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An Oath of Snow and Shadow

Chapter Text

At the top of the world, everything was wrought in shades of white. There was the open silver sky above his head, and the shimmering, biting ice beneath his feet, and his death, stalking towards him, pale and terrible and utterly inescapable. In the last moments of his life, fate had seen fit to rob him of colour.

It was that thought, more than any that had gone before, that forced a small whimper from Bilbo’s lips.

The Orc laughed and came on.

There was nowhere to run. At his back, the frozen waterfall plunged over the shelf of black rock, down, down, down to the valley floor below. Bilbo had considered it, when first he’d realised he was alone and defenceless- but the thought of the fall had stayed him. At least the air was clean up here. On the battlefield, the only colours left were red and brown.

The wind howled as it tugged at the frayed hem of his coat. Faint shouts drifted upon it; challenges, oaths, the screams of dying Men. The Orc licked its lips and came on.

Bilbo knew that the Orc was not slow out of pity or fear. Azog the Defiler did not know what those things were. He was simply waiting, drawing it out, as a housecat might toy with a half-dead mouse. So you’re the thief, Azog had said, the one who awakened the dragon. And he’d picked up the Hobbit like he weighed little more than a pebble and thrown him against the wall he’d been sheltering behind. Sting had gone skittering away, and his little golden ring…

Well, it didn’t matter now. Azog had followed his every desperate move, driving him from the ruins of Ravenhill to the wide expanse of the frozen river, and Bilbo was out of time.

The ice was so cold that it was stinging the soles of his feet. The sound of Azog’s boots was surprisingly quiet, barely audible over the clamour of battle all around.

“I’m going to kill you, Shire-rat,” crooned Azog. The ugly blade that took the place of his missing forearm swung a little with every patient step. “I will kill you, and then I will kill Oakenshield.”

Oh, Thorin. The thought gave Bilbo physical pain.

The Orc was very close now. Bilbo found his eyes tracing over the multitude of scars, the trickling of blackish blood, wondering if he could count them all before he was to die.

“The line of Durin ends today,” Azog promised. Another step.

A commotion broke out in the rookery, and the dismembered body of an Orc crashed down onto the ice. Bilbo’s heart leapt; then twisted when he saw the look of cruel delight on Azog’s face.

“Oakenshield!” He roared.

“No,” Bilbo’s lips were so numb he could hardly move them, “no, no-”

“Oakenshield!” Azog repeated, and there was triumph and loathing reverberating through his summons. Bilbo could picture it: Thorin’s sudden suspicion, then his mounting fear; Where’s Bilbo? And when none of the other Dwarves can answer him; Where’s Bilbo?! Louder, until he risks a look from their hiding place and-

“Bilbo!” Thorin’s voice was urgent and terrible. “Bilbo!”

I’m sorry, Thorin. Bilbo looked for him, he sounded high up- but then Azog grasped him by the shoulder and hefted his blade and Bilbo was forced to shut his eyes.

The sword passed into him with surprising ease, leaving blazing, murderous pain in its wake. His eyes flew open with the shock of it. Azog was grinning, arm drawn back to deal another blow.

“No!”

Thorin’s cry was only further agony. Bilbo almost sobbed, but a strangled scream of pain escaped instead. Azog’s eyes glittered with malice. A shadow seemed to fall over them, a looming harbinger of the end that was only moments away.

Then Bilbo was falling, crumpling to the ground as Azog let go of him. A piercing shriek shuddered through his skull; a bird? Above him, Azog ducked and snarled as great yellow talons snatched at him.

And then he was gone, fleeing across the ice, leaving Bilbo all alone.

“Bilbo!” A figure was rushing towards him, heavy boots thudding. “Bilbo!”

Thorin was kneeling beside him now, and a helplessness was in his face that Bilbo had never seen before. A horrible freezing thought occurred to him, and he forced his mouth to move. He could feel the blood pulsing out of him.

“Azog took the ring,” he whispered, in a stumbling rush. Thorin stared at him.

“What ring?”

But Bilbo had run out of strength. He wheezed, reaching frantic fingers towards his wound, panic tearing rushing through him.

“Lie still, Bilbo.” Thorin’s magnificent voice was rough, desperate. “The Eagles have come, the battle is turning-”

I’m dying, Bilbo realised, in a strange clarified surge, truly dying, rescue will come too late. His hand reached out, fastening onto a scrap of Thorin’s cloak. The pain was at such a pitch that he could hardly breathe. He did not know what to say; no words were small enough to fit into his mouth, yet none were large enough to convey such enormity of hearts and devotion. He gripped Thorin’s cloak harder. Around him, the blank white world seemed to be fading.

“Bilbo.” Thorin’s whisper found him, momentarily halting the furious dissolving of the landscape. Something warm covered his ice-cold hand. Bilbo stared up at him, trying to find his voice, but then he could only think of those eyes like a cool dawn sky on a sunny springtime day, and all that was left was blue.

Chapter Text

Fíli walked slowly through the charred and dusty hallways of Erebor. He could move no faster; his cracked ribs still burned with every breath, and the wound on his calf throbbed with a dull ache. Even without his armour, he felt weighed down and heavy, sluggish underneath the press of grief.

But he was a Prince, and he could not let it show.

