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Reclaiming Khazad-dϋm  by Ellynn

Notes:

1) "And the line of Dain prospered, and the wealth and renown of the kingship was renewed, until there arose again for the last time an heir of that House that bore the name of Durin, and he returned to Moria; and there was light again in deep places, and the ringing of hammers and the harping of harps (...).

Thus it was here that 'Durin the Last' emerged, and it is said of him that he returned from Erebor to Moria and re-established it (as is said in the accompanying genealogical table)."

"Peoples of Middle-earth", IV Durin's Folk

A mission like this requires a great number of dwarves, so I believe that at least several centuries must pass since the last wars (in the end of The Third Age), so that the population of dwarves can grow enough. The events in the novel happen in the 7th century of The Fourth Age (year 672).

2) Dwarvish new year occurs during October in our calendar, always on a different day (depending on the new moon), and their year is based on Lunar calendar. I decided that this year (in which the plot happens) started in the middle of our October, so Day 1st of Ninth month (time marked in the beginning of the next chapter – the beginning of the plot) matches the very end of our May.

3) In all dialogues between dwarves, it is assumed that they speak Dwarvish language. In dialogues with other peoples, it is assumed that they speak the Common speech (Westron).

As they speak Dwarvish between themselves, for all the geographic features for which we have the data (left by Tolkien), I use exclusively their names.

Tolkien wrote that dwarves had never revealed their word for mithril to anyone, and he didn't leave any hint for that particular word. As dwarves use their language in their thoughts and talks (as noted above), it is pretty sure that they wouldn't use an elvish word in such occasions. Truesilver is the closest that we can get, so I'll use that descriptive name. The word mithril will be used only in paragraphs of neutral narration.

4) Esgaroth (Lake-town) is no longer just a city in this story, but the whole kingdom. The premise that the population grows a lot in seven centuries does not apply only to dwarves, but to humans too. We can assume that new settlements grew around the Long Lake, and it is the same for Rohan, which spread northwards in this story and there are settlements close to Lothlorien. New villages grew elsewhere in Middle-earth, too.

5) Main characters are eighty years old (and some other characters are even younger). As dwarvish average life span is about 250 years, all of them are young (equivalent of mid- and early twenties of our life span), so words like "youngster" or "girl" that I use for 70- and 80-year-olds shouldn't be considered strange. Durin's older children are the equivalent of older teenagers of our world, while his youngest son is still a child.

I decided that Durin VII was born in year 532 of The Fourth Age, so in the year of the quest (672) he is 140 – in his prime.

6) The distances between various locations, as well as the dimensions of halls and tunnel lengths in Khazad-dϋm, are taken from "The Atlas of Tolkien's Middle-earth" by Karen Winn Fonstad.

There are writings in LotR about the First and Second hall of the First level, as well as about the Twenty-first hall on the final, Seventh level. All that is in between is my own imagination, but if we have numbers 1, 2 and 21, it is logical that there are halls (and levels) with all the numbers in between (even though they are not described in the book).

7) The word "comet" derives from Greek and means "long-haired star". I decided that this meaning could be used in Middle-earth too.

P.S. This novel might never have happened had my primary beta (and a very good friend) not told me in April 2020, "Yes, we know that Gimli's hope that Balin is alive is in vain, but perhaps you could one day write a story about Gimli hoping that the dwarves would reclaim Khazad-dϋm".

No, I didn't write that story mentioned in that sentence. I started to write reclaiming Khazad-dϋm instead. Why writing a simple short ficlet, if I can be neck-deep in a novel?

But... thank you. *love you*

P.P.S. Yes, I knew from the beginning that the novel would be named "Reclaiming Khazad-dϋm". But at some point during the process I started to call it "Child of the Quarantine". :)

So... here it is. The novel whose writing, editing and finally translating kept me sane in these difficult months.

P.P.P.S. And last (chronologically), but not the least: huge thanks, hugs and kiss to curiouswombat for beta-reading the whole novel. Words are not enough to describe how thankful I am.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of Durin VII

Day 17th of the First month, Year 591, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

Tonight Khazad-dϋm visited my dreams again. As always, I walk through the tunnels and halls. All around me torches are lit, our song echoes, and I hear sounds of hammers and pickaxes.

I remember vividly my first dreams of Khazad-dϋm – and in fact, the memories of them are clearer than my first memories of real events. Those dreams follow me constantly, and they are especially frequent around Durin's Day. While I was a child, I wondered if they were the sign that I was destined to lead our people to reclaim Khazad-dϋm. Later, I became certain.

Father is not sure if the time is right. On the other hand, grandfather has faith in me, and when he looks at me, I see in his eyes that he expects me to lead that quest. I know that father wants it to happen... one day. After all, that is the wish of all the dwarves ever since we have lost Khazad-dϋm. But father is not sure if the time has come; he is simply too cautious.

I am like grandfather. I believe we will reclaim Khazad-dϋm now, in my time.

Every next time, the dreams are more realistic. When I wake up, the images I remember are not blurry as it usually happens with dreams, but it feels like those are the real memories of something that I had experienced.

And sometimes I wonder... maybe those are the real memories? Because, after all, I am Durin, and maybe – sometimes, somehow – I can see and feel what was seen and felt by those who carried that name before me.

D.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 23th of the Seventh month, Year 651, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

The sky looked different last night.

I stood on the walls and observed the distance. Of course, not in some random direction; as always, my gaze was directed to the southwest. It crossed all the miles, over waters and forests and plains, all the way to that special place. The place I want to go to more than anything, ever since I was a small child.

Then I looked up, and saw it. The star with long hair. I've never seen one of them before; they are rare. But I've seen enough illustrations in books to be able to recognize it immediately. This one was small and faint – only a small elongated patch – but visible.

And it was pointed towards the southwest.

D.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 26th of the Seventh month, Year 651, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

My star becomes brighter, and its hair longer. And the direction it shows is very clear: southwest. The message can be only one. The moment is now.

Yes, this is my star and my sign. I felt it the very first day I saw it. All that I dreamed about since I was a child, all that I planned since I became King two years ago, will now be turned into reality.

The wars of The Third Age are distant history. Our numbers grew and we turned into a mighty force that can do whatever we want.

Tomorrow, the people will hear my announcement.

D.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 2nd of the Eighth month, Year 651, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

I don't know if there had ever been such a big and bright long-haired star. The elves probably have records of celestial events, but while looking at it, I believe that not even in their archives and memories can be found something like this.

My star stretches over almost half of the sky. We observe it every night. Its misty, translucent end is above our heads, above Erebor. And the bright white head is low, just above the southwestern horizon. Exactly in the direction of our ancient home.

My star. My sign.

D.

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 1st of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

This is the last entry of my diary that I write in my study in Erebor. Starting from tomorrow, my cousin Thruri will rule the people who remain here. This place will remain our stronghold east of Greenwood the Great. The foundations of the mountain are rich enough and new generations will be able to exploit ore and precious metals for many more centuries; trade with people of Esgaroth can continue to bloom for a long time in the future. About a quarter of the people chose to stay, at least for now, and I'm sure they'll thrive.

The remaining three quarters – a little more than seven thousand – decided to follow me. I will lead, and together we'll reclaim the kingdom under Zirakzigil. Sounds of our hammers will echo again under the Misty mountains.

All the preparations are done. I am ready, the people are ready, and tomorrow we start our journey. Tonight I will lie down in my bed in Erebor for the last time, and tomorrow I'll make the first step to become the new King of Khazad-dϋm.

D.

-x-x-x-

The morning was beautiful and sunny, and it seemed like that the sun itself wanted to enhance the beginning of this journey. The King stood at the head of the procession, ready to go. He didn't manage to get much sleep; he was awake for most part of the night, thinking about the quest that was to start in the morning. In fact, he hadn't spent a sleepless night ever since the time when he had made his proclamation and started to work out all sorts of plans, but this night was certainly not like the others. And yet, he wasn't feeling tired. He was in a great mood, full of energy, and eager to make the first step.

He stood straight and proud – Durin VII, named after the very first one of their whole people. His hair and beard, braided in many complex plaits, were dark brown, almost black, and his wide expressive face and eyes were very much like to his ancestor. According to the ancient prophecy, he was the last to bear the name Durin, and also the one to do many great deeds.

Next to him stood Dirhild, the Queen. Earnest and equally brave and ready to face the challenges of the quest like him. Behind them there were his pride and joy: Noin, his son and heir, Ernis, his daughter and Noin's just a few minutes younger twin, and finally Bergvi, his youngest son. He was just a child – although being twenty-eight, he thought the opposite – and he wouldn't participate in any fighting. But Durin knew that both of his older children, together with him, would lead their people in tunnels of Khazad-dϋm.

Watching his older son, he was sure that he would leave his people in good hands one day. Noin was just as passionate as him when it came to history of their people, and he spent countless hours studying it. He had yet to learn a lot about ruling, but he was still very young; he and his twin were only fifty-four. Noin was a little hasty sometimes, but even Durin was like that when he was that age, so he wasn't worried. Wisdom and experience would come later, with age.

Being a girl and a little smaller, Ernis was just slightly less strong than her brother, but she was certainly equally skilled. Although there had been no wars for centuries, the tradition that the members of royal family go through military training was preserved, so it applied to Durin's children too. Ernis went through equally demanding tuition as her brother from the very beginning; when the King, observing the training on the first day, noticed that the instructor spared his daughter, he rebuked him the same evening. From the next day the girl had the same treatment as her brother, and she too often had bruises after the training. But that was the King's daughter, second in line for the throne. She was expected to give her maximum and nothing less than that, and she grew into a strong, capable and confident young woman.

Everything was ready. The King didn't look back; it was time to look forward and only forward. He sent silent farewell to Erebor, and then lifted his foot to make the first step. Their great quest had just started.

-x-x-x-

The long procession of dwarves moved southward. Darri son of Brirvin walked somewhere near the end of the long procession, and next to him there were his brother and parents. He was unusually tall for a dwarf, and except for his height, he also stood out in the masses because of his light-brown hair, fairer than the big majority of dwarvish people, which he inherited from his mother. His brother, seven years younger, was more like their father – dark-haired and shorter.

Of course, everyone knew the route set by King Durin: they would travel southwards to the beginning of the Old Forest Road. There, they'd turn west and would follow the road through Greenwood the Great to the Old Ford on the Anduin on the other side of the forest, and after that they'd go south all the way to Khazad-dϋm.

Darri was not overjoyed with the plan – more precisely, with the part including the forest. And he was not the only one. Yes, the evil once dwelling in Greenwood was eradicated so long ago that, to Darri's generation, that time felt like ancient history. And not just to us, but even to our parents and grandparents, he thought, remembering the way the older generations spoke of that time. Six and a half centuries was a lot of time, and the name Mirkwood was almost forgotten. But still, not a single dwarf was happy about travelling through the elvish forest; some old prejudices were rooted so deep that it was difficult to dismiss them even after all those centuries of peace. Darri concluded that he would be happiest once the forest remained behind them, when they reached the plain in the west. Forests were for the elves, at least for those few who still dwelt in Middle-earth, and not for the dwarves; it simply wasn't their environment.

He knew that, if they really wanted to avoid passing through the forest at all cost, it would be possible to do it. However, the alternative route from Erebor to the Old Ford – the one that led around the forest, following its northern and western edge – was at least a hundred miles longer, and practical things like the amount of their travelling reserves were much too important to be overlooked. The longer route was simply out of the question.

Darri and Faldur were miners, just like their father and grandfather and many others in the long line before them. Now the whole family followed the King on this quest; Darri and his brother wanted new adventures, and even though they weren't young any more, their parents were also attracted to the possibility of living in Khazad-dϋm.

With each step, Erebor remained further behind them. Tali, his mother, looked back several times. Darri didn't; he thought only of the future, and as soon as they set off, he wanted to watch only forward. In his mind, he created images of tunnels and shafts, imagined wagons carrying ore and gems, and saw himself digging and finding truesilver. He firmly believed they'd make it.

Just like the others, his family didn't carry many things. Most important were supplies of food – dried meat and dried way-bread. There were spare clothes too, and some other little things necessary for the journey. Once they reclaim Khazad-dϋm, craftsmen would make everything they'd need in their new homes.

Both axe and sword hung from his belt, and most others in the procession had at least one of those two. From what he was able to see, only children and some women were without weapons. The dwarves had no real army for a long time – in times of peace there simply was no need for that. But for the past twenty years they had been training in axe and sword fighting – since the day the King had announced his plans. Young and old, men and women – all of them were training. The King organized two big tournaments each year, and winners got suitable rewards. But the real, main reward for the whole people was that, after twenty years of practicing, they were no longer a group of miners, craftsmen and traders, but they turned into a people of well-trained skilful fighters – capable of defeating orcs in the Misty mountains.

They passed the Long Lake at its eastern side, and then went on next to the eastern bank of Celduin. By the end of the first day the lake remained behind them, and at the end of the second day they reached the forest. The entrance into it – the beginning of the Old Forest Road – was still further away to the south. They made the camp close to the forest edge.

Darri and Faldur were not sleepy after supper so they went for a short walk through the camp. There were many fires, the travellers ate their evening meal, laughter echoed around, and songs were heard here and there. Darri noticed a place where a big group sat forming a circle, and the narrator that sat in the middle was quite old; his hair and beard were almost white. The listeners, on the other hand, were mainly children. The area was lit with torches.

"...and so Celebrimbor challenged Narvi to a competition in arm-wrestling," said the old dwarf with a cunning smile. "You know, he was very tall, and also very strong for an elf. Of course, he had to be, otherwise he wouldn't be able to be a smith. And what do you think, who won?"

The old dwarf stopped and looked at his audience. Many of them merrily shouted, "Narvi! Narvi!"

"Of course!" exclaimed the narrator. "After all, neither elves nor men are a match to the strength of the dwarves! Celebrimbor couldn't believe it and he challenged Narvi two more times. Perhaps he thought that the first time he only had a bad day. Naturally, he lost again and again. And do you know what happened next?"

He stopped again, this time prolonging the pause. He observed his listeners, and the spark in his eyes bespoke, "Oh, you won't believe what comes next." The tension was palpable, and Darri didn't want to go further before he heard the answer. He cast a quick side-glance at his brother, and saw that Faldur was equally curious.

"And then..." As soon as the old dwarf continued, the murmur stopped and the children looked at him, holding their breath. "Then Fris, Narvi's wife, also beat Celebrimbor in arm-wrestling!"

Everyone burst into loud laughter, and some younger children applauded. Darri laughed too, delighted with the outcome of the story.

"But Celebrimbor was an open and friendly person, not vain at all," the story went on when the noise abated. "He and Narvi became best friends, and together they were creating..."

Although the anecdote was new to him, Darri did know the basic of the history of that period, so he gave a sign to his brother. He preferred to spend the evening with friends than to listen the stories.

"Let's help Bemir and Mami with that mead," he grinned.

"Of course. We don't want them to carry too heavy a burden," replied Faldur joyfully.

"Just like they'll help us with our own burden!"

With those words, the brothers went to find their friends.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 4th of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

The third day of our journey just ended. We reached the entrance into Greenwood the Great. Days are long and there would be enough daylight for one more hour of walking; yet, I decided that we'd make camp before the entrance. Here, in the plain, there is much more space. I am familiar with the fact that there is almost no space next to the Old Forest Road, which means that, in those nights we'll spend in the forest, we'll have to camp on the road itself.

I will walk through the camp and talk to the people. I know that there are those who are afraid of the forest and need encouragement. I don't like it either. But this route is significantly shorter and we must use it.

Three days closer to the fulfilment of the dream. I can't wait to see the magnificent halls of Khazad-dϋm. I've seen them in my dreams so many times, I've read so many descriptions in the old books that I know in detail how they look. But I am sure that no description is a match to their beauty in reality. Our beloved and never forgotten home, we come to you.

D.

"Child, please move. You are in our way."

A male voice that came from behind her wasn't rude, but it sounded impatient.

Again the same thing. Halldis laid aside the backpack she had just been packing, sighed and rolled her eyes. She had been hearing similar statements for about thirty years, ever since she had stopped growing at fifty. And not even until then had she grown much – she was much shorter than average women, and sometimes she heard jokes about being related to halflings. Her small stature and slender frame closed the door of some traditional dwarvish occupations; she was simply too short and didn't have enough strength to be a miner or a smith.

She made peace with her small height – mostly. She got used to comments like this – mostly. But sometimes, she met them with anger.

Rating her current mood, she concluded she was somewhere near the upper end of being irritated. She arose, stretching as much as she could, and started to turn around. While still doing it, she automatically started to lift her gaze – because she had to do it in talking to everyone. It was only the children that were shorter than her. But when she turned, she discovered that she had to lift the gaze even more. And more. The lad in front of her towered above her... well, a little more than a foot, it seemed. By Balrog's name, did I really have to meet the tallest dwarf in the procession?

The stretching to full height didn't help. Mildly put.

Yet, she got some satisfaction when she saw that he had blushed after taking a better look at her. Yes, it was clear from her appearance that she was young, and her beard was still not so long and luxuriant like older women had – but being eighty meant that she was a grown up. Judging from his own youth-like facial features, he was about the same age as her. The other youngster standing next to him was surely a few years younger. A satisfied smile appeared on her face – despite her bent neck and highly lifted gaze.

"You said something?" asked Halldis, tilting her head to one side and rising her eyebrows.

"Err... I noticed that... that you didn't carry weapons! So I thought it had to be someone very young in front of me," said the lad and he smiled. Despite trying to keep a stern expression, Halldis couldn't prevent her own smile. Because she actually found it funny, the way he tried to save himself from the situation. Really nimble, for sure. Her mood improved a little bit. However, she didn't move. Let him stew a little bit more.

"Oh, that," she said and crossed her arms over her chest.

"The thing is, we are trying to catch up with our friends, and it's quite crowded all around," he said. "So if we could pass, please... mistress..." It seemed he was really embarrassed by his words in the beginning; the other lad looked very amused and smiled all the time.

"Well, I suppose you could," she replied and collected her things – her backpack and sleeping bag – clearing the way. But she didn't hurry at all.

The tall fair-haired young dwarf then nodded, and they both hurried ahead. Halldis was already turning away to finish packing, when she thought the word "Sorry" had reached her ears. But it was so barely audible that she wasn't sure if it was just her imagination. Then she quickly braided her red hair and she was ready to go.

She looked around her and a few feet further she spotted her brother Glorrim and best friend Tyra. The smiles on their faces clearly showed that they hadn't missed the funny situation a few moments ago.

She had two brothers: Glorrim was older than her by forty years, and Asli by a further ten. Halldis was born when her parents already had past their prime, and when she was a little older, she sometimes wondered if she had been born unplanned. But, of course, she never openly asked.

She and Glorrim went on this journey; their parents and the oldest brother remained in Erebor. Mother and father were quite old now, while Asli made a good profit from his trading business with people in Dale and Esgaroth, and he didn't want to leave it – at least for now.

Then a horn was heard nearby – seven times. The King's sign. Everyone went silent.  

"Listen to the message of King Durin," said the earnest, stern male voice. Of course, it didn't belong to the King himself, but to some of his messengers. Halldis automatically turned to that direction, but – of course – she didn't see anything. The story of my life. Whenever she was in a large group, all she could see were the shoulders and heads of the persons around her. As if I am in a hole beneath them.

"Now we enter Greenwood the Great," continued the messenger, and Halldis quickly paid attention to him. She closed her eyes, for she long ago discovered that it helped her concentration in situations like this, when she couldn't see the speaker. "The way through the forest will most probably last six days. The camps will be set on the road itself. You must not stray from the group and the road. You must not go deeper into the forest. Now that we are next to the Celduin, take as much water as you can carry. There are streams in the forest, and although the water is not poisonous like in the distant past, it could be enchanted so you should avoid it. Hunting is not allowed. Cutting the trees for the fire should also be avoided; you should use the old branches that already fell on the ground. Once we come to the other side, we'll have the Anduin as a water-supply, and we'll also come to villages in which we'll be able to find provisions for the second half of the journey. Is everything clear?"

All this was in fact just a reminder of what they had already heard several times during their preparations, because all things were carefully planned and nothing was left to chance. Some complained about restrictions, but the King's messenger quickly cut off comments of that kind. Finally, they were ready to go.

Halldis cast a glance around. Next to her stood Glorrim, and near them were some of their cousins and friends. And she noticed – she was the only one without weapons among all of them – just like that tall youngster mentioned earlier. She was one of the few who didn't participate in training and competitions. She tried, but it wasn't just that she couldn't handle weapons like males – she couldn't even achieve half as strong blows as most women. Her stature was an obstacle in this case too, so she soon gave up.

However, strength and height were not important for her job, and she knew she was good in it. While still a child, it became clear she had a talent for pottery and ceramics, and ever since she had finished her apprenticeship and opened her own shop, her products were highly prized for their quality and beauty.

Once we settle in Khazad-dϋm, I hope my products will continue to be sought after, she dreamed of the future. Her hopes were even bigger because no one carried those things with them; everyone carried only basic provisions like food and drink, spare clothes and sleeping bags. All that was not necessary for the journey, all that could be done or bought afterwards, was left behind. In her mind she saw her new workshop and home, and rejoiced in advance.

Then they set off – slowly at first, but soon they started to walk faster, just like in the first three days. The long procession of dwarves crossed the bridge over Celduin. Behind their backs, in the east, there was seemingly endless green plain. In front of them, as far as they could see both northwards and southwards, there was the forest.

Mirkwood. The old, almost forgotten name suddenly popped up in Halldis' head. Well, let's hope that nothing murky or bad awaits us there. Mahal, lead us and protect us.

Note:

One of the reviewers warned me that, after the War of the Ring, Mirkwood did not revert to "Greenwood the Great", but that Thranduil and Celeborn had changed the name to Eryn Lasgalen – "The Wood of Greenleaves".

While I was aware that the name Mirkwood was not used any more (because it was cleaned of evil), I have to say that I totally forgot about this. Sorry, dear readers, my mistake. I guess my memory failed me this time. :)

While writing, I used the name "Greenwood the Great" in the whole novel, but from this point forward (which is still quite early in the story, fortunately), I'll change "Greenwood" to "The Wood of Greenleaves", or "The Wood" for short. As I said in the notes before the prologue (when talking about mithril/truesilver), I doubt that dwarves, who speak in their own language when talking to each other, would use the elvish word. I think that it is much more plausible they would use the descriptive name – The Wood of Greenleaves.

I hope that not a single "Greenwood" will slip my attention... :)

-x-x-x-

This is it. The moment is now.

If there was a line drawn between outermost trees left and right from the road, Darri would have crossed it with this step. A moment later, he took a deep breath. And now I am inside the forest. With every next step, the number of trees behind his back grew.

Inside the forest. Something that was not quite pleasant for any dwarf.

The road made of compacted gravel and earth was wide enough that about ten of them could walk parallel. It was well maintained by men from the Kingdom of Esgaroth and those from settlements on the western side of the forest; they used it as a trade route.

The trees grew almost to the edge of the road; between the road and the forest there were only a few feet of space covered with grass. Darri looked on both sides, and he couldn't take his eyes off the trees. He didn't recognize a single sort; unlike some other dwarves, especially traders, he had never been in The Wood of Greenleaves. In fact, he didn't know the trees at all – not even those on the slopes of Erebor – because his world was underground and ores. So this was the first time that he really observed the trees. After all, there was nothing else that he could observe now.

There were many shades of green and many different shapes of tree-crowns. But all the trees had one thing in common: all of them were huge. The big majority were several tens of yards high and he felt so very small; in fact, it seemed to him that their whole procession, no matter how long and numerous, was just a tiny speck in comparison to the forest around them. It looked like they walked through a tunnel closing around and above them, and that there was less light here than outside the forest, because the larger part of the sky was blocked by high tree-crowns; only a small narrow fraction was visible, and they couldn't see the sun. He shuddered, although it wasn't cold.

And this is just the beginning. How long have we been here? Quarter of an hour?, he wondered. And we're supposed to endure six days. By Balrog's balls, how wonderful...

But no matter the discomfort, it was impossible not to be impressed by the size of the forest. Whether he wanted it or not, those giant trees elicited admiration.

"How can anyone like living in such surroundings?" mumbled Faldur, and Darri turned his attention to his brother. On Faldur’s face he noticed discomfort that was probably visible on his own face too.

"Well, we know that elves are weird," said their friend Bemir and giggled. The comment brought some cheer into the atmosphere and broke the tension.

"Do you think we'll meet them?" asked Faldur.

Darri thought about it a little.

"Hmm... I don't think so. Those few that remained live in Thranduil's city, and this road is situated a lot further south from it."

"Fine with me," said Bemir, and Mami, who walked next to him, nodded as a sign of agreement.

"I, too, am cautious and sceptical when thinking about meeting the elves, in a way," said Darri pensively. "They are so very different than us. And yet, on the other hand... I can't say that I am not curious. It would be interesting to see them, even if only from afar, to see what they look like. Aren't you interested too?"

It looked like the others were thinking. Finally, Faldur nodded, while Bemir and Mami repeated they would rather not have contact with the elves.

Little by little, they went deeper into the forest. The road was a straight line for almost all the way, with just a few very gentle curves. The surroundings were the same all the time: thick forest on both sides. Around mid-day they had a short break, like in the previous days, and then they went on.

Soon after the sun set, they stopped. They had to use the road itself and the little grass area next to it for putting their sleeping bags, but there was not much space and it was quite crowded. Darri and Faldur spent some time with their friends after supper, and then they lay down to sleep.

The murmur slowly silenced, but Darri lay with his eyes wide open; sleep simply didn't come to him. It was quite dark, but not completely – here and there the reddish flame of fires lit the night. Now, in the night, the forest looked black. It was almost like the tree trunks were absorbing lights and they were invisible, while the leaves were like a drifting black sea. And there is no wind, Darri realized. Then why are they moving? And although all conversations stopped, it wasn't silent. Crackling was reaching his ears; then occasionally distant howling was heard, and sounds that reminded him of rustling. There is no wind, he reminded himself and shuddered. All the sounds were low, barely audible, but constantly present.

He didn't think himself a coward; more than once, he stepped into Erebor's unexplored tunnels and caves in search of ores, and every time he bravely faced dark dangerous passages. But this was something new, something mysterious, something he did not know. This was not pleasant at all, and he couldn't wait to reach the forest end.

One day down. Five to go. And four nights. Mahal, watch over me. Over all of us.

-x-x-x-

The first thing Halldis became aware of was someone shaking her shoulders.

"Come on, sleepy-head, it's high time to get up!"

She opened her eyes and saw Glorrim. He sat on his sleeping bag and she noticed that he was already starting the morning meal. Unlike yesterday, today the sky above them was grey and cloudy.

"I want to sleep more..." she whined and covered her head, escaping from the little light that cloudy dark dawn offered. But only a moment later, the strong hand shook her again.

"Get up! If you don't get ready on time, we leave you behind."

She peered again and looked at her brother. He pretended to be stern, but she noticed a poorly hidden smile on his face.

"By Mahal's name, you seem to be related to those pointy-eared ones!" he muttered, and then dedicated all his attention to his breakfast.

Halldis laughed, and then got up and stretched. The comparison was a good one; from what she could see during the first two days and nights in the forest, she was the only one not feeling unpleasant. Yes, in the beginning she was impressed by the size of trees – just like everybody else – but then she just continued to walk as she would do anywhere else. After the first night everyone was sleep deprived because spooky sounds echoed around – as if the trees were talking among themselves – so they were very upset and couldn't sleep. She, on the other hand, paid no attention to the sounds and slept just fine, both on the first and second night. Judging by the circles around the eyes of the majority around her, they were still disturbed by the forest's night sounds.

Today the weather was quite cloudy, but they were lucky – it wasn't raining. About two hours after noon they stopped for lunch. Halldis ate her way-bread and dried meat quickly, and concluded she had enough time for a short walk through the forest. While walking earlier, she thought she saw the first strawberries.

"I believe I could find some for us. I'll return soon," she told her brother and entered the forest.

As soon as she was inside, everything around her became darker. Great thick tree-crowns didn't let much light to the ground. From up close, the trees looked even bigger and Halldis concluded it would take at least twenty dwarves to circle them, holding hands. The ground was mostly bare earth, with grass and bushes here and there.

She directed her attention to the ground and merrily realized that she was not mistaken: there were a lot of strawberries around. She started to pick them and put them in a small leather bag she took with her.

In her search for the sweet berries, she slowly moved further away from the road. But although she couldn't see it because her sight was blocked by many wide tree trunks, she wasn't worried. She wasn't very far, and the noise made by hundreds of dwarves on the nearest part of the road was loud enough to serve as an unmistakable land-mark. She didn't mean to go much further and she was sure she couldn't go stray.

And just when she meant to turn around and start going back, after peering around one tree she discovered a small stream – six feet wide at most – and on the other side there were many big juicy strawberries. She stopped for a moment, having remembered the warning. But it said that we shouldn't drink the water, and that's something I surely don't intend to do, she told herself. All she had to do was to wade over the stream, and it was really shallow. She'll be in water only to her ankles, and her boots were waterproof. I'll only pick up the strawberries from the other side, and then I’ll return.

A moment before stepping in she halted one more time, feeling nervous because of the instructions again, and then she moved on. Three steps, and I am there. What could possibly go wrong?

Halldis made the first step into the stream. After the second step, she was in its middle. But instead of proceeding and stepping out in just two more steps, she looked into the water... and stopped.

It was... multicoloured. Halldis was stunned – for she never noticed anything like this in rivers and streams she had seen before. The water was always transparent – and through it one could only see its bed and nothing else. This stream contained all the colours of the surroundings: grey and brown of the bed, green of the leaves, red and yellow of the flowers. And it seemed like it was no mere surface reflection, but that the water was woven of all those colours. As the stream flew and as light refracted on its surface, Halldis thought she saw more colours – blue, purple, white...

How can this be?

Attracted by these extraordinary colours, she stooped and put her hand into the stream, unaware of what she was doing. The water was cold, and while caressing her skin, Halldis had a sudden feeling that it was talking to her – as if it was alive, as if it was a person wanting to talk to her. Images formed in her head, ones she had never seen before: trees growing on all sides, on an area so huge that it was difficult to comprehend; a distant tower, black and menacing, but which later dissipated and vanished; all the waters flowing through the forest, intertwined among themselves; black silhouettes and webs in the tree-crowns; gracious figures of the elves.

Halldis blinked, trying to recollect herself. It was as if the water was telling her a tale of this forest, of its history and its inhabitants, through the images it was showing.

No, that is impossible, she thought next, in the attempt to be rational. Water can not talk nor show pictures. I am only imagining things. But as the kept holding her hand in the stream, the experience continued. When she closed her eyes, the pictures became even more vivid. And more beautiful.

I want to see more, she realized.

She slowly arose, but didn't open her eyes, and started walking through the stream, in the direction of the source.

In a time so long ago that not even all the stars we see today were lit, there were no forests either. Then the Mother of all the trees made it start growing, and it grew and grew... and the elves awoke them and taught them to speak. The world was young, and tears and blood had not yet soaked the ground.

In a way it was like listening to a voice telling the story. But it was not a voice in a real sense; it was as if the sentenced formed from pictures flying in front of Halldis' eyes.

She kept walking, eyes closed.

But the peace did not last. The world was changing. The shadows lengthened. Darkness from the north spread. The poison imbued ground, water and air. The trees withered.

A step. And the next, and the next. The water danced around her boots. But Halldis wasn't aware of it; all she heard and saw was the tale.

The clash. Day against night. Green against black. Light against dark.

Never before had Halldis seen the sky so black; never had she felt wind so cold; never had she breathed the air so poisonous that it choked her.

Image by image, sentence by sentence.

Step by step.

The forest and the elves have fought evil creatures. For years, centuries. Many days and nights have passed, much water has flown, countless leaves have grown and died. The war went on.

Just like Halldis' steps.

I am just a small stream, one of the smallest. But I've been here all the time, do you know it? I've been a part of this forest forever, ever since its beginning. I've seen it all. And in the end, I saw the victory against shadow and darkness. The world you live in is beautiful.

The sun shone brightly, darkness withdrew, the colours shone in their full splendour.

And then the images vanished and the voice silenced. Halldis stopped and finally opened her eyes. Instinctively she knew that the stream wouldn't say any more, that the story was over.

She stepped out and stood on the grass, and looked around her. She was on a clearing without trees, so she saw the sky above her. The stream curved around a small grassy hill in the middle of the clearing and disappeared from her sight. All was quiet, and all she could hear was a slight murmur of the water.

What has just happened to me?

Suddenly her knees became shaky and she had to sit. She felt shaken, amazed, and even... grateful, she found the right word – all at once. The feeling of travelling through space and time was incredible, and she assumed that she was the only dwarf ever who had experienced something like this. After all, her people didn't dwell in The Wood of Greenleaves and they couldn't even get the opportunity for this.

So, it was not exaggeration when we were told that the water in this forest was different than elsewhere... will anyone believe me if I tell them about my experience?

And having thought that, having remembered her brother, friends and everyone else, her eyes opened wide and she felt a cramp in her stomach. Because, when she jumped on her feet and looked around, she realized she had no idea where the road was. She walked through the stream with eyes closed; she had no sense of time and had no idea what distance she crossed. She thought she didn't go very far, but it was possible she was wrong. For now she couldn't hear anything any more – not a single voice or other noise that numerous dwarves on the road made. And the clouds covered the sky and the sun, so she couldn't say where the south was.

What am I going to do now...?

For a short while she was in panic, but her reason soon prevailed. Although she didn't know how long she had walked, she knew from which direction she had come. She concluded that she only had to walk next to the stream – to the place where she stepped in. She was sure she'd recognize it.

But I will not go in the stream again to get those strawberries on the other side. I picked enough and I'll immediately return to the road. It was more than enough almost getting lost once, I don't want to risk one more time.

But even before she managed to turn around and start going back, behind the rim of the hill she heard noises that became louder and closer. Sounds of heavy steps were accompanied by something that resembled mumbling. And then, a bear appeared on the hill.

She screamed.

-x-x-x-

After lunch, Darri joined a group of about a dozen dwarves who went to collect some more wood. They didn't cut anything – not just because of the warning, but also in a good part because most of the trees were too big and even the lower branches were too high to reach them easily. So they mostly collected the dry branches that fell on the ground.

They slowly progressed, and soon they came to a stream. Most of the group didn't step in and cross it, except for the two who jumped over it in a spot where it was most narrow, and the two continued to pick up wood on the other side. After a while all of them filled their baskets and, using shoulder straps, put them on their backs. They were about to go back when he thought he heard a sound coming from the distance.

A scream?

Yes, it sounded like that, but he wasn't completely sure what he heard – it could also be a bird. He stopped and tried to judge what it was when another scream was heard, a little louder than the first time, and this time there was no doubt that it was a female voice. The others around him also lifted their heads and looked warily around themselves, trying to realize where the voice came from. And then the sound reached them for the third time, and now they could discern the word.

"Heeeeelp!!!"

The voice came from the distance and it was muffled, but it was impossible to mistake. Someone was in trouble. This time they could tell the direction, and a dozen dwarves ran through the forest.

-x-x-x-

End-note:

I know that SoA notifications don't work perfectly – sometimes they arrive into the mailbox, sometimes they don't. I reply to ALL the reviews. If you didn't get a notification reply, it is because internet has eaten it, and not because I haven't replied. You simply have to return to SoA and search for my reply manually.

Halldis stared at the bear and started to tremble. Fear paralyzed her and she couldn't move. And even if she could, she was certain that the attempt to escape wouldn't last more than a few steps anyway; the bear would surely catch up with her in an instant.

The big animal stood at the rim of the hill and watched her.

"Don't attack me," Halldis half whispered and half snivelled.

The bear, some fifty feet away from her, slowly moved and made three steps towards her, and then stopped again, tilting his head aside as if scrutinizing her.

Halldis wondered if she could do anything if she had a weapon and knew how to wield it. But watching the huge muscular body of the bear, its long canines and claws, the answer to that question was perfectly clear to her.

She had no idea how far away she was from the road, nor if anyone could hear her. What if they are too far? But she had no other option. She screamed again, this time louder.

The bear made two more steps before stopping again. It looked like it was not sure what to think about this unusual short creature it obviously saw for the first time ever.

"Heeeeelp!!!"

The bear made a step. Then stopped. And another step. And stopped again.

Halldis' eyes filled with tears. I don't want to die!!! She remembered her family, friends, all her wishes, hopes and plans, and her gaze blurred. Am I really going to end like this? Not even reaching half of our journey? After straying away in the forest?

Now only about fifteen feet of space remained between them.

And then, from behind her back, noises were heard from the forest, low and distant at first, but then louder and closer: shouts and the clatter of boots. The bear stopped and lifted its head, sniffing the air.

The sounds were very close now and Halldis cast a quick glance over her shoulder, while hope suddenly lit her face. Is this the rescue, against all odds...? And really it was – just a moment later, a dwarf ran into the clearing, holding an axe in his hands. Then another, holding a sword. They stopped next to her, watching the bear and estimating the situation. And then about ten more came, all of them armed.

The big animal turned in an instant and quickly started to run away, obviously having judged that the situation had become very unfavourable for it. One dwarf surely wouldn't be a problem; maybe not even two. But about a dozen dwarves and as many swords and axes were too much even for such a mighty beast.

And watching the bear's speed, Halldis got the confirmation that she would have absolutely no chance in an escape attempt.

"Are you all right?" she heard a voice next to her. The whole group stood around her, and she closed her eyes for a moment. Was she all right? Yes and no, she concluded. Yes – because she realized she wouldn't die; no – because she was still in shock and terrified, and she couldn't return to normal in just one second.

She opened her eyes, still wet with tears, and lowered her head to hide and wipe them away with a quick move of her hand. And when she lifted her head, she realized she knew the dwarf standing next to her. It wasn't difficult to recall that height and fair hair – it was the youngster she had met on the first day of the journey – and in his gaze she read that he had recognized her too. And suddenly she felt her cheeks burn. On that first day he called her a child. True, then it was just an awkward mistake. But what did she do now? She acted just like a reckless child who didn't listen to instructions, but strayed away and got into trouble.

But it's not my fault. The stream has...

"Are you all right?" As she didn't answer, he repeated his question.

"Yes," she nodded, finally feeling that she could trust her voice.

