Hey all! Sorry about the extremely long delay, Real Life is madness. I am in fact approx 29 weeks pregnant at the moment, working full time, tutoring, and trying not to burn out. I will never abandon this fic, however, demanding an update under my current circumstances is actually achieving the opposite effect of what you are after. It makes me feel so tired and enervated that I cannot even comprehend the idea of writing!
As always, not mine.
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Orla Longaxe paced, her great tail of wiry black hair sweeping behind her, as the booms and shudders rocked the Mountain. The noise was deafening, and though every door in the room was closed and packed tightly with cloths, it still echoed in the walls and under her feet. In her arms, her second-born son shivered and shook. His eyes were unfocused, and he was frowning and pressing close to her chest. His ears were covered with a dark woollen hat, pulled down low nearly to cover his eyes as well.
In the corner, a little puff of steam came from a great iron pot which bubbled away softly, the vaguely soothing sound meant to combat the rattling thunder of the boulders striking the mountainside over and over again.
Balin could not bear loud noises for long.
Orla tucked her son's head closer to hers, protectively wrapping her hand over his wool-smothered ears. Balin sucked in a breath, his hands clenching and unclenching rapidly and spasmodically, and pressed his face against his mother's neck to hide his eyes from even the very modest light that came from the fire. Her boy was cut from a different stone, as they called it: his thoughts worked in a special and singular way. Many of the greatest works of their people had been made by Dwarrows born with minds like Balin's, their focus as determined and passionate and as single-minded as a blade. She was prouder of him than she could possibly say. Balin was fascinated by the way things worked, by nature and first causes and the pressures under the earth and the creatures that crawled upon it. He would be a great Dwarf, his mother knew.
However, there were difficulties that came hand-in-hand with these unique gifts. Balin was clumsy at times, he occasionally lost his words, he did not enjoy company other than his parents or his friends, and he could not tolerate loud noises or bright lights. The overstimulation was uncomfortable, and sometimes painful.
Unfortunately, Orla was unable to behead every Orc, troll and Easterling beyond the walls for upsetting her son. (Though she had certainly tried.)
Balin let out a small noise of unhappiness as another boulder shattered against the hard northern rock of Erebor, and Orla's fury crested. Damn them. Damn them for laying siege to the home she had travelled so far to find, the people she had grown to love, to the Mountain her husband had bled for. Damn them all for hurting Balin, for scaring tiny little Frerin and for forcing her brave and taciturn eldest lad into the grim work of war so young, so terribly young. Her fingers itched for the long-handled Blacklock axe that had become part of her name. She would spit in the Great Eye of Sauron himself, given half a chance. But for now, it was more important that she stay here, holding her boy, anchoring him to the room and to her warmth and to the soft sounds of bubbling.
It would have to wait.
"Shhhhhh," said Orla, and Balin shuddered reflexively. "Shhhh."
She did not speak. It would not help.
Eventually the barrage stopped, and Orla breathed a silent sigh. It would begin again, of course, but the great siege-weapons had to be reloaded, and that took time. She glanced down at her son. Balin was staring at the tattoos upon her collarbone, his little face intent.
"Can you read them for me?" she said, as softly as she could.
Balin did not answer, his eyes tracing the lines over and over. He had drifted into a daydream to escape the onslaught of sound, something that happened more and more often in these tense days.
Stroking the little wool-covered head, Orla continued to pace.
They would pay.
So. Gimli knew. He knew. And he loved the Elf in return.
This... this changed everything.
"What do we have?" Thorin said curtly as he strode into his mother's workroom. Frís' eyes flicked up to him before fixing back upon the report before her.
"Hello, inùdoy," she said in a distracted way. There was a stylus stuck through her mussed golden hair. "Much has happened, it seems. Gandalf and Pippin have reached Minas Tirith..."
"Already?" Thorin could not restrain the exclamation.
Frís looked up. "Apparently, to ride upon the back of one of the Mearas is no small honour. Shadowfax brought them to the White City within a day and a night, and he did not stop once, but kept the same pace the whole way."
Thorin could feel his eyebrows trying to push their way up into his hairline, and tried to school the astonishment from his face. He had owned and cared for ponies his whole life, and he knew the limits of horseflesh. It was rare to find an animal that could canter for longer than an hour or two without requiring water and a rest, particularly when bearing a rider. To pace your animal was a safer option: the same pony could not gallop the whole distance, but would happily and steadily whittle the miles away at a decent trot. To push your pony too fast or too hard meant walking the next day, to allow the poor beast time to recuperate.
To gallop for a day and a night...
"These are days of great deeds of speed and endurance," he muttered, and shook his head in disbelief. "What befell them in Minas Tirith?"
"Ori was worried by their welcome," Frís said, and she rubbed at her brow for a moment. "Gandalf and Pippin were received by the Steward, Lord Denethor. He is a proud and mighty Man with a cunning mind and clear foresight, and in him the blood of Númenor runs nigh-pure, according to the Wizard."
Thorin could see no fault in any of this. "He sounds a proper ruler."
"He knows of the death of his son," Frís said heavily.
A breath escaped him with a whistling sigh. "Oh."
"Oh indeed," she agreed. "Bifur had some far stronger words than oh to add, might I say. Ori was not convinced by the Lord's grief, however. It seems that one as subtle as Denethor can even use his sorrow to shield his true intent. He uses his grief to cloak his questions, gathering more information through tongues made free with sympathy."
"Were they turned away?" Thorin sat down beside his mother, and restrained the urge to take the report from her hands and read for himself. She shook her head, blonde plaits swinging.
"Denethor will not hear the counsel of Gandalf, but he has not turned them away. Boromir's death has not robbed him of all his wits."
"He will not hear of reforging the old alliances," she continued, and grimaced. Thorin wondered when his mother had become so tired. "He will not light the beacons to call for aid from Rohan, and to think of sending to the Elves is even further from his thoughts. He seems sunk in despair and yet full of determination, for all that. Ori says his anger is never far from the surface, and it is dangerous and fey when it erupts. Still, the Lords of Gondor have keener sight than lesser Men."
Thorin stared ahead at the intricately carved and jewel-studded walls, and pushed the sudden swooping feeling of understanding aside. He was not his illness and this Lord Denethor was not his reflection, any more than Boromir had been. "Minas Tirith stands alone with naught but its pride for armour, then."
He knew, better than any, how pitiful pride was as a shield.
"The few vassal Lords of Gondor have been called," she said, and clucked her tongue in sympathy. "It will not be enough. Lossarnach and Dol Amroth are but small fiefs, not warrior-clans. They will not have the numbers needed."
"And the city itself?" The picture painted thus far was bleak. It was a marvel the White City still stood under such savage pressure and with so few at her side. No wonder Boromir's desperation had been so fierce and frantic.
"No measures of defence are being put into place –no oil or wood set by, no weapons or reinforcement. The ancient trebuchets still stand in their sconces, but the walls are their best hope now. The city struggles to breathe under the cloak of darkness and smoke that forever fills the air," Frís said, and she leaned her head upon her hand. "A reeking fume blows from the east, Ori writes, and Bifur tells me that even the river is blackened and sick. He could see it from the walls."
Thorin curled his arm over his mother's shoulders. "You need rest."
"In a moment," she said, and yawned. "There is more. Pippin has pledged himself to the service of the city."
His eyebrows leapt up once more, despite the seriousness of the situation. "Pippin? The Hobbit, Pippin? Pippin Took?"
"Is there another Pippin in Minas Tirith? Aye, he wears the black and silver livery of the White Tower," she said, leaning back into him. "Bifur said it made both the Wizard and the Lord quite speechless when he knelt and swore his blade to Denethor. He rather enjoyed the looks on their faces, it seems."
No wonder Bilbo had railed so against his Took side, if such impulsiveness were a family trait! Thorin shook his head and a smile pulled at his cheeks, a wholly inappropriate laugh smothered somewhere in his chest. "Hobbits."
"Osgiliath is still being contested, and it is this that poisons the River as far south as Pelargir," Frís went on, and she stifled another yawn. "Frodo and Sam have been detained by Rangers in Ithilien and have been taken to a place called Henneth Annûn, the Window of the Sunset. I do not think this Captain Faramir trusts easily, but Frodo has been making the most of his fine education, Fundin tells me. A trained courtier could not do better. They have been dancing around each other with courteous words for nearly a whole day. And oh, I forgot to say! Balin has ordered a change of shifts."
Thorin frowned. "He has?"
"Well, you were... otherwise engaged," she said, and quirked a sly look up at him. Thorin took that to mean you were throwing a tantrum like a Dwarfling of thirty, and ignored it. "Now that the Dale-Men are mustering, Erebor must hold firm. They must last until the Bizarûnh arrive. The Orcs do not appear to have split their forces yet, and so Dale itself remains safe for the moment."
Then her head fell to her chest, and she took a deep breath. "Thorin... we have discovered who leads the Orcish army."
That did not sound reassuring. Thorin's arm tightened around Frís' shoulders. "Who."
"Dâgalûr," Frís said, exhaling the hard, snapped syllables of Black Speech into the sudden tenseness. Her voice dropped in pitch. "Daughter of – of Bolg."
Thorin's hand clenched into a fist upon his thigh.
"Birashagimi, inùdoy," she whispered, and her small, ink-stained hand rose to smooth over his brow and slide down the side of his face. "Courage, my son."
