Warnings: Angst, death, violence
Word Count: 2630
Disclaimer: If I owned the hobbit there would be even more minor characters.
Summary: Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin and every time a Durin was born, the Valar held their breath to see which way the coin would fall.
It began with the first and the last of Aulë's children, the dwarf lords whom he carved from rock and stone.
They were the first mortals to awaken upon Arda's rich soil and the last of them, the youngest, burned like a falling star. For when the Smith was carving him, the Vala's chisel slipped and three drops of his blood fell upon his child's brow. This gift soaked deep into the stone which bore him and when Durin became flesh, a sliver of his father's power shone within his eyes.
The dwarf's first breath sent a shiver through the tapestry of fate that Vairë was weaving and every member of the Valar felt the clutch of icy fingers on their heart. For the world had been born from the music of their spirits and the gods of Arda feared what a mortal might create with such bright fire in his blood.
So Manwë stepped forward as their eldest and their leader, returning Aulë's children into slumber until his brethren could control the damage that their Smith had done. Yet even with all of his siblings ranged against him, the Vala would not consent to let his children die.
“My khazâd are a part of our world now, born from the very bones of Arda, and to cut their lives short would be to strike against the very thing that we have made.”
And he would not bend, no matter how the other Ainur pleaded with him, arguing that Mandos would be gentle in his reaping and return the dwarves as empty vessels for the Smith to try again. Even when Estë suggested that only Durin need be culled, Aulë would not accept her mercy and the others could do nothing without his consent.
“He will live. All of my children will live as I have made them and this world will prosper in their hands. For they were born to hear the song of its creation and whatever power Durin carries within his spirit will only aid him in the fulfillment of this charge.”
“We do not doubt your skill or vision, brother, but your child's birth shook the very fabric of Arda's future and there is no telling how he may disrupt my design,” Vairë spoke up, the Weaver's hand clenched tightly in her snarled weft. “Can you not reforge him as simple flesh and bone?”
“It is too late for that. My sons live already and I cannot remake their souls. However, you should not fear so deeply, sister, because Durin's time is short. He will live and age and die as all mortals do, leaving behind only that which he has wrought. Thus while my gift will make him great, my spirit will be whole soon enough. One short lifetime and no more.”
“You are wrong,” Nienna whispered and even Manwë fell silent to hear what she might say, for the Vala's endless tears sometimes allowed her glimpses into the sorrow still to come. “This power will be borne by all of Durin's eldest children and whether it is a blessing or a curse, I do not know. Because it will be a fire blazing in their spirits, the likes of which no mortal heart was meant to bear. If your khazâd have the strength to master it, then yes, they will work wonders, but the line between greatness and madness is very thin indeed. Yet you are also right that no one may stop this now that the die is cast.”
A darkness seemed to fall over the gathering when Nienna finished and even Aulë could not suppress a shiver of dread at the path which she laid out. Yet there was still hope and perhaps the good would outweigh the destruction in the end.
So the Smith asked Nienna if she could see which way his youngest son would fall and in answer, she removed a disc from her necklace, one side a brilliant gold and the other marked with death. The Lady of Mercy wrapped a strand of Vairë's thread around the coin to tie the lives of Arda to its magic and then placed the disc within her brother's hand.
“Spin it,” she told the Vala. “Spin it for your Durin and for each eldest child at the moment of his father's final breath and perhaps you will know the path they tread.”
Aulë did as the Lady counseled, throwing her disc into the air with a silent prayer to Ilúvatar and all the Valar watched unblinking as it spun end over end. It hung in the air for what seemed an eternity, his creations lost in limbo even as the world moved on. But when the coin finally landed, a bright gold circle shone beneath the stars and the Kings and Queens of Arda breathed a great sigh of relief.
With this blessing on Durin's future, Manwë released Aulë's children to walk upon the earth at last, though his winds scattered them to the far corners of the land.
And Nienna's coin shone true, for the dwarf lord built a great city within the Misty Mountains, his people finding beauty where others feared to tread. Indeed, Khazad-dûm grew to be the most prosperous of all the dwarven kingdoms beneath his skillful hand and when his long life finally drew to a close, no one could deny his legacy.
