Dwalin respected Oin more than he would ever admit, but that did not mean he looked upon the healing rooms with anything but revulsion. Even well-equipped, they were places of defeat. Erebor’s were little more than ruins, shattered and broken: a reflection of their king.
His skin crawled with the wrongness of it all. On the battlefield, he wielded his axes with power and confidence. The control was his. Here, in this stony bower, he was nothing but a shadow hanging at the room’s edges, watching as Oin waged his own war against ravaging infection and cracking bones.
Yet even if the healer won – even if he could free the line of Durin from death’s clutches – it would be a hollow victory. None of them would ever be the same. Not in body and not in mind. At best, they would be changed. At worst…
Dwalin sighed, propping his weight against the wall. He remembered when he and Thorin were young and reckless, with less sense between them than even Kili could claim. How brash and bright they had been, sure that they would conquer all life threw their way.
Very few of the beliefs they had both held close remained, but there was at least one he knew Thorin still shared with him. Better to die a hero’s death, slain upon the battlefield, than succumb days or weeks later to injury. Better for it to be quick than linger on the threshold to Mahal’s halls, undecided.
Yet life offered few choices, and death? In that, there was no choice at all. He could only wait, watchpoint work his miracles, and brace himself for whatever lay ahead.
‘Dwalin…’ Thorin’s low voice was half-plea, half-threat.
‘You want Oin to have my hide?’ Dwalin folded his arms and shook his head. It had been a long, hard winter, but Thorin and his sister-sons had survived it. They may make excellent warriors and decent leaders, but all three were terrible patients. Whiny, fussy, impatient and frankly insubordinate.
Oin took it all in stride, of course, but the rest of them? Pushovers. Thorin was surrounded with paperwork, courtesy of Balin, dressed in decent clothes thanks to Dori, and well-fed with illicit pastries, smuggled in by Bombur. Although no longer confined to his bed, Oin was insistent upon plenty of rest. That meant little in the way of holding council or touring the mountain.
It also meant absolutely no sparring.
‘An hour. No more. If I do not get out of this room and under an open sky…’ He trailed off, shaking his head. ‘A moment in the practice yard. That’s all I need.’
He should refuse. If Thorin had pulled rank and made it an order, he would have done so without hesitation. Yet this was not Thorin-his-king, but Thorin-his-friend. A battle-brother calling for aid. Dwalin knew what lay behind it: the fear of a wasted body, of weakness setting in like rot, of relying on others for one’s own safety.
All dwarves were similar in that respect. Independent to a fault and as stubborn as mules.
Dwalin grumbled under his breath, knowing that if he didn’t agree, Thorin would only coax some other member of the Company to assist him in his escape. Better it be him, who knew Thorin’s ways and could manage him, than Ori, who still bowed every time he entered the room.
‘One hour,’ he agreed at last, forcing himself to roll his eyes as Thorin smiled, rather than answer it in-kind. In truth, it was good to see that look of simple joy on Thorin’s face again. How many years had he watched his friend weighed down by the burdens of their exile and aged before his time?
Now, though he may be older in body, his spirit at least seemed to have reclaimed a touch of its lost youth.
By necessity, the healing rooms were not far from the practice yards. Yet even though the distance was not great, Thorin moved like a dwarf with one foot in his tomb: slow and creaking. It made Dwalin’s heart hurt to witness it.
Gone was his friend’s battlefield grace – the sturdy, sure way that he had once moved. Would it ever return, or was Thorin doomed to spend the rest of his years bullying a crippled frame through each day?
If necessary, he would do just that. The flesh may be frail, but Dwalin knew better than to believe his friend’s temperament had become any more docile. Aye, Thorin limped on that injured foot of his, but the set of his jaw and the gleam of his eyes was as stubborn as ever.
The wide expanse of the practice yard, packed dirt scoured by the wind, loomed before them, devoid of any other living soul. Unfortunate, but not surprising. Training was a luxury time would not permit. Everyone was too busy either rebuilding themselves or the mountain. Alas, an audience might have encouraged Thorin towards restraint. He was not one who willingly made a fool of himself in public.
He had no such concerns when it came to Dwalin. They’d known each other too long, through all their brash boasting and stupid mistakes. They had borne witness to the best and worst times of one another’s lives.