"It is not I who must face the last scion of that cursed family," he said and it came out as a low, dark growl. "It is not I who must feel the sting of vengeance in my blood."
"But you do anyway," murmured Frís, and she kissed him gently. "I know you, my steely stormcloud."
His throat tightened, and he turned his face away. "Why do they always live, when we die and die again?" he asked the wall, and to his own horror his voice broke upon the last word.
"I'm so sorry," Frís said, and she stroked his face again. "Oh, I am so sorry, my darling one."
He breathed in through his nose and let it out slowly and shakily. He could not fall down into the familiar black chasm of rage and bitterness yet again. Vengeance was no longer his path. The matter of this... Dâgalûr, and of the blood-feud she carried was no longer his to bear. His burden had been Azog and Bolg. Dâgalûr was Dáin's to deal with.
"Strength to your blade, cousin," he muttered, and then he glanced down at his mother once more. Frís was yawning again, trying to cover her mouth with one hand. "You force me to take your role yet again, 'Amad. Go to bed."
"I cannot leave yet," she protested tiredly.
"And why not? You look exhausted. Do you need assistance?"
"No, no," she said, and took his hand in her small one and squeezed it. "I will tell you if I need help, you may be sure of that. But I cannot return to our quarters just at this moment. I must give your father at least another half-hour before I come to bed."
Thorin blinked, and then tried to keep the plaintive note from his voice. "Do I want to hear this?"
"You sound like your brother," she remarked, and then she smiled suddenly, her blue eyes twinkling. "No, your father believes he is being terribly secretive about crafting me my nameday present. As though a blind Dwarrow could not see the scalds on his fingers or the frizzled ends of the working-braids in his beard! But I mustn't spoil my surprise. I don't want to ruin all his fun and hard work."
"Ah." Thorin thought guiltily of the half-finished reading-lamp that sat upon his workbench. He had meant to complete it, but it had taken so very long to clean and mend his half-destroyed smithy (even with the help of Frerin and Víli) that time had simply run away from him.
Besides, his watch beckoned, tempting him always back to the starry waters of Gimlîn-zâram. He would not leave aside his guardianship of Endor for long. Not for all the gold in Erebor.
"Perhaps we might have a cup of tea to pass the time, then?" he suggested, and she smiled at him.
"That would be lovely, dear. Now, there's all my news, what of yours? I have nothing from you for yesterday – what happens in Edoras?"
Thorin's heart paused in its rhythm, and then his eyes slid away from his mother. "It is all changed. Everything is changed now, because Gimli..."
Her hand tightening upon his was her only indication of surprise. "Darling one, are you well?"
He swallowed. "I am well enough."
"But?" she prompted after a moment or two.
"Gimli loves the Elf in return," he said, each word feeling like it was pulled from his throat with pliers. "He knew."
Frís' intake of breath was sudden and sharp.
Hating every second, Thorin continued. "It is not only Legolas' happiness at stake. My fierce bold star, nârûnuh Gimli... it is also his heart that hangs in the balance, and that I cannot bear. It is too much, too much."
Too much after hearing Kíli's soft, sad words of longing forever thwarted. Too much after hearing his name at last in the mouth of his Hobbit. Too much with the teetering wave of darkness cresting over the lands ready to crash and break all loves and last hopes asunder. Thorin bent his head.
Frís remained silent for another beat, and then she stood and tugged him to his feet behind her. "Right then. Cup of tea. Now," she said firmly.
"Now you sound like Bilbo," he muttered, and she gave his hand a warm, quick squeeze.
"Good, I am sure he would approve." She dragged him along with the sheer force of her personality, a deer herding a bull. "Tea, then bed."
Thorin stared at her back, his small, golden and indomitable mother, and then to his own surprise a soft and rueful laugh escaped him. "It never lasts long," he said.
"My small sojourns in your role. Perhaps I am simply not hewn to care for others."
"Now that is nonsense. Was it a century you spent caring for your sister, your nephews? Hmm? It is worse than I had supposed: you need that tea far more than I had ever suspected. Perhaps it will clear the cobwebs from your thinking."
"Thorin," she mimicked his tone, though her attempt at recreating his far, far lower voice was rather less than successful. "Come along. These tidings of war and matters of the heart grow too heavy, and we have to put them down from time to time lest our poor backs break under their weight."
"And tea will make them lighter?"
"Well, a cup is not such a great burden to carry," she smiled up at him, before tugging his hand again and leading him through the Halls towards the great, many-pillared rooms where they ate. "The morning will come soon enough. Let your worries keep until then."
He watched her walking for a second or two, and then he wrapped his arm back over her shoulders. "Aye," he said, and felt rather than saw her approval like the steady warmth of a forge against his heart. "Aye, I will."
The Man seemed a quiet sort. Haban squinted at him, and then she decided that she would not have enjoyed bargaining with him, back in her trading days. He had the look of one who would go penniless if it served to help those he cared for. Trading with folk like that always made her feel cheated of her fun (Haban was very proud of her negotiation skills, after all) and on occasion filled her with terrible pity.
The place they had been brought to was a cave of sorts with a waterfall that hid the mouth. Within, the cave was filled with stores of victuals and weapons. All around them stood the Rangers in their brown and green, their faces still covered. All but Faramir, who looked out through the cave-mouth at the dawning light that glinted through the rushing water, filling the air with motes of light of all colours of the rainbow: gold, ruby, sapphire, emerald, amethyst, all kindled with an unconsuming fire.
"Another morning," Óin said, and he glanced over at where the two Hobbits lay curled together like nesting kittens, curly heads close. "And another step closer to the Dark Land."
"And a better meal than stewed rabbit beneath their belts," Haban added, and her son grunted. To the side, Fíli and Frerin investigated an open box of short swords.
"I don't know about him, boyo," said Haban softly, and she tweaked her fire-red curled and braided beard in thought. "He's too quiet. He doesn't trust them, and he doesn't buy Frodo's account of the Council at Rivendell. I'd stake a goodly sum that he intends them mischief."
"I don't think so," Óin said, and he wrinkled his nose as he looked up at the Captain of Gondor. "He disnae buy the story, no. I think he guesses at far more than he says. But he's brought them here safely when he could have and should have killed them. I heard the others talking: all trespassers in these lands are taken to be servants of the Eye, and by the express order of the Steward they must be killed at once. He hasn't done so."
"Hmm." Haban glanced back over at where the two blond Princelings were bickering, and whistled sharply. "Here, you two! Keep it down!"
"You began it," Frerin said sulkily, glaring at his taller, older nephew.
"And I'm finishing it," Haban said sternly. "The Hobbits are waking."
Water and food was brought, and Sam looked at it with suspicious and bleary eyes. "Now, Sam," said Frodo, "we ate of their food last night. If they're poisoners, then they do a very poor job of it."
Sam only grumbled beneath his breath, but he still fell upon the bread and cheese, salted meat and dried fruits as though they were a King's feast.
"I wish to know more of your tale," Faramir said bluntly, sitting down opposite them. "What concerns Boromir concerns me, as does the mystery of this Isildur's Bane. An orc-arrow slew Isildur, so far as old tales tell. But orc-arrows are plenty and the sight of one would not be taken as a sign of Doom by Boromir of Gondor. You say it is hidden. Is it hidden because you choose to hide it?"
"No, not because I choose so," Frodo answered carefully. "It does not belong to me. It does not belong to any mortal, great or small, though if any could claim it, it would be Aragorn son of Arathorn, leader of our Company."
"And why not Boromir, prince of the City that the sons of Elendil founded?" Faramir leaned closer.
"Because Aragorn is descended in direct lineage from Isildur himself," Frodo said, his voice utterly steady.
This caused a murmur of astonishment to pass around the assembled Rangers. "The sword of Elendil!" some cried. "The sword of Elendil returns to Gondor!" But Faramir was unmoved.
"So great a claim must be proved," he said, equally steady.
Frodo's chin raised high. "Boromir was satisfied of that claim. Indeed, if he were here, he would answer all your questions."
"If he were here," Faramir said, and a humourless smile crossed his fair and careworn face. "But he cannot be here, nor anywhere else ever again. Were you his friend, Master Halfling?"
"Yes, I was his friend," Frodo said, and his tired eyes grew sad. "For my part."
"It grows heavier," murmured Óin. "Look at Frodo's eyes, the exhaustion in his face."
Faramir's gaze bored into the Hobbits relentlessly. "Then it would grieve you to know that Boromir is dead?"
"I would grieve indeed," Frodo replied, and then his breath caught and shock turned him pale as milk. "Dead!" he said. "Do you mean that he is dead, and that you knew it? Or are you now trying to snare me with a falsehood?"
"I would not snare even an orc with a falsehood," said Faramir.
"How did he die, and how do you know?" Frodo scooted forward upon the crate that served him as a chair. Beside him, Sam steadied him with a hand.
"Careful, Mr Frodo," he murmured.
"As to the manner of his death, I had hoped that his friend and companion might shed some light on the matter," Faramir said, and he looked upon them with a cool expression.
"He was alive and strong when we parted!" Frodo cried. "He lives still, for all I know! How came you by this news? Have any of our Fellowship arrived in Minas Tirith?"
"They had not when I departed," Faramir said. "But I do not need a messenger to confirm what I know in my heart: Boromir was my brother."