"You shouldn't have strayed away like this!" one of the dwarves around her said sharply, and she turned towards him. His grey hair and beard were a sign that he had many years and experience behind him.

"I know that myself," she replied, with a little bit of anger in her voice. She didn't like being admonished like a child and wanted to explain that it was the spell and not her carelessness that had caused all this. "I would never have strayed this much if I hadn't stepped into the stream. Because what happened next..." She stopped, wondering how to explain; she had a feeling that it was impossible to turn her experience into words. And even if she made it, would they believe her?

"I went into the forest to pick up some fruit," she started to explain and showed her bag with strawberries, "when I came across this stream. Of course, I didn't drink from it, I didn't forget about the warning. I simply wanted to cross it, but the moment I stepped into it, and just barely to my ankle, I experienced... a vision. I no longer knew what was happening and I lost track of space and time. There is something in the water, something magical... I started walking, without my own conscious will, until the moment when the spell somehow stopped. Then I stepped out of the stream; it was right here. When I stepped out I became aware of everything again, but I didn't know how far I went. And just when I wanted to go back, the bear appeared."

The story didn't contain all that happened, but it showed the basis. A few heads nodded, and there was concern in their eyes.

"Surely those pointy-eared ones bewitched the forest, and now it is hostile towards us..." said one of the dwarves.

"The King must be warned that the water is even more dangerous than we thought," added another.

"Oh, what luck that I jumped over the stream! Who knows what would have happened to me if I had stepped in too..." said the third.

The one who rebuked her still observed her sternly, and his face remained frowned.

"Don't ever stray away from the group again. It could have ended much worse."

He was right, of course, and she knew it. But still...

"If it hadn't been for the stream, I would never have really gone far. Before coming to it, I was close to the road and I could hear everyone talking. I was just about to go back. If it hadn't been for the spell..." she just had to add, wanting to justify herself.

"If it hadn't been for this, if it hadn't been for that. If it hadn't been for Durin's bane, we would never have lost Khazad-dϋm in the first place," he cut her off. "Here in the forest everything can be perilous, and even the slightest straying away can be fatal. Remember that." With those words, the old dwarf turned away from her and looked at the others. "We go back now. We have already lost too much time."

He led the group following the course of the stream, having set quite an intense rhythm. Halldis discovered she had trouble catching up – not because of lack of fitness, but because her legs just couldn't make such big steps as the males in front of her. Besides, even though everything was over now, she started to feel shock and weakness that came as the aftermath. Her heart started pounding again and she trembled.

She walked with her eyes cast to the ground, trying not to fall behind much and unsuccessfully trying to calm her beating heart. And then she realized someone was walking next to her. She lifted her gaze – all the way to the sky, it seemed to her. It was the tall young lad. He nodded to her.

"I hope you are all right now," he said, and then looked at her. It seemed as if he was thinking about speaking, and what to say. The silence prolonged for a few moments more, and then he obviously made a decision. "What did you see?"

Halldis looked at him in confusion.

"What? What do you mean?" she asked, not understanding. She was still shaken up and her mind still didn't work properly.

"Well, the vision you mentioned... I'd like to hear. What did you see?"

She observed him carefully, but on his face and in his eyes there was no mockery, nor any reproach as in the case of that older dwarf, but just curiosity. She fleetingly noticed that his eyes were also lighter brown than most dwarves had, and she thought she had never seen eyes of such a colour. Such a beautiful colour, another thought flashed. Just like hazelnut...

She then blinked and gazed in front of herself, just concentrating on walking for a few moments, and trying to think how to best describe her experience. And in fact, thinking about it was the best way to get rid of fear and tension which were the consequence of her encounter with the bear. Remembering those images, she started to relax.

"Maybe it sounds crazy, but I think that it is best to say that the stream talked to me. When I touched the water, I saw pictures and felt the whisper. It was as if the water told me the history of this forest – from its very beginnings, when everything was beautiful... over the black years, when the enemies dwelt in it... to the present day, which is beautiful again. It was... special."

In the end she lifted her gaze towards him again and discovered he was looking at her. He watched her for a few moments, and then he slowly nodded.

"It sounds that way. Special, I mean. Yes, very interesting," he commented pensively.

"The feeling was so real... as if I had truly travelled back through time and watched all those events. The images were very vivid," added Halldis.

"Hm... on one hand, the forest makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable, like all of us. And on the other hand, now that I hear your story, I almost envy you. Because it sounds beautiful." Then he turned his head towards her. "And then you strayed farther?"

"Yes," she nodded. "While being focused on those pictures, I paid no attention to where I was going, or how long it lasted. I just walked through the stream and listened to it. But no, I was not lost. I just thought that I only had to follow the stream back, when the bear appeared."

He frowned for a moment, but then his face cheered up again.

"All that matters is that everything ended well. Still," he stopped and patted the sword and axe hanging from his belt, "don't go into the forest without one of those little things next time."

"Uhm, yes, I'll take it," she muttered. "I really thought that I'd be back soon, and that I didn't need it." For some reason she didn't understand, she didn't want to confess that she couldn't wield either of those.

Not that they'd be of any use against the bear, though, not when she was all alone, without the protection of the group. But they could be crucial in some other situation.

Except that she didn't have any weapons. And it would definitely be good to have something at hand if necessary.

In that moment she recognized the surroundings: they came to the place where she had stepped into the stream. From there, they only had the short distance to the road. The group in front of them turned towards it, and two of them, still in the back, followed.

"What do you do?" he asked.

The sudden change of theme made her turn her head to him. Oh my, talking to him is a true workout for my neck!

"Ceramics and pottery," she answered, lifting her head high. She loved it and was proud of her work. Then she thought it would be polite to return the question. "And you?"

"A miner, just like my brother, father and grandfather, and many others before them," he replied with a big smile. It was obvious that he was equally proud of his job. And regarding his height and broad shoulders, she was sure that the answer would be miner or smith anyway.

Impressive stature, she couldn't help noticing.

Then, when they were very near the forest's edge, he stopped and turned towards her.

"Darri, son of Brirvin," he said and bowed slightly.

"Halldis, daughter of Kuddal," she said.

A few more steps, and they went out of the forest and reached the road. Everyone was already organized, ready to go.

"Well... I hope we'll have the chance to talk again," said Darri and then moved to follow the others from the group.

"I hope so too," said Halldis and also went her way. A little surprised, she discovered that she really meant what she had said. She wanted to talk to him again... and she realized that she liked the light-brown colour of his hair and eyes... as well as his face and smile.

Halldis, pay attention to more important things, she reminded herself. She quickly started searching for her brother and friends. When she found them, she saw Glorrim's slightly worried look – she was gone for a long time – but she just waved to him and said she'd explain everything later, and joined her best friend.

"Tyra, I'll need your help," she said when she stood next to the other dwarf girl. Tyra had been her best friend since childhood; their parents were neighbours and the girls had been spending time together since their earliest days. Of course, her friend was taller than her – just as all adults were – but at least not as much as the males. So, Tyra's axe was proportionally smaller; hopefully, she'd be able to handle it. "Would you lend it to me when I'll go to the forest next time?" She gestured to her friend's axe. But then she got even wiser idea. "Or even better, you go with me. I wouldn't like to go alone any more."

Tyra's black eyes widened in concern.

"What happened?" she asked.

Halldis quickly told her about her adventure, shortening the whole story a lot. Of course, she didn't think her friend would laugh or that she wouldn't believe, but now there was no time for all the details. In the evening, when they stop, it would be a better opportunity.

"Sure. Count on me. We'll go together," Tyra nodded briskly. Then they both took their place in the procession. It was time to move on.

"That collecting of woods lasted quite a long time," noticed Faldur when Darri took his place next to him and their friends.

"Yes, we stayed longer than we had planned," replied Darri and nodded. "We just finished when we had heard a call for help, so we hurried towards the direction from where the sound came from. It turned out to be a dwarfess who strayed and right in that moment a bear threatened her. But having seen our big armed group, it ran away. Then we went back."

Suddenly, all three heads turned to him.

"Oh, you saved the dwarfess from the trouble!" exclaimed Bemir, and his eyes shone cunningly. "Let us hear – is she young and beautiful?"

"Yes, tell us, were you the biggest hero in the group?" asked Mami.

"Yes, yes, were you the one who had jumped in front of the bear to save her?" added his brother. "Come on, come on, give us the details! Speak!"

All three grinned and watched him. "Come on, admit it, what happened?" they pushed on, almost simultaneously.

Darri knew that the guys could go on like this for hours.

"By Balrog's balls, there is nothing to admit!" he snarled. "I really have nothing more to add to what I had already said. Except maybe for the fact that actually nobody was a hero. The bear was really big, but obviously a group of a dozen armed dwarves was too much for him because he ran away the very moment he had seen us. End. Of. Story."

He didn't say anything incorrect, and he didn't even shorten the story – at least for the part about the bear. But in the end, he realized that he hadn't said anything about the girl.

And Halldis was really beautiful – a fact that he already noticed on that very first day. That flaming reddish hair colour was very rare, and her beard had the same hue. On the top of her cheeks, next to her nose and beneath the eyes, she had a few little freckles that made her look even more special.

"And when will you see her again?" Bemir continued to tease him, not letting go, although Darri wanted to end that topic.

"Easier would a dog get rid of fleas than I of you," grumbled Darri and rolled his eyes. "There are more than seven thousand of us on this journey. It is very much possible that I won't run into her ever again in such a big crowd. And it's not important at all. Chance meeting, water under the bridge, let's move on."

Just as he uttered his last words, they moved on. The three teased him a little more, but when he ignored them, the conversation moved to other topics. In time, it stopped.

Walking, Darri observed the forest. This was their third day here. Although he could never feel as comfortable here as underground, he concluded that the forest was not dangerous after all – at least not in the way it had been in the end of the Third Age. He was young enough and his school days were not a very distant past, so he still remembered history classes. Except for the presence of many evil and dangerous creatures like orcs and giant spiders – and for a while even the Nazgul and Sauron himself dwelt in Dol Guldur – it seemed that back then even the forest itself was hostile to strangers: there were dangerous deceptions, deadly traps and horrible apparitions. But now, the forest didn't make any attempt to do any harm to them in any way; the discomfort they all felt was more the consequence of their prejudices than the real bad experiences. Yes, obviously there were still spells at work in the forest, but the vision Halldis told him about had been, according to her own words, a beautiful event.

Halldis.

"And when will you see her again?", he heard Bemir's question in his mind again. The answer he gave was completely true and honest – it was quite possible that he'd never see her again among so many of them.

Step by step, mile by mile, he realized he would like to see her again... he just didn't understand why.

-x-x-x-

Two days later, Halldis went to pick up some strawberries during the mid-day pause again, and this time Tyra was with her. Unlike two days ago, she stayed very near the road so she could even see it most of the time among the tree trunks. And the two of them were not the only ones who entered the forest with that same aim; there were others searching for forest fruit too, so the presence of other dwarves provided additional safety.

Just when they wanted to return, Halldis lifted her gaze towards tree-tops by chance. They were huge and lush, and there were many branches and leaves intertwined above her. And while observing all those green and brown hues stretching as far as her eyes could reach, it seemed to her that at one spot she saw some shapes that didn't look like branches. Also, they were not brown but grey. She squinted, trying to discern better what it was.

"Tyra," she called her friend, not lowering her gaze. "What is that?" She lifted her hand and showed the direction.

"Hmm..." uttered the other girl after observing for a while. "It looks like... a spider-web."

Halldis thought the same, but she hoped she was wrong. Her friend's confirmation didn't make her happy. Because, so far away and so high above them, the ordinary spider-web should have been much too small to be visible. This was big – way too big. The cramp in her stomach she felt in the next moment had absolutely nothing with hunger.

"I know that long ago there were giant spiders in this forest but... weren't all evil beings eradicated from The Wood of Greenleaves?" she asked in a very low voice, still staring in the height.

"I also thought they were, but..." Tyra started to bite her lower lip, which she did whenever she was nervous.

"Do you think that we're just imagining things? That this is just a game of light and shadow?" asked Halldis. She still didn't want to admit what she really saw.

"I so wish it was true. But I think that we should inform the others," said Tyra.

"Probably the King's scouts noticed it too, but you are right," replied Halldis. "We must pass the news, in case they missed it. Let's hurry."

While rushing towards the road, Halldis cast a glance back, almost expecting to see the big black shapes chasing them. There were none – everything was fine – but even that short distance to the road suddenly seemed huge to her. She wanted to go out of the forest as soon as possible.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 9th of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

The night in front of us is the last in the forest; by tomorrow evening we should go out of it. Until today everything was peaceful, and I hoped it would stay that way. But today afternoon the scouts and several civilians saw big spider-webs in the forest. We have strength in numbers, and if giant spiders really exist, I don't believe they would lightly attack the group such big as ours. But still, I ordered precautionary measures. It is forbidden to leave the road and the camp, many torches are lit, and guard is set throughout the whole camp. If anything comes near, we will be ready.

Mahal, watch over us.

D.

One step forward, one step backward.

Lying in his sleeping bag, Darri thought it was the right way to describe his opinion about the forest. In the first days – and especially nights – he felt uncomfortable. Then, he started to think that the forest was not so bad. Now, after it was announced that there might be giant spiders around – like in the old dangerous times, he again liked it less.

But at least this is the last night in the forest, he comforted himself. By the end of the next day they should finally reach its western edge and continue the journey through the plains around the Anduin. He thought that it would be much safer surroundings.

He rolled from one side to another for a while, and then finally managed to fall asleep. But soon – and it felt as if it had been only a moment since he had closed his eyes – a hand shaking his shoulders woke him up.

"Darri! Darri!"

It took him a few moments to get fully awake and to realize it was his brother calling him. He blinked and looked around. Everything was still lit by the torches, just like it was when they went to sleep. Next to him, Faldur rose to sitting position and watched the trees tensely.

"Do you hear those sounds?" asked Faldur, somewhat nervously.

Darri directed his attention to the forest. At first he heard nothing, but then sounds that resembled the breaking of branches reached them. Then, after few more moments of silence, they heard arrows whizzing and breaking of branches again. After the sounds of more arrows, the air was filled with loud screams. They were horrifying and not similar to any sound he had ever heard from any animal.

Around them more and more dwarves woke up, disturbed by sounds that were the sign that somewhere in the forest some battle was going on. The fighting became louder and more gruesome screams echoed in the night. They also heard dull impacts, as if something heavy was falling to the ground.

"Do you think that's the spiders?" asked Faldur.

Darri slowly nodded.

"From what we found out earlier... it might be."

-x-x-x-

The King jumped on his feet the very moment when the first sound was heard. That night he went to sleep in his full battle gear: before he lay down, he put on his chain-mail and vambraces, and his helmet and sword were in the reach of his hand. He ordered the members of his Guard to do the same. Altogether there weren't many of them – no more than two hundred, because there was no need for a great army in centuries of peace – but they were excellently trained. Apart for being masters in sword and axe fighting, all of them were skilled archers too. The members of the Guard had to be the best in everything, and anything less than best and perfect was out of the question.

He gave a quick glance to Dirhild, who woke up at the same time as him. Her lips silently formed "be careful". He quickly put his helmet on, took his sword and went out of the tent. In the light of the torches he saw his Guardsmen already mustering. And he saw Noin and Ernis too, also ready – in their chain-mails and with swords in their hands. Very good, he thought, satisfied. Responsibility above all.

"Brothers, are you ready?" echoed the strong voice of Nardi, commander of the Guard. He was a large dwarf with the broadest shoulders Durin had ever seen, who hadn't lost a single sparring-fight in decades. He was also a good friend, and Durin would put his life in Nardi's hands with full confidence.

Numerous cries answered him, two hundred voices merged into one. The King stood next to Nardi and raised the sword.

"Charge!" his voice roared.

"Your highness, it could be dangerous," his general warned him.

"As if that will stop me," replied Durin, and one end of his lips rose in a smile.

Several soldiers with torches in their hands stood in front, the King was just behind them, and next to him was Nardi. Then they ran towards the forest.

-x-x-x-

"If we can hear arrows, maybe there are elves involved," commented Faldur.

The sounds of fighting from the forest continued.

"I think so too," Darri agreed pensively. Curiosity then awoke in him, and grew with every next moment. "Judging from the direction of the noise, I'd say that the action is happening over there, in front of our position." He briefly waved his hand and showed the way. "But I'd say that it isn't very far, otherwise we wouldn't hear anything. Let's go there! I want to find out what is happening!" He was completely awake; right now, further sleeping was the last thing on his priority list.

"Hmm... you think so?" asked Faldur dubiously. "We'll only be in the way, especially if we'll not be the only ones with that idea..."

"Come on, let's go!" retorted Darri and bumped his brother in the shoulder. "We won't let important things happen far away from us, will we? Let us find out the news first-hand."

With those words, he quickly arose and pulled his brother. A moment later they were walking towards the focus of the action.

-x-x-x-

The run was short – not longer than seventy or eighty yards – and already they were in the centre of the battle. Or more accurately – beneath it.

The torches were no match to the day light, but when he lifted his head, the King still managed to see several huge silhouettes in the treetops. Their bodies were round, massive and completely black, and from each extended eight long legs.

They could still hear whizzing, but he wasn't able to see the archers – obviously they were too well hidden in the tree crowns. And it was more than clear that their arrows were finding their targets because they could hear screams of the big beasts. They were sharp, horrifying and ear-piercing.

"Watch out!!!" Nardi shouted loudly.

After the warning shout Durin heard cracking of branches, and only a moment later just a few feet from them a great black monster crashed. From up close, he realized the spiders were even bigger than he thought. The body, pierced by two arrows, was almost seven feet wide, the legs were about that same length, and the big jaws didn't promise anything good to anyone who came too close. Just a moment later they snapped, and the legs started to move.

"It's alive!" shouted the King. "Attack!"

Axes and swords were upon the big spider. It tried to fight back, but there were too many dwarves. Durin cut off one of its legs, and then another. They were solid, almost as if he tried to cut rock, and it was necessary to put all his strength to every blow. The beast screamed from pain and the sound was so loud that it was almost unbearable; he had a feeling that the sound was echoing inside his helmet and that his head was about to explode. But then he stepped forward and hit the head with as much strength as he could, and the noise stopped. The big spider was dead.

A moment later, another one fell from the treetops. And one more, a little bit further.

In the heights, the arrows were flying; on the ground, spiders' screams were mixed with heavy blows of axes and swords. But it didn't last long. As they soon discovered, there were about ten spiders, which meant that they were greatly outnumbered. Very soon none remained.

When everything went silent, the King quickly looked around. "Report! Are there any wounded? Any victims?"

As it turned out, all dwarves were unharmed. That was the moment when they could simply turn back and go to their camp, but Durin stopped, thinking. He had questions and he wanted to meet elven archers; he wanted to find out where the spiders had come from and if there were more, and he thought the elves could know it; the forest was their domain, after all. On the other hand, he didn't know if the elves would show up at all; obviously, they were up in the treetops, and if they decided to just leave, he knew he wouldn't be able to find them. And just when he wanted to shout to send a call to the elves – come what may – rustling was heard from the forest. A moment later a group of elves stepped into the torchlight. There were about fifteen, from what he could count in a glimpse. He strode two steps in front of his fighters and lifted his head proudly.

The King observed the elf who stood in front of the others – just like he did – which obviously marked him as a leader. The elf was darkhaired, and his hair was braided in several different plaits. Durin remembered that he had long ago heard that each had its own meaning, and that the fighter had to earn each with his deeds, but he couldn't remember their forms and meanings. All the elves were clad in simple and functional clothes – tunics, trousers and boots suitable for long dwelling in the forest, and all of them had swords and bows. Not for the first time, he wondered how someone so slender could be so strong. But he visited The Wood of Greenleaves more than once, attending some formal events as King under the Mountain, and saw competition in riding, archery and swordplay. And he had the opportunity to see how strong and skilful fighters the elves were.

But still, none of them is stronger than us, he thought, satisfied.

"If someone had told me that this expedition would turn into a mutual hunt with dwarves, I would have proclaimed him mad," slowly said the commander of the elves. His voice was soft and melodious, like the other elves Durin had heard – completely different than deep, throaty voices he was used to. "Of course, those spiders that fell to the ground would have been easy prey for my archers." The elf seemed very confident and self-satisfied.

"Unless some of them managed to escape in the dark... in which case you'd have a problem," replied the King in the same tone.

The elf observed him for a few moments, and he seemed to think. Finally, he nodded seriously.

"True. You contributed to faster and easier completion of our task." A slight smile appeared on his face. "I am Ellaron, the leader of the rangers of The Wood of Greenleaves."

"Durin VII, son of Throrin," said the King.

The elf's eyes opened wide for a moment.

"Indeed, this expedition is becoming more and more incredible," he said raising his eyebrows, looking amused, but soon his face returned to neutral expression.

Durin, though, still had questions and wanted answers.

"For a long time, the word has been widely spread that The Wood is free from all evil beings and that the shadow no longer lies upon it. But now I see that it is not so – at least not right here and not in this very moment. I invite you to our camp. I want to hear more about the newest events in the forest." Then he relaxed his face expression and tone. "You can also use this opportunity to take some rest after the battle, and you can refresh... with mead," he added with a smile. They had just accomplished a victory and it had to be celebrated, and everyone loved celebrations.

The last words were followed by merry comments on both sides. The dwarves and the elves moved towards the camp.

Upon their return to the camp, the King invited Ellaron and Nardi to his tent. Normally, the tent was more than big enough for him and Dirhild: on one side there was their pallet, and on the other side there was a small collapsible desk and chair which he used for studying maps or for making his notes. But now that six persons were inside – Nardi, Ellaron, and both of his elder children entered – it looked small and very crowded. They sat on the pallet, ground, chair – wherever one could find some space – and when everyone got wine and mead, Durin turned towards the elf.

"Has this been happening before? I've visited Thranduil's city quite a few times on some official occasions, but never has something like this been mentioned."

"The Wood of Greenleaves has really been free of dark shadows for a long time," said the elf, having sipped a little bit of wine. "This newest incident is only the fourth such event in all these centuries since the end of the Third Age. We destroyed the spiders to the very last one in all three previous occasions and we are not sure how they manage to come back. Maybe there is some deep hidden den with the eggs... we really don't know." He shook his head. "In any case, I'll inspect this area with my rangers one more time. I hope that the forest will be clear again for a long time..." He stopped and it looked like he was thinking. "...especially because my people won't be here for much more time."

Durin thought about the uttered words, and especially about those in the end. He knew that the number of the elves in The Wood had been slowly decreasing throughout the Fourth age, which he witnessed himself during his visits to the elven city. Middle-earth was changing.

"We will take care of Khazad-dϋm," he replied. "The forest will have to become the responsibility of Beornings and Kingdom of Esgaroth."

"It would be great if the orcs were eradicated from the Misty Mountains. However, it won't be an easy task," said Ellaron slowly.

The King looked him with raised eyebrows.

"We are very much aware of the fact that we aren't going on a picnic," he said.

"I didn't think that, no," said Ellaron and shrugged. "But how much do you really know about things in Moria?"

"I would be a very irresponsible ruler if I led my people into a situation of which I knew nothing," answered Durin coldly with somewhat a scathing look.

Nardi, on the other hand, had a very angry look on his face. "Do you think that we haven't sent many scouts in the previous years, who have risked their lives to bring us information?" he asked furiously.

Ellaron opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed them. He didn't speak for a few moments, and then looked the King in the eyes.

"I apologize for my rash words," he finally said.

Durin observed him; the elf seemed sincere, so he nodded as a sign of accepting the apology.

"Just as my general says, we are very well acquainted with the situation." The King's tone softened now, and as did his expression. "There are enough orcs that we'll have to make a great effort to overpower them, but we can do it because their number is not countless, after all. The interior of the mountain and the gate's surroundings provide only limited possibilities for food production, so the number of the orcs could not grow endlessly. While my people lived there, one of the ways to get food, besides production, was trade; however, that particular possibility is closed for the orcs. The reports from the area also say that orc attacks on the nearest Rohan villages are rare, which is another indicator that there are not enough orcs for marauding actions of a bigger scale. And I have some direct data about their numbers from the scouting in the tunnels."

Yes, just as Nardi mentioned, many brave dwarves crossed all that long way and risked their lives many times by sneaking through the dark tunnels to determine the current status and to estimate the approximate number of the orcs. But he didn't want to reveal any more details to the elf.

"That is good," said Ellaron and gave him a slight formal bow. "May the Valar be with you. I wish you a successful mission," he said solemnly.

"I thank you," replied Durin in the same tone and lifted his chalice. "To our victory!"

The others joined him.

"To the victory!"

Durin drained his mead, and then he wanted some more. And not just that – he wanted to go out and celebrate with his soldiers. In that moment, it felt as if tonight's victory – or at least a part of it, because they were not the only ones fighting the spiders – was a good harbinger for the battles that awaited them.

The cheerful voices and laughter from outside the tent were the sign that the celebration had already started.

"Let us join them," said the King lightly, having abandoned the formal demeanour.

Nardi and Noin enthusiastically jumped on their feet, and Durin knew that his wife and daughter would also drink a few more chalices. And it turned out that neither the elf needed any more persuasion.

-x-x-x-

"There was a fight with the spiders!"

"We went into battle and won!"

"The King led our fighters and killed two spiders!"

"We defeated the spiders!"

"The King killed several spiders!"

Shouts were loud and cheerful, the news spread in waves. As the number of the killed spiders grew from one moment to the next – after the battle was over – Darri concluded that the news was changing with every next teller. Or at least after every two or three, he laughed inside. But the basis of the story was the same from the beginning and it was clear that the King and his Guard had participated in the battle started by the elves, and that they had soon defeated the spiders together.

Darri and Faldur soon reached the centre of the events. They heard songs, many goblets were lifted in toasts, and even the two of them got the beer from some generous near-by dwarf who opened his barrel on this occasion. For a while they remained there and joined the celebration. And then, by mere coincidence, Darri looked in the right direction in the right moment – and spotted a movement.

More movements, actually, and several shapes.

"Faldur, look!" he said in a low voice and pulled his brother's hand, and showed the direction where to look.

Faldur had to rise up onto his toes; for Darri, his height enabled him to see over the heads of the others around. He gazed and observed what he had never seen in his life before.

About fifteen tall slender figures slowly walked towards the forest. One of them, the one in the back of the group, turned around and nodded to someone behind him, and then continued to walk after the others. All of them had bows and quivers with arrows. Their movements were soft and they walked as if they didn't even touch the ground.

The elves.

A word that marked something different, something alien. Enemies, some dwarves would say long ago. And some were suspicious even nowadays.

Darri observed, and pondered.

Dwarves. Elves. The two peoples who could hardly be more different than they were. One were immortals, the other were not. One were people of stars, the other of the underground. One were created by Iluvatar, the other by Mahal. The very essence of their fλa was completely different.

Quite unexpectedly – and probably quite by chance – one of the elves turned his head and looked towards the direction where Darri had stood.

Another lucky coincidence. One of those moments that seems as if many forces joined together so that something extraordinary could happen.

Torch-light was not very bright and the distance was not short, but Darri felt the exact moment when their gazes met, and the elf stopped. And while watching him, Darri suddenly had a feeling that he could see much more than his figure. In the elf's eyes he saw all his past centuries and millennia, all his ancient battles, his sorrow because of loss and changes, his longing for the spaces beyond this world – so distant and different that they were incomprehensible to him.

The elf then gave him a barely perceptible nod, and then turned and went after his group. Darri took a deep breath. He had just seen something new and different. And then he thought that new and different were the main concepts that marked their lives now: that was the very essence of this journey. Because their quest was so much more than mere moving from one place to another within the familiar world; this was not like going from one of Erebor's cave to another. Their old homes remained behind them and nothing would ever be the same for them again. They were heading to something completely new and unknown: they set out to create a whole new world.

And now he had the chance to see something very special, something he had never seen before. This was his first discovery of different worlds on this quest. He smiled.

"I am glad I witnessed this," he said pensively, his gaze still fixed to the place where the elves entered the forest, having disappeared from their sight.

"You know... actually, I am too," added his brother in a low voice. They exchanged glances, and then they slowly started to walk back to their places.

Halldis was – again – the last to wake up in the whole group consisting of her brother, cousins and friends. While washing her face, she heard them talking about last night's battle; of course, the news spread through the whole company.

"I woke up and it seemed to me that I could hear something in the distance, but I wasn't sure," said Tyra. "But even before I could think more of it, I fell asleep again."

"I didn't hear anything," commented Glorrim.

"Neither did I," added Lotti, one of their friends, and the others said the same.

While they talked, Halldis checked hers and her brother's water supplies; last night they realized that they didn't have much more. Of course, the supplies status this morning was the same as when they went to sleep. Or, more precisely, not the same, and not in a positive way: the amount of water they had now was even smaller because a part of it was used for refreshment. They only had a little water left.

"No, I didn't magically discover some bottle that slipped my attention last night," she mumbled. "We didn't split our supplies by days very well. By the end of this day we'll run out of water."

They could expect that they'd walk out of the forest by the end of the day, but the Anduin didn't flow next to The Wood; there was almost the whole day of the journey between the forest and the river. Still, she knew that their current problem wasn't insurmountable and that they wouldn't have to wait all the way to the Anduin to get water. When entering the forest, the King ordered taking water from the Celduin for emergency cases, so several big barrels were loaded on carts carrying things for communal needs, like spare food, medicaments and similar.

"Then a trip to the supply carts is required," said Glorrim, whose thoughts obviously followed the same way as hers. He turned to her. "Of course, the one to go is the one who slept longest, because that one has most energy for walking," he teased her.

Halldis stuck her tongue out at him as she sometimes did as a child, but right after that she smiled to him and got up. She picked empty bottles and headed towards the front part of the camp. She looked up; the sky was blue and promised a nice, clear day. And probably very warm, she thought. The nights in the forest were cold and damp. Now it was still quite chilly so she wore a jacket over her short-sleeved tunic; during the day, most often it was enough to wear just a tunic.

She assumed that in the second part of their quest the days would be even warmer. She didn't like summer heat, so walking under hot sun wasn't her favourite way to spend time. But she knew that this was the best time of the year for such a journey. Summer would start in about two weeks and days were now longest, and it was necessary to use all the convenient circumstances they could.

As she walked, she looked around. Almost everyone was awake and it was quite lively on the road. Some were already prepared to continue the journey, while some had their breakfast. When she neared the carts with barrels, she discovered that several persons already waited in the queue and she smiled. Very good, we are not the only fools who made poor calculations, she thought gleefully and felt a little better because of that discovery. Sharing water went quickly, so she was soon on the way back.

She was about half way there when she noticed a familiar figure next to the road, on the very edge of the forest. She had only seen him twice, very briefly, and moreover, now he she was looking at his back, but she immediately recognized him. That combination of height and fair-hair was unique. Darri.

She didn't understand why, but she slowed her pace. Should I approach him and have a word?, a thought flashed – a thought she also didn't understand. It was not that they were good friends; actually, they were not friends at all, but mere acquaintances. Besides, it seemed that he was immersed in conversation to an older grey-haired dwarf next to him, and it surely wouldn't be polite to interrupt. But still, she slowed so much that she almost stopped and, looking towards him, she realized that she'd be glad to talk to him.

As she was passing behind him, he turned around by chance and looked towards the road. When he saw her a smile appeared on his face, and Halldis realized she was smiling too. Then she quickly lowered her head, a little confused. When she lifted it again, she realized he had  waved farewell to the older dwarf and started walking towards her.

"Good morning," said Darri when he approached her, still smiling.

"And to you too," replied Haldis and looked towards the blue sky. "Well, the morning really is beautiful."

"I agree. And the night was good for us too. You have surely heard the news?" he asked, and she nodded. Darri's glance then swept over her loaded back-pack. "Fresh supplies?"

"Yes, uhm, I went to take water for me and my brother," she answered.

"You travel with your brother?" he asked.

Halldis looked at him and it seemed that he was really interested. She watched his light-brown eyes for a few moments, and then blinked and recollected herself.

"Yes. There are several cousins with us too, and several friends. Our parents stayed in Erebor; they are a bit elderly, so they dared not to go... and our oldest brother stayed too." She paused, and then decided to ask the same question. "And you?"

"Parents, brother and I," he replied. "And cousins and friends too, just as in your case."

She nodded, and pondered. She tilted her head a little and looked somewhere in the distance. "I somehow feel safer with all of them. This quest is a big step for our whole people, and even bigger for individuals. We go into the unknown... and having family and friends around instils safety and comfort."

She fell silent, suddenly confused. She was usually more restrained; what made her open her mind so much to a stranger?

She had no answer.

"It is interesting," Darri said, and she returned her attention to him. "Last night I also thought about how this journey was a huge change for us. Our old world remains behind, and a completely new one is in front." He stopped, and his expression became thoughtful. "I saw the elves last night."

Her eyes widened. Really, that was not an everyday experience. In fact, that was too mildly put; for the majority, not just that it didn't happen every day or year, but never in their whole lives.

"And, what are they like?" she asked quickly. She belonged to that majority and wanted to know more now.

He looked towards the forest and she saw he was thinking. She curiously awaited the answer... and she couldn't tear her gaze away from his expressive face.

"Like a beautiful gem you discover in a rock, new and totally unknown till that moment, and you realize you have discovered a whole new world... and at the same time you realize that it was here long before you and that it is ancient. And that it is different from all the jewels you have known so far... but that only now, when you discovered it too, you have the whole picture of the world surrounding you."

"Oh," she sighed, remaining speechless. She didn't expect something like this. Though, if she had to say what she had expected, she actually wouldn't know what to say. Maybe a description of their look, a notion passed through her head. But in fact, it is not important at all, she thought in the very next moment. What she heard right now was a much better depiction; these words told her all she needed to know about the elves.

And they told her a lot about Darri, too.

"I think I understand," she said and slowly nodded, and a pensive smile appeared on her face. Their gazes met, and in his eyes she saw the reflection of what she had experienced herself. "Well, looks like we both had a chance to get a very special insight into the forest world," she said in a low voice. "I feel very privileged and honoured."

He nodded without a word, and they looked at each other for several more moments. Watching him, while those last words still echoed between them, she felt as if she was inside some spell again and that she wasn't alone in it, but together with Darri. But then the loud voices of a few passing dwarves startled her and recalled her back to reality. She almost jumped, roused from her thoughts, and simultaneously she felt something like sorrow – for the spell was now broken.

Having looked around her, she realized that almost everyone was ready and that they would leave soon. That reminded her that she had to hurry back to Glorrim and their company.

"Err... I must go. I have to reach my brother and the others and get ready..." she said somewhat confusedly, searching for the best way to end the conversation. At the same time, she was sad that this talk was coming to its end.

"Yes, I understand. In fact, I should go too," nodded Darri, still watching her.

"Uhm, I mean, bye..." muttered Halldis. She stood hesitantly one more moment, and then she started to turn around. And she almost made her first step when a call stopped her.

"Halldis?"

She turned to him.

"Maybe you could... well, maybe you and your friends could come to spend some time with my company... you know what people say – the more, the merrier... Maybe this evening? Or tomorrow?"

She stood and watched him. And smiled.

"Yes. We could."

After those words she finally moved. She walked as fast as possible to arrive in time... but she didn't mind the burden on her back, nor the fact that she lost her breath in the hurry. She saw Darri. She'd see him again. And she felt great.

And she wondered just how those three facts were connected.

-x-x-x-

End-note:

In her review to the previous chapter, Shirebound said she found Durin's thoughts about the number of the orcs intriguing. If anyone else wonders why Durin thinks that way, you can read my reply to her review. ;)

It was early evening when the long procession of dwarves came out of the forest, six days after entering it. At first everything seemed strange to Halldis because she had already got used to being surrounded with high trees and seeing just a small part of the sky. But the feeling passed as quickly as it appeared and she smiled, enjoying the open grass-land. The Wood of Greenleaves was behind their backs, while on all other sides huge plains stretched.

Northern and southern horizons were a flat green line, but the west looked just a little bit different. There were the peaks of Misty Mountains. They were several tens of miles away and in that distance they were just tiny specks, and moreover, they were partially hidden in the mist. But they could still be discerned.

They set the camp on the very edge of the forest; as they were close to it, Halldis and Tyra took their flagons, towels and spare clothes, and headed back to find some hidden place for freshening up. Of course, they were not the only ones with the same intention, so the edge of the forest was actually quite crowded.

"Hm, until now the washing was quite simple," noticed Tyra as they walked towards the forest. Really, they managed to wash themselves almost every evening, hidden from view behind the trees near the road. "Now that we'll be in a plain, it will be more difficult..."

Halldis frowned a little bit.

"Hopefully we'll make it somehow... We'll wait for the complete darkness, and then we'll find a spot further from fire-light and hold towels for each other, as screening."

"I bet there will be those who will jump into the Anduin to have a bath!" laughed Tyra. "Anyway, I hope we'll figure something out."

At that moment they entered the forest and started searching for a suitable location. Daylight slowly faded, but visibility was still quite good. In their search they entered the forest a little bit more, and Tyra looked up.

"Everything is all right, there is no huge spider-web," said the dark-haired dwarfess joyfully.

Halldis, on the other hand, looked at eye-level and lower than that.

"I see no ordinary web either. And there is no stream, be it enchanted or normal," she laughed. Then she considered the two quite wide trees and high bushes in front of them. "I think we don't have to walk further than this," she said and lifted her hand to show what she meant. "If we stand behind all this, nobody will be able to see us."

Tyra nodded in a sign of agreement. But when they went around the trees and the bushes, they stood agape.

Hidden until then from their sight, there was a cabin in front of them. It was very little and made of wood. On one side there was a small garden, and the well on the other. They stopped, cautiously looking around themselves. Tyra lowered her hand on the handle of her axe.

"Hm... I wonder if anyone is here," muttered Halldis. But she could see nobody. The only sounds they heard were made by their people, and they remained behind their backs, in the direction from which they came. The cottage was completely silent, and there was no one in their surrounding. The door was partially opened, and no light came through it or through the window.

"Looks like it is empty..." said Tyra pensively, and then suddenly extended her hand as if to show something. "Look at this!" she exclaimed and approached some bundles on the ground that Halldis hadn't noticed till then. Tyra lifted what turned out to be trousers, and the other item was a tunic. Beneath them there were leather shoes.

