Mirkwood, 2941

"Good-bye! Be good, take care of yourselves-and DON'T LEAVE THE PATH!"

Gandalf's words floated faintly back to them as he rode away, leaving them to face Mirkwood alone.

"If we must go in there again, I'd rather just go instead of listening to Gandalf warn us about it for an hour beforehand," said Dwalin to Balin.

Balin nodded as the two of them stood staring into the darkness under the trees. The others marched ahead; Thorin was in a fey mood and Balin doubted that anything but the need to reach the Lonely Mountain weighed with their king any longer. Thorin had always taken after his father, but now the resemblance was so strong that it was terrifying. If Balin closed his eyes, it was as if the hundred years in between had never happened. He half expected to hear Frer and Frór join Bombur in worrying over whether the supplies that Beorn had given them would last until they reached the other side.

Bilbo, bringing up the rear, stopped as well and frowned. "My goodness, what a gloomy looking wood! Isn't that entirely typical of this trip? We follow what used to be a road straight into a forest where I doubt there has ever been a decent inn while Gandalf rides off in the opposite direction! How long did he say it would take us to cross?" When no answer was forthcoming, the hobbit sighed and squared his shoulders. "Well, the sooner we go in, the sooner we come out on the other side. Perhaps we can get a proper meal and an ale over there," he said and started after the others.

Mirkwood was the last place that Balin had ever wanted to see again, but if they were to reclaim Erebor, then Bilbo was right. Wavering here at the edge of the forest would not get them through it. Balin gave his brother an encouraging thump on the shoulder and murmured, "It was only ever Thráin that they were after."

Dwalin did not mention that it was Thráin's son who led them now, though the thought was clear in his expression. Balin appreciated his brother's tact; they had argued fiercely with Thorin ever since Gandalf announced on Carrock that he would not be coming with them, but had been unable to persuade the king to change his plans. Crossing Mirkwood could never be safe or easy, but Balin thought it could be done with Gandalf's help, even if the evil creatures that lived there still had an interest in the heir of Durin's Line. Mirkwood had already proved able to defeat them when they did not have a wizard's aid, but Thorin was determined to reach the Lonely Mountain as soon as possible now and would listen to no advice that warned against haste.

Bilbo gave them an odd look as he trotted past, no doubt wondering why the two dwarves thought him so timid when they were frightened of some gloomy-looking trees. If it were only that! Pushing aside thoughts of his previous encounter with Mirkwood, Balin caught his brother's eye and jerked his head towards the forest. Softly, because they both knew how keen Bilbo's ears were, he murmured, "Can't be shown up by the hobbit, can we?"

Dwalin nodded, though his face was bleak, and they followed the others into the darkness.

Near the Blue Mountains, Winter 2840

Thráin, king of the dwarves of Durin's Line and veteran of the terrible battle of Azanulbizar, handed over the iron pot he had just repaired. The baker's wife looked both him and the pot over suspiciously. She tested the mended handle twice to make sure the work was up to her standard, though Balin thought that anyone who wasted her money on such shoddy goods in the first place had no hope of realizing that Thráin's work would outlast the rest of the pot.

She tossed the king some copper. "Be off with you now. We've no more for you to mend here and the headman doesn't take kindly to vagrants, especially at this time of year."

Balin could hear Thráin grind his teeth even behind his heavy beard, but the king said nothing and pocketed the copper pieces. The woman walked away with her cooking pot, the last of the villagers who had come to have the dwarves repair their household goods. Even before her comments, Balin knew they would not return to this village for any future market days. They would barely break even on this trip and the disrespect only cemented the decision. He gathered their tools and loaded the cart without a word. It was only after they left the market square that Thráin said, "Would you be interested in seeing the Lonely Mountain again?"

Balin stopped dead in the middle of the lane, the handles of the cart slipping from his fingers. Surely he couldn't mean…. Thráin continued on for several paces before he realized he had left the young dwarf and their cart behind. He turned back and said, "Well, what do you say? It will be a small party—between ten and twenty of us—but there will always be room for you and Dwalin if you choose to join us."

Balin could only stare. Thráin might as well ask one of the Dúnedain if they would like to have Númenor returned to them! Though he had been very young when Smaug attacked, he still had some memories of the Lonely Mountain. Even people of low estate scorned them now, but he could recall the enthusiastic pride of the young Daleman whom Fundin had taken as an apprentice. And well the boy might have preened himself, with all the glorious things they had crafted in Erebor: weapons and armor of the highest quality, stonework that would endure for thousands of years, brilliant gems.

