dwarf. Do you not wish to warm yourself?"

"I'll get by," Gimli said dismissively.

"We'll stop until the dawn," Gandalf told them. "Perhaps by then the snow will have passed on."

But by morning the snow still fell in thick flurries. Gimli slapped his limbs to wake them, and the sharp sounds woke Frodo. "Morning already?" Frodo said, rubbing his face. "I don't feel as though I've slept a wink."

"Aye, and another day of trudging through wet snow to look forward to!" Gimli said, and chuckled. "Adventures aren't all they're cracked up to be after all. Perhaps I should be glad I missed out on the last one."

"Can you imagine Gimli in a barrel?" Kíli said, and he and Fíli erupted into sniggers.

"He'd headbutt his way out of the dungeons," said Fíli.

"And it'd work!" Kíli agreed, laughing.

Thorin stifled his sigh.

"Do you mean Uncle Bilbo's holiday?" Frodo asked as he and Gimli covered the fire-pit and began to pack up the camp. They allowed the others to sleep, though the Elf had gone somewhere to look at the rising sun or something equally frivolous.

"That's right. I begged my father to be allowed to go, but alas, I was only sixty-two. Thorin would not take any under the age of seventy."

"Oh," Frodo said, and he looked puzzled for a moment. "It seems so strange. I mean, sixty is passing middle-age for a Hobbit, and yet it's only young to a Dwarf."

Gimli smiled at him. "Very young. Your uncle met me a few years after the Quest, and no doubt he thought me a very raw and callous youth. Why, I could barely braid my beard properly, and it stuck out in two tufts! Terribly embarrassing. I'm glad none here saw it!"

"That's really important, isn't it?"

Gimli paused in rolling up his bedroll, and then chuckled. "Let's say, for instance, that there were those in our party who could remember you as a little Hobbit lad without a curl on his feet..."

"Say no more!" Frodo laughed.

"I don't like this conversation at all," Kíli said sulkily. Then he glanced over at Thorin with a vaguely martyred expression.

Gandalf's eerily open eyes blinked once or twice. Then he sat up abruptly. "What time is it?"

"Not yet six," Gimli replied.

"And it still snows," Gandalf sighed. "Well, nothing for it. We must press on."

Soon enough their party was moving again, pushing through the clinging snow and struggling up the punishing slopes of Caradhras. The snow began to fall faster and thicker, and soon it was difficult to see the person right in front.

"They'll never last in this!" Kíli yelled over the mournful howling of the wind.

"They must keep on!" Thorin shouted back, and he glared at the Men as they pushed the snow aside with their great limbs. "They must make it to the pass!"

"If Gandalf could use his staff, he could melt a path for you!" Legolas suggested.

"And if Elves could fly, they might fetch the sun to save us," Gandalf growled. "I cannot burn snow!"

"Over that shoulder there!" Boromir called. "Aragorn, do you see it? There – the snow doesn't seem as thick! It's protected by that rock yonder!"

"We make for it, then!" Aragorn called back, and his voice was strained with the effort.

The Elf was watching with a smile on his lips, and Thorin resented his apparent amusement at the plight of Hobbits, Men and Dwarf. The Men were working hard to help the Hobbits through the punishing terrain, and all the damned Princeling could do was smile!

"You seem most suited to this work, Master Mole," he said to Gimli, who was neck-deep in snow and spluttering. "But I say: let a ploughman plough, but choose an otter for swimming, and for running light over grass and leaf or over snow – an Elf."

Thorin watched with infuriated amazement as Legolas stepped forward onto the blanket of white, and his feet barely made a depression in the snow at all in their soft hide shoes. He leapt forward nimbly and turned, almost dancing in place.

"Farewell!" he laughed. "I go to find the sun!"

With that he was gone, swift as a bird.

Gimli growled, and Thorin growled with him.

"Back!" Gandalf roared. An avalanche began at his cry and tumbled down the slopes where Pippin had just been standing. Boromir caught up the half-frozen Hobbit and held him tightly. Pippin's face was a picture of misery.

"This blizzard is not natural!" shouted Boromir, flakes sticking in his eyebrows and eyelashes.

"That voice!" said Legolas. "Do you hear it?"

"I cannae hear nothing but the screaming of the wind," Gimli said, hoarse from the cold. The blizzard battered at the side of the mountain, and indeed the wind seemed to shriek.

"They have to get through," Thorin said, and willed them to keep moving. The snowdrifts were taller than Merry's curly head.

"I don't think they-" began Fíli, but he was interrupted by the Elf.

"There! There is a fell voice in the air!" he exclaimed, and Gandalf's eyes widened.

"It's Saruman!" he roared, and a rumble of thunder made the air quake around them and sent shale and snow tumbling down upon them with an almighty crash. The Wizard immediately stood forward and began to chant, shaking his staff at the distant south.

"What's he doing?" said Sam.

"Trying to stop Saruman, I suppose," Frodo answered, his teeth chattering. "Keep close, Sam. How are your feet?"

"Don't rightly know, Mister Frodo. I lost touch with them some time back, if you take my meaning," Sam said wryly.

Gandalf's chant rose to a carrying bellow, and then he broke off with a gasp as a bolt of lightning smashed into the mountain's peak. Snow came falling in a deluge, and before Thorin's horrified eyes the Fellowship were swallowed by the avalanche.

"Gimli!" he choked before he could stop himself. "Frodo!"

Whiteness and stillness enveloped the slopes of Caradhras.

"No..." said Ori, "they're all right, I know they're all right!"

"Nothing's moving," said Kíli, turning around and around, his eyes searching the ground and his face creased in increasing worry. "They're not moving!"

"Thorin!" barked Fíli. "Call again! Call Gimli!"

"Gimli!" Thorin shouted, and he was echoed by Óin. "Gimli, up here! To me, Gimli son of Glóin, to me! Follow my voice!"

Like strange flowers they came struggling up through the snow. Sam first, then the Men and the Elf. Gimli shook the snow off with the appropriate amount of anger at the treachery of the White Wizard. The Hobbits clambered out stiffly, and Merry was coughing and spluttering. Frodo looked as though he'd had the wind knocked out of him, and Pippin looked as though he might cry.

Thorin sagged against Fíli's shoulder. He had nearly thought...

"They're not out of danger yet," his nephew murmured seriously. "Saruman will try again, and if he doesn't get them then Caradhras has tricks of his own."

Thorin closed his eyes. "There is the Land of the Horse-Lords."

Fíli turned to look at Boromir, who was shaking snow out of his clothes and hair. "Is there?"

Thorin glanced over at the Man, and nodded once. "Indeed."

"We must get off the Mountain! Make for the gap of Rohan and take the west road to my city!" shouted Boromir, gathering the two youngest Hobbits close and wrapping his cloak around them as best he could.

"You cannot take the Ring to Minas Tirith," Thorin said, and turned to see Gandalf's eyes, deep and shadowed, watching him intently. "Hear me! That Man fears for his city, but I fear for his heart. I know that hope and that dread, Gandalf. He is falling, and falling fast. You cannot set such a temptation before the eyes of a desperate man." He smiled, though it was humourless. "It would be like walking into Erebor after one hundred and seventy years of exile."

Gandalf's lips tightened, and Thorin thanked Mahal. He had heard.

"The gap of Rohan takes us too close to Isengard," said Aragorn.

"Oh, I forgot about that," muttered Fíli. "I wish I had a map."

"Do the Halls even have maps?" wondered Ori. "I'd love a map too."

"We know," said Kíli. "But we want to use it, not coo over it."

Ori glared at them.

"We cannot pass over the mountain. Let us go under it!" Gimli said. "Let us go through the Mines of Moria."

Thorin jerked, and his head swung back to Gandalf's.

"I have taken that road once before," he said slowly, and he met Thorin's eyes with a significant look. "It can be done. It is not a pleasant journey. Still, I would not lead you into Moria if there were no hope of coming out again."

"I have also taken that road," said Aragorn in a dark voice, and he would not say more of it.

Thorin held Gandalf's steady blue gaze and tried to keep the plea from his voice. "Is there no other way?"

Gandalf shook his head slightly.

"None, it seems." Fíli jerked his head back towards Ori and Óin. "They're not going to like it."

"I am not all that enamoured of the idea myself," Thorin growled. "Will those damned holes never leave us be?"

"We're Durin's Folk, Thorin," Fíli said gently. "You taught me that yourself. Durin's home will ever draw us like a lodestone."

"Yes, and devour us just as quickly." Thorin turned to Gimli, his fierce and bright star. "Did I stop him from giving his life to that place thirty years ago only to prolong the day of reckoning?"

"That's suitably gloomy," Fíli said. "Have a bit more faith in Gimli than that."

"We cannot stay here!" Boromir cried. "This will be the death of the Hobbits!"

"Let the Ringbearer decide," said Gandalf finally.

Frodo hesitated, his eyes huge in his cold-reddened face. Then he blurted, "we will go through the Mines."

"So be it," said Gandalf.

As they began the arduous task of wading back down the paths they had struggled so hard to scale, Gandalf glanced back at Thorin again. He had the gall to look unaffected, as though he were not leading the Ring and Frodo and Gimli and the brave young Hobbits and the two valiant Men to a blood-soaked charnel house. He allowed all the fury and fear in his heart show on his face, his fists clenching and unclenching. His breath was coming fast and jerky, making his ribs shudder and ache.

"You will not find Balin, nor Ori, nor Óin," he said. "No living Dwarf waits for you in the Mines. You are going to your death!"

Gandalf grunted. "Possibly, my dear Dwarf, possibly. Still, what is death but another path to take? You of all people know that."

Thorin's jaw snapped shut, and he watched as the Fellowship made their laborious way through the blizzard. Then he scowled up at the mountain peak.

"Cruel Caradhras, they named you," he growled. "Aye; cruel above and below."

The camp that night was miserable. Thorin seethed at its edges, and the Fellowship was far too weary to make much noise or even light a fire. The Hobbits immediately threw themselves into their bedrolls, shivering, and even Pippin had nothing to say as he curled up between Gimli and Merry, shamelessly stealing as much warmth as he could. All that could be seen of Sam was his curly hair. Frodo stared unhappily at the rocks and did not speak.

"Are you sure of this, Gandalf?" Aragorn murmured. "I have also taken that dark road. I would not have agreed to take the Ring through Moria at any price."

"It isn't cost that drives us, Aragorn," Gandalf said back, his old voice low and rusty. "It is necessity, and that is a much harsher mistress than any commerce of the world. Thankfully, you are not the one who agreed to it. This is Frodo's burden, and thus Frodo's choice. We are only here to assist him. If you remember nothing else, remember that."

Aragorn pressed his lips together and turned away. His dark eyes scanned the horizon, capped by the jagged mocking edges of the mountain. "That ill wind still blows from the south."

"Saruman, no doubt," Gandalf said, leaning on his staff. "He seeks to discover whether his efforts have succeeded. Still, I am not without my own skills and have hidden us from him for the moment. He will perhaps think we perished on Caradhras."

"I do not think we are that lucky," muttered Thorin darkly.

Aragorn glowered. "Saruman is not the White Wizard for nothing."

"Indeed," Gandalf said, and a brief flash of pain passed over his face. "Still, Moria has one great benefit. The Doors are invisible when closed, and not even the arts of Saruman may find them."

"A small mercy when all the orcs of the Misty Mountains wait within," Aragorn said. "Do you hold out hope of reaching the Dwarf's kin somewhere in those Mines?"

Thorin's breath escaped him in a rush, suddenly glad that the others had left him earlier to take the last watch alone. "Didn't you hear me before?" he growled. "You infuriating Wizard, you only ever hear what you wish to hear!"

Gandalf was either a consummate actor or he was not concentrating enough to see Thorin at that moment. He wouldn't put either one past the wily old meddler. "I hope it will be proved wrong," he said gravely.

"But you do not think so," Aragorn said.

Gandalf shook his head. "No."

"Óin's spirit stood behind you for half the day, you itinerant grey nuisance!" Thorin threw up his hands in frustration. "You – oh!"

"Can you two keep it down?" Gimli suddenly grunted. "My head is full of your mumbling!"

Thorin cursed and then slapped his hand over his mouth.

Aragorn looked a little startled. "My apologies, Master Gimli."

"No-one's master, laddie," Gimli yawned. "Just Gimli. Hobbitish propriety is contagious, it seems."

Aragorn's lips twitched. "Possibly."

"You surprise me, Gimli," said Gandalf, and he arranged himself with his back to a withered tree. "It is a wonder you can hear anything over that wind. I never knew Dwarves' ears were so keen."

"Aye, well, they aren't," he mumbled. "Working in forges and mines'll do that to you after a while. My uncle is deaf as a post. Still, even a post could hear that racket!"

"I remember your uncle's little difficulty," Gandalf said carefully. "Still, we were speaking rather quietly."

"Well, perhaps it was the howling of the wind," Gimli conceded. Thorin bit down on his tongue. Would he never learn to hold his temper?

"It's certainly howling up a storm," Sam said in a sleepy voice.

"Howling up a storm!" said Pippin from somewhere under his blanket. "Good one, Sam!"

Suddenly Aragorn leapt to his feet. "Howling up a storm! It is howling with wolf-voices: the Wargs have come west of the Mountains!"

Gimli sat upright, and Pippin slumped over behind him with a cross noise of protest. "It is! And my ears too numb to make it out!" he cursed. "Do we run?"

"We stay," Gandalf said. "The Hobbits cannot move again until morning. Still, we should make for the top of this rise. We will be able to defend it more easily. Legolas!"

The Elf appeared out of the shadows, his face carved by moonlight. "Mithrandir! Ngaurhoth!"

"We cannot outrun them. We make for the top of this hill," Gandalf said.

"I have been there already," Legolas said, inclining his head. "There is a small knot of twisted trees, cold and old. They do not remember warmth. Any fire will be seen from miles around."

"Well, that last piece of information was actually useful," Gimli grunted.

Legolas ignored him. "We cannot avoid the hunting packs. We should lure them towards our weapons."

"Where the Warg hunts, the orc also rides," Aragorn said.

"The orc dies just as readily as the wolf," said Boromir.

"Move!" Gandalf barked, and Thorin sighed in relief as they all finally stopped talking and started running for the top of the hill. Gimli was pulling his spinning axe from his holsters as he ran, and one of Fíli's throwing axes was in his other hand.

"Men and Elves and Wizards!" he spat as he charged after the scurrying Hobbits. "You will all talk yourselves to death!"

"Is the moonlight enough, Legolas?" Aragorn said, drawing his sword.

"When the Dwarf lights that fire, I will do better," Legolas said. "I wish the stars were brighter tonight!"

"Hold on, I cannae do everything at once," Gimli growled. He pulled together a tangle of dead branches from the scrubby trees at the top of the hill. In the centre there was a broken circle of boulder-stones, which would serve as a sort of wall. Sam and Merry found some withered leaves that had blown between the stones and with these Gimli soon had their beacon lit. "There! Now what was it you wanted seeing?"

Legolas frowned. "Is this what you meant about full darkness?"

Gimli squinted up at him. "Well, what do you expect of an underground race? We cannot forever bump into each other. For a start, it would make mining even more of a challenge than it already is."

"To the front, Gimli," Gandalf said curtly. "Can you see anything?"

Gimli pushed his helm up a little on his forehead, peering out beyond their circle of boulders. "Nothing from this side. Nor to the north."

"They will come from the east, most likely," Gandalf said.

"Yes, there," Gimli said calmly, hefting his throwing axe. "A great Warg-chieftain, I would say. He has the scent."

"Does he have a rider?" asked Boromir, his face tense.

"No," Gimli said. "He is alone."

Gandalf lifted his staff and strode forward, his head high and his hair ragged and flung behind him. "Listen, Hound of Sauron!" he cried. "Gandalf is here. Fly, if you value your foul skin. I will shrivel you from tail to snout if you come within this ring."

The wolf snarled, a chilling sound full of dreadful promise. The Hobbits shuffled together, clustered close behind the Dwarf, Elf and Men. Then the Warg threw his head back and howled long and high, as though he were summoning the rest of his pack to the fray.

Legolas drew an arrow from his quiver. "Guide me," he said shortly.

"Do you see the copse of dead trees we passed earlier?" Gimli said. "He stands before them."

"Yes, I see him now," Legolas said. "You spoke truly, Master Dwarf. In full darkness you have eyes."

Then he loosed the arrow just as the Warg sprang for the Wizard. With a deep and musical twang, it lodged itself deep into the Warg's throat. There was a horrible sound and the huge dark shape thudded heavily to the ground.

Gandalf stood poised and ready, but no immediate attack followed the Warg-chieftain's call. He began to back towards the ring of stones, his staff held at the ready and Glamdring drawn and glittering. "That was a fine shot," he said. "I hope you have many more."

"I do not miss," Legolas said in a slightly offended tone.

"That sounds like a challenge," Gimli said to himself. "Could be interesting."

Thorin shook his head. "Perhaps this is not the right time?"

"Nay, perhaps not now," Gimli conceded, and sighed. "It'd be a fine thing to see him taken down a peg or two, though!"

"Without the imminent threat of death," Thorin sighed. "Gimli, your priorities are becoming a trifle obscure."

"I like not this new silence," said Boromir. "What do they wait for?"

"Their new leader will call the attack, no doubt," said Gandalf. "I fear we will miss the silence before long."

At that moment, a great howling broke out all around them, wild and fierce and full of savage pleasure. A great host of Wargs had crept up and surrounded their hill, and Gimli gripped his axes tightly. "The fire grows too slowly," Legolas said. "How many?"

"Too many to point out at once," he growled. "Loose an arrow: it will hit a Warg."

"That is not reassuring," said Legolas dryly.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want reassuring?" Gimli snapped back. "We're not havin' one of your feasts in the forest now, laddie!"

Legolas narrowed his eyes. "Just guide me, Dwarf."

"Not likely, Elf," Gimli retorted. "Let you have all the fun? I think not!"

"Would you two join us at some point this Age?" Gandalf roared, battling with two Wargs at once.

With a great cry of Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!, Gimli leapt over the ring of stones to loose Fíli's throwing axe directly into the face of a charging wolf. He then span and sent his short-handled spinning axe across the throat of another, before punching the snapping beast in the eyes with his mailed fist. The huge skull cracked underneath Gimli's knuckles, and then he was whirling once more, the axe spinning in tight figure-eights that the arms of no Elf nor Man could hope to replicate. Gimli stood like a rock, his feet planted firmly on the earth as around him his axe dealt shining silver death. The Elf stared for a moment, and Thorin felt unaccountably smug all of a sudden.

"Gimli son of Glóin is the best axeman in two centuries," he told the haughty creature with quite a sense of satisfaction. "And you, Thranduil's son, had the audacity to ask what use he would be!"

Legolas gathered himself quickly, and the bow of Mirkwood began to sing its deep and musical song once more. To Thorin's displeasure the Elf had not boasted unduly of his own skill. His arrows indeed never missed, but flew straight and true and unerring for eyes, throats and temples. Even the darkness and the slowly-growing flickering of the fire did not affect his uncanny accuracy. His hand flickered back and forth from his quiver with unearthly speed, seeming to blur the air around him. At one point he sent two arrows flying simultaneously to fell two separate Wargs, a feat Thorin had to blink at.

Aragorn was possibly the best swordsman Thorin had ever seen. His style was undoubtedly Elvish, but Thorin recognised a solid Rohirrim move amongst the fluid Elvish motions. Then he began to see others as well: here a double-parry familiar to the Men of the North, there a southern Gondorian gambit. Neither was the Man shy of fighting dirty. To Thorin's great surprise, Aragorn feinted left before drawing a dagger from his boot and sending it slamming into a Warg's head as it turned to follow, before drawing it out and sending it spinning end over end to bury itself in the eye of another. "Novel," he murmured to himself, studying the form and effectiveness of such an eclectic range of styles. "Undeniably successful."

Boromir was a far more formal fighter than Thorin had known. His sword flickered out in the parries and thrusts of the trained swordsman, but he had less of the virtuosic flair of Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn. Rather, he moved in a workmanlike soldierly fashion, each move economical and measured, each stance speaking of hours of drills.

Then Gandalf's voice rose over the din of the fight, booming sonorously. "Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth!"

With a mighty snapping roar, the trees around them caught alight. It almost looked as though their withered branches had suddenly grown leaves and blooms of flame. The Wargs snarled and cowered, but Gandalf had drawn himself up and cloaked himself in the cloud of his full power – an old man no longer, but a great and terrible Wizard, powerful and perilous. The sudden light made the hill appear as though it was crowned with fire, and the last arrow of Legolas kindled as it flew directly for the heart of a great black beast with slavering jaws. It pierced and sank into its breast, and as it howled and snarled its death-throes, the rest of the pack fled.

Gandalf watched them go for a moment, before turning to the others. "Is everyone safe?" he said, suddenly a weary, bent old man leaning on his staff.

"Aye, whole and hale," Gimli said. "Wouldn't have minded a bit o' warning about that lightning-flash. I'll be seeing it for days!"

Legolas looked as though he were barely repressing a rejoinder to that. Probably something else about eyes, Thorin thought sourly. Elves.

"We move on immediately," Gandalf said, and he lifted his hand into the air. Slowly the flames died down until it was safe for the Hobbits to poke their heads out over the edge of the stone circle.

"That was a bit of a close shave," said Merry. "Let's not make a habit of that sort of thing, what do you say? Bad for the digestion."

"Well now," Sam said. "Didn't I tell you? Wolves weren't ever going to get old Gandalf, that's for sure. Nearly singed the hair off my head!"

"One moment," Gimli said, and he ran over to where one of the Wargs lay feebly twitching. He rolled it over, and then let out a soft 'aha!'

"We have no time for skinning that animal, Gimli!" said Aragorn. "We leave now!"

"Aye and I have no need of its skin," said Gimli. "Just retrieving my property." And he reached down and jerked the throwing axe out of the Warg's skull without a single grunt of effort, before tutting under his breath. "Nicked it. Damned Warg-skulls. Thick as bloody rocks, they are."

"No wonder you show such expertise," murmured Legolas.

Gimli scowled at the Elf without pause for the next two hours. Thorin rated it a fairly good scowl, though Wee Thorin's was still vastly superior.

Chapter Text

The hammer hit the glowing copper with an almighty clang! Thorin wiped off his forehead, and glared at the heavy pot, before hefting the hammer once more. The beaten copper was not bonding smoothly to the bottom surface. When used over a fire, it would not heat uniformly. The food would be unevenly cooked. No Hobbit would accept this.

A Hobbit chose you.

Clang! The hammer came down again, and Thorin shook the hair and sweat from his eyes. Better. The pot would be an attractive thing when finished – warm copper and cool steel, the trailing forms of ivy around the handles. A trifle too heavy for a Hobbit to lift alone. A Dwarf would need to help. Thorin would certainly be strong enough.

They make their way to Moria.

Clang! Perhaps the pot could be used for the spiced stews and soups popular all over the Shire. Perhaps it would hold a boiled ham or a silverside cooked with cloves and peppercorns, or maybe that thick sweet porridge that Hobbits liked to drown in cream and honey. Perhaps it could hold, one day, a Dwarvish bread soup, or the traditional Broadbeam dumpling stew his grandmother had always made. Bilbo would be interested in Dwarven cooking.

The Ring is calling Boromir. It whispers in his ear.

Clang! The hair would not stay out of his eyes, and his sweat was making them sore and stinging. He set the pot at the edge of his forge-fire before tugging off his shirt and wiping his face with it roughly. Then he tied his hair back haphazardly and picked up his hammer once more. The copper would bond, or it would break.

The Fellowship will bond, or it will break.

Clang! He had given his word to his mother that he would try not to dwell in his guilt. But the habits of eighty years were proving hard to break. He had denied his place as a leader of his people and denied his share of any of the good that had come from his quest, but here he was leading once more. Clang! He would stay true this time. Clang! He would not fail his fierce inùdoy Gimli, or the noble desperate Boromir, or the brave young Frodo. Clang! He would not fail Bilbo. Not this time. Clang! He would do his part for Middle-Earth. Clang! Clang! His Maker had known. Clang! The Ring. The damned, damned Ring. Clang!


Frerin skidded into the forge, his eyes wide. "It's Erebor, you have to come!"

Thorin laid his hammer down. "What has happened?" he said. His voice felt raw and parched from the heat of the fire, and his jaw ached where he had been clenching it.

"The messenger," Frerin said. No trace of his normal impish humour could be seen on his face. "He's back."

Taking up his shirt, Thorin left the pot where it was. The fires would burn low, and the pot could be reheated. The copper would bond to the steel later. "Who watches with you?" he asked curtly, following his brother through the hallways.

"Fundin, grandfather, and Balin." Frerin had been biting his lip again, and the lower one stood out red and swollen, in sharp contrast to his thin, bloodless upper lip. He looked his age. Sometimes Thorin forgot just how young his brother truly was. Life in the Halls was not true life. No matter how much time passed, Frerin would be forty-eight forever. "Who's on watch over the Fellowship?"

"Nori, Bifur and Kíli," Thorin said as they entered the Chamber. The shadowy figures of Dwarves sitting very still around the starlight-filled pool gave the glorious Chamber of Sansûkhul an eerie, haunted feeling. The cool light flickered over their frozen faces, and their eyes were fixed and glossy as they stared into the water, breathing very slowly.

"Ori should join us," said Thorin after a moment, pulling on his shirt again and swiping a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "He may know something about the records or the precedents that Balin does not."

"I'll get him," Frerin promised. "See you in the waters, brother."

Thorin nodded, before taking his customary seat. The cool, twinkling glow of the pool intensified and as always Thorin was blinded and turned inside out before he awoke, blinking, in the world of the living.

Erebor, the council chambers. Dáin was slumped in a chair, his wild white head dishevelled. His iron foot was, for once, unattached and leaning up against the table. He must be extremely tired to allow such a weakness to be seen, Thorin thought. Dáin looked old. Very old.

At the table was Dís, her hair also messy. Her intricate pattern-shaved beard was mussed, and there were deep circles beneath her eyes. Bombur's sedan chair was in a corner, and the Dwarf in question was rubbing at his forehead worriedly. Though he had put up quite the battle, Bombur's old orc-wound combined with his advancing age had finally relegated him to the chair permanently. His sons Bolrur, Bofrur, Barum and Barur usually helped their poor father around (Bofur was working on a wheeled cart that ran on steam and clockwork), but at that moment they were nowhere to be seen. Next to Bombur was Dwalin, who was speaking in hushed, angry tones to Bofur and Gimrís. The Crown Prince Thorin Stonehelm paced like a caged lion before the fire, tendons standing out upon his thick neck. At the door stood Orla at guard, her dark face impassive and her eyes alert.

"Grandson," Thrór said, turning to Thorin and heaving a long, slow sigh. His face was solemn and hard. "It's not good."

"Frerin said the messenger was back."

"Aye, and he's not happy with their answers so far," said Fundin bleakly.

"What has happened?" Thorin turned back to Dáin. His cousin was tracing slow, pensive circles on his temples with his fingers. "What were their answers?"

"We have no word from Glóin," said Dís into the tense silence. "Nothing from Rivendell as yet."

"No," Dáin grunted. "Nothing as yet."

"The Men of Dale are certainly takin' their time," Bombur said. "Did they hear you, Thorin?"

It was still somewhat disconcerting to hear himself addressed by name, and to have another Dwarrow answer. The Stonehelm snarled and slammed his meaty fist against the wall. "King Brand keeps his silence, so far," he said bitterly. "Bizarûnh, pah! I thought we were beyond the days of mistrust. I thought he was our friend and ally."

"So he might be. So he still is," said Dáin, frowning at his son. "But to join in a dispute between Dwarves and the Dark Lord Sauron is not an easy thing to decide, . Give him time."

"Time? Brand will be dead before he makes up his mind!" the Stonehelm growled.

"...just shoot him!" Gimrís was hissing. "Stick an arrow in his gob! Let's see how well he relays his messages when he's as stuck full of pins as a pincushion!"

"He's a messenger of Sauron," growled Dwalin. "Don't even know if he can die."

"Well, I'm not afraid to try," said Gimrís, tossing her bright head.

"For the sake of our boy an' my poor old heart, my ruby, let's find another way first?" Bofur suggested wearily.

Gimrís folded her arms. "If you ever-so-wise idiots cannot find a way, my knives are coming out of their case."

"That should make young Gimizh happy," muttered Dís.

"The messengers of Mordor have all sorts of foul arts," said Orla in her soft, clipped voice. "No normal blade can harm them."

"So killing him is out of the question," Dáin said, and held up a hand against the protests from both Dís and Gimrís. "No. If war must come, we will need every axe, every throwing knife and sword. I will not waste our strength against an errand-boy."

Gimrís grumbled under her breath, and Bofur kissed the side of her head. "There's my fiery ruby," he said softly. "I know, ghivasha. I know."

Gimrís, by pixolith

"Our home," said Gimrís, and gritted her teeth. Her glorious eyes were full of fury.

"Mahal wept, I had hoped I might see my lads and lasses grow up without this... this..." Bombur gripped the handles of his sedan chair. "This damned leg. Can't fight. I can't even walk anymore. What use can I be?"

"Shh, don't you start," Bofur scolded his brother, before clasping his broad head in both hands and pressing his forehead against Bombur's tightly. "Stop that, you great lump, or I'll tell Alrís and then you'll really be in the slagheap."

"We have not even had our Mountain for eighty years," said Dís, her hands wrapped tightly around the back of a chair. "This will be the third war in my lifetime – the second at Erebor's door."

"Aunt Dís," grated Gimrís, and the Princess shook her head.

"The King is right," she said reluctantly. "We cannot answer his threats with his death, even if we were able to deal it to him."

"What did they threaten Erebor with?" Thorin asked, watching his sister swallow convulsively. Her face was twisted. She obviously hated every word she was saying, but the sense in it could not be denied. Dáin's legendary practicality was evidently making an impression upon his court and people.

"War, what else?" said Fundin, gazing at his son with mournful eyes. Anger was flickering over Dwalin's face, but it was warring with reluctance. Wee Thorin was only thirty-seven, Thorin knew. Barely out of the first stages of childhood, though he had his adult height early, as did most Longbeards.

"Openly?" Thorin turned back to Dís. She was breathing a little fast, and her mussed braids were sliding over her face.

"Aye." Fundin gave him a significant look. "No hints. The words were, 'you would find it uncomfortable to make Lord Sauron your enemy, and if you are not our friend what else may we call you? Mordor could topple your mighty mountain in a matter of days. Do not invite the possibility'."

"That's plain enough," Thorin sighed. Dáin was tapping at the table with his fingers, his eyes troubled.

"All right, we're here," said Frerin from behind him. "What's new?"

"Not much," said Fundin.

"The Men do not answer the call," said Thorin, and Ori scuttled out from behind Frerin to stand with them, his eyes wide. "The messenger makes his threat openly now. How many more times will he come?"

"Twice," said Balin crisply. "Twice more, and the last time he'll be bringing an army with him and not a message."

"No doubt," said Fundin.

"Why would the Bizarûnh stall us?" wondered Ori, and he tipped his head in thought. "We have a pact between Dale and the Mountain. It was sealed after the Battle of Five Armies – Bard himself signed it! They cannot betray us now."

Fundin shook his head. "Anyone can betray another. The clouds gather over Erebor, and the Men wonder if they can be spared."

"Well, it's not like Dwarves are unused to standing alone," said Balin, his voice glum.

"It's not like Dwarves are unused to betrayal either," muttered Thorin.

"Have they sent to the Wood?" Ori said, drawing himself up a little taller. "I know – I know what you just said, but it is – they could..."

Thorin met his grandfather's eyes, and Thrór lifted his hands in surrender. "Try," he said, though there was no hope in his tone. "Perhaps this time they will not turn away."

Thorin thought it was useless, but still he sought out the most likely candidate to hear him. "Dwalin," he said, low and level. "Dwalin, gamil bâhûn. What of the Elves?"

Dwalin blinked. Then he took a step forward. "What about the Khathuzh?" he asked gruffly.

"Oh, as though Thranduil will come a-running to help," growled Bofur. "He has no love of Dwarves. He wouldn't care if the Mountain were reduced to rubble. No doubt he'd go fossicking through the ruins to see if there were any shinies he could pick up!"

"Shazara!" Dáin snapped. "Enough of that! How many times must I tell you to leave old bones where they lie and not chew over them again and again? Good point, Dwalin, we will send to the Elvenking. He at least hates Mordor more than he hates Dwarves."

"Only by th' teensiest of margins," said Bombur, his lip curling.

"How do our armies stand?" Dáin said, turning back to Dwalin. He lifted his hand and rocked it side to side.

"We lost a lot o' doughty folk eighty years ago," he said seriously. "We're not full strength. Those we've got are bonny fighters, aye, but we're going to need auxiliaries an' they're goin' to need training."

Orla said, "We've three thousand ready now. Five hundred recruits from the last two years who have not finished training. A hundred and twenty or so of those have only six months under their belts."

"Can we increase our training rotas?" Dáin said.

"I am available for the swordsmanship lessons," said Dís, her chin rising. The unspoken challenge hung in the air – make an issue of my age, she was saying, and we will have a swordsmanship lesson rather sooner than expected.

Orla bowed. "We'd be grateful to have you, Lady," she said in her soft, steely voice. "My axe at your command."

"I'll get my mattock," said Bofur in resignation. "Some o' the mining lads will be up for it, no doubt. If the beer is free."

Bombur sighed.

"My mother and I will have our throwing knives," said Gimrís, and then she held up her hand before Bofur could protest. "I'm in this. I have as much right to protect our home as you, and if you say a word about our son I'll suggest that you be the one to stay with him and worry!"

Bofur gave Dwalin a helpless look, and Dwalin shook his head warningly.

"Bowmen?" asked Dáin (with extremely diplomatic timing, Thorin thought).

Orla grimaced. "Not many. One hundred at the most, the majority of which prefer another weapon. We have a lack of long-range defences other than the Mountain's walls themselves."

"No bowmen?" said Thorin incredulously. "What are you thinking, Dwalin?"

"It's not popular," Dwalin said defensively.

"My lads Alrur and Alfur are pretty good with a bow, and Bomfrís is better than either of 'em," said Bombur.

"Get 'em training the other young'uns. Maybe their prejudices are less stupid," said Dain bluntly. "How about engines?"

"Not much left after the Dragon, to be honest," said the Stonehelm with a heavy exhale. "The battlements have sconces for cauldrons, and I think I've seen a groove from a catapult here and there..."

Thorin grimaced. Those bedamned, thrice-cursed battlements.

"...but there's not much left. I think the metal must have been repurposed. So much was."

"Well, we need 'em now," Dáin said, and he turned to Dís. "Who, do you think?"

She gnawed upon the inside of her cheek for a moment and then she said, "Dori son of Zhori. He's no metalworker, but no-one else can muster as many as he can. He'll have the Smiths and the Miners with us faster than you can blink, and he'll have them organised to military precision what's more."

"That's my brother," remarked Ori to nobody in particular. His chest had risen almost to his chin with pride.

"Lastly," Dáin said, and he rubbed at his temples once more. The crown had left permanent dents in his age-spotted skin. "The infirmary."

"We have twenty-eight healers and two apprentices," said Gimrís. "It won't be enough."

"The Elves again?" suggested Dwalin.

Bofur grumbled something highly inappropriate (and probably anatomically impossible) under his breath.

"If they answer the call, aye," said Dáin. He tipped his head back and his hand hovered over the knee of his truncated leg. "Any more ideas?"

The silence was resounding, but it was at least more hopeful than the awful grimness of before.

Dáin harrumphed. "All right. We do that then. Off you go, I've got to chat to my boy here."

Fundin watched his son bend with a pained grunt to the arm of Bombur's sedan. Bofur, Gimrís and Orla took the other arms, and together they lifted the chair-ridden Dwarf from the council room. Dáin slumped back, his eyes closing in weariness. He did not bid them farewell, and the door closed with a nearly-silent click behind them.

"Cousin," said Dís softly. "Cousin, it is more than we had."

"But is it enough?" Dáin said tiredly, his eyes still closed. "Dís, I took on this Kingship knowing that it wasn't meant to be mine. I took it on knowing that I was not the elder branch of the Line of Durin. By all rights you should be sitting here, and I'd be snug back in my beautiful Iron Hills, drinking my beer and laughing at you."

"You have never dared laugh at me," she said, her marvellous voice dry as dust. "Not even when we were children. And I cannot sit the throne of Kings. I rescinded that honour long ago. It was my brother, not me, who loved his people enough to lead them. I loved my family more."

"Aye, well, I owe your brother a punch in the nose," said Dáin, and he yawned. "Day's getting closer when I'll be able to deliver it."

"You cannot say..." said the Stonehelm, stricken.

"Hush, lad. Yes, your father is old, and he is mortal. I fear this will be my last fight." Dáin's eyes opened, and all the heaviness of his years lay in their deep, dark depths. "I hope to make it a good one. I hope to keep our people safe. But it'll cost us, an' no doubt one of those things will be a King. We can't make it two."

The Stonehelm looked horrified. Thorin couldn't blame him. "Dáin," he began, but Thrór silenced him with a hand on his shoulder.

"No," he said gently. "Dáin is realistic. I wish I had been half so prepared. Perhaps then your father would not have embarked on such a suicidal quest, all alone."

Thorin gave his grandfather an aghast look, before turning to Dáin. "Dáin, you have been a great King, better than I could have been," he said, his words tripping over in his haste. "You can strike me as many times as you wish for stranding you with this mess if..."

"Peace, nidoyel," said Thrór. From the corner of his eye, Thorin could see Fundin take Balin by the hand, and together father and son faded from the realm of the living.

"What do you mean to say, Dáin?" said Dís. "I am old as well. We may lose many, but no death is certain."

"Just being organised," said Dáin with a wry smile. "Thorin, my boy, you're a dutiful boy and a good and fair Prince to your people. War or no, I am not going to be around for much longer. I'm old. I'm tired. The world grows darker, and one old Dwarf ain't much of a muchness in the great tally of things. But one old Dwarf was made a King because there was no-one else left. And so in the fullness of time you will be a King, because there is no-one else left. Do you understand?"

Thorin Stonehelm swallowed, and watching, Thorin could see his eyes glitter with tears. "I must be strong."

"Aye, strong is good." Dáin smiled. "But can you be weak? Do you know when to bend? Do you know when to find a middle way? I've tried to teach you, my son. You're a fast learner, even if you're a trifle hot-headed at times. Got to be careful of that Durin temper, lad. It tripped me up a few times myself, when I was your age."

"I... I can try." The Stonehelm glanced from Dís to his father several times, before he lowered his head. "I don't know, 'adad. I'm not as wise as you. I'm not a hero, not like the Dwarrow who was my namesake. I've been a negotiator and a warrior and a smith, but I don't know how to be a King."

"No-one does," murmured Thrór. "It's something you learn on the job, nidoy. You'll see."

"A hero?" Thorin said, taken aback. "What?"

Frerin and Ori shared a despairing look, and then Frerin groaned and Ori covered his eyes. "You're impossible, nadad," Frerin said. "Impossible!"

"I'm not planning to down tools any time soon, son," said Dáin, and he held out his arm. Thorin Stonehelm hesitated, and then the blocky, burly young Dwarf was stumbling over to his father and grasping his hand tightly in his own. "Ach, not so tight! No, I have a little left in me before I go and pop old Oakenshield in his noble nose. But there it is, and you must know it before anyone else."

The Stonehelm's breath hitched, and then he brought Dáin's hoary old hand up to his face, where he pressed it against his bristly cheek and kissed the palm. "Now, none of that," Dáin said, his raspy voice impossibly gentle. Then he looked up at Dís. "You too, my cousin. More like a sister, you've been."

Dís bowed her head. "King Dáin Ironfoot," she said, and her lips turned up in a faint, sad smile. "King Dáin the Restorer."

"Well, s'pose that's not too bad," Dáin huffed, and he yawned again. "King Dáin don't have his Ironfoot on right now, so he's going to need a hand or two to get to his royal bed with all his royal bedbugs. Here, lad, give me your shoulder?"

Thrór touched Thorin's am, and he turned away. Stars danced before him, beautiful and mesmerising, before they stole the sight of his sister and cousins and he blinked away the blindness once more in the Chamber of Sansûkhul. "Dáin is two hundred and fifty-one," he said faintly.

Thrór nodded. "Aye. He's right to warn them, I feel. War or no, he's not long for the waking world."

Thorin could dimly remember his cousin at thirty-three years old. They had sheltered for a winter in the Iron Hills after Azanulbizar, and Thorin had been an angry and sullen fifty-five, reeling from the loss of his brother and grandfather. Before the battle Dáin had been a loud and boisterous young Dwarrow with a hair-trigger temper, and Thorin, who was twenty-one years Dáin's senior, had honestly found him rather tiresome. That had changed drastically after the battle. Dáin had become solemn and tired, the cares of his father's realm weighing on his shoulders. He hadn't even stopped to mourn, utterly devoting himself to his people and their welfare. His young wildness and pride all burned away, and it only ever reappeared on the battlefield where he fought as though his life meant little enough. A century and a half later he had answered Thorin's desperate call and found the riches and ruins of Erebor abruptly thrown into his lap – and so once again Dáin had shouldered the crown and the cares of a Kingdom and did not falter, heavy though they were.

Practical, sensible, honourable Dáin. Thorin could feel the sweat from his earlier exertions drying on his skin, and it made it prickle and itch. "He is a good King."

"Better than I," said Thrór with a wry glance. "Better than most. The Stonehelm will do fine, I think. He's a dutiful lad, and Dáin has taught him well."

"Aye," Thorin said, and the tension slowly crept from his shoulders. War loomed over Erebor, and the Fellowship still lingered in the Misty Mountains. What hope, then, was there?

"Suppose you'd better brace yourself for a bop on the nose, my akhûnîth," said Thrór as he let Thorin help him up. Thorin was surprised into a laugh.

"Well, there's nothing new about that," he said, and together they went back to tell the others the news.

This particular guard-duty was not going to be pleasant.

Thorin had used his best judgement and had assigned Thráin, Frís, Frerin and Fundin to watch over Erebor' defences. Nori, Fíli and Kíli were keeping Bilbo company. Thrór remained with Dáin, and Hrera was watching over the Stonehelm upon his journey to Eryn Lasgalen.

That left the Fellowship – and their destination.

Bifur had volunteered. Balin and Óin and Ori had insisted, though their faces were pinched and unhappy as they made their case. Thorin did not argue. He knew about facing the demons of the past, and how painfully seductive they could be.

The walls rose up before them, and Gimli sucked in an awed breath. To the Men, Hobbits and Elf, no doubt all that could be seen was a sheer cliff, covered in lichen and moss. To Gimli, Thorin knew, there could be seen the ancient marks of chisels, the smooth surface of worked stone, the shallow depressions where once wooden structures had stood, long since rotted.

"The Walls of Moria," said Gandalf gravely, and Gimli whispered a breathless oath.

"Well, I suppose it's very nice," said Pippin loyally, though he was looking at the cliffs and the reeking waters before them with a dubious eye.

Gimli jerked, and then he threw back his head and his joyous, booming laugh rolled over them. "Ah, me! Little Hobbit, you need not say such things for my benefit. I am quite aware that you don't see it as I do!"

"Well, what do you see then?" Sam said, leading Bill as far away from the stinking pool as possible.

"Here," Gimli said, and brushed aside a piece of sodden moss with the toe of his heavy steel-capped boot. "You see this mark? It is an old mining trick. Marks on a wall at hand-height, or on the floor where one may tread, and no-one is ever lost. If visitors came to these gates in full darkness, a friend of Khazad-dûm would still be able to find their way."

"Now, that's a neat trick," said Sam, scratching at his head. "Wonder if that'd work elsewhere?"

"Possibly," Gimli said, and he wrinkled his nose as he thought. "But it requires something rather durable. You see these marks have lasted in this good stone? They wouldn't last long in earth or wood."

"You'd be surprised," the Elf murmured. "I know trees older than your precious mines, and they still stand."

Gimli looked up at him. "Aye. I suppose they do," he said eventually.

"So where's the entrance?" said Pippin, sceptically eyeing the cliffs. "Walls are all very well and good, but a way to get in would be even better."

Gimli chuckled. "Dwarf-doors are invisible when closed."

"Yes, Gimli," said Gandalf. "Their own masters cannot find them if their secrets are forgotten."

"Why doesn't that surprise me," murmured the Elf. Gimli paused, his face darkening, and then he controlled himself with some effort and continued to tap at the walls with his axe, listening intently to the song of the stone for any echoes.

Thorin folded his arms and gave the Wizard his best glare. "That was a reference to the side-door of Erebor, I'll bet," muttered Óin. "Bloody Wizards."

"Where's a thrush when y' need one?" Bifur demanded of an unresponsive Sam.

"That water stinks," said Pippin, his face screwed up with distaste. "Really, really badly. Worse than any of the Boffins' pigs."

"That would be the remains of the Sirannon, the Gate-stream," said Gandalf, turning about and looking around the cliffs. "It must have been dammed sometime in the last few decades. We are near where the old West-Gate stood. Ah! Here – you see these holly trees? Hollin this land was once called, and the Elves of the region took holly to be their symbol. These must have been planted in remembrance of the friendship between the Dwarves of Moria and the Elves of the time, in those happier days before it waned."

Gimli glowered. "It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned."

"I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves," Legolas immediately retorted.

Thorin, Bifur, Ori, Balin and Óin all growled in unison. "Naturally not," sneered Balin.

"I have heard both," Gandalf said with obvious impatience, "and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, to at least be friends, and to help me. I need you both. The doors are shut and hidden, and the sooner we find them the better. Night is at hand!"

Gimli and Legolas gave each other a sidelong look. Gimli's face was mottled and resentful, and Legolas looked disdainful and slightly disgusted. The minute they noticed the other's regard, their eyes snapped away to stare fixedly at the walls of Moria.

"I wish they'd step away from the water," said Óin under his breath. "That beast may still be alive, twenty-five years or no."

"What do the markings tell you, Gimli?" said Merry into the uncomfortable silence.

"Further," he answered, rather shortly. "It is close."

"Look!" Legolas said, and pointed between the great holly-trees. "Do you see?"

Óin and Ori were very quiet as they followed the Fellowship to the sheer cliff. "Well, that's that," said Balin, and heaved a massive sigh. "This will not be pleasant, my friends."

"Wasn't all that much fun the first time around," Óin mumbled. His eyes still lingered on the rank and reeking waters before them.

"Ah!" Gandalf ran a hand over the wall. "Feel! This – now, wait a minute..." Passing his hands to and fro over the rock, he muttered under his breath for a while. Then he stepped back. "Do you see anything now?"

Gimli shaded his eyes. "Is that..."

The moon passed from behind a cloud, and the thin, quivery white light shone upon the cliff-face, bathing it in an almost silvery glow. Balin sighed again.

"And there it is," he said mournfully, as the ithildin began to shine, outlining the Doors of Durin with their twined Tree, the star-surmounted crown and the anvil and hammer. Below these, a many-pronged star shone out, brighter than the rest, and curling Elvish lettering arced gracefully over all.

"Steady, my friend," Thorin murmured to Balin.

"Easy for you to say," Balin muttered back. Then he huffed out a breath and looked up at Thorin with a wry, bitter expression. "Or perhaps not."

Thorin gave him a thin smile in return. "Aye, I know that feeling well."

"There are the emblems of Durin!" cried Gimli.

"And the Tree of the High Elves!" said Legolas.

"And the Star of the House of Fëanor," said Gandalf, standing back and looking at the doors with a certain air of satisfaction. "Ithildin. It mirrors only starlight and moonlight. The Dwarves were fond of using it to protect their secrets."

Thorin abruptly thought of his father's map, sconced somewhere in the clutter of Bag End. "Much good may it do us in the hands of a Wizard," he growled, "when he hands those secrets to every Elf in his path!"

Gandalf's eyes narrowed and he sent Thorin a rather filthy glare. "These words do not say anything of importance to us."

"What do they say?" Frodo asked, his eyes fascinated. "I thought I knew the Elvish letters, but I can't read these."

"They are the old Elven-tongue of the West," Gandalf said, still glaring at Thorin. "They say only: The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. And underneath small and faint is written: I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs."

Gimli's awed expression melted into a frown, and he glanced again at Legolas. "A Dwarf made the signs of an Elf," he murmured to himself.

"Celebrimbor the great artist trusted this work to a Dwarf," Legolas said, and said no more. His fair face was expressionless, but confusion flickered in his Elven eyes.

"What does it mean by Speak, friend, and enter?" asked Merry.

"That is plain enough," said Gimli. "If you are a friend, speak the password and the doors will open."

"Yes," said Gandalf. "But what the word was is not remembered. No, not even by me!" The Wizard scowled at the expectant faces of the Fellowship.

"Then what was the point of bringing us to this accursed place!" Boromir cried, glancing back at the dark water with a shudder. "You said you had passed this way before!"

"Yes, but I was travelling the other way," he said.

"When?" wondered Ori. "We certainly didn't see nor hear anything of Gandalf during our five years."

"I wonder when exactly it was Gandalf got his hands on that map, and where his travels took him beforehand," said Thorin darkly. "None simply stroll through Moria for fun."

Gandalf either did not hear or was ignoring him again. Óin had the right of it. Bloody Wizards.

He held out his staff and shook it at the closed doors, bellowing, "Annon edhellen, edro hi ammen! Fennas nogothrim, lasto beth lammen!"

Absolutely nothing happened – except that Bifur fell over laughing.

"I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Men or Elves or Orcs for such a purpose," Gandalf said to himself through gritted teeth. "I can still remember ten-score without even scratching my head! I should only need to try a few, I think – and I will not need to call on Gimli for words of the secret Dwarf-tongue that they teach to no-one..."

"I should think not," Balin said primly.

"What do we do then?" Pippin said.

"Knock your head on them, Peregrin Took, and if that does not shatter them and I am allowed a little peace from foolish questions," and here Gandalf glowered back at Thorin's ghostly guard-detail, "I will attempt to find the opening words."

Then he stamped over to sit on a boulder, and deliberately pulled out his pipe.

"Well, the Doors are something to see, at least," said Merry eventually. "I'm going to go get a snack. Coming, Pip?"

Pippin's crestfallen expression had perked up at the word 'snack'. "You'll have to tie me up in a sack to stop me," he said, and scurried after his cousin.

"The Doors are indeed something to see," said Gimli quietly, gazing upon them with a soft light in his eyes, and Boromir grunted in grudging agreement.

"If this is what your two peoples can achieve together, Gimli, I am no longer surprised by your insistence we come by this dark road," he said, and clapped a hand on Gimli's shoulder. Gimli's smile was a little absent – and a little puzzled.

"Aye, well," he said gruffly, and then he also pulled out his pipe. "No doubt Narvi had to make a few adjustments here and there."

Legolas sniffed and said something that sounded rather biting in his fluid tongue, and Bifur sniggered at his expression.

"Sam," called Aragorn. "Here."

Sam glanced at where Frodo sat beside the motionless Wizard, and then scuttled after the ranger. "Mister Strider, sir," he said, tugging at his ear. "D'you suppose we'll be spending the night out here next to this here cliff? Only I'd like to make a start on supper, if it's at all possible."

"I don't know, Sam," said Aragorn. "But I do know that the Mines are no place for a pony. I am afraid we must send Bill back to Rivendell. Now, don't look that way!" For Sam's eyes had opened very wide, and his mouth had begun to tremble. "He knows the way, and no doubt he will be a great deal safer than we will!"

"Oh, not the sad look," said Ori, and he covered his face. "Hobbits have the worst sad look! I can't bear it, oh – make him stop!"

"What about all them wolves and orcs you and Mister Boromir were talking about?" Sam cried. "Poor Bill! Poor Bill! I'm not leaving him here to be et by something nasty!"

"I'm so sorry," said Aragorn, and he crouched down before Sam and clasped his little round shoulder. "I would not have brought an animal if I had known we were going this way – and certainly not one you are fond of. Still, he has been housed and fed in Rivendell, and no creature forgets that place. The Elves will care for him. He knows the way."

"Can we keep him here just for the night?" Sam's eyes were now perilously big. Ori peeked between his fingers, and then he hid his face again.

"The big weepy eyes," he moaned. "Noooo. Make it stop."

Óin gingerly patted the scribe's shoulder. "Um. There, there?"

"No, Sam. Best to let him go now," said Aragorn, though the big Hobbit eyes were making something of an impression judging from the sympathy in his tone. "Here, help me with the packs."

"Oh," sighed Sam, and slowly he began to take off the bridle and straps, patting the pony's sides and nose the whole time. Bill gave him a mournful look, as if he understood.

"No, I've done seven!" Pippin was saying loudly. "Back on Bywater! And Fatty Bolger saw me, so I've witnesses."

"Seven!" scoffed Merry. "A likely story, and don't think I won't be asking Fatty when next we see him. I'll bet you can't do it now."

"I hope you're not too attached to your purse," Pippin said, and he stooped and picked up a smooth stone and cast it out onto the water. It skipped four times before sinking – and Óin let out a strangled sound.

"What is that dang-fool Hobbit doing?" he cried. "No, no – Thorin, stop them! They mustn't disturb the water!"

"That was only four," Merry said. "Here, let your elders and betters show you how it's done."

"I would, if I could see any here," Pippin retorted rudely, and he crossed his arms and stuck his pert little chin into the air.

As Merry picked up his own stone and began to show off, Thorin whirled to where Gimli sat. "Stop them!" he barked. "Do not disturb the water!"

Gimli, who was sitting with his legs crossed and studying the ithildin filigree of the Doors, blinked. Then he frowned. "Shouldn't disturb that water," he mumbled.

"Tell them!" Óin roared. "They're still throwing stones!"

Gimli leaned back. "Here, little Hobbits! Stop that, no need to stir up more of that foul reek," he said, and Aragorn sent off the pony with a smack to his rump before taking Pippin's hand.

"Do not disturb the water," he said, and observed the ripples dissipating with a watchful eye.

"Don't see why not," Pippin muttered rebelliously, but he dropped his stone nevertheless. Óin sagged, and Bifur stepped close to hold him up.

Suddenly Frodo stood, looking up at the doors with a thoughtful light in his eyes. "It's a riddle," he said softly. Then he turned to Gandalf. "What's the Elvish word for friend?"

"Mellon," Gandalf replied, and with a crack and a fall of dust, the doors ponderously swung open. A great blackness was revealed, seeming to swallow all moonlight and starlight.

"You mean Merry, of all people, was on the right track?" said Thorin in disbelief.

"First time for everything," Balin said, sounding equally bemused.

"There it is," said Óin, and his voice was troubled. "Mahal be with them and guide their steps."

"Perhaps we'll need some others," Ori suggested. "Lóni and the rest. They might remember more of the safer tunnels."

"I remember the West tunnels well enough," said Balin through clenched teeth.

"Aye, and me," said Óin. "Best keep th' others in reserve until we get to the Eastern side, towards the Dale."

Gimli clapped his helm on his head once more and strode eagerly into the darkness. "Shamukh!" he called joyfully into the echoing, velvety blackness. "Uncle Óin! Cousin Balin! Ori, Lóni, Frár, Flói! Lóni, I have come to beat you again, are you ready? It's me, Gimli, I came to see your colony! Abbad, abbad, buhû!"

"Ach, again with the Khuzdul, Gimli?" Balin scowled at the brawny young warrior. There was anguish and shame dancing in his eyes. "Stop it, barufûn. You mustn't..."

"He will not find us," said Óin in a subdued voice. "I am back in that pool there, if I'm anywhere. Though Gerin was slain at these gates, along with Horís, Urgin and Erri. Those he will find."

"Any minute now," said Ori, and he bit down on his lip, hard.

"I cannot..." Balin said, and Thorin reached out and clasped the back of Balin's neck.

"You can," he said bluntly. "I did."

Balin sent him a look full of self-loathing, and Thorin met it steadily. Then Balin let out a long, low moan and turned back to their young kinsman. Gimli's face was full of joy and happiness, and his eyes were bright with excitement.

"Soon, Master Elf, you will enjoy the fabled hospitality of the Dwarves," he said jovially as the Fellowship followed him into the crushing darkness. "Roaring fires, malt beer, ripe meat off the bone. This, my friend, is the home of my cousin, Balin."

Gandalf blew gently on the crystal set in the gnarled grip of his staff. The clear, unwavering white glow slowly crept over the stone floor.

Gimli laughed his booming, merry laugh, delight in every syllable. "And they call it a mine. A mine!"

The glow of the crystal poured further over the ground, inexorable as a rising tide. Thorin's breath was caught somewhere in his mouth. He did not want to see Gimli's face change from joy to grief. He did not want to see his bright young flame doused in sorrow.

He could not look away.