"Judging by the size, this must belong to an elf or a man, and certainly not a dwarf," said Halldis. "But where is he? And why would he leave his clothes outside the house, on the ground like this?" She looked around one more time, and couldn't prevent a nervous quiver. Tyra started to bite her lower lip.

Then they checked the surroundings one more time and saw that everything was empty, while still the only sounds were those of the other dwarves. They shrugged, then returned a little closer to the forest edge and to their compatriots for safety, and started to wash themselves.

Halldis then remembered the encounter with Darri that morning. In fact, if she was to be honest, she was remembering it often during the day. And that confused her. Why was she thinking about him so much?

Hmmmm...

"Tyra?" she called over her shoulder while washing herself.

"Yes...?"

"Err... do you remember the moment from few days ago, when that young lad called me a child?"

"I do."

"Uhm, well... I met him again after that. Two times. We talked a little. Last time – this morning." She paused. "In fact, he happened to be in the group that saved me when I had strayed and saw a bear."

Water splashing behind her back stopped for a moment.

"Really? You didn't mention that."

"Actually, when I returned to the camp, I was still very much shaken because of the encounter with the bear and I couldn't think of anything else," explained Halldis. "And later I simply forgot to tell you."

She was silent for a few moments, occupying herself with washing again, and Tyra did the same. Then she decided to continue.

"As I said, I met him again this morning, when I went to take water. We talked a little..." she stopped, thinking how to articulate what she felt. "His name is Darri, and I'd say he is our age. He is a very interesting conversationalist... and funny... and, uhm... he is nice."

The sounds behind her back halted again.

"You like him?"

Halldis couldn't see her friend's face, but she didn't have to. She felt Tyra's smile just as she watched it with her eyes.

"Err... yes," she admitted.

"That is great, I am so glad," said Tyra with a warm voice. "I think it is great if you met someone nice and interesting."

Halldis smiled. Sister of her heart, always with her.

"Exactly." She then shook her head. "Looks like this journey is full of different surprises – from enchanted streams, over adventures with bears and spiders, to unexpected encounters..."

"Will you see each other again?" asked Tyra eagerly.

Halldis smiled. "You asked just the right question, and I was coming to that anyway. He said we could meet sometimes, that is, he asked our company to come to him and his friends. So that we spend some time together and have fun."

"We will surely go," came the statement from behind her back, and Halldis smiled again.

When she dried herself with a towel and put clean clothes on, she felt great, just like in the previous occasions. As for the tunic and underwear she wore until now, she planned to wash them the next evening, when they reach the Anduin.

And just when they meant to go back, they heard noises from the forest.

The two dwarf girls jumped and turned to the direction from where the sounds came. It was getting darker and visibility was not as good as before, but it was impossible not to notice the big shape that emerged from behind the trees and stopped about eight or nine feet from them.

Not again, were the words that flashed in Halldis' head while she stared at the huge bear, paralyzed. Not again. Not again!!!

Tyra grabbed her axe, but it was clear that the bear would prevail if it came to fight. It was also clear that they couldn't outrun in. But neither the closest dwarves nor the edge of the forest were far away, and if they started running this very moment, maybe they could even get to safety – if they were lucky enough that the bear was hesitant and didn't run after them immediately.

All that crossed her mind in one single second and Halldis didn't even manage to make the first step, when she heard a sound. It was so unusual that at first she didn't realize what it was. And then it echoed again.

The bear giggled.

Her mouth opened in shock.

The bear half rose on his back legs and threw his head back. His jaws were open and he laughed.

I am losing my mind.

Then she thought that it was some spell of the forest at work again, just like in the case of the stream. She cast a quick glance to Tyra, and discovered that her friend stared equally astonished as her.

Bears shouldn't laugh like dwarves. Or humans.

And then, as its laughter slowly silenced, the bear trembled. Halldis noticed that the big body was shaking more and more, and although her reason screamed that she should run away, she just couldn't tear her gaze from the scene in front of her.

From his upright posture the bear fell forward, landing heavily on his front legs. The brown fur, riddled with grey patches, started to first shorten, and then to disappear completely. His whole body started to change shape: back legs were lengthening, while the front ones got shorter and thinner. Huge claws slowly turned to fists and fingers. He was still shaking strongly, and Halldis watched as the body turned from round bear shape to human and slender. The muzzle became shorter and shorter, bear ears disappeared, and the skull slowly got the human form. And finally, it was over.

The creature lying on the ground was still shivering and didn't rise to his feet. But in spite of the gathering darkness, there was no doubt of what she saw. Pale skin. No fur. Two legs. Two arms. Fingers. Toes. Human head. In front of them was a human.

This is crazy. Impossible. Halldis then realized that she too breathed hard and trembled. She looked at Tyra; her friend's face was frightened and pale. What have we just witnessed?, wanted to ask Halldis, but simply couldn't speak.

The man on the ground then shook his head and slowly started to rise. His face was wrinkled and his hair was grey so it was obvious that he had already seen quite a lot of winters, but his body –

Goodness he's naked!!!!!

– was muscular and strong. Although he still seemed a little shaky, his expression revealed that he had regained control of himself, and a big smile appeared on his face.

"Good evening, masters dwarves!" he merrily greeted them. His voice was deep, and his accent was different than that which Halldis was used to hear from people in Esgaroth. "I am always happy to meet the travellers! You know, that is why I was in such a big hurry to arrive before you leave and return to your people, because I wanted some company. And in the form of the bear I can run faster! If I had changed somewhere else and had continued as a human, you might have already gone. And I would've been alone tonight. So I changed here in front of you. Forgive my nakedness, but shape-shifting to bear is not possible in any other way, unless I am willing to destroy my clothing. And I am not! I don't have much of it, no, haha! Allow me to get dressed before we continue to talk."

He disappeared behind the trees where they had seen the cottage earlier. Halldis still stared in shock at the spot where that... man... bear... something... stood a few moments ago.

"T-Ty-Tyra..." she stammered, and her voice sounded squeaky and weak. "What have we just seen?"

"By Mahal's name, I have no clue," whispered her friend.

They looked at each other, both equally shocked.

"But we didn't dream, did we?"

"Unless we both had the same dream... no, I think we didn't."

What happened?!?!

However, it seemed they'd soon get the answers: in just a few moments the man returned and stopped in front of them, clad in the trousers and tunic they had seen earlier on the ground. His grey hair was still a little messy. Halldis observed his face; despite his big shaggy eyebrows that gave him a stern appearance at first glance, his expression was friendly and he was all smiles.

"There, now I look decent again, yes, I do," he said joyfully and made a bow. "Grimbar son of Bjorn, at your service. I hope I didn't scare you. But I was very gladdened by the possibility to have guests so I hurried back to you. Have I already said that I love meeting travellers and having guests? Well-intentioned guests, of course. If some servants of darkness came, they wouldn't end well. But luckily there are only very few of those nowadays. It is nice that we live in peaceful times. And what brings you to my little corner of the forest, masters?"

He fell silent and watched them in anticipation. Halldis still didn't manage to recollect herself – and obviously neither did Tyra, for she didn't reply either – and then she finally nodded.

"Uhm... no. Not the masters. We are female," said Halldis, having remembered in the very last moment that she should use the Common tongue; her brain still worked quite slowly. Her voice sounded a little stronger than when she spoke to Tyra a little while ago – but only a tiny bit.

"Oh! Oh! Oh! Please forgive the old Grimbar! My sight is not as it used to be, even when I am in the bear form. Old age, and nothing I can do about it! Forgive me my ladies, please don't be angry!" He stooped towards them a little and squinted, as if trying to see better. "Indeed! By bear's claw, I made a mistake! I was fooled by your beards. You know, I haven't seen many dwarves in my life. Till tonight! I watched you pass by, and by my beard, there's a huge bunch of you!" He paused and straightened again. "And you are...?"

"Tyra daughter of Furum," came Tyra's answer first.

"Halldis daughter of Kuddal," Halldis introduced herself too, and tried to comprehend the fact that she was talking to... what? A man? A bear? Who transformed into a human. "What are you?" she asked the direct question, watching him with her eyes wide open.

The man – she decided to consider him a human, at least for now – clapped his thighs and started to laugh. And it seemed that his mirth was contagious, because although she had just witnessed the craziest thing in her whole life – much more incredible than the experience with the stream – Halldis realized she was smiling too, just like Tyra next to her.

"Well well, I have two very inquisitive ladies here, do I, is that right?" he replied, and despite the darkness that was falling, she could have sworn that his blue eyes gleefully shone. "You have never met a shape-shifter, if I'm guessing right? Moreover, you have never heard of one of us, brm?"

Just like when he growled while talking about evil beings, the sound that he uttered now didn't resemble to ordinary imitation of nature sounds by dwarvish or human voice, but was like a true bear vocalization.

"Old Grimbar will tell you everything. My home is just behind these trees. Maybe you noticed it if you passed that way? But I'm afraid I don't have much to offer you, you know. I didn't expect guests. But I like having guests. And I always have some bread and cheese and ham, you know. And honey, yes, yes, that I always have! You know, I always find the best honey, ha-brm-ha!" This last part sounded just like his laughter while he was still in the bear form.

Halldis' eyes widened again in wonder, and then she smiled in delight. This evening was becoming more and more interesting. Initial fear caused by the appearance of the bear melted away in front of the warmth and verbosity of the old man in front of them, and nothing but curiosity remained. Huge curiosity. She so wanted to see his home and find out more about him.

"I would very much like to hear more," she said eagerly, "but I'm afraid that we can't stay long..."

"Yes, our families and friends will worry if we tarry too long," added Tyra.

"You stay for as long as you like, yes, and go back to your people whenever you like! The forest edge is near, you saw that yourselves. Only a few steps away. Even your steps!" he exclaimed, and then stopped as if realizing what he had just said. He smiled penitently, and looked really embarrassed. "You are not angry because of my comment? Say you are not. Old Grimbar didn't mean anything bad. My legs are a little longer than yours, that's all I wanted to say. But you'll be able to return soon. So, my ladies," he bowed and showed the direction, "follow me."

Both dwarf girls enthusiastically went after him, and Halldis smiled. Yes, the dwarves got out of The Wood of Greenleaves and reached the plain, but the surprises the forest held obviously still weren't over.

"Now, here's my den," said Grimbar proudly when they went around the trees and bushes. "Come in, my ladies, come in. And settle yourselves. In fact wait until I make some space for you. Have I already said that I didn't expect visitors? Here, here, now you'll be able to sit down."

While Grimbar continued to chatter, he lit the oil-lamp and Halldis curiously looked around herself. The cottage was a single chamber, being kitchen, dining and sleeping room all at once. There was a small hearth next to one wall, and a pallet on the opposite side. In the middle there was a coarsely wrought table; one more smaller table, a cupboard and some shelves were on the remaining wall. The man quickly put away some rags lying on the two chairs and brought them nearer to the table.

"Here, my ladies, these are for you. Feel yourselves at own home. I'll look for some refreshment."

Ouch, Halldis whined inside, looking at the chair she was supposed to climb on, obviously not made for someone her size. Tyra's legs at least reached the floor, she noticed after they both settled.

Grimbar started to prepare supper. Halldis watched him all the time as he swiftly walked between his shelves and cupboard. In spite of his age, his moves were agile and supple. He soon turned to them, carrying a tray.

"Here you are, my dear guests. I hope you'll like it." He put bread, dried meat and cheese in front of them, as well as two little bowls filled with honey. "Ha-ha, of course, this is not made by me! Will you think bad of old Grimbar if I tell you that he is sometimes a thief, so he sometimes steals from bees? But I love honey so much! Especially in my other form."

The bread was fresh and aromatic, and a little different from that made by the dwarves, which she was used to.

"Thank you so much for your hospitality," said Halldis and smiled, and Tyra did too. "All this is very delicious." Her eyes widened when she tried the honey. It was the best that she had ever tasted, and it felt like all her senses suddenly filled with flowery fragrances and sweet flavours.

"I am glad, I am glad. If I had known that I'd have guests, I would've prepared better. Don't take amiss that the supper is so modest." As there were no more chairs in the cottage, Grimbar took the small table closer to the bigger one and sat on it.

"Everything is fine, you don't have to worry," Tyra tried to convince him.

"Indeed, we couldn't wish for anything better," added Halldis, and then she could no longer restrain her curiosity. "What are you?" she repeated the same question that she had first asked while they were still outside.

The old man took a deep breath and fell silent. This was the first time since they had met that his flow of words stopped and that he was no longer smiling, so the contrast of his earlier and current demeanour was really big. Suddenly, as if in front of them was a completely different person. He tilted his head and seemed to think. Finally, he nodded.

"My people lived here even before the arrival of the people from the Sea or those from the north, even before the orcs invaded the deep tunnels of the mountains. We were a small group who lived on the edge of Greenwood, in peace with everyone and with the forest." His voice was pensive and low, totally different than it had been until now, and his gaze unfocused. He stared at some spot on the wall behind Halldis – but judging by his facial expression, she concluded that he didn't see the wall nor anything else in the house, but images from the distant past.

"Our tales say that one of our distant ancestors, while wandering through the forest, saved little bear cubs from the deep hole in which they had fallen, and returned them to their mother. The mother bear was so grateful that she shared a part of her soul with him, giving him greater strength and sharper senses than he had as a human. But that was not all. He discovered that he could transform into a bear. And the ability was inheritable. His descendants, too, were able to change shape and to wander around in a body of the bear. And they could experience the world in a way that no man before them had ever been able to.

"And for a long time they lived in peace, and their ability served for nothing else but for their own joy – to be closer to the nature that surrounded them. You know, experiencing the world through bear senses is so intensive, and nothing that you feel as a human is a match. There are so many scents, so many sounds... But then, many centuries ago, everything started to change. Darkness crept back into the forests of the world. Evil creatures occupied the Misty Mountains. Shadows became darker and longer. Greenwood became Mirkwood. And my ancestors had to fight."

His face frowned, his eyes narrowed, and his eyebrows looked even more shaggy. His gaze hardened. The pleasant old man disappeared, both literally and figuratively. Watching him, Halldis suddenly became aware that the man in front of her is full of huge, wild, volatile power greater than in any dwarf, elf or man.

"And they fought," he continued, while his eyes were still glaring. "Stronger than ordinary men, they have given their contribution and destroyed orcs tirelessly. For decades, centuries. They have fought, perished, and risen again. There were moments when everything seemed hopeless, when the dark tide threatened to destroy all the green and good in this world."

He suddenly moved his head towards her and their gazes met. His eyes were now black and Halldis shivered. But not out of fear – she wasn't afraid of him – but because of the comprehension how difficult those times were. And then she realized something else too.

"And that world is in the very core of your being, isn't it?" she asked, barely audible. In his eyes she saw the soul of the nature itself. "You and your kind are inseparable with nature, and you suffered more." This second part was not a question any more.

"Brm, yes young dwarfess, exactly. Every wounding of the forest has wounded us too. But the brave humans and elves and dwarves and halflings saved Middle-earth, and since then the peace has returned." He nodded, and the angles of his lips lifted in a small smile. After the story of the dark past, his expression now softened.

Then there was silence, and Halldis realized she was sitting with her hands in the air – frozen in who knew which moment – and the food in front of her was totally forgotten. She roused and reached for bread and cheese again, but she chewed absent-mindedly, still thinking about everything she had heard.

"I think this is one of the most beautiful evenings in my life," said Tyra, watching Grimbar amazedly. "I am so glad that we ran into you and I feel honoured to have found out all this." In the end she slightly bowed to the old man.

"I feel the same," added Halldis with a warm smile. "Maybe some of us know about your kind and of your ability to change shape. But I wouldn't be surprised if we were now the only ones of our people who knew the whole story – the details about your beginnings. Thank you for telling us."

"Brm, I am happy to meet you too, my ladies, I really am, yes." He seemed touched by what they had told him. "I love to have guests, especially because they don't come often. Oh, I actually said that, didn't I? Don't be angry at old Grimbar, he is old and he sometimes forgets. There, only some elves comes, quite rarely. Your company is a true refreshment." He smiled broadly, for the first time after the history tale, and with that smile and with those last words returned the merry talkative Grimbar from the first moments of their meeting.

"You mentioned your people. But only you are here. Where are the others?" asked Halldis. Her curiosity was still far from satisfied.

"Oh, yes, there are others, there are. Some of our villages are in the forest south of the road, and some are on the forest edge, but more to the north of the road, so you won't see them if you don't travel northwards. Our people have been living here for thousands of years, that is our area, yes, brm. Close enough to the mountains to fight orcs who had been coming into the plain, grrr. And close enough to The Wood to pursue evil forest beings, while they still existed. But for a loooong time we've only been engaged with agriculture. And my kin with the search for honey!" After the last sentence he giggle like a child, and his joy was contagious. Both girls laughed.

"My children and their families live in the nearest village in the plains north of the road, so I am often there too. But I got a wish for more honey in my old days, you know, I have a sweet-tooth. So I made this cottage so that I can spend more time in the forest. But I like it here very much. This is my little forest home."

Halldis looked around her one more time. The cottage was small and modest, and had only basic furniture and resources, but it seemed that Grimbar really had all that he needed – in his human form. As for his other needs... well, obviously there was no problem to find treats in his bear form either.

"But I'm curious too, my dear ladies, so I ask you to answer the old Grimbar's questions too. I detected your scent from very far away, I did, it was easy, because there's a lot of you. And I was surprised to see how many! I haven't seen so many dwarves at once since..." He paused and scratched his head. "Well, never, actually! I've seen only small groups on the road, you know. Maybe traders or messengers, I used to think. But now there are hundreds of you! Oh, what, hundreds? No, thousands! Where are you heading? That is some big quest going on, I'd say, ha? Is that so?

In short, Halldis and Tyra described their journey and the plans of their King. Grimbar listened carefully and occasionally nodded. When they finished, he clapped his hands.

"That is great! Oh, if only there were no more orcs in this world, no more of that filthy spawn. You dwarves are fierce, I hope you will wipe them out of Moria. I wish you success, I do, yes."

"Thank you so much," said Tyra and nodded.

"Thank you, really," repeated Halldis, "not only for the good wishes, but for the supper too. And for the tale. And for everything."

The girls then stood up, and Grimbar rose from the little table he was sitting on. Halldis looked at him carefully, wanting to carve all the details into her memory. And no matter that she was young and couldn't know what interesting events were ahead of her in the future, she was sure that this encounter would forever remain one of the most special events in her life.

He walked them off to the door. In the meantime, it got almost completely dark, but they could discern the trees and would be able to find the way out of the forest. Grimbar looked around and lifted his head, and Halldis got the impression that he was trying to sniff the air.

Which he actually was trying, as was clear from his next words.

"Oh that weak human nose!" He laughed. "Ah well, sometimes I forget myself, so I try to sniff if there is something interesting around while I'm still in the human form. Ha-ha, lately I do that more and more often, I got old and senile. I think I'll change again into bear form when you leave, and then I'll go for a walk. You see, the night-time forest is muuuuuch more interesting than the daytime. Many more creatures roaming around, and it's more eventful. And as a bear, I can hear and see and smell better."

Although his voice was getting lower towards the end, Halldis had a feeling it echoed louder and she reminded herself again that it was not just a mild old man in front of her, but also a mighty beast.

"One more time, thank you for everything," she said and bowed. "We will never forget you."

"Nor will I forget you, my ladies."

Halldis thought about the encounter with Grimbar the whole evening, and couldn't stop thinking about it even the next morning when they continued the journey; she was still impressed and considered herself very honoured by meeting such a special being. Last night, after their return to the camp, she and Tyra excitedly told their families and friends about what had happened to them. A few reactions were somewhat concerned, but Halldis had the feeling that most of them were almost envious.

The forest remained behind them, but she still thought about it. Until now, she had not travelled further than the city of Esgaroth, and she hadn't been there many times; she spent most of her days in her home in Erebor. Now, in just ten days, she experienced more peculiar things – better to say, totally unbelievable, she thought – than in the whole previous eighty years. Travelling through time and learning the history of the forest while walking through the stream; seeing the giant spider-web; and finally, on the top of everything, meeting the shape-shifter.

Reading books and listening to the stories of magic, unusual creatures and all other interesting things in Middle-earth was one thing; experiencing them first-hand was quite another. She felt as if she was not the same person who started this journey just ten days ago. She felt enriched by the new experiences, and at the same time, more humble when thinking of the wonders of Middle-earth.

The Wood of Greenleaves, I thank you.

-x-x-x-

The long blue line stretched through the surrounding green of the plain as far as the eye could reach, all the way from the northern horizon on one side, to the southern on another. The biggest, mightiest river of Middle-earth, whose sources were far north on the slopes of Misty and Grey Mountains, and its end almost a thousand and four hundred miles further. Darri realized it was difficult to envisage such a distance.

For now, it was not a wide mighty river as in the lower part in Gondor, where it was enriched by numerous tributaries. Still, even here it was bigger than Celduin, the only real river Darri had seen so far; small streams on the slopes of Erebor were not counted as rivers.

By early evening they neared the location where Anduin widened, and was therefore very shallow: that was the Old Ford, which had served as a crossing since distant times. They made a camp near the river.

After the quick refreshment and changing clothes, Darri sat down with his brother and friends to have supper. While slowly eating, he caught himself hoping – again – that a familiar face would emerge from the crowd. It didn't happen last night, and in some moments during the day, he admitted to himself that he it saddened him a little. And he really wanted to see her again.

But it was not just about liking her face and beautiful red hair. More important were her words and reactions; after seeing the elves, when talking about his impressions about them, some of those he spoke to just couldn't understand that he was glad for having the chance to see them. "They are too weird and alien," some commented. "They are not our friends," said the others. Maybe they are not friends, thought Darri, but they are not our enemies either. They were an important part of this world – especially in the past – and worthy of knowing.

It seemed that Halldis understood it. He remembered their first talk too, the one after her experience with the stream, and thought that they were similar in some way: open-minded and eager for the new knowledge. He wanted to find out more about her... hoping to discover they have even more things in common.

After supper, the lads took out their flasks and put them in the middle of small circle they formed. There were fires and torches around, so it was not too dark. Numerous voices echoed and it was quite lively. Darri looked on all sides.

Nothing.

"The last reserves of mead," commented Mami, watching the flasks dolefully. "And we reached only half-way."

Darri turned to his friend.

"We'll come across some of the villages while travelling, so we'll hopefully be able to buy," he replied. He was also a fan of that drink.

"So, what will be the first thing that you'll do once everything is over and once we settle in Khazad-dϋm?" Bemir asked merrily. "I'll make the first figure of the new collection. And put it on the first shelf of the new home."

Darri laughed, not surprised at all. Bemir was a smith, and his passion was making small brass figures. He had a great collection of them; some were realistically shaped ancient heroes, and some were funny – with exaggerated belly, double chin or other detail, that served for amusement of visitors. He made some statues for his clients, but most of them he kept as decoration for his home. Leaving the collection behind was really hard for him, but several dozen of brass figures, about a foot high each and quite heavy, would be much too big a burden. It was possible to carry only basic things on a journey like this.

"I'll celebrate and eat and drink three days in a row without stopping," laughed Mami. "If I survive that, I'll sleep for three days, and then I can start thinking about work." Like Darri and Faldur, he was a miner.

"I still can't tell. I'll see when we get there," said Faldur, and turned to Darri. "And you?"

He didn't answer at once; he thought about the books he had read and pictures he had seen in them.

"I'd like to walk through the Twenty-first hall. See Balin's grave. And visit the resting place of Durin Deathless, next to Kheled-zβram," he said musingly.

His words were followed by several moment of silence. Everyone looked almost confused.

"Really?" gasped Mami.

"Really!" replied Darri. "Those are important things from our history."

"Well, all right, they are, but they won't go away. We should celebrate first, and we can easily see those places later," said Mami, still amazed.

"I just hope that those orc scum didn't destroy them," muttered Faldur and shook his head.

"History books say that at the beginning the Fourth Age Gimli son of Gloin returned to Khazad-dϋm after the War of the Ring and walled up the chamber with Balin's grave, so that it orcs couldn't ravage it further," said Darri. "So I hope that it is preserved."*

He lifted his head and cast a glance around again. And then he saw her – red-haired short figure walking between a dwarf and a dwarfess and looking over the crowd, as if searching for something... or someone.

Could he hope that he was the one she was looking for...?

Her gaze then fell on him, and she smiled. Then she lifted her head towards her friends and he saw she was telling them something. Finally, they moved towards him and his friends.

He realized he was smiling too; this evening just became great. He lifted his hand and waved to her.

"Halldis! Hello!" he shouted to the group coming nearer. "Will you join us? Here, we'll make some space for you."

Darri gave a sign to his brother and friends to move a little bit so that the three newcomers could sit down. He quickly observed the other two; the dark-haired girl seemed to be the same age as Halldis, while the lad with them looked a few years younger.

"Hello to you too," responded Halldis when they came near.

He watched her for a moment or two, staring at her smile and fiery hair, and then he turned to his company.

"Faldur, Mami, Bemir, this is Halldis," he introduced her. "We met in the beginning of the journey, and then ran into each other again later. As it is always merrier in a bigger company, I told her to call her friends and join us."

Mami and Bemir just nodded and smiled as a sign of a welcome. Faldur's expression was different, however, and it was clear that he had recognized her.

"Hmmm... isn't that...?" Then the impish look appeared on his face. "I remember certain words my brother told you..." His smile turned into wide grinning, and Darri got a wish to strangle him for mentioning his gaffe. He markedly coughed and Faldur then got a little more serious – but only a little – and bowed to her. "I am glad to see you again. I remember... your red hair," he said in the end.

Watching his brother giving Halldis his most dazzling smile, Darri suddenly became aware of a new emotion. One that was unknown to him until that moment. But now it was here.

Jealousy.

He was confused.

"Yes, you surely remember that and nothing else," replied Halldis to Faldur, her face saying "oh surely".

Bemir and Mami both leaned a little forward; in an instant, their expressions changed from neutral to very interested, and they looked at him with the attention of dog who sniffed a trail.

"Hmmmm, what is it that you told her?" asked Bemir with raised eyebrows, and his eyes ablaze with curiosity.

Darri didn't manage to think of a quick answer to get himself out of this, and he didn't feel like recounting his mistake. He felt a touch of panic because it seemed that the beginning of this meeting would turn into a disaster for him, and he was really angry at his brother in that moment. But even before he said anything, Halldis spoke.

"He mistook me for someone else so the first encounter turned out funny, but the confusion was immediately resolved," she said and waved her hand in a gesture of dismissing the whole thing, and Darri wished to hug her for her words. Oh, how neatly you solved this... He let himself a small sigh of relief; it looked like the catastrophe would be avoided, and he was very grateful to her.

She then turned to her friends. "This is Tyra, and this is Lotti."

With that, the introductions were over and all three of them sat down. Halldis settled next to him, and that lifted his mood.

"Hey, I'm afraid that we don't have much drink," said Mami next, and it seemed that the topic of Darri's and Halldis' first encounter was forgotten. "We have just been mourning our last supplies, that are going to disappear tonight. I hope you are equipped better than we are. And if you brought some drink with you – that would be great!!!" Although he just met them, he wasn't the least restrained.

"Well, I'm afraid we didn't – at least not if we are talking about drinks," responded the dark-haired dwarfess. Tyra, Darri repeated the name, and then one more time. And that is Lotti. When meeting someone new, he had to reiterate their names in his mind several times; if he didn't do that, he'd forget in just a few moments.

"But we have a dish of gingerbread biscuits, made by my mother," continued the girl and smiled. "The best biscuits in Erebor, I swear by Mahal's name."

"They are surely not better than those of my sister!" exclaimed Bemir. "But never mind, bring them on anyway! I'm sure they'll be great. And you can help yourselves to our mead – with what's left of it, anyway."

Tyra opened her bag full of delicious snacks, and everyone was delighted. The ice was broken, and the group continued to talk lively. They talked about their work, about what they liked to do in their free time, about songs and plans and merry-making – just like numerous other youngsters. The time flew, and they arranged to meet all together in the following evenings too.

Darri enjoyed the conversation... and even more, the occasional smiles and glances he had been exchanging with Halldis. Yes, the evening was really great.

-x-x-x-

* Reference to my story "The Last Visit to Moria".

Personal diary of King Durin VII
Day 12th of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

The second day of the journey through the plain went well, too, just as I expected. After all, there are almost no things that could remain hidden here and surprise us – unlike the forest. Still, I won't leave anything to chance, so I'll continue to send scouts ahead.

They will have an additional task tomorrow. A little further to the south there is a human settlement, so I'll send scouts to announce our arrival. I want to hear the latest news from this area, and that will also be a good opportunity for trade and replenishment of our food reserves.

We are now more than halfway through our journey. While walking, almost all the time I watch towards the distance in the west, where the Misty Mountains rise. The mountains are still very far away – they are still only a blurred outline. But I continue to observe it and I yearn for the moment when I'll see the Three Peaks. And especially the highest and the most special one – Zirakzigil.

I do not envy the elves for their immortality, or some of their other characteristics. I would never switch places with any of them. But this is the first and the only time in my life when I'd give everything to be like them in at least one thing. I would like to have elvish eye-sight so that I can see much better and further – I so want to see the mountains above our ancient home.

About a week more, and we'll be below the Eastern Gates of Khazad-dϋm. I do not think that it will be easy. I know there will be a lot of casualties, and I wish I could change that. But there is no stopping. All who fall will be avenged, and their spirits will continue to live with us. It will be a sacrifice today, for the glory and wellbeing of our people tomorrow.

D.

-x-x-x-

They reached the small town in late afternoon, while it was still day. It was very much alike to those around the Long Lake, Halldis concluded. Almost all the houses were small, and only a few in the centre were a little bigger. Many people held livestock in the barns next to their houses, while wheat and corn grew in the surrounding fields.

As the night was falling, the villagers lit many lamps and torches. Although they had only several hours at their disposition, it turned out that they had prepared very well after receiving the news of the great company of dwarves. A little outside of the settlement they set up numerous benches with different goods, mostly drinks and dry way-food. Many dwarves were pleased to discover that barrels of beer were prepared too – as well as some stronger liquors. There were also many grills around, promising delicious suppers for the guests.

Glorrim went to search for smithing equipment; as he said, he didn't intend to buy anything now to avoid carrying additional weight, but he wanted to know if there were quality merchandize here, for his future needs. Halldis and Tyra went to find food and drink.

Watching the huge crowd, Halldis thought that tonight absolutely no one of the villagers had stayed at home. All around there were men, women, old and young. Of course, not all of them came because of the trade; many came out of curiosity, to see the dwarves, and to break the monotony of everyday life. She surmised that this day would be a topic of conversations in many boring winter evenings.

"By Mahal's name, it is so good to eat roasted meat after all these days of dry food," said Halldis with a wide smile, after eating the last bite.

"I couldn't agree more," said Tyra merrily. She had already finished her steak. "Now, if we could only come closer to some of the beer-barrels..."

But it was clear it wouldn't be easy because all around it was very crowded – and especially at locations where drinks were sold.

"This is probably the biggest event in the social life of the town in quite a long period," laughed Halldis. "Perhaps we could try our luck a little further, out of the centre..."

They headed towards the edge of the big improvised fair, and stood in one queue. The owner, a sturdy man with a big stomach, briskly filled the mugs while the girl of ten or twelve years of age, or even fifteen – Halldis couldn't tell for sure because she rarely saw human children and couldn't judge well – took the money and returned the change. Behind father and daughter and the barrels, one more small head was peering out. Having noticed the movement, Halldis looked in that direction and noticed the little girl who then disappeared behind the barrel. Then she peered again, this time observing a little longer before hiding again. The next time Halldis smiled to her, and she got a shy smile in return. Finally, the girl stepped forward and remained there.

Well, this one surely can't be older than seven, Halldis was sure of her estimate despite her lack of experience. The thing was, the little one was quite shorter than she was, and at least that was a sure sign that she was very young. This night, obviously, even the youngest ones didn't have to go to bed early. Halldis smiled again, and that seemed to have given the girl some courage. She came closer to her and Tyra.

"You have the nice hair colour," said the girl with her tiny voice and smiled shyly.

"Oh, thank you! I am glad to hear that you like it," replied Halldis delightedly. And when she said it, the eyes of the child widened in shock.

"You have a female voice!" exclaimed the little one.

Halldis started to laugh, and Tyra did too.

"That is because I am a woman!" said Halldis, even more joyfully than a few moments ago.

"But... you have a beard!" The girl's voice showed that she still couldn't believe and that she thought that what she saw was some sort of magic.

Halldis, however, couldn't stop laughing. On one occasion, she had heard an offensive comment about dwarvish women's beards of women in Lake-town. But the words of this girl were not malicious at all; here, it was only about childish sincerity and nothing more. She stooped towards the little one.

"Do you want to hear the secret?" she asked in a low, conspirative voice.

The eyes of the girl shone and in a moment she was all tense, in expectation. "Aha," she said and nodded briskly several times.

"Have you ever heard that we dwarves are a little shorter than you humans?" asked Halldis, and the little one confirmed with another nod. "You see, now I'm going to reveal something else to you," she continued, adjusting her voice for talking to a young child. "The height is not the only difference. Your friends might never know about it, but you will find out now. One more difference between dwarves and humans is that dwarvish women have beards. It is normal for us, just like it is normal that your women don't have it." She paused, and then smiled again to the girl and winked. "There. You know now."

The girl giggled, and then lowered her gaze to Halldis' beard. It seemed that she considered it a very interesting and exotic addition on a woman. She lifted her hand, then stopped in half-movement, but it was clear that she was very curious.

"Can I touch your beard?" she asked shyly, obviously not able to restrain herself.

In some other situation, and from someone older, the question would perhaps have insulted her. But as there was nothing more than innocent curiosity in the eyes of the girl, Halldis nodded. A moment later, a small hand gently touched her beard.

"It is real!" the girl exclaimed, as if only now she believed what she saw. Then she giggled again and tilted her little head. "I like it."

"I am glad. And I like you," said Halldis.

Then Tyra stooped towards the girl. "I'll tell you a secret too," she said, but instead of continuing, she looked at the girl, waiting for her to come to conclusion by herself.

"I know what you want to say! You are a girl too!" squeaked the little girl, and joyfully applauded to herself as a sign of acknowledgement when Tyra nodded.

While talking to the girl, they slowly moved forwards and it was now their turn to take the beer. They took their mugs and paid, and Halldis turned to the little one again.

"We will now go our way, and I wish you a good time. I hope that your friends are near and that you'll have fun this merry night. And you can tell them that two dwarf girls are also your friends from now on," she said with a warm smile and nodded.

The face of the girl shone.

"Yes! I'll tell them!" she exclaimed with a wide smile and turned and run away – no doubt, to tell her friends about her new special acquaintances right away.

"Well, that was interesting," commented Halldis in the end, watching in the direction where the little girl disappeared.

"It surely was," Tyra agreed with a smile. "And she is not malicious, so it turned out funny."

Halldis nodded, knowing that Tyra had some bad experiences with insulting comments too.

"I actually think that most of the people in Lake-town aren't bad," continued Halldis as they slowly walked around, sipping their drinks. "But there are always idiots."

"Why do they think that they can comment our looks?" said Tyra angrily. "Are they stupid enough to think that they are attractive to us – tall and hairless as they are?!?! And as for not being bad – well, they are good on the surface because they benefit from trading with us."

"Oh come on, it's not that we also don't benefit from trading with them," laughed Halldis.

As they walked on, she looked around. But there were so many people around, mingling and moving in all possible directions, so she was aware that the probability to see the one she wanted to see was very small.

However, a little later they spotted a group consisting of several youngsters of both people, very loud and in a great mood. The dwarves in the group were Darri and his friends, and with them Lotti. Halldis and Tyra stopped and looked at them.

And continued to look. Several minutes passed, during which one round of the game occurred.

"It'll be funny to watch their hangover tomorrow morning," said Tyra, amused.

"And not just in the morning, but for the bigger part of the day," added Halldis.

The group laughed. The girls were close enough to see that the first "losers", who would soon fall out of the game, were not so stabile on their feet any more. It was a beer drinking contest.

"Males," said Tyra lifting her eyebrows and giving them a look she would give a not so clever child.

"They are ridiculous," said Halldis and giggled. "Do you think the elves act the same?" she asked merrily.

"Well, rumours have it that the cellars in the royal palace are full of wine barrels... so I think that the answer is affirmative," laughed Tyra.

More loud laughter echoed from the direction of the group.

In that moment Lotti noticed them, so he ran to them. In a not so straight line, noticed Halldis.

"Girls! Come and join us! We are winning!" he shouted when he approached them. There was a wide smile on his face, and his eyes were quite unfocused.

"You just go on," Tyra waved her hand, dismissing the idea. "I'm sure you'll make it even without us."

He observed her for a moment, and then his smile widened even more. And his gaze became even more bleary.

"Then cheer for us!" he exclaimed and ran back to the merry group.

"Who can drink more?" The loud shout was heard, and the answer was a noise in which it was impossible to say who shouted what. "Let's go, one, two, three!!!"

On "three" they all lifted their newly filled mugs and drained them.

"The last one standing is a winner!" someone exclaimed.

Halldis and Tyra looked them again, and then looked at each other.

"Males," they said, rolled their eyes and shrugged.

Darri awoke because someone was hitting a hammer against his head.

It took him several moments to realize that the hammer was actually inside his head, and that he had a terrible headache.

Opening his eyes was a more difficult task than usual – his eyelids just didn't want to separate. And when they finally did, he wished they hadn't. Daylight was much stronger than normally. Surely there was something wrong with the sun this morning, wasn't there? But when he squinted through his eyelashes again, Darri realized that the sky was in fact cloudy and grey. Oh well, obviously it was his head that was the problem, and not the sun.

His throat burned with thirst and he hoped that somewhere in the close vicinity there was a barrel of water – and nothing less than that.

But then he smiled, in spite of everything. Last night they had a fantastic time. The roasted meat was great, and the beer even better. Those lads from the town were a great company; they joked and sang together, and time flew. And he won the contest. Now that he thought about it, he'd do it all over again, no matter the fact that he now felt as if all the mining wagons of Erebor had run over him. It was worth it.

When he got up, one glance at his brother and friends showed that they felt equally wrecked like him, and looking around, he discovered many red eyes and yawning. But this was the last opportunity – and the only real one, actually – to have fun on this journey. The closer they'd be to their destination, the closer they'd be to war; later, they wouldn't be so relaxed and carefree any more.