A small noise alerted Haban to their youngest watcher. Frerin was hard-faced and dry-eyed, but his hands were clenched tightly at his sides, betraying his rising emotion. "Nidoy," she murmured to Óin, and he nodded, but Fíli got there first.
"Here now," said Fíli, and he nudged Frerin's side. "Are you well?"
Frerin shot him a glare. "You didn't see it," he said. "I did. I saw it. He didn't deserve it, and he didn't need to die! And now, this Faramir – his brother..."
"Do you remember a mark that Boromir bore with him amongst his gear?" Faramir demanded.
"I... I remember that he bore a horn," Frodo faltered.
"Then you remember well," Faramir said, and he turned aside with a heavy grief shadowing his eyes. "Before I set out upon this mission, I heard the blowing of that horn. And the third night after that, I saw a strange thing at the waters of Anduin: a boat, grey and graceful, and in it lay the broken body of my brother, surrounded by many weapons and wrapped in a curious cloak. I saw many wounds on him, and his sword was clenched in his blue dead hand. I knew his gear, his sword, his beloved face. Only one thing was missing: his horn."
"The boats... the boats the Lady gave us," Sam said haltingly. "Back in Lothlórien."
"Then you have passed through that land!" Faramir said, amazed and saddened both. "What a tale he could tell! And now I shall never hear him speak again."
"I want to go," Frerin said abruptly. "I don't want to be here. I'm going back."
"Frerin..." Óin began, but Fíli, again, was faster.
"What, to see Thorin? He'll only grump at you," said Fíli. "He's been a bear with a sore paw lately."
"I'm grateful to have even that," Frerin spat. "You know."
"Yes, I know. Come on," Fíli said gently. "Brothers, pah – all brothers are twitterpated and a terrible waste of a good worry. Don't you remember?"
Frerin's lips pressed together. "Twit brothers."
"Aye, you remember," Fíli said, and he slung an arm around the smaller blond, tugging him close. "Stick with me, little uncle. We must present a united front. It seems twit brothers multiply when you aren't watching."
Frerin's eyes went wide. "You called me..."
"Well, you are," Fíli said dismissively, and he scruffed at Frerin's head with his hand. "You're absolutely tiny."
"I am not!" Frerin immediately retorted, but there was a warm light beginning to glow in his face. "You – you called me uncle."
"Still uncle, though." Frerin's bright, buoyant grin finally broke through the shell of his sadness. "I'm counting it."
"You do that, little uncle." Fíli grinned back, his smile nearly the perfect match, only older.
"What's this about twit brothers?" Óin wondered.
"Don't you be getting any ideas about names to call Glóin when he arrives," Haban warned him, and she tweaked the upcurved plait at the back of his head.
"The horn came back to me by the river, cloven in two," Faramir continued. "It now lies upon the lap of our father, sitting in his high chair, waiting in vain for news. Can you tell me nothing?"
"I do not know what befell him," Frodo said wretchedly. "And now your tale fills me with dread. For if Boromir was killed, so mighty a man was he, then surely all my companions are dead also!"
"Mister Frodo," Sam said hurriedly, "no, don't think such things."
"My cousins, my kin! Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, those brave souls," moaned Frodo, and he put his head in his hands. "Can you not put aside your suspicion of me and let me go? I am weary and full of grief, and afraid, terribly afraid. I must do this deed, or attempt it, before I too am slain. And the more need of haste, if we two Halflings are all that remains of our Fellowship."
Faramir watched him in silence.
"Please, let him go," Sam pleaded, turning to the Man. "Please!"
"I should now take you back to Minas Tirith to answer there to Denethor," Faramir said slowly. "But if hard days have made me any judge of Men's words, then perhaps I may make a guess at Halflings. My life will be forfeit if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city. So I will not decide in haste."
Sam grimaced in frustration and settled back, stuffing a piece of cheese into his mouth with poor grace.
"Feisty little fellow," Haban murmured.
"I can guess more from your words than you spoke," Faramir said, and he tipped his head and looked at the small, bedraggled pair before him. "You will not confirm nor deny Isildur's Bane, and you hold yourself as though Boromir's memory is painful to you beyond grief at his death. So. You were not friendly with Boromir, or you did not part in friendship. Now, I loved him dearly, and yet I knew him well. Isildur's Bane – I would hazard that Isildur's Bane lay between you and was a cause of contention. A mighty heirloom of sorts, if this Aragorn may lay first claim to it. Do I not hit near the mark?"
"Perceptive," said Haban, shocked. Perhaps trading with such a Man would have been dangerous, rather than disappointing. Perhaps she would have been lucky to escape with her beads still in her hair!
"Too perceptive!" Fíli added.
"The blood of Númenor, perhaps?" Óin wondered.
"You strike near," said Frodo, "but not in the gold."
"Ha!" Frerin crowed, even as Fíli groaned. "A very respectable pun!"
"There's a flash of Hobbitish riddling left in him yet," said Óin, and he sighed in relief. "Good. Good, not so dire then, glad to know."
"Well, calm your fears," Faramir said, and he smiled. "I am not Boromir, and I will not wrangle with you for it. I would not take this thing if it lay by the highway. I do not wish for such things, no – I wish to see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens; not as a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor, and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."
"Well, he can saddle up his vocabulary and gallop it around the room a few times, can't he?" mumbled Fíli.
Haban was beginning to thank Mahal and all Seven Fathers that she had never come across Faramir or his equal. She would have ended up gifting him with all she owned, and then working for him!
"My errand," said Frodo, and he looked up. "Only my task can bring about the peace you yearn for."
"I do not doubt it," Faramir said, and he leaned back against a box of winter apples. He resembled Boromir closely, now that Haban was looking for it: the same resolute face, the same grey eyes, the same large nose. But where Boromir was unyielding, bold and rash in his actions, his brother seemed slower to act and deeper of thought. "I must yet consider. Give me time to think it through. Tell me of Lothlórien! What befell you in that enchanted land? Did you see the lady who dies not?"
"The Lady of Lórien!" Sam exclaimed. "Galadriel! You should see her, indeed you should, sir. I wish I could make a song about her. But you'd need Strider, Aragorn that is, or old Mr. Bilbo to do the honours, for I haven't the words. Beautiful she is, sir! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di'monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime."
"Then she must be lovely indeed," said Faramir. "Perilously fair."
"I don't know about perilous," said Sam. "It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they've brought it. But perhaps you could call her perilous, because she's so strong in herself. You, you could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship on a rock; or drown yourself, like a hobbit in a river. Now Boro-" He stopped and went quite red in the face.
"Yes?" Faramir said, an eyebrow rising. "Now Boromir, you would say? What, he took his peril with him?"
Sam set his jaw and folded his arms staunchly, though he waved at the Man with a heel of bread as he spoke. "Yes sir, begging your pardon, and a fine man as your brother was if I may say so. But you've been warm on the scent all along. Now I watched Boromir and listened to him, from Rivendell all down the road – looking after my master, as you'll understand, and not meaning any harm to Boromir – and it's my opinion that in Lórien he first saw clearly what I guessed sooner: what he wanted. From the moment he first saw it he wanted the Enemy's Ring!"
"Shazara!" snapped Óin, but it was too late, too late!
"No!" Frerin gasped, echoed by Haban.
"Sam!" Frodo cried in horror.
"Save me!" Sam gasped, and he slapped his hand over his mouth and his ruddy cheeks turned pale as the moon. "Mister Frodo, I'm sorry! Mister Faramir, sir, don't you go taking advantage o' him just because Sam Gamgee's a fool – you've dealt with us honourably, you have. Now's a chance for you to prove your quality."
"Indeed," said Faramir with a slow and strange smile. "So that is the answer to all the riddles! The One Ring itself. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way – to me!"
Sam gulped noisily, and stepped in front of Frodo protectively, full of bluster with his fists raised high. "Now, see here..." he began, his voice trembling.
Faramir stood, and his height put Sam's show to shame immediately. "So, here in the wild I have you: two Halflings, and a host of Men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune!" He drew himself up, very tall and stern, his grey eyes glinting.
"Get ready to run for Thorin, little uncle," Fíli murmured.
"I hope you're feeling speedy," Haban added.
Frodo began to back towards the wall, fumbling for the hilt of Sting as Sam tried to shield him with his body, little bare chin outthrust. "Please, let him go!" Sam gasped. "Please, it's such a burden! Can you not let us go?"
"A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality," Faramir whispered, and he stepped forward to eye the chain at Frodo's neck and the seductive glint of gold that peered out between the buttons of his threadbare Shire shirt.
"No!" Frodo shouted, and he backed up right against the wall of the cave, his chest heaving.
"Don't you understand?" Sam howled. "We've got to destroy it! Boromir tried to take the Ring from Frodo - The Ring drove your brother mad!"
There was a silence.
Then Faramir abruptly sat back down and began to laugh quietly. No humour was in that laugh however, and it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. "Alas for Boromir!" he said, and grief crossed his face once more. "Alas for my brave, proud brother! It was too sore a trial. How you have increased my sorrow, you two strange wanderers from a far country, bearing the peril of Men!"
"What?" whispered Óin. "What now?"
"So, am I running?" Frerin wondered.
"Maybe... not?" Haban said dubiously.
"Don't discount the possibility," Fíli said, still eyeing the Man with suspicion.