Erebor was nigh-on a ruin besides the Throne Room- apparently Smaug had not thought it necessary to protect anything besides the gold from his wrath- and Fíli found himself skirting great cracks in the floor, and once scrambling over an obstruction five foot high that might once have been a statue of Thror. He made a mental note to ask Dori about shifting that, and continued with his search.

He'll be inside, Dáin had told him, when at last he had shaken free of ministrations. The old warrior had seemed aged beyond measure, leaning on his great red axe and surveying the ruin of the battlefield, and a deep kind of misery was in his flint-like eyes. Find him, lad, Dáin had said, for Erebor’ll need her King when winter’s bite closes fast. The snow fell all around them, steady and unrelenting. Dáin gave a bleak chuckle. Fíli merely turned away.

He checked the hardest place first. In the shadowy shelter of Erebor, the dead were laid out in a long antechamber: stilled forever, cold and broken. Torches cast a feeble light and the air was rent with sobs and moans. Fíli swallowed thickly and walked on, his eyes passing over Dwarf and Man and grieving attendants. How long had it been since both had lain side-by-side after battle? Too long, and yet never long enough. He did not have it in him to weep.

Bilbo was lying at the far end, and Bofur stood over him, mattock in hand, a lost look on his face. When he saw Fíli approaching he straightened, tears standing clear in his eyes.

“He asked me to watch over him.” Bofur looked down at the Hobbit as though he could not help it, and his knuckles turned white on the shaft as he held off the storm of his grief. Fíli swallowed again. Their burglar was so small, his tawny hair matted, merry eyes closed.

“There will be a funeral,” he found himself saying, “he will be honoured.”

That was the first time, he realised later. The first time he had spoken like a King.

Bofur nodded, face crumpling. Fíli reached out to grasp his elbow, then turned on his heel before he too could break down. The howl of despair that threatened to spill from his mouth raged for a moment, then quietened. Thorin was not there. That was all that mattered.

Nor was he amongst Smaug’s hoard, although Fíli had not truly expected to find him there. He had seen his uncle’s madness break with his own two eyes; he had felt it within himself, the moment the gold lost its grip. Even as he wandered between the vast piles of treasure, he felt only revulsion. So much had been lost over something that now felt so little. Fury flared in his breast and he kicked out at a jewelled goblet.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

The wry voice came from one of the walkways; Fíli looked up to find Balin watching him.

“That belonged to your ancestor, dragon or no.” It was a mark of how deeply Balin sorrowed, Fíli thought, that the history lesson ended there. The two of them stood in silence for a moment, Fíli eyeing the goblet. As far as he was concerned, all their gems had turned to silt from the moment Smaug flew away to Esgaroth, and it didn’t matter who made them or where they came from. Or it did matter- but he could not feel it. He felt a strong urge to kick at the chalice again, then mastered himself.

“Have you seen Thorin?”

Balin shook his head, expression now tinged with worry. “Is he not on the battlefield?”

“No.” Not for the first time, Fíli cursed their thrice-damned luck. He had tried to keep track of Thorin up on Ravenhill, but the arrival of the Eagles had sparked a full-scale retreat of Azog’s armies and the peak had been overrun. The last Fíli had seen (before a Mahal-cursed goblin had landed a blow to the back of his head and knocked him out), Thorin had been standing over Bilbo’s body, dealing savage blows to the onrushing tide. When he woke up, the battle was over, and Thorin was nowhere to be found.

“Nor the infirmary?”

Fíli snorted. “No. Anyway, I’ve just come from there. Óin’s tying his beard in knots over how we’re going to get supplies.” He stepped over the goblet and began climbing up to Balin’s vantage point. As he came closer, he could see just how grey the old Dwarf looked, his kind face lined with grief. When Fíli stood before him, he nodded sadly.

“He’s right to worry.” His dark eyes swept over the shining sea of treasure, a bitter twist to his mouth. “We cannot eat gold.”

A dense, heavy feeling had settled on Fíli’s chest, far beyond the pain of his ribs. Dáin’s words came back to him, gruff and sincere.

“Erebor needs her King,” he muttered, and Balin nodded again.

“Aye.” He turned to look at Fíli, sympathy etched around his eyes. “Best go and find him.”

~~

Fíli followed Balin’s directions to the old royal apartments, his mind curiously blank. Even as he scrambled over Thror’s granite forehead, the only emotion that escaped was a quiet hiss of pain. Numbness enveloped him in a swaddling blanket, suffocating the tearing rage of sorrow. He had to find Thorin. Once he had found Thorin, things would be set into motion. Thorin would know what to do.

In the faint light beyond the broken statue, he spied the faint gleam of water droplets upon the stone floor. Fresh water did not belong down here; the corridors were too deeply buried for even Smaug to bring them to light. Meltwater, he guessed. He straightened up and strode on.

The royal apartments could only be distinguished by the runes above the doorways- Smaug had smashed down walls and plundered its riches- but in the dust there were footprints, and Fíli followed them cautiously.

“Thorin?” He called softly. “Thorin?”

There was a moment of silence.

“Here, Fíli.”

Fíli nearly sagged with relief. “Uncle, I-”

But as he rounded the corner into the old audience chamber and his eyes fell upon Thorin, he stopped dead in his tracks.

Thorin’s hair was gone.