Battles. War. He frowned for a moment, and his heart was upset. But still, they had a whole week more before that, and he decided not to think about it – especially because right now he had bigger and closer problems. They'd continue the march soon, and he'd have to deal with his hangover.

He quickly washed his face and decided to skip breakfast this morning, having concluded that his stomach wouldn't be so happy if it got food now; he just drank a lot of water and tea. When they set off, it was a relief to discover that today the pace was much slower than in the previous days. The King was obviously aware of the intensity of last night's partying and mercifully allowed slower walking. And that was not the only difference in comparison to the last two days.

"How come we are not going next to the Anduin anymore?" asked his brother.

After the Old Ford they had gone directly to the south for two days; now, however, they turned towards the southwest, moving away from the river.

"You don't remember geography?" replied Darri. "If we had continued towards the south, very soon we would've reached the beginning of the marsh. Southwards of our current position there is a river Gladden, which branches and pours into the Anduin through several smaller flows, making a delta. In between all of them is a marshland. We wouldn't be able to pass through it."

"Aha," nodded Faldur, yawning. "Now that you mention... yes, it sounds familiar. So, now we are going around the marsh."

"That's right," confirmed Darri, and then yawned himself. Obviously, it was contagious. Or he was simply sleep deprived due to going to sleep late last night. Or both. Whatever. "We'll cross the Gladden somewhere upstream of the delta, and then continue to the south."

Then they fell silent, and for most of the first part of the day they didn't speak much. Darri preserved what little strength he had for walking, just like Faldur and the others. After the usual daily break, it became a little easier. By that time, the headache abated and his stomach calmed, so lunch gave him new strength for continuing the march.

And when the night would come and they stop... he smiled. Last night was not an ordinary one; it was perfect for having so much fun in a big company. But this evening, he wanted to spend time with one special person – talk to her and get to know her.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 14th of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

Despite a little late start this morning and a slow pace in the beginning, we managed to reach the Gladden; we've just made camp. The river will serve perfectly for one more supplement of our water reserves.

I watch the mountains. They are still far away and I don't discern them well, especially because of the darkness that is falling. But they are closer, hour by hour and day by day. The flame in me grows stronger and I can't wait for the moment when I'll set my foot in Khazad-dϋm.

I see it as it will be. Cleaned and renewed, lit by many torches, with our homes built. Hits of hammers and pickaxes echo around, as well as our voices and songs. As long as Arda endures.

D.

-x-x-x-

The two companies gathered again that night. They settled relatively close to the river, which looked like a long black stripe in the plain. Darri looked at the silhouettes sitting around him, lit by neighbouring fires. His brother and friends still had circles around their eyes, and he assumed that he did too. Lotti looked very tired, and only the girls seemed to be full of energy. Halldis sat next to him, and he noticed that in the firelight her hair appeared even more brilliant and red than usually.

Tyra opened her backpack and took out biscuits, flagons and goblets.

"Beer and mead," she said with a very satisfied smile. "We renewed our supplies yesterday. Those who didn't destroy themselves yesterday, can enjoy drinking today too!"

"Who says that we can't?" exclaimed Faldur. In fact, all of them bought some beer for days to come. Though, Darri had to admit that drink seemed a little less attractive to him today, but he had no intention of saying that loud. I am not some baby girl.

"I'll take some beer too," said Darri, in accordance with his last thought. Still, he decided that this night the pace should be somewhat slower.

"So lads, how did you survive waking up and this day?" asked Halldis joyfully, with a bantering tone in her voice. Her gaze lingered on him a little longer.

"Oh well, if we are going to be completely honest, we have to say that we were just a little more sleepy," answered Darri. "But that is only because we went to sleep later than usual. And that was the only problem."

"Ha-ha, we don't buy it!" exclaimed Halldis, and the giggling of both girls said that they were not fooled by his statement. But he discovered that he didn't mind at all – because her words were followed by merry laughing and twinkle in her eyes that he liked so much.

Tyra made a few more jokes on their account, and then she stopped; after that, the conversation switched to other topics, like in the previous nights. Faldur, Mami and Tyra started a discussion about the methods of processing metals, while Bemir and Lotti were just listening and nodding now and then; it was obvious that all of their attention was focused just on staying awake. Not quite successful, judging by how their heads occasionally would have drooped.

Darri turned to Halldis.

"I have to admit that I don't know much about later processing of ores, once they are dug out," he said in a low voice, talking only to her. But the others – at least those who were awake – immersed into their own talk and paid no attention to the two of them. "Of course, I know basic things. But my field is recognizing rocks, judging the possibilities of finding precious metals, digging, and similar." He stopped and smiled, because as soon as he started to talk about it, he imagined himself underground. And that was where he was happiest. "In fact, digging is what gives me greatest joy. To be in touch with rocks, to feel them under my hands – some smooth and some rugged, and all of them ancient... that is a wonderful experience."

She watched him pensively for a few moments, and then nodded.

"I understand. I feel the same in my workshop," she said. "I love the act of creation itself. In the beginning you have nothing but raw material, and then, step by step, you come to the finished product. And when I sell them..." She stopped and looked confused for a moment.

"What?" he asked, encouraging her to go on.

"You're going to laugh." Now she seemed embarrassed.

"I won't. Really," he promised.

"While I work, I am completely engaged in that process. Yes, I live of what I sell, but in fact, err... in a way, I always regret parting with any of the items I make. Because I have a feeling that I embedded a part of my soul in them."

She lowered her gaze, and he nodded. He liked very much what she had said.

"I don't know why I would laugh," he told her. "I think that your words say much about your dedication to work."

She smiled shyly.

"Well, I am glad you say that... some people don't understand when I describe how I feel about it. Anyway, I just can't wait to start again. Once this is over... I'll have to have all my equipment made anew. Of course, it wasn't possible to carry it with me. Fortunately, my brother can make almost all of it."

"Once this is over". These words reminded him that this morning he, too, had thought about what was ahead. War – and death – were closer and closer.

But they had a few more days until then, and just like this morning, he dismissed the thoughts about war. Right now, he was sitting next to the river in the beautiful summer evening... with her.

"I studied all the books about mines and tunnels of Khazad-dϋm I could find," said Darri. "They are probably in bad shape now... but I believe that we can renew them quickly when we start working. I hope we'll soon find truesilver too."

"That would be great for the trade. Everybody would want it, in all the kingdoms. I believe even the elves would be interested in it, those who still live in Middle-earth," nodded Halldis and then tilted her head, and it seemed she was thinking. "I wonder if there are still any in Lothlorien. But I'm afraid not."

He looked at her, intrigued by the last sentence. It appeared she was saddened because of it.

"And you would like that there are?" he asked.

"Well... yes. I have to admit that I have never really thought about them much. I can't say that I've seen them as enemies, because conflicts between our peoples are matter of ancient past and today we don't think much about it. Besides, nowadays there are so few elves remaining in Middle-earth that they almost stopped being a part of its everyday life." She paused and lifted her head towards him. Their gazes met, and while looking into her eyes, his heart suddenly beat much faster.

"And, uhm..." she continued, still looking at him, "that description I heard from you was very interesting and beautiful, and it made me wish to see them. But I doubt that they still live there," she ended with a tone of regret in her voice.

"You never know," he replied, although he also assumed that the probability was very small. From what he had heard about the elves, it seemed that the only remaining group in Middle-earth was the one in The Wood of Greenleaves.

He thought of what she had said. Yes, some among their people were suspicious about the elves even today, but he now got a confirmation of what he had sensed before – that she was open-minded.

Indeed, he liked her words and attitude a lot... more and more.

"But I, too, had one very special encounter," she continued and startled him from thinking, and although it was quite dark, he saw how her face and eyes shone. "I didn't tell you about it because we hadn't had much time to talk after coming out of the forest, but now you'll hear what happened to Tyra and me that evening when we went out of The Wood."

Then he heard the incredible tale of the man who could change his shape into bear; in fact, about such men, because, from what he found out, there was the whole ancient family-line of them. When she finished, he slowly nodded, amazed by what he learned.

"You know, my grandfather often told us stories when we were small, and one of our favourites was the tale about Thorin Oakenshield and reclaiming Erebor," said Darri, and childhood images emerged from his childhood memories. Grey-haired grandfather in the armchair next to the hearth, while he and Faldur sat on the floor next to him and absorbed his every word. "We've heard it many times, and every time when he described the adventures before entering The Wood, I mean then-Mirkwood, he spoke of a man-bear named Beorn. I remember the name even today. I thought that it was impossible and that it was just a garnish to the tale – you know how story-tellers add different details with time, to make the stories more interesting. However..." He stopped and shook his head. He was still trying to grasp what he had just heard.

"However, what you heard from your grandfather was the truth," Halldis finished his sentence.

He looked at her.

"I wish I had been there with you, I really do. It must have been an extraordinary experience."

"It really was," she nodded. "But you never know – it might come true for you too. Maybe you'll travel to Erebor one day because of some business, and you'll pass that way again... and now you know what to look for, and where."

"I will certainly do that," he said.

Then he noticed that Lotti had dozed off, and Mami also looked as if he hardly kept his eyes open. The conversation among the others almost died off, and it seemed that Tyra was about to leave, which probably meant that their whole company would go. And he just couldn't take his eyes off Halldis. She was so beautiful and special, with that red hair and beard... and so much more than that. He liked the person beneath the surface, and he wanted to know her even better. He would so much like to ask her to go for a walk, this very moment, only the two of them... but maybe right now wasn't the best time for that. But tomorrow...

"Look, hm, tomorrow evening, when we halt..." he started in a very low voice, so that only she could hear him. She observed him seriously, and those eyes gave him courage to ask the question and made him nervous, all at the same time. "Maybe you would like to go for a walk around with me to see the surroundings?"

What is there to be seen in the middle of the plain? Nothing but the grass, some voice inside of him spoke and laughed at him.

Halldis smiled softly and nodded.

"I would love that."

Halldis couldn't help herself – she was thinking about the evening ahead of her during the whole day. As the journey continued and as she was getting to know Darri better, he attracted her more and more. He was so much more interesting than anybody she had met so far and she enjoyed their conversations and moments together. And he is very handsome, she added in her thoughts. Thinking about his invitation made her smile often during that day.

I'd like to go for a walk with him... to listen to him speak... to watch those light-brown eyes... Her heart beat very quickly. I wish... She imagined the touch of his hand... and lips. Suddenly, many butterflies woke in her stomach. I wish he kissed me.

During lunch-break, she told Tyra about Darri's invitation, and her friend was thrilled with the news. And in a second, she came up with a great plan.

"This evening I'll say that I don't feel very well and that I won't go to our meeting," she said with a conspiratorial smile. "I'll ask Lotti to stay with me, to be my company. You go alone, so that you are alone when you'll have to go back. If that is not the ideal situation for him to offer to escort you back, I don't know what is." She smiled merrily. "So that way you two will have the chance to be alone for a while."

"Oh, you are the best," said Halldis, touched.

"I'd do everything for you. My sister."

"Sister." She hugged her friend.

When they stopped in the evening, Halldis had a feeling that the ordinary evening routine – setting the camp, refreshment, supper – lasted at least twice longer than usually. Or even thrice, she thought. But finally the time to leave arrived, and the first part of Tyra's plan came to fulfilment; truth be told, Lotti wanted to visit his new friends, but after Tyra's persuasion, he gave it up for tonight.

If only the second part fulfilled too, thought Halldis while walking towards Darri and his company.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII
Day 15th of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

Today was the day. Bundushathϋr. Barazinbar. And finally, the most special one. Zirakzigil. They are still very far and it was difficult to discern them. But I finally saw them.

I don't know when it last happened that it was difficult for me to find words for my diary. The emotions are too intense. We are close to the kingdom established by my distant ancestor – the very first of all the dwarves. I have the impression that I feel the same as he did when he had first laid eyes on the Mountains of Khazad-dϋm. Thrill. Awe. Love. Passion. Admiration.

My distant forefather, I want you to know that Durin's Tower will stand again on the top of Zirakzigil.

D.

-x-x-x-

In the moment she set eyes on him, Halldis got excited and had to restrain herself not to start smiling from ear to ear. Don't behave like a little girl who has seen a candy. And don't go running towards him.

The wide smile Darri directed her way as a sign of welcome didn't help her efforts at all, but she managed to keep a normal facial expression – or at least she hoped so. She greeted the whole company and sat with them.

The conversation was more or less a small talk – about the weather, travelling through the forest and about the party in that little town two days ago. She wasn't very concentrated on the talk; most of the time, she was aware only of Darri's closeness and his gaze. When their hands touched by chance in one moment, she shivered.

After some time she smiled to them and said that she'd leave. She wished them a good night, and as she was rising to her feet, her eyes remained on Darri a little longer than on the others. Well, this is the moment, she thought, and a big hammer pounded inside her chest... although it was only her heart.

"I'll go with you, so that you don’t go back alone," he said, seemingly nonchalantly. He nodded his friends, and then rose and started walking next to her.

"Are you tired?" She heard him ask and lifted her head towards him. He watched her seriously.

No I am not! I could talk to you for hours more!, she wanted to exclaim. But somehow she managed to stay calm on the outside.

"No," she replied with a soft smile.

"Then you don't mind going for a walk?" asked Darri, and she nodded.

She didn't ask him where he was going, she just followed. They walked among sleeping bags, fires, groups and individuals lying or sitting around. She soon discovered – with both  nervousness and delight at the same time – that he was looking for the way out of the camp. And soon they were in the open space, while their compatriots remained behind them.

The fires and torches were now behind their backs, so it was darker here. Still, it wasn't difficult to find the way. The moon almost full was a big help, as well as the terrain itself – being in the plain, there were no obstacles. Halldis looked around. They were in the middle of the vast black expanse, completely flat – except in the west. There, under the moonlight, she noticed the mountains. They were still far away, but she could see the peaks of the Misty Mountains rising above the plain.

Darri stopped and sat, and she settled next to him. It was quite dark, but she managed to discern his face. His blond hair now looked even fairer under the moonshine. She noticed he had looked at all sides, and finally at the sky.

"Before we started this journey, I thought I'd never be able to get used to open space," he said. "Particularly bad were those first two nights in the forest. Everything bothered me. But now, even though I couldn't live on the surface for a long time, I can say that outside world is not so bad after all. I've seen and experienced a lot of beautiful things."

He sounded pensive, and for a moment, she wondered if he was talking to herself or just thinking out loud. But then he turned to her.

"If I'll travel back to Erebor on some occasion, I will surely look for that man-bear you told me about," he said with a smile. "And you? What would you do the same, and what differently, if you travelled that route again?"

Halldis smiled. It wasn't difficult to answer.

"I would contact Grimbar too, but I surely wouldn't wander around alone!" she exclaimed. "No, I am not afraid of the waters in the forest. You remember what I told you about that stream – it was actually a wonderful experience." She paused, and saw him nodding in the dark. "I think that the forest possesses some sort of magic, but I am not scared of it; I think it is not hostile towards us. But when you wander alone, you can fall into all sorts of troubles with forest animals – as I learned the harder way."

"Here in the plain everything is safer, yes," said Darri, and looked at her. "You said you travelled with your brother. And what about your parents? Did they stay? Was it difficult for you because of splitting the family?" he asked.

She had thought about it ever since her parents said they'd stay in Erebor – which actually happened right after the King's announcement.

"Yes, they stayed, as well as my oldest brother. And although they wouldn't admit it out loud, it was clear that mother and father were happy that at least one member of the family had stayed," Halldis said. She hesitated a little, and then she continued. "I think they hoped that I'd stay too. I was born in their later years, after their sons were already grown up. You know, I had a chance to get a glimpse of upbringing of some of my friends, and I realized that mine had been somewhat different. The differences I'm talking about were just little things, but I'd say that they pampered me in some way. I think that you can easily imagine the situation: an older couple got a girl whom they could spoil, after they had already raised the two heirs."

When she said that, she became aware that she had brought up private matters – something that she normally talked about only with Tyra. And yet, she felt like she could open up in front of Darri – just as it had already happened before. What was so special about him?

"I've been thinking for a long time what to do," she continued. "On one hand, Erebor presents something familiar, and therefore safe, while changes – even those for the better – often cause anxiety. But Khazad-dϋm is our greatest kingdom ever. The possibility of living in renewed Khazad-dϋm outweighed everything else, and I couldn't resist it. That was crucial for my decision, in spite of all the risks." Halldis looked at him. Now that her eyes got accustomed to darkness, she could even discern the lines of his face. He observed her, and suddenly she wanted to trace his face with her hand, to touch his cheek and beard. The butterflies woke up again, and she took a deep breath, trying to calm down. "Surely you felt the same?" she asked afterwards.

"Hey, I'm a miner," Darri reminded her cheerfully. "I jumped on the very mention of reclaiming Khazad-dϋm. I didn't have to think a single moment."

"I understand," said Halldis, and then wandered into other thoughts. "I can't deny that I am also a little frightened..." Yes, she was afraid – of many things. Of change. War. Loss. Many of those she knew would fight. And die. Glorrim. Cousins. Friends.

"Only the crazy don't fear anything," said Darri. "But I believe our King. And I believe that this is the right moment for fulfilling the prophecy."

Their people had been reinvigorated during the last few centuries. There were many of them and they represented a big force, and Halldis slowly nodded. "I think so too. Despite the danger, I am glad that I came on this quest."

"I am glad you came, too."

Oh.

She shuddered and lifted her head, and although it was dark, she felt his gaze. His voice was low and serious, and she felt he was sincere. She didn't manage to find the answer. She just watched him in hope. Was it possible that he felt the same...?

"And I am glad I found you." Now, the voice was even softer.

Oh. Oh.

She was suddenly breathless – and even more when his hand lifted and caressed her hair. She just sat motionless and watched as he stooped a little bit towards her... and a little more... and more... and finally his face was so very close to hers. Their foreheads touched and she closed her eyes. Her heart beat strongly as never before. And then his lips found hers, and her whole being fluttered.

"I am happy too," she whispered.

He pulled her close and she hugged him back, laying her head on his shoulder.

"I am happy," she repeated. 

While returning to his place in the camp, Darri didn't stop smiling. He kissed her, he held her in his arms. And everything was great.

They didn't stay for a long time, because it was getting late. They parted with a kiss, and he couldn't wait to see her again the next evening.

Many torches were extinguished in the meantime and it was darker than before. When he returned to his place, he saw that the others were asleep – his parents, cousins, and his friends a little further away. It seemed that Faldur slept too. Darri silently crawled into his sleeping bag.

"I'm listening."

No, Faldur didn't sleep. Inquisitive little brat. He raised a little and leaned on his elbow, and Darri saw that his brother was fully awake and burning with curiosity. He was smiling impishly.

"Yes," said Darri shortly, and that was all he intended to say. He wouldn't talk about details; they were private, and belonged only to him and Halldis.

"Yes, and...? Aaaand...?" Faldur didn't quit, having emphasized the last word-question.

"Yes, and end of story. That is all you need to know, kid." However, he didn't say that sharply and smiled to his brother.

"All right, all right, have it your way," sighed Faldur, acting as if heavily disappointed. But he smiled too. "I am glad. Good luck," he added.

"Thank you, brother," replied Darri. He knew Faldur really meant it. "Good night."

"Good night."

He fell asleep with Halldis' face in front of his eyes and still feeling her lips on his.

-x-x-x-

The journey towards the south continued. Barazinbar, Zirakzigil and Bundushathϋr – the three giants among the other peaks – were now easily visible. They seemed to be touching the sky, so high they were, and although summer was to start in just a few days, their tops were covered in snow.

The mountain range was like a colossal rampart stretching in the direction north-south – so long, so high, and so enormous and seemingly impervious that Halldis thought that, had she arrived here in some ancient times and not knowing geography, she would probably believe that she had reached the end of the world and that there had been no further.

And yet, there was something that drove the inhabitants of Arda – dwarves, elves and humans equally – against even the most difficult obstacles. Curiosity. What was behind the next corner? Behind the next hill? A new opportunity, maybe? The new land that just waited to be conquered?

What was behind the greatest mountain range on Arda?

In the case of her people, the right question was – what was beneath that mountain range.

Our home.

Deep inside lay that which was most important to the dwarves and what drove them forward. But while watching the mountains, Halldis concluded that the surface was beautiful too. The slopes were covered with thick forest and coloured with all shades of green, from the lightest to the darkest. One could discern the boundary on higher altitudes where even the conifers stopped growing and where only the grass remained. And those three peaks were so high and steep that there were not even grass or soil; towards the sky extended only the barren upright rocks.

The sun set behind the mountains and it was time to stop, to Halldis' great joy. It had been two days since that special night. Last night they all gathered again, both companies, and when Darri and she got up to go for a walk, there were a few merry jokes on their account. But she didn't care about the teasing, and from what she saw, neither did Darri. They just laughed and waved to their friends, and went their own way. She couldn't wait to do the same tonight.

Holding hands, they went out of the camp again that night and settled on the soft grass, far from the crowd. And only now that she was in his arms and he kissed her, did it feel like the real beginning of this evening; everything else was just the prelude to what was really important to her. She lay on her side, with her head on his shoulder and arm over his chest. In his arms she felt so tiny... and happy and serene.

"I wonder how Durin Deathless felt when he first saw these mountains," said Darri pensively in some moment. Halldis moved her head a little and looked up. Thanks to the moon that was still almost full, the mountains were easily visible against the dark sky, moreover because the tops were white with the snow. "Surely Mahal led his steps, and he was certainly very excited."

"I believe that too," said Halldis, and then laughed. "No matter what, I am sure that he felt much better than those first elves who arrived at the foot of the Misty Mountains. Durin only had to enter the mountains. The elves had to go over them!"

Darri laughed with her.

"Indeed, imagine watching those heights and thinking you have to climb that much... no, thank you!"

Halldis didn't find that task attractive either.

"Ha-ha, it is much easier to go through the mountains than over them," she said, and then drifted away in thoughts. Mentioning of those ancient events prompted the next question. "If you could return to the past, and if you had only one chance for it, what time and place would you choose?"

"Huh. A question too difficult," answered Darri and she heard his sigh. "But if I had to single out just one location..." A short silence. "The First Age, Gabilgathol and Tumunzahar. I might visit some other places in my life, but those two I can't anymore. And I'm sure they were magnificent?"

"A miner above all, right?" she smiled.

"Well, that is in our blood, for our whole family," said Darri. "And you? Your choice is...?"

"When I was a child, I loved the stories about Thorin Oakenshield and his company and how they reclaimed Erebor." She smiled, having remembered how Tyra and she ran through the passages and fought the invisible dragon. "I'd like to meet all those heroes and to live in that time."

"One day this quest will be in tales and songs, and our King will be counted among the greatest heroes of our people."

Halldis nodded, but didn't answer. They lay silent for a while, and she thought of Thorin's deeds. And when Darri started to kiss her, she forgot the old kingdoms, ancient heroes, their feats and about everything else.

-x-x-x-

The King stood in front of his tent. It was late, but he had one more important meeting. Next to him were his wife and both of his grown-up children, while Bergvi hovered around too and watched from behind. In front of them there were Nardi, Thirkal, Bofi and Ragir. The latter two were the main scouts of his Guard – the most experienced and the best in that field that he had. Both were older than him, but still in top form. It was them who had been the leaders of secret scouting expeditions to Khazad-dϋm for the last twenty or so years, gathering precious information about the condition of tunnels, halls, vertical shafts, whereabouts of the orcs, and everything else that was important.

"We are three days away from the Eastern Gates," said the King seriously, addressing everyone around him. "Tomorrow afternoon we will go around the slopes that extend most into the plain and we'll turn west. Once we reach the western border of Lorien wood, I'll send the messengers towards the south – to the Rohan villages closest to the forest – to talk about their leaders about future cooperation and trade." He stopped and looked at Nardi. "Of course, the messengers will be chosen from among those who will not fight."

Nardi nodded without a word. In the war to follow every sword and axe were important.

The King then turned to Bofi and Ragir.

"You two take a few more scouts and leave at dawn. March as fast as you can. The timing is now very important. Find out what you can about the latest status of the tunnels, and then turn back towards us to make a report."

The two scouts nodded as one.

"Yes, your Highness," they replied almost simultaneously.

Durin had absolutely no doubts that they'd complete their mission and return in time to meet beneath the Gates, next to Kheled-zβram. He nodded them and turned to Thirkal. The dwarf was short and skinny, quite smaller than the average dwarf males, and someone might wonder what contribution could someone like that give in war. But only someone who didn't know him. Thirkal was among the most brilliant minds Durin had ever known, and was his chief advisor for all the operations of designing new tunnels and shafts, and also for maintenance of the existing ones. The new improved systems of ventilation, heating and air-circulation in Erebor – things of vital importance for life in the underground – were his creation.

An expert in that field was very important in planning to conquer a place configured like Khazad-dϋm, too. Thirkal joined the last three scouting missions to see some things first-hand; he could be proud of the fact that he had the whole network of tunnels, halls and vertical shafts in his head. Durin could say the same – he memorized them because he had spent countless hours over the old maps and plans, absorbing their ancient home into his heart and mind. His motive was the wish to come closer to his dream and to feel how their greatest kingdom looked like. Thirkal did it for practical reasons: he was interested in how their ancestors resolved some demanding problems of ventilation, and at the same time, he memorized all the details to use them in later planning.

"Thirkal, I'm listening." The King gave him a sign to take over.

His advisor slightly coughed and looked at all the persons present, and then he turned to the two main scouts.

"Be sure to take Thorfi with you," said Thirkal. "He was with me when I examined the vertical shaft over the Second Hall. That shaft is half-closed by the rock on its opening, and now it is necessary to move it away. Thorfi knows the position of the shaft on the slope above the Eastern Gates. Regarding the rock's size, it will take two to move it, so somebody else needs to go with him. It's very important to do this."

"It will be done," said Bofi, the older of the two scouts. In his dark hair appeared the first grey hues. Then he looked at the king. "Anything else?"

"Not for now," replied Durin seriously. "Leave at first light of the dawn, and we'll meet in three days at Kheled-zβram."

The two scouts then left, and the King looked his advisor.

"You are free now too, my friend. We have a general plan, and the final consultation will be made when we get the scouts' report. Good night."

"Good night." Thirkal bowed to the King and his family and left.

"I will go to Rohan as an emissary," spoke Dirhild.

Durin turned to his wife. Just when he meant to consider that question, she gave the best solution. He slightly smiled and looked her, expecting her to continue.

"I will take Fari with me, whom I will inform about it this very evening, and one or two more people. Of course, I'll pick them from among those who will not fight," she said.

The King slowly nodded. Fari was a logical choice, and Durin actually wanted to include him into the delegation himself; that was his trade counsellor, and besides that, his prime had long past. Of course, the old dwarf was proud and he would certainly offer his services in battle, but physically, he was simply not as strong as he once was. When his request would be turned down – which would certainly be the case – he'd feel hurt and rejected. But Dirhild would forestall him, and he surely wouldn't be able to refuse the Queen. The perfect solution. Fari would not be idle and would feel useful. Besides, the presence of the Queen and trade counsellor would give the negotiations a very official tone.

"Perfect," he said and smiled, and nodded as a sign of acknowledgement.

"Why is it so important to move the rock?" asked Bergvi in that moment, and Durin turned to his younger son.

"We have shafts because...?" he replied with a counter-question.

"Because they serve as ventholes. Everyone knows that," answered Bergvi immediately.

"And the bigger the shaft-opening is...?" Durin wanted the boy to come to a conclusion himself. He observed his son thinking, and soon he saw the moment when comprehension showed on his face.

"The stronger will be the air-flow upwards!" exclaimed Bergvi victoriously.

"Exactly. Sometimes – especially in winter – we don't want too strong venting and we partially close shafts. But for our current plans, strong air circulation is very important. It will help us achieve the first step of our victory." Durin nodded and smiled. He just couldn't wait for the moment to set foot in Khazad-dϋm. And he knew that he would be in front of his troops, the first to do it.

Just when they were ready to continue the journey the next morning, Halldis heard the horn – seven times – which meant that they'd hear the new important notice. The sound came from her right, and she quickly pushed through the crowd to see and hear better.

When she came forward, she saw one of the King's Guardsmen a few yards away. The murmur died out instantly.

"We will reach the Eastern Gates of Khazad-dϋm in three days. Today is the last day of travelling through the plain, and tomorrow morning we start the ascent. Tomorrow evening we will reach the extensive valley in which we'll make the camp. All the fighters will continue the quest immediately, that is, the following morning. All those who will not fight will temporarily stay in that camp; the latter will afterwards get the directions about their own continuation of the journey one day later, and will find out how they can contribute to our goal. Any questions?"

There were none and the Guardsman moved forward to the next group, while Halldis went back to her place next to her brother. They soon moved on.

Three days, the words echoed in her mind while they were walking.

When the King first made his announcement about the quest, the thought of living in Khazad-dϋm sounded attractive, but back then, for her it was only a name from the distant past. A very important and special one, of course, but still only a name. It wasn't near, and it wasn't palpable.

Even when she made her decision to go to the new life, which was only a few months ago, Khazad-dϋm and the fight for it were still only speculative nouns.

And even when the journey started, when Erebor remained behind them as they were walking mile by mile next to Celduin and through the forest, she still didn't think about the war. Partially because the time was filled with many adventures... and partially because I didn't want to think about it.

It seemed to her that only now, when these words were spoken aloud, the war became reality. And now, she could close her eyes no more. The war was upon them, very close. Three days.

Actually, even less remained before the separation: only two days, she realized when she cast a quick side glance towards Glorrim, who walked next to her. Her brother would be among those going to fight. Tomorrow evening they would reach the location from which he would very soon go further – in the following morning. They would part in just two days.

Were these the last two days she'd have with her brother?

She got the impulse to hug him right away. Of course, she didn't do it; it wouldn't be appropriate in this moment, and besides, Glorrim wasn't a person who expressed his emotions and she knew he expected the same from her. But that didn't change how she felt inside. Fear gripped her and didn't let go.

Think positively. Don't lose hope.

But at the same time, her fear grew. She could run away no more from thinking and facing facts. Those words uttered in the morning changed everything. She felt as if until now she had lived in a dream, after which came a harsh awakening and she found herself in the worst version of reality. Fear filled every part of her heart and mind, choking all other thoughts and emotions.

Three days.

As she walked on, another thought scared her.

Darri. What if she lost him, too?

No, fear for someone whom she met only recently couldn't compare to the terror paralyzing her at the possibility of losing her brother. But Darri was becoming more and more important to her heart, and the thought she might lose him hurt.

Oh, I really picked the perfect time to fall in love, she sighed and shook her head. I should have been smarter and not get attached...

The journey continued, and her thoughts grew darker.

When the time came for daily break, Halldis had no appetite and she ate only half of her meal. While sitting half-heartedly and waiting to go on, Tyra approached and sat next to her. Her friend looked serious and resolute, and this was one of the rare occasions when Halldis couldn't guess what was on her mind.

"Sister, I want you to take something of mine and guard it," said Tyra and pulled the lace on the leather bracelet she wore on her left hand. Then she offered it to Halldis.

She stared at Tyra's outstretched hands, not making a single move to take the bracelet and not understanding. Refusing to understand.

When they were still very young girls, on one festival they bought two identical leather bracelets and carved their names on the inside, as a sign of eternal friendship. And now Tyra was giving her own bracelet to her.

"Tyra... what... what are you doing? What does this mean?" Halldis asked in a low voice and finally lifted her gaze. No, what crossed her mind couldn't be truth. It shouldn't be truth.

Tyra's eyes were serious, but there was a barely visible smile on her face.

"I will fight too. And if I die, I don't want this to be lost. I want you to wear it, as a memory," she said calmly.

As Halldis still didn't move, Tyra tied the bracelet around her hand, and Halldis kept on sitting motionlessly, not even noticing what her friend was doing. Even now that Tyra said it aloud, she refused to understand.

"No! It can't be... you can't... you can't go..." Her voice died out completely in the end, while she still stared at her friend in shock.

"I am going," said Tyra softly, but mild tone was just a deception. It was clear that her decision was irrevocable.

"But... but... you have never given any indication about going to war... so I thought..." Halldis still couldn't recollect herself and her sentences sounded unfocused and not very coherent.

"I've been thinking about it for a while now," said Tyra. "I didn't speak about it because I didn't know how I'd feel when the moment came. I made the final decision only this morning."

"But why?!" asked Halldis desperately.

The look she got from her friend told her that the question was stupid. But in that moment Halldis was too worried and distraught to care. After all the dark thoughts in the first part of the day, this was the last straw. The only thing that she was aware was war, and she felt as if her whole world was crumbling down and that she'd lose everyone she loved.

"Oh, there are plenty of reasons. Just pick any you like. Because numbers matter. Because any fighter can contribute. Because our common goal is above us individuals. Because we create a future for our people, for those who are not born yet," said Tyra seriously.

Some part of Halldis' heart was aware of all those facts, but the other part, the scared one, was more dominant now. And louder.

"And you don't care how I'll feel!" she cried.

Tyra smiled wistfully.

"That is not true, and you know it very well. And I would really like you to feel better. But there are other things that are important too," she said.

Halldis turned her head to the other side, fighting tears. She couldn't speak any more, and started to gather up her belongings.

The journey soon continued. She put one foot in front of the other, and it was a fortunate thing that the terrain was flat and additionally flattened by thousands walking in front of her, because she didn't see where she was going. Her unfocused gaze lay on the back of the person in front of her, but she didn't see that either. Her eyes were blurred by tears and all she thought about was the possible loss of loved ones.

Glorrim – her brother. Tyra – her sister in everything but blood. Two persons that were most important to her and whom she loved most. The whole extended family – all her cousins. Darri – someone whom she hadn't known for a long time, but who was more and more important from day to day.

If she lost Glorrim or Tyra, she knew she'd be devastated; if something happened to her cousins, it would hurt a lot too. Those were the things she couldn't do anything about. But maybe there was one potential loss that she could prevent, in some way...

If she tried to estrange from Darri... maybe her feelings would lessen. Yes, perhaps it would be best not to see him anymore. If her feelings diminished, maybe the loss would not hurt so much.

-x-x-x-

As the afternoon advanced, so the direction of the journey slowly changed. For days they had been going straight to the south, and now they started to skirt the slopes they reached and, by doing that, they turned southwest. Their goal was not far away anymore; it lay on the eastern slopes of the mountains, two days of travelling away.

Darri watched southwards, trying to see Lothlorien. But the forest was still too far away. Only tomorrow, when they'd be a little more to the southwest than they were now, they'd come closer to the northern edges of that elvish land.

But what he did see perfectly was Zirakzigil, right in front of them, in the west. Darri observed the mountain in admiration. The top was at least eighty miles distant in a straight line, but because of its height it was easily visible and it dominated above the peaks in the foreground. Watching it, it was very clear how it got its name. The upper part was pointed, with very steep slopes shining in the sun. Silver spear. Absolutely appropriate, he thought. The other two peaks of the Mountains of Khazad-dϋm also had suitable names, he concluded. The slopes of Barazinbar were reddish, while a cloud lay above Bundushathϋr although most of the sky was clear.

He returned his gaze to Zirkzigil. It was the most special for his people because the tunnels and halls of Khazad-dϋm lay beneath it, and on its top once stood the tower of Durin Deathless. Destroyed in the year of the War of the Ring, when the great wizard Tharkun fought the balrog and killed him, Darri remembered history. The tower was the scene of their final fight.

After setting the camp, he ate his supper quickly and went to find Halldis. He tried not to think how little time they had before the war; he also didn't want to think about fighting itself. When his thoughts strayed that way, he felt a little nervous; he kept telling himself that it was normal, that a little bit of fear sharpened the senses and helped surviving, and that only fools weren't afraid of anything. And he decided to postpone the facing with war to the very last moment.

After the short search, he saw her sitting on the ground and looking in front of herself. Next to her there was a dwarf who looked older than her, but not so much that he could be her father. Probably the older brother she told me about, he assumed.

He came fairly close and stopped only three feet from her, and she still didn't lift her head. When he called her name, she looked as if she was startled from deep thought. She watched him for a few moments, her face unreadable. Then she looked towards her brother – who was occupied with his supper, as it seemed – and then to him again. She rose to her feet and gave him a sign to follow her.

And she didn't introduce them to each other, he noticed.

She stopped relatively quickly, after they crossed only a short distance from the place where he had found her. She looked him in the eyes, but it lasted only a very short moment; she immediately lowered her gaze, while an expression of discomfort appeared on her face.

"This is a mistake," she said, still not looking at him.

She acted very strange – not at all like the person she was until now. He didn't understand.

"What is a mistake?" Darri asked.

"We are," came the reply. She frowned. "Everything happened too fast. We rushed headlong into this. And we shouldn't have."

He stared at her, while she continued to avoid his gaze. This was not good. Not good at all.

"Halldis... what are you saying?" he asked, shaking his head. He didn't understand anything. "We didn't rush headlong. I know how I feel... and I believe you know too."

He put a hand on her shoulder and stood close to her, trying to make her look at him. And he was successful – but just for a second, and then she shook her head.

"Do not look for me," she said and lowered her head again, went around him and rushed back to her place. And he stayed and stared. Confused. Surprised.

He couldn't understand what made her act like this. Until now, everything seemed fine. Ever since their first talk, they got to know each other better from day to day, and he liked her more and more. He had never met any girl like her – so fascinating and intelligent. And although they were only in the beginning, he didn't think this was a passing thing.

He remembered all their moments together – conversations, smiles, kisses. Nothing was pointing that this would follow. And she didn't look like the sort of person who was playing with other people's hearts – and that was why this looked even more strange.

He stood there for a little bit more, staring in the direction where she disappeared. And tried to recognize the feeling growing in him.

Sorrow.

Do not look for me. The message was short and unequivocal.

They had spent only a short time together... but when he lay on his sleeping bag later that night, he realized that she had left a much bigger emptiness behind her than he could expect.

The night's sleep and morning didn't bring the relief that Halldis was hoping for – in a good part because she didn't sleep well. After she lay down, she was awake for a long time, occasionally wiping away tears she hid in the darkness. Even after she finally fell asleep, she often woke up and turned from side to side, and each time it took her a lot to fall asleep again. So she felt tired and sleep deprived in the morning, and she also had a strong headache.

