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Darri observed the entrance into Khazad-dûm. 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.
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-dûm 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-dûm after Balin son of Fundin, hero of the War of Erebor, and Gimli son of Glóin, 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-dûm, 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-dûm 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-dûm was just beginning.
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