Fíli stared at him with a kind of fascinated horror, taking in the bare shape of Thorin’s skull, covered only by the measliest of dark scruff, the short dark bristles clinging to his jaw, the locks of hair cast hither and thither as though flung there with each swipe of the razor. Thorin looked up and Fíli hardly recognised him; it was like looking at a stranger wearing Thorin’s face. He appeared stripped back, unmasked, as though some great cloak of majesty had fallen from his shoulders. Standing beside the shattered crystal window, he appeared somehow shrunken, as implacable and unreachable as the ice beyond. Only his eyes held any memory of the leader Fíli had followed across Middle Earth, and even their colour seemed muted, the intensity replaced by something Fíli could not name.

“Thorin,” Fíli managed, but he found his throat closing up. Thorin bowed his head.

“It is what I deserve,” he said quietly, and Fíli fought back the urge to sob.

“But your braids- how will you-” Fíli knew he sounded like a child, frantically grasping for reason in the face of insanity, but Thorin merely shook his head.

“I will not,” he said, in that same quiet voice, and the finality in his words was like the whispering downswing of an axe. I will not.

Fíli held for a moment longer, then he turned and ran.

~~

“Thorin-” Balin was sorrowful beyond the reach of tears, his voice like fractured glass, “- I understand that you are grieving. But this-?”

Thorin turned slowly to look at his oldest friend. “You do not understand,” he ground out, and Balin drew back, face stricken.

Dáin’s attempt was, as ever, more direct. “Y’look like a bloody fool, cuz,” he said bluntly. “What in Mahal’s name possessed you to turn yourself into a shavepate man?”

Dwalin, standing beside Thorin (where he had always stood, was this the only thing that was right?), bristled at the insult, but Thorin was faster.

“You do not understand! None of you! This is- it is not-”

He wrenched away before he could finish, turning his back on all of them. A helpless kind of silence descended on the freezing cold room. Fíli stared at a swathe of hair by his foot, wrestling with an idea that refused to take shape in his mind. Before he could pound it into submission, however, there was the sound of hurried footsteps and Gandalf came striding into the room.

“King Thranduil and Bard have proposed a meeting,” he began, but his eyes had found Thorin and the rest of his words trailed to nothing. “Ah,” he sighed, and Fíli thought he sensed hurt beneath the exhale, “Ah.”

“Thank you, Gandalf,” Balin said stiffly, mere propriety shackling his words to politeness, “but it would be best if you left us.”

Fíli felt it too; a strange sense of shame, as though Thorin without his hair was a sight too private for others to look upon. Gandalf, however, did not leave.

“I am sorry for your loss, Thorin the Restorer,” And his face seemed as ancient and as penitent as Fíli had ever seen it, even as Thorin flinched at the sound of his new appellation, “but this will not wait.”

A moment. Then Thorin looked up.

“I will not go.”

Every Dwarf in the room burst into protest, but Fíli watched Gandalf and saw only painful understanding in those weathered eyes.

“Thorin-”

“Erebor needs-”

“You cannot possibly-”

“I WILL NOT GO!” Thorin roared, and Fíli found his voice, even as his legs seemed to shake beneath him.

“Uncle, Bilbo would not have wanted this.”

A spasm passed over Thorin’s face, and Fíli’s heart leapt; but then he turned away once more.

“Bilbo can no longer want anything,” he said, and the bitterness in his voice made Fíli bow his head, hopelessness devouring all his remaining words. The wind whistled through the broken window.

“Somebody must go,” Fíli heard Balin say.

“Aye. But not me. Doubt Thranduil would come near enough to stick me with those pretty swords of his.”

“Indeed.” Gandalf’s voice was heavy. “Besides, the Iron Hills need their Lord. I fear this is only the beginning of Erebor’s hardships.”

Fíli swiped at his eyes, then lifted his head. “Surely nothing can be worse than the…”

He realised that three Dwarrows and a Wizard were staring at him, and he finished his sentence suddenly afraid of what was about to begin, “… Dragon.”

Dáin gave a rusty laugh. “Ah, m’boy. You know nothing about politics.”

~~

Fíli raced down the corridors, Balin bobbing in his wake and Dwalin loping at his side.

“Don’t I need to redo my braids?” He asked, skidding round a corner that took them towards the gates.

“There’s a time to look presentable and a time to look like you’ve suffered,” Balin puffed, “and this is the latter.”

“Right.”

“Less talking, more running,” Dwalin ordered and Fíli automatically obeyed, despite the searing pain in his cracked ribs. The three Dwarrows clattered across the Bridge of Song and thudded into the entrance hall. Fíli could feel the stares from the Dwarves who were already working to clear up the mess, and ran harder. As they sprinted out over the gate stream, shouts started up ahead.

“Get back here, y’ninny-headed troll! Does it look like I’ve finished examining you?!”

“Fee! Fee!”

Something collided with him, hard, and Fíli groaned in pain even as his arms reached out automatically to embrace his wild younger brother. His heart throbbed in relief at the familiar feel of hair in his mouth and a squirming embrace.

“Kee,” he breathed, and knocked his head forward to bump their skulls together. Kili looked at him, sallow with exhaustion, an unfamiliar kind of fear in his lively eyes.

“Fee-” he started to say, but Fíli turned away.

“Dwalin, fetch us ponies, battle-pigs, anything. We need to get to Dale.” Dwalin nodded and strode away. “Kee-” he turned back to his brother just as Óin came striding over from the healing tent.”

“You,” he growled at Kili, “bed. D’ye think I patched you up for the fun of it?!”