And apart from being tired, she felt even worse because of what she did to Darri; in that last second before she turned around and left him, she could see that her words had hurt him. And so, on the top of yesterday's anxiety, panic and worry, there came guilt. Confusion, sorrow and despair too. She wanted the way out, but she didn't see it. She wanted to protect herself from suffering; she didn't know how. She thought she had found the way; she hurt another person in doing it.

And herself too, she discovered. Her feelings for Darri didn't magically disappear because she decided to stay away from him; the thought of not seeing him anymore hurt.

She noticed that Glorrim observed her while they had breakfast, but he didn't ask anything and she was grateful for that. But soon after they set off, Tyra stood next to her and, thanks to some pushing through crowd and pulling her sleeve, directed their steps so that they had found themselves somewhat further from their friends and cousins.

"There. Now we'll be able to talk in peace," said Tyra, obviously satisfied with the achieved. Then she looked at her carefully, but unlike Glorrim, she didn't hold back. "You look terrible."

The statement was followed by laughter and, despite her bad mood, Halldis couldn't prevent smiling too.

"Long live the sincerity of best friends," she replied. In any case, she felt terrible, and obviously her appearance mirrored it.

"You didn't really think that I'd keep my mouth shut, did you?" Tyra kept on laughing.

Halldis turned her head and for a few moments she observed Tyra while they were walking. Then she lowered her gaze to her right arm, the one with the bracelet that had adorned Tyra's wrist until yesterday. Sister. The one who had always been there for her, no matter what.

"I am scared," she said simply. And then her wall broke. "I knew we were going to war, but for the whole time until yesterday, that fact had been only abstract. It was something that would happen in the future. As long as we were far from Khazad-dϋm, we were far from war." She spoke in one breath; now that her emotions broke free, she just couldn't stop talking. "And then, yesterday morning, we heard the King's newest announcement... and that was the moment when comprehension finally dawned... the moment when I realized I could lose my own kin. My brother." She stopped and looked at her friend. "And then you came to me, and told me your decision... and that was the moment when my whole world had crushed down. I couldn't bear the thought of losing all of you."

They walked in silence for a few moments.

"I understand you," said Tyra gently. "I am frightened for my father and brothers, too. And for all of our friends. And I can only say that I hope that not many of our people will die. Please, try to think positively and do not let yourself despair, because nothing good will come out of it."

Well, my behaviour last night is a genuine proof for that, isn't it?, she thought bitterly. Tyra probably said those words in a simple attempt to encourage her, not knowing what happened yesterday night. But she hit right in the middle.

"You know, besides panicking that I'll lose Glorrim and you, I also got very scared that I'd lose Darri," confessed Halldis. "And then I thought I'd suffer less if I estranged from him..."

She told her friend how her thoughts had unfolded, step by step, and finally described the last encounter with Darri. Tyra rolled her eyes, but smiled afterwards.

"You silly! Ah well, yes, I understand why you acted the way you did. But you are wrong." She tilted her head and looked at her. "Let's say that Darri is killed in war, just for argument's sake, and that you never see him again. Yes, I know it would hurt. But tell me honestly, would you prefer that you have never met him? Yes, it would mean that you wouldn't suffer, but at the same time, it would mean not having some wonderful moments with him. And in case of his death, you wouldn't have wonderful memories of him. So... if you could go back in time and choose your way – one variant or another – what would you choose?"

"Oh."

Halldis immediately realized that her answer hadn't sounded intelligent at all, but it was all she was able to say in that first moment. She repeated Tyra's words in her head, and again and again, considering them from all possible angles. Well, if we put it like that... She suddenly got the impulse to slap herself. It was only now that she finally understood things.

"Yes. You're right. It's better to experience something beautiful, to have something precious, even at the cost of losing it, than to raise a wall and never experience anything..." She frowned, feeling very stupid. "What I fool I am! Why didn't I see what you explained to me? Why couldn't I be wise as you?"

Tyra smiled to her.

"First of all, I am not especially wise, and second, you are not a fool," she responded and waved her hand. "I am sure that soon you would have come to the correct conclusion yourself. I think that the explanation for your behaviour is that it is much easier for us who will fight than for you who will stay. We will be in action and we won't have any time for thinking, and you can do nothing but wait and worry, and that is why your fear grew so much.

Halldis looked at her friend.

"Do you know how much I'll worry for you?" she asked despondently.

"I think I do. Just as much as I would worry for you," Tyra nodded with a sympathetic smile. "But I felt I had to go. I want to and I have to contribute to our goal. After all, I didn't train and participate in the tournaments through all those years for nothing. Now I have to apply my skills."

Halldis nodded, slowly coming to comprehension of Tyra's standpoint. She didn't feel any better for it, but she finally accepted it. Then she thought of another thing and bitterly smiled.

"Darri. I should try to correct what I did yesterday... if he'll want to talk to me at all."

"Oh, I'm sure he will," said Tyra and nodded briskly. "I think you didn't do anything irreparable. Besides, from what I was able to see, I think that he fell in love with you and that he'll understand and forgive."

"Darri and I are only in the beginning and we still have a lot to discover about each other..." said Halldis pensively. "But what I've seen so far... you know, I like him very, very much." Her lips curved into a smile at the thought of him. "And I think I'm falling in love. I think about him a lot, and I feel butterflies in my stomach all the time."

"Sounds great," said Tyra warmly. "You just resolve that misunderstanding from yesterday and go on. And let's hope that the war will end well for all of us."

Halldis nodded, suddenly intensely impatient. She wanted to go searching for Darri this very moment. But she knew that it was impossible during the march, and that she had to wait for a break. She cast a quick glance towards the sun, judging its height, although she was aware that it wasn't much time since they started today's journey. At least three hours more... She sighed. She could do nothing but wait.

It seemed to her that the time was passing at least twice as slowly as usual. While walking, she watched around herself, and most often her gaze rose to the three magnificent peaks of the Mountains of Khazad-dϋm. Of course, she was not the only one; everyone admired them and watched them with yearning, knowing what lay beneath them.

Further south, she could now see a green line on the horizon; it was Lothlorien. She wondered if there were magical streams and special beings in it, like in The Wood of Greenleaves. Who knew, maybe one day she'd have the opportunity to visit it? However, unlike The Wood in which the elves still lived, she knew that rumours were that Lorien had been deserted for a long time.

When they finally stopped for their lunch-break, Halldis just put down her backpack and decided to go searching for Darri immediately. I can easily eat my sandwich later, on the way, she thought; right now she wasn't hungry at all. Glorrim gave her a questioning look, just like the previous night when she left with Darri without a word. Last night she didn't say anything to him; when she returned, she wasn't in the mood for talking. Now she thought she could mention that she had met someone very special, and she told him that they'd talk later.

While she walked, her heart beat very quickly – out of excitement, as well as tension. And fear. How would he react upon seeing her? Was he angry? Did he want to speak with her at all?

When she saw him, at first still from afar, she stopped and observed him. Her heart fluttered, and the butterflies she had mentioned to Tyra suddenly grew to the size of dragons. How is it possible?, she wondered. How someone can cause so many reactions? So many emotions? So much happiness? All this was new to her. Nobody had ever elicited so many feelings in her. She was confused, she felt weird... but also wonderful.

Darri sat with his brother, and very near them she saw an older dwarf whom she had already seen with Darri once, and an older dwarfess whose blond hair and beard, otherwise rare for their people, were identical to Darri's; it wasn't difficult to guess who they were. A little further away sat Bemir and Mami.

She made a few more steps and stopped again, insecure. But then he lifted his head and – as if sensing her gaze – looked in her direction. They watched each other for a few long and tense moments, and then she made another step. Not taking her eyes off him, she gave him a smile – a shy, most timid one – and after what seemed like an eternity to her, he put down his food and moved towards her.

Maybe not everything is lost, she dared to hope; it seemed that he was at least willing to talk, if nothing else. He stopped some two yards from her and crossed his arms at his chest, while she absorbed his appearance and scrutinized his face, trying to figure out how he felt. He was serious, and she wasn't certain what was on his mind. With a mix of hope and fear, she slowly nodded.

"I want to apologize for the words I said last night... and I hope that you can forgive..." said Halldis tentatively. "Yesterday was a very bad day for me. Yesterday morning was the moment in which I became aware that the war would start in only two days... and I got terribly scared." She paused, squeezing her fists nervously. Darri's face was still unchanged and unreadable. "I got scared for my brother, cousins, friends, Tyra... and for you. I become frightened that I'd lose all of you. I was terrified of loss and pain. And I thought... if I stop seeing you... if I estranged from you... that the eventual loss would hurt less."

She stopped again, although she still didn't say all that lay on her heart. It wasn't easy to open up completely; this was the first time for her. But you mustn't stop now, Halldis. If you don't tell him everything, you didn't do anything. She took a deep breath and continued.

"But I was wrong. When I left last night, I felt bad – both because of what I did to you, and because I missed you. My yesterday's thoughts were wrong. I'd like to be with you... if you can forgive me," she finished.

He watched her silently for a long time and she already thought to turn around and run away, not being able to bear what seemed to be a rejection. But then he nodded, and his expression softened.

"Well... I guess I understand," he said.

"Please don't be mad... I was really very scared. Now I recognize my mistake... but yesterday I didn't think clearly. Forgive me." She watched him, her heart still frightened.

He then smiled softly, and the light-brown eyes she loved filled with warmth.

"It is all right."

His gazed told her that he really meant that, and she wanted to hug and kiss him that very moment. But it wasn't the right time or the place. So she just quickly outstretched her arm and grasped his, and then pulled it back equally fast.

"See you tonight?"

"Count on it."

He smiled and winked, and while watching him going back to his place, her heart sang. All was well, all was saved.

They spent the evening in each other's arms.

When Halldis opened her eyes the next morning, she discovered that the sky was cloudy. Her mind still half-sleeping, in the first split-second she thought it wasn't so bad – because that day she wouldn't have to walk under the hot sun. But in the very next moment she remembered everything: separation, leave-taking, war. This day wouldn't be like the previous ones. For her, the journey was temporarily over. She would be among those who would stay and wait. And worry.

Then she remembered the promise she made to herself yesterday. Be brave and don't lose hope. With that thought she got up and started the morning routine – washing and breakfast. When she finished, she rose to her feet and looked around.

In the final part of the journey, yesterday late afternoon, they finally left the plain behind and started to climb the slopes of the Misty Mountains. They didn't walk much before they reached this wide shallow valley suitable for the large camp – maybe only a thousand feet. Still, even that relatively low altitude opened new horizons. Halldis looked towards east and south, where Lorien wood lay. This was the point where the forest was closest to the mountains, and from what Halldis could judge, there were four or five miles between the foothill and Lothlorien.

Finally, she turned her back to the forest and plain and, taking a deep breath, faced the events around her. Actually, there were not many partings because there wouldn't be many who would stay; many women went to war too, together with their husbands, fathers and brothers. So most of the folks were getting ready to leave.

Glorrim was already prepared. She stood in front of him and lifted her gaze.

I won't cry.

And she didn't, although there was a lump in her throat and her heart was very frightened.

She wanted to hug him, but she knew what he thought of it, especially in public. So, although she was terrified that this was the last time she would see her brother, she decided to honour his wishes and she only firmly squeezed his hand.

"Be careful," she said in a somewhat husky voice.

"You can be sure of it." He nodded seriously and looked around, where their cousins and friends stood. "If possible, I'll keep an eye on them, too," he continued and smiled softly, as if wanting to encourage her. Then he looked at her again, and his smile became just a little wider. "I hope that young lad will also be fine."

Her eyes widened.

"Oh... thank you."

There was no more time; there were more farewells for her, and the two of them had already said all that mattered. But then he surprised her with his next move. He stooped and kissed her brow. This time, her eyes widened even more.

I won't cry.

And again, she made it. Glorrim looked at her one last time, and then took his leave. Halldis turned to Tyra; this time she didn't hesitate a single moment and hugged her friend in a tight embrace.

"Promise that you'll return," whispered Halldis, and tears filled her eyes in spite of all her efforts.

"I'll do my best," replied Tyra, and Halldis noticed that this wasn't the total confirmation she had asked for. But she was aware that it wasn't really possible to give that promise.

"Be careful," Halldis repeated the words she told Glorrim. Then she lowered her gaze to her right wrist. "I'll take care of this for you. And I hope I'll be able to return it as soon as possible."

"I hope so too. And I'll be careful, don't worry about it," said Tyra, and they hugged one more time.

Halldis then greeted all the cousins and friends that stood nearby, and hurried to the place where she and Darri had been last night, and where they were to meet again this morning. It was on the very edge of the camp, behind one big rock that gave at least a little bit of privacy. When she arrived, she saw that he was already there. She quickened her steps and threw herself into his embrace. His lips touched hers, and for a short moment she forgot everything, lost in his kiss.

But the reality returned all to quickly. She looked at his eyes and face, absorbing every detail. There was so much more she wanted to do with him – walk, discover Khazad-dϋm, visit places special for their people, talk to him about ores and ceramics and many other things, hold his hand, and even watch the stars and visit the elvish forest... She had a feeling that she would never be bored with him.

"Take care of yourself. And come back to me," she whispered.

"We'll be together again as soon as this is over," said Darri nonchalantly, as if going for a walk and not to war, and she was grateful that he was trying to encourage her with his demeanour.

I won't cry.

And she made it even this time, too. She just rose to her toes and lifted her head again.

"Kiss me."

He did it more passionately than ever before. She lost her ground, her head was spinning, her heart beat like crazy. She responded with the same fervour, putting her hands around his neck and pulling him close. Every part of her fluttered and burned, and she wished to stay like this forever. For a few moments there was nothing else in the world but the two of them... and then, little by little, they slowed down and separated. Because he had to leave.

They walked back in silence, just holding hands, and stopped a little before she had to go back to her place. He looked at her and smiled.

"We'll see each other again."

The parting kiss was just a light brush of their lips, and then he turned around and left.

All who would participate in the war were leaving – they marched to the opposite side of the valley, towards the mountain. Halldis stood among the few women and children remaining in the camp. She heard someone crying nearby, but didn't look to see who it was. In fact, she avoided anyone's gaze; she didn't want to see the same fear she had felt too. She was afraid that, in that case, she wouldn't be able to supress tears herself, and she didn't want to fall apart in front of everyone.

She hauled herself to her place and sat, looking in front of herself. What should she do now? Yes, according to preliminary directions, tomorrow they would climb to the camp next to the Eastern Gates and start helping the healers and the army, but today, for the most part of the day they'd be idle. Halldis sighed. In front of her was a tedious day of waiting... and worrying.

-x-x-x-

While Halldis and Darri bid farewell, the last arrangements were made in front of the King's tent. Durin looked around. His whole Guard was ready, just waiting for his sign. Noin and Ernis were ready to leave too.

The King first turned to his wife.

"The fighters will make the camp in the afternoon, next to Kheled-zβram. During the afternoon and night we will slowly enter and advance into Khazad-dϋm, and if all goes according to plan, part of the troops will ascend towards the upper entrance. Consequently, meadows around the lake will partially empty, so tomorrow morning you can send the women towards us. There will be a lot of work – preparing meals, helping the healers, and everything else that will come up."

"Of course," she nodded.

Durin then signalled Fari to come nearer, and addressed both of them.

"You two will start the negotiations about the future trade," he said. "As for our current status, we have a good amount of everything, but we can buy more food from the Rohirrim if the siege prolongs."

"Let us hope it will not be necessary," said his trade counsellor quickly. "I hope that Mahal will watch over you and that you will soon destroy the orc-scum."

"We all hope for that," replied the King and looked at his wife. He had no doubts that she'd conduct the negotiations perfectly, as well as she'd be a great leader in his absence. For a moment, he again saw the young girl who seized his attention long ago on one evening of a festivity in Erebor. By chance, he overheard the discussion about production of glass items from the neighbouring table; the young daughter of one of the counsellors boldly told the guild-master that she had discovered another method for processing the glass, better than those used by the members of his guild. The old dwarf nearly choked and almost dropped his chalice in shock. Durin always smiled when remembering that. On that day long ago, the passion in the girl's voice, while talking about her work and discovery, won his heart.

And it turned out that her words were not mere swagger; today, together with all the old methods, the apprentices learned one new method of glass-making. Hers.

"This is the most important event in the history of our people in many, many centuries. I am looking forward to the moment when I'll set foot into Khazad-dϋm," said the Queen with a solemn voice.

"When everything is over, I'll wait for you at the Gates and lead you in," replied Durin in a same tone. "Now we go to fulfil our destiny."

They firmly squeezed each other's hands, and then he turned to Nardi and his elite troop. But there was one more farewell for him.

Bergvi then appeared behind one of the tents, and the King had to put all his efforts into not laughing. The boy obviously took advantage of the moments when the adults were busy with preparatory arrangements, and had his own preparations. He wore chainmail, in one hand he held a helmet and an axe in another – not the one he used for training, but a real one. Judging by the size of the gear, Durin concluded that Bergvi had sacked his sister's spare equipment. He cast a quick glance to his daughter; her furious expression, which messaged "you will pay for this, little brat", confirmed his assumption. But as Bergvi still didn't reach his sister's height, all that he wore was just a little too big for him, so the overall impression was even funnier. It wasn't easy to remain serious.

Bergvi held his head high, not wanting accept the constraints that went with his age. True, he was near the transition from boy to young adult, but he was still a child.

"I am sorry, Bergvi, but this time you cannot go with us," said the King softly, but not allowing any opposition. "However, there are other tasks to be done. Can I entrust you with some of them?"

In the boy's eyes appeared the disappointment at first, but he quickly nodded, watching his father in expectation. It seemed he was glad that he'd get some responsibility.

"You will go with the delegation to negotiate with the Rohirrim. I expect you'll memorize everything that is important."

Although the boy was only third in the line of succession, he had already attended several business conferences with people from Esgaroth, and it was important to continue learning about these things.

"And you will protect your mother, who will also stay here. She will be in your care. Can you do that?"

Not that Dirhild needed any protector. But there would pass a few more years before the boy realized that. Anyway, this was the moment in conversation when Durin was almost shaking in his attempts to hold back laughter.

"Yes, father, your Highness," said Bergvi solemnly, giving a twofold promise at the same time.

"Then we agreed," said Durin to the boy, and winked to his wife. She, too, looked amused, obviously having recognized her husband's tactics.

And then it was really high time to leave. The King stood in front of everyone and started to ascend. He didn't even notice that this morning he had set a quicker pace; he wanted to arrive at his goal as quickly as possible. His gaze was directed upwards, where he knew that Kheled-zβram and the Eastern Gates were, and his heart beat excitedly, wanting to reach Khazad-dϋm as soon as possible.

So started the last phase of the journey. Darri climbed the slope, knowing that now there were only a few hours before reaching their goal. Of course, not all of them could enter at once, and he had no idea how quickly he'd be engaged. Would he be among those who would attack on this day? Or tomorrow?

He'd find out soon enough.

Now that Khazad-dϋm was so near, now that the shadow of war lay above them, he couldn't help feeling a little bit of discomfort. He wanted to live. He wanted to do so much more: to see all the most important places of Khazad-dϋm, to descend to its depths, to feel its rocks under his fingers, to dig and explore, to mine ores, to feel the soul of that magnificent kingdom... and to be with Halldis. The thought of her warmed his heart.

But at the same time, he was determined. Khazad-dϋm was theirs. In all those long centuries since they had been banished from it, not one dwarf had ever stopped considering Khazad-dϋm their home. It always had the special place in their hearts, and all of them had dreamed of reclaiming it ever since.

Many centuries passed, and so many hadn't seen that dream come true. Despite the danger, Darri considered himself lucky for living in the time of King Durin VII, and for the fact that this quest happened in his lifetime. And if it was his fate to go to Mahal now, at least he'd go knowing that he had contributed to making a better future for their people.

He looked around. Faldur was next to him, and their father behind them; mother stayed in the camp. Observing them, he saw that they were equally determined as him – just like everyone else around them.

Mahal, lead our steps.

-x-x-x-

We climb. Every step carries us closer to the Eastern Gates. My heart is excited, and my hand squeezes the handle of the sword. Just a little bit more.

But before everything, before the final consultations and attack, I'll go to the shores of Kheled-zβram. Oh, how many times have I imagined coming here! I will stand next to the same shore as my distant ancestor – the very first one of my kin and of all our people – and I'll see the same surface and stars that he did. And if I send my thoughts across space and time, maybe he will be able, from his place in Mahal's halls, to see that I lead our people into reclaiming the ancient kingdom he had founded. After all, he and I are connected by a special bond, and I believe that he'll be able to feel my spirit. And I'm sure that the discovery that Khazad-dϋm will be ours again will bring great joy to him... and this time, it will be ours for as long as the Arda itself will exist.

One more step, and here I am, at the edge of the valley. I stopped. It is green and large. In front of us, in the west, slopes continue to rise, and between them there is a small river flowing into the lake, which occupies about one third of the valley. I watch it, and I am breathless.

The surface is completely still and dark-blue, almost the colour of the night, although light blue daytime sky is above us. Unreal, incredible, and special. There is no similar place in the whole Middle-earth.

I knew how it looked, I read about it, I listened to stories and dreamed of it many times. But even the most beautiful descriptions are one thing, and quite another is to see the scene with my own eyes.

The lake calls me, drags me towards it with irresistible strength. "Come, son of Durin," it tells me.

I am coming.

We'll be here from now on; everyone will have the chance to come near and see it; but I go first, this very moment. I signalled Nardi and the others to wait, and I go. But I am not alone; I hear steps right behind me. I am not surprised, and I smile. And I don't have to turn around to see who follows. I know. After all, Noin and Ernis are also Durin's children, and I believe that the call in their hearts is equally intense as the one in mine.

There is the old stony monument on the shore and I stand next to it. The whole upper part is broken off, and the elements did their part during millennia. The runes are almost completely erased, the inscriptions unreadable. But once all this is behind us, I'll renew it.

I close my eyes. So, this is the place where my distant ancestor first looked into the lake. Now I'll do it too.

I open my eyes and look... and I feel odd. As if the whole of Arda tremored for a moment and as if I am no longer in the present, but travelled through time to the day when he had stood here. As if I am no longer myself, but the first of the dwarves and I discover Khazad-dϋm.

I am Durin the First, and he is me.

The sun in the sky is the only thing reminding me that we are not in the age of the stars, but that I am in the much later age of sun and moon. Although the sky is light blue, the surface of the water is dark as if it is night and not day. And albeit there are no stars in the sky – the sun hides them with its glare – they are clearly visible on the surface of the lake.

Oh, how long have I waited for this moment! I stand next to this shore and see the same sight he saw thousands of years ago – he, the very first of all Mahal's children.

In the middle of the lake shine seven bright stars. The crown. Just like the one made and worn for a long time by my forefather, which is the symbol of our house. The brightest represents the top of the crown, and as my eyes follow the direction it shows, I am not surprised to discover that it points exactly towards the Eastern Gates – towards the entrance into Khazad-dϋm.

I feel the elation – the same that he must have felt at the first sight of the entrance. I watch the Eastern Gates and my heart flutters. True, I can't discern details, but only the outline of the two pillars and the arch above the entrance. Undoubtedly, the time has taken its toll on them too. But my mind sees much further than my eyes can; it has seen them in dreams... or are those memories? I know how they looked. And they will be renewed, they'll look just as they once did.

My gaze returns to the lake, and after one more look at the crown, I feel it is time to go. I blinked, and everything became clear again. My spirit is no longer intertwined with the spirit of my ancestor and I am in my own time. It is the twentieth day of the Ninth month, year 672 of the Fourth Age. The day in which we'll enter our home.

Only when the King turned his back to the lake to return to his army, he became aware of the presence of Noin and Ernis again; Kheled-zβram had completely seized his attention. When he looked the faces of his children – who looked like they had just woken up from deep sleep – he assumed that they had experienced the same as he had.

Coming back to his army, he saw Bofi and Ragir and the others who had gone on the last scouting mission. He quickly approached them and they sat on the ground all together, forming a circle: Durin, prince and princess, Nardi and a few more officers of the Guard, and the scouts. This was the time for the final plans. And right after that, for the action.

"Report," said the King briefly.

The Senior scouts exchanged glances, and the older of the two spoke first.

"There was no time for long searching. Nor for detailed observation. What we saw was in accordance with the last status. The one from three months ago. Orcs dwell on the First level and above it," said Bofi, in quick and succinct sentences as always.

That last information was known to them from before. Ever since the ancient times, Khazad-dϋm had been arranged in a way that residential units, shops, storerooms, workshops and big halls for social gatherings were situated in the caves from the First Level up. The First Level was named so because the main passage – the Main Road, as they called it – between western and eastern entrance passed through it. There were six more levels above it. On the opposite side – towards the depths – there were tunnels leading into the mines. Some went directly downwards, and some extended diagonally: the main deposits of mithril didn't lie here beneath Zirakzigil, but more to the north, beneath Barazinbar.

When he heard for the first time from his scouts that the orcs lived in the former houses of the dwarves, Durin's blood boiled. The thought that orcs presence polluted the homes of their ancestors maddened him. "But it is no surprise," the scouts told him, because it was logical that the orcs would use the easiest option, that is, use the houses already in existence. The mines were only a working space and they weren't really appropriate for everyday life. Durin couldn't wait for the moment when they'll clean up their homes from Morgoth's spawn.

"The bridge?" asked the King.

"Unchanged," answered Bofi.

The first missions, about fifteen years ago, revealed that the bridge, half-destroyed back in time of the War of the Ring, had been repaired: the orcs put scaffolding and panels over the abyss. At first, the King was very surprised by the fact that the orcs repaired anything; he linked only destruction with the name of that race. But then he realized that the reconstruction of the bridge was not only logical move, but absolutely necessary one. If the orcs hadn't repaired the bridge, they would have been cut off the outside world, and deprived of the possibility to find food in the forests on the mountain slopes.

"Illumination?" asked Durin further.

"The tunnel between the First and Second Hall unlit. Second Hall – two torches," came Bofi's reply.

Durin slowly nodded and lifted his head, observing the sun's position. It was mid-day, and as the beginning of the summer was only a few days away, they'd have plenty more hours of daylight – and enough time to accomplish all they planned for the start. The Eastern Gates were the direct entrance into the First Hall, and orcs didn't dwell in it during the day because of sunlight. He knew that the tunnel between the First and Second Hall was not very long – about a quarter of a mile – and that unlit passage would not represent a big difficulty. It was short enough, and they'd carry torches. After that, when they reach the hall, the plan was to toss them away into the chasm, because right after crossing the bridge they'd need both hands for carrying weapons and shields.

The two torches in the Second Hall would not give them much light. But anything is better than nothing, concluded Durin. The orcs were able to see better than dwarves, humans and elves in dark spaces, but not even they could see anything in the complete darkness. It meant that along different tunnels and in the halls there would surely be torches here and there, and that fact would ease their progress at least a little, once they occupied the Second Hall.

Once we occupy it, he sighed. Much easier said than done, he knew. When they come out of the tunnel into the Second Hall, the poor light would be the smallest of their problems. Yes, fire and smoke they'd use would make their entrance a little easier, but in the moment when they set foot into the hall the fire would already be extinguished, and the orcs would start to return quickly enough to sour their lives. Because, what awaited them only a few yards after the tunnel, was the Bridge of Khazad-dϋm – wide just enough for one person. It was a great defence and strategic advantage for the ones inside – for their ancestors who carved out a bridge like that with that particular purpose on their minds.

Was it not ironic that the creation of their ancestors was the one that complicated their conquering now? Because now his army was the invader trying to get in and defeat those inside. And they'd have to deal with the problem inflicted by none other than their forefathers.

"I thought a little more about the things that we had already talked about. We who go in first should all carry torches, and not just some of us," said Nardi, and Durin turned to him with a question in his eyes.

"Because of additional light?"

"Not only because of that," Nardi started explaining. "Also, we shouldn't throw away our torches into the chasm. As each of us crosses the bridge, he or she should hurl the torch forward, towards the orcs. There are several benefits we'll get by that. Many torches at once can briefly blind the orcs coming out from the tunnels, whose eyes are adapted to darker space. Some torches will land on them and distract them for a few moments. Some will fall in front of them and complicate their advance. All that I reccoment will not kill them, but will trouble them at least a little bit. Every moment in which we divert their attention from us, increases the chance that more of us cross the bridge."

The King nodded.

"That is a great idea," Durin said. They already had a lot of torches, but he then thought it wouldn't harm to prepare more so that they didn't run out. He turned to one of the Guardsmen who stood closest. "Garrdar, take as many soldiers you need, and let them start preparing more torches."

He didn't worry that they wouldn't make it in time; he knew that it would take at least one hour to prepare everything, which meant enough time for making more torches. He turned to his council again.

"The rock above the shaft over Second Hall?" asked Durin, remembering Thirkal's instructions.

"Moved," confirmed Thorfi. "The circulation will be enhanced."

The King nodded, satisfied, and looked at the two Senior scouts again.

"The status on the Seventh Level?" he asked seriously, knowing that so much depended on the news he'd hear next.

Ragir leaned a little forward and cleared his throat. This time he was the one to speak.

"That status is also unchanged," he said after a slight bow with his head. "The passage between the Chamber of Records on the Seventh Level and the Second Hall is still unlit so we can assume that the orcs don't use it. As soon as our army arrives at the entrance to the Chamber of Records it can start going in by using the ladders and at the same time we'll widen the opening so that we can enter faster, because it would be too slow to enter one by one."

Durin nodded; it was a relief to hear that the orcs didn't use the passage. While working on plans together with Nardi, Thirkal and other officers, they immediately concluded that they had to attack from two sides, pressuring the orcs from both lowest and highest level at the same time. The plan was to conquer hall by hall, level by level, and to push the orcs to smaller and smaller space. So they decided to enter both the First and Seventh Level simultaneously. Free passage between them meant that the part of the army could descend to the Second Hall from above, which would be a significant help for those crossing the narrow bridge.

"What?! We'll destroy the dome of the Chamber of Records?!" shouted Norik, the highest-ranked officer after Nardi. "That will surely be the destruction of the chamber itself, and the graves of our heroes are in it!" The tone of his voice clearly showed he thought the move was a sacrilege.

"We must. Ragir is right. Our advance would be much to slow if we entered one by one," replied the King. He wasn't happy about it either, but he was aware that it was a necessity. "One day both the chamber and the dome will be renewed, I promise."

Norik continued to frown, obviously still concerned about their heritage, but in the end he nodded. The King turned to Koddi, the officer assigned to lead the attack from the upper side.

"Altogether, we have about five thousand soldiers..." He paused and considered. "You will take a thousand." He thought it could be enough for the initial attack on the Seventh Level; he exchanged glance with Nardi, and the general nodded as a sign of agreement. Then Durin spoke to Koddi again. "Start your ascent right now. May Mahal lead your steps."

The officer quickly turned away and hurried to carry out the order, and Durin rose to his feet.

"We start. It is time to enter."

Darri observed the entrance into Khazad-dϋm. It was an extraordinary feeling to be in this place, and right now, he even forgot about the orcs and the fighting. While imagining the halls and the mines, a smile appeared on his face. One day, soon, our song will echo inside again...

Then he turned his head and looked at the lake, the most special feature in the surroundings. It was so strange to see the dark surface in the middle of the day, and he felt the impulse to come closer – just like the others felt too, as it seemed – because he saw that so many of them were approaching the shore. The desire in him grew and he thought he could go to the lake too; he heard the basic outlines of the plan, just as everyone else did, and he knew that the preparations would last at least an hour. The lake was near. There is surely enough time, isn't it?

But then he heard the sound of the horn used by the Guardsmen and noticed a few of them giving orders: they were directing all those standing nearby to form up. So soon? Darri exchanged glances with his brother and father, who also looked surprised.

"It is strange that we are going so soon," commented Faldur, looking around and trying to see better.

Darri did the same; as always, his height enabled him to have an easy overview. In the end, it turned out that the Guardsmen sorted out about a thousand fighters, and the front part of the column – the part closer to the upper slopes – had already started to ascend.

"We are splitting into two groups. We will be the company to attack the orcs on the Seventh Level," Darri heard the instructions in that moment; one Guardsman had just passed by and explained.

So, they were walking into imminent battle. He had wondered earlier when his time for action would come, because not all five thousand could enter at the same time. Now he got the answer; it seemed his moment had arrived sooner than expected.

-x-x-x-

About half an hour later, when all the last details of the plan were arranged, Durin led the army towards the Eastern Gates. As every next step reduced the distance to it, his heart beat stronger. Step by step, foot by foot... he was closer and closer. When he almost reached the entrance, he cast a glance towards the other column which had set off a little earlier and climbed towards the Seventh Level; Koddi had obviously set a quick pace because they had already crossed more than half of their way. Then he looked into the rectangular opening in the mountain. There were two round pillars, one at each side, and above the entrance there was a stony arch. It turned out that his presumption was correct; just like Durin's stone next to the lake, the Gates were damaged too: there were many cracks in the pillars, and a part of the arch was missing.

Another creation of our ancestors that I'll renew, he made a silent promise.

In front of him, there was now the entrance into the kingdom his distant ancestor founded more than eight thousand years ago. It wasn't easy to comprehend all those long eons; it seemed to him that, if he started to count all the changes that had happened in those millennia, he wouldn't stop till nightfall. The entire continents were modified or disappeared from Arda, and even Arda itself changed its shape. But one thing never changed: Khazad-dϋm had been here all the time.

It is here, and waiting for us. Getting ready to go in, he again felt the presence of his ancestor's spirit. I will not let you down. Our old home will be ours again.

And then came the moment: he was right between the two pillars. After the next step, he'd be inside. He stopped here and lifted his head towards the ancient stone forming the arch, chiselled all those millennia ago by the hands of his people, and shuddered for a moment. Noin and Ernis, walking right after him and equally impatient to enter, almost bumped into his back when he stopped. Then Durin looked into the big hall, moved his foot and made the step.

The first dwarf to set foot into Khazad-dϋm after Balin son of Fundin, hero of the War of Erebor, and Gimli son of Glσin, hero of the War of the Ring. Balin's company managed to conquer some halls and parts of the mines, and he briefly carried the title Lord of Khazad-dϋm, while Gimli only passed through it; back then, the moment to reclaim this kingdom was just not right yet.

But it is now. I am here to stay, thought Durin while slowly walking through the First Hall. His heart grew in his chest, and for a moment he thought it would burst of emotions swirling in him. He didn't hurry; he observed the walls and the ceiling, and imagined how the place looked like while full of dwarves.

And then he reached the end of the hall – where the tunnel towards the Second Hall started. He turned and saw that everyone entered too; behind Noin and Ernis there were his Guardsmen, carrying bundles of wood. The King moved aside to make some space in front of the tunnel and gave the sign.

"Start the fire."

The wood was piled into the first several meters of the tunnel, and soon they achieved their goal: in the beginning of the tunnel leading from the First towards the Second Hall a fire burned. A few soldiers remained close, ready to add more logs if necessary. The wood was wet and produced a lot of smoke – just as they wanted.

As their ancestors learned many thousands of years ago, smoke always lifted upwards; the shafts helped venting and drew the smoke away from the interior. Now the smoke started to spread through the tunnel. The King knew that it would fill the Second Hall, from which it would lift upwards through the shaft. Removing the rock above it meant better flow of the smoke – which also meant that the hall would be so full of it that it would be impossible to remain in it.

The fact that the First Hall was empty when they entered was expected; daylight was no friend to the orcs. But the darkness of the tunnel could hide orc-guards, and even more of them could be in the Second Hall, waiting for them. This move – filling the tunnel and the Second Hall with smoke – would chase away the orcs further away from the hall, into the other tunnels. In the end, the dwarves would have to extinguish the fire and the smoke would start to dissipate, but they'd have some few valuable moments before the orcs started to return.

Now they had to wait a while. The King moved a few steps back, further from the fire, as did the others. Not because of the smoke, of course – it spread to the opposite side, into the tunnel – but it became too hot to stand close to the fire.

He observed the flickering reddish flames and waited. His hand rested on the handle of his sword.

The moment, about half an hour later, in which he got the message about the smoke coming out of the shaft, came both quickly and slowly. Quickly – because what was a half of an hour compared to twenty years of preparing and three weeks of travelling? Slowly – because now that he was finally here, he just couldn't wait to start the action.

"Light the torches and wet your masks!" he ordered.

For the dwarves, to be able to go into the tunnel and then into the hall, the fire had to be put out. Just like the orcs had to withdraw from the smoke, the dwarves wouldn't be able to go there while it was still very smoky, either. But they planned to start the first charge while the smoke didn't disperse fully – while the orcs still didn't realize what was going on, and before they started to return. So the dwarves prepared the masks: in fact, they were nothing but fine semi-transparent fabric/cloth, wetted just before the charge, which would ease their breathing in the still hot and smoky space. It was quite simple to put them over their helmets, and it would be even more simple to throw them away once inside the Second Hall.

Durin cast a last glance over his gear – the armour, shield, weapons. Everything was in its place. He took the first step towards the tunnel while the fire was still burning, impatient to set out. But in that moment, Nardi blocked his way. The big dwarf stood in front of him and crossed his arms, standing his ground solid as a rock.

"Your Highness, you mustn't go in first."

Nardi didn't raise his voice, but Durin had never heard such a tone from his general before. So calm, and yet, so firm and commanding. But at the same time, he knew that nothing would stop him. He gave Nardi a cold look.

"The blood of Durin Deathless flows through my veins. This quest is my fate. I was the first to enter into this hall, and I'll be the first in the next one too."

Nardi didn't seem impressed, and returned an even colder look.

"There is a law that hasn't been applied for centuries, because there was no need for it. Maybe that is why you forgot about it, Highness. But the law says that, in case of a direct threat to the King's life, the general of the Guard takes over the command, and his main task is to preserve the King's life."

Durin clenched his fists, his anger starting to rise. In this moment, he couldn't care less for the old laws.

"If I stayed behind, if I didn't lead our army in this war, I could never look myself in the eyes anymore." He paused, in order to emphasize his next words. "I go first."

Nardi lifted his head and put his hands on his hips, appearing even bigger and wider than usually.

"Not while I'm the general," he responded.