Faramir's head bent, shading his face. "Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take these words as a vow, and be held by them. But I am not such a man. Or I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee."
Frodo stared at him, and then as the first shock of fear passed, his body began to tremble. Sam cried out wordlessly and wrapped him in his arms, holding him tightly. "Mister Frodo," he blurted. "Sit, sit down now, Mister Frodo me dear. Come on, your Sam's here."
"Sam, Sam!" Frodo gasped, blindly reaching out with a fumbling hand, and Sam took it in his work-worn brown one and squeezed tightly.
"Well Frodo, now at last we understand one another," Faramir said softly. "You took this thing on yourself, unwilling, for the sake of all others. You have pity and honour from me. Go now to rest. You are safe here another day, and tomorrow I will help you."
"You mean to let us go?" said Frodo with a great hope in his voice. "I must go to Mordor, I must go to Gorgoroth. I must cast the thing into the gulf of Doom. Gandalf said so. I do not think I will ever get there."
Faramir stared at him for a moment in wordless amazement. Then he leapt forward and caught the slight Hobbit as he swayed, and lifting him gently, carried him back to his blankets and covered him warmly.
"Captain, if you let them go, your life will be forfeit," Mablung hissed, and Faramir stood and met the worried eyes of his Ranger.
"Then it is forfeit," he said gravely.
A small movement to one side sent his gaze back to where Sam stood, alone and uncomfortable. Sam hesitated fo a moment and then he bowed very low. "You took the chance, sir, Captain, my Lord," he said humbly, his hands plucking at his cloak-edge.
Faramir's cheek twitched. "Did I now?"
"Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest." Sam said, his stubborn little chin sticking forward.
"Cheeky," murmured Haban.
The Dwarf seated upon the pallet did not pause in his needlework. "Baknd ghelekh. I was wondering whether you would return, my Lord."
Thorin breathed in slowly through his nose, and then carefully sat down upon the bed beside his star. Gimli's needle flashed in and out of the torn fabric of his rich rusty-brown travelling surcoat, carefully stitching the hem together. "I would not shun you," he said, as evenly as he could. "I would never shun you."
"You have not watched one of your kin make a fool of himself over an Elf, then."
Thorin's lip twitched. "Do not be so sure."
"I do not wish to talk of it," Gimli said. The needle dipped, in and out.
"I will not be dissuaded, my star," Thorin said, and a heaviness settled over his shoulders. "If you know aught of me at all, then you should know that."
Gimli snorted softly. "Aye, there's that, I suppose."
"How long have you known?"
Gimli did not answer. In and out flashed the needle.
Thorin sighed. "I will not leave until I hear your answer, Gimli. I will not censure you for your heart's choice. I will not. I swear it. But I must know."
"As stubborn and intractable as they told me you were," Gimli muttered.
"I will take that as a compliment, kinsman, as it is something we have in common." Thorin watched the needle for a few more moments, before commenting, "I did not know you could sew."
"Dori taught me," Gimli grunted, and he let the work fall to his lap. "I was young, and bored, and making a nuisance of myself one afternoon. He put me to tacking pieces together, to calm my fidgeting fingers and keep my tongue still. I am not very good at it, to tell truth, but better my clumsy attempts than to walk about in rags. I am the only Dwarf many of these Men will ever see, the only Dwarf south of the Misty Mountains! I cannot go about with my clothes torn to shreds. What a fine Ambassador that would make me!"
"You might try brushing your hair, as well," Thorin murmured.
Gimli sniffed. "Ach, that matters not. Who cares for braids and primping and frippery amongst these Riders? They would sooner admire the braid in a horse's mane. But my surcoat – the signs of my line and my axes, those must be well-kept."
"You do us proud," Thorin said, and he turned away to stare at the wall of the large sleeping-room. A banner depicting a running horse, white against green, hung there, the colours greyish beneath a fine coating of dust. "I am proud, nidoyel."
"Yet you will not allow me my silence," Gimli said, looking up.
"Proud and yet unmoved, my star," Thorin said, and he smiled wryly at the faded tapestry.
"Aye, you are exactly as they said," Gimli grumbled. Then he pushed back his blazing hair, before groaning. His hands slid down over his face. "Must I?"
"You are a Dwarf alone, are you not – the only Dwarf south of the Misty Mountains," Thorin said, and he reached out without thinking to grip that heavy-muscled shoulder. As always, his hand passed through, and Thorin bit off a curse. "I am here, Gimli. I am here. Tell me, and lighten your load. Dead Dwarves tell no tales."
Gimli was quiet, his face pressing hard into his hands. Then he blew out a huge and explosive breath, and began to search through his tunic. "I will need a pipe for this," he muttered. "Bless that Took for his foresight!" He drew out Pippin's spare pipe and began to fill it.
Thorin waited impatiently as Gimli lit the pipe with his father's old tinderbox. The younger Dwarrow leaned back and sent a stream of smoke to the ceiling, before setting his sewing aside and drawing his legs up. His elbows leaned comfortably upon his knees, and his back pressed against the wall, and all in all, he looked perfectly at ease.
Thorin knew better.
"Relax," he murmured, and Gimli laughed shortly, smoke billowing about him.
"Easy enough to say," he replied, and there was an edge in his deep voice that was not normally there.
Thorin regarded him for a second, this bright and unlooked-for guide against his own darkness and despair. Then he steeled himself and said, "I found my One, did you know?"
Gimli's pipe halted halfway to his mouth.
"And just like yours, he was no Dwarf." Thorin's heart performed a painful little flop inside his chest. "Perhaps the Line of Durin has certain innate and well-hidden predilections."
"Ah, nekhush," said Gimli, wide-eyed and shocked. "I did not know."
"Aye," Thorin said, and he lifted his head to fix his eyes back upon the dusty running horse upon the wall. "I found him, though I did not know him for my own while I lived."
"You needn't..." Gimli said, his tone strangled. "My Lord, you don't have to tell..."
"Ah, but a secret for a secret, is that not so?" said Thorin, and he felt the corner of his mouth turn up slightly into a self-mocking smile. "Besides, as you have said before, what good have our secrets ever done us?"
"Some secrets are different," Gimli said quickly. "Melhekhel, this is yours and yours alone. I would not presume to know. Why, it would be as intimate as knowing your Dark-name!"
"Why not?" Thorin's smile broadened. "I know yours."
"I heard it in Rivendell," Thorin went on to say. "It suits you. Well, it could hardly do otherwise, hmm?"
"My father," Gimli choked.
"I have watched you for eighty years, inùdoy," Thorin continued. His voice felt very loud in the sudden, stilted silence. "I have loved your fire and your spirit and your courage and your humour. I have borrowed your strength and stability when my own failed. You are so alive, Gimli – so very alive, and I have basked in it. You are a warm flame to warm myself by when I must endure the stately cold wait of death. I have taken much from you, son of Glóin. What is there of myself I would not give you in return?"
"No, ikhuzh," Gimli said, and his free hand tightened into a fist. "You owe me nothing. I have your presence, a miracle unlooked-for and unheard-of! I do not need more than -"
"It was Bilbo," Thorin interrupted. "Bilbo Baggins."
Gimli's words faltered to nothing, and his mouth hung open slightly in astonishment.
"You seem surprised," Thorin said dryly.
Gimli's mouth snapped shut. "Ah," he said wonderingly, and then he ducked his head as confusion crossed his face. "I mean no offense."
"No, it is understandable that you should gape," said Thorin, and he looked down at his own hands. "I did not treat him well."
"No, not..." Gimli pulled himself together with a visible effort, though a trace of his great amazement still shone around his eyes. "But wait, yes – you did banish him, did you not?"
"Aye, I did," Thorin said, and his shoulders drew up protectively against the old, acid surge of guilt that usually followed such thoughts. On cue, it arrived, burying him in old shame.
Oddly, it did not hurt nearly as much as it had.
"I was half-blinded by rage and sickened by the dragon's hoard," he continued, and how odd, how very odd indeed! – these were things that had happened, they were faults and burdens that still weighed upon him, still ached with a crushing finality, but strangely Thorin could face them now. He could speak of them without self-hatred crippling his tongue. "Mad with greed and vengeance, I threw him away. My brave, foolhardy little thief stole the one thing I could not forgive - and then he gave it to those who would coerce our people's treasures from us under threat of steel. Yes, I banished him. Then I held him over the southern battlements and shook him like a rabbit. Then I fought my foes, saved my home, and I died."
Gimli was silent again, and the whites showed around the deep warm brown of his eyes.
Thorin threw him a sidelong look. "Remember that, my brave bold lad, the next time you feel that there is too much between yourself and Legolas to forgive. Remember what I did to my one sanâzyung."
"I never..." Gimli choked, biting his words off, and then he stuck his pipe into the corner of his mouth and took a long, long draw.
"And then," Thorin swallowed hard, "remember that he forgave me as I lay dying."
"Who else knew?" Gimli said, his voice very soft.
"Balin, definitely." A snort escaped him. "That old Dwarf knew me too well, even when I wished to lie to myself. Possibly Dwalin. The damned cursed Wizard, no doubt. By the end of our Quest, half the Company had guessed. Your father, now – he knew. But I did not."
Gimli chewed upon the borrowed pipe for a second, and then he looked up. "And Mister Baggins?"