Kee had taken yet another arrow-wound in the last throes of the battle and his ribs were in an even worse state than Fíli’s; it was a miracle he could even run at all. Óin, however, was not finished yet.

“And you!” He rounded on Fíli, “I saw you running like the oak trees were after you! You’ll be lucky if that gash on your calf hasnae opened again!”

Fíli shook his head and grimaced. “Not now, Óin- Kee? I need you to go to Thorin, do you understand? I can’t do it-”

“Why not?” Kee still seemed agitated, confusion warring with worry in the line between his dark eyebrows.

“I have to treat with Thranduil and Bard,” Fíli explained hurriedly, as Dwalin jogged up leading three shaggy mountain-goats. On his other side, Balin was having a conversation with Óin in furious whispers. “Promise me, Kee- promise me you’ll go to Thorin.”

Kee was silent for a moment- then he nodded. His hands gripped Fíli’s shoulders.

“Fee-”

“Thank you.” Fíli pulled him closer for a brief moment, then turned away. Dwalin was already mounted, and Balin was scrambling into another saddle.

“Fee!” Kili called out to him. “Have you seen Tauriel?!”

Fíli barely had time to shake his head before the goats were plunging away, hooves clattering on the frozen ground, leaving Kili stood, momentarily alone, in the cold grey light of a snowy day.

~~

In the ruined shell of Dale’s toy market, Fíli, Crown Prince of Erebor, approached the low table. No braziers were lit- the only light came from a ragged hole in the roof overhead. Shadows encroached between the pillars, but Fíli could see no guards. His boots sounded loud upon the shattered tile floor.

Bard stood as he drew near. “Are you unarmed?”

Those had been the terms of a meeting: alone and defenceless. Dwalin had been against it, and the small voice in Fíli’s head that sounded a lot like Thorin had screamed bloody murder, but Fíli knew a scant chance when he saw one and had shouted them both down.

In the cold and draughty vault, he gave a short nod. “Aye.”

The bowman of Esgaroth made a careless gesture, as though it did not matter one way or another. “Then sit.”

Fíli did not do so, but he did study his Kingly counterpart. Bard held the same gruff voice and the same glower above his brow that he had sported when he had given them shelter, but his shoulders seemed broader, his gaze more direct. Inscrutable, Fíli found himself thinking, not devoid of mercy, but not exactly replete with it either. He lifted his chin to ward off the bowman’s scrutiny.

“Where is King Thranduil?”

Bard held his gaze for just long enough to force prickles of unease over the nape of Fíli’s neck. Then he looked away.

“King Thranduil is gone.”

Fíli could find no answer to that. Our hopes rest with Thranduil, Balin had told him, for Dale is a ruin and will have nothing to give. Barter anything, apologise where you will, but we must have trade with Mirkwood if we are to survive.

Well, Fíli thought to himself, looks like we’re up the rockface without a rope. Time to improvise.

Before he could open his mouth, however, Bard had spoken again, and now his gaze was like a pike lowered to Fíli’s chest. “He said that he would not treat with Dwarves, for they are unchanging in their faithlessness and only capable of greed.”

Even relayed second-hand, the words stung- but Fíli stifled his surge of anger enough to recognise the note of challenge in Bard’s voice. He drew in a deep breath, and shook his head.

“He is wrong.”

“Why should I believe that?” Bard answered. A hint of anger coloured his tone now. “I took you into my home, gave you food and weapons and medicine, and in return?” Fíli found himself fixed with a glare of such fury that he had to resist taking a step back. “You brought only fire and death.”

Fíli could not deny it- did not want to deny it. They had wakened the dragon, and piled folly upon prideful folly until the very last. Every opportunity had been squandered, every vaunted dream brought low.

He stepped forwards slowly, and sat upon the other chair. Somebody had cut the legs down to size, and that meaningless gesture gave him hope.

“I am sorry for the loss of your home, Dragonslayer,” he began, “and grateful that you could do what we could not.” The words stuck a little, but he got them out all the same. “We tried to kill Smaug in the Hall of Kings, but our attempt failed. We did not rouse him then stand idly by as he served his vengeance to you.”

Bard watched him, face grim. “And afterwards? When the dragon was gone but my people were destitute? I do not recall you making anything other than threats from behind your walls.”

Now came the harder rock to hew. Fíli drew his hands together, ignoring the steady throb of pain in his chest. “No, we did not act our best.” He met Bard’s stare. “But did you? I would rather not believe I’m treating with a man who threatened thirteen Dwarves with war over a bargain unstruck entirely of his own free will.”

Fíli gave him a moment to think, then continued. “You know the name as well as I: dragon-sickness. The gold had a power over all of us, regardless of strength, or honour, or loyalty,” Fíli felt his own stomach squirm with disquiet at Balin’s words in his mouth, but forged on, “It twisted our thoughts, made us see conspiracies where there were none, filling our waking moments and following us into our dreams. Can you honestly say that you felt no effect? That when you held the Arkenstone in your hand, you saw only a means to an end?” For the first time since Fíli had entered, Bard looked uncomfortable. Fíli left a silence for one heartbeat, then leaned forward, pressing his advantage. “I believe you are an honourable man, Dragonslayer,” he finished, “I believe you will do the right thing.”

There was a long, long silence. Flakes of snow drifted down through the ravaged roof.

