Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain, came awake with a sudden start and a strangled shout of alarm. It was utterly dark, and his shout echoed in the stifling blackness. He tried to blink his eyes, and found it made little difference.
"Peace, Child of Durin," said a voice, and he gritted his teeth.
"What is this place?" he asked, and the voice chuckled.
Where was the Hobbit? Where was the frozen lake? Last he recalled, he had been bleeding to death at the edges of the silent battlefield. His madness had passed, but it had exacted too high a price. His family was spent and gone, his nephews cold and stiffened in death and rent with many wounds. Their soft-handed and great-hearted Burglar had forgiven him, even as he wept over Thorin's broken body.
He did not deserve such forgiveness.
"You have come to a place of rest, Thorin son of Thráin," said the voice, and Thorin blinked furiously, trying to make out the voice's owner in the gloom. His excellent Dwarven dark- vision did not seem to be working, and he began to push himself up onto his elbows. He was unclad, and his skin shivered and prickled in the icy darkness.
"Explain," he snarled. "And show yourself!"
"Patience," the voice chided. It did not sound angry at Thorin's disrespect. Rather, it sounded fond, even fatherly. "Do calm yourself. Your sight will return."
"Where am I?"
"As I said, you are come to a place of rest. Here you may finally find peace."
"Peace? There shall be no peace in me until I have your answer!" Thorin growled. He was tiring of these riddles. "Speak plainly! Where am I? I was last upon the withered heath before the gates of Erebor. Have you moved me? What have you done to steal the light from my eyes?"
"Perhaps I erred when I made you so hasty," mused the voice. "I say again: Calm yourself! I will not repeat it another time - three times is quite enough. And you are old enough to think better of asking such foolish questions, unlike your chattering nephews. However did you manage to control that temper of yours? They are nearly as curious as Hobbits, and that is no understatement."
"There is a trick to it," Thorin said as a strange and horrible suspicion began to dawn. "You listen for the words they do not say. Those are the important ones."
Thorin steeled himself, and then asked, "Am I dead?"
There was a pause, and then the voice said, not unkindly, "Yes."
His ribs clenched tightly around his heart, and Thorin's head dropped against his chest as he murmured, "I am in the Halls of my Forefathers."
Thorin squeezed his eyes shut. Of course, they couldn't possibly be his eyes, not really. This was not his hand, clenched into a shaking fist by his side. The heart hammering fit to break his chest apart was not his own. This was a body remade, renewed and purged of all its mortal flaws and weakness. No wonder he could not see – his eyes had never been used before.
Here he would wait until the Breaking of the World, when the Dwarves would rebuild Arda Marred and restore her to her full glory. Here he would grieve for his sister and cousins, left behind to deal with the results of his madness and pride. Here he would bow under the weight of his shame, knowing he had stolen his nephews' bright young lives before they had even seen a century. Here he would break beneath the guilt of what he had done to a cheerful, peaceful, gentle creature who had only ever sought to help him.
"Are you my Maker?" he eventually croaked.
The vast presence moved closer, and he shuddered as the power within it stroked at his mind and brushed over his new skin. "I am."
Thorin opened his new, useless eyes and glared into the darkness. "Then why, may I ask, did you make me so flawed?"
The voice was silent.
The anger flickered and then caught alight in Thorin's breast, and he pushed himself up onto new and shaking legs, weak as a newborn deer's. Thrusting his jaw blindly before him, he flung his shame and grief and rage into the darkness. "Why my damnable pride? Why my temper, my resentment - why my foolish stubborn arrogance! Why the madness that plagues our Line? Why did all I do, all I hoped, turn to ash before I had even grasped it? Why did my family break, time and time again?"
The mighty Vala of Stone and Craft was silent.
"Tell me!" Thorin roared.
"You forget yourself, King Under the Mountain," said the voice, and it sounded sad rather than angry. "My work was not flawed. You were made strong and hardy and slow to change, loyal in friendship and long in enmity. Crafts of all kinds come easily to your hands, and you can feel the earth beneath you and hear her songs, can you not?"
Thorin's fingernails dug into the soft new skin of his palms. "You know I can."