Thorin breathed in, closing his eyes as he relished the fresh air. Crisp and cool, it nipped at Dwalin’s cheeks, the meek spring sunshine doing little to warm him. Yet if Thorin felt the cold, he didn’t show it. He neither shuddered nor cringed, but put his hands on his hips and lifted his chin, revelling in his freedom.
‘Strange, how I missed this.’
‘Too long above ground,’ Dwalin murmured. ‘It’s given you cloud cravings.’
Thorin laughed, a good, hearty sound. ‘As if you are any better, old friend.’
He grunted. Not like he could argue with that. Dwarves were not nearly as reclusive as the Men believed, but most still preferred their mountain halls to the open road. Perhaps if Erebor lay in all its gleaming glory, as it had before the dragon, they would be the same. As it was, no one could deny they still had a long way to go before they could reclaim those days of luxury and comfort.
‘Put that down,’ Dwalin growled, broken free from his musings by the flash of sunlight on metal. Thorin had plucked free one of the practice swords from the barrel. Though, in truth, it was barely worthy of the name. Rusted and brutally blunt, it looked as useless as Dwalin felt. ‘I’ll be in it up to my neck when Oin finds out about this.’
‘Well, if we’re going to get into trouble anyway…’Dwalin groaned. It had been more than a century since Thorin had uttered a similar sentiment, but the memories still flooded back to him, as crisp and bright as if it were only yesterday. He remembered them, young and stupid and carefree as they stole treats from the kitchens, taking far more than their fair share because of Thorin’s urgings. He could practically taste the honeyed pastry.
It was a rare flash of Thorin’s more mischievous streak, long buried beneath duty and the burden of their quest. Yet still it lay in the depths of his heart, like a vein of gold within the rock: Durin through and through.
‘You’ll take your fair share of Oin’s wrath?’
Thorin tilted his head in acknowledgement. ‘Of course.’
Dwalin snorted, shaking his head as he yanked a sword free and glared at it. To give Thorin his due, he would take responsibility. More than his portion, most of the time. He may have been the one to urge Dwalin into trouble in the past, but he never left him to face the consequences alone, as other royal younglings may have done.
‘Don’t overdo it.’ The snarled warning tumbled free of him, vibrant with urgency despite the gruffness of his voice. ‘Oin’s temper is one thing, but if you bust open old wounds and spill your guts all over the floor…’
If it had been light-hearted or dismissive, Dwalin would have stomped back inside there and then, but Thorin spoke with all the seriousness of a king vowing to do his best for the throne he claimed. He acknowledged Dwalin’s fears not with patronising smiles or ridicule, but faced them head on, as strong and bold as ever.
The drills came naturally, old instinct writ deep in both their bones. They had trained in swords and axes since they were old enough to wield them, and the memory of each movement came from somewhere beyond conscious thought. They flowed from Dwalin like blood from a wound, as easy as could be.
For Thorin, it was a different matter.
The flesh remembered, well enough, but it was halting and unsteady. More than once the blade would waver in its stately sweep. Dwalin slowed his pace to match Thorin’s, a sweat popping out down his back as the change strained his muscles in new ways. The blades chimed and hissed as they met and slid, all without force. The aim was not to fight one another, but to remind the body what it meant to have a sword in its grasp
He expected Thorin’s temper to fray, for his eyes to darken with frustration and his jaw to turn tight, yet for once he seemed to accept his limits.
Thorin’s ability may be limited, but Dwalin found himself impressed. In truth, he had not expected Thorin capable of lifting a blade, let alone wielding it. Yet it was not only that which made pride glow warm in his belly. It was the way Thorin moved, like rusty pieces shaking off their bonds to shift, slow at first, but with increasing grace.
Oh, it would be many months before he could fight with the same power and skill he had possessed when they reclaimed the mountain. Yet for the first time, Dwalin felt a flicker of hope.
‘Enough,’ Thorin proclaimed at last, heaving in a deep breath and wiping his brow on the cuff of his tunic. Absently, he did the same to the blade, the first care it had seen in decades. Old habits died hard. Dwalin knew that better than most, and it was instinct to wipe blood from the metal. Perhaps there had been no wounds today, but there was triumph aplenty. They may be within the bounds of the practice yard, but a battle had been fought and won all the same.