Gandalf raised the staff higher, and the strange wizardly fire soared through the silent entrance-hall. Slowly, gradually, battle-marks were revealed. They were scattered on the smooth, ancient polished rock, bare and dusty, etched deep by shadows. Then inevitably the light flowed over the huddled shapes of dust-covered armour, the bleached bones of fingers twisted in mute supplication. Eye-holes gaped and skulls grinned and yawned, lolling obscenely on their bony spines.

Gimli stopped.

"Ach, nephew," said Óin miserably, and he bit down on his hand to stop his harsh breaths.

Gimli was frozen, rooted to the spot. The happiness in his face had utterly fled. His eyes were wide, the whites showing, and his mouth was open and trembled slightly as he gazed over the contorted corpses of Orcs and Dwarves mouldering together where they fell. A stricken cry escaped him. His chest was heaving.

Thorin wanted to take his more-than-son's arms, to hold him close as he cried for his friends and family lost so long ago. He wanted to touch Gimli's bright hair, to make him laugh again. "Unday," he whispered, and he could hear Balin's rasping sobs. Gimli was a Dwarrow alone, as Mahal had said. Gimli was alone with his dead.

"This is no mine," said Boromir, horror in his voice. "This is a tomb."

Gimli had found Urgin, his broad hand wiping off the sigils on the helmet. He threw back his head and howled, a wordless sound of despair.

Legolas was watching the Dwarf with faint puzzlement, as though he was somehow surprised by his grief. "You dare-" Thorin spat, his heart clenching aching for his poor star. "You dare watch him, his grief, his sorrow, as though he is some curiosity for you to gawk at -"

"No," Gimli gasped, and turned around and around, slumped corpses greeting him at every turn. "No!"

"Oh, Gimli," Óin said around his fingers, and his eyes were glossy and wet. "He does not even know the whole sorry tale, and yet he mourns."

"Of course he mourns," Thorin growled, still glaring at the Elf through his own sheen of tears. "Of course he does. He's Gimli. He feels everything to its utmost. Unlike some."

"He must press on through to the Third Level," said Ori quietly.

"Got to keep moving, aye," Óin said, though he would not meet the eyes of anyone else. "Get him up, Thorin."

"Give him a moment," Thorin snarled, but Balin shook his head. Guilt, as familiar as breath, shone in his face.

"Can't stay here, laddie," he said.

Gimli was weeping, and he had fallen to his knees by the ruins of a familiar staff.

"Oh no," Óin breathed.

"Get him up!" Ori barked, and Thorin schooled his own sorrow back ruthlessly.

"Up, Gimli," he said, and then he lifted his voice to a carrying bellow. "Get up, son of Glóin! You must not linger here! There will be time for grief later!"

"No!" Gimli threw back his head and roared his grief at the ceiling like a wounded lion.

The Elf stooped and picked up an arrow from the breast of Erri. "Yrch!" he hissed.

"Goblins," Gandalf repeated, and then he closed his eyes heavily. When he opened them he was looking directly at Thorin, and there was the weight of long ages of sorrow and loss in his look. Thorin knew that his own anguish was plain to see, his lips skinned back from his teeth and his eyes wet and flashing.

"I told you before, Gandalf," he gritted out. "You walk into a slaughterhouse."

Gandalf inclined his head, and maybe it was Thorin's imagination but there was a strange, sad resignation in the Wizard's face. Some foreboding, perhaps?

"We make for the Gap of Rohan," said Boromir grimly. "We should never have come here."

At that moment, Frodo gave a cry of surprise and was abruptly yanked off his feet. "Frodo!" Thorin shouted, and Óin let out a hoarse shriek of horror.

"Knew it, I knew it!" he screamed. "That foul beastie, that cursed thing yet lives!"

"Calm yourself, Óin. Be ready, all of you!" Thorin said, and he started forward purposefully, his hand automatically reaching over his shoulder for Orcrist. His fingers groped at empty air. For a moment he wanted to howl at the ceiling like Gimli.

"Ready?" hollered Óin as the creature that had dealt him his gruesome death rose from the stinking depths like some vile nightmare. "Ready for what? What in Mahal's name can we do?"

"Zuznel ataman," moaned Bifur, and Ori nodded fervently.

"Get up," Thorin snapped, his teeth clipping at the words. "Gimli. Get. Up. Frodo needs you! Gimli!"

Dark brown eyes refocused, and for the first time ever Thorin saw hatred in the eyes of Gimli son of Glóin. Gimli stood in one smooth motion, and his hands drew his axes with two fluid sweeps of his arms. Aragorn and Boromir were hacking at the foul, writhing tentacles that snatched at Frodo's arms and legs, and Legolas was firing arrows at the lurching, bloated body that rose from the murk.

With a savage cry, Gimli launched himself into the fray, his axes spinning and darting. He moved like a madman, his eyes alight with rage, hacking and slicing at tentacles like a Dwarf possessed. His face was wet with his tears, his expression locked into a rictus of vengeful fury.

"He knows now," choked Ori, and Bifur tugged the little scribe close and hugged him tightly, rocking him from side to side. "He knows we're not alive. Gimli's no fool."

"Shhh, nahùba Ori," Bifur crooned. "Shhh."

"He fights with no care for his own skin," said Óin, still biting at his hand. "Ach, I could smack that boy!"

"You'll do no such thing," Thorin snapped back, before his heart almost leapt into his mouth. "Gimli – rukif!"

Nearly too late, Gimli dodged the tentacle that was reaching for his left side and then brought his axes through it, creating two neat round slices that fell twitching into the water.

"Well, of course I won't be doin' any such thing," Óin mumbled. "I'm dead."

"If only I could wield my sword," Thorin said angrily to himself. Helpless bystander was not a role he had ever become resigned to, and he chafed at seeing his star alone and so full of grief, surrounded by those who did not care less about the Dwarven dead or the sacred place they died for.

At that moment Aragorn sliced through the tentacle holding Frodo in the air, and the great beast thrashed as Frodo fell, yelling in fright. Boromir caught the flailing Hobbit and Gandalf shouted, "Quick! Into the Mines!"

Gimli barely heard, his axe whirling and flickering savagely for the monster, deaf and blind to all but his howling heart. "Gimli," Thorin said, low and sharp, "follow. Into the Mines, my lad. Now!"

"Kill you, you-" Gimli choked out.

"NOW!" Thorin thundered.

Gimli bit off a snarl and turned, his heavy footsteps splashing through the foul reeking water. He charged for the Doors as though not even solid rock could stop him, his cheeks pale with despair and his eyes still full of angry tears.

"He's in," Balin said.

"It's following!" Óin garbled, and he grabbed at Thorin's arm.

The Elf, his face pinched and tense, sent arrow after arrow towards the beast as it lumbered and lurched at the open Doors of Durin, tentacles grasping the beautiful ithildin and smearing it with slime. Eventually an arrow pierced the thing's right eye and it made a horrible squelching sound of pain and fury. Its weight fell upon the ancient stone and brought it crumbling down upon its leathery and flabby body, and the last Thorin saw of the Fellowship were their faces: the Hobbits were pale and frightened, the Men were both breathing fast, their eyes pinpricks in their white faces. The Wizard looked unhappily resigned. Gimli was weeping tears of rage and loss, his face twisted until it was nearly unrecognisable.

Then the ancient, graceful, beautiful doors, made by Elf and Dwarf together in Ages past, collapsed on top of the monster, trapping them in the entrance hall and sending a shower of dust rushing for their faces. The Fellowship were swallowed by the darkness. The Black Pit had them.

Chapter Text

"We now have but one choice," came Gandalf's old and creaking voice. "We must face the long dark of Moria."

The crystal atop his staff rekindled, and Thorin blinked in the sudden white, wan glow. The faces of the Fellowship were tense and pale in the darkness. Gimli's jaw rippled and his cheeks were stained with tears, but he no longer wept. Rage still burned in his deep dark eyes.

"Stay close, all of you," Gandalf continued. "There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world."

The dim light of his staff only illuminated a few feet ahead, and Thorin blinked rapidly as his eyes adjusted. His heart was still hammering from the collapse of the Doors and the attack of the Watcher. His pulse thudded and raced in his neck and temples.

Óin licked his lips and stepped close as the Fellowship began to wend their way from the collapsed rubble towards the stairs. "The First Level lies ahead," he murmured. "They needn't go higher than the fourth to get to the other side."

"Which way from the stairs?" Thorin murmured back. His voice was hoarse from shouting.

"Left," Ori said tightly.

"Gandalf," Thorin said, and waited for the Wizard's eyes to flicker to him. "Left here."

Gandalf rolled his eyes and nodded, before he muttered, "that the day has come, Thorin Oakenshield, in which I should take any sort of directions from you..."

"Take the advice or discard it," Thorin replied crisply. "Either way suits me well, but if you would ignore the directions of a Dwarf underground I will think less of you than I did before."

Gandalf smiled grimly. "Plain-spoken as always. Very well, left it is!"

"Who are you talking to?" asked Pippin, his piping voice small and frightened in the darkness. His eyes were very large and his face very white in the glow of Gandalf's staff.

"Myself, Master Took," Gandalf said, with a warning glance to the dead Dwarves. "Just remembering the way. We turn left here. Now, don't look so scared! I told you I had passed this way before, and with care and caution I know it can be done. I will see you safely to the other side, never fear."

"Easy enough for you to say," Pippin mumbled, and he looked around at the crumbling stone and swallowed. "I don't like this at all. It's very unfriendly."

"And cold," Sam added. "And these stone floors aren't all that forgivin' on the feet, if you'll pardon me saying Mister Gimli."

Gimli did not answer. His head was bowed and his eyes downcast. His fist was still clenched around the haft of his axe, and it shook slightly as he trudged along behind Boromir.

Gandalf glanced over at Thorin, who also lowered his eyes. "You know him best, I believe," the Wizard said in a voice that could scarcely be heard, his lips barely moving. "What should we do for him?"

"I honestly don't know," Thorin said, regarding his star with worry. "I have never seen him like this. Gimli is a merry soul. I do not believe he has ever known tragedy so closely before."

"Hmm. Tragedy has a way of revealing our greatest strengths," Gandalf replied, and he lifted his staff to peer down the tunnel.

"Or our greatest weaknesses," Thorin said darkly.

"As cheerful as ever, I see."

"I feel as if the mountain is pressing in on me," Legolas said, his face wooden and his voice halting. "How long is the journey?"

"Four days," Gandalf said, "though we will have some trouble counting them without the sun. Gimli will be our guide there."

The Elf frowned. "How so?"

"Why, a Dwarf has a sense of time underground, did you not know?" Gandalf said, feigning astonishment. Then he sent a surreptitious wink to Thorin and his comrades.

"You sly old fox," said Balin admiringly. "If Gimli had said that..."

"Another argument, no doubt," Óin said, and he smiled, though it was wobbly and thin. "Clever. Some use in bein' a Wizard after all."

Gandalf looked rather pleased with himself as he stepped through an archway and led them along a passage towards another connecting chamber.

"Look!" said Merry, and he pointed out a couple of marks against the wall. "Is this what you were talking about, Gimli?"

The ruddy head finally lifted, and Gimli stepped forward to run his heavy hand over the deep carving, intricate and clear despite the centuries. "Aye," he rasped. "That's a mine-sign. I don't recognise it, though: too old, no doubt. All of them will have changed over the centuries. The ones they used back then will be different to those I know."

"It's... pretty," said Merry, and he peered at it owlishly. "Look, Pip! Isn't it pretty?"

"I didn't think anything in this place could be pretty," Pippin said, also studying the marks.

Gimli stiffened.

"Oh," Pippin faltered, and Frodo sighed.

"Maybe we should keep going," he suggested gently, and Pippin bit down on his lip before nodding.

"I'm sorry," he blurted, before scurrying towards the front of the line where Aragorn and Gandalf were moving on.

"He's young," Frodo said, and smiled at Gimli sadly. "He didn't mean that."

"I know," Gimli said heavily, and he looked up from the mine-sign. His anger was still bright as flames in his eyes. "I'm not offended. Just..."

"Pippin hasn't ever known loss," Frodo said, and he reached out with a tentative hand to touch Gimli's massive shoulder. "He says the first thing in his head without ever thinking it through, and he doesn't ever consider that it might hurt someone until after he says it. Expect him to hang all over you later, begging for your forgiveness."

Gimli snorted. "That sounds irritating."

Relief struck Thorin so strongly he almost buckled. That sounded far more like his star.

Frodo grinned, his teeth flashing in the darkness. "It is."

Touching the mine-sign once more, Gimli sighed. The rage was draining from his eyes to be replaced with a bone-deep sorrow. "I'm truly not offended. Truly. I only..."

Frodo's hand landed on Gimli's shoulder once more. "I understand."

Gimli's mouth tightened. "Do you? My people... they were dead and left to the air and the orcs. Their bodies were not under stone, not even burned. I knew that Dwarf. His name was Urgin. If he can be lying there, unburied, without the rites..." He stopped, breathing through his nose, and his jaw rippled beneath his thick uncombed beard.

"I do," Frodo said quietly. "Bilbo raised me because my parents were lost to the Brandywine River. I didn't even have a body to bury. I used to wonder if the river would one day give them back to me, as quickly as it took them away."

Gimli's straight Durin brow furrowed, and he bowed his head again. "My apologies, then. You do understand."

"There may be someone left," said Frodo, and spread his hands. "Perhaps your hope will prove true where mine failed."

"It is a fool's hope," said Gimli and he touched the mine-sign again with gentle fingers. "A fool's hope. We do not leave our dead thus, not if we have power and breath to lay them beneath stone. No, I do not think we will find a single living Dwarrow left in these halls."

"Whatever we find, Gimli," Frodo said, and he patted Gimli's shoulder, "we are here with you."

"Aye, you are," Gimli murmured, and he straightened. "I may be the only living Dwarf in Khazad-dûm, but I am not alone."

"Will you tell me about them?" Frodo asked, and Gimli took a short, sharp intake of breath.

"My uncle, my cousin..." he began, and he stopped, his throat working around a swallow. "Perhaps later."

Frodo nodded. "Perhaps later."

Balin and Óin had huddled together tightly, their shoulders touching and their eyes downcast. Ori was wringing his hands and muttering, "got to move on! They've got to move on. Can't stay here!"

Gimli's hand rose and he grasped Frodo's hand where it lingered at his shoulder. "Thank you, Frodo. My family seems to have a habit of becoming fond of Bagginses. I am beginning to see why."

Balin shot a meaningful look at Thorin, who scowled back at him. "Not. A word."

"Did I say anything, laddie?" Balin said innocently.

"Didn't need to, I could hear you thinkin' it very loudly," murmured Óin.

"Come on," Gimli said, and began to lead Frodo onwards. "Mustn't let the others get too far ahead of us. I can see better than you can in this darkness: I'll lead you true."

"I have no doubt," Frodo said, keeping his hand on Gimli's shoulder. "But do mind my feet! Sam wasn't exaggerating in the slightest about this cold rock."

Gimli actually managed a chuckle, though it was sad and strained and no smile touched his lips. "Aye, well. It would have been paved, once. Seems as though the paving's been stripped, or maybe just ruined for the sake of destruction. I won't ever pretend t' know the mind of an orc."

"A shame," Frodo said. "I'm sure it would have been more comfortable!"

As they moved off behind the rest of the Fellowship, Thorin glanced down at the mine-sign. It was indeed beautiful and ancient.

"I started to decipher them," Ori said in a soft voice.

"What did it say?" Thorin asked distantly.

"'Vir son of Nir is a giant prat'," Ori mumbled, and Óin dissolved into slightly hysterical chuckles.

"Perhaps it is just as well that Gimli cannot read them," Thorin said, biting down on the inside of his cheek.

Faintly through the soft, still silence, the rumble of Gimli's voice reached them from where he led Frodo ahead of their guard detail.

"He's singing?" said Ori in surprise.

"It's the mourning song," said Balin, and the black guilt was back in his voice.

"Adùruth, adùruth, nekhushel,
Ayamuhud, ayamuhud, zesulel"

[Khazad Mourning Song, performed by notanightlight]

Gimli sang underneath his breath, the deep notes like quiet thunder in the empty mines.

"That's pretty too," said Pippin in a whisper, and Sam shushed him.

"Never you mind, you scallywag," he said. "Remember what he said about that language o' his. He's not goin' to tell you what it means, so don't you go opening that trap of yours to ask!"

"I wouldn't!" Pippin protested, and he glanced back at Gimli with worried eyes. "I wouldn't make him feel worse for all the cake in Tuckborough. He's a friend, Sam: I wouldn't hurt a friend. I'm a Hobbit of great sensitivity, I am."

"And I'm the Queen of Harad," muttered Merry.

Gimli finished his song and exhaled slowly, his barrel chest falling. His broad shoulders were slumped where Frodo's hand rested for guidance. The Ringbearer said nothing and simply walked beside him, offering silent support and comfort.

Balin's voice was a whisper in the crushing, suffocating dark. "How do you face this, Thorin?" he rasped. "How did you move on?"

Thorin stared into the depths of their ancestral home. "What makes you believe I have moved on? I carry my guilt with me, old friend. I have simply learned to carry it for longer without collapsing beneath its weight."

Balin bowed his head, and then he began to fade as the stars of Gimlîn-zâram reclaimed him.

"Nekhushîn," whispered Bifur, and Ori put his head in his hands and nodded.

"Aye, and now it claims new pain," said Óin sadly, watching his nephew trudge through the deep and velvet blackness with steady tread and lowered eyes.

"He yet moves. Torment in the dark will not stop him," Thorin pointed out, and Óin snorted.

"Course he does," he said with a slight jerk of his head. "He's a Dwarf of Durin's line, and this is Khazad-dûm, no matter the monsters that have taken hold here."

"I hope his sadness doesn't take too much a hold of him," Ori murmured, and he watched over Gimli's plodding steps with anxious eyes.

Thorin drew himself tall. He knew how to give his strength. He knew what it was to be strong for others. Gimli had been his safety and his laughter: Gimli had been his strength for eighty years. He would act the King he was meant to be, and give his to Gimli in return.

"Balakhûn, my star," he said in Gimli's ear. "Khulel, khathuzhâl."

Gimli sighed deeply, and his legs kept moving rhythmically into the dead, echoing Halls of their greatest ancestor. The dull stamp of his heavy boots rang back from empty corridors, echoed by the pitter of Hobbit feet, the slight rasp of Elvish shoes and the long tread of the Men.

"Nearing midnight," murmured Ori, and Bifur nodded.

"I'll change off with another," he said. "Strength to him, and to you."

"Bring others to take your watch," Thorin ordered crisply, and Bifur nodded again before he began to fade. The stars of the Chamber edged his silhouette for a brief moment, and then he was gone, returned to the world of the dead.

Ori shivered. "I've never gotten used to seeing that."

Balin's place at the Fellowship's side was taken by Frerin, and Fíli came to relieve Bifur. Ori and Óin stayed, though their lips were pressed tightly together and their hands were clenched into fists.

"Glóin has made it over the Misty Mountains," Fíli said quietly. "He now travels through the land of the Beornings."

"Good," Thorin grunted. "Erebor?"

"Prepares for war," Frerin said. "The engines are being built in record time: Dori is a harsh taskmaster. The training continues, and Dwalin is happier than a fox in a henhouse. Dís is holding a sword-tourney for her students."

Thorin snorted. "Of course she is."

"The Stonehelm is nearly to the court of the Elvenking," Frerin continued. "He will be there in a few days, and we will see if Thranduil heeds the call against the master of the Black Land."

"I dinnae hold out much hope on that front," Óin muttered.

"Where are we here?" asked Fíli, looking around and squinting in the crushing darkness.

"Moria," said Ori shortly, and Óin sighed.

"The Doors are gone," Thorin told his brother and nephew in a low voice. "Gimli begins to guess that he will not find his family and friends alive. The Fellowship is uneasy."

"As they should be," Ori muttered.

"They've three more days until they reach the other side," added Óin. His face was bleak.

"They'll reach the Second Level soon," added Ori, and he twisted his gloved hands. "The Chamber... the Chamber of Mazarbul is..."

"Aye," Frerin said eventually, and he laid his hand on the shoulder of the unhappy scribe. "No need to say it."

Thorin was glad he had organised the watches. Balin would need to find his equilibrium again before braving Moria once more. It was a heavy thing, that burden of guilt. Time was all that helped. Time would see him learn how to shoulder it and move on.

The Mines stretched on and on, and though the darkness was close and comforting to the watchers, Thorin could see the tension building in the Elf and Hobbits. The Fellowship camped that evening at the base of a crumbled pillar, and Gimli took off his gauntlets and touched the dusty stone with his bare fingers. "Still smooth," he murmured.

Legolas turned to Aragorn and hissed, "why do we stop here? We must press on!"

"Calm yourself," the Man said in a low voice. "The Hobbits need rest after their fright at the Doors. Besides, there are other, more compassionate reasons to halt for a short while."

Legolas' face didn't alter, but his bright blue eyes tightened. "Gwaem, Aragorn! Dôl gîn lost. We do not need to stay for the Nogoth. This show of mourning can happen just as easily on the move as it does sitting still."

Aragorn turned to him with a stern face, and his expression was cold and lordly. "That is unworthy of you, mellon. He makes no pretence of mourning. He has lost his people and his family, and that is true grief in his face. A little more kindness from the Elves at this point would help him think better of you."

"Nothing will make him think better of an Elf," Legolas said. His face was still calm, but his shoulders had tightened at the rebuke. "He takes offense at everything I say or do. This was already an uncomfortable journey before we took to this forsaken pit!"

"You cannot see?" Aragorn sounded surprised. "Gimli avoids you because you are not friendly to him, Legolas. You treat him differently to the rest of the Fellowship."

Legolas' mouth opened on a soft inhale, and then he took a lithe, quick step forward. "I do not," he said, stung.

"You do," Aragorn said, and there was grim amusement in his voice. "You have, to my memory, insulted the very existence of Dwarves directly to his face."

Legolas looked as though he would retort for a moment, and then his face hardened and he turned away with a flash of golden hair to sit upon an outcropping of broken stone, muttering pensively to himself.

That was a surprise. Thorin folded his arms, eyeing the Man speculatively. He had not expected defence from that quarter. Aragorn obviously found the Elf to be good company, though Thorin could not think why. They slipped back into that garbled birdsong language every now and then to converse, and each time made Gimli glower like a thunderstorm. Yet Aragorn now took Gimli's part in their dispute? Unexpected, but not unwelcome.

Aragorn was strange. Thorin did not understand him. Thorin had been forced into exile, wandering lost and distant from the crown and throne that were his by right. He certainly would not have chosen such a fate. Yet the Man born to be King deliberately opted for the nomadic life of a Ranger?

Men were bizarre.

Still, this one was a good leader, and a skilled and canny outdoorsman. He also seemed to have a clear eye and a sense of fairness, despite having been raised by Elves. Thorin did not know how Men judged such things, but Aragorn seemed to him to be all a King should be: wise, just, strong and good. The fact that he was a superb swordsman didn't hurt either.

Why then did the Man hide beneath the tattered leathers and uncombed hair of a Ranger?

Gimli slept fitfully that night, one hand upon the smooth, ancient stone and the other restless upon his axe. Pippin and Merry slept close (Pippin tucked his feet into Gimli's bedroll without a single flicker of shame). Frodo and Sam bundled up on the other side of Gandalf, and Boromir took the outside posting, bracketing the sleeping Hobbits with his larger form and shielding them from the corridor.

Aragorn took the first watch after speaking quietly with Gandalf and Boromir for a few moments. He set himself up on the most Easterly edge of their corridor, and began to clean his sword of all the ichor and slime left by the Watcher. Óin shuddered violently.

"Zûr zu?" asked Thorin quietly.

"Ah, laddie. I don't think I'll ever be well," he answered bleakly.

"It's dead now," said Ori comfortingly.

"What's dead?" Fíli asked.

"The Watcher," said Ori. "The Doors fell on it."

"Shh, that bloody Elf's coming back," hissed Frerin, and he mimed a rude sign in Iglishmêk behind Legolas' back. The corner of Thorin's mouth twitched.

"Stop that," he said.

"You are always such a spoilsport," Frerin complained as Fíli and Ori tried to stifle their giggles.

"Aragorn," Legolas said low, "Goheno nin."

"Iston," Aragorn replied. "But it is not me you should apologise to, Legolas."

Legolas let out an exasperated gust of breath and sat down beside the Man. He was almost ungainly in his irritation: a most unelvish thing. No doubt Thranduil would disapprove.

"I do not understand," Legolas confided, and he ran a long-fingered hand through the fine golden silk of his hair and blew out another exasperated puff of air. "He is not what I have always known Dwarves to be."

"Who was it who told you what a Dwarf was, Legolas?" Aragorn asked, and he leaned back as he struck a light and brought it to his pipe. The Elf's nose wrinkled at the smell, but he continued.

"I do not speak of tales or histories or rumours. I am not young, and I have known Dwarves before. I have looked into his father's face and seen only anger and resentment shine back at me!"

"Those were not exactly the best or most friendly of circumstances," Aragorn pointed out dryly.

Legolas scowled, but he grudgingly nodded his head in assent. "Yes, that is true. Still, it has been known for Age upon Age that a Dwarf cannot feel the way the true Children of Ilúvatar can. They cannot feel true love for anything but their precious stones. They cannot even feel affection for their kin and friends. Sorrow is beyond them, as is joy. They can only covet and resent. This is known, Aragorn!"

"You filthy lying Elf-scum!" snarled Thorin. Dimly he realised that his arms were held in place by Ori and Frerin, and that Fíli was hauling him around the chest.

"Du bekâr!" Óin shouted, and Thorin roared in agreement.

"Easy, brother," Frerin grunted, throwing all his strength into holding Thorin's arm still. Thorin was taller and heavier than his brother, forever frozen in mid-adolescence, and he was gradually gaining the upper hand. "Easy! You can't affect them. You can't touch them, and all you'll do is wake Gimli. No-one else can hear you. Settle yourself!

"Known by whom, Legolas?" Aragorn asked softly. "Known by Elves? Did they bother to ask a Dwarf?"

Legolas' mouth snapped shut, and then he said slowly, "I do not think we ever did. And here I finally see the proof of the lie: he is grieving, and it is true grief. I can see it in his face, in the way he sings to himself, in the thudding tread of his feet. If he can feel true grief, what else can he feel?"

Ori gaped, and Óin deflated like a drained wineskin. "Are m' ears finally playing up again?" he demanded. "I can't have heard that right..."

"What else can he feel?" Aragorn took a draw of his pipe and gave the Elf an amused sidelong glance. "All that a mortal can feel, I'd imagine. You say you have seen the grief in his face. Then you have seen more, no doubt. I know your Elf-eyes, my friend."

"I have seen it," Legolas said, and he closed those shining eyes in defeat. "I did not want to accept it."

Thorin abruptly stopped struggling against Ori and Frerin, his mouth dropping open slightly.

"Oh, thank Mahal," Fíli groaned, and he sank back with a wheeze. "You're too damned strong. If I weren't dead already then you'd have finished the job."

"Change comes easier to mortals, I fear," Aragorn said, smiling.

"It was all there," Legolas groaned. "Everything he feels is writ upon his face so clearly that a blind man could see it - sunk to the cheeks in hair though it is! He feels it all, and so fiercely that it is like a fire. He is like a fire – it burns me, Aragorn, to know I have been so blind."

"It is no easy thing to know that you have been wrong," said Aragorn gently. "You see him now with an open eye, and yet your old misconceptions still howl and rattle in your mind."

"He is bowed down by the endless grief of mortals, and yet no darkness daunts him," Legolas said, his long fingers grasping at each other. "Made strong to endure, just as he said. Are all Dwarves thus, or only this one?"

Aragorn's answering shrug was wry.

"Affection, for the Hobbits, for his friends, for his family," Legolas mused. "Did you not see him with his father Glóin? I overheard him speaking to Sam about his sister and her son, and he loves that child with everything he has in him. He has spoken of nothing but his cousin and uncle and friends ever since we neared Caradhras. He grew up with one of these lost colonists, he said. Lóni, his name was. They earned their warrior's braids together. He was Gimli's best friend, as close as a brother."

Legolas paused, and then he hung his head. "His best friend," he repeated, and winced. "What else do I know that is wrong? Is everything I know wrong?"

"You could ask him," Aragorn suggested. "As you say, you have known Dwarves before. But how many of them answered any questions?"

Legolas blinked, and then his fine brows drew together. "None."

"None," Aragorn agreed. "They guard their secrets. But Gimli answers questions, does he not?"

The faintly inscrutable smile of the Elves crossed Legolas' lips. "He does."

"I am suddenly even more grateful that Balin has left," said Ori.

"Ach, what has that boy said now!" Óin cried, aghast.

Thorin slept and rose again. His father watched him with dark and worried eyes as he gulped down water and a slice of bread with cheese. "You spent twenty-eight hours in the starry waters without pause," he said quietly.

"Yes," Thorin said. He felt no need to defend it. "And I take to them again now. Gimli walks in Moria, and I will not leave him alone."

"Do not forget to rest," Thráin said, and tucked Thorin's uncombed hair behind his ears. "Dead we may be, but you are not made of stone."

Thorin smiled faintly. "I know of a few who may disagree with you."

Thráin smiled back, before nodding over to where Frís was sitting. A pot of her favourite tea rested before her, and she was watching them both. "Your mother worries. For her sake, do not disappear again."

"I know my mother worries," he replied, and he could feel his back stiffening. "So do I."

"Aye," Thráin said, and he shook his head. "Well, you'll do as you must, my son. Remember, we are here should you need us."

Thorin took his father's broad and powerful hand. "I remember," was all he said. "Âkminrûk zu, 'adad."

Thráin squeezed his hand in return, and then he sighed. "Balin, Ori and Óin await you. Náli, Lóni and Frár also stand ready. The tale of the Fellowship's journey into Moria has spread throughout the Halls like wildfire. Practically every Dwarf stands ready to serve."

"Did you stand with Dáin last night?" Thorin asked, shaking off the sentiment and the last vestiges of his sleep.

"Aye, for a while. Then I stopped with your sister. She misses Gimli." Thráin shook his great grizzled head again. "I still cannot believe that she has become so fond of him."

"Gimli has a way about him, sometimes," Thorin said. "Oh, that reminds me: Do not mention the Elf to grandfather! He has begun to ask some rather interesting – and insulting - questions regarding Dwarves. Frerin, Fíli and Ori had to hold me back. I dread to think what grandfather will do!"

"Thranduil's son," Thráin said, and rubbed at his eyes. "Aye, he wouldn't react well at all. Too much bad blood there. What sort of questions?"

Thorin's smile turned grim. "He apparently entertains the idea that Dwarves have feelings. It shocks him."

"That...!" Thráin startled, and then he bit off a savage curse. "Ach, Khuthûzh!"

"Indeed." Thorin gave his father a considering look. "How do you fare through all of this?"

"Never you mind, boy," Thráin said heavily. "I am well enough. The memories still rise and fester, and now and then I can taste the old madness in the back of my mouth... but your mother is with me, and your grandmother. She barks and scolds and cossets at me until I am myself again."

"That'd work," Thorin agreed, and Thráin chuckled softly.

"Aye, better than any physic."

"Mizùl," Thorin said, and butted his father's head softly and rested there for a moment, taking strength from Thráin's solidity and power for a moment.

"And you, my son," Thráin said. "And you."

Balin, Ori and Óin were waiting in the Chamber of Sansûkhul, and their faces were tight and grim. "Early morning," Óin remarked, his voice hushed. "They will be moving again, no doubt."

"They did not stop all night?" Thorin frowned.

"They began again after a few hours, laddie," Balin said. "Though I believe they stopped at the old crossways not long ago. Gandalf has forgotten the way."

"Forgotten the...!" Thorin said, and then he rubbed at his temples.

"Bloody Wizards," muttered Óin.

"They're not far," Ori said, and he bit down on his lip before nodding over to two unnervingly still figures in the glistening half-light. "Kíli and Fíli took the last watch."

Thorin glanced over his nephews, taking in their tired faces as they slept, slumped over each other on the bench. "Ah. They told you all this?"

"Before they passed out, aye," Óin said. "It's been a tryin' time."

"If it is trying for us, it is doubly so for the Fellowship." Thorin took his bench and carefully moved Kíli's foot out of the way, before resting his hand briefly against the silky bright and dark hair spilling over his nephews' sleeping faces. He would let the lads rest a while longer. "Come, let's find them."

"He will find us today," Balin said in a mournful whisper, and then the stars were glittering and whirling beneath the waters, their radiance eclipsing the world of the dead.

When the glow had faded, Thorin was blinking at a set of three graceful arches in the old Longbeard style. Gandalf was seated, glowering and smoking, before them, his face like thunder.

"Merry!" Pippin whispered.


"...I'm hungry."

Thorin rolled his eyes. Hobbits.

Suddenly Frodo stood, his eyes filled with a nervous fear, and he made his way to the Wizard. He looked very small against the grandeur of old Khazad-dûm, his feet whispering against the stone. "There's something down there," he hissed.

"It's Gollum," Gandalf replied, and Thorin jerked backwards. The creature from the cave? The creature that had tried to kill his Bilbo?

"Gollum!" he said in unison with Frodo.

"He's been following us for three days," Gandalf continued, a glimmer in his old, old eyes.

"He escaped the dungeons of Barad-dur?" Frodo was incredulous – and for that matter, so was Thorin.

"Nothing escapes the grasp of Sauron," he said with finality. "My father is proof of that!"

"Escaped – or was let loose?" Gandalf said, and his eyes flicked to Frodo meaningfully. He continued to speak of the creature, and Thorin shuddered violently as Gandalf revealed that the cursed Ring was behind Gollum's insanity. How close – how very close Bilbo had come to –

No, he would not think it.

"Easy," murmured Balin. "Easy, Thorin. He let it go. Bilbo is the only one in all of history to release the Ring of his own free will."

"He almost did not," Thorin said, hating every word.

"But he did," Balin said, and patted Thorin's arm. "Easy."

"It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance," Frodo said with surprising heat. Thorin agreed one hundred percent.

"Kill it!" he snarled, and Balin's hand tightened on his arm warningly. "Kill the foul thing once and for all. It has lived too long – put it out of the world for good!"

"Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life." Gandalf sent a pointed look to Thorin from under his bushy brows, and Thorin swallowed against a throat made suddenly dry and painful. "Can you give it to them, Frodo?

Frodo paused, and a lost expression passed over his face.

"Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends." Gandalf's mouth twitched as he glanced again at Thorin and his companions. "My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many."

"He is too forgiving," Thorin choked. "There are many who receive such forgiveness and do not deserve it."

Frodo sat heavily, and his lost expression had turned forlorn. His head bowed under the weight of the chain about his neck. "I wish the ring had never come to me... I wish none of this had happened."

"So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide," Gandalf said gently. The old wizard smiled down at the Hobbit, before meeting Thorin's eyes once more. His face was filled with an unearthly compassion. Abruptly Thorin wondered which of the Valar Gandalf had loved and learned from. "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case, you also were meant to have it...and that is an encouraging thought."

"No, it is not," Thorin grated. "It is the opposite of encouraging – and who decided that Bilbo was meant to find it? The Ring decided! Forgive me if I do not trust its judgement!"

Gandalf ignored him, and said brightly, "Ah! It's that way!"

"Wait, what?" Óin blinked. "I couldae told him that!"

"He's remembered!" Merry said in relief.

"No, but the air doesn't smell so foul down there," Gandalf said, and patted the young Brandybuck on the back. "When in doubt, Master Meriadoc, always follow your nose."

"I couldae told him that!" Óin persisted, turning to Ori. Ori spread his hands helplessly.

"The Fourth Level," said Balin in a wondering voice. Even though these Mines had cost his life, longing still stole over his face as Gandalf raised his staff and flooded the vast Hall of Feast with his pale crystal light.

Gimli, who had been a silent shadow to that point, gasped in awe as the tall columns were revealed, beautiful and intricate beyond any craft he had ever seen. His eyes glistened with reverence and wonder.

"Well there's an eye-opener and no mistake," Sam said, his eyes very round and large. Ori glanced at him once and then he quickly turned away with a small whimper.

"Tell me when he stops the Hobbity big-eye-thing," he muttered.

"There must have been a mighty crowd of dwarves here at one time," said Sam; "and every one of them busier than badgers for five hundred years to make all this, and most in hard rock too! What did they do it all for? They didn't live in these darksome holes surely?"

"These are not holes," said Gimli. His face was upturned and serene as he gazed over the ruined grandeur of the Hall of Feast. "This is the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs."

Legolas, watching, tilted his head in fascination as he regarded the Dwarf. His eyebrows were drawn together again, and he seemed about to ask a question. Before he could open his mouth, however, Gimli began to sing softly. His deep voice rumbled into the dark and echoed in the carved buttresses and from prehistoric stone. It was as if the mountain itself was singing, dark and profound and ancient :

[The Song of Durin, performed by notanightlight]

"The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.

The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin's Day.

A king he was on carven throne
In many-pillared halls of stone
With golden roof and silver floor,
And runes of power upon the door.
The light of sun and star and moon
In shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
There shone for ever fair and bright.

There hammer on the anvil smote,
There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;
The delver mined, the mason built.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
And metal wrought like fishes' mail,
Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in hoard.

Unwearied then were Durin's folk;
Beneath the mountains music woke:
The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,
And at the gates the trumpets rang.

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge's fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin's halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dum.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep."

"Will you never stop with the damned secrets, cousin?!" Balin nearly shrieked.

"I like that!" said Sam. "I should like to learn more of it."

Gimli said nothing. Having sung his song, he would say no more. A little late, Thorin felt. "You are being reckless, inùdoy," he sighed. "And you are going to send Balin and Óin into traditionalist paroxysms."

Gimli simply stared out at the Hall, drinking it in, his dark eyes alight with wonder and sorrow.

"Oh, lad," Óin said sadly, before scowling. "I should like to give you a thick ear and then get you drunk. You know better than this."

"He is alone and full of grief," Ori said defensively. "He'll find his comfort where he can."

"He'll not be finding comfort with any o' these," Óin retorted, "an' so he should stop givin' 'em things that don't belong to 'em!"

"Shazara," Thorin murmured. "It is done."

"Aye, everything is done," Óin muttered, and Balin rumbled his angry agreement. "What I'm sayin' is it should never have been done!"

"Are there piles of jewels and things all lying about still, do you suppose?" Merry said eagerly.

"Piles of jewels?" Gandalf snorted. "No! The Orcs have often plundered Moria, and naught is left that can be carried. Not in these upper levels at any rate: since the Dwarves fled, none dare disturb the lower levels."

Balin trembled violently, and Thorin reached out and grasped the back of his neck. "Strength, Balin," he said.

"We heard it," Balin said hoarsely. "Now and then. I didnae wish to acknowledge it..."

"Shhh." Thorin nodded to Ori, and the scribe nodded back before leading the Fellowship onwards.

"This way," he said.

"Gandalf," Thorin said, and the wizard nodded imperceptibly.

"If there's no treasure, why do the Dwarves want to come back?" asked Pippin, and then he flinched as both Sam and Merry hushed him with many worried looks at Gimli. The brawny young Dwarrow barely noticed, still lost in contemplation of the forest of graceful pillars, the seat of his ancient and noble people, the home of his ancestors.

Thorin could relate.

"For mithril, amongst other things," Gandalf answered diplomatically, and he began to follow Ori through the vast echoing Hall of Feast. "The wealth of Moria was not in gold and jewels, the toys of the Dwarves: nor in iron, their servant. Here alone in the world was found Moria-silver, or truesilver: mithril is the Elvish name. Its worth was ten times that of gold and now it is beyond price, for little enough of it is left above ground and even Orcs do not dare delve too deeply for it. Bilbo had a corslet of mithril-rings that Thorin gave him. I wonder what has become of it? Gathering dust in Michel Delving Mathom-house, no doubt."

"What?" cried Gimli, shocked out of his silent contemplation of the ruin of Khazad-dûm, stately and beautiful even in decay. "That was a kingly gift!"

Thorin fought the urge to squirm under the sudden attention of three dead Dwarves and a Wizard.

"Yes," said Gandalf, smiling. "I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it."

"You can all stop looking at me now," Thorin growled.

"Aye, leave him alone," Balin said, trying and failing to keep the amusement from his voice. "He'll be as cross as a bear with a sore paw otherwise."

"You mean he can be otherwise?" sniggered Óin, and he ducked as Thorin swiped at him with a fist. "Ah, too slow, my King. Do I get a pretty mithril prize?"

"You'll get a busted lip in a moment," Thorin snarled.

"Dwarves," said Gandalf under his breath.

At that moment Gimli let out a hoarse cry, and began to run for a half-hidden door. Ori swore loudly, and Thorin looked at him with some surprise. That was unlike their scribe.

"Gimli!" Gandalf cried, and Thorin barely thought before racing after his star, his heart beginning to pound. It wasn't... it couldn't be...

As he entered the chamber, his spirits sank into the pit of his belly. Yes, there was the white tomb, and there the shaft of thin daylight. There was the slumped skeleton, and there the book, smeared with blood. A hammer lay discarded on the floor, and the corpse of Grechar could be seen propped over the well.

"No," Gimli choked, falling to his knees before the white stone, and his eyes filling with tears once more. "No!"

Coming up behind him, Gandalf read the runes in a voice heavy with sorrow. "Here lies Balin, son of Fundin. He is dead, then. It's as I had feared."

Aragorn closed his eyes, and Boromir made a small sign over his breast. His strong face was creased with sympathy for the Dwarf who knelt at the foot of the tomb, his head resting against the white stone and his eyes clenched shut.

"I cannot..." Balin choked, and Thorin's hand shot out to hold Balin's shoulder in a hard, almost crushing grip.

"You will stay," he commanded in a harsh tone. "You will stay, as I did. You will see that you are mourned. You will know that you were loved."

"I cannot!" Balin cried, and Thorin whirled to take his face in his hands and shake his head roughly.

"You can and will! It hurts, I know – but you will grow around it and it will become a memory of love and not sorrow. I saw you weep for me – saw you all weep for me and my nephews, and I did not turn away! Do you not think I wished to?" His thumbs pressed into Balin's soft, curling beard. "All I saw was the destruction left in my wake. All I could see was the sorrow I left behind. It took eighty years for me to understand!"

"Thorin, let me go, damn you!" Balin howled, and Thorin gripped him harder, pressing their foreheads together and glaring into Balin's tear-ravaged eyes.

"No," he growled. "You will learn. This hurts, but it is necessary. Your passing hurts others, true – but you were loved. You were admired and respected and loved, Balin Fundinul. Do not reject it!"

Balin stared helplessly at him through the haze of his tears, and dimly Thorin heard Ori sigh.

"Well, there I am," he said. "Don't I make a good skeleton?"

"You stop that now," Óin said harshly. "You make as good a skeleton as I did a snack."

"Aye, and as I did an orc-pincushion," Thorin said to Balin, who finally slumped into Thorin's arms.

"Oh, laddie," he wept, and Thorin wrapped his arms around his dear friend and cousin and held on tightly.

Gimli's weeping slowed, and he touched the white stone with his powerful hands reverently. "Lord of Moria," he said, his booming voice wrecked and rasping. "Gaubdûkhimâ gagin yâkùlib Mahal."

"Ach, Gimli, I am going to clobber you," Óin muttered, and he dashed at his eyes roughly. "However many thousands of years of secrecy, and you hand over lore and Khuzdul and who knows what else as easily as a child scatters pebbles..."

Thorin looked over the top of Balin's head. "You died bravely," he told Ori.

"I suppose," Ori said uncomfortably. "Poor Dróin was so terrified."

"As were you," Thorin said gravely. "You kept going. You gave them heart to make a stand."

Ori's chin rose. "I'm one of the Company," he said.

Thorin smiled, though he could feel that it was very strained. "I am proud to name you amongst them."

Ori's cheeks flushed a light pink, and he turned as Gandalf carefully took the book cradled in his skeletal arms. "Would you just look at what those bloody orcs did to my book?" he said indignantly. "That's shameful, that is! Oooh, I would have done more than wallop them with a hammer if I'd known!"

Never mess with a librarian, Thorin thought with wry sadness. As Gandalf began to read the halting, disjointed tale of the colony, he turned his eyes back to Gimli. His star's light had dimmed, and his mouth was open in a soundless cry of grief.

As Gandalf read out the final fate of Óin, Gimli's eyes slid shut and two tears made deep furrows in the dust and grime on his face.

Aragorn placed a hand on the Dwarf's shoulder, and Merry hovered, wringing his little hands. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Gimli," he murmured in a sad little voice. His normally mischievous face was unhappy and worried.

Legolas was eyeing Gimli warily, as though he was likely to explode. This fresh storm of grief seemed to frighten the Elf. "We cannot stay here," he said urgently to Aragorn.

Aragorn nodded once, but stayed where he was, lending strength to the grieving Dwarf.

"I knew," Gimli whispered. "I knew. But I did not want to believe."

"Speak to him?" Óin pleaded.

Thorin sighed. "And what would you have me say?"

"He hears you, doesn't he?" Óin cried in anguish. "Say anything! Make this right!"

"Time is the only thing that can make it right," said Thorin. Turning back to Gimli, feeling Balin shake in his arms, he sighed again. "If anything can make it right."

"Give him some comfort, Thorin – please!" Óin begged. Thorin swallowed.

"I will try," he said. He gently urged Balin to lean against Ori, and then he crouched down beside his poor, sorrowing star. "Gimli, nahùba unday," he murmured. "Do not weep for the long-dead. Do not sorrow. We are here with you, and you are not alone."

Gimli showed no sign of hearing him.

"Have you lost your Gift?" said Ori in shock, and Thorin stood, his heart sinking even further into the pit of his belly.

"He cannot hear me," he said, his heart heavy and his lips numb. "All he can hear is his sorrow. Dís was thus, for a while. Again, time is the only healer." Oh, that hurt. That was the worst blow yet. Gimli had always been able to hear him. Gimli was the safest place Thorin knew – and Gimli was lost. His star was out of reach.

"Poppycock," Óin snarled. "Try again!"

At that moment a thunderous crash sent everyone, living and dead, whirling to stare at Pippin Took.

"Oops," he said, his eyes wide and his face sheepish.

"Did he just throw Grechar down a well?" Ori demanded incredulously.

"This Hobbit is related to Bilbo," retorted Óin, and he ignored Thorin's sudden dark look. "He's goin' to do stupid things in spectacular fashion every now an' then."

"You will take that back," Thorin growled.

"One word, your majesty," Óin snapped. "Trolls."

Thorin couldn't really find any sort of retort to that. He settled for glowering at the apothecary.

"Fool of a Took! Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity!" Gandalf said, snatching back his hat and staff and glaring at the youngest Hobbit. Pippin shrank back, before freezing in horror as a new sound began to flood the echoing deeps of the Mines, softly at first, but steadily growing in volume until the ancient stones seemed to rattle with it :

Doom... doom...

Ori's breath caught around a scream. "No!"

Doom... doom, doom!

"Mister Frodo!" Sam cried, and Frodo pulled Sting half-from its sheath to reveal the eerie blue glow.


"We cannot get out!" Gimli said.

"Trapped, just as they were!" Gandalf said, and he turned to the door as he drew Glamdring. "Ah, but I was not here then."

Aragorn and Boromir were closing the shattered doors, bracing them with wood. A roar echoed through the Hall of Feast, and Boromir winced. "They have a cave-troll," he said sourly.

Gimli's face had kindled with a kind of madness as the drums rolled around the Mines, and he leapt onto the tomb and drew his axes, snarling, "let them come! There is one Dwarf yet in Moria who still draws blood!"

"Is that..." Óin said, his face falling.

"The battle-madness, aye," Balin covered his eyes. "No, no! This cannot be!"

Thorin stared at Gimli. His teeth glinted, bared in the thin and thready light, and his whole body seemed to swell with readiness as his muscles bunched. His fiery beard seemed nearly to bristle as he flicked his throwing axe in loose, vicious circles. Violence danced in his eyes, and his weight shifted from side to side as he waited impatiently, his feet planted on stone as a Dwarf should.

Legolas, bow drawn, glanced back at Gimli for a moment. His Elven eyes were wide and alert, but the same confusion of the night before still flickered in their depths.

"He feels everything," Thorin told the Elf hoarsely. "To its utmost. Gimli does nothing by halves. You would do well to remember that, Elf."

The doors rattled. Doom-boom, doom-boom! sang the drums.

"Here they come," muttered Óin.

"Again," said Ori with dark sarcasm.

The drums shook the air, and the doors crashed open. Legolas let loose a volley of arrows, swifter than thought, and then goblins and the troll were upon them, howling and gibbering and roaring, and Gimli roared back.

Gimli whirled like a vortex of death, and his axes were faster than any Thorin had ever seen. Heads rolled, throats gushed blood, arms fell twitching to the floor. All the while Gimli's teeth were bared in a soundless snarl.

"Left!" Óin shouted. "No – your left, my right! Now duck! Ach, duck faster! Now right! No – your right!"

The Elf dispatched the Cave-troll, but not before the beast managed to skewer Frodo with a spear. Thorin couldn't restrain the scream that burst out of him, and shamefully, all he could think of was Bilbo – Bilbo, to whom this young Hobbit was the sun.

"Frodo!" Aragorn hollered, and the Ringbearer slumped against the spear, his wide blue eyes shocked. Then he fell in a heap.

Slicing through the last goblin, Gandalf rushed forward. Aragorn turned the Hobbit over – and amazingly, Frodo groaned.

"What's this?" Aragorn said in wonder. "You should be dead! That spear would have skewered a wild boar."

Thorin had a sneaking suspicion at that point, one which was soon confirmed when Frodo pulled down his shirt to show the unmistakable gleam of mithril beneath it.

"You are full of surprises, Master Baggins," Gimli said. His colour was high and his eyes snapped ferociously, glowing with the battle-madness. He seemed to be in tearing high spirits – and Thorin knew it to be a lie.

"Oh, Gimli," he said miserably. Óin slowly shook his head.

"That'll demand a price later," he said, his voice muted.

"Why must madness always follow our line?" Balin said bitterly.

Thorin made no answer.

"To the Bridge of Khazad-dûm," said Gandalf.

Gimli paused, and he touched the stone of Balin's tomb with his gauntleted hand. His eyes slid closed and his head bowed, and the elation of battle sloughed from him like a shed skin. Bone-deep, soul-deep grief seemed to radiate from him in buffeting waves.

"Come, Master Dwarf," Legolas said impatiently, and when Gimli would not, the Elf resorted to pulling at his huge arm. "Come! We cannot stay here – or there will be one more dead Dwarf in Moria!"

Gimli's eyelids snapped open and he glared at the Elf, who returned the glare without flinching. "Come, Master Dwarf!" he said again. "We must go!"

"My cousin," Gimli moaned, and Legolas' face softened.

"I am sorry," he said, tersely to be sure, but truthfully. He dragged at Gimli's arm again, though the Dwarf could not be budged. "But now we must leave him, or we will join him."

Gimli shook himself, and some of the madness and anguish fell from his eyes. "You are right," he said, and swallowed. "Lead on."

"This way!" Gandalf hollered, and he drew the Fellowship back out into the Hall of Feast. Orc-voices clamoured amongst the pillars, and the light upon his staff seemed small and frail as it bobbed amongst evil, glittering eyes and the huge, ancient stonework.

It could have been Thorin's imagination, but there was an inexorable hopelessness, a sense of inevitability in the Wizard's face as he led them on through the chittering, rustling darkness. The drums pounded and throbbed in the deeps and still the Wizard ran on, his mouth resigned and hard.

Then a new sound filled the air, sending a chilling, icy curl of horror racing up Thorin's spine.

Balin turned to him, and in his face was the answer that Thorin feared would be there.

"It's come," he said, his voice full of dread.

"What is this new devilry," Boromir whispered. The mighty man was tense and hoarse with fear.

"A Balrog," said Gandalf heavily. "A demon of the ancient world."

The snarl that echoed through the Hall of Feast sent Thorin's heart hammering in his mouth. He felt light-headed. "Durin's Bane," he breathed, and heard it echoed by Óin, Ori and Gimli.

Absurdly, that made him feel better. Gimli had heard him. The Balrog might kill them all, but it had snapped Gimli from his battle-madness and given him back to Thorin. "Run, nidoyel," he said, and Gimli's dwarf-boots pounded against the stone.

"He doesn't have speed on his side, true," said Balin, scowling at the Elf, "but he runs like he could charge through a wall."

The Hall opened up to a steep flight of stairs that shook with the beat of the drums. A chasm opened up between one step and another. "Jump!" Gandalf shouted, and Boromir and Legolas easily made it to the other side. Aragorn threw the terrified Hobbits across even as the ceiling groaned under the report of the monstrous beast that followed.

Aragorn turned to Gimli, who gave him an insulted look. "Nobody tosses a Dwarf," he growled, and bunched his thick legs before taking a running jump.

"He's not going to make it," Óin groaned.

"He made it!" Ori gasped.

"Not the beard!" Gimli howled, and Thorin winced at the indignity even as Balin bristled at the insult.

"He touched Gimli's beard!" he snapped. "Gimli should take the damned Elf's hand for that!"

"It was his beard or his life," Thorin said shortly, and then Frodo and Aragorn were sent crashing into the others and they were racing, stumbling and panting, down to the Fourth Level.

"The Bridge," puffed Ori. "There!"

Ahead, the Unending Chasm yawned, and there stood the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; a single curving spring of stone without rail or kerb. At the brink Gandalf halted, his breath rattling his chest. "Lead them on, Aragorn!" he rasped.

The Man paused, his eyes questioning, but Gandalf shooed him on with a sweep of his staff. "Go, I say! Swords are no more use here! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way."

Aragorn's brows drew together, but he turned and began to lead the Fellowship onwards.

"Gandalf, what-" Thorin began.

"Not now, Thorin Oakenshield," Gandalf snapped, and he loosened his arms and turned back to face the foot of the stair.

"Oh, Mahal save us," Balin faltered, even as a great billowing cloud began to surge through the shadows.

"Ai! Ai!" Legolas wailed. "A Balrog! A Balrog is come!"

Gimli stared with wide eyes as the smoke swirled through the air, coalescing around a nightmare of flames. He covered his face with his hands, and his axe fell and clattered to the ground.

"Pick up that axe, son of Glóin!" Thorin barked, and Gimli fumbled for it reflexively. "Properly, you fool – you will cut your own fingers. Take up arms!"

Gimli took up his axe and held it close to his chest. The huge muscles of his arms were tensed, pressing against his mail. Thorin could see the whites of his eyes.

One massive foot, shadows and flames intermingled, stepped onto the Bridge. Gandalf turned to the beast, his face twisted with effort and anger. "You cannot pass," he grated.

The Balrog snarled, whip cracking in its foul paw. Flames licked and rippled across its chest.

"I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun!" Gandalf bellowed, and he began to shine like a star in the darkness. He was a tiny figure before the monstrosity of the Balrog, whose wings reached from one side of the cavern to the other.

"He cannot hold it against such evil!" Balin choked.

"No," Thorin said wildly. "No, he cannot." And he knew it all along.

"Bloody wizards!" Óin howled.

Gandalf's voice was grim. "Go back to the Shadow!" he spat, and the Balrog roared offense and smashed its fiery sword down upon the small, glowing figure. Ori, Pippin and Frodo cried out in shock as flames engulfed the Wizard, and Balin's fingers were pressed into Thorin's forearm painfully.

The white glow of the Wizard steadily shone out from beneath the flames, and Gandalf stood upright: bloodied and weary, but unbowed. "You shall not pass!" he roared, and slammed his staff down against the bridge. There was a flash of light.

The Balrog snorted, and took another step forward – and then the ancient stone of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, unbroken since the days before the creation of the Sun and the Moon, cracked down the middle where Gandalf's staff touched it and crumbled away beneath the monster's feet. Roaring, howling, flames licking at the stone, the Balrog fell into the chasm. Its shadow plunged down and vanished.

"He did it! He did it! He bloody went and killed Durin's Bane!" Óin gibbered wildly, jumping up and down on the spot. "Bloody wizards! I could kiss him!"

"Don't," said Ori in a faint and wobbly voice. "No-one needs to see that."

Gandalf sighed, his shoulders heaving and drooping with weariness. He turned to make his way back along the bridge towards the Fellowship, and the crack of a whip sounded out. The fiery thongs of the Balrog's whip had caught him around the knees.

"Gandalf!" Frodo shrieked in horror, and Aragorn caught him around the waist and held him back.

The Wizard was dragged to the brink, his staff and sword clattering over the edge as he clawed desperately for a hand-hold upon the stone of the Bridge. He found one and scrabbled vainly at it for a moment as he dangled. "Fly, you fools!" he cried, and then he was gone.


Chapter Text

Kíli watched in bemusement. Certainly he'd been a little... impulsive at times. But this took the cake. In fact, it took the whole bakery.

"Oh come on! We could take him!" said Gimizh, his dark red hair falling into his eyes.