In those days, there had even been time to lavish on toys. His mother had had a little enameled bird that performed different songs and movements according to the time of day. So cunningly was it wrought that even seventy years later, his fingers still itched to explore the mechanism. No one now could tell him how it was done; Smaug had killed its maker and his apprentices and the secret was lost. The bird still fluttered through his dreams now and then, reminding him of what the dragon had stolen from them.

Thráin was still waiting for an answer.

"But how can we hope to defeat the dragon?" asked Balin. Few of those who had escaped Smaug had been able to carry away more than the clothes they wore. The weapons and armor that they had been able to make in the years since were still better than anything else made in Middle-earth in these declining years, but they were no more use than toothpicks against a dragon.

Thráin's cheek twitched beneath his good eye. "The time has not yet come when we can hope to retake the Mountain. Perhaps we may slip in and recover a few trifles from the riches that were stolen from us. If not, then we mean to go as near as we dare to the land that was ours, to look on what remains and remember."

Balin looked away. It must have cost Thráin terribly to admit that they could not retake the Lonely Mountain. The king was nearly as proud as his father had been, and Thrór's pride had cost him his life. But might it not be better to take that risk than to be reduced to mending cheap pots and being looked down on by the likes of that baker's wife wherever they went?

"Who else will be in the party? Is Thorin going too?" Balin asked, trying to decide who would be most interested in making a pilgrimage to the Mountain. If it was to be a party chosen from dwarves in their prime, he and Dwalin might find themselves a bit isolated in the group. As much as he respected the veterans of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, the distance between them and the younger dwarves sometimes seemed impassable. Thorin had fought at the battle of Azanulbizar, but for all that, he was only a few years older than Balin and they had grown up together.

"Thorin will remain here. Durin's House cannot be left without a leader, and it will be good experience for him to rule without my guidance for a time. I have not yet spoken to everyone I am considering for the party, but I believe Heri will join us, and An and his sons, and Nur and Móin and Nidri."

Balin frowned a bit at the list. He hadn't imagined a group anything like this one. He thought Nidri and Nur were from one of the more far-flung branches of the Longbeard nobility, but knew nothing more than that, including how he had come by that impression.

Heri, on the other hand, he had met many times before. After the fall of the Lonely Mountain, the band of refugees led by his grandfather, Farin, had met up with Heri on the road. Though he was from a different House and under no obligation to them, he had looked after them like kin and taught them what they needed to know about their new lives as wanderers.

Though Heri had been in and out of their camps more often than some of Balin's actual cousins, Balin wasn't sure he could claim to know Heri well. No one could. If asked, Heri always said he was a commoner. Balin guessed from his manners and accent that this was true, but he had also heard Heri say once that he was of the Firebeards, and another time that he was a Stonefoot. Since there were no two Houses of dwarves more distant than those, at least one claim was probably a lie. If Balin were old enough to have a daughter, he would not introduce her to someone whose past was such a mystery, but Heri was a welcomed addition to any group of travelers. Without his knowledge, many more refugees would have perished in the first years of their wandering.

Móin, he knew, was a distant cousin but he was not able to remember the exact relationship. He had been one of the dwarves who had brought the family the news that Fundin had fallen at Azanulbizar. Balin knew little of him beyond that he had fought alongside his father in that battle, and that he had a good reputation in their community. An, though, was another matter.

"I would not have expected to see An on such a journey," he said, hoping it was both discreet enough and still able to get his point across.

Thráin snorted. "You know him only by his family's reputation, then. The rest of his kin may have shaved off their beards, but he is a true dwarf. He has parted from them and is doing his best to raise his sons to remember our ways. That is no easy task in these days. In fact, his sons are part of the reason I spoke to him about the journey. Anar and Hanar are not much older than you and Dwalin, and I thought you would be more comfortable with some companions of your own age."

Balin nodded at the mild rebuke. He had been thinking of the talk he had heard around the village. An's family and their attempts to act less dwarvish had been the subject of years of scandalized gossip. 'They shaved off their beards' was only a figure of speech, but An's sister had actually done it. She had cut off her lovely amber-colored beard because Men found beards on women disgusting. Balin had not heard that An had married and had children. Maybe having children had convinced him to break with the rest of his family and teach his sons to be dwarves and not imitation humans.

"I'll have to think about it," he said, knowing that this was nothing that he could decide while he stood here in the street. "I have my mother and brother to consider as well."

Thráin nodded. Balin thought he looked pleased rather than disappointed by the display of devotion to family. "Talk it over with them. If your mother feels she can spare you, I would be glad of your company. Should you and Dwalin decide to join us, be ready to set out from the Michel Delving in the Shire by the first of May. Móin and some of the others have business that will keep them in Dunland until spring, but they will meet up with us there."