"He has never spoken," Thorin said, and his hands twined together even as he watched, the knuckles turning white. "He will never speak now. I was blind and proud and did not see, and so my chance of love slipped from my hands and I was lost - lost in a maelstrom of despair, madness and darkness. My story is not a happy one, my son. It is a tale of desperation and fading hopes, of revenge and missed chances. Yours, Gimli... for you, it is not too late."
"Oh my King." Gimli's eyes closed for a moment. "My beloved King, I would that you had not told me this. I do not deserve to know. This was yours, your heart alone. Master Baggins should hear this, not me."
"And how do you propose I tell Master Baggins, hmm?" Thorin huffed a bitter laugh. "I am, as I am sure you are aware, eighty years long dead."
"But yes, I would tell him, if I knew how." Thorin's shoulders sagged, and he could hear the heavy, slow thudding of his heartbeat in his ears. "You have that chance. Do you know how precious that is?"
"And if my love should rob Legolas of his life?" Gimli's jaw rippled, and determination smoothed his brow. "No. Here is where our stories differ, my Lord."
"You have but Aragorn's word," Thorin argued, but Gimli immediately shook his head, his fiery braids swinging.
"What cause has Aragorn to lie?" he demanded. "His own heart is at war on this, despairing for his lady! Why should I be able to choose easily where he struggles?"
Thorin had no answer to that.
"Besides," Gimli said, and his head fell forward. "Legolas is an Elf, and he is the son of Thranduil of Mirkwood. There may not be unforgiveable deeds between us, but there is enough in those two facts to keep the Wood and the Mountain at each others' throats for as long as I live."
"And life is so very certain in these days? As long as you live, Gimli, may be until the morning's light," Thorin said with a sigh. "You live in the midst of war."
"Edoras is not so rowdy as all that," said Gimli, snorting. "I am sure I will survive yet another night behind its walls."
"Gimli," Thorin growled.
Gimli waved his pipe. "Aye, aye, I take your meaning. Calm yourself, my Lord."
"I will be calm when you open your eyes!" Thorin's fingers clenched in the fabric of his trousers. "I did not tell you such things in order for you to repeat my mistakes."
"You hate him," Gimli retorted. "You hate him and his people and his father. Durin's beard, braids and boots! For all I know you hate the very sound of his name! You bade me tell him that you did not trust him, and that you were watching his every move with deepest suspicion. You have ever scorned him. Why do you urge me on now?"
"I do not hate him!" Thorin tried to temper the surge of aggravation that welled up underneath his ribs. "I – I was wrong. I do not hate Legolas, Elf though he is."
"You would never forgive him his parentage," Gimli said firmly, and he stuck his pipe back between his teeth. "I know enough of you, without hearing your secrets, to know that at least!"
"I do not hate him!" Thorin repeated, and he tipped back his head in frustration as a growl clawed at his throat. Here was the fruit of all his suspicion, and oh, it was sour!
"You nearly brought the North to bloodshed for hatred of his father," Gimli said, low and dark, staring forward through billows of smoke with stubborn resolve. "I hope you'll understand why I dinnae believe you."
"You-!" Thorin swallowed the curse that leapt to his tongue. "Yes, I admit, I despise Thranduil and will until the mountain crumbles to dust. But Legolas..."
"Son of Thranduil," Gimli interjected, a bitter twist to his lips. "Prince of the Mirkwood realm."
That was the final pebble that began the avalanche. "Gimli, I will not see you tread my lonely path!" Thorin roared. He was abruptly standing over the seated Dwarrow, though he had no clear memory of pushing away from the pallet or of getting to his feet. "I will pass into the everlasting nothingness beyond the world before I see it done! He loves you, you damned stubborn fool, and you love him!"
"I KNOW!" Gimli bellowed, and his head snapped up and his eyes flashed angrily. "D'you think I haven't worked it out? Aragorn's news was the last piece of the puzzle – I have known the other half of me since the Mahal-cursed river! I know he yearns – is there a single shift in his eyes, the slightest change in him, that I cannot see? Every movement he makes is a fascination to me; his smallest sigh is a treasure! Of course I know!"
Thorin stared. There were tears standing in Gimli's eyes, though they did not fall. His cheeks were flushed above his uncombed beard, and his teeth were white and bared amongst the strands of bright red hair. The snarl upon his face was as familiar as breath itself. He looked – he looked like Thorin himself, for the first time in his life.
"I know," Gimli continued, his voice quieter although his breath was still coming fast. "I guessed, early on in our hunt across the moors of Rohan. The Elf sighed and ate and sang and slept like one in love. I could not believe it, but there was no other it could be. Aragorn, maybe, but he is more like a brother to him – and then when he was lost over the cliff, Legolas turned to me! To me, for comfort! He did not weep for a love lost, but for the fleeting fragility of life. He sought after my words, my touch! Not Aragorn then, not a King of Men with Elvish blood in his veins, but a Dwarf of Erebor, an impossibility. It could not be so, yet the night of the feast seemed to confirm it. But an Elf, and me!" He spread open his great, axe-worn hands helplessly, and then roughly rubbed at his eyes . "Ach, it was not to be believed."
"You will not speak ill of yourself," Thorin gritted.
"Âkminrûk zu , zabadel – but I am not what Elves dream of," Gimli said sardonically.
"You have a beard even your father might envy, if you ever combed it," Thorin said, folding his arms and sitting back down heavily. His anger still tore at him, but he mastered it with some effort. "Do not pretend you do not know your own worth or how many eyes have followed you over the years; you, the noble-born son of a famous beauty."
"Dwarven eyes," Gimli corrected. "I know I have caught a few, I do not deny it, but Elves prefer other qualities. How was I to believe that he could see me as a Dwarf would?"
Thorin rolled his own eyes. "You cannot be serious."
Gimli's lips tightened. "It has been but a matter of months since he deemed me capable of finer feelings, let alone saw me as an individual in my own right. Forgive me a little insecurity and scepticism."
Thorin bit his tongue.
"I had to know," Gimli said, and his head fell to his chest. All his fury seemed to drain from him: like Glóin, Gimli was quick to anger but also quick to forgive. "I would have asked Legolas himself, but he has avoided me ever since the feast. I asked Aragorn, and the last clue fell into place. So. Now I know. I wish I did not."
"Gimli, you should still talk to Legolas," Thorin said, and his own rage was not so easy to dismiss. "Will you deny him his own choice and his own voice?"
"My love will cost Legolas his life," Gimli said, and he let out a deep shuddering breath. His voice dropped into a soft, sad rumble as he continued. "He does not need to be tied to me, nor to mortality. He is not bound by the one love of a Dwarf: he can find another, and they will be happy under his adored trees for all the Ages hereafter. I would not drag him into the dark after me."
"You do not have the right to choose for him," Thorin managed.
Gimli tapped out his pipe, which had gone out as he spoke. "Perhaps not," he said, and then he looked up. "But I can remove the choice altogether. Legolas will live."
"Gimli," Thorin tried again, but the other Dwarf turned away and picked up his mending once more. "Gimli, you cannot live your life with half of yourself forever missing...!"
"Why not? Many others do," Gimli grunted, and the needle began to swim through the wool, tying a neat, firm knot. "It's not uncommon. I shall simply dedicate myself to the life of the axe."
"That is not where your heart calls you," said Thorin, and he shook his head and dragged his hands through his hair. "My son, please!"
Gimli bit off the thread, and carefully replaced the needle in a soft roll of felt that he tucked into a pocket of his bedroll. Then he pushed himself from his pallet, and squared his thick shoulders. "When I asked for you to make peace with Legolas, I never thought it might end this way," he said to the seemingly-empty room. "My lord Thorin, you have my every loyalty but in this I will not be commanded, not even by you. If Mahal himself came and told me to bind Legolas to me, I would refuse! I will be his, aye. But he cannot be mine. I will join you one day in the stately cold wait of death, my body returning to the stone. That is my fate, and the fate of all the Khazâd. I will not – I cannot - cast Legolas' life away so easily, not when all the Ages of the Sun are his birthright. Not for my own selfish happiness."
"And what of his?" It would happen again – and it would happen to his much-loved fierce and blazing star. Thorin would helplessly watch as Gimli trod Thorin's own long, lonely path, losing his fire and his laughter with every weary step. "Your One is before you – do you know what a gift you have been given? What you are throwing away? Gimli, inùdoy, open your eyes! Speak to him!"
Gimli's head lifted slightly. "Some secrets are different," he said simply. Then he picked up his axe, shouldered it, and began to walk from the room.
"I would take back my words," Thorin shouted after his retreating back. "Your Name, Sansûkhun: it suits you not at all! One who sees clearly should not be so damned cursed blind!"
The four Dwarrows stared upwards.
Nori sniffed. "Sloppy technique. He shoulda gone under cover o' darkness."
"He's quieter than you ever were," retorted Lóni. That made Nori fold his arms and glower, but he did not bother refuting it.
"A Hobbit is quick and quiet, as I recall," said Thráin, scratching his head. "Do you think he has realised yet?"
"Nope," said the fourth member of their watch. She had not spoken much, a Dwarrowdam of few words. Still, her presence was making Lóni rather awestruck, and irritating Thráin no end. "He hasn't twigged at all."
"It is already late to send for aid when you are already besieged," said Thráin to himself, pulling at his moustache as he thought. "Yet both Erebor and Gondor must do as circumstances dictate... but who will come?"