Thorin had taken the first step to reclaiming his strength, and Dwalin could finally breathe a little easier.
‘Give it here,’ he ordered, holding out his hand for the sword and returning them both to the barrel. When he turned back, it was to see Thorin sitting in the dust, his back propped against the wall and his face tipped up towards to the sun.
Trudging over to the trickling spring nearby, he picked up one of the few stone cups that remained at its rim. A quick wash got the worst of the dirt off, and he filled it to the brim before returning to Thorin.
‘Drink,’ he urged, waiting for Thorin to take it before he sat down at his side. A groan escaped him as his knees clicked, and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. At least Thorin had his injuries to excuse his weariness. Dwalin had only age to blame. That, and too many winter weeks in the mountain, doing little more than fretting.
‘Here.’ A nudge at his waist made him look to see the cup, half-full, being handed back to him. Oin would have fussed and told Thorin to drink the lot, but Dwalin gladly accepted the offering. To the outsider it might look like little more than thoughtfulness, but there was more to it than that: gratitude, for a start.
Thorin did not meet his gaze, nor offer anything in words, but it was unnecessary. Dwalin got the message all the same. Despite all Oin’s orders to the contrary, Thorin had needed this escape – this chance to prove to himself that there was a way back to the dwarf he once was – and Dwalin had given it to him.
Draining the cup and setting it aside, he followed Thorin’s gaze up the peak that loomed above them. This close, Erebor eclipsed the sky, imposing and powerful. At first, he thought Thorin was merely taking in the pinnacle of his kingdom, but a flicker of movement soon changed his mind.
From this distance, it was little but a glimpse: golden hair and a small frame, even for a dwarf. The Hobbit leant on one of the balustrades surrounding the ramparts, seemingly soaking in the view. Knowing the burglar, he was enjoying the solitude.
Up there he looked unreachable, and a shadow darkened Thorin’s features. Not anger or disdain, not like back at the beginning of their journey. That? It was remorse and longing, regret and pain.
Dwalin sighed inwardly. He would rather face a battlefield of Orcs single-handed than deal with that mess, but it seemed fate intended to force his hand. He had seen things change between Bilbo and Thorin over the course of the quest, from antagonism to politeness to something raw and jagged: a longing almost painful to witness.
Thorin did not love easily, and when he did, he did so utterly. The mess of madness, the Arkenstone, the battle… They had wrought so much asunder, but despite what he had feared, there were ways to patch things together once more. Thorin himself had proven that today.
‘All things heal,’ he began, folding his arms as the wind picked up around them, heralding a spring storm. ‘Things’ll be back the way they were before you know it.’ He jerked his head towards where Bilbo stood. ‘If you play your cards right, they might even be better.’
He smiled, fond, as a light flush played on Thorin’s cheeks. His king was many things, but subtlety had never been one of his strengths. Nor when it came to matters of devotion. Still, he did not stammer or deflect, as Thorin had been prone to in his youth. Perhaps, at last, he’d realised that there was no weakness in love, no matter who had taken your heart for their own.
A fat drop of rain splashed on the dust in front of them, followed by the steady patter of its kin. With a growl of disgust, Dwalin hauled himself to his feet before reaching out a hand. Thorin took it without question, allowing himself to be guided upright once more. He stumbled slightly, exhausted by his efforts, but there was a light of life in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. One that Dwalin would gladly risk everything, including Oin’s disapproval, to keep aglow.
‘Where to next?’
Perhaps Thorin expected to be marched back to the healing rooms. Judging from the shrewd look he sent Dwalin’s way, he was not expecting the opportunity to choose his destination. A quick flicker of emotion crossed his face: a battle between want and logic, desire and common sense. To make the most of his freedom, or to take the time to heal?
‘Back to Oin, for now,’ he decided at last. ‘Let him fuss and fret and see this has done me no harm.’
Thorin looked over his shoulder, back up at the mountain and the now empty rampart. Yet this time, there was no sadness in his face. Instead, there was that same rock-solid determination, the one that had got them across Middle Earth and snatched Erebor back from the dragon’s jaws.
‘Then, we’ll see.’
Dwalin nodded, content. Whatever Thorin had planned, whatever the future held, he would be there at his side.
Brothers in all but blood.