“Thranduil has agreed to trade with us,” Bard said abruptly. “And he will send aid down the river to see us through the winter.” He pushed back from the table and stood, his eyes stern. “You believe I am an honourable man, but I tell you this: I am a practical one. I will offer you trade, in both food and goods, as there was in the days before the dragon. It will be an interim agreement, mind,” he added, “but it ought to see us both through the winter, and allow Dale to rebuild.”

Fíli steeled himself. “And in return?”

Bard gave him an odd look; a strange mixture of calculation and pity. “I know that one of your company is dead,” he said, and his voice was not without sadness. “I would have his fourteenth share of the treasure.”

Fíli could not have prepared for the wave of rage and grief that surged through him. A shout leapt to his lips, but he gritted his teeth, stifling it. His hands clenched into fists. Bard stared down at him, immovable.

“Thorin would have your head for that,” Fíli ground out. He was glad he had no weapon on him longer than a quill, otherwise he would have been tempted to do the deed himself. Bard merely nodded.

“Aye, he would.” Then he smiled grimly. “But you are not Thorin, are you? And I would have your answer.”

Mahal help me, Fíli thought, he’s right. I am not Thorin.

The answer came to his lips anyway. He was not Thorin, but perhaps he had always been ready. He drew in a breath, and gave his reply.

~~

Thorin stared at the wintry slopes of Erebor and felt nothing as his sister-son raced away. Kingship held no pride for him now; it was as though the fire that had sustained him throughout his waking life had gone out. That the dragon was dead meant nothing. That Dwarves had reclaimed their ancient halls meant less. Indeed, it seemed the cruellest joke of all that he might stand here, in the room of his childhood, and find only grief and desolation.

The conversation behind him came to an end, and a hand clapped him gently on the shoulder.

“I am needed at the rockface,” Dáin said, and a saddened grin curled momentarily above his matted red beard. “Try not to do anything stupid while I’m away, eh?” He remained for a moment, staring at Thorin’s face- then he stumped away, iron foot clicking on the hard stone.

Still, Thorin felt nothing. Gandalf remained, and no flicker of irritation flared in his breast, no fury tugged at his fists. He was empty. He was nothing.

“Why do you do penance, Thorin Oakenshield?”

Gandalf’s voice was soft, almost gentle- and yet revulsion seized at Thorin’s chest, as violent and crushing as a vice. The memory of Bilbo, torn and bloodied upon the ice, flashed vivid before his eyes. The words, when at last he made his reply, were as heavy and immovable as mountains.

“You. Know. Why.”

Gandalf sighed. It seemed as though ages were contained within that sigh, as though he was nothing more than a haggard old man, worn weary and ragged by the trials of life. Shuffling footsteps sounded, and the grey wizard crossed to the window, leaning heavily on his staff. Thorin clenched his teeth and did not look at him.

“I could not have foreseen this,” Gandalf murmured, “and I have seen many, many things.”

Anger thrummed suddenly in the pit of Thorin’s stomach. “If you had, I would never have agreed to this.” The truth of it turned his words vicious, too sharp to swallow.

Gandalf stooped, as though in pain.

“Not even for Erebor?” He asked. “Not even for your homeland?”

Thorin shuddered. Once, his heart had thumped to the rhythm of one song, one of home and glory and riches. He had known its beat like the palm of his own hand and had followed the paths it set out for him without question. Now, though…

He had felt that self-same heart break, up there on the ice, and now it was shattered beyond strength or hope of repair. No song came forth from it; he could only feel it weeping in pieces. Anger flared along with his sorrow.

“You think I do not know what it means to lose?” He snarled. “You think I don’t know what it is to pay the price of folly? I have paid it again and again. But this time- this time I cannot-”

He did not know what to say. Frerin had stood with him by this window, chased him through these rooms…

Thorin blinked, and the crumbled remains of his home resolved before his eyes. The cold wind stung his face, nipping at his newly exposed ears.

Gandalf said no more. Dwarf and Wizard stood on the verge of the mountainside and watched the snow drift down.

Chapter Text

Things, incredibly, went from bad to worse. In the weeks that followed Fíli’s treaty, he felt as besieged and battered as the crumbling walls of Erebor. First and chiefest of these assailants was the fearsome weather. Snow heaved itself from the sky like gravel from a bucket, drowning the bare earth and rock under a carpet of white, stifling sound, and swamping the remaining corpses and bloodstains until the battlefield was obliterated. The wind slammed against the mountainside with a hollow booming sound, as though another dragon were breaking its way in. Biting chills seeped in through cracks and crevices all over the mountain, snuffing out fires and sneaking into sleeping rolls, making an already exhausted and often wounded population suffer even more.

As far as Fíli was concerned, however, the wind was as nothing to those who sought him out to complain. Ever since the terms of his treaty with Bard had become known in the mountain, he had dealt with a constant stream of bitter admonishments and strictures from all quarters. The idea of giving up a fourteenth share of the vast hoard glittering beneath their feet even had members of the company spitting sparks. Quiet, shy, gentle Ori (who was still confined to bed with a shattered shoulder) had yelled in Fíli’s face when he found out. Without the spectre of the combat just passed quelling potential rebellion, Fíli suspected he would have been fighting for both his title and his life. There’s the mithril in the mud mine, he thought grimly, but at least it seems to have saved what’s left of us.