"That is how I made you," said the voice of his great Maker. "And that cannot be altered. Rather, it is the work of the Enemy that mars all it touches."
Thorin frowned. "What Enemy? Mordor was destroyed by the Last Alliance in the days of Durin the Fourth, and no great power save the dragons has arisen since."
The voice was silent for a moment more, as though he was struggling with some old and terrible injury. "You recall your father's ring?"
Thorin blinked. "Aye, the Ring of Power. Yes?"
"There were seven of them once. Four were swallowed up by the Firedrakes. But three, including your father's, made their way back to their original smith."
Thorin scowled. "I do not understand."
"You will." The voice – Mahal – was filled with ancient melancholy. "I made you strong to endure, my child. And you have. Against all the works of the great Evil, the Dwarves never capitulated and ever remained their own masters. No Dwarf ever became a wraith. No Dwarf ever lost his will to the Shadow. But the Enemy is ever wily and cunning; he finds other ways to work his will. And so the seven rings worked in other ways, unseen ways, upon my children. Thus over the long, long years the love of craft and beauty that I gave you was slowly twisted into a desire for jewels and metal."
"I never wore that ring," said Thorin.
"But your father did. And his father before him, and his father before him, from the day Celebrimbor gave the ring to Durin in his third life onwards," said the deep, sorrowful voice. "I watched your line slowly drift under its spell, and I grieved. The descendants of the first of my children, the greatest of my seven sons, strong and enduring and steadfast – and yet the Enemy had touched you after all."
"I never," Thorin repeated through gritted teeth, "wore that ring. My madness was my own."
"Was it?" asked the voice gently. "The ring aside, do not forget: gold that a dragon has slept on has a power of its own. The great Worms were created in ancient times by an even blacker and more powerful evil. They were made to be the downfall of the Dwarves, and so they remain your greatest challenge."
Thorin was silent for a moment, and then he raised his head slightly. "My father's ring was but a ring, and the dragon but a dragon. Why then did I lose myself at the very moment I should have been strongest?"
Mahal sighed. "These are secrets long hidden, soon to come to light. You will understand soon enough. Let go of your anger and shame, Thorin son of Thráin. There are many here who love you."
Thorin's throat snapped closed, and his teeth ground together almost painfully. "Will you not explain?"
"It is too close to me, my son," said Mahal, and the fatherly, powerful voice moved away into the crushing darkness. Sorrow echoed in the stones as he spoke. "One who was dear to me betrayed me utterly, and all his works are now turned to darkness and deceit. I cannot speak of it."
A flash of insight came to him, and Thorin said aloud, "the one who made the Seven?"
"Aye," Mahal said, and his soft laughter trembled in the air like distant rumbling thunder. "Thank Eru I made you sharp. Put aside all your self-recrimination. It has no place here. Your sickness was not of your choice, nor even of my design. It is done now."
"It will never be done," Thorin said coldly, even as his insides twisted and twisted again. "Not until I have made my amends."
"What use are amends in the House of the Dead? Greet your loved ones, and wait for the renewal of all things. Your travels and hardships are done, and your homeland restored. You died well, my child."
"I lived less well. And amends are not of use," Thorin spat. "That is not the point of them!"
"True!" Mahal laughed again. "Very true!" The mighty Vala fell quiet for a moment in thought, and Thorin breathed harshly with the force of his anger. Then Mahal spoke, and his voice shook with power:
"Very well then. For the love I bear you and for the woe the Shadow has wrought in you, I shall give you the means to make your amends."
Thorin's heart leapt into his throat.
A strange blossoming warmth began to suffuse Thorin's chest, filling him with fire unquenchable as Mahal continued to speak. "All my children may see their kin and friends yet surviving in the lands of the mortals beyond the mists. I will give you the power to reach them."
"Reach them?" Thorin took one blind step forward, a hand pressed to where that strange fire burned above his hammering heart. "You mean, I may speak to them? Truly?"
"No, that you may not. I cannot take back the Gift of Ilúvatar once given. You may not pass through the mists to touch the living."
"Not even to beg for their forgiveness?" Thorin asked with a certain sinking hopelessness, knowing the answer already.