They looked at each other for several seconds. The air around them became even more heated than near the fire, and lightening flashed from their eyes. The King was furious; how did Nardi allow himself to talk that way? He was just about to turn to other Guardsmen nearby and to give the order to dismiss the general from his rank. But then he noticed that Nardi's expression softened, and only worry remained on his face. Nardi came close to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Your Highness... Durin." His voice changed and now it was soft and pleading. "If something happened to you, I could never forgive myself. To use your own words, I could never look myself in the eyes again if I didn't do all that my duty requires." He stopped for a moment, as if searching for words, but he soon continued. "You are too precious for us. No matter your strength, lineage or destiny, you cannot know what will happen inside. Crossing the bridge and the battle following it will be very, very dangerous. And the loss of the King, especially at the very beginning, wouldn't be good for the fighting morale of the people." Nardi paused again and looked in his eyes. "Durin, you have to think of our whole people. You have to think about the final goal – about reclaiming this place and creating a new home for all of them – males, females, the old, the children. If you die, everything might come under question. Please, don't think only of yourself. Think of all those who call you their King."

Durin observed him for a while. He could understand Nardi's standpoint, and his anger dampened. His general had good intentions, and Durin realized it was Nardi's worry and feeling of friendship talking a little while ago, when wanting to stop him. No, he wouldn't depose him. But he would go first. He had to go first.

"It is because I think of our people that I have to be the first. Tell me, my friend, what kind of a king would I be in the eyes of our soldiers and people, if I asked them to risk their lives for me while I was hiding somewhere far away, in safety? Do you think I could look my ancestors in the eyes, one day when I come to Mahal's halls?" Now his voice became softer too. "I am not a master who is pulling strings from behind. I am the leader sharing the fate of his people. Even if something happens to me, I am convinced that everything will end well. The war will be won." He didn't have the slightest doubt about it; the numbers were on their side. "My heirs remain behind me. If necessary, they will do an equally good job as I would myself, and the people won't be leaderless." He stopped, and his lips curved into a hint of a smile. "You are about my age, which means you could live for many more decades. But if your life had to be ended ahead of time, do you not think that trying to conquer Khazad-dϋm would be the best way to go?"

He looked at Nardi and saw the moment in which he recognized his defeat, because he realized what Durin's next question would be. The question that didn't have to be spoken aloud.

"Yes, I think the same for me too," he said and nodded. "I'll go first. And then... you'll be with me." His smile became wider now, and he inserted the challenge in his voice. "You can try to do your duty by trying to kill more orcs than me. Don't forget to count. The loser must sing a song in front of everyone, at the final celebration."

Though, knowing the combat skill of his general and multiplying it with his strength and shoulder-width, he knew in advance that he'd lose the duel. And he knew that the whole people would laugh, because his singing sounded worse than orc-howling.

Nardi couldn't withhold his sigh.

"So, you'll enter first, Highness... may you have that pleasure. But count on the fact that I'll soon outrun you. And thereafter I'll be in front of you."

"Don't forget to count," repeated Durin, and then they both turned towards the entrance into the tunnel. The fire had just been extinguished, but it was still quite smoky; it was just the perfect moment. Someone put the torch in his hand, and he used the other to put the wet mask over his helmet. He entered the tunnel and started to run.

The war to reclaim Khazad-dϋm was just beginning.

Holding a torch in his hand, Durin entered the tunnel. After only a few steps he realized that this was actually advancing blindly; in the tunnel still partially filled with smoke the torch was of no particular use. The fabric of the mask was semi-transparent, true, but that description could be applied only for a space well lit, and not for the dark tunnel. The visibility was very poor and he had to stretch his other arm in front of himself as a protection – not to hit the walls of the tunnel while running.

Despite the mask, the smoke started to irritate his lungs. While trying to catch some air, his forehead got beaded with sweat, and it felt as if his gear suddenly became twice as heavy. Even if this was a slow walk, it wouldn't be easy – and he had to run. A quarter of a mile, which was the length of the tunnel, seemed endlessly long.

And then he finally noticed that the blackness became just a little brighter, and after a few more steps the tunnel walls pulled away from him. He entered the Second Hall and quickly threw away the mask.

From the old records, he knew that it was about fifty feet wide and almost one hundred and seventy feet long, but because of the remaining smoke and poor illumination he could see only about the half of that length. Just as the scouts had said, there were two torches – one at each longer wall, and the dark openings in the walls were the tunnels leading to other caves.

Upon coming out of the tunnel, there was about ten feet before the bridge, and the bridge itself was about twenty-five feet long. The half on his side was the original stony bridge; the farther part of the abyss was crossed by scaffolding and panels.

Knowing he mustn't waste a single moment – because the hall was still empty, the orcs hadn't started to return yet – this time he didn't stop to admire the hall or the elegant arch of the bridge. The right time for that would be some day in the future; certainly not now. He rushed over the bridge.

It was only about three feet wide and it was quite awkward to run over it. The black chasm around him made him nervous and Durin quickly moved his gaze from the abyss to the other side of the bridge, to his target destination. After a few more steps he was on the other side, and he continued running towards the middle of the hall.

The clumping of heavy boots right behind him meant that Nardi was very close to him, and the others were coming too. As each of them arrived, he or she took their place in the shield-wall. But then came the end to their undisturbed crossing of the bridge. From side tunnels and from the tunnel on the opposite side – the one leading towards the east through the mountain – they first heard growls, and then the orcs swarmed into the hall.

"Throw the torches!" shouted Nardi, and in the next moment the torches of those dwarves who had already crossed the bridge flew towards the orcs. They landed on them and in front of them.

A few gained seconds. A few more soldiers crossed the bridge. A few more shields filled their position in the wall.

"Throw the spikes!" echoed the next order.

Durin could well remember the day when, a few months ago, Nardi and one of the blacksmiths working for his Guard approached him. The blacksmith had a perfect idea, and at the same time very simple and easily feasible.

"Two thin sharp spikes, about one inch in length, and both of them bent at the right angle in their middle. Welded to each other in the central flexion. When you throw such an item on the ground, however it lands, at least one of the four points will always be directed upwards. Very inconvenient for the person stepping on it," the smith explained. Durin was delighted.

Said, done. There was more than enough time to produce as many as they needed, and by the start of their journey, they had quite a big quantity of these useful items. There was also enough time to prepare one more thing. All the soldiers wore boots with double soles; they wouldn't have problems walking over the spikes.

Small, thin spikes flying through the air were not visible in the dim light of the hall. But a few moments later chinking was heard when they landed on the stone floor, and painful cries and orcs slowing down meant that the small weapon obtained the big results.

More gained seconds. More shields arriving to the wall.

Durin then felt the not so gentle jolting from his right and found himself pushed back to the interior of the formation, and the armoured giant – his Guard general – filled his field of view. But there was no time to protest or to push forward again. In that moment some of the orcs managed to pass over the torches and spikes. The battle began. Sounds of swords and axes clashing filled the air.

-x-x-x-

The pace was quick, and when they climbed to the entrance into the Seventh Level, Darri was quite breathless. After stopping, he turned and looked around. From this height, a thousand feet higher than the Eastern Gates, new sights opened up to him. Lorien wood – huge, lush and brilliant-green – extended on the big area towards south-east, and further south there was a wide vast plain.

When he looked down, towards where they came from, he saw his compatriots around the Eastern Gates; from this distance, they were just tiny spots. A little further from them, Kheled-zβram looked so beautiful with its dark-blue colour. His gaze followed Kibil-nβla, from the lake and downwards; the little river flew among the slopes and disappeared from his sight into Lothlorien. Next to it, halfway between the plain and the lake, there was a plateau where women and children temporarily remained.

He looked that way for a few moments and sent silent greetings to his mother and Halldis, but there was no more time for thinking or enjoying the panorama. He turned back towards the most important place for them – to the entrance into the Chamber of Records.

The entrance was narrow – wide enough for only one dwarf. That would mean too slow advance, and pickaxes had already been busily working. The opening was quickly widened, so they installed ladders and started to go in. Darri observed how the others descended and disappeared from his side, and as they slowly moved forward, soon came his turn to enter. Coming down, he found himself in a relatively small square chamber; he judged that the walls were not longer than fifteen feet. Faldur and Brirvin descended right after him, and the chamber was almost full. Two of the Guardsmen directed the soldiers coming down the ladders: most were sent into the passage towards the First Level, and part of them remained in the Chamber of Records.

After coming from bright daylight, it took Darri's eyes a few moments to adapt to the somewhat darker place, and then he noticed that almost all of the inscriptions and images, chiselled and decorated several thousand years ago, were ruined. But about one third of one wall was completely different – it was a different colour and was made of different sort of stone, obviously very new and quite evidently raised for protection and not to represent a decoration. The deed of Gimli son of Glσin, hero of the War of the Ring, who came here after the war to protect the chamber and restore the grave, he reminded himself*. He moved a little bit towards the middle of the chamber and looked over the heads of the others. There was a white stone sarcophagus. Balin's grave. Next to it was one more, the one in which Gimli and his assistants laid the bones of the others who had died here.*

You will be avenged now, he sent a silent thought to his long-ago dead compatriots.

And then the voice of one Guard-officer startled him from his thoughts.

"Our task is to conquer the Twenty-first Hall. It will become our base to continue conquering the passages and caves of this levels, and after that, for our advancement towards the Sixth level."

"Are there any more levels above us?" somebody asked.

"No," replied the officer. "All the tunnels spreading from the Twenty-first Hall go either horizontally – towards the other caves of this level – or down. This is the only big hall of the Seventh Level. The other caves are somewhat smaller and they served as housing-units, and there aren't many of them. When we occupy the Twenty-first, it will be a big step to occupying the whole level."

"Fight as fierce as you can!" added another officer, lifting his axe. "For the King, for our people, for our ancestors, for Khazad-dϋm!"

Many shouts responded, and Darri realized he was shouting with the others. Then he heard the loud booming that seemed to have shaken the whole chamber, and then another. Heavy hammers started hitting the new part of the wall, and it didn't last for a long time. In front of them opened the passage into the Twenty-first hall.

"May Mahal be with us," said Brirvin in a low voice, observing his sons.

Darri nodded.

"May Mahal be with us," he and Faldur repeated in unison.

-x-x-x-

* References to my story "The Last Visit to Moria".

Attack, blow, defence, blow... and again and again, in different order. Stony floor was soon slippery with blood. Durin was focused on the battle and all he thought of was the next move. For dwarves, this phase was a race with time. Orcs were releasing arrows from the background of the hall towards the bridge, trying to bring down the dwarves crossing it. The dwarves fought with all their strength to advance as much as they could in the shortest time possible – to push back the orcs and save the lives of those crossing the bridge.

Attack, strike, defence, block.

Orcs weren't the only ones using bows; the Guardsmen had them too. Some of them positioned themselves left and right of the tunnel exit – before the bridge – and from there they were shooting the orcs on the other side of the hall, over their own troops. Torches of the dwarves kept on landing on the orcs, as well as specially prepared projectiles – cloth-balls impregnated with oil and lit a few moments before throwing. As they were falling down on the orcs, the fire caught their clothes and panic spread among them. Each orc cut down by sword or axe or hit by an arrow, each orc distracted in any way, meant that one more dwarf could cross the bridge. Meant a new inch of conquered space. The dwarves were achieving their intentions and were slowly progressing.

But the orcs fought as hard as they could, knowing that, in the moment of losing the Second Hall, the entrance into the mountain would be wide open and that the dwarves would keep coming in more and more. Despair made them fight even more vigorously. The battle raged on.

-x-x-x-

The clamour from the Chamber of Records announced presence of the dwarves, so when they rushed into the Twenty-first Hall, the enemies already waited, ready to fight. Just like the Second Hall, this one was also lit by torches, but there was no time to look around and to admire the black walls, polished and smooth as glass, or the many mighty pillars, or the arc of the roof*. As soon as he was in the hall, Darri lifted his shield and sword and charged against the nearest orc.

He had been learning and training for about fifteen years. He was tall and strong, and his movements were quick and nimble. After so many years of practice, the muscles knew all the moves and he almost didn't have to think what to do. His body moved fluidly from one movement to another.

But this was something completely different from the training. This was unpredictable. Now, he had to improvise. Here, he had to fight two opponents at once. Or three. Here, the mistakes were fatal.

Soon he didn't know any more where his father and brother were. All around echoed sounds of steel clashing. Blows. Cries. Rattles of the dying.

He whirled with his sword, trying to cut down the orcs, and trying to stay alive.

-x-x-x-

The afternoon slowly advanced, and the sun sank behind the Misty Mountains. Halldis sat on the ground, leaning on her backpack. A little while ago she heard a call to all the women who didn't have to stay in this camp because of caring for small children or for other reasons. They were summoned to climb to the camp near Kheled-zβram tomorrow morning, and to help the army and the healers.

She was actually very impatient to go there; apart from the fact that idly sitting was unbearable, she hoped that – once closer to the centre of the events – she would occasionally see her family and friends in their moments of respite. That thought gave her some comfort.

She observed the slopes above their plateau. She couldn't see the valley where the lake was nor the Eastern Gates – they were hidden from view from her position. But she thought about them. Our soldiers are entering just now. She shuddered. What happened so far? How much did they progress? How many casualties by now?

She wasn't the only one looking upwards – she noticed that many other girls and older women did the same. Up there in the mountain were those they loved. The ones they feared for.

She wondered how she'd fall asleep that night.

-x-x-x-

Durin took advantage of the split-second in which there were no orcs near him and he cast a quick glance around. But in the dim light, in the chaos of movement and entangled figures, there was no chance to spot those he wanted to see. He didn't know where his children were nor if they were all right. He only knew that earlier, while still in the tunnel, they had been relatively close to him, but he hadn't seen them since the battle had started. He sent a silent prayer to Mahal to take care of them, and then looked at Nardi who fought next to him.

"We have to advance faster!" shouted Durin. They slowly pushed the orcs towards the tunnels, but they still held on. Just like new dwarves were coming over the bridge, so the new orcs were coming from the tunnels and took the places of those who had fallen.

In that moment another orc attacked him. The orc was tall and sturdy, and quite agile for his height. Durin found himself in an inferior position and it wasn't easy to fend off the fast and powerful blows. The yellow eyes shone with hatred, and a victorious grin appeared on his grotesque face when he drove his opponent to retreat. The orc lifted his arm to deal the next blow – the fatal one.

But he stopped in the middle of the movement. His grin froze and the glare in his eyes quenched, as he was cut down by the opponent he hadn't even seen. Nardi gave Durin a quick glance to be sure that everything was all right with him, and then turned to the next orc.

"Baruk Khazβd! Khazβd ai-mκnu!" roared the general's battle cry, louder even than battle noise around him. He threw himself forward, and his call motivated everyone around him. They found new strength in themselves; the dwarvish formation moved into another charge, and the orcs lost some more space.

And then Durin noticed that more burning projectiles started to fall on the orcs – but now, they were not only thrown from behind his back, but also from his right side. The Dwarvish forces which entered the Chamber of Records finally descended through the passage connecting the First and the Seventh Level, and now entered the Second Hall. The dwarves were entering through the tunnel closest to the bridge and the chasm, and now attacked the orcs moving along the northern wall. The orcs were now under attack from two sides.

Durin rushed forward with newly found strength. The victory is ours now!!!

"Charge!!!" he shouted.

And they advanced – foot by foot, yard by yard. Some of them fell, but there were so many more casualties among the orcs. And finally, a little later, they pushed the orcs to the end of the hall. When they realized they didn't have a single inch of space left, those few remaining didn't try to fight any more but turned around and escaped into the tunnels.

The Second Hall was conquered.

-x-x-x-

* "...and for a second they saw a vast roof far above their heads upheld by many mighty pillars hewn of stone. Before them and on either side stretched a huge empty hall; its black walls, polished and smooth as glass, flashed and glittered." (FotR, A Journey in the Dark)

As soon as the battle finished and the hall was conquered, Durin could think of only one thing.

"Noin! Ernis!"

He walked in haste from one person to another, looking for his son and daughter. He watched only those standing and walking through the hall, and didn't want to look at the faces of the fallen; he refused the very thought of it.

"Noin! Ernis!" he shouted again. Then, somewhere near the middle of the hall, he noticed someone waving to him. Noin. He breathed a sigh of relief and silently thanked Mahal. He hugged his son, quickly and somewhat clumsily – because both were too armoured for the real hug. But his search was only half-finished, and they continued to look for Ernis together.

But she wasn't among those standing around them. And they didn't find her even after passing the bigger part of the hall.

It mustn't be true...

They already reached the abyss and the bridge, but they still didn't see her. Durin looked around feverishly, still not wanting to search among the bodies on the ground. He was just about to start anew, hoping that they had only missed each other, when...

"Stich me up in any way you can, I have to be on my feet and ready to fight as soon as possible! Preferably tomorrow!"

...when he heard the most beautiful news.

The voice of his daughter, though, didn't sound beautiful, but like growling.

She wasn't standing – that was why they hadn't noticed her before. She was sitting on the stone floor, her back leaning on the wall of the hall. One dwarf kneeled next to her, bandaging her left thigh.

"Ernis!" Durin exclaimed and approached her quickly, Noin right behind him.

"I am all right, don't worry!" she shouted. "As for me, I want to go to the battle as soon as possible. I will be ready, I promise, count on me! Oh, dirty orc scum, he hit my leg while falling. But that was the last thing he did!" she said through gritted teeth. Her eyes were resolute to fulfil her promise.

Durin's face remained serious, but he smiled inside; in that moment, she reminded him of the little girl who had been decisive ever since her earliest days not to be any inferior than her brother.

"You can't go to battle, Highness, your muscle is cut through," replied the healer in a low voice, while continuing to put the bandage around her leg. "This wound is deeper than you admit. You must not put any weight on this leg. You are forbidden to walk."

"But... but... I have to be ready! I have to be fit to fight!"

Durin squatted on her other side and exchanged a quick glance with the healer, whose eyes and just a slight shake of his head told him all he needed to know.

"You gave your contribution. Now you have to listen to the healer," he said. The King's voice was stern; at the same time, the father's heart was so relieved that the wound was in the leg and not in vital organs.

"But I want to contribute more!" she protested. She moved a little bit and it seemed as if she tried to get up, but in the very next moment her face winced in pain. But right after that she clenched her teeth and regained a normal expression.

Her determination was a trait to be proud of, but there was only one way to end this.

"Soldier! Do I really need to repeat?"

She opened her mouth as if to object, but then closed them. She sat a few moments with her head cast down.

"No. I understand," she said in a low voice.

He nodded, satisfied, and carefully observed her. She removed her helmet, and although it was difficult to be sure in the dim light, it seemed that her brow was beaded with sweat and that she was quite pale. If the cut was deep, it surely hurt. But he knew his daughter, and he knew that what hurt her most was the fact that she couldn't fight any more.

"I feel like I let you down," said Ernis, watching both of them. Her voice was full of remorse now. "I killed only two, and I already have to withdraw. And we are still in the beginning."

"And by killing them, you saved the lives of our soldiers whom those two would kill, if it hadn't been for you," replied Durin, and now his voice was softer too. "You made your contribution and you didn't let anybody down."

Then he stood up. There was so much more he had to do, and it couldn't be delayed any more.

"The Second Hall will be our main base for now," said Durin in the official tone, and he saw her expression change. A daughter vanished, and in her place appeared the princess who carefully listened what the King had to say.

"You know that Loni is in charge of the supply-chain of food, water, weapons, medicaments and everything else for the troops that would progress towards the interior. You will be the head of the messenger-service, sort our messages and pass them over to him. Together, you will solve all the problems that might appear. If something happens which you can't deal with, you will inform me. Everything clear?"

"Yes. Consider it settled, my King," she said seriously and equally official as him, and nodded. "May Mahal watch over you."

He nodded back, and Noin did too. He knew that Ernis would do a good job, and what was also important, she wouldn't feel useless. Then he turned and went to find Nardi.

In the meantime, the cleaning of the hall had already started. For the bodies of the orcs they applied the simplest solution – they were thrown into the chasm, where they'd turn into dust. The fallen dwarves would be buried in the ancient graveyard near the lake*, with full honours.

Durin found Nardi talking to one of the officers. Having seen the King, the general immediately approached him. He looked very self-satisfied.

"I am on thirteen. In fact, maybe it is even one or two more, but it was more important to focus on the battle than on counting. So I state only that of which I'm certain." His voice was even more self-satisfied than his facial expression.

And he had every right to be; of course, he lead in their duel.

"Don't celebrate too early. If necessary, I'll imprison you so that you can't progress anymore and the winner will be me." He watched Nardi seemingly sternly for a few more moments, but then he burst into laughter – which in fact was releasing the tension after the battle and after the search for his children. Now, knowing they were fine, he could allow himself to laugh.

But he soon became serious again, and Nardi did too.

"We mustn't stop and let the orcs catch their breath," the sturdy dwarf said soberly. "I sent the message outside, that more soldiers should start entering as quickly as possible. We will go on cleaning passages and conquering the Third Hall and other caves of this level.

Durin nodded. He had the scheme of the tunnels and halls in his head and he didn't need a paper-map to visualize the surroundings. All the lateral passages leading further from the Second Hall – except for the one towards the Seventh Level – stretched horizontally, towards the caves containing houses, workshops and shops. The tunnel on the opposite side of the bridge lead towards the Third Hall. This level had two more big halls – named the Fourth and the Fifth. The passages stretching towards the mines in the depths were situated even further away, after the Fifth Hall.

In that moment more dwarves began to arrive from the tunnel, just as Nardi announced, and they started to cross the bridge.

"Excellent. Now each officer can take over his squad and lead them to battles for the other caves, just as we arranged," said Durin and nodded. All that they could plan earlier, they did so; he knew that important things shouldn't be improvised in the very last moment.

Durin then cast a glance around. The busiest ones were now the healers, while those in charge of transporting the fallen unfortunately also had work to do.

"I assume that it is still too early for the numbers of the wounded and killed?" he asked.

"It is. But I will know soon."

Then they heard the new voice.

"Your Highness."

It was Loni. The supply-chief had just approached them, and Durin turned towards him.

"The scaffolding is here. It will be installed very soon."

"Well done, Loni," said the King.

While planning, they had briefly considered the possibility of installing scaffolding even before the battle, to get the greater width of the bridge and, in that way, to get the greater number of fighters into the hall in the very beginning. But they dismissed the idea very quickly because there wouldn't be enough time for that; they knew that the orcs would return to the hall very soon, which in reality did happen. Even if they had tried, they wouldn't have made it.

But now the bridge would be expanded and their army would enter faster. Hundreds of soldiers would soon start the battles of conquering the other caves of this level.

"We go forward," said Durin decisively.

Nardi came a step closer to him.

"I remain your shadow, my King. Next to you, behind you, and in front of you."

-x-x-x-

* I didn't find any Tolkien's record about the graveyard, but the dwarves have lived in Khazad-dϋm for thousands of years, so it is logical that they had to have a graveyard. As the lake is a very special place for them, I thought that the meadows above the lake could be a well-suited site for the last resting place of their deceased.

Darri wasn't aware of anything but the battle – the outside world didn't exist at the moment. All he saw were the opponents in front of him, and he focused on how to overpower them.

There were many orcs, and more than once he avoided the fatal blow by a hair's breadth. Several times he was saved in the last moment by a comrade next to him – and several times he saved the others. The anonymous brothers in arms. But he didn't know where his brother and father were, nor if they were alive.

More dwarves arrived from the Chamber of Records; from the opposite tunnel more orcs arrived. The battle raged in full intensity. The clatter of clashing steel was ear-deafening. The floor was covered with blood and bodies, and the air stank of death.

His muscles were exerted to their limits. It was hot, and the chain-mail became heavier. Sweat poured into his eyes. But stopping was not an option. He had to give his maximum – and more than that. If he faltered, more space would open for the enemies. So he continued to fight with all his strength, as did the others around him.

In this battle, too, the dwarves used all the assets they could prepare, so the orcs were under volleys of flaming projectiles here also. Finally, after lots of efforts, once the dwarves managed to reach the middle of the hall, the progress became just a little quicker: as the orcs had less and less space, there remained fewer and fewer of them. And in the end, the Twenty-first hall was conquered.

"All those who were here from the beginning and fought for the whole time, now have a short break," Darri heard the voice of the commanding officer. "You will be summoned for the next battle in an hour."

Darri paid no attention to the new squads entering and going further to continue fighting in the other caves of this level, but hastily started pushing and shoving between those who remained in the Twenty-first Hall. A step to the left, a step to the right, a quick glance behind one pillar, then behind another. The hall was crowded and he had a feeling that he didn't move a single inch, that he wasn't managing to progress at all. The seconds suddenly became unbearably long. And then, behind the next pillar, he saw Faldur kneeling next to one body. And he didn't have to ask anything; his brother's face told him everything.

As if sensing his approach, Faldur lifted his head and their gazes met. His brother suddenly looked much older to him, and his eyes were immensely sad. Darri knelt next to him.

His first memories, those from his earliest childhood, flashed through his mind. He remembered sitting next to his father and listening to old tales, then descending with his father into the depths of Erebor for the first time, and then all their mining campaigns together... He was kneeling, while images and memories were passing in front of his eyes. He put a hand on his father's chest, and then he knew. This was reality. He wouldn't close his eyes, open them again and find himself a few moments in the past; he wouldn't peer behind the pillar again and discover that everything was all right. His father was dead. He would never again talk to him in this world... and so much more wouldn't happen for his father anymore.

"He will never descend into the mines of Khazad-dϋm," said Darri with a hollow voice. He knew very well how much their father had wanted to do it.

Faldur was silent for a few moments, and then looked at him.

"We split very soon after the beginning... and I wasn't able to find him later. If I had been close, maybe..." He didn't finish the sentence. His eyes were full of pain.

Darri laid his hand on brother's shoulder.

"Do not think that way. In that version of the events, maybe you would be the one to die," he said softly. Then he looked at father's body. He'll never open his eyes again. The thought hurt so much.

But he remembered the resolution he so often saw in these eyes. And he knew one thing with absolute certainty. Even if their father had been able to somehow see the future and to see that he would die – he would have gone on this quest anyway. Because he wanted to contribute to their fight – no matter how small the contribution of one person was. Because he wanted to do something for the future of their people. Because he thought it was the right thing to do.

"He was a great role-model," said Darri in a low voice.

"He has taught me everything I know..."

"He is on his way to Mahal's halls now. Mahal will know about his deeds, and he'll know for the bravery of all of them..." Darri moved his hand in an arc, as if trying to encompass the whole space and all the dwarves who fell. "...and they will surely get a special place in his halls."

Faldur slowly nodded. "He will. Yes, he will," he said, his voice trembling.

"One day we'll meet again. And then we'll tell him about the mines of Khazad-dϋm," said Darri, gently squeezing his brother's shoulder. Their eyes met, and although sorrow ravaged him, he tried not to think of the present moment and of the fact that he wouldn't see his father in this world anymore, but of the encounter in the future. One day, we'll all be together again. And he saw in his brother's eyes that his words achieved his goal, and that Faldur was thinking the same thing.

Then the words of the old poem came out of him by themselves, without his conscious intention.

"Far are the halls of Mahal,
too distant for me to reach.
For I am forever bound to this world,

my spirit wandering around Arda.
And I shall remain on this journey

until the end of my days,
but my soul ever longing

for the halls beyond
."

In that moment he stopped and closed his eyes, and Faldur continued.

"But the journey will end one day,
my home I will see again,
hidden in the depths most beautiful.

There, brother shall meet brother once more,
one soul finding another,

making together our song forever on
."

With a heavy sigh, Darri opened his eyes and became aware of the persons and events in the hall again. Incoming soldiers moved through the middle part of the hall, going to new battles, while the healers used the lateral space and started helping the wounded. Two dwarves carrying the stretchers – quite obviously those in charge of transporting the fallen – approached them. They nodded as a sign of giving condolences, and then one of them spoke.

"Our heroes will be buried in the ancient graveyard with all honours. They will rest next to our ancestors."

Darri tilted his head, thinking. To go to Mahal after fighting for reclaiming Khazad-dϋm, and to be buried in the old graveyard with all those who created that kingdom... He nodded. Brirvin would be very satisfied.

He slowly got up onto his feet – feeling weariness and weight much greater than those caused by battle alone – and Faldur rose next to him. Those two dwarves carefully put their father's body on the stretcher and then left towards the Chamber of Records. Darri's gaze followed them.

I wish we had more time together here on Arda, father... you'll be missed.

His throat was tight, his vision blurred.

Farewell... till we meet again.

Personal diary of King Durin VII
Day 21st of the Ninth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

It is night-time; the new day has just begun. We entered our home in the afternoon, and now it could be one or two hours past midnight. In the beginning of the night we conquered the Third Hall, in which I'm now writing these lines.

While I write this, the battles for the tunnels and other caves continue. The new fighters keep coming from the outside – the fresh troops that haven't even fought yet, and they replace those who became tired.

A little while ago I received the news that the whole Seventh Level is in our hands. Only one big hall is there – the Twenty-first – and also, other caves are only few. Going upwards, each next level is somewhat smaller. It will take a lot more time, effort and blood to conquer the First Level. However, although the Seventh is not big, I don't want to say that their success is insignificant. To have one whole level in our hands is a big thing. It means less orcs and less space for them.

Yes, there will be more blood and more lives lost. According to the newest report, from a quarter of an hour ago, we lost seventy-eight soldiers, and more are wounded. Seventy-eight lives ended, and behind them remain those who grieve.

I grieve for all of them. All those who fell and all those who will yet fall – will never be forgotten.

Twenty-one days ago I wrote the last entry in my diary in Erebor. This is the first one I write in Khazad-dϋm. The first of many, I hope.

D.

-x-x-x-

"We won't be able to win them. They very good and better armoured, curse them."

"I know. I seen. And their steel's better than our. And there's a lot o' them."

"We gonna hold on for a while. But we'll lose cave by cave."

"Yes. In just few hours they already won a lot."

"And what we gonna do now?"

Pause.

"We stay and we fight as much as we can. And we try to kill as many o' them as we can."

"We gonna lose."

"Yes we are. But we gonna buy time."

"Eh?"

"Send females and children to start runnin' right now through the tunnel to the west."

"What? How?"

"While we fight, they get time to escape."

Pause.

"A-ha. You know what? Your idea so good. But where are they go then?"

"They go north. There are some clever females among them. They can lead the others. Far north at Angmar there are some nicey caves. There is so few hoomans, and there is no filthy elfses at all. There they gonna live in peace and nobody gonna touch them."

"You sure? We thinked that nobody will attack us here, and see now!"

"And nobody attacked us, for a long time. And there in the north they be fine for a long time too. It is wilderness and they gonna have a lot of game to catch and eat. They be fine there."

Another pause.

"Ah. I hope they be."

"Oh c'mon, yes they will be. Tell them to go. And we go fighting those cursed dwarfses."

Grinning.

"We go fight. We go kill them!"

-x-x-x-

It was day, but suddenly everything around her started to darken. She lifted the gaze towards the sky and discovered that the sun was fading – more and more, until it disappeared completely. She was in the darkness and she could barely discern her surroundings. The green meadow she walked on became black. She looked around herself, and fear gripped her heart. What to do now? She was alone, and it looked like this blackness would devour her.

The camp! She thought she should try to return to the camp; that way, perhaps, she'd be saved. She wasn't far away and remembered the way, so she hoped she'd be able to find it. While walking through the dark, suddenly the wind rose – icy and strong, and it pierced to the very bones. She shivered, even more when she heard the wolves howling – loudly, gruesomely, and quite close. She started running, but she couldn't see well and all she achieved was to stumble and fall. She cut her palms on the sharp rocks and pain spread through her hands. But the howling made her get up immediately and keep fleeing. Something in that sound wasn't right; she realized these were not ordinary wolves, whose howling she had heard once. In that moment she remembered the stories she had listened as a child – about the special variety called wargs, and which were used by the orcs. Her heart beat faster in fear and she continued to run.

Then she noticed barely visible reddish light, and with relief she thought it should be the fire in their camp. Just a little more and she'd be there, and she'd be safe. She ran as fast as she could. The light became stronger and soon she was in the camp. There were a few persons lying around the fire.

"Wake up!" she shouted, but her voice was weak – the run left her breathless. Everyone was still sleeping. For a few moments she was catching her breath, trying to gather some strength. "Alert!!! Wake up!!!" she shouted again, this time louder. "Wargs! Orcs!!!" She saw no orcs, though, but the old proverb said – where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls.*

But no matter how loud she yelled, the bodies on the ground remained motionless. With growing fright she came close and discovered the reason. They were all dead. Slain. Cut by the swords of the orcs. Glorrim. Tyra. Lotti. Darri. And everybody else.

"Noooo!!!" she screamed.

Halldis started and opened her eyes, and then arose and sat on her sleeping bag. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She breathed hard, and her upset heart beat very quickly. The dream seemed very real, and the worst thing was that she hadn't been able to tell herself "It was only a dream". Because, although the circumstances in the dream differed from those in reality, her loved ones would find themselves – or some of them already had been – in perilous situations, in battle with the orcs, and she didn't know if they were all right.

She wiped her tears, but didn't lie down again. She was wide awake, and besides, going to sleep again was out of the question. She had absolutely no desire to have another bad dream. She looked around. It was very dark, there were only just a few fires, and everyone slept. She couldn't tell what time it was; her knowledge of the sky in different seasons and different times of night was very poor, because she almost never observed the sky. She simply never needed to know those things.

But she didn't have to be an expert on the stars to know that the night wouldn't last long. The beginning of summer was very near, and now the days were the longest; she was sure the dawn was not very far away. She got up and packed her things. Well, she would go up the mountain with other women tomorrow morning anyway, so why not now? The moon shone in the east; it was wanning, but it was still lit more than a half. She judged it would give her enough light to enable her to climb.

She quickly ate a little bit of way-bread and then left. It turned out that the way really wasn't difficult: the path next to Kibil-nβla was wide, and even if there had been no moonlight helping her, it would be enough to follow the river to arrive to the target destination. The path was covered in grass, and next to it, on the opposite side of the river, grew different trees. Everything was pretty quiet. Except for the rustling of the grass beneath her feet, the only sound she heard was the slight murmur of the river.

She crossed a part of her route in the dark, and then the sky in the east, changing from black to blue, announced the arrival of the dawn. As Halldis climbed, she observed the sky. It became lighter blue, and several thin little clouds in the east changed their colour from pink to golden, and finally, just before the sun came, to white. Being the inhabitant of the underground, sunrise was the sight she had seen on rare occasions – only a few times in her life, actually. So now she unconsciously slowed down and looked back, towards the east, enjoying the spectacle in the sky.

In the moment when the path in front of her flattened, the sun was already above horizon. Halldis looked at the wide, shallow valley in front of her. Even the very superficial look discovered that there were less than the five thousand dwarves who had left the rear camp a day ago. Just above the valley she noticed a dark opening on the slopes – the Eastern Gates. She saw the soldiers going out of it and going down towards the camp – certainly those who got their break – while others were going in.

May Mahal watch over you, she sent a thought, primarily thinking of those she loved, but of all the others as well. Then her gaze was captured by Kheled-zβram. Dark-blue – almost black – the surface was completely calm and she thought it looked like the passage into some other world. Although she came here to help, she couldn't resist and set off to the lake first. She walked towards it as if under some spell, not taking her eyes off it.

Arriving to the shore, she halted and continued to stare. The window into the night, was her first thought. It felt as if standing in her own world, on Arda, and watching through some magic window into some other, distant and different world full of shiny stars.

She stood like that for a while, and despite all her fears, the lake made her feel calm. She lifted her head and looked around, and looked towards the Eastern Gates again. Watching the entrance, she slowly nodded and her lips curved into a smile. Our home.

Then she blinked and took a deep breath. Yes, the lake was beautiful and she had a feeling she could watch it for hours, but there were things to do. She had to be useful.

On the slopes around the Eastern Gates she saw several big tents, and many dwarves walked around them. She observed a few more moments, and saw two figures with stretchers going towards the biggest tent.

Field-hospital. Her target. She nodded with determination and headed that way.

She walked through the camp in a zigzag, hoping that she'd run into a family member or a friend or Darri. But she didn't see any of them, so she continued to go towards the tents. At some point she turned around to cast one more glance on Kheled-zβram, and then her attention was drawn to the activity on the meadow on the opposite, further side of the lake. Earlier, she was so fascinated with the surface and the stars on it that she hadn't noticed anything else. But now she saw several dwarves walking around the meadow and digging, and several more going that way carrying the stretchers.

But the hospital is here, on this side, she thought with discomfort. Something inside her guessed the truth, but still she turned to the nearest dwarf passing by.

"What is that?" she asked and pointed her hand that way to show what she was talking about.

"There is the old graveyard of our ancestors," he answered. "All who die now will also be buried there."

"By Mahal's mercy, I hope there won't be many," she muttered, and continued to walk.

Reaching the hospital, she observed the tents. Some were closed on all four sides, and some were very simple, consisting only of four wooden props on which canvas was placed as a roof. Halldis immediately noticed that there were a lot of wounded and that the healers were very busy. She saw one older healer going between two tents and approached her.

"I am Halldis daughter of Kuddal," she introduced herself. "I came to help."

The dwarfess with circles around her eyes, who obviously didn't sleep that night, observed her for a few moments.

"You are a healer too?" she asked wearily.

"I'm afraid not," Halldis shook her head, "but I can do all other things. I can carry bandages and towels that you healers need, bring food and water, I can cook and wash... anything you need."

The healer looked at her in shock.

"We were told we'd get help for all the things you said. But..." she stopped and blinked in disbelief. "Just one person?"

"Oh, no, of course not!" exclaimed Halldis. "More women who at first stayed in the lower camp will come here today. They will probably be here in a few hours. I simply woke up very early, when it was still night, so I came before everyone else. The others are probably on their way now."

"Oh, that's better news," responded the older woman. "I am Anfrid, the healer. Come with me."

Halldis followed her, and her working day began.

-x-x-x-

* "True!" said Aragorn, loosening his sword in its sheath. "But where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls." (FotR, A Journey in the Dark)

The night passed; the day was passing too. Periods of fighting, resting and having meals exchanged – over and over again. Darri was all right and uninjured, just like his brother. In the morning he ran into Bemir and Mami, and it was a relief to see they were fine.

While in battle, fighting was the only thing he focused on. In the moments of break, however, his thoughts were filled with memories of their father. The pain was so near – it had been only a day – and it was still hard to understand that he was gone. A few times he even looked around, expecting that Brirvin would appear from some direction. And then he would remember, and the sorrow would become even stronger each time.