Dáin, when Fíli told him, just gave his cracked laugh. “Politics. I warned you! But I’ll see my lot stay out of it. You’ve enough troubles without us adding to it.”

Except “Us” no longer referred to just the Dwarrows. Three nights after the storm began, a bedraggled pony had stumbled up to Erebor’s gates, bearing a young man from Dale. We won’t last another week, Bard’s messenger had said, but I daren’t come myself to beg for aid, or I will be accused of treachery. We are starving. The Elves have sent no help. The snow kills as many as hunger. Taking refuge in the mountain is our last hope.

There had been no more words, but Fíli knew. This was a last, desperate roll of the dice. He had been too tired for emotion, too tired for outrage or anger or even black humour. He had sent his reply.

Bring them in.

He had expected resistance, but when it came to it, not even the surliest, most intransigent Dwarrow could have looked upon the Dalefolk and turned them away. Some of them could barely walk. Not even Óin, who had nearly torn his moustache out when Fíli informed him that he would have even more wounds to dress and coughs to flush out than before, could do anything more than stare, before bustling forward to help. Bard crossed the threshold last.

“There are still some left behind in Dale,” he said, and his voice shook as he forced the words out through numbed lips. “They said that I was leading everyone to the slaughter.”

At this fresh horror, Fíli closed his eyes. Then he grasped Bard’s forearm. “Maybe, now that they’ve seen you safe inside, they’ll come.”

“Aye. Maybe.” But Bard did not look as though he believed it. He hurried away, back to the last remnants of his people, and Fíli did not miss the last look he cast between the walls of stone as the gates of Erebor closed again, a look back at the stony ruins crouched upon the hill.

Dáin stood beside him. There was no laughter now. “That was well done, lad. If we make it through this Mahal-cursed storm, we can all chew rubies until spring.”

“That’s not funny,” Bombur mumbled.

Dáin shook his head. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

Fíli said nothing, his mind and heart so full of sorrow that he could no longer feel it. There were footsteps behind them, and Balin came striding up. “They’ll be lodged as comfortably as we can offer. I take it you’ve seen Bard?”

Fíli found his voice. “Aye. He said-” his voice nearly cracked, and he had to pause, “-that some chose to remain behind.”

Balin did not look surprised, only bleak. “These are troubled times, lad. People either stand strong or divide.”

“There is more trouble than time!” Fíli spat out. “Not enough time…” His mind was whirling. Kíli  would have him ride out to Dale and rescue the fools still cowering in its meagre shelter; his heart, if he was honest with himself, wanted to take the same course, to save as many as they could. Even as the thought came to him, the gates closed with a hollow boom. The gale outside gave an answering crash. The torches flickered. Several of the Dalefolk looked up, afeared.

“Just the wind, my friends!” Glóin called. When had he assumed charge of the newcomers? Fíli had not noticed. “You are safe in here.”

That was the truth of it. They were safe in here. Dwarrows were hardy, true, but to throw lives away in pursuit of folk who clearly already mistrusted them, who might not even agree to journey back with them if they made it to Dale with their skins intact-

“You can’t go to Dale,” Balin said, slowly and gently. “They made their choice.”

Once, Fíli might have turned back and answered, “To die?!” But he was older now. “Aye,” he said, “I know.” And he turned away from the sliver of sky visible above the barricade and went in search of other work to do.

~

That night, he walked around the campfires. He hailed the soldiers, and smiled at the children who drew away from him, but mostly he just listened. What he heard disquieted him.

Folk had taken to calling it the Battle of the Five Armies, and how majestic and right that sounded, even amongst the chill and shadowy remnants of Erebor. They had a name for Fíli, too, but there was nothing majestic or right about that. He was no hero. He had proof of that merely the next day.

There were, as Dwalin growled, Dwarrows dying all over the place. The Men had it even worse. That morning another seven were found dead, and with no soul foolish enough to venture outside, the best Fíli could do was move them into the chamber that still housed their dead from the battle. At least the cold would keep rot from them. Kíli , now insisting that he was strong enough to be up and about, helped move the corpses.

“There was a babe,” he told Fíli, his face pale and his eyes haunted, “and a child of three summers. One of Bard’s cousins.”

Fíli once would have knocked his head against his brothers in comfort, but now he could only bow his head. Familiar guilt dragged him down.

“They die so easily,” Kíli went on, bleakly. Fíli could only agree.

“Our own will be struggling before long,” Óin warned, when next Fíli visited the infirmary. “We cannae keep everyone fed.”

Fíli swallowed down his own doubts and nodded. “We will.” Then he moved on, before anyone else could grasp his hand and call him a Mahal-cursed hero.

Thorin had not been seen. Balin put about amongst their own folk that he was grieving and wounded, which was wholly true- but Fíli privately felt that the two words did not go far enough. His uncle roamed the upper halls like a soundless, terrible shadow: barely speaking, barely eating, cropping back his hair and beard every morning without fail. Fíli sat with him whenever he could snatch a moment; he might as well have been sat with a statue. After a few days, he took to bringing a whetstone, smoothing away the silence and sorrow and anger on the sharp edge of his axe. Rise above your rage, Thorin had once told him, and oh, how Fíli tried. It dogged him wherever he went, this stalking, howling fury, and so he found himself constantly on the move, trying to keep one step ahead of it. He barely slept either, so terrible was the weight of it when his chest when he came to rest; he spent his nights pacing the halls, or inventorying the food, or thinking, desperately, for some way out of the cage they’d trapped themselves in.