A huge hard hand, gnarled with work, gently laid itself on Thorin's shoulder, and he shuddered uncontrollably at the sensation. His maker's hand – such power, and such love in that touch. "I am sorry you cannot let go of your grief, my child."
"You also made me stubborn, if you recall," Thorin retorted to cover his trembling awe, and Mahal's smile could be felt in the silent thunder of the air.
"Aye, that I did." The hand let go, and Thorin swayed slightly, drunk with wonderment and sorrow and dread.
"But," the Lord of Craft and Stone added, "you will be able to reach their deepest mind. The mind beneath the waking thoughts, the subconscious flow of their selves – that you may touch."
Thorin let out a long breath filled with bitterness. The sleeping mind, the subconscious. That was not ideal. But better than nothing.
"Now, there are some here who have waited eagerly to meet with you."
"Fíli? Kíli?" The shame was a noose around his throat, and Thorin's new-made eyes smarted with sudden unshed tears.
"Amongst others who have waited far longer," said the Vala. "Be well, Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain. I will meet with you again."
And then the overwhelming sense of his presence was gone.
The darkness pressed in on him, and Thorin took another hesitant step forward. There was good stone beneath his bare feet, and the slap of his soles against it echoed through the nothingness.
"Fíli?" he tried. "Kíli?"
The darkness and silence was absolute but for the rasp of his breath in his lungs. Thorin took another step, and another.
Then young excited voices were echoing through the darkness towards him. Thorin managed a laugh that was part-sob.
"Everyone, this way! Found him, finally, how many sepulchres are there in this place?"
"Mahal only knows. Actually, he probably does. We should ask."
"Thorin, you are not going to believe it!"
"We met Durin! Actual Durin! He's here!"
"Again. Not a bad arrangement – get born, live, die, rest up a bit, and then have another shot at it in a couple of centuries' time."
"Speaking of, did you see that shot I made in the battle? Wasn't it amazing? I bet it goes down in history. Even Bard couldn't better it! I'd like to see that blond Elven twit match that."
"Kíli," Thorin choked, and stumbled forward into the darkness. "Fíli..." Two bodies as familiar as his own hands barrelled into him and he clutched at them even as he stumbled backwards.
"Careful now," said a rough, beloved voice, and someone caught his elbow. "Father, get him some clothes, his eyes don't work yet."
"Ach, get 'em yerself, lazy sod." The voice of Thrór was as gruff as ever, and Thorin turned towards him, his sightless eyes wide.
"Aye," said the last true King Under the Mountain. "I'm here. Saw it got you too."
Thorin bowed his head over his nephews as hot humiliation raced over him. "Yes."
"Not your fault, lad," said the Dwarf holding his arm. "Not your fault. Not like you ask for these things to happen."
"Besides," said Thrór, and old shame tinted his voice as well, "you beat it in the end, didn't you? You died with your own mind. You were stronger than me."
"And me," soothed the Dwarf beside him, and the strong and so-familiar hand on his elbow tightened in reassurance.
"No, it wasn't me. It was..." Thorin wanted to protest, to speak of Bilbo, when the Dwarf holding his elbow cleared his throat and wrapped his other arm around Thorin's trembling shoulders.
"We saw, m'lad," he said gently. "We know."
The hand on his elbow was unblemished, new and unscarred, but it was unmistakable. Thorin grasped it tightly with his other hand, and the rumbling chuckle in his ear made his eyes sting. "Father," he said faintly. "Father, I'm so sorry. I abandoned you, 'adad. I thought you long dead..."
"Steady now, inùdoy," said Thráin gently. "Steady. Never mind me. You've had a hard road and a long one, but you've time to rest now."
His father. His great and splendid father, a Lord and Prince, who bore the tattoos of a warrior across his brow. His father – his head noble and proud and his beard long and fierce, his one good eye relentless and his hands like steel bands. His father – his poor, mad, half-blind father, trapped and starved and witless for nine long years in the dungeons of Dol Guldur.
"Rest," Thorin repeated in a strangled voice. "No, I don't..."
"Yes, you can," said his father. "Don't you think on it longer. I would have given me up as well. Let it go, my son. There's time to rest here. Time to heal."