Balin returned the nod, picked up the handles of the cart and started down the road again.

For the rest of the way, Thráin said little and Balin, even less. After all the slights and hardships of the last seventy years, just the chance to look on Erebor from a distance sounded like it might be worth a long journey through the wilderness. Even so, he wondered if there might be more to the pilgrimage than Thráin had been willing to admit. Balin couldn't quite picture Thráin looking on the ruins of the kingdom that should have been his and going away quietly. It was madness to consider anything else, but Balin had to admit that Thráin was capable of doing just that. And why not? If he hadn't had his family to consider, he would already have said yes, madness or not.

By the time he parted from Thráin and reached his family's house, Balin had decided that he was going to turn Thráin's offer down. Though everything in him strained towards the Lonely Mountain, reason insisted there was scant hope of a happy outcome and a good chance of disaster. Still, he could not keep from dreaming.

Dwalin had not yet returned from the village whose market he had gone to work, but their mother was at home and in the forge. She had just drawn a rod from the coals and did not see him come in as she bent the glowing iron around two pegs to curve it into a pothook. As she plunged the completed hook into the bucket of water, she noticed him standing there and asked, "How did it go at the market?"

How was he supposed to describe a day in which he had watched ignorant villagers treat the king of the dwarves of Durin's line as a common vagrant, and been offered a chance to throw his life away on a trip to Erebor? His baffled silence lengthened to the point that his mother set aside her hammer and came around the forge for a closer look.

"What happened, Balin?"

After another failed attempt to condense the day's events into something approaching sense, he finally abandoned half the tale and said, "Thráin is going to go back to see the Lonely Mountain again and he asked me to go with him."

A stream of expressions passed over her face too quickly for him to identify. In the end, her face was solemn as she said, "When are you leaving?"

Swallowing his shock, he said, "I'm not going. It's madness; we can't hope to kill the dragon, and what is the sense of traveling all that way if we can do no more than hide in the underbrush and look at some ruins from leagues away?"

His mother's face grew even more solemn. "You should go even though it is dangerous, and take Dwalin with you." She scooped up a handful of pothooks and held them out to him. "He thinks this is all we are: wandering makers of simple tools and hardware. He has heard the stories, but he doesn't know them in his bones the way those of us do who remember the Lonely Mountain. He has never seen that there is anything more to dwarven craftsmanship than this apprentice work." She let the hooks clatter back into the box.

"I don't want to lose any more of my family, but even less do I want my sons to accept what outsiders say of us as the truth. Balin, your brother never saw Erebor. No matter how many times I tell him, he will never understand that he comes of a great people until he sees for himself what we could do when we were in our own land." Her voice took a desperate edge. "Perhaps we do only the most menial tasks now, but I won't have either of you come to accept it! You are direct descendants of Durin himself, and you must be able to lead our people if anything should happen to Thorin and Dáin. How can you do that if you believe that we belong to a cursed and despicable race?"

Balin had no answer for that, and the urge to go to Erebor welled up even stronger. Maybe he had less self-control than he had thought. He should not let her talk him into this. She had no other relatives closer than Dáin or Glóin and the thought of her having to make her way on her own was repellant. It was not that she was unable to care for herself: her skill in the forge would keep her fed, and he had seen what she could do to bandits when she was armed with nothing more that the tools from her forge, but outsiders had little respect and fewer manners where dwarf-women were concerned.

The few who believed that dwarf women even existed mocked them openly. What kind of a son would leave his mother to go out among the ignorant just to indulge his own whims? She deserved better than to have to deny her sex in order to walk among the other races without snickers and pointed fingers.

She must have seen something of his thoughts in his expression, because she gave his shoulder a little shake and said, "Go, Balin, go and see the Lonely Mountain again. Seeing it, even in ruins, will give you strength to outlast the slights we have to endure now. I will be fine. I've already heard everything Men say about us—nothing but words, and most of them wrong in any case. It reflects worse on them than it does on us. You must not refuse this journey on my account."

Her eyes went to the eastern horizon, and she was silent for a moment before she began to sing.

"No longer do the hammers ring

In the mountain's deepest heart,

For the great mansion lies in ruins

And our people are cast out.

I would give all I possess,

All the skill of my hands,

That the halls of my people

Could be ours once again."

The song had already been an old one on the night when Smaug roared down upon the mountain, but Erebor was hardly the first home his people had lost. In the years since, it had become a favorite of the refugees. He had heard the words many times before, and he had always understood them figuratively. His elders, he began to realize, meant them literally. His mother would truly rather lose the use of her hands than give up her hope of returning to the Lonely Mountain.