The wizard was little help. He could conjure fires and heal some of the wounded, but he could no more produce food or banish the cold than Fíli could sprout wings and fly. He sat in on councils between the company, Bard and Dáin, but he said little. Fíli had considered asking him to leave the mountain and travel to the wood, to grovel at Thranduil’s feet, but could not imagine it would make any difference. The Elves had turned their backs once again- and the snow was only growing deeper.

When they had eaten half of the cram from Dáin’s supply train and feeler-fish were barely evident in the pools beneath the mountain, Fíli called Bard to him. The king of men seemed whittled down to his very essence, his eyes burning in his pallid face. He gave little away; although perhaps that was mere force of habit. The private audience chamber had no fire, only torches, and Fíli offered him a fur before they sat. Then he spread his hands on the stone table between them and began.

“I leave for Mirkwood tomorrow. Dwalin and Nori will go with me. Dáin, Balin and Kíli will lead whilst I am gone.”

There was a moment of silence. Then, in an instant, Bard’s impassive façade broke: he leaned back in his seat, cracked half a disbelieving smile and stared at the ceiling. He seemed finally pushed beyond his endurance. “And what do you hope to achieve by killing yourself?”

“I don’t intend to,” Fíli assured him, and it was a mark of how desperate their situation was that he found the comment almost funny, “although if that would assuage Thranduil… No, I don’t intend to die. I go to treat with him.”

Bard actually did laugh. “So- you intend to die. By storm or sword, you intend to die.”

“I do not.” Fíli stressed. “The storm is- nothing, to Dwarrows. As for the sword… We will starve otherwise.”

Bard could not refute that. And he did not know the true limits of Dwarrows- Fíli did, and he still could not be sure that the storm would not kill them, but he had to try.

“And if Thranduil imprisons you?”

Fíli shrugged. “Nori is excellent at getting out from behind locked doors.”

Bard looked as though he was wrestling with himself.

“I can’t just sit by and let the cold and hunger slay those that the battle could not. You know this, King Bard, else you would not have brought your people to the mountain.”

Bard’s eyes were as two chips of stone. “And what of King Thorin?”

Fíli felt the question like a slap. Words deserted him, he turned away to stare at the empty hearth. Rage and sorrow fought a terrible, familiar battle in his chest.

“Where is he?” Bard pressed. “What has happened to him?”

“Do not ask me,” Fíli ground out. Bard straightened up from where he was stooped over the table and fixed Fíli with a glare. Desperation was carved into the lines of his face.

“I have been tricked by Dwarves once before, oh Prince under the mountain. I have not forgotten and I will hear no more lies!” His last word echoed off the stone walls of the chamber. Lies, lies, lies…

Fíli raised his head. He could stomach no more of it either, although Balin would probably have his braids for bell-pulls for divulging Thorin’s condition. But what use was there in hiding it? Somebody would see, or let something slip. An idea came to him in that moment, and, for the first time since the battle ended, he felt sure that he was doing something right.

“Thorin is undone.” He said quietly, and a taut rope inside him snapped somewhere, as though saying the words had made it more true. “He will rule in name only.”

Bard looked dumbfounded. “But- the mountain-”

“Came at too high a price.”

Another silence fell between them, cold and aghast.

“I leave tomorrow,” Fíli finally said, “But there is something I have to do first.”

~

The storm seemed to have finally blown itself out. The next morning, watery sunshine ebbed amongst the retreating clouds that hung above the battlements, shining off the drifts of snow in dazzling flashes of white. When the gates creaked open, the light was so strong that many who had gathered to watch flung up their hands to shield their eyes. Fíli did no such thing. His hands were full, though his burden was light. His eyes were already full of tears.

There was not enough room around the litter for all of the company to walk. Nevertheless, they clustered close together, shoulder to shoulder, following Dwalin as he forged a path through the snow. After the intense, never ending fury of the wind, the silence weighed heavily in their ears. It made the quiet sobs of Bofur sound even louder. Fíli knew there was a crowd behind them, but he could not hear them. Only the endless sounds of grief. Beside him, Kíli began to hum the mourning song. Its familiar notes tugged so painfully at his heart that tears began to spill down his cheeks. Oh, Bilbo.

He lay above them, borne on their shoulders. He had been washed, his hair combed, that terrible wound hidden. From somewhere, Dori had even found a skein of thread to repair his tattered blue coat. Dori had also helped dig the grave- not even the frozen ground had been a match for him once Fíli had told him of his plans. Hobbits are laid to rest in the ground, Gandalf had murmured, and Dori had straightened up at once.

“I’ll see to it. I’ll see it’s done right.”

And he had done it right: the pit was just the right size, deep enough that their companion would not be disturbed but no so deep that they could not lower him gently down. It yawned ahead of them, a dark scar upon the brilliant, icy plain. The mourning song grew louder.

The sun was rising higher. Soon it would be too bright to see without snow shields. Fíli could barely see anyway. Grief streamed through him, as hot and bitter as the tears now flowing freely down his face. Bofur’s strangled humming gave way, once more, to anguished sobs. They continued to walk.

Thorin was somewhere behind them. It had been Fíli’s idea that he accompany them, that he be seen. There was little reasoning to his decision other than: he has to bade Bilbo farewell, and the mountain has to know.