"You did well, nidoyel," said Thrór. "You gave our people back our home. You gave them back their hope and their pride and their heritage. Not a bad legacy. Not a bad way to leave the world."
"I left them to deal with ages-old enmities, a home scattered with carrion, a cursed treasure and a dead King," Thorin said bitterly, and Thráin squeezed his arm sharply, his hands as rock-hard and as powerful as in Thorin's earliest memories.
"Do you forget all your lessons? We're not the only branch of our line. It's time to leave your burdens to others now."
"Thorin," said Thráin, a smile colouring his voice. "Don't make me wroth with you. Here now, what's this? Tears, my son? Well, let them fall where they may! There is time for tears here, too."
"Are you maudlin old men quite finished?" snapped another. "Let me through, or I shall make you and by Mahal you won't enjoy it!"
"Best move out of the way," Thrór muttered, and Thráin chuckled again.
"Aye, she won't be patient much longer."
"You mean she can be patient?"
"Don't insult my wife, you old coot."
"Stop nattering, you pair, and move. Oh, look at you," murmured the new voice, a soft, feminine voice, and Kíli yelped as he was pried from Thorin's grasp. "So much older. So much harder. Oh, my handsome lad. My brave, brave boy."
Thorin couldn't halt the cry that left him at the feel of the hand that came to rest on his face. The smell that enveloped him was as real and warm as the hand, and his whole soul cried out at it: the sweetness of the oils she used for her hair and beard, the sharp tang of copper and wood-smoke from her forge, the warm living scent of her skin. "Mother," he said, and he knew he was weeping openly. She wrapped him tightly in her embrace, and carded her hand through his hair.
"I'm very proud of you, my Thorin," she said in her low, strong voice, and he pressed into her hand as she held him close. "So very proud of you."
"By the way, Grandma is kind of terrifying," Kíli said, and then he yelped as the lady Frís, daughter of Aís, Princess Under the Mountain and wife of Thráin, presumably pinched him.
"Behave, young one," she said sternly, pulling back to stroke Thorin's face again and thread her fingers through his close-cropped beard. "I'll get to you two in a moment."
"Terrifying," said Fíli admiringly. "I kinda see where Mum gets it from, now."
"Our grumpy little Dís as a mother," said a young, laughing voice, a voice that rang like bells. "Let Middle-Earth tremble."
Thorin froze. Frís' hand gentled him, smoothing over his hair as though soothing a skittish pony.
"Aye, he's here," she murmured. "He's been insufferable, waiting for you all this time."
"I'm very cross with you, nadadel," said Frerin, Prince Under the Mountain. "You took your time. What, were you lost again? You made me wait one hundred and forty years. Have you any idea how rude that is?"
"Thorin, rude?" Fíli laughed. "Perish the thought."
Thorin couldn't speak. His mother's hand was on his face, his nephews clinging to his arms. His father was practically holding him up, his grandfather was patting his shoulder, and his brother's arm was carelessly slung around him. Frerin, Frerin.
Frerin, by Jeza-Red
"You're blubbing," said Frerin with a tender sort of mischievousness. "My perfect big brother, blubbing. Like a big mopey Elf. Did you mess up your hair? Did somebody break a twig?"
"Shut up," Thorin choked, and Frerin threw back his head and laughed his silver laugh and oh, Thorin had missed him, missed him so much.
"You shut up," he said gently, and then Frerin was pulling his braid and abruptly Thorin was struck with a memory so vivid that he reeled with the strength of it, sent back to a hazy, golden time when he was five years old and the new baby kept chewing and tugging at his hair.
"Frerin," he gasped, and his brother's warm hands were tugging at his braids, pulling him forward until their foreheads rested together. Frerin, the day to Thorin's night, so very young, so small, only forty-eight. His skin was unlined and Thorin's fingers traced his thick straight brows, his bladelike Durin nose, his merry eyes, his short full goatee braided upon his cheeks.
"You look old, brother," he said. "And tired."
"I am," Thorin sighed, allowing Frerin to take some of his weight from Thráin. "I am so tired. I thought I would have time, a few decades at least..."