"Thorin'll have a word in their ear, you'll see," Nori said, and he tipped his head. Above them, the Hobbit scrambled onto the head-high stack of wood, balancing upon his large feet. "Not bad. For a beginner."
"He hasn't yet been spotted, at least," said Lóni.
"I reckon they'll notice a bleedin' big fire, don't you?"
"Now, why have the oil above the flames and the wood like that?" said the Dwarrowdam disapprovingly. "Accident waiting to happen. A pipe-and-tap system would be far safer."
"Oh, happy enough to help them, I see," Thráin grumbled. The Dwarrowdam grunted derisively.
"Because Mahal knows I can do a lot for 'em, dead as I am, eh?"
Thráin scowled. "Then why not help me with my greaves? I'm not asking for much of your time..."
"The refusal is good for you, O mighty King of Erebor," she said and grinned, her teeth very white in her brown-skinned face.
"Damned haughty craftswoman," Thráin muttered under his breath, and refocused upon the Hobbit with a face like thunder.
"That expression could sour milk," Lóni said, impressed.
"While it was still inside the cow," Nori added. "Wonder if it'd work on some o' my ah, business associates?"
"Oh no," Thráin said, and he lifted one of his great thick fingers and waggled it before Nori's nose. "I am done with your tomfoolery. Being fleeced by you once was quite sufficient, thank you. Leave me and mine out of your transactions from now on."
"Shame," Nori said, buffing a ring upon his hand against his jerkin (it was a new ring – nobody quite knew where he had gained it). "Could have given you some very nice little commissions, some favourable odds on your next wager, you know..."
"What, just for looking intimidating?" Thráin pursed his lips in consideration, and behind him, the Dwarrowdam muffled a guffaw. He scowled again. "And that's enough from you, too!"
"Oh, don't you even try to order me about, Thráin son o' Thrór," she said cheerfully. "You're not my King, after all."
"Is he actually lighting the beacon while he is still standing on it?" Lóni asked nobody in particular, sounding extremely bewildered.
Nori took one look, and groaned. "I take it all back – total hopeless novice."
"Gandalf wouldn't let him get hurt," Lóni said, looking back at the high white walls of the upper level. The top of a white-haired head and the intricately carved G-rune of a staff could only just be made out. Easier to spot was the silver-and-black livery of a Man beside the staff. "Who's that?"
"A tower guard, Beregond son of Baranor," said Thráin. "Gróin made mention of him in his last report. Pippin has made friends with the fellow. He seems a decent enough sort, if a bit humourless. He thinks Pippin is some sort of old campaigner: a soldier-halfling of sorts."
There was a brief pause, and then all four Dwarves burst out laughing.
"Oh, oh that hurts," Lóni gasped.
"Pippin!" sniggered Nori.
"Now, now, mustn't be unkind," the Dwarrowdam said, though her face was again split with a massive grin. "The little fellow is indeed a seasoned campaigner now! Look how far he has come!"
"The only seasoning he does involves pepper and salt," snorted Nori.
"Well, he has a chance to prove himself now that he is out from under the wing of his older cousin," Thráin said, and he shook his head. "That is, if he doesn't barbecue himself first."
"Look!" Lóni cried, and he pointed to the ridge of the White Mountains. The snow-capped peaks should have glowed in the sunshine, but instead they huddled beneath the sullen sky as though crowding together for warmth. "There, upon the highest rise!"
There was a flicker, and then an answering bonfire grew – a bright dancing spark of red-gold against the scudding, ominous clouds.
"Hope is kindled," they heard Gandalf murmur.
Behind Thráin, the great artisan Narvi tossed her head, her braids swinging. "I could have done it better," she groused.
Damned haughty craftswoman.
"Your Majesty," said Balin, bowing low. Thrór waved a hand absently, half-acknowledging the greeting. All his attention was taken by the dispatch clutched in the hand of his young distant cousin. His eyes were fixed upon the blocky runes, his heavy grey brows drawn into a frown.
"What is it?" said Náli to Balin in an undertone.
"I'm not sure," Balin whispered back. "But it doesn't look good."
"Adad." The Dwarf holding the missive looked up, and Balin could see it was the Stonehelm. The Crown Prince looked exhausted, but there was a new fire in his eyes that had not been there previously. It was as though the lad who had grown up upon tales of heroes was finally finding his own strength. The long siege was changing all of Erebor in unexpected ways. "This report."
"Eh?" Dáin glanced over. The body-servant who was helping the old King into his armour paused with his hands upon a buckle, and Dáin patted her shoulder. "Give it a rest, Berdit, I'm not so infirm that I can't reach the rest. What's that then, lad?"
"It's from Froäc, the raven overlooking the valley," the Stonehelm said, glaring back at the message. "The Dale-Men are moving."
"Moving!" Dáin shooed the body-servant aside and clanked over to his son, his iron foot scraping against the worn carpets in the King's antechambers. "Moving where? When did this arrive?"
"Bomfrís sent it over at the second hour past dawn," the Stonehelm said, and he looked up to his father, noticing the heavy gambeson for the first time. "Oh, Adad, you cannot be serious. You needn't..."
"I am and will, Thorin. Hand it over," Dáin said, snapping his fingers. The servant, Berdit, wrung her hands behind the King as though silently apologising for every undone strap and buckle.
"Your back," the Stonehelm complained, but he handed over the message anyway. "You must promise me, Da. Be careful. We need you to lead us, not to die for us."
"What sort of King hides behind fortress walls, hmm?" Dáin snorted and shook out the message, roughly carding one gnarled and arthritic hand through his son's long, black hair. "You and your mother, ach! I've said it before and I'll say it again, I won't be sitting idly by. I've been fighting battles since I was a wee nipper, and my old plate still fits me, so in Durin's name why not?"
"Your back," the Stonehelm insisted, standing and nodding to Berdit. "I'll fix his armour. Go get yourself something from the kitchens, if your ration allows it."
The servant blinked and then bowed, before leaving.
"What's going on?" whispered Náli. "I can't read that chicken-scratch. It all turns inside-out when I try."
Balin knew of this difficulty of the old training-master's, and he murmured, "wait and hold. None can read it now anyway, not with Dáin peering over it as close as a jeweller with a gem."
"Something about the ford of the River Running," said Thrór. "The writing wasn't exactly clear, I'm not surprised that you couldn't make it out."
"Westron?" asked Balin.
Thrór shook his head. "Nay, cirth. Very sloppy and rushed, too."
"Bofur," exhaled Balin. He turned back to Dáin and the Stonehelm. "I know what this is. The Bizarûnh have completed their muster, and are on the march to the Mountain."
"Praised be Mahal below," Thrór said, and he sagged in relief. His hand reached out as though to stroke the green-flecked stone walls of the chamber he had stood in. "Erebor will be saved."
"That's a lot o' Orcs," muttered Náli, but Balin hushed him.
The Stonehelm pulled carefully upon a buckle, belting the backplate in place upon his father and straightening the quilted gambeson beneath. Dáin huffed under the new strain, but the old Dwarf did not move. Dáin had always been tough as teak, even before his age had caught up with him.
A shuddering boom rattled the room for a moment, but they both ignored it, too inured to the sensation of boulders smashing against the mountain to react. "You would do better with chainmail," the Prince muttered, and then moved to the other side to adjust the fit accordingly. "Do you suppose that Brand has at last overruled his Council?"
"Must've done," Dáin said, and he grunted audibly as the Stonehelm lifted and began to strap the heavy cuirass in place. Great sword-scars were still visible upon the steel that was folded into intricate geometric patterns at belly and breast. The old-fashioned and fine armour was scarred and dents too deep to hammer smooth showed clearly upon breastplate and neck, the evidence of old battles that Dáin had refused to erase.
"Adad?" The Stonehelm paused, an expression of concern crossing his face.
"Get on wi' it, boy," Dáin grunted. "They are crossing the River Running. So they approach from the south- east?"
"The Orcs cover our flank more thinly upon the Eastern slopes. Bofur is showing caution," said the Stonehelm, pulling hard upon a buckle. "Breathe in now."
Dáin held his breath, and the Stonehelm thumped down heavily with both fists upon his father's shoulders, settling both plates into place. "Oof," Dáin managed, and then he chuckled. "Got your mother's strength, you do."
The Stonehelm smiled a small, crooked smile, and then he picked up one of the pauldrons and began to strap it over his father's massive shoulder. "Don't deflect me, Da."
"Deflect? Me? Perish the thought." Dáin put on as innocent a face as he could muster, and then grinned broadly, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening into crevasses. "Come on now, give me t'other. And don't think you can get around me by fussing, neither. Your eyes are sunk in dark shadows, undayuh. Are you getting any sleep at all or are you at watch upon the walls all night?"
The Stonehelm picked up the other pauldron and cleared his throat. To Balin's amusement, he began to blush, a faint dusting of pink upon each of his cheeks high above his neat black beard. "Oho," he said to himself, and clasped his hands over his stomach. "This lover will not wait until the metal has cooled, but will brave the sparks that fly, eh? Someone has decided to be a little hasty, I'll wager!"
"Hasty?" Thrór's eyebrows shot up, and he turned to the Crown Prince with a deeply scandalised look on his face. "You mean...?"
"Well," Náli said, grinning from ear to ear.