Wee Thorin (who at thirty-seven wasn't so wee anymore) rolled his eyes. "Gimizh, he's a messenger of Mordor. Who knows what he's capable of?"

"I thought you were gonna be a great warrior an' that?" challenged Gimizh. Wee Thorin folded his arms and gave the younger Dwarfling a long stare.

"I am a great warrior," he said gruffly. "My Pa's Dwalin Fundinul."

"Pfft, my 'adad's a miner and he could sing your Pa under the table," Gimizh retorted, and the two Dwarflings scuffled for a moment before Gimizh yelped.

"Let that be a lesson t' you," Wee Thorin said, sticking his scruffy chin out. "Nobody beats my Pa."

"My uncle could," sulked Gimizh, holding his head.

Wee Thorin's lips pursed. Kíli took that to mean that Thorin knew very well that Gimli had outstripped his famous father, but didn't want to admit it.

"Well, if we're not going to fight him, can't we go up and see?" Gimizh said sullenly, still rubbing at his head. His cheeks were still bare as an egg, but he had a great shaggy mop of hair on his head that reminded Kíli of Glóin, though Bofur habitually braided it into pigtails like his own.

Gimizh son of Bofur, by Flukeoffate.

"We're not goin' to fight him," said Wee Thorin firmly. "Come on, pick up your chalk."

"Don't want to."

"You have to do your lessons, Gimizh. I heard your uncle knew these histories by the time he was twenty!"

Gimizh's head snapped up. "Did he really?"

"Aye, an' you're twenty-five already." Wee Thorin's eyes twinkled with youthful cunning. His hair still stood up in a fierce shock not unlike Dwalin's old Mohawk, though he had gained the dark eyes and skin of Orla. Of his three brothers, he was the tallest, though his middle brother Balin had the most strength, and the youngest, the toddling Frerin, had Dwalin's massive hands and arms. "Can you interpret this bit?"

Gimizh glanced over it, and then he folded his arms and tossed his chin into the air. "S' cirth."

"They're all cirth, dimwit," Wee Thorin growled. "What does it say?"

"I want to fight the stupid messenger!"

"Wrong. It says, 'At the Battle of Dagorlad, Drór smashed the Chief Orc's head in with a battle-axe'."

"Drór's got some good ideas." Gimizh glowered. He had quite a fine Durin glower. "Why can't we go see? I want to see."

Wee Thorin sighed. "You're not going to concentrate on your lessons until we go and gawk, are you?"

Gimizh shook his head stubbornly, his curved and protruding plaits swinging.

Wee Thorin rubbed his eyes, and then sighed again. "All right."

Gimizh jerked, and then he whooped loudly.

"But!" Wee Thorin held up a finger. "You have to promise to do your lessons afterwards, or your mother will yell at me."

Gimizh nodded quickly. "Promise. Mithril-true promise, may I be shaved like a Man if I break it. Come on, let's go!"

"Ooooh, not good," Kíli murmured, and bit down on his lip as the two Dwarflings scurried from the room to the upper levels overlooking the battlements. He followed with a sinking feeling, and absently wondered if Thorin had ever felt like this, watching over Fíli and himself.


How depressing.

"Move, I can't see!" Gimizh hissed.

"Not my fault you're a shrimp," Wee Thorin snapped, but he made room for his smaller cousin anyway. Gimizh peered over the edge of the archer's sconce with great big brown eyes, his mouth a perfect little 'o'.

"Not too far, they'll see you," Wee Thorin said, clamping a hand into Gimizh's belt and hauling him back. Gimizh poked his tongue out, and leaned straight back over the sill. From below, the Dwarf-Lords and the messenger would be able to spot his red hair from a mile away.

"Was I ever this stupid?" Kíli demanded of the air, and then he winced. "Mahal, am I glad no-one is around to answer that..."

"Who's that there?" wondered Gimizh, and Wee Thorin snorted.

"That's the King, dimwit."

"Oh. Wow, his hair and beard are really big and white – bigger even than grandpa's." Gimizh squinted down at him, and then he brightened. "I could drop a pebble right on his head from here."

Wee Thorin and Kíli gaped in unison. "They named you well, wild one," muttered Kíli. "Drop a pebble on the King!"

"Are you crazy?" Wee Thorin demanded, and then his next words had Kíli attempting to knock himself unconscious against the stone of Erebor's walls; "use a wood-block, a pebble's too hard from this height, even for a Dwarf's head."

"Bet it wouldn't hurt my uncle," mumbled Gimizh, and he fumbled in his pocket for one of the blocks he used for wood-carving (Bofur was teaching him). "Bet it'd just bounce off."

"It'd certainly bounce off yours!" Kíli nearly shrieked. "Are you seriously going to drop a wood-block on the King while he fends off a messenger of Mordor?!"

"You need a steadier hand than that," scoffed Wee Thorin, and he took the wood-block off Gimizh. Gimizh squawked and reached for it again, but Wee Thorin fended him off by simply placing one hand against the smaller lad's forehead and holding him at arm's length.

"I hate you," Gimizh snarled.

"You got what you wanted, din't you?" Wee Thorin snapped back. "We can see the messenger."

"He's not even really frightening. Just a big black bundle of rags. Bet I could take him."

"Bet your stink'd knock him off his horse, you mean," Wee Thorin sniggered, and the two scuffled again. Predictably, Gimizh came off worse once more.

"Hate you so much," he moaned, rubbing his little leg and hopping up and down.

"Aye, I know, little cousin," Wee Thorin grinned. It was Dwalin's rare sharklike grin. "Now, are we dropping this on the King or not?"

Gimizh leaned over the sill again (Kíli's breath caught and he groaned loudly). "Aunt Dís is down there, and Mum," he said dubiously. "It might bounce off and hit them."

"Thank you!" Kíli shouted, throwing his hands up. "Some sense at last! Argh, I am apologising to Thorin every day for a year after this!"

"You saying I can't hit him properly?" Wee Thorin puffed up his chest like a bullfrog in indignation, and Kíli wanted to weep.

"You wanna take the chance that it hits Aunt Dís?" Gimizh pointed out, and Wee Thorin's dark face blanched a little.


"Oh, thank Mahal and all of the Seven fathers," Kíli wheezed and clutched at his chest.

"She won't know it was us," Wee Thorin said dubiously - and at that point someone roughly cleared their throat. The two Dwarflings and Kíli shrieked in surprise and whirled around to the stairwell.

Dwalin was standing there, his scarred and tattooed eyebrows raised and his glass eye shining like retribution.

Kíli, Gimizh and Wee Thorin gulped.

"You two idiots do know that from up here the whole bloody Mountain can hear you, an' that red hair is like a bloody flag," Dwalin growled. The tone of voice was so familiar that Kíli reflexively began to cringe – before remembering that for once, he wasn't one of the idiots in question.

Gimizh began to gnaw on his lip, opting to hold his tongue and close his eyes tightly. Wee Thorin was wiser, and hung his head. "Sorry, Pa."

"Not yet, you're not," Dwalin said ominously. "You two: Get. I'll be talkin' to your 'amad later, young Gimizh, you mark m' words."

Gimizh's big brown eyes snapped open, filled with panic. "Oh no!" he whimpered.

Dwalin's good eye glittered. "Oh aye. An' I might just make mention o' this to your uncle when he returns if it should happen again."

Gimizh's ruddy head whipped up, protest written all over his small face. At the sight of Dwalin's expression, however, he deflated and slunk away.

Kíli rubbed at his forehead and let out a long, explosive breath. Perhaps he should make Thorin something nice.

Probably Balin too.

Maybe something for his mother, for when she finally entered the Halls. And Dwalin. And Bilbo too, to apologise for all the silly stories and teasing. Grandmother as well. Oh, and he'd seriously annoyed his great-grandfather Thrór last week, and Nori wasn't speaking to him because he'd ruined Ori's new ink before it had cured.

Would Fíli have any ideas? Oh now, wait - Fee was annoyed with him for breaking his gemcutter's eyeglass.

Oh, Durin's beard, he was going to be crafting from now until the mending of the bloody world.

Gandalf was gone, and the drums thudded and throbbed in the air. Frodo's cries were a shrill and sorrowful descant, all accompanied by the rasp of breath as the Fellowship tore through the empty and desolate Mines. The hiss and zing of arrows stung their ears.

Thorin raced after them, shouting out Ori's directions. Behind him, Náli, Lóni and Frár had shimmered into the darkness of Arda, and their faces were grim and determined.

"Left here!" Lóni said tightly, and Thorin relayed it. Gimli swerved dutifully, and at the rear of the party Aragorn fought off the encroaching Orcs with terrifying savagery. His teeth were bared in a grimace of pain.

"Spin that axe, azaghâl, do not choke it!" Náli snapped, his old drillmaster's tone sharp and scolding. He watched in approval as Gimli dispatched a pair of chittering goblins with aplomb. "My best student, don't y'know," he said to no-one in particular.

"Not the time, Náli!" Lóni hollered.

"The doors are ahead," Frár said in his deep voice. His hand was clutched around Lóni's tightly as they ran after the Fellowship, and he would not look at the corpses scattered around the East-Gate. Thorin abruptly remembered that it was here at the East-gate that these Dwarves had fallen, and Balin himself had died only a scant few hundred feet beyond, at the shores of Kheled-zâram.

"Go, my star!" he roared. "The East-gate lies ahead! Do not stop!"

Gimli let out a choked sob as he pounded ahead of the rest, his heavy boots ringing against stone and his axes dripping. The golden sheen of sunlight was beginning to edge the darkness.

"How do you know the way?" demanded Boromir, his sword cleaving an orc nearly to the navel.

"Must be mine-sign again," wheezed Merry.

"Oh Hobbits - gullible!" Ori panted. "Take the second fork – I can see daylight!"

"Ahead – the second fork!" Thorin bit out, and Gimli yanked his axe from an orc's skull with a mighty pull, gore spattering the ground. He shouted wordlessly to the Fellowship and began to charge for the second fork of the tunnel, the Hobbits and the Elf following on fleet and noiseless feet.

"How can anyone read signs with all this hullabaloo?" Sam gasped. "I can't see which way is up!"

"I can see light!" Legolas called, a note of wild joy in his voice.

"Don't talk; run!" shouted Aragorn, and he launched with a cry at a great orc-captain who, along with a small guard detail, was barring their way. Such was the terrifying ferocity of his wrath that many of the orcs screeched and fled, only to be cut down by Boromir, Gimli and the white knives of Legolas.

"Very nice," said Náli grudgingly. "Could have used a bit less o' that dancing Elvish footwork though. Just showing off, t' my mind."

Finally they came stumbling out of the darkness and blinked in the sudden sunlight. The sky was a huge vaulted roof of grey-blue, and the wind on their faces made Sam and Legolas gasp and shudder with relief.

Looking back, Thorin saw the glitter of orc-eyes recede into the yawning darkness. Boom, doom, rolled the drums, echoing and mocking, making the earth beneath their feet shudder. Sam slumped to the ground and began to weep quietly, and Pippin threw himself into Merry's arms and sobbed into his lap.

"I will go back!" Gimli cried, rage contorting his face. "I will find him, and..."

"No, Gimli!" Thorin shouted, and he was echoed by Boromir. The Man caught Gimli around his barrel-chest and held on tightly, though he had no hope of holding a Dwarf using his full strength.

"You cannot go back," the Captain of Gondor said hoarsely. "It is folly. We would not lose you too, doughty warrior."

"Unkhash – oh, Tharkûn, Tharkûn!" Gimli howled, and then he fell into a heap and pulled his helm from his head, burying his face in his hands.

The Elf's eyes were luminous and shocked. He did not seem to know how to deal with his own sorrow, and gazed about himself with a strange and lost air of horror.

Thorin looked out upon the Dimrill Dale, the once-fair Azanulbizar, and found that it had barely changed. There, the place he had picked up a fallen oak branch and swung it wildly. There, where Dain-the-child had made his stand and lost his leg. There, where his grandfather's blood had soaked through to the bedrock. There, where Frerin's body had been found. There, where the bonfire had blazed, half a dozen feet high, while the wounded screamed in hastily-erected tents. "This place is cursed," he muttered to himself.

"Legolas, get them up," Aragorn said. Loss coloured his voice and made it rasp harshly.

Boromir was hunched over Gimli's prone form, and his face was ravaged. "Give them a moment, for pity's sake!" he cried.

"By nightfall these hills will be swarming with orcs!" Aragorn retorted. "We must reach the woods of Lothlórien. Come, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli. Get them up." He bent and took the arm of Sam, who was red-faced and sniffling. "On your feet, Sam," he said as gently as he could.

"Lothlórien," repeated Óin, and he shuddered. "No!"

"Yonder is the Dimrill Stair," said Lóni quietly. "Over there is the Mirrormere."

"Deep Kheled-zâram," rasped Thorin, and he rubbed at his mouth.

"I remember he said: 'May you have joy of the sight!'" Gimli croaked, and he looked out over the Dale with red-rimmed eyes. "And ach – look, there is Durin's Stone."

Frodo turned and looked up at Aragorn. The numb shock on his face was giving way to something deeper and darker and full of desolation. "Give him this," he said fiercely.

Legolas glanced at the golden tops of the nearby trees with longing. "But..."

Frodo set his jaw. His great blue eyes were wells of absolute despair. "Give him – and me – this," he said, his teeth snapping the words.

"Tolo, Legolas," Aragorn said quietly. "Let them go."

Legolas' fine jaw rippled as he swallowed. "Boe? Am man theled, Aragorn? Man tôg hí?"

Aragorn's eyes hardened. "Farn, mellon nin. Farn."

Frodo turned on his heel and immediately walked over to Gimli, speaking to him quietly and touching his thick arm. Gimli looked at him with desolate eyes and bowed his head, and together the two walked slowly over to where a great paved way had obviously once stood, though it was largely ruined and overgrown.

"What of the orcs you spoke of? We should not linger here," Boromir said in an undertone.

"We have daylight enough to protect us," Aragorn said, before glancing around at the weeping Hobbits. "And sorrow is a heavy burden."

"Thorin," said Balin hoarsely. "They go to Mirrormere."

"They do," Thorin said, inclining his head and giving his old friend a steady look. "Do you stay, Balin?"

The sleek maned head dropped for a moment, before Balin sighed and met Thorin's eyes again. "I stay," he said reluctantly. "But I will not go to those waters."

"I will," said Lóni, and Frár nodded beside him.

"Try an' stop me," snorted Náli. Lóni rolled his eyes at his irascible old instructor.

"I'll leave, if you'll excuse me," Ori said, and he looked back at the gaping broken east-doors and sighed unhappily. "I'll send another."

"Aye," Thorin said, before looking sternly over to Óin. "You too, gamil bâhûn. You have stayed in those darksome tunnels far too long. Take your rest."

Óin snorted, though his eyes slid away from Thorin's. "If I've been here too long, you're in danger of becomin' a fixture."

"My duty and my privilege," Thorin said, and he tried to steel himself around the aching emptiness inside as Óin and Ori faded from his side. Gandalf was gone. The grey wizard, old and gruff and powerful, gnarled as an old tree and strong as a mountain, was fallen.

No more would the sharp blue eyes flicker to him in irritation or acknowledgement, or that strange and unexpected compassion. No more would the scratchy old voice offer that infuriatingly opaque wisdom, the calm and gentle comfort, or ring out in that clarion call of righteous rage. Thorin squeezed his own eyes shut for a moment, before he stubbornly pushed his grief away. Gandalf himself had said that death was only another path.

Gimli and Frodo clambered up to the side of the great standing stone and looked down over the sheltered valley. Thorin, Balin, Lóni, Frár and Náli followed at a respectful distance, and Lóni ghosted his hand over the surface of the monolith, his eyes distant. The stone itself was cracked and worn, and the ancient runes on its side were weathered so that they could no longer be read.

"This is where Durin himself once stood," Gimli said, his voice cracking. "This is where the father of all my fathers bent his head and looked into the waters of Kheled-zâram."

"Did you want to...?" Frodo said, his own light Hobbit-voice rasping.

"Aye," Gimli said after a long and heavy silence. He slowly moved to his knees and bent over the dark waters, and after a moment Frodo joined him.

At first the dark pool revealed nothing. And then, just as in the waters of Gimlîn-zâram, the darkness parted. The shapes of the surrounding mountains were mirrored against the sheen of the waters, framing a sky that was an aching and yearning blue. There were sunk seven glittering stars against that blue eternity, like drowned heavenly jewels. They span and dazzled against the deep, though the sun was high and no stars shone in the sky above them.

With a flash of understanding, Thorin realised that this pool, deep Kheled-zâram, was but a pale reflection of the greater profundity of starry Gimlîn-zâram in the Halls of Mahal.

"Magnificent," Lóni spoke softly. "Worth dying for, surely." Frár took his hand and kissed the palm.

"Ghivasha. No wonder of this world, not even the Crown of Durin, was worth your life," he said quietly. The taller Dwarrow glanced down at Frár, let out a bitter gust of breath and then turned back to where Gimli stood with Frodo.

Lóni and Frár, by hhavenh.

"O Kheled-zâram fair and wonderful," Gimli murmured. "There lies the Crown of Durin till he wakes."

"It is beautiful, Gimli," Frodo said, and a tear fell from his eye to ripple the surface of the water.

"Aye, it is." Gimli straightened and looked up at the glowering peak of Caradhras, looming behind them. His mouth twisted for a moment, and then he mastered himself. "Thank you for coming with me t' see it."

As he led the Hobbit down the sides of the causeway, Frodo placed his hand upon Gimli's shoulder once more and held on tightly as though the Dwarf were the only solid thing in Arda. Misery welled in his eyes.

"Strength to you, Frodo Baggins," whispered Thorin, and he heard it echoed by Frár and Lóni. "Strength to you, Ringbearer."

As the pair rejoined the Fellowship, Legolas stood upon a lofty outcrop of rock and shaded his eyes. "There is the spring of the Nimrodel," he said. "We must turn to the South."

They turned towards the golden trees with heavy dragging steps, and Lóni let out a sigh.

"Well, we're free of it, no matter what happens next."

Thorin glanced back at the tall Dwarrow with a sardonic expression. "What happens next is Elves."

Frár pulled a face as Lóni flinched. "Ah."

Náli grumbled to himself in Khuzdul all the way from the foothills to the plain before the golden eaves until Balin finally told him to shut up.

"Thank Durin," Lóni muttered.

The sudden silence made Thorin aware of whispering to his right, and he turned to see the two young Hobbits close together. He frowned and bent to listen.

"...all my fault!" Pippin was whispering to Merry, his fingers twisting in each other and his knuckles white. "If I hadn't been so curious..."

What was this? Thorin moved closer to the youngest of the Fellowship, and his heart sank even further (if that were possible) at Pippin's guilty and grief-ridden expression.

"You didn't kill him, Pip!" Merry exclaimed under his breath. "You can't know that. Maybe the orcs would have found us anyway. Not like you hung a sign around his neck or anything!"

"But I roused the whole of Moria with that silly well," Pippin said, his lip trembling. "I did – no one else! Me, the fool of a Took!"

"Oh no," Thorin said, and he sighed. "Oh, tender little Halfling. You could not have protected Gandalf against the horrors of Durin's Bane."

He raised his head to look about for Gimli, and spotted him trudging along beside Frodo still, their heads bowed in the rosy light of sunset. "My star, the Hobbits-" he began, but then he was interrupted from an unexpected quarter.

"No, little one," said Boromir gently. "Raise your spirits and smile again. You were not the author of Gandalf's fall. Those Halls have long been the haunt of evil things, and who is to say we would have passed unnoticed, your unfortunate well or no?"

Pippin turned his face up to the Man, his cheeks wet. "But, I..." he faltered.

Boromir tousled Pippin's curly head. "He was fond of your Tookish spirit, little one," he said. "Don't let the cold of that place steal all your laughter."

"Aye," croaked Balin, and he looked up to meet Thorin's eyes. "Aye, we cannot allow that place to steal more of our spirit."

Thorin gave him a small, encouraging smile. "That is true."

Balin took in a deep, shuddering breath, before exhaling slowly, his chest rising and falling. Then he tipped back his head and stood straighter. "I will not let it steal mine any longer," he said half to himself.

"Good," Thorin said firmly, and then he turned back to Pippin. "And nor should you, little Bullroarer," he murmured to Pippin's hopeful, miserable face, recalling all of Bilbo's fanciful tales. "Child of adventurers, Gandalf gave his life to save your company. Do not make his choice into your failing."

"I just wish I'd never..." Pippin blurted, and then he jammed his fingers into his mouth to stop his words.

"Thrown Grechar down the well?" Balin finished, and there was a note of his old humour back in his voice. Thorin could have cried with gratitude to hear it.

He threw an appraising look at Boromir as the sun slowly slid back over the peaks of the Misty Mountains. "You have learned different lessons than I," he mused. "I did not learn the value of compassion until far too late. Perhaps you will not be bound to the same fate; the doom that awaits those who fear for their folk above all else, and forget to live."

Oh, he hoped so. Boromir was far too mighty and far too good a Man – too good a person – to succumb to the Shadow.

As they entered the forest, Gimli became more edgy and silent and his eyes flicked this way and that. They passed a rushing stream that Legolas lingered beside, his fair face longing and wistful. "Here is Nimrodel!" he said. "The Elves of the North made many songs about this stream long ago, and in Mirkwood we sing them yet."

Gimli's dark eyes snapped up to the Elf, and a sneer tugged the edge of his lips. Instead of speaking, he bent to lighting a fire. Night was drawing close.

"Orcs will not dare enter these woods," Aragorn told them in his quiet authoritative voice. "Rest easy!"

"I'll not be resting easily here," Gimli muttered to himself, and he glared at the trees with a trace of his dark sorrow still lingering in the corners of his mouth and in the tightness around his eyes. "Not under these cursed trees."

At length a silence fell and they could all hear the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows. Then the silence was broken by the lilting voice of the Elf, raised over the rushing waters and almost seeming to blend with it:

[The Lay of Nimrodel, performed by notanightlight]

An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.

A star was bound upon her brows,
A light was on her hair
As sun upon the golden boughs
In Lorien the fair.

Her hair was long, her limbs were white,
And fair she was and free;
And in the wind she went as light
As leaf of linden-tree.

Beside the falls of Nimrodel,
By water clear and cool,
Her voice as falling silver fell
Into the shining pool.

Where now she wanders none can tell,
In sunlight or in shade;
For lost of yore was Nimrodel
And in the mountains strayed.

There was more, but Thorin stopped listening. Instead, he found it more interesting to watch the face of Gimli as the Elf sang softly to the sweet chill waters. His fierce star was weighted down with his great grief, but he did not yet stagger underneath it, though he had come close. His heavy shoulders gradually slumped as the tension bled from them. The strain in his eyes and brow smoothed out as Legolas' voice soared over their Fellowship, and his eyelids slid shut as he leaned back and let out a soft breath.

Then Legolas broke off, his mouth tight. "I cannot sing any more," he said. "That is but a part, for I have forgotten much. It is long and sad, for it tells how sorrow came upon Lothlórien, Lórien of the Blossom, when the Dwarves awakened evil in the mountains."

Gimli's eyes flew open, and he fixed the Elf with a resentful glare. "But the Dwarves did not make the evil!"

Legolas sighed imperceptibly, his narrow and slender chest falling. "I said not so, yet evil came," he answered sadly.

Thorin gritted his teeth, but Balin and Lóni frowned. "Wait," said Lóni slowly. "Did the Elf just...?"

"That was almost... diplomatic," said Balin in a puzzled tone. "What in Durin's name?"

Abruptly Thorin remembered Legolas' conversation with Aragorn, and his eyebrows shot up. "Does the Elvish Princeling actually consider another's point of view? Will wonders never cease?"

Gimli pursed his lips but he did not immediately react to Thorin's sarcastic prodding. Instead he turned to Pippin and Merry. "Stay close, young Hobbits. They say a great sorceress lives in these woods. An Elf-witch of terrible power. All who look on her fall under her spell, and are never heard of again!"

Balin winced, and Lóni groaned. "Uh. Gimli was never very diplomatic himself," he said helplessly. "His usual method of problem-solving involves an axe, a tankard of ale, or both."

Thorin snorted. "I remember."

Lóni blinked, and then he grimaced, his ears reddening. "Oh."

Náli chuckled coarsely. "The looks on your faces."

"That was downright rude of him, though," Frár said. "Insulting another's leader in their own land!"

"I thought it was direct and to the point," Thorin said, and Balin gave him a long-suffering look full of old exasperation.

"You would."

Thorin glared.

"My undiplomatic king," Balin added with wry warmth. "Sword half-drawn and foot firmly in mouth."

"Where has all your respect gone?" Thorin grumbled, and Balin laughed. It was sad and stiff, but it was a true laugh.

"I suspect I left it behind in Moria and darkness, laddie." He shook his head again. "Perhaps I did not appreciate Dáin enough in life."

Glancing back at the Elf's stiff and offended face, Thorin had to admit that perhaps they had a point. "Gimli," he began, but he was once more interrupted, this time by Gimli's deep grunt.

"Well, here's one Dwarf she won't ensnare so easily," he said mulishly.

"The Dwarf breathes so loudly we could have shot him in the dark," came a new voice, silky and superior. Gimli shot up as an arrow thrust itself directly at his nose, and Thorin bellowed in outrage as more arrows were levelled at the Hobbits and the Men.

Gimli glowered as the newcomers revealed themselves as tall and golden Elves. The leader looked down his nose at the Dwarf, his expression cold and impassive and yet somehow full of utter distaste.

Then the Elf turned to Legolas and his eyes widened imperceptibly. "Legolas Thranduilion, well-met,," he said and arched his head in a graceful bow.

Legolas inclined his head in return, distant, unreachable and just as cold. All of Thorin's initial dislike for the Elf came flooding back. How could he have thought that the son of Thranduil could change? "Govannas vîn gwennen le, Haldir o Lórien," Legolas replied, and there was no difference in him from the arrogant and aloof creature he had first seen in the gardens of Rivendell.

This Elf was unchanged from the one who had sneered at Thorin and threatened his life.

"Elves! All the same!" he spat, and Balin muttered a curse beneath his breath before raising his voice hastily.

"Wait, Thorin," he said. "Wait before you lose your temper this time!"

"Does Balin have better luck arguing with the weather, do you suppose?" sighed yet another voice, and Thorin pressed his lips together as his mother walked up behind him and tweaked his ear. "Behave, inùdoy," she said. "You are tired and full of sorrow, and your temper gets away from you."

"Are you here to take Ori's place, my lady?" asked Frár respectfully, and Frís smiled.

"Mostly I am here to convince my son to take his rest, but I will stay for a while longer. I believe Nori and Gróin plan to take the next watch."

"Hnh," Thorin grunted, and his mother tweaked his ear again.

"Thorinîth, stop that," she said sharply. Then she turned to the Elves who were arguing with Legolas and Aragorn in that birdsong language, and her eyebrows lowered. "What's this?"

"Gandalf fell," Thorin told her, and his throat closed. She left his ear and her hand settled on his shoulder, rubbing soothingly.

"I know. The Halls are filled with the songs of mourning," she said, and bowed her head, her blue eyes sombre. "Where did Aragorn lead them?"

"This is Lothlórien," Balin said darkly, and her breath caught for a moment before her chin rose.

"Ah. And all these Elves make already thin tempers stretch even thinner, I see."

"If they would only stop using those piping bird-noises instead of a real tongue-!" Thorin growled, and Gimli growled too.

"So much for the legendary courtesy of the Elves," he grumbled. "Speak words we can all understand!"

Frís turned to her son with a censorious look, and he winced as she reached for his ear once more.

The leader of the new Elves gave the assembled Fellowship a graceful bow. "I am Haldir," he said, "March-warden of the Golden Wood. We have heard rumours of your passing, and then upon the waters of the Nimrodel we heard your song and knew you to be one of our Northern kindred. If you will vouch for them, Prince, we will lead you through our land, though it is not our custom. How many are you?"

"Eight," said Legolas. "Myself, four Hobbits and two Men. And the Dwarf."

"Last and least," Frís said and rolled her eyes to the twilit sky. "No-one is exactly covering themselves with glory, are they?"

"We have not had dealings with Dwarves since the dark days," said Haldir, his lip curling the slightest amount as he looked down upon Gimli once more.

"And do you know what this Dwarf says to that!" Gimli bristled, and then he ground out a stream of snapping, percussive Khuzdul.

Náli tipped his head, and his eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. "Now that is a fightin' insult." Then he puffed up his chest. "I taught him that, y'know. One o' my best."

Frár winced, and Lóni clapped his hands over his mouth as he eyed his best friend in horror. "Oh, you rogue, Gimli, you great redheaded wretch," he groaned. "I should tan your hide and use it for a rug, for you certainly don't care a whit for it! Do you want a bushel of arrows between your ears? Mahal knows there's plenty of room!"

"Oh no," Balin moaned. "Not more secrets! Gimli, I will snatch out your beard!"

Thorin barely even heard the insult, so incensed was he. "They are not permitted in this land," Haldir said over the uproar, his eyes frosty. "I cannot allow him to pass."

"But he is from the Lonely Mountain, one of Dáin's trusty folk!" Frodo cried, and he was echoed by Merry, Sam and Pippin. "Elrond himself chose him to be part of our company, and he has been brave and faithful, even when the road turned crueller for him than for anyone else!"

Haldir looked over at Legolas, who was holding himself very tall and straight, and arched an elegant eyebrow. "Do you vouch for him?"

Legolas hesitated. Gimli's mouth dropped open momentarily, before hurt flooded his face and he began to snarl, "of course he doesn't! I am a Dwarf, am I not? I cannae grow points on my ears, nor three feet in height, nor suddenly live forever, and so I all I have done for this Fellowship and all I have lost is as nothing!"

Legolas stiffened. "I vouch for him."

As one, every Dwarf in the clearing turned to gape at the son of Thranduil.

"You what...?" Gimli said blankly.

Haldir looked equally as surprised, but he rallied magnificently. "Very well, he may pass. But his eyes must be blindfolded in the Naith of Lórien, for we do not permit stone-grubbers to set foot there. Indeed, he has come further than we would have allowed, had we known he was amongst you."

Gimli's teeth gritted. "I will not walk blindfold like a beggar or common prisoner," he said in a low, angry voice. His shoulders swelled hugely beneath his brigandine as he bunched them in readiness. "I am no spy! My folk have never had dealings with any of the servants of the Enemy. Neither have we done any harm to Elves! I am no more likely to betray you than Legolas here!"

Haldir turned his eyes back to Legolas, who no longer looked cool and unknowable. Rather, the Elf appeared rather frustrated. "Master Dwarf," he said through clenched teeth, and pinched his nose.

"Aye, a Dwarf, and that is the problem, isn't it?" Gimli said hotly. "Go, I will not stomach it! I will not be blindfolded and led like a pet for no other reason than what I am!"

"Master Dwarf," Legolas tried again, and Gimli growled low and deep.

"My name is Gimli, son of Glóin," he rumbled dangerously. "And I will go forward free, or I will go back to my own land where I am known to be true and honest, though I perish alone in the wilderness!"

Haldir raised his hand. "That you cannot do," he said, his silky voice stern. "You have come this far, and you cannot go back. Behind you there are secret sentinels that you cannot pass. You would be slain before you saw them, with your dull eyes."

"Try it at night, and find out," Gimli snarled, drawing his axe and planting it before him in the soft loam. "Dusk is upon us. Want to make an attempt?"

"A plague upon Dwarves and their stiff necks!" Legolas cried in frustration.

"Oh, shut up!" Lóni told him angrily.

"Come now," Aragorn said, stepping carefully between the two Elves and the obstinate Dwarf (and his invisible – and furious – retinue). "It's hard on Gimli to be singled out thusly. I am the leader now that Mithrandir has fallen, and you must all follow my orders."

"Oh, as though it is that simple!" Thorin scoffed, his blood hot and his pulse pounding.

"Maybe Men are easier to lead than Dwarves?" Frár suggested as he stepped closer to his husband and threaded his fingers through his hair comfortingly. Lóni subsided, scowling.

Frís glanced at Gimli, standing glowering behind Aragorn. His legs were planted as though earthquakes could not budge him. "I should think that cats are easier to lead than Dwarves," she muttered.

Aragorn spread his hands. "We will all be blindfolded, even Legolas. That is fair, though it will make the journey slow and dull."

Legolas' head whipped around, and the faintest of colours began to mantle on his cheeks.

Suddenly, Gimli laughed his joyous, booming laugh. It was his old laugh, the one that made Thorin's spirits soar. Grief had not stolen it. "A merry troop of fools we will look!" he chuckled. "Will whatsit – Halthing here – will he lead us on a string, do you suppose? Still, I will be content if only Legolas shares my blindness."

Náli blinked, and then he began to chuckle. "Turns the tables quickly, don't he?

"What!" shouted Legolas, and his hand went to his quiver. The hint of colour of his cheeks deepened to a rich flush of anger. "I am an Elf! I am a kinsman of the lord of this land!"

Aragorn smiled. "Shall we now cry, 'a plague on the stiff necks of Elves'?"

Frís patted Thorin's hand. "You see, dear?" she said in a murmur. "That's the way to do it."

Bifur hovered behind the Stonehelm's shoulder as he was ushered into the twisting vaulted corridors of the Elvenking's palace. He couldn't help but glance behind at the doors as they closed with a final-sounding boom. Those magic doors brought up a few nasty memories, after all.

The Stonehelm was a burly Dwarrow, but he looked small and childlike as he was ushered before the antlered throne. He obviously felt it, too, and drew himself up as tall as he could, cords standing out on his thick neck as he swallowed.

Thorin III Stonehelm, by poplitealqueen

The Elvenking, Thranduil himself, gave him an incurious look as he approached, his eyes luminous and detached. A glass of wine dangled elegantly from his hand. "Hail, Thorin Stonehelm, Prince of Erebor," he said in his soft, cold voice.

"Hail, Thranduil, King of Mir... uh, Eryn Lasgalen." The Stonehelm bowed perfunctorily to cover his near-slip, and Thranduil's lips were touched faintly by a smile.

"What brings you to my woods, Prince Thorin?" he said, and he rose in one fluid and graceful movement to tower over the Dwarrow.

"I have news, Majesty," the Stonehelm said, and he stubbornly refused to step back to see the Elvenking's face properly. Instead, he craned his head upwards, his eyes flashing. "My father sends me to tell you that a messenger has now come to Erebor three times."

"A messenger?" Thranduil's eyebrow arched, and then he took a step back. "What news is this? Erebor can have as many messengers as it likes. It needs not my approval."

The Stonehelm's breath quickened, but he held onto his temper with an iron grip. "We have no need of your approval for messengers, and yet this one concerns all free folk," he said crisply. "The messenger is from Mordor."

Thranduil's glass smashed all over the tiles. Thorin Stonehelm blinked, and then he looked up to regard the Elvenking with growing shock.

Bifur couldn't blame him.

Thranduil had leaned heavily to the side, and he had propped himself up by his hand against the armrest of his throne. His usually calm, cool blue eyes were wide. "Mordor," he breathed.

The Stonehelm nodded slowly.

"If you lie, Dwarf," Thranduil began, and Thorin Stonehelm's fists clenched.

"I do not lie," he said, and the underlying anger in his tone was overwhelmed by the note of fear. "Thrice now he has knocked on our gate, and thrice now we have turned him away. He wishes our friendship, he says, but if he will not get it then he will settle for war."

"So do you come to tell me of your new friends?" Thranduil sneered, and he drew himself up again, his robes swirling about his legs.

The Prince made a frustrated noise deep in his throat. "I come to tell you that Erebor will be at war! And no doubt all the North, for if Erebor falls, there is nothing to stop the orcs of Mount Gundabad from swarming south."

Thranduil stared at him. "There is more. Explain."

The Stonehelm turned away and ran his hand through his shaggy hair. "He wants to know about Hobbits," he spat. "Aye, Hobbits – like the Burglar of the Company. I know he was known to you, and you made an Elf-friend of your robber. He had a ring, a little ring that turned him invisible. Just a bauble. Do you recall it?"

Thranduil frowned. "I do. He made a stand during the Battle of Five Armies upon our flank wearing that ring. It seemed nothing more than an ounce or two of gold."

"The enemy wants it, and he will part with three of the Dwarf-rings to get it," Thorin said bluntly.

Thranduil whirled, his hair spinning in a golden and graceful arc as he turned his ancient and cutting gaze back upon the Dwarf. "The lost Dwarf-rings of power in your grasp, and still you do not accept his hand?" he asked intently.

The Stonehelm threw out his chest. "We are honourable," he said proudly. "We do not betray our friends."

Thranduil kept staring at him for a long, long moment, until the Prince began to fidget beneath his gaze. "Not even to preserve the safety of your people?" he eventually said.

Thorin snorted gracelessly. "What safety? Ring or no, Hobbit or no, Sauron cannot allow Erebor to stand. It is the watchtower of the North, and it guards all the passes. War would come to us eventually. We have never trusted him, and he knows it. Even if he swore friendship, he would turn upon us in the end."

"Indeed," Thranduil said, quiet and thoughtful. "Indeed."

Then he pinned Thorin with his unnerving stare once more. Watching silently, Bifur shuddered. "Why do you warn me? If you do not betray your friends for your people's safety, why come to one who did just that?"

The Stonehelm's thick neck convulsed as he swallowed, and then he bowed again before the Elvenking. "Because we were once friends," he said, and kept his eyes fixed upon the grey stone of the floor, "because we, at least, do not betray our friends. Because Mordor is greater than the differences between Elf and Dwarf. Because all our homes, hard-fought and hard-won, stand in peril."

Then Thorin straightened and his eyes were sad as he looked up at the great Elvenking, Thranduil Oropherion. "Because we know how to be strong," he said in a softer voice, "Strong enough to shatter. We don't know how to be weak. We don't know how to find a middle way. We don't know when to flee and not to fight."

Thranduil's head tipped slowly to the side as he looked upon the young, noble Dwarrow.

The Stonehelm sighed, taking the silence for a dismissal. "We prepare as I speak. If you decide to stand with us, we would welcome the wisdom of the Elves."

He turned to walk away, making for the curling passages and paths of stone that arched through the halls of Eryn Lasgalen.

"What is needed?" Thranduil said suddenly.

Thorin paused. "Excuse me?"

Thranduil took four swift, flowing steps to stand over the Dwarf once more. "What," he grated, "is needed?"

"Medicine," said the Stonehelm, surprised into a plain answer. "Warriors, and messengers. Food. The Bizarûnh – ach, pardon me – the Dalefolk do not yet answer the call. King Brand is fearful."

"And what do you think?" Thranduil said slowly.

"Me?" Thorin's eyebrows shot up. "Well. I don't blame him, t'be honest. Mordor is a name to be fearful of."

"It is," Thranduil said, and then he turned away, his long neck arching as his head lowered slightly in old, remembered pain.

"My Lord?" Thorin called after him, confused.

"I wouldn't," Bifur advised him. "His dungeons aren't all that far away, you know."

Finally Thranduil half-turned his head back to where the Prince waited. "I have avoided your people," he said in a low tone, his eyes glancing over and sliding away from the thickset Dwarf. "I have ignored you and your Mountain for close to eighty years. And now my youngest son is drawn into the heart of this matter, surrounded by peril, and doom faces us all. Mordor! I hoped I had heard the last of that name."

"Think we all did, to be honest," Thorin said, and he tugged at his beard. "It's only ever been a story to me."

"It was something more than a story to me," said Thranduil distantly. Then he span on his heel, his robes flaring, and began to stride away along the curving springs of stone, surefooted and elegant. "I will send healers and messengers and warriors," he said, his voice echoing behind him.

"You'll what?" Thorin reeled, astonished, and then he remembered himself. "Ah – my thanks, Majesty!"

"Do not thank me, Dwarf-Prince," said Thranduil grimly. "We fight against the shadow once more, and that is no cause for thanks."

Thorin Stonehelm frowned. "You stand with us? Then why not thank you?"

"I will have no thanks from a Dwarf," were Thranduil's last, curt words before he left the audience chamber and the Crown Prince of Erebor was left standing alone.

"Cheer up," Bifur said encouragingly. "You could be in a barrel right now."


Chapter Text

They slept that night upon a flet high in the branches of a mallorn-tree, and the Elves that accompanied Haldir all hid superior smiles at the sight of Gimli struggling to climb it.

"You could try helping, rather than standin' there an' sniggering!" Gimli burst out eventually, and the Elves laughed aloud.

"Here," Legolas said in a neutral voice, and passed Gimli a rope. Then the wood-elf sent a flat look to the Galadhrim and turned away.

Only Frís' warning hand on Thorin's arm prevented a furious tirade from descending upon the heads of the Lórien Elves.

"Thorin," she said quietly. "You must sleep. Twenty hours is too long. Come back when they rise again: you do not help Gimli or yourself by witnessing this."

"He'd be furious if he knew I'd seen it," Lóni agreed ruefully. "Come on, Frár. Náli, we'll come back in a little while. They will be safe in this wood."

"I doubt that," Thorin snarled, but he allowed his mother to lead him from the deep blue night of Arda into the drowned stars of Gimlîn-zâram.

"Eat!" Hrera barked, putting a bowl in front of Thorin the next morning. "Ah, Thorin darling, your face is being swallowed up by the black rings beneath your eyes! Soon there will be no face left and only black rings and everyone will wonder where you have gone."

"That was not amusing the first time I heard it, Grandmother," Thorin grumbled, but he sat at the table and picked up the spoon. The bowl was full of Hrera's traditional Broadbeam dumpling stew, and he brightened. It had been centuries since he'd tasted it.

"Thought that might get your attention." She snorted and turned to rap Frerin's knuckles with a spoon. "No touching! That is for your brother."

"That is entirely unfair," Frerin complained. "How come Thorin gets Grandmother's stew and I don't?"

"Because Thorin has been working himself to the very bedrock," Hrera snapped back. "Keep your sticky fingers out of it, and there might be some left for you."

Frerin's hand shot back so fast it might have been springloaded.

Hrera and her young grandsons, by Jeza-red

"This is somewhat familiar," Thrór said humorously. "I am having flashbacks to Erebor before the Dragon came."

Thorin looked up with a cautious expression. His grandfather did not normally speak so calmly of that time. "I can remember very little of those early years," he said. "I can remember the pageantry, and the stew of course..."

"Thank you," Hrera said with dignity, and then rapped Fíli and Kíli over the heads with her spoon. "Don't you start as well! That belongs to your uncle."

"But it smells so good!" Kíli whined.

Thorin, prompted by some long-dormant imp of mischief, took a large spoonful of his stew and made a satisfied noise.

"I cannot believe you," Kíli said and he slid down in his chair and began to work on a very impressive sulk.

"All right, maybe Frerin's stories of your pranks aren't complete hogwash," Fíli said, and he folded his arms and gave Thorin a long and level look.

"Uncle Frerin?" Frerin prompted hopefully, and Fíli and Kíli gave identical snorts of derision.

"Keep dreaming, youngster," Fíli said, and grinned.

Hrera waved her spoon at them. "Stay out of trouble today, great-grandsons, and I will make you a potful of your own," she said sweetly.

"All day?" Kíli said.

Hrera nodded solemnly. "All day."

"Strength, brother, we can do this," Fíli said, and he picked up his own spoon and began to eat his porridge with the determined air of a Dwarf going into battle. "I'm going to get that soup."

"It is very good," Thorin said innocently.

"I hate you," Kíli grumped. Hrera smacked his head again with her spoon, and he let out a moan. "Augh, why is every Dwarrowdam who is related to us utterly terrifying?"

"Oh, I'm sorry – I thought you knew something of the history of our family," said Frís calmly. "Pass the sugar, Thráin dear."

Fris and her boys, before the Dragon, by injureddreams

"Don't argue," Thrór advised the two young Dwarrows. "It makes it worse."

"Augh," Kíli said again, and his face landed on the table with a thump.

"Do you go back straight away?" Frerin asked Thorin, snatching the sugar on its way to his mother and liberally coating the surface of his porridge. Thorin swallowed a mouthful of his soup and nodded.

"The Fellowship is in Lothlórien," he said, and from the sudden dark looks around the table he knew he would have no argument.

"What d'you want us to do?" Frerin nudged him. Thorin raised an eyebrow at his brother.

"You can take a day, if you wish, unless Father would like company when he checks upon Glóin later."

"That old Dwarrow can move like the wind when he wants to," Thráin said, and he shook his head. "Unfortunately, he keeps getting distracted by likely iron deposits. Has he ever stopped being a financier?"

"Glóin? No," Thorin said, and smiled. No doubt Glóin was tallying up the likelihood of these deposits bearing useable ore, the profit and the cost involved in extracting it, and the margins between the two.

"I'll be with that Dori fellow today," Thrór said. "The defences of Erebor proceed apace. I'll keep you posted."

Thorin yawned, and then he rubbed at his eyes. "Thank you, grandfather."

"I intend to keep an eye on your sister and Dáin," Frís said, and then she tutted. "And please cover your mouth, inùdoy."

Frerin snickered until Thorin kicked him under the table.

"Hullo, boss," said Nori as Thorin shook off the clinging starlight. "They're on the move again."

"How long have you been watching?" Thorin said, and he rubbed at his eye again. Sweet Mahal, but he was tired.

"Couple of hours," Nori said, and he turned to gesture at the line of blindfolded folk all stumbling through the golden morning light. "Right bunch o' wallies they look, don't they?"

Thorin's lips pressed together. "Indeed."

Aragorn was leading their blind procession, guided by Haldir and two other Elves. Behind him came Gimli, then Boromir, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry. At the rear was Legolas, his face smooth under his blindfold but with an unhappy curl to his mouth. "At least the ground is flat and even," Thorin grunted.

"There's that," Nori said. "I'm just a little put-out at missin' such a golden opportunity thanks to the small inconvenience of bein' dead."

"You would rifle through their pockets?" Thorin sent his companion an amused look, and Nori shrugged.

"No better time, wouldn't you say?"

"You do not change, my friend," Thorin said, and he shook his head in amusement.

Nori's look was puzzled. "Should I?"

At that moment, a new host of Elves met them, and Haldir exchanged a few quiet words with them before turning back to the Fellowship. "It seems a strange creature has been turned back at the borders," he told them. "A crouching thing that ran with a bent back. It was no orc and so they did not kill it, and it vanished down the Silverlode."

"Elves," Thorin growled. "They cannot get anything right!"

"That's the geezer our Burglar met under the Goblin King's caves, right?" Nori said, and scratched his head. "He's got to be gettin' on in years."

"He bore the Ring," Thorin said. "Who knows how long he has endured?"

"Shame they didn't shoot him," Nori said.

Abruptly Thorin remembered Gandalf's words, and a pang shot through him. "Aye, perhaps."

"They also bring me a message from the Lady of the Galadhrim," Haldir continued. "You are all to walk free, even the Dwarf Gimli. It seems the Lady knows your purpose."

He bent and untied the bandage first from Gimli's eyes. "Your pardon!" he said, and gave an elegant bow. "Look upon us now with friendly eyes! For you are the first Dwarf to behold the trees of the Naith of Lórien since Durin himself."

Gimli held his tongue, but his dark eyes spoke volumes.

Thorin cast his eyes over the great hill crowned with trees that stood, glowing and shifting, in the light of the sun and the sweet breeze. They were crowned with the golden leaves of the mallorn, and mighty trunks of silver shone between. Upon the grass grew small yellow flowers, star-shaped and fragrant and interspersed with more blooms of white and nodding green. The whole vista felt somehow as ancient as Khazad-dûm and yet living, a relic of far-gone times brought to the present day, a window into a vanished world.

"That," said Nori with profound dislike, "is the most Elvish thing I've ever seen."

Thorin only grunted. It was beautiful, yes – but Nori was correct. The power of the Elves radiated from the sight, and he could not help but feel small, misshapen and lumpen in the face of it.

"Caras Galadhon," Haldir said proudly. "The heart of Elvendom on earth, realm of the Lord Celeborn and Galadriel, Lady of Light."

"Beautiful," said Frodo softly, and he was echoed by Sam, Aragorn and to Thorin's horror, Gimli.

"Do you jest, Master Dwarf?" said Haldir, his brow arching.

Gimli shook his head. "Nay, it is beautiful. See how the leaves glisten like pale gold! Truly, this place is lovely beyond compare." He looked troubled at the admission.

"All right, but don't tell them, their heads are big enough as it is!" Nori snapped, and Thorin rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

"My star, you are being obscure again," he groaned. "Remember who you are, Durin's child!"

Gimli's eyes tightened, and he turned to look out over the trees again in silence as the rest of the blindfolds were removed.

Aragorn's face was full of yearning. "Here my heart dwells forever," he murmured. "Oh, Undómiel, why were you so fair in the evening light with the silvery niphredil twined in your hair?"

"That's the face of a fellow in love, or I'm a Hobbit," said Nori, and Thorin frowned.

"Indeed," he said slowly. "This... Undómiel, I suppose. But what would a mortal be doing here in this timeless place?"

"Who knows?" Nori shrugged. "I don't bother myself much with the doings of the Men. Unless they've got something I want, of course."

"Come," said Haldir. "I will take you to the Lord and Lady."

They climbed the hill through the day, passing under the boughs of the great trees, each thicker than iron girders and clad in that same silvery-white bark. Here and there a talan, or platform, could be spied in the branches, and they became more numerous as they made their way to the peak of the hill.

A road paved with white stone came snaking between the huge trunks, and Haldir led them onto it. The Hobbits looked around with wonder as the sun began to set and small lights began to rise up into the canopy, blue and silver and shining like earthly spirits.

Finally the road came to the mightiest tree yet, with a trunk so broad it could be mistaken for a thing made and not grown. Graceful stairs clung to its silvery skin, circling around and around like a caress.

"Here dwell Celeborn and Galadriel," Haldir said. "It is their wish that you should ascend and speak with them."

"What, make weary travellers climb up all those stairs?" Nori exclaimed. "I don't call that very welcoming."

Gimli eyed the delicate structure with some trepidation, but he followed Frodo up the stairs without a word. His heavy footsteps clanged and clattered against them, and he winced and cursed in Khuzdul. Thorin realised that Gimli must be feeling twice as cumbersome, puny and lumpen than he himself.

"Gimli," he murmured, keeping pace with the younger Dwarf. "You are a fine Dwarrow and a mighty warrior and a good soul. Do not let yourself be intimidated by this place!"

"Who could not feel small when faced with such living beauty?" Gimli murmured, and he trailed his fingertips against the smooth bark of the Mallorn tree.

"How tall is this thing?" puffed Pippin from near the rear of the party. "Ostentatious, to my mind!"

Gimli's lips twitched, and he resumed the climb with renewed vigour.

Finally the stairs opened out to a wide talan like the deck of a great ship. Gimli shuffled backwards until he was near the back of the Fellowship, allowing Legolas and Aragorn to hold the front with Frodo. Merry and Boromir gave him a sympathetic look and Sam patted his shoulder in clumsy comfort, but before the Hobbit could speak two Elves, tall and glorious, began the descent from the higher platform to where they stood.

The lights that swirled around them became almost too bright, and Thorin squinted into it to see these newcomers more clearly. Hand in hand they came, and the woman was as tall as the man. His hair was long and silver, but hers was glory undimmed: mingled silver and gold and shining like a memory of mithril; like the unrestrained soul of the sun.

"Ach!" Gimli breathed, and he bowed his ruddy head. Aragorn touched his forehead in greeting, and Legolas stepped forward to incline his head to the man with some familiarity. Ah, so that was the kinsman he had spoken of before, Thorin realised.

"The Enemy knows you have entered here," the Lord said, and his voice was low and musical. "What hope you had in secrecy is now gone."

Thorin's heart sank. "Well, that's bollocksed it," Nori muttered.

"Eight there are here, yet nine there were, set out from Rivendell. Tell me, where is Gandalf?" the Lord continued. Yet as he spoke, the Lady's eyes flickered to Aragorn.

"He has fallen into shadow," she breathed, and if the man's voice was musical then hers was the pure sound of birdsong and flowing water, beautiful and melodious.

Aragorn nodded as he returned her strange and starlit gaze, his grief dancing in his eyes. The assembled Elves all cried out in horror and amazement.

"He was taken by both shadow and flame," Legolas said harshly. "A Balrog of Morgoth."

"I saw it, there upon the Bridge," Gimli choked, and his great sorrow was once more in his face. "I saw Durin's Bane."

"Alas," Celeborn said. "We long feared the Dwarves had stirred up that evil again. Had I known, I would have forbidden you to come here. And Gandalf chose this path? One would say that at the last he fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria."

Gimli's head lowered, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

"He would be rash indeed that said that thing," Galadriel said, and her voice was cool as glass.

Thorin's brow furrowed, and he snapped up his head to stare at the slender Elf-woman.

"Did she just...?" Nori said in confusion.

"She just defended a Dwarf," Thorin breathed.

The Lady, all aglow, moved closer to where Gimli stood glowering and sad. "Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life, and none here knew his full purpose," she murmured. "Do not repent of your welcome to the Dwarf. If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothlórien, who amongst us could pass close by and not wish to look upon our ancient home, even if it had become an abode of dragons?"

Celeborn looked rather taken aback – and so did Legolas.

"Sweet merciful Mahal," Thorin said in utter shock.

"She understands!" Nori said blankly. "She understands – but she's an Elf!"

The Lady Galadriel smiled down at Gimli, and her eyes were wells of deep memory. "Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone."

Thorin reeled, his mind awhirl. "She knows Khuzdul!"

"She knows Khuzdul!" Nori echoed, his mouth gaping open. His jaw shut with a snap, and he swallowed. His eyes were wild and wide. "Really glad Balin ain't here right now. He'd find a way t' die twice."

"She... she did not call it by that foul Elvish slur," Thorin said, and he threaded his fingers in his hair and stared and stared and stared. "She did not call it Moria... she calls it by its name..."

Gimli's face slowly turned up, and wonder dawned upon it. His eyes met those of the Lady, and then he smiled so suddenly and so brilliantly that Thorin gasped at the sight. He had thought Gimli's smiles lost for good.

With that bright and fierce joy in his face, Gimli clumsily bowed in dwarf-fashion, saying: `Yet more fair is the living land of Lórien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth! '

The Lady's smile broadened and she inclined her head to Gimli in respect and welcome.

"I cannot believe what I see," Thorin managed.

Celeborn stepped forward and held out his hands. "Let Gimli forget my harsh words," he said a little stiffly. "I spoke in the trouble of my heart."

Gimli only kept gazing upon the Lady in utter awe.

"But what now becomes of this Fellowship?" Celeborn continued. "Without Gandalf, all hope is lost."

The Lady Galadriel looked up from Gimli to meet the eyes of Boromir. "The quest stands upon the edge of a knife," she said softly. "Stray but a little, and it will fail to the ruin of all."

Boromir shook, and then he turned away. Through his stunned shock, Thorin managed to wonder why. What was so important about the Elf-woman's eyes?

"Yet hope remains while a company is true," she said, and turned her gaze upon Sam. He bore under it unflinchingly, his honest face resolute, though his cheeks began to redden.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled," she said, turning to Legolas. He trembled, but kept his gaze upon hers. "Go now and rest, for you are weary with sorrow and much toil."

Her eyes travelled over the Hobbits as she continued. "Tonight, you will sleep in peace." Then her gaze fixed upon Frodo, and he shuddered and rocked back as though something had pierced him through.

Celeborn raised his hand and gestured to the Elves around them, and the Fellowship was led back towards the stairs.

"What, all the way up and back down again, just for five minutes of talk?" Nori cried in indignation. "Well, I like that!"

Nori left after the evening meal, grumbling about the (in his words), truly unnecessary amount of Elves everwhere he looked. Thorin stayed, his mind still cut adrift at the Lady Galadriel's response to both the Lord and to Gimli.

Singing floated between the trees, and Thorin floated too, reeling and stunned, glancing at the Fellowship as though they were unfamiliar to him.

[Elvish Lament, performed by notanightlight]

"A lament for Gandalf," Legolas murmured, and he closed his eyes in sorrow.

"What do they say about him?" Merry asked, but Legolas shook his head.

"I have not the heart to tell you," he said.

"Well, you could join in, couldn't you?" Sam suggested.

"Nay," Legolas lifted his chin and opened his eyes to look up at the starlit trees. "For me the grief is still too near."

"Here, why did you blush before, Sam?" Pippin asked. "You turned red as a beet and no mistake."

"Ah, well," Sam said, embarrassed. "When the Lady looked on me, it... it was like she was looking right inside my head. Like she was askin' what I'd do if she gave me the chance to go home to the Shire to a nice little hole with-with a bit of garden of my own."

"Well, that's funny," Merry said. "Almost exactly what I felt myself; only, only well, I don't think I'll say any more," he finished lamely.