There’s a time to look like you’ve suffered, Balin’s words echoed back to him, and his own voice faltered in the deep, slow, song of loss.

And then they stood before the grave, and the music died all at once. The bare truth lay in front of them, as stark and unforgiving as the ice, as scorching and destructive as the fire that had gone before it. Behind them, Dáin began to speak.

“Today, we lay to rest a hero!”

Fíli was glad he had asked Dáin to do this duty: he could not have done it. His throat was too tight, and it burned with every jagged breath.

“A hero of Man and Dwarf. A hero who gave his life to save both the mountain and the lake. We will not forget him! Bilbo Baggins!

To Fíli’s astonishment, there came an answering shout from the watching crowd. “Bilbo Baggins!”

A Dwarrow gave a wracking sob. Fíli thought it might be Bifur.

“He was small, but he made a damn big difference,” Dáin continued. “I did not know him, but I knew of him. And so it shall be for generation after generation, and we will not forget him! Bilbo Baggins!”

The echo was stronger, this time. “Bilbo Baggins!”

“Time to lower him,” Balin choked out. The company shuffled forward, and began to pass the litter down into the grave. The little burglar descended slowly, gracefully. His face was peaceful.

“We will not forget him!” Dáin bellowed, and it was as though he once again roused his troops to battle, facing overwhelming odds. “BILBO BAGGINS!”

Bilbo lay in the bottom of the grave, his eyes closed, so he could not see the endless blue sky unfurling above him. Nor could he see the grief-stricken faces of his friends. Fíli chanced a look at Thorin, who now knelt beside the grave. His face was contorted with an unnameable sorrow.

“Bilbo Baggins!”

Fíli’s head snapped up. Dwarrows were not famous for their hearing, but even he could tell that the roar of the crowd couldn’t have come from ahead of them. For one, heart-stopping moment, he thought of the folk who had chosen to remain in Dale- could they possibly have survived?

Then his eyes adjusted, and his heart very nearly did stop.

Some distance away, balanced impossibly atop the layers of snow, were many slender figures. They carried large bundles on their shoulders; at their head was one with pale, golden hair…

The Elves had come. They were saved.

~

Fíli kept his composure throughout the official proceedings. He was upright and as gracious as he could muster when the Princeling apologised for the delay- wagons becoming mired in the snow as soon as they emerged from the tree line- and he kept his face smooth as the food began to be distributed. But when, at last, he was alone in the audience chamber with Gandalf, Balin, Bard, Kíli  and this “Legolas”, and a Mahal-blessed fire crackling in the hearth, he could maintain it no longer. He sank into a chair and buried his head in his hands. After a moment, Bard followed suit.

“I see that you have been sorely tested,” Legolas said, softly.

Kíli ’s hand closed on Fíli’s shoulder.

“Pushed to the very brink,” Gandalf replied heavily.

After a moment, Fíli managed to lift his head. He had mastered his emotions, as Thorin had so long ago implored him to do so. Rise above your rage.

“Thank you, Prince Legolas,” he said. “Though those words are paltry compared to what you have done for us.”

“It is but a repayment,” the Elf said, instantly. “And not to the Dwarves.”

Before the sting of the insult could sink in, Bard interjected. “The Dwarves saved our skins-” Fíli was surprised but grateful, “-and they’ll share in whatever you’ve brought, regardless if it was intended for us or them.”

“You would fight Elves?” Legolas’ face was icy. All the peace of the previous moment had evaporated. “You would lose.”

“And you, Legolas Thranduillon, are not your father.” Gandalf had straightened up, and a strange kind of majesty had settled in his weathered face. He fixed his gaze on the Elf, who did not falter- but a disquiet entered his pale eyes. “You have seen the difference your gifts have made. You have seen how much they have endured.”

“No.” It was not Legolas who spoke, but Bard. He was looking at the Elf as though he had never seen one before. “It is not a gift. It will be bought and paid for, under the terms of our agreement. And I will use it as I see fit.”

“On stone-grubbers?” The disdain was clear in the Elf’s voice. “Those who brought about the destruction of your home?”

“And those who gave us one when we needed it most.” Bard’s mouth tilted, just slightly. “Strange world, isn’t it?”

Fíli saw his chance when he saw one. His voice rang out with authority he did not know he had. “Balin, accompany King Bard and Prince Legolas down to the treasure chambers. See that he has payment in the form he chooses.”

“My Ki- Prince.” Balin’s voice was strangled, but Fíli held firm.

“There are certain white gems, I believe, that King Thranduil prizes greatly. If they cannot be found, see that other recompense is granted. Let it not be said that Dwarves are not fair.” He could not keep the bitterness from his voice as he spoke the last words.

“I will go also,” Gandalf said, in a tone that brooked no argument, “to oversee the transaction.”

Legolas could not refuse after that. They trooped from the room, Balin stiff-backed, Bard still bowed with exhaustion. Fíli waited until he was sure they were out of earshot before uttering the foulest word for Elves he knew. Then he rested his head back on the tabletop.

“Fee…”

Kíli had remained. He had almost forgotten that.

“Fee, Balin- he called you King.”

The fear and finality in Kee’s voice were familiar to Fíli, given that was the strain that played in his heart at that very moment.

“Aye, I know.”

Together, the brothers sat, removed from the shouts of joy over the bounty of the Elves, watching the flickering of the fire.