However, fate was not always kind to the Smith's children and when the first khuzd was born with death marked upon his soul, Aulë fell to his knees and wept.
This was Durin III, who inherited his grandfather's kingdom when the War of Wrath claimed his father and for a time he ruled it well. Yet there was a hunger within his spirit, a greed for more than just the drop of power that lived within his blood, and so the dwarf fell easily when given one of Sauron's bands.
The ring twisted him subtly toward darkness, feeding his greed and paranoia until the dwarf lord began to cut all of his kingdom's trading ties. Slowly the dwarves of Khazad-dûm stopped sharing any of their gifts with other races, hoarding all their treasures beneath stone and metal, and Aulë could only watch as his brightest children grew ever more suspicious and insular.
Yet this tragedy was nothing to the sins of Durin's later years when the dark lord Sauron began his campaign to rule over Arda's lands. In the first months of war, the Smith hoped his child might find redemption as the dwarves joined their allies in battle against the tide of darkness sweeping forth.
But this hope was not to be fulfilled. For when the fight turned against his armies, the dwarf lord showed his true colors and the death marked upon his soul rode forth to reap.
Durin III retreated into Khazad-dûm and sealed the gates behind him, leaving his allies and those dwarves who were not quick enough to follow stranded on the hills. Sauron's forces drove them back against the mountain and with their only escape cut off, the earth ran dark with blood. The vultures circled for months after this slaughter and the land itself was barren for decades, the rock tainted by the bodies of the slain. Yet the dwarf lord remained deaf to the sorrow outside his walls, burying his head within the sand as all of Eriador fell under Sauron's sway. It was other heroes who would eventually defeat him, other heroes who fought the darkness while he stayed locked within the mountain with his hoard.
Thus while Durin III would be all but forgotten in the footnotes of history, he was a scourge to everyone who knew him and even his own people died cursing his foul name.
Yet for all the horrors his madness caused, Aulë could not claim the dwarf before his time; this was the bargain that the Vala's blood had made. So it was a bright day in Valinor when this Durin finally breathed his last and his Maker gathered that tortured spirit back into his embrace, whispering an apology for all the pain his error had wrought.
The Smith wept again centuries later when Nienna's coin pointed toward death once more and indeed, Durin VI led his kingdom into ruin and despair. It was greed which drove him as it always was within the darkest of Aulë's children and the Vala began to wonder what flaws must lay in his design.
The dwarf lord ordered his miners to dig ever deeper, always searching for new veins of gold and mithril and all the treasures that his people crafted were not enough to feed his avarice. Indeed, nothing could fill the gaping hole within him and eventually disaster struck. Because there was evil sleeping within the earth, evil from a bygone age, and the dwarves who woke it perished in a burst of flame.
The Balrog had fled deep within the rock of Arda to escape the Valar's fury when the rest of its kind had perished in the War of Wrath so long ago. But time had not diminished its power or its fury and all of Khazad-dûm trembled beneath that burning gaze.
Nothing could stop the creature as it swept through those hallowed halls, leaving only char and carnage in its wake and the greatest dwarven warriors had no choice but to flee beneath the fury of its blade. Although Durin VI was not there to see the destruction of his people, for he was slain in the first line of defense. He was slain charging foolishly against the Balrog, the blade of his fathers melted to slag beneath the monster's flame.
The one survivor of this fight would never speak of it, turning haunted eyes to drink when asked about that day. Because the creature's flame ate the dwarf lord from the inside out, Durin VI somehow still living even as he screamed. His agony echoed off the grand statues of his kingdom and it was a mercy when the Balrog finally claimed his head.
Yet for every member of Durin's line whom Nienna's coin marked with darkness, there were more who lived with honor and led Aulë's children to new heights. Even when these souls died young, they reached for greatness and their glory was sung each evening within the Vala's halls.
