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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.
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."
He fell asleep with Halldis' face in front of his eyes and still feeling her lips on his.
The journey towards the south continued. Barazinbar, Zirakzigil and Bundushathûr – 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.
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.
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-dûm 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-zâram. 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-dûm, 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-zâram."
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-dûm. And he knew that he would be in front of his troops, the first to do it.
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