"Strange," Gimli said in his deep voice and his brow was furrowed, though his eyes were still alight with that strange joy. "I saw my people, my ancient home, my friends, and. And, no, I will not say either. It seemed that my choice would remain secret and known only to myself."

Boromir frowned. "Well, have a care! I do not feel too sure of this Elvish lady and her tests."

"Speak no evil of the Lady Galadriel!" Aragorn said sternly. "There is in her and in this land no evil, unless one brings it here themself."

Boromir bit down on his lip, and Thorin shook himself from his shock to turn in disbelief to Aragorn. "You call that reassurance!" he bit out. "This Man needs your friendship, not your censure!"

Aragorn, of course, could not hear him.

"That song ought to have something in there about old Gandalf's fireworks," Sam said suddenly, and Thorin could have blessed the Hobbit for changing the subject. "Be a crime if they got left out. Here, what about this?" And he stood and began to declaim as around them, the Elvish singing soared up into the night sky.

The next morning came too soon. His head aching from too little sleep and his eyes scratchy, Thorin made his way to the Chamber of Sansûkhul alone.

The stars gathered him up and released him into a sunlit glen. He blinked in the warm golden light that filtered through the canopy of the mammoth trees, bathing all in its path in a glimmering dappled glow. The sound of the rushing Silverlode could be heard clearly. It was a peculiarly peaceful scene, and he regarded it suspiciously. He turned around and around before spying a small huddled figure by the edge of the stream.

"Gimli," he murmured, and stepped forward before halting as if struck.

Gimli was bent over the stream, gazing sightlessly into the water. He held his travelling knife in his hand, and his lips were nearly white where they were pressed together tightly. His unfocused eyes were glimmering.

"What do you do here, my son?" Thorin breathed, before forcing himself to take another step.

Gimli's beard was unbound and flowed over his chest, and his other hand was curling through it absently. Seemingly by feel alone, he separated a lock of his long, thick red beard. His other hand drifted upwards, and with a sudden sharp jerk he cut through the lock and cast it into the water.

"Óin," he murmured.

"No! 'Ikhuzh!" Thorin said, and he made to move towards Gimli to – to what? To stop his mourning? What could Thorin do? Did he even have the right?

"Why do you do that?" came a light Elven voice, and he span on his heel to see Legolas enter the peaceful glade. The Elf's head was cocked, and his eyes were wide.

Gimli did not answer, but instead cut through another lock of his beard. The cut ends poked through the long strands of the remainder and curled around his chin, silky and short like a child's first growth. Thorin ached to see his fine beard so butchered.

"Cousin Balin," Gimli whispered.

"My star, please do not mourn so," Thorin said, and he threw his dignity aside and implored him shamelessly. "You need not make the rituals. You need not cut a lock for each of them: keep your honour and your beard!"

Gimli did not hear him. He sighed and cut another one, before murmuring Lóni's name and casting it into the water.

"Is it some sort of custom?" Legolas asked, fascinated. Thorin growled at him.

"This is not for your eyes, Elf!" he snarled. Then he span back to Gimli and said, "nor is it necessary! My star, there are better ways to mourn. Do not make my mistakes! A shorn beard is not a shorn grief!"

Gimli finally looked up, his hand still threaded through the long mass of his unbraided beard and his knife clutched so tightly in the other that Thorin could clearly see the tendons stretched over the knuckles. "You have no business here," Gimli said, and his voice rumbled and rasped like an avalanche. "Leave me be."

"I would know what you do here," Legolas said, holding his hands up unthreateningly. "Why do you cut your beard? I thought a Dwarf never cut his beard."

"There are two reasons a Dwarf would cut their beard, and this is the first," Gimli said, turning back to the water. His voice became slower and duller as he cut another lock. "Náli," he said, and his voice cracked.

"Is it a mourning ritual?" Legolas said, his eyes widening.

Gimli sighed again, and gave the Elf a steady, sad look. "I am mourning my kin and my friends and the Grey Wizard. I have no ink or needle and cannot tattoo their marks in this place, and so I give a lock for each, more precious to me than my pride. Now go."

"Few things are more precious than a Dwarf's pride," Legolas said. "I may walk where I choose."

Gimli again did not answer, but cut yet another lock and cast it into the waters. The bright hairs swirled and shone upon the white stream like fallen leaves of autumn.

"Tell me that is the last!" Thorin said, and he turned his face from the sight. "You will have stray hairs escaping your braids for a year or more, inùdoy," he groaned. "Why do this?"

"Do you choose to stay and mock me?" Gimli said, looking up with red-rimmed eyes.

Legolas' face softened. "Nay, Master Dw- Master Gimli," he said. "I do not mock."

"Then leave. My grief is no performance for Elves to gawk at!"

"Ra shândabi!" Thorin snapped, and he folded his arms and glowered at the Elf.

"I do not," Legolas began, and then he sighed in aggravation and ran a hand through his own silky blond hair. "I do not mean to make you feel that way," he said in a calmer tone. "I am sorry."

At this, Gimli blinked. Then his face grew suspicious. "This is a new tale."

"Yes, and for that I am sorry as well." Legolas folded his long legs beneath him, and he sat down several feet from the Dwarf, turning his face to the rushing waters of Kibil-nâla. "I did not understand. I do not understand."

"But you wish to," Gimli said blankly. His eyes grew hard. "And how many of your brethren hide in secret around us, laughing at the Naugrim in his misery and solitude? Did you draw lots to go and prod it to make it entertain you? Have you a blindfold ready?"

Legolas' head snapped up, and his eyes flashed. "No! There are no others!" he cried. "I would not do that to you!"

Gimli glared at him.

Legolas' shoulders drooped, and he winced. "It was ill-done of them," he said. "You should be treated with more respect than that."

"Then leave me alone!"

"Go, you damned cursed Elf!" Thorin bellowed.

Thorin, Gimli and Legolas, by christmashippo

"I will not," Legolas said breathlessly. "Gimli, I cannot understand! I saw you with the Lady... I saw that she could understand, where I... You confuse me at every turn."

"Here is a direction even you cannot confuse," Gimli snarled. "Go. Away."

Legolas stared at him, his chest heaving. Then he clutched at the green sod with his long fingers and raised his chin stubbornly. "No."

Gimli returned the stare angrily for a long moment, and the threat of violence hung in the air like the ringing echoes of a struck bell.

Then Gimli made a defeated noise, and he slumped and wrenched his gaze away. "I have no heart to argue with you further," he muttered. "Stay and be silent!"

"You will not hear me," Legolas promised.

"What in Durin's name, Gimli!" Thorin practically roared. "Get him gone! If you must do this, do not have this damned Elf as witness!"

Gimli ignored him, and combed out his uneven beard with his fingers once more, before murmuring, "Ori." Then he cut off a lock and cast it into the water.

It took seven more locks before Gimli stopped, his knife falling from his lax hand and his head bowed. His shoulders shook with weeping as he choked out Gandalf's ancient Dwarven name, and cast the long red hair into the water with a muffled sound.

Legolas was utterly silent, and he watched with shining eyes.

Finally Gimli raised his head and ran a hand over his thinned beard. "Enough," he murmured, his eyes reddened but dry.

"May..." Legolas leaned forward, and his slender fingers reached for the knife. "May I?"

Gimli simply looked at him, wrung out and hollow.

Thorin looked on with growing suspicion and shock as the Elf brought the knife to his own pale hair and cut off a lock. "There," he said quietly, and threw it into the waters. "For Mithrandir."

A moment of calm descended upon the glade. Legolas inhaled slowly, and upon the exhale a certain tension bled from his shoulders and he sat up a little straighter. His face, which before had been drawn and anxious, grew smooth and calm as he looked upon the golden hairs swirling in the waters of the icy Silverlode.

"Yes," he said to himself. "Yes, that."

"Why would you do that?" Gimli asked, his voice listless and dull. "My customs can mean nothing to you in this land of Elves untouched by time. If you do not mock me, what are you doing here?"

Legolas fingered the ends of the shorter piece left in his hair, and then he reversed Gimli's broad-bladed knife with an elegant and practised flip to hold the handle towards the Dwarf. "This is a land of Elves, yes," he said cryptically. Then he gave Gimli a look from under his brows, as though what he had just said was somehow significant.

"Speak plainly!" Thorin burst out. "Ah, Gimli, do not stay to listen to such foolishness!"

"Will you never answer a question plainly?" Gimli said in exasperation, a touch of his old fire in his voice. Thorin nearly cheered to hear it.

"You heard me! Ah, my star, you are back with me!" he said, and he wished he could hold Gimli's wild head close, to press their brows together. It seemed the cruellest mockery that he could never hold or touch this Dwarf, closer than a son to him.

The Elf stayed where he was, holding out Gimli's knife to him. "I see I must be clearer," he said to himself. "You seem a most straightforward type."

"I see no need to dissemble," Gimli said, lifting one massive shoulder and dropping it. "I am Gimli, and that is all. Why would I pretend to be otherwise?"

"That is not all though, is it?" Legolas shook the knife slightly, and Gimli leaned forward very, very slowly and took it. "You are more than you appear, Master Dwarf."

"I wish you would not call me that." Gimli resheathed his knife in his boot with a slightly-more-forceful-than-necessary shove. "I have a use-name, and it is a fine one."

"I apologise," Legolas said quickly.

"That is the third time. What am I, then, that you should apologise to me?"

"Honest," Legolas said, and he smiled the faint, inscrutable smile of Elvenkind. "Brave. Kind. Passionate. Loyal. Well-spoken. Generous. You surprise me at every turn, Master Gimli. I thought I knew what and who you were, and I find that nearly everything I know is lies and half-truths misshapen by old hatreds. In all my summers under leaf and bough, I have never been so wrong."

Thorin jerked backwards, and his mouth dropped open.

That almost sounded like-

"It cannot be," he breathed.

Gimli was staring at the Elf, his lips parted with surprise. "No, wait," he said roughly. "This is. I. No, this is not how things are. Now I am the one confused! Back up a bit and answer some of my questions. Why are you here?"

Legolas inclined his head, and the cut section of his hair fanned out against his cheek in the light breeze. "I wish to become your friend," he said.

Gimli's eyes dropped. "You think on what he said too, then?"

"Yes." Legolas' bright gaze fell upon the water, and in them was all the endless sorrow of Elvenkind. "He asked us, before we stepped into Moria..."

"To be friends, aye." Gimli sighed, and rubbed at his leg with one broad and powerful hand. "I wish I had listened then."

"So do I," Legolas said quietly.

"So. Gandalf asked. No other reasons?" Gimli looked up, and the sunlight glinted from the beads woven into his hair and the cuff wrapped around his ear.

"For yourself alone," Legolas said. "You must understand, I have been given a picture of Dwarves that..."

"Ah," Gimli said, bitterness flooding his face. "No doubt."

"No, do not turn away before I am finished!" Legolas said with sudden and unexpected heat. "You ever react this way, and I have not even said anything!"

"You do not need to," Gimli said with a sarcastic lilt. "Let me guess, for I can probably supply a few of the more choice slanders against us: I am greedy, grasping, soulless, treacherous, and have no finer feelings. Does that cover it?"

Legolas fell silent, and then he burst out, "no it does not! For my father is Thranduil of Eryn Lasgalen now, but once he was Thranduil of Doriath, Gimli. Can you now think of the tales I was told? Can you now think of the words I was fed along with my milk and bread?"

Gimli looked at him with wide eyes. "Aye," he faltered, and then he put his head in his hands. "Aye, I can."

"But no, that is all wrong, I wish I had not said that now," Legolas moaned and he stood swiftly and his hands fisted in the green-grey tunic he wore. "I do not hold your people accountable, Gimli. The madness of that age felled many, Elf and Dwarf alike, all over three gems and a blood oath..."

"My grandmother was a Firebeard," Gimli mumbled.

Legolas choked over his next words, and he span to stare at Gimli with mottled cheeks.

Gimli took his hands from his face and clasped them tightly together. "They are a disappearing people," he said to the grass. "They were almost wiped out after their foul deed; the revenge of the Lackhand was swift and terrible. But a few survived, though Nogrod was never what it was before. Most of those fled to Khazad-dûm after Ered Luin was lost."

"Your hair," Legolas said, faint and thready.

Gimli nodded wordlessly.

"You... you have Firebeard blood," Legolas said, and he turned on the spot to cry to the trees, "Ai, amarth faeg!"

"Nothing is ever simple," Gimli said in a whisper. "So, that's that then. Your idea of friendship was a very noble one, lad. I think it kind of you to try. But there is too much between us. My grandmother's people butchered yours, your father imprisoned mine and besieged our home, the Elves hunted down and slaughtered our cousins, and countless other atrocities besides, back into the very dawn of days. The Lady may not look upon me with hatred and distaste, but surely you do."

Legolas stood very still for a long, long moment, his breath coming fast and his hands trembling. Then he forced his eyes up to look at Gimli where he sat, sad and still, at the banks of the rushing river.

"No, I do not," Legolas said eventually. "Your grandmother's people are gone. You are here, and you have been both brave and good."

Gimli's brow furrowed in confusion, and he slowly looked up.

"I promise I tell you the truth," said Legolas, and he stepped closer. He was tall and proud, a spear of pale gold in the dappled light, but he no longer seemed so cold and remote.

"This makes no sense," Gimli croaked. "First the Lady. Now this. My head is spinning, and I find I do not know what is true or false anymore. Elves do not look upon my kind as equals. We are the unwanted ones and you are the favoured ones, and that is how it has always been. Elves do not defend Dwarves against their own, and yet the Lady did so - and to her Lord before all of her people! Elves do not apologise to Dwarves, and you have done so three times now! Elves do not care for the short lives of mortals, and yet you speak to me gently and will not leave! What do you mean to gain from all this?"

"I will gain a friend," Legolas said, and he took three light quick steps to sit down opposite Gimli once more, his long legs folding beneath him. They made a strange sight: the sturdy, fiery Dwarf and the slender, moon-pale Elf.

"Who told you that Elves care nothing for mortals?" Legolas frowned.

Gimli blinked. Then he said, "I do not know. It seems I have always known it. It is wrong, then?"

Legolas nodded, and his nostrils flared in banked irritation. "It appears that you have also swallowed lies whole."

"Aye," Gimli said wonderingly. "For I thought ill of the Lady ere I met her. Now I know she is the wisest and kindest of beings in the world, to understand a Dwarf's grief."

"It was magnificent, Gimli," Legolas said in a quiet, muted voice. "I am sorry I did not say. Mor... Khazad-dûm was glorious even in its ruin."

Gimli closed his eyes. "Aye. It was." Then he rumbled out a sad chuckle. "And your accent is atrocious."

"I am sorry about your kin also."

"Well." Gimli's eyes flickered open and he seemed a little abashed. "I... I thank you for pulling me away from my madness and sorrow at Balin's tomb."

"You need not thank me," Legolas said gently.

"That an Elf should save the life of a mortal?" Gimli softly snorted. "Aye, I believe I should be thanking you."

"Why do they say such things of us?" Legolas did not ask the question with any anger. Rather, he seemed drained and weary.

Gimli huffed. "For much the same reasons your people speak such evils about mine, no doubt. It is said that we will always be discarded. Dwarves may be considered as friends for as long as we are useful to Elves, and then we are cast aside and the works of our hands, dearer to us than aught else, withheld for long ages. Then too, Elves depart this land and all its troubles to their safe havens over the sundering seas, leaving all grief and woe to mortals. Little wonder such tales came about."

Legolas cried aloud. "No! That is not true at all! We leave this land because we must. Our great ones dwindle, and we must depart or become a shadow of what we were. Many of us still love Middle-Earth and all its beauties, but grief becomes too great to bear and only Elvenhome may wash it clean. For mortals break our hearts: you are so bright, and so fleeting. We cannot help but care, and we are left desolate when you die and depart to that place where we may not go."

Gimli let out a long breath and glanced up at Legolas from under his brows. "All lies, then."

Legolas nodded firmly.

"I wonder how much else is lies," Gimli wondered. "Perhaps Gandalf would have known."

"No doubt," Legolas said, and he cocked his head. "For Gandalf, then?"

"No," Gimli said, and shook his head, his beads swinging in his wild hair. "Gandalf may have wished us to be friends, but I will not make a friendship in the name of the dead. That is no friendship at all." Then he squinted up at the Elf. "Do you not consider what these Lothlórien Elves may think of all this?"

The Elf's face darkened. "They can hardly refute the words of the Lady Galadriel, and all saw her greet you with courtesy and respect. Besides, there have been friendships between Elf and Dwarf before. We would hardly be unusual."

"Aye, but consider how those friendships ended," Gimli said, and he slumped. "You will be mocked."

"I do not care," Legolas said quickly. "You saw the Doors as clearly as I – more clearly, possibly, as it was night! Celebrimbor's name stood upon those doors, made by Dwarvish hands."

"Narvi," Gimli remembered. Then his eyebrows rose. "Khelebrimbur, as he was known amongst my folk, and doors were not all he crafted."

Legolas winced. "No. And the curse of his family followed him."

"No curse on your family that I should know about, is there?" Gimli said, forcing a wan smile.

"Nay," Legolas said. "Upon yours?"

"Several," Gimli said with wry humour. "I am of Durin's line, after all."

Thorin scowled.

"My people will not understand," Gimli continued, and worry briefly crossed his face. "Your people will not understand."

"The Lady will," Legolas said.

"Ah." Gimli breathed out, and then he slowly nodded his wild head once. "Yes. The Lady understands everything."

Legolas swallowed, before he leaned towards the Dwarf and held out his hand. "May we do this again?" he said softly.

Gimli glanced down at his hand, and then his lip twisted. "But – those Elves out there – Doriath – the slaughter of the nûlukhkhazâd – the siege of Erebor – my father - your father!" he cried roughly. "Why?"

"Because in this land of Elves, I cannot sing. I must find a Dwarf to give me the way to grieve," Legolas said, and though his breath still came quite fast, he was smiling. "Besides, I find I cannot watch the Galadhrim here treat you in such a manner without wishing to punish them soundly! As for the rest, Doriath is gone, a memory of Elder days. I do not know what that word means, my friend. I would you would tell me more of your people's ways: they are harsh to me, but beautiful, like a mountain standing tall and proud in the cruellest of winds. Erebor belongs to the Dwarves again and no Elf threatens it, and my father has all my love and duty in everything but this. I ask you, Gimli – may we try again?"

Gimli looked at Legolas' outstretched hand as though it were full of live snakes.

"Gimli," Thorin said in shock and dismay. Then in desperation he said that secret name he had only heard once, spoken in the closeness of Glóin's quarters in Rivendell.

The silence stretched and stretched, and it seemed that all the world seemed to fade into the background. Thorin's breath caught behind his teeth.

Then Gimli's broad hand firmly landed in Legolas' palm. "My name is Gimli, son of Glóin, of the Line of Durin and the Lonely Mountain," he said, and he looked up. Grief lingered in the corners of his eyes, but he was returning the smile. "I am, I'm afraid, quite definitely a Dwarf an' there's little I can do about it. Still, I hope you don't find it too offensive, laddie."

Legolas laughed. "And I am Legolas Thranduilion, and I regret to inform you that I am an Elf, and a Wood-elf of Mirkwood at that; a Sinda by birth and Silvan by upbringing, and I cannot change that any more than I can the setting of the sun or the falling of the leaves. I do hope it is not too much of an aggravation."

Gimli chuckled. "Ah, but Elves are always aggravating!"

Legolas laughed again, a light ripple like the wavelets of the Silverlode. "And Dwarves are always offensive!"

Gimli grinned in return. "Well met, Legolas."

The Elf smiled warmly. "This time."

Gimli's resulting laugh frightened the birds from the trees, booming and pealing with merriment and joy. Their hands remained clasped firmly together, the long fingers of the Elf pale as milk against Gimli's broad brown hand. So unlike, so utterly unlike, but they held together as easily as a key fitting a lock.

Thorin stared at the two in mounting disbelief.

"Will you show me more of this wood?" Gimli said, breaking the warm silence. His face was still creased in a grin.

"It would be my honour," Legolas said, smiling. "I have found a place where the mallorn grow close to a strange greyish stone, shot through with glossy black. Perhaps you can tell me what it is?"

"Hmm, sounds like some sort of obsidian," mused Gimli, and he rose to his feet and used his clasp on Legolas' hand to bring the Elf upright to his. "I do like the mallorn. They are like great pillars of silver and gold, but they move and breathe!"

"Ah, they are wonderful, are they not?" Legolas said, and he finally released Gimli's hand to gesture towards the East. "It is this way."

"Lead on, Master Legolas," Gimli said with a little bow, and the pair laughed together more softly and side by side they left the clearing.

"Perhaps you will also tell me about your kin as we walk?"

"If I can find the words, aye. But I wouldn't push your luck, laddie."

"What in Durin's name?" Thorin cried into the silence. Then he tore from the waking world to storm through the corridors of the Halls to his chamber, where he sat and fumed for hours.

His grandmother was the one to come to him, in the small hours of the night.

Hrera, by Jeza-Red

"Ah, what did I tell you, my treasure?" she said gently, sitting down on the bed beside him and turning his face towards her. He allowed her to, his mind stripped and fogged with shock and anger. "Eaten up by dark circles. Look at that."

He endured her cosseting for a few seconds more, before pulling his head from her hands. "Enough," he said low. "I am no child."

She paused, and then she put her hands on her hips. "No, that you are not, but you are doing a fine impression," she said. "I've not seen such a display since your father was seventeen and demanded that everyone call him by his title at all times."

The notion was so preposterous that Thorin snorted. "Father did that?"

Hrera smiled. "He was very young."

"He would have skinned me or Frerin or Dís for such behaviour," Thorin said.

"Ah, well, you had your own brand of trouble, you three," she said, and smoothed her hand along the back of his. "Now, tell me what it is that has you storming through the Halls like a great angry thundercloud, frightening everyone with your scowl and your great black rings where eyes should be."

He shot her a sardonic look, but she simply waited. Then he turned his hand over and gripped hers. "Gimli has befriended the Elf," he said bluntly.

Hrera's soft intake of breath was very loud in the closeness of the chamber.

"That is enough to make any Dwarrow angry, let alone one who..." Thorin broke off and set his teeth together grimly.

Hrera was still and silent for a moment, and then she sat back with a huff, primly cocking her head and pinning him with her glare. "Say it," she commanded. "I am done and through with all of your emotional censorship, Thorin. Say it!"

He glared. She glared back.

"Say it!" she snapped again, and her hand squeezed his in warning. "You stubborn Durin men and your damned obstinacy! Stoic to the point of sickness, you are! What will it take for you to admit that you love that boy like a son?"

"Enough!" Thorin roared, and he threw her hand away. "Yes, I love him! He is my star!"

She nodded proudly. "Better. Well done, nidoyel."

Thorin glowered at her. She ignored it blithely and patted his hand again. "I'll train you all out of it, one by one," she muttered to herself, before giving him a benevolent, grandmotherly smile. "Now, your son has made a friend in the Elf. Why does this bother you so?"

"Why?" Thorin bellowed, and she winced and pinched the back of his hand sharply.

"I can hear you quite well, there is no need to shout," she said irritably. "And yes, that was what I asked. Why does it bother you?"

"Because..." Thorin carded his hand through his hair. "Because he is an Elf! He will only disappoint Gimli – it is unnatural! They are enemies, for Mahal's sake; Legolas is Thranduil's son! They hate each other!"

Hrera's eyebrow jumped upwards. "Hmm," she said absently, and then she fixed him with a look again. "You know, I utterly hated your grandfather when I met him."

Thorin didn't even get the chance to gape in shock at yet another revelation, because Hrera continued. "Oh yes! Despised him - right down to the ridiculous way he braided his beard in those days. It was a shameful sight, I'm glad I managed to persuade him to change it. At any rate, there I was, eighty years old and taken from my home and thrust into the brand new court of Erebor by the will of my father and the Council of Advisors. And this great bristling lout who never spoke to me properly is to be my husband? Pah! King or no, I wasn't touching that with a ten-foot hammer."

"Is there a point to all this?" Thorin said weakly.

"I'm getting to it, dearest," she said consolingly. "A bit of patience on your part, please. Now where was I...

"Oh yes. So, I wanted less than nothing to do with Erebor, Longbeards, your grandfather or any of it. But where else was I to go? I was at the Mountain and winter was drawing in, and I would not be able to get back home until spring broke and snows of the passes melted. I was stuck.

"Day after day I endured the court, and day after day I was forced into proximity of more and more of you stone-faced Longbeards. And then the strangest thing happened: I began to understand them."

"Familiarity, you mean?" Thorin rubbed at his eyes. "You think that is what has happened with Gimli and the Elf? They have become friends because of their enforced companionship on the Quest?"

"Great Telphor, no," Hrera said, snorting. "If that were the case I would have ended up married to my silverwork. I mean that time helped me see underneath all of your stony scowls and stoic faces and love of incomprehensible tradition, and - frankly - appalling beard choices to see who the Longbeards truly were. Time, Thorin."

"But an Elf?" Thorin said, and shook his head helplessly.

Hrera rolled her eyes. "Ignoring your elders when they have just told you a very insightful story is extremely rude, akhûnîth. Now, be practical for a moment and think with your brain, not your overdeveloped sense of injustice and history. Your boy and the Elf were eventually going to recognise the good traits in each other, given enough time. No-one is so blind as all that." She gave him a sidelong glance. "Although you Longbeards live to prove me wrong."

"Ah, but by your grace, my lady grandmother, I have Broadbeam ancestry as well," he said, and she folded her arms.

"Then there isn't an excuse, is there?"

"What happened next?" he asked, interested despite himself.


"With the court, and you, and grandfather."

"Oh, that," Hrera yawned, and daintily covered her mouth. "Do excuse me, it's very early. I ended up throwing a silver set of clasps I was working on at your grandfather one day, and they hit him square in the face. He came to court the next day wearing them." She smiled fondly. "They looked particularly fetching with his bruised eye."

Thorin could not even find it in himself to be surprised at anything anymore.

"Too many shocks today," he muttered.

"There, there," she cooed.

She kissed his forehead, and then pushed it back down upon his pillow with one finger. "Sleep," she said firmly. "Or I shall sit here and reminisce about your babyhood until you do."

He shut his eyes hurriedly, and then he scowled as he heard her soft laughter. "You are a tremendously cruel Dwarrowdam, grandmother," he grated.

She blew out the candles and stood. Her hand rested on his brow comfortingly for a moment. "Yes, dear. I know," she said gently.


Chapter Text

Thorin didn't bother with eating the next morning. He threw on a tunic, belted it, pulled his hair back into a rough queue (he couldn't remember the last time he had brushed and oiled it) and shoved his feet into his boots without lacing them. It was only as he was striding towards his chamber door that he realised he had forgotten to put on some trousers.

His attire sorted out, he made his way directly for Gimlîn-zâram and ignored the calls of his name that floated towards him through the sweet ringing rock of Mahal's Halls. One of the voices sounded rather like his grandfather, but he carried on regardless. Yesterday's news from Erebor would keep for a few more hours.

His head felt light and free-floating. Evidently he had not managed sufficient sleep once again. He ignored it and sat at his customary bench, his left hand settling beside his leg as always. His fingers had worn grooves in the soft smooth sandstone.

With the sound of Gimli's hand landing in the Elf's palm ringing in his ears, he dived into the pool and emerged, shaking and blinking, in Rivendell.

Elrond's home always made Thorin feel resentful. He knew he had not behaved in an exemplary fashion (and neither had any of his people, with the possible exception of Ori), and the reminder made him seethe rather than fill him with guilt. Elrond himself had been of help to his Company, grudging though it was. Thorin should have been more gracious.

But the damned Elf was just so superior!

Bilbo understood Elves. Bilbo would help Thorin understand. Bilbo. Where was Bilbo?

He squinted into the rays of soft, honey-coloured light that spilled into the graceful walkways of the Last Homely House. Bilbo was nowhere to be seen, but a tall and slender Elf-maid was moving swiftly between the lacy, fanciful domes. Her blue dress billowed out behind her, and her long dark hair was loose. Her face was heart-stoppingly lovely, even beardless as she was, and her eyes were nearly the equal of Mizim's. A covered dish rested in her hands.

"Master Bilbo?" she said softly, stopping at a door and knocking.

"A... blast! Oh dear, just... wait a moment, will you?" came the cracked and querulous voice of his very Own.

Eventually the door opened, and the white head peered out. Bilbo was clutching a stick, and his hair had thinned even more since Thorin's last visit. "Oh, Lady Arwen," he said, and his face creased into a smile, the wrinkles gathering around his eyes and lips. "Do come in! Awfully sorry for the wait: knees aren't what they were, you understand."

The Elf-woman smiled back, and Thorin was startled to see a genuine fondness in her face. "There is no need to apologise," she said in a low, smooth voice. "Here, I have brought the cakes you wished to try. I do not believe they are my finest effort."

"I'll be the judge of that, thank you very much!" Bilbo said, giving her a meaningful look. "After all, who is the Hobbit here?"

"I would never argue with you when it came to food, my idùzhib," Thorin murmured. Then he glanced back at the Elf and wondered if she would leave. "Bilbo, ghivashel, you understand these damned Elves. You must help me, with your clever mind and your clever words. Gimli begins this folly, and I must learn to understand them all too late."

The old Hobbit tottered to a small bench and sat down, pulling a blanket over his knees and looking up at the Elf expectantly. "Well? I don't have forever, you know! Let's taste them!"

"Patience, Master Bilbo!" she said, smiling. "Would you like tea?"

"Oh certainly, certainly," he said, folding his hands together on his lap. "Only I hope you're not expecting me to get up again."

She laughed aloud and stood herself, moving to where a long thin strut hung over the fire. The strut was Elvish, but the kettle hanging from it was distinctly Hobbitish. Thorin privately considered that the one that he had made was far, far superior in both form and function.

"Is everything well, Lady Arwen?" Bilbo said, leaning forward over the table and peering at the plate of cakes she had brought. "You don't seem to smile as often as you used to do, if you'll pardon my saying: I think that's the first time I've heard you laugh for over a month."

She paused in moving the strut to sit above the flames, and then she sighed. "I worry," she said.

"Ah," Bilbo said, blinking in realisation. "Oh, you shouldn't worry, my dear! He'll be perfectly all right, you'll see. He's such a very impressive warrior after all, and fiercer than a – a- a Hobbit!"

She smiled again. "And few things in this world are fiercer than a Hobbit, Master Bilbo. Still, I do not fear for his safety so much as I do his heart. He wavers between what he must do, and what he would do."

Bilbo's eyebrows rose. "Does he? Does he now? Well, I suppose it could be taken that way. Do you think this Quest will make him shirk his duty?"

"No," she said immediately. "He has never forsaken his duty. But he would hide from himself and his destiny forever, if he could. And that way lies darkness and grief for us both."

Thorin looked between the Hobbit and the Elf, frowning.

"Why?" Bilbo asked, giving in to temptation and taking one of the little cakes from under the covered tray. "Why renounce his destiny?"

"He is afraid," Arwen sighed, and she turned her head to gaze at the kettle sitting above the flickering flames. "He fears the weakness of his line; that he will succumb to the same flaw that felled Isildur."

Bilbo's nose wrinkled, and he swallowed a mouthful of the cake hurriedly. "Well, that's a load of old pish and tosh, if you'll allow an old Northfarthing saying," he said in his most important manner, and Thorin could not help the smile that tugged at the corner of his mouth. Bilbo was still Bilbo, no matter how many years passed. "Aragorn is a good man and a mighty warrior. He's not his ancestor! I do hope you reassured him."

"I did. I do not think he heard me."

"Ah, well, in my experience, it takes quite a bit for Kings to hear you the first time 'round," Bilbo said, nodding firmly and taking an emphatic bite of his cake.

Thorin's eyebrow rose, and then he muttered, "impertinent Hobbit."

Then he blinked. "Wait, Aragorn?"

Bilbo snorted. "Let me tell you something or two about the weaknesses of lines and fears and Kings and all the rest, my dear. Aragorn fears his legacy, and that is a good thing. It's when they ignore the bad that comes with all the glory that it becomes dangerous, and he's never been the type, has he?"

Arwen shook her head.

"This Elf-woman – this Arwen – is the Undómiel that Aragorn speaks of?" Thorin said in dawning wonder and confusion. "He is a Man, and she an Elf... and wait a moment, what do you mean ignore the bad? What type? You infuriating creature, are you being slyly insulting? Again?"

Bilbo leaned back upon his bench cushion and sighed. "He'll do fine, Lady Arwen," he said, his cracked voice wavering. "Better than... well. You'll see. He won't fall into any nasty traps laid for him by generations past. Aragorn has been a ranger and a soldier, a man of the people, a commoner. He has hidden his name and his ancestry from all and sundry. He doesn't announce his eminence. He doesn't want to be King. So he'll probably make a jolly good one."

Thorin sat down heavily next to his Hobbit, his mind awhirl. "Bilbo. Have you always thought thus?"

Bilbo sighed again and his fingers shredded idly at his little cake. "I... I don't mean to insult anyone. Only that that is what I see."

"You see much, my One," said Thorin, his heart sinking into his boots.

"How do you know all this, Master Bilbo?" Arwen said, looking up from the fire. "I have seen many lives of trees come and go, and yet I know less of Kings and their fears than you do."

Bilbo's eyes dropped. "I knew a King," he mumbled. "Three, in fact!"

"A King of Dwarves," she said, lifting the kettle from the strut and bringing it to the pot. "A King of Men, and a King of Elves."

"Yes, that's right," he said, and he took a bite of his cake to keep from answering.

Arwen obviously knew this tactic, and so she busied herself with making the tea as Bilbo finished his mouthful. When he could no longer pretend to be eating, she looked up expectantly. "Did they confide in you?"

"In me!" Bilbo laughed, though it was a little forced. "If you think King Thranduil had anything personal to say to me, I do wonder if you haven't been tra-la-la-lallying a little too much."

"Master Bilbo," she said gently, and put her fine-boned hand upon his arm. He looked down at it, and then his eyes softened with old, old regret.

"I think he became fond of me, yes," he said after a pause. "We didn't have the most... auspicious start, shall we say? At any rate, eventually we came to a sort of companionship. I was no Dwarf, and so I expect I was a safe confidant. He spoke to me about the glory of his home and his people, how he needed to save them. He would do anything to save them. He spoke of the marvels he would build. He wanted so much for them. He wanted desperately to reclaim his heritage and his birthright."

"I did," Thorin said blankly. "Yes, I did."

"It was later that I discovered that pride in a family heritage can do harm as well as good," Bilbo said heavily, his old voice cracking around the words. "Much later."

Thorin swallowed hard and tried to recall his mother's words. His guilt served no-one. He must look for the good that came from his life as well as the bad.

"Still, it was deserved, that pride," Bilbo continued, his eyes unfocusing, looking back eighty years into the past. There was a soft, regretful longing in his old face. "He was such a powerful and determined Dwarf, stately and single-minded. He loved his people so very much; loved them with all the fierceness of a firestorm, blazing and all-consuming and devastating. To be under his protection and in his good graces was to be a million feet tall and riding the waves of that storm."

"Flatterer," Thorin said, his mouth twitching. "You and your silver tongue, Burglar."

Bilbo abruptly chuckled. "Oh goodness, he had such a temper. He could snap just like one of the turtles of the Brandywine River when he was cross, and he was cross an awful lot! And just like a turtle, he had a shell that was nearly impossible to get through. He had endured so much, and he was ever so sad sometimes, but nothing stopped him. Nothing could ever have stopped him, nothing. He was as implacable as the tides. He never forgot, and he never forgave." Bilbo let out a long, silent breath, and his chest fell. "Still. His smile was so rare, and it was even more wonderful for its rarity. Oh, and that splendid voice. I wish you had heard him sing. He could have convinced the dead to follow him."

Arwen's fingers tightened comfortingly around his arm. "Bilbo," she said. "I know that look in an eye. I see it in my mirror every morning."

"You don't have to say it out loud, thank you," Bilbo sniffed rather primly. "At any rate, he loved his people; Aragorn loves his people. He loved his homeland; Aragorn loves his homeland. Erebor was laid waste by a dragon. Gondor is besieged by Mordor. He was proud and strong and mighty, the scion of a long and noble line. Aragorn is also a proud, strong and mighty scion of a long and noble line. The difference is, Aragorn knows his weaknesses, and Thorin would have eaten hot coals before admitting his."

Hearing his use-name in Bilbo's mouth after so long was like a punch to the chest.

"I know them now, Bilbo, my dearest," he said through numb lips. "How could I not, when they cost me all? I would show you how I have learned, how I have changed, âzyungel. I would recite them all for you if it would make you happy."

"I fear he will never find the greatness within him," said Arwen, and she lowered her head, her neck arching, the curve of it as strong as steel and as graceful and delicate as a faun's. "I fear he will always keep his true essence stifled."

"All that is gold does not glitter," Bilbo murmured, and his expression grew distant and melancholy. "I wrote that, you know, for the Dúnedan. One of my best, I feel."

"I have not heard it," said Thorin, and he lifted his hand to trace the lines that spiderwebbed around Bilbo's bright eyes. "Would you speak it for me?"

"I have heard it," said Arwen, and she lifted her dark head. All her worry and fear flickered in her beautiful face. "It speaks of no darkness nor doom, and that all our hopes will come to pass. It would bring me comfort. Would you?"

"If you like," Bilbo said, and cleared his throat:

"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king."

"Not all those who wander are lost," Thorin repeated, and he bowed his head. So many mistakes, so many regrets. "Bilbo Baggins, how I wish..."

"You do not think of Aragorn when you speak," said Arwen. "Your eyes, Master Periannath. They do not look upon the present."

"It could mean another, I suppose," Bilbo conceded, and he took a sip of his tea to hide his face. "I do wish..."

"You loved him," Arwen said softly.

"Hobbits don't approve of such things," Bilbo said roughly, his face still in his cup. "And I did mention that you didn't have to say it out loud."

"You loved me," said Thorin, reverent as a prayer. He had known – had known for long years – but to hear it, see it in Bilbo's face... His ribs tightened unbearably around his aching heart, and his stomach churned. "Bilbo, my own, my brave bright little soul. You truly did love me."

Bilbo didn't answer aloud, but his head gave a single, slow nod. Then he stuffed the remainder of the cake into his mouth and would not speak.

Thorin closed his eyes.

Grasping Frerin by the wrist, Thorin charged down the tunnels of the Halls of Mahal towards the Chamber of Sansûkhul. "Thorin, what-" Frerin blurted, yanked along behind him.

"Come with me," Thorin growled.

"Well, not like I have much choice at this particular moment, is there? Care to tell me what the problem is?"

"You will see," he said darkly. His stomach still churned from that morning's visit with Bilbo. A meal was out of the question.

"Can you at least let go a little? I think I'm losing the circulation in my hand..."

Thorin let go of Frerin and kept striding towards the Chamber. Frerin rubbed at his wrist for a few moments, before racing to catch up. "All right, it's something bad then. Something bad has happened. Really bad. Are we talking Smaug-sized bad? Azanulbizar bad?"

"No," Thorin said, and a little of his black mood lifted. "No, it is nothing so severe."

"But still bad," Frerin prompted. His braids were mussed from his undignified journey through the Halls.

"Yes," Thorin said grimly. "It is still bad."

"Hang on, they were in Lothlórien, right?"

"Correct. They are still in Lothlórien."

"So – Elves then?"

"Your powers of deduction never fail to underwhelm," Thorin grunted.

"Nasty, brother. Has anyone ever told you that you turn cruel when you're worried?"

Thorin stopped and rounded on Frerin, glaring at him. "No, they have not."

Frerin rolled his eyes, entirely unintimidated. "Oh right - King and everything. Well, you turn very vicious, just so you know."

Thorin pressed his finger against Frerin's chest and opened his mouth to retort, when a memory struck him so fiercely he nearly buckled. He's been lost ever since he left home. He should never have come. He has no place amongst us.

His hand dropped. "Yes, perhaps you have a point," he murmured. "Perhaps it is a weakness in me."

"I do?" Frerin blinked. And then he pulled himself up to his full height. "Right. Yes, of course I do."

Turning back to lead the way to the Chamber, Thorin snorted. "Don't labour the point, brother."

"But I had one! You can't deny it now!" Frerin crowed, and he fell into step beside Thorin. "So what is it you're snapping and snarling about this time?"

The anger bubbled beneath his skin, but Thorin reined it back tightly. "Gimli," he said, and then clenched his jaw shut.

Frerin made an inelegant noise. "Well, of course Gimli. What about him?"

Thorin shot him a suspicious look. "Have you been speaking to Grandmother?"

"No, should I?" Frerin looked genuinely puzzled. "You're being very cagey, nadad."

"I have reason." Thorin ushered Frerin through the diamond-and-pearl arch of the Chamber, and he tugged his little brother closer as they took the bench that was now irrevocably Thorin's and no-one else's. "Come, I will show you."

"No more yanking my arm," Frerin said stubbornly as the stars began their slow and mesmerising dance beneath the surface of the dark water. They almost seemed to float from the depths to swirl and bob before the eyes of the watchers, their radiance increasing before it enveloped them entirely.

They were whirled into the light and released into another warm, sunlit glade. Frerin looked around and his shoulders relaxed. "Well, doesn't look dangerous."

"You say that now," Thorin said in a dark tone, before he heard the sound of approaching voices.

"...took such offense! You would have enjoyed the look on his face."

"I cannot believe your audacity. Did you truly carve such a message into the very peak of Erebor?"

"Aye, and it stands there still. Lóni always grumbled when anyone brought it up."

A peculiar pair they made as they entered the clearing. Legolas was tall and fair and clad in silver-green, his feet making barely any sound as he moved through the lush grass. His pale hair was unbraided and he did not carry his bow nor his knives. Gimli's fiery hair was loosely threaded with his golden beads and clasps, but his beard had again been bound in its travelling braids. Wisps escaped the braids where the locks were cut close. He stumped through the glade in his sleeveless russet and blue tunic, and his powerful arms, each as thick as the Elf's thigh, were for once bare of armour.

Gimli had lost flesh on the journey, Thorin noticed, though he had gained yet more muscle. The privations of travel and battle began to take their toll.

"This looks like a fine place for a pipe," Gimli said, looking up at the towering mallorn with a faint smile. Legolas pulled a face.

"I don't know how you stand the smell of that stuff."

"T'is an acquired taste, I'll grant you," Gimli laughed. "But the Hobbits and Aragorn also smoke and so you cannot blame Dwarvish obstinacy for this one."

"Oh, can I not?" Legolas mocked, and he sprang onto a fallen log and began to walk it as easily as a spider walks its web.

Gimli sat upon one end of the log and began to pack his pipe. "Well, perhaps you can tell me a few tales yourself as I smoke. The Lord Celeborn is your kinsman, you said?"

Legolas' merry expression grew solemn. "Yes. He was also of Doriath."

Gimli froze, his pipe halfway to his mouth. "Oh."

An uncomfortable pause settled over the glade, and then Legolas sighed loudly. "We are always going to stumble over painful topics, are we not?"

Gimli let his pipe drift back to his lap, and he nodded. "Most likely. Still, as long as we are honest..."

"You must tell me if I offend you," Legolas said earnestly.

"Aye, and likewise." Gimli sighed as well, and then he began to light his pipe with a scowl. "This friendship will not always be easy, Legolas."

"Friendship?!" Frerin said, and he gaped.

"That is what I meant to show you," Thorin said, his jaw clenching and unclenching and his breath coming fast through his nose.

Frerin turned to him with shock and wonder in his eyes. "But that... this is a good thing, right? Elf and Dwarf, friends again after so many long centuries."

"You are naive," Thorin snapped. "A good thing, you say?"

"Well, I fail to see a downside," Frerin said and he stuck his chin out. "And Gimli is no unimportant Dwarf. He is a Lord's son, and this Elf is the Prince of the Woodland realm – Thorin, this could change everything!"

Our fierce young star has his own part to play in this. He is a Dwarrow alone, and yet I feel that he is about to step into something that will change the Khazâd forever.

Mahal's words sprang to Thorin's mind, and he swallowed his answer, glowering at the unlikely pair with worry and suspicion. "You know what happens when Elves fall out with Dwarves," he muttered. "This will not last."

"Cynic," Frerin shot back. "I thought you trusted Gimli more than that."

"I believe in Gimli," Thorin growled. "It is the Elf I cannot trust."

"Yes, yes, he's an Elf, he's Thranduil's son, I know the whole litany," Frerin said dismissively, and he turned back to watch the two.

"In the interests of honesty," Legolas said, reluctance in every syllable, "I feel I should tell you something. You will not like it."

Gimli peered up at him, his hair sliding down over one bare and brawny shoulder. His coming-of-age tattoos were very dark against the pale skin of his shoulder that so rarely saw the sunlight. "Should I brace myself?" he said dryly.

Legolas winced. "Perhaps. But I beg you, do not go for your axes!"

"Now I am really concerned," Gimli said, and he took a pull of his pipe. "Well, let it out laddie, before you burst."

"I was in the party that captured the Company of Thorin Oakenshield eighty years ago," Legolas said in a rush. "I was the leader."

Gimli blinked. "For some reason, that wasn't what I was expecting you to say," he said. "So, you captured my father's band?"

Legolas nodded, his face stricken.

"Oh, stop looking at me like that. I'm not going to go for my axes," said Gimli. "No, I'm not happy about it, but what can I do here and now?"

Legolas slumped in relief.

"Sit down, Elf," Gimli commanded, and he took another pull on his pipe before fixing Legolas with a stern look. "If we are to be honest, then we cannot dance around these painful things. They happened, and there's no denying them. You captured my father and his companions and wrongly imprisoned them. Well, there it is. I knew that before, I simply didn't know it was at your hands."

"I drew my bow upon your King and threatened his life," Legolas said, and sighed again. "I took a locket from your father."

Gimli raised an eyebrow. "You took 'adad's locket? No wonder he's not your greatest admirer. Well, I suppose I spoke too soon when I was chatting to Master Frodo all those weeks ago. There is one of our party who has seen me with my beard half-grown. How did you like my portrait?"

Legolas jerked. "That – of course, that was you!"

Gimli chucked. "Aye, who did you think? I would have been, oh, perhaps twenty or so in that picture."

"I insulted your mother," Legolas said, and he covered his face as the tips of his sharp ears reddened.

"You rascal!" Gimli sat up straighter. "Insult my mother? What in Durin's name did you say?"

"I... may have insinuated that she was ugly," Legolas said, muffled by his palms.

Gimli blinked, and then he threw back his head and roared with laughter.

Legolas' head emerged from his hands, and he looked vaguely offended. "Why do you laugh? I tell you, I insulted your mother!"

"And what a ridiculous insult it was," Gimli said, wiping at his eyes. "Lad, my mother is a famous beauty."

Legolas' mouth dropped open slightly, and then he began to laugh as well. "I see I have made something of a fool of myself," he said merrily.

"Aye, well," Gimli said, and he shook his head. "Better to be a fool and know it than continue being foolish in ignorance. Y'know, my sister looks so like my mother did in her youth that it is uncanny, although her hair is the same colour as mine and 'adad's. It's quite the sight. She never unbinds it usually, for when she does it reaches below her knees."

Legolas smiled, and his eyes were alight with gratitude at the easy forgiveness and the change of topic. "Elves love long hair. We make our bowstrings from Elf-hair, you know."

"You never!" Gimli sat forward. "Does it not break?"

"No, no," Legolas said. "It is stronger than it appears, and light and thin. What colour is your nephew's hair?"

"Ah! That little scamp is a darker red than I, with his father's light brown eyes. My wild little warrior! I wonder how tall he is now?"

"How long does it take a Dwarf to reach adulthood?" Legolas asked, and he leaned back and wrapped his arms around his knees.

"Oh, we come of age at seventy. That's when I got these," Gimli said, and he tapped at his shoulder with the bowl of his pipe. He did not flinch at the temperature, being long-accustomed to the scorching heat of the iron-ore smelters.

"I have not seen so many tattoos before," Legolas said, and he peered curiously at the black sigils and patterns inked over Gimli's massive shoulders. "What if you have a change of heart?"

Gimli chuckled. "Well, you're stuck wi' it, aren't you? That's why we are made to draw them on with gall-ink every day for a month before they are made permanent. That way we've plenty of time to back out. Your people do not make such markings, do they?"

"No. Some Elves use paints, but I seldom wear them." Legolas looked up at Gimli for permission, and upon his nod he touched the tattoo with one forefinger. "Did it hurt?"

"It wasn't an ale and a pipe and a jolly song, no," said Gimli dryly.

"Do you have any mourning-marks?"

"Three." Gimli lowered his eyes, and Legolas flinched a little before he delicately moved on in his questioning.

"So, this is for your coming of age. You were full-grown when you were marked?"

"Aye, mostly. A mite less tall and broad than I am now, and certainly not as strong. We grow tougher as we get older, y'see. Still, everyone is different. I came to my height later than many other Longbeards. My young cousin Wee Thorin is only thirty-seven, and he's near as tall as his father Dwalin already."

"That name may need adjusting then," Legolas said, smiling.

"Balin and Óin are going to have apoplexy, and Father is going to spontaneously combust," Frerin whispered, staring at Gimli in horror.

Thorin did not answer. He had his head in his hands.

Gimli's laugh was easy and relaxed. "Ach, he can't get away from it now, poor lad, not after all these years. Named after that King you mentioned, y'know. Dwalin was of the Company as well."

"Was he the one with the yellow hair and the braids in his moustache?"

Gimli's breath caught and then he said. "No. That was Fíli. Dwalin is far taller, with a bald head and tattoos on his pate and knuckles."

"Oh, that one," Legolas said and he shook his head. "He gave us a truly astonishing amount of trouble."

"Maybe you should tell him that. It'd please him no end."

Legolas smiled again, and then he looked up at Gimli. "The blond one, Fíli – he was one of those who died. One of the cousins you mentioned. Merry reminds you of him."

"That's right," Gimli said, and took a puff of his pipe.

"His brother... the young one with the wild grin..."


"Kíli. He and my friend Tauriel had some understanding of each other." Legolas' eyes grew distant. "I thought her mad, at the time."

"They were very young," Gimli said, and he tapped out his pipe against his boot. "Very young indeed. Kíli was only seventy-seven, and Fíli just five years older. It seems strange to me today. I am now near twice Kíli's age when he died, and yet I'll always feel like that young and foolish Dwarrow scurrying at their heels in the poverty of Ered Luin. Who is Tauriel?"

Legolas' eyes tightened. "Was."

"Oh, Mahal's bloody hammer, I'm sorry lad. My turn to put my foot in my mouth. She is gone, then?"

"Yes. She died after the Battle of Five Armies," Legolas said, and his head fell back. "My father was fond of her, and raised her beside me. My elder brothers would call her our pîn gwathel, or little sister. She was a fierce fighter, and unlike most wood-elves her hair was near as red as yours." He paused. "It was Tauriel who believed that the fight and plight of the Dwarves was ours as well. My father was not pleased at breaking our long isolation."

"He broke it willingly enough for the Lake-men, especially when there was gold to be gained from our deaths," Thorin muttered. Frerin shushed him.

"Enough, Thorin," he said. "You have chewed over those particular old bones until they are picked clean and as thin as thread. Let it go, yes?"

"Never," Thorin grated, and he glared at Thranduil's son.

"You are such a ray of sunshine, big brother," Frerin grumbled. "Blame yourself, blame the Elves, blame Men, blame the fates, but Mahal forbid you ever try to move on."

Thorin ignored him and turned back to Gimli. The younger Dwarf also leaned back upon the log once he had tucked his pipe in his jerkin, and gazed up at the achingly blue sky with wondering, serene eyes.

"Beautiful," he said quietly. "I never thought I could feel such peace in a land of Elves."

"The power of the Lady holds all of Lothlórien in safety," said Legolas. "Perhaps that is what you feel."

"I do not doubt it, cousin," came the low, pure voice of the Lady herself. Galadriel stepped into the glade on bare white feet, her dress snagging in the blades of grass behind her. "For Gimli son of Glóin feels many things, both the seen and the unseen."

Both Legolas and Gimli sprang to their feet. "Híril nín," said Legolas, bowing low. Gimli gazed up at her with starry eyes, his heart in his face.

"My lady," he said, and then he lowered his head with utter respect.

"Rise," she said, and her hand gently landed upon Gimli's hair, turning his face up towards her once more. He swallowed hard, and another wisp came loose from his braids. "Ah, you have been mourning, I see. Do not let your hearts linger too long in sadness. It does not do to spend too much time with the dead."

"Aye," Gimli said in a faltering voice.

"Is he going to faint?" Frerin whispered. "And who's the new Elf?"

"That is the Lady of the Golden Wood," Thorin whispered back. Frerin swallowed back a gasp, and he began to bite down upon his lip.

"Well. She's not quite what the old tales make her out to be."

It was Thorin's turn to hush his brother.

"Tolo," Galadriel said, and gestured to them both. "I have been seeking you, Gimli, for there is something I sense, something I wish to know. Yet I would not presume to know all the secrets of Dwarves. Tell me, Durin's son, will you look into my mirror?"

"A mirror?" Gimli looked puzzled and he turned to Legolas with his confusion written all over him.

Legolas' face went lax and blank. Thorin was beginning to recognise this as an indication of shock and not a sign of unfeeling. "You would have him look, Lady?"

"If he will, Legolas Greenleaf," she said without turning back. Her feet scarcely crushed the grass as she walked. She barely even seemed of the earth: an ancient fey spirit come to enchant them. "It is not far."

"What's all this then?" Gimli hissed, and Legolas shot him a warning look and began to follow the Lady through the winding paths between the huge boles of silver trees. Gimli twiddled his fingers together for a moment, before he made an inarticulate noise of defeat and scurried after them.

"What mirror?" Frerin wondered.

"Some Elf-sorcery, no doubt," Thorin said, and he drew close to Gimli. "This Lady can test others with her gaze alone. She can measure the hopes and the dreams of their hearts. I do not trust her."

"Gimli does," Frerin pointed out.

"Gimli also spills secrets faster than a drunkard spills ale," Thorin growled. "He is a far more open-hearted Dwarrow than I."

"Oh, how you shock me, brother," said Frerin dryly.

Galadriel led them to a small hollow between the great trees, where shallow steps had been formed of the tree roots and slabs of pale grey rock. In the middle of the depression sat a plinth, and upon it was set a large silver basin. Water trickled with a merry little gurgle to a small pool at the furthest side of the hollow.

"Here is the Mirror of Galadriel," she said, and she took up a silvery pitcher and filled it with water from the stream. "I cannot tell you what it is you will see, for the Mirror will show you what it will."

"Well, pardon my saying, Lady, but that's not terribly helpful," Gimli said, planting his feet apart and squinting up at her. He looked so painfully Dwarvish in that fashion, his arms banded with thick muscle and tattoos and his hair wild and his beard fierce. It made Thorin want to cheer.

"There's a proper Dwarrow," Frerin said approvingly. "I haven't seen him spin his axe in over thirty years, y'know."

"You have a treat in store for you," Thorin said, gazing with pride at his star. "He is the finest axeman I have ever seen."

Galadriel smiled. "The Mirror can see what is gone, what is present and what may come to pass. Will you look?"

Gimli hesitated. "Why me, Lady?"

"Because you are surrounded by voices, Gimli of Erebor," she said cryptically. "But it must be your choice."

Gimli glanced between her and Legolas, and then he lifted his chin. "Aye. I'll look then. No doubt I'll see nothing but the trees and sky above, but it can't hurt to try, eh?"

She laughed. "No, it will not hurt." She poured the water from her pitcher into the basin in one long, clear fall. The water seemed almost like a shining silver ribbon. "Do not touch the water," she murmured as she stepped back.

Gimli swallowed again, and then moved beside the plinth. "Bit tall, this," he grumbled to himself. He span, frowning, and spotting a likely rock he hefted it to the side of the plinth to stand on.

"Can you see now, mellon nín?" Legolas said.

"Aye, I can... what, wait? That's Ered Luin! Why, there's my father, and his hair has not yet turned white!"

Thorin's pulse began to pound. "He sees the past?"

"Óin, Balin, Lóni, Náli, Ori, Frár... oh, my friends, my friends!" Gimli choked. "Oh, why do you show me this?"

"He must see the past," Frerin said, frowning.

"Wait... the scene changes," Gimli said, breath catching. "Why am I on a ship? Dwarves do not belong on ships. I will be seasick, no doubt. Here, that tunnel... I do not like the look of that tunnel. I have never seen it before, and yet it chills me to my marrow!"

"What tunnel? What ship?" Frerin pressed a hand to his head. "What is to happen to Gimli?"

"Legolas, you are in this mirror! You ride a grey horse – wait, I am on the back! Ugh, I dinnae look forward to that. I am not fond of riding. Who is that Man? Ach, this Mirror jumps from picture to picture like a frog on a hot rock!"

"I do not know," Thorin said, his heartbeat throbbing in his ears. "A ship, a horse, the Elf, a tunnel, a Man... I do not understand any of this."

