Author's Notes: Firstly, many thanks to Nieriel Raina, who provided some wonderful beta editing despite a very busy schedule. She is amazing! Secondly, Happy Birthday (belated), Docmon! This story is for her. She also deserves credit for a very early beta edit almost a year ago when I first wondered about doing a story like this. Docmon looked through a rough draft of the first chapter and gave me some great ideas. And with that, I leave you to read and hopefully enjoy!
Gimli: "It still sounds absurd, even now that all has turned out more than well. I knew Thorin, of course; and I wish I had been there, but I was away at the time of your first visit to us. And I was not allowed to go on the quest; too young, they said, though at sixty-two I thought myself fit for anything. Well, I am glad to have heard the full tale. If it is full. I do not really suppose that even now you are telling us all you know."
Gandalf: "Of course not."
—Unfinished Tales: "The Quest of Erebor"
Chapter 1: Of Kin
The moment his pony set foot in the entry cavern, Gimli knew that something was different. There was an expectant feeling in the air. This feeling did not lend itself to excitement or celebration, but neither did it evoke fear or unease. Rather, it was as though the dwarves of the Blue Mountains waited for something, and they did not yet know if this something boded good or ill.
Frowning, Gimli swung down from his pony and led the beast to one side as the trade wains filed in behind him. From the passage leading to the First Hall, a steady stream of dwarves pushed their way into the spacious entry cavern to greet the returning wains. Many were merchants, eager to see the wares for which they had traded. Others were tasked with caring for the ponies or unloading the wains. Casting his eyes over all who had come forth to greet them, Gimli searched for someone who might be able to tell him what was causing this expectant hum, and at length, his gaze rested on Kili. Gimli looked no further. Neither Fili nor Kili had ever been able to mask their emotions, and Kili's current expression indicated that he was bursting with news.
As one of the trading party's guards, Gimli's duties dictated that he remain with the wains until all the goods had been delivered, the animals seen to, and the trading party itself disbanded. But at sixty-two, Gimli's responsibilities were minor, and the strange mood buzzing through those assembled was so unsettling that Gimli decided he could spare a few minutes to talk to Kili. Handing his pony off to a convenient stable hand, Gimli made straight for Kili, who turned toward him as though drawn by Gimli's intent stare.
"Gimli!" Kili cried out. "You arrived sooner than we had expected. By my reckoning, you should still be a week away at the least!"
"The snow melted quickly this year and the roads were open," Gimli answered. "Nír felt that we should make an early start for home."
"I am glad you did, for it is good to see you again! I know that your father will also be pleased to see you."
"And I him," Gimli said, his eyes narrow. Kili was fairly dancing with excitement, which puzzled Gimli greatly. It did not match the uncertainty of the dwarves that milled around them.
"Glóin would be here to greet you if he could, but Thorin is holding a council with the elders and gave orders that he was not to be disturbed. Thorin is having a…" Kili paused and looked about before lowering his voice. "Thorin is having a bit of a dragon day," he confessed. "Though it would be more accurate to say a dragon month. I doubt the sentries will risk his wrath to inform the council of your return."
The puzzle grew. Thorin was well known for both his pride and his temper, a combination that held dire consequences for any who ran afoul of him on what Fili and Kili had dubbed his dragon days. Dragon days were the days in which the demands of his lineage and the pressure of his father's vows to retake the Lonely Mountain weighed heavily upon Thorin. Among dwarves, a father's vow left unfulfilled became a son's vow, and Thorin was nothing if not an obedient son. When reminded of the vengeance oath that both Thráin and Thor had sworn against Smaug, Thorin would become fey and brash. He would speak at length of the dishonor to Durin's line and the need to confront the dragon in battle, and any who countered with arguments for prudence did so at their own peril. When Thorin had dragon days, it was best to be somewhere other than the Blue Mountains. And if Thorin had been having a month of dragon days, Gimli was at a loss as to why Kili seemed so happy.
"Is Thorin well?" Gimli asked. "My father and I exchanged letters while I was away, but naught was said of Thorin."
"Possibly he did not feel it was his place to say anything," Kili said with a shrug.
"Then Thorin's mood has been evident to everyone? It was not just you as a close kinsman who noticed his—" and as Kili had earlier, Gimli now also paused and looked around, "—his dragon days?" he finished with a whisper. The term dragon days did not always go over well with the older dwarves who remembered Smaug's descent upon the Lonely Mountain.