His son's reaction had not gone unnoticed by Dáin. The old King's lip was twitching. "Thorin," he said sternly, but the amused glint in his old blue eyes belied his tone. "Have you something to tell me?"
"Ah," the Stonehelm faltered, and then he ducked his head and began to strap the pauldron to his father's other shoulder. "Um..."
Dáin let the boy twist for a moment or two longer, and then he snorted loudly. "Oh, as if half the court hasn't already guessed. You're not subtle, my lad, and your lady even less so. Just try and ensure that you get some sleep, eh? Wouldn't do to be nodding off upon the ramparts. Bad look, that."
The Stonehelm's ears were now a violent red. "Yes, Da," he mumbled. "We... it was... I never meant..."
"Here now," Dáin said in a more gentle tone. "We are at war and you have found your One. I wouldn't dream of stoppin' you from anything you two wish to share together, and nor would any right-thinking Dwarrow. We could all be dead tomorrow, after all. The world teeters on the edge of a blade, and suddenly your very heart is standing before you. They'd need mud between their ears not to understand that. I would have you find happiness while you can, nidoy."
Balin smiled to himself. Náli spotted the smile, and raised an eyebrow. "Thought you didn't care for such things," he muttered, a trifle grumpily. "You never wanted more than a kiss and a cuddle, before."
"And nor do I, and nor will I," Balin said with cool equanimity. "But I can accept that others may wish otherwise, may I not?"
Náli grumbled beneath his breath, too low to hear, and folded his arms. Balin stifled a sigh, and turned back to watch the father and son, his heart sinking just a little. He and Náli had grown close during their ill-fated five years in Khazad-dûm. However, Náli had been generally unable to accept that, although Balin was very fond of touch, he did not want a physical relationship. It had eventually led to the dissolution of what had been a rather promising little romance, in Balin's opinion, and even now, after decades and death and gathering darkness, years later, the matter could still lead to tension between them.
"All I ask is that you are safe with each other, all right?" Dáin said fondly, and he wrapped his massive old hands around his son's face and knocked their foreheads together. Then he added, as though an afterthought, "Oh, an' make sure you're wed before any bairn begins a-pushin' her tunic outwards. It don't matter so much to me - nor to any raised in the Iron Hills, for that matter - but we're sort of visible nowadays after all. We don't want any of our grand old Lords an' Ladies dropping dead of sheer mortification, do we?"
The Stonehelm looked as though he might drop dead of sheer mortification. "Adad!" he groaned, and scrunched his eyes shut as though offering a fervent prayer.
"Stones and stars, boy, you think you're the first to discover it?" Dáin grinned, enjoying the moment hugely. "You should ask Bombur how long it was after he was married that the lovely Barís Crystaltongue were born. I hear Alrís had a horizon of her very own, the day she laid her hands in his! The way he tells it, wee Barís was testing her brand-new lungs only seconds after Alrís spoke her vows. He talks an awful lot when he's in his cups, you know."
The Stonehelm desperately picked up a heavy gauntlet and waved it around. "Your arm?" he pleaded.
Balin was trying to stifle his chuckles, and he could see the answering light of amusement in Thrór's eyes. Náli was outright guffawing.
It was good to see Thrór a little less sombre. Sometimes he was entirely too bound by the pain of his past, Balin reflected. The dead King's mouth was twitching behind his vast and handsome beard, and he was tugging at one ear absently in the most relaxed pose Balin could remember since he was young. Perhaps Nar would be more familiar with this side of Thrór.
Dáin had mercy upon his poor scarlet son and, chuckling, held up his thick arm so that the Prince could strap the gauntlet around his wrist and below his elbow. Outside, the horns could be heard faintly, calling for a cascade of boiling water to be poured down over the battlements upon the newest Orcish ram. "Ach, I only want joy for the pair of you, believe that. So much before you, a light even in this darkness. How I wish I were young again," he said, his gaze following his son's dark head with a warm smile as the young Prince worked at the buckles. "Actually, no, scratch that, my youth was a pig's breakfast. D'you think your ladylove will allow an old Dwarrow to see his son wed before he returns to the stone?"
"Adad," Thorin growled, and then he scrunched up his face. "I don't know. Bomfrís is... well, she doesn't like the idea of a crown."
"Who does?" said Dáin bluntly. "Good lass, that shows sense! Crowns are heavy an' ugly and they leave a dent behind your ears. No sane Dwarf would want one if they knew how much bloody trouble they are."
"Hear, hear," Thrór muttered.
"I know she is learning to love me," the Stonehelm said, and for an unguarded moment his expression came alive with a wild and exultant joy as he strapped the iron-studded kilt-like faulds around Dáin's waist. "But she insists she is nothing more than an archer. I cannot force her into a life she does not want, but I don't exactly know how I can separate Thorin the Dwarf from Thorin of Erebor and the Line of Durin... ach. It feels foolish to speak of these things when a sea of death surrounds us."
"No better time," Dáin said, his plate clanking as he shrugged. "The Crown's a pain in the arse, no question, but wearing one gets you listened to a lot faster than it does if you're but an archer."
The Stonehelm picked up the singular greave and fiddled with it for a moment, before meeting his father's eyes. "You didn't want it, did you?"
Dáin only quirked one white eyebrow in answer. The Stonehelm puffed out a breath of realisation. "Did you never think to hand it on?"
"Ha. No, I was never for Erebor," Dáin said, and his smile was wry. "I know, I know. Spent more than half m' life fighting for her now. But my home was always the hard harsh peaks of the Iron Hills. I miss 'em, still. I miss the way the wind made moaning notes sound, low and hollow, as it whistled through the valleys. I miss the colours, the way the rust-red of the ore made the mountains glow, the stark beauty of 'em. I miss the way the River Redwater sparkled and danced when the snowmelt made it run bank-full every spring. I miss the deep secret ways I trod when I was but a tiny little brat, no bigger than Dwalin's youngest."
"But you stayed here," the Stonehelm said, and he sat upon the edge of the desk. The raven's missive lay there, forgotten, as the younger Dwarf listened to the old King speak as he had never done before. "Why?"
"I've told you before, pay attention," Dáin said, and he pushed back the thick braid that lay against his son's neck. Another faint horn-call signalled a volley of arrows from the highest sconces: the Elves did their part as well. "There was no-one else left. You know your history, you've had the finest tutors. Who was next in the line o' succession, lad?"
Thorin blinked, and then he said slowly, "me."
"Aye, you. And you were but seventy-five, grown but untested, an unknown. My soldiers weren't going to follow a green boy, and no old Dwarf of Erebor long-lost even knew who you were. Who was next?"
"Balin son of Fundin," said the Stonehelm, and he let out a soft 'ah' of realisation and leaned back. "The rest of the succession... they were all of the Company..."
"And they were deep in mourning," Dáin completed with a terrible, heavy sense of finality. "The very deepest. Their King was gone, and so were his heirs, and victory was more bitter than defeat in the end. Around us were piles of the dead: Men and Elves and Dwarves and Orcs – not to mention broken alliances and promises made and bargains struck that could never be honoured by their bargainers. I've seen it before. Battles need generals and glorious leaders, but afterwards? A bloodied battlefield needs a steady hand with a broom. Someone has to pick up the reins when the world has fallen apart."
The Stonehelm blinked, and then he asked, very softly, "who was it for you?"
Dáin smiled again, and the smile was very wistful and soft. "Thirty-two, I was. D'you know that?" he said, more quietly than he had ever spoken before. "Only thirty-two, just a wee little lad. The doors of Durin closed on my knee, and that was that – shattered, lost for good. There wasn't medicine enough, and the sawbones was no gentle Gimrís, let me tell you. And then lords that are yet living, they stride through the blood and that sweet-sickly smell of burning bodies to bow down to that half-delirious little lad of thirty-two, and demand orders. They tell me that my father and my mother are dead. Well done, Dáin-lad, you're a hero – lost a foot, but a hero. Oh, and you're an orphan, incidentally. And we can't call you 'lad' anymore, though you're still half a child – you're the Lord now that your whole family is butchered and burned. Sorry about your foot, by the way, but we're sure you'll get used to it in no time. The tally? Nobody knows. The wounded are beyond counting, and winter is coming on. Food? There is none. So, what do we do now, m'Lord?"
Silence fell for an awful, suffocating moment, and Balin did not dare glance over at Thrór again. The Stonehelm looked at his father with horror. "Da...!" he said, his voice filled with utter horror.
A muffled noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob came from Thrór's direction.
"And who else should there be, eh?" Dáin smoothed back the braid again, and then tugged upon the bead at the end. "Who walked out of the carnage like a figure from the old songs? Who took it upon themself to pick up those reins when the victory had cost us so very dear? Striding out of the blood and the smoke, his eyes red and dry, barking orders. He was like something out of a tale. He'd lost his grandfather, and his brother, and his father was lost to grief. Fifty-three years old, not yet grown. He had to shoulder an even bigger burden than I. The world had fallen apart, and he chose to stand between us and the abyss."
"Thorin Oakenshield," said the Stonehelm, hushed and reverent. Balin's eyes slid shut.
"I remember that day," he muttered.
"So do I," Náli said softly.
"I wish I could forget," said Thrór bitterly.
"So that is what Dáin saw," Balin said, and the image was still carved into his mind in shades of blood: the young Dwarf silhouetted against the smoke-filled sky, a branch in his hand, his helm missing. "As I did. Someone to follow. Someone to call King."