Suddenly Gimli roared, "Erebor! No, no – Erebor is under siege! Erebor is at war! A mighty host of orcs crowds its flanks!"

"Be calm," Galadriel said softly. "It may not come to pass."

"No, oh no," Gimli breathed, his eyes stricken. Then he drew up straighter as presumably the scene changed once more. "A tree? A dead tree. Must ask the Elf about dead trees. Now, what's this...?"

Abruptly Thorin could feel a tugging at his breastbone, a small but insistent pull that suddenly became a fierce and jolting wrench.

"No, it cannot be," Gimli said in disbelief, and then he looked straight into Thorin's eyes. "Thorin Oakenshield."

"Ah," the Lady murmured. "Then that is what I sensed."

"I do not understand," Thorin said, and his voice was barely a whisper. "Gimli – you can see me? In this Elvish mirror?"

"You are Thorin son of Thráin, called Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain," Gimli said, and he was still looking straight into Thorin's eyes somehow. After eighty years of being glanced over and looked through, to have his star meet his eyes was stunning, an earthquake in his heart. Was Thorin in the Mirror? Did Gimli truly see him?

"I have not known you since I was small, and you have been dead for many years, Lord," said Gimli respectfully, his brows drawing together. "Yet of all the pictures I have seen, you speak to me."

"Aye, I am dead," Thorin rasped, pierced to the core by those eyes finally – finally - upon his, and without his conscious control his hand drifted up to reach for Gimli's bright hair.

It still passed through, and he tore his hand away with an anguished oath. Still, he would make the most of the opportunity. He had learned. He would not repeat the mistakes of his life and leave the important words unsaid.

"Gimli," he said, fervent and low, "we are gone from Arda, but not gone for good. I have watched over you since my fall, cousin, and your strength and fire and laughter have saved me from fading into the dark embrace of guilt and despair. You are loved, my fierce star." He set his jaw and forced himself to keep his eyes upon Gimli's, dark and deep and full of life. "I am proud of you, my champion." He took a deep shaking breath, and his tone dropped to nearly a sigh. "Ursuruh inùdoy kurdulu."

Gimli's eyes widened, and then the strange spell passed.

"What did you see?" Legolas asked anxiously. "Are you well?"

"I am well enough," Gimli said, blinking dazedly. "Give me a moment!"

"Thorin?" said Frerin, worry in his voice, and for a brief confused moment Thorin could not tell where he was or even which way was up. Then a hand landed on his shoulder and Frerin was drawing him close. "Thorin! You flickered. I've never seen anything... are you all right?"

"I am dead," Thorin mumbled, his head aching and spinning. His eyes blurred. "Define 'all right'."

Finally Gimli lifted his head, frowning in bewilderment. "Why... why did I see my kinsman, long laid to rest in the Halls of our Ancestors, and why did he speak? What manner of mirror is this?"

"Do not be afraid, Gimli," Galadriel said in her sweet, mellifluous voice, and the Elf-woman bent down to him and brushed a stray lock of red hair from his brow. "The Mirror cannot harm you."

"I'm not harmed, nor am I afraid," said Gimli quickly. "Just..."

"You have been blessed, Child of Aulë," she continued, smiling gently. "I know what it is you saw, and you have been blessed beyond measure. The voices that surround you are those of your kin."

"My kin...!" Gimli nearly fell off the rock. "You mean, all this time I have been mourning them and they've been watching me!"

"They cannot reach you," she said, and straightened to send a brief but significant look to Legolas. "They cling close to you, near as thought, but they cannot be seen nor heard by the living. Through the power and grace gifted to me long ago I could feel the presence that embraces you, that fierce love surrounding you, and I could sense the voices though I did not hear their words. I do not know how or why they stay with you, Gimli, but the care that swathes you is powerful and devoted."

"His voice," Gimli said, lost and dazed, "I know it. I know that voice, nearly as well as I know my own. It seems I have been listening to it forever."

She laid a hand on his shoulder. "You know more of him than you realise."

Gimli's face grew vulnerable and awed. "He said. He said I was loved. He called me star. He called me..."

"Thorin, you really don't look well," Frerin said. Thorin pushed away from him, staggering drunkenly, his gaze fixed on Gimli. Gimli who knew.

"He knows," Thorin said. "He knows. Frerin, he knows."

"Aye," Frerin's young face broke into a smile. "He knows."

"Gimli," Thorin managed, lurching further towards his star. His vision smudged. His legs felt rubbery and weak. "Gimli. Gimli," - and then the stars swallowed him whole and tore him away and he was sent reeling and spiralling into the blinding, whirling galaxies of Gimlîn-zâram.

Thorin blinked awake with a groan. His eyes felt gummy, and his head ached. He was staring at the ceiling of his chamber.

His head really ached.

"...overdoing it," said a gruff voice. Óin. "He needs t' take more rest."

"Idiot boy," said Thráin with worry in his tone, and someone sat on the end of the bed and laid a comforting hand on his shin.

"Thorin," said Frís gently. "Thorin, I know you're awake, I saw your eyes move. "Come, sit up, inùdoy. We have food here."

"How many..." Thorin mumbled, and she swam into view. Her braids were slightly mussed.

"Frerin roused the whole of the Halls with his squawking. Apparently no-one has ever fainted in the Pool before."

Thorin's heart sank. "Wonderful."

"No, don't be embarrassed, it's all right. Everyone now knows what you do every day, and how important the Quest in Arda is. It is the talk of every Dwarrow," Frís said, and she smoothed his covers down over the rise of his chest. "Here, try to sit up."

Thorin tried to restrain his groan as he struggled to sit up, and failed. Óin came bustling forward, pushing aside Fíli and Kíli as he did so. "Your head? Thought so. Hold on, take this." A cup of something hot that smelled vaguely like willow bark was put before his nose, and Thorin fumbled for it and drank it with smarting eyes. The pain eased.

"You must learn to delegate, son," Thráin said from where he stood, holding back Thorin's nephews. "You cannot keep on like this."

"No, I was fine. It was the Elf-woman's mirror," Thorin croaked. Thráin shook his head.

"We know. Frerin has told every level of the Halls."

Frerin grimaced. "Sorry. I was a bit excited."

"I spoke to our Maker," Óin said, laying a professional hand against Thorin's brow. "The mirror would not have harmed you so if you weren't already exhausted. And you haven't been at table often, so no doubt you do not eat either, y' stubborn mule."

Thorin's head was easier, but it still pounded. He pressed his brow against Óin's palm, the pressure easing it further. "What is the point of such things? I am dead!"

"He's probably still upset about Gimli," whispered Frerin from the back of the room. His blue eyes were wide.

"Aye, dead to Middle-Earth, you fool," Óin said, and took his hand away to glare down at his King. "But your body here and now is a body remade, or had you forgotten? We live here in the Halls. You are alive, you great regal idiot!"

Thorin struggled upright. "Then why the endless waiting? Why may we not truly live? Why could I not touch him?"

"Shhh," said Frís, and she helped him up and arranged his covers around his hips. "We wait for the Second Music, my dear, when we will finally be fully accepted. We wait to be given a place of our own in the world to come. You know this."

"First we've got to get through Dagor Dagorath though," added Fíli.

"That's going to be fun," said Kíli sourly.

"But, Arda – the Ring, the power that grows there..."

"Aye, it's important, but so are you," said Óin, and he gave the back of Thorin's shoulder a light thwack. "You great idiot. An immortal body, an' you've found new ways in which to ruin it. Why did I follow you again?"

"That makes you the greater idiot," Thorin managed, and he gave Óin a glower. The healer ignored it blithely. "If I am so eternal then why the fuss?"

Óin sighed loudly, his eyes rolling. "Look, we died, yes? An' we woke up here, wearing these bodies. But they're not immutable, and so it follows that we are not invulnerable. We eat, sleep, bleed, grow tired, burn ourselves at the forge, do all the things we did in our lives upon Arda, but we have been renewed and remade. My hair is the colour it was when I was one hundred an' twenty, an' your father doesn't look a day over one hundred and eighty. We go back to the age at which we were our best selves, Thorin."

Thorin fell back against his pillows, his head hammering and throbbing. "I am still..."

"Aye," said Óin eventually, and he smiled. "Still my King."

"I do not think the last year of my life was my best," Thorin muttered darkly, and Óin hit him again.

"Sorry, I thought I heard someone insultin' my King. I'll be hittin' anyone who does that," he said, and his eyes twinkled.

"Such loyalty," Thorin said, and softly snorted.

"So, what was it about that Mirror that made you come over all Hobbity, anyway?" asked Kíli. Fíli immediately elbowed him in the ribs.

"He saw me, Gimli saw me," Thorin said, and he reached out. Fíli grasped his hand. "He saw me, but I could not touch him. He heard me – he knows!"

"Calm down, nidoy," Thráin said, and tugged at one of Thorin's braids. "Here, eat. And rest. If you attempt to go to those waters in the next twenty-four hours, I will sit on you, don't think I won't."


"Must I order you, inùdoy?" Thráin said, his eyebrows rising. Thorin huffed in frustration.

"'Adad, events move swiftly now. Gimli, the Fellowship... he knows, Adad, and I cannot," he broke off, unable to find the words. "And then there is Erebor, and Bilbo." Bilbo. Bilbo. "It moves so fast, and Aragorn, and Boromir – I should be there, my Gift is needed. I cannot be so selfish again."

Bilbo had said his name for the first time in eighty years, and it had shaken Thorin to his core. Bilbo had loved him, even cruel and distant as he had been. Thorin's grip tightened reflexively on Fíli's hand, and his nephew's face softened and he squeezed back comfortingly.

"Strength, Uncle," he said softly.

"That is the nature of events, Thorin," Frís said. "They sometimes dawdle, and sometimes race. You will catch up again when you have your strength. Selflessness is not sacrifice, my son."

"But-" It was both comforting and infuriating that, after a century of life as the highest authority and sole leader of his people, his parents were suddenly there to take the reins from him. It made Thorin grasp for them. "Gimli knows! And he is still surrounded by... 'Amad, he has held out his hand in friendship to that Elf!"

"If you think there is any in the Halls who have not heard about Gimli Glóinul and the Elf," Frís said dryly, "you severely underestimate your brother."

Frerin flushed and hid his face behind his golden hair.

"I should be there for him," Thorin said, his stubbornness welling up in his chest. Then he yawned.

"Because you're in such fine shape, o'course," Óin said, folding his arms and fixing Thorin with a level look. "Now, don't you fret about my daft-headed nephew. He'll have eyes on him, mark my words!"

"Óin isn't pleased about the Elf," said Fíli in an undertone.

"Neither are Balin, Lóni, Nori, Náli, Great-grandfather, Fundin, Gróin, Náin, grandfather, my stupid brother, and oh, practically every other Dwarrow in the Halls," added Kíli sardonically.

"But Ori, Bifur, Frerin, Frár, Great-grandmother, and my stupid brother are tickled pink," said Fíli, poking his brother's side. "Still, Grandmother hasn't picked a side yet."

"I do not trust that Elf with my star," Thorin muttered. His head felt too small for the pounding that rattled within it.

"Chalk up another on the 'against' side," said Fíli.

"You, my stubborn child, are going nowhere, so accept the idea," said Frís firmly, and she nudged the tray she had brought in closer to his hand.

Thorin looked up, a protest hanging on his lips. Six determinedly unimpressed pairs of eyes glared back at him.

"Oh, all right," he muttered, and covered his eyes with his free hand.

"Ori and Nori are watching Gimli," Kíli said, and he clumsily patted Thorin's knee. "The Fellowship isn't going anywhere for a few days at the least, it seems. And Hrera is watching Glóin. She said she would have words with you later."

Thorin and Frerin winced in unison.

"Balin is watching over the Stonehelm on his way back to Erebor," said Fíli. "And we'll keep an eye on Erebor and Dáin for you, if you'd like."

Thorin peered out from beneath his fingers up at his nephews, who both looked simultaneously proud and worried, and he felt his heart reach out to them. In his obsession and fear for the Fellowship and Gimli, he had nearly forgotten his nephews, his undayûy. "Here," he said, and pulled Fíli closer by his grip on his hand. "You should stay here, with me."

Fíli looked dubious, but Kíli beamed.

"I'm not sure how conducive these two are t' a good rest," said Óin, but he held up his hands in defeat. "I'm not goin' to stop you, doubt I could if I tried. I'll go stop in on Dáin and Dís, then. I'll let you know how it all goes, aye?" Then he stabbed a thick finger at Thorin. "Tomorrow."

Thorin tucked Fíli's golden head under his chin and nodded. "Tomorrow."

Óin gave him a suspicious look, and then he turned away, muttering, "you frighten me when you agree wi' me so easily. You two hellions, make sure he don't leave that bed! Everyone else, let's move out, let the idiot eat in peace."

"Thank you, Óin," Thorin called after him. The raised tone made his head pound some more, and he fell back with a groan.

"You look awful," said Kíli. "Really, really awful. Did the Mirror hurt that much?"

"It was... it was like the stars of Gimlîn-zâram, but instead of being gathered up and released, I was pulled." Thorin rubbed the place over his heart where the Elf-woman's sorcery had torn him into the waking world.

"Has Gimli really made friends with that Elf?" said Fíli quietly.

Thorin's breath hitched, and then he swallowed hard and nodded.

Kíli frowned. "Maybe it'll last. Maybe he's changed."

"It will not last," Thorin spat.

"Dijnu hyadâkh ghivasha," Fíli quoted, and he shook his head. "Urùthûkhikizu hyêmrûr."

Kíli scowled and completed the saying, folding his arms stubbornly; "Ra hurumizu tada khajimuhîzd ana zu."

"Just because you've got a soft spot for Elves," Fíli said heatedly.

"One," Thorin counted silently.

"It could change everything!" Kíli shot back.


"Yes, for the worse! Poor Gimli, at least he has the excuse of being surrounded by Elves without a single living Dwarrow for company. Not like you!"

Upon 'three', Kíli growled and launched himself at his brother and the two of them began to tussle on the floor of Thorin's chamber. It brought back vivid memories of watching over them in Ered Luin during their childhoods. He sighed, ignoring the pair, and pulled over the tray his mother had left him. Meat and bread and potatoes, covered in a thick sauce, greeted him. His stomach growled.

"Keep the noise down," he commanded them, and began to eat.


Chapter Text

"Soooo," Kíli said, fidgeting.

His Maker sighed, his eyes turning upon the young Dwarrow. "Back again, my child?"

Kíli quaked a little under the weight of that unearthly gaze, and then he chewed upon his lip, drawing himself up. "Well. Yes?"

Mahal laughed softly. Kíli felt it as a quake under his ribcage. "To petition me again, no doubt."

"Well. A bit, yes," Kíli admitted, and sprawled himself by the base of the anvil. He touched it curiously, following the intricate carvings with his fingers. They made words that his mind could not comprehend and shied away from. He had the feeling that nobody, not Dwarf, Man, Elf or Hobbit, could read them. Their heads probably exploded if they did.

"How does your Uncle fare?"

Kíli looked up. "He's recovering," he said, and then he wrinkled his nose. "He got a bit... obsessive. He does that."

"Yes, I know." Mahal brought out something that glowed from his forge with his cupped hands, something that sparkled and shone. Kíli's eyes skittered away from it. It was a bit like looking at the sun – spots danced before his eyes. "I made him stubborn, after all."

"Seems that's a trait you're fond of," Kíli complained, and rubbed at his eyes. "Ow."

"It has served you all well," Mahal said. "Do not look at the light directly, Kíli. Your eyes are not made for it."

"Could have warned me earlier," Kíli grumbled, pressing his fingers against his eyelids.

"Thorin rests now, I trust."

"If you can call what he's doing resting," Kíli said, still prodding at his eyes. Little sparkles and starbursts exploded behind his closed eyes. Rather pretty, really. "He's back at his forge because grandfather will smack him silly if he goes back to the Chamber of Sansûkhul today. He's making a pot-bellied stove." He pulled a face. "It has flowers on the door."

Mahal laughed again, the muted thunder of it rolling through Kíli's chest.

"He's very upset, I think," Kíli continued, and he blinked his eyes open. They were watering a little, and they smarted and stung. "He's upset about Gimli and that Elf, and he's upset that Gimli saw him – though in Durin's name I can't think why – and he's upset about Bilbo again for some reason. He won't talk about it. Well, Thorin doesn't talk about much when he's upset. He just gets surly. Surlier."

"He begins to understand, my son," Mahal said, and the great hand lowered to touch Kíli's shoulder gently. Kíli trembled as the hand passed over his face, but his eyes stopped their stinging and watering immediately. "He begins to realise many things."

Kíli folded his arms. "Oh? You're as mysterious as Gandalf, you know that?"

Mahal smiled, and Kíli felt it as a blooming warmth upon his face. "I take that as a great compliment. Olórin is a wise counsellor."

"He's got another name?" Kíli said, frowning, before shaking it off. "All right, so what it is he begins to realise? And what's it got to do with his Gift, then?"

His great Maker reached for his hammer, denser and darker than the black of night. He took it up and hefted it in his hand. "He begins to understand that his guilt and self-punishment serve no-one. He begins to know in his heart that he was loved, and that in his life and death he accomplished much that was good. He begins to move on."

"Thorin – move on?" Kíli asked with sceptical disbelief. "Pfft. Right."

Mahal brought his hammer down with a crash like the collapse of a mighty glacier. "He does. Reluctantly and with no little pain, but he begins to change."

Kíli abruptly remembered the teasing of two days ago, and wondered. "I suppose. Is that why he's so upset about Gimli? Because it's different?"

"You should ask him, my child," Mahal said gently. "Our fierce young star is perceptive. He sees and hears clearly; more clearly than most. Thorin's eyes are still clouded, but they begin to open wider."

"What about mine?" Kíli asked eagerly, and Mahal chuckled, bringing his hammer down once more.

"Ah, merry little prince. You have always had bright eyes."

Kíli huffed out a breath. "Yes, definitely as mysterious as Gandalf."

"Gimli is caught up in the greatest transformation to happen to the world since the last Age," Mahal continued. "I foresee that his quest will change more than himself. Already it begins. Long divisions are brought to the surface and ancient lies are exposed to the light."

"The Elf, Legolas," Kíli murmured.

"Aye." Mahal stopped and stood back from the glowing thing, his eyes regarding it critically. "You should leave, my son. You will not be able to withstand the next step of the forging."

"In a moment," Kíli said, and settled himself more comfortably. "So, about that Hobbit..."


Setting aside the metal he was filing (the legs of the stove, ready to be welded to the belly of the thing), Thorin looked up. His father was standing at the door of his forge, looking profoundly disappointed.

"Yes, yes, I should be resting," he grunted, and took up a towel to wipe the metal shavings from his workbench. "I cannot lie abed all day! Not when Gimli knows I am with him. Not when Elves make friends with Dwarves, and the Ring moves ever closer to Mordor. My Gift is needed. I am needed! I am not made for inactivity, 'adad. It will soon drive me mad."

The minute the words left his mouth, he winced.

Thráin's shoulders hunched a little, before he sighed. "No, no, I am not offended, no need for that face. Nor I am not made for long leisure either, my lad. But you have nearly worked yourself to a standstill, and I cannot watch you do it again. Please, Thorin. I have said it before and I shall say it one more time: We are here if you need us."

Thorin raised his eyes, a protest on his lips. The minute he met his father's gaze, all the words fled. Thráin looked sad and wrung out, his mighty hands open and lax at his sides and his great head slightly stooped. Thorin swallowed, and then he said, "I do not know how to let you help, father," he said, hating every word. "I cannot..."

"You have been alone a long time, son," Thráin said, and he crossed to Thorin to pull him into a rough embrace. Thorin's back immediately stiffened, and he had to force himself to relax into his father's arms. "You have shouldered the cares of our people for so long. You do not have to carry that weight all alone. You have Dwarrows of skill around you. Let them help."

"How?" Thorin said, dark and low. "My mind is awhirl, and it will not let me rest. I cannot let this rest, 'adad. I cannot give this to another!"

"No-one is suggesting that," Thráin said, and he flicked an iron filing from Thorin's beard. "But you are not using what you have available to its greatest advantage in your determination to do it all yourself. We have scribes and sneak-thieves and Dwarf-Lords and miners and healers amongst us. Don't you think that Balin might know a thing or two about tight scheduling? He was a Seneschal, Thorin. The job requires a lot of juggling. Young Ori could be an excellent keeper of information, yes? And his brother is a born spy if I have ever seen one. Bifur's mining has made him as patient as the very stones - chipping away in silence - and somehow he never gets bored. He is a natural watcher. Your mother is perceptive and shrewd, and your brother and nephews have energy to spare. You must use all this talent, son. You cannot take it all upon yourself any longer. I will not permit it."

"Will not permit!" Thorin said, jerking back to glare at his father. His father glared back – and there was a flicker of the splendid and mighty Prince under the Mountain in his eye.

"I will not permit it," he repeated sternly. "I understand, son. Do you think I don't? I left all by myself to retake Erebor – and look what it did to me! You are our leader in this, and none will gainsay your word. However, if you think we will idly stand by and watch you ruin yourself in your zeal, I strongly suggest you think again. We are here, Thorin – use us!"

Thorin seethed, hating the necessity of it, hating the sense his father was making. Thráin's dark eyes bored into his, and he clasped Thorin's shoulder firmly.

"Now. You will call another meeting. Ori will write down our decisions, and together you, me, Balin, Óin, my father and your mother will use our best judgement to create a schedule. Regular conferences should be held. We must share all this information that is being gathered. We must hold fast together, or not at all. I will not sacrifice more of my family to our stubbornness!"

Thorin's mouth opened slightly, and then he pressed his lips together. The more he learned, the more there was to learn. His weaknesses. He must come to accept them, just as Bilbo had said. The very concept made the flesh creep all down his back, but he would see it through nonetheless. For Bilbo. "You are right," he muttered, and turned away.

"I know I am. Your sense of duty does you credit, Thorin. Your love for Gimli and your Hobbit is praiseworthy. But duty or no, you are important and I will not see you tear yourself to pieces," Thráin said, and he pulled Thorin close again. Then his nose wrinkled. "And now you, my firstborn, are going to go bathe and wash your hair. You smell."

"Any more orders?" Thorin said, trying to repress his glower. He knew he wasn't succeeding.

"Smile, now and again," Thráin said gently, and he cupped his huge and powerful hand against Thorin's cheek. "I promise you your face will not break."

"I believe Nori has offered good odds to the contrary," Thorin grumbled, and Thráin laughed.

"No doubt. Go on, then. Bathe. Eat some more. Rest another day and refresh yourself. Then we will have our meeting, and we will muster the true strengths of our people."

Thorin nodded in silence, his beard rasping against his father's palm. Thráin pressed his brow against Thorin's briefly, and then led him from the forge.

"Aaaand pull, my lads! Up it goes!"

The cry rang out over the battlements of Erebor, and Ori shaded his eyes with the flat of his hand as he peered up at the huge wooden beam, riveted and braced with metal struts, as it slowly tilted up into the air. The rope that was bearing it upright was being hauled upon by at least twenty Dwarrows, and Orla was overseeing the operation with a steady, steely dark eye.

"How does it go?" said Dís, coming up behind her lieutenant and speaking softly.

"We have three more mangonels to construct after this," Orla replied, her eyes never moving from the scene. A great-voiced sergeant was hollering orders at them, and many Dwarrows were red-faced and panting. "The catapults and the cauldrons are complete."

Dís hummed for a moment, before stepping beside Orla and crossing her arms as she watched the grunting Dwarves try to lever the massive beam into position. "And the long-range small-arms?"

"Eight hundred crossbows," Orla said, and she sighed. "It's still not popular."

"Bombur's girl?"

"Is leading those who are using longbows. Still, we're not likely to have a full contingent of archers unless the Elves arrive."

Dís nodded slowly, before she lifted her chin to peer over the mass of straining bodies. "Where is Quartermaster Dori?"

"Quartermaster?" Ori squeaked, and he clapped his hands over his mouth as pride began to make his chest puff out to twice its original size.

"He stepped out to see to the supply chain to the Iron Hills," Orla said. "He won't be pleased with the progress so far."

"Dori doesn't like it when people shilly-shally," Ori told them, before doing an awkward but happy little dance on the spot. His brother, Dori son of Zhori, of the line of Ymri the courtesan – baseborn and gossiped about – now High Guildmaster of Erebor and Quartermaster of the armies of Durin's folk!

Wait til Nori heard!

"How do the new recruits fare?" Dís said after a slight pause. Orla's stern face softened a little in exasperation. "Oh, that well?"

"More discipline is required," Orla growled, and she snapped her head back to look at the beam, which was slowly rising into the vertical position. "They have worked hard, that I will grant them," she added grudgingly.

Dís chuckled. "It is a long time since Dáin led the most regimented army of Dwarves in Middle-Earth. The folk of the Iron Hills have grown soft, and so have we. This is a far cry from my grandfather's great host, twenty thousand strong and all trained to the peak. We have lost so many, and the years of peace have lulled us into a sense of false security. Now we must race to catch up."

"You Longbeards are always so gloomy," Orla said, and she ignored Dís' politely incredulous look. "They train hard. They fight well. We may not have the most regimented of armies, but they are fierce and they defend their home. What more is needed?"

"We're gloomy?" Dís muttered. "Orla, I've been your friend for sixty years, and I have never, ever heard you laugh."

"I haven't heard a good joke in sixty years," Orla said, her dark face completely deadpan. "That might have something to do with it."

"Rope snapped!" someone suddenly shouted, and Dís swore, her grey hair escaping her braids as she darted forward. More shouts rang through the air, growing more and more shrill. The beam wobbled in its nest of ropes, teetering on its end.

"It'll come down!"

"Hold it steady! It's not going to come down!"

"It will if you keep waggling about like that!"


"I can't hold on!"

"Idiots," Dís breathed, and she began to push through the milling crowds to get to where the beam was now lurching dangerously. "Hold strong!" she roared as she pushed through.

"What in the name of Durin's dirty socks is going on here!?" came Dori's appalled screech, and Ori flinched. He knew that tone. "You, hold onto that rope! No, the rope – the other rope! Oh, I'll do it myself, get out of the way!"

A hush fell over the crowd as Dori stumped through, his hair neatly bound in its elaborate braids, his Guildmaster's chain about his shoulders, and his lovely face flashing with irritation. He took a rope off a wheezing Dwarrow and tutted at them all, his lips pursed. "You want a thing done, do it yourself!" he announced grumpily, and hauled upon the rope.

The beam immediately righted itself, and Dori braced it with his shoulder. "Right!" he puffed. "Tie it into place – quickly! I'm not holding this thing all day!"

"That is impressive," Orla said, catching up to Dís. The First Advisor laughed.

"Dori's strength has not faded over time, I see. The mangonel will stand in a matter of hours, now he is here."

"What was that cry?" came a voice from the stairs behind them, and Ori span to see the Queen, her steel-threaded beard glittering, making her way towards them. Dwalin stood beside her, his arms folded.

"Shamukh, Majesty," said Orla, bowing low. "The support beam for the newest mangonel began to fall. Our Quartermaster righted it."

"Damned showoff," Dwalin grunted, and Orla's eyebrow arched at her husband as she righted herself.

"Jealousy, dear?" she said, her dark face impassive.

"Damned right I'm jealous," Dwalin said bluntly, and Ori giggled a trifle beneath his clasped hands. "I'm a Dwarf, I'm a Durin, I'm meant to be jealous."

"Enough, General Dwalin," Queen Thira said in her low, forge-roughened voice. Her face was thin and elegant, surrounded by a plethora of black braids that swept up into a knot at the back of her head. More braids cascaded down from the knot, surmounted with gem-studded steel beads. She was thin, with the deceptively wiry strength of the dedicated smith. "How does the work proceed?"

Thira, Queen of Erebor. Doll created by godofmischieffoal.

"Well enough, now that Dori is here," Orla said without a glance back at her husband. Looking at Dwalin's face, Ori bit down on a grin. Whoever said that the Blacklock Dwarrowdam was without a sense of humour had obviously never seen her tease Dwalin.

"The steel for the struts is done," Thira continued, and she frowned as she watched Dori fussing over the lashing down of the huge main beam. "My forges haven't had time to burn out in weeks."

"What is he doing now?" Dís said, shaking her head.

"He's... cleaning the face of that Dwarrow," sighed Dwalin. He tipped back his white head. "Ugh, Dori never changes."

"Oh, Dori," Ori said sadly, watching as his brother corralled a set of stunned soldiers with a handkerchief and a scowl. Puffed from their efforts, bemused by Dori's beauty and perplexed by his scolding, they held still as Dori mopped at their faces.

"-an utter disgrace, the lot of you!" Dori finished up, and he sent them on their way with a sniff. "Take a little more pride in yourself, thank you very much. Now, Mister Foreman, where are we? I have three cartloads of wood that must be stored up here somewhere, and there's not enough room to swing a cat! What do you mean, somewhere else? Piffle. We need that wood to heat the cauldrons, in case you've forgotten. Or are you offering to lug a potful of molten metal from the lower levels to the battlements yourself?"

"He mothers the whole mountain," said Thira, her mouth twitching. The reddened and heat-blasted capillaries on her cheeks moved as she fought her smile.

"He does," Dwalin said, and he raised a wry eyebrow. "In the absence of his brothers, only every Dwarrow left in existence will do."

"Oh, you say that as though you hate it when he looks after Balin and Frerin for us," Orla murmured. Dwalin cleared his throat.

"Never said that."

Dís laughed softly and then she turned her eyes to the Queen. "I didn't expect to see you up here today, Thira."

"Not my usual scene, no," Thira said wryly, and she pulled at her leather apron. "To be truthful, I'd much prefer to be down at my forge still, but the work is moving so fast now and everything is so urgent... I felt it better to break the habits of a lifetime and come see what yet needs to be made."

"The armouries?" asked Dwalin, and Thira snorted inelegantly.

"Oh, please. I had the armour stockpiles replenished four decades ago, and I have all my masters and journeymen churning out axes and swords as fast as you can blink."

"The apprentices?"

"Are on arrows."

Dís frowned, watching Dori corral a section into moving some of the stockpiles of wood into a corner. "But we do not know if the Elves will help."

Thira smiled grimly. "I know. Still, we'll have the arrows for our own of the Elves keep to their forests."

"Which they most likely will. Damned point-ears wouldn't come out of their bolt-holes to piss on a Dwarf if he were on fire," Dwalin growled. Orla put her scarred hand upon his arm, and he settled reluctantly.

"My son will do his best," Thira said, and her head lowered slightly. "He's a persuasive boy, when he can be bothered to hold onto his temper."

"Whether the Elves come or no, Thorin will have done Erebor proud," Dís said, her marvellous voice cracking upon her cousin's name. "And more arrows will make Bomfrís and our archers happy."

Thira lifted an eyebrow. "You say that now. The apprentices are apprentices for a reason, after all."

Orla cocked her head, her great tail of black hair curling down over her bare shoulder. "I doubt they'd complain if an arrowhead wasn't perfectly filed, not when so many are required."

"Bomfrís and her archers will be very put out if all the arrows go to the weed-eaters," Dís commented, and Thira chuckled.

"Tell Bombur's lass not to worry. My apprentices aren't running out of iron-ore any time soon, not after the western tunnels were reopened last year."

"Bofur's on that," said Dwalin.

"And he keeps taking that wild little scamp of a son of his down there with him," groaned Orla. "And where one goes..."

Dwalin groaned as well. "The other follows. Wee Thorin should know better."

"He does," Dís said, and then she laughed sadly. "But Gimizh has too much of his uncle about him. Others will follow where he leads, even if they aren't sure why."

"Still missing your young cousin, eh?" Thira patted Dís' shoulder. "I'm sure he's fine and well, no doubt."

"I could have meant Bombur," Dís said in a tight voice, and Dwalin chuckled.

"Aye, but you didn't."

Dís held herself stiffly for another moment, before she relented, her steel-grey head dropping. "Yes, I miss him. It has been eight months, and no word."

"Now, now," said Thira kindly. "Gimli is well enough, I'm certain of it. Be comforted, sister."

Dís sighed, and then she looked up. "Oh, what on earth is he doing now?"

"Is he... braiding their hair?" Thira said blankly, and Dwalin closed his eyes.

"Ach, Dori," he muttered underneath his breath, "I will thump you, just see if I won't."

"Now there's the fight every Dwarrow has been waiting to see for eighty years," said Dís. "Dori versus Dwalin."

"Dori to win!" Ori immediately blurted, and then remembered that a) Nori wasn't here, and b) he was dead and no-one could hear him. "Drat and botheration," he mumbled.

"How can such a damned strong Dwarrow be such an ol'..." Dwalin's grumbles trailed off, and he stared over the sward of lush green that had once been the Desolation of the Dragon. "See there? Can you see that? A great host approaches."

"The messenger again?" Dís said heavily, and she turned to the southern side with resignation in her lined eyes.

"No," Orla said, and for once there was a smile on her face. It looked so unnatural on her that Ori had to blink. "Those are Elves."

"Elves!" Dwalin said in blank shock, and he pushed the crowding, gossiping soldiers aside to make his way to the side of the battlements.

"Can you see?" Dori shouted to him. "My eyes aren't what they were!"

"They never were!" Dwalin shot back, and Dori grunted and made a rude gesture at him (and Ori gasped "Dori!" in scandalised astonishment). "Those are Elves, or I'm a troll."

"Any fool could see that," Dori said dismissively. "I meant the figure in the lead. That's no Elf!"

"Can you see?" Dís said to Thira. "You're younger than the rest of us: here, come to the front."

Thira glanced over the battlements, and her eyes widened. "Inùdoy," she breathed.

"That's the Stonehelm!" Dís said, and she put a hand to her pattern-shaved cheek in shock. "He persuaded Thranduil! But I thought it impossible!"

"Thorin Stonehelm!" Dwalin roared, echoed by Ori, Dori and Orla. The cry was taken up around the battlements as the host of Elves moved to the Gates, passing between the great statues of heroes long dead.

"The Stonehelm is back!" The shout rose from every throat. "The Stonehelm returns! Open the gates!"

"I..." Thira said, her mouth working soundlessly for a moment. Then she gave up on words and turned to run back towards the stairs.

Thira in her court attire, by flamesburnonthemountainside

Dís raised her hand, and every eye swung towards the First Advisor, Princess of Erebor and the Line of Durin. "Open the Gates!" she cried, her glorious voice carrying like a struck bell and echoing from the smooth rock faces of the walls. "Erebor welcomes her Prince and her allies!"

The cheer that greeted this statement was deafening. Dwalin slumped beside his wife, his good eye turning to her. "We don't stand alone," he said, confusion and gratitude warring in his face.

"Not this time," said Dís, and her hand tightened on the walls of the battlements. "Not this time."

"Sauron will find the North a little more difficult to subdue than he was expecting," said Dori in satisfaction. "Serves him right!"

"Du bekâr!" roared Orla, brandishing her heavy Blacklock sword in defiance, and it was repeated by the whole mountain as the Stonehelm passed between the Gates, followed by a mighty host of tall Elves in grey-green, bows strapped to their backs and eyes cold. The cry of challenge rang through the air, making the very Mountain shake with it. Dwalin gritted his teeth, obviously torn about the presence of the Elves. When Dís raised her fist to join in the joyous shout, he groaned in defeat and finally joined in:

"Du bekâr! Du bekâr! To arms! TO ARMS!"

The next morning came swiftly, and Thorin woke to see his grandfather sitting at his side.

"Am I under arrest now?" he said sardonically, pushing himself up to one elbow. "Do I need a keeper?"

"You need a slap upside the head, but your mother has forbidden me," Thrór said gruffly. "No, I'm to take you to the Chamber of Sansûkhul, and then to bring you out again. No days-long vigil for you this time, my lad."

Thorin brightened. "Then I may go to Gimlîn-zâram?"

Thrór snorted loudly. "You may go to Gimli, you mean. After you have eaten, nidoyel. Up you get now. I'll meet you at table."

Thorin scowled after his grandfather as he made his way from the room. "Stop making that face, Thorin," Thrór said calmly without even turning around.

Grumbling, Thorin stalked from the bed and closed the door behind Thrór's back. He was one hundred and ninety-five years old, a King, a warrior and a leader. And his family was convinced he was an errant child!

Still, he had to admit to himself that he had not thought ahead. He had rushed headlong into his new obsession, stubborn and single-minded as always - and had overreached himself. Dwalin would have laughed himself sick.

Very well. He would reach out and accept help. He would... he would lean on others. He would allow them to prop him up. He would accept that he could not do everything. He would acknowledge his own shortcomings – his mortal weaknesses.

Thorin repressed a wince of revulsion at the thought, and dressed himself with purpose. He felt rather as though he was arming himself for battle instead of a breakfast with his family.

Entering the closest of the vast dining chambers, Thorin made his way directly to where his grandfather's great white head could be seen, a beacon amongst all the other Dwarrows that milled around.

His mother immediately piled a plate and put it in front of him, and his brother hovered anxiously as he sat and began to eat. "Thorin?" he asked, wringing his hands. "Are you feeling better?"

"I am fine," he said curtly. Thrór kicked him underneath the table. Thorin sent his grandfather a dirty look, before he relented. "I know I worried you, Frerin. I - I'm sorry."

"Did Thorin just apologise?" Fíli whispered in shock, and Kíli nudged him into silence. Thorin glanced over at his nephews, before placing his spoon down and splaying his hands flat upon the surface of the table. All eyes turned to him.

"I know I have worried all of you," he said, and the words were halting but clear. He steeled himself. He was not accustomed to such things, and he profoundly disliked the feeling of exposure it gave him. "I apologise. I will not allow my obsessions to overtake my good judgement again."

"Damned right," said Hrera bluntly, "because I will knock you out before it happens again, my indomitable grandson."

Kíli leaned forward, his eyes wide and concerned. "Did you want to talk about it?"

"No!" Thorin immediately snapped, and Kíli flinched back a little. Cursing under his breath, Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose. "Again, I am sorry," he muttered. "Kíli, namadul, I..."

"Gimli knows now," Fíli said, his hand landing on his brother's shoulder and squeezing. "That can't be easy for you."

"No, it is not," Thorin said, his throat tightening around the words. Mahal below, but the sense of being stripped and exposed was abominable. He hated and despised every second of it.

"Frankly I am amazed that any living Dwarrow can have any knowledge of the mysteries at all," remarked Frís. "I thought it was forbidden."

"Who knows what powers that Elf-woman has?" Thorin said, looking up. His nephews and brothers were watching him closely, and he repressed a scowl and looked back down at his plate. "I am glad Gimli knows. I am glad. I have wished, time after time, that he..." He broke off and took a bite of the bread and honey. Perhaps Bilbo's tactics would work better for him?

"So not Gimli," said Fíli, his face thoughtful.

"Course not," Kíli said. "He loves Gimli. Perhaps he's afraid?"

"I am sitting right here," Thorin growled, and his nephews both shrugged.

"Since you never talk about anything, we have to speculate," Fíli pointed out with unassailable (and impertinent) logic. "So, are you afraid?"

Thorin hesitated, and then he felt his mother's shrewd eyes upon his face. "Yes," he muttered.

"Ah, silly boy," Hrera said, shaking her head. "Gimli would not reject you. Gimli is a Dwarf alone. He mourned you, and he has always respected you and heard you clearly. Take that as a positive sign."

"Positive. Thorin," Kíli snorted, and at Thorin's dark look he applied himself to his meal again.

"Gimli..." Thorin bit down upon the inside of his cheek. "I do not wish to talk of that. I will find out soon enough. Besides, that is not the issue that concerns me the most."

"It's the Elf, then?" Frerin said uncertainly.

Thorin's hand suddenly slammed down upon the table. "Yes, it is the damned Elf! They are enemies! They should hate each other!"

"Thorinîth," Frís said wearily, and he interrupted her, his temper flaring.

"I am no mewling child!"

"No, that you are not," she said levelly. "But you have been in a foul mood ever since Gimli and the Elf reached an accord. We have done nothing to deserve such treatment, my son."

Thorin's heart sank and he rubbed at his face, his bread falling back to his plate. "Mohilâli harubaz hubma," he groaned into his palms. "Forgive me."

Hrera hit the back of his head. "Language," she snapped.

"Call the meeting, inùdoy," Thráin advised. "Doing something productive will cool that Durin temper of yours."

"Don't blame him for being cantankerous about that damned Elf," Thrór growled beneath his breath. Hrera gave her husband a level look, and his eyes snapped back to his plate hurriedly.

"Yes, yes," Thorin said, still muffled by his palms. A hand tentatively settled on his forearm, and he peered out between his fingers to see Frerin gazing up at him. His brother's painfully young face was creased with worry.

"D'you want me to come with you, nadad?" he whispered.

Thorin regarded his brother for a moment, the words of his grandparents and parents all swirling through his mind. They warred with the utter outrage induced by the Elf's audacity in befriending his father's enemy, and the elated fear at Gimli's new knowledge. He felt full of conflicting, deafening thoughts, and far too small to contain them. "Aye," he said eventually. "Aye, nadad. That would be well. I would welcome you."

Frerin blinked, and then he beamed. "Then I am with you."

Thorin dropped his hand to clasp Frerin's, and not for the first time he swallowed the shock at the difference between his hand and his adolescent brother's. So small, so small and unmarked. "Thank you."

"Better," Hrera said primly. "Now, eat up. Thrór will be watching the Chamber, so don't you pair get any ideas!"

"Grandmother!" Frerin protested. She held up a warning finger.

"My memory's not so bad as all that. I remember what you two used to get up to."

"I wish I did," Kíli muttered.

The rest of breakfast passed without further interruption, and Thorin soon stood and met his grandfather's eyes. "How long?" he asked in a level voice.

"Four hours at first," he said firmly. "Then you must take a break and eat something. I will come and get you. Understood?"

Thorin sighed, but forebore to comment. Then he turned to his mother and bent to sweep her beard away from her upper cheek and kiss her. "I am sorry, 'amad," he murmured.

"I am proud of you, inùdoy," she said, smiling with her eyes. "I know it is not easy to change. Thank you for accepting our advice."

He nodded, before turning and striding from the dining chamber. The slap of Frerin's boots against the stone could be heard following him. "Thorin, wait!" he said, and he slowed his stride a little to allow his brother to catch up. "I hadn't finished my drink," he complained.

Mindful of his impatience and now very wary of his temper, Thorin stopped and looked down at his brother. "Did you want to go back?" he asked carefully. Gimli and Bilbo were only seconds away, waiting on the other side of the starry skin of Gimlîn-zâram.

"Nah, let's go," Frerin said, searching Thorin's eyes. "You're about to explode or something, and believe me, after the last dramatic day or two I'm a bit scared of that happening. You can be very intimidating, you know that?"

He could feel the corner of his mouth twitching. "Thank you."

"Not a compliment," Frerin grumbled. "Come on. Let's not waste any time before grandfather comes and hauls us out by the ear."

Passing through the pearly arch, Thorin took his seat and Frerin nudged him over to allow him room to sit beside him. Thorin grudgingly made space, before glancing over to where Ori sat. The scribe's eyes were distant and unfocused, his face half-illuminated in the gloom. "Where is he? I have had no updates for two days."

"Dunno. I suppose we'll find out," Frerin said. "Come on, big brother. Let's go see your firebrand, shall we?"

What did Gimli think, now he was aware that a dead Dwarrow claimed to watch him and know him and love him as a father loved a son? The apprehension clawed at Thorin's belly again, but he forced it down ruthlessly. "Yes. Lothlórien."

It took no time at all for the dancing flecks of light to begin their whirling beneath the silvery surface of the pool. The stars seemed to welcome him back after his enforced absence, enfolding him their luminous embrace and sending thrills of heat to the very heart of him. Thorin opened his arms and let them swallow him, let them turn him inside out and send him back to those he loved.

Even before his eyes had shaken off the blinding light, he could hear the rumbling deep voice of his star, well-loved and familiar, echoing in his ears.

"Gimli," he said, and stepped forward blindly, blinking furiously. His heart leaped in his breast.

" very tall!" Gimli was saying, and there was the sound of his heavy Dwarf-boots striking wood. "Why don't they make moving platforms? Wouldn't be hard: a few pulleys, a few ropes, a winch or two, and Borin's your uncle. I'll wager I could throw together a blueprint by lunchtime!"

"Peace, Master Dwarf!" came the light laughter of the Elf, and Thorin clamped down on a growl. "These woods have stood unchanged for millennia. I do not think they are ready for such Dwarvish ingenuity and innovation."

"T'is a long way to climb, is all I'm saying," Gimli said, and Thorin's eyes gradually focused upon his star. His face was disgruntled as he stomped back up the winding stairs of the great mallorn to the flet where they had met Galadriel and Celeborn, Gimli in second-last place and the Elf bringing up the rear of the Fellowship. "They're not difficult at all. We've been using 'em forever. Well, you soon find yourself thinking of new ways to make life easier in a mine, let me tell you!"

"You have worked a mine?"

"Lad, I've been working mines since I was fifty, and they are no picnic," Gimli said, and he reached out to touch the silvery bark of the mallorn as he made his way ever upwards, following the shield of Boromir as they climbed. "Still, you'd miss the sight and scent of the trees if you took a platform," he said in a slightly quieter voice, and his straight Durin brow smoothed out. "Perhaps the old way is better after all."

"We shall make an Elf of you yet, Gimli," Legolas smiled.

"Ha! That will take some doing!" chuckled Gimli. "I warn you, I am a sight too heavy to go walking on snow as you do."

Legolas' answering laugh was soft. "Perhaps not. We would need to see what lies beneath that beard of yours, my friend, and I know enough to fear for my life should I come at you with a razor."

"Mahal's blessed balls!" Gimli choked, and his fingers rose to thread through the enviable mass of his ruddy, handsome beard. "Don't say such vile things!"

"Hold your tongue, you damned weed-eater," Thorin snarled. "You cannot possibly know what a Dwarf's beard means!"

Gimli stopped abruptly, as though he had run into an invisible wall. His bright head snapped up, and his eyes widened. Then he whispered a quiet oath beneath his breath and his dark eyes shone. "Hail, my lord," he said in a voice that could barely be heard. "I thought you had abandoned me."

"Never," Thorin said, and a huge nebulous joy built in his chest and throat. "Never, my star."

"Gimli, mellon nín?" Legolas had almost crashed into Gimli's broad back, and he looked down upon the Dwarf in confusion. "Why do you stop? Are you well?"

"I am well," Gimli said loudly, before he dropped his voice to a mere rumbling whisper. "Ma katakluti, melhekhel."

"Shândi, inùdoy kurdulu," Thorin replied. Then he reached out and his fingers wrapped themselves in Frerin's sleeve. "He knows I am here!"

"But he can't hear you properly," Frerin pointed out. Thorin was too overwhelmed to notice.

"It matters not," he said wildly. "He knows I am here! He senses my presence so clearly!"

"Abbadizu," said Gimli, and he smiled. "Baknd ghelekh ra yâdùshun, Thorin Thráinul."

"Gimli?" said the Elf, his fair face drawing in worry. "What is it?"

"Ah, not now!" Gimli said softly, and he shook his head. "Nothing, Legolas," he said, and he began to move up the stairs again. "A small twinge in the leg, nothing more."

The Elf seemed suspicious. "And a hardy Dwarf is susceptible to twinges in the legs?"

"He is if he is made to climb so many stairs!" Gimli said triumphantly, and Thorin could not help but laugh with pride at how neatly he had turned the conversation back around.

"Your mood swings faster than an axe, and is just as cutting," Frerin muttered. "Now you're happy?"

"Gimli! Legolas!" came Aragorn's voice from above. "Hurry up!"

"I am going to get tired of hearing that Man say that," Gimli predicted, before he bent his head and picked up his pace. His boots made an absolute racket against the thin and graceful wood.

"Well, they know you are coming," Legolas said wryly.

Gimli only growled and applied himself to making it up the winding stairs.

As they stepped onto the wide talan, Thorin was again taken aback at the radiance that spilled from the Lord and the Lady of the Golden Wood. Gimli immediately moved to the forefront of the Fellowship, and Sam and Merry exchanged bemused and amused glances as the Dwarf gazed up at the Lady Galadriel with something very much approaching worship.

"It seems Thranduil's son isn't the only Elf that Gimli feels an affinity for," Frerin said, and Thorin blew out a breath.

"The Elf-woman spoke to him fairly, and in our ancient tongue. She gave him peace in a land of strangers, and gave me the gift of his knowledge," he said grudgingly. "She is powerful, but she means him no harm."

Frerin paused, and then he turned to look into Thorin's face, his expression serious. "Something is different with you, isn't it nadad?" he asked. "You never would have said that before."

Thorin folded his arms and scowled like a thunderstorm. "I concede that perhaps she is no danger to Gimli. Thranduil's spawn, on the other hand...!"

"Hmm," Frerin said, his fair brows rising. Then he turned to watch the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim move before the Fellowship again, their faces serene and their footsteps soundless. "If you say so, big brother."

The Lady spoke at length with Aragorn, and Thorin found himself studying this fellow crownless King for a moment. The Man touched a jewel at his neck and bowed his head, and Galadriel brought her hand up to touch his head in blessing. There was a warning in her eyes.

Cloaks were given to each member of the Fellowship, greyish-green like the garb worn by the Elves around them. Gimli fingered the material curiously and brought the clasp up to squint at it with a knowledgeable eye. "Not bad work," he murmured to himself. "Not bad work at all."

"Are these magic cloaks?" said Pippin, looking at them with wonder.

Celeborn laughed in his low, musical voice. "I do not know what you mean by that," he said. "They are fair garments, and the weave is good. Leaf and branch, water and stone; they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love. You may find them a great aid in keeping out of the sight of unfriendly eyes, wherever it is you walk."

"You are indeed high in the favour of our lady, for she herself and her maidens wove these. Never before have we clad strangers in the garb of our own people," said Haldir, and he glanced disdainfully down at Gimli as he spoke. The Dwarf had no eyes for the March-warden, however, but was looking upon his cloak with a new and appreciative gaze.

"From the Lady's own hand!" he murmured. "Ach, zabadel, do you see how lucky I am?"

"I see it, Gimli," Thorin said grudgingly. "It is a fine cloak."

Gimli's head lifted, and a spark of amusement flickered in his eyes. "Ah, you do not approve," he said.

"I do not mind the Lady's gifts," Thorin said, and ignored the nudge that Frerin gave him.

"I do not ask for them," Gimli said, and he turned to watch as Galadriel handed Pippin and Merry a pair of silver belts strung with sharp Elvish daggers. "Now, that is some Dwarvish work there! I wonder who the maker was?"

"Gifts from Moria, long ago," Celeborn said, his face impassive as he answered the Dwarf. Gimli bowed in response.

"Then I am pleased my people were able to gift anything of beauty to a land so replete with it," he said, and Frerin whistled.

"Smooth talker, isn't he?"

"Oh, you have no idea," Thorin said, and watched Celeborn's face with some satisfaction as the Lord tried to find a fault in the elegant compliment.

Boromir received a golden belt from the Lady's hands, and his eyes rose to meet hers again. She smiled reassuringly, her hands rising to clasp his wrists. The Man swallowed hard, and fear and pain briefly flitted across his face. Then he bowed his head in thanks.

Legolas was next in line, and to him she presented a great longbow, taller and thicker than the bows of Mirkwood. "Is that Elf-hair?" Gimli hissed to him. "You said they were strung with Elf-hair."

"Indeed it is," Legolas said, testing the draw and nodding in satisfaction at the heavy pull. "Such carvings! My lady, I thank you. Nîn velui a lalaith veren nalú en-agovaded vín, Hril nín."

"The bow of the Galadhrim is well-suited for the great skill of our woodland kin," she said, smiling. "Namárië, Legolas Thranduilion. You will find your place, though it may be where you least expect it."

"Riddles," Thorin muttered. "I dislike riddles."

To Sam she gave a little box of grey wood, filled with soil so fine it seemed nearly mist. Thorin gave it a sceptical look, but noted that all three of the other Hobbits were looking upon Sam with envy. For his part, the gardener went red right to the tips of his pointed ears and stammered something utterly incomprehensible as he bowed as best he could. "What on earth is the point of that?" Frerin hissed.

"I am not sure," Thorin said, "but see how the other Hobbits react."

"Huh." Frerin scratched at his golden hair, blue eyes puzzled. "Hobbits are very enthusiastic about dirt, aren't they?"

I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my arm chair, and my garden.

"Very," Thorin murmured. "Gardens... are important."

Galadriel paused as she turned to Gimli, and her lips parted a little. "Ah," she said, as though to herself.

Then she smiled at Gimli. "And what Gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?"

"None, Lady," Gimli said, his chin lifting and his eyes shining with a kind of serene joy. "It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words."

Beside Thorin, Frerin's jaw dropped open.

"Smooth indeed, inùdoy," Thorin said, and he shook his head. "Your audacity will get you everywhere, son of Glóin!"

"Hear all ye Elves!" Galadriel cried, her face aglow and her arms open. "Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious! Yet surely, Gimli, you desire something that I could give you? Name it, I bid you!"

"You have already given me much, Lady," Gimli said softly.

"Yet your hands are empty," she countered.

"But my heart is full."

"Durin's beard," Frerin said faintly. "He speaks as prettily as a bard."

"The poet in him has slept too long, I think," said Thorin, folding his arms in satisfaction lest he burst with pride. He smiled at his star. "It must always come out again in some spectacular fashion."

"I would not have you depart as the only guest without a gift, Aulë's child," Galadriel said. "Come, name that which I could give you, and it is yours."

"There is nothing, Lady Galadriel," Gimli said, bowing low and stammering a little. The tips of his stubborn Durin ears reddened. "Only..."

Galadriel's smile widened. "Ah. Yes?"

Gimli's head turned back up to her, his braids falling before his brows. "Nothing – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine."

The intake of breath from the assembled Elves was very loud in the sudden silence.

"I do not ask for such a gift," said Gimli, faltering beneath the sudden scrutiny. "But you commanded me to name my desire."

Astonishment was written upon every face, and Celeborn looked upon Gimli with wonder. But Galadriel laughed, and her laugh was as pure and soaring as birdsong. "It is said that the skill of the Dwarves is in their hands rather than in their tongues," she said, "yet that is not true of Gimli. For none have made to me a request so bold and so courteous. And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak? But tell me, what would you do with such a gift?"

"Treasure it, Lady," said Gimli promptly, "in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall there be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house and a pledge of goodwill between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days."

"Yes, if your wild nephew does not eat it first!" Thorin said, and turned his eyes upwards. "Oh, my star, you have outdone yourself this time. Well, you are certainly a member of my family! You do not know when to stop either!"

Galadriel paused, and then she straightened. Her hand went to the long river of silver-and-gold that cascaded down her back, and then her slim white fingers began to unpick her braids.

"Meleth nín!" Celeborn said, taking a quick step forward. His eyes flashed.

Galadriel turned her unearthly gaze upon her husband, and he subsided reluctantly. Elves stirred and murmured in amazement as the tresses blew free in the wind, shining like mingled gold and mithril and silver in the morning light.

Gimli seemed unable to speak as the Lady cut three hairs from her head and laid them in his rough broad hand. His eyes fixed upon them as though he could hardly believe what he saw.

She folded his thick fingers over the hairs and bent before him. "These words shall go with the gift," she said. "I do not foretell, for all foretelling is in vain: On the one hand lies darkness, and on the other the slimmest of hopes. But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli Gloinul, that your hands will flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion."

The sudden surge of self-loathing was sharp and acid. Thorin sucked a breath in through his teeth.

"No, brother," Frerin said gently, and he nudged him. "No. Stop it. Remember what our mum said, yes?"

"I know, I know," Thorin managed, and then he raised his eyes to look upon Gimli. "Well then, perhaps the curse of our Line is truly broken."

Frerin smiled. "Perhaps."

Gimli was staring at the glowing strands in his hand in disbelief, and then he looked up again at the Elf-woman with joy radiating from his face. "Lady," was all he said, and he bowed low in Dwarvish fashion and with utter respect and gratitude.

She inclined her head, smiling. "Mahzirikhi zu gang ghukhil."

Gimli laughed in delight. "Aye. May all our paths take us to safe places."

"What," said Frerin blankly.

"She knows Khuzdul," Thorin groaned, and slid a hand roughly over his face. "Apparently she does not know enough to keep it to herself!"

"Well, to be fair, neither does Gimli," Frerin pointed out.

To Frodo she gave a phial filled with a silvery light, and then Galadriel bent to kiss the Ringbearer gently on the forehead. Despite their long rest in this peaceful land, Frodo appeared tired. He seemed far older, and his blue eyes were deeper and wiser than they had been. Some change was being wrought in this young Hobbit that Thorin could not understand.

"Bilbo will be sad," he said to himself. His Hobbit would weep. He could not bear that. "Bilbo should not be sad."