"All within the mountains have felt it," Kili murmured, also keeping his voice low.
"What is the cause, do you think?"
Kili shrugged again. "Unrest? Memories?"
Gimli chewed on his beard as he debated his next words. He could continue the conversation and look for subtle ways to ask about whatever was making Kili so happy, or could he strike right at the heart of the matter and appease his growing impatience. Gimli looked at Kili, who continued to radiate suppressed excitement, and decided that a subtle approach would be wasted here. Kili was not in the habit of keeping tidings to himself, and Gimli was mildly surprised that he had not already shared his good news. "Well, whatever is troubling Thorin, it does not seem to trouble you," Gimli observed. "You look as though you have just found your first vein of ore. Mayhap whatever makes you so cheerful will cheer Thorin also."
"Ah. Yes, well…" Kili stopped, apparently considering what to say next. Gimli wondered if it was a first for him. "I doubt that the source for my own excitement would have much effect. Thorin does not put as much trust in Tharkûn as I do, but—"
"Tharkûn? You mean Gandalf? The wizard?" interrupted Gimli, who had heard more about the gray pilgrim from men and hobbits than he ever had from his fellow dwarves. "What has he to do with Thorin?"
Kili hesitated. "I think Glóin wanted to be the first to speak with you about this, but…" He trailed off, his lips pressed into a firm line, and then the strain of keeping a secret simply became too much. "Well, it is likely you will hear of it from another ere you see your father. My dear Gimli," he said, his eyes sparkling, "we have made plans to reclaim the Lonely Mountain."
Gimli blinked. "The noise in here must be too loud, for it sounded as though you said something about reclaiming the Lonely Mountain."
Kili scowled. "And what is wrong with that?"
Several obvious answers sprang to mind, but this was not the place to voice them. And voicing these answers would require more than just a few minutes away from the wains. Turning around, Gimli caught the eye of Nír, the wain-master, and nodded toward Kili. Nír rolled his eyes with the look of a weary elder confronted by the whims of an impatient stripling. Gimli felt his hackles rise in response, but when Nír nodded his consent, Gimli opted to keep his objections to himself. Having obtained permission to leave, he took Kili firmly by the arm and hauled him out of the crowded entry cavern and into the First Hall. Once there, he continued to pull his protesting kinsman along until he found a shadowed corner shielded from prying eyes, at which point he allowed Kili to wrest his arm free. "You want to know what is wrong with attempting to reclaim the Lonely Mountain?" Gimli demanded, struggling to keep his voice even.
"Kili, no dwarf in the Blue Mountains has courage enough to defy Thorin on his dragon days. Do you think they would fare better against an actual dragon? And bear in mind that our people are fewer now than they were when the dragon first descended! Thorin himself has lamented this, knowing we are not sufficiently numbered to confront Smaug. Nor have we sufficient arms! Even were we to convince everyone to embark on a journey of more than three hundred leagues, the task of forging enough weapons and shields capable of withstanding dragon fire is—"
"Unnecessary," Kili answered, breaking into Gimli's tirade. "Thorin is not leading an army to confront Smaug. He is leading only a small party. Thirteen, to be exact."
Gimli nearly choked on his beard.
"And I," Kili finished with a proud flourish, "have been selected as a member of that esteemed company."
Speechless, Gimli could only stare.
Kili stared back.
"It is my fervent hope," Gimli said at length, "that Gandalf's involvement was an attempt to prevent this."
"Quite the opposite!" Kili countered, his pride turning to sharp indignation. "He encouraged Thorin to take a small group. And he is coming with us for at least a portion of the journey."
With all his others thoughts awhirl, Gimli welded himself to this nugget of information and struggled to make sense of it. Among men, Gandalf was known as a wizard of great power and no small renown, but among hobbits, he was known as the trouble-maker responsible for sending members of the Took family off on strange journeys. Having never met the wizard himself, Gimli had not been sure which of the competing views to believe, but considering all that he had heard in the last few minutes, he began to lean in the hobbits' direction.
"Your father is also coming, and—"
"My father?" Gimli stammered, his mind skidding to a halt.
"Yes. We're to leave next week and— Gimli? Gimli!"
But Gimli heard no more. Quick strides carried him out of the First Hall and into the deeper passages where he swiftly made his way toward the residences and his family's chambers. He would have sought his father directly, but even Gimli knew better than to interrupt Thorin on a dragon day. So instead, he sought his mother. She would know the truth of this madness.