"So, that's why I stayed, my boy," Dáin said, and he tugged at the Stonehelm's braid again. "That is why your use-name is what it is. Just a funny coincidence that you ended up lookin' a wee bit like him. That'll be the Durin nose. And the temper, of course. Got to watch out for your temper, lad."
The Stonehelm blinked his eyes – blue eyes, those pale and icy eyes that had passed down through generations – up at his father. He let out a slow shuddering breath and his head tipped forward, hiding them behind a curtain of thick black hair.
Dáin's gaze was hazy, fixed upon a point decades ago, and his voice distant and meditative. "I saw what victory costs, and I saw what it meant to pick up the pieces. I chose to do the same. After all, I was the only one who could, and I owed him that much."
"You still want to go home, though, don't you?" the Stonehelm said.
"Aye," Dáin said. "When they put me in stone, I'll no doubt be moving the whole mountain inch-by-inch to the east until we get there, you mark my words!"
"I wish you wouldn't..." the Stonehelm muttered, and then he caught up his father in a hug that clanked and rattled with the sound of armour clashing together.
"Ah now," Dáin said, and he cupped his son's head in his hand as though the blocky, thick-necked Dwarrow were still a little child. "Shhh. You're a damned sight more ready than I was, inùdoy. I know you don't like it when I remind you that I'm to die, but remember – someone must pick up the reins when the world falls apart. That is what a crown means. Your lass is right to fear it."
"She's not afraid of work," the Stonehelm muttered against his father's shoulder. Another booming thud rattled the room.
"Good, that'll help then," said Dáin. "You know how your mother hates the crown herself, but she's found her own ways to serve it nevertheless. Bomfrís can find hers, I have no doubt. She's a resourceful girl, after all."
"She grew up so poor," Thorin said, and seemed to shake away his mood. He knelt to buckle the greave around his father's one remaining leg, "I never knew there were Dwarrows so poor..."
"Aye, that's good for you to know too," Dáin said, and he sucked in a breath as the greave pulled against old, sore muscles and arthritic joints for a moment. "Give that a minute, unday... yes, you grew up in the fat times, you've never known want. The Iron Hills never saw dragons the way that Erebor and the Grey Mountains did. Iron is a lot less pretty than gold, though it's a damned sight more useful if you ask me, and we never lacked for it. So, we stayed quiet and safe while every other kingdom fell to ruins. Many of us were lost at Khazad-dûm answering the call of our King and kin, but at least we had somewhere to return afterwards to nurse our losses. They didn't. We sheltered the refugees after the War of Orcs and Dwarves, but they would not stay and they moved on soon enough. Thráin an' Thorin wanted their own home, after all – Erebor or Khazad-dûm – not mine. Bomfrís is a Broadbeam, ain't she?"
"Yes," the Stonehelm said, and he lifted a shoulder briefly in a half-shrug.
"Damn good people, Broadbeams. Good soups. I like the one with the dumplings." Dáin stretched out his good leg experimentally, and then he nodded. "All right, go ahead and truss my leg up. Never forget, Thorin – we had a home to go back to. For many here, they had nowhere - not until old Oakenshield took back the Lonely Mountain. Some? Even longer. Talk to Glóin about his mother sometime, she was a Firebeard. Longbeards is one thing: the Broadbeams and Firebeards have lived without their ancestral halls for millennia. We're a people that lose their homes, Thorin. You can never forget that, m'lad."
The Stonehelm nodded once, his face serious. Then he gestured to the ground. "Do you need to walk it in?"
"Aye, most probably," Dáin sighed. Then he grumbled, "Don't remember the stupid thing being quite so heavy."
To his credit, the Prince said nothing. He only stood in one swift motion and offered his shoulder for his father to grip as he clanked around, settling the armour into place.
Another shattering boom rocked the chamber, and the Stonehelm winced. "That was a bad one. I think we might have cracked a wall there..."
"Aye, well, let's hope it was a bloody high one," Dáin said, and he pulled himself upright and held out his hand. "Time to put on my working hat."
The Stonehelm passed over Dáin's helmet – high-domed, with a crown beaten into the forehead-guard and curling boar-tusks jutting out either side of the old Dwarf's jaw. "I will see what I can do to clear the south-eastern slopes," he promised his father.
"You should be asleep, you love-drunk rascal," Dáin said, shaking his head. "But aye, I'd be grateful if you saw to it that Dwalin and Orla and Dori know of the Bizarûnh before you turn in. To sleep, mind. Understood? I'll tell Dís myself."
The Stonehelm's blush returned, but he was able to nod without any further loss of dignity or composure.
Dáin clapped the boar-helm upon his head, and then he picked up his massive two-handed red battle-axe, the famous blade Barazanthual. "Mizùl," he said briskly, patted the Stonehelm's shoulder once, and then began to clank towards the door which led out to the vast elevated walkways of the throne room.
"Mizùl," the Stonehelm echoed. His hand felt to his side, fisting in his fur-lined coat, as he watched his stiff old father limp towards the battle. The wild white head was tall and proud as always.
"Wait!" came a call from behind them. "Wait –your majesty! Your majesty! Wait, there's been..."
It was the body-servant again, Berdit. She was puffing, terribly out of breath. "Your majesty!" she managed. Her braids were mussed from a hasty dash through the halls.
"Slow down, you're white as chalk," the Stonehelm said, even as Dáin came limping back. "What is it?"
"That boom," Náli said with slow dread, and he met Balin's eyes. "That weren't no wall cracking under a boulder..."
"The tunnel," Berdit gasped.
The Stonehelm's face turned hard as diamond, and his eyes bored into the poor servant. "Yes? You mean Bofur's tunnel?"
"They found it," said Berdit in a tone of pure dread. Dáin swore loudly, echoed by Náli. Balin rather felt the urge to let out a few choice words himself.
"And?" the Stonehelm demanded.
"And..." Berdit glanced between the two suddenly-terrible royals, two pairs of ice-blue eyes locked onto her. "They... collapsed it."
"No," breathed Thrór, and he looked up. "Get Thorin. Get my grandson here. Now!"
"No," the Stonehelm echoed, his face turning ashen. "No. The workers... the miners -"
"Aye," Berdit managed, and wiped her forehead. "But it's - it's even worse than that. Bofur had begun to lead some of the Dale-Men through to the Mountain."
"Zuznel," groaned Thrór, and he squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh, merciful Mahal."
"Adad..." the Stonehelm slowly raised his eyes to meet his father's horror-filled look, "we sent Bofur's son down there. To wait for his father."
Berdit appeared as though ze was about to be violently sick.
"Bring Thorin NOW!" Thrór roared, and Náli shook himself from his shock and abruptly winked out of the world of the living, the stars of Gimlîn-zâram coming to swallow his form in an instant.
"Time to get the broom out," Dáin said through gritted teeth, his eyes afire with determination. "Deploy three troops of sappers. Get me Lady Genild, get me Dwalin Fundinul, and send for the Lady Dís and Lord Laerophen. I don't care who you wake! Just get them down there now. Sappers first!"
"Da, lights," the Stonehelm said urgently, and Dáin gave a sharp nod.
"Get me every one you can – and be quick about it! I want daylight down there – blind those damned Orcs, you hear me? We may need the Miners' Guild – send a bird to Ravenhill – let Orla know – move it! Now!"
Balin clenched his fists over his hammering heart and took a deep breath.
"We have weathered worse than this," he said to himself. "We endure."
"They are breaking through," Thrór growled through gritted teeth, and he reached out again to brush the emerald-streaked walls with the tips of his fingers. "No. No. They cannot have her. Not again. Not ever again. We will not lose our home again!"
Dâgalûr – Demon
Nârûnuh – My Champion
Sanâzyung – Pure/perfect love
Birashagimi – I'm sorry (literally, "I regret")
Inùdoy – son
Nidoy - boy
Gimli – star
Sansûkh(ul) – Perfect (true/pure) Sight. Sansûkh(un) – Perfect (true/pure) Sighted-Man
'Amad – mother
'Adad – father
Bizarûnh- Men of Dale
Zabad - lord
Undayuh – My greatest boy
Zabadel – Lord of Lords
Melhekhel – King of Kings
Mizùl – good luck
Ma katakluti, melhekhel – I cannot hear clearly, king of all kings
Baknd ghelekh – good morning
Zuznel- bad of bad
Balin Dwalinul – the middle son of Orla Blacklock and Dwalin, Field-Marshall of Erebor, young Balin is only 21 years of age at the time of the War of the Ring. Balin has Aspergers, and though Dwarven society is accommodating of the needs of neuro-atypical people, the siege is creating situations which are uncomfortable or even painful for someone with Aspergers, such as continual loud noises, disruptions to normal routine, and an atmosphere of constant high tension.
Endor – The Quenya name for Middle-Earth (the Sindarin is Ennor).
Dol Amroth – ruled over by Prince Imrahil, a vassal-state of Gondor.
Lossarnach – ruled over by Forlong the Fat, a vassal-state of Gondor.
After the Battle of Five Armies, the succession of the Line of Durin ran as follows:Dáin IronfootThorin StonehelmBalin son of FundinDwalin son of FundinÓin son of GróinGlóin son of GróinGimli son of Glóin
Some dialogue taken from the chapters, "Minas Tirith," and "The Window on the West," and from the films.