There was Náin I, who was slain by the Balrog only one year after his father, but held out against the creature long enough to protect his clan's retreat. His successor founded the Kingdom Under the Mountain, building Erebor into a shining beacon of hope for Arda's lesser races, and his namesake led a life of watchful peace until he fell to dragon claws. Óin and Glóin and Thorin were all kings in spirit as well as name, beloved by their subjects and their kin. While their lives were not always easy and sometimes ended before their Maker might have wished, their hearts were true and their every action helped to keep Aulë's music in the world.
These bright children were the Smith's solace every time his gift was turned to evil, his solace as shadows grew upon the earth. For with each generation, the Vala's blood seemed to become more twisted, until even those destined for greatness began to fall instead.
Dáin I was the first to fail Nienna's promise, though Aulë did not realize what his death meant at the time. For while the dwarf lord died battling against dragons like his father, the years before his death were not ill-spent. And yet, after he had gathered his child's spirit, Aulë found Vairë crying over a deep slash in her tapestry. The weave had been meant to show the dwarves' triumphant defense of their kingdom, the Grey Mountains ringing with their hammers for centuries. Instead Dáin's passing had severed those threads as true as any dagger and Aulë did not know what this could mean.
The Vala did not realize how far the balance had shifted until Thrór succumbed to the madness lurking in the deepest corners of his mind. This dwarf lord was supposed to rule in light and wisdom, reclaiming Erebor for his people, and Thrór did make the Kingdom Under the Mountain great once more.
However, he also made it cold and greedy, the gold of Nienna's coin becoming tarnished as darkness twisted his pride into scorn and avarice. Thrór saw the Arkenstone as a symbol of his superiority over all other races and even his allies felt the sharp side of his tongue. Aulë could only watch as the dwarf alienated everyone around him, turning his love inward to rest on treasure rather than the living souls beneath his care, and when the dragon came, the Vala knew that Thrór had finally brought retribution down.
Yet even after Smaug had conquered Erebor in a wave of death and fire, the dwarf king's madness ran unchecked. Instead of seeking aid from king or ally, the lord decided to reconquer Khazad-dûm, leading his worn and battered people into a war they could not win.
The blood spilled at Azanulbizar, including one of Thrór's own children, was a red stain on his spirit and the dwarf wept when he saw what he had wrought. For he had passed from Arda in that battle, his life taken by Azog's crooked blade, and now that Aulë's curse no longer burned within him, his eyes were clear again.
So he wept with the Vala when his people left the field broken and battered, his son Thráin taking up the mantle on his death. Yet the dwarf was not long for leadership, Nienna's coin spinning long as he wobbled in his fate.
Aulë could hardly bear to watch it any longer, now that gold was no sign of joy to come, and even though Thráin came up shining, he never had a chance. The dwarf was captured and tortured in the heart of Dol Guldur, and each time he screamed in agony, dark lines pulsed across the surface of the Nienna's coin. He was tortured until there was nothing left but a hollow shell of madness, his spirit beyond even his Maker's sight.
However, when Thráin finally died and the Vala's legacy passed on, Aulë found the strength to hope again. For he had spun the coin for Thorin as he always did, as he must despite his sorrow, thrown it into the air and waited for doom to fall.
But after the disc had landed, the Smith could not believe his eyes.
“What does this mean?” Aulë asked the Lady of Mercy, showing her the coin when she answered his urgent summons, and he could not keep the worry from his tone.
Yet Nienna just smiled serenely in the face of his panic and for once her eyes were dry. “It means that your curse is coming to an end at last. This khuzd, this Thorin, will be the last of Durin's blood to suffer because he has the strength to choose his future for himself. He will walk a path of his own making with either greatness or madness as his guide and in so doing, will decide the fate of Durin's line.”
So Aulë watched Thorin carefully as he led the Sigin-tarâg in exile, watched and waited for the fate of his dearest children to be decided by Thorin's hand. But each and every evening when Arien had guided the sun beyond the edge of Arda, the Smith would return to his chambers and find that naught had changed.
Nienna's coin still stood where it had landed all those years ago, balanced perfectly on the edge between the darkness and the light.