He leaned in close to Gimli's ear. "Gimli, do not forget Frodo," he murmured to his star as the Fellowship turned and made their way for the stairs again. Far, far below, a party of Elves waited to take them to the shallow inlet that led to the great river Anduin.

"Here, Frodo," Gimli said immediately, tipping his head to where the Ringbearer marched along behind Aragorn. "Can you believe it? I would never have believed, not in all the lives of Elves and Dwarves, that my request should be granted! Look! Are they not beautiful?"

"Very, Gimli!" Frodo smiled, and he watched the Dwarf's great thick fingers, capable of such power and strength, nimbly coil the hairs into a loose braid and tuck them inside a roll of fabric close to his heart. "It is a wondrous gift!"

"No more than yours!" Merry said. "I fancied I could see that little bottle shining without a single light glancing upon the glass!"

"I wonder what would happen if you drank it?" Pippin mused. Legolas choked, and then he threw his head back and laughed the silvery laugh of Elvenkind.

"I do not advise it," Aragorn said, his mouth curving into a smile. He touched the jewel at his throat. "Save your breath for the climb, my friends. We have a long road ahead, and there may be few places such as Lothlórien to rest in safety. I suggest we ration our strength for the great river."

"I am beginning to think that Gimli is right about you," Thorin muttered, looking up at the Man. Aragorn remained a mystery: a King of Men who ran from his Kingship but never from his duty, raised by Elves and beloved of an Elf, but a mortal nonetheless, a mighty warrior and a trueborn heir of Númenor hiding beneath the leathers of a Ranger and the ignoble name of 'Strider'. "You are far too grim and dour."

"That's rich, coming from you," said Frerin. Thorin ignored him.

It was not long before the Fellowship were packing bundles into the narrow boats used by the Galadhrim. Gimli eyed them dubiously. "They don't look very stable," he said.

"These boats are crafty and will not sink, no matter how heavily you lade them," said Haldir, who had accompanied them to the mooring-spot. "However, they are wayward if mishandled. I caution you to take care at first!"

Gimli looked doubtful, but Legolas smiled. "Come, mellon nín, I shall take the first turn at the oars. No doubt you shall find your sea-legs soon enough!"

"You may be waiting for some time," Gimli said, but he clambered gingerly into the narrow grey boat anyway, clutching the sides with his great hands. "Seems all right so far," he said to himself. "Ah, but the real test is Anduin! And how far away is she, I wonder?"

Gimli's name was spoken in a hushed voice behind him, and it sent Thorin's head whirling around to where Boromir helped Aragorn load the other two boats, their heads bent close. "I do not understand their wonder," Boromir was saying in a low voice. "Why should a gift of three hairs amaze them so?"

Aragorn smiled once more, and the expression sat more easily on his face than Thorin was expecting. "That is a long tale, and an old one."

"We have a little time here and now before the river beckons," Boromir said, and he laughed suddenly. "I have never seen an Elf amazed before. It was worth coming to this place simply for that!"

Aragorn chuckled. "It is not a regular occurrence, no. Well, in short, the Lady of this wood is of the Noldor, those Elves beloved of the craftsman and smith of the Valar, Aulë."

Thorin jerked back, and at his side Frerin whispered, "Mahal loved Elves? Was this before he loved us?"

"He loves us," Thorin said staunchly. "He gave us life. He gave me my Gift. No other Vala loves us but Mahal. He loves us!"

"The greatest and most skilled of that race was her uncle, Fëanor. A fire lived in him that could not be quenched, to the ruin of all," Aragorn continued, and his smile faded to be replaced by his customary grim look. "I will not speak more of those days and the horrors wrought by arrogance and vengeance, not under the trees of his exiled kin. Suffice to say, many sorrows came into the world through both his skill and his pride."

"What has this to do with Gimli's gift?" Boromir said, leaning against the lip of the grey boat and tilting his head.

"Ah." Aragorn's dark look softened a little. "Fëanor begged his niece for a strand of her hair three times, and three times she refused."

Boromir blinked. "Gimli does not know."

"No," Aragorn said, and his smile grew again. "He does not know that the gift refused to the mightiest of the Noldor has now been granted to a Dwarf. He does not know that the most skilled hands that have ever existed once yearned for that which he now holds. He will treasure those shining hairs for love of the giver, not for their beauty or use to him."

Boromir stared, and so did Thorin. "Ma mahdijn," he said, stunned.

"May we all find such joy in our lives," said Boromir gravely, and Aragorn nodded in agreement.

"We must leave all joy behind for a while, my brother, for now we leave Lothlórien," he said, and gestured to the boat in which Pippin and Merry sat, scrabbling amongst the supplies already. "Take care of our Brandybuck and our young Took upon the waters of Anduin, and I will lead with Frodo and Sam. I know these waters."

Boromir clapped his shoulder once, before moving to the two youngest Hobbits, who sat in the bow of the second of the boats, their heads close together. They looked up suddenly and guiltily as he approached, crumbs on their mouths. "I was hungry!" Pippin squeaked.

Boromir only laughed and tousled his curls, before clambering into the boat and pushing it from shore with the help of Haldir.

"I am beginning to realise why you love him so, Thorin," Frerin said, his voice hushed. "A single strand was refused to a Lord of Elves, and three were given to a Dwarf. Who could have predicted such a thing?"

"He doesn't know," said Thorin, and he moved back to where Gimli sat, gripping the edges of his boat with a look of extreme trepidation on his face as Legolas pushed them from the shore with his paddle. Taking the bench beside his star, Thorin shook his head and gazed at his face: his Durin brow, his Broadbeam nose, his strong cheekbones and stubborn mouth. "He has just received something extraordinary by virtue of who he is - through his honesty and humility and eloquence - and he doesn't even know."

"Ah, I have taken my worst wound at this parting!" Gimli said suddenly, and his hand unclenched from around the side of the boat and pressed against his wide chest where the lock lay coiled beneath his brigandine. "I have looked the last upon that which is fairest. Henceforward I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift to me."

Legolas dipped the paddle into the water and tilted his head in the strange birdlike manner he shared with his father. Thorin bristled to have the Elf's voice so close as he said, "No, do not say that! Gimli, I count you blessed, for you have found and lost, and your loss you suffer of your own free will. Only faithfulness keeps you on this watery road."

"Dwarves are not meant for boats, I tell you," he growled, and shook out his bright hair. "Yet as I told Master Elrond, faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens. Ach, why did I come on this quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Torment in the dark was the danger I feared, and it did not hold me back in the slightest. Nay, I leapt forward with my axe in my hands, nearly to my own death. But oh, the dangers of light and joy! They will cut me into ribbons where the orcs failed. My heart is all torn in two. And my lord, is he here with me?"

"I am here, Gimli," Thorin said, and clenched his hand tightly against his leg to stop himself from reaching for Gimli's wild braids. "I am here."

"He is here," Gimli said, and sighed gustily, relaxing heavily down into the boat.

"That is the King you saw in her mirror," Legolas said. It could have been a figment of Thorin's overtired, overstretched mind, but he seemed to see a flicker of apprehension in the Elf's eyes.

"Aye, my cousin and King," Gimli said. Then he sent Legolas an arch look from under his brows. "The one you threatened with your bow."

Legolas visibly winced.

"Uh-oh," Frerin said, and ducked.

"I offer him my most sincere apology," the Elf said in a stilted, halting voice. Then he made a loud and disbelieving sound in the back of his throat. "But how? How does a dead Dwarf follow you?"

Gimli's lips snapped into a thin white line. "You were there when I saw him and so I cannot pretend otherwise," he said slowly. "I have told you many secrets, for we are friends and comrades now and that is as it should be. Indeed, I may have been over-reckless, and spoken more than I should. But this I cannot tell you, for no Dwarf alive knows the mysteries. We know we go to the Halls of our Ancestors, and there we wait for the world that is to come. There, it is promised, we will finally be fully accepted amongst the Children of Ilúvatar. We will be wanted and needed and loved at long last, after all our days of walking apart. But what the Halls are, or where: this is not given to us to know. I do not know how my kin stay with me, and neither should I know, I suspect." He watched the banks of the river rushing away to either side of them. The singing of the Galadhrim faded into the background.

"You have indeed been reckless, my star," Thorin said, and wondered at what would become of him, this Dwarrow who received threefold the gift refused to a Lord of Elves in the dawn of time. "You have always been a little reckless. Your uncle is rehearsing some choice words for you." Suddenly the magnitude of what Gimli had received struck him all at once, and he burst out, "Oh, but I am proud of you!"

"Please, Legolas, you must not mention it to the others," Gimli said, his face deadly earnest. "This is one secret that should never have been spoken aloud. This is one step too far. Our accord is new indeed, but I know you will not betray me!"

Legolas' bright Elven eyes grew concerned, and he was silent as he stroked the paddle through the water several times. Then he said, "I will keep the secret, mellon, and no word of it shall pass my lips, not to any living creature, be they Elf, Man, or Wizard. You are now my friend, Gimli. I am honoured to hold your secrets, though I do not understand them."

"Thank you, Legolas," Gimli said, and his hand rose to touch the place over his heart where the lock was stowed once more. "I do not know how," Gimli repeated softly. "But I cannot help but be grateful."

Legolas paused, and then he smiled that faint Elven smile. "I am glad for you, my friend."

Gimli nodded, and then he smiled back. "My friend."



Chapter Text

The noise was deafening. The forge was crammed to the gills with Dwarrows, all shouting and growling and gesticulating. It was hot and steamy, what with so many bodies in the room. Hrera seemed quite put out, and she pursed her lips in disapproval at some of the language used.

At the forge door, yet more Dwarrows tried to crane around the bodies of Fíli, Kíli, Frerin and Óin, their curious eyes alighting on Thorin and fixing there.

It was disconcerting, to say the least. Thorin was no stranger to being the centre of attention, but now it was entirely different. Now he was not their King. His mother had of course mentioned that Frerin's mad dash through the Halls had set every tongue to waggling about the Quest and Gimli and Thorin's vigil. Yet he hadn't seen any evidence of the gossip during his enforced rest. Now – now he could see it. It was overwhelmingly obvious.

Thrór held up his hands, and the squabbling, gossiping Dwarrows settled down (but not before Bifur headbutted Nori quite hard). "All right," said Thrór wearily. "That's quite enough of that. Let's get to it, shall we?"

Thorin ignored the eyes that flickered to him as he stood and took the place at his grandfather's right. The surge of déjà vu was nearly overwhelming. How many years had he stood at his grandfather's right, little more than a pride-filled child, watching him settle dispute after dispute?

"Just a moment!" called Fíli, strain evident in his voice. "Wait up a moment, will you?"

"What is it now?"

"I can't get the damned door closed, is what!" he snapped back, and Thrór pinched the bridge of his nose and made an exasperated sound between his teeth.

"Right," said Nori flatly, and he turned and began to walk slowly for the door, opening one side of his coat as he did so and reaching within with his free hand. Every curious face in the doorway blanched at what they saw (Thorin idly wondered which weapon it was this time, the hook-pointed knives or the throwing darts) and Fíli was able to slam the door shut as they backed off.

"Thanks," he said, puffing. Beside him, Frerin groaned and leaned heavily against the door.

Nori closed his jerkin, and grinned broadly. "My distinct pleasure."

"Maybe now we can begin?" Thorin said, and he glanced at his father, who nodded back firmly.

"What's this all about, laddie?" Balin said, leaning forward and tipping his head.

Thorin took a breath. "It has... it has come to my attention that we are not approaching this problem in the most efficient way."

Óin choked, and then he began to chuckle helplessly. Thorin sent him a dark and dangerous look, but the healer was too far gone in mirth and could only wave a hand weakly for Thorin to continue.

"I cannot maintain my present state," Thorin said bluntly, irritated. "Events are moving swiftly, and if we are to assist Middle Earth in any way from this eternal place, we must be more coordinated."

"Ah," Balin said, and he leaned back, his face thoughtful. Then he squinted at Thorin. "Has this anything to do with all the rumours?"

"What do the rumours say?" Thorin countered.

Balin smiled. "That you watch the Fellowship day and night. That Gimli son of Glóin has reached out his hand in friendship to a traitor's son, and an Elf besides. That you fainted in the starlight of Gimlîn-zâram."

His grandfather's hand landed comfortingly on his shoulder, and Thorin steeled his jaw. "All true."

The room erupted into shouting again, and Thorin stepped forward, his eyes flashing. "Shazara!" he snarled, and the assembled Dwarrows settled once more with anger written across their faces.

"The rumours are but a part of it," said Frerin grimly. "There's more."

"More!" Óin massaged his brow. "It's bad enough so far. I shudder t' think!"

"Just you wait til you hear what your nephew's been up to," Frerin muttered, and Thorin sent his brother a quelling look as Óin flinched and slid down in his chair.

"We need to work out a plan," Thorin said, lifting his voice to carry to the back of the packed chamber. "We need to work out how to share information more effectively, how to use my Gift where it is needed, and how to reach each other swiftly. We have Dwarrows of skill amongst us. Balin, you have the most experience at such things. What do you advise?"

Balin hummed, nodding. "It's a fine idea, Thorin," he said, and then looked up at him from under his bushy brows. "And I'm sensing that it's not entirely yours."

"Never mind that," Thorin growled, determinedly keeping his gaze away from his father.

"Let's see. We'd need a regular conference," Balin mused, and he lifted a hand in an age-old motion that immediately had Ori diving for ink and paper. "We'd need runners, like in wartime. We should have designated teams for each division, an' they could report to a central intelligence..."

"You're suggesting there's such a thing as intelligence in this lot," Hrera said, rolling her eyes. Balin ignored her with supreme unconcern.

"I advise, lad, that we do not make you the focal point for all information," he said, and he held up a finger when Thorin opened his mouth to object. "No, you will have enough to do, leading us through these times. Someone else should receive information, sort through it, dispatch it to where it is needed, and give you the crucial points. You'd need someone canny, someone very intelligent and perceptive. Someone who understands what is important to you."

"Someone like me," said Frís, standing up. "I volunteer."

"Amad," Thorin said, stunned. Frís turned her gentle smile upon him.

"Hush, my son."

Thráin raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps now you'll believe me when I tell you we're here to help?"

Balin looked between them, before he made a gesture to Ori that had him scribbling quickly. Through his shock, Thorin remembered that the pair had worked nearly sixty years side-by-side in exactly this capacity. "Lady Frís shall be our central information source, then," he said, and clasped his hands in satisfaction. "A fine choice."

"All information should therefore be brought to me," she said, lifting her chin. Her deep blue eyes were hard with resolve.

That would work, Thorin thought dimly. That would work very well.

Frís stepped forward and cast her gaze over the nodding crowd. "I would like to put forward that Lord Balin here remain in the role he has so effortlessly resumed – that of Seneschal and First Advisor. All orders should come through him, if they are not from Thorin himself."

"Yes," Thorin heard himself say. Balin smiled.

"I never did get to serve you, my King, did I?"

"You never stopped," Thorin said, and gave a small smile in return. "And now I must prevail upon your loyalty again, my friend."

"Thought you'd never ask, laddie." Balin flicked his fingers to Ori, who grinned and wrote down Balin's name with a flourish.

"Seems Ori has himself a job, too," said Kíli, and Ori shrugged.

"Just like old times," he said, and Nori snorted.

"Here we go again. Moaning over split nibs, snapping at every Dwarrow over inks and paper. What've you done?"

"Now, the work itself," Thorin said, and he sighed. Thrór clasped his shoulder, his eyebrows rising significantly.

"First, zabadâl, we should share what we have. It will make no sense without context."

Hrera opened her mouth to protest, but Thrór shook his head sharply at her. It was the King under the Mountain, not her husband, who said, "Thorin, Crown Prince of Erebor. Report."

His heels snapped together, and his back straightened automatically. "Gimli and the Fellowship leave Lothlórien via the great river Anduin," he said. "The leader, the Man Aragorn, does not know which path to take when the river reaches Rauros-falls. Their company grows closer due to their great sorrow at losing Gandalf. The Ringbearer grows weary, and the Ring calls to Boromir of Gondor, who above all things fears for his people."

He took a deep breath, and Thráin softly said, "strength, my son."

Thorin fixed his eyes upon the torch-sconces upon the walls as he continued, the words feeling as though they were studded with glass and dragged out of him by pliers. "Gimli is well and hale. He has done the unthinkable, and befriended the Elf, Legolas son of Thranduil. He shares our secrets with the Elf, and they find ease in the other's company."

Óin made a horrified, defeated noise and covered his eyes. As though that was some pre-arranged signal, the room then exploded once more into shouting and squabbling, everyone talking at once. Those who supported the friendship between Gimli and the Elf were facing off against those who were against it - and Thorin could not help but notice that the 'for' camp was much smaller than the 'against' camp. Still, the 'for' camp were making up for lost numbers with sheer unadulterated noise.

"...your damned cousin, must get it from..."

"That Elf, he can't be trusted to keep faith with..."

"Gimli is a grown Dwarrow and can make his own..."

"Oh, and you expect a bloody weed-eater to keep the secrets of Dwarves..."

"Could change everything! It could heal the..."

"Nothing could change the way we..."

"Aye, and the slaughter of the Petty-Dwarves! Can that ever be..."

"But we have also..."

"That Elf is descended in direct line from Elves of Doriath, and yet he can see past..."

"Don't you dare bring up Doriath with me, boy!"

"Kulhu ma sakhizu ya izzûghizu, ma mahtadadizu ya 'agulhizu!"

"He's Thranduil's son!"

"They could bring peace between our..."

"One Dwarf, one Elf – bring peace! Balderdash!"

"Aye, and trees will walk around on legs next!"

"Madness, he cannot be serious..."

Thorin set his shoulders. This was getting them nowhere.

"That's my best friend! He wouldn't..."

"Aye, and your best friend is replacin' you with a tree-shagger now, isn't..."

"Say that again, and you'll be eating my axe next!"

"...spoke of Mahal, and he trusts him! He promised!"

"The promise of an Elf isn't worth the paper it's written on!"

"SHAZARA!" Thorin roared, and he was echoed by the booming voice of Thráin, the rumble of Fundin, and, surprisingly, the higher shout of Ori.

"This is getting us nowhere," the scribe said into the lull following the din. He glared at everyone crossly. "And if you think I'm writing down any of this drivel, think again!"

"Split nibs," Nori hissed urgently. "I warn ya, don't bloody annoy him!"

"We will agree to disagree," said Thorin curtly, fixing everyone with a hard stare. Many Dwarrows bristled, but some looked rather shame-faced at the ridiculous display. "The facts stand: Gimli Gloinul has befriended Legolas Thranduilion. You may not like it. I do not. But it is not our place to make choices for the living. All here may not be on the same side in this matter, but all here are most definitely on Gimli's side, and that should be kept in mind."

"That's not all, though," Frerin said, and then he shrank a little under Thorin's quick frown. "Um. Want me to tell them about the hair, nadadel?"

"I will tell it," he said, and he pressed his lips together and folded his arms. "I will have your word that no such childish bickering will follow this news. Am I understood?"

"Aye." "Sorry, uncle." "Aye, laddie." "Sorry, Thorin." "Won't happen again." "It might." "Shut up."

"Very well. The Elf-witch of the Golden wood made Gimli a gift," Thorin said, and his teeth clenched together, the muscles in the hinge of his jaw tensing. "A gift of three hairs from her head. I since have learned that this is no commonplace thing, and that he has made history by receiving them. A Dwarf has received that which was refused to a mighty Elf. Gimli does not know, but the Elves of Lothlórien thereafter looked upon him..." he paused, and carefully chose his words, "differently."

"An Elf-lord wanted her hair, long long ago," Frerin murmured. "But she said no."

"It was astonishment," Thorin remembered, his thoughts flying back to the slack, impassive faces of the Lórien Elves, the speechless wonder of Thranduil's son. "Through her gift and his eloquence they finally saw him as more than a Naug, but as a being of great feeling and nobility. They looked upon my kinsman with awe."

There was a hushed silence. Balin was flushed with pride in his cousin, and Óin slumped back in his seat again, his face dumbfounded.

"Might want to move onto other news," muttered Frís.

"Rivendell – Rivendell remains as it was," Thorin said, and then his throat abruptly closed and he sat down heavily upon the workbench. He knew his scowl was back, but he could not seem to shift it. His last visit with Bilbo was still too fresh.

"Well done," said Frís, and she patted his hand.

"Who was at Erebor last?" Gróin said (with rather compassionate timing, thought Thorin bleakly).

"Me," said Ori, raising his stylus.

"Actually, I think it was me," said another voice, and Thorin glanced up to see the honey-coloured head of Víli son of Vár move to the front of the crowd. His young, merry-faced brother-in-law looked sheepish. "I was there at dawn. Wanted to say good morning, you know."

Víli had never missed a single morning's visit to Dís, not in the one hundred and forty years since his death.

Fíli and Kíli gave their father a startled look, before they scooted forward with wide eyes. "What's going on? Is Mum all right?" demanded Fíli.

"Now, button up m'boys, your mother's fine," Víli said, and he rubbed at his ear with an awkward shrug. "I, er. Seems there's a bit o' tension under the Mountain this morning. Not everyone's happy that there are Elves in Erebor, especially Thranduil's people. There's a lot of talk about how he let us down, all those years ago, with the Dragon and everything. Dís is running herself ragged trying to keep the more... fanatical Dwarrows out of their path."

Ori winced. "They were happy enough to see them yesterday. The Stonehelm came riding up to the Gates with the Elves all behind him, and they all cheered and cheered and cheered."

"Some things are not easily forgotten," sighed Balin.

"The Stonehelm is back, and he actually convinced Thranduil?" said Thrór, frozen in shock.

"Aye, did a right proper job of it," said Bifur, nodding. "I saw the whole thing. He's a fine young Lord, that one: made his father proud."

"Erebor does not stand alone," said Fundin with a great exhale of relief. A few other Dwarrows nodded in approval, and Thrór closed his eyes and tipped back his great white head with a shudder of emotion.

"Thank the Maker," he breathed, echoed by Balin and Frerin.

"Do we know about the Dalefolk yet?" Thorin asked, looking around at the assembled Dwarves. There was some murmuring, but the general consensus seemed to be 'no'. "Then we will assume that King Brand still will not join in the struggle against Mordor," he sighed, and turned back to Víli. "Was there more?"

"Not really, no," Víli said, and he smiled ruefully. "I was a bit distracted. Usually am."

Thorin nodded once. "Thank you."

"Well, if there's going to be an Erebor watch," Víli began and he grinned his bright, impish grin, his cheeks dimpling. "Seein' as I'm already there and all..."

"We need teams, an' shifts," said Óin firmly, and Balin raised an eyebrow.

"Oh? How would you know?"

Óin snorted loudly. "Because I ran a hospital, y' daft ole coot. You want to know scheduling? You want to know how to run an efficient twenty-four hour detail? Go run a hospital."

"Óin makes a fair point," Thorin said. "What do you suggest?"

"You need a team o' Dwarrows that all know their roles," Óin said, ticking it off on his fingers. "Y' don't want anyone treadin' on anyone else's toes. One person in charge, that's important, otherwise you end up with every bugger thinkin' they're in charge and I don't need to tell you how much fun that would be. Different jobs fer different folk. Different areas, too, and different shifts. Then you make sure that everyone's got what they need to do the job."

"This is good," mumbled Ori, scribbling furiously. "Very good! So how do we choose our teams?"

"Well, I'll take care of Erebor in the mornings, obviously," said Víli.

"If it be the will of this Council..." said Thrór, his head tipping forward once more, "I will lead our Erebor contingent."

There was a grateful pause, and it was in that moment that Thorin recalled that his grandfather had once achieved feats of greatness. He had lost his whole family, save a brother, thanks to the ice-worm of the Grey Mountains, but it had not daunted him. He had recolonised the empty mountain of Erebor, amassed incredible wealth, and before the Dragon came he had reigned over a prosperous peace for over a century. Most Dwarrows remembered those days as golden and blessed, and even the songs of the Lake-Men of Esgaroth praised Thrór in glowing terms. There had been no mention of the gold-sickness, nor Azanulbizar.

Perhaps this was what his mother meant when she said that there was good to be learned from a life, as well as bad.

Many faces shone with respect. "Aye, Majesty," said the old warrior Náli, ducking his head.

"I will lead the watch upon the Fellowship," Thorin said, and then he held up his hand against the protests that began to fall from the lips of Fíli, Kíli, Frerin, and his parents. "No, I will not be the only watcher! I will abide by the schedule we create. But I will not relinquish my star to another's eyes."

Óin's eyebrows shot up nearly to his hairline. "His star?"

Kíli pulled a face. "Um. So Thorin gets obsessive, right? And Gimli's been a sort of safe place for nearly eighty years..."

"Enough, brother," whispered Fíli, tugging his sleeve. "You're getting the Glare of Doom."

"Oh. Tell you later, Óin."

"How will we know when we are to watch?" asked Lóni, still glowering at Fundin. The pair had nearly come to blows in the argument earlier.

"We will put the schedule up somewhere," Ori said, still writing furiously. "Somewhere everyone knows to look."

"My smithy door," Thorin offered, and a few nods greeted this.

"That's if the crowd out there ever move away from it," grumbled Gróin.

"I can have something drafted by tonight," Ori said, scratching at his head with the carved wooden grip of his pen. "Shouldn't be too hard. I'll pass around a sheet now, and everyone can write down which detail and which time they'd prefer. Don't waste my ink!"

Thrór nodded in approval, and Thorin met his mother's eyes. She was smiling.

"Jobs," Óin reminded them.

"Well, we have two detail leaders, and we'll need at least two more," said Balin thoughtfully. "Erebor, the Fellowship, the Elves, and the Men."

"Someone with some sense should make sure you lot know what you are doing," said Hrera imperiously, standing up.

Thrór smiled. "Aye, dear, you're just the Dwarrowdam."

"I could perhaps take the last, aye?" said Balin, and he shrugged. "I'm sure that if you can run one o' these and take on another role, then I can too. You know, this is a really very good idea. We shouldae done this long ago, instead of just turning up when you told us to."

Seven sets of eyes turned on Thorin to give him a deeply, deeply smug look. He mustered every ounce of dignity he had ever possessed (which was a great deal, as a matter of fact), and disregarded them with sublime indifference.

"Right," said Ori distractedly. "What else?"

"Runners, definitely, in case something happens in the waters and Thorin's Gift is needed while he is elsewhere," said Fundin, pulling at his beard in thought.

"Frerin," said Thorin immediately. His brother wrinkled his nose.

"Runner? Sounds dull. Why me?"

Thorin opened his mouth to say, 'you're the youngest,' but his mother interrupted him with a sharp look.

"Because you're the fastest, dear," said Frís, giving her younger son a pat on the shoulder. "Come now, cheer up. Your nephews should share that duty with you."

"What? Us?" Kíli blurted, but Fíli stood and drew himself up tall.

"We'll do it." He glanced over at Thorin. "Be proud to."

Thorin gave his nephews a grateful smile. "Thank you, namadul."

"Also, we'll need someone in each party to write down what has happened during each shift and give it to the Lady Frís," continued Ori, writing down the names of Frerin, Fíli and Kíli.

"Well, that rules me out," said Bifur wryly.

"And me," sighed Náli. "Never got the hang of it. Too fiddly."

It sometimes escaped Thorin that his privileged youth had given him skills he took entirely for granted, such as writing and reading. He carefully hid his surprise. The miner and the old warrior would not appreciate it in the slightest.

"Anyone?" Ori said, tapping his fingers against his paper. "All you'd need to do is let the Lady Frís know the most important details."

"I could do that," said Óin, tipping his head. "I'm a dab hand at reports. Got t' be, when you're-"

"—running a hospital," chimed in Frerin, Hrera, Frár, Fundin and Víli simultaneously. Óin folded his arms and glowered indiscriminately at everyone.

"I'll take it on, son," said Thráin, and he shrugged. "Better than bein' a runner."

Frerin scowled.

"I could make reports," said Frár in his quiet, deep voice, and he was echoed by Gróin.

"Now for the watchers themselves," said Thrór.

"How do you assign different jobs to watchers?" wondered Ori. "Do they watch different things?"

"Someone to watch big things, someone to watch little things?" suggested Lóni.

"No, no, no!" Nori sighed in exasperation. "That isn't how it's done. You gotta have someone rovin', moving about, scoping it out, and another one in a fixed place where all the action is happening. That way you get a better picture."

Ori was looking at his brother as though he was a vein of mithril. "Nori!"


"You can be our teacher! Our guide!"

"I can do what now?!"

"You know how to be sneaky better than any Dwarrow alive!" Ori said excitedly, and he leaned in to Nori and tugged insistently at his sleeve.

"But we're dead?" Kíli whispered, and Fíli hushed him.

"Don't go volunteerin' a bloke like that!" Nori wheezed, covering his eyes with his hand.

"You are perfect for this, though!" Ori said, his eyes going very round. Thorin frowned, and then he realised that Ori was trying to replicate the 'Hobbity Big Sad Eyes effect', as he called it. "Come on, Noriiiii..."

"Oh, don't, stop it, yer gonna break your face," Nori muttered, and he nodded reluctantly. "Must've lost my mind. Again."

"Will you teach us?"

Nori grimaced, and then he made a sign of assent. "Fine, yes. But I'd like t' make it known that this was done under brotherly duress."

"What is needed?" said Hrera.

"Two of my lads in each team, watching closely for every missed detail. They'll be able to help the report-makers after," Nori said in resignation. "I need fellows who can be patient, yes? Not you big-voiced hot-tempered impatient noble types."

"Bifur," Thorin said, remembering Thráin's words. His father folded his arms in satisfaction, his eyes glittering.

"Perfect," Nori said with a rather evil-looking smile.

"Aye, zabadâl belkul?" said Bifur, confused. Balin slapped his back.

"How would you like to be a spy?"

Bifur scratched at his scar, and then he shrugged agreement. "Right then," said Nori. "Who else?"

Hands around the room began to shoot up, and Thorin watched his people throw themselves into this new work with their usual gruff enthusiasm. Ori began writing as fast as his fingers could move, and Nori was standing and holding up his hands, shaking his head as the Lords Náin and Farin badgered him to be a part of the special detail. "This is going to work," said Thorin to himself.

"It surely is," said Thráin, clapping him on the back. "It surely is."


Thrór looked up from his careful enamelling. Like Thorin, Thrór would not touch gold nor mithril ever again. These days he contented the urge to create that ran through all Dwarves through other means and mediums. "Ah, the schedule is ready then?"

"Ori put it on my door not ten minutes ago," Thorin said, and he rubbed at the back of his neck.

Thrór gave him a pointed look, his bushy eyebrows lifting. "Ah. And you are not scheduled soon enough for your liking, is that it?"

"Yes." He saw no need to dissemble. "We begin tomorrow, but I would visit Bilbo and Gimli now, if I could."

Thrór sighed and sat up straight. His back clicked audibly, and he put a hand to it as he winced. "Well, I'll come get you at dinner. I will expect no argument from you, understood?"

It was galling to be spoken to in such a way, even by his grandfather and King. "I understand," he muttered.

Thrór's mouth quirked. "Ah, stung your pride, have I? Well, you've still got a thing or two to learn, m'lad. Off with you, then, you're wasting your own time."

Thorin inclined his head, not trusting himself to speak, and turned on his heel and strode from Thrór's forge directly for the Chamber of Sansûkhul.

The light was gentle this time, embracing him and tenderly bringing him to the gardens of Rivendell. Bilbo sat, nodding, upon a little bench that had obviously been cut down to Hobbit size. Thorin examined it critically, and sniffed. A purpose-built one would have served better. The seat was still too deep, and the back far too high, despite the shortened legs.

He crouched down before his Hobbit and took in his face, smoothed and lax in sleep. Bilbo's hands twitched in his slumber, and his mouth moved around the shapes of words. "Dreaming then, my treasure?" he said softly, and the desire to touch that wrinkled brow, to cup the wasted cheeks in his hands and softly kiss the old Burglar was nearly irresistible. "May they be sweet."

art by hobbitsoupbowl

A lowered voice caught his ear, and he turned to see the Lord Elrond speaking with the Elf who had greeted them, all those years ago. He could not recall the name. "His mind wanders," Elrond said.

"Yes," the elf sighed, and he glanced over at Bilbo. "When he is sharp, he is as sharp as he ever was. Yet sometimes he drifts into the past, and sometimes he loses track of names. I have read that it is a common complaint amongst mortals, that in their old age they may lose sight of the present."

Thorin's head whipped back to Bilbo, and his hands clenched into fists. "Do you drift, Bilbo?" he said, saddened and regretful. A pang threaded through his chest, lodging in his throat. Somehow he had never considered that particular danger of age. Not in Bilbo: not ever in Bilbo. His Hobbit was canny and witty, bright and clever, with a silver tongue and a ready pen, with words that dripped and danced from lips and hands. His Hobbit was imperious at times, and insightful, and had a memory like an oliphaunt. To think of Bilbo losing his dazzling words and his quick mind hurt like a wound.

"Stay with him, Lindir," said Elrond quietly. "Bilbo Baggins is still a great and worthy creature, no matter his state of mind. Make him comfortable, and do not allow others to show surprise or horror when he loses his train of thought."

Lindir nodded gravely, and Thorin growled like a wounded animal.

"No," he snarled, and closed his eyes. He would not stay. He would not stay to hear these Elves discuss his Hobbit's failing grasp on himself.

He could not bear it.

The stars of Gimlîn-zâram were even kinder with him as they bore him away, as if they knew how fragile he felt.

He opened his eyes, feeling the tremor of his heart beneath his breath. A great snaking expanse of water greeted him, blinding in the late afternoon sun, and he shaded his eyes to see two grey boats of Lothlórien moving along the surface before him. He stood in the bow of the third.

"Anduin," he murmured, and pushed any thought of Bilbo and age and loss from his mind. He could be sorrowful later. Gimli waited.

"I cannae get the hang o' this," his star growled disconsolately, and Thorin squinted to see Gimli wrestling with the too-long paddle. In the stern of the slender boat, the (damned) Elf sat with his hand covering his mouth. His narrow shoulders were shaking with laughter.

"You are using too much power," Legolas said after he had controlled himself, but the laughter was still present in his voice. "The boat is not heavy as stone, and does not need such effort! No wonder we spin in circles."

"Effort!" Gimli snorted, and blew at a lock of hair that had escaped from under his helm to hang in his eyes. "That was no effort at all! Do you mean to say I need to use even less than that?"

Legolas' smile fell into an expression of speculative confusion. "I thought..." he began, and then he shook his head. "Dwarves surely are a hardy people. I thought you must have been using your full strength."

"Hardly," Gimli said, a trifle smugly. "So, these things require a more delicate touch, do they? I can do that. Two strokes either side, wasn't it?"

"If the current allows, yes," Legolas said, and he watched as Gimli grasped the paddle again in his broad brown hands. "Perhaps if you held the paddle further up the handle...?"

"Do you jest with me?" Gimli said, cocking an eyebrow. "Comments on my height are neither welcome nor polite."

"I am sorry. I meant no offense," Legolas said carefully.

Thorin gritted his teeth, but forebore to comment.

Gimli suddenly grinned. "Unless they're funny."

Legolas laughed and shook his head. "I will bear it in mind."



On the River Anduin, by FlukeofFate (YorikoSakakibara)

Adjusting his grip, Gimli then stroked the paddle through the water with wary control. The boat began to move forward, and he let out a soft, 'ah!' of satisfaction. Then he plied the paddle upon the other side of the boat, and soon he was making some decent progress. "There," he said in satisfaction. "I believe I have found the trick of it."

Legolas was smiling. "Truly, you have skilled hands, Master Gimli. I have known Elves who have taken days to master this."

"Then they pay no attention," Gimli said, and he blew at the stubborn lock of hair again. "This floating leaf moves side to side with every stroke, and the weight shifts, and the trajectory. It is like allowing for the weight of a mine-cart as it moves around a corner, but the tunnel is a river and the weight is ours and not a load of iron-ore."

"Have you only ever mined iron, then?" Legolas asked, and the fascination he had previously shown was back upon his fair face.

"Aye," Gimli said, and made a noise of irritation as he swiped at the recalcitrant red hair, tucking it behind his round ear. "Though the mines of Erebor are far richer and finer than those old holes of Ered Luin. They had been worked out long before a Longbeard ever stepped into those ruins. Still, we did what we could. It kept most of us fed."

"Most?" The Elf's sharp ears picked up the nuance, and Gimli's lips pressed into a thin line.

"I do not think you need to hear about the hardships of my people after the dragon came," he said, his voice tight. "I feel we will stray into dangerous topics if we continue."

Legolas frowned, and then he sighed. "You are most likely correct," he said sadly.

"You should tell him, Gimli," Thorin snarled, and he glared at the Elf. "Tell the son of Thranduil what we lived through, thanks to his father's desertion."

Gimli's head jerked up. "Melhekhel," he said, a smile spreading over his face.

"He is back?" Legolas said, his eyes widening until the whites showed. He looked nervous, and swallowed in a most unElvish fashion. "Oh. That's... good."

"I wonder where you go, my Lord," Gimli said, and he gave two more strokes of the paddle, and then he shrugged. "I suspect it is not for me to know. I am glad you are back. Do you know, we approach the Argonath? I have heard tales of these great works of stone made by Men in the elder days, but I have never seen them."

"Nor have I," Thorin said, and he deliberately turned his back on the Elf and smiled upon his star. "You have a new skill, I see."

"It is unlikely a Dwarf will ever be called upon for boatcraft," Gimli laughed. "Still, it's not wholly unpleasant. Relaxing, really."

"I thought you were to be seasick," Thorin said archly. Gimli's presence was working its usual magic. He could feel the tension bleeding away from his mind, and his hands unclenched and relaxed upon his thighs. The sadness brought on by his brief stop at Rivendell was soothed, and the illusion of conversation with this Dwarrow made his heart lighter.

"I wouldn't be seasick on a little river such as this!" Gimli grumbled, and Legolas made an indistinct noise in his throat.

"It is so strange to hear you speak to the air as though it answers you," he said, shaking his head again. "Strange indeed!"

"Ach, an Elf calls a Dwarf strange? That is a rare joke," Gimli scoffed, his eyes twinkling. "And for your information, my kinsman does answer me. I know he does. I feel it, though I do not hear it with my ears."

"Such ears you have, I should have thought you could hear everything," Legolas murmured.

"I wouldn't be makin' fun of anyone's ears if I were you, pointy," Gimli said peaceably.


"That'll teach you to mock a Dwarf's height," Gimli said, and he grinned again.

"Pointy," Legolas said under his breath, scowling, and one of his hands surreptitiously crept up to finger the sharp tip of his ear.

"The trees are thinning on the eastern bank," Gimli said, nodding. "We draw nearer to the Emyn Muil."

Legolas left his ear, and drew his knees up. "Has Aragorn confided in you which way we turn once we reach Tol Brandir and Rauros-falls?"

"Nay, not yet," Gimli sighed. "I do not know what we will do. Mordor lies east, but Boromir will travel back to his own city no matter the path the Ring may take. I know Aragorn's heart longs for the sight of Minas Tirith. I heard him speaking of it to Boromir, back in Lórien."

"And I," Legolas said. "I did not know he had served in Gondor's armies."

"How many aliases does one Man need?" Gimli said, and he harrumphed. "A shame he has never served under his own name."

"I do not think he even knows which is his anymore," Legolas said sadly. "He is Aragorn to the Fellowship, Strider to the North, Thorongil in Rohan and Gondor, Elessar to the Lady Galadriel, and Estel to Lord Elrond. It must be difficult."

Gimli shrugged easily. "Like wearing a different jerkin," he said.

Legolas blinked, and then he turned his unnerving stare upon the Dwarf. "You say this as though you know what it is to bear another name," he said.

"Aye, I do, don't I?" Gimli carefully navigated an eddy and turned his gaze ahead, looking out over the expanse of the Great River. "Never you mind, lad. That's not for you to know."

"Are we not friends?" Legolas challenged. "Come, Gimli, tell me! Where and when did you assume this name?"

"At my birth," Gimli said shortly, and his eyes turned flinty. "And no, I will say no more."

Thorin groaned. "Finally, you learn some discretion, inùdoy."

"At your birth? Then is Gimli not your name?" Legolas seemed hurt, his chin lowering and his eyes skittering away.

"Gimli is my name, aye," the Dwarf said, and he sighed, his head dropping to his chest. "It is my use-name... my, we call them 'daylight-names' or 'sky-names'. My father chose it for me. I have another, deeper name, never to be spoken except to my One and my closest family; never to be said under an open sky; never to be written, not even on my tomb. I am sorry if I offended you. It is a..." his eyes searched the sky, "delicate subject amongst Dwarrows. None give their Dark-names lightly."

Legolas' lips parted in awe, and he gazed upon Gimli with fascination. "We had heard rumours that Dwarves had special names," he said. Gimli grunted.

"It is true."

Thorin let out a strangled shout of irritation. "Gimli! You mad red-headed fool! You just said you would tell him no more!"

"Ah, he is angered. You see? Delicate subject," Gimli said. "You do not know the curiosity of the Elves, Lord. He would have badgered me with his sad looks and impertinent questions until I had given him more than I have."

"I cannot decide whether I should be offended or no," Legolas said.

"Best not," Gimli said, his mouth twitching. Thorin could barely believe that the outrageous Dwarrow was in fact hiding a smile. "There's enough offense flying around here as it is."

"True," Legolas said mockingly. "But hardly surprising. You are a Dwarf, after all."

Gimli turned the paddle with a flick of his wrist, and an arc of water soared into the air to soak the Elf's head. Thorin could not stay angry at the sight of Legolas' pale hair plastered to his skull, his eyes blazing, while Gimli tipped his head back and laughed his hearty, booming laugh.

"Laugh now, Master Dwarf," said Legolas through gritted teeth. "I warn you, my revenge will be swift and merciless."

"Pfft, I'm all a-quiver," Gimli retorted, and his deep chuckles floated out over the water for the next ten minutes.

Thorin allowed the gentle motion of the boat wash his mind clear. The low sound of Gimli's laughter, the mutters of the Elf, even the swish of the paddle became dull and muted as he leaned back in the bow and let his thoughts wander. The sharp pang of grief that Rivendell had caused was still there. His heart still ached for his Bilbo, and it would not lessen any time soon. Yet the peace of this moment... Thorin had never appreciated peace in his life. He had never sought it out.

He was beginning to see the attraction.

Abruptly Legolas stood, his Elven eyes fixed on the sky. Gimli swore vociferously in Khuzdul as the boat rocked, and Thorin was jerked from his reverie.

"You crazy Elf, are you trying to send us both into the water!" Gimli barked.

"Do you see that?" Legolas said, his voice quick and high. His nostrils were pinched with sudden fear. "Do you see that dark shape in the sky?"

Gimli and Thorin turned, and Gimli made a rough sound. "I see nothing but sky and clouds. What is it?"

"That darkness..." Legolas said, and he quailed. His face seemed even paler with his golden hair slicked flat against his head. He unslung his bow and fitted an arrow with hands as quick as blinking.

Gimli scowled, and then he tipped his head up again, craning at the sky. Then he blanched.

"I see it," Thorin breathed.

"It feels so cold," Gimli said, his hands stilling on the paddle and his fingers tightening around the handle as though it were his axe. "So foul. Like the Balrog..."

Suddenly, the air rang with a high, piercing shriek. In the boat ahead, Frodo leaned forward, clutching at his shoulder and panting. Sam hovered, his face white and filled with dread.

"Tolo na," Legolas whispered. "Elbereth Gilthoniel!" And then he loosed the arrow with a motion so elegant it almost seemed as though he caressed the air.

The thin, high scream abruptly cut off, and the dark shape dropped from the sky.

Gimli let out a long gusty breath, shuddering. "That was a fine shot, laddie."

"But who can say what it hit?" Legolas remained standing, his far-sighted eyes still searching where the dark shape had fallen. "That scream! I have never heard such a cry."

"But Frodo has," Thorin said, and turned back to the young Hobbit. Sam was washing his face with river water, and Frodo had some colour back. The resilient Hobbit gently pushed his friend away and spoke quickly to Aragorn, who nodded, but Thorin was too far away to hear the answer.

"Do we stop?" Boromir shouted. "What was that thing?"

"We keep on! The current is swift and carries us away from it!" Aragorn shouted back.

"Frodo! Is Frodo all right?" Pippin said, leaning over the edge of his boat, his impish little face taut with worry.

"I'm well enough," Frodo said, and he rubbed at his shoulder. "Let's keep moving."

"What was it?" Boromir shouted again, and his face was full of concern for the Hobbits.

"I think – no, I will not say," Frodo said, and he turned away.

"Well, praised be the bow of Galadriel and the hand and eye of Legolas!" said Gimli, pulling off his helm and rubbing at his sweat-dotted brow. "That was no hunting eagle, that's for sure."

Legolas smiled. "Thank you, my friend."

"Now sit down before we both end up wet." Gimli picked up the paddle and gave the Elf an expectant look. Legolas paused, and a myriad of expressions flickered over his face: outrage, gratitude, amusement, bewilderment. Then he shook his head and laughed softly, before resuming his seat.

"Take us on, Gimli," he said, gesturing with one slim hand.

The current was indeed swift, and they made good progress for the next hour. Gimli and Legolas spoke but little. At one point Gimli began to sing an old mining tune about a Dwarrowdam and a wolf. The chorus was about how fine she looked in the winter in her wolf-skin stole.

"Your music is so deep and hearty, as though mighty rocks begin dancing and rolling," Legolas commented.

Gimli snorted. "It's a miner's song, lad. Not exactly courtly fare."

"I did not say I disliked it."

"Oh." Gimli frowned a moment, and then he picked up where he had left off, the paddle flashing through the surface of the great river.

When he had finished, Gimli grinned at the Elf. "Now you give us a tune, go on! It will make the journey faster and this tedious work lighter."

"I do not believe you would enjoy our songs."

"Ach, they can't all be about trees and stars and tragedy, can they?"

"What a fascinating observation to make," said Legolas dryly.

"True, though," Thorin grunted.

Gimli grinned. "Are you telling me there are no songs such as the smallfolk sing, not even in their cups?"

"I know a barrel-song," Legolas said, and his face was blank and cold and immobile once more.

"You dare," snarled Thorin. Gimli's grin faded, and an uncomfortable look crossed his face.

"Well, perhaps it's best not to then."

"Does your kinsman take umbrage?" Legolas said in a distant voice.

"Aye, and then some." Gimli rubbed his hand over his hair, glinting bright shades of ruby and gold and topaz in the sunlight. "Not the most diplomatic thing you could have said, lad."

Thorin folded his arms and sneered at the Elf. "You mock us, and straight to his face. How dare you, son of a traitor, you oath-breaker's spawn, child of a false ally! You profess to be his friend? Ha! You are not fit to wash his feet!"

"Peace!" Gimli boomed, and he pinched the bridge of his nose in his thick fingers and groaned loudly. "Ah me, this may get a trifle interesting, will it not? My lord, calm your anger. Legolas meant no offense. Legolas, I am not upset, no need to sit as stiffly as a spear! I would have peace in this boat between the living and the dead, or else I will swim for the shore and trudge alongside the bank, refusing all company. Aye, even yours, Thorin Oakenshield! Shout all you will, I would not answer."

Thorin's mouth snapped shut and his outrage froze in his breast. Gimli was ordering him? Threatening him?


"You have learned your lessons well," he muttered, and sat down beside the younger Dwarf. "To be ignored or banished from your side is the only threat which could have worked."

"Are you angered with me, Lord?" Gimli said quietly.

"No," Thorin sighed. "No, Gimli. I must respect that you have made a choice I dislike. Dislike! It is far too kind a word."

"I am glad you are not wroth," Gimli said, and tension drained from the set of his huge shoulders. "I have two friends here, and I would not have them bickering over my loyalties."

"Are you sure, Gimli?" Legolas said, and his coldness melted into anxiety. "I would sing you a song if I knew one that would not offend. But as you say, they are all trees and starlight... and tragedy."

"Well," Gimli said, and he stretched out his hands. "You can take the oars for a while, and I will have a pipe, and you can sing to me about trees or stars. No tragedy, though. We may see enough of that, before this business is done."

"You are no doubt correct," Legolas said, and moving slowly and carefully they swapped positions. Thorin found himself sitting beside the Elf for the span of a few seconds, before he sprang to his feet and stalked to crowd behind Gimli, glowering at the creature over Gimli's shoulder.

"Why do you feel the need to make time move faster?" Legolas said as he resumed paddling, his head cocked.

Gimli paused in packing his pipe. "Do you not do such a thing? When things are slow and tedious?"

The faint inscrutable frown of the Firstborn crossed Legolas' brow. "I do not understand."

"Well, do Elves ever get bored?"

"Yes," Legolas said. "Particularly with overly noisy Dwarves and their snoring."

"Cheek!" Gimli sat up straight, and then noticed that Legolas was laughing silently. "Oh, was that your revenge? I call that feeble."

"No, no, my revenge will be terrible, you will see," Legolas said, smiling. "To your question, however – it is difficult to explain. To Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream."

"Hmmph," Gimli said, and his straight brow drew together in thought. "So that's a no?"

Legolas chuckled. "It is a sometimes. Do Dwarves get bored?"

"Aye, often. Usually with Elvish pomposity."

"Oh, very clever," Legolas said mockingly.

"Thank you kindly, I liked it myself." Gimli bowed his head politely, and then lit his pipe. "A Dwarf is rarely bored. The work is never-ending, and beauty calls from every rock and stone and metal. When our hands are busy, we are happy. Still, sometimes the hands are busy doing something remarkably dull, and so songs are needed to make the work new again."

They rounded a bend in the river where the trees hung over the water like trailing fingers, and then the river opened out into a great basin. "Look!" Aragorn said, and he nodded before him.

Gimli looked up and breathed out a Khuzdul oath. A soft gasp of awe came from the Elf. Thorin turned and saw in the distance two great pillars of stone, like sheer pinnacles of towering rock, greyed and weathered by the Ages.

"Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!" Aragorn cried, and then it became clear: two mighty statues, huge human figures of legend, holding out their hands in a gesture of warning. Each frowned upon the North with noble brows and blurred eyes, the ancient work crumbling away. The silent wardens of the ancient kingdom still stood, guarding their land, mouldering in stone yet still possessed of great power and majesty. Thorin had never seen such huge works of stone before, and he gasped in astonishment and appreciation.

"Ukratel," he whispered and it was echoed by Gimli.

"Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old," he dimly heard Aragorn saying. Then the Man sighed and he bowed his head. "Would that Gandalf were here! How my heart yearns for Minas Anor and the walls of my own city! But whither now shall I go?"

"Do we take the portage way over upon Amon Hen?" called Boromir. In his boat, Pippin and Merry were staring up at the great statues with round eyes and comically gaping mouths.

"Yes," Aragorn replied, steeling his shoulders. Thorin frowned. Did the leader doubt his decision?

"We must leave the river before the current sweeps us past Tol Brandir and over those falls," Legolas said.

"The left bank is too sparsely covered, and enemies have dogged our steps these last few nights," said Aragorn. "Make for the Western bank. We will camp there tonight."

Boromir looked extremely pleased with this decision, and with a sinking heart Thorin remembered that his city lay to the west of the river, not the east. He would depart the Fellowship soon to be with his people.

"The Fellowship will miss such a doughty warrior," he murmured.

"Do we carry the boats?" Legolas asked as the roar of Rauros grew louder.

"That would not be easy, even if we were all Men," said Boromir.

"Yet such as we are, we will try it," said Aragorn.

"Aye, we will," said Gimli. "The legs of Men will lag on a rough road while a Dwarf goes on, be the burden twice his own weight, Master Boromir!"

"Thorin," came a new voice, and he turned to see his grandfather standing uneasily in the prow of the boat. "Come now, that's long enough."

He gave Gimli a regretful look. "I leave now, my star," he said, swallowing his pride and his resentment. "I will be back with you tomorrow."

"He leaves?" Gimli sat up straight, and as a result the arc of water that came curving out of the air splashed against his broad chest and not his head. His pipe fizzled as it was drenched, and Gimli looked down at it and then at the giggling Elf with a glower that spoke eloquently of axes.

"You will regret that, my friend," he said slowly and clearly, his teeth showing white between his moustache and beard.

"But I will enjoy it in the meanwhile," Legolas retorted, and he lifted his voice and began to sing merrily.

Chapter Text

Thorin awoke the next morning to a knock upon his door. He stretched, and to his mild surprise his body moved easily and without the lingering dull weight of exhaustion. In fact, he felt far better than he had for weeks. Perhaps there was something to his family's insistence he sleep more than three hours per night.

"Come in."

"Thorin?" It was Fíli, sticking his head around the door. "Everyone's assembling in the Chamber in half an hour. Erebor and Fellowship details this morning."

"Ah." Thorin brushed the hair that had come loose in the night back over the crown of his head, and then sat up. "And are you scheduled, namadul?"

"Yes, at Erebor," Fíli said. His nephew looked quite excited. "Kíli's green as emeralds: he's not scheduled until tomorrow."

Thorin smiled and swung his legs off his pallet, scratching idly at his stomach. "He'll survive, I'm sure."

"Interesting choice of words," said Fíli dryly.

"Hah." Thorin took up a tunic and pulled it over the sleep-pants he wore, before turning back to Fíli. "Do you look forward to seeing your mother, then?"

"Dad's going with me." Fíli leaned against the door-jamb. "Your hair looks a mess. Do you even own a comb?"

"Some of us do not care for fanciful and impractical braids, my unday," Thorin said haughtily. Fíli grinned.

"Sure, that's the reason. Well, I'll see you down at breakfast."

"Thank you, Fíli."

Fíli's grin broadened and he nodded, before he softly closed the door behind him.

Turning to his polished brass mirror (it had primroses and honeysuckle embossed around the edges, a piece of work that Thorin was rather proud of) he had to concede that perhaps Fíli had a point. His hair was nearly as mad as Bifur's. Picking up his comb, he sighed and began to attack the whole thick, unruly mass of it, cursing loudly when it snagged.

Most of his family were at the table when Thorin arrived, though Kíli was not present and neither was Thráin. Fíli lifted an amused eyebrow at Thorin's neat queue. "I see you managed to wrestle it into submission."

Thorin growled, and tousled Fíli's golden hair in revenge. Fíli beat him off with a noise of outrage, and Frerin choked out a laugh around a mouthful of broth.

"You look better today," Hrera said approvingly. "Good. Eat."

Thorin debated saying something, but in the end decided against it and held his tongue. His tyrannical grandmother would only find another way to say 'I told you so'. He took his seat and ignored the eager stares and the whispers that rose from every other Dwarrow in the Hall. "Where is Kíli?"

"Sleeping in," snorted Fíli. "He said that since he's not needed this morning, he's going to stay in bed as long as possible. I think he's trying to find out if it's possible for Dwarrows to hibernate."

Thorin grunted, and then he looked up at his mother. "Adad?"

"Oh, Mahal only knows," she said, shaking her head. "He tore from our quarters this morning. I think he has finally figured out how to fix the greaves he has been moaning about for the last fortnight."

It was with a jolt of surprise that Thorin realised he hadn't even known that his father was smithing a new suit of armour. He truly had been neglecting them. "Would he welcome another set of eyes?"

"Are you kidding?" Frerin said. "He brought them to Narvi to look at them."

Thorin's breath caught, and he coughed for a moment. "Narvi?" he said incredulously when he was able to speak. "And what did she say?"

"Not to waste her time," said Thráin's voice behind him, and his father sat heavily in his seat and scowled at his empty bowl. "Damned haughty craftsman. Just because she worked with Khelebrimbur..."

Thráin and Narvi, by christmashippo

"Now, now, let it pass, we've all heard it a hundred times or more," said Hrera, and she filled her son's bowl and then tapped his tattooed brow with a forefinger. "Stop glowering, my thundercloud. We begin our schedule today!"

"Aye," Thráin muttered, and he began to eat as though his broth had personally offended him.

"...don't understand why it has t' be my nephew that goes an' befriends bloody tree-shaggers!" came the sound of Óin's voice from somewhere to his right, and Thorin glanced over to see Haban supporting her son, a long-suffering look on her face. Óin weaved a little as he moaned, his balance shifting on his seat, and he was blubbering into a tankard. Gróin was face-down upon their table and snoring, and the unmistakable shape of Balin's curled shoes were protruding from underneath the other bench.

Fundin was seated across from them, nodding emphatically, his eyes unfocused. "Damn shame," he kept slurring. "Damn shame, s'what it is. A damn shame."

"Oh, yes, and there's that," sighed Frís. "Quite a few Dwarrows have been trying to cheer up your cousin. It hasn't produced the desired result, but by stone and steel they've certainly wasted a lot of ale in the attempt."