Their squad got a longer break around noon, and they were informed that they wouldn't go to battle before the evening. That meant they had enough time for one difficult task... but one he knew they had to do.

They didn't talk much while descending towards the camp next to the lake; each of them was deep into his own thoughts and memories. When they arrived, they looked around. Some were in the camp, resting, while many sleeping bags were empty because many were in action right now. Of course, neither Darri nor Faldur knew if Tali had come here or had stayed in the rear camp. But they started their search, and soon Darri spotted their mother in a big group of women who were occupied with preparing food.

"There." He showed Faldur the position and they both quickened their steps. "Mother!"

Hearing his voice, she lifted her head and started running towards them. She hugged both of them in a tight embrace, and Darri could feel her trembling. When she finally let them go, he saw she was trying to see if there was someone else behind their back. But there was nobody, and she finally lifted her gaze towards Darri. In her eyes he read unuttered question and fear... and at the same time, the hope that Brirvin's absence didn't mean the worst.

There was no easy way to impart such a news. Never.

"He was killed last night," said Darri in a low voice, his throat tightened.

It seemed as if Tali shrank and diminished in front of their very eyes. She lowered her head, her shoulders sagged, and a moment later she just sank down and sat on the ground. Darri and Faldur sat next to her, each at one side; while tears started to roll down her face, Darri put a hand around her shoulders.

"He will always be with us, in our hearts," he said.

It couldn't help much – not now that the pain was so fresh. But it was true. They sat in silence, and each of them thought of a dwarf who was no longer with them.

Just as they would always think of him.

-x-x-x-

By afternoon, Halldis discovered that even at her eighty she still had something new to discover about herself: the sight of blood made her feel sick.

And she had always thought it was not so. But the amounts of blood from everyday life – in childhood cuts, or in different ordinary little accidents – were small and not worth mentioning, she realized. Even some more serious accidents she had witnessed a few times were insignificant compared to what she was looking now. Deep wounds, open chests and bellies, inner parts of the body exposed to view, partially or completely torn off limbs... although she didn't perform healer's work but only carried out towels and water, she couldn't avoid seeing the wounded. She fought her stomach several times. One time, she lost the battle.

Around mid-day more women arrived to help, just as it was planned, and Halldis got out of the hospital. She didn't go far – just a few steps – and it was so good to be in the open air. Near her position, several squads were entering through the Gates.

She was breathing deeply, enjoying the fresh air after being surrounded by the smell of blood, sweat and death for the whole day. I probably look white. Or green. She hadn't eaten anything since dawn, but the very thought of food was repulsive. She started to feel a little tired because she was working all the time, but had no intention of taking a break. Because, if the healers perform much harder work than mine, if our soldiers fight and die, I won't complain of my work either.

She resolutely lifted her head and gathered courage to face the next sight – whatever it would be – and took a step back when she heard the call behind her back.

"Halldis!"

She jumped; she would recognize that voice among hundreds. Tyra! She quickly turned and saw her friend. Tyra split off from the column going towards entrance and the two friends ran to each other's embrace.

"Well, my moment to enter came," said Tyra when they separated. "I saw you standing here from further away. It is impossible not to notice your hair." She laughed, and then looked towards the tents. "You are helping here in the hospital?"

"Yes," confirmed Halldis. "I took a short pause, and I just meant to go back when you called me."

"You go back, yes. I can't stay and talk either; I have to run back to my squad too. But I am so happy to see you, even if only briefly."

Tyra hugged her one more time and already turned to go back when Halldis stopped her.

"Wait!" she shouted. "Do you know anything about Glorrim? And the others...?"

"I think Glorrim was somewhere in the front part of the squad, and your cousins too. You probably missed them by just a few moments," said Tyra with a grimace of regret on her face. "Lotti is here with me. And I haven't seen the others since yesterday afternoon."

"Oh, so," sighed Halldis. She wished she could have seen her brother... and Darri. "All right, I won't hold you up anymore, go... and be careful. Please, be careful."

"I will," said Tyra firmly, and hurried back to her place in the squad.

Halldis looked after her for a few more moments, and then returned to her duty. She delivered more towels and bandages to the healers – trying to fix her gaze only on the ground she walked on or the healers she talked to, and not to look at the wounded – when in the passage between two big tents she ran into Anfrid.

"Halldis! Come," the healer told her. "Everything is under control here and we have enough auxiliary workers. However, another temporary hospital is set up near the upper entrance – for all those wounded on the Seventh Level. I am just organizing the assistants for that location. There, next to our main tent, you'll see a group of women who'll go to the other hospital. Go with them. You'll settle in the upper camp."

"I understand. I'm on my way," said Halldis and nodded. She took her backpack and went to the main tent. A group of about fifty women soon set out up the mountain, to their new duty.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII

Day 21st of the Ninth month – evening, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

The night is falling outside, and I have just entered the Fifth Hall, conquered a little while ago; I write these sentences in it. I make these notes on plain pieces of paper and I'll copy them into my book once everything is over. But I want to write down all that happened every day, so that I don't omit anything later.

A little more than a half of the First Level is now in our hands, and I got news that a part of the Sixth was conquered too. We slowly overpower orcs on both sides.

I am proud and satisfied. We progress well. But at the same time I grieve for all the fallen.

I don't have much time for writing; I must go further. From here, from the Fifth Hall, there is a tunnel towards the Second Level. We'll go upwards now, and all the orcs remaining in the other caves of the First Level are now cut off from the rest of their troops. We now have to clear cave by cave.

I go the next battle. The Second Level awaits me.

D.

-x-x-x-

The King folded the piece of paper and put it in one of his inner pockets. Then he got up and went towards Nardi.

"Report?" asked Durin.

"Eleven dead and fourteen wounded in this Fifth Hall. The resistance was not strong in the end because the orcs obviously thought more of the escape to the Second Level than of the fight," said the general.

Durin nodded, satisfied. These last numbers were the smallest when compared to the other battles. But he knew that the current numbers were not final for the First Level; there would be more casualties in cleaning up the other caves.

"Now we'll set up a hospital in the Fourth Hall as well," continued Nardi. "As we'll progress, the newly conquered big halls will serve for treating the wounded. Depending on the circumstances and lack of free space, those with minor injuries can be transported to the more distant locations, but the serious cases must get help as soon as possible. That is why we need a greater number of hospitals in a larger area."

"Of course. Are there any problems with supplying? Or with anything else?"

"No. Everything goes quite smoothly. Ernis and Loni are doing a great job."

The King smiled. It was great to get another acknowledgement that his daughter was a capable young woman.

"Great. Well then, we can move forward. I will now lead the attack on the Second Level," he said decisively.

"You would go right now?" asked Nardi.

"Yes. We won't give them a break to catch their breath. I'm one of those who rested in the afternoon, so now I'm fresh for the new battle. If the orcs escaped from the battle, as you said, and if they are exhausted, it increases our chances."

"True. But..." Nardi stopped and suspiciously shook his head. "Your Highness, don't go first. It really isn't required. You were the first to enter Khazad-dϋm, you were the first to cross the bridge, and you led the first battles. It truly isn't necessary that you are in the first line any more."

The King rolled his eyes.

"By Balrog's horns, Nardi, we've already had this conversation! Must we have it again? Are you my general – my comrade in arms – or are you imagining you are the mother-hen watching over her chick?! Because I am certainly not the latter!" he growled in the end.

Nardi shook his head.

"I know you are not, but the King's life continues to be the main concern of the general," he replied seriously. "The fact that the greatest challenge of the First Level – crossing the bridge – is now behind us, doesn't mean that you can't find yourself in new, very dangerous situations. It is this: conquering the caves of some level – be they smaller or bigger – happens horizontally. Now, in front of us is the tunnel going upwards." From the way he was emphasizing words it was clear what he considered critical. "Personally, if I was in the orcs' place, I could think of at least five different traps even on the ordinary horizontal terrain. And for the attackers who have to climb, while I wait in a higher, more favourable position, I could come up with at least ten. And that is why I don't want you to be in the first line. We have to check if there are any traps in front of us."

Hearing that, Durin just laughed.

"I don't have the slightest doubt that you could. But the orcs are not as clever as you. If they could come up with any trickery, they would have done so in the beginning. We conquered five bigger halls and some smaller caves, and they didn't present anything special." He waved his hand. "I go to collect my weapons. The whole squad of fresh fighters is ready for the new battle. Let's go!"

With these words he went forward. Behind his back remained his general, frowned and worried. His expression showed that he wasn't happy at all.

-x-x-x-

End-note:
All the chapters have several tens of clicks, and many have more than 100 (some even more than 200 clicks). Yet, only 3 or 4 people comment! All of you who read - do you have any idea how discouraging, awful and painful it is to see such a statistic? To know that so many people read, and not to receive any feedback? I don't understand - is is so difficult to write a few words of a review?

Upon the arrival to the entrance into the Seventh Level with other women, Halldis discovered that there was no hospital outside, unlike the situation around the Eastern Gates. When she looked at the entrance, she realized why. Although the opening in the rocks was significantly widened, it was necessary to use ladders for going in and out, and that route would be unsuited to transport the wounded.

She descended into the Chamber of Records and stopped for a moment. I am inside. Her heart quivered. It was an extraordinary feeling to be in this special place. When she entered the Twenty-first Hall, she was amazed with the beauty of the walls and pillars, and stared with mouth open. But then she reminded herself that this was not the right time for enjoying the view. The healers needed help.

One day. One day I'll visit all of the halls, she promised herself. With a shiver, she sent a prayer to Mahal for all those she loved, and then started to work.

-x-x-x-

Durin stood in front of the big squad. He remembered Nardi's words for just a short moment, and then he shrugged. The most difficult part – crossing the narrow bridge under the orcish arrows and conquering the Second Hall – was successfully mastered on the first day. All that happened since then, as well as everything that would still happen, he considered ordinary battles. Of course, he was aware that much more time would pass until the final victory, and that there would be many more victims. But now that the hardest part is behind us, nothing should go wrong anymore.

Tense as a bowstring and ready to lead the new attack, he spoke to the crowd in front of him.

"Sons and daughters of Mahal, charge!!!" he shouted, and many fierce cries answered. Everyone was as resolute as he was.

He turned around and with a sword in his hand stepped into the tunnel leading from the Fifth towards the Sixth Hall, located on the Second Level. It was about twelve feet wide, so four of them could walk side by side. He couldn't see far ahead because there weren't many torches, but he remembered from the maps that it was about three hundred feet long, and that it made a wide curve while slowly ascending towards the higher level.

Nardi walked next to him, occasionally going quicker and leading the way. Which was very irritating. Each time it happened, Durin accelerated too, to be the leading figure again. Yes, they had to be very focused during the battles because some orcs were quite skilful with the blades, and some orcs had bows and arrows, which was one more reason to be careful. But Nardi is surely exaggerating...

And then, when they crossed about one half of the tunnel length – which also meant that they were on the half of the big curve – he heard some sort of restrained rumble. At first, he thought it was the stamp of many boots, and his next thought was that a great number of the orcs ran through the Sixth Level to meet them in battle.

But the rumble was getting stronger and it was too loud to be explained only with the steps – it sounded like many rocks collided each other. And it was coming nearer.

His hand automatically lifted the sword, but only a moment later he realized that weapons would be of no use against this threat. Because, as they were coming out of the curve into the straight part of the tunnel, an avalanche of rocks rolling towards them entered his field of view. The stones were rounded and rolled quite quickly, and the dwarves just wouldn't be fast enough to escape back to the First Level. And the stones were big enough – somewhere between a foot or two – to inflict serious damage.

He froze in mid-movement, desperately searching for the solution. And not finding it.

"Watch out! Take cover!" yelled Nardi, but all his shouts were in vain. Due to the thunder, only the nearest few were able to hear him, and even if everyone had heard, they wouldn't be able to do anything because there was no cover.

A moment before the avalanche reached them Nardi threw himself on Durin and pinned him against the tunnel wall, protecting him with his own body, and quickly put a shield in front of his legs. Behind the broad shoulders of his general Durin couldn't see anything. He almost couldn't breathe, he was pinned so hard, and each hit of the rocks to Nardi transferred vibrations onto him too – pushing him to the wall even more.

Feeling those hits, for a moment he wondered how Nardi – who received them directly – was feeling, and he wanted to move somehow and to pull Nardi closer to the tunnel wall so that he was not so exposed. But he couldn't move, and there was no room for cover anyway.

He managed to turn his head just a little bit to look backwards, into the tunnel, and with a corner of his eye he saw the rocks hitting those on the way. Some fell, and the avalanche continued over them. Screams intertwined with the noise of the rolling stones. He wanted to scream, angry with himself and the orcs.

Cursed orcs, cursed orcs, cursed orcs!!!

And then the pressure became even greater, and Nardi lost his balance after one powerful hit in his leg.

"Nardi!!!" shouted Durin while the sturdy dwarf started to fall down. Durin grabbed his shoulders, but managed only to alleviate his fall, and not to prevent it. Nardi was down, and the rocks kept coming. Several large pieces hit his chest and two hit his head.

Durin tried to pull him back, closer to the tunnel wall, but was unsuccessful because now he was completely exposed and stones hit him too. Then he tried to shelter them both with his shield, but with a poor result. He was hit again, just like Nardi, who now lay completely motionless.

And then, at last, he realized that the noise and blows had stopped. The avalanche finally passed – there were no more rocks. But there was no time to inspect Nardi's wounds nor to help him, and not even for catching his breath. Because, while the dwarves still started to rise on their feet, battered and hurt, a squad of the orcs ran towards them from the upper level.

"Next to me! Form the wall!" shouted Durin as loud as he could.

The nearest two standing on their feet jumped to him and raised their shields – not a second too late, because right in that moment the orcs arrived and attacked them.

"Pull out the wounded!" He managed to shout that too before directing all his strength and focus into fighting. It was difficult to block the attack – not so much because of the orcs' skills, because it was not particular in most of cases – but because he and the two beside him were still shaken from what happened just a little while ago. The muscles simply still didn't listen and didn't work properly.

He was gripping his shield, defending from the orcs' blows, and was trying to attack. Another soldier stood next to him, strengthening their wall.

They progressed a foot.

But another soldier, on the opposite side, fell.

They were driven two feet back.

"Pull out the wounded!" he shouted one more time and risked a quick glance backwards. It was a relief to see that his order was carried out. He looked in front again and put all his strength into the fight.

A foot conquered, a foot lost.

A few more dwarves came closer as soon as it was possible, forming the second and third row of the formation. But they were not fighting to win the tunnel or to advance – not now. Right now, they were only buying time for those carrying away the bodies of the wounded. The new attempt of ascent and conquering the Second Level would happen some other time.

They fought with all their power and soon managed to set up their rhythm. The blades were clashing, the blows were falling. And finally, a shout came from behind which Durin and everyone around him had waited for – that the wounded were transported to safety.

"Retreat!!!"

And so they went back, step by step, still defending themselves from the attacks of the orcs who pursued them for a good part of the tunnel towards the Fifth Hall. Durin brandished his sword, while so many questions echoed in his mind. Is Nardi alive? How serious are his wounds? How many wounded there are? How many killed?

And above everything, he was angry. With himself.

The orcs didn't pursue them all the way and into the hall – they were probably aware that they wouldn't have a chance there. When the dwarves were near the tunnel end, the orcs turned around and ran to the upper level.

Durin was the last to go out of the tunnel and he beheld the situation in the Fifth Hall. The majority stood near the walls of the hall, leaving the large middle space free for the wounded. All around, there were a lot of stones because most of them were rounded and smooth, so the avalanche rolled all the way to this level; in fact, only a small part of the debris remained in the tunnel.

"Light more torches and call several healers from the Fourth Hall at once! And help them in carrying the equipment!" shouts were heard, and about a dozen dwarves instantly ran towards the Fourth Hall. The orders came from Norik, and Durin went his way. The officer noticed him and made a quick formal bow before speaking. "As there are many urgent cases here, I think it's better that the healers come here, instead of carrying all the wounded there, moreover because it's better not to move much those with most serious injuries," said Norik.

Durin nodded without a word, and went to inspect the situation in the hall. Some started to help the wounded, while the others pushed the rocks away to make more free space. Soon he found Nardi. The sturdy dwarf lay motionlessly, his eyes closed, and the King stopped next to him, worried.

Nardi. His general, and his friend... who saved him there in the tunnel. And who tried to warn him about potential risks before the beginning.

This time at least he didn't have to worry about his son, because Noin was among those who currently had a pause between two battles and he was not in this fatal tunnel. But Nardi was injured... and it was serious, it seemed.

Soon – although to Durin's subjective feeling for time it seemed as if it had lasted very long – several healers arrived in the Fifth Hall. Durin was exceptionally glad to see that among them was Frur – the oldest and the most experienced healer they had. He hastened towards the old dwarf.

"Frur. Come. Nardi is hurt," he said to the healer.

The old healer had white hair and beard and had been doing this job longer than Durin was alive. If Nardi's life was threatened, the King couldn't think of anyone else whom he'd trust more. He'll know what to do.

In the meantime more torches were lit, so the hall was well illuminated now. Durin led Frur to Nardi; the healer kneeled over the general's body, and Durin just stood and watched. One assistant helped Frur take of Nardi's armour and helmet. They did it very carefully, to move the wounded dwarf as less as possible.

Nardi's left leg was slightly bent below the knee, and Durin needed no medical knowledge to realize that its lower part was broken. The moment when it happened was surely the one when he had lost his balance, he concluded, remembering the events in the tunnel. The broken leg was not life-threatening, but obviously there were other reasons to worry, because Nardi was unconscious.

Durin observed them just a few moments more, and then left. First of all, standing above the healer's head wouldn't be of any help at all, although he wanted to hear the news as soon as possible. Second, he had work to do.

He approached Norik, who was in the tunnel earlier too. But except for looking a little untidy and dust-covered, everything was all right with him – he was uninjured.

"Norik, report?"

"I am still collecting information. For now, I know there are six dead. About twenty wounded."

Durin nodded, his face glum. "Organize the cleaning of the tunnel, if some rocks remained there. Then send a scout to sneak to the upper level as close as possible to check if the orcs have more rocks."

Norik already wanted to leave to execute the orders, but Durin stopped him.

"Norik, Nardi is seriously injured. I don't know how soon he will recover." Saying that he didn't know if Nardi would recover was out of the question; he rejected the very thought of it. "You are the next-ranked officer. During his recovery, you are the commander of the Guard and perform all of his duties."

Norik nodded and then left, while Durin remained standing on the same spot, gazing at the walls of the hall.

Six dead. He sighed. For these deaths he was directly responsible. As everything went relatively well till now, he became too relaxed, too overconfident. And that was why he had rushed and disregarded the basic rules of warfare. He should have sent the scout. He should have been more cautious.

If only I had listened to you, my friend...

However, he knew one thing. He would never make that mistake again.

The minutes passed slowly. Most of those in the hall were on the move: some were still cleaning it, while the others were helping the healers. Some were waiting – just like him; it was maddening to just stand and wait, and not being able to do anything. But at the moment, there was nothing he could do; he was no healer so he couldn't help the wounded, and he couldn't go back in the action before getting new information. But finally Norik appeared and stood in front of him.

"The tunnel is cleaned. In the upper hall no more rocks are visible."

The King nodded.

"Final numbers?"

"Seven dead. Twenty-three wounded. Eight seriously."

"Thank you."

Now came the moment to counteract the orcs for what they did. But not before he found out one more thing. First, he went to the place where Nardi lay.

He saw Frur bending over his patient. While the attention of the old healer was directed towards Nardi's head and chest, one assistant was fixing the broken leg and putting the splint.

"He has a chest contusion and probably some of his ribs are broken," said Frur, not lifting his head. "He also got at least one heavy hit in his head, maybe more. That could be a problem." Only then, he straightened his back and looked the King. "Severe head injuries are often life-threatening."

Those were not the news he wanted to hear.

"Prognosis?"

"It is still too early, Your Highness. We'll see how things will develop during the first twenty-four hours, which will be critical. I hope that I'll be able to be more precise in a day or two."

Only then?! He knew that he'd be very worried throughout that time. Nardi's injury was one more thing he considered to be his own fault; if he had listened to his general, if he had acted more cautiously, things would have happened in a different way and now he wouldn't fear for his life.

"Thank you," he nodded to the healer and left, and then stood in front of his soldiers.

The moment came for the new attempt. And this time, and all the other times that would come, he would leave nothing to chance.

-x-x-x-

Having finished his supper, Darri looked towards the sky. It was getting darker, which meant that their break was near its end; soon, they'd go to battle again. The Sixth Level was not completely won yet, but they conquered the hall from which led the tunnel towards the Fifth Level. Darri's and Faldur's squad was to make the first attack on the Fifth Level.

He looked at his brother. Faldur seemed calm, but there was sorrow in his eyes that was not there before. Not surprising at all; Darri supposed he looked the same. Death became part of their everyday life, and brushed them personally, too. He sent a prayer to Mahal to watch over Faldur. Although he was only seven years younger and he was an adult now, Faldur had always been his little brother and Darri often behaved protectively. After losing his father, he couldn't imagine how he would endure the loss of his little brother too. And he knew that their mother would also be completely devastated.

They didn't talk much while going towards the interior. After passing the Chamber of Records, they entered the Twenty-first Hall, which served as a hospital. There were many lamps around, the floor was filled with pallets and the wounded dwarves to the very last inch, and in the middle of the hall there was a passage for the healers, their assistants and soldiers. When he was somewhere near the middle of the hall, he heard a shout.

"Darri!"

He knew that voice, but in the first split-second he couldn't believe. How could she be here? But when he turned around, he realized he wasn't dreaming – close by, there was a short red-haired figure who watched him with her eyes wide open and a big smile on her face. She carried a huge pile of towels and bandages – it almost seemed bigger than herself. She quickly delivered them to the healers, and then ran to him. He made a step towards her, spread his arms, and she ran into his embrace. A tiny part of his mind noticed the gleeful whistling behind his back, but he paid no attention to teasing. He held her close and kissed her.

"You are all right, you are all right..." whispered Halldis when they finally separated. But he didn't let her go yet – he kept her in his arms, separating just a little bit. Only then he took a better look of her. Her hair was braided, she had circles around her eyes and her freckles contrasted on her somewhat pale face. But her eyes shone and she was smiling.

"Yes, I am," he replied, and gestured back, to the direction where his brother and friends stood. "See, there are Faldur, Mami and Bemir, they are fine too..."

Yet, something in his voice or expression must have betrayed him, because he noticed her smile had waned.

"They are all right, but...?" she asked seriously.

"Father."

Her face saddened. "Oh Darri, I am so sorry..." she said in a low voice and hugged him again.

They stood like that for a few more moments, and then split again.

"I hope everything is all right with you," said Darri.

"Well, yes, I am fine, as you see," she said. "I help here now, as many other civilians do, too. As for my family..." Her voice trembled a little. "I know they entered, but I haven't seen them since the beginning, and I have no news. Not knowing is the worst thing."

"I understand. I hope for the best," he said, frowning. He understood that the uncertainty must have been killing her.

"Darri!"

This time, the shout came from his brother. While he stood next to Halldis their squad continued on their way, and his brother wanted to tell him it was time to go. They had to – it was their duty. There was no more time to be with her.

But there will be later, he thought.

"I must go," he said in a low voice. "But now I know you're here. When I get the next break, I'll look for you. We'll have some time just for ourselves."

She put her palms on his face.

"Be careful," she said.

"I will."

One more kiss... and then he had to leave.

This time, Darri and Faldur happened to be very near the front line of the squad that was about to start the attack on the Fifth Level. In front of them there were only the highest ranked officer, the one in charge for the whole upper battleground, and several more Guard members.

The squad was still in their place; they waited the return of the two scouts sent into the tunnel towards the Fifth Level. When they arrived, they started their report and Darri was near enough to hear the whole conversation.

"We didn't enter the hall itself because that way we'd reveal our presence," said one of them. "But we succeeded in getting very close. We couldn't see the whole hall, but what we did see, was empty. Not a single orc."

The silence after the scout's words lengthened. The officer frowned, obviously thinking about what he had just found out.

"There is something suspicious about that," the officer said pensively in the end, and Darri agreed with him. Until now, the dwarves progressed well because they were more numerous, they were better equipped and better trained. But in spite of all those advantages on their side, they paid a high price for their successes. There were a lot of casualties, and even more wounded. The orcs desperately defended every inch of the terrain, and the possibility that they had simply given over the next hall was strange, at the very least.

"We'll go slowly and twice as cautious as usually. Something is wrong here," said the officer. The information was transferred to the whole unit, so that everyone knew they should be extra careful; then they finally set off.

The tunnel was just like the one between the Seventh and the Sixth Level: about twelve feet wide and about ten high. As they slowly went on, Darri judged that the length was similar too; they had passed about three hundred feet when they came near to the end. And the closer they were, the slower they walked.

Darri peered into the opening in front of them, looking above the heads of the others. There was a little light coming from the hall, which suggested that there were two or three torches in it – just as was the case in all other halls till now.

The tunnel constrained his view so he could see only a smaller part of the hall, but it really seemed it was completely empty. That fact was also confirmed by the silence in it. Darri remembered one more time that every cave they had conquered so far was in the beginning full of the orcs waiting for them, and each time they had to fight very hard to push them back. This situation, right now, was very unusual. Very. The tension grew, and he held his sword hilt more tightly.

Each next step was shorter and slower. The shields of those in the first row were now raised, in case arrows came from the distance – from the opposite tunnel. When they at last reached the entrance into the hall, the officer carefully peered inside. Then he took a step forward, and Darri saw he was looking on all sides. Then the officer stopped, and remained watching something on his right.

Several more dwarves entered the hall, all very close to each other and with shields up, and then the officer gave the sign not to go further. It was the moment when Darri came to the entrance and managed to look inside. Then he saw what it was that the others were staring at: in the corner of the hall, which was about forty feet wide, was a cauldron, and the fire was lit below it.

One thing he knew for sure: the probability that the orcs were cooking their dinner right here and right now was exceptionally low.

The light was meagre – there were only two little torches, one on each longer side of the hall. The officer looked up, and Darri did the same. And although up there it was even darker, it was possible to discern another cauldron hanging from the ceiling. He stared for a few moments, trying to understand, and then the explanation formed in his mind.

Hot molten grease down, and water up. Very, very, very bad combination.

He had once witnessed an accident involving those two – and it didn't look good at all. And on that occasion, there was a lot less grease and a lot less water than in these two cauldrons.

"Retreat!" shouted the officer, obviously having come to the same conclusion. "There must be a mechanism that we'll activate if we go too far into the hall. We have to figure out the way to extinguish the fire from afar. If we don't make it, we'll wait till it burns out and the grease cools. We have no other choice. Go back! Quickly!" he repeated.

But in spite of the urgency in his voice and the very last word, the execution of his order started – slowly. It was not that they didn't want to obey, but it wasn't simple to move the whole column backwards at once. It filled the whole tunnel, and everyone in it was close to one another – and that was why the retreat didn't start with the desired pace. Darri managed to make one small step backwards, then one more, and he found himself in the tunnel again, having pulled Faldur a little backwards too. But they didn't manage to move more than that. They were tightly packed and they had to stop. And three or four Guardsmen, as well as the commander, were still in the hall or at the very entrance.

-x-x-x-

The darkness of the opposite tunnel hid several figures who were watching what was going on. Most of them frowned.

"They ain't going further!"

"They ain't gonna activate trap!"

"They coming back!"

"We won't fry them!"

But one of them grinned viciously.

"We will. Oh we will, at least some o'them."

The hands of that last one had already started to pull the spare rope – prepared for the situation just like this – if the dwarves became too suspicious and didn't walk far enough into the hall.

-x-x-x-

The rope overturned the cauldron with water – and it fell on the hot grease and fire below, creating a huge shining ball of flame. It was as brilliant as if the sun suddenly shone in the hall and Darri was blinded. Everything shook, and the dwarf in front of him staggered and fell backwards, on him. Not being able to hold his balance Darri fell too, pulling Faldur with him. Two more dwarves fell on them and squashed them badly – but it actually saved them, shielding them from the worst.

The big part of the hall was filled with tiny droplets of burning grease mixed with water vapour. It seemed as if the very air was burning. Fortunately for the dwarves, almost all of them were in the tunnel and not in the hall; the fire didn't enter the tunnel and the flames didn't strike them directly. But it was horrible in the tunnel, too: the air became hot and dry, unbearable for breathing. In the last moment, while he still could, Darri quickly took a deep breath – as much as it was possible under the burden of another dwarf on him – and held his breath.

His lungs screamed for more air. He was all beaded in sweat. His left leg, somewhat more exposed than the rest of his body, felt so hot that he thought it was burning. He held his breath as long as he could, and the minute turned into eternity. He started to shake, he felt pounding in his head, and everything started to turn black. He thought he would die here.

Finally he had to breathe out. He pulled his arm to his mouth and, with his sleeve serving as a filter, he took another breath. The air burned his throat and he coughed, but he somehow managed to breathe a little more. And he held his breath again.

Faldur... is he alive?, the thought flashed. He tried to turn his head to the side where his brother lay, but the weight of the dwarf on him prevented the attempt. He couldn't move.

And as the second minute of the agony passed, as his heart beat frantically and his lungs hurt him even more, the heat finally started to diminish. He realized that the air was not so hot anymore and that he could breathe. For several moments, he just greedily sucked the air into his lungs.

Faldur!

He wanted to get up and check on his brother, but was still unable to move. He was still shaking and hadn't regained control over his muscles.

"Quickly! Get up! We must help them!" The voice came from somewhere inside the tunnel, quite near him.

Darri clenched his teeth and pushed himself up against the ground, and this time he managed to lift himself a little bit. The other dwarf still lay over his back and seemed impossibly heavy. Then he moved his head to the side where Faldur had fallen; although it was quite dark he could discern brother's silhouette, as well as that he was moving. He saw that Faldur was trying to get up too and, relieved, concluded that it was a sign he was all right.

"Quickly!!! They need help!!!" This time the shout was louder and sounded more urgent, and in that moment Darri became aware of the painful cries nearby. And no matter how dazed and battered he was, he realized there were those who were much worse than he.

He somehow managed to get up on his feed and looked towards the hall. The sight was gruesome. About ten figures were completely in fire; some were on the ground, writhing, and some were still on their feet, screaming in pain.

"Quickly! We must douse them!!!" the same voice shouted again, and then everyone around roused from the shock. They moved and almost simultaneously threw themselves on those who were burning – because they had nothing else at hand for extinguishing the fire, except for their own bodies. Darri threw himself on the nearest dwarf; the upper part of the dwarf's body was protected by his full-plate, but flames caught the whole length of his trousers. Darri lay on his legs. His chest burned him terribly when his chainmail heated; the tunic he wore underneath was absolutely no protection from the heat transferring from the hot steel to his skin. Several flames burned his hair and beard. He clenched his teeth trying not to move, knowing that the other guy felt much worse – because his legs were exposed to the fire directly.

Darri's chest hurt and burned – but his move achieved the goal. His body blocked the inflow of the air to the fire and it finally died out. But although his legs weren't burning any more, the poor dwarf still moaned in pain. Darri quickly rose and through the charred trousers saw red skin and blood.

"Carry them to the healers urgently! All of you in the tunnel who can hear me – make way! Move to one side, leaving the other free!"

Darri cast a quick glance around him; several burned soldiers lay on the ground, and then he finally saw the dwarf in the uniform of the Guard who was giving those orders. He was pointing towards the tunnel.

"Carry them immediately! There is no time to go to bring the stretchers!" the Guardsman shouted, and then lifted his shield and axe and stepped into the hall. In that moment Darri became aware of heavy steps and battle cries coming from the opposite side. The orcs had already filled about a half of the hall and were approaching quickly.

The situation became very grave. As quickly as possible, as many dwarves as possible were supposed to come out of the tunnel and counter the orcs – which was, considering the chaos in the tunnel, quite a difficult task.

And at the same time, also as quickly as possible, the wounded were supposed to be transported upwards – in the opposite direction to that of the majority. An even more difficult task.

"You!" shouted the Guardsman and pointed his hand towards him, and Darri realized that he was addressing him. "You are the tallest and the sturdiest here. You stand at the front of those carrying the wounded and ensure that you make way for them! You," he then spoke to several others nearby, "take the wounded and carry them."

And then there was really no more time to add anything else, because in that moment the orcs arrived and began their attack.

"Follow me! Baruk Khazβd!!" the Guardsman shouted.

As Darri was moving upwards through the tunnel, the last thing he heard were the sounds of clashing swords and axes.

Darri had a feeling that he was trying to pass through a solid wall. Only a few dwarves in the beginning of the tunnel heard the information about the transport of the wounded and moved aside. But after only several steps, he ran into the wall of bodies and shields descending towards the hall, into the battle.

"Move away! Move to the side! We are carrying the wounded!" he shouted.

They progressed very slowly; on almost each step he clashed with someone, and he shouted they should move away over and over again. But not even shouting helped much; it just wasn't possible to be much louder than the noise in the tunnel. Knowing that every moment is important – the images of red, scorched flesh remained in his head – he didn't hesitate to push aside all those who, in his opinion, hadn't moved quickly enough. He now understood why the Guardsman had picked him to clear the way; someone smaller just wouldn't have the chance. Many of those whom Darri pushed grumbled loudly, but he paid no attention to them. They had to hurry.

"Make way! We are carrying the wounded!!!"

A step. Then, bumping into someone. Then, pushing. And more pushing. Those three hundred feet now seemed at least twice longer.

Finally, they somehow managed to reach the Sixth Level and entered the Nineteenth Hall. In it there were some more of those still waiting to go down and join the battle, and the healers were in the next hall. But now it became much easier, because the hall was big and not crowded, and the tunnel towards the Twentieth Hall was short and almost empty. As Darri was not carrying anybody, he was now able to run. He raced through the tunnel and rushed into the hall. Arriving there, he stopped just for a moment and looked around, and then quickly moved towards the two nearest healers. But his running drew the attention of several more healers even before he spoke, and many heads turned to him.

"In a few moments the wounded arrive! There was an explosion, and all of the wounded are heavily burned!" he reported in one breath.

Having heard the news, one older healer took the initiative.

"The two of you start preparing the salve against burns," he said to the two of his young colleagues, and then he addressed the assistants. "Bring more cold water at once!"

Soon, the dwarves carrying the victims started entering. One by one, the wounded were laid down onto free pallets, and healers and their assistants started working immediately.

Darri then moved aside not to be in their way. He intended to return to the Fifth Level and join the battle. Faldur was not among those involved in the transport but stayed down, so the concern for his brother pulled him back there, too. But the burning feeling over his chest which he didn't even notice while pushing the way through the tunnel – when his one and only goal was to reach the hospital – now returned. I'll just catch my breath after the run, and I'll surely be better. Then I go back, he decided.

He found a small part of empty space next to one wall, and there was also one free chair. As it seemed that no one needed it now, he sat down and took a deep breath.

Which was a very bad move, he realized in the very next moment. As his chest expanded to take more air, the whole surface of the chest hurt him badly. He clenched his teeth and during the next few moments he breathed very shallowly, trying not to move at all. When the pain diminished, he made a test: he cautiously lifted his right arm and made a few moments as if fighting with a sword in his hand. The movements of the muscles, which caused the new movements of the burned skin, sent new waves of pain. He closed his eyes.

Hopefully I'll soon be better, he tried to convince himself again. I have to go back to my duty. And I must be close to Faldur. I'll just wait a little bit more until the pain abates...

When he opened his eyes, he saw a healer standing right in front of him. He was young; Darri judged they were about the same age. He was short and skinny, and had almost the same blond hair as Darri.

"You look like we are related," said the healer with a broad smile, at the same time pointing towards his hair and beard, alluding to how rare that colour was among their people. His eyes were smiling too, and some of his cheerfulness seemed to pass to Darri. He managed to smile in spite of the pain.

"Who knows, if we compared our family trees, maybe we'd find we share some ancestor," replied Darri, but as he moved while speaking, his smile turned into a grimace.

"Well, maybe one day, but surely not now, buddy," said the healer merrily and lifted his hand, swaying his index finger as if warning a naughty child. "Now we have work to do. More precisely, I have work to do. I am sure that you are somewhat well baked too." Then he pointed his still lifted finger towards Darri's chest, that is, his chainmail. "Look at this."

Darri lowered his gaze and discovered that the grey steel links became black. No wonder, he thought, remembering how he jumped over the poor guy who was burning.

"And besides the burned gear, there is an inscription all over your forehead – 'I am in pain'. Follow me, my friend. We go to my little corner, where I have my equipment," said the healer with another smile.

"It is that obvious?"

"No," the lad shook his head. "To an untrained eye, you'd only look exhausted. But I've been trained to notice the signs." He winked. "It would be veeeery bad if I couldn't see."

Darri then stood up, and when he rose to his full height, he exceeded the healer by almost a foot. He stared at Darri for a few moments, astonished.

"By Mahal's name, what did they feed you with, so that you grew that much? Are you sure you don't have some human among your ancestors?" asked the healer with his eyes wide open and his neck bent back. "No, we are definitely not related. Everyone in my family is short. I actually grew the most – I am taller than my father and both grandfathers and my brothers." Then he shook his head and laughed, and again gave Darri the sign to follow.

They took a few steps among busy assistants hurrying from one healer to another. Darri then sat on an empty pallet to which the healer pointed.

"Now we'll somehow take this off you. But to start with, let me introduce myself – I am Vestri, your healer."

"I am Darri son of Brirvin," responded Darri. The mention of father's name made him sad.

Taking off his chainmail and tunic was not painless at all, and when he looked, Darri realized he shouldn't be surprised. The skin over all his chest and stomach was red.

"Oh, I didn't think it would be this burned," said Darri, surprised.

"You fared much better than the others, my friend," said Vestri, now serious. "But this isn't a joke either. Lie down."

When Vestri put the cold wet cloth over his chest, in the first moment Darri started. But in the next moment he decided that the feeling of cold on the burned skin is actually very welcome.

"Lys!" called Vestri, and Darri saw a dwarfess stopping next to them. She carried a big tray and on it, from what Darri could see from his lying position, several jars of different sizes. "A salve?"

"Yes. Prepared just now," answered the woman and squatted next to Vestri.

He took one jar and nodded. "Thanks."

"Can you manage alone, or do you need help?" she asked.

"I can. This is a simple case. You go where you'll be needed more," he smiled and winked. She then rose and left, and Vestri devoted his attention to Darri's burns.

