Work Header

King, Come At Red Morning

Chapter Text

original art by ewebean rebloggable here

The stars were beginning to shine as Dis reached the door, clutching her cloak tight against the cold. A candle flickered behind the shutters and there was the smell of broth and mushrooms. Fili must have prepared dinner for himself and his brother. With her hand on the curled, iron handle, Dis paused to close her eyes and let out a long breath.

She hadn’t seen either of her sons since they’d left first thing in the morning for their lessons. And once again, they had spent most of the day looking after themselves. It scared her most in these moments of quiet, when the challenges of the day were laid aside and her thoughts turned from great endeavours to the little tasks left behind for her children. Fili sometimes forgot to watch the stove while he was cooking, and heaven forbid he try to sharpen his swords by himself again. Kili was apt to run barefoot through rocks and forges rather than wait for her to fix a broken shoe, was too small to use the wood-axe and yet he always tried to cut the kindling himself when she wasn’t home, too excited by imagining they were orc-necks or whatever adventures he was living in today—

But the candle was lit and the food was cooked. They were safe and alive for another day. She must not dwell on woes that had not yet taken shape.

“Mama!” Fili cried as she swung open the door and stepped inside. He was ladling the stew into two little bowls on the table, and slopped it everywhere when he saw her.

“Darling. I’m sorry I’m so late.”

Kili was standing on top of the rickety shelves in the corner, arranging his toys on the windowsill. He twisted his head around guiltily at the sound of her voice.

“Kili, get down from there!” she snapped, beckoning him. He grinned and with a growl leapt into her arms. The shelves rocked but stayed standing. Dis gave a woof as she took his weight. At twelve he was too heavy to jump on top of her and demand to be carried about, especially at the end of a long day. She felt aches and pains in her joints that she did not remember from before her marriage, and her left arm shuddered with the old wound from Azanulbizar. It hurt today worse than usual, because of the cold. But she still she kissed the top of her son’s head, squeezed him and set him down gently. “Go and wash your hands, you filthy little animal.”

“Yes, Mama.” He sprinted off to the laundry, banging the back door as he went. Dis had told him to slow down and walk carefully more times than she could count; it didn’t stick.

“Let me get that, Fili my love,” she said, taking off her cloak and laying it on the back of her husband’s old rocker. It was her rocker now, really – she was the only one who ever used it, even when they had visitors. But it still felt like his, as if it had moulded to his shape when it was new and had now set hard like iron left to cool.

“I’ve got it,” Fili insisted, taking the ladle with him as he went to fetch a third bowl for her. “I made enough for us all. I figured you would be back soon.”

She had not meant to be home so late. When she left before noon she had only meant to bring a bag of surveying measurements up from the valley. But when she reached the library where Ginnar and his apprentices were beginning the designs for the new outer wall, the only members of the council present were Balin and Oin. Frerin had gone hunting, and taken half his senior advisors with him.

So Dis had stayed in the library and overseen the first designs for the project, even as the hours ticked by and she thought of her boys alone on the other side of town, running off to climb trees or beg the stables to let them ride the ponies or heading down the cliffs to the river to see if it was warm enough to swim in. Fili was sensible enough to keep them out of the worst trouble, but suppose they did not tell anyone where they were going, suppose she went home and they were missing, suppose the sun set before she could find them? The nights were cold, and there had been wolves spotted in the paddocks last month. But she could not leave the council, either.

She had been doing that a lot since Frerin had become king. Taking charge of the council, making decisions, pushing things along. And if she didn’t keep an eye on things commissions would fall behind. Jobs would go undone. Her orders would even be ignored or dismissed if she didn't press the matter. After all, she was only the sister of the king, why should anyone do as she said? She felt like a nagging wife driving her husband to market on a hot day. Frerin made her feel like that. But if she didn’t run this damn town, no one would.

“I learned about dragons today,” Kili announced as he returned to the table, dripping but slightly cleaner. She inspected his palms and nails before she let him sit down.

“What did you learn?” she asked.

“All the different types, and how to trap and kill the different ones, the battles in the north,” Kili talked with his mouthful. “Uncle Frerin came and took our history lesson. It was much more exciting than learning about all the boring names of kings. And he doesn’t tell me off for asking questions like Boric does, he likes me asking questions.”

So that’s where Frerin had been before she went to council; Balin had sent out messengers to find him without success.

“I’m sure he does,” Dis smiled at him. Frerin had always had a soft spot for her youngest. Dis knew Kili reminded Frerin of himself, who as a child was always chided for being too loud or too eager or too rough. She glanced at Fili. “Did you learn anything new today, Fili?”

“A bit,” Fili mumbled, pushing lumps around his bowl with his spoon. “I messed up my sword forms again. I’m never going to get better.”

“You are getting better,” Dis frowned, touching his arm. She wished she had the time to teach him herself, with more patience and encouragement than his elderly tutors had, but there was so much to do, and every day her time was eaten up faster than she could gather it. She turned back to finish her stew. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was until she found her bowl was nearly empty and her stomach was still rumbling. She was loathe to ask Frerin for some of the meat from his hunt, if he’d even been successful, but she could mention how skinny Kili was and he’d likely offer it. She pushed her bowl aside. “I’m going to get my pipe while you two get yourselves to bed. If you’re quick about it, shall I tell you a story?”

“Yes! What story?” Kili raised his head, licking juice from his upper lip. He’d missed most of it; Dis leaned across to wiped his mouth. She sucked her thumb clean as she got up to clear the table.

“I want a story about Thorin,” Fili said quietly. “The one they call the Abiding King.”

Dis paused with her back to the table, leaning down to put the bowls into the bucket that served as their sink. She forced a smile to her face as she turned back to Fili. “Have you been learning about him, then?”

“Nori’s papa was talking about him,” Fili mumbled, scraping the last of his stew together at the bottom of his bowl. “He’s our uncle, right?”

“He was your uncle,” Dis said.

“Nori’s papa says he’s still alive.”

“People say a lot of things,” Dis took his bowl and spoon before he even had time to put them down. “They’re just stories. Don’t call Thorin a king in front of your uncle, think how rude it is.”

“I want to hear the story,” Fili stared her down.

“Fine,” Dis picked up the bucket. The clatter of the dishes inside was much louder than she had meant it to be. She headed for the water-barrel outside the back door. “Go and get ready for bed, and I’ll tell you about Thorin.”

By the time the dishes were set to dry on the bench and she’d packed her pipe, the boys were in their nightgowns and under the blankets of the bed the two of them shared. It was little more than a pallet with a mattress in the small loft built into the corner of the house, but at least it was warm up there near the ceiling. Gripping the stem of her pipe between her teeth, Dis climbed the steps to sit at the top and lean against the ceiling beams. She struck a match and sucked the flame into the bowl of the pipe while Kili wriggled around trying to get comfortable and Fili pulled the blankets up to his chin.

“I was very little when the dragon came,” she began, resting her arm on her knees.

“How little?” Fili demanded.

“About Kili’s age,” said Dis, breathing out a long plume of smoke. “But Frerin was older than you. He and I used to go running around the hills outside the mountain whenever we could get away from our lessons, chasing rabbits, looking for trouble,” she didn’t need to tell them what mountain she was talking about. They had listened to this history since the cradle. It was in their air and their water and their bones. “That’s where we were that day – up on the slopes, in the golden grasses, exploring the cliffs and the rocky gullies.”

They had not been alone, of course. Some older cousin or maid was always sent to watch the young prince and princess. But they had felt as free as highwaymen.

“Frerin and I were very close in those days,” Dis smiled around her pipe. “We were just like you two, always getting up to mischief and then lying to protect each other even when we’d done nothing wrong ourselves. But our older brother Thorin had been stern and well-behaved from the moment he was born, my grandmother swore it. He was the captain of the king’s guard already. Frerin and I always thought he was made of a different alloy from us – the metal of kings, Frerin said. But we adored him all the same. He was defending the door when the dragon broke into the mountain, but there was nothing he or anyone could have done. Smaug was as long from nose to tail-tip as the road that runs outside our house, and lithe as a mountain lion, with scales as hard as mithril.”

She had not seen the dragon herself, except as a dark shape in the distance above the smoke of Dale’s burning towers. As he had soared towards Erebor, Frerin had pulled her down into a ravine and they had hidden there until they were sure he would not pass overhead. Her impressions of Smaug were a mismatch of stories from her elders, and from the nightmares that had taken years to fade.

“After the dragon entered the mountain, Frerin and I ran back to the road above the main gate,” Dis continued, looking down at the hearth that burned below. “The air smelled of smoke, and many people were fleeing along the road. We climbed down the hill and found Thorin carrying our father out of the mountain. Grandfather was close behind. Papa was wounded, Grandfather raving and confused, and our grandmother still missing. Everyone was looking for someone – a brother, a wife, an old friend – and most of them were never found. Thorin knew many dwarves were still trapped inside. He tried to…”

Dis frowned, wondering how much of her memory was true and how much she had dreamed in the many years since that day. “Thorin entrusted Frerin and I with our father’s care. He kissed my brow and said he would come back soon, and then he took a dozen of his bravest warriors and went back in to look for more survivors. I never saw him again.”

“What happened to him?”Kili whispered. He was snuggled under Fili’s arm now, his hands balled against his chin and his eyes wide. Fili’s hand was combing idly through his brother’s hair.

“Several of the warriors returned alone,” Dis said, waving her pipe. “Burned and terrified, and each with a different tale about what happened in that mountain. They were all afraid to follow Thorin all the way. He went alone towards Smaug, his sword unsheathed and his shoulders straight. Some say the dragon killed him with its gaze, like a lightning strike. Some say he hypnotised Thorin and forced the prince to turn his sword on his own belly,” she regretted her words when Kili gave a tiny flinch, but she could not bear to leave anything out. No one knew the truth, so it was not fair to exclude any part of the telling. “But some of them said only that the dragon’s eye stunned Thorin like a blow, and left him stupefied upon those hallowed floors. For a long time that was the end of it, but after the wars for Moria, after our grandfather was slain and Papa vanished and Frerin took the crown so young…” she took a breath. “People started to talk about Thorin again as if he was alive. They began to call him the Abiding King. They say that he is still under the dragon’s spell, and sleeps in the depths of Erebor upon a nest of gold and mithril threads, with gems upon his brow and a sword in his hand. Perhaps he is waiting for when his people need him most. And then Mahal will awaken him and he will come like a storm over the Misty Mountains and save us.”

Kili pressed close against Fili’s side and squeaked. “It it true? Is Thorin sleeping in Erebor?”

“No, darling,” Dis smiled. “It’s a fairytale, like ‘Jor and the Trolls’, or ‘The Little Dam Who Frightened the Sea Away’.”

“How do you know?” Fili asked.

“Because if Thorin was coming to save us,” said Dis. “He’d have done it by now.”

She sucked deep on her pipe, looking away with a dark rage boiling in her heart. Why had her brother gone back into the mountain that day? There had been no hope. It had been a stupid act of brash defiance. The dwarves outside had needed him. Dis had needed him.

“I’ll be king one day, won’t I?” Fili asked, watching his mother’s pipe flare in the darkness.

Dis looked up at him. “Maybe, my love, if Frerin does not have sons of his own. But not for a very, very long time. Your uncle is young and hale.”

“I want to be king,” Fili yawned. “I want to be brave and strong like Thorin was.”

“You will be all that and more,” Dis shuffled forward and leaned in to kiss them both. She couldn’t bring herself to say anything else. She could not selfishly lay her wishes on her son, her hope that he would never be a shield against the catastrophes that Thror and Thorin took on, that he would never be faced with the choices her brother had faced. She hoped that his life would be slow and simple until, when he was grown and hardened into a wise dwarf, when he had married and raised sons of his own, then perhaps the mantle of the king would pass to him. When he was ready.




65 years later


Bilbo ran, tripping and catching himself on his hands, seeking out any stairway and passage not strewn with the treacherous coins that would reveal his invisible feet. Smaug must be able to hear him. The dragon was tormenting him, letting him think he was on the verge of escape. At any moment his teeth would clamp around Bilbo’s middle and tear him apart. The dwarves had failed to warn him that Smaug was no wild beast, but an intelligent predator who took joy in the hunt itself. Bilbo should have known, he should have realised why they would not go in themselves, why they had taken such pains to bring him along on this quest like a heavy piece of luggage whose purpose had been veiled and unspoken until now. He was the last resort against a foe they knew they could not possibly face themselves. And at any moment, he was going to feel the heat of Smaug's breath on his heels, hear the snap of his teeth or be pierced on the tip of one long claw like a wriggling worm on a fish-hook.

Bilbo ran.

He couldn't remember which direction he'd come from or which of the interlinking stairways led back to the tunnel and up to the secret door. He ran only to get away, to put as much distance between himself and the dragon as he could. When an enclosed corridor beckoned to one side, he took it, his lungs aching as he sprinted between the tall, black pillars that lined the way, glancing left and right in search of a side passage that might afford him further protection. But the walls between the black pillars were pale, featureless marble. The only doorway was a wide arch at the end of the corridor through which Bilbo could see solid darkness. Its lintel bore no runes or relief-scene, only an interlocking carving of braided thorn-bushes. Without any choice except onwards, Bilbo fled inside.

Almost immediately he ran into a wall. Not a metaphorical wall, but a literal wall of smooth, black stone that stood only a few feet inside the darkened room. With a gasp, he felt along the surface of it, terrified that he had just trapped himself in a small storage cupboard. But he quickly discovered that the wall was merely a shield against the light of the corridor, opened on either side. Around the edge of it he tumbled into the room beyond. He could see nothing at first, and the lack of echoes suggested the room was not large, yet the air tasted the same as outside in the great caverns where Smaug had lain asleep. Bilbo staggered forward, arms outstretched, and soon smashed his knee into what turned out to be the broad leg of a large, stone table, set just above the height of a hobbit's elbows. He swore and then clapped his hand over his mouth. Slowly, bruised and panting for breath, he felt his way around the corner of the table. He hands brushed against layers of cool, musty fabric that had been left crumpled on the slab.

Bilbo's eyes were adjusting quickly, but soon he realised he could see his hands far too clearly for comfort. A light was growing in the room. He turned where he stood, seeing no source until, with a fresh judder of his heart, he craned his neck back and realised the room had no roof. Smaug was approaching, and the glow of fire in his belly was racing ahead of him. Bilbo sat in a lidless hole waiting to be scooped out.

In his panic he ran forward, not back, and too late saw that there was no passage that way. The pale, marble walls were turning rosy with the false dawn of Smaug’s arrival. There was no furniture nor features except for more square, black columns in each corner. Bilbo pressed himself between the crook of the nearest pillar and the wall and slid the ring onto his finger just as the dragon swung into view above him.

“There you are.”

The voice poured down into the room, reverberating in Bilbo’s breastbone. For one horrible moment he suffered the thought that the dragon was speaking to him, that he had sniffed him out. And then that long, spiny head snaked down towards the table in the centre of the room and Smaug breathed in deep through his flared nostrils.

“That stinking thief has been here, my gem, but he hasn’t touched you,” he rumbled, and Bilbo’s terror slumped as he realised the dragon wasn’t speaking to him.

In fact, quite the opposite, he didn’t seem to realise Bilbo was there at all. What ‘gem’ was he rambling to? Bilbo’s hand flew to the Arkenstone in his coat, but it remained heavy in hiding. What could be so precious to the dragon, in this huge hoard, that he would keep it hidden away up here on this shadowy altar?

At least Smaug seemed distracted. Maybe he could prove himself a true hobbit and creep away without a sound. With infinite care and silence Bilbo slid to his feet, pressing his back against the corner. As he did so, the surface of the table came into view for the first time, bathed in the red-gold light of the dragon’s belly. And there lay the last thing Bilbo had expected to see; the body of a dwarf lying on his back, nestled in a makeshift bed of rotting blankets and ancient cloaks, his feet resting at Bilbo’s end of the slab. He looked as if he was on display, as if in state for a wake, motionless but for his long hair which shivered as the dragon’s breath washed over him.

For a horrible moment, Bilbo thought it must be one of his friends who had come down the tunnel to find him and been overcome by terror or the dragon’s smoke. But though he couldn’t see much of the dwarf’s face from where he stood, he didn’t recognise the heavy boots at all. So it was some other poor traveller – or a thief most likely, having found a way into the mountain and been caught stealing from the dragon. Bilbo felt a swell of pity at what could have been his own fate lying before him.

Smaug opened his mouth and Bilbo flinched as he saw those wicked teeth again. He supposed that he was about to watch the dragon eat the dead dwarf. He’d evidently wandered into Smaug’s larder. How perfect, how typical of him, stupid Bilbo. He could not believe he had ever let Frerin talk him into his venture. But there was no snap and gulp and wet splatter of congealed blood. Instead, Smaug’s thick, cracked tongue stretched out between his teeth and licked the side of the dwarf’s face, completely covering it with only the flattened tip. Strings of luminous saliva stretched from his tongue. Bilbo shuddered, mouth twisting and hands balling into fists.

Smaug withdrew, his tongue vanishing again as he lifted his head out of the chamber. “I’ll find him, my treasure, never you fear,” he hissed and turned away into the mountain. In a few thuds of his huge footsteps he was gone, and the light with him. Bilbo was left in the black chamber with the smell of brimstone and hot, noxious breath.

He dragged the ring off his finger and staggered forward, heading for the sliver of light that marked the exit behind the dividing wall. But he’d gone only a few steps before he stopped, panting, his racing heart beginning to slow. Curiosity fought with fear and both reminded him that he had to make a decision at once before the dragon came back. He turned towards the table and fumbled for the edge of it in the dark. His eyes were beginning to adjust again and he could see the shape of the dwarf lying in front of him.

He had to know who the dead dwarf was. He felt a kinship for him, a fellow thief, a martyr to the trade of which Bilbo was still a novice. He gripped the lip of the slab and heaved himself up onto it. He thought perhaps he could find some crest or motif on the dwarf’s clothes, maybe a ring or locket with the name of a sweetheart. He didn’t hold out hope for a handkerchief with embroidered initials, but it was certainly on his mind. Even if he couldn't take anything with him other than the memory of a few runes, he could describe them to Balin and Oin later. The old dwarves would surely know which tribe or guild the dwarf had come from.

Bilbo crawled across the disintegrating blankets until he could see the pale shape of the dwarf’s face, a peek of skin above his collar and the glint of silver on his tunic. His beard was cut oddly short, and his nose was long and straight.

A familiar nose.

No, a familial nose. Frerin’s nose, and Fili’s nose.

Bilbo gasped. It wasn’t possible. But the shape of the dwarf’s face, the cut of his cheeks, his mouth, they were all recognisable... no, it wasn’t possible, Bilbo was letting horror stories get a hold of his good sense! But he had studied those same features on Frerin’s face many times (far more than he cared to admit even to himself). He knew them well. He couldn't believe it. The Abiding King was a myth! He had to get a closer look. Leaning forward too far to keep his balance, Bilbo’s hand darted out to prop himself up and inadvertently landed on the dead dwarf’s upturned palm.

He made a choking noise deep in his throat and snatched his hand back, lunging away so quickly he almost fell off the table.

The dwarf’s skin was warm.

Bilbo took a couple of deep breaths and shuffled forward again, carefully placing his hand between the body’s arm and its chest. He couldn’t leave this chamber now without being sure. Slowly, arms shaking with the slowness of his movements and exhaustion after the long day, he leaned down until he could place his ear against the dwarf’s chest. He held his breath. For a moment there was nothing, and he could convince himself he was touching only a stone statue covered in storage cloth. And then he felt, unmistakably, the laborious rise and fall of the dwarf’s chest and the distant beat of a slow heart.

Bilbo straightened upright again, shaking his head. The dwarf was alive. There was a dwarf sleeping peacefully in Smaug’s lair who looked like he could be King Frerin’s brother (at least in this dim light, to a frightened hobbit’s imagination). For a moment Bilbo wondered if he could be in some strange, dreaming funk, brought on by the toxic fumes that belched from Smaug’s belly. It might be easy to imagine heartbeats and family resemblances when you were inebriated by poisons. But his eyes and mind seemed clear, and he was not dizzy.

Abiding King or not, Bilbo could not take the risk that the poor fellow was dead. He reached out and shook the body’s shoulder. “Excuse me, Master Dwarf?” he whispered. “Hello?”

The body was heavy and rocked limply beneath Bilbo’s hand as he shook him harder. “Mr Abiding King!” Bilbo hissed. “Wake up! You must get up!”

There was no response. Bilbo grimaced and leaned down to half-shout in his ear, looking around as if expecting Smaug to be sneaking up behind him, “Thorin! Son of Thrain! Get out of bed!


Bilbo raised his hand and slapped the dwarf's face as hard as he could. The clap echoed around the chamber and Bilbo flinched. But the dwarf did not even stir. Bilbo’s hand came away sticky and stinking, and he realised he’d touched the cheek that Smaug had licked. Disgusted and furious at his own helplessness, Bilbo tugged his sleeve up over his hand and scrubbed at the dwarf’s face to clean him as best he could. He could not bear to leave him here with the dragon’s spittle all over him.

But as he drew away, his thumb brushed against the dwarf’s lower lip. Suddenly there was a twitch of life, a shiver of eyes and mouth as if a bad dream had risen suddenly to the surface. Bilbo froze, staring down at the dwarf.

“Thorin?” he said. Nothing. Bilbo thought back to what Dwalin had said that night in Laketown, about the mocking promise Smaug had made in the burning remains of Erebor: that he would free the hypnotised prince if someone was only brave enough to kiss him. Bilbo had no time to think twice, no time to be ashamed, and anyway… if he was right they would all be glad, and if he was wrong, no one would ever know. He grabbed the sleeping dwarf’s face and kissed his mouth, not chastely but full and deep. For a moment it was sickeningly like kissing a corpse, and then there was movement beneath him and the dwarf was kissing him back, opening his mouth to Bilbo. One shaking arm rose and clutched Bilbo’s elbow, and in shock Bilbo drew away, dislodging the dwarf’s grip.

His eyes were open. They rolled in his head, unfocused. He heaved for breath through his mouth, turning his head this way and that as if seeking fresh air. He rolled onto his side with a groan from the effort, curling into himself as if to nurse an agonising pain deep inside him, eyes squeezed closed again.

“Thorin!” Bilbo grabbed his shoulder. “Mr Thorin, oh dear, oh goodness, can you hear me?”

The dwarf let out a dry rattle from his throat but did not answer.

Somewhere in the distance, Bilbo heard someone calling his name. On the second shout he recognised Frerin’s voice echoing down the corridor. Bilbo looked over his shoulder and shook the woken dwarf roughly. He tried to slide his hands under the dwarf’s body, but he was as heavy as a pony. “Thorin, you must sit up!”

The dwarf did not even seem to hear him. Perhaps he wasn’t Thorin at all. Perhaps he was, but had lost his mind to the dragon. Perhaps he was just falling asleep again. Bilbo turned towards Frerin’s voice, which was getting louder, and started to climb off the table. At once, the dwarf reached out and snatched his arm. Bilbo pulled himself free but held onto the dwarf's hand, squeezing it between both his palms.

“You have to let me go, Thorin. I’m going to get help. I can’t carry you on my own, you’re too heavy. Wait for me here and I promise I’ll come back.”

After a moment the hand relaxed, and Bilbo backed away until he reached the divider, and then he turned and scurried into the corridor.

This time, with his mind clearer than before, he found the stairway back to the tunnel with relative ease. He was clambering up it as fast as he could when he saw Frerin emerge from the doorway above him. The king stopped in his tracks, his jaw hanging slack as he stared about him at the great hall of his grandfather. Bilbo put on an extra burst of speed to reach him.

“I thought you were dead!” Frerin cried, surging towards him.

“Very nearly,” Bilbo panted.

“Did you find him?”

“Who? Smaug? Of course I—” Bilbo stopped. His brow tensed, holding Frerin’s gaze. His friend’s eyes were wide and pleading, but there was a fierce spark behind them that Bilbo could not name.

“Did you find my brother?” Frerin asked breathlessly.

Bilbo swallowed. He decided he would tell Balin and Dwalin first what he had found in the chamber. Yes, that’s what he’d do. He needed at least three pairs of hands, anyway, unless the dwarf he’d left behind had found his strength on his own. He shook his head and said. “No, of course not. We need to go. The dragon’s coming.”

He strode towards the doorway, and found his way blocked by a sword.


Bilbo stepped away, and the point of the sword was suddenly against his breastbone.


He looked into Frerin’s eyes and for a moment he forgot the dragon altogether.

Frerin knew he was lying.

Frerin knew what he’d found.

But he did not need to worry long, because through the cavern there came the crunch and clatter of monstrous, clawed feet among the miles of gold. Bilbo’s gaze flicked over Frerin’s left shoulder and the king’s expression cleared. He turned his head and then his sword. A gasp left him. Down the corridor came the hollering and yelping of the rest of the company arriving, barrelling out onto the landing.

When they saw the dragon, it didn’t take long for every single one of them to turn tail and run. Behind them, Smaug filled the air with his roar.


Chapter Text

By the time Bilbo Baggins found the lost prince Thorin of Erebor, he had already been in love with Thorin’s brother for almost half a year.

Bilbo did not fall in love with Frerin instantly. Of course not. It took at least half an hour, if you counted the minutes from the knock that came on the door just as they were about to start dinner. At the time Bilbo could not believe it was possible to fit more dwarves into his tiny hall and he stormed off in the hopes that he could tell the newcomer that there simply wasn't room for them, but Gandalf's long legs got there first. The wizard opened the door and there stood the king of Erebor's exiles in a dark red coat beneath his mail and with a tall, rangy dwarf by his side.

"Welcome," Gandalf said. "Frerin, son of Thrain, son of Thror."

"Gandalf," Frerin nodded at him and strutted in, tugging off his cloak. He handed it to his companion. "It is good to see you again. And this is the hobbit?" his gaze took Bilbo in from toes to crown and he raised his brows. "He's comely, if nothing else."

"And our host for the night," Gandalf cleared his throat.

But Frerin’s attention was back on the wizard anyway. He turned and held out his arm to usher forward the dwarf who had been following him. Young, with only a scrabble instead of a beard, and cheeks glowing in the warmth of the front hall after coming in from the cold.

“This is my nephew Kili, son of the Kingsshield,” he smiled broadly as he clapped Kili on the shoulder.

“Another one?” Bilbo said, and everyone turned to him as if they hadn’t realised he could talk. Bilbo jerked his thumb down the hall, “Only, I think your brother arrived earlier.”

“Really?” Kili’s eyes went wide and his smile broke open as bright as dawn. “Yellow-haired fellow?”

“That’s him,” Bilbo nodded testily. “Scraped half my skirtings rolling a barrel of ale into the dining room. Also the son of some bloke named Kingsshield.”

Kili gave a bark of laughter. “Not a bloke, Master Hobbit. The Kingsshield is our mother.”

He looked at his uncle. Bilbo saw the dwarf king nod with a small smile. “Go on, then. Give Fili a kiss for me.”

Kili bolted off down the hall, pausing only to dump Frerin’s coat in a crumpled heap on top of Bilbo’s mother’s glory box. A moment later Bilbo heard what sound like a vicious murder taking place, but when he leaned back to peer down the corridor he saw it was only the two brothers with their arms around each other, hollering with laughter, trying in turns to wrestle the other to the ground with little success on either part.

“Bilbo,” said Gandalf, and he turned back to the gathering in the front hall. Gandalf raised his brows and inclined his head towards Frerin. “Have you anything left in the pantry to feed him?”

“I sincerely doubt it,” Bilbo said, but then he looked at Frerin, with his arms crossed but his brow raised and an expectant smile under his beard, and he sighed. “This way then, Mr Latecomer. I’ll see what we can find for you.”

The rest of Bilbo’s unmanageable guests were much quieter as Frerin followed him through the halls. Bilbo expected to be ignored in favour of greetings with the dwarves, so he did not even try to hold Frerin’s attention. He set about finding a clean pot to boil a bit of soup in, as there was nothing on the shelves but leeks and potatoes and a bit of salted beef on the table. But Frerin appeared behind him and began to talk to him as if they were old friends. He had a lot of questions for Bilbo, first about the food ("Normally I would never fall short, but your friends have not left a lot!” Bilbo replied), then about who had built Bag End and how old it was (“My Father, years before I was born, it was a wedding gift for my mother”), then about whether Bilbo was the only one who lived here (“Oh yes, and I like it very much that way”), Bilbo's choice of weapon, ("I do have some skill at conkers…") and finally why Bilbo had decided to go on such a dangerous quest (“What? What quest?”).

Yes indeed, Frerin explained. The quest to defeat the dragon. Hadn’t Gandalf said? Bilbo was laying him a place at the table by then. He had rattled up the best cutlery, scraped together the last of the cheese and bread for his soup, and he had even found himself pulling Frerin’s chair out for him.

“Dragon?” Bilbo looked around the table, where one of the dwarves was handing around flagons of the last of the ale. “What dragon?”

Frerin looked at him, smiling broadly, and winked. This was almost certainly the very moment that Bilbo fell in love.

And then Frerin told him everything.




It was almost a year since they had seen each other. That was not the longest time that they had been separated by any means, but somehow, Fili had never missed his brother as much as this day, in this strange little home under the hill. They had retired to a quiet corridor, away from the rest of the roaring songs of the company. Fili would not have minded staying with Uncle and getting too drunk to walk, but Kili – for once in his life – did not seem in the mood for it. He sat on one of Mr Baggins’ polished benches with one boot tucked up under his seat, his chin resting on his knee while he packed his pipe with the fresh leaf Fili had bought them from Hobbiton. His hands moved slowly. Scraps of leaves fell from the bowl and spun as they floated onto the rug.

Somewhere at the bottom of Fili’s bag was a little, round stone. His mother had pressed it into his hand when he bade her farewell on his last day in Ered Luin. He, Ori and Ori’s brothers were setting out towards the country of the Hobbits. Dwalin and Balin had gone ahead; Bifur and his cousins would follow in a few days if they didn’t change their minds about the quest. Mama had acted as if the day was no different to any other. She went out to chop kindling, fetch water and feed the pigs while he made breakfast. She sat at the kitchen table doing the accounts and drinking tea while he packed the last of his things. She waited until his pack was on his shoulders and his pony saddled before she took him aside and looked him in the eye.

Promise me, she said.

He’d forgotten the promise, or made himself not think about it, until tonight.

“Let me look at you,” Fili said as he sat down beside his brother. Kili raised his head sharply, as if Fili had startled him. Fili gripped his chin and stared into his eyes. His whiskers had come in further than when they’d parted, and his face was brown from travelling. Fili clicked his tongue. “Well you don’t look any smarter than when I left you.”

Kili chuckled and went back to his pipe. Fili took one of the candles from the bracket in the wall and set it to the bowl; Kili drew in a breath until the leaves glowed and smoked on their own.

“The council of seven clans didn’t go as well as Frerin planned, huh?” Fili asked. “They won’t come.”

His brother squeezed his eyes shut and tipped his head back against the wall. “It was awful, Fili, you have no idea! I’d never been so humiliated in my life, and I think I really ruined the negotiations.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” Fili began filling his own pipe. “If the Broadbeams and Firebeards had wanted to help us, they wouldn’t change their mind just because they caught a glimpse of your ugly face.”

Kili laughed again, but there was a note of despair in it now that made Fili flinch. “I wish you’d been there. You would have known what to do.”

“It can’t have been as bad as all that. And Frerin was so pleased to have you by his side.”

“Because he didn’t care that I was an embarrassment,” Kili pouted, kicking his heel against the bench. “But Dain was furious at me and doubly furious that Frerin wouldn’t chastise me. I kept stumbling on the welcoming protocols, I couldn’t remember how to introduce myself in Khuzdul, I didn’t even realise I was supposed to keep all my hair in braids. I just had it hanging out like always.” Kii paused and when Fili didn’t answer, he continued with a note of panic, “You can’t even pretend I’d get away with all that, can you?”

“Well, the hair thing’s a bit awkward,” Fili said with a shrug. “The Firebeards consider it a matter of basic hygiene, bless them. But what happened to your ahùgun? I’ve heard you give lovely self-introductions when we have guests back home.”

“Because you always go first,” Kili mumbled. “I just copy what you say and change around our names and titles.”

“Of course," Fili snorted and shot Kili a smirk. "I suppose some of the older folks might have been annoyed at that. But it really isn’t your fault, Kili. Dain can’t expect you to learn it all on your own.”

Kili's shoulders slumped as he sighed. “Frerin kept saying he’d teach me, but he was always so busy. He says it’s better we don’t submit to all these expectations, because the rituals are obsolete and bad for morale. And he said I didn’t need to learn the formal bows or anything.”

Fili gave a low growl. “That’s because he doesn’t know them himself. Dain should have helped you, I thought that was the whole point of Frerin bringing you to Dunland. So you could learn these things!”

“I went so Frerin could introduce his heir to the rest of the clan nobility,” Kili snarled back, and then muttered, “Sorry, not that—”

“Let’s not dwell on it,” Fili cut him off. That was a wound that still ached when he put weight on it, even almost three decades later. “It’s over now. Even if it went as badly as you think, and I doubt that it did, no one will remember once you’re king. But you mustn’t just let it go. These traditions are important, Kili. Most of them have roots right back to the first seven fathers and mothers. They help us keep the peace and stay unified with all dwarves, everywhere. The king should be at inter-clan councils every couple of decades if things weren't such a mess for us out west. One day you will be a custodian of our history as well as our people’s future.”

Kili muttered, “You don't need to lecture me.”

“I’ll stop nagging you when you start listening,” Fili said, grabbing his brother’s ear and give it an affectionate tweak. “You will be a good king, Kili. We all know it. But Durin didn’t build his halls in a day. You’ll get there.”

Kili cuffed him on the arm. “How do I learn it with no one to teach me, then? Gróin is dead, old Ginnar’s lost his marbles, Balin’s always harried. Mama says she doesn't know all the old stuff either, and besides, if I go to her Frerin will probably have a fit…”

“I’ll teach you. And anything I can’t teach, you’ll have to travel to the Iron Hills to learn. Stay on in Dain's court for a few years.”

“We can go together this time,” Kili said hopefully.

“Yes, if Frerin doesn’t find work for me. Or maybe we’ll be in Erebor and Dain can come to us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe in this venture, now!” Kili smirked at him. “I thought us seeing the inside of that mountain was ‘as likely as the Abiding King meeting us on the doorstep’?”

“Well, maybe I believe in the Abiding King now!”

Laughing, they leaned back against the wall to finish their pipes. The singing was growing louder and more raucous down the hall, and Kili was tapping his foot to it now. Fili smiled around the stem of his pipe. He thought of the stone at the bottom of his bag, and his promise to his mother.

Promise me you’ll come back.

Of course, Ma! Remember which son I am? Kili’s the one who’s going to throw himself down mountains and into the jaws of wargs—

—But Dis had seized the back of his neck and drawn him close, the fingers of her other hand gripping tight around his elbow. She seemed afraid to embrace him, as if it would hurt both of them. “I don’t need to worry about Kili,” she whispered. “You already worry about Kili. You worry about Frerin. You worry about every dwarf but yourself, boy. You have done ever since Frerin took the crown from you. Don’t put this damn quest ahead of your life,” she reached up and touched his cheek with the rough pad of her thumb. “You will find a greater task one day, Fili, than playing page for your uncle and nursemaid to your brother. I promise you that. But dying for a mountain that’s beyond our reach is not it. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Ma,” Fili said softly.

“Promise me.”

“I’ll come home, Ma.”

“Thank you,” she brushed her lips to his temple and let him go.

He believed her then. His promise had been sincere. But now, with the old songs of Erebor floating down the hall and wending into his skull, with Kili beside him, he wasn’t so sure she was right after all. Surely the mountain could be won. And surely that was worth any price.

He looked at Kili and he didn’t mind paying it. He really didn’t.




Bilbo sat before the fire in his room, his hands hanging between his knees. His head was pounding after all the excitement of the evening. The logs glowed behind the grate, and smoke drizzled out of the cracks and rolled away up the chimney. A quest to reclaim a mountain guarded by a fire-breathing monster? They must be pulling his toes. That was no place for a hobbit, less so a Baggins, least of all a Baggins as respectable as Bilbo. They all thought so: Dwalin had glared at Bilbo throughout the discussion, while that fellow with the grand moustache and the glinting eyes – Bofur – had scared him witless with his talk of incineration. They couldn't really intend to bring him along. Why, even if Bilbo pulled himself together and made a go of it, at the first sign of trouble they would turn him around and send him home, probably with a good kick up the backside for the hassle he’d caused them. And there would be a lot of walking, which Bilbo was fond only in small doses, and ponies, which Bilbo was fond of not at all. And no fresh bread and jam for breakfast. It would probably be salted cod and hard biscuits all the way. No, it was no place for Bilbo. They had all made that clear, and only the old wizard was stubbornly sticking by his nomination.

Well, the wizard and Frerin.

Bilbo had realised pretty quickly that Frerin was a very important dwarf, but it had taken until later in the evening for him to figure out that he was the important dwarf, the exiled king of the Longbeard clan. And of all his kin and subjects crammed around Bilbo’s dining table, he was the only one who had agreed with Gandalf: they needed a burglar, and Bilbo has “spirit, if not experience”.

“And didn’t we all start out like that?” he asked the table at large.

At that he had turned towards Bilbo and smiled at him, and Bilbo had wrung his hands almost out of their joints and tried not to fall over (again). He could be as scared of dragons and quests as he liked, but that confident smile blotted out all his fears.

Because the truth was that Bilbo wasn’t completely respectable, though he’d die before he let any of these rude, blustering, iron-clad dwarves know about it. For he was an eternal bachelor, and in the shire (a place that had no words but plenty of riddles to describe such things) that meant 'You know', that meant 'Not the marrying type', that meant 'get what I mean, Sonny?'

And mostly it didn't mean much. Hobbits will avoid a fuss at all costs, unless they're feeling quite personal about it, and not-the-marrying-type folks like Bilbo didn't generally get any grief over the matter. Bungo Baggins had not wanted to know a thing about it, but as none of the neighbours ever got wind of the gossip he remained a dear and caring father in every other aspect. The worst times were when Bilbo had been ‘good friends' with a couple of other lads in his tweens. What a disaster! He’d broken his own heart and had several awful rows with his parents and finally decided he was never going to fall in love again. That solved all the problems very neatly and seemed to please everyone, particularly Bungo. In fact, Bilbo had made an obscure joke about that kerfuffle when he was speaking at Lobelia’s wedding a few years back, and several people had laughed (most had just stared blankly, because the rumours weren't exciting enough to have reached all the branches of the family). So yes, it wasn’t anything he thought about most days, for he liked living alone, and he liked being respectable and predictable in the minds everyone around him.

But then Frerin had to go and smile at him.

Oh, he started thinking about it then, yes he did. And what had Frerin called him? “Comely”. Bilbo felt, deep in his gut, quite sure against all reason or sense, that Frerin knew exactly what Bilbo was and yet still he smiled at him. Weren’t dwarves supposed to be old-fashioned and stubborn about these things? Perhaps Frerin was quite a young king (it was hard to tell) and a bit less stubborn. Perhaps, perhaps. And Frerin, a very important dwarf indeed, and quite comely himself, wanted Bilbo to come on a quest to slay a dragon!