"Why did he do that?" Óin moaned, and he leaned even more heavily against his entirely unimpressed mother. She was holding a flask of water in her hand, and her face clearly showed that she was considering dumping it on his head rather than getting him to drink it. "He knows. Better! Taught him better than this. An'. An'. An' he goes an' tells all our secrets to a bloody Elf. Bloody Sonduil's Thran! He's been taught better. This is what comes of droppin' babbies on their heads. They make nicey-nicey with bloody Elves. Secrets. Y'know?"

"Damn shame," said Fundin owlishly.

Óin smacked the table with an open palm and then roared, "Well, an' why shouldn't he? Huh? Tell me that! He's a grown Dwarrow. So what if it's been tradition fer... fer, uh... fer a very-very-very long time. Could be good. Could be all part of a plan, aye? Make the weed-eaters think better of us. Make 'em treat us with respect."

"Damn," Fundin hiccupped loudly, and belatedly covered his mouth. "S'a damn shame."

"Gimli, Gimli," Óin groaned, and he rubbed his hands over his face. "Oh, my nephew, my wee badger, my fine azaghîth. What've you done? What've you done? Pray Mahal he knows what he is doin'. He could be the saving or the ruin of us – and damned if I know which it will be!"

"Damned shame."

"Aye," Óin said, and he sighed mournfully, before his eyes rolled up into his head. Slowly, ponderously, like a tree being felled, he slid backwards off his bench with a crash and began to snore loudly in the next breath.

"Thank Mahal for that," muttered Hrera. "Utterly disgraceful."

Frerin had covered his eyes and was gasping for air, and Fíli was snickering. Thorin hid a smile, and shared a look with his father.

"Perhaps my grandson has the right idea," Thráin said wearily. "I should have stayed in bed."

"Actually, Kíli will be disappointed he missed such a display," Thorin murmured.

"He'll be gutted," Fíli chuckled. "Ammunition for centuries."

"Óin is your cousin. Don't mock him," Frís said, giving their table a stern look. "He's unhappy, and he has a right to be. His method of dealing with his unhappiness may not be the wisest, but it is preferable to others I might name."

Thorin's eyes snapped back to his soup, and he scowled.

Frerin scooted closer to him and nudged his side with his elbow. "Cheer up, nadad, I'm with you today."

"They camp at the foot of Amon Hen," sighed Thorin, his mind flitting back to the Fellowship. He glanced up at his mother. "Who else is with us?"

"Bifur and Nori," she said. "And at Erebor your grandfather and your nephew are joined by Víli and Ori."

"Hmm." Thorin refocused on his food, wondering when he would be able to visit Bilbo again. A sharp pang raced through his heart, and he swallowed his broth with some difficulty. At his side, Frerin was watching him with worry in his eyes.

"I'm fine," he murmured.

"Oh Thorin, my brother. You're such a bad liar," Frerin said gently, and then he turned back to his own meal.

The others were waiting for them at the Chamber of Sansûkhul when Thorin, Thrór, Fíli and Frerin made their way through the mithril, diamond and pearl-studded gates. Thorin nodded to Bifur and Nori. "Baknd ghelekh," he greeted them, and Bifur grinned.

"I'm to stay with you, zabadel," he said cheerfully.

"I'll be comin' and goin'," said Nori. "Bifur's going to be our stationary watcher, and I'll be roving."

"Somehow this comes as a great surprise," said Fíli dryly. He glanced to Thorin as Thrór led the Erebor team away, and Thorin gave his nephew a smile in return.

"Well, let's get going!" exclaimed Bifur. "I want to see the wee melekûnh again."

"You're as bad as Ori," muttered Nori, and Thorin gave them a quelling look.

"Enough. We leave."

They took their places around the dark glasslike sheet that was the waters of Gimlîn-zâram, and Thorin stared and stared at the surface until the stars winked and swirled and came to take him away from the grey world of the Halls to the living light of Middle-Earth.

He blinked the starlight away and was greeted by the eaves of trees and the sound of singing. Turning, he spotted Aragorn humming under his breath as he skinned a rabbit with practised ease. Some few paces beyond, Gimli was lighting a small fire and Sam was unloading his pans and frowning over his little corked bottles of salts and spices.

"Wouldn't use these on a dog's dinner back at home," he muttered to himself. "They've gone a bit stale. I can hardly smell the rosemary any more."

"Never mind, Sam," said Pippin comfortingly. "I've seen rosemary about here and there. You'll pick up more."

Sam frowned, and then his eyes flickered to where Frodo sat bundled in his blanket, his eyes gazing thoughtfully into Gimli's merry fire. "Now, I don't know about that," he said slowly. "Seems to me there's going to be a lot less of everything from now on, since we're turning east an' all."

Frodo's eyes tightened, and he shifted in his blanket.

Thorin jerked his head to Nori, who nodded and began to circle the area, his eyes darting here and there. Bifur leaned himself up against a tree and settled down, and Thorin crouched down before the Ringbearer and studied his face. Frodo looked frightened, but also torn, as though he was trying to make some terrible, dreadful decision.

Behind him, Frerin hovered. "Is there something wrong with the Hobbit?"

"He hovers on the brink of something," Thorin murmured. "Something vast and awful."

"Poor little fellow."

Thorin stood. "You do not know Hobbits, and so you do not know how wrong you are. Hobbits are strong and true as steel. He will not falter."

Frerin wrinkled his nose. "If you say so."

Nori returned, satisfied. "The Elf is gathering firewood, though he does not break any branches and only takes those that are fallen already," he said, smirking. "And Boromir has made his way further up the hill to see if he can spy his city from the old watchtower."

"Ah. No sign of orcs or the servants of Saruman?"

"Nah, nuffin'."

"Good." Thorin turned to Gimli, who trudged over to the bank and pulled off his boots, dipping his feet into the shallow waters of the river. His short, broad arches were pale as milk, hidden from sunlight for so long. "Ach, that's better," Gimli groaned. "Dragging boats all over the wild is not my idea of a fine time."

"Abbad, nidoyel. Zûr zu?" he said, and Gimli's head lifted a few inches. Then he smiled broadly.

"I'm well enough, my lord. We have come over the portage way, and now we wait for Aragorn's decision: to turn to the south, or make for the east."

"Ugh, portage," said Frerin.

Boromir came back, his face troubled. "The view is as the legends tell it," he said, and his brow creased. "The darkness that surrounds my city grows ever blacker. I must go home, and soon. Every Captain of Gondor is needed, every sword and spear."

"Stay with us at least one night more, laddie," Gimli said. "For we would have our Fellowship while we may, aye?"

Boromir sighed and sat upon a mossy log. His hands fidgeted idly over the great horn he wore at his belt.

"We will stay here this night," said Aragorn, sitting back against a tree and laying his knife down. He looked out over the overgrown thickets, his eyes distant. "This was once the lawn of Parth Galen, a fair place in summers of old. We may yet hope that no evil will dare set foot here."

"Quite a long hope, if you ask me," Gimli said beneath his breath.

"No sign of our sneak?" said Sam, looking up as Aragorn passed him the skinned rabbit, and Aragorn shook his head.

"No, no sign. I had hoped to lose him on the river, but he is too clever a waterman. I have heard him several times."

Frodo shivered and drew his blanket closer.

Legolas returned, his arms full of dry branches, and he laid them down by the little blaze. Sam tutted and moved the bundles away by some distance before setting out all his cooking things. Watching him, Thorin was struck by the memory of Bilbo fussing over a campfire with Bofur and Bombur, his hands on his hips, scolding them soundly for 'ash in the soup and goodness only knows what else! If you can't be tidy, be elsewhere, please and thank you!' He smiled to himself.

"No sign of orcs, nor of Uruk-Hai," said Legolas after a pause. "But the trees move nervously, and they whisper to each other. I do not like this silence."

"Let us see what Sting may show," said Aragorn, turning to Frodo.

Frodo drew the little blade that had saved Thorin's life all those years ago, and to his dismay the edges gleamed dimly. "Not very near, and yet too near, it seems," Frodo said.

Aragorn ran a hand through his ragged hair, his sigh heavy. "The day is here at last: the day of choice which we have long delayed. Shall we turn west with Boromir and go to the wars of Gondor? Or do we turn east to the Shadow? Or do we break our Fellowship and go our separate ways? Whatever we do, it must be done soon. We cannot halt here for long."

There was a long silence in which no-one spoke or moved.

"Well, Frodo?" said Aragorn gently. "I fear the burden is laid upon you. Only your own way can you choose. I wish I could advise you, but I am not Gandalf, though I have tried to bear his part. Whatever your choice may be, we will abide by it."

Frodo remained silent for another long moment, and then he looked up. "I know I must choose quickly," he said slowly. "Yet I cannot choose. Give me an hour longer to decide. I will walk and think, and then I will speak."

"Very well," Aragorn said, looking at him kindly. "You will have an hour, and you shall be alone. We will stay here a while longer. But do not stray out of earshot!"

Frodo nodded, wordless, but did not move at once. Sam watched him as closely as a hawk for a moment, and he frowned sadly. "Plain as a pikestaff it is, but it's no good Sam Gamgee speaking up just now."

Frodo stood, and his eyes were fixed on some far-distant point as he walked away. Thorin watched him go with a sinking heart, and then he nodded to Nori. Nori nodded back, and slunk after him.

"Now we wait," sighed Aragorn.

Gimli dried his feet in the grass and pulled his heavy steel-bound boots back on, before slumping back against his pack. "I wonder which he will choose," he mused. "I do not envy him. Such a choice is weighty enough without the burden that accompanies it."

"He is debating which course is the most desperate, I think," said Aragorn heavily. "For they are all desperate, make no mistake. If we should go to Minas Tirith, there we could make a valiant stand. But the city is no closer to Mount Doom and the destruction of the burden than we are here, and how should we keep it there, secret and safe, when such a thing is beyond even Lord Elrond? And east: no. Since we are tracked by Gollum I think it safe to say that our journey is already betrayed."

"Now indeed we miss Gandalf most," said Gimli.

"Yes," said Legolas, and he tipped back his fair head and closed his eyes in sorrow. "Yes, we miss Gandalf all the more."

"Well, whatever he chooses, I shall follow him," said Gimli with a sharp nod of his head. "I have come so far, and I say this: now we have reached the last choice, it is clear that I cannot leave Frodo."

"And I too will go with him," said Legolas. "It would be faithless now to say farewell."

Gimli sent him a quirked smile. "Aye, it would."

"Well, Pippin and I have always intended to go wherever he went, and we still do," said Merry staunchly.

"The dear silly old Hobbit, he ought to know that he hasn't got to ask," Pippin added.

"Begging your pardon," said Sam. "I don't think it's that at all. He isn't hesitating about which way to go. Of course not! What's the good of Minas Tirith? To him, I mean, begging your pardon, Master Boromir." He turned to where Boromir had been, but the place was empty.

"Now that's odd," said Merry, frowning. "Where's he got to now?"

"He's been acting a mite strange lately, to my mind," Sam muttered, before he shook himself. "At any rate, he's off home after this, and no blame to him at all. But Mr. Frodo knows he's got to find these Cracks of Doom, if he can. But he's afraid to start."

"Thorin!" came a shout, and Nori came tearing out of the bushes, his eyes wild. "Thorin, come quickly! Boromir's gone an' turned into a nutter! I think the Ring's got him!"

"What!" Thorin stood, all his peace shattered.

Gimli sat up, a curse dropping from his lips.

"What is it, Gimli?" said Pippin curiously.

Legolas' eyebrows were high, but he did not betray any other sign that he knew what Gimli heard. "Do you hear something?" he said, his gaze pinning the Dwarrow to the spot.

"Aye," Gimli said, breathless. "Something."

"This will be the first time a Dwarf has heard what a Ranger cannot," Aragorn said mildly. "What is it, Gimli?"

"Not all," Nori panted. "That's not all. There's... orcs below the hill. Big ones."

"But it's daylight!" cried Bifur.

"Uruk-Hai," said Thorin grimly. "Gandalf warned us. Saruman's army."

"Orcs," said Gimli, and he met Legolas' eyes. "There are Orcs coming. Uruk-Hai."

"Nori, we find Frodo," Thorin snapped. "I leave the orcs to you, my star!" Then he turned back to Nori. "Now. Run!"

Nori sprang back to his feet and began to charge through the trees, weaving between the trunks. Thorin's boots pounded after him, and he could hear the harsh breathing of Bifur and Frerin behind him. "Just ahead!" Nori managed, and Thorin burst into the clearing to see the Man advancing upon the Hobbit.

"I ask only for the strength to defend my people," Boromir spat bitterly, and oh, the pain on his face. Thorin felt his heart constrict at that pain. He knew it so well, oh so well. "If you would but lend me the ring..."

"No!" Frodo said firmly, backing away. His feet shuffled nervously through the long grass, and his hand was on Sting.

"Why do you recoil?" said Boromir, taken aback. "I am no thief."

"You are not yourself," Frodo said, and he circled around warily, his gaze flitting across a gap in the trees.

Suddenly Boromir's pleasant, strong face was twisted by fury. "What chance do you think you have? They will find you, they will take the ring and you will beg for death before the end!"

Frodo stood still and stiff for a moment, his face pinched. Then he turned away to leave.

"Fool!" Boromir snarled, his eyes lighting with some hot cruel insanity. "It is not yours save by unhappy chance... it might have been mine. It should be mine. Give it to me!" And he leapt at the Hobbit and his greater weight pinned Frodo to the forest floor. His hands, strong and sure, that had defended them so many times, now scrabbled with curled fingers at Frodo's neck like claws.

"Give me the Ring," he hissed.

"No!" Frodo cried, and he kicked and fought like a wild thing.

"I cannot watch this," Thorin said through numb lips. Had he been thus, lost to madness and rage and despair? His hands, too, had closed around the neck of a Hobbit. "I cannot. I cannot."

"Where is Gimli?" said Bifur desperately, searching the clearing. "Did he not follow?"

"I.. I did not tell him to," said Thorin, and he lowered his head into his hands.

"No!" Frodo yelled, and then he vanished. Frerin bit off a shout of surprise and horror, his head turning this way and that.

"Where'd he go? Where'd he go?"

"The Ring," said Thorin through a throat as dry as a desert. "He has put it on."

"I see your mind!" Boromir bellowed into the air, his head swinging, his eyes aflame. "You will take the Ring to Sauron! You will betray us! You go to your death, and the death of us all!"

"He is a great Man, and a good one," Thorin said. His mouth was parched, and his eyes ached. "He is not this. He is not."

"Curse you! Curse all the Halflings!" Boromir hollered, and then he caught his foot on a stone and fell sprawling upon his face. For a while he lay as still as if his own curse had struck him down, and then his head lifted. His breath came shuddering through his lips, and his eyes were filled with tears.

"Frodo," he croaked, and his face was his own again. "What have I done...! Frodo, I'm sorry – a madness took me, but it has passed. Come back! Frodo, please..."

Thorin had to reach out to grasp Frerin's shoulder because his legs would no longer bear him. Boromir's voice was too familiar, horribly familiar. He knew that crippling guilt. He knew the taste of shame, dripping like lead from his mouth.

His brother's fingers suddenly dug painfully into the back of his hand, and he was spun to look into Frerin's angry blue eyes.

"If you are about to think in any way that what happened to you was your fault, any more than what happened to this Man was his fault, I will strike you so hard you will think you're swimming in Gimlîn-zâram for eternity," he growled. "You didn't ask to be sick, Thorin. He didn't ask to be sick either. Nobody asks to be sick. It wasn't your fault. Now get it together, nadadel."

With a shudder, Thorin nodded silently, and tried to block out the sound of Boromir's anguished cries for Frodo and forgiveness.

"Where has he gone?" said Bifur, his voice soft and filled with shock.

"I cannot say," Thorin said after a pause in which he collected himself as best he could. "We must find him. The Ring renders him invisible, but his shadow may be spied in full sunlight. Nori?"

Nori did not answer, but sped away in the direction of the waving grasses that covered the slopes of Amon Hen.

"Where now?" asked Bifur. He was gripping his beard tightly between his hands.

"Thorin!" Frerin said suddenly, panic ringing in his voice. "I hear blades over here! There are swords drawn!"

Thorin took a breath, and then another. Then he nodded sharply, and Frerin led the way back in the direction from which they had come.

"This is chaos," he growled, and shook his head to clear his stinging eyes. "This is madness. The Fellowship..."

"There! Sakhab!" Bifur shouted, and they veered to enter into a whirlwind of battle.

Gimli and Legolas were standing back to back, and Legolas' bow sang as Gimli's axe covered the sides. The orcs that faced them were tall and broad, with great heavy arms and snarling faces. They were far greater than any goblin-scum Thorin had ever seen, and he recoiled from the sight. Each was near the size of Azog himself, though they were dark where Azog was white. "Mahal save us," he breathed, his heart beating a rapid tattoo against his ribs.

"Mahal save them!" Frerin said, high and panicked, as a black arrow came perilously close to Gimli's leg only to be deflected by his spinning blade. "There must be forty or more!"

"The Hobbits," Thorin said, his eyes darting amidst the anarchy. "Where are the Hobbits?"

"No sign," Bifur said, and he pulled at his beard again. "And the Man is gone as well!"

"Perhaps Aragorn protects them," Frerin said, a forlorn hope flickering in his eyes.

"We can but pray it is so," said Thorin grimly, watching as Legolas dispatched yet another of the great orcs. "Ah! To your right, Gimli! A crossbow!"

Without breaking the smooth, whirling path of his spinning axe, Gimli drew Fíli's throwing axe from his belt and sent it in a smooth overhand throw to land in the skull of the crossbowman. Frerin squeaked and clapped his hand over his mouth. "This isn't exactly how I wanted to see him fight," he said weakly.

"Impressive though it is," Thorin agreed. "They will overcome here. I trust in Gimli's skills. We must find the Hobbits!"

"How? They're impossible to find when they don't want to be spotted, I remember that much!" Bifur said.

"Pippin will show himself," said Thorin after a moment. "He is more impulsive. Then Merry will emerge, for he will not stand idly by while his friends put themselves in danger."

"Where in Durin's name is Aragorn?!" Frerin said to himself in frustration, before he turned and sprinted away through the trees, his eyes peering through the branches.

Thorin fell behind somewhat – his younger brother was far smaller and lighter, and therefore more manouverable than he – and spotted a foot behind a tree. An unmistakable foot, large and topped with curly hair: a Hobbit's foot. "Frerin!" he roared as he slowed. "I have found one!"

"So have I!" Frerin's voice hollered back, unseen. "Two of them!"

"It's Sam," said Bifur, coming up behind Thorin and puffing. "Listen! He's muttering to himself."

Thorin bent to hear.

"Use your head, Sam Gamgee," Sam was saying, knocking his hands against his head and frowning mightily. "Your legs are too short, so use your head! Let me see now. Boromir went and followed Mister Frodo, that's certain. And now Mister Frodo has vanished, and not vanished in any ordinary way. Something scared him badly. He's worked himself up to the decision, all sudden-like. He's made up his mind at last – to go. Where to? Off East. Not without Sam? Yes, without even his Sam. That's hard, cruel hard!"

"Oh, brave gentle little thing," said Bifur, and Thorin shook his head, his pulse thundering in his ears.

"He may be a tiller of soil, but this one is not gentle. This one is a lion beneath his soft skin."

Sam passed his hand over his eyes, dashing away the tears. "Steady, Sam," he told himself firmly. "Think, if you can! He can't fly across rivers, and he can't jump waterfalls. He's got no gear. So he's got to get back to the boats. Back to the boats! Now, back to the boats like lightning!"

The gardener turned and bolted back down the hill, the pans on his back rattling alarmingly. Thorin held his breath, hoping against all hope that the sound brought no more of the great black orcs to investigate. To his relief, none appeared.

"Bifur, follow him," he said curtly. "See that he and Frodo do not come to harm."

Bifur nodded and ran off behind the fleeing Hobbit. Alone, Thorin pressed grimly on.

Fíli blinked. Erebor was so different to how he remembered it in life that even after eighty years he still sometimes marvelled at the change. Gone was the destruction and the squalor, the rotting fabrics and the crumbling stone, grand even in its ruin. Instead the halls and corridors gleamed and new tapestries (courtesy of Dori's hard efforts as head of the Guild of Weavers) covered the walls. Carvings swooped over the high vaulted roofs and clustered over the columns, their patterns beautiful and intricate, studded with jewels and precious metals.

And in the centre of all this splendour sat Dáin, looking old and tired.

Members of the court were assembled on the flanking tiers that overlooked the vast throne room's cavern with its criss-crossing catwalks. Many looked sour and angry, but there were faces Fíli recognised amongst them who did not look quite so resentful. Gimrís stood, her red hair gleaming, beside her mother Mizim, and Bofur hovered over their shoulders. His hat was askew and he looked suspiciously at the crowd, his normally cheery face hard and unsmiling.

Bombur's sedan was placed behind and to the left of the throne, and his children were clustered around it protectively. Alrís was gripping her husband's hand, and their eldest daughter, the famous musician Barís, was dressed in the traditional finery of a master performer, her sleeves and hair sweeping the floor and her eyes shaded by a low circlet of bright aquamarines. They were also threaded through her beard along with tinkling silver bells that rang as she spoke or sang.

Barís Crystaltongue, by notanightlight

Dori was standing with the heads of the Guilds, his High Guildmaster's chain about his shoulders, resplendent in red and with a rather ostentatious jewel clasping the midpoint of his beard. Ori was smiling at him proudly, and Fíli idly thought that that jewel would have disappeared in a matter of seconds, were Nori still around to see his brother so splendid.

Dwalin and Orla flanked the throne as always, looming fierce and broad, clad in their leathers and furs. The only concession Dwalin had made to his illustrious family was the gleam of silver at his ear. Otherwise he was as he ever was. Orla's dusky skin and great black sweep of hair made her eyes glitter white and dangerous from the shadows.

The Queen was absent, as was the Stonehelm.

With a burst of pride that nearly exploded his chest, Fíli's eyes landed on his mother, seated to the right of the throne in the place of the First Advisor. Her grey hair was caught up in a jewelled net, and her back was straight and proud. She leaned over and whispered to Dáin as Víli came up to stand by Fíli.

"Ah, she looks like a mine full o' diamonds, don't she?" he murmured.

"That she does," Fíli answered, his heart in his throat.

Dáin sighed, and then leaned back upon the throne, easing his metal foot out a little and shifting in his seat. "Send them in," he said, and his hearty voice was becoming rather cracked. Fíli glanced over at Thrór, who was regarding his cousin sadly.

"He's not long for this world, is he?" said Ori softly.

"He's done us proud, though," Thrór said, and his voice was harsh and unforgiving. "Done all as he should and more."

Sometimes, Fíli thought, his great-grandfather was filled with even more self-loathing than Thorin himself.

The great doors opened, and the Stonehelm entered. The blocky Dwarrow was at the head of a small procession of Elves, approximately twenty or so, all dressed in soft grey-green. Some had leaves woven into their hair, and Fíli wrinkled his nose. What was the point of dead greenery stuck in your hair? Leaves in a bedroll were itchy enough.

They were not wearing their bows. Normally there were no restrictions upon weapons in the throne room (Dáin rather liked them, in fact, and wanted to know all about them and their makers) but an Elven bow within shot of the King was too much, even for the most liberal of Dwarves.

The Stonehelm halted before the throne, and gave his father a slow, ceremonial bow for the benefit of the traditionalists of the court. He looked up, and Ori nodded approvingly.

"He's wearing the beads and braids of the Crown Prince," he said. "That'll make the older members of the Council happy."

"He doesn't like them?" Fíli had never actually had the chance to wear them.

Thrór grimaced. "They're heavy, and those bloody beads catch and pull at strands of your hair. I hated the damned things."


Dáin stood with some difficulty as his son said, "hail my father, Dáin the second of that name, of the Line of Durin, King of Erebor and the Iron..."

"Yes, yes," Dáin grunted, and he managed to get himself to his feet. "I know who I am, m'lad. You look well."

Thorin Stonehelm hid a smile. "I am, 'adad. Glad to be home."

"Glad you're home too, son." Dáin gave his son a quick grin, before turning to the Elves. The leader looked rather nonplussed at Dáin's sudden lapse in formality. "Welcome, my lords, to Erebor. We thank you with all our hearts for your aid in this dark time, against this the darkest of foes."

"King Dáin," the leading Elf said, stepping forward with a light, quick step and taking a graceful bow. "I am Laerophen, son of Thranduil."

Dís' eyebrows rose, but she did not comment. "We greet you, Laerophen Thranduilion of Eryn Lasgalen," said Dáin formally. Then he rubbed under his crown and added, "and we are bloody pleased to see you, pardon my language."

"Not all of your folk seemed so warmly disposed," said Laerophen, eyeing the tiers of muttering Dwarrows that lined the chamber.

"Aye, well, there are always folk like that," said Dáin. "Am I right in thinking you're the captain of this force?"

"You are." Laerophen inclined his head. "Three hundred strong are we, and all armed with longbow and sword and knives."

The whispering grew louder. "Only three hundred!" Fíli heard one exclaim. "It's barely anything!"

"They're Elves. Did you expect real help?"

"Aye, but an Elven archer is a real asset! Three hundred is a small force, but it may change the tide."

"You're a fool, and a blind fool t'boot. The old pale spider down in Mirkwood only sends us a token to hush us up!"

"He didn't have to send one, let alone three hundred!"

"We're grateful," said Dáin firmly, his voice carrying over the whispers. He stepped down from his throne and held his hand up to Laerophen, who regarded it warily. "Come now! If we are to work together, we must be better than our forebears. I'm but one old Dwarf, surely you can't be afeared of me?"

With cautious movements, Laerophen clasped the King's hand. "As you say, we are to work together."

The Elves behind the captain were wide-eyed and many of them appeared to be either disgusted or horrified.

"Now!" Dáin let Laerophen's hand go and clapped his own hands together. "Let me tell you what we know. Three times this messenger has given us his warnings. The next time we see him, it will be at the head of an army. We will bow to no dark power. Thorin, m'boy, come here, let me lean on you. My leg's playing up again, and I want to walk."

The Stonehelm came to help his father as Dáin began to pace, his foot clicking against the dark polished rock floors. Dáin put his hand on his son's shoulder and made a clucking noise between his teeth. "The Ravens tell us that darkness gathers in the north. From Mount Gundabad all manner of foul things are swarming south, and only Erebor stands in its way. They are not far off, though we cannot say when they will hit. Our best estimate is within the month, though it could be as little as two weeks."

"It is graver than you know," said Laerophen, his blue eyes cool and piercing. "Our forests are once more threatened from the south. From the burned-out fortress of Dol Guldur comes a dark and chilling reek, the likes of which we have not felt since Mithrandir felled it long ago. The spiders grow in numbers once more, and the trees huddle together and the wind speaks of their anger. Messages fly from Imladris and Lothlórien: the Shadow is growing stronger."

"Ach, this is evil news!" Dáin cried. "Then we are not the only land besieged?"

Laerophen shook his pale head. "No, indeed. The terror of Mordor begins to creep into all lands, and nowhere is there a place that is safe."

Dáin pulled at his beard in thought, his distress still upon his face. "We sent to Elrond of Rivendell for advice and counsel," he muttered. "We heard none of this. We are not privy to the plans of the Elves."

"Are you not?" Laerophen seemed surprised. "Then I have more news to give, though you may choose whether to find it dark or fair. Lord Elrond convened a council of all free peoples, and at that place a Fellowship of nine walkers was formed. They now guard Isildur's bane and have sworn themselves to the service of the bearer."

"Isildur's..." Thorin Stonehelm said, his eyes wide.

"You told my father that this messenger required news of the Perian, the Hobbit known to you in the years of the dragon."

"Yes?" The Stonehelm seemed confused. "Yes, I mentioned that. The enemy wants a little ring, the least of rings. But you don't mean to say..."

Laerophen nodded once, his graceful neck arching. "Did you not know what your fourteenth companion had picked up in the deeps of the Misty Mountains?"

The tiers of Dwarrows began to whisper and murmur, their faces paling sharply and their eyes wide and shocked. Over the rising din, Bofur let out a great choked sob of horror, and Gimrís was forced to hold up her husband as his knees quavered. "Our Bilbo? Wee Bilbo Baggins?" he breathed, his face white as chalk beneath his hat.

Bombur was moaning into his palms. "That little thing, that little gold ring 'e used," he wheezed. Barís and Alrís clapped him gently on his back as he struggled for breath.

"Breathe easy, dad," Barís soothed him. "Do you need your medicine?"

"I need to know what that Elf means!" Bombur snarled, and he pushed himself half out of his seat. His bad leg trembled beneath his great weight, and Alrís swore and braced him even as his sons moved to support him as well. "Speak plainly! Do you mean that the ring of legend, named Isildur's Bane in the old rhyme..."

Alrís, by aviva0017

"Came to the hand of Bilbo Baggins, yes." Laerophen gave a thin smile. "And he used it to spirit you from our fortress and to sneak under a dragon's nose."

"And now a council of free peoples moves to protect the Ringbearer," said Dáin. His hand had clamped down tightly on his son's thick shoulder in his shock, and his face had turned quite grey. "Who amongst our people walks with Bilbo Baggins?"

"It is not he who now bears the thing," Laerophen said. "It has passed to a kinsman of his, and they travel on a quest of great urgency and secrecy. The Lady Galadriel will say no more, and nor will Lord Elrond, lest it jeopardise their safety and success."

"Who went with them?" said Mizim in a dreadful voice, standing forward suddenly. "Who."

"Mum, it wasn't-" Gimrís gasped, and suddenly it was Bofur's turn to support her.

"My younger brother, Legolas," said Laerophen. "Two of the race of Men. Four Hobbits. Gandalf the Grey."

"The Wizard!" came the murmur from the tiers – most approving, though a few with some suspicion. Mizim stared the Elf down with her dark eyes.

"That is eight," she said in a voice of ice.

"I hear tell that the Dwarf who accompanied them is named Gimri, son of Glóin."

Gimrís gasped audibly, Dís clapped a hand over her mouth and Bofur sank back in dismay. Mizim swayed on the spot as though struck.

"Gimli," she rasped, and her eyes closed tightly as her breath hitched, her chest rising and falling rapidly. "If you are going to tell me such news of my son, you'd damned better get his name right!"

Laerophen's elegant face was expressionless and smooth, but his eyes softened. "My apologies, Lady. I will not forget."

"Mum!" Gimrís cried, reaching for Mizim. The older Dwarrowdam groped blindly for her daughter, and when she had grasped her she held onto her with all her strength. "Mum, shh. It's all right, shh. Gimli's going to be fine. He's far, far too annoying to get hurt, you'll see. He'll be here, he'll be fine. He'll be laughing and leaving his boots in the middle of the corridor and singing those songs of his day and night, driving you mad. Shhh. It's all right." Gimrís seemed to be trying to convince not only her mother, but herself as well. Her lovely face was blotched, the high colour evidence of tears that were ruthlessly held in check.

"My son," Mizim gasped, and she buried her face in her daughter's shoulder and shook.

"Oh no," said Víli softly. Fíli tore his eyes away from mother and daughter to see his own mother slowly rising from her seat at the dais, her eyes full of fear.

"We cannot thank you for this news," said Dís, her throat convulsing as she swallowed hard. "Gimli is dear to many here, and it is a hard thing to hear that he may be rushing into the very heart of this evil."

"I understand, First Advisor." The Elf bowed, and his luminous Elven eyes slid shut. "I take no umbrage against the promptings of grief. My younger brother is similarly engaged."

"Aye, you mentioned earlier, and so he is. The Lady meant no offense," said Dáin, and he carefully took hold of Dís' hand. "It is a shock to hear this, and not the best place either. Dís, cousin. Are you all right?"

She pressed her lips together, and then she shook her head. "I have lost too much, Dáin," she muttered to him. "I cannot do it again. I cannot. I cannot."

Fíli sent a helpless look over to where Thrór stood, his hands fisting in his great thick mane. "Dís," Thrór crooned beneath his breath, gazing upon the face of his only surviving descendant with guilt and sorrow. "Our little sparrow she was, with her sweet little voice and her dark hair."

Víli's smiles were gone and he was wringing his hands together, his face creased in worry and pain. "Oh, my lovely," he whispered gently. "Oh, my Dís, my darling, my steely sweetheart, my lark. It's all right: he's all right. You won't lose another, I promise!"

"Don't," said Fíli hoarsely. "Don't make promises you can't keep."

His father looked at him helplessly for a moment, and then his merry young face crumpled and he turned away.

"Gimli will do well," said Dáin, and he lowered his head and took a deep breath. "We will consider our kinsman later. Fear and worry can wait to be taken up again when there is time and privacy. For now, there is work. What is needed? You are quartered to your liking?"

Laerophen eyed the three Dwarrowdams with trepidation – rightly so, in Fíli's rather spiteful opinion. The bearer of such news to these three should truly fear for their skin. "It is rather darker than we are accustomed to, but it will serve," he said, and Ori rolled his eyes.

"You live in caves too," he snapped. "And at least our caves are bigger!"

Dwalin stepped forward, his tattooed head lifting. "Any general changes y' can think of, now you've had a chance to see the defences?" he said without preamble. The corner of Fíli's mouth twitched, and he shook his head sadly. Dwalin never did have any time for pleasantries. Especially not with Elves.

"The wall-sconces will need to be taller for our archers," Laerophen said, and a flash of distaste passed over his face. Ah, so he recognised Dwalin, then. The warrior's face reddened, his chest puffing up in outrage.

"That can happen," Dáin interrupted before Dwalin could open his mouth and smash any chance of working with the Elves altogether. "What else?"

"We have brought arrows, but more will be needed," the Elf continued, occasionally glancing at Dwalin with dislike.

"Ah, there I have some good news at last," Dáin said, and he squeezed Dís' hand comfortingly. "My wife's in charge of the armoury, and they've been churning out arrows for the last two months. I doubt we're going to run out any time soon."

Laerophen looked astonished – well, as much as any Elf ever looked astonished. "Then you were counting upon our agreement?"

"No," Dáin sighed, and he let Dís go to rub at his grizzled forehead. "Until your arrival we were convinced we stood alone. The arrows could have been used by our own archers, though no doubt not to the same effect."

A spark lit in the Elf's eyes. "You have archers?"

"We do," said Bombur proudly.

"Led by Bomfrís daughter of Alrís," confirmed Dáin. "As our bows are not as powerful, nor as long-ranging as yours, we thought it best perhaps to put our archers at the lowest sconces, and yours at the uppermost?"

Laerophen's brows rose. "Ah. Perhaps. Though it would be more effective to stagger the reaches, as that way you would be able to coordinate several waves of arrows."

"What do you mean?" snapped a new voice, and Bomfrís herself came storming out from amongst her many siblings. "We could coordinate waves from separate areas without mixing together. All you'd need is a loud fellow or two upon the walls. There'd be no need to mingle!"

Dáin gave her an exasperated look, and then gestured his hand at her in frustration. "May I make known the Lady Bomfrís."

She put her hands on her hips and scowled up at the Elf. "I want to know what you mean by coordinating waves," she said.

"It's your fault, you know," muttered Alrís. "Putting adventures in their heads."

"She's more like you than me," Bombur hissed back. "Don't you give me the blame!"

"If we were to simultaneously release a close volley and a long-range volley," Laerophen said, looking down at the young ginger-haired Dwarrowdam with faint surprise, "we would take out two enemy advances at once."

She hummed a little, her brows drawn together, before peering back up at him. "All right," she said grudgingly. "We'll talk."

"I'll talk," growled Orla. "You'll get back in line, Bomfrís."

She pursed her lips, but subsided.

Dáin shook his head wearily, before he motioned to the rest of his court. "We adjourn. Lord Laerophen, if you would please join us with those of your command you choose in the council rooms after lunch, we can begin a war-plan."

As the others began to move away, Dáin turned back to Dís. "Are you well, cousin?" he said gently, his old voice rasping around the words.

"I will not be well until I see him with my own eyes," she said harshly, and turned to where Gimrís and Mizim still stood in a tight embrace. "I have little else left in this world to keep me but him and his sister. I could not bear losing him."

Gimrís opened her arm from around her mother and said in a softer voice than Fíli had ever heard from her, "Aunt Dís."

She took a shuddering breath, before stepping into the embrace and holding on tightly. Dáin watched them with sad eyes for a moment, before he sighed deeply and squeezed his son's shoulder. "Well, lad. You certainly know how to cause a stir. Welcome home. Now let's go to luncheon."

Thorin was staring after the Elves, his mouth slightly open. "That..." he said weakly.

"Oh, not you too?" Dáin grumbled. "Yes, I know you worry for your cousin. I worry too. But there is an entire mountain-full of Dwarves here and now to worry over, and they all deserve..."

"No, not Gimli. I worry less for him than for anything that is unfortunate enough to cross his path," said the Stonehelm impatiently. "I mean Bomfrís."

Dáin blinked. "Bomfrís?"

"Aye," breathed the younger Dwarrow, a wistful look passing over his face. His blocky shoulders heaved as he let out a long breath. "Isn't it a lovely name?"

Dáin looked astounded.

Ori looked between the dreamy-faced Crown Prince and the flabbergasted King, and began to giggle weakly.

"I'm not sure this needs to go in a report," said Fíli in a faint voice.

"Frís'd get a kick out of it, though," Víli added, smiling, though his eyes were still tight with concern. He kept glancing over to where Dís stood, wrapped in the arms of Gimrís and Mizim. Bofur was biting his lip, his hat clutched in his wringing fingers, and the singer Barís hovered anxiously. She had been Gimrís' closest friend since childhood, and now she watched with worried expression as her best friend was comforted and gave comfort.

"Well, they know about the Quest now," said Thrór gloomily as the Stonehelm helped his father from the great vaulted chamber to the small King's antechamber behind the throne (chattering about Bomfrís eagerly the whole time). Thrór, Ori and Fíli followed closely, and Víli stayed behind with Dís.

"They know about the Ring," agreed Fíli, "but not about the plan to destroy it."

"That old rhyme has caused more harm than good," said Ori, frowning. "All anyone needs to do is say 'Isildur's Bane', and all of Arda knows what you are talking about."

"No Dwarf would betray Bilbo Baggins," said Fíli firmly. "It doesn't matter that they know about the Ring. The Enemy will never hear it from us."

"S'pose you're right," Ori mumbled.

"So. Elves in Erebor, huh?"

"Didn't think I'd see that again, to be honest," Thrór said as Dáin and the Stonehelm reached the antechamber door. "Thought it'd take... oh!"

For upon opening the door, four Dwarflings came tumbling out, spilling at Dáin's feet. There was some muffled cursing in a high voice, and then the tall lanky shape of Wee Thorin unfolded himself from the pile and froze, his eyes very wide.

"Your majesty," he quavered.

"Get off me, you great big galoot! You're standing on my braids! How am I supposed t-oh." Gimizh also froze, his hand pressed to his red hair and his mouth open and slack. "Oh no."

At that moment the smallest of the interlopers toddled towards the Stonehelm and peered up at him with curious and innocent eyes. Apparently he passed muster, because the little fellow said "up!" in an imperious voice and held out his hands.

"Who...?" said Prince Thorin, turning back to his father as he hefted the little one up into his arms. The child immediately began to investigate the Crown Prince's intricate braids, and tugged on them experimentally. He winced.

"Judging from the look upon the faces of these two, I'd say we're looking at this one's wee younger brothers. That's Dwalin's scowl if I ever saw it, and there's Orla's hair and colouring. The littlest one in your arms is Frerin, and this fine little fellow here who is poking at my ironfoot is Balin, am I right?" Dáin said to Wee Thorin, who gulped.


"Your father will not be pleased."


"Nor will your mother."

Wee Thorin's eyes squeezed shut. "Nossir."

"And I expect your father will be thrilled," said Dáin to Gimizh, who grinned unapologetically.


"Too bad he will leave the matter to your mother," Dáin continued, and Gimizh groaned.

"Please don't tell? We only wanted to see the Elves!"

"And did you?" said the Stonehelm, his cheek twitching. "Were they all you imagined?"

"They're all skinny and stretched out and shiny, and they don't have beards!" said Gimizh in a tone of fascinated disgust. Dáin laughed.

"No they don't, and I imagine it is a source of great pain for them."

The sons of Dwalin and Orla, by mandel21

"It won't happen again," muttered Wee Thorin. "Promise. Only please don't tell!"

"I'll make you a deal." Dáin's eyes twinkled. "I will keep the secret if you will do me a great favour in return. Go to the kitchens and fetch me back a platter for three, and make sure there's a jug of ale! Then go to the forges and ask for the Queen. Tell her it's about time we had ourselves a family meal. Got all that?"

Wee Thorin's face was clearing, and Gimizh nodded rapidly. "Yessir! Thank you, sir!"

"Now scoot," said the Prince, putting down the toddling Frerin, "and take this pair of sticky-fingered imps with you, and don't let us catch you here again!"

"You won't," said Wee Thorin, grabbing Balin as Gimizh took Frerin's little hand.

With a parting grin, Gimizh added, "catch us, that is!"

Ori watched the little tribe of troublemakers as they skittered away, and then turned to Fíli with a puzzled look. "So, how are that lot related to you and Kíli again?"

Thrór began to chuckle.

The only sound was the rasp of his breath in his lungs. The trees all looked the same. Alone, Thorin pushed through the trees, searching for someone, anyone. Chaos reigned. He span in circles, his mind doing likewise.

A horn-call rang through the trees, and then there was a mighty cry. "Thorin!" Frerin screamed, somewhere to his right.

He clenched his fists, and ran on. His thoughts were awhirl. Some madness seemed to have possessed the Fellowship, and they were scattered to the winds. He was of no use. His Gift was of no use. Gimli was the only one who could hear him, and he was beset by his own foes and could not help. Thorin gritted his teeth and kept running, following the long, urgent song of the Horn of Gondor.

Entering the glade where Frerin stood, he stopped in utter shock, as terrible as knives and as sudden as a blow.

The two missing Hobbits were found. Merry and Pippin stood dumbstruck in horror. Before them swayed the tall form of Boromir. A black-fletched arrow pierced his breast, and he was choking. Around him lay the bodies of at least twenty of the great orcs. Upon a small rise stood the most monstrous yet, his face smeared with white paint in the shape of a hand. His hands gripped an evil-looking longbow with short, strong limbs.

Boromir took great gasping breaths, his face white as death beneath his sweaty hair. Then he gave a pain-filled cry and swung his sword again, his parries sluggish.

"He cannot possibly keep fighting," Frerin sobbed, and Thorin grabbed his brother and held him tightly.

"Do not watch," he rasped.

"Damn you, I should watch, I'll watch," Frerin cried, his fist coming down upon Thorin's chest. "He deserves that much!"

As Boromir took out the orc before him, another arrow flew into his belly with an evil hissing slither. Thorin could not restrain his own cry, and watched in stricken, mute dismay as the mighty man was rocked backwards, his body failing him and his head dipping forward as he gulped at the air. Blood began to seep from the corner of his mouth.

"No, no, no, no, no," Frerin said, a whispered, horror-filled litany.

With a huge effort, Boromir lifted his sword again, but barely had he taken a swing when another black arrow pierced him in the chest. His sword fell from nerveless fingers, and he dropped heavily to his knees. His breath was a horrible, wheezing gurgle.

"NO!" Pippin howled, and raised his little sword. "Boromir! Boromir!"

He only ever wished to save his people, by injureddreams

Merry lifted his voice and his sword with his cousin's, but it was no use. The tall orcs scooped them up and bore them away as they kicked and screamed. Boromir's eyes followed them with hopelessness and shame flickering in their depths, his limbs too weak to move. He could only kneel, and fight for his last breath.

The great orc with the White Hand upon his face strode towards him with an almost casual nonchalance. Thorin glared at him through eyes blurred with tears and hatred as Frerin shuddered in his arms. The orc sneered down at Boromir for a second, and Thorin had never wished so hard for Orcrist, had never wished so hard for life.

The bow's arms bent, and the orc took aim at Boromir's head as he knelt, trembling and shaking, in the blood-soaked leaves.

"No," Frerin whimpered, and he finally turned his face away to bury it against Thorin's chest.

Abruptly the trees parted to reveal Aragorn, and Thorin cried aloud in shock and hope. "Where in Durin's name have you been!" he roared, and Frerin jerked away, swearing loudly.

"He's here, he's back!" he gabbled as Aragorn smashed his sword against the orc's black bow, sending the arrow harmlessly into the ground. Behind him, Nori came racing, his face red and his elaborate braids askew.

"Found him!" he puffed. "Took some doin', he's not a Ranger for nothing you kno- oh, sweet Maker below. Oh no." Nori's eyes landed on the trembling figure of Boromir.

"Yes," Thorin said grimly, and he steeled himself around his shrieking heart. Frerin watched the fight between Aragorn and the great orc with wide and frightened eyes. The orc pulled the knife from his shoulder and licked up the blade with a great foul slurp, his eyes locked upon Aragorn's and a vile smile curling his lips.

"It doesn't care at all if it is hurt," breathed Frerin, and his fists bunched suddenly. "I want my sword! I would wipe the whole of Arda clean of every orc in this moment!"

"Shh, nadadel," Thorin said hoarsely. "Shh."

"You must feel the same!" said Frerin, turning upon him with wild eyes. Thorin gripped his shoulders.

"I do, don't you think I do? But we may only watch. You told me that yourself, long ago."

"But he doesn't deserve it!" Frerin said furiously, "Boromir doesn't deserve such an end!" Then his eyes flickered with an old, dull pain. He let out a strangled noise and threw his arms as far as they would go around Thorin once more.

"Shh," Thorin said again, and looked up at where the orc grasped Aragorn's blade, sneering and growling in mockery as he pulled it into his body simply to bring the Man within reach. Aragorn's face paled, and he stepped back, whipping his blade from the orc's stomach and bringing it around in a lightning-fast circle to cut off the beast's head.

Silence fell upon the sun-dappled glade.

Aragorn lurched, his sword falling from his hands, and then he stumbled over to where Boromir swayed. He lunged in time to catch the Man of Gondor as he spilled back upon the carpet of leaves. He was even paler, his skin chalky. His breath rattled.

"They took the little ones," he managed through blue lips.

Aragorn tore away a strip of Boromir's once-fine tunic, pressing it against one of the many wounds that littered his body. The arrows stood out from his chest obscenely, and Nori shuddered violently.

"Poor bloke," he whispered.

"Frodo, where is Frodo," said Boromir, his breath hissing through his teeth.

Aragorn's shoulders drooped slightly before he answered in a quiet voice, "I let Frodo go."

"Then you did what I could not. I tried to take the Ring from him," Boromir said, and the self-loathing and utter shame in his voice pricked at Thorin like a swarm of stinging insects. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his face against Frerin's hair. "I am sorry. I have paid."

"The Ring is beyond our reach now," Aragorn said.

"Forgive me," Boromir pleaded, his voice broken. "I did not see." His head fell back into the leaves as his throat convulsed painfully, and his eyes were tormented. "I have failed you all."

Thorin could not swallow, and Frerin was a heavy, heavy weight in his arms. A hand settled upon his shoulder, and he wished he could turn to Nori, but his feet were lead and welded to the ground.

"No, Boromir," Aragorn said gently. "You fought bravely. You have kept your honour." He reached for Boromir's wounds again, but the Man beat him away with a feeble swipe.

"Leave it!" he said bitterly. "It is over! The world of Men will fall, and all will come to darkness... and my city to ruin." A look of anguish passed over his bloodless features.

"Tell him," Thorin growled suddenly, a fire igniting in his chest. "All he has ever wished for is to save his people. They suffer and die, and he watches helplessly. You – you who choose exile – you who could be their salvation! You cannot know how that feels, what it does to a heart. Tell him, damn you, or deny your blood forever! Do not let him die thinking his life and death were all in vain!"

Aragorn took a deep breath, before he said slowly, "I do not know what strength is in my blood. But I swear to you, I will not let the White City fall."

Boromir stared at him, an impossible light beginning to shine in his pain-ravaged face.

"Nor our people fail," Aragorn said in nearly a whisper.

The fire and tension drained from Thorin in a huge rushing flood, and he sagged against his brother. Nori's hand gripped his shoulder comfortingly. "Ayamuhud zu, Boromir," he said, and bowed his head. His eyelids felt heavy.

"Our people," Boromir said, and his lips trembled. "Our people."

Aragorn nodded once, and Thorin could suddenly see it. "The Lords of Gondor have returned," he murmured to himself, "The Lords of Gondor have returned." Then he bit his lip, hard as Boromir held out his quivering hand and Aragorn curled his fingers around the grip of his fallen sword. The dying Man pressed it against his chest and fought for his last, agonising breaths.

A soft sound of leaves moving from the other side of the clearing heralded the arrival of Gimli and the Elf, but Thorin could not take his eyes from Boromir. The bloodless blue lips were pulled into a wistful smile, the teeth stained with his life's blood.

"I would have followed you, my brother," said Boromir, looking up at Aragorn with a hopeless, helpless reverence. "My Captain."

His last breath juddered into his lungs, and he breathed, "My King."

Then the light faded from his eyes. His once-proud head rolled a little to the side.

Nori made a strangled rasping sound beneath his breath. Frerin shook with rage. Thorin turned away as Aragorn kissed the dead Man's brow as a King ought. He closed his eyes briefly, feeling the track of wetness seep down his cheek and roll into his beard. Inhaling slowly, he opened his eyes and searched out his star.

Gimli's face was horror-struck and slack with shock and disbelief. His axe swung loosely in hands made numb with new grief, and his dark eyes were glossy and wide, his lips parted and his breath coming fast. At his side, the Elf looked strangely confused, his head tilting as he looked upon the sorrowful scene. His face was a mixture of bewilderment and loss. As before, the Elf did not seem to know how to approach his own grief.

Aragorn stood, and let the tears fall from his eyes with no trace of self-consciousness. "They will look for his coming at the White Tower," he said softly. "But he will not return."

"The Hobbits?" cried Gimli. "Where are they? Where is Frodo?"

Legolas paused, and then he gave Aragorn a piercing look with his Elven eyes. "You mean not to follow them."

Aragorn bent and carefully folded Boromir's fingers closer around his sword's handle, before he stopped. Then he began to remove the Man's vambraces, a distant note in his voice as he replied, "Frodo's fate is no longer in our hands."

"Then it has all been in vain," Gimli said bitterly, and his face twisted in anger and sadness. "The Fellowship has failed."

"Not if we hold true to each other," Aragorn said, and he looked up, Boromir's vambraces in his hands. A new light, strong and fey and full of power, shone in his eyes. "We cannot abandon Merry and Pippin to torment and death."

"You had best hold true to your oaths to the dead," Thorin snarled, and Frerin looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes.

"Brother," he ventured tentatively, and Thorin shook his head roughly.

"You take up his cares now," he said to Aragorn, his heart aching. "You must not fail him. No more hiding in the shadows, Elendil's heir."

"We must tend the fallen," said Legolas, and even his light Elven voice was subdued and dulled. "We cannot leave him lying here amongst these foul orcs."

"We must be swift," Aragorn said, and he bound Boromir's vambraces around his own forearms with a firm tug. "Let us lay him in a boat with his weapons and those of his vanquished foes. The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil creature dishonours his bones."

Gimli cut several branches and lashed them together, and these became a rough bier upon which they carried their fallen friend down to the boats. The green lawn of Parth Galen seemed a different place altogether as they reached the burned-out fire and the remnants of their camp.

Bifur was standing at the riverbank, patiently watching the distant shore. He nodded to Thorin as they arrived, and then his face paled dramatically at the sight of the Elf, Man and Dwarf all carrying their body of their fallen comrade.

"There they go!" said Gimli, gesturing with one hand to the boat drawn up upon the far eastern side of the river. "May Mahal protect and guide them, and keep them from all danger."

Aragorn let his eyes linger on the two small forms that disappeared into the trees, and then he sighed soundlessly and turned back to the grim job at hand.

"Oh, unkhash, adùruth, nekhushel!" Bifur breathed at the sight of Boromir's rent and bloodied corpse.

"Aye," said Nori, bowing his head. "Not a fun way to go."

The last three members of the Fellowship laid him in one of the boats, and arranged his sword and his broken horn about him, the spears and swords of the orcs clustered beneath his prone form. He looked peaceful and restful at last, Thorin thought with towering resentment, and he wondered where Men departed to after they left the light of Arda.

Legolas knelt by the side of the boat and regarded Boromir's face with that mixture of grief and confusion once more. He lifted a cupped hand filled with river-water, and began to wash away the blood smeared upon the Man's cheek and brow. Aragorn stood still as stone, his head bowed. Then slowly he began to sing of the West Wind, asking for tidings of Boromir that would never come.

The blood and dirt had been cleaned from Boromir's skin, and Legolas stood as Aragorn stopped his song. His clear, light, unearthly Elvish voice rose in song, and he sang of the South Wind and the sea. Boromir would never come that way again; never ride to his white city with the Southerlies racing in his wake and stirring his hair.

Aragorn sang again, this time of the North Wind. It was a strange and eerie scene, thought Thorin. Elvish in the extreme, yet profound and mournful for all that. The songs reminded him of Lothlórien: the sorrow that mingled inescapably with beauty. As Aragorn trailed off, he touched a forefinger to the vambraces tied about his forearms.

Gimli was silent, his head bowed and his shoulders hunched as though he was warding off blows. "I will not sing of the East wind," he muttered.

"In Gondor, they do not ask the East Wind for tidings, as they are always evil," Aragorn answered dully. "We must leave."

"Namárië, Boromir," said Legolas softly, and together he and Aragorn gave the grey boat of the Galadhrim a gentle push, sending it into the current of Anduin.

Then the Elf turned back to allow his eyes to settle again on Gimli. Thorin's star was pale, his face drawn into lines of pain once more. His dark eyes were screwed shut.

"My friend," Legolas said, and he dropped to a crouch before the Dwarf, his expression open and full of sorrow and sympathy. "Here."

Gimli opened his eyes, and saw Legolas' slim white knife offered to him. He stared at it, unmoving, for a long moment, and then he took it in his great thick-fingered hands, his palm sliding over the hilt.

Legolas watched, utterly silent, as Gimli undid the plaits of his bright beard. His hand rose, the white knife glinting, and a swathe of red hair fell into the foaming white water as Boromir was carried away towards Rauros-falls, and Gondor.

Chapter Text

"Meeting," Thorin growled, grabbing the tunic of the next passing Dwarrow he saw and dragging him to his eye-level. "Now."

It was Lóni, he dimly saw through his rage. The tall Dwarrow gulped. "Um. Yes, Thorin. I'll just go get everyone, shall I?"

Thorin let him go and stalked through the Halls like an avenging spectre, his face thunderous. He could hear footsteps skittering to catch up with him, but he outpaced them. He headed directly for his forge, his heart in flames.

Upon entering, he leaned against his workbench for a moment, his breath coming hard through his nose. Boromir was dead. Boromir had died, and the evil and the temptation of the Ring had finally worn down his nobility, and he had attacked the Hobbit. He had regained himself, and then he had died.

Merry and Pippin were captured.

Frodo and Sam were going to Mordor alone.

Gimli stood with the Elf and Aragorn – Aragorn who had finally taken up his true mantle. Time would tell whether he kept his word to his dead companion. Boromir.

Frerin had said it was not his fault. He was ill.

"He should not have died!" Thorin growled, and he pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes and tried to strangle the shout of fury that was building in the pit of his belly. His darting eyes fell on his hammer, and he took it up and threw it against the wall. There. That was better.

Mahal, but that had made a mess. A huge hole now stood in the wall of his workshop, and Thorin stood and stared at it for a moment, panting and incandescent with rage.

The Elf's face had been confused and so grief-stricken. Did Elves feel grief as mortals did? Or was it even deeper and sharper, ever-fresh and raw, as their memories never faded? The Elf had said they fled Middle-Earth when it overwhelmed them at last. Thorin could well believe it now. Lothlórien was a land filled with glory and sorrow. Did they ever move on from that bittersweet, lingering sadness?

He had handed Gimli his knife. He showed respect for the traditions of their people.

"Elves do not alter themselves or their ways for the sake of Dwarves," he snarled to himself, and sat down upon his chair with his head in his hands. His eyes stung.

He could not say how long he had been sitting there, his head awhirl and his heart aflame, when a cleared throat made him look up. "I keep finding you like this," Kíli said in a muted voice. "I heard. Are you all right?"

Thorin breathed in sharply through his nose again, and stood. "No. I am not all right. But I have little time to indulge myself."

Kíli's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Wow, Mahal was right, you really are changing," he said. Then his eyes landed on the hole in the wall, and his mouth quirked in a crooked smile. "Or not, as the case may be."

Thorin only looked at him, level and hard and full of anger. Kíli lifted one shoulder awkwardly. "The meeting is called. It's in Thrór's forge, as before."

Thorin immediately strode from his workshop. Kíli rushed to follow, and he fell into step with his uncle as they made their way through the magnificent and yet faded world of the dead.