The salve was also somewhat cold, and it seemed to be effective very quickly; by the moment when Vestri put it on the last inch of his skin, Darri had the feeling that, on the part that was smeared first, the burning feeling had already diminished.

"There it is," said Vestri with a tone of satisfaction in his voice, and his eyes shone. "Covered completely. Your condition is also serious, but as I said, you were really lucky, compared to some others."

Still lying, Darri looked left and right. On his left, he couldn't see anything but the backs of the two healers bent over their patient. But on the other side, he could partially see the wounded dwarf too. The skin on the bigger part of his body was red and black, scorched and covered with big bloody blisters.

"Huh. Yes. Very lucky," he said in a low voice. He uttered a silent prayer for all the wounded, and then looked at Vestri.

"So, I am finished now?" asked Darri and raised to a sitting position. He felt a little irritation, but not nearly as bad as before. The salve works, he thought. "Before going back to battle, I'll have to find a new tunic, because mine is destroyed," he said, looking at the tunic he wore before. It was burned and unusable, and he didn't want to put chainmail directly on his skin. "Perhaps I could go outside to the camp, and find the new one among my things..." he continued his muttering, actually thinking aloud.

Hearing that, Vestri started to laugh loudly, and Darri looked at him, puzzled.

"Buddy, you can't go anywhere," said the healer when he caught his breath. "My patients sometimes give me a good laugh, and you are no different than the majority. So, let's repeat. Your. Condition. Is. Also. Serious." He uttered those words slowly, emphasizing each. "You are forbidden to do any activity involving sword or axe for at least one day. And the thing that is contrary to forbidden, that is, the thing that will be mandatory, is putting a new dose of the salve on every three hours. Sleeping – allowed only on your back, and no other way. And only tomorrow evening, when I see the situation then, I'll decide what is allowed for you next and what is not."

"But... but... I should go back. That is my duty. Besides... my brother is there," said Darri.

Vestri observed him for several moments. Slowly, his face became completely serious, which was a big contrast to his behaviour till now. He had been smiling and joking since the first moment, and Darri concluded it was a part of his personality and his approach to patients. Vestri's current seriousness became even more prominent as the silence lengthened.

"I understand both," said the healer softly. "But you must not go to battle now. You wouldn't even be able to – your movements are limited. You'd be a very easy prey for the opponent. Yet, as your burns are a milder case, you have good chances of returning to the battlefield soon." He fell silent again, but his lips formed a smile and his eyes shone – just like before. "But you know what? You mentioned duty. If you want to be useful, and I understand you do, you can help me. There is a battle going on, and soon the wounded will be transported here. You can work next to me and hand me bandages, healing herbs and equipment. There aren't enough assistants at the moment. What say you?"

Darri thought for a short while, at the same time moving his right arm in different directions, just as he had tried earlier. The salve helped, but it still hurt; with a heavy heart, he had to admit – though not aloud – that Vestri was right. He couldn't wield his sword now.

In the end, he nodded. He would prefer going to battle, but if that wasn't possible... well, Vestri's suggestion enabled him to be at least a little bit useful.

But I won't be absent more than a day, he decided firmly. I am no weakling. With constant applying the salve, I'll surely be fine by tomorrow evening.

"And you know what? You'll have to see a barber soon," added Vestri cheerfully. "That fire somewhat ruined your hair and beard. I'm afraid you couldn't impress the girls right now," he grinned.

Just as Vestri predicted, the wounded really started to arrive very soon and there were many. Darri had absolutely no knowledge about healing, and more than once, Vestri had to point his finger to what he needed because Darri didn't know the names of different instruments or herbs. But somehow, he did manage to perform those little tasks and felt at least a little helpful.

And he was thinking of his brother all the time.

When Vestri told him to lie down to put another dose of the cream over the burned skin, Darri was surprised because it seemed to him that the three hours had passed very quickly. He could say the same for the next three too – there was a lot of work and time flew. The healers were really busy and barely managed to do everything in time. Those with minor wounds were treated by the assistants, and some were directed to the Seventh Level, into the Twenty-first Hall.

Faldur was not among the wounded – and Darri earnestly hoped he wasn't among the fallen.

The night slowly went on and finally, a little before dawn, together with the last wounded dwarves came the news that the Eighteenth Hall and the two little neighbouring caves were conquered. The first step to taking over the Fifth Level was made.

New, fresh squads immediately went down to go further; at the same time, those who fought till now got a well-deserved break. Darri looked towards those coming from below and passing next to one wall, and when he spotted Faldur, alive and uninjured, he breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. And in that moment, he felt so full of energy that he thought he could continue to help Vestri for the whole next day.

Personal diary of King Durin VII
Day 22nd of the Ninth month – morning, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

It's been half a day since my last diary entry. So many things have happened. Both good and bad.

During the night and morning we started to conquer the Second Level. A little while ago I received the reports: almost the whole First Level is in our hands, and on the upper battlefield, we conquered the two halls of the Fifth Level. But with a high price. Higher that I thought it would be.

Yes, I knew that we couldn't reclaim our home without victims. But after a few relatively easy victories, I thought it would be equally simple until the end. However, the orcs managed to consolidate themselves and prepared some cunning traps. I got the report about the fiery trap on the beginning of the Fifth Level. If Koddi hadn't been cautious and realized the threat, it would have been a disaster. Thanks to him, there are not many casualties – at least not because of the fire.

But he was on the front of the squad and too close to the explosion, and he is among the dead. It gives me great sadness. I knew him well; he was a loyal, devoted officer, and will be missed by all of us.

Nardi's condition is unchanged; he is still unconscious, and Frur tells me that he still can't make any prognosis. I hope he'll be all right and I pray to Mahal for that outcome. He saved my life, and I'll owe him forever.

And now... we go further.

D.

-x-x-x-

It was mid-afternoon when Halldis got a pause for that day. She had been working since the dawn; she helped the healers in the Twenty-first Hall for one part of the day, and another part passed in preparing meals and washing the used towels. She noticed some new faces – there were new wounded from the most recent battles, and the hospital was full. As the time was passing, she noticed tired fighters going out to take their break, and the fresh squads were entering to fight further. She also heard news about the fire and explosion and those who died in it. She hadn't seen Darri since last night – since the moment he went into battle – and she thought of him all the time. And of her brother, Tyra, and others.

I hope we just missed each other. While working in the hall, she was focused on her tasks and couldn't watch who was passing through. It was also possible that Darri wouldn't notice her if she was hidden from his view in the moment of his passing by. I hope that is the case. Mahal, please let it be so.

When her break started, she went out hoping to find him among those resting in the camp. The sky was covered with grey clouds and the day was quite gloomy. A lot of soldiers were resting on their sleeping bags, some were eating, and some were sitting and talking. She went around, looking on all sides, but didn't find Darri. And her fear grew.

Maybe he is in battle again, she thought, trying to encourage herself. I'll search for him again later. Until then, I'm going down to the lake. She had already decided earlier that during this break she'd look for Glorrim and Tyra. And just when she meant to start her descend towards the Eastern Gates, she noticed the blond hair on one sleeping bag. She quickly headed that way and, as she came closer, with a sigh of relief she realized it was Darri. He was sleeping, and no matter how much she wanted to hug and hiss him, waking him up was out of the question. She just observed him for several moments. She immediately saw that he had left the whole upper part of his body uncovered – his skin was reddish. Then she noticed that his beard and hair were a little burned, and her eyes widened. So, he was among those hurt in the fire, too, she thought and shivered. But it seemed that his burns were only superficial and that he was quite well.

Sleep and rest. I hope to see you later. She cast a glance around and noticed his brother and friends, who were sleeping too. Then she turned around and went down the mountain. She took huge steps wanting to arrive quickly, but after she fell for the second time, she realized she should be more careful. Although she wanted to find her family and friends as soon as possible, it was more than obvious that hurry wouldn't help her. Quite the contrary, Halldis. Slow down.

The camp beneath the Eastern Gates was much bigger than that on the Seventh Level, so the searching lasted longer. She crossed about one half when she saw her brother. He was sitting on his sleeping bag, and next to him there were their cousins; all of them were eating. A wide smile lit her face, a huge weight fell off her heart and she ran towards them. At that moment she didn't care about what Glorrim thought of hugging in public. She knelt next to him and hugged him tightly.

"Oh Glorrim, you are all right," she whispered when she sat next to him. She didn't stop smiling. But one person was missing, and Halldis turned to Glorrim. "Tyra?" she asked in fear.

"She was here until just half an hour ago," her brother answered. "That was when we arrived here, and she went back on duty."

"Oh, I'm so sorry I didn't see her... I hope she'll be fine." She looked at her brother, studying his face. "You are all right? Not injured?"

"I am fine. Don't worry," he responded shortly, and then continued to eat.

Halldis saw they got bread, cheese and roast meet. She fell silent and waited until they all finished their meal, and then turned to Glorrim again.

"What is going on inside? I heard some news from the upper battlefield – you know, I help the healers there, I am situated in the upper camp – but I don't know what is going on here. How are we progressing? Are there many orcs? Were you in great danger?"

He observed her for several moments.

"It can't go easy nor quickly. But we do progress slowly. We have already started to go upwards. The conquering of the Second Level has begun," he finally said.

Halldis noticed that he hadn't really answered her questions, but from the expression in his eyes, she realized he wouldn't say any more. And really, he changed subject.

"Tell me about you. How do you spend these days?" asked Glorrim.

"As I mentioned, I work on the Seventh Level", said Halldis. "I do all the auxiliary tasks. And that is great. I am happy that my time is fulfilled completely. Otherwise, I'd be crazy with worrying."

"And everything is good?" He paused and looked at her. It seemed as if he was looking for the right words. "The lad is fine?"

She hid a smile.

"Yes, he is," she nodded.

"Yes. Yes. Good," he muttered in a low voice, looking somewhat confused, and Halldis had to bite her lip one more time not to smile openly. Glorrim's interest and showing of concern meant a lot to her.

She talked to her cousins for a little more, but very soon it was time to go back. She knew she'd need more time to climb than she needed for going down, and she hoped she'd be able to spend some time with Darri too. She hugged all of them before leaving, with the inevitable remark that they should be careful. As if they don't know it, Halldis, she rebuked herself in the very next moment. But she couldn't help it. She was worried for all of them, and she couldn't leave without uttering those words.

Then she began to ascend. The closer she was to the camp, the more she was smiling. She hoped that Darri would be awake and that she would find him before he had to go to the next battle. She knew they'd probably have only a few short moments together... but she couldn't wait to see him. Her smile became wider.

It was the evening chill that woke Darri up. Vestri told him that the burns healed best if they were left uncovered – not in touch with the clothes or blankets. While helping the healer, Darri was dressed only in his trousers, and when he lay down to sleep, he didn't cover himself. That was why he felt a little cold now, after a few hours of lying still.

He sat and looked at his chest and stomach. They were still a little reddish, but that was all; there were no blisters or any other signs that something had been wrong. Quite the contrary – it seemed to him that the redness was receding, and he felt much better than a day ago, when the burns were fresh. And not just better than last night, but also noticeably better than this morning, he concluded. Again he made a few testing movements, as if with a sword in his hand, and was very satisfied to see that the pain and prickling had almost disappeared.

I am ready. Tonight I'm going to battle, he thought. At the same time, he decided not to see Vestri, even though the healer said he wanted to check on him one more time. Darri didn't want to hear that he was forbidden to go into battle. Because that was what he would surely do, and he didn't want to pretend he'd listen to the healer's advice, and to do the opposite later. He would see that as cheating, and he liked the healer and didn't want to lie to him. And that which he doesn't know, won't hurt him.

However, as the salve obviously did a great job, Darri took the jar Vestri had given him. There, at least in one thing I'll be the obedient patient and I'll do what he told me to do, he grinned. He put the cream on his skin, and while waiting until it absorbed, he looked around. Faldur wasn't anywhere near, and neither were Bemir and Mami. They all lay down to sleep at about the same time, in the early afternoon, and now he didn't know if they had already gone to battle or to get supper. At the thought of the food his appetite awoke and he decided to eat first, and then to go in.

He had just put on his tunic when he saw Halldis walking towards him. She smiled, and at the sight of her, a big smile appeared on his face too. It was always great to see her. His heart jumped and he quickly rose to his feet. She ran into his embrace and their lips joined in a long, passionate kiss.

"Oh Darri, finally!" whispered Halldis. Then she paused for a moment, looking confused – as if she remembered something – and put her palm on his chest. "Does it hurt? I mean, did I hug you too tight? I passed next to you earlier, while you were sleeping, and saw that you were burned too..."

"Come on, don't worry," he waved his head dismissing her concern, although his chest and stomach did feel a little more sensitive than usually. "I am just fine." Now that she was with him, he felt great and forgot everything else. "And even if I couldn't hug you with all my strength – which I can – I could still kiss you."

And immediately he switched from words to action and kissed her again.

"Mmmm, I am starting to feel dizzy," she said when they separated.

They looked at each other for a few more moments, holding hands and smiling. Yes, everything is just perfect now, he thought, watching her face and eyes. Then they sat on his sleeping bag, close to each other, and he kept her hands in his.

"And you? Are you all right? Do you have any news about your brother?" asked Darri.

"Yes, he is fine!" exclaimed Halldis with a huge smile. "Actually, I'm just coming from him." She told him in short about her afternoon, and looked at him seriously. "Faldur is all right too, I hope?"

"Yes. I saw him before we both went to sleep," he nodded. "I don't know where he is now, though. I woke up a little while ago and didn't see him here. But as I hungry, I'd be very glad to find out he went to get supper and brought one plate for me," he laughed. "And you? Are you very busy?"

"Yes, I am," she answered. "But I don't mind. I won't complain. My work can't compare to what you are going through in battles. And it's very difficult for the healers too." She shook her head, and her face became frowned and sad. "Oh, there are so many sights of blood..."

She fell silent, and he squeezed her hand a little tighter. Yes, the reality was full of ugly images and death – so unlike songs of war which described only moments of glory. In songs, there were no rivers of blood, no sweat pouring down into eyes, no screams of the wounded, no cut off body parts and ripped open bellies. And there were no fiery explosions burning everything in front of them.

"You'll be better once this is behind us," he said in a low voice, hoping that the same would apply to him too. But he knew that he would not forget what he had seen any time soon.

She lifted her gaze towards him, fear and hope mixing in her eyes. He caressed her cheek and she managed to smile a little. He stooped towards her and kissed – this time just gently, barely brushing her lips.

"Oh come on, what is this?!" a merry voice behind their backs spoke. "I know that you would like a nice private cave just for yourselves, but you'll have to endure my company!"

Faldur stood in front of them, grinning from ear to ear. He held two plates in his hands.

"Yes, we do mind your presence," replied Darri, but even as he started to utter those words, a big smile appeared on his face too.

"And that is thank you for bringing you supper?" asked Faldur with raised eyebrows, pretending to be offended.

"Oh, you are the best brother in the whole Arda!" said Darri cheerfully. The sight of fresh bread and stew aroused his appetite even more.

"All right, all right, I forgive you..." said Faldur and sat on his sleeping bag, opposite of Darri and Halldis, and handed him the plate. "I am sorry, Halldis, I didn't know you'd be here too. So I didn't bring anything for you," he added, apologizing.

"Oh, don't worry," she replied quickly. "I'll easily have a snack later."

"Did you have some rest too?" asked Darri, looking at his brother.

"Yes," answered Faldur between two bites. "I woke up a little earlier than you, so I went to take supper."

"Any news?" Darri continued with questions.

"From what I heard while waiting in the queue, almost the whole Sixth Level is in our hands, and we progressed a little more on the Fifth," responded Faldur. He ate in silence for a few moments, and then he frowned. "Surely we would have progressed even better had it not been for that hapless start..."

"You, uhm..." started Halldis, and Darri saw she was looking him with concern. "You were very close to that fire? As I said, I passed this way earlier and saw you when you were sleeping, and I saw your burns. And I see that your hair and beard were caught in the fire too..."

Her expression was scared and Darri immediately smiled to chase her fears away.

"Hey, don't worry, it's nothing serious. It's just superficial and it doesn't hurt at all anymore," he said nonchalantly. "Also, hair and beard will grow again," he added cheerfully.

"Oh, I see," she replied, obviously still a little dubious, and then she continued, "and what really happened? I heard there was an explosion, but I haven't had the chance to talk to anybody who was there. I only heard rumours, second- and third-hand talking."

While eating, Darri told her very shortly about the trap involving fire and hot grease; he didn't describe the flame filling a big part of the hall, nor how it swallowed several bodies. In the end, he told her about his participation in the transport of the wounded, and how he stayed in the hospital helping Vestri.

Soon they finished eating and got up. Darri put on his chainmail and vambraces, and prepared his helmet and sword. Standing next to him, Halldis yawned and stretched.

"Will you rest a little more?" he asked.

"No," she shook her head. For a moment she looked towards the darkening sky, and then to him again. "My break is over, too. The fact that I didn't spend it resting, but paced down and up, is my problem. But I am fine, I am not very tired. Now I'll go back to work."

"Probably nobody would bear a grudge against you if you returned a little later," noted Faldur while he also got ready. "You have the right to rest a little bit."

"Indeed, probably nobody would – except for myself. The same rules apply to all of us. I can't – I mustn't – rest while the others work," she said resolutely.

Darri looked at her and smiled.

"You are awesome", he said in a low voice, with respect.

"You are too," she replied. "All of you are."

She abruptly spread her arms and hugged him. "Be careful," she whispered.

He held her close for a few moments.

"I will. Don't worry. Just a little more, and everything will be over."

He kissed her. And then came the time for each of them to take their own way.

-x-x-x-

Personal diary of King Durin VII
Day 22nd of the Ninth month – evening, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

I have just received the news that we can proclaim the whole First Level conquered. True, there are a few more caves still unchecked, but from what the scouts say, it seems they are empty. We are slowly progressing through the Second Level, too. It is a good thing that we are many and that the fresh squads can continuously replace tired fighters and go to new battles.

About two hours ago I got the message that Nardi regained consciousness during the afternoon. I hurried to the hall in which he was situated, but by the time I arrived, he was sleeping again. Frur told me that Nardi was awake for a very short while and that he didn't understand much of what was going on around him. He added that it was normal for severe head injuries, and that recovery would be slow. But even that short awaking is a good sign and I hope that things will go for the better from now.

Noin is well and uninjured. Every day I pray to Mahal that he stays that way.

I'm going to have a short rest, and then to battle again.

D.

Durin was sitting with Norik and several other Guard officers in the Ninth Hall, the biggest one on the Second Level. It was morning, and during the night they conquered some more caves of the Second Level. He received the information that the progress on the Fifth Level also went well, and two scouts were just sent into the tunnel ascending towards the Third Level, to check that there were no more nasty surprises.

Then Ragir appeared in the Hall. Two days ago, Durin sent him and a few more experienced scouts into the Main Tunnel leading towards the west. Having entered, Ragir looked around, and then immediately headed towards the King and the officers when he spotted them.

"Ragir! Come, sit down!" the King called him. There were several folding chairs around the table, and two were free. "Did everything go well? What did you discover?" he asked when the scout settled.

"Your Highness, yes, everything was well", Ragir nodded. "Considering that we had to be very careful in case of running into orcs we progressed very slowly and we weren't able to inspect more than ten miles in length. We passed by several branch-tunnels leading towards the mines and did a quick inspection of them but everything was quiet down there, so we continued. We also passed by the branch-tunnel ascending towards the Third Level and the one towards the Seventh Level but we saw no orcs there either. After that last branch we went a little more ahead and then we had to return."

Durin nodded. He knew they wouldn't be able to explore much; ten miles was a great success. The Main Tunnel – the Main Road, as it had been called in the ancient times – was the biggest and widest tunnel, connecting the western and eastern entrance into Khazad-dϋm. It was not a perfect straight line, but was slightly descending from both entrances; the lowest point of that gentle arc was in the middle, beneath the very top of the mountain. From the Main Road, many tunnels branched down, towards the mines of Zirakzigil and even further, towards the depths beneath Barazinbar where deposits of truesilver lay. Two tunnels branched upwards – to the Third and Seventh Level – those mentioned by Ragir.

"But although everything was empty we did discover something interesting Your Highness," continued the scout. "In the Main Tunnel we found signs of passing of some bigger group. Of course no footprints can be left on the rocky ground but we found other signs, fresh ones. Garbage and several burned out candles and torches. And we were able to deduce that the group had been moving westwards."

Durin looked at him pensively, and it was obvious that the others were pondering the news too.

"Probably females and cubs in escape," Norik commented, and Durin nodded. The same thought crossed his mind too, because so far, they hadn't seen one single female or cub in any cave.

"Although you say that everything seems quiet, I think that we shouldn't relax and conclude that all the mines are completely empty," responded the King. He learned his lesson and knew that he shouldn't be too laid back or self-confident. "However, as we have already conquered a good part of the terrain, I believe that we can spare..." he paused and did a quick calculation. "...three to five hundred soldiers and send them to start clearing the mines – in case some orcs remained there. Do you agree with that number, Norik?"

The officer nodded, and Durin turned to the scout again.

"Any point in going after the fugitives? What do you think, how far ahead are they?"

Ragir seemed to be thinking for a moment or two, and then he shook his head.

"I am afraid not Your Highness. Judging by the condition of the tracks and remains I'd say they have at least one whole day of advantage, and more probably two."

"They surely started their escape soon after we arrived," one of the officers remarked.

"If that is so, there is probably nothing we can do about them. As for the mines, let four hundred soldiers start the clearing," said Durin, and then remembered one more thing they should talk about. "What do you think, what is the probability that the orcs do the same to us as we did to them in the beginning? That is, could fugitives, or those who are maybe hiding in the mines, start the fire somewhere, so that they chase away our fighters with smoke? Or could those in the caves that we still have to conquer do that? It could be a problem."

"As for the fugitives, I think it is highly unlikely," said Norik pensively. "To make a big fire, which would produce a lot of smoke, they would need a lot of woods. I don't think that females escaping with cubs would carry a big load. They probably have only the basic provisions."

"And if the rest of orc troops really have enough woods for something like that, we will simply fall back behind the nearest vertical shaft and we'll wait for the smoke to go out," added another officer. "Yes, it would mean that we won't progress as fast as we would like to, but we have time, after all. We'll simply wait until they run out of their wood supply, and once the smoke dissipates, we'll attack."

Durin nodded. Actually, he thought the same, but he wanted to hear other opinions and see if his judgement was good.

Then the scouts from the tunnel towards the Third Level returned; from what they could see, they could conclude that there were no traps.

"Then we can set off. Let the fresh soldiers come forward. We go to the Third Level," said the King and rose. He intended to lead, but in that moment a courier approached him.

"Your Highness, I have a message for you from Frur, the healer. He says that the general is awake and feeling a little better than last night," she said.

"Good. Thank you," replied Durin. Having heard the news, he changed his plan. There were more than enough officers nearby to lead the next attack, and he would lead some other battle. Now he'd go to see his general and friend.

However, it turned out the visit happened neither now, nor soon; it took him two hours to reach the hall in which Nardi was. Some of the tunnels were quite long, and more than once couriers and officers approached him carrying news and detained him. He had already thought that, by the time he reached Nardi, he would be sleeping again, just as yesterday.

However, this time he had better luck. When he finally arrived at the Fifth Hall on the First Level, he went to Frur first and the healer led him to Nardi's pallet. The sturdy dwarf was dozing, but he opened his eyes on the very first sound. The healer withdrew, and the King sat on the ground next to his general and observed him attentively. Nardi was pale and seemed exhausted; Frur told him that nausea often followed severe head injuries, and that he was allowed stay only for a short time. He also warned that it was normal if the patient spoke incoherently. Yet, Nardi's eyes seemed lucid, and his lips curved into a smile.

"How many?"

Durin blinked in confusion. How many... what?

"How many days? How long have you been here? About a day and a half," he tried to answer, although he wasn't sure what Nardi was asking. "How many halls have we conquered in the meantime? We conquered the whole First Level and most of the Second and now..."

"No, no, no," Nardi interrupted in a low voice. It seemed he had no strength to speak any louder than this, but the impatience in his voice was more than obvious. "I found out all that information earlier, from the healer. I didn't let him go until he told me, although he kept repeating that I shouldn't exhaust myself." He paused and closed his eyes, and Durin thought that the healer was absolutely right that Nardi would get tired quickly; of course, Nardi would never admit it. Then he opened his eyes, and despite his friend's current condition, Durin saw in those eyes the fire he had known so well. "How many orcs did you kill in the meantime? What is the current result?"

Durin stared at him. And kept staring. Of all possible questions... this.

But he knew from long ago that his general was a very special person. He smiled.

"I didn't count."

"Hm. Considering that I can't go back to battle immediately, I'll probably lose the bet," said Nardi, frowning.

Durin smiled again and leaned a little forward.

"Not that you are not allowed to fight immediately, but you are not allowed to go anywhere for a long time. So yes, I'll probably win. But never mind. I'll do the forfeit." He paused and got serious, and looked into Nardi's eyes. "Of course, you were right, and I was wrong. And you saved my life. Thank you."

Nardi didn't respond at once, and after a few moments he slightly nodded.

"Any time. I'd confront a Balrog for you, if necessary," he said in a low voice.

Fortunately, that is something you won't have to do, my friend. But... The rest of his thoughts Durin uttered out loud.

"I'd do the same for you," he said seriously.

Nardi smiled and nodded again, and then closed his eyes.

"I believe you'll be glad to know that I'm listening go your advice. I am not that reckless and over-confident anymore. We cautiously check if there are any traps before we start the battles," said Durin, but then realized that Nardi maybe hadn't heard him at all. He fell asleep again in an instant.

Get rest. And when you are healthy again, you'll walk through the free Khazad-dϋm.

-x-x-x-

"They got us quicker than I thinked."

"There's more o'them then us. And they better equipped and armoured. What you expected?"

"I thinked we hold on longer and kill more o'them. And now there only fivehundred us here, and fourhundred on upper level. Cursed dwarfses, they gonna kill us all soon."

"But we can slow them a little. There's that one tunnel there, three caves further, where the rocks is weak and where we can move supports. So roof falls down on the heads of cursed dwarfses."

"Haaaa... good idea, good. But they gonna get us any way."

"Not me."

"Heh?"

"Not me. You didn't noticed that some o'us already scampered into that tunnel there?"

A movement of the hand, showing direction.

"I payed no attention."

"You shoulda. That tunnel go into main tunnel and then to west. That is one where our women escaped. And some others. I go escape too."

"Heh...? I wanna escape too!"

"I don't care if you do or don't. Just tell those nitwits to bust supports."

"I gonna tell them. And then I go."

~ eight days later ~

Personal diary of King Durin VII
Day 1st of the Tenth month, Year 672, Fourth Age of Middle-earth

Where to begin? How to articulate all I want to say?

For the beginning, three words: it is over.

Noin is fine. Ernis too – she is recovering excellently and is walking better and better. Nardi is also getting much better. According to his healer's directions, he still shouldn't get up, but I see that he starts to disobey the order. If his leg wasn't broken, which means that he can't walk without crutches, I think that even Mahal couldn't stop him from going to battle.

Altogether, it has lasted twelve days. We conquered all the levels – all the big halls and all those numerous other caves. The closer we were to victory, I had the feeling that it was getting harder: we were so close, yet so far. For all those fallen in the very end I wonder if anything could have been done differently, and if those deaths could have been avoided.

And it really was difficult in the end – the orcs opposed us with all their strength to the very last one, and they caused additional troubles by partially collapsing of one tunnel. That event caused more casualties and we spent a lot of time until we managed to clear the tunnel from the debris.

Some of the orcs tried to escape through the passage descending from the Third Level towards the Main Tunnel. But by that time, our soldiers – those sent to inspect the mines – had already progressed forward enough, so they intercepted the fugitives and destroyed them all.

Now, the only thing remaining is just that – the clearing of the mines and lower passages. And although it is a big space – the labyrinth of the caves and tunnels forming the mines is very large – I think that I can use the word "only". Because it turned out that those lower levels checked so far were empty, so I believe the same applies to the rest. Maybe some more orcs are looking for the opportunity to escape that way, but all those tunnels are a dead-end.

We have so much more work to do. Beginning with getting rid of the bodies of the orcs. There are some two to three thousand more that we haven't resolved till now. Like the other bodies earlier, they will be tossed through the crevices into the deepest chasms and there they'll turn into dust. Then we have to thoroughly clear all the caves from the orcish things which will also last for days or, more probably, weeks. But compared to warfare, it is a small thing; I can dub those "pleasant problems", after all. And once that is resolved too, our people can start moving in.

Moving into Khazad-dϋm. Oh, how great it sounds! I haven't doubted our success for a single moment. For a long time, I have felt – known – that we'll make it. I knew the moment had come and that it was my fate to lead this quest.

I am happy. And sad. Because the price of our success is a little more than nine hundred fallen. To be more precise – nine hundred and fifty six heroes and heroines who laid down their lives to make this dream come true. They will never be forgotten, and every year a special ceremony will be held in their honour.

I have often wondered – and especially now, when I know how much time and how many lives this victory required – how did Balin son of Fundin expect to reclaim Khazad-dϋm with only about five hundred dwarves that he took with him? They conquered only several halls and mines, and held the positions for a short time. Unfortunately, it was an attempt doomed to fail. But they were brave, and I'll always admire them.

And now Khazad-dϋm is ours again, and that is how it will remain. Until the very end of Arda, there will be light again in deep places, there will be ringing of hammers and the sound of our songs in the halls.*

D.

-x-x-x-

As the night was falling, Darri and Faldur were descending towards the camp next to the lake. It is finally over, he thought, not for the first time that day. Although he slept very little in the past two weeks and the battles were very exhausting, it was his spirit that was much more tired than his body.

What remained was the clearing of the mines, but from what he had heard, the task mostly come down to checking nearly empty tunnels and mines, and almost no fighting. He expected that they'd be called again when it would be their squad's turn, but that shouldn't be a difficult or dangerous task because there were very few orcs hiding in the mines.

Finally over. He had had enough of death. The war was necessary to reclaim their home, but this was the most difficult period in their lives. They lost their father... and their childhood friend Bemir would never start to create the new collection of his figures. They also lost two cousins and several acquaintances.

He would never forget any of them.

-x-x-x-

On the next day, Halldis came to Kheled-zβram around noon, as was the arrangement. Just like the first time she came close and looked at it, she was in awe again. She foresaw it would be the same every time; the dark blue surface full of stars surpassed even the most beautiful starry night and wasn't something to get used to, or to become indifferent to the look of it. But it was not just the beauty, but also the deeper meaning of the place: it would always have a special symbolism for her people. When looking at the surface, she felt as if she was leaving the present day and traveling through time back to the age before the sun and moon, when the first and the oldest among them first established Khazad-dϋm. Now it was in their hands again, and she hoped it would remain so forever.

Glorrim was all right, their cousins too, as well as Tyra. During the previous days she saw them shortly a few more times, and this morning they gathered all together again. She hugged Tyra tightly and returned the bracelet; however, she would never hug Lotti anymore. Halted  at the very beginning of life, she thought with tears in her eyes. We are young, and he was ten years younger than us

"Halldis."

She lifted her head only when she heard her name; she didn't notice Darri at all while he was approaching. He sat close to her and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks away.

"For Lotti," she said in a trembling voice, looking him in the eyes. "For your father... for all of them."

He embraced her and they stayed like that, close to each other. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she gazed at the lake again.

"Now the new life begins," she said, still observing Kheled-zβram. It was almost a balm for the soul; something in it brought peace and comfort. "I can't wait to move in and start building our new homes." All she wanted was to leave the war behind and to begin the normal life again.

"And to dig in the mines," added Darri. Her arm was around her shoulders, and she lifted her head towards him. Despite sadness, his presence elicited a smile; when she was with him, everything seemed better.

"I am not a miner. But you'll take me to see them," she said. She had absolutely no knowledge about ores and minerals, but depths attracted her irresistibly – as any dwarf – and she was sure that it would be even more interesting with Darri.

"Of course. And you'll show me your creative workshop," he replied with a smile. He looked her for a few moments, and then gently kissed her.

"We all lost something on this quest... I mean, someone," said Halldis in a low voice when they separated. "Still, I gained so much, too."

He smiled. "So did I, my love."

She smiled. The present moment was filled with sorrow; the war was still too near, the losses too fresh. But the future... yes, Darri and she were still in the beginning of their relationship and she couldn't know what might happen... but it seemed the future looked nice.

-x-x-x-

* Paraphrase of the quote: "(...) and there was light again in deep places, and the ringing of hammers and the harping of harps (...)."
"Peoples of Middle-earth", IV Durin's Folk

~ 15 months later / October, Year 673 of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth ~

-x-x-x-

It is Durin's Day, and the new year begins.

This is the second Durin's Day since we have settled in Khazad-dϋm. Even the first year was good, although the start was not easy. After cleaning the space, which had lasted several weeks, we slowly moved into the new homes and started the new life. The mining enterprise is going great and we have developed good trade with the Rohirrim, Gondorians and Beornings.

I expect that the second year will be even better than the first. The deposits of gold, jewels and truesilver are still plentiful, and we'll be able to exploit them for many more generations. The father of our people was really generous when creating this part of Arda.

I fulfilled my promises. The ancient decorations in the halls, the bridge, the Eastern Gates, Durin's Stone next the lake – they are all renewed. And yesterday – just in the right moment, exactly as it was planned – the reconstruction of Durin's Tower was finished. I stand on the top of the tower, on the pinnacle of Zirakzigil, just as he stood more than eight thousand years ago, and I look around.

Towards the north and south a magnificent mountain range rises, and more than a hundred miles towards the west and east – as far as my eyes can see – huge green plains stretch. It is a beautiful day; everything is bathed in the sun.

I close my eyes and put my hands on the stony wall of the tower. My spirit merges with the spirit of the stone and descends through the mountain, to its foundations, and even further – through the depths beneath all Three Peaks. I feel every stair of the Endless Stairs, every tunnel, every gem, every rock – down to the very last and smallest little stone of our home. And I can sense: they are happy, because our people touches and handles them again.

I open my eyes and I am on the surface again, standing on the tower. But suddenly everything is different. Like on some other occasions before, I don't see things only through my eyes, but also through the eyes of the kings before me. I see and feel what they had experienced.

There is no sun. The sky is black and full of stars. The world is young. I feel joy because of the underground in front of me, impatient to discover its secrets. The rocks beneath my feet are still intact and hardly wait for the touch of the dwarves.

Beautiful moments are passing; pickaxes and hammers are singing. Countless days and nights go by.

Difficult moments come. The enemies are here. Shadow and Flame awakens; darkness spreads. The pain of losing the home is deeper than the pain of any wound caused by the sword.

But in the end, the light prevails.

Another blink, and everything is in its place. I am in the Fourth Age again, on the top of Zirakzigil. The sun is in the sky, and the renewed tower is under my feet. Beautiful, as in the past. I'll soon go down and join my people. There will be a great celebration today. Durin's Day.

My destiny is fulfilled. Our people are in the place that belongs to us – and to which we belong. When my day comes to go to Mahal's Halls, I'll be peaceful and calm.

-x-x-x-

In the valley below the Eastern Gates, much lower than the top of Zirakzigil and the tower where their King stood, Halldis and Darri were sitting on the shore of Kheled-zβram. Just as Halldis predicted more than a year ago, the look at its starry surface delighted her again and again, no matter how many times she had already been here.

The life in Khazad-dϋm was good. It took a while before everything was cleared, but once they settled in, all of them started to work with passion greater than they had ever shown in Erebor; everyone wanted to turn Khazad-dϋm into the place of beauty, wellbeing and song as soon as possible. It had always been special for them – their greatest and oldest kingdom – and Halldis had a feeling that the place itself moved them to give their maximum. Time slowly healed their wounds, and all businesses were blooming; Halldis was so full of orders that she barely managed to fulfil them all in time.

Little by little, she and Darri discovered all the corners of their home. When they had free time, they roamed through the halls and tunnels and admired the decorations, runes, pillars and all the creations of the ancient artisans.

Khazad-dϋm was not as beautiful as she had imagined, she concluded in the end. It was so much more beautiful.

Another reason – the very big reason – for which the past year was great for her was Darri. They spent all their free moments together: they were going for many long walks, they talked and discovered mutual interests. Every moment with him was magical.

"Today the stars on the surface are even brighter than usually, do you agree?" asked Darri.

Tilting her head, Halldis paid attention and beheld the water, and finally nodded.

"Maybe it is because it's Durin's Day," she offered an explanation. "Today everything is more beautiful than usually."

As always on Durin's Day, there would be a great celebration of their new year; in fact, the festivity had already started, and it would last until dawn. But Darri invited her to go to the lake first, in the early afternoon. "It is a pity not to take advantage of such a beautiful sunny day," he had said. Of course, she merrily accepted.

"There's the crown in the middle... and the bird there... and the hunter over there..." Darri commented the groups of the stars reflecting on the surface, at the same time pointing his finger towards them. "I really think that the stars on the lake are more beautiful than those in the sky."

"So do I," she nodded in agreement.

"And there is the ring too... do you see it?" he asked with a smile.

Halldis looked at the surface again, quite confused. This was the first time she had heard of that constellation.

"No, I don't. Where...?" she said, frowning, then turned her head towards him and looked at him questioningly. She met his cheerful eyes and a wide smile.

"The ring. It is here," he replied and extended his hand.

She then realized there was a small box on his outstretched palm. He opened it, and she saw the golden ring in it. Her eyes opened wide.

"Halldis daughter of Brirvin, will you marry me?" he asked seriously.

Her heart started pounding so fast and excited as never before in her life. She watched him for just one moment, and then spread her arms and threw herself onto him, hugging him tight.

"Oh, Darri, yes! Yes!" she exclaimed.

Her soul fluttered, and her eyes filled with happy tears. She was overjoyed. She was the happiest dwarfess on Arda.

-x-x-x-

Durin's Day.

A day of happiness and merriment. In the free Khazad-dϋm, home of the dwarves. A beautiful day.

Just as all the days would be beautiful. From now to eternity.

-x-x-x

~ The End ~

-x-x-x-

One more time – a huge thank you to Curiouswombat. I couldn't make this without you. *hugs*

And thank you to all of you who reviewed the story throughout this journey. I cannot express how much your support meant to me. *hugs*





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