Suddenly his desire to go with Thráin seemed far less ridiculous. He had wanted to go since Thráin first brought the matter up, but his duty to his mother held him back. Now it seemed that she was even more determined than he was that he and Dwalin should go. If the Mountain mattered more to her than craftsmanship, she would never hold her sons back from the journey.

His memories of Erebor were hazy and incomplete; he knew he had seen the Arkenstone, but all he could recall of it was a vague impression of dazzling light and awe. They could not hope to recover the Arkenstone-that was undoubtedly in the deepest part of Smaug's lair-but even if all they saw were some broken bridges and the ruins of Dale, that alone would be enough to restore their hope and pride. And someday, who knew? Erebor might be theirs again if they did not let go of their resolve.

The first wash of enthusiasm carried him through until supper. When Balin told his brother of the planned journey, Dwalin looked simultaneously pleased and skeptical.

"I really do want to go, Balin," he said as they sat around the table, "but this plan of Thráin's bothers me. Is there something else to it that he isn't telling us? When has he-or even Thorin for that matter-ever put that much effort into accomplishing so little?"

His mother toyed with a slice of meat that she didn't appear to see, and said quietly, "I think the war would qualify."

He saw Dwalin flinch, and had all he could do to avoid it himself. After Fundin died at Azanulbizar, she had never willingly brought up the war again, and responded to any attempt to praise him in her presence with a remote politeness that persuaded most people not to do that again.

After a long uncomfortable pause, he said, "I can see that. It still seems to me, though, that he must have a grander plan than the one he told to Balin. I don't recall all that went on before the war, but wasn't there talk of retaking and settling the lands that the orcs had held? Maybe even Moria?"

Balin shrugged. "I don't think that anyone other than Thráin truly considered retaking Moria, but I do remember people saying that we could take and hold Gundabad, if not the whole of the northern Misty Mountains."

His mother shook her head as if to drive away a troubling thought. "Madness. We were too few even then to hold that amount of territory, but we were all afire with outrage, and no one was thinking clearly."

"Maybe that is what makes it so hard for me to believe," said Dwalin. "I can see the king deciding in a fury to take on a quest that has no reasonable hope of success and still managing to succeed somehow. We know he's capable of that; he did it more than once before Azanulbizar. But since then, his decisions have always seemed to be careful and cool-headed. Is this the old Thráin come back again?"

"I don't think so," she said, twisting a strand of her beard around one finger as she considered. "The Thráin of the war years never counted the cost. How could he? When the orcs slew Thrór and desecrated his body, they told the world that they thought the dwarves were so weak or disloyal that we would let such an act go unpunished. Of course he fought! But after Azanulbizar, I think he finally understood that there were limits to what we could do.

" He probably does have some—intention, maybe, of spiriting away some treasure from under Smaug's nose. I wouldn't put it past him to have dreams of the Arkenstone, but even at his wildest, he has always had the sense to understand when something is truly impossible."

Balin began to clear away the plates, saying over his shoulder, "That does not reassure me in the least, Mother. Should we find a way to turn him down?"

She and Dwalin rose to join him in the kitchen. They had been considering hiring a servant to deal with the heavier housework for a year or so, but some minor disaster had always intervened to gobble up all their spare coin, so Dwalin scoured and Balin rinsed and dried, and their mother tucked the plates away in the chest.

As she put away the knives and spoons, she said, "No, I don't think there is any need of that, and you can be reassured. Remember that he listened when Dáin told him that Moria could not be retaken, even though Dáin was barely more than a child at the time. Thráin can be rash, but he is more careful of his people than he is of himself, and he will take advise from others, though it can hardly be said that he accepts it graciously."

Balin smothered a smile as he hung up the dishcloth. He had heard from those who were there that Thráin had been anything but gracious. In the end, though, he had given up his plans to retake Moria because his people told him no. Balin was no great scholar, but he could easily think of several kings in Middle Earth who would have done much worse than rant and fume in a similar situation.

His mother continued, "By the same token, there are few better than Thráin at accomplishing things that seem impossible. I believe that you will be as safe with him as with anyone, and stand a good chance of doing all you set out to do or more. But if you feel that you will not be able to stand firm if you are right and he is wrong, you would do better to stay here."

Balin caught his brother's eyes. Dwalin looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. Thráin was their king and their elder, but they were also of the Line of Durin. It might not be easy, but if Thráin tried to push them towards a foolish choice, he thought they could set protocol aside and push right back. He turned back to his mother and said, "We will go."