Where did Men go when they lost their mortal thread?

Thorin shook his head with a growl, willing his morbid thoughts to leave him. The Fellowship had broken. He must be strong.

Thrór's forge was packed once more, and every face turned to him as he entered. Voices raised in alarm, demanding and panicked.

Frerin hovered, his face drawn and pinched. His sadness lingered in his eyes. Thorin's rage froze in his breast, and he immediately went to him and pulled him into an embrace as the shouting and demands for information grew louder. "Are you all right?" he murmured against Frerin's hair.

"No," Frerin mumbled, and then their mother was there. She turned their heads towards her with her soft, sweet-smelling hands, and gave them a sad smile.

"My boys," she said softly. "Oh, my boys."

"Mum, the Man Boromir, he..." Frerin blurted, and she stroked his hair.

"I know, my bright golden boy, I know. Nori has reported."

"I have failed Bilbo," Thorin muttered. "Frodo is departing into the wilds, bound for Mordor, alone but for Sam. Gimli was to be my champion. I have failed my One."

"You have not," she said, and pulled his ear gently in the way she often did. "You did not. Thorin, Frodo has made a choice. Remember, what did I say to you about taking on responsibility for the choices of others?"

"That I do not need to take on the burdens that are others' to bear," Thorin said, and lowered his head. Her hand settled against his beard, her fingers combing lightly. "That no-one is strong enough for that." But they should be. By Mahal, I should be.

"Good," she praised him, her hand ceaseless upon his cheek and the braid by his ear. "Well remembered, my steely stormcloud."

Thorin let his eyes drift shut. He allowed the sound of the voices all shouting around him to fade into the background, burying them beneath the thundering of his rage. He allowed himself the luxury of a slow inhale, drawing strength for a moment from his brother and mother: from their familiar scents and the feel of their breath and the pulse of blood beneath their skin, warm and alive under his palms.

Then he opened his eyes, and clenched his jaw. Turning upon the crowd of hollering, panicking Dwarrows, he raised his hands. "SILENCE!" he bellowed, and glared at them all.

"Really, really don't push it right now," Kíli hissed to the crowd. "Really."

"You demand answers? Here they are. Boromir is dead," Thorin said curtly. "The Fellowship is broken."

Every Dwarrow's face drained of colour to be filled with horror and dejection.

"Ah, no!" Thrór breathed, and he bowed his head.

"Gaubdûkhimâ gagin yâkùlib Mahal," Balin murmured, and he put his hand against his chest in remembrance and respect.

"Was it – did the - the Ring?" asked Thráin with dread, and Thorin gave a short nod, his heart thundering in his ribs and his rage a near-palpable thing. A silence descended upon their gathering, and many heads lowered, eyes squeezing shut. Thráin's gaze dropped to his left hand, his eyes lingering upon his bare fingers with a remembered pain sparking in their dark depths.

Lóni began to hum the mourning-song, and beside him Frár took his hand and joined in. Fundin let his head fall into his hands, a muffled curse dropping from his lips. Thrór looked as if a single word could shatter him, his face twisted in old guilt and new sorrow.

"Now what do we do?" said Ori in a hushed voice.

Balin lifted his head, and his voice was distant. "All that work."

"We only got to have our schedule for one damned watch!" moaned Náli.

"We must adapt," Thorin said, his teeth snapping around the words. "We must create two more watches. Frodo and Sam travel to Mordor alone, and—"

He was able to get no further. Every Dwarf was abruptly on their feet, eyes wide and shouting. Óin was stamping his feet against the floor. "He was meant t' protect him!" he said, his beard bristling. "Gimli can't protect th' Hobbit when he isn't even near him!"

"Mordor is no place for a Hobbit!" said Balin firmly. "What in Mahal's name is that Aragorn thinking – or is he thinking at all!?"

"Frodo's decision," Thorin began, only to be interrupted by Nori.

"No, they're better off without the others. Hobbits are good sneakers! They'll be less likely to be spotted. Dunno if you've ever noticed it, but Gimli isn't exactly inconspicuous, and that damned Elf will stand out like a tourmaline amongst gravel."

"But Merry and Pippin," said Frerin unhappily, and Kíli started in surprise.

"Where are they?"

"They are captured," Thorin said. "The Uruks of Saruman have them. Gimli and his two companions mean to follow them and take them back."

"Two more rotations," muttered Ori, and he groaned.

"All right, everyone sit down," Thrór growled. "We have work to do."

"And we have no time," Thorin said tersely. "We must make this decision now, and quickly. I will remain with Gimli. Grandfather?"

"I stay at Erebor," said Thrór, nodding.

"I remain watching the Elves, and Balin stays with the Men?" said Hrera, "but we will need two more teams."

"I'll take one," said Fíli, standing.

Thorin's head snapped to his nephew, who was pale and stiff, but proud. "Fíli, unday..."

"I'll watch Frodo and Sam," he said, lifting his chin. "Uncle. I insist. I can do this."

His nephews had never had the opportunity for real leadership. Never had Fíli learned what it truly meant to be a Prince of the House of Durin. There were other Dwarrows here, Dwarf-lords and Kings and leaders used to command, who could take the watch.

But Fíli deserved a chance to take on the responsibilities of his birth. Thorin let the weight of his eyes settle upon Fíli a moment longer, and then nodded slowly. Fíli's eyes glowed with the light of challenge, but he said nothing.

"I'm going with him," said Kíli immediately, standing up next to his brother.

"Oh, like anyone really thought we'd be able to pry you apart," snorted Bifur. "O'course you are."

"It will not be a pleasant detail," Thorin warned them quietly. "Remember their destination."

Kíli swallowed, but Fíli nodded resolutely. "I'll do it," he said.

Frerin ducked his head, an envious look crossing his eyes. Ori muttered a curse under his breath, and began to scrawl all over his neat schedule with rapid flicks of his stylus.

Thráin tipped his head. "The last?"

"Merry and Pippin," Thorin said upon a gusty sigh. His rage was fading slowly, to be replaced by a terrible aching grief. "We may hope that this watch will not be needed for long. Gimli and his companions will catch them."

"Gimli doesn't have wings on his feet," said Nori dryly. "Those big bastards have a good head-start on 'em."

"We will need someone with speed," Thorin said. "A small team. Someone who can keep up with the pace the orcs are setting."

Frerin's head whipped up, and he opened his mouth. "No," Thorin told him.

He glowered, jealousy sparking in his blue eyes. He folded his arms. "And why not?"

"I would not send you from my side," Thorin said bluntly. "I need you with me, nadad."

Frerin blinked, before his face went slack and soft. "Um. All right," he mumbled, and then he slumped back in his seat, a dazed and wondering look on his face.

Ori tentatively put his stylus in the air. "You ought to remember how fast I can be," he said.

Frár nudged his husband, and Lóni pulled a face. "And I suppose I'm faster than most," he said reluctantly.

"Like old times," Ori told Lóni, and the tall Dwarrow's expression turned dark.

"Let's hope not."

Flói glanced at his comrades from the days of the colony of Khazad-dûm, and he shrugged. "I can move when I want to, I guess."

"Very well," Thorin said. "Take turns. Do not wear yourselves out all at once, and report back to the Lady Frís."

"Like a relay," Ori mumbled, and he scribbled down some more on his now-ruined schedule.

"I return to Gimli now," Thorin said to their gathering. He then sent his worried parents a look of acknowledgement, though it was tempered with a hard and steely resolve. He would not stay longer than he was required to, though the temptation was strong. "Who is by my side?"

"Me," Frerin said immediately.

"I am," said Óin.

"How's your head, by the way?" murmured Hrera, and Óin scowled furiously. There were deep black rings beneath his eyes.

"And me," said Náli, standing up.

Thorin nodded, and turned on his heel to stride from the room, and the clatter of boots behind him told him that his new companions were following.

Frerin ran up to his side, and pressed against him with his shoulder as they walked. "Thorin?"

"No, I am not all right, but I will be," he said flatly, answering the unspoken questions before Frerin could put voice to them. "Yes, I am sorry I cannot allow you to have a watch of your own."

Frerin frowned. "Can you at least tell me why not? Why do you need me with you?"

"You are the only one who has dared to speak of that time," Thorin said without slowing his pace or turning his head. "You are the only one who has spoken of the gold-madness to me. In eighty years, none have ever mustered the courage. All these decades I have thought of my sickness as my own fault. You, though." Thorin smiled grimly as ahead the pearl-encrusted doors of the Chamber of Sansûkhul came into view. "You said that my madness was not of my own making. I did not choose to be sick, and nor did Boromir. When my guilt flared once more at the cruelty and familiarity of his fate, it was you, my brother – half my weight and a head shorter than I – you threatened to strike me if I dared think such a thing ever again. I need you by me, nadadîth. When despair and anger threaten to drown my reason, I can still hear your voice."

Frerin was very quiet for a moment, his head dipping slightly. Then he looked up, and he was smiling tremulously. "You're welcome, Thorin."

Thorin laid his hand upon his brother's smaller shoulder and left it there for a long, wordless moment of gratitude. Anger and sorrow still buffeted him, but his determination had been reforged.

The stars were harsh and unforgiving this time. They stripped Thorin bare and seared his skin and scorched his eyes, and sent him spiralling into blackness. He blinked, breathing in the rich air of Arda, aching in soul and body. It barely made a difference. Darkness reigned either way.

"Is it night?" wondered Náli.

"Yes, the smallest hours," Thorin said, narrowing his eyes. "There!"

Three dark shapes were moving through the shadows, and Thorin jerked his head to his companions, indicating that they should follow. They followed over the grey and rocky terrain of the highlands of the Emyn Muil to where Aragorn crouched down upon the ground, his hand fossicking in the dirt and his face grim.

"What's he doing?" hissed Óin.

"Can you read the signs?" Gimli asked as he reached where Aragorn had stopped. The Man snorted softly.

"Gimli, even so inexperienced a woodsman as you could read these signs. This trail is clear to find."

"No other folk make such a trampling," said Legolas. "It seems it is their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way."

"Still, they move with great speed," Aragorn said, and stood.

"Well, let's get after them!" Gimli said. "Dwarves too can go swiftly, and they do not tire sooner than orcs. Still, they have quite a start on us."

"Yes, we will need all the endurance of Dwarves," said Aragorn, looking out over the rocky crevasses. "We must make this such a chase as shall be accounted a marvel among the Three Kindreds: Elves, Dwarves and Men alike. Forth the Three Hunters!"

Gimli bared his teeth in savage agreement, and Legolas sprang forward to take the lead. He took the barely-visible trail that snaked between the ridges, following the gullies and ravines with sure-footed fleetness. Aragorn ran behind him, his head darting this way and that, searching for signs of the uruks' passing. Gimli charged behind them grimly as though he could continue to run through solid rock.

"Running," Óin puffed. "This is going to get wearisome very fast."

"We can stop at any time, and we're not wearing full armour," Frerin pointed out. "Think how Gimli feels."

"He can run in full armour," Náli grunted as he pounded along, "I made sure o' that when I trained him."

"Save your breath," Thorin commanded.

"Aye, that was the key to it."

The night passed slowly, and several times Aragorn stopped them to read some sign or another. Occasionally he brought Gimli beside him to use his Dwarven night-vision. Slowly the sky changed from the deep velvet black of night to the steely thready light before dawn, and Aragorn called a halt once more.

"We will rest briefly," he said, and Gimli threw himself down and groaned. Even Legolas sagged in relief. "This dale runs down into the lands of the Horse-Lords."

"Which way will the orcs turn, do you think?" Legolas asked. "Northwards is the straighter road to Isengard."

"They will not make for the river," Aragorn said after a moment, his eyes gazing over the sweep of grassy rolling hills in the near distance, all stained purple and blue by the cool amorphous light. "They will avoid the Entwash if they can. Unless Rohan is now under the heel of Saruman, they will seek to spend as little time here as possible. Northwards is the shortest way."

"North it is," Gimli said, and pulled off his helmet to rub at his sweaty brow. "Thank Mahal for small mercies. At least we will not be running towards the sunrise!"

"I expect that would do no favours for your night-vision, mellon nin," smiled Legolas, before he sat down across from Gimli and raised his eyes to the fading stars.

Aragorn only allowed them an hour, and then they were on the move again. As they passed from the stony crags of the foothills of Emyn Muil, Legolas cried aloud, "see this? Here are some of those we hunt!"

Five bodies, etched in grey by the pale dawn, lay propped against a crag. "Orcs!" Gimli exclaimed, and he hefted his axe upon his back and picked up his pace to catch up with his faster companions.

Aragorn came close and peered at the fallen corpses, rent with wounds and torn asunder, frowning. "That is no Uruk-Hai," he said slowly. "That orc bears the Great Eye, not the White Hand. This is a Northern Orc."

"Ach!" Gimli spat, and he made a sign so filthy in Iglishmêk that Óin gasped in scandalised shock. "Foul things. They ever plague the northernmost surrounds of Erebor with their filth."

"Gimli!" Óin wheezed, horrified.

"I taught him that one, too," Náli murmured.

Frerin muffled a snicker.

"I think the enemy brought his own enemy with him," Aragorn said. He lifted his head and shaded his eyes, peering into the bright dawn light for any sign of the orc-party. "There must have been some quarrel. It is no uncommon thing, with these foul folk."

"Back to the hunt," said Legolas.

Thorin pressed ahead, trying to keep up with the three hunters, but only Frerin was swift enough to keep pace with the light-footed Elf and the long-legged Man. Gimli trailed behind, though he never faltered. As Thorin had seen before, Gimli's legs moved rhythmically and without pause, his heavy boots eating away with steady strides at the ground. He was not swift, but it seemed that he would never stop.

"I'm not good fer this," Óin groaned, putting a hand at his side.

"I expect you regret all those ales now, eh?" Frerin shouted back from his place at the lead, and Thorin's lips turned up the slightest amount, though he could spare no other effort. Óin didn't reply with words, but he did growl quite loudly.

"Do you see that?" Aragorn called, his hand gesturing to the South. A great range of mountains lay blushing rose in the morning light, their peaks capped with snow. "The White Mountains! There lies Gondor – would that I looked on it in a happier hour."

"So. There is Boromir's beloved home," said Gimli, his mouth curling into a bitter line. "He was so close."

"Losto vae, Boromir," Legolas murmured, and he closed his eyes and his proud neck arched as he turned his face away.

"Gondor, Gondor! Not yet does my road lie southward to your bright streams," Aragorn said to the crisp morning air, his lips tight and angry. His hand curled around the vambrace bound upon the opposite arm. Then he drew his eyes away from the south and back to the north-west where his way led.

"Thorin," said Frerin softly, and he turned to his brother as the Elf, Man and Dwarf sped on through the foothills of Emyn Muil down to the green swathe that was Rohan. "We can do no good here. Gimli will run whether we run beside him or not."

Glancing at the wheezing Óin and the red-faced Náli, Thorin gritted his teeth. "I will return as soon as permitted."

"No-one will stop you," said Náli wearily, wiping at his face. "I'm volunteerin' to watch Elves next time."

Óin made a pitiful little noise of agreement.

"Come on," Frerin said, and he took Thorin's arm.

Thorin closed his eyes.

Thorin slept, but did not stay abed long. Six hours after he had left Gimli he was awake once more and plunging back into the waters of Gimlîn-zâram. He swam into the light, searching for his star, and Rohan.

When he emerged, shaking and blinking, it was well into the day. Beside him, his father squinted up at the sun, half-hidden behind the clouds. Thorin gazed about him in surprise. The grey rock of Emyn Muil had been left some distance behind, and a rich rolling country surrounded him, swelling and falling like a great green sea of grass.

"How long have they run?" Thráin asked.

"This is the second day, and they have rested only briefly," Thorin answered absently. "Where – there."

"Legolas!" Aragorn called from behind the Elf. "What do your Elf-eyes see?"

The Elf was standing high upon a treeless rise, his unsettling Elven eyes piercing the sullen sky. "A great company on foot," he called, "but what kind of folk they are, I cannot say. They turn north-east. If it is the Uruks, they are taking the Hobbits to Isengard, as we thought."

"I can see nothing but miles an' miles of bloody Rohan," Gimli said, shaking his head. "In the light, Legolas, you do indeed have eyes."

Legolas smiled down at him, quick and bright.

"The day grows older," Aragorn said. "We have found a sign, the Elven brooch, and we know our pursuit is not in vain. Still, we should not waste the sun while we have it."

Gimli sighed, and gestured with one thick-fingered hand. "Lead on, lad. My legs would be more willing if my heart were not so heavy."

"We gain on them," Legolas said staunchly. "Gwaem!"

"Light feet may run swiftly here," Aragorn said. "More swiftly than iron-shod orcs."

Gimli looked down at his heavy steel-bound boots, and then gave Aragorn a sardonic look that spoke volumes. Legolas covered his smile with a hand.

"Come, let us go on," Aragorn said, and he led them in single file, running like hounds on a strong scent. The Man's long legs ate up the miles and Thorin thought again that it was no wonder the folk of the North called him Strider. The Elf seemed barely to touch the ground, as lithe as a deer, his feet passing fleet and soundless through the grass. Behind them came Gimli, as inexorable as the tides, his thick legs moving like pistons.

Thorin ran on after them, the heavy footfalls of his father following. "A sign?" Thráin managed to say.

"He mentioned an Elven brooch," Thorin answered, his brow furrowed and his gaze fixed upon the north. "The cloaks from Lothlórien are clasped with them. One of the Hobbits must have slipped it away, a clue for their pursuers to find. Let us hope he did not pay too dearly for his boldness."

On and on and on they ran, and Thorin shook the stinging sweat from his eyes and willed his legs to keep moving. The sun slipped through the sky, and still they raced over the fields as though all the wargs of Mordor rode at their heels. His father had to cease after five hours, his beard matted and his legs trembling. Gimli was beginning to look rather grey-faced, and his steps were growing heavier. "Strength, inùdoy," Thorin said, his chest burning.

Gimli's smile was very strained. "Idmi, zabadâl belkul. Just enjoying a brisk jog in the sunshine," he croaked, never pausing in his stride.

"Ha." Thorin looked up at the setting sun, passing behind the distant shapes of the Misty Mountains far to the west. "The light will fail in a matter of hours, my star. Do you run through another night?"

"Durin's beard, I hope not," Gimli grunted, and then he grimaced. "But the thought of those young merry folk captured by those... those..."

"Yes, I saw," Thorin said, and he fell silent as again his rage flared in his breast.

"Then you saw the fall of Boromir," Gimli said, and he lowered his head and hunched his shoulders like a bull as he ran on, his feet thudding unceasingly upon the soft grass. "Would that I had been there sooner! We have had an evil luck upon us these last few days."

"You could not have known," Thorin said, and he wiped at his brow once more. "Now, save your breath. These tall folk may outpace you, but you are a Dwarf and will outlast them."

"Doubt it," Gimli said. "I may go on long after Aragorn falters, but that Elf is the most tireless fellow I ever met. He barely needs sleep at all!"

Thorin scowled and bent his head anew to the chase.

Frár, Gróin and Frerin flickered into sight as the sun set, yawning. "Should have woken me," Frerin grumbled, falling into step.

Thorin had no breath with which to answer, following Gimli's broad back through the failing light.

Aragorn held up his hand as they crested another rise, the pink clouds deepening to purple as the sun finally sought its bed. He licked his dry and cracking lips to speak. "Now we come to a hard choice," he said once he had found his breath. "Do we go on while our will and strength hold, or do we rest through the night?"

"I can see no sign of the host from before," Legolas said, "though in this light perhaps Gimli is the better one to ask."

"I cannae see that distance, light or dark," Gimli said and shook his head. "Still, surely even Orcs must pause on the march?"

"Seldom do Orcs journey under the sun, and yet these have done so," Legolas pointed out. "Night is their preferred time. They will not stop."

"But we will miss any sign of the trail," Aragorn said, sighing. "We would not have found the brooch in the dark."

"Aye, and we will miss it if any tracks lead away," Gimli sighed, and rubbed his aching legs. "Even I, a Dwarf of many journeys and not the least hardy of my folk, cannot run all the way to Isengard without any pause. My heart burns me too, and I would have started sooner, but now should we not rest a while to run the better?"

"I said it was a hard choice," Aragorn said, pushing back his stringy hair made limp with sweat.

"You are our guide," Gimli said, "and you are skilled in the chase. You shall choose."

"My heart bids me go on," said Legolas, "but we must hold together. I will follow your counsel."

"You give the choice to an ill chooser," said Aragorn heavily. "Since we passed through the Argonath, all my decisions have gone amiss." He fell silent and turned his eyes northwards again, as though the strength of his will could part the gathering dark.

"The moon is shrouded tonight, and it is young and pale," he finally said. "It is most likely we would miss the trail or any sign of coming or going. We will take our rest, and may I not regret it as I have all my other choices of late."

Thorin's brows drew together, and he looked up at Aragorn with some surprise and concern. "It seems you are also in need of the advice my mother gave me," he said to the Man's careworn face. "You could not have known, Aragorn. You have no fault in any choice of Frodo's, nor in your movements since Boromir's death. Do not do as I do. Do not be a bearer of heavy burdens. No, instead be the beacon of hope. Be their King."

Frerin gave a half-gasp, half-choke and turned to him with wide and dumbfounded eyes. "Nadad."

Thorin sent him a sidelong glance. "Yes?"

Frerin only gaped at him, his mouth hanging open. "You... you...!"

Thorin lowered his head, and a faint, rueful smile crossed his lips. "I have learned my lessons well. Not quickly. But well."

"Would that the Lady gave us a light, such as she gave Frodo!" Gimli murmured. "We could keep going. Oh, poor wee Hobbits! Mukhuh Mahal bakhuz murukhzu."

Legolas looked fascinated by the use of Khuzdul again, and Gróin let his head drop into his hands and groaned loudly. "Damn you, grandson," he muttered into his palms. "No discretion at all!"

"The Lady gives no gift where it is not needed," Aragorn said. "With him lies the real Quest, and ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time. A vain pursuit from its beginning, maybe."

"Far too grim," Thorin grunted. "Give them heart; do not take it away!"

Gimli's mouth twitched beneath his handsome moustache. "Well, if we are to rest, let us begin that straight away! I am not ashamed to admit I could do with it."

Aragorn sighed and nodded. Then he cast himself upon the ground and fell at once into sleep, for he had not rested once since the night before their camp at Parth Galen.

Gimli groaned as he stretched out his legs, and he rubbed at his calves with his massive fingers. "I will warp like steel that is heated unevenly," he muttered.

"You will not," Legolas said, his steps as quick and light as ever as he came to crouch down before the Dwarf. "You have surprised me yet again, Master Gimli. I never thought a Dwarf could run so far or so fast."

"Far, I'll grant you," Gimli said dryly. "Fast is not one of my better-known traits, however."

"He's a sight faster than I am," said Frár, pressing a hand against his chest.

"And I," said Thorin. Gróin only whimpered.

"I'm faster than him," Frerin said proudly.

"Aye, that you are," Thorin said, and he cuffed his brother's ear affectionately. "But only because he is twice as broad as you."

Frerin scowled, and then he sighed gloomily. "Well, that's nothing new."

"Legolas?" said Gimli suddenly, pausing in his massage of his tense muscles. "Thank you for giving me your knife. You know. When I-"

"There is no need for thanks," Legolas said gently.

"I would still offer them," Gimli insisted, and the Elf smiled.

"Well, who am I to refuse them?"

Gimli chuckled tiredly. "Indeed, you should feel rather fortunate. That a Dwarf of the Line of Durin offers thanks to an Elf of Mirkwood for his acceptance of our mourning rituals? That is no common happenstance."

"I expect not," Legolas said, and a new and wary note had entered his voice. He sat down on the grass beside Gimli and tipped back his head to peer up at the clouded stars. "And... are you alone at this time?"

"No," Gimli said, and he grinned. "There is a Man sleeping over there, and a bothersome Elf beside me who asks impertinent questions and never lets a poor Dwarf have a moment's peace - ach!"

For at the last, Legolas snorted and poked Gimli's leg. The Dwarf's thick, dense muscles were too painful to stand it, and he let out a strangled yelp. "You bloody swine," Gimli growled, and then he flopped back onto the grass. "I am too tired for revenge. Know that it will be swift and merciless."

"I tremble in fear," Legolas smiled. "Are you alone, then, in truth? Do your kin follow our chase?"

"Aye, they do." Gimli yawned hugely. "I am beginning to feel the difference. Always there is my kinsman, the great Thorin Oakenshield. He is the one whose voice I hear in my heart, if not in my ears. Then there is a younger presence that I do not know. And then two more – one or more is family, I know that much, but from which branch I cannot say."

"Perceptive indeed, inùdoy," Thorin said, stunned.

"He knows I am here!" breathed Gróin. "But – he was so young when I died, barely past forty-!"

"He knows we're all here," said Frár, and his deep calm voice shook. "I must tell Lóni!"

"Even me!" Frerin squawked. "How?"

"Mahal only knows," Thorin said, breathless in awe and gratitude.

"Did you know him, in life?" Legolas said tentatively, and Gimli hummed a little.

"Aye, and no. He was a hero of my people after the Battle of Azanulbizar. He and Dáin were the two to turn the tide – Thorin at the field and Dáin at the gates. But victory aside, it was a disaster for us nonetheless. Near half my family was killed that day, long before I was born." Gimli rubbed at his ear, thinking. "He saved us. He brought us to Ered Luin. He gave us back Erebor. He gave us the chance to have our home and our pride again. A hero, as I said. Still, in my young memories I recall a rather severe, angry Dwarrow with sad eyes, and a deep voice. He was generally busy, and so when I tore about after his nephews I rarely ever saw him. He gave me my first axe, however." He smiled. "I still have it. It will go to my nephew, one day."

Legolas was looking worried.

"Oh, stop giving me that face, lad." Gimli yawned again. "Hero of my people or not, you are now my friend. He is my kinsman and he was my King, but he is not the author of my decisions. No Dwarf will lightly let another rule his fate."

"I imagine it is useless to try," Legolas said, relaxing.

"You have no idea," Thorin muttered.

Distaste welled in him as he found himself agreeing with an Elf. Legolas was beginning to confuse him. He showed such respect now. The two still stumbled, but it was never for long. Their initially tentative truce was developing into a deep and true friendship.

Thorin had seen another side to this Elf, and he distrusted his own conclusions. "I am watching him, Gimli," he growled suddenly. "Tell him. I remember his arrow, and the dungeon, and the sneer in his voice. I am watching him closely."

Gimli lifted his head from the grass. "I will say no such thing!" he said indignantly.

Frerin muffled a laugh with his arm, and Gróin shook his head. "Perhaps not the most diplomatic o' moves," he murmured.

"A pox on diplomacy! I want this Elf to know: I am watching. If he harms Gimli or abuses his trust, I will know." He glared at Legolas, and ignored the little nagging feeling at the back of his mind that told him he was acting the fool.

"Legolas would not do that," Gimli said, and he rolled his eyes. Then he turned to the Elf and said in a conversational tone, "he is a little irate. He still does not trust you."

Legolas' eyes grew remorseful, glittering in the darkness. "You were not there, my friend," he said. "He has cause."

Thorin paused, and the words that crowded upon his tongue remained unsaid in his sudden surprise.

Gróin looked impressed. "Well," he said. "Well!"

"The past is a dangerous place to visit," Gimli said indistinctly, his deep voice thick with sleep. "Still, at least when you are remembering the past there is no blasted running."

Legolas laughed softly beneath his breath. "You complain, but you keep on. Would that we were all doughty Dwarves, that we could run all night and day with mountains upon our back!"

"Now you're just mocking me," Gimli said, and yawned. "I ache all over: a mountain on my back might put me out of my misery. Legolas, my thoughts will not stop dwelling on the poor wee Hobbits. Take my mind away from their plight and my poor legs. Tell me of your family."

Legolas was silent a while, and then he said stiffly, "Did you just not say that the past was a perilous place to visit?"

"Mahal's bloody hammer, Elf, I don't mean that! Not everything in this world must come to the wrongs we have done to each other. I mean do you have any siblings? Your mother, what is she like? What is there that whiles away the endless centuries stuck with each other for company? Do they resemble you, or are they good-looking?"

Legolas jerked back in offended indignation, his cheeks mottling. Then he blinked, and laughed softly. "Is that your revenge?"

"Let it be a lesson to you," Gimli said peacefully, his dark eyes sliding shut. "Khazâd ai-mênu."

Legolas leaned back against upon his elbows, sinuous as a cat. "I have two elder brothers," he said, tipping his head in that birdlike Elven fashion and letting his eyes rove across the shadowy sea of grass below. "The eldest is Laindawar. He is very private and very proud – very like our father. He seldom leaves Eryn Lasgalen, as he dislikes the world beyond our halls and the eaves of our forest. Even Elves of other kindreds infuriate him at times."

Sons of Thranduil, by muse-ical

"Sounds a pleasant fellow."

"He has the silver hair of my father's people, and blue eyes. He resents the airs that others of the Eldar give themselves, and the way they look down upon the Sindar people. We had no Elven ring, true, but in ancient days one of our queens was a Maia, and we achieved long peace and great wisdom without ever seeing the light of Aman. Our history may be one that tells of suffering more than heroism, but it is no less noble than that of the Noldor or Vanyar. We are of the Eldar, not the Avari. They are not greater than us."

"He should speak to a Dwarf. I could give him an hours-long dissertation on why that attitude sets our teeth on edge."

Legolas shook his head, his lips quirking. "I doubt that is ever likely to occur. As I said, he rarely leaves our caves and trees. He would not suffer to be parted from our people for long, and especially not to hold discourse with a Dwarf, even one as splendid as Gimli son of Glóin. The old lies still hold him in their grip, my friend, and he has listened to them far longer than I have."

Gimli wrinkled his nose. "Well, it is his loss, then."

"And I shall tell him so," Legolas said, chuckling. "My second brother, Laerophen, is more cosmopolitan. You will not be surprised to hear that he has pale hair and blue eyes."

"I am absolutely flabbergasted, lad."

Legolas smiled into the darkness. "He is a great scholar, and has pored over the works of many different races. He is usually the one my father sends upon any diplomatic excursion. It was a great surprise to me that I was given leave to go to Rivendell."

"Glad it was you," Gimli said sleepily.

"As am I." Legolas' eyes dropped to his feet for a moment, and then he resumed. "Laerophen is well-read, but he is not accepting. He is convinced that the accounts of other nations and races only serve to highlight the superiority of Elves. Our languages, our runes, our ways. The Sindar invented the Cirth runes used by the Dwarves; Sindarin is now the language spoken by near-all the Elves in Middle-Earth, and many other races besides. He generally regards other peoples as primitive and benefitting from civilised Elven contact."

"You are not exactly giving me their good points here, Legolas."

"I suppose I am not, and so the picture is not whole," Legolas said thoughtfully. "They are both proud Elves, but they are kind. Laerophen is very clever, and Laindawar is a good listener. Laerophen's wit is sharp and he can be very amusing. Laindawar cares for our people with all his heart, and would do anything for them. For all their faults, they are my brothers and I love them. They were gentle with a foolish young Elf who cared for little other than his bow and his home."

"You speak as though they are far older than you."

"Yes. They were both full-grown when I was born."

"How old are you then, Legolas? No wait, don't tell me." Gimli rubbed at his eyes and rolled over onto his side to give the Elf an amused look. "Let me guess. A million years? Two million?"

Legolas burst out laughing, and then he muffled the sound with a quick glance at the sleeping form of Aragorn. "A little less than that," he said.

"You look well for your age, then. Perhaps it should be you who calls me 'lad'," Gimli said.

"Ah, but I would miss it if you stopped now," said Legolas. "Now, what else? My mother's name was Aelir. I do not remember her well, except her long golden hair."

Aelir, by muse-ical

"Oh, I'm sorry," Gimli said, his face falling. "She is dead, then?"

"Dead? No!" Legolas said. "She took the ship to Eldamar long ago. I do not recall why. My father will not speak of it, and nor will Laindawar. Laerophen once told me that the slow sickness creeping over the Greenwood caused her such sorrow that she could no longer be content in Arda. My father misses her dearly, but he will not leave his kingdom and his people to the mercies of the spiders and the evil in the southern reaches of our forests."

"That's a hard rock to hew. I am sorry, Legolas."

"It is the way of things," Legolas shrugged. "Have I satisfied that insatiable curiosity? Do you sleep now?"

"Aye, I will sleep, and be glad of it," Gimli said, and he put a hand to his back and arched until it clicked audibly. "Thank you for the distraction, and the tales. Ah! But my eyes are heavy!"

"It disturbs me that you must sleep with your eyes shut," Legolas said, shaking his head. "It is so unnatural. If it were not for your snoring I would think you dead!"

"Hush your lying mouth, I do not snore."

Thorin strangled the laugh in his throat.

"I will keep watch," Legolas said, and he put a hand upon Gimli's shoulder. "I do not tire in the same manner as mortals do."

"Wish I didn't," Gimli mumbled, and then he squinted up at the Elf. "Good night, Legolas."

"Good night, mellon nin. Elei velui."

Gimli pulled his Elven cloak close around himself, and then he wriggled slightly until he had found a comfortable position. Between one breath and the next, he fell into a deep slumber. The deep, slow sound of his snore began to rumble through the ground.

Legolas straightened, standing pale and tall in the moonlight. He glanced down at Gimli, and then he lifted his head and addressed the air. "You do not trust me, Thorin son of Thráin," he said clearly to the chill night, his breath steaming before him. "I learn more and more of you now, and I understand why. You do not trust easily. Nor do we. But for the sake of he who is our friend, I will try. Gimli will never be harmed by my hand, deed, or word. This I swear."

Thorin clenched his teeth, knowing the Elf could not hear his answer. "I will wait to see if your word proves true," he grated.

Legolas looked up at the sliver of moon. "We will no doubt be moving again before dawn," he said reflectively. "He would welcome your company again. He is worried for the little ones."

Frár narrowed his eyes. "For an Elf he's bloody considerate."

Thorin didn't quite know what to believe. The Elf had respected their traditions, and in a manner that gave them equal footing to his own. The Elf was careful to acknowledge the historic imbalance between them, but did not let it affect their burgeoning friendship. And yet this was still Thranduil's son: still the Elf who had sighted down his arrow at Thorin, lost and hungry, and had threatened his life with cold nonchalance.

He chewed upon his lip for a few moments, but his thoughts were sluggish with exhaustion. He let out a great breath of frustration and decided to set it aside until the morning. He looked back at his companions. "We will depart and return."

Frerin crossed his arms and gave Thorin a considering look. "You trust him?"

"No," Thorin snarled, and then he grimaced. "I do not know, nadad."

"Well, I think Gimli has the right idea," said Gróin. "I need to sleep. My legs won't carry me any further!"

Frís pulled Thorin aside after he had reported the (few) events of his watches. (How many times could a Dwarrow say the word 'run'?)

"Thorin, Ori has been through, but not Fíli and Kíli," she said. "Merry and Pippin are being carried by the orcs to Isengard, as you suspected. It seems the White Wizard has commanded that the Halflings be taken to him alive and unspoiled. He thinks they have the Ring."

"Merry and Pippin?" Thorin muttered under his breath. "This is ill news. Then they are alive? Are they hurt?"

"Merry is wounded, but he will recover," she said, her eyes serious as they bored into his. "Pippin is well enough. Flói thinks he has managed to slip his bonds without the orcs noticing. It was he who cast the brooch away."

Thorin's eyebrows lifted. "Clever. Pippin surprises me."

Frís smiled crookedly. "He is a Took - like your beloved."

Thorin's chin lowered. "That he is. Tooks exist to surprise me, it seems."

Frís' hand smoothed over his brow, and she pressed her head against his briefly. "Sleep, inùdoy. Rise again tomorrow."

Thorin heaved a soundless sigh, and dragged his weary feet back to his chamber. He didn't bother getting undressed or even with removing his boots, but immediately collapsed onto his pallet and dropped into slumber between one thought and the next.

He rose before the dawn and woke his brother. Nori was with them, and Fundin. Thorin found himself envying his young brother, who moved easily and without the stiffness that he carried.

"I ache all over, and I cannot believe that you do not," he muttered.

Frerin gave him an arch look. "Gamilûn Thorin."

He snorted. "Mind your manners then, youngster."

"Not sure how much use I'll be with all the running," confessed Fundin, pulling at his beard. "Not exactly my forte."

"I'll have to tell Gróin he won your wager then," said Nori slyly. Fundin straightened abruptly.

"You'll do no such thing! I'll beat that old scoundrel, you wait and see. Five hours, wasn't it?"

"Seven," Thorin corrected absently. Fundin winced.

Nori whistled. "I dunno how Gimli is doing this. Seven hours straight, Mahal wept."

"No, that is how long Gróin ran," Frerin said. "Gimli ran all night and day."

"I feel ill," Fundin mumbled.

"You need the exercise, yer Lordship," Nori said, and grinned. "Lead on, my King."

Once more the dawn spilled upon Arda. Legolas was standing, gazing northwards. "A red sun rises," he said as Aragorn came up to stand beside him. "Blood has been shed this night."

"Can you see them?" Aragorn said in a hushed voice. Behind them, Gimli still slumbered, his huge arms thrown wide and his head lolling to the side.

"They are far, far away," Legolas said, shaking his head. "Only an eagle could overtake them now."

"Nonetheless, we will still follow as we may," Aragorn said, and he stooped to rouse the Dwarf. "Up you get, Gimli. We must go. The scent is growing cold."

"It is still dark," Gimli grumbled, but he sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Ah, perhaps not. The sun rises again, and our chase awaits! Can you see them, Legolas?"

"Aragorn has asked," Legolas answered sadly. "I fear they have passed beyond my sight."

"Where sight fails, the earth may bring us rumour," Aragorn said, and he stretched himself out upon the ground and pressed his ear to it. "The land itself must groan beneath their hated feet."

Gimli stretched, and then he pulled an extraordinary face. "I am knotted up like twine! But give me a moment to slap my legs into submission, and then we will discover what a Dwarf's ears may hear from the stone."

"Secrets again," Fundin said, and rolled his eyes to the sky.

Yet neither Aragorn nor Gimli could make sense of the rumour of the earth, and so they steeled their heavy hearts and resumed their desperate pursuit.

"Three days," Frerin said as they ran on after the Three Hunters. "Three whole days!"

"It is a feat worthy of a song or two," Thorin managed, willing his feet to keep moving.

Gimli brightened. "Ah, you are back! Good. The hours pass faster with such company."

"What was that, Gimli?" Aragorn panted without turning around.

"Nothing, he was but making an idle observation to me," said Legolas hurriedly, giving Gimli a sharp look. The Dwarf smiled gratefully.

"I was but thinking that this land reminds me of the Shire. I passed through it when I was young, and it was green and rolling too, though not nearly so wild."

Aragorn's eyes warmed. "Yes, the Shire is a green and pleasant land, as is Rohan. But the Hobbits prefer their tidy farms and their little woods. The Rohirrim are Horse-lords, and they give their hearts to their wide plains and moors, proud and rugged and untamed."

"I would give much to see trees again," Legolas said, swift and straight as a spear as he ran. "Still, the green smell that rises from the grass is better than much sleep."

"Still no sign of the Uruks?" asked Aragorn as he led them down into a shallow dell.

"They run as if the very whips of Sauron were behind them," the Elf said. "I cannot see them."

"Well, let us keep on!" Gimli said, and then he murmured, "thank you, laddie."

"You are welcome," Legolas said softly, and they ran side by side for a while, heavy boots and soft shoes striking the earth together.

The sun beat down on them, and Thorin could feel the long hours sapping his strength. Even Frerin, young and fleet as he was, was beginning to tire. "Look there!" Aragorn suddenly cried, pointing to a dark shape at the foothills of the mountains. "There is Fangorn, some ten leagues away! The orc-trail turns from the downs to the Entwash."

Legolas came to stand beside him as Gimli arrived, puffing, behind them. The Elf shaded his eyes with his long-fingered hand, and then he said, "riders! They come back along the trail towards us!"

"How many?" Gimli said, pressing his hand against his forehead.

"One hundred and five," Legolas said, his eyes narrowing. Yellow is their hair, and their leader is very tall."

Aragorn smiled. "Keen are the eyes of Elves."

"Nay! They are little more than five leagues distant."

"Shall we go on, or wait here?" Gimli said, peering up at them. "We cannot escape them in this bare land."

Aragorn slumped, his great weariness apparent. "We will wait. They come back along the orc-trail: perhaps we may get news from them."

"Or spears," Gimli grunted.

The three rested against the jagged stones that thrust out of the ground, stepping away from the top of the hill that they might not present an easy mark for an arrow against the sky. The thunder of horses' hooves grew louder, and finally the host of riders drew close. They were fair and yellow-bearded, with long spears and fierce helmets crested with horse-hair. Their horses were of great stature, strong and clean-limbed, their coats shining in the afternoon light.

"Riders of Rohan!" Aragorn cried, stepping out from their place amongst the stones. "What news from the Mark?"

In a dazzling display of horsemanship, every rider turned and encircled the three. Thorin bristled as their horses crowded close, effectively cutting off any route of escape. Their long straight spears were abruptly lowered to ring the companions in shining steel.

The rider who pressed to the front was taller than the others, and his helm was surmounted by a fierce nose-guard shaped like a horse's head. His face was grim and stern. "What business does an Elf, a Man and a Dwarf have in the Riddermark?" he grated. "Speak quickly!"

Thorin glared at him.

Gimli planted his axe before his feet and squared his broad shoulders. "Give me your name, horse-master, and I shall give you mine," he said.

The rider dismounted, and he stalked to tower over the Dwarf, using his height to try and intimidate him. Thorin scowled. Tall folk always tried that. They never seemed to realise that an axe-stroke at the knees brought everyone to the same level. "I would cut off your head, Dwarf, if it stood but a little higher from the ground," the Man sneered.

Legolas' hands moved faster than thought. "He stands not alone," he said in a cold voice. "You would die before your stroke fell."

Thorin's hand shot out, and he gripped Frerin's arm as his tired legs trembled. "Did I just hear..." he said, amazed and dumbfounded. His tongue felt thick and numb within his mouth.

"The Elf defends Gimli," Fundin whispered.

"Legolas would die the minute the arrow left his hands," Nori said, disbelieving. "Why in Durin's name would he do that?"

"Thorin, you're hurting me," Frerin said, prying at Thorin's hand. He consciously relaxed his grip but he did not remove it. His brother's arm was the only thing keeping him grounded and not spiralling into utter shock.

"He defends Gimli," he said. "He defends Gimli. I do not know the world any more. I do not know what is real!"

Aragorn stepped forward and carefully gestured for Legolas to lower his bow. He inclined his head to the tall Rider. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn," he said, and through his stupor Thorin was able to muster a flicker of approval at the Man choosing to use his name and not an alias. "This is Gimli son of Glóin, and Legolas of the woodland realm. We are friends of Rohan and of Théoden your King."

The rider looked unhappy and angry for a moment before the expression was quickly hidden. "Théoden no longer recognises friend from foe. Not even his own kin. I am Éomer, son of Éomund, of the House of Éorl," he said, and removed his helm. A strong-featured face with a wide brow, dark eyes and yellow hair was revealed. Thorin glowered, instantly taking a dislike to him. Horse-lord or no, this Man had threatened his star.

"Whence have you come?" said Éomer, still regarding them with some suspicion. "I thought you orcs at first, though your cloaks keep you strangely hidden. Are you Elvish folk?"

"Only one of us is an Elf, as you can see," Aragorn replied. "But we have passed through Lothlórien in our long journey, and the gifts and favour of the Lady go with us."

The Rider's face was filled with a strange wonder, though his eyes hardened. "Then there is a Lady of the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!" he said. "Few escape her snares, they say. But if you have her favour then perhaps you yourselves are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe." His hand tightened about his spear.

"You speak evil of that which is fair beyond your understanding, and only little wit can excuse you," Gimli growled, his axe leaping into his hand.

"Gimli," Aragorn said wearily. "He only speaks as you yourself have done."

"I will hear no foul word of the Lady Galadriel," Gimli muttered, and then he glared up at the Horse-Lord. "Perhaps later, I will find the time to instruct you in the proper way to speak of a gentle Lady."

"Am I to learn courtesy at the loving strokes of a Dwarf's axe?" Éomer said, and snorted. "These are strange times, and you are strange folk indeed."

"You would not survive the lesson," Thorin promised him, glaring at the Man.

"Tell us, what is it that troubles the Sons of Éorl? What shadow lies upon Théoden-King?" said Aragorn, subtly moving before Gimli and blocking Éomer's view of his scowl.

Éomer's mouth was a thin line. "Saruman has poisoned the mind of the King and claimed lordship over these lands. My company are those that are loyal to Rohan... and for that, we are banished."

"That's a bit on the rough side," said Nori.

"The white wizard is cunning," said Éomer, and long-held anger coloured his voice. "He walks here and there, they say, as an old man, hooded and cloaked. And everywhere, his spies slip past our nets!"

Aragorn was calm as he said, "we are not spies. We track a party of Uruk-Hai westward across the plain. They have taken two of our friends captive."

"The Uruks are destroyed. We slaughtered them during the night."

"Who was on watch?" Thorin snapped.

"I think Ori finished at midnight," said Nori. "Dunno who took over."

Gimli could apparently contain himself no further, and burst out, "but there were two Hobbits with them! Did you see two Hobbits?"

"They would be small, only children to your eyes," Aragorn explained. Gimli leaned forward, his eyes pleading. Legolas laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder.

Éomer shook his head again and said, "We left none alive." Turning to the northwest where the glowering shadow of Fangorn loomed, he pointed out a thin and rising column of smoke. "We piled the carcasses and burned them."

Gimli's eyes widened, and his breath caught. "Dead?" he faltered.

Éomer pressed his lips together, and then he turned away. "I am sorry."

"You...!" Thorin snarled, and it was Frerin's turn to grip his arm tightly. "Nekhushel! Dead! No, no – First Gandalf, then Boromir, and now the Hobbits, it cannot be!"

"Hold strong, nadadel," Frerin whispered harshly in his ear. "They may have escaped. Remember, Pippin may have slipped his bonds."

Pippin. Merry. Bilbo's young cousins. More of Bilbo's family that Thorin had failed to protect. He slumped and bowed his head.

Éomer whistled, and two fine horses answered, a grey and a chestnut. "This is Arod, and this is Hasufel," said the Man. "May they bear you to better fortune than their former masters. Farewell."

Thorin fumed as the Man turned and remounted his horse, setting his fierce helm back upon his head. Taking his reins, he said, "Look for your friends. But do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands." Urging his horse into a canter and raising his voice, he called, "we ride North!"

With deft and skilful handling, the tight circle of horsemen parted and circled to follow their tall leader. Aragorn watched them go, his eyes forlorn.

Gimli removed his helm and pressed it against his chest, his eyes squeezing shut. "We have run all this way," he said bitterly.

"Pippin," Thorin said, and then he licked his dry lips. "My star, Pippin may still be alive, at least. There is yet hope."

Gimli nodded imperceptibly, before he looked up at the grey horse, his face scrunching in distaste. "First boats, and now beasties. They will have me attempt to fly next!"

"I don't recommend it," Nori muttered. "Eagles are unsociable, t' say the least."

"You do not ride then, Gimli?" asked Aragorn as he mounted the chestnut, bringing its head around and stroking the braided mane.

"No indeed! Ponies I can handle, but whoever heard of a horse being given to a Dwarf? I would sooner walk."

"But you must ride now, or you will hinder us," said Aragorn.

"Come, Gimli, you can ride behind me," said Legolas, already astride the grey after a few soft Elvish words in its ear. "That way you will not need to be troubled by a horse at all."

Gimli looked doubtful, but he allowed himself to be pulled up by the hand. There he sat, clinging gingerly to the Elf, not much more at ease than Sam Gamgee in a boat.

"We will not be able to keep the pace," said Thorin, his heart sinking as he watched the Man and the Elf wheel their horses around to the north, pointing towards the dark crouching gloom of Fangorn and the distant and ominous smoke. Gimli's great hands clutched immediately at Legolas' waist as the horse turned, and he swore under his breath in Khuzdul.

"If this great long-legged thing should be my ruin, my Lord," he muttered, "I wish it to be known that I will everything to my sister and that my axes should go to Gimizh."

"Dramatic," Frerin sniggered.

"Ah!" Gimli yelped as Arod leapt into a canter at a word from Legolas, and then the two horses were flowing over the great green rolling moors, their tails streaming behind them.

Thorin followed them with his eyes for a moment, his ribcage tight around his heart. "It will not be long before they reach the pyre. Swift are the horses of Rohan."

"We have some time," said Fundin, frowning.

"Let us see what news there is of Merry and Pippin," sighed Thorin. "Perhaps there will be something of use to tell Gimli."

"We can but hope," said Frerin.

"Yes, hope is all we've got," Nori muttered.

"Well, my son? Are you ready?"

The Dwarf remained silent, watching the shining glowing thing upon his Maker's anvil. "One more time."

"Once more," Mahal agreed, and gently touched his face. "If the world makes it through this darkness, your light will be needed to bring hope once again."

The Dwarf was motionless for another moment, and then he looked up. His ancient eyes were filled with weariness and pain, but his mouth was set in a determined line. "If."

Mahal smiled, and its warmth bathed the Dwarrow's face like a beam of sunlight or the glow from a well-fed forge. "Every shadow is but a passing thing. Every night must give way to morning. No matter how this ends, you will see it begin anew."

The Dwarf sighed, and then he leaned against the great worn fingers of his mighty maker. "I am tired, father."

"I know. And this is the final time, my son. This will be the ultimate burst of glory before our children dwindle and Men come into their own at long last. Seven is an auspicious number, do you not agree?"

He smiled faintly. "Aye, that it is."

"And are you sure? I will not force you."

The Dwarf sighed again and bowed his head. "I will be pleased to rest at last. Still, the great work continues. I am needed. I am ready."

"Your bravery does you credit, my beloved son."

"Well, I like them," said the Dwarf, shrugging. "He is a careful and diffident Dwarrow, despite his temper, and he will give her stability and acceptance. She is fiery and determined and will give him much-needed confidence. They will make fine parents."

"That they will." Mahal laid his hand upon the Dwarf's brow in a gentle benediction, and he began to fade.

"I just hope that teething doesn't hurt quite so damned much this time around," he grumbled as his outline wavered, shifting in the warm air of the forge like smoke. "It's not dignified. An' the less said about toilet-training the better."

Mahal's laugh was soft as distant thunder. "You will endure, as you always do. I am proud of you, Durin."

"Thank you, father," said the ghostly figure, barely more than a suggestion hanging in the gloom.



Chapter Text

The stars released him back into the cool grey grandeur of the world of the dead. Thorin rubbed at his eyes and then he stood stiffly from his bench. The pain in his legs had muted to a dull throb. Around him, his companions came to awareness, most groaning at their aching limbs and blinking in the darkness, dramatic after the blinding purity of Gimlîn-zâram.

Thorin tipped his neck to stretch it, and then peered at the benches surrounding the glassy, utterly-smooth pool. There was Lóni, seated and staring at the water, as motionless as a statue - ah, so it was he who watched for the youngest Hobbits. Not far from Lóni sat Kíli, who was frowning despite the blankness of his eyes. Perhaps some calamity had befallen Frodo and Sam. Thorin fervently hoped not, though the way their luck had turned these last few days he could not exactly rule it out.

Frerin touched his sleeve. "Nadad, you need to speak to Mum," he said softly. Thorin nodded after a last look at Kíli, and then he turned and forced his sore legs to take him away from the Chamber.

Frís looked weary. "Your chase is over then?" she said, and Thorin lifted a hand and rocked it side to side.

"I cannot say," he said. "It depends upon what they will find. What news from the others?"

"Balin reported," she said, turning to a slip of paper covered in Balin's firm, confident runes. "In Dale, King Brand is not the one who stalls us. Rather, it is his parliament. They argue and bicker, trying to gain the upper hand politically. King Brand is constrained by custom and needs the parliament to ratify any decision to go to war, and with such petty power-struggles in his court he cannot pledge himself to Erebor's cause."

Thorin snorted. "Men, tcch. What else?"

"Hold your temper," she said, eyeing him sternly.

"Such a warning does not exactly fill me with confidence, 'amad," he said wearily. "I will endeavour to keep it in check. What is it?"

"Ori has reported," she said, and then she sighed deeply. "Merry and Pippin were alive, at least they were when he last saw them. There was a skirmish with horsemen of some sort-"

"Yes, I know," he interrupted, and the confusion he had felt at Eomer's threat and Legolas' response washed over him again. He shook his head free of his thoughts and refocused. "What has happened?"

"He lost them," she said, and sat down with a short huff of frustration. "Ori could not find them in the chaos and the darkness and the press of orcs and horses. He searched and searched until it was nearing midnight, but the Hobbits are nowhere to be found. Now Lóni tries to seek them out, though it is nearing eight hours since he began the hunt."

"Does Gimlîn-zâram not place them close to the Hobbits when they enter?" Thorin frowned, and then he rubbed at his temples. His temper was indeed rising, but it was smothered under the heaviness of his great exhaustion.

"You know as well as I do that it is very difficult to steer the pool," she said.

"I do not have that trouble any more, though I did at first," said Thorin. "I am mostly taken where I wish."

"You usually have a fair idea of where that is, however," she said dryly. "Ori believes they ran into Fangorn Forest. Even an Elf could not find them in there."

Thorin grimaced. "There are fell tales of that forest."

She nodded, and then she rested her head upon her hand. "That is all I have for you, inùdoy. I am sorry it is not more."

"It is enough," he said heavily, and he kissed her head. "I will play your customary part now, and tell you to sleep. You look tired."

"I am," she said, and then she smiled up at him. "How unusual. Still, I could grow to like it."

He folded his arms and gave her a mock-glare that quickly dissolved into a groan. "Disrespect from my own mother – but ah, I ache all over. I will take my own advice."

"Also unusual. I am beginning to wonder if you are truly my stubborn son," she said, smiling as he pulled her to her feet. "Ori will have the new schedule up tomorrow."

"Good," he said as they began to make their way towards their rooms. Then he hesitated. "Amad, the Elf – he defended Gimli."

"Really?" Her brows shot up. "Well. Against whom?"

"A Man of Rohan, a Horse-Lord. I cannot understand. He is Thranduil's son, an Elf of Mirkwood. He has said himself that he was raised to hate us, and yet he drew his bow and told the Man of Rohan..."

"Thorin," she interrupted him gently, "calm down. You are confused and tired. The Elf will wait until you have rested."

He smiled despite himself, a small tilt of the lips. "Now that is more along the lines of our customary roles. I knew it couldn't last."

She laughed softly. "For how long will you give yourself a respite?"

"Not long. They will arrive at the edge of Fangorn soon, and I must be there to give Gimli this small news of Pippin. They are on horseback: fitting, I suppose, as they are in Rohan. I expect I have no more than a couple of hours."

"Gimli must be thrilled at that."

"Oh yes," Thorin said, snorting softly. "He is as happy as a Stiffbeard in a silver mine. Horses are not precisely his transport of choice, it seems. He sits like a sack of grain and clings to the Elf with all his might – I half-expected him to break bones with those great hands of his."

She smiled. "Then they ride together?"

"They do." Thorin repressed the scowl that threatened to cross his face. He would have time to consider the Elf's baffling behaviour later, when he was more alert.

She hummed thoughtfully, and then looked up at him, serious once more. "Do not overtax yourself again, my dear."

"I do not intend to." He dropped his eyes for a moment, before taking a breath and meeting hers once more. "Here is my chamber, and I will rest for a short while."

She sighed in defeat, and kissed his cheek. "I will send someone to wake you."

He pressed his head against hers briefly, before he left her. His bed was unaired and rumpled, but he did not care in the slightest as he slowly pulled off his boots, and fell back onto his pillow. He was asleep in seconds.

"Thorin, wake up."

He groaned and swiped a hand at the annoying voice. A soft chuckle greeted this.

"You'll have to try harder than that."

"Víli?" Thorin blinked awake, his eyes gummy and his head pounding. That had not been enough sleep to revitalise his aching muscles. "How is Erebor?"

"Tense," Víli said with a wry shrug. "The Elves keep to their rooms, the Stonehelm hovers like a worried crow and Bomfrís argues with both him and that son of Thranduil constantly. They held an archery competition, and she lost. She isn't taking it very gracefully."

Thorin grunted, struggling out of his tangled bedclothes. "And Dís?"

Víli's eyes softened. His voice was wistful as he said, "She's coping well enough with the internal bickering and the increased pressure, though she's slowing down a bit. She hides it well."

Thorin looked up at his brother-in-law thoughtfully for a moment. "She always did."

His sister and her One had shared a strong bond, and it did not surprise Thorin in the least that after so many years Víli still yearned for his mithril-voiced, stern-faced wife. He had been th