But when he swung open the door to his family's spacious caverns, he was met with silence.
A quick glance around the first room told Gimli that his mother was not here. Nor had she been here for some time. The chamber was ordered, clean, and free from the half-formed creations that were the products of his mother's eccentric smithing. She often brought an experiment home with the intention of working on it only to set it aside and forget about it the moment another idea caught her fancy. Her apprentices sometimes complained that the bulk of their time was spent clearing her forge of unfinished projects rather than learning her trade. But as Gimli took in his family's chambers, he saw none of the inexplicable designs that were his mother's trademark. Perhaps he would have to interrupt Thorin after all.
Or perhaps not. Startled, Gimli whipped about to find Glóin standing in the doorway, his father's beard bristling as his lips curved up in a smile. "Father," Gimli said simply, suddenly uncertain of how to begin this confrontation. He decided to let Glóin make the first move.
The first move turned out to be a tight hug that endured longer than most of his father's greetings and ended with Glóin stepping back and clapping his hands on Gimli's shoulders. "Strike the anvil, but it is good to see you! When Thorin dismissed us, we heard that the wains had returned, and I am overjoyed to find you here already. Your mother is away north in the iron foundries, and she will be sorry she missed your arrival. We shall have to send word that…" Glóin slowly trailed off, and his smile faded as he studied Gimli. "Is something wrong? Did you encounter misfortune on the journey?"
"None to speak of, and the trading went well enough," Gimli answered, searching his father's face. "Rather, it was what I found upon my return that concerns me."
Glóin's expression sobered quickly, and he stepped back, his arms falling to his sides. "You have spoken with Fili."
"Kili," Gimli corrected.
Glóin grunted. "Nearly the same."
"It is true then?" Gimli pressed, unable to keep the anger from his voice.
His father sighed. "I wanted to tell you myself."
"Indeed? Had my trading party started home when we originally planned to do so and had we met with any setbacks upon the road, we would have arrived too late. Kili informs me that you are leaving next week."
"You were scheduled to return before I was scheduled to leave. I had hoped that fate would be kind, and now my hopes are fulfilled: you are here!"
"But what if I had been delayed?" Gimli demanded.
"I had little say over the time set for our departure," Glóin answered, his voice growing stern. "Moreover, you are fully capable of tending your own forge, as you so frequently remind me. I did not think you would take offense at the thought that I trusted you to see to matters in my absence."
Gimli's eyes flashed, and he felt his temper rearing. "I am not offended. Rather, I am greatly alarmed by the apparent madness of my father who has elected to join twelve others in pitting their combined folly against the wiles and wits of a dragon!"
This was the cue for Glóin to become angry. To lash back. To refute Gimli's accusation with tales of heroism and valiant deeds, thus providing Gimli the opportunity to note that heroism and valiant deeds frequently led to exile and death. His father's temper could run as hot and deep as a smelter's furnace, and Gimli had spent decades learning how to turn that temper to his advantage. When Glóin was emotional, Glóin made mistakes, and those mistakes were what Gimli would use to show him the error of his ways.
But much to Gimli's surprise, there was no outburst. No flare of rage. No protest born of wounded pride. Rather, Glóin seemed to shrink, dropping his head while his shoulders became stooped as though from fatigue. For the first time in Gimli's life, his father appeared old, and Gimli shuddered at the sight. "Your mother said something very similar when I told her of our plans," Glóin murmured. "She is upset with me, and that is why she is away now." He sighed, and if possible, he seemed to grow even older. "She does not understand why I must go. She is too consumed in her metal-working to feel the demands of our heritage." Glóin lifted his eyes to meet Gimli's, and in them was a weary sadness that Gimli had never seen before. "And you are too young."
Having said this, Glóin turned away and moved toward a dark doorway that opened off the main entry hall. Gimli watched in confusion, uncertain if he should follow or not. This doorway was the entrance to the Fire Chamber, the place where tales were told and where secrets of the forge were handed down from generation to generation. It was not a room to be used casually, and when the fire was not lit, none but the head of the family could enter. But as Gimli stood there debating the matter, a golden light suddenly flared from within the Fire Chamber, and Glóin appeared in the doorway, watching Gimli expectantly. Taking a deep breath, Gimli moved forward into the chamber, standing in silence while his father drew up a stool next to the large hearth. Once his father was seated, Gimli took a second stool and joined him beside the fire.