“Bother and blast it,” Bilbo covered his face and rubbed his eyes until he saw white sparks in the darkness. “I hate handsome faces.”




Several months later and many miles to the east, Thorin fought the hardest battle he had ever faced simply to rise from sleep.

He was blind. His limbs were numb as if they had been replaced with cast iron. His mind seemed to be tangled in a net, dragging him down and down back into his nightmares. He wanted to rest. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and let his head fall back and his thoughts drift away as if on the surface of some slow, underground river. But he had to wake up. A voice had called for him to rise, had gripped his hand and dragged him up towards the sunlit mouth of the river. It was gone now but he knew it was right: he had slept long enough.

He couldn't feel his arms, nor his legs, but when he told them to move he saw them shifting at the edge of his returning vision. His wide eyes were thrown open to pull in the meagre light, his pupils dilating into that dwarvish state where even the blackest night looks bright as day. He was needed. He had some huge task waiting for him, and every precious moment reduced his chances of success. He could remember no more than that, but with a gasp he managed to roll onto his side and lever himself onto one elbow. He lay panting for a while, his whole body protesting as it woke up muscle by muscle.

What was he supposed to be doing? Where was he? Who was he? 'Thorin,' the voice had named him. Yes, he was Thorin, son of Thrain, brother to Frerin and Dis, a prince of the Longbeard throne. He was fairly skilled at the cruit-harp and unbeatable at fighting tops; or he had been. It had been some years since he'd played such childhood games. His mother had had a pet name for him, ‘Uzu’. People thought it was from the Khuzdul word for shining sun, because he was the light of her life, but it was actually from 'glower', for his stubbornness and the grudges he held whenever he was punished as a child. His mother had died of a tumour when he was twenty-eight years old.

Thorin pushed himself up until he was sitting in the pile of bedclothes that seemed to be crumpled around him. He was wearing his captain’s tunic and uniform, without his armour. Perhaps he was in an infirmary? But there was no smell of blood and pus, nor tinctures and fresh-boiled bandages. He smelled only stone and dust, and the room around him seemed to be empty, though he could still barely see it. He lay on a wide, stone bed that looked sinisterly like a tomb-slab. Thorin took hold of his legs one by one and swung them over the edge of the table, and then leaned forward on his hands to recover from the exertion.

Who was he? He was a captain of the king's guard. His grandfather was the king, he remembered. He had never killed an orc. He had killed men on two occasions; once bandits on the north road, and once a murderer who had been found guilty in a human town that was under the protection of Erebor and Dale. He happened to be passing through the village and thus on the day of the beheading he was the highest ranking official in the district, which by the laws of men named him executioner. He had been thirty-five that day. His voice had just finished breaking. He had not been able to put his dinner-knife into meat for a fortnight afterwards. His grandmother had noticed this and cut his meals up for him until the aversion passed.

Thorin set his hands against the edge of the stone table and slid his body off into the empty space, landing heavily on a marble floor. His legs went from under him at once, but he had expected that and clung tight to the table with hands and elbows. Agonising pins and needles shot up his lower body, and the muscles around his spine went into spasms as if trying to wring the blood from him like a wet rag. He gritted his teeth and waited, unable even to rub his thighs to get the blood flowing. Slowly, slowly, his strength returned and he could support his own weight on his trembling legs.

Who was he? He remembered that he fell in love once. He remembered whispers and laughter in quiet corners of the royal palace, gifts exchanged – a suitor's talisman, a set of copper beads, cheap metal but delicately engraved. His grandfather did not approve. He said such love was for commoners, uncouth and lustful that they were, bedding who they wanted with no care for the future or their own pride. He said Thorin must find a nice dam instead, that was more proper. Thorin put his love aside. He told himself it was because he loved his grandfather more, and not for shame. It was true that he loved his grandfather very much. Once he saw hunters shoot a rabbit from three hundred yards and he wanted to learn the bow. Grandfather did not approve of that, either. Bows and arrows were a coward’s weapons, killing from a distance. If Thorin was to set a good example to his people he should take up the sword or the axe. Thorin took up the sword, but he promised himself that if he ever had sons who wanted to learn the bow, he would find them the best teachers in the world.

When he was sure he was steady enough, he pushed himself away from the table and took slow, careful steps towards the exit. As he rounded the corner he realised where he was at last. It was the chamber of meditation that his grandfather had built above his treasury, for retiring in to contemplate spiritual matters. Why would Thorin be here? He never used the room himself, so he must have been brought there for safety. There had been a great danger, he remembered. Evidently someone had placed him here to protect him.

Who was he? Thorin remembered that he had a fat scar across his right knee. He had been drunk one night with Dwalin, when he was twenty-nine years old. He had fallen and cut his knee on a piece of broken pottery. His grandmother had found them, and hit Dwalin for not taking care of his prince. Dwalin had looked deeply penitent. His grandmother had sown the cut up herself while Thorin was still lolling drunk, so that no one else needed to see him in such a state. It was the anniversary of his mother’s death. In the morning, she held him while he wept, and told him her true name, ‘Urzudâl'. It was the word his mother’s pet-name had come from. Glower.

Thorin staggered down the corridor of the Meditation Room until he reached the stairs beyond. For a few moments he stood staring, squinting against the reflections from the golden ocean before him. The torches were all unlit but he could see that the treasury was in utter disarray, almost unrecognisable; it looked as if the entire wealth of Erebor had been thrown hither and thither by a pack of goblins. What had happened here?

As Thorin raised his hand to push his hair back from his face, he noticed something even stranger. He stared at the back of his own hand for some time, then turned it over slowly, a frown deepening on his brow. His skin was pale and shrivelled, the tendons standing up on his wrists and the veins thick and prominent as lines on a map. He raised the hand to touch his face and found his skin there felt dry like parchment. Thorin thought back to dwarves he had seen dying of the wet sickness in their beds, who had been drained of all fluids by their illness. Their skin looked something like this. Perhaps this was why Thorin had been asleep, why he was so confused, and why he had been hidden away in the quiet room: quarantine. He had been sick and shrunken by thirst. But where was everyone? Was it possible… had there been a plague? Thorin’s throat closed over in horror. How many had died? Were there others in hiding, or had they fled the mountain altogether? His grandparents – his little sister and brother – Dwalin – what had happened to them?

In the vast hall, Thorin heard his own whisper carry across the hills of gold. “How long have I been asleep?”

Then in the distance, he heard a rumble and a boom like great footsteps, and shouts of fear.

All at once Thorin remembered the dragon. He remembered the fire and the screams, he remembered carrying his father out of the mountain and turning back towards the gates with his sword in his hand and a few brave dwarves at his back. He remembered what his task was. He was going to stop the fire-drake. The voice in the darkness of his half-dreams had told him to wait for its return, but Thorin could not wait. Not if his people were in trouble.

There were many swords in his grandfather’s treasury. Thorin seized the first he saw and hefted it in his hand, feeling strength return to his body as he began to run in search of the dragon.

Chapter Text

The war against the orcs was building to a climax. Papa had been missing for six weeks. Thror barely looked at his surviving grandchildren and Grandmama… Grandmama had never been the same since they lost Thorin all those years ago, her political protégé, her favourite child. The queen who had once been so skilled at parrying her husband and tempering his fits of keen madness now seemed not to notice them at all. She readily agreed that retaking Moria was worth the blood-price. Perhaps she was just too tired to fight Thror any longer; she had acted very glad to stay behind in the camps to lead the survivors of Erebor while all the warriors went off to war. She stood by the gate to watch them leave, but only looked at her husband, and did not acknowledge Frerin's wave when they passed her.

Dis had nothing left now except Frerin. He was the little light left in the blackness, burning stronger whenever she got close. They’d make it through together.

She travelled with the final wave of warriors towards Moria as Frerin’s squire and confidante. They were two of the youngest in the dwarvish alliance, except for their cousin Dain. Dis dressed in boys’ clothes and braided her hair like a princess. She would not let any of them forget who she was, granddaughter of the king and sister of the crown prince, but nor could she let her skirts catch around her feet. Her beard was already coming in at last. She combed it every morning, and pinned it low with a pair of beads that their father had given Frerin. Every morning she sharpened her brother’s sword, made him his breakfast, tended his steed and waited for him to call on her. On the road they told stories of their faint, childish memories of Erebor, composed songs about children outwitting wicked, elvish sorcerers, and slept under the same blanket at night.

Dis missed her father so much that whenever she remembered him it felt like she had swallowed a handful of nails. Thrain had protected Dis and Frerin throughout the years of wandering, hidden their eyes from the worst sights, held them above the famines and the disease. Dis knew that her father had saved more than her life after Erebor was lost: he had saved her sanity and spirit as well. Even seeing every day how swift and unstoppable death could be, she had always believed she was safe in his embrace. She had often been struck with fits of panic and weeping at the thought of losing Papa as well, entreating him not to leave on each new journey. "Don't go," she would sob every time, clutching his arm. "Don't go away like Thorin. You won't come back this time. Please, Papa, please." And every time he came back - until that last sortie six weeks ago. After that there wasn't even a body. Just another empty space.

Dis expected to crumble with her last protector gone, but instead she found that over the years she had grown strong and hard as cold steel beneath her father's warm cloak. The new pain of his loss was a final blow to crack the fragile mold around her and leave only the sword behind. She was ready to face the raw challenges of the world.

The battle would be very soon. Grandfather tried to bar Dis from the ranks, but she could not bear the thought of Frerin going alone to the battle.

"He needs someone beside him," she shouted at Grandfather, "He cannot go to war without a brother to guard his back, and he has no brother. It has to be me."

She was as skilled as Frerin with a sword and her shield-arm almost as strong. She was too young for the military, of course – neither she nor Frerin were even as old as Thorin had been when the dragon got him – but cousin Dain was even younger, so no one could deny her on that front. She fitted an old set of Frerin’s armour, with the same crest as him, and took out the princess braids the night before the battle. No one could have picked her out of the crowd of soldiers.

So she was beside Frerin when the pale orc cut off their grandfather’s head. She was beside him when his rage turned him berserk and he charged Azog’s retinue, killing three of his soldiers before she could catch up with him. She watched his shield and sword knocked from his hand, watched him struggling in the mud as the pale orc raised his mace, and without a thought Dis leapt between them and took the brunt of the blow with her shield once, twice, and on the third strike her arm shattered below the shoulder and she fell back just as Frerin rose with his sword in his hand and cut Azog’s arm off at the wrist.

The dead king's best warriors came to the aid of their young prince and princess, and found them fighting as one warrior, Dis bearing her shield on her sword-arm and protecting Frerin between each blow as he struck two-handed. They were exhausted, bleeding, weeping for their dead grandfather, but their feet never tripped each other and they never faltered. The warriors drove the orcs back into Khazad-Dum and the battle slowed to a trickle and then was done.

There was no victory afterwards, but they had survived. In the tents, Dwalin and a strange dwarf named Vili held Dis down so the healers could straighten and splint her arm as she screamed and screamed for her father. The warriors named her the Kingsshield that day and said she was their talisman of the war. A little girl wearing a warrior’s braids and a sling on her arm was the best they could do as a symbol of good fortune, it seemed.

The bone healed well but she would not go to battle again. Her arm would always be too weak to hold the eponymous shield anymore – later, it would even be difficult to carry a baby, and Vili (no longer a stranger, now a husband) would often take her son from her the moment he saw her mouth tighten in pain.

With Thror and Thrain gone the throne fell to Frerin. Their people had a king still born of their beloved Erebor. At first that was the most important thing for Dis, but she was already beginning to transform. On the battlefield she and Frerin had been driven as exiles out of their childhood, but when she looked at her brother in the dying light after the orcs were gone, she did not see him step into kingship. Her fears persisted when they returned to the refugees, who pulled together a rough but joyous welcoming feast for Frerin. Dis saw only a frightened boy who drew back from her and from his duties, who preferred childish games and parties. As the migration took them to the Blue Mountains and they settled in the ruins of the old cities, Dis told herself he needed time, and the help of his elders, and the love of his sister. But she gave him all of that – more than she thought he deserved – and nothing seemed to make a difference.

Dis tried to walk away from him. She had entered that hot, distractible passage in life that most young dwarves meet sooner or later, and relished the chance to be as lascivious as Frerin had become. She fell into the arms of first Dwalin, who soon felt too guilty to continue the affair, and then Vili, who was handsome and sweet and exotically foreign in his qualms. They wed the moment she came of age. “You’re too young,” Balin told her when she broke the news of the engagement, but he was not her father, what right did he have to speak to her that way?

She and Vili left the day after the wedding, without making any announcement. Frerin found her saddling her pony and clutched her arm in just the same way Dis had clung to their father years earlier.

"Don't go, Dis. Please don't go. I can't lose you too."

"I'm married, Frerin. I go where my husband goes," she refused to meet his eye, tugging tight the straps of the saddlebags.

"Fuck your husband!" Frerin shouted. "I hate him! I hate his face and his yellow hair and his ugly accent! He could have any dam in Ered Luin for a wife, but I only have one sister," his voice croaked. "I need you to help me."

But she didn't know how. She was too young to realise what would happen if she left, and Frerin was too young to understand that she didn't realise it.

For thirty years she lived with Vili's people in the east. She only thought about those she’d left behind in rare bursts of memory like firecrackers. When she heard a child groaning, when she smelled sweetbreads stewed in their juices from a western recipe, or when they took the herds around the northern route and she saw snow-banks for the first time in years. Then they stopped the prophylactics and all at once the homesickness struck. She couldn’t raise children out here on the plains, without her history, her people’s songs, without the rituals for which the creaky, old men still got down on their knees to kiss bare stone. It wasn’t right. Vili was troubled by the suddenness of her decision, but he understood. It was two seasons’ journey back to the Blue Mountains, but they both liked being on the road again and the days passed quickly.

Frerin welcomed her and Vili home. He gave them a house and found them work at the forges. He invited Dis to sit on his council whenever she liked, and was ecstatic for days when he learned about the baby (and a few years later, after Vili died, he paid for the whole funeral and was as kind and gentle as any brother in the world). He seemed to be a well-liked king. People waved at him in the street, gave him free tankards in the pubs, and came right up to her to welcome the king’s sister back and give their family’s blessings to her belly.

But when the council meetings actually came Frerin always seemed to disappear to go drinking or hunting. When he got back he would insist it was necessary, that there hadn’t been fresh meat in the cellars or he’d been making friends with a mayor from way down the river. He would not listen when she told him that the tax collectors were being bribed not to do their job, or that the surveyors said the coal mines inherited from the Ered Luin ruins would soon run dry, or that funding apprenticeships was more important than meat and ale. Frerin only wanted to gossip and make up new songs with her the way they had on the journey to Moria.

In Cheapside dwarves were living two or three families for each one-bedroom home, in the old stone towers and tunnels that had been built long ago for the dwarves who’d first settled in the Blue Mountains. The people once-of-Erebor were too numerous to cram into those ancient hovels, without good drainage or easy access to the aqueducts and wells. It fostered disease, and fighting, and weariness. But there were no jobs, so who among those poor families could afford to build new houses? She had to nag Frerin to spend the crown’s money on new neighbourhoods, to use pine timber and local stone rather than dither over imported hardwoods and fancy masonry. It would give the dwarrows and dams of Cheapside work for a few months over summer, and maybe the trade would have picked up by winter, or maybe they’d get lucky and the surveyors would at last find iron deeper in the mountains, maybe, maybe…

But Frerin did not listen to maybes; he saw the things he liked as yes and things he didn’t as no.

One morning, weighed down by her first child, Dis was woken early by her bladder. When she went outside and squatted to piss she stared into the sun rising red and harsh until her eyes hurt, and Dis Kingsshield realised that she could never again throw herself into her brother's arms and swear loyalty to him without question or care.




So it came to be that Bilbo ran away with the dwarves because of a wink and handsome king. That summer, the year he woke the lost prince, he was quite ready to be a burglar immediately. At once, right now! But instead he was just a traveller like everyone else, and that is no small task in itself. Before long he was exhausted from the moment he woke up in the morning to the moment he fell onto his bedroll at the end of the day, but Frerin kept a close eye on everyone in the group. He would always slow the pace if he thought anyone was lagging behind, and he never mentioned that it was more often Bilbo than anyone else. That wasn’t the only difficulty, either. Within a week Bilbo was so homesick he could barely eat, but the nosy Bofur figured out what was going on and before Bilbo knew it Frerin was keeping him close at mealtimes, bantering with him about the Shire and his king's home in Ered Luin, cajoling him to finish his food. And when Bilbo didn’t know how to make coal-bread or dig a latrine or use a whetstone, there were always comments, but not from Frerin. Sometimes the king even defended him, and made one of the other dwarves show Bilbo how it was done, and bothered him later to check he’d learned properly, without even seeming disappointed if he was still rubbish.

Frerin always knew what to say to cheer him up or make him laugh.

They left the fields and farmhouses behind. The hills rose around them, and cliffs of jagged grey poured down towards foaming white rivers. Gone were the grassy lawns and soft, leafy floors of the woods where Bilbo had walked barefoot all his life. Now there were thick ferns and twisting roots under the dark boughs of the forest, and he found himself walking so softly that the dwarves never heard him coming. He tried to blame it on Bofur’s stories of monsters, but in truth it was a deep, raw instinct in the hobbit to be watchful and careful. Who knew what was waiting in the undergrowth?

But he felt safe enough when he was close to Frerin. The king was strong and he never seemed to tire even after the longest days on the road. Some nights he went out hunting with Kili or Dwalin and brought fresh rabbits back to the camp to supplement Bombur’s stews, once even a wild doe. It seemed there was always something to celebrate when Frerin was around.

It did get exhausting, though. Frerin talked a lot. Usually Bilbo was happy to sit and listen as long as he could, but just listening wasn’t enough. Frerin got put off if Bilbo missed his cue to answer or voice his agreement (if Bilbo didn’t agree, he would explain things until Bilbo saw his point of view, which always made a lot of sense eventually). When he wasn’t talking he was convincing other people to talk, flitting from one question to the next until he found a conversation to his liking. You had to be quick (in every sense) with your wit to pin Frerin down. It took hard work and practise.

In Rivendell, Bilbo spent a lot of time wandering by himself, but it took Bofur to make him realise why. They crossed paths in the lower levels of the homely house. Bilbo was looking for a mosaic of Númenor kings whose location Mr Lindir had grudgingly revealed to the hobbit. Bofur had loaves of bread stuffed down the front of his shirt and an elf-shaped, floury handprint on the back of his hat, which was more lopsided than ever. He was whistling as he walked.

“Enjoying the peace and quiet?” he asked Bilbo as they approached each between the slender cloisters. “I imagine you need it.”

“What’s that mean?” Bilbo demanded, without slowing his pace. “Are you going to ruin it for me?”

“I only mean Bilbo, that it’s a tough job being ear to the king,” Bofur saluted him with a rye bun as they passed each other. “But somebody’s got to laugh at his woeful jokes.”

Bilbo gave a great, offended scoff and walked on, but once Bofur was gone he felt a little wobbly. Bofur was right. He was wandering around Rivendell while he built up the stamina to spend another evening talking with Frerin.

But that was what how wanted to spend the evening, wasn’t it? It was worth the energy. Bilbo was now aware that he was in love with Frerin, or aware enough that he might have noted it down in a letter to his mother if she’d been alive. It filled him so close to the brim that no matter how carefully he carried himself, it sloshed over his rim like fresh milk. ‘Dear me, Mother,’ he would have written. ‘I cannot take my eyes off this dwarf king. I am trying to keep it to myself, which means sometimes I say the oddest things to cover up what I really want to say, and now they all think I’m a little cracked in the head. But he is so wonderful that I barely care.’

He did not let himself believe that his feelings would be reciprocated, of course. That was absurd. The King was probably used to people falling at his feet in adoration. But in the quietest corners of his mind Bilbo’s treacherous hopes whispered, He isn’t married, you know. And he’s smiles at you in such a way… before he caught himself and shook his head, biting down bitterly on all such thoughts.

It didn’t matter. Frerin needed him for the quest, and Bilbo would follow him to the mountain and back if he could be of some use, even for a moment. Not that he had been much good so far, but his chance would come.




Dis’ sway over the council of Ered Luin grew with her children. Always she had to be careful, but careful did not always mean gentle; more often than not it meant being hard and quick and loud – but in the right place, at the right time, when she knew her audience would bend to her will. She used such force more sparingly with her brother. Frerin needed praise instead, and a smile and a drinking partner or someone to carry the basket when he went walking the hills.

Sometimes Dis felt she had scooped herself out and what was left was like a clockwork suit of armour with no body inside. She had forgotten how to be friends with people, even Dwalin. But the Ered Luin settlement was growing the more she pushed it. Trade was good these days. People had money enough to hoard and get into petty disagreements about it. More children were born than Dis remembered ever seeing among the dwarves once-of-Erebor. She wheedled Frerin into building schools for new healers and scribes, she bullied the council into helping the populace start up new towns throughout the mountains and tunnel their own mines to bring their own wealth up out of the earth – mostly coal and some silver, for they had long given up finding good rock for iron, mithril, gold or precious stones. Dis worried constantly that the unearthing of the coal and silver would falter and worked to keep production steady and find other ways to make themselves useful to the lands around them. She had the same fears about her own wiles, endlessly bringing hard fire to brunt one moment and pretty charm the next. One day the mines inside her would run dry. One day she would give up, the clockwork wound down to nothing, the ore expended.

But then her boys would be there, and she would be renewed. She never tired of them, though Kili’s energy was boundless and Fili was learning from his mother how to make harsh demands from those around him. But their friendship with her was unconditional, and she gave everything she had to make them happy. When Kili struggled to keep up with Fili’s swordwork and fell in love with the idea of archery she found him a tutor from the nearest human town. When Fili became interested in weapon-smithing she called in favours and promised more than she could repay to get him an apprenticeship in the forges. But she did not begrudge him when he quit after a only few months and asked to join her in the council instead. Just to run messages and transcribe meetings and things, he said. She let him abandon the smithy for the petty work of a clerk and an errand-boy. She watched him watching her, and listening to the other elders, and she knew he had one foot in the future, one eye on the throne.

She was glad he took his position as first in line so seriously. She wanted him to be ready. He would rule their people better than either she or Frerin could alone. And there was no reason to think Fili would be pushed aside for a cousin; Frerin showed no sign that he intended to marry. Dis knew he had lovers, but she had given up discouraging him and just trailed behind repairing the damage instead. She bribed servants and more than once found herself playing the sharp-tongued matron against sweet, young dams who were falling in love with their king in the worst way possible. She kept her ears open and whenever she learned of some new creature that had fallen under Frerin’s spell, she stepped in quick and quiet and brought them whatever herbs and prophylactics they needed to keep the risks to a minimum.

“Of course he will not wed you, you silly child. If this gets out you be ruined and shunned by your family, you will spend the rest of your life as a bitter pariah, and he will carry on as if he never knew you,” she told an auburn-haired girl once, as the girl cried into her hands. “Keep silent, for your own sake. You know where to find me if you need my help.”

Frerin was at least discrete, and he seemed to favour dams who were already married and were clever enough to either keep their husbands ignorant or convince them that it was an honour to be cuckolded by their king. Dis knew of at least one bastard being raised by a proud, unwitting father. She watched the toddler being carried across the market by his mother one day. The boy had her grandfather’s nose and her grandmother’s dark eyes, and for a moment she hated him. Give the brat sixty years, a hundred, and if he ever learned who his father was he might come seeking his birthright. Bastards had become kings of before, once or twice in an age.

She could not let that happen. Not just because such a scandal could tear apart their delicate town. She also had her own sons to think about.

Fili and Kili didn’t know about Frerin’s misdeeds, she was sure of it. Kili adored his uncle, and with good reason. Frerin knew how to charm old Ereborian nobility one minute and rough-booted miners the next. He could work a crowd into a frenzy and throw a party that left the whole city hung over. Kili had never known his own father, but he was often taken along as Frerin's squire on journeys and hunts. Gregarious and cheerful, full of praise for his king, Dis knew Kili kept many of Frerin’s insecurities at bay like a fire burning at the mouth of a cave. She tried not to be jealous. She remembered being Frerin’s confidante before their grandfather died. She remembered telling him he was clever and brave and wonderful, and believing it completely and utterly, and wanting to stay by his side forever. She remembered when her brother looked at her the way he looked at Kili now, his eyes lighting up and his arms stretching out to clap her son on the shoulder. She remembered defending Frerin’s mistakes and improprieties to Papa the way Kili now argued with Fili about their king’s doctrines.

But she did not remember when or how she had woken up.




In the western guardroom of Erebor, Bilbo watched Frerin's shoulders slump as he looked around at the blackened bodies. The air smelled of ash disturbed by their feet. It stung Bilbo's eyes. A slimy whisper at the back of his brain told him it was the ashes of dead dwarves he was breathing in, the last remnants of people who had died in fear and pain, and that he and his friends soon would follow suit. He forced those thoughts down. The dwarves were all watching in silence as their king turned slowly to look back at them.

"That's it, then,” Frerin said quietly. “There's no way out.”

Balin's breath hitched. “We could head for the mines. Might last a few days.”

Frerin nodded slowly. His hair had come loose from its ties and a few strands hung around his face. Bilbo forgot how afraid he'd been of Frerin's gaze in the treasure room below. Now Frerin glanced from one face to the next with something like apology in his eyes. Bilbo felt as if he was slipping out of his body like a waft of pipe-smoke, his limbs numb and far away. They really were going to die here. After everything that had happened, all the trials they'd survived, all the camaraderie of their company, there had never been any hope after all.

And then Ori, standing at the back of the group, gave a squeak as if someone had pinched him and jumped backwards, grabbing his brother's arm. All heads in the room turned towards him and then to follow the line of his wide-eyed gaze.

There was a stranger standing in the doorway of the guardroom, his shoulders heaving as he panted for breath. He was staring past them at the desiccated bodies of the murdered dwarves. An antique sword hung from his hand. His clothes were faded and heavy with dust, his skin so pale it was almost grey, his hair long and threaded with silver at the brow.

Bilbo's hand flew to his mouth to keep a choked gasp behind his teeth. He had half-forgotten his discovery in the unlit chamber. He’d thought the sleeping dwarf would be far too weak to even sit up on his own, and would be in no danger while Smaug was chasing the intruders around the rest of the mountain. But here the sleeper stood, his brow tightening as he took in the scene. Bilbo's heart began to race. Suppose the dwarf could not speak – he might have been driven mad by his long slumber. Or worse, suppose he could speak, and he identified Bilbo as the one who awoke him. Frerin would see Bilbo was a liar then, and demand to know why he'd kept his brother hidden. And then again, Bilbo might have got it wrong. He might not be the Abiding King at all!

But the dwarf's gaze slid over Bilbo without a flicker of recognition and settled on Gloin, who happened to be standing nearest to him.

"Are you all there is?" he whispered.

Gloin turned to look at the others with a grimace and finally answered. “All of what?"

"Is there no one else left alive in the mountain?" the dwarf asked.

"Of course not! Who'd you expect?" Dori sniffed. “How'd you get in here, then? Who are you?"

But almost in the same beat, Dori got his answer as Dwalin shoved him aside, shoulders hunched. Bilbo had never seen Dwalin flustered or truly afraid, but now his face was bloodless and his steps clumsy.

"Thorin,” he rasped, and then raised his arms and reached out to the dwarf, not quite touching him, like a man reaching for a shivering mirage on the horizon. “Thorin. It cannot be.”

"The Abiding King,” Bombur whispered. Nori shook his head and cursed under his breath. And Bilbo, gulping, knew in that moment that by awakening the dwarf he had released a hurricane that he had no power stop.

Thorin's head drew back from Dwalin's reach with a frown, and then the wrinkles smoothed on his brow and his eyes widened. “Dwalin?” he said. He stepped forward and grasped Dwalin's shoulder. “My friend! You… I didn't recognise you…” his eyes flicked up to Dwalin's bare crown. “What happened to your hair? Did you have a close call with the fire?”

“Oh dear,” Balin stepped forward next, taking hold of Thorin's elbow. “Oh dear, laddie. Do you know me?”

“Of course, Balin,” a smile broke across Thorin's face. “Though I can't pretend I'm glad to see you. I thought you were safely outside! You've got... chalk dust in your beard, I believe. You look old enough to be my grandfather,” he looked around at the rest of them, seeking other familiar faces and finding none.

Bilbo elbowed Frerin and hissed, “Go to him.”

Frerin looked down at the hobbit, his jaw clenched tight. Bilbo tilted his head towards the doorway. Frerin closed his hands into fists and walked towards Thorin in halting steps, nudging Bifur and Bombur aside until the way was clear between him and the stranger standing before them.

“Thorin. This is a glad meeting,” he said, holding out his hand. Thorin looked at him with a diplomatic blankness, seemingly unaware of the hand hovering between them. Frerin withdrew it, putting it over his heart. “It’s me. I’m Frerin.”

“Frerin,” Thorin smiled. “My little brother is named Frerin,” the wrinkle appeared on his brow again. “Have we met?”

Bilbo felt his heart stutter at the expression that passed across Frerin’s face. In a moment it hardened into pragmatism. “It seems you do not remember me. I am the leader of this company.”

“Good! Then you can help me stop the dragon,” Thorin was already turning to Balin, clapping him on the shoulder. “If we are all that is left, you must help me. I cannot defeat the beast alone.”

“Stop the dragon?” Balin stared at him and glanced at Dwalin. “You and what army, my boy?”

“I have only the slimmest hope for success, but it is hope enough. This mountain will fight for us. Erebor and her edifices will fight for us,” Thorin looked around the circle. All the dwarves had clustered in close now, leaning towards Thorin’s words. There was a glimmer of a smile of Ori's face, and the hum of excitement in the air. Everyone crowded forward; Frerin stood straight and silent among them, only Bilbo left at the edge of the group. “Are any of you familiar with the forges?”

“No, none of us have seen those forges for a century—” Balin started.

"They'll be stone cold, anyway," Dwalin grumbled.

“I can make my way round anything you point me towards!” Nori burst in. “Just tell me where to go, your highness!” There was a chorus of "Here, here!" from several of the others.

“Good!” Thorin cried. Bilbo was creeging forward to join the hunched circle of conspirators and Thorin’s gaze fell on him. “You lad. Where are your parents?”

“Eh? They’re dead,” Bilbo frowned.

“I’m so sorry. Then we will avenge them!” his eyes were alright as he swept his gaze around the company. They were very blue eyes, the only colour in his dust-covered face. A smile was spreading on his face.

“No, that’s not—” Bilbo shook his head. “Never mind. Tell me what to do.”

“Stick close to me,” Thorin gripped his shoulder. “I’ll need a swift runner by my side. The rest of you, we split up to keep the dragon guessing.” He raised his fist. “Are you all with me?”

There was a mutter, and then Ori clapped his hands and bounced up on the balls of his feet. “Yes! We’re with you!” the cheer was taken up by Dwalin, then by Bifur and Gloin, and then Bombur and Balin and even Frerin were grinning and leaping to follow Thorin as he turned and strode out of the guardroom.

There was no stopping the momentum of the Abiding King of that. Bilbo could see it in the dwarves' faces and the spring in their thudding footsteps. Frerin jogged along on Thorin’s heels, listening to his instructions and relaying them back, splitting the company into groups according to their strengths and Thorin’s needs.

The impossible had already happened. The dead had come back to life. It seemed a sure sign that the wind was at their heels was far stronger than the sum of a few dwarves a hobbit. How could they fail?

Chapter Text

It was the night of September the twenty-second, by Bilbo’s count, and they were in Laketown. He did not know yet that by the end of the twenty-third he would have faced a dragon and lived. He already thought his luck was well-spent: they had escaped the dungeons of the woodland king and a pack of orcs all in one day, and avoided being thrown into prison all over again by the Master of Laketown. Bilbo did not think he had another escape plan in him, certainly not while he was hungry, but Frerin had saved them all with his speech about the glory of Esgaroth restored. It had been dashing, thrilling, and despite his hunger and the snow, Bilbo had felt warm again and clapped and cheered as loud as the rest of the town.

In the Master’s house the party was stretching well into the night. The great hall was four times as long as Bard’s entire home, with a fire pit along its length and terraced floors rising up from the centre. Despite the size it was packed to the brim. People were shoving for room to dance in the empty floor by the firepit while others had found space to sit on the ledges, the mezzanines and even the window sills. Barrels of old, salt-encrusted wood had been produced, some filled with thick, black beer tasting of roasted ferments and others with red ales that glowed in the lamplight. There were wines too, nothing so fine as the elves had enjoyed but fruity, butterscotch stuff that went down easily. Endless dishes were carried out of the kitchens, and almost all of them had fish as one constituent or another; pressed fish cakes in a brine marinade, potatoes wrapped in fish skins, spoonfuls of roe dribbled over spitted pork, and even fish sauce in the steamed vegetables. Fiddles with double rows of strings hummed and chattered, long, boxy zithers squeaked and purred, and children keen to stay up past their bedtime rapped out dancing beats on drums and upturned crates.

Bilbo found the taste of fish sickening after being squashed by barrel-loads of the stuff for more than an hour that afternoon, but he forced himself to eat a little at the thought of their task tomorrow. He also had a sniffle and a cough from a day of being dunked in and out of cold water, and getting from one end of the hall to the other without getting elbowed by a drunk Lakeman was almost impossible for a hobbit. He was content to sit among the rafters with Bofur’s arm around his shoulder and a large tankard of beer in his hands. Every time he finished it, someone would fill it up again, so he was feeling rather muzzy and merry by the time the logs were crumbling in the fire and the platters had all been licked clean. He rested against Bofur, eyes drooping and then jerking awake every time Bofur’s chest shuddered with laughter.

He opened his eyes again when he heard Frerin calling his name. Bilbo raised his head to see the dwarf king beckoning with his whole arm from across the hall. He sat with Oin, Gloin, the corpulent Master of the Lake and a cluster of red-faced men in various states of drunkenness. Without really thinking about it or taking his eyes off Frerin’s face, Bilbo ducked out from under Bofur’s arm and traipsed a winding route towards him.

“And here he is,” Frerin cried as Bilbo approached, and reached out with one hand to pull him in as if dredging him from the lake all over again. “The mastermind of our escape, the brains of all our most daring exploits, really! Our burglar!”

There were cheers and large hands clapping Bilbo on the back. He nodded and tried to smile, but the smell of salt and fish and sweat was overpowering and he wanted to go back to Bofur and doze off until someone found him a quiet corner to sleep in. He looked down at his tankard and noticed with relief that it was empty.

“Ale,” he called above the bellows, and when Frerin tilted his ear towards him Bilbo cupped his hand around it. “I’m going to get another ale.”

“Yes! I’m dry as well,” Frerin surged to his feet and snatched up his tankard. “Lead on, Bilbo.”

They shouldered their way across the hall. Standing up had revived Bilbo somewhat. He could not stop staring at Frerin as they walked. Frerin’s cheeks were flushed in the warm room, and there were a few locks of brindled and black hair that had escaped his plait and were falling around his face. Frerin turned and smiled at him, and Bilbo felt all the blood in his body rush around the circuit of his veins like someone had shot an arrow past his ear.

“Here we are,” Frerin took Bilbo’s tankard from his stiff hands and sloshed it full of wine. He filled his own cup to the brim and gulped it down, wiping his mouth as he lowered it and grinning at Bilbo again. Bilbo could not stop looking at Frerin’s mouth. He twitched and drank several mouthfuls of wine much too quickly to distract himself.

“You’re thirsty,” Frerin remarked. He was staring at Bilbo with half a smile on his lips.

“Yes, well, it’s been a long day, hasn’t it?” Bilbo clutched his tankard to his chest and laughed. “I don’t know how I shall get up a mountain tomorrow, I will feel like death.”

“At this point, Bilbo, you have already been so helpful that I would not be surprised to wake up tomorrow and find you’d gone ahead and killed the dragon for us while we were sleeping in,” Frerin squeezed his shoulder.

“Aha. Don’t get your hopes up,” Bilbo winced. His fingers tightened and relaxed around his cup. Frerin’s hand was still on his shoulder. The wine was flooding Bilbo’s skull. He looked up at Frerin and said, “But I’ll follow you right into his lair, if you ask me. I mean it,” he stammered, wondering why he was blinking so much. “I – I think of all the folks I’ve known in my life you are unparalleled, Frerin. And I’ve been thinking that when this whole business is done and… and the mountain is won, as I’m sure it will be, I would very much like to stay with you – with your company – so that I might… might be of assistance. Whatever you should want from me. If you’ll have me.”

There was a beat (just a beat) and then—

“My Halfling,” Frerin laughed, roughing up Bilbo’s hair. “Polite to a fault, aren’t you?”

“Polite,” Bilbo echoed, shoving a smile onto his face as if pushing an unwelcome guest out of his house.

Frerin beamed at him. “Of course you shall stay with us. What would I do without you to laugh at my woeful jokes?”

Bilbo felt very dizzy. He thought he might be sick. “Ha ha, yes. Actually, I think – I’ll go back to Bofur – excuse me –”

His head was pounding. He couldn’t decide whether it was the wine, the noise, the heat of Laketown’s great hall or all three put together, but either way he had to get some air. It took some work to pry himself away from Frerin and out of the crowd. The floor seemed to cant under his feet like a storm-tossed boat. At last the light of the hall’s raging fire closed behind him. He was out on a veranda overlooking the main canal, with the stars swimming in the fetid water. The cold air in his lungs cleared his head and settled his stomach just enough to keep his meager dinner down.

It took him a moment to realise he was not alone. He was resting his forearms on the lower railing and rolling his half-empty mug between his hands when he heard a retching noise. He looked over to see one of the dwarves leaning out over the edge of the stair rail, spitting into the canal. The dwarf's hair hung lank around his ears and he didn’t seem to have the strength in his neck to raise his head.

“Kili?” Bilbo asked, getting to his feet. She shuffled closer and put his hand on the young dwarf’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”

Kili nodded, spitting again and pushing his hair back with a smile. “Bit too much...” he sucked in a breath, “ drink, I’m afraid.”

Maybe it was just the moonlight, but his pallour looked deathly. He had been bleeding, Bilbo remembered, after their run-in with the orcs, but he had refused to show the hobbit how bad it was. Optimistic and proud as his uncle. A little too optimistic, Bilbo thought. The both of them were.

Bilbo grimaced and knotted his fingers together, resting his arms on the railing. “Do you want to turn in for the night? I’m rather done with this whole party myself. We could go off and find our lodgings together.”

“No! No, I’m good for another round, really,” Kili wiped his mouth and straightened up. “Whyever do you look so grim, Bilbo?”

“It’s nothing,” Bilbo turned to look back over the canal, leaning over the water. If he threw himself in, perhaps the shock of cold water would wipe this whole sorry night from his memory. Polite. Someone to laugh at Frerin's jokes. That's all he was. He should have known. He had known, but he'd carried on with this adventure anyway. It wasn't noble or admirable, as he'd thought all these months, it wasn't like some knight pursuing the errands of an unattainable queen. It was more like a dog following a whelp in heat. Bilbo pressed his forehead into the wooden railing and let out a long sigh.