"See, this is what happens when I'm not around to stop you from brooding," Frerin said gently. "You turn into a mopey Elf. It's really rather pathetic."
Thorin grunted. Then he drew back his head and butted his brother sharply, and his mother's soft laughter rang out.
"Boys," she said, and that was the exact same tone she had used when Thorin was only twenty and Frerin fifteen; two lads bickering instead of watching their six-year-old sister.
"Your head has gotten harder," grumbled Frerin.
"Or yours is softer," Thorin retorted, and an incredulous laugh bubbled out of Kíli.
"I'm dreaming, yes?" he asked of no-one in particular. "Thorin doesn't tease. He got brought back wrong. Mahal made a mistake."
"Oh, you think you two were bad?" said Thrór archly. "These two had you beaten."
"Why do you think he already knew most of your tricks?" added Frerin. "We thought up that stuff a century before you two."
"It was always your idea," Thorin muttered.
"And you always led the way," Frerin said, and nudged him. "Such a dutiful Prince!"
Kíli wailed aloud, and Thorin could just picture the look of betrayal on his face. "Everything I knew is wrong," he moaned.
Thorin smiled through his tears and Fíli chuffed a laugh. "Poor Kíli. He's pulling at his hair again."
"Tell him to stop. He doesn't have hair enough to spare," Thorin said, and Kíli's outraged yelp made him smile all the harder.
"You look dreadful," said Frerin conversationally. "All covered in tears and red-faced and your braids coming undone."
"And whose fault is that?" Thorin immediately retorted, and felt rather than saw Frerin's grin.
"I have a bone to pick with you," said Fíli into his ear. "Why didn't you or Mum ever tell me I looked like your mother and brother? I always thought I was the odd one out!"
"In this family?" Frís snorted. "When it comes to odd, we are rather spoiled for choice."
"Dear," said Thráin, rather stiffly. "Not in front of the grandchildren."
"Loss of respect comes with the territory," said Thrór. "Get used to it. Thráin, nidoy, where's your mother?"
"Keeping the rest away. She didn't want to overwhelm him all at once."
"You weren't so nice to us," accused Fíli. "Mobbed us, you did! I thought we were under attack at first! I punched my own father on the nose!"
That surprised a true laugh out of Thorin, thought it hurt his chest. "You hit Víli?" he said.
"He did. And I stamped on Grandfather's foot," said Kíli.
Thráin cleared his throat. "And bit my hand," he added sternly.
"Well, you try being blind as a bat and naked as a mole and having your dead grandfather commenting on your lack of beard, see how you like it," Kíli grumbled.
Thráin huffed out a laugh, and Thrór made a long-suffering noise that Thorin vaguely recalled from long dreary Council meetings in which Fundin never seemed to shut up. "You didn't know any of us, great-grandson," the King said patiently. "Not outside of stories. But our Thorin is going to meet with Dwarves he hasn't seen in centuries – his great-uncle, his cousins, his friends."
"It's usual to keep the first greetings to the immediate family," explained Frerin. "Otherwise it gets a bit overwhelming. Grandmother will be along in a moment."
Kíli made a grumble of assent that Thorin recognised as a grudging 'oh all right'. He reached out into the blackness, his hand stretching for his youngest nephew, and Kíli stepped back into his arms easily. "Kíli," said Thorin and stroked back Kíli's mad, snarled hair – unbraided as always – even as he pulled Fíli closer against him. The Dwarves in his arms were young and strong, tall and straight, even as he remembered them. Visions of their bloodless faces and their rent and broken bodies kept dancing before his mind's eye. A great stone lodged itself in his throat and made it hard to breathe. "Fíli. I'm so sorry," he whispered against the side of Fíli's head. "I'm so sorry, my boys. Forgive me, oh, my nidoyîth. I wanted so much for you, undayûy. I wanted..."
"Oh, it's Thrór all over again, someone stop him," groaned Frís. "We're going to drown in the combined guilt of the Line of Durin before we ever lay a stone of Arda Remade."
"He's here now," said Frerin gently. "He'll heal."
"It'll take time," said Thrór, his tone sombre.
"It always does," sighed Thráin.