"When you are older, you will understand better," Glóin said softly, reaching into his tunic and pulling forth his pipe. "At the present, you hear only the call of new lands and new journeys. Of glory and honor and the strength of iron bending beneath your hammer. But over time, these things will fade and the fires of our House will eat at your heart. They will burden your dreams until every night you walk halls you have never seen and touch stone you have never shaped. It is my curse as one descended directly from Durin, and barring some greater love, it will eventually be your curse, too." Glóin sighed, and lighting his pipe, he blew a puff of smoke in the direction of the hearth. "I can only imagine how this curse weighs upon Thorin. It was what drove Thrór to ruin, and Thráin after him. Now it grips Thorin, and he can wait no longer. In truth, I am surprised he waited as long as he has. Óin and I feared he would march to the Lonely Mountain alone, much as Thrór marched alone into Khazad-dûm."
"But why must he march anywhere?" Gimli asked, his voice as quiet as his father's. "Our halls here can be made strong. There is trade, the veins run deep, and we have room to build and expand. Does this not satisfy the demands of our heritage?"
"As I said before, this is not something easily explained to one who has not felt the fires of our House, and here your youth shows," Glóin said. "But perhaps you will understand this: Thrór bequeathed the responsibility of slaying the dragon to his descendants. You know what such an obligation entails, and of late, Thorin has felt the weight of that responsibility growing upon him."
Gimli frowned. He appreciated the seriousness of an oath taken either by a father or on behalf of a father. Entire clans of dwarves had initiated wars to satisfy such vows. But even that did not justify this foolish quest to free the Lonely Mountain. "It is my understanding, father, that such vows are to be fulfilled only when the dwarves have strength enough to do so," he said. "If Thorin were to concentrate his efforts here, would that not satisfy his obligation? For we could grow strong over time and build an army capable of ousting Smaug!"
"The Blue Mountains are not our home, Gimli," Glóin said shortly. "Not for the House of Durin. They are merely a refuge."
"By that reasoning, the Lonely Mountain is not our home, either!" Gimli pointed out, growing frustrated. "It is a refuge from Khazad-dûm. Yet over time, it became home to our people, and Khazad-dûm became memory. Why can we not do likewise again?"
Glóin's eyes turned to the flickering flames in the hearth. "The world was younger when we founded the Lonely Mountain, and we were not so few. But now we fade. Thorin does not believe we can build and sustain yet another stronghold. So many of our kin are scattered throughout the Grey Mountains, and Dáin's following is far away in the Iron Hills. As for our people here, most dwarves in the Blue Mountains do not even know to which lineage they belong. We have in our midst descendants of the Firebeards and the Broadbeams, proud Houses both stout-hearted and brave. Their fathers stood with men and elves against the terror that was Morgoth! But the scions of those Houses have forgotten their heritage. They have forgotten almost everything of their past." Glóin rubbed his brow, sinking low on his stool. "Thorin fears that this is now happening to Durin's line. And in this, I share his fears."
"But you have always told me that Durin's line cannot fade! That our House is the eldest and will also be the last! That we are protected in this!"
"We were so certain of that once," Glóin murmured. "Now it is difficult to be certain of anything."
"Then why risk a venture to reclaim the Lonely Mountain?" Gimli demanded. "Why not build our strength and conserve our efforts? Why not wait until we are certain?"
"Because that time may never come!" Glóin answered, his eyes flashing. "Have you heard nothing, Gimli? We are scattered! Exiled! Broken! The House of Durin is fading into obscurity. Soon it will mean nothing. As scions of that House, we have a responsibility to see that the eldest of the dwarf clans does not suffer the fate of the others!" He shook his head, and the fire faded from his eyes. "You will understand better when you are older. The burning of our lineage will come upon you then. Until such time, you hear only your youth."
Gimli's jaw tightened as he struggled to contain his growing displeasure. He did not take kindly to criticisms based on age. Young he might be, but he had traveled more extensively in the past twenty years than almost any other dwarf in the Blue Mountains. He had experience to temper his youth, and contrary to his father's beliefs, he did know something of the call of heritage. He had felt stirrings for both the Lonely Mountain and Khazad-dûm, though these stirrings were faint and fleeting at best. Still, Gimli felt they provided him with enough insight to understand some of what possessed Thorin. But convincing his father of that was another matter, so Gimli tried a different approach. "Then why so small a party?" he asked. "Why not rally all those who still claim to be a part of Durin's line? At the least, you could send messages to Dáin Ironfoot and ask him to join you!"