“It’s not nothing,” Kili frowned.

Bilbo groaned. The wine swimming around his skull let his tongue flap before he could stop it. “I think I made a fool of myself in front of your uncle.”

“Oh,” Kili pushed his hair back from his face, trying to knot it in a bun, evidently concerned he would be sick again at any moment. “Fili and I did wonder when that would happen.”

“I beg your pardon!”

Kili glanced over as Bilbo’s mouth fell open. “No, no, I’m sorry, I’m not saying it’s your fault at all. It’s just, well, I think Frerin’s known for a good long while what you… uh, how you feel… and I think he encouraged you something terrible and made it all worse,” Kili pinched the bridge of his nose. The smell of vomit seemed suddenly thick and prickly in the air and Bilbo wanted to add to it. Known? Frerin had known? And not just him, but his nephews… when had they discussed this? How long had they been laughing at the stupid, twisted little Hobbit?

But Kili was still talking. “Bless him, I love him too, Bilbo. Not like you do, of course,” he chuckled. He looked down at his hands. “But I know what he’s like. There’s no room for concession in his world. It’s all or nothing, that’s how Frerin makes you feel. Except more often it seems like it’s all of you and nothing of him.”

He stared down at the sluggish water, hands folded loosely over each other, and for a moment Bilbo thought he looked rather older and sadder than he should. He was not used to Kili without a smile at the ready. But before he could say anything there came the clomping of boots behind them. Bilbo turned to find Dwalin coming down the veranda with his pipe in one hand. He was swaying slightly, but seemed to be holding his drink better than Kili. Bilbo wondered how on earth this company expected to climb a mountain tomorrow with thirteen hangovers.

“You both look like you need a smoke,” Dwalin chuckled, pointing the stem of the pipe between Kili and Bilbo.

“Durin’s beard, yes,” Kili croaked, pulling himself upright. “Anything to get this foul taste out of the back of my mouth. All afternoon it’s been like I’m chewing gilding.”

They settled on the steps leading down to the water, Bilbo on the edge of the wall with his legs swinging. For a few minutes they shared Dwalin’s pipe in silence, looking up at the moon hanging over the Lonely Mountain.

“We’ll be in there tomorrow,” Kili said quietly. “Walking those halls. Introducing ourselves to the Abiding King. Hello, Mr King, we are here to wake you up.”

“Don’t say that,” Dwalin said, hoarse and suddenly sober. It wasn’t a reprimand, but a plea.

“Say what?”

“Talk about him like it’s a joke,” Dwalin had not taken his eyes off the peak of the mountain. “He’s not a joke. I’m going to find him there,” Dwalin pulled on the pipe for a long breath and then exhaled. “Well, maybe not him. Maybe his spirit. Maybe just the place where I saw him last. But he’s going to forgive me, I’m sure of it.”

For a moment there was only the creak of ice against the pillars of the house, and then Kili said. “You – you were there? You saw Smaug get Uncle Thorin?”

“Aye,” Dwalin grunted. “I was there.”

Bilbo looked between them with a raised eyebrow. “Hang on, the Abiding King was a real person?” he drew his head back. “I thought he was a sort of… metaphor. Like Durin the Deathless.”

“Durin was a real person too, you clod!” Kili said, smacking him on the arm. It was probably meant to be affectionately light; Bilbo hissed and rubbed the spot with a glare.

“Yeah, but he wasn’t deathless, was he?” he pointed out, tilting his head. “So… is there really a dwarf king asleep in the mountain, then? Right under Smaug’s nose?”

Kili looked at Dwalin. “I don’t know. I’ve only ever heard the story second-hand. Or twentieth-hand, more likely.”

“I can’t answer that either,” Dwalin looked down at the burning curls of weed in his pipe and handed it off to Kili. “None of us could ever agree on what happened that day.”

“He was Frerin’s older brother,” Kili explained to Bilbo. He coughed and thumped his chest, passing the pipe to Bilbo. “He went back into the mountain after Smaug had driven almost everyone out. He was never seen again.”

“He was my best friend, that lad,” Dwalin sighed. He glanced at Kili out of the corner of his eye. “You want to hear it, don’t you?”

Kili nodded frantically.

“Well, it’s not a neat, tied-together lullaby like your mama used to tell you,” Dwalin leaned back against the wall of the hall. “There were thirteen of us, just as there are tonight. Including Thorin. I was the youngest apart from him – just started my training with the guards. I don’t know if any of us expected to come back, but I would have followed him right into Smaug’s jaws if he’d asked me. I almost did,” he cleared his throat, tracing a line in the air as he thought back to that distant day. “We took the east corridor down towards the living halls. That’s where Thorin thought there might be survivors. Lots of dwarves didn’t leave their homes, you see. None of us could believe that an enemy would ever get into the mountain, not so swiftly or terribly. People thought they’d be safe in their holes with the doors closed,” he tipped his head back, his skull making a thump against the wood. “But Smaug must have smelled them before we did. The main thoroughfare opened up to a huge hall that split into dozens of lengthy warrens. Smaug was right there in the cavern between us and the houses, trying to dig them out of the walls like a fox after rabbits,” he gritted his teeth.

Bilbo passed him back the pipe and Dwalin puffed on it for a few breaths. Finally he cleared his throat. “The rest of us cowered in the shadows of the main tunnel, but not Thorin. He walked right out there with his sword-tip at the fore. He wanted to draw Smaug back towards him so the dwarves in their homes could get out. We could hear them screaming for help,” he shook his head. “Families. Children. But the dragon was not some stupid beast to be led by the nose. He laughed at Thorin. It was a voice like thunder in your lungs. They spoke to each other – I don’t remember what, I was too busy hiding like a coward,” he snarled. “But Thorin gave his name, I’m sure of it. That was a mistake. You don’t tell a dragon your name, everyone knows that. Thorin said he was the grandson of the king, that he had leave to bargain with Smaug in exchange for his people’s lives. I’m sure he wasn’t even fooling himself – he was buying time, getting the dragon interested, pulling him ever closer and away from the houses. But this time when Smaug laughed, we could all hear the malice behind it.

“‘Your pitiful bluff is an affront to me, dwarf prince,’ he said, I remember that, and his head snaked forward and turned to one side so he was looking Thorin right in his eye, just out of range of his sword,” Dwalin’s arm swooped through the air in illustration. “The dragon’s eye was huge, and red-gold like a sunrise. He said, ‘I will take what I wish, and you will watch and do nothing.’ And then…” Dwalin stroked his beard, swallowing. “I saw Thorin’s body go rigid, his fingers – they splayed, like this –” Dwalin stretched his hand out. “His sword fell to the floor. He didn’t move, he didn’t speak, just as Smaug had commanded. And the dragon turned back to the houses and he,” Dwalin shook his head slowly. “There was so much fire. I will never forget it, not as long as I live. The smell of sulphur and seared meat, and I swear to this day, even the rocks were burning. And Smaug – I think he was dancing. His head whipped back and forth on that long neck, his laughter echoing around us. He cried, ‘Do you like my bargain, dwarf prince? Have you nothing to say? Speak!’ and in that moment the spell must have been lifted and Thorin spun and sprinted back towards where we were waiting. But in an instant Smaug gathered himself and said, ‘Stop,’ and we all felt it like a shudder in the earth. Thorin froze where he stood like he was set in glass. He was reaching out to us. He was looking right into my eyes, and he…”

Dwalin was silent for a long, heavy moment. He shifted, tucking his hands under his arms. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I don’t like the fairytale. I don’t like that they turned him into a little god. I let them remember him that way anyway, stupid fool that I am, because I can’t bring myself to say a bad word against his memory. But here’s the truth; he was afraid. I’d never seen him afraid as long as he’d lived. But he was just a young dwarf who didn’t want to die, who had faced his terror and realised too late that there was no honour in it, that his death would buy nothing for those he left behind. And Smaug knew we were there in the shadows. He mocked us, he asked us to come out and claim him. He said if we only walked into the light and…” Dwalin laugh bitterly, “…and gave him a kiss, he would release Thorin and let us all go free. But did we move? No. We stood shaking and pissing ourselves. And then the dragon said, ‘Sleep’, and Thorin’s eyes closed as he crumpled onto the floor. That was the last I saw of him as we fled back down the tunnel. My best friend, lying upon the floor of his grandfather’s hall like a bunch of rags, and the dragon laughing and laughing and laughing.”

He fell silent. Somewhere on the rooftops above them, a thrush called out, though the dawn had to be far away still. Dwalin huffed. “I should have stayed and died beside him,” he nodded. “But I’m not going to turn tail this time. We’re the ones who’ll be doing the taking, even if we die trying.”

After a moment Bilbo licked his lips. He took the pipe out of Kili’s hand and sucked on it before it could go out. “Well,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

A door somewhere along the veranda opened and out of the shadow of the awning came Frerin with a human-sized tankard in his hands. He raised an eyebrow at their quiet gathering. “What’s this, then? Worrying at the morrow?”

“Dwalin was just telling us the old story about your brother asleep in the mountain,” Bilbo said, sure it would be obvious that the brightness in his voice was false. But Frerin smiled back at him and leaned against the rail.

“A silly wives’ tale,” he said. “But a hopeful one, all the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?” he glanced up at Erebor. “Thorin has often been on my mind as we’ve come closer to home. Come, Dwalin, Kili, Bilbo,” he held Bilbo’s eye as he raised his tankard. “Let’s drink to seeing my brother again in this life, rather than the next.”

“Hear, hear,” said Bilbo, raising the cup in his hand.




On Thorin’s command they had lit the forges. They had filled the mould. They had lured Smaug into the hall of kings.

Thorin felt alive, exhausted beyond all measure, yet truly and fully awake. He stood upon the stone mould of Durin the Deathless, the one whose face the artisans had modelled after Thorin’s own grandfather. He could smell the molten gold in the air, feel the heat off the rocks brush the hair back from his face. He had done it. The snare was ready. The dragon filled the hall below, and was crawling away from him like a water-snake, his rage bent towards Laketown of all places – why that nest of merchants interested him, Thorin couldn’t imagine, but it didn’t matter. All Thorin had to do was call him back to spring the trap.

Smaug would turn back. Thorin didn’t know how he knew it, but he was sure of it.

“Here!” he bellowed, and the hall of kings threw his voice out into the mountain. “You witless worm!”

The long neck swung around, the great body curled on itself and began to turn.

(Though he did not know it, far below a tiny face watched up and whispered, “Oh no. Don’t look him in the eye, Thorin. Don’t look him in the eye!”)

But as Smaug’s gold-red gaze met his Thorin remembered – perhaps too late, perhaps disbelieving – what had happened the last time he faced the dragon.

“You,” Smaug rumbled, and from deep in his belly a slow laugh rose and filled the hall, erasing all echoes of Thorin’s insult. “Hello, Treasure.”

The sound of Smaug’s voice smothered the rage in Thorin’s breast. Over its body sprung glee, sparkling and grinning with many rows of sharp, white-gold teeth. Thorin felt a smile spread across his face without understanding why it was there. His chains had been loosened by a press of lips on his, he had breathed freely for a while, but under the dragon’s eye they were tightening once more and he welcomed the infallibility of the embrace. There was nothing to fear, for there was nothing else that mattered beyond the warmth and crushing pressure of Smaug’s will.

“I wondered where you had got to,” Smaug drew nearer, and raised his head until he and Thorin were level. “Tell me – do you think you’re in league with these snivelling, sneaking thieves?”

Never! Thorin wanted to shout, but what came out of his mouth was another word, “-----!” His ears heard it, but his mind could not grapple with its form, and given ink to paper he could not have written it in runes; instead he would have daubed a senseless, black stormcloud with his fingertips.

Smaug hissed, “You don’t know, do you, my once-dwarvish prince? The warriors are old and weak, Gem. The men have fled. Their land lies barren. I am king under the mountain.”

Thorin didn’t understand what he meant, but nor did he care. All his thought had been washed away by the bonfire-blast of the dragon's eye. All thought but one – there was a hook deep in the flesh of his brain. A tiny hook, but a sharp one, and caught fast. He could no more ignore it than run with a stone in his shoe, no matter how small. It pulled at his attention, painfully twitching and tugging, glinting through the red haze. Hello. Hello. Remember. Be alert. Wake up. Almost in irritation, trying to shake off the hook, Thorin looked away from the dragon for the briefest moment.

Smaug’s gaze was broken. It all rushed in again. Thorin remembered who he was and what he had to do. When he looked back at the dragon, his own rage had risen and was breathing hard and fast. The smile on Thorin’s face had turned into a snarl. He felt larger and more wicked than any dwarf that had ever walked the earth. For a moment he felt sure that the white-gold teeth were his own all along, that he had grown steel claws to turn against the dragon, to tear off his scales, rip out his great throat and rend him voiceless. He could see through Smaug's viscous eyeball and living bone into the burning brain within his skull, and what he saw was the first spark of apprehension.

For a moment the dragon’s eye was weaker than his will. A moment was all he needed.

“This is not your home,” Thorin cried. “It is mine. It has always been mine.”

He shouted a war-cry in harsh and familiar khuzdul, and dragged out the first rivet from the mould.

Everything became glorious, beautiful, breathtaking gold. For that moment it seemed the trap had worked. Smaug was drowned in the molten metal.

But the moment passed and the dragon fled, alive and crying for his revenge.

Chapter Text

On the floor of the hall, Frerin reached Thorin first, seizing fistfuls of the rotting cloth of his tunic and pulling him close.

“What have you done?” he cried. “He’ll kill them all! He’ll burn the whole of Laketown! Your own nephews will die!

Thorin gaped at him, arms hanging by his side. His gaze flicked towards the broken gate, edges smeared with gold where Smaug has scraped his way through and taken tons of masonry with him. The other dwarves were still climbing down from the scaffolding and gathering together, refugees and survivors all over again. When Frerin shook his brother roughly, Bilbo lunged forward and put his arms between them, levering one elbow against Frerin’s stomach in – at least symbolically, since Frerin was considerably stronger than him – an attempt to pry them apart.

“Frerin,” he snapped. “This is as much my fault as anyone’s. I let slip about barrels and Smaug guessed Laketown because of my foolishness. Thorin couldn’t possibly have known what was at stake.”

“No. He had no idea what he was doing,” Frerin opened his hands. Thorin slid away as if Frerin was all that had been holding him up. He grabbed for one of the huge pillars nearby, shaking his head.

“We need to secure the entrance to the mountain,” Frerin turned away, pacing away and back again. “We may have a few hours at most before Smaug returns.”

“But we have to go back to Laketown to help the others!” Ori cried. He looked at Dori. “Aren’t we going back?”

“Good luck getting there before the carrion crows do,” Nori muttered, and Dori smacked him on the arm.

“I don’t understand,” Thorin squeezed his eyes shut, taking one deep breath and then another. When he raised his head he looked towards Balin, pleading. “Why Laketown? What grief does he have to settle with those merchants and money-lenders? Is that where the evacuees are?”

The others all stood close around them, now. Gloin was gritting his teeth, face turned towards the stars that were showing through the empty gateway. His brother was the eldest of all of them, and Gloin had protected him through every adventure. “There must be a way to warn them," he growled.

Bombur shook his head, fidgeting with his sleeves and blinking back tears. Bifur put his arm around his cousin. He looked at Thorin and said something soft, as if to sooth a skittish animal. Balin swallowed and stepped forward, touching Thorin’s arm. “You don’t know you’ve been asleep, do you, my boy?”

“I know I was asleep,” Thorin straightened up, sucking in air through his teeth. “For... for days, it feels like...”

“You were under for a decent while longer than that,” Balin raised his bushy brows. “Frerin is our king, now. Our people have settled away west, in the Blue Mountains. We few dwarves came here to take back our home,” he glanced away to where Frerin stood on the edge of the huddle, his arms folded. “We knew we would have to rouse the dragon sooner or later.”

A wash of confusion was twisting Thorin’s face as he stared at Frerin. His gaze flicked across him from brow to toes, his breath growing faster with each moment. “Frerin?” he murmured, and the tips of his fingers crept up to brush the ties of his tunic high on his chest. “You are… my Frerin?”

“Yes. You are my brother,” Frerin rumbled. Thorin leaned away, looking as if he was going to fall backwards like a toppled status. Both Balin and Bilbo threw out their hands to grab him, but he staggered and leaned against the pillar behind him, hand still tugging at the knots of his clothes. He shook his head again.

“Where’s Grandfather?” he looked at Balin again for answers, and when he did not get them at once his voice rose. “Where is my grandfather?

“He’s dead, Thorin,” Dwalin growled from behind Bilbo. “He was slain in battle, years ago. Thrain too.”

“Years,” Thorin echoed, and finally he looked down at his own hand fidgeting on his chest and asked the question cut right down into Bilbo’s heart and made him step back, feeling like an intruder in this terrible, slow reveal. “How long have I been asleep?”

There was a beat as every single one of them waited for someone else to have to the courage to answer. Balin took it. “A hundred and fifty years.”

Thorin gave a tiny flinch, his eyes still locked on his own hand. He held it away from his body now as if it were something infected and loathsome, watching the moonlight shift across the veins and wrinkles. His mouth opened a little. His throat bobbed. After a long silence he said, “I am still asleep in Smaug’s thrall. This is another nightmare. It’s not real.”

“No,” Frerin strode forward and took hold of him, gripping his shoulders until Thorin looked into his eyes. “No more nightmares! You are with us, Thorin, you are returned to us. We thought you dead all these years. Durin’s beard, but you have been missed!” and he dragged Thorin into his arms, crushing him in his embrace. “I have missed you,” he whispered.

Thorin sagged against him, his head resting against Frerin’s shoulder. He closed his eyes, gasping as if he had been struck, and slipped his arms around Frerin’s waist. They were equal in height to the inch, and with their faces together Bilbo had never seen two brothers so similar in shape and form. Thorin's face was a little thinner and grimmer, Frerin's jaw a little squarer and of course his skin much browner. His hair, perhaps a shade lighter than his brother’s, was tied back in its thick braid while Thorin's hung loose. But their profiles were mirrored reflections.

They stayed that way for a very long time, as a lump grew in Bilbo’s throat. At last Thorin pulled away and touched his brow. “You must tell me everything. Later – later,” he turned towards the gate, lurching as he pulled away from Frerin’s hands. “You said the dragon would be back. We must be ready,” he voice cracked at the end and he stopped and looked up at the hall around him, dusty rubble and cracked ceiling. There were birds’ nests tucked into the carved reliefs of dwarves frozen in battle, gummy straw covering their bejewelled beards and white streams of shit drying down their gilded chins. Thorin staggered another step back, turning where he stood with his sword hanging limp at his side. “What is left to fight for?” he said softly.

In the quiet, Frerin cleared his throat and barked. “Alright you lot, let’s not stand stunned until Smaug returns. Heads together!”

The spell that had held the watching company silent throughout the exchange hummed and snapped. Ori, Nori and Dwalin jumped to attention, and Balin went to Gloin with some quiet commiseration about his brother. Bilbo thought bitterly of old Oin, perfectly hale, who need not have stayed behind in Laketown at all but for compassion for a wounded, young dwarf. Then his thoughts turned to Bofur and he twisted his hands together, his teeth grinding and his head growing woozy.

He should have gone looking for Bofur before breakfast. He’d been too distracted by his own beer-sickened stomach to awaken Bofur, too eager to eat his way out of his hangover, and now look where they’d ended up! Bilbo and the others in Erebor were alive and well, and Bofur was the one facing the dragon! There would be no warning for the people on Laketown, most of them sleeping heavy in their beds on this cold night. Bofur would probably be wrapped up comfortably in one of the Master’s guestrooms, dreaming of the feast he expected when Frerin returned victorious, unaware of the doom winging down towards him. It was maddening, to have come so close to defeating the beast and now be so helpless.

Blinking away the beginnings of tears, Bilbo hurried after the dwarves, wondering how long before Smaug returned to finish them off.




Someone had to fetch back all their bags and food, so Bilbo, Nori and Ori went back through the mountain and up the long tunnel to the landing by the secret door. By the time they got back Bilbo’s feet ached, he was feeling all the bruises he’d earned in the treasure-hoard, and there was a pounding in his head that wouldn't let up. He was too exhausted to be properly furious when he learned that everyone else had been sitting around waiting for them instead of doing anything useful. They could have come back and helped Bilbo and the brothers lug everything through the mountain to the gate, but instead they had all been bickering about whether to stay in the front hall and build a palisade, or go down the valley and look for shelter outside of Smaug’s lair. There had been some rough calculations about what cuts of stone would give them their best chance at holding back a dragon, and none of the engineering-minded dwarves could agree whether it would be possible that night. They had no light and no tools, and the equipment they needed might not be salvageable from the mountain. But if they left Erebor, they might never get back inside it.

Finally it was decided that there was nothing to do but sleep and look at the task afresh when the sun was up, but that meant more walking across the windswept valley to a safer shelter. Bilbo was almost falling over with each step, nearly blind in the half-clouded starlight as they made their way along a thin ridge that had once been a wide road now swallowed up by time. There was little talking, but most of the dwarves stuck close together, heads bowed and hands reaching out to steady each other from stumbles. Bilbo hung on Frerin’s heels, watching where he put his heavy boots.

Only their newcomer, Thorin, walked alone in the middle of the pack. In his faded, antique clothes, dusty hair and pale skin he looked like a ghost wandering between them. The younger dwarves and whispered when they looked at him, bowing their heads and shutting up as soon as Thorin glanced over or slowed down to let them catch up.

There was an old watchhouse up on the arm of the mountain, and thankfully the dwarvish stonework had preserved its structure in the years since it had last seen use. From the outside it looked like nothing more than a squat little, two-level platform with walls behind which guards could have sheltered from attackers below. It had a clear view of the plains that stretched beyond the Long Lake and a clear angle of the shadowy mass of Mirkwood. A doorway in the middle of the platform, however, led into a large, pillared cavern. Here the guards had once rested and kept out of the wind. It was completely hidden from the outside except for a few slit windows and a chimney that appeared as a mere cracks in the rock if you looked at it from the hillside. There was a small cluster of remains in one corner, recognisable as a dwarf only by his rusting armour. Bifur gathered the bones and dust up in his cloak and took them outside, muttering softly as he went. It might have been a prayer, or perhaps an apology for not providing a decent burial.

The wind whistled through the windows while Bombur and Dori set about preparing them all their first decent meal since lunch of the previous day. Frerin set watch duties of two dwarves at a time, and Bilbo drew the last shift before dawn. He could not wait for the food to be ready. He fell asleep under a stone shelf in a nook off the side of the main room and did not dream.




Bilbo awoke to a sharp pain in one side and found he seemed to have fallen asleep on a piece of rubble. It took him some fumbling to realise it was the Arkenstone, which he had quite forgotten until then. Nowhere in the last few hours had he found the right time to mention it, with so many other things to worry about, and now seemed an awkward moment as well. The stone was no trade for the lives of their friends, Bilbo felt, so he didn’t like the idea of giving it to Frerin like some kind of blood money. Or it might seem as if he were looking for praise after successfully (and not so successfully) completing his task and that would be in poor taste as well. No, he'd find a quiet moment tomorrow to hand it over. He told himself his hesitation was definitely, absolutely nothing to do with him feeling annoyed at Frerin for sending him into the mountain with so little warning about Smaug. Frerin couldn’t have known the dragon was so clever, and Bilbo would never be so petty as to feel irritated at Frerin for… well, other reasons. He’d been hired to do a job and of course he was going to finish it, not matter how complicated things had got. That was what he told himself as he wrapped the stone up tighter and stowed it deeper in the pocket of his coat.

Half of the dwarves had followed his example and turned in to catch a few hours of sleep, tucked up in pairs and piles together around the edges of the room. Gloin and Dwalin were outside doing guard duty, but Nori and Bombur were still awake and waved him over to sit with them. They had saved some food for him: a little cram, warmed over the coals, and re-stewed fish from their dried stocks. It was all a bit bland and chewy but Bilbo licked every glob of it from his fingers, as there were no plates or forks. It wasn’t until he had finished, his stomach still rumbling, that he counted up the bundles in all corners of the room and realised they were one short.

“Have we lost the new fellow already?” he asked, sipping from the water-skin that Nori had offered him.

"Who? The Abiding King?"

Bilbo snorted. “We're not really calling him that, are we?"

For once Nori didn’t seem to have a wry comment. He shrugged. “He went out a while ago. We tried to feed him but it didn’t seem to agree with him.”

It was probably hard to eat when your companions kept staring at you like they expected you to start glowing and slaying dragons left, right and centre, Bilbo thought. After he’d helped Bombur clean up he went outside and down the steps onto the lower platform, which jutted out over the cliff-side. It was little more than an extended retaining wall with low parapets, but was more protected from the wind than further up. He paused to look out over the Long Lake. On the western edge was a tiny, red glow. The smell of smoke was laced into the wind. Bilbo thought of Bofur again and his stomach turned. Bofur had once said that there was no worse death than fire.

It took all his willpower to keep his meagre dinner from coming up again. He’d need that food, come morning, and didn’t want to waste it.

Thorin sat against the outside of the gatehouse, his knees drawn up and his arms crossed over each other. Some of the dwarves had donated a few layers to replace his rotting clothes, and he had a pair of slightly-too-short trousers of rough linen, and a warm Laketown coat. Bilbo thought he was dozing until he got closer and saw that Thorin’s eyes were open, half-lidded and staring down at the gutters that ran along the inside of the parapets. Weeds and grasses had seeded all along it, and the half-blown dandelions shifted in the chilly wind. Bilbo padded closer, hoping not to give Thorin a fright, but the dwarf’s gaze flicked up to meet his when he was a few steps away.

Bilbo nodded at him, swinging his arms as if he was just going on a cheery jaunt along the ruined battlement. As he passed Thorin, however, he shook himself. This Abiding-King-Awe was contagious, it seemed. Bilbo refused to play along. He turned back and raised his arm, clicking his fingers at Thorin.

“You thought I was a child,” he said.

Thorin looked up at him again. “Pardon?”

“Down in the forges. You thought I was a little boy who’d survived Smaug,” Bilbo put his hand on his chest. “I’ll have you know, Your Highness, that I am Mr Bilbo Baggins, a fully grown Hobbit of the Shire, hired by your brother for my skills as a professional burglar,” sort of, he added in his head.

Thorin sat up a little straighter. “A halfling!” a weak smiled twitched at the corner of his mouth. “I do apologise. I’ve never met one of your folk before!”

“I suppose that’s forgivable. I might be the first to ever travel this far from home,” Bilbo picked a clean flagstone beside Thorin and sat down, leaning back against the wall. “Have you never been far from the Lonely Mountain?"

“As far east as the Iron Hills, and even less than that westward,” Thorin shrugged. His voice was a soft rumble now, much changed from the booming commands he’d given when they’d tried to ensnare the dragon. “I can't imagine leading hundreds of dwarves all the way to the Blue Mountains. But there are a lot of things I can't imagine which seem to be so.”

“Probably not as much has changed as you think,” Bilbo stretched his legs out in front of his body and wriggled a little lower, his head tucked against his chest. “Don't dwell on it. Things will look better in the morning. They always do.”

Thorin turned his head to look across the lake. “There may be no morning for Esgaroth. I thought I was protecting the survivors of two cities today, but instead I was saving their mere ruins and dooming a third.”

“That wasn't your fault,” Bilbo rolled his eyes and waved his hand back towards the gate of the mountain. “What do you think Frerin was here to do, eh? Make peace with Smaug and send him on his way with a peck on the cheek? He had to be roused sooner or later. If you hadn't come along, all the dwarves you've met today would be dead, and myself too. So the only mess you're really griping about is our lives.”

Thorin glanced at him and that tiny, pained smile returned again. “Do you speak to King Frerin like that, Mr Baggins?"

“When his mood isn't too prickly,” Bilbo tilted his head side to side and shot Thorin a commiserating smile. “Which it rarely is, granted. He is a boisterous fellow most of the time.”

“Then perhaps you're right.”

“About the dragon?”

“That not as much as changed as I thought. Frerin has always the cheekiest—” suddenly he bent forward over his knees with a grunt, wrapping one arm around his chest.

“Are you alright?" Bilbo sat up a little, resisting the urge to pat Thorin’s shoulder. He felt strangely conflicted about being too friendly with the strange dwarf. On the one hand, the fellow looked so remarkably like Frerin that Bilbo’s instinct seemed to think he was close enough, and Bilbo was these days quite used to all the necessary intimacies of sharing a camp and a quest with Frerin. On the other hand, he could not forget that he was the one who had awoken Thorin, and how he had managed it, and why he was keeping it a secret. Whether Thorin realised it or not, Bilbo had already been more friendly than he should have been with an unconscious anybody, and now it did not feel right to impose himself even the slightest.

“Yes, I… ah…” Thorin's features were twisted in pain for a moment and then he let out a long breath and his face relaxed. “I tried to eat a little, and it feels like iron nails going through me.”

“Well your stomach's been idle for a century and a half,” Bilbo winced. “I expect it's out of practice. I can't figure out how you're even alive, to be straight with you. I suppose it's something like bears sleeping through winter.”

“My mind's been going round and round trying to figure it out myself,” Thorin said, his breathing still a little laboured. “I've seen dwarves who were bedridden for weeks and months because of injury or illness. Their legs are weak as grass stems afterwards, and their bones almost as fragile. They get bedsores and dizzy spells. But I feel…” he wrapped one hand around the thin wrist of his other arm. “Well, not the same. But not terrible, either, except for the stomach pains.”

“Dragon magic,” Bilbo shrugged. “Gandalf will probably know. We'll ask him when he finally deigns to join us.”

“Maybe,” Thorin frowned. He scratched at the back of his hand as if he expected his own skin to be hidden beneath it. “I think the dragon woke me from inside my dreams. Well, he was always in my dreams… in my nightmares… but I think sometimes he crouched over me and made me sleepwalk as well. There were a handful of times when I wasn't properly awake but the world seemed clearer and more real than when I was properly asleep. But my thoughts were not my own. They were dulled, and pushed by him, by his voice. I remember once drinking water until I was sick. And he would make me cut my beard,” he touched the rough, short hair beneath his chin. “I suppose it was a sort of test, to make sure he could still control me. Like tuning a harp that’s been sitting on the mantle for years.”

Bilbo swallowed. He said quietly. “He’s not getting under your skin ever again. You know that, don't you? If he comes sailing back up this valley, we’ll make sure he doesn’t even lay his eyes on you.”

“I don’t wish to hide like a child,” Thorin shook his head.

“Not at all. And I’d rather not waste your sword by keeping you hidden. So we’ll just make sure you only approach him from behind!”

Thorin closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, his shoulders shaking. It took Bilbo a moment to realise he was laughing silently. At last he took a great, heaving breath and covered his face with his hands.

Bilbo chewed his bottom lip. “You must have a lot of questions.”

“I don’t even know where to start,” Thorin pushed an errant lock of hair out of his eyes. “And yet I’m afraid to ask. Yesterday I had friends and cousins, retainers and teachers, and today you tell me they are all be buried and mourned and turned to dust. My grandmother… I didn’t even ask Frerin about her! She’s alive and waiting to scold me for being home so late, I’m sure. It must be so.” He shook his head slowly. “It’s a dream. This must all be dream. I can’t believe it.”

“I wish for your sake that it was,” Bilbo sighed. “I can’t tell you about your family, but I know who can,” Bilbo tipped his head back and cupped his hand around his mouth. “Dwalin! Mr Dwalin!”

After a moment, a gleaming head peered over the battlements of the upper platform. “Shut your trap, Burglar! Do you want to bring some foul creature down onto us?”

“What do you think is hunting on this welt at the edge of the world?” Bilbo called back, though he hadn’t forgotten the orcs. “It’s called the desolation for a reason, surely.”

“What do you want, Master Baggins? A bedtime story?”

“Something like that. Would you care to join us?” Bilbo waved his arm. “You can see the lake just as clear from down here.”

There was a grumble and a curse and Dwalin disappeared. For a few moments, Bilbo wasn’t sure he’d come, but soon there came the scrape of footsteps on the steps. Dwalin’s hulking shape loped along the retaining wall to stand over them, one hand on his hip.

“Aye, the view’s acceptable,” he grumbled.

“Very good of you to come,” Bilbo squinted up at him. “Thorin wants to know what happened to his grandmother.”

Dwalin went very silent and still for several very long moments. “Ah,” he said at last, and he moved stiffly to the parapets, settling himself down across from Thorin. “I’m afraid she’s laid down in stone in Ered Luin. But she was old as the mountains by the time she went, and she still had her sharp tongue until those last couple of years. She talked about you more and more, towards the end. As if she was afraid we would forget you. I think she was probably the one who started the myth about the Abiding King… well, not a myth, I suppose. How could she have known?”

“What’s that mean?” Thorin asked. “The… Abiding King?”

Dwalin frowned to himself. “It’s your story. Ah, Thorin, you were never forgotten.”

“Oh.” Thorin paused and then pressed on, “But was Umad unhappy? Did Frerin take care of her?”

“She was happy once we had a home in the Blue Mountains, though she was always hard on Frerin for not being you. But she did love him, and she saw Kili born, and then one morning they found her lying dead in bed,” Dwalin flicked his fingers as if to indicate a puff of smoke in the wind. His lips were pressed thin together. “Swift and peaceful.”

“I always imagined she’d go fighting,” Thorin frowned, picking at a thread of his borrowed tunic. He tugged at it until it came free and rolled it into a ball between his fingers. “Who is Kili?”

Dwalin and Bilbo exchanged a glance, and Bilbo looked over the lake at where red embers still burned over the water. Thorin saw his face and his eyes widened. “My nephew! Frerin said I have nephews at Laketown,” he gave a sharp gasp.

“They’re tough lads,” Dwalin said. “Nothing will keep them from reaching Erebor. I expect they think we're dead too, and we'll see them marching up the road tomorrow looking to bury us.”

“But they didn’t want to come with you this far?”

Dwalin shook his head. “They followed Frerin all the way from Ered Luin, but just yesterday Kili was injured by an orcish arrow. Would've made it difficult to outrun a dragon, I think. His brother insisted he’d be safer if they stayed behind at Laketown.”

"Safer," Thorin scrubbed his hands down his face. “Mahal protect them. I cannot bear to think I will never meet Frerin’s sons.”

“Frerin's? No, no, Frerin has never managed to find himself a queen!” Dwalin shook his head with a grin. “They are your sister’s boys. Dis is still alive and hale. We left her in charge of home when we began this ill-fated quest.”

“Dis!” Thorin croaked, gaping at Dwalin for a moment. “Little Dis!” he held his hand up at Bilbo’s height to illustrate the sister who remembered. “Dis is married? Who? I’ll have the scoundrel! Who seduced my sister?

Dwalin cleared his throat and shifted around as if he was sitting on nettles. “Now, to be fair, when she married she was older than you were when you disappeared… I mean… anyway, you’re late there too. Vili’s been dead since before Kili was born.”

“Not young Vili from the Hossfotr family? That son of a horse trader?"

"The very same."

"Those nomads used to charge through the nose for new studs! I always thought we should buy from Dale instead, but Thror insisted that the Stonefoots had better stock.”

“Aye, I always thought so too,” Dwalin laughed heartily this time. “He was a good dwarf, though, and a good husband. Fought with us in Moria.” He sounded a little exasperated by all Thorin’s questions, and Bilbo hid his smile behind his hand. He was reminded of small nieces and nephews back in the Shire who ceaselessly demanded answers to everything they saw around them.

“In Moria?” Thorin shook his head. “What battle was this?”

“Ah, now that’s a long tale,” Dwalin’s face darkened.

‘A long tale’ was definitely not how Bilbo want to spend the scant remainder of his night. He stood up and stretched his arms out, raising his hand to Dwalin. “On that note, I will excuse myself,” he nodded at Thorin. “I hope you both get some sleep before I see you again.”

Thorin smiled but shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’m afraid I might not wake up for another hundred and fifty years.”

Bilbo put his hand on his heart. “Then I make you a solemn promise, Thorin, to rouse you long before that. Goodnight, sirs, and goodnight again.”

He slipped back to the guardroom, listening to Thorin and Dwalin’s conversation start up almost at once. Inside was almost pitch black, but there were just enough coals left in the hearth for Bilbo to pick his way past the sleeping dwarves towards the little nook he’d chosen earlier in the night. When he reached it, however, he saw the gleam of eyes and the red flicker of a pipe.

“Frerin,” Bilbo whispered, his shoulders relaxing. “You almost scared me out of my skin.”

“My apologies,” Frerin inclined his head a little. “I am surprised anything still scares you, Master Baggins, after all you saw today.”

“Apparently dwarves lurking around my bed at night still do,” Bilbo slumped down onto the cloak he’d laid out earlier. “Why are you… are you sleeping here?” he stammered.

“No, Bilbo. I was waiting for you,” Thorin lowered his pipe. “I heard you talking to my brother outside.”

“Oh. Yes, nobody else was so I thought I'd have a stab at it,” Bilbo shuffled himself into the closest he could get to a comfortable position on the stone floor and tried to make a pillow of his arm, without much success.

“What did you talk about?”

“Pardon?” Bilbo raised his head again.

“What did you talk about with my brother?” Frerin’s low voice rolled out of the darkness. His pipe had almost gone out now. “What did he say to you?”

“Oh. Um,” Bilbo frowned. “Not much. He’s got a stomach ache. Dwalin's taken over for me now,” he shook his head.

“Did you talk about me?” Frerin leaned forward. “Does he understand everything that’s happened?”

“A little,” Bilbo leaned away from the smoke of Frerin’s pipe. “He just doesn’t believe it yet, I think. Frerin, you… you really thought he might be alive, didn’t you?”

Frerin swallowed. “Of course not. I had no idea.”

Bilbo pressed on. “When you met me at the bottom of the stairs, you seemed…” and he realised all of a sudden what Frerin had seemed. Not hopeful, not faithful beyond reason that his lost brother might yet be found alive. No, he had not wanted to believe it: he had been bitterly afraid of it. Bilbo forced a smile onto his face. “Ask me again in the morning, Frerin, I can't see your face even if I had the strength to keep my eyes open any longer. Goodnight.”

My dear king, why would you be afraid of him? Bilbo thought.

But he forgot his concern almost as soon as it passed across his mind. He rolled over to face the wall and closed his eyes, hoping Frerin would forgive his shortness. He couldn't bear losing any more time that could be spent on sleep. Very quickly he drifted off, and did not hear Frerin sitting nearby for another hour before he, too, got up and went to find a bed.

Chapter Text

At fifty, Kili came of age, and the king threw him a party the scale of which Ered Luin had never seen. Dis did the numbers first, as soon as she caught a whiff of what he planned. When Frerin brushed aside her attempts to talk to him, she went to Balin and the rest of the council. Balin asked Frerin whether or not he might consider toning down the cartloads of food and ale, or see if the guests would mind arranging and paying for their own accommodation. His gentle nudging had no effect on Frerin’s verve. Planning the party became the king's daily priority above all other duties. Finally – with a little elbowing from his brother and mother – Kili went for a drink with his uncle and said he didn’t really want a big party. It didn’t need to be in the great hall or have fifty musicians, or guests from every corner of the western lands. They could just hold it in the dining room someone’s house, with his closest kin and friends.