"That was Thorin's plan in the beginning," Glóin said, taking a long pull from his pipe. "But on a chance visit to Bree, he encountered Tharkûn and asked the wizard's counsel. I know not what compelled him to do so, but the wizard has been a part of his plans ever since. And the wizard advised a small party."
"Then the wizard knows little of dragons," Gimli declared.
"You speak too boldly," Glóin said, a measure of his sternness returning. "And without wit. Tharkûn is no simple conjurer. I would venture to say that he knows more of dragons than even the dwarves who still recall the fires that seared the Lonely Mountain! And yet…" Glóin trailed off, his eyes clouding and his brow furrowing. "I sometimes have the impression that we are pawns to him. Or if not pawns, pieces in a greater game. And while none of us are pieces that he would surrender willingly, there is still the greater game to be considered. I do not know what he would choose to do if our sacrifice furthered his ends."
"Surely Thorin recognizes this!"
"He does," Glóin said, "but he has still yielded to the wizard's counsel. Tharkûn advises a small force, so a small force it will be. But if it eases your mind, the wizard has provided…tokens that may work to our advantage. It is possible that a small force will prove better than a great army."
"And what manner of tokens are they?"
Glóin frowned. "It is not my place to reveal. I will say only that they are heirlooms from the Kingdom Under the Mountain and that Thorin is their rightful keeper."
Which Gimli interpreted to mean that these tokens were not weapons or great machinations that might thwart a dragon. What they were, he could not guess, but one thing was becoming clear: Glóin did not expect to return. It was a suspicion that had been niggling at Gimli the moment his father had failed to anger, and that suspicion was now confirmed by his father's words about Gandalf. Fear washed over Gimli, but as it did so, it was accompanied by another feeling. A desire of sorts, one that burned deep within his heart. It was not the fire of heritage that Glóin described, but in some ways, it was stronger. More immediate. It was the burning fire of kin. Of the dwarven bond between father and son. It was a bond that had seared Gimli's heart before, and he knew he could not ignore it now. He still felt the quest to be a fool's errand, but it was an errand that Gimli could not allow his father to undertake alone.
"So be it," he said, frightened by the weight of his decision but firm and unwavering regardless. "If you will not turn aside and if Thorin is intent upon a small party, then I will say nothing more against it. Rather, I will join you."
Glóin inhaled sharply. Unfortunately, he did so while in the midst of drawing on his pipe, and a coughing fit immediately ensued. The pipe clattered to the ground, and an alarmed Gimli thumped his father hard between the shoulders as Glóin curled over his knees, his eyes weeping and his breath coming in rasping gasps. "Absolutely not," he wheezed. "Under no circumstances will I permit you to join us."
"It is not your place to refuse," Gimli countered evenly, giving his father's back another hit. "You do not lead this party. Only Thorin can deny me, and should he accept me as a companion, you have no right to gainsay him."
"And it is my right to claim a place in this endeavor!" Gimli interrupted, raising his voice above his father's. "You go to restore the glory of Durin's House, and as a member of that House, I choose to join you!"
"And as your elder in that House—as well as your father—I forbid it!" Glóin said, his tone sharp and cutting even as his efforts to speak prompted yet another bout of coughing.
Gimli waited for the coughs to subside before softly asking, "If you do not forbid yourself, then why forbid me?"
Glóin's eyes blazed, but he said nothing.
"Because my earlier words hold true," Gimli continued. "The prudent course of action would be to bide our time and gather our strength, marching on the Lonely Mountain only when we are ready. But for reasons that my youth cannot fathom, Thorin chooses to go now. And since you have pledged to go with him, thus am I also bound!"
"If you would hold yourself bound to me, then bind yourself to my words!" Glóin roared, still coughing. "I will not allow this!"
"Your words hold no bearing in this case. Such a matter is for Thorin to decide," Gimli said curtly as he rose to his feet. He gave his father's back one more perfunctory slap and then moved away, leaving the Fire Room and making for the outer door.
"Thorin will not decide in your favor!" Glóin called after him amidst his coughs, his voice trembling with anger.
"We shall see," Gimli answered, and he left before his father could follow.