“Like we had at Fili’s fiftieth,” Kili said, which had been in the longhall of Gloin's large home. “We didn’t do anything to fancy for that, did we? Why do I get all this?”

“There wasn’t the money for a big party when Fili came of age,” Frerin insisted, “Things are better now. I want to do this for you.”

“I don’t like the idea of making such a fuss over me, Uncle,” Kili mumbled into his tankard. “It seems unfair.”

“It’s for Fili too!” Frerin countered. “It’s for everyone, to celebrate you both, our perfect princes. Don’t we all deserve a celebration, nephew?”

He could not be talked out of it. Kili came home muzzily saying it seemed like a good idea, though by the time he sobered up he could not exactly remember how his uncle had convinced him. Dis scowled and grumbled for days. Finally she was sharing a pipe with Fili one night and he told her she had to put on a smile and help out with the planning or she would ruin Kili’s birthday. He was right, she thought, kissing the top of his head as she turned in for the night. If she could do no more than blunt the edges of Frerin’s spending, then there was no sense making Kili feel guilty about it too.

"Quiet! Quiet for the king, you ruffians!" Frerin cried, standing up on the mostly-devoured feast table at the front of the great hall. There was laughter and clapping and several slightly lewd cheers as Frerin raised his hands, a glass of red-black wine clutched in one. His face was ruddy and the plaits in his beard were coming undone. There was no doubt that the party was a grand success so far. Even Dis could not deny that. Once the most important parts of the feast were on the tables she'd danced with Dwalin and Bifur, and got into the wine. Cup to cup she was on the verge of catching up even with Frerin. She clapped loudest of all when Frerin reached down to grab Kili's arm and haul him up onto the table beside his king.

"This is my nephew,” Frerin slung his arm around Kili's shoulders. “Did you all know that?" he hollered and there was more laughter. Kili went blotchily pink from his brow to his neck. “Him and his brother – there's his brother, stand up Fili! Stand up and let them see you!" a few feet away from Dis, Fili stood up from where he had been deep in conversation with a pretty merchant's daughter from Dunland. “There he is, he's found himself a girl already, that'll be his Stonefoot poppa coming out in him, ha-ha!” he turned away before he could see the flush burning on Fili's cheeks and the dam’s father wading through the crowd with murder in his eyes. Frerin's voice boom over the chatter and giggles. “These two lads are the finest dwarves who have ever – ever – had the misfortune of calling an old milksop like me their uncle.”

His speech went on for some time, rambling into odd tangents and borderline-inappropriate anecdotes about Kili's youth, scattered with a couple of stories from his own life and dubious advice on how to stay out of trouble. Just when it seemed like he was drawing things out too long, he turned to face Kili and squeezed his shoulder.

“Enough of an old dwarf’s jabber, nephew. What I’ve really been trying to say is that I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

"Thank you, Uncle,” Kili said, and flashed the crowd a grin. Showmen, both of them, Dis thought to herself. She was proud enough to sing about it. These days were the good days.

Frerin shoved his glass towards the nearest guest so he could put both hands on Kili's shoulders. “That’s why I think you’ll make a king of kings when I’m gone.”

A swift hush raced around the huge hall like a wind across a field of grain. Dis saw Kili’s mouth, still smiling, say ‘What?’ too quietly to hear even across the silent room. Frerin nodded, his eyes crinkled up as he beamed at his nephew. “I mean it, Kili. I want to declare you my heir.”

The flush vanished from Kili’s face. His skin went grey and his eyes wide. Dis turned her head sharply to look at Fili, who was sitting alone on the bench now that the dam he’d been flirting with had been fetched away by her father. His face was a perfect mirror of his brother’s, blank and uncomprehending.

“I’ve never seen this lad speechless!” Frerin laughed, waving his hand around the hall and pulling Kili under his arm. “Come on, come on, raise your drinks. To the prosperity of the dwarves in the Blue Mountains! Zatashuluk!” he cried.

The party lifted tankards and glasses and mugs, and empty fists if they had already drained them. “To prosperity!” echoed around the hall.

“To the kings of Durin’s line!” Frerin bellowed, and the call was echoed back to him. Frerin let out a rolling laugh and got off the table at last, pulling Kili down with him.

Dis couldn’t move. Her hands, balled in her lap, were clenched and shaking. She saw Fili stand up. As he crossed the hall to embrace his brother he was smiling like the wine had hit him all of a sudden, like someone had told him a joke he didn’t understand but was enthusiastically reacting to anyway. His mouth moved as he spoke to Kili, but across the gossiping rabble there was no chance for Dis to make out the words. Gritting her teeth, she shoved herself out of her chair and stormed away, pulling her skirts up until she had shouldered open the back door and stepped out into the cold air. She staggered, half from wine and half from rage, and then got her bearings and strode into the darkness.


She kept walking, her boots slipping in the mud from last night’s rain. The clouds sat heavy on the mountain peaks above her, shutting off the moon and leaving her blind. She heard thudding footsteps and felt a hand grab for her wrist. “Dis, stop.”

She knew Dwalin’s voice before she turned. She did not pull away from his grip but spun to bare her teeth at him, breathing hard and shallow.

“Dis, put on a brave face, lass,” Dwalin rumbled, shaking his head. His hands slid up to her elbows, not holding her in place but steadying her where she stood.

“He will destroy us!” Dis cried, raking her fingers through the air. Her mouth taste rotten and sour from all the wind. “He wants to pit my boys against each other. We’ll have civil war one day, Dwalin, the way he carries on. Why? Why would he do this?” she pressed her knuckles into her eye sockets until lights swam against the inside of her eyelids.

“Because he truly believes Kili will be a good king,” Dwalin said quietly. There was something in his voice akin to pity. Or maybe it was fear. Perhaps he was afraid that she was as mad as the rest of the family. Perhaps she was as mad. “Dis, you cannot fight him on this. He will only take it out on your sons.”

“He wants to drive them apart!” Dis wailed, twisting in Dwalin’s hands. “He wants them to hate each other, just so Kili will love him more!”

“That not what he wants, Dis,” Dwalin pulled her into his chest and wrapped his thick arms around her. “That’s never been what he wanted. He’s just a lumping great idiot, your big brother,” he breathed into her hair.

“If Thror’s line could only work together, the four of us, we could do so much,” she gave a pained laugh against the curve of his throat. “We could protect our people, Dwalin. We could even take back the Lonely Mountain. I keep thinking about that story, about Thorin, you know what they say?”

“Aye, I know the story,” Dwalin sighed.

“I have this dream sometimes, where I find Thorin asleep in the forest,” Dis shook her head. “I remember his face, Dwalin. I’ve forgotten my father’s face and even my grandfather, but I remember Thorin as clear as if he was standing in front of me.”

She felt Dwalin’s ribs shiver as he breathed in. “Go on, Dis. What happens in your dream?”

“He’s young and he wears gold chains and a deep blue cloak, in that dye that we can’t make here in the west. So I wake him up, and he becomes king and unites us all, and even Frerin is so happy. I wish he was here, Dwalin, I want that stupid fairytale to be true so badly it hurts! But Frerin, he looks at me as… as a bitter spoilsport trying to take his half-starved kingdom away from him… and a part of me doesn’t even care anymore. He can think the worst of me, and I’ll weather it, but this! Tossing Fili aside because he is too close to me, this is too far.”

Dis slumped against him. She stood like that for a long time, until Dwalin murmured into her hair. “Come back to your son’s party, princess. I can’t bring Thorin back to life, but I think you’re still the closest we’ve got.”

Dis spent the evening in the corner of the hall, talking to some distant cousins who’d been living down south for years, keeping a smile on her face. She left in the early hours of the morning, once no one could doubt she’d put on a good show. She was in bed and had just blown the lamp out when she heard the door open. Someone tripped over a chair and there was a flurry of whispers. She and the boys had two separate bedrooms these days, in a larger house than the one they’d grown up in, but the plank walls were thin. Dis sat up, resting her hand against the head of her bed. She didn’t know whether or not she wanted to talk to them tonight. She had nothing clear in her own mind. After a few moments she got up and reached for the door. It hung a few inches open, and she could see her sons in the main room.

“Here, sit down,” Fili hissed, pulling over a chair. “That’s it. Shhh, Kili, hush.”

Kili was leaning heavily on him. His hair was a mess over his face and half his buttons were undone down his front. He almost fell over the table leg and just managed to land in the chair. He buried his head in his hands while his brother went to fetch water.

Dis watched Fili fumble for a mug from the cabinet, his hands shaking. He was standing behind Kili’s chair, where his brother couldn’t see him. His face twisted suddenly, in such rage and hate that she barely recognised him. She saw him raise the cup in his hand, making to hurl it to the ground, stomping his boot straight down so that it made a thud like a drumbeat. Dis flinched, but Kili didn’t even turn around, too drunk to pay attention. Fili’s outstretched arm trembled. His features shuddered and the rage passed on. He lowered the cup, holding it against his chest. He pinched the bridge of his nose, sniffed and rubbed his cheek with the heel of his hand. Finally he went to fetch water from the barrel.

“I don’t want to be king,” Kili slurred as his brother pressed the full cup into his hands. His words sloshed together, making them almost inaudible. “How can I make him take it back? I’ll look like a fool, I’ll shame him. But I can’t do this, I’m not made for this, I don’t want to be king.

“Drink,” Fili nudged the cup towards Kili’s mouth until he drained the whole thing, and put it down on the table with a bang. Fili shushed him again and took the cup away, kneeling on the floor in front of his brother.

“He said I had to behave or he’d change his mind,” Kili said, and began to weep, one hand buried in his hair. “I have to do right, I have to, or, or I’ll be a failure, I’ll be a blight on our family, I’ll, I’ll…”

Dis’ breath shuddered into her chest and tears pricked in the corners of her eyes. She had heard this all before, so many years ago, in the days after Azanulbizar. And she understood at last what it was that Frerin saw in Kili.


“Kili, listen to me,” Fili took hold of his head, pushing Kili’s hair away from his eyes. “You’re very drunk. Everything will look better in the morning, I promise you.”

Kili let out a ragged half-sob, half laugh. “Will I not have to be king in the morning?”

“Nobody except Frerin will be king for a very long time,” Fili told him firmly. “But – Kili, listen to me – whether you decide you want this or not, I will be with you, do you understand? If in a hundred years you find yourself with a crown on your head and you don’t know what to do or where to turn, I will be there. I will help you. Alright?”

Kili nodded, trying to wipe his face but mostly succeeding in smearing his fringe into his eyes again. Fili patted his knee. “Come on. Let’s get you into bed before we wake Mama.”

“She’s awake,” Kili sniffed. “She’s standing in the doorway behind you.”

Fili twisted around, and Dis saw a flash of something in his eyes, a childish hope breaking through as if, just for a moment, he thought that she could fix everything for him. Then his features hardened and he looked like a weary big brother again. She pushed her door open and crossed the room to touch his head while he still knelt in front of Kili’s chair. Her golden-haired prince. Her would-be king. It all boiled up in her, the tug of war, the inevitability of disasters as long as she and Frerin were in conflict.

She had loved Frerin as much as Fili loved his brother, and it hadn’t been enough to save them from tearing apart. How had they come to this? What could she have done, back then? What could she do now to stop it happening again?

She looked in Fili’s eyes and she knew he was thinking the same thing.

She went to Kili’s side and tugged him against her, stroking his tousled hair away from his face. “Happy birthday, my love,” she whispered.




For ten years after Kili came of age, the settlement at Ered Luin prospered. Frerin fell into a routine with Dis in which she made decisions and he, for the most part, followed them, polished them up and made them palatable for general consumption. On occasion they even worked together against the council. Dwalin had been right – having his chosen heir by his side gave Frerin some strength he couldn’t conjure alone, some hope for the future that anchored him in the present. Watching Kili grow into his heritage, without the weight of the crown itself, seemed to ease the burden on Frerin as well.

But then one year there was a bad winter, and several children in town died despite the best care the physicians could give them. One of them was Frerin’s dark-eyed bastard, the only child Dis had been utterly sure was his blood. She had never seen Frerin acknowledge or visit the boy, but Frerin kept plenty of secrets from her, and now he could not even mourn them openly. The king’s confidence began to slip again, his attendance at meetings grew more infrequent, his convictions more vocal. He wanted better for his people. If they only had more money, more healers, more fuel, children would not choke to death on the cold winter air.

The next year Frerin became entranced by rumours of gold in the rivers in the cold north. It would restore their glory to his grandfather’s era, he said. They would not need to seek out Erebor. They would build a new Erebor, here in the Blue Mountains.

Dis’ caution held his attention just long enough to convince him to send surveyors first. The dwarves returned in late autumn with a tiny snuff-box of sifted gold. Dis knew a little about prospecting, and after private conversations with the dwarves she was cautious about any real wealth to be found in so distant and lonely a land. But the surveyors got excited when they were around Frerin. Frerin was good at getting people excited. Everyone wanted to impress him. Between them they became convinced that the scraps were signs of a great wealth waiting to be torn out of the riverbeds and rocks. Many of the council became entranced, too. The demand for gold was very high these days, if they were willing to sell far to the south. They might all become very rich indeed.

Frerin spent far beyond the crown’s means, putting them in debt with half the merchants in Ered Luin (very willing merchants, admittedly; the gold was seductive to many). Two hundred dwarves – labourers, miners, engineers, opportunists – went away as soon as the snow started to melt in spring. When messengers returned that winter reporting attacks by orcs, Frerin sent a hundred and twenty soldiers out to deal with them.

And so it went, on and on. There was no easy living in the north. All supplies had to be sent from Ered Luin, driving up the price of food and coal and iron for every family in the city. The supplies were very often late, or lost in bad weather, or were stolen by the orcs that made their homes in the northern mountains. The letters that returned spoke of starvation, desperate vigilance and bouts of disease. When a recall was finally announced a full three years after the first surveyors had been sent, most of the labourers returned, and some of the soldiers, and none of the money.

Dis found herself staring at accounts from dawn to dusk, as she had many years earlier when her sons had been infants and her husband newly dead. She wept on more than one occasion, when she had sent Fili home for the night after she’d spent hours dictating letters to him and having him check over her sums. They held things together – “By a thread,” she told Balin, burying her face in his hair, “By a thread,” – and a year passed without the complete collapse of everything they’d worked for, and another year, and another. Their finances began to recover. Frerin’s popularity was not so lucky. People blamed the royal family for the scheme, for the deaths and the pinching poverty that now afflicted them all. They looked on Frerin as a foolish king. Outsiders now saw the dwarves of the Blue Mountains as desperate and unreliable folk.

Something had to be done about both. As always, Frerin had the answer.

“I’m going on a quest to retake Erebor.”

It was arrogance, Dis thought. It was stupidity. It was greed. But she didn’t care. “Good,” she said to herself as she retiled the roof of her house with slate that Kili had cut for her, because they could not afford to pay anyone else to do it. “Good. Let him go on his quest, let him waste more money, and for the sake of this colony let him die in the attempt.”

She closed her eyes and pleaded for forgiveness even as she thought it. She had never wished death on her big brother before. Of course she wanted him to be successful. How wonderful it would be for Frerin to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and slay the dragon, for him to ride home with barrels and barrels of gold and – why not? – with Thorin ahead of him, awoken from his long sleep and wearing Grandfather’s crown upon his brow. Why not wish for the world while she was at it? She would love to be a childlike princess again, living in those grand halls with no responsibility or care.

It would not be a huge expedition. There was neither the money nor the soldiers for that. Frerin wanted twenty dwarves to accompany him, selected from a longer list of volunteers. Dis expected him to get two or three volunteers at the most. But as always, Frerin made the idea so appealing, so noble and heroic, that people listened to him and he scraped together a dozen travellers, refusing none. Dwalin and Balin seemed to think it was their duty to watch over their king. Gloin and his elderly brother talked of good omens and high returns on investments. Others were distant cousins and curious adventurers and lads too young to know better. And there were her boys.

For the first time in a very long time, Dis went to Frerin and begged him.

“You can tell them to stay,” she said. “They’ll listen to you. Give them something to do, if it’ll save their pride – seats on the council, apprenticeships with the financiers. Fili has been working with the generals, he can oversee the city guard until you return.”

Frerin chuckled. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Frerin, please. Don’t take my sons on this quest.”

“They want to come, Dis! I can’t stop them. They’re grown dwarves. You can’t keep them under your skirts any longer.”

“Kili would follow you off the end of a pier if you looked confident enough, you damn fool!” Dis snapped. “And Fili will not be parted from him no matter the cost! You’re the only one who can turn them back—”

“Dis, my darling,” Frerin put his hands on her shoulders. “I will protect them with my life, I swear to you. But I need you to run things around here while I’m gone. You hold down the fort, and when I come back I’ll bring your boys safe and sound. Isn’t that a fair deal?”

“Don’t jest,” she shook her head.

Frerin just smiled at her, warm and mirthful as ever, and Dis’ throat closed over. She struck her brother in the face with the flat of her palm. He grunted, turning away, and when she raised her hand to do it again he caught hold of her arm. It was the bad arm, the one that had been injured all those years ago at Azanulbizar, and she gave a sharp cry of pain. He held on for a moment, as Dis bared her teeth and looked him in the eye, and then he let go. His mouth opened, his brows twisted in regret.

“If you weren’t my sister, I would call that treason,” he said with a tremor in his voice.

“Then I will have to hit you harder next time,” she replied.




Erebor stood on the horizon of Laketown, waiting for them, the dragon and the lost prince still hidden inside.

The last of their supplies were being handed down to the boat. Only Frerin and Bilbo still waited on the dock; they were having some heated words about Bofur, who was missing this morning. Fili hadn’t seen Bilbo speak so sharply to Frerin in all the months they’d been travelling together and he wondered where Bilbo had suddenly found the courage to argue with his uncle. But soon the hobbit threw up his hands and, shaking his head, jumped down into the boat.

Fili felt about as wide as a pot-bellied pony in the antique, poorly-wrought armour from Laketown. He sucked in his chest to get past Dori to the stern where his brother sat. Kili’s head was bowed and he hadn’t pinned his hair back this morning. His cheeks were chalky. The hangover to end all hangovers, it looked like, but Fili didn’t think so. He bit his lip.

“Kili,” he said. His brother was sluggish to raise his head, and his eyes were unfocused. He gave Fili a beaming smile, but it looked crooked, like a pennant trying to fly but all caught up in its rigging.

“We’re almost there,” Kili rasped. Fili pulled off his glove and put his palm on Kili’s forehead. He sucked in a breath.

“You’re a furnace,” he said quietly. “Has Oin looked at your leg?”

“He checked it this morning, it’s fine,” Kili frowned, jerking away from Fili’s hand. His hands wrapped around the oar in front of him, but to Fili it looked like he needed it just to sit upright. He felt a whirlpool forming in his gut. He could see the veins in Kili’s eyes and smell a metal tang on his breath.

He didn’t remember their father’s death, but he knew what had felled Vili: blood poisoning. A little burn from the forge that went unwashed and uncovered, and within a week he was bedridden with a terrible fever, and a few days after that he was in the ground. Mama’s belly was already been swollen enough to see through her dresses, and everyone said the baby would be born blind or with a crooked spine, because blood poisoning could spread like that. But Kili had been strong and hearty. He never got sick, even when all the other children fell to winter chills and fevers. He had never been fragile.

“Mr Oin,” Fili called. The old dwarf sat on the next row forward. He twisted round at the sound of his name, cupping his hand around his ear. “Have you seen to Kili this morning?”

“Do I need to, lad?” Oin frowned.

Fili rounded on Kili. “Have you not talked to him at all?”

“I’m alright!” Kili snapped back. “Why are you being such a fusspot all of a sudden?”

Fili leaned in, gripping a large handful of Kili’s hair and gave his head a slow shake from side to side. Kili moaned and reached up to peel Fili’s fingers off. “Stop it, that hurts.”

“It shouldn’t,” Fili growled. He turned towards Frerin, who was just climbing down into the boat. “Uncle! I need your help.”

“What’s the matter?”

“You must tell Kili to stay behind,” Fili could not keep the ragged note of apprehension out of his voice. He swallowed, head tilted up towards Frerin, throat bared to him in supplication. “He’s sick and he won’t listen to me.”

In the corner of his eye, he saw Kili twitch around in surprise. “No, I’m perfectly well, Frerin. I’ll walk it off once we’re in the fresher air.”

Fili did not look at him. He kept his eyes locked on his uncle. “He will slow us down, if you need another reason. You must make him stay behind."

Frerin glanced between his nephews. Kili's eyes were pleading, and Frerin shook his head. "We are almost on the doorstep of our forefathers. I cannot take that away from him, Fili."

Fili opened his mouth to cry his complaints, but then he looked round at the boat, at the dwarves looking at him and Kili. He realised that the friendship of not a single one of them, not even the sum of all of them, meant more to him than his brother’s health. He straightened up, drawing his head back and feeling his shoulders relax. The armour didn’t seem to weigh as much now. He felt his face harden as a heat stirred between his lungs. He reached for Kili’s arm above the elbow, gently pulling his up, but kept his eyes on Frerin.

“Fili,” Frerin rumbled a warning. “What are you doing?”

Kili stumbled as he stood, and Ori gave a little squeak of concern. Fili held him tight as he tried to pull away, “Fili, I can do this—”

“No, you can’t. And nor will I carry you,” Fili said coldly. He guided Kili’s steps over the bags of supplies that lay in the damp bottom of the boat. At the edge of the wharf he climbed up first, and had to heave Kili up behind him. His brother had no strength in his knees at all. Fili settled him on a spare crate, not even sparing a glance for the rest of the company. He heard the planks creak behind him as two pairs of boots climbed up on the dock.

Oin blustered up beside Fili, bumping him away with his hip. “Let me take a look, boy.”

“Not in front of everyone,” Kili gave a bitter huff and tried to avoid Oin’s hand. Fili turned away. Frerin was standing behind him, staring at Kili with a fearful frown. He turned his gaze on Fili.

“I will stay with him,” Fili said. “I’ll see he rests until he’s fit enough to join you.”

“You are denying him his birthright. Don’t be a fool, Fili. He belongs with the company.”

“With the company, or by your side?” Fili asked softly, so that none of the others could hear – although Bilbo was leaning over the side of the boat to look up at them, and Fili knew he had keen ears. Fili lowered his voice and leaned in. “Do you think he’ll stop loving you the moment you’re out of sight?”

He turned away without waiting for an answer. A heavy hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him back towards his uncle. Frerin slid his hand around to Fili’s neck, bringing their faces close together. Fili felt his breath quicken. When Frerin spoke, his voice was like snow dumped down the back of Fili’s collar. “If you turn him against me, you will regret it, boy.”

Fili’s teeth clicked hard together. The snow sunk through his skin and flooded his veins, stopping his breath in his throat. He didn’t move as Frerin clapped him twice on the shoulder and turned to climb back into the boat.

The laketown band began to play. The oars were slotted into the locks and sunk beneath the oily surface of the water. Fili watched the company shrink into doll-sized figures and disappear around the sweep of the canal, his thoughts chasing round and round in his head. The last face looking back was Bilbo.

He turned back to his brother just as Kili’s eyes fluttered shut and he fell forward off the crate.

Chapter Text

In the morning there was still no sign of the dragon, but that only made them feel more uneasy. Breakfast at dawn was more cram and then a meeting on the upper platform about whether to return to the gate and secure the mountain. It was clear that Frerin was in favour of this, and most of the company went onto his side very quickly. To come this far and then simply sit at the edge of the doorstep out of fear was maddening. So they were soon packed up and standing under the great, ruined arch into Erebor's front halls once more.

The dwarves spent the rest of the day constructing a mighty wall across the gate, leaving a gap of only a few feet at the top, with no door or passage except for a very thin path along the eastern cliffside. The river that streamed out of Erebor's old network of aquaducts was inside the wall's circumference, but the dwarves let it flow out through a culvert at the base, where a pool soon filled up and drowned any sight of the channel. Anyone coming in or out would have to be hauled up or down with ropes or ladders, or risk their neck shuffling single-file along the crumbly east path. Camp was set up on the floor of the inner atrium, far enough away from the gate not to suffer from the wind but close enough to hear an alarm from anyone watching on the top of the wall.

And still Smaug did not return to his lair. Crows and other carrion birds were flying over the mountain’s arms, heading for the lake, but nothing larger. For another night and day the dwarves waited.

Perhaps Thorin's golden trap had injured the dragon far more than his swift wing had indicated. Perhaps the defenses of Laketown had been enough to drive him off, nursing his hurts and cursing to the empty plains. He might be afraid to drag himself back home, where the dwarves who had brought him low were still waiting to finish the job.

Frerin took a shift on the wall far more often than he needed to, looking down the valley towards the town. Bifur, Bombur and Oin wanted to do the same, but Frerin would not let them do more than their fair share. The desolate basin with its trickle of a river remained empty, the wind whistling across the grasses and over the huge, plowed furrows where the dragon's claws had ripped open the earth as he fled the mountain.

For everyone else, there was a contained sense of excitement. They were here at last in their home, and against all odds there was no dragon to contend with any longer. On the second night after Smaug fled, the dwarves sat around the fire and began to pick over the specifics of the fight in the forge. The collapse of the ore-buckets right onto Smaug's head had done real damage, Gloin said to Bifur; he had seen the dents in Smaug's armour, and he was sure the dragon had been limping afterwards as if he had a crick in his back. Ori praised Balin's flashbangs until it seemed they had had enough firepower to bring down a castle, rather than being little more than impressive fireworks as Bilbo remembered it. Of course, they would not have been so effective if Ori and Dori had not thrown them with such spectacular force and accuracy, Ori added.

And then he said quietly to Nori, but not quietly enough that everyone around the circle didn't pick out exactly what he was talking about, "They'd have come looking for us if they were alive, wouldn't they?"

A cold silence fell around the group. Ori shut his mouth quickly. Bombur was hanging his head, staring at the remains of dinner in his bowl, blinking quickly to hide his tears. Bilbo sat besides Frerin with his arms around his knees. He looked up at him to see the flames casting dark shadows across the crags of Frerin's face. His features were tense and the lines were cut deep around his mouth and across his brow. The dwarf king closed his eyes for a moment and said softly. "I don't know what I shall tell Dis."

He swallowed and opened his eyes, and his face was transformed into a broad smile. It was forced, but in the flickering light no one could tell but Bilbo. Frerin stood up. "Bofur, Oin and the lads will be helping the Lakemen after the fire, of course, Ori," he said brightly. "No doubt they're thinking that we're dead too, and there's no point in coming to look for us. But we are not dead, we are triumphant! In fact I have never been prouder to serve with such fine fellows," Frerin spread his arms as he turned to address them all. "Clearly I chose well from all the dwarves of Ered Luin!"

A chuckle rippled around the circle. Nori called out, "You didn't chose us, if I remember rightly. We were the only volunteers you could get!" A faltering cheer followed him, and Frerin bellowed a laugh.

"You’re quite right. But lucky for me, we have the most remarkable discovery of all!" Frerin strode over to Thorin, who had been sitting behind the circle with his back against a piece of fallen masonry. Frerin pulled his brother to his feet, despite Thorin's mumbled protests. "The hero of the whole endeavour, a gift from beyond the veil of this world!" this time the cheer was much more enthusiastic, and Dori and Bifur both clapped as loud as drumbeats.

Frerin slung his arm around Thorin with a laugh and then drew back, glancing him up and down. He was still in the rough, ill-fitting mismatch of Laketown clothing that the company had donated to him two nights earlier. His hair was an uncombed tangle, thick with dust, and there were grey smears all over his skin where he'd rubbed his face. "But you do look rather humble, brother," Frerin smirked. "We will have to sort you out."

Trying to find kingly clothes for Thorin turned into a game for several hours that night, though Bilbo just moped after Frerin through most of it. The rest of the dwarves ran around Erebor searching for homely cupboards preserved away from the damp or the fires. It was not an easy task to find fitting clothes. Thorin was taller than everyone but Dwalin and yet skinnier than even Ori because of his long fast, and there was much argument about what was most appropriate for his station.

When they presented their choices to their Abiding King the next morning, Thorin donned the fresh clothes with quiet thanks, smiling at each of them, and the sight of that smile broke Bilbo out of his gloom at last. It was much like Frerin's smile, and yet not at all – there was no directness to it, it did not pin anyone down and make them grin in response the way Frerin's smile always seized Bilbo's attention and spun his thoughts off in all directions. Thorin's smile looked more like a little accident. It slipped out when he touched the copper thread around the collar of the jacket Ori had brought him, and again when he pulled on the coat and Dwalin made some joke that only Thorin seemed to fully understand, "Oh aye, he's getting his umad's airs now, in'e!"

After the others had dispersed, Bilbo tarried in the broken gateway, watching Thorin from across the yard. In the pool below the wall Thorin washed the dust from his skin and worked the matted tangles out of his hair with a golden brush that Balin had brought him. He braided four small, neat plaits around his ears. Bilbo thought of Smaug’s cracked tongue licking Thorin’s face and felt cleaner himself, as if Thorin had washed the stench of the memory away. There was colour in Thorin’s clean skin at last; they were just blotches on his cheeks, burned pink by only a few hours in the sun after more than a century of darkness, but they made his face look healthy and full of blood. He had finally began to lose the ghostliness.




Thorin was confident he had everyone fooled. It wasn’t too hard. It was like attending the interclan councils with Grandfather. Back then he’d feel lost and out of his depth too. But as long as he remembered his ahùgun and all the old protocols for speaking with kings and diplomats (and he always remembered them, they had been drilled into him from the day of his first word) the rest could be invented as he went along. Smiles and nods and dignified poses, and most especially listening. If you listened to people and chose when to speak, and how to be careful about what you said, they filled in the gaps for you.

You could get away with very little knowledge if you knew how to act wise.

The trouble was, he had another problem that was making it harder and harder to maintain the face of a lost king: exhaustion. Day by day, headaches began to strike Thorin closer and closer together. Sometimes he took a step and felt the world swing beneath him like a pony rolling in the long grass. Each time he looked around sharply to see if anyone had seen his stumble. There were eyes on him all the time, curious dwarves who would look away quickly rather than meet Thorin’s gaze. But if anyone noticed something wrong with their Abiding King, they didn’t confront him about it.

All but one.

Thorin gave it away when he was donning the new coat that Ori had brought him. He was taking a long time to do it, as if his hands were stiffened by freezing cold water. He couldn’t get the bronzed buttons into the aged, leather eyelets no matter how he fumbled with them. And his mind kept drifting into strange, morose thoughts about how pointless this was, how clothes would not bring back his home, would not raise his family from the dead. Fine clothes would not even make Dwalin and Balin treat him like normal, he felt sure. His brow furrowed, Thorin dragged his mind back to the jacket. Why wouldn’t it just fasten? He found he had got half the buttons done and then he realised he’d missed one and curse it, curse it

“Are you alright?”

Thorin jumped. The halfling – Bilbo – was standing beside him, his hands in his pockets and his head tipped to one side.

“Yes! Yes, I wasn’t paying attention,” Thorin mumbled. He was having particular trouble with the buttons above his breast. He couldn’t see them very well past his beard, and it hurt his head to look down.

Bilbo clicked his tongue and reached for the jacket. Thorin felt the sunburn on his cheeks sting as he blushed, but Bilbo didn’t give any sign that he noticed. His small hands wended their way up the centre of Thorin's chest, deftly slotting the buttons into place. Finally Bilbo looked him in the face and a wrinkle grew between his eyes.

“Thorin,” he asked. “When did you last sleep?”

“Last night, of course,” Thorin ducked his head to avoid Bilbo’s eye.

The hobbit took a step back and propped his hands on his hips. “You were still awake when I bedded down,” he raised his brows. “And you were up this morning when I rose.”

Thorin said nothing. Balin, Dwalin and Bifur sat a few feet away, checking the condition of new swords from Erebor’s treasury, but they had all paused in their work and turned an ear towards Thorin.

“Have you slept at all since Smaug fled the mountain?” Bilbo came in close again so that he could peer up at him and catch his eye.

“I don’t think there’s any need for this. Really, Mr Baggins, please step back.”

Bilbo did so, but he made sure he was still blocking Thorin’s escape route to the atrium and turned to Balin. The old dwarf had stood up and taken a couple of steps towards them, and Bilbo summoned him with a twitch of his fingers.

“Laddie,” Balin said quietly, approaching Thorin from an angle as if he was a skittish animal. “You must sleep. It’s been days!”

“I’ve slept enough,” Thorin mumbled, refusing to look at any of them now. “I mustn’t… you understand…”

“You’re afraid. There’s no shame in that.” Dwalin was on his feet too, and came right in to put his hands on Thorin’s shoulders. Bifur had come up to stand with them, and there was a deep pity in his eyes.

“No, no simply I want to be ready. Suppose the dragon returns?” he insisted.

“If Smaug lands on our doorstep you’re not going to sleep through it, that’s for certain.” Balin gripped Thorin’s wrist, and Thorin felt smothered by it. He thought suddenly, viciously, that he did not know this dwarf at all. The real Balin was gone. These were imposters.

“How can you know I won’t sleep through it?” Thorin pleaded as he looked between each of them.

“Don’t be foolish.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Aren’t you bored of sitting around?”

“But I slept through everything else!” Thorin cried, turning and meeting Dwalin’s eye at last. His old friend would understand, surely he would. “Look at you, Dwalin! Look at you – look how you’ve all changed, how I’ve changed – don’t make me risk that again,” he shook his head. “Don’t.”

“We won’t let you stay asleep very long,” Bilbo folded his arms. “Will we, Balin? We’ll be right nearby the whole time. If you’re going to be a lazy-bones and not wake up within a few hours, we’ll make you get up and do a shift watching the wall, how about that?”

“You can’t be sure what will happen,” Thorin put his hand over his throat, shaking his head. Bilbo tried to take his arm and Thorin drew his limbs in towards his body, closing his eyes. Bilbo dropped his hand and grimaced at Balin, who let out a long sigh.

“There is nothing more exhausting,” Balin said, taking a firm hold on Thorin’s elbow, “than somebody refusing to obey their bedtime.”

Durin's beard, they were treating him like a sick child! Thorin felt his blood pulsing in his ears, and yet he was helpless. They were all so much older than him – even the hobbit, he suspected, outranked him in years – and all his life he’d done as his elders told him. Thorin’s burned cheeks grew even hotter. But he didn’t have the strength to resist as Balin and Dwalin half-coaxed, half-dragged him back into the atrium.

He was so tired.

Sometime later he found that they had laid down several bedrolls, and made a pillow out of Balin’s clothes, and Dori had brought him a tea that tasted of fresh-cut Broomtree. Thorin sat in the bed and felt only dread. He did not want to lie down. He was convinced that every moment he slept would strip something else from him, beyond the cost that time had taken on his body. Maybe it would take his memories this time, or his speech, or his ability to move at all and he would be left paralyzed except for his beating heart.

But Dwalin was talking to him, rumbling on and on about the trips they’d taken together before the dragon came, about the tricks they’d played on Balin and the disasters they’d caused when they got drunk. Dwalin’s stories were lurid and exaggerated, for more exciting that Thorin’s own memories of the events. But they were soothing all the same, and Dwalin’s low voice sounded so much like his grandparents droning on at him when he was a wee lad and he had had more energy than he know what to do with.

He laid his head down and heard Dwalin go quiet. He wanted to say, “Keep talking, please,” but he didn’t have the strength.

Thorin slept at last.




The terror did not leave when he slept.

Fire, fire, and gold and pain

He was not sure he was sleeping at all.

Avenge me, treasure

He was walking through the darkened corridors of Erebor, his feet churning up dust and soot. There was a hot breeze on his face.

Where have you been

His people were calling for him. Their voices rose as one cry of pain and fear, but it echoed around him like a broken rain and he could not find the source.


“I’m sorry!” Thorin cried, and began to run. His legs were weak, his arms trembled as he clutched at the walls. “I’m sorry, I should have saved you, I should have been with you!”

Firelight was growing stronger ahead. They were close, the screaming dwarves. He could hear the children calling for their mamas and papas, he could hear old men chanting soldiers’ prayers for a quick end. “I’m coming for you,” Thorin roared into the branching corridors. “I’ll save you.”

They were just ahead. He turned the next corner and the corridor opened into a feasting hall, but the fire was so bright and fierce that Thorin threw up his arm to cover his face. A hot wind blew across him, and then pulled back, and then rushed forward again, rich with the smell of sulphur and a membranous maw. It was not a wind, he knew. It was something breathing.

Thorin lowered his arm. The dragon lay before him, reclining comfortably on all fours like a cat before a fire, but there was nothing burning in this room except Smaug himself. He glowed with an inner flame that wriggled between his scales and danced along his flanks in sparks and wisps like shooting stars.

“Hello, little prince,” Smaug whispered, and the sound thrummed in Thorin’s bones.

Thorin found that his fear had dwindled and flickered out. He stepped towards Smaug with his hands hanging by his side, craning his neck back to look the dragon in the eye. It was a beautiful eye with depths of liquid gold. More beautiful than any gem, even the Arkenstone itself.

“———— ——, ———?” said Thorin. He did not recognise the words or their meaning, but still his mouth shaped them as if they were his mother tongue.

“————,” said Smaug, and at these incomprehensible words Thorin felt sorrow wash over him like choking smoke. Smaug raised his left wing, and there in his breast was a leaking, inflamed wound between his scales, and in its centre a bar of black iron protruded. Thorin went to him and seized the iron, looking up at Smaug, and when the dragon nodded he tightened his grip and pulled it out. It came in degrees, slick with gore and thick, clear fluids that stunk like black oil and stung Thorin’s skin in droplets. The tip was stuck fast, but Thorin wrenched with all his strength and it emerged at last. The head was made of four bars curling around each other like the turn of a corkscrew. He remembered his grandmother showing him such weapons, when he was very small and there were still black braids in her hair. She would tell him bedtime stories about how she and Grandfather had driven back the Ice-Drakes of the north with such arrows.

“——————,” said Thorin looking up at Smaug.

“———, ——. ———— ——,” Smaug replied, and laid down his head, curling his long neck around Thorin until his nose was almost against his own breast.

Thorin sat down against the scaled shoulders and held the iron arrow in his lap. He leaned his head back. Fire from Smaug’s belly flickered across his body but did not burn or hurt his bare hands.

He did not want to wake up. He did not think he could wake up. This was not a dream. It was the other world that was the dream, the one where his little brother was an old king and a hook in the shape of a hobbit had drawn him up out of the black well of tranquility—

Thorin awoke, his limbs jerking. He blinked. The atrium was bathed in a red light as the sun went down in the west. His vision was still unfocused, but somewhere across the way he could see a figure lighting the lamps. He blinked. It was Ori.

Thorin propped himself up on one elbow and rubbed his eyes. He’d grown cold beneath the thin blanket, except for a warm patch against his back. It was Bilbo, yawning and stretching after his own nap. So the hobbit was real, and so was this future with its desolate Erebor. Thorin felt his stomach clench in disappointment. For just a moment he had hoped the last few days were the dream.

“How long was I asleep?” he asked.

“All through lunch and however much light there was left after that. You don’t think it was more than a day, do you?” Bilbo gave another tremendous yawn and stood up. He held out his hand. “Come on, Thorin. Dinner’s almost ready.”

Thorin realised that his headache was gone, and his appetite had returned with such force that even the gruel that Bombur was putting together with their bland supplies smelled wonderful.

“Good dreams?” Bilbo asked as Thorin followed him towards the campfire.

And Thorin said truthfully, “You know, I don’t remember.”

He had the uneasy feeling he’d been dreaming about fire. Yet he was sure he had not dreamed of burning.




The dwarves began to talk about Erebor and its wealth as if it was already won and parceled up between. Frerin had begun to look for the Arkenstone again, spending more of his time in the treasury now than on the wall. "I will give great honours and reward to whoever finds it," he said, the familiar smile now back on his face. “It is what we came here for, and we shall go home with far more than that – but if we cannot find the stone, what is the point?”

The dwarves seemed happy to labour through the hoard searching for it, rummaging up new treasures to pass around and admire every hour. It was something to do other than sit at the wall watching the clouds skate by. Bilbo helped a little but did not feel the pull of their fever, and of course had little enthusiasm for a task he knew was hopeless.

He had finally admitted to himself that he did not want to give Frerin the Arkenstone, which now lay hidden by his bedroll, wrapped in a rag and buried at the bottom of his pack. Part of it was still a petty desire to punish Frerin. He could admit it to himself now, and was duly but not overwhelmingly ashamed. It was unfair of him. He knew that. Frerin had never owed him anything but what he’d signed into the contract at Bag End, and Bilbo had never even asked for more than that. But still, it hurt so badly, to look at Frerin every day and be just as in love with him as he had in the beginning, perhaps more so, and know for certain that nothing would come of it.

But above that, Bilbo felt a twinge of concern about how Frerin would react if he had the Arkenstone in hand. His friend spoke more about the stone, and the distant glory of Erebor restored, than he did of their immediate quandaries, their dwindling food supplies and missing companions. Bilbo knew that he was thinking about them. He caught Frerin staring moodily at the empty valley when everyone else had gone to bed, and Bilbo had seen him tracing a carving on one wall that showed a young dwarf with a bow drawn for the hunt. All his smiles and cheer seemed like a distraction, like flowers to try and cover the smell of something rotting behind a wall. If Frerin had the stone in hand, with no more distractions, it might seem at first that he would finally have to face the next step of their journey. But Bilbo didn't think Frerin had a next step. And he did not think it would go well if he was forced to put aside the flowers and break down that fetid-smelling wall.

Bilbo hated being stuck inside these echoing, lifeless halls. He hated being away from the sun. He was even beginning to hate the smell of metal. He finally asked Frerin if he couldn't take a couple of the dwarves – Bombur, and perhaps Ori – and go back to Laketown to see how it fared. Frerin said that was far too dangerous, and they must all stick together in this. Thorin was the only one exempt from all duties, so to avoid the treasury, Bilbo began to use the excuse that he had to keep an eye on Thorin. The lost prince was still resistant to the idea of regular sleep habits, and having trouble stomaching his food. Balin muttered to Bilbo that he was supremely qualified to watch over Thorin: no one was better at encouraging food and sleep than a hobbit.

There was plenty for them to talk about, in the long hours waiting on the doorstep of the near-empty mountain. A hundred and fifty years of history, all distant and idealized in Bilbo’s eyes, with no gory details about Thorin’s family. And once they were done with that, Bilbo told him all of their adventures on the long journey from the Blue Mountains. Thorin even wanted to hear about the Shire and what life was like for an ordinary hobbit. It was all boring yarns to Bilbo, but Thorin seemed content to sit on the edge of the wall and listen to him, so Bilbo answered all his questions as best he could.

And if only Bilbo could have seen himself from outside of his body – chattering away as Thorin sat cross-legged with his chin in his hands, staring at the hobbit – or if he could have laid the image of him and Thorin beside a picture of Frerin and Bilbo from months earlier… well, a lot of things would have been obvious much, much earlier.




Fili lay on his folded coat and pretended to sleep. It was really Bard's coat, of course, one of the many fetched from the Bargeman's wardrobe when he'd fed and clothed the dwarves that first night in Laketown. It had probably belonged to one of the children, though it smelled now only of smoke, and sweat, and Kili's blood. Tucked inside the folds of the coat was a pair of tarnished shears that Fili had picked up on their departure from the ruins of the town. It was the closest thing he had to a weapon. He prayed to Durin's memory that he wouldn't have to use it.

All around him came the snores and whistles of the slumbering humans in the large tent. Fili kept his breathing steady and even, lying with his face away from the lamplight. He was listening to Bard talk softly with one of the captains of the city guard. Except there was no city to guard anymore, so he was captain of an army now, Fili supposed. A ragtag, bruised and grieving army, but still it was probably a promotion from night watchman. Fili couldn't quite make out everything they were saying, but mostly it seemed to be about the distribution of supplies and the training of volunteers.

Almost a third of the Laketown survivors had stuck their hands up to join Bard's militia, women and men, young and old. Bard himself seemed to be the most reluctant of all of them, in fact. Many of the able-bodied had been left to care for the injured and elderly on the town, but most had been equipped as best they could and joined the march towards Erebor. It was a long journey around the shore with so many boats burned or being used as makeshift shelters for the refugees. After the first day they had barely reached the head of the water, where the freezing river poured over a series of low steps to fill the great belly of the Long Lake. There they had met the majority of Thranduil's wood-elves, who had been waiting while their king was diverted towards Esgaroth. Tomorrow the combined forces would head into the desolate wasteland around the mountain.

Fili would rather have gone ahead of the army. The march was slow going while more horses were being summoned from Mirkwood, and despite two days without sleep and a great number of aches and pains from the night Smaug burned the town, Fili knew he could travel much faster on his own. Nor could any amount of exhaustion convince him to waste time on sleep; all he could think about was Erebor, and Frerin, and all the rest of the company. Fili couldn't believe they were all dead. They had certainly gotten inside the mountain, he was as sure of that as everyone else, but he did not believe Bard's constant admonitions that the dwarves were too dead to face justice for waking the dragon. If Bard really believed Frerin was dead, then why oh why did he need an army to march on the mountain? Who was he going to fight?

Anyway, Frerin was cleverer and more cautious than that. So was Bilbo, now that Fili thought about it. If anybody had made it out of there alive, it would be the hobbit, and if nobody else had - Fili squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed down the lump in his throat - well, at least Bilbo would be able to tell their story. They must have done something worthy of song. Smaug hadn't burned Laketown on a whim. He had been in a rage beyond measure.

Fili knew that there was at least one other person who had not yet presumed death on Frerin's company: the elf-king. Fili had seen his eyes narrow every time Bard mentioned the 'dead' dwarves or the 'empty' mountain. Fili couldn't read his mind beyond that, but he knew that the militia from Laketown and the squadrons of arches and warriors from the woods were really his idea. There were other whispers too - about the sickness in Mirkwood, and roving bandits, and unnamed creatures who might swoop down on Erebor at any moment - but Fili didn't think they were top of Thranduil's list of threats.

Not that Thranduil had deigned to speak to Fili about any of this, of course. Fili had glimpsed him a couple of times across the camp, but when Fili had asked for an audience with him he had been politely rebuffed by elvish messengers. When Fili had followed that up with demands that he be taken to Kili, the messengers had returned with news that Kili was resting from his injuries and could not be disturbed. Not under any circumstances.

The last time he'd seen Kili, Tauriel was carrying his brother on her back through the burning streets of Laketown. Fili had told her to run with Oin, get as many people to safety as she could, while he, Bofur and Bain went looking for Bard. They found Bain's father in the abandoned gaol and freed him, but then the world had turned to smoke and fire. When the great body of the dragon fell on the town the shockwave hurled Fili into the water, and when he woke up it was almost daylight and Bofur was hauling him out of the lake.

"What injuries? He was recovering when I saw him last," Fili pleaded with Thranduil's messengers. "Tauriel healed him. Where is Tauriel? Let me speak to her, at least."

But apparently she was away on errands for her king. Fili believed that even less than he believed everything else. What a load of stinking horse droppings!

He heard fading footsteps and the rustle of the tent door. After a few seconds of silence Fili rolled over and saw that there was now only one guard awake and sitting just outside the tent, watching the approach. As softly as he could, Fili got up and headed for the door.

"Oi!" the guard cried as Fili walked past him. "Where do you think you're going?"

"I'm just going for a piss," Fili said with a shrug of his shoulders. His breath misted in front of him and he tucked his hands under his arms. Even if he got everyone out of the camp tonight and they made a run for it, it was a long walk to the mountain with snow coming off and on. If Kili really was still off-colour, it might be better to wait until they were closer before they left the shelter and food of the camp.

Especially since they didn't know who'd survived to welcome them in.

"Well – yer can't," the guard grumbled. "You're supposed to have someone with you at all times. Bard's orders."

"Oh?" Fili had guessed as much, but hadn't had it confirmed until now. "Why's Bofur allowed to walk around without supervision, then? You let him through fifteen minutes ago."

The guard huffed through his moustache. "Your friend's a lower priority. And he's had long enough, if he doesn't get back pretty soon I'm sending someone after him."

"What's that mean, 'lower priority'?" Fili insisted. He already knew - Bofur was not so valuable a hostage - but his real question was who had labelled him 'high priority' and whether Bard understood exactly what Thranduil was up to.

"I don't know. I don't make the rules," the guard snapped, and jabbed this thumb back towards the door. "Get back in the tent, or I'll holler loud enough to wake the whole camp."

Muttering curses, Fili pulled the flap open again. At that moment, a chorus of yells broke across the still night air. Fili spun around to see three men loping towards the tent, tripping over each other's feet because they stood so close together. They were in a cluster because they were carrying a misshapen burden between them. As they approached the lamps around the door to Bard's tent, the light fell across them and Fili realised they were carrying a limp dwarf.

"Bofur!" Fili gasped, dashing towards the men. "What have you done to him?"

"Move, move, we're trying to help!" one of the men growled at him as they shoved past.

Inside, Fili dragged over a blanket and the men laid Bofur down. The sleeping humans in the tent were waking up with snorts and jerks, demanding to know what was happening, but Fili ignored them. Bofur was conscious, and swearing colourfully, his eyes squeezed closed. There was blood dripping from under his fringe and one arm slung across his belly, clutched close with his good hand, which also held tight onto the ear of his beloved hat. His shoulder was set at an unnatural angle.

"Who did this?" Fili was checking Bofur over for any other blood. He didn't seem to have any punctures anywhere, but he yelped when Fili brushed too close to his right side. Fili looked up at the men who'd brought him in. "Who? Tell me!"

"We chased them off," one of the men mumbled. He was just a young fellow, with burns bandaged on the side of his neck. "It was too dark."

"Someone hit me on the back of the head," Bofur whined, reaching up to touch his hair gingerly. "I didn't see their faces. But they didn't hit like elves."

"I'm fetching Bard," the young fellow squeaked, but as soon as he'd jumped up the tent door was flung open by the bargeman with his captain at his back. His jaw was clamped shut and his eyes went wide as he took in the scene.

For a few minutes they dealt with Bofur, while the young Lakeman ran to find bandages and a sling. Fili helped ease Bofur's shirt over his injured arm. He was relieved to see it was dislocated rather than broken, though not particularly surprised, given how tough dwarf bones were. There were bruises flowering across his ribs as well, in the unmistakable pattern of savage boots. Bard had brought water and started to wash Bofur's bleeding head himself, but Bofur groaned and moaned that he was hurting, wriggling away from the man until Fili took over. Bard sighed in exasperation.

"I will find out who did this, and they will be punished," Bard rumbled, crouched beside them.

The young Lakeman hovering behind him shook his head. "You won't find 'em," he said wearily, his arms hanging by his side. There were deep shadows under his eyes. "It could've bin anyone, eh."

Fili raised his head to catch Bard's eye, but the Lakeman was looking down at his hands. Fili glanced between him and the other human faces looking down at them. "Who does he mean?"

There was silence for a moment, and then Bard cleared his throat and met Fili's gaze at last. "People are angry. They blame your kin."

"They thrashed Bofur because of what the dragon did?" Fili gaped at him. "We didn't want this! We want to help you, for Durin's sake!"

Bard shrugged and finally he answered, "I think, Master Fili, that neither of you should leave this tent alone from now on. For your own safety."

Fili ground his teeth together. He was about to demand that Kili and Oin at least be allowed to join them when the tent door was drawn open once again. Bard leapt to his feet, and his men drew back as two elvish guards entered with Thranduil close behind. He was in a dark grey and green suit of tailored travel clothes, with a short, embroidered cloak over one shoulder. Bard stepped forward as Thranduil's gaze flicked around the tent to take in the scene. At last he turned to Bard.

"Who is responsible for attacking our guests?" he drawled.

"We don't know yet, but we'll find them," Bard reported. Fili noted the absence of any 'sir' or 'your highness' and was glad for it. In a pinch, he trusted Bard's sympathy far more than any that Thranduil would feign.

"It was revenge against my uncle for waking the dragon," Fili cut in. "Dwarves are not safe in this camp. How about you give us cloaks and water and we'll be out of your hair?"

Thranduil turned his piercing gaze of Fili. He glanced him over again, and Fili shuddered. He felt like cattle being watched from the sale block. At last he said. "You could go on, but your brother remains in my personal care. He is too sick to travel."

Fili would never leave without his brother, and Thranduil knew it. Bard must have told him everything he'd learned about the dwarves.

"Too sick?" Fili's lip twisted back from his teeth. "Why don't you let me see him, and I can be the judge of that? I think I know his strength better than you."

"If you did, he might never had gotten this dire in the first place," Thranduil said, inclining his head. Fili flinched. "He will be well enough for visitors in a few days. Let him rest until after we reach the gate of the mountain. Then we will reassess."

"Depending on what you find there?" Fili growled. "Depending on whether there is anyone left to bargain for hostages?"

Thranduil's eyes flashed for a moment. "You are not my prisoners, young dwarf. I hoped we might work together, in fact."

"I will do nothing for you while you block our freedom at every turn!" Fili spat. He shoved himself to his feet. "Don't tell me you're going to the mountain looking for alms. You have an armed force of hundreds to negotiate with nine dwarves - at the most! If you're just looking for a fair share of reparations, why have you refused to meet with me?" Fili thrust his fist against his chest. "If Frerin really is dead--" he swallowed, but managed to keep the tremor out of his voice, "--and Kili indisposed, then I am the acting king on their behalf, and have authority to offer whatever you need to assist Esgaroth. But you want more than we can spare. My people suffer from the dragon's wrath too, half a world away, they have suffered and starved for a hundred and fifty years. That mountain holds their wealth and heritage, centuries of history and artistry, and the last resting place of their familes! And you would drain its halls and divvy it up like a fresh carcass, leaving nothing for my folk to claim but the ashes of their dead," Fili shook his head. "I will never help you while you hold swords and hostages against my uncle."

Thranduil held his eye a very long time, and at last his shoulders dropped and he gathered up his cloak. "I was afraid you would say that," he said, turned and left without another word.

Chapter Text

Thankfully none of them had to wait much longer for news. On the fourth day after Smaug had fled the mountain screaming for revenge, Dori – who was on watch duty – called down that someone was approaching the gate at speed. Bilbo and Thorin were the only ones in the atrium close enough to hear his shouts, as the rest of the dwarves were in the treasury as usual, so he sent the hobbit to fetch the others and raced up onto the wall to see.

There were a handful of riders in the distance, but they had only come within three hundred feet of the wall and were already turning around when Thorin arrived. Some were men in rougher, leathery breastplates, nothing like the fine steel that the soldiers of Dale and Esgaroth had worn in Thorin’s time – they looked like the country militias that had once called his grandfather lord when their counties had been wards of Erebor. But at least they weren’t alone. He caught the glint off smooth, thin petals armour.

“Thranduil,” Thorin smiled. “It’s Thranduil, the king of the woods,” he explained to Dori. “They’ve come to help us.”

Dori gave a hum low in his throat. “Well, wait and see what your brother has to say about that, your highness.”

Frerin was up soon, with Bilbo panting on his heels. "Scouts," he rumbled, when Dori related the news to him. "No doubt under Thranduil's command. He thought us dead, and all the riches of our kingdom lay unguarded, did he? Well, we will be a nasty surprise for him!" he laughed grimly. "Call me again if you see anyone else creeping about, but don't speak to them until I have joined you – Dwalin, Bilbo, stay on the wall with Dori."

"But the Lake-men—” said Bilbo. "Don't we want to talk to them? They’ll know about Smaug, they might have know about Bofur and the others."

"We have no reason to trust them if they are allied with the elf-king," snarled Frerin. "That serpent will do anything to cheat us.”

Thorin started and turned away from the wall, folding his arms. He looked from Bilbo to his brother. “What do you mean? If Smaug is alive, we’ll need Thranduil—”

Grandfather and Thranduil had had disagreements in the past, Thorin knew. Kings at peace could not help but have spats over small complaints. For instance, there were mountains in Mirkwood that the surveyors said were full of fresh copper ore, but Thranduil would not let them touch the hills if it meant felling acres of trees. And there had been that blow-up last year about the gems that Thranduil had sent for cutting. They had taken three times as long to shape and set as expected, and when Grandfather tried to renegotiate the contract the elves had refused to pay more. That had turned ugly very quickly. But both kings knew that they needed each other. Their lands were so close that what threatened one would inevitably touch the other sooner or later, and each was the strongest ally they had against an encroaching enemy.

Frerin spun to face him. “That has all changed, Thorin. Thranduil left us to die by Smaug’s fire, brother, he abandoned us to ruin when we were alone and piteous. He imprisoned us when we were travelling peacefully through his realm only a few days ago. He tried to ransom our freedom for a share in grandfather's wealth.”

Thorin shook his head, frowning. “He left you to Smaug?” he struggled to imagine it. How could anyone have turned away from the burning mountain? The wood elves had gone to battle against dragons in ancient times, he’d heard the stories from their own mouths. “Why would he be so callous?”

Frerin sniffed. "Because he is a greedy, ancient monster who sees dwarven lives as less worthy than trinkets for his vanity."

"But I know Thranduil," Thorin pressed. "I considered him a friend, even, when he was in a drinking mood. He had his disagreements with Grandfather, but he always seemed to understand the dwarvish ways of thinking better than most elves—”

“Well you weren’t there, were you?” Frerin snarled, and he thumped his fist against his chest. “I was! You would do well to remember that.”

He stalked off along the wall to the stairs. Thorin watched him go with a twist in his mouth, unable to even to blink in his surprise. The wind caught his hair in its fingers and teased it around his face. He heard someone clearing his throat and turned to see Bilbo. The hobbit shrugged. “The elven king wasn’t terribly polite to us last week, I will be honest with you.”

“And I’m sure a Frerin was a perfect gentle-dwarf,” Thorin sidled to the wall and rested his elbows upon the stone. He ran his fingers over the rough edge, which was white with the fresh cuts from masonry tools. His head drooped and he glanced at Bilbo. “I have to stop speaking to him as if he’s my little brother, don’t I, Mr Baggins?”

Bilbo huffed and raised his hands. “Speak to him as you like, Thorin. You can’t very well make things any worse.”

Thorin couldn’t laugh at that thought. He felt a stab of fear for Frerin. Only a few days ago he had watched his grandfather lose his temper over some imagined slight from Girion of Dale. It had been happening more and more often recently, and when Thorin tried to reason with him he had not seemed to help. If anything, Grandfather had taken his words as proof that no one was on his side, that no one really understood the pressures of being a king. He had turned away from his grandson and fled to his treasury, hiding himself away in the same meditation chamber where Thorin lay sleeping for a century after his grandfather had died far from their home.

Thorin wished he could go to Thror now, kneel by his chair and beg him, “What do I do, sir? Grandfather, what how can I possibly save what’s left of us?"

But he was a hundred years too late for that.




At the end of the valley they saw the scurrying of tiny figures, so distant they could have been mistaken for a heat-haze over the rocks. Soon Thorin could make out a low line of tents squatting on the river-flats and the dust raised by a multitude of cavalry circling the camp. By the time the riders returned, the sun was dead above them and the shadows were hard-edged, black puddles under their feet. There were twice as many this time, but fewer elves, and at the rear they carried banners bearing crests of both Esgaroth and Mirkwood. Thorin leaned as far over the wall as he dared while Bilbo went again to fetch back his brother and the other dwarves. Ori arrived first and peered past him.

“That’s Bard!” Ori squeaked, and motioned to Dwalin, who was marching up the steps behind him. “Can you see him? That’s the bargeman, am I right?”

“Aye, I do believe it is,” Dwalin said dourly. “So he’s Thranduil’s mouthpiece, is he? After all that talk of insurrection against the Master of Laketown, turns out he just wanted a bigger Master.”

“What do you mean?” Thorin asked, looking between them. “Isn’t Bard the fellow who helped smuggle you all into the town? What do you think happened down there?”

Ori and Dwalin glanced at each other, but before they could give him an answer Frerin arrived, out of breath and with the rest of the company on his heels. He leaned over the wall beside Dwalin, watching the emissaries approach. Thorin could not see Thranduil himself among the group, and he could not imagine the ageless elf would have changed beyond recognition in such a short time. At the head of the party was a man who must be bard. At his right hand was an elf with long, sunlit hair, wearing a scout’s uniform and a haughty expression. He looked familiar to Thorin – though most elves did, once you’d seen a few. Could that be Thranduil’s son, the green prince? Thorin had only met him once, on a visit to the woods some years ago.

The man leading the party was in thick, rich furs despite the unusual warmth of the autumn day, and a bandage was just peeking from beneath his collar. His jaw looked tight and there were shadows beneath his eyes. Thorin swallowed. Bilbo had told him that in Laketown they’d stayed in a houseful of bothersome children, warm and curious towards the pack of strangers who’d tumbled up out of the canal. Where had all the children of Laketown been as their homes burned?

“Hail, Frerin, son of Thrain,” Bard called as he approached the gully of bare slate that fronted the wall. “Why are you hiding up there, my friend? I thought I might receive some measure of the hospitality that Laketown paid you only a few nights past.”

“Not hospitality you encouraged, Bargeman," Frerin replied. He was smiling, his hands folded on the wall in front of him. "You called me a lot of unpleasant names, in fact. And now you've come here as an uninvited guest looking for welcome? No, I doubt that was your first thought. I think you hoped to find my corpse charbroiled and my people’s wealth ripe for the taking, is that right?"

The lines on Bard’s face grew even deeper, if that was possible. "I wished you no ill when I spoke against your quest that night, mountain king. I only hoped to warn you," he said, clearly fighting not to spit the words. "I have sheltered and aided you and your kin every time you asked it of me. Yet now you shut me out behind your stones and your accusations."

“Calm yourself, Bard,” Frerin shook his head. He raised his hand. “This wall is not for your benefit, but for the dragon. We wounded him four nights past and are waiting for him to come slithering back to return the favour.”

“Wounded him, you say?” even from the distance, Thorin saw Bard’s mouth turn thin and pinched. “Well you need fear him no more. I slew Smaug with a black arrow to his breast, fired from the old windlance, on that same night that you drove him roaring from his halls down onto my home. I come to you now seeking reparations for the burning of my town and the deaths of many of my people. Will you forsake that wall and come down to speak to us?”

Dead. The dragon was dead? Thorin’s gut tightened and his heart began to race. The distance seemed to swell between his mind and his body, and he no longer felt the rough stone of the wall and his cheeks stinging from sunburn. A disbelieving grief that he couldn’t explain pulsed in time with his heart. And then he shuddered and came back to himself. Dead! He hadn’t even had to face Smaug again to be rid of him – he was free, he could never be stolen away by that red-gold eye ever again. A grin spread across his face as days of fear and anticipation evaporated. It was over. The damage from Smaug’s spell was done, but it could at least not get any worse. He felt weightless.

Thorin looked to his brother. Whispers were running up and down the wall, and Bifur was clapping his hands, but a deep wrinkle had appeared between Frerin’s brows. Thorin saw his shoulders heave, his breathing heavy and quick. After a long moment he forced the smile back onto his face. “I will pay what I owe your people for hosting us," and then after a breath he bellowed on. "But not a word more shall we speak of it while you stand under the elven king’s banner, commanding an armed host on my doorstep. Send Thranduil back to his forest and maybe we will have words!”

“We do not speak for Thranduil. We speak for my town and its Master, and for its people’s suffering. And so does your kin,” Bard said coldly, and with a nudge of his heel and a twist of the reigns he rode forward and turned his horse to the side.

“Fili!” Ori squeaked, pointing down at what they could all see. “Fili’s alive!”

The dwarves on the wall seemed to breathe all as one, and exhale in a bubbling whisper. There was a young dwarf sitting on the back of Bard's saddle, hanging on so close to the bargeman that he had been quite invisible behind the thick furs. He had golden hair and looked nothing like the rest of his family, until he turned his head and Thorin saw he had the exact same nose as himself and Frerin. He swallowed around his clogged throat. The dwarf looked older than Thorin – than Thorin should be – and yet he’d been born decades after him, had never seen the inside of Erebor and had known Thorin’s brother and sister for decades longer than Thorin had. He was an entirely undefined part of the new world, intrinsically bound up in Thorin’s life and yet having no overlap with his experiences. It was yet another unbreakable proof that this new world was no nightmare conjured by his troubled mind.

Fili hung off Bard's elbow to clamber the long way down to the rocky ground. It was a decent way to jump, but he did it without any wince of an injury and turned his face up the wall.

“Fili, where’s Oin?” Gloin cried as soon as his feet hit the ground. “Where’s my brother?”

“And Bofur!” both Bilbo and Bombur cried at the same time. “Are they all alright?”

“Where is your brother?” Frerin bellowed above them. “Fili, answer!”

“Hold fast, all of you. We’re very well indeed,” Fili called back, raising his hands. He looked very small, standing twenty feet below them among the mounted men and elves with their horses tossing their heads and pawing at the slate. “Bofur has some impressive bruises, but he got it the worst, and the quantity of his jokes has been reduced not a bit.”

A raucous cheer and applause broke out across the ramparts and Fili gave them a thin smile. Thorin found himself hugging old Bifur, and then Balin, who squeezed him tight enough to drive the air from his lungs. While he was recovering from that he found he’d thrown his arms around Bilbo, whose curly hair barely came up to Thorin’s chin. The hobbit was warm even through his thick, wool-lined coat, and his body less dense than a dwarf’s. Thorin had never more than brushed against him over the last few days, and all of a sudden he could not let go. He wanted to celebrate – the dragon was dead, the missing dwarves were safe, and this spat with the Lakemen would be resolved soon enough – but the intensity with which all that good feeling flared up was like a bonfire as he stood with Bilbo enveloped in his arms.

The unknown nephew below proved that the new world would continue to exist whether Thorin liked it or not. He could not turn back the years or escape all that had changed. But even if he’d been given such a power, Bilbo was enough to make him hesitate at using it. There was no one comparable in his memories to the strange, little hobbit.

Bilbo was clutching him tight in return, but when he pulled away it was with a curt smile. Thorin beamed at him and clapped him on the shoulder. The hobbit just nodded, cleared his throat and turned to grasp the first arm he saw – it was Dori’s – and shake it fiercely. Thorin felt his heart sink a little. Had he done something rude?

Frerin, meanwhile, was still leaning over the wall with his brows together and his teeth gritted. As soon as the cheering died down he called to Bard. “This is what you bring to appease me, Bargeman? You parade my nephew as a hostage?”

“He’s not a hostage,” Bard snapped back. “He’s free to return to you if he wishes.”

Thorin saw his brother’s knuckles whiten as he gripped the edge of the stone, as if he thought Bard was taunting him. “Fili, come up to the wall. We’ll throw a rope over for you.”

But Fili’s fists were clenched, and after the barest hesitation he spoke. “No.”

“Fili?” Frerin whispered, shaking his head.

Thorin saw the young dwarf’s throat bob as he swallowed. “I can’t, uncle. Kili’s wound may yet fester if the elves are not keeping a close eye on it. They healed him, Frerin, he would have died—” his voice caught in his throat, but he continued smoothly. “Thranduil himself has been treating him, keeping him in the tent right beside his own. I won’t leave him.”

Frerin’s eyes widened and he leaned out even further. “Fili, I am telling you to come up here. You are not safe with those snakes.”


“That is an order, Fili!”

But Fili took a small step backwards, shaking his head. “Give Bard what he asks for, Frerin. The Lakemen need it more than you. Then you can come down and join us, and see Kili for yourself.”

“How dare you!” Frerin roared, so sudden that Thorin jerked around to stare at him. “Are you leveraging my kin against me, now? I will not be… manipulated… like this!”

“There is more at stake here than a few golden cups, Uncle!”

“You foolish boy. These treasures are the memory and soul of our people, our decimated kin. How dare you offer them to outsiders?”

“Frerin, if you don’t listen to me you may lose everything!” Fili cried, his hands moving by his side as if in some nervous tic.

The joviality of a few minutes earlier had burned off like morning fog. Frerin’s face was an ugly construction of twisted muscles now, his head hunched low between his shoulders. “I see what has happened,” he hissed, nodding to himself. “You have thrown your lot in with the Elfking and this fisherman, haven’t you? You think that will be your route to the throne, yes? That’s why you came yourself, and left your brother behind at camp, in case he returns to me and finally sees your ambition to usurp him. You are as faithless and cutthroat as your mother!”

In the sky above, a thrush sung and flew on, and the wind whistled across the wall. Thorin stared at Frerin, his own chest too tight to breathe. It took effort to break his gaze away and glance down at Fili, who stood with his hands on his hips, staring at the foot of the wall instead of meeting Frerin’s eyes. At last he raised his head to look up at them.

“Well?” Frerin croaked. “Do you not even deny it?”

And he didn’t. Thorin looked between them with interjections rushing around his head but none making it as far as his tongue. Fili said nothing at all. He turned, trudged back to Bard and held out his hand. Bard leaned down low to haul him up high enough to grab the stirrup. From there, the horse staggering a little at the sudden weight, Fili managed to swing himself back into the saddle behind the bargeman.

“If that is how you speak to your friends, I will leave you to your temper,” Bard called up to them. “Consider this mountain besieged.”

Fili gripped handfuls of Bard’s cloak and twisted his neck to look back at his uncle as the party urged their horses around. He did not turn away until Bard’s back was square to the mountain and the group was spurring away towards the distant camp.

Up on the wall, no one spoke until the riders were so far down the valley that Thorin could no longer pick Bard out among them. They all watched Frerin, as his hands clenched and unclenched on the wall in front of him. At last he looked across at Balin, his voice trembling.

“You understand me, Balin. He wants to pander to those…” Frerin hissed a breath in through his teeth, “…those brigands! He undermined me—”

“And what about our brothers?” Gloin said, stepping forward. “We didn’t even get to see them!”

“You heard the bargeman. They’re free to return, if they aren’t enjoying the elf-king’s hospitality too much,” Frerin drew himself up.

Balin was shaking his head. “We are under siege now, Frerin. They’re not going to let Bofur and Oin come sauntering up the valley with information about troop numbers and food stores and the mood of their leaders.”

Frerin’s gritted his teeth. “I have made my decision. We did not come this far to bare our bellies to vultures.”

“They’ll pick our bones just fine when we’re starved to death,” Dwalin growled, leaning back against the wall and folding his arms. “We’ve not the supplies to hold out long. You know this.”

“We won’t have to hold out long,” Frerin shook his head. The excitement had come back into his voice. “We’ll call for reinforcements. When Dain learns that the dragon is dead, he was gladly rally all his forces to our side, and they will hurry all the faster if they learn this news of the siege.”

“And how do we get the news to Dain?” Balin shook his head. “Throw a rock east and hope it hits the Iron Hills?”

Thorin spoke up now. “There are ravens that once ferried messages—”

“There are no ravens now, lad,” Balin snapped, and Thorin fell silent. Of course not. Any that had survived the dragon would have gone wild over the years. Balin turned back to Frerin. “Dwalin and Nori are the fittest, but even if they can get over the north arm of the mountain without being run down by Thranduil’s scouts, it will take them more than a week just to reach the Iron Hills. And in the meantime, we will have lost two more dwarves and a decent chunk of our supplies to keep them hale.”

“And for what?” Gloin said. “Then we will have three armies on our doorstep, all fighting each other! We came here to start a war with the dragon, not with the might of Mirkwood!”

“Mirkwood is here for gems and trinkets, and they will bleed us dry if we give in to them. But while they may be willing to starve us to death for them, they are will not spend their own lives,” Frerin shook his head.

There was silence for a moment, but Balin nodded and glanced at Gloin. “He is right. Thranduil doesn’t want a war and the Lakemen can’t afford to hold the siege alone. I think they will back down.”

Frerin nodded. “Dain will give us clout. Mirkwood will retreat and the siege will be over. We must find a way to get them a message. Now all of you, leave the problem of who can go to summon Dain. I will think on it, and we still have to find the Arkenstone before he arrives.”

He stormed past Balin and Gloin. Ori murmured, “At least Bofur and the others have got something to eat other than cram and dried fish.”

Thorin glanced along the wall and the morose faces of the dwarves. He had no idea what had just happened. Frerin had been so patient with the company over the last few days, full of smiles and sympathies for their grief. How had he turned so quickly to anger? And at his own nephew! Where had all this come from? He wanted to ask Balin and Dwalin what he was missing, but suddenly he felt as disorientated as when he’d just learned about his long sleep. If Frerin of all people could change mood so quickly, perhaps any of them were capable of it.

Thorin watched Bilbo scurried after the dwarf king, chasing him down the steps of the wall. “Frerin! Frerin, wait, it’s not that simple – something more is going on here—”

“When I want your opinion on politics, Mr Baggins, I will ask for it,” frerin Frerin, striding into the outer atrium of the mountain. Thorin hurried after them, easily catching up with Bilbo, who had to take two steps just to keep up with every one of Frerin’s.

“Where was Fili’s horse?” Bilbo blurted out.

“I have no idea what you’re babbling about, Halfling.”

“Then listen,” Bilbo panted, grabbing for Frerin’s sleeve. The king slowed and turned to look down at him. Bilbo waved his hands in circles. “Didn’t it just come off as a little shady to you? Every one of them had steeds, and all those Lakemen must have been borrowed theirs from the elves. Why didn’t they lend Fili a pony or a horse, if he was supposed to be an equal party in this discussion?”

“Because he can’t ride a horse,” Frerin said sharply.

“Don’t be ridiculous. If I can manage a pony after ten minutes, Fili can make his way around a horse even if he has to do it side-saddle,” Bilbo dismissed Frerin’s words with a wave of his hand. “But a prisoner with a horse is liable to escape. And wasn’t it odd that he starts off saying all our friends were fine and dandy, but then he claims Kili is too ill to be safely moved from their camp? His story doesn’t make sense.”

Frerin’s features softened. He put his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and leaned down as if to impart some secret. “Liars often don’t.”

Thorin had listened in silence, but now he cleared his throat, still standing away from them because it felt like a private conversation. When Frerin looked up at him he said in a low voice. “He was signing ‘distrust’.”

“What?” Frerin frowned.

Thorin glanced at Bilbo and muttered. “He was signing in Iglishmek. The gesture for ‘distrust’. Did you not see it?”

It had been in the movement of Fili’s hands, when he’d warned Frerin that he was at risk of ‘losing everything’. Iglishmek had a rich and beautiful vocabulary, but there was a simplified language of signs that were designed to look like aimless gestures and twitches to outsiders. Many times Thorin had watched his father and grandfather speaking to each other right under the noses of a merchant or local lord whose character they were still unsure of. Once you knew the shapes of the words, it was not possible to mistake them for anything else. But the secrets were kept very close to heart. It had been a crime in Thorin’s day to teach them to anyone who was not a dwarf.

“What’s… Ig-shmek?” Bilbo asked.

“It’s a sign language used in noisy mines,” said Frerin with a shake of his head and turned back to his brother. “Fili doesn’t speak Iglishmek, Thorin. Nobody teaches it anymore. I don’t think I even remember enough to chat about the weather.”

“It is not just for practical work. It is designed for dwarves to hold conversations within conversations, if prying ears are around,” Thorin stepped in close, his voice dropping to a whisper. He glanced at Bilbo. “We should not even be discussing it in front of the hobbit!”

“Well, I appreciate that you are!” Bilbo said brightly, slapping Thorin on the back. “Frerin? Do you think it’s at least possible that Fili was not speaking entirely of his own volition?”

Frerin snarled at him. “Even my burglar thinks he knows better than me how to run my kingdom,” he turned and marched off, calling over his shoulder. “Do not hound me with this matter again. What’s done is done.”

Chapter Text

The baby cried all night, so Fili had slept only a little. The sun hurt the back of his eyes when he got up. He dressed himself. He still had trouble with the laces of his boots. He left them and climbed down the ladder to the floor.

Mama was feeding the baby. Her cheeks were greyish and her hair was shoved back from her face with a comb. Loose strands hung over her eyes. She was sitting in one of the hard kitchen chairs. Papa’s armchair with all its blankets and cushions sat empty. Fili went to her and tugged her sleeve.


“I know, Colt,” Mama said. She didn’t sound angry, but she didn’t sound like herself either. She sounded like nothing. Like porridge without honey. “I haven’t lit the fire. There’s a bit yesterday’s loaf left in the breadbox.”

Fili went to check, his arm barely stretching up to lift the latch. There was only crumbs inside. “It’s empty, Mama.”

He heard his mother draw in a long, shuddering breath. The baby unclasped from her chest and began to grizzle. Fili watched her put him down on the table, where he began to scream in earnest, beating the air with his fists. Mama buttoned up her shirt and went to the wall, unhooking Fili’s wool coat. She dressed him in it without a word, pushing his arms roughly into the sleeves. She herded him to the door.

“You have to go to Uncle Frerin’s, Fili,” she said. Uncle Frerin had held Mama’s hand through most of the funeral. He had paid for everything, too, and had sent food over to the house once a week since then. Mama kept telling him she didn't need help.

Fili looked up at her. “Forever?”

“No, Colt,” Mama crouched down and did up half of the buttons on Fili’s coat. “Come back after supper. I need… I can only…” she closed her eyes. Fili touched her ear to comfort here, but she pulled away. “Just for the day.”

Fili walked through the streets. The cart-ruts still oozed with trickles from last night’s rain. Dwarves pushed by him with the collars tucked up and did not seem to see him. At Frerin’s house there was no answer. Fili sat on the step braiding and unbraiding his hair, and wondered what to do. A cat with bushy, mottled fur stared at him from the top of the awning above the next house, but when he held out his hand to it, it turned and ran. After a while a young dwarf was passing by and stopped to stare at him. At last he looked around came over to the doorstep. Fili knew his face; he had worked at the forge with Papa, doing the little, fiddly work like door-knockers. Fili thought his name was Bofur.

“Hello, lad,” the dwarf stood over him. “Are you looking for your uncle?”

Fili nodded. Bofur knocked on the door. Fili could have told him there was no one home, and there still wasn’t. Bofur knelt down on one knee beside him. “You’ve got your laces all muddy,” he said, frowning at the trailing strings. He did them up for Fili, singing a little rhyme as he went that Fili immediately forgot. “Let’s get you back to your mum, how about that?”

“I’m not supposed to go back until after supper,” Fili mumbled. Bofur took his hand anyway and led him home again. At the door, Mama talked quietly to Bofur, not stepping over the threshold. Bofur took Fili back into the street and crouched down again to talk to him.

“You see that road over there, Fili, the one going up the hill towards the cliffs?” Bofur asked, pointing over the smoking rooftops of the town. Fili nodded. “You know how to get to it?” Fili nodded again. There was a pastry store on that road. Papa used to buy iced buns on festival days and let Fili eat a whole one by himself. “I have to go to work, but you’re going to go spend today with your mama’s umad, huh? Just follow that road as far as it goes until there’s one house standing all by itself. You can stay there for the day.”

Fili walked all the way. One of his laces came undone, so he tucked it into the side of his shoe so that it wouldn’t get muddier, smearing caked soil all over his sock in the process. He walked until the rows of house fell away and there were gardens and goats behind fences. Fili went up and peered at them. He watched them chewing, standing very still with their strange, black bars for eyes. At last one of the rams took offence to him and butted the fence. Fili squealed in fright and ran on. When he stopped running he found there was only one house over the slope of the hill. It had a dark, grey door with a blue, curling pattern painted across it.

An old woman answered the door. She was bent over on a cane. It had a four-pronged claw carved into the foot. The old woman’s hair was whiter than the white of a boiled egg, and thick and curly as carded wool. Her hands looked like birds’ gnarled feet. Her eyes were black, and her skin was cracked and brown, like the dwarves in Uncle Frerin’s house who’d been travelling for months and months and come back to the Blue Mountains with silk and spices.

“Yes?” she squinted at him.

“Mama sent me,” Fili fiddled with his hair. “She said I have to stay until after supper.”

“Who’re you, then?” the old woman asked.

“I’m Fili.”

After a moment she narrowed her eyes. “You Dis’ boy?” and when he nodded she shuffled aside. “In.”

“I haven’t had my breakfast,” Fili told her.

“What? Speak up, I’m half deaf!”

Fili said it a bit louder and she shook her head at him. She made him wash his hands in the stream outside until they hurt and were pink from the cold, and when he came in she was frying eggs and potatoes. “Your da died over summer, din’t he?” she said.

“Yes. And Mama’s busy with the baby.”

“Louder, boy! I can’t hear you!”

She made him set the table, and carry the pan with both hands wrapped around the handle, walking behind him and telling him to be careful at every step. She settled herself slowly in the chair beside him, clutching her back. He ate all the food in only a few bites, and belched afterwards. The old woman cackled and told him to get a piece of current-cake out of the pantry if he was still hungry. Fili found the tin with the cake and took the biggest piece inside.

“I see she finally got my black hair out of the family,” the old woman said, pointing one dry finger at Fili’s head. “My husband had red-gold hair when he was young. Went darker when he got older. He always complained I’d give him sons that looked like Blacklocks. I said they’d catch more dams that way.”

“What’s a Blacklock?” Fili asked, shoving a handful of cake in his mouth.

“What? Don’t mumble,” the old woman said, rapping her cane against the leg of his chair. “Sign at me if you can’t talk louder.”

“What’s sign?” Fili asked.

“No one taught you how to sign, boy?” when Fili shook his head she grumbled a curse. “They don’t they teach you the old ways? You of all babes! Disgraceful. You should’ve learned Iglishmek from the cradle.”

She put her cane down and taught him the signs for ‘Can I help?’ and ‘I’m sorry’. She made him wash the dishes, standing on a chair, and told him a story about an ice-dragon that was shot with an iron arrow and fell into a river, and the shapes the ice of its death-throes had made. Fili slept in the old woman's lumpy bed in the corner for most of the afternoon. It smelled of musty herbs. At the end of the day he walked all the way home in the dying light. When he passed the goat pens, he imagined not rams inside, but an ice dragon. He ran all the way back to town, terrified that the dragon was right behind him.

Uncle Frerin was in the house, carrying the baby propped up on his shoulder. There was fresh stew boiling over the stove. Mama was asleep on the table, her head resting on her arms. Frerin smiled broadly at Fili. "Here's the man of the house! Your mama says you've been with Umad? Did she bite?"

Fili shook his head. Frerin served them all dinner, and woke Mama up to eat. Fili had already had his evening meal the old woman's house and couldn't manage more than a mouthful of food. Frerin poured the rest of his portion into Mama's bowl. It was already late, so Fili was sent to bed straight after, without a wash. He dozed and had a nightmare about ice dragons. He woke silently, his heart pounding. He crawled to the edge of the platform, peering down at the main room. Mama and Frerin were still sitting up, talking quietly.

"I'll come by tomorrow and help clean up the house," Frerin said. The baby was asleep in his lap.

"No, you mustn't, you've got work," Mama replied. She sounded tired and far away.

"Durin's beard, Dis, I don't care about work! You're more important," Uncle Frerin hissed. After a moment he said, "What's changed? You seemed alright after the funeral."

"I'm so tired. I don't know," Mama covered her face in her hands, and Frerin put his arm around her. She mumbled, "Since the birth... not having Vili there with me... everything's been so hard and I don't know why..."

"I feel responsible," Frerin said, rubbing circles on her back. "I got him the job at the forge. It seems like everything I touch turns to poison."

"Don't be silly," Mama whispered.

"It's true. I'm useless. I can't do anything right."

"Frerin, that's not true," Mama sounded a little more herself, annoyed but awake. "Look, you got Kili to stop crying as soon as you walked in the door. I don't think I've managed to do that since he was born."

"I did do that," Frerin chuckled. "That's one dwarf who listens to me, then."

Mama took his hand and laced their fingers together. “I missed you, when I was away. Not every day, but often enough to sting.”

Frerin leaned over to rest his head on her shoulder. “I missed you too, Dis.”

The next day when Fili got up he found Mama sleeping in, with the baby finally dozing beside her. So he went up the road to visit the old woman, and the next day after that.

Each day the old woman taught Fili a few more signs, and told him more stories, of strange and wonderful lands to the east where the dwarves could name every star in the sky and sailed on the ocean in boats ten times bigger than Uncle Frerin’s house. She told him about terrible battles that made him cover his eyes and she told him tales that he didn’t understand but made Mama cover her mouth and turn away, laughing, when he asked her about them later. The old woman told him that when she was a young dam, even younger than Mama, there had been a civil war and she had been sent away by her father to secure an alliance with the Longbeards in the Grey Mountains. But the Longbeards had their own troubles, and later she’d heard news that all her family had died in the war, so she stayed in the Grey Mountains and married the king’s son.

“Then Smaug stole our empire and my frowning grandson, and the orcs took everyone else,” she said. “You know what Smaug was?”

Dragon. I know, Fili signed and then, I’m sorry.

“That’s life,” the old woman shrugged. “They cry, these Longbeards, but that’s life.”

Frerin was there almost every day when Fili got home, looking after Mama. Fili had never seen him and Mama spend so much time together (nor would he ever again, in the coming years). As the weeks turned to months, Fili didn't need to stay at the old woman's house for food, but he went every day anyway, while the baby got big enough to crawl and hold his arms out to Fili when he wanted to be picked up. Mama began to smile more, to talk loudly again, and meet Fili's eye when he tugged on her skirt. One morning, the baby said his first word to his big brother. Fili ran all the way to the old woman’s house to tell her about it. But the shutters were closed, and there was no smoke in the chimney. He went inside and shook the old woman’s shoulder where she lay asleep on her rough, little bed. Her arm was cold and unyielding.

So Fili’s education in the old ways ended when it was barely begun. He regretted that more than he grieved for the old woman.




Bilbo slumped and looked at Thorin, who had his hands tucked under his arms and was watching his brother disappear into the shadows of the mountain hall. Thorin was chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Excuse me, Mr Baggins,” he said at last. “I need a walk, if anyone is wondering where I’ve gone.”

“Are you alright?” Bilbo followed Thorin over the dwarves’ camp to fetch a lantern. As the dwarf bent to light it Bilbo caught himself staring at Thorin’s hair, hanging over the stretch of his back in twisting, weaving rivers. There was more silver in it than in Frerin’s. How many years difference was there between them, Bilbo wondered? Five? Ten? But how could a body age when it was held in stasis, without food or sunlight? Without a lifetime of fears and joys, without battle scars and hangovers and sleepness nights chasing a sweetheart or watching over a sick child? How did a person grow old when they had never finished being young?

“I’m quite alright,” Thorin glanced back at him, his eyes shadowed by the lantern. “Goodbye.”

It was clear he didn’t want company, and Bilbo was too polite to insist. He watched Thorin trudge away into the halls beyond the atrium. There was not much to do after that except go back up onto the wall and listen to the other dwarves discussing everything that had happened in the parlay. They were quickly going over to Frerin’s side; they agreed that no money should be given to the host while they threatened the mountain with war. But Bombur, Dori and Gloin could not understand why Frerin had lost his temper at Fili. Balin and Dwalin seemed to be avoiding all questions on the topic. Seeing their reticence, Bilbo felt less sure of what he’d told Frerin in the atrium a few minutes ago. There was clearly more going on than he knew.

For most of that afternoon he played knucklebones with Ori and Nori, which wasn’t a lot of fun because they were both a lot better than Bilbo. He felt a cutting loneliness he had not suffered since the early days of the quest, when he had still felt like a stranger amongst the dwarves. He missed Fili and Kili, whose antics could always fill up long silences and the empty periods of time between one life-threatening crisis and the next. He missed sitting and listening to Frerin's funny stories for hours at a time. But most of all he missed Bofur.

Before the parlay Bilbo had thought about his missing companions only as a billowing grief at their likely deaths, but now that he knew they were safe it was simply Bofur’s company that he longed for. He couldn’t even think why, really. Many of Bofur’s qualities were not virtues that Bilbo would have listed as desirable in a friend. He was sharp-tongued, irritatingly cheerful, flighty, ill-mannered, ignoble in his motives, and he never listened to reason; in fact, he seemed to quite disdain it. Yet when you tied all those things together to make a dwarf, Bilbo could never imagine getting this far without Bofur. He was not even sure how he’d lived the first fifty years of his life without a friend like Bofur. The thought of a long siege dragging on without Bofur’s company for days or weeks or, by All that was Green, the entire winter, was unbearable to Bilbo.

His gloom stuck with him until Ori and Nori put the knucklebones away, perhaps because Bilbo’s melancholy had rather ruined the fun. Bilbo made some excuse to leave and wandered off into the mountain without any destination in mind. It was as he was climbing up a broad flight of steps towards the throne room that he met Thorin coming down the other way.

“Mr Baggins!” Thorin’s face came alight, his mouth opening in a half-smile. “I was just coming to look for you.”

“For me?” Bilbo frowned.

“Yes. Come, sit with me.”

There was an empty fountain just up the stairs, with a plinth in the centre on which stood a square-cut statue surrounded by relief-carvings of forge tools. It took a moment for Bilbo to see that the figure was of a boar on its hind legs carrying on its shoulders a thick-armed dwarf clad in mail. The pool was half-filled with decades of desiccated slime that had flourished and finally died when the water’s source dried up somewhere on the mountainside above. Bilbo sat on the lip of the fountain, pulled his legs up and crossed them.

“So he’s dead, then,” said Bilbo. “Smaug is dead. It almost seems too easy.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Thorin glanced back at him as he paced around the fountain, running his fingers through the dust on the lip of the pool. “Did… did you all know that Bard had a black arrow? That he was going to try and kill Smaug?”

Bilbo frowned, not clear why Thorin would ask such a thing. “No. We knew about the windlance, but I don’t think anyone would have guessed it was still working. Why?”

“I think I dreamed of Smaug’s death,” Thorin massaged the wrinkle between his eyes. “I was not at all surprised when Bard said how he’d died. It’s so odd.”

Bilbo shrugged. “Well, your dreams probably didn’t have many options to guess at. I don’t know much about killing dragons, but I heard that windlances are the best chance anyone has to do so, so I suppose we wouldn’t be having this conversation unless he’d chosen to wield it.”

“That’s true,” Thorin dipped his head left and right. He sighed. “I feel as if the mountain should come back to life, now, the torches light up, the dwarves return, but… it stays so quiet.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Bilbo asked.

Thorin raised his head to look at him across the empty pool. “Pardon?”

“You ran off in a hurry. I thought perhaps you were looking for something you remember from the way things used to be,” Bilbo tilted his head.

Thorin’s features contracted. “Yes,” he said quietly. “Yes, I was. But I lost my way in the dark. There are collapsed tunnels, and even the intact ones look so different…” he took a breath. “I had plenty of time to think, though, and I decided I wanted to ask you about all of this. This quest. This business about me, ‘the Abiding King’, if it plays a part in everything. About Frerin mostly, if I’ll be honest.”

“I don’t know as much as Balin or most of the others,” Bilbo said, drawing idle circles and lines in the dust of the fountain.

“That’s why I’m asking you,” Thorin insisted, stepping in close and leaning against the stone lip. He put the lantern down between them. “Because you’re seeing it from the outside, like me. I’ve been sort of floating about these last few days, haven’t I? There was so much to take in I was almost drowning, and I didn’t like to push anyone around after I made such a mess of trying to kill the dragon – don’t start, I really did,” he cut him off as Bilbo began to protest. “But things are moving too quickly for me to just sit by. If I can help, I have to help.”

“Well, alright,” Bilbo shrugged. “What did you want to know?”

“Why did Frerin come back to the mountain? So unprepared, with only thirteen dwarves?”

“I don’t think he had a lot of choice,” said Bilbo, shuffling a little closer and propping his elbows on his knees so that he could rest his chin on his hands. “Things are pretty stretched over in the Blue Mountains, from what I understand. There isn’t a lot of money, nor much to occupy people, and folk are unhappy about it all. So Frerin thought he’d solve all their problems at once. Erebor is still their home, and full of wealth, and more than that I think your people need some measure of pride returned to them.”

“That makes sense. But why does he want the Arkenstone?” Thorin rumbled. “He even brought you in to try and steal it back without Smaug being any the wiser. I’d understand if his plan was to convince the other tribes to help him kill the dragon, but he’s held the mountain for days. He shouldn’t need the Arkenstone and Erebor to convince anyone he’s worthy. Yet he still desires it.”

Bilbo made a low noise in his throat. He wasn’t sure what to say, but Thorin had kept him up here away from the atrium so that they could speak freely. The carved boar and dwarf watched them from the centre of the dead pool, their features seeming to shift in the candlelight as if they were alive. Bilbo licked his lower lip. “I know there’s pieces I’m missing, but I think it has something to do with what Frerin said on the wall. About your sister being faithless. Kili said once that she and Frerin are at odds very often.”

“Dis,” Thorin shook his head, sitting down properly with one leg on either side of the fountain’s rim. “I thought I must have misheard his outburst. They were the closest friends I’d ever seen when they were children. How could anything drive them apart?”

“I think he’s afraid,” said Bilbo. “He’s afraid he doesn’t deserve to be king. Or that people don’t want him to be king. That people want Dis instead.”

Thorin drew back, but there was no surprise on his face when he glanced at Bilbo. “You think he’s so afraid he would rather drive his nephew away than give up any piece of his new kingdom?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said, hanging his head, and he burst out, “I’ve never seen him like that, Thorin! He’s usually so warm and compassionate, I swear it!” (But he had, hadn’t he? On that dock in Laketown, with Kili sitting pale and feverish between his uncle and his brother. He’d heard Frerin’s last warning to Fili: If you turn him against me…). “I can’t understand why people wouldn’t want him to be king. I’d want him to be king. I love him.”

He hadn’t meant to say that. But never mind, Thorin was nodding as if it was nothing strange. “But you don’t believe him. You don’t think Fili is trying to trick him into giving up his power.”

“Of course not!” Bilbo shook his head. “It’s clear that Fili was stuck between a rock and a hard place out there, but I don’t think it was because he was trying to spur a mutiny. Didn’t you hear what else he said that was terribly helpful of him?”


“He told us where in the camp Kili is. In the tent next to Thranduil's,” Bilbo raised his eyebrows at Thorin. “I don’t think that was a slip of the tongue. I think it was a message. If Fili is in a dilemma, it’ll be something to do with his brother, you mark my words.”

“I mark them highly,” Thorin said. He hunched forward, eyes staring unfocused into the shadows. He knotted his fingers together and rested his chin on them. After a long moment he looked at Bilbo against and there was a glint in his eyes that made Bilbo gulp. “So,” Thorin said. “What are we going to do? About the predicament we’re in?”

“Us?” Bilbo glanced around. “What can we do? Convince the elven king to go home in the hopes Frerin will show more charity afterwards?”

“If Thranduil’s folk are harbouring the refugees from Laketown, he won’t withdraw on Frerin’s account, not with winter coming,” Thorin shook his head. “I wish I could have an honest conversation with him and this Bard fellow, figure out how far they’re willing to push this siege. I think they fatally underestimate Frerin’s stubbornness. But I warrant the dwarves in their camp might have a better idea of what they’re preparing for than we do. And perhaps more importantly, we need to get those dwarves back inside Erebor. I think if Frerin has his kin safe with him, my brother may be more inclined to find a compromise with Bard.”

“I hope we get them back soon, then,” Bilbo said heavily.

“Yes. And Frerin must have a talk with our nephews and find out the whole truth, patch things up properly!” Thorin folded his arms.

“Well, yes, but it’s not like we can just walk up to their camp, knock on the door and ask if their resident dwarves can pop out with us for a walk,” Bilbo frowned, and then looked sharply at Thorin. “Can we?”

A grin tugged at the corner of Thorin’s mouth. “Can we not?”

Oh, the cheeky, sodding rascal. Bilbo raised one index finger. “This is why you wanted to talk to me. And here I was feeling rather special.”

“You are the company’s assigned burglar, aren’t you?” Thorin was smiling still, his tongue flicking out to lick his bottom lip. “And I will come with you as far as you wish.”

“Firstly,” said Bilbo. “Let me remind you that the last time I was sent into a crucial burglar…ising mission, I woke up a dragon who destroyed an entire town and almost killed us.”

Thorin tilted his head. “Then there’s only room for improvement! What could go wrong?”

Bilbo narrowed his eyes. “Secondly, if we're working on the assumption that our friends are not as free to leave as Bard claims, then the worst that can happen is Bard and Thranduil will end up with two more hostages to bargain with, one of whom happens to be Frerin’s brother.”

“Six hostages is really no worse than four, when you consider it in the grand scheme of things,” Thorin said brightly. “Besides, nobody outside th mountain knows Frerin even has brother.”

Bilbo dropped his arm and gave him a long, hard stare from under his fringe and did not even deign to answer that. He clenched his fists. “Thirdly…”

He had a third point, a good third point, possibly the best point of all three. But Thorin was looking at him, eyes widened, brows raised, lips pressed together. Bilbo tried to focus. He said, “Frerin will never let us take such a risk.”

“We won’t tell Frerin!” Thorin waved his arm.

“We can’t get over the wall unseen.”

“Dwalin will let us over during his watch,” Thorin nodded, grinning fully now. “We’ll just have a sniff about. We'll come straight back if there’s any trouble.”

“Not Dwalin. Ori,” Bilbo closed his eyes, and gritted his teeth and told himself he was definitely, no way, not at all agreeing to this. He looked at Thorin. “Dwalin may tell Frerin what we’re up to. Ori will be too excited about the whole venture to stitch us up, and his watch is the hour after midnight. Best time to go. But,” he leaned forward and jabbed Thorin in the gut. “We have to get back by the end of his watch. If time’s running out, we call it off and go home. Yes?”

“Yes,” Thorin beamed at him, teeth bared, and swung his leg over the lip of the fountain and picked up the lantern. With his other hand he reached out, and for a moment Bilbo thought he was going to be squashed into a one-armed hug, but then Thorin paused. He briefly gripped Bilbo’s shoulder and then surged away towards the atrium. “Come on Mr Baggins, the lantern’s almost run out. And we’ve got to get everything together. We’ll need rope, some less cumbersome weapons, and maybe softer shoes if we can find them… oh, you don’t need shoes at all, do you?” he went on listing ideas as Bilbo jogged to keep up with him until they made their way back to the camp.

Bilbo shook his head and followed him in, wondering when he would stop falling for the whims of handsome dwarves.

Chapter Text

Bilbo began to have second thoughts as they crouched on the far side of the ford, watching the host’s camp. Or perhaps fifth or sixth thoughts. He had second thoughts when Thorin shook him awake just after midnight. He had third thoughts when Thorin thrust an armful of rope into his hands and herded him through the atrium, crouched over as if that would make them look any less suspicious walking around the mountain in the middle of the night. He had fourth thoughts when Ori shrieked with delight as Thorin told him their plan and begged to be allowed to come.

“No, Ori, we need you to stay on guard and let us back over the wall,” Bilbo hissed, waving his hands to try and quiet the young dwarf. “And if we’re not back by the end of your watch, go at once and tell Balin what we’ve done, alright? Tell him that at the very least that I will return by morning to let him know what went wrong.”

“At the very least?” Thorin raised his eyebrows at him.

“Professional burglar, remember? They won’t be able to keep a hold of me even if they catch me,” Bilbo glanced at him. “Are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” said Thorin, tying off the rope and throwing it over the wall.

He had fifth thoughts as he was clambering down the outside of the wall in the pitch black. He was going to fall, he was sure of it, and said so aloud.

“Keep going. I’ll catch you,” Thorin whispered up to him.

“Don’t you dare!” Bilbo squeaked.

“Do you think I’d let you fall?”

“I think I should die of shame if I slip and need rescuing! What kind of burglar would that make me?” Bilbo snapped back.

That was only half of his fear. The other half was that he would react with the same thrill as he had when Thorin had hugged him up on the wall, after they’d got the joyous news that everyone was alive and well. He needed to keep his mind on the job.

In the end he had fallen about three feet, and that was entirely Thorin’s fault; the dwarf tried to take hold of Bilbo around the waist and lower him to the ground, but his grip was hesitant and Bilbo, expecting Thorin to support his weight, loosened his hold on the rope and fell right between his hands. He just managed to land on his feet, but the shock buckled his knees and jarred his bones right up to his teeth. He straightened up and glared at Thorin, who was wide-eyed and grimacing.

“You said you wouldn’t fall!”

“And you said you’d catch me, so we’re both liars,” Bilbo shrugged.

They pulled on the darkest cloaks Erebor’s stores had been able to provide and slipped away along the edge of the river where there were a few shrubs and rocks to hide their approach. And now they squatted on the far side of the ford, watching a patrol of two elves meander around the edge of the camp, and Bilbo was having sixth thoughts and deeply regretting this whole idea. They were going to be caught and the entire company would be furious with him for losing the Abiding King to their enemy, and no excuses Bilbo could give would keep Frerin from banishing him from Erebor forever.

The pair of elves were talking softly to each other as if their thoughts were elsewhere, but Bilbo knew their eyes and ears were keen enough to pick up even the splash of a fish jumping in the river. Worse still, the layout of the camp was no hodgepodge of mismatched abodes clustered around dying campfires as he’d hoped. There was an outer ring of elvish tents as even as bricks, pegged so close together that passing between them would be impossible even for a very skinny hobbit, which Bilbo was not. He could see two gaps acting as gates into the camp, each wide enough for ten men to walk abreast, but at each one stood three Lakemen lounging on upright barrels and sharing pipes. The moon had not yet risen and the clouds where still a thin veil over the stars, so if Bilbo put on his ring and walked very, very softly he could probably walk right between the sentinels without being detected. But no dwarf – let alone four at once – was going in or out of those gates with him.

“The horses,” Thorin elbowed him and Bilbo realised in the low light that he was pointing. “They’ve got them corralled on the edge of the camp, over there.”

Bilbo’s eyes were not so keen in the dark, but he could just make out a dark, uneven patch around the curve of the camp that might have been a herd of sleeping horses. He glanced at Thorin.

“You think there’s no barrier between them and rest of the camp?” he whispered. Thorin shrugged.

“Unless you call scores of skittish, ill-tempered animals a barrier.”

“Alright, let’s make haste,” Bilbo crept down to the edge of the water. “Blast this moon, I can’t see where I’m putting my feet at all!”

“Link arms, walk sideways,” Thorin shuffled past him and stepped into the ford, the water swelling up around his knees and sucking his cloak into the eddies. Bilbo followed him, wincing as the freezing river stuck his trousers to his thighs and began to creep up his skin. They bent over as low as they could, feeling out each step as they went. Twice a deep patch of water almost jerked Bilbo off his feet and he had to grab Thorin’s arm to keep from being dragged into the current. But at least in his bare feet he could feel the slimier rocks before he put his full weight on them. Once Thorin in his boots slipped right over backwards, disappearing into the water almost completely with a splash. They both froze, Bilbo barely managing to brace himself against the current with Thorin gripping a handful of Bilbo’s jacket to keep himself from being swept away. But the patrol happened to be far off along the perimeter and no alarm was called. After a long silence Bilbo took hold of Thorin under his arms and between the two of them they managed to ease him back onto his feet without too much commotion.

On the far bank of the ford they pressed themselves right into the scattered, dry grass and crawled on their bellies towards the horse pens. The walls of the tents passed by like little windows of sound, with here a loud snorer, there a pair of voices laughing quietly, next a low argument between what sounded like two an elf and a grumbling Lakeman who did not like being woken for his turn on guard duty. Sure enough, the enclosure was an open space in the camp’s perimeter, packed with rows of horses roped into lines around thin lanes with elvish precision. Most of the animals were sleeping but some were annoying their neighbours or chewing at the feed in their mangers.

“We’re going to get kicked in the head,” Bilbo whispered as he crouched at the edge of the rope, raising it for Thorin to duck under.

“I’m a dwarf, my head can take it,” Thorin replied, and Bilbo saw a flash of his grin. “You will have to settle for being quiet.”

They crawled through the lines and even under the horses bellies where they had to. Bilbo tried not to gag as he put first his hand, and then both knees into the animals’ muck, but there was no avoiding it. Once they were well hidden in the centre of the corral, with horses shifting and grunting all around them, they paused to take stock.

“Let me go ahead,” Bilbo said as softly as he dared. “I’ll see if I can find Thranduil’s tent and come back to you if I need help.”

“What if they catch you?” Thorin grabbed his arm. “What should I do?”

“They won’t!” Bilbo waved him down. “Really! I’ll be back as quick as I can.”

“Have you got a sword?”

Bilbo looked down at his belt where his little Sting hung. “That’s a thought,” he said, and began to unbuckle it. “Here, you keep it.”


“We’re not here to kill anyone,” Bilbo said softly. “And if they do spot me, I’d rather they know that. When you’ve got a hundred elven arrows pointed at your nose, being a harmless little hobbit may be a better defence than one sword.”

“You said you wouldn’t get caught,” Thorin pointed out.

“I like to be prepared for anything,” Bilbo wrinkled his nose. He chewed his lip. “But I might need tools, do you have any blades more subtle?”

“I think so,” Thorin took Sting and put it aside, patting down his coat until he found a little knife even shorter than Bilbo’s hand. Bilbo slipped it into his belt and turned to duck off under the nearest horse. He felt a hand grab his arm and turned to find Thorin staring at him from under his heavy brows.

“Be careful,” he said quietly.

“I will,” Bilbo gave him a quick smile.

He got down low and crawled away through the hoof-churned mud. At the very edge of the corral he paused and peered between the horses’ legs at the clear alleys of the camp. He could see a circle of fires in the distance beyond another line of spaced-out tents, but much closer by were a line of pennants hanging limp in the still, night air. There was an elf crossing the thoroughfare right ahead of him, doing up the ties of his breeches as he went, but no sign of anyone else awake at this hour. Bilbo took a breath and fumbled in his coat in search of his ring.

His hand touched a solid lump wrapped in rags; it was the Arkenstone. He had taken out of his bedroll and stuffed it into his pocket just before they left. If they did get into a crisis he had the outline of a plan in his mind, and in fact the more he thought about it the more he hoped it could be implemented even if there was no crisis. He checked the stone was not in danger of falling out of his coat and then moved on to his front pocket, found his ring and slipped it onto his finger.

He would never get used to being invisible. His instinct was to shrink against the tents and the shadows, but he had not forgotten the time winding down on Ori’s watch and he did not want to waste a moment. He crossed the camp in as straight a line as he could, heading for the flags.

There was no doubt that the tents were larger as he got closer to the centre of the camp, and he thought he could see where one half of the base had been set up by elves, and the other half by the Lakemen – there were a few mismatched tents among the latter, the alignments were in clusters rather than rows, and even the knots on the guy ropes were different. At the edge of the line between the two armies, the longest of the elvish tents had an elaborate, covered portico in front of which two guards stood to attention. Bilbo slipped past them, watching their faces for any twitch or turn of the head to suggest he’d given himself away. But they looked nothing more than a little bored. The tent extended through several sections with knotted doors of their own and then, right at the end, was a low-roofed little attachment without decoration. It looked like a plain, simple abode for servants and yet it had another guard in front of its low door.

Bilbo grinned to himself. That rather gave the game away, didn’t it? With utmost care he circled the small tent. There was no other way in, for the edges of the shelter were pegged down so firmly that Bilbo could not even get his fingertips under them. But at the back it faced only a rear line of tents on the Lakemen’s side of the camp, making one wall of a small corridor full of guy-ropes, folded piles of discarded oilskins and spare canvas. The corridor was almost completely hidden from view and the only light came from the occasional flash of stars above. Bilbo went right up close until his nose was almost against the wall of the tent and scratched it with his nail. It didn’t seem too thick.

Glancing around, Bilbo crouched down low, pulled out Thorin’s knife and took hold of a pinch of canvas right by a seam. Very slowly and carefully he pressed the point into the cloth. With some pressure and wriggling it went in, sliding right to the hilt. When he cut downwards, there was the stutter of ripping canvas and he flinched and stopped, listening. The tranquillity of the sleeping camp did not change. After a couple of slow breaths Bilbo cut the tent right down to the grass, tucked the knife away and crawled inside, turning to hold the edges of the sliced canvas closed behind him. With his other hand he pulled off the ring and stowed it into his pocket.

It was absolutely, impenetrably dark inside the tent. For a moment Bilbo paused, sitting on his heels and listening. His heart began to race. Suppose he’d been too hasty? He imagined taking a step and treading on the bedroll of that blond elven prince, of being seized by strong hands, of the entire camp waking up with shouts and alarms. He’d have to hope that Thorin had the sense to run for it rather than come barrelling in to help him. But after a moment he became aware of a very familiar sound: a dwarf wheezing in his sleep.

A smile spread across Bilbo’s face. On hands and knees he felt his way across the flattened lichen and grass that made up the floor of the tent until he felt the edge of a thin pallet and a layer of blankets. His memory flicked back to the last time he had put his hand on someone unexpectedly in the dark; well, it had been a dwarf that time too, and Bilbo’s luck was well past due another burst. He reached out and felt thick, bristly hair, and then what was unmistakeably a plait. His hand followed it as it curled around like the outer edge of a ram’s horn.

Oin. It was definitely Oin. Bless dwarves and their obsessive cultivation of distinctive facial hair! Bilbo found the old dwarf’s shoulder. He squeezed it, and within a moment felt the muscle twitch. Oin rolled onto his back, muttering.

“Oin!” Bilbo hissed. “It’s me!”

“Eh? Kili?” Oin grunted, quite loudly.

Too late Bilbo remembered that he’d managed to wake the deafest member of the whole company. The guard outside was separated from them by only a few feet and a thin layer of cloth. He crouched low near what he hoped was Oin’s ear and whispered as loud as he dared, “Be quiet! It’s Bilbo Baggins!”

In the darkness, Oin gave a gasp and lay still. After a moment he said under his breath. “Bless me. Mr Baggins?”

“Yes! Sh! I’m going to wake the others. Where are they?” Bilbo asked.

After a moment, perhaps of processing what Bilbo might have said without catching most of it, Oin replied. “Kili’s on my left.”

Trusting that Oin would think to warn him if there was anyone in the tent who wasn’t a dwarf, Bilbo stood up and shuffled around, bending over to try and feel the next sleeper. Unfortunately his hands were rather higher than he expected a sleeping dwarf to be lying, with the result that he kicked Kili in the ribs before he could grab him, and had to drop to his knees and slap his hand over Kili’s mouth as the dwarf jerked awake.

“Kili, it’s Bilbo!” he hissed, taking his hand away and gripping Kili’s shoulder. “Stay quiet!”

There was a gasp, and then before he could escape Bilbo was dragged into a brutal embrace. “I don’t believe it!” Kili whispered, sitting back onto his bedroll. “Bilbo, you are a one-of-a-kind hobbit! Ugh, but you smell like a pigsty. And you’re soaking wet.”

“All three are true, but none are important right now. Can you help me get the others up?”

“I’m up,” Oin’s voice replied from right beside his shoulder. Bilbo jumped and shushed him.

“No, the others. Bofur and Fili,” Bilbo whispered.

“They’re not here,” said Kili.


“They’re not in this tent. They’re on the other side of the camp somewhere.”

Bilbo exhaled a long, steady breath. He cursed inside his head, first running through the ugliest hobbit swear-words he knew and finishing with the worst dwarf ones he’d learned. His hands closed into fists on his trousers. And before he could even think what to say, there was a slap on the door of the tent.

“Why are you awake in there?” came the voice of the guard who stood outside. “What’s going on?”

“Ugh, my leg’s killing me!” Kili replied at a conversational volume. “Don’t get your pretty hair in a tangle, Oin’s trying to find me some herbs so I can get back to sleep.”

“I know they’re in here somewhere,” Oin added even louder, rustling some piece of his bedding back and forth. After a moment, the guard muttered something and fell silent.

Bilbo reached out in the darkness and managed to find one arm of each dwarf, pulling them down low close to his face. “I’m here to rescue you,” he whispered. “But I have to be sure first. Do you actually need rescuing? Or are you here for necessary medical treatment?”

“Rescuing, if you please!” Oin hissed with a note of cheer that Bilbo appreciated.

“Then let’s go,” Bilbo started back towards the door he’d made in the tent wall, pushing Oin ahead of him. It was a line of grey light in the darkness, that widened as Oin peeled it open and crawled through. Bilbo grabbed for Kili’s arm as he reached it just behind the old dwarf.

“Can you walk?”

“Yes, of course.”

“He can limp,” Oin retorted over his shoulder.

“Fili said you were badly hurt.”

“You’ve seen Fili?” Kili gasped in the darkness. “Where? I haven’t seen him since we were in Laketown!”

This was only getting more complicated. Bilbo gritted his teeth. “Get outside, then we’ll talk.”

One by one they crawled into the corridor behind the tent and crouched down in the shadows. Bilbo glanced his friends up and down. They were both clean-faced and in new clothes, a little ill-fitting but looking warm enough, and were pulling on their boots as fast as they could. There was no sign of any mistreatment, which boded well for how things might play out if they were caught escaping. But where were the others?

“Is it just you?” Kili asked. “Did Frerin send you in here all by yourself?”

“Not exactly,” Bilbo whispered. “I got in through the horse pens, and it’s going to be easier to talk there. It’s not far, come on.”

Moving from the shadow of one tent to the next, he led them on a winding route that kept them away from the guards at the front of Thranduil’s quarters. They reached the corral without running into anyone at all, but Bilbo could see that Oin was right about the limp. Kili wasn’t showing his pain on his face, but his leg was dragging badly. He was not going to be much good if they had to make a sprint for the mountain. Bilbo got down low and crept along one of the lanes between the horses rather then make Kili and Oin crawl through the mud. When he reached the place where he’d left Thorin, he thought for a moment Thorin was missing, and then worried that he’d gotten lost among the animals, but finally he saw the wave of a hand. “Over here!”

With a sigh Bilbo spotted Thorin a little way away, tucked down between the water troughs, and hurried over with the other dwarves tailing him like a pair of ducklings.

“You weren’t spotted?” Bilbo asked.

“No, I just moved because the damn animals kept coming over to sniff me,” Thorin said and looked over Bilbo’s shoulder. “And here I thought you were just taking a look, Mr Baggins?”

“I got enterprising,” said Bilbo. “Thorin, this is Oin and Kili.”

“What’d he say?” Oin frowned, cupping his hand around his ear. “Who are you, laddie?” he squinted at the stranger. “You look awful familiar.”

“Thorin,” said Kili, and then he glanced sharply at Bilbo. “Thorin. Thorin?”

“Yes. Later. We don’t have time.” Bilbo raised his hands.

Thorin whispered. “Do you know where the others are?”

“I don’t.” Kili shook his head. “They separated us as soon as they arrived in Laketown, the day after Bard killed Smaug. Bard told Thranduil who we were and that was that, we were basically prisoners again, although they kept saying we weren’t. Me with Oin, Fili with Bofur.” Kili rumbled deep in his throat. “They’ve barely let me leave that tent since we got here. Nobody’s told me anything. But Oin knows where Bofur is.”

“Aye,” Oin chuckled. “Silly clot-head pulled his shoulder right out of the socket diving out a window in the town, he said, but he wouldn’t let the Lakemen look at it. Claimed he didn’t trust folks who couldn’t tell their kingsfoil from their athelas. So finally they sent over healers from the elves’ side of the camp, but Bofur wouldn’t let them touch him either. Kept sneezing and claiming he was breaking out in hives, having a reaction to their elvish hair. In the end they got sick of his carrying-on, moaning and groaning about how much agony he was in, and they brought me over. I popped the arm right back in and he was fine, but we managed to have a bit of a conversation while we were at it. He and Fili are with Bard away on the other side of the camp, but it gets worse. All the heads of the Laketown families are in one big tent over there, all packed together. I think I know where it is – they’ve let me wander around a bit more than Kili – but there’s guards on the door and who knows how many armed men inside.”

Bilbo rumbled and dug his hands into his hair. “This is a disaster. We’ll never get them out! And once they find you two missing they’ll triple the watch on them!”

“We have to try,” said Thorin. “I’m not leaving anyone behind. You’re hurt, aren’t you?” he pointed at Kili.

“I am not! I’m quite alright!”

“He’s not climbing any mountains,” Bilbo said snippily.

“Then you stay here, and if it sounds like the alarm has been raised, just bolt for the front gate of Erebor,” Thorin pointed back over his shoulder. “There’s a ford right over there. Cross it and then follow the river until you reach the wall outside. Ori is on watch waiting for us.”

“It’s not just Fili,” Kili snatched for Bilbo’s arm. “We have to find Tauriel as well.”

“Who—?” Bilbo started, just as Oin groaned.

“No, no, we’re not going to find your bloody elf maiden!” the old dwarf shook his head. “She disowned us and went back to her king the moment he arrived, Kili, she’ll give us away!”

“Who are we talking about?” Bilbo repeated.

“She went against orders to save my life back in Laketown and Thranduil doesn’t trust her,” he turned to Bilbo. “She’s not a prisoner, but she still had to sneak in to talk to me yesterday. She wanted to help me escape on my own and I said I wouldn’t go without Fili. I promised her if they released us she could come to Erebor with us and she, well, I’m sure she was tempted,” Kili looked around at three very dubious faces. “We can’t just leave her here, they’ll think she helped us escape. Just let me go and talk to her.”

“If she’s not a prisoner, Kili, then she’s not our problem,” Bilbo said firmly, jabbing his finger at the mud. “You stay here and don’t move until we get back.”

Kili glared, blew a puff of air out his mouth and sat down on the edge of a water trough. Thorin and Oin threaded their way back between the horses, and Bilbo took up the rear, trying to look for danger in every direction at once. His mind pawed over a jumble of ideas to get the prisoners out, each one worse than the last. There was only so far good luck and a magic ring could take them.

And the thought of going back to Erebor alone to explain what he’d done made his heart pound and his legs tremble. One way or another, he had to bring them all home to the mountain.

Chapter Text

In the shadows of the tents they watched the door of Bard’s marquee. There was a lone Lakeman leaning on his spear at the door, but he looked awake enough.

“I think we can take him,” Thorin whispered.

“Aye,” Oin nodded. Bilbo jumped at the soft rasp of Thorin drawing Sting from its sheath.

He grabbed Thorin’s wrist. “No! Do you want this army breaking down our door tomorrow? Or do you want to give Frerin a chance at peace?”

Thorin huffed and slid the sword away. “Then how do we get in?”

“I’ll go,” Bilbo said. Perhaps he’d have to reveal his ring at last. He glanced over at the tent. “I’ll get in.”

“There’s more than a dozen fellows sleeping in there, laddie!” Oin hissed. “Even if you burglar your way past the guard, you’ll tread all over them in the dark. Hobbits aren’t that light-footed.”

Bilbo nodded, looking back at the tent and pressing his fist to his mouth. He had exceeded his own expectations over and over again on this quest, but he could not see in pitch blackness, nor walk through canvas walls as if they were air.

“Does he know you?” Thorin asked, leaning in close. “That guard?”

“Why?” Bilbo shook his head. “Do you think I can just walk up to him? He’ll sound the alarm the moment he sees me!”

“When I first saw you, I thought you were a human child from Dale,” Thorin hissed. “I didn’t know what a hobbit looked like. Do you think he could make the same mistake?”

Bilbo glanced at Oin, and after a moment Oin said, “Well I don’t recognise the fellow, and the only time I remember anyone looking at Bilbo in Laketown was when Frerin introduced the heads of the old families to him at the party. That man isn’t one of them.”

“It’s true,” Bilbo said uncertainly. “Nobody really looks at me when there’s any excitement going on. Bard was the only man I held a proper conversation with,” he glanced at the guard. “This is mad. It won’t work. Staying silent is something I can do very well, but when someone’s looking right at me I will surely stammer and my lies will be as obvious as a pheasant among blackbirds.”

“You managed to talk a dragon out of eating you,” Thorin pointed out. “That’s something.”

“That was misdirection. It was different.”

Thorin chewed on his bottom lip, looking between Bilbo and the guard, whose head was nodding lower and lower towards his chest. “It’s that or we try and grab him before he can yell,” Thorin said. “But even if we slit his throat we’d more than likely make a noise, and I don’t want to do that.”

“No, we don’t!” Bilbo puffed up. “Certainly not!” and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and opened them with the dozing guard in his sights. “Very well, looks like it’s up to Mr Baggins yet again.”

Without giving them further warning, he brushed the worst of the mud off his sleeves and strode into the light of the fire. Heading straight for the door of the tent. The guard was not so sleepy he was blind, especially with a lantern right beside him, and he saw the little creature crossing the yard before Bilbo was within thirty feet of him. He straightened up, head drawn back, and rubbed his eyes.

Bilbo raised his hand and hurried up to him. “Excuse me,” he said, making his voice a little high and doing his best to assume the rolling accent of the Lakemen. His best was not very good, for though he loved stories he was not a storyteller by nature (not yet, anyway), and was never much good at taking on the voices of heroes and villains from far-away lands. But perhaps confusion was the best tactic anyway. “Excuse me,” he repeated, standing in front of the guard but not yet trying to force his way through. “My Da’s in there and I need to speak to him.”

The light of the lantern was in his eyes, but he tucked his head down and tried to hide his middle-aged face from the Lakeman. This would never work, he was sure. How could Thorin have even considered that this might work? The guard was going to grab him by the collar and shake him and holler for help and it would all be over, and the best that they could hope for was that Kili slipped away in all the confusion.

But the guard frowned and blinked at him, sniffed, and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Who’s your da, lad?”

It wasn’t until then that Bilbo’s heart really started racing. He had not listened much when Frerin had talked about the heads of the town families. He did not know any of their names, nor who might have a gaggle enough of children for one extra to be unfamiliar. So he said the first thing that came to his mind, afraid to hesitate, “Bard, sir!”

He cursed his tongue immediately. Bard? What was he thinking?

But the guard hummed and nodded. “Bern – no, Bain, isn’t it?”

“Uh, yes sir.”

“By my mother’s sow. I thought your Da said you were back home looking after your sisters. You’re a mess, lad,” the guard wrinkled his nose. “You smell pungent, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Well, I’ve been travelling all day!”

“And all through the night, too?”

“Oh yes, sir,” Bilbo said brightly, caught up in the act now. “I just come up from the lake on urgent business, and,” his mind leapt two steps ahead and with great daring he said, “and I’ve been serving Lord Thranduil tonight. It’s hush-hush. He sent me to fetch Da and the dwarven prisoners right away, sir. May I pass?”

“Of course, of course,” the guard moved to the door of the tent and began to untie the flaps. “I’ll show you where King Bard is sleeping.”

“Uh, no thank you, sir!” Bilbo winced. “I don’t want to get you in trouble for leaving your post. But I could take your light in, if that’s alright?”

“I suppose,” the guard said, and picked up the lantern. Bilbo took it by the heavy, iron ring on top and bowed to the guard. He slipped through into the tent, quickly closing the lamp’s shutters to dim the light almost to nothing. He was almost bouncing with nervous glee. He was inside. He felt a little insulted that his maturity was not obvious on his face, but it was nighttime after all. It seeme the guard had – thankfully – not had a good look at him.

The tent air was thick and warm with the smell of sleeping bodies. An old man was snoring somewhere in the shadows and there was the hush of another rolling over, and the wheezing of someone with a bad cold. As Bilbo’s eyes adjusted he saw that there were three rows of bedrolls laid out ahead, not with much order or tidiness but with space enough to walk between. About twenty men in total seemed to have a spot on the rugs that covered the bare ground, each with their belongings and clothes folded around them. Some of the white-haired Lakemen lay on raised cots, and many had younger sons or retainers snuggled close beside them. Bilbo’s soft lamp glinted on the sheaths and buckles of weapons, some antiques and others borrowed from the elves. He crept forward between the nearest two rows, squinting in the darkness.

There were two smaller bodies sleeping right at the end of the central row. Bilbo saw a flash of gold peeking over the top of a tight-wrapped blanket, and just beside him was a familiar dwarf lying on his back, mouth open and whistling faintly in his sleep. Bilbo broke into a smile at the sight of Bofur. Even his hat had survived Smaug, resting over his eyes. The smile faded as he noticed Bofur left arm, which lay on top of his blanket. It hung in a grey sling, and there were bruises on his face.

There was a huff from further along and Bilbo flinched as his gaze moved on from the dwarves. Right next to Bofur, almost close enough to touch him, Bard the former bargeman rolled over to face them. His eyes were closed, but even in sleep his shadowed lids and drawn cheeks looked worried. Bilbo froze, barely daring to breathe, and then crouched down without taking his eyes off Bard.

The young man sleeping beside Fili was very close too. There was not enough room for Bilbo to stand between them even if he was as careful as possible, and if either of the dwarves threw out an elbow or knee when they awoke, they would alert their neighbours for sure. No doubt it was a deliberate inconvenience to keep them from wandering about. Bilbo stuck his tongue between his teeth, put down the lantern and placed his hand on the lump of Fili’s foot under the blanket. He patted it very gently.

Almost at once, Fili twitched and his breathing came awake. He tugged the top of the blanket down until his blue eyes appeared over the top of it. Bilbo waved at him and Fili raised his head. His mouth fell open and his eyes went wide.

Bilbo put his finger to his lips and pointed at Bofur. Without a moment’s pause, Fili shuffled closer to him and shook him awake. Bofur snorted and frowned up at him as he Fili jerked his head in Bilbo’s direction and started to sit up with slow, cautious movements. Bofur looked at Bilbo and his mouth broke into his wide smile that warmed Bilbo to the core. He rolled onto his good side and levered himself until he was sitting up.

They were both wearing their long-sleeved undershirts and day trousers, looking rather in need of a wash and with hair that was wild from sleep. They had only their socks on their feet, but Bilbo could not see their boots anywhere. He pointed at his feet and Fili’s, who was standing now, but Fili just shook his head. He took Bofur’s arm and stood him up too.

Bilbo grabbed the lantern and turned to lead them out, but Fili snatched at his arm. Bilbo turned back and the dwarf leaned in right close to his ear to whisper at barely above a breath. “I can’t go. Take Bofur.”

“What?” Bilbo mouthed, brows tightening. “No, come with me!”

Fili shook his head. His eyes were mournful. He mouthed slowly and clearly. “Kili.”

Bilbo waved his hand through the air and nodded. He pointed at himself and made a grasping gesture as if pulling something to his chest. “I’ve got Oin and Kili already,” he mouthed.

Fili’s eyes lit up and he smiled weakly. He motioned towards the door and they tip-toed down the aisle to the door of the tent. There Bilbo paused and turned back to them. “Follow my lead,” he whispered, and draw back the flap.

He emerged from the tent with a straight back and nodded at the guard as Fili and Bofur followed him out. They both looked rather lost and concerned when the Lakemen just stared at them, which to their credit probably helped. Bilbo held out the lamp to the man. “Thank you very much, sir,” he said. “Da is just getting dressed. If he asks, I’m taking these two straight to Thranduil’s tent.”

The man took the lantern with the hand that wasn’t grasping the spear, but he didn't reply and was beginning to frown. Bilbo backed away from him for a couple of steps and then forced himself to turn and walk on confidently.

“Here now, Bain,” came the voice of the guard. Bilbo turned back swiftly, trying to smile. The wrinkles on the guard’s brow were very deep now. “Why ain’t you wearing shoes?”

Bilbo’s searched for a reply; the guard’s eyes widened, and he said, “Hold on a tick—”

At that moment, Thorin’s coat was thrust down over his eyes and mouth, and Thorin’s arm came around to cover his mouth and stifle his cry of surprise. Another hand – also Thorin’s – closed over the spear, tore it out of the guard’s grip and threw it away. Thorin had climbed up on Oin's shoulders as soon the two of them had got within range of the guard, while the poor fellow was distracted by Bilbo. Fili leapt forward as well, shoulders bent low to wrap his arms around the guard’s legs and then all four of them toppled over into the dirt.

Bilbo and Bofur jumped to help as the guard bucked and struggled. Fili had a hold of his knees, Thorin’s legs were wrapped around his arms and Oin was being squashed somewhere underneath him. But before Bilbo could even think what to do, Thorin had twisted around and ended up on top of the Lakeman's chest, just as the man managed to toss the coat coat off his head. And suddenly Sting was in Thorin's hand, drawn from his belt with a flash of light like jumping fish, and as he raised it he wrapped his hand around the man neck.

“Stop!” Thorin hissed, and the guard went instantly still. Bilbo lurched forward and grabbed Thorin’s wrist.

“No! Don't hurt him—”

Thorin’s head whipped around to stare at Bilbo, his mouth open to pant in the cold night air. His eyes were wide and flashed red-gold against the lamplight. Bilbo's breath caught in his throat and he went rigid, hand still clamped around Thorin's thick wrist, all his thoughts driven out of mind by the depths of Thorin's gaze, the sight of sparks burgeoning from black caverns--

The dwarf blinked, and suddenly he looked only irritated. He grabbed his coat and threw it over the guard’s face again before looking at Bilbo and putting his finger to his lips, shaking his head. He didn't mean to hurt him, but he definitely meant to scare him. It didn't matter either way. The guard now lay boneless on the grass, silent and shivering in terror. Bilbo stepped back.

Oin wriggled out from under the man’s legs. “Tie ‘im up! Quick!” he hissed, unbuckling his belt. Bofur was wearing his as well and hurried to undo it one-handed. Fili held the man’s legs as they belted them together. Thorin climbed off the man’s chest and held his hand over his mouth and the sword against the side of his neck while the others tied his wrists as well. Bilbo stood wringing his hands and keeping watch until they were done. Thorin at last lowered the sword, but kept his coat covering the man’s face.

“We can’t leave him here. He’ll start yelling the moment we leave,” he whispered, his voice heavy. “We should—” he drew his thumb across his own throat. Bilbo waved his hands at him, baring his teeth.

“No! No! Bard will never forgive us!” he glanced down at the poor guard, whose biggest worry a few minutes earlier had probably been how long until he could be tucked up in bed.

“He’s right, Frerin,” said Fili. “They may kill us all if they catch us murdering their people right under their noses," Thorin looked sharply at him, and Fili drew back. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were my uncle.”

“He is,” Bilbo said, and pointed at the guard to bring their attention back. “Carry him with us. We’ll leave him tied up with the horses.”

There were nods from Oin and Fili. Bilbo dropped down to the man’s ear. “Stay quiet and we won’t hurt you,” he whispered. “I promise.”

The man didn’t respond, but he didn’t start yelling either. Then without a moment more debate each dwarf seized one of his limbs and heaved him up. Bilbo left the lantern beside the tent door and with a last glance back to make sure the dwarves were following him he began to run back the way they had come. He didn’t try to muffle his footsteps. There would be no disguising them if anyone happened to walk past and see them crossing the camp. It would probably be just as bad if someone walked past Bard’s tent and saw the door unguarded with a fallen spear lying to one side. Speed was their only hope now.

But the dwarves were swift runners even with their odd-shaped burden and they reached the corral without incident. Bilbo hopped over the rope and undid it to let the others through, and then they all vanished into the shadows between the pens. At the water troughs they dumped the man on the ground and Thorin pulled the hood tight and tied its sleeves onto the nearest post.

“Thank you,” Fili beamed at Thorin. “Whoever you are.”

“Thorin,” his uncle answered hesitantly. “My name is Thorin.”

Fili frowned, “Are you my cousin? Dain’s son? Has your father come to Erebor to help us?”

“Dain’s son? No, your uncle is still trying to find a way to get a message through to the Iron Hills. I am…” Thorin shook his head. He swallowed, seeming to find the story so inconceivable and huge that it choked in his throat.

Bilbo had no time for it. “We need to get moving,” the hobbit was glancing around. “Hang on, where’s Kili?”

There was a flurry of activity as everyone turned where they stood, peering through the horses. Kili was nowhere in sight. “Kili!” Thorin hissed, loud enough to make the nearest mare startle from sleep and start to paw at the dirt, whinnying.

“Kili!” Bofur whispered, cupping his hand around his mouth, and Fili called out as well. There was no answer.

“He’s gone after Tauriel,” Oin groaned. “Probably got caught the moment he stepped into the camp.”

Fili gasped, and his face twisted. “I’ll kill him,” he snarled. “I really will!” he took a step backwards. “You go, all of you. I’ll find him if he’s still free and follow you.”

“No! We won't get another chance to fetch you!” Bilbo lunged forward to grab two handfuls of Fili's shirt. "We have to stick together!"

“I can’t leave him here,” Fili shook his head, and his voice was small and plaintive now. He looked past Bilbo’s shoulder. “You know why, Bofur,” his eyes flicked to the sling around Bofur’s arm.

“Aye, lad. Go find him. You’ll be right behind us, I’m sure,” Bofur nodded. Bilbo looked at him in horror, but Bofur’s face was resolute.

Bilbo started to protest again, but Oin shushed them all down and tapped Bilbo on his shoulder. He turned, but he could see and hear nothing. Thorin climbed up onto the edge of the water trough and craned his neck to see over the backs of the sleeping animals. He held out his hand to Bilbo, who clambered up to balance beside him, and Fili hauled himself up behind Bilbo. On the edge of the corral – the outer edge, facing Erebor – were two small lamps on stems and two elven voices floated back towards them.

“We should go after them. They’ll be slow and the young one’s wounded,” said the first.

“We need to alert the camp!” the other, who had dark hair that looked like black steel by the starlight.

“No – no! I’m not getting wrung out on your mistake. We need to bring the dwarves back before anyone notices they're missing.”

“How can they blame us? It’s not my fault they stole a knife and cut their way out!”

Bilbo couldn’t quite recognise the elves in the poor light, but he was quite sure that one of them was the guard who had stood outside Kili and Oin’s tent. He could hear Thorin breathing hard. Before they could climb down, however, an elven warrior on a horse trotted around the perimeter of the camp. The newcomer had a dark hood over her head and one hand on the reigns while the other steadied a lumpy bag slung over the front of her saddle. She snapped at the two guards, “Hail, you two! What are you doing out here?”

There was a moment of muttering and then the dark-haired elf said, “Two of the dwarves have disappeared, Captain. We are looking for them.”

“I know. I found one trying to flee out the south gate,” said the captain. She reached down and grasped a fistful of black hair and lifted the head to which it was attached. Bilbo realised with a jolt of horror that the bag slung over her saddle was not a bag at all, but a dwarf, his eyes closed, mouth slack and arms pinned beneath his body.

“Kili!” Thorin gasped softly, and made to jump down from the trough. But Fili grabbed his arm and shook his head.

“No. Wait,” he hissed.

“He’s your brother!” Thorin snarled.

Wait,” Fili gritted his teeth and looked back at the gathering.

“The other escaped and fled towards Laketown,” said the captain, letting Kili’s head drop back again. “You’re looking in the wrong direction, you fools. Go and catch him, and I will not have you disciplined. Go!”

The guards jumped and turned away, hurrying off around the camp. Their little lights disappeared around the tents and for a moment there was silence except for the snuffling of the horses. The elf’s steed shifted, tossing its head, and she stroked its neck. And then, as Bilbo tried to calm his racing heart, Kili suddenly raised his head. His eyes were open now, and in fact he was swearing quietly. “Ow! Ow, help me, the pommel’s digging right into my gut!”

The elf captain seized him under his arms and heaved him up so that he could sit in the saddle in front of her, leaning back into her chest. A note of brittle laughter echoed from her. “I didn’t think that would work.”

Bilbo slumped and grasped Thorin’s arm to keep from falling off the trough in his relief. Thorin rumbled a low cuss and jumped down at once. Fili followed with a smile. He beckoned Bofur and Oin and in single file the five of them threaded from one pen to the next, trying not to get too close to the horses as they went. Tauriel saw them as they emerged between the roped fence of the corral and nudged her horse up closer, pushing back her hood.

“Fili!” Kili cried, making to clamber down off the horse. Tauriel tightened her arm around his waist.

“Careful. Your leg,” she said, and Bilbo could not miss the note of fondness in her voice.

“I’m always careful,” Kili replied. He gripped her arm with both hands so that she could lower him to where his brother was waiting with open arms.

“You should stay on the horse,” Fili said, grinning at him and pulling him in for a hug. “It’ll be faster than you walking.”

“I can walk perfectly fine!”

“None of us will be perfectly fine if we don’t get moving right now,” Bilbo stepped forward. He looked up at Tauriel. Being up on her horse made her almost three times his height. “Thank you for your good timing, Miss, er, Captain. Are you coming with us to Erebor?”

Tauriel pressed her lips together, glancing down at Kili, who spluttered and reached out to grab her foot in the stirrup. “Tauriel, they’ll know you helped me! Come with us!”

“Will I be more good in there, or out here, even as a prisoner of my own king?” she asked quietly. "Legolas still listens to me."

“You should do neither,” Fili said, stepping forward. He turned his face up towards her. There was a grim set in his eyes, as if he expected this to be the last time they spoke. “Mistress Tauriel, you have done more for me than I can ever hope to repay, but I must ask for one more favour. If you wish to end this siege as soon as possible, I think you may be able to help. Will you hear me?”

“I will, Fili,” Tauriel glanced around at them all, frowning to herself.

“Frerin will sit behind that wall and starve for as long as he draws breath rather than give in to an armed host at his doorstep,” Fili growled. “But so will your warriors, and the men of the lake, with winter coming on fast. If Frerin’s position right now was not so tenuous I think we could convince him to feed and rebuild Laketown out of his own pocket, if my brother and I can find some balm for his pride. But he must do it of his own will. We must convince Thranduil to leave.”

“My lord Thranduil will not take such counsel even from his son, and certainly not from me,” Tauriel shook her head.

“No. But he cannot wish for a fight against a real threat,” Fili clenched his fists. “If we can get a message to our cousin Dain in the Iron Hills, Dain will come with reinforcements for Frerin and it will be impossible to continue a bloodless siege on the mountain. Will Thranduil not withdraw then, and let Frerin and Bard thrash this crisis out between them, as equals?”

Tauriel licked her lips. “You want me to take the message to Dain. I see your reasons, but I do not know Frerin’s mind, and this Dain even less—”

“He’s a reliable fellow!” Oin piped up. “He’ll come if we ask!”

“Frerin has a good heart beneath his disdain for the elves,” Bilbo piped up. “But he will never back down while he is alone in a rat-trap. Please, will you do this?”

Tauriel frowned. “Will Dain even listen to me? I do not think many dwarves would take the word of a lone elf without so much as a letter—”

“Show him this,” Thorin seized one of his own fingers and wrenched off a heavy ring with a large, black stone. “It was Thror's ring, originally forged for his father before him, and I cannot imagine there are any like it in the world these days.”

He held the ring up to the light. For a moment Tauriel chewed on the inside of her cheek, looking down at the glinting face of the stone, and then she reached out and took it from Thorin’s fingers.

“And who should I say sent me? I don’t know your name, sir.”

“Say Frerin sent you. My name is Thorin, but he will not believe it.”

Taurial nodded, sliding the ring onto her left thumb. “I’ll need to find maps, and a second horse if I’m to ride all that way at speed,” she shook her head, gritting to her teeth. And then her eyes fell on Kili, still hanging off her boot, and she took a breath and nodded to Thorin. “I will try, if this will save us all a long winter in this desolation. Now go, please, hurry before they sound the alarm!”

“Tauriel!” Kili cried as she flicked the reigns, and she stalled her horse again. He reached up to her and she leaned right down to offer him her hand. Kili kissed her knuckles, and with a smile she pulled her arm back, kissed the tips of her fingers in return and pressed them to his forehead – the only part of him she could reach from up on the horse.

“Farewell, all of you,” she said, dug her heels into the flanks of her horse and cantered away around the perimeter of the camp. Within moments she had vanished into the shadow of the tents.




They crossed the river in pairs, with those left behind lying low and watching for the return of the patrols. If anyone had been looking they would have seen dark figures heaving through the ford, slow and cumbersome, easy targets for elvish bowmen. The clouds had swept off west and the stars were out now, glinting on the broken water. Kili and Bofur were sent first, with instructions to keep going and not wait for the others once they reached the far bank. Fili and Bilbo went second, and Bilbo managed not to stumble this time despite the haste they were in. The water began to wash some of the horse-stink off his legs, but he was chilled to the bone and shivering uncontrollably by the time they clambered up onto the dry stones. They waited silently in the shrubs, both breathing hard as they watched the camp while Thorin and Oin crossed last. Just as Fili reached out his hand to pull Oin up onto the bank, Bilbo saw a commotion and heard distant shouts.

"They're on the hunt," he hissed, grabbing Thorin's arm. "We have to go."

Erebor loomed above them, a black shadow against the stars, as they turned and ran. They caught up with Kili and Bofur quickly, and Fili and Oin ducked under each of Kili's arms and swung his bad leg along with each step. Bofur and Fili did not even have boots, and were no doubt suffering for it on the sharp stones. There was no time to be careful, and despite the starlight everyone was tripping on rocks and roots. Each time, their neighbour would grab them before they could hit the ground and set them back on their feet. Bilbo felt most sorry for himself; after two dips in the river the cold had sunk its teeth into his bones and he could barely feel his legs at all, except the odd sharp sting of scratches and scrapes from the night's endeavours.

"Keep up, Mr Baggins!" Thorin called over his shoulder at him, but Bilbo simply couldn't run any faster. His lungs were burning from the cold air, and suddenly a sudden dip in the ground caught his foot and he fell right over on his face, jolting his arms from elbows to shoulders and almost cracking his head on the stones. Thorin turned around and pulled him up at once before his head had even stopped spinning.

"I'm too c-cold," Bilbo gasped. "Go on, go on, I'll follow at my own p-pace."

If he was separated from the others he could always wear the ring until he reached the wall, he thought. But Thorin didn't know that and his eyes widened as he glanced over Bilbo's shoulder. "You're too slow," he said, almost apologetically. "Up! Up onto my shoulders."

"That's not really necessary—”

"Would you rather we both are caught?" Thorin knelt down, looking back at where torches were coming alight in the distance. With a grumble, Bilbo climbed onto Thorin's back and wrapped his arms around his neck. Thorin broke into a run, leaping over the rough, shadowed terrain, and was soon back on the heels of the others. Bofur was in the lead, yelling elaborate obscenities about their speed to encourage them. It was far from comfortable being bounced along in the dark on the bony back of a dwarf, but at least it was warmer.

By the time they reached the wall Ori had easily heard their approach thanks to Bofur's chatter. He leaned over to look down at them. "I'm ten minutes late to wake Nori!" he called. "Did you get them? You did! Well done, well done!”

“How’re old fellas like me supposed to get up there, then?” Oin craned his neck back and squinted up at the rope Ori was reeling down to them. He glanced at Thorin and then jerked his head at Bofur with his arm in a sling in indicate their real problem. Thorin hummed deep in his throat as he lowered Bilbo back onto his feet.

“Ori, wake everyone up,” he called, waving his arm to get Ori’s attention. “Get some light and more ropes, and the best archers to stand on guard. We are pursued, but I think they will turn back if they see we are defended.”

“Yes, sir!” Ori yelped and vanished off the wall.

“The path,” Bilbo tugged Oin’s sleeve. “There’s a path that will let us over the wall. It’s a bit of a climb to reach it.”

“Is that safe in the dark?” Thorin asked.

“Hauling everyone up in slings can’t be much safer,” Bilbo shrugged.

They could hear the commotion inside the mountain as they led the escapees to a ruinous part of Erebor’s ramparts that had collapsed outwards. The debris formed enough of a steep stair to reach the thin ledge that joined the top of the newly built wall. Soon the dwarves inside of the mountain were handing up torches and lamps to shine their way, and throwing over a rope that Fili tied off around a surviving parapet so that they had something to hold onto as they shuffled along the thin ledge.

Behind them, lights appeared in a line across the middle of the black night, illuminating the shapes of elves and men on horseback. Bilbo imagined that he could spot Bard among them, but the figures stopped some distance away and simply stood where they were for a long time. No doubt they could see that Erebor was awake, and perhaps make out the shapes of their prisoners shuffling along the ledge. It would have been very easy for a good bowman like Bard to shoot them all down, for they were exposed against the bare rock with no shelter in sight, lit up by the starlight and the torches behind the wall. But the riders did not approach closer or make any threat.

Thorin and Bilbo went last, crouched down on the top of the rubble once Thorin had helped Kili up onto the ledge. Fili and Oin gripped each other’s forearms behind Kili’s back in case his leg gave way suddenly and the three of them nudged him along.

“Thorin,” Bilbo said, once Thorin seemed satisfied that the linked dwarves were making their way without difficulty. Bofur had already reached the wall and was being hauled down with cheers and clapping. Bilbo reached out to touch Thorin’s shoulder and then drew back, suddenly feeling unwelcome. He shook himself and grabbed Thorin’s arm, and the dwarf turned to look at him.

“What is it?” he asked, eyes widening.

“Nothing’s wrong, no,” Bilbo soothed him. “It’s just… there’s something I have to give you. I want to do it now, so you don’t think any worse of me,” he reached into his coat, and drew out the small, heavy package wrapped and tied off in rags. He took Thorin’s hand and pressed the package into his palm.

Thorin took it with a frown. Bilbo swallowed. “It’s your grandfather’s Arkenstone,” he said softly.

Thorin sucked in a breath. “Bilbo…” with one hand he held the stone against his chest, like some fragile animal that had to be kept warm. With the other he tugged at the rags, revealing a sliver of its unearthly glow. In an instant he covered it with his hand again, raising his head to look at Bilbo. “How long have you had this?”

“Days and days,” Bilbo shook his head. “I found it when I first encountered Smaug. Frerin had sent me in to fetch it, and I was determined to do my duty to him, but somehow…” Bilbo squeezed his eyes closed and made a face as if he'd suddenly cracked a tooth. He looked at Thorin after a moment. Thorin’s mouth was a thin line, but his expression as he watched Bilbo was hard to read. Bilbo blustered on. “I wasn’t keeping it for myself. Smaug had put all these ideas in my head, that the stone would corrupt Frerin, that it would make him forget all the good parts of himself, and I was… I was afraid. Or stupid. That’s what dragons do, don’t they? Twist your thoughts, turn your heart against the things you love.”

“You don’t have to explain dragons to me. I know their power,” Thorin answered, and Bilbo felt a jolt of relief and joy that his first words were not a rebuke. Thorin’s brow tightened.

“I did worse, though,” Bilbo said, wrapping his arms around his body. “I took the stone tonight because I thought maybe, if we were caught, or if the dwarves were too well guarded… I thought maybe I could trade the stone for them. Frerin seems to want this rock as much as anything else right now, Thorin, but I would much rather have my friends safe on our side of the wall and the stone in the enemy's camp. If Thranduil wants a hostage to threaten Frerin with, I thought, better it's some pretty gem than Kili’s life, or anything like that!” he sighed and hunched his shoulders. “Even when it looked like we were going to rescue them all safely, I thought about leaving it with Bard, so that he could trade it with Frerin for the reparations he wants. It seems fair, doesn’t it? The only thing that stopped me wasn’t that I was betraying Frerin. I just suddenly thought… that anger, when Frerin thought Fili had turned on him… it only drove him deeper into protecting the treasure, like a peg beneath the hammer. Suppose I gave Bard the stone and it only made things worse?”

He found he was chewing on one thumb, staring down at the rocks like a child waiting for a vicious scolding to begin. He tucked his hand back under his arm as he looked up at Thorin.

Thorin did not speak a long few moments, drawn out in the cold night air. Then he said quietly. “But now you are not giving the stone to Frerin. You are giving it to me.”

“So that you can give it to him. I think it will mean more, coming from you,” Bilbo explained. “When the time’s right, I think if you bring him the stone, he’ll listen to your counsel before he would even look twice at me. Does that make sense?”

Thorin nodded and Bilbo almost fell apart with relief. The dwarf opened his jacket and put the ragged package into an inner pocket. He exhaled a long, slow breath. His face broke into a shaky smile. "I can't believe we got away with that, Mr Baggins. Stealing four prisoners right under Thranduil's nose."

Bilbo could not keep a chuckle from bubbling up. "Neither am I! I should never have let you talk me into it. We don't deserve such good luck."

Thorin gripped his arm. "You are the most deserving thief in Middle Earth, I think. I'm so glad you came with my brother on this quest."

Bilbo could only smile at that, but he felt the rueful twist in his mouth. He'd earned his share of the profits several times over, he knew, but he hadn't come for gold.

“They’re waiting for us,” Thorin said as he stood up. The dwarves on the wall were calling to them, holding their torches high, perhaps thinking that they had refused to cross the ledge simply because the light was bad. Thorin climbed up onto the path and untied the rope that Fili had left as a guideline. He wound it up around his arm and held his hand out to Bilbo.

"Let's go face up to the king," he smiled.

Chapter Text

Fili leaned against the base of the wall, pushing his hair back from his face. His gaze rose up the length of the huge pillars just inside the broken gate. Erebor. He was looking into his great-grandfather’s kingdom at last. He had been waiting for this his whole life—

(or perhaps Erebor had been waiting for him, and for far longer)

—And yet as he stared into the shadows of the mountain, he felt only dread. Frerin had named him a traitor, and he had certainly disobeyed his king, even if it had been his only choice at the time. Worse, there was a bitter taste in his throat when he thought of Laketown burning, of the villagers weeping over the bodies or sitting alone with no bodies at all, only empty spaces. They had paid for Erebor with their lives, and had gained no reward for it. They would not be kings like Frerin, they would only be widowers and orphans.

He watched Oin and Gloin cackling insults to each other, arms around each other's shoulders, and Bofur being crushed by the crowd of Bombur, Bifur, Bilbo, Nori and Ori all trying to welcome him at once. Kili limped over and collapsed to sit against the wall beside Fili, clutching the bandages around his wound. He reached out to grab Fili's leg, pressing his face against his thigh with groan. "Where have you been?" he tipped his head back to look up at Fili. “And where are your boots?”

“Bard took them at night to discourage us from wandering off,” Fili explained. His feet felt like two tenderised chunks of steak, but he added, “He could have done much worse.”

“I think he’s been a proper beast,” Kili frowned. “Why didn't you try and sneak in to see me in the camp? I was worried sick about you!"

"You were worried?" Fili crouched down wrapped his arms around his brother's head, pulling him into his chest, bumping heads and getting his fingers tangled in Kili's hair, as clumsy as when they were children. "You have no idea what the last few days have been like, Kili. I feel like I've been trying to carry a white-hot sword through a forge with my bare hands, seeking water to quench it in and finding none no matter where I turn.”

Kili looked up at him with a frown. “What do you mean?”

“I’d tell you, but I think everyone will have to hear the story very soon anyway,” Fili digging his fingers deeper into his brother’s hair. He had never felt such knee-shaking, nausea-inducing relief at the sight of Kili’s face, looking lucid and petulant with his bottom lip stuck out. Fili had not had a chance to stop worrying about his brother since that fight at the river-gate when Kili was shot, and that felt like years ago. Now at last he only had his uncle to worry about, and that was an old balancing act for Fili. Worry for Frerin had probably been instilled in him in his mother’s womb, though never before had it carried quite as much weight as it did now. And soon enough, out of the shadows of the mountain strode his beloved uncle. Fili rose to his feet without feeling the pain of them any more.

With Frerin’s arrival, a hush swept across the dwarves as if a fog had suddenly risen to fill the hall. Only Kili seemed unaffected as Bofur and his admirers parted to let the king walk straight up to his nephews. Kili seized Fili’s arm and a handful of his tunic and hauled himself to his feet, leaning on his good leg. “Frerin!” he cried, and gave a burst of laughter, limping across to meet him. “I’ve never been so glad to see you! We thought for sure the dragon had scoffed you all down, and instead you came to rescue us!"

“You have no idea how much I have missed you, Kili,” Frerin waited for Kili to reach him, then gripped his nephew's cheeks and brought their foreheads together for the briefest moment. “But I did not bring you here. Who did this?”

“We did,” said a low voice, almost a twin to Frerin’s drawl. Fili looked over at the strange dwarf who Bilbo had called ‘Thorin’. He was a tall, thin fellow whose pale face made his dark hair stand out like a mourning veil as it poured unbraided over his shoulders. Fili couldn’t believe that fairytale about the Abiding King, not quite yet, but he supposed he had no other name to give the stranger for now.

“I take full responsibility, Frerin,” said Thorin. “I feared your kin were prisoners, and I am sorry to say that fear proved true. They were sperated, not even permitted to speak to each other, and guarded day and night.”

“It was my fault too, Frerin,” Bilbo squeaked. “I could have stopped Thorin, but I agreed to help him. It’s ended happily, but I should have known better.”

“Prisoners,” Frerin said as if he had not heard Bilbo, and he gaze turned at last on Fili, who felt a hole open up inside his guts. Frerin glanced at Thorin. “This was an insufferably daring risk, Thorin. And Bilbo, really, I thought you were cleverer than this. You could both have been captured. You could have been killed. You may yet had stirred that wasp’s nest into attacking the mountain.” He sounded as if he was scolding them only for appearance's sake. There was a wavering note of joy in his voice and his hand was still gripping Kili's shoulder.

"I know," Thorin dropped his gaze, gracefully accepting Frerin's feigned disapproval.

Fili's blood pulsed from his heart to the tips of his fingers, driving out the cold of the river. Before they could say anything more, Fili took a step forward. “So you would have left us to their mercy?” he barked. He saw Kili’s startled face out of the corner of his eye, but he did not look away from his uncle. “You would have sat hiding behind this wall while they took out their frustrations on us? The Lakemen lost their homes, their families, their wives and friends, and wherever the blame truly lies, the only creatures they had to take retribution from were us! Did you never think of that?”

The silence was brittle once the echoes of Fili's voice had carried back from the atrium. It was Dwalin who broke it, however, his hands tightening around the torch he held aloft as if he wished it was a neck to wring. “Those cowards. What did they do?”

“How did you think Bofur ended up with his arm in a sling? It wasn’t escaping the dragon,” Fili snapped at him, and a ripple of curses went through the company. Bilbo’s eyes went wide and he puffed up and turned towards Bofur with such hobbit-ish fury on his face that Fili would have teased him if there hadn’t been much more pressing matters on hand.

"You said you got that jumping out a window!" Oin blustered, but Bofur hushed him and Bilbo, his eyes on Frerin.

“You may feel it is your right to starve yourself in here,” Fili said to Frerin. “But how long do you think we would have survived? Bard and Thranduil protected us in that camp. The guards were to keep us safe as much as to watch us. But I don’t know if that amnesty would have lasted any longer than their patience with you. Sooner or later they would have thrown us to the soldiers to be used for target practice, or worse!”

A lamp crackled. Frerin’s breath was quick and shallow, but his face was softened with some tenderness as he held Fili’s eye. “Come here,” he said at last, holding out his hand towards Fili.

Fili didn’t move towards him. He wasn’t sure he could move at all, with so many gazes on him. He had never challenged Frerin’s judgement in front of others, or at least, never so loudly.

“Come here, Fili!”

The spell broke and Fili stumbled into his uncle’s reach. Frerin took his arm gently and turned to look around at the rest of the dwarves before speaking to Fili, loud enough that the rest of them could hear. “I want to hear the whole story from you first,” he squeezed Fili’s elbow. “Yes?”

“Alright,” Fili said, trying to control the tremble in his voice. Even he wasn't sure if it was rage or fear.

“Let’s find somewhere quiet,” Frerin slid his hand into the small of Fili’s back and nudged him along, bending his head towards his nephew. “Your brother is not on the verge of death after all, I presume?”

“N-no,” Fili looked at him. It took him a moment to realise Frerin was talking about his words during the parlay with Bard. “At least, not that I know.”

“Good. Then it’s just you and me for the moment,” Frerin gave him a small smile. They were already a few steps away from the company. The others were beginning to argue about everything they had just learned, even as they called for a celebration that the company was whole once again.

Fili’s gaze darted about as they walked, his heart tugged towards the splendour of the mountain’s towering ceilings, the tiles tessellating away from his feet, and the wall reliefs that were taller than him and more delicately carved than spun glass. Against the dour grandeur of Erebor were signs everywhere of the dwarves’ recent habitation. Little piles lay in the corners like cairns to mark the edges of territories, each consisting of a Laketown bedroll or two, and pilfered, antique blankets. They passed a tidy fire-pit built out of rubble and fed with broken furniture. Dusty weapons, armour, statues, chalices and other selected specimens of classical art were displayed around the austere colonnades of the atrium in an attempt to make the hall more homely. But all in all it looked, Fili thought grimly, like the abode of squatters – or grave robbers.

Frerin took him to a dais up a short flight of steps. He settled himself on the foot of a large column, folding one leg up to rest his boot on his knee, his hands clasped over his ankle. Fili stayed standing, his arms folded with his hands resting in the crooks of his arms.

“Start from the beginning,” said Frerin. “When Smaug attacked the town. What happened? How did Bard really manage to kill the beast?”

“I thought you wouldn’t believe anything I told you,” Fili mumbled. “I thought I was a ‘cutthroat usurper’.”

There was a lump in his throat that kept catching at his voice. He had not been able to get Frerin’s words out of his thoughts ever since the failed parlay with Bard at Erebor’s gate. He had not told Bofur what Bard and Thranduil had wanted from him, nor what Frerin had said at the parlay. But there had been little to keep Fili occupied inside the Host’s camp, and during every quiet moment Frerin’s voice had risen up again like an echo and whispered to Fili when he tried to sleep.

“Fili,” Frerin tipped his head to the side. “I was very angry when I said that. You were letting those snakes ransom your brother against me…”

“I would never!” Fili cried, throwing his hands out. “He wasn't a hostage against you, uncle! They said you were too unpredictable, so they held his freedom against me!

Frerin sat up, his back and shoulders snapping into rigidity. “They threatened to hurt him?”

Fili could only shrug. “I don’t know what they were capable of; Bard was rather kind to me, in his own way. But they made it very clear that they would never release Kili, Bofur and Oin unless I could talk you into give up the treasure to the Lakemen. They even tried to send the others all back to the Mirkwood dungeons with the latest supply shipment, and it took everything I had to stop them, I had to promise and swear and grovel to Thranduil like a slave, vowing that I would do my best to sway your mind. And then once the caravan had left the camp I backed out and said you would be more pliant if we waited longer. I felt like a foul, lying weasel, Frerin, but I had to buy time until I could figure out an escape.”

There had been so many unknowns to balance. He knew that if they were to break out of the camp, there would be no second chance. All four of them would have to leave together, and they could now gamble on a single risk. In the first few days after Smaug’s death, escape had been a fantasy of bravado in Fili’s head; he had imagined simply punching out their guards, grabbing the others and making a run for it. It would be easy, he thought. All he needed to know was where Kili and Oin were being held at night. They would soon be safe and warm in Erebor. How could anything be an obstacle to them now that the dragon was dead? But he realised how bad things were after Bofur was attacked. Getting past Bard would be the easy part; if they were seen by the Lakemen on the way out, they might be murdered, and if they were caught alive, Thranduil would not hesitate to send Kili and the others back to the forest to rot beneath his palace.

Once his brother was out of reach Fili would only have three choices. He could do nothing and hope Frerin became more charitable as the siege went on (as unlikely as the Abiding King rising from his tomb to rescue them, Fili thought at the time). He could return to Frerin and tell him Kili was being held hostage for the gold (and he would never negotiate, Fili was sure, he would rather fight Smaug in single combat than give in to the Elfking’s demands). Or he could do Thranduil’s bidding. And that was the most terrible choice of all.

“What are you talking about?” Frerin rumbled. “What did they want you to do?”

Fili shook his head. “They put words in my mouth at the parlay, Frerin, they wanted me to go into the mountain with you and be their puppet inside your ranks. They asked me to spy on you and work against you in whatever way I could. I wouldn’t, I refused, and they were so angry. Thranduil even promised that he’d… he’d somehow…” Fili pressed his hand to his forehead and laughed. “That if I did exactly as he said, he’d make sure I became king in your place. So I refused to leave their camp unless they released the others, too. But I was so afraid that sooner or later they would get truly desperate and force my hand. I was trying to protect you! And you called me faithless!”

It was almost a sort of horrible relief. Here at last the truth. For decades he had tried to be a good nephew, a good crown prince, only to be set aside in favour of his younger brother again and again. Over and over he’d examined himself, questioned himself, even asked Frerin on several occasions – what do want from me? What am I doing wrong? Do you hate me because I’m on Mama’s side? That isn’t fair Frerin, I’m not choosing sides, I’m trying to make the best for everyone. And Frerin had coddled him and mollified him and promised Fili he would give him more responsibility, keep Fili close so that he could learn from his uncle, take Fili away with him on diplomatic visits – but it never happened. Fili would speak out of turn, or Frerin would suddenly take offense to Fili’s tone, or just change his mind without warning, and Fili was back on the outside looking in.

But this quest changed things. It wasn’t just games and finances and trade agreements anymore. It wasn’t just about who would be king in a hundred years. Kili would have died if Frerin had got his way and dragged him up the side of the mountain. And at the parlay, the whole charade had hinged on Fili’s decision – to obey Thranduil and enter the mountain, or protect Frerin and stay outside – and when he’d chosen Frerin, his uncle and king had spurned him in an instant. As if he’d been waiting for years to find Fili wanting. It was, in its own way, a weight off Fili’s shoulders. He would never be good enough. He could finally stop trying.

All of this surged through his mind, but before he could say any of it to his uncle, Frerin stood up and strode towards him. “I know all that, Fili, of course I know that.”

Fili drew back, feeling as if he'd been flipped suddenly onto his back. “You… you do?”

“Of course I do!” Frerin held his hands out as if in offering. “You didn’t really believe that act at the parlay, did you? I knew something was going on and I was trying to jam their pulley. Oh, Fili, I would never think you disloyal.”

“I… I didn’t realise…” Fili ducked his head. “I thought… you were truly angry.”

“Don’t be a fool. I am always on your side. If you’d just been a bit clearer about your intentions to escape I would have helped however I could.”

Fili licked his lips. Now he felt rather like that night in the misty mountains when the floor of the cave had split apart and dropped away beneath them. “I’m sorry, Uncle,” he mumbled, shaking his head. This jolt was too fast to adapt to. He had steeled himself for agonising accusations, made himself ready for a wholehearted, screaming, nearly-coming-to-blows argument with Frerin, far more painful and personal a clash than the one at the parlay. Instead he felt a rush of shame.

“I thought it would be obvious,” Frerin said into his silence, as if reading Fili’s thoughts. “You were signing to me in Iglishmek, weren’t you?” he smiled. “Making the sign for ‘distrust’.” Fili nodded. Frerin took a hold of his face, his thumbs stroking the peak of Fili’s cheekbones. “I didn’t even realise you knew Iglishmek, you clever lad!”

“I learned it from your grandmother,” Fili murmured. “Not much, and I’ve forgotten most of it, but a little.”

“So the old bag was some use after all,” Frerin chuckled. “She never seemed to think much of me in her old age; something about the way she started to look at me, as if her memory was going and she was disappointed each time she realised I was not Thorin,” he smiled until Fili could not help but smile weakly back, despite a leaden dizziness rolling around his skull. Frerin nodded. “Does it all make sense now, Fili?”

“Yes, of course,” Fili said and he repeated, “I’m sorry. I thought badly of you.”

“That’s alright,” Frerin sighed, and pulled him into an embrace. “We all make mistakes, and I forgive you.”

Fili slumped against him. The strain and fear of the last few days seemed to have been all for nothing. The dwarves had been rescued without Fili’s help and Frerin had had the situation under control far more than he’d realised.

“Let’s go back and join the others,” Frerin stepped back and beckoned him. They went back to the gate to find all of the dwarves sitting in a circle of torchlight while Bofur described Smaug’s assault on Laketown and his mighty death in visceral detail. Fili sat down just behind Kili, flashing a smile when his brother twisted around to look at him with a raised eyebrow.

Satisfied that all was well, Kili grabbed the arm of the dwarf beside them and turned him around to face Fili in a dim firelight. “Look! Look, Fili, it’s him! It’s Thorin the Abiding King – they found him and he’s real!”

“Er,” Fili didn’t know what to say, and neither did Thorin it seemed, as he was chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Pleased to meet you. And thank you for getting us out of there.”

“You’re very welcome,” Thorin touched his brow in acknowledgement, and turned back to listen to the end of Bofur’s story.

Fili felt a small hand on his shoulder and turned to find Bilbo crouched down behind him, his forehead knotted. “Is everything alright, Fili?” Bilbo whispered, so softly that even Kili and Thorin sitting a few feet away would not have heard it. “Between you and Frerin?”

“Ah… yes!” Fili said, forcing his voice to sound as merry as he could. “It was all a bit of a misunderstanding, Bilbo, wasn’t it?”

“Oh,” Bilbo’s frown seemed to grow even deeper. “I’m… glad to hear everyone came to their senses. Well, it’s good to have you with us,” he patted Fili’s shoulder, holding his gaze for a long moment before he turned away and shuffled back to sit beside Thorin.

Fili, feeling a little offended, wanted to ask Bilbo what exactly he meant about him coming to his senses, but exhaustion was eating away the last of his resolve. He wriggled forward until he could rest his head on Kili’s shoulder and let his eyelids droop. It was time to rest, he thought. He had never needed it more.




When Thorin looked at Bilbo around the fire the night after they brought the dwarves back from Erebor, the air crystallised in his throat. Something had changed for the better between them, and yet when he tried to grasp what it was, it felt as cold and shameful as the weight of the Arkenstone in his pocket.

He remembered how it would get hot, all his skin beneath his clothes, when he saw a dwarf stripping off after a round in the practice ring, or when he and Dwalin went swimming in their clothes and the water made Dwalin’s old cotton shirt cling thin as spider-silk to his arms. Dwalin never had new clothes, back then. His father Fundin could have afforded him a whole new wardrobe twice a week, but Dwalin hated dressing up, being ‘prissy’ he said. "You can put all that shit on," he assured Thorin, "You're a prince and you have to look rich or you'd be an embarrassment." But it was always a point of honour to him, that he should look like he'd been on the road for five years (though he'd never gone more than a league from the mountain). Or maybe it was just a young dwarf's way of mimicking the worn and hardened heroes he saw at the barracks. Either way, it meant that when Dwalin's shirts got wet it was very distracting.

Dwalin had never felt like that about Thorin. They both knew about it, because they got to an age when Dwalin always wanted to talk about dams, all the time like a raven that wouldn’t stop spouting its message, and eventually Thorin snapped and told him, “I don’t even like dams, and you’re foul, the way you talk about them.”

They were down by the river that day, too. Dwalin shut up like his jaw was wired tight and then got offended and slunk off. Later he came back. Thorin was still sitting by the water. He’d taken his wet clothes off and left them on the baking rocks to dry. Dwalin dropped down beside him with hunched shoulders. “You really don’t want to see dams with their clothes off?”

“No,” Thorin said sulkily.

“Haven’t you seen the lasses in the king’s guard when they’re doing their skirmishes?”

“Yes,” Thorin rolled his eyes. The dams who were in training to be soldiers had a tournament going this year, for agility and footwork with rapiers. The tips were blunted, but sometimes they still got cut. Driving cloth into a wound was the quickest way for it to turn septic, so most dwarves in such competitions stripped bare to the waist for matches. The dams down at the barracks were no exception. They would not risk their lives for modesty’s sake. Thorin grunted, “They don’t even look that different from the fellows, far as I can see.”

“Then maybe that’s the problem, you should come see these paintings that Hardaz’s older brother has, then you’ll get it—”

“Dwalin, I don’t want dams,” Thorin muttered. He left a hard edge in his tone. He didn’t know, yet, whether he was going to regret his outburst.

Dwalin was quiet for a while. Finally he said, “I know there’s others like you, but I don’t know any of them personally,” he said, sort of apologetic, as if he should have made an effort. “Have you told anyone else?”

Thorin could feel the concern flowing off him. It felt close enough to compassion, and he wanted his best friend not to look at him like he’d turned to glass, so he punched Dwalin in the arm. “Fuck off. There’s no one like me. And no, I haven’t told anyone.”

“Your gran’s going to be mad,” Dwalin muttered. He picked up a stone, half the size of his fist, and with a grunt threw it full across the river. Thorin heard the shush as it vanished in the shadowy grass on the far bank. “Seeing as you’re supposed to be king and all.”

“Why can’t I be king?” Thorin said, rage twining up his throat. His elbows rested on his knees, his hands hanging between, gripping each other tight. “Why would it matter who I want to see with their clothes off? My grandfather doesn't spend his council hours looking at people with their clothes off.”

“It’s part of your job, though. You know,” Dwalin shrugged. “You gotta have heirs.”

“I can get them anywhere,” Thorin snapped. “Frerin and Dis can get married. Cousin Nain is betrothed. I don’t care who my heir is. And it’s not like Umad and Grandpapa got married because they wanted to take each other’s clothes off."

"What do you mean?"

"They never intended to be wed," Thorin tipped his head and wrung out the water from his hair that had collected at the tips of his braids. "She was sent over from the east to marry his father, only she was about sixty years too late, Great-Grandpa Dain didn't want some snobby Blacklock girl replacing the dead mother of his children. She hung around in the army camps way up north, in the Grey Mountains, swapping all her silks and finery for the soldiers' furs so she wouldn't freeze, hanging around with the cooks and cartographers, anyone who'd give her work while Dain decided what to do about her. Eventually she fell for Grandpapa's brother Fror, but she hated Grandpapa because he was as rude to her as his father.”

“I didn’t know any of that,” said Dwalin. “Why’d they get married, then?”

Thorin shrugged. “His father died, and Fror died. Killed by cold-drakes. Umad had gone down to Esgaroth to trade her dowry for supplies for the army and she came back to find half of the camp was dead, and Grandfather trying to hold them all together. So they had to learn to like each other after that. And then she got called back to the east, I think, to marry some beast, but by then they were building Erebor together and she didn’t want to go. So he said he’d make her queen to keep her safe. He didn’t want to. He was in love with a merchant’s daughter. But he owed her a lot by then, and she really, really didn’t want to leave the mountain. I guess they were good enough friends by then for it to work out.”

Dwalin weighed another stone in his hand, threw it into the fast-flowing water in the middle of the river. “I’d never have guessed. They get along so well.”

“People change,” Thorin murmured. “And you haven’t heard them fight. They fight like wolves at each other’s throat, for hours, I swear! And then the next day they act like nothing happened and they're perfect business partners again.”

“We should all be so lucky,” Dwalin muttered. He looked at Thorin and winked. “I don’t think any dam will stand me, either, not even long enough to fight with me. We’ll both be lone boars, eh?”

“Speak for yourself, I'm third in line to the throne of Erebor. Someone will have me. Someone better looking than you,” Thorin grinned, and elbowed him. “If you tell anyone I don't like dams, I’ll fucking kill you.”

“Are you joking? I’m s’posed to be the crown prince’s guard! If I start blabbing royal secrets I’ll be thrown out of the mountain!”

Then Thorin had chuckled, and Dwalin had pushed him, and they’d both ended up back in the river howling with laughter and gasping for breath as the frigid water drove needles into their skin.

In the atrium, with two nephews who were yet strangers sitting beside him, Thorin remembered what it felt like to be young. He wrapped his hands around his body as the flames chewed through Erebor’s mouldering chairs, warming his skin and the blood beneath. His limbs were thin with starvation and stiff in every joint, but he remembered what it felt like to be full of strength and lusts and furies. He remembered spilling himself in bed every other night. He remembered thinking about the flex of hands around an axe and muscles bulging from shirts, when he was supposed to be sitting through council meetings and taking notes on the budget projections. He remembered how he’d wanted things, and how he’d held back, because of his duty, because he loved his grandfather more—

And now he was finally free of all such duties and the fire in his belly was gone. His body didn’t seem to care about any of that sort of thing. He might as well have had a doll stuffed with paper between his legs for all it mattered. He told himself there was just no one around, no one he’d look twice at if he’d been at home (if home had been the way it was). But it was a lie. His memories weren’t fogged by time, they were little more than yesterday, and he knew that give him a week and he’d never have been as picky as this. Dwalin might have lost his hair but he looked finer than ever with his fierce scars and tattoos. Thorin thought he'd probably have gone after Ori too, in a pinch (if he'd been stuck in a mountain with him, and if his brothers hadn't been looking). No, it wasn't prospects that he lacked. It wasn't the confusion and fear of this new world that was keeping him dulled, either. It was him that had changed.

And it hurt so bad because he’d held back. He’d been the embodiment of a prince of Durin’s line, noble and steadfast. He’d never even kissed a dwarf with longing, not one, not once. Because of his duties. And now he was old, and his body didn’t even want to kiss, not anyone, not anymore. It didn’t care. But he remembered, and he wanted so badly to want again that he had to press his face into his knees and grit his teeth to keep from screaming.

But as he forced himself to breathe, long and filling gasps of air, he felt the ghost of lips on his own. He looked at Bilbo across the fire and without warning there was a faint spark flash and vanish deep, low in his belly.

It wasn’t all gone, surely.

Someone could waken it.

Chapter Text

Bilbo dreamed of dragonfire filling his lungs with smoke, heavy hands pressing him down, and woke gasping for air. He sat up as soon as he’d oriented where the ground lay. It was the morning after their raid on the camp and the company was in some great danger, he was sure. The dragon was returning and they would all suffocate in his toxic breath, the dwarves’ thick hair burned down to their scalps, their skin peeling off in sheets and flesh falling in cooked hunks from their bones, and at last his rage would be turned on Bilbo for stealing his most precious of treasures. And in the dream Thorin had stood unmoving, watching, caught in the dragon’s spell and yet smiling, ever smiling as the walls of the mountain crumbled around him—

It took Bilbo a moment to remember he was back in Erebor, safe behind the wall. There was the background hum of danger all the time now, of course, between their dwindling supplies and the army on their doorstep, but Smaug himself had been dead for days. Bilbo rubbed his eyes and pulled his coat on with aching joints. He could feel fresh bruises on his elbow, knees and toes, and his limbs were still shaking from the hours spent in the cold the night before. No wonder he had suffered bad dreams.

Nori, Ori and Bofur were sitting near the gate of the atrium around yet another game of knucklebones. The brothers had started making up new rules because most of the dwarves had become so proficient at it, and they were teaching these to Bofur. They hailed Bilbo as rolled up his bedding.

“Our hero!” Bofur called as Bilbo stood up and wandered over. He threw out his good arm and drew Bilbo in by the waist. Bilbo could only manage an unconvincing smile for his friend. He didn’t feel like a hero. By the light of day he felt like an idiot for letting the Abiding King run into danger. They had made it through last night much more by luck than by any cleverness. But he accepted a cup of tea and a half-biscuit of cram from Ori and settled down to watch the game continue.

Bofur seemed to have picked up the new rules quite well with his uninjured hand, and was already being accused of cheating by Nori. Since Bofur’s reply was only a low cackle, Nori might have been right. Bilbo’s eyes flicked to Bofur’s sling and his stomach tightened around the dry cram. He wondered how angry Bard and Thranduil were about the dwarves' escape, and whether they would come knocking on Frerin's door again soon. They could no longer pretend the dwarves had been their willing guests, after all, and they had nothing left to bargain with except for the threat of a long siege or a direct attack on the wall. Bilbo shuddered. He wished Frerin would just pay Bard to go away and end this dreadful business. He'd got his kin back safe and sound (mostly) and Dain was (hopefully) on his way with an army. Maybe once Frerin finally had the Arkenstone in his hands his mood would change.

He should talk to Thorin about the stone, impress upon him the importance of talking to Frerin as soon as possible. He suspected that Thorin did not like the idea of bossing his brother around, and had probably come up with the whole mad plan to rescue the dwarves so that he could fob the job off on Fili and Kili. But Fili seemed to have made peace with Frerin and ceased arguing with him much more quickly that Bilbo had expected - he was a little disappointed, to tell the truth, that Fili had rolled over and accepted Frerin's apologies instead of holding out until Frerin budged on the siege negotiations. It was very odd, to Bilbo's mind. He had glimpsed a much more fearsome side to Fili that morning they left Laketown, when he stood up to his uncle to keep his injured brother behind. But perhaps that side of Fili had been nothing more than a flash in the pan, for now it seemed he had gone back to the quiet, put-upon fellow from the early days of the quest, who trailed along doing whatever Frerin needed from him. Bilbo wondered why it had never bothered him until now. And Kili always ended up agreeing with his uncle, so he was no good either. It had to be Thorin.

Just as he thought this, he saw Thorin crossing the atrium with a fresh lantern in hand. Now seemed as good a time to talk as any.

“Thanks for the tea, Ori,” Bilbo drained the last of the cup and jumped up so quickly that Bofur twitched, lost a knucklebone and cursed with enough venom to corrode steel.

“Where are you off to, then?”

“To see a dwarf about a rock,” Bilbo shot back.

He fell into step beside Thorin, whose face broke into a broad grin when he looked down to see who was at his elbow. “Mr Baggins. How are you recovering from last night?”

“I’ve been worse,” Bilbo shrugged. “You look like you have a new mission. Tell me it’s not as perilous as the last one.”

“Quite the opposite,” Thorin waved his hand at the corridor ahead. “I noticed this morning that everyone else has found themselves equipment in case of a battle. I was heading to the armoury to do the same.”

“When did you notice this?” Bilbo raised an eyebrow at him. “When you were sitting around waiting for the rest of us to wake up?”

Thorin gave a half-grunt, half-cough, looking around the carven archway as they left the atrium. Bilbo folded his arms as they walked. “I know you’re not sleeping nearly the same hours as the rest of us, Thorin. What is it that keeps you up? Do you still not feel yourself?”

“Of course I don’t feel myself, Mr Burglar,” Thorin rasped, turning to his gaze on him with a pained twist in his brow. The doorway was some way behind, so they were lit only by the lantern now, a sphere of warm light that cast black shadows in the crannies of Thorin’s old face. Bilbo fell silent. Yes, that had been a foolish question. And it wasn’t his business, really. He wasn’t anyone’s nanny.

“This way,” Thorin’s features settled again and he took Bilbo’s arm, tugging him onwards. “There’s a storeroom ahead with the officers’ equipment. Something in there will fit me.”

“Doesn’t the prince of Erebor have armour of his own?”

“Yes, of course. I was wearing much of it when I went back into the mountain,” Thorin had reached a pitted, oak door ahead and rattled the handle. Chunks of rotten wood spattered around their feet and the ring fell right out of its setting in Thorin’s hand. Thorin looked at it for a moment and then crouched to lay it aside. He pressed his palm to the ancient door. The bar of the lock had been pulled from its socket and it opened with a dusty scrape.

“Where is it now, then?” Bilbo asked, sticking close behind Thorin as they entered the storeroom. It smelled of dry mould with a cold, bony taste of empty stone. The lantern flashed across long, dusty racks of dwarf-sized, metal husks and rows of matching spears and axes.


“Your armour,” Bilbo tilted his head at the nearest rack. “If you were wearing it when you were put to sleep, where is it now?”

Thorin stopped and turned back towards him. He touched his chest. “I don’t know,” he swallowed. “He must have taken it. Smaug.”

Bilbo felt his breath quicken. He pressed his lips together, thoughts flicking in all directions as he tried to reply. He forced a bright note into his voice. “Well, come on! Aren’t you going to pick an outfit?”

After a deep breath the anticipation returned to Thorin’s face. “Yes. Not something too heavy, I think, nor one of those styles that takes two squires to assemble,” he raised the lantern and strode between the ancient racks. None of the equipment looked as if it had been touched since it was last cleaned and put away. The attack on the mountain must have been so swift that the officers did not have time to retrieve their best gear.

“Ah,” Thorin stopped beside a slim breastplate. He brushed the dust from the crest engraved across it. “This was Fundin's, from his days as a captain. He was skinnier than I used to be, if memory serves. It may suffice. Would you hold this?”

He put the lantern in Bilbo’s hands and crouched over to undo his boots. The light was heavy and streaming heat through its thick, glass windows, and Bilbo searched for somewhere the put it down. He found an empty hook for a long pike and stretched up onto his toes to hang the ring of the lantern over it. He turned back towards Thorin.

Thorin was bent over to step out of his trousers as he peeled them over his feet. His coat and shirt, half inside-out, were already draped over a dusty halberd nearby. He was wearing nothing underneath. The angles of his dwarvishly large body stood out from the shadows, skin glowing in the golden light. His long starvation was far clearer now, his large frame stripped of all but its sinews and the muscles standing taut as he crouched to tug his trousers off at last. His braids hung low around his face, half hiding the sharp profile of his nose and mouth.

All this Bilbo saw in a flash and he made a choking noise in the back of his throat. Thorin raised his head and straightened up, balling his trousers in his hands to put them aside. He made no attempt to cover himself. Black hair speckled with silver was painted in whorls across his legs and belly, his member a pale streak of flesh nestled in the centre.

Bilbo yelped and covered his face with his hands. "Thorin! Why are you...? By all that's green!"

He heard Thorin chuckle and lowered his hands just enough to look at him from the waist up. He glared at the dwarf. "Really? You think scaring an old hobbit half to death is funny?"

'Scared' was one word to use, but it was not an accurate one, except for the part where his heart had started racing beyond control. Bilbo ground his teeth together. Dwarves. Bloody dwarves and their lack of decorum. He had expected Thorin to be more conservative.

"It's no good me putting on armour over these thick clothes, and I need to know my size," Thorin turned back towards the suit and picked up a greave, inspecting the aged buckles.

"Don't give me that. I know you're not going into battle with nothing underneath your armour," Bilbo huffed, still holding his hand up to block the sight of Thorin between his knees and his belly. He stood with his side to Bilbo now, resting his weight on one leg. The other foot, still in its sock, was propped up on the bottom shelf of the rack. If Bilbo didn't know any better he could have sworn Thorin was posing.

"No, I'll have to find some undergarments, but until I do I can estimate the fit better this way," Thorin crouched to strap the gauntlet around his calf and then selected the cuisse and knee plate to cover the rest of his leg. Bilbo couldn't see past his own hand, but he heard Thorin tightening the straps around his thigh and could imagine it perfectly well. He tried to push his mind in another direction, such as weeding in spring in the Shire. He was glad the light was behind him. His blood had all left his head and gone to his face. And possibly other places. He thought determinedly about trowels and bags of fertiliser.

"Can you help me with this one? I can't reach the buckle."

Bilbo looked back at Thorin, who was holding one pauldron against his shoulder. Bilbo sighed, lowered his hand and went over. Thorin squatted to balance on one heel while Bilbo found the faded straps and pulled the tongue and buckle together under Thorin's arm, his hand brushing against the skin between his shoulderblades. Thorin let go of the plate and slid his hand into a steel gauntlet he'd taken from the shelf. Bilbo was so close now that he could smell his warm skin, his sweat-salted hair, the musk rising from the damp patches of his body. He could see every trail of grey in Thorin's locks, the age-spots on his shoulders, and a faint, old scar slashed across the knee on which he crouched. His body was otherwise unmarked by wounds, quite unlike the rest of the dwarves in the company whom Bilbo had seen undressed for bathing on rare occasions during their journey. Thorin was faded yet preserved, like the racks of armour around them.

Bilbo gulped and tightened the strap of the shoulder-plate. "Is that right?"

"Yes. It fits well."

As Bilbo stepped back, Thorin rose back to his full height, turning to face him again. He was half-armoured now, at least on the limbs all down the right side of his body. The image was a strange clash between the hard steel and the vulnerable nakedness of his chest and left side. The dust burnishing the plates softened the reflections of the lantern, and the shadows cast across the planes of his chest and legs looked thick enough to hold him up, as if he was lying prone on the tips of a tree's branches. He was so different from a hobbit, from any creature Bilbo had ever had time to study, that Bilbo's fascination now became overwhelming and he did not try to hide his stare. Thorin's fingers flexed a little as he met Bilbo's eye, his head slightly lowered almost in deference, despite being so much taller. Bilbo felt a slight frown forming on his brow, trying to figure out what Thorin was waiting for.

He licked his bottom lip and said. "Yes, it looks perfect, Thorin. Don't you want to try on the rest?"

Thorin blinked and gave a little shake of his head. "No, there's no need. I'm sure it will do." His movements were oddly jerky as he turned back to the rack and began to unstrap the plates, his gaze unfocused as he thumped the armour back onto its hooks.

Bilbo felt his thoughts settle again. He looked away at the rows of spears and swords, suddenly seized by the conviction that Thorin had not idly invited him along to choose breastplates. But then why? Why was he... showing off? A cold shiver ran down Bilbo's spine. This couldn't be like Frerin, could it? Thorin wouldn't be... well, teasing him? No. No, he wasn't as thoughtless as all that. Was he?

The silence was suddenly too thick to breathe. "What about weapons?" Bilbo croaked, to make conversation, running his fingers up the handle of the nearest pike. "Do you need a new sword? A bow?"

"I don't think there are any bows in this storeroom," he heard a shush of cloth as Thorin picked up his shirt and pulled it over his head again. "It's not a weapon for dwarves."

"Isn't it? Balin and Kili are both archers," Bilbo pointed out. "Kili had a fine bow and arrows until we were captured in Mirkwood."

He looked over at Thorin, who was tugging his trousers over his hips. Thorin's brows were raised. "Really? Frerin let him learn?"

"Yes, he greatly encouraged him, I'm sure. I can't count the number of times he's saved us with a well-aimed bolt," Bilbo turned back to face him as Thorin slid his coat back over his shoulders. His heart was beginning to return to normal speed.

"I was never allowed such things—" Thorin glanced around the storeroom and then back to Bilbo. "Do you think he'd teach me?"

The strain of a moment before was gone. Bilba had also quite forgotten that he'd come here to ask Thorin about the Arkenstone. He shrugged. "I'm sure he'd be honoured. Anything for the Abiding King."

"Let's go and ask right now!" Thorin hurried past him to pick up the lantern. "Come on."

"Aren't you going to bring your new armour?"

"I'll fetch it later," Thorin said over his shoulder. "It's not that important."




Frerin knew he had made a mistake.

He’d known it the moment the missing dwarves came down off the wall and he saw Fili’s eyes. He wanted to be glad, his heart racing as he’d reached for Kili and pulled him in, and for a moment all his fears had been washed away just having Kili close and smiling. And then Frerin met his elder nephew’s gaze and he knew.

He’d made a mistake. And as Fili’s lips peeled back from his lips in a snarl and his accusations echoed through the atrium, Frerin realised he had moments to remedy it.

Sometimes it felt like everything ended up this way, no matter how he tried to do right. It wasn't his fault – it was bad luck, or the selfishness of other people – but it was his responsibility to hold things together. To be a figurehead, to keep people loyal to each and their leaders. That’s what Papa had always said when Grandfather was in one of his moods, when not even Thorin could coax him to speak sensibly, and Frerin asked why didn’t Papa take the crown? Grandfather was sick, they could all see it. But Thrain had taken him aside and said no, none of them could replace Grandfather, the mood would pass soon. He was the heart of Erebor and nobody could craft so powerful and popular a symbol as Thror, King Under the Mountain. And Frerin had shivered and thought, I’m glad I’ll never have to be king.

But he was king. And mistakes were made sometimes. For this purpose Frerin had developed a strategy over the years. Assess the situation. Find out what people know. Find the holes in their knowledge, and populate those niches with whatever truth was necessary. Be the symbol people needed. Do not falter. Do not let anyone cast doubt.

He didn’t want to deceive anyone— he didn’t mean to lie— but oh—

Fili’s voice hurt. It hurt like Dis angry, Dis hating him, Dis thinking badly of him. Frerin’s thoughts clutched for a solution to the rage on his nephew’s face, but he was struck mindless with the surety that Fili was boiling over and he would take rest down with him; Kili, the company, and every dwarf in the Blue Mountains. Society fell apart when people didn't love their king, his father had said, and Fili would be just the beginning.

Frerin was not sure he had ever seen Fili truly angry. As a child Kili used to throw tantrums, frustrated over the smallest bothers. Dis had been much the same at that age, and Frerin had been proud to watch Kili grow up and out of his rages. But right from his earliest years Fili had been like a diminished version of the Dis that had returned from the east, soft-spoken and disapproving of all she surveyed. Fili was the lad who was always over thinking things even as a child, slow to smile at his uncle, eternally and annoyingly well-behaved.

Frerin had said this to Kili once when his nephew was in his thirties, and Kili had laughed his head off.

“Fili’s not well-behaved, he’s a conniving scoundrel,” he’d said. Frerin had blustered that he must be joking, Fili wouldn’t know how to make mischief if his tutors set it for homework, and Kili’s grin had faltered. A line appeared between his brows. “Uncle, you know he only acts like that for your sake, don’t you? He doesn’t know how else to impress you.”

Half of Frerin didn’t believe it could be true, that Fili could maintain a constant facade around his uncle. The other half didn’t understand why it would be important to Fili. He had never made an effort for Frerin except where it would advance his own character. Frerin had tried – he’d always done his best for Fili – but had long ago accepted that the lad was too self-inhibited and prudish for his own good. They had maintained a healthy distance from each other over the years, and Fili had never complained. He obviously preferred the company of Kili and Dis to his uncle, for he had no interest in the hunts and parties that kept his king's spirits up. Frerin was happy to respect that. Impress Frerin? Since when? It was nonsense.

And yet Frerin couldn’t bear it if Fili hated him.

He had to do something to fix this disaster. He had to control the damage, keep it from spreading to the others. So he took Fili away from the company to figure out exactly what had happened. And then he said the only thing he could think of, the only thing that could leech the poison from Fili’s voice: I'm on your side.

(and as he heard Fili swallow his own poison, heard it drain down his nephew's throat...)


(Frerin wished he could say it was the first time)

He knew he was piling one mistake on another. But who could contradict him? Thorin was the only one who might put the pieces together, and he wasn't somebody Fili would confide in. Nobody else knew both sides of the story.

No one except Bilbo.

Frerin was concerned for Bilbo. He liked the hobbit a lot. He was good company, a hearty drinker once you got him going, and he had more than proved his worth on the quest. He reminded Frerin of himself throughout most of his childhood, lost amongst larger and more experienced folk, desperate to earn the respect of his elders and betters.

Bilbo's only flaw was fickleness. He'd affixed himself to Thorin as soon as the lost prince had awoken, and Frerin was a little hurt at the speed with which Bilbo had realigned his attentions. It concerned him not to have the hobbit under his wing. Bilbo's clever plots and remarkable good fortune had not gone unnoticed by most of the company, and Thorin was a rallying point by reputation alone. But neither of them understood the needs of Frerin's people, the history of their struggles. They were too young to view their actions for their long-term consequences. Their combined ignorance was dangerous. The last thing Frerin wanted was for Thorin to encourage Bilbo into overreaching himself. It would be a disaster for everyone if Bilbo's initiative was pointed in the wrong direction. It had almost gone badly already – their rescue of the imprisoned dwarves had been poorly planned and they'd made it back to Erebor by no more than the skin of their heels. Frerin couldn't let them attempt such a risk again. He had to keep Bilbo close.

And the truth was, Frerin felt fiercely protective of Bilbo. Frerin had believed in him when no one else had. Dwalin and the others had scoffed at Gandalf's choice of burglar, but Frerin had seen the potential in Bilbo from the beginning, and he had been demonstrably right. It pricked him like a thorn in his sock that Bilbo now seemed to have forgotten that debt to chase the favour of the lost prince.

He was thinking all this as he sat in the treasury after a morning spent searching for the Arkenstone. It was very important he find it. It was another symbol. He needed things like that, especially… especially with Thorin around. That thought was an oily one that he slid away as soon as it cropped up. Nothing to worry about. He’d have the stone soon, and anyway, he was still king. Thorin was only a baby.


Bilbo’s high voice echoed through the halls, across the lakes and rivers of gold, the hills and valleys of piled artifacts. Frerin raised his head and caught sight of the tiny figure far away in the gloom. The sparkling ocean gleamed and shifted as Bilbo climbed down from the entranceway, small avalanches rattling away down the slope and shallow sinkholes opening up as the weight of the gold above collapsed a hollow statue or a tentatively-balanced lock of spears.

“Hello?” Bilbo called again into the expanse. The cavern was so huge that could not even hear it echo.

“Over here!” Frerin lifted his hand. He got up and climbed down to meet Bilbo.

He saw the hobbit raise his head and pick up his pace. He clambered down into the treasure and began to pick his way slowly over the hillocks, and Frerin wondered if it was safe for the poor little creature without any shoes. Who knew what gem-studded daggers or sharp crowns were lurking in this mess? If Bilbo cut the sole of his foot, he would be even more lame than Kili, and with the threat of battles on the horizon that would not do at all. Frerin needed all the able hands he could get.

Bilbo must have been thinking much the same; he was watching the ground so closely that he almost walked right into Frerin when he reached him. He squeaked and slipped in a pile of coins, landing heavily on his backside. Frerin waded over and held out his hand to pull him up again.

“It’s good to see you, Mr Baggins!” Frerin patted him on the shoulder and pulled him over to a flattened podium protruding from the treasure, perching on the edge of the stone. It was the base of a huge statue, broken off at its dwarvish boots and rent with deep-claw marks. Frerin no longer remembered whose image had once stood here. Some ancestor associated with trade, most likely. Durin the fourth, perhaps.

“What are you doing in here?” Bilbo asked, heaving himself up to sit beside him.

“Looking for the Arkenstone, of course.”

“Didn’t you—” Bilbo swallowed as if he’d lost his train of thought halfway through, “—find it yet?”

“Not yet. But it will find me, I’m sure.”

The stone had a power of its own, Grandfather used to say. It was bound to the royal line of the Longbeards, and would always seek to return to their king. But Frerin had found something else in the treasury during his search. He reached across the podium to pull a shining bundle out from behind the broken statue. “Here. I have a gift for you. To thank you for bringing my nephews back to me.”

The elfling’s vest was white and gleaming as starlight, so pliant as to feel silken under the rough sword-callouses of Frerin’s fingers. Bilbo leaned away and tucked his hands under his legs as if he was afraid to touch it. He narrowed his eyes. “Is that lace? Are you teasing me?”

Frerin gave a bellow of laughter. “No, Bilbo. Take it and see!” he shook the vest out, holding it between the tips of his fingers, revealing the shape of the mail shirt with its tiny rings and a collar of curling, silver tendrils. “It’s mithril. There’s no blade in Middle-Earth that can pierce it. Put it on, I don’t know if it fits.”

Bilbo swallowed and reached out to pinch the corner of the shirt. He didn’t look as excited as Frerin had expected, and he felt his grin begin to fade. There was more mithril in this shirt than Frerin had seen in all his life until now, let alone in one place, and he had not wanted to tell Bilbo how much it was worth in case he was embarrassed. But after a moment Bilbo seemed to sense his disappointment. He stood up on the stone and stripped off his coat and outer shirt. He pulled the mirthril on over his undershirt with some tugging and muttering, batting Frerin’s hands away when he tried to help. It was a little tight across the belly, but he was able to bend over and back up again easily. The mail made not a sound as he swung his arms back and forth to test it.

“And here, here,” Frerin climbed off the statue and returned with a leather and steel helm he’d found, though he saw now that it was a little too big for Bilbo. He smoothed the hobbit’s curls away from his face so he could buckle the strap under his chin, pulling it tight to keep the cap from slipping forward over his eyes. Pink spots blotted across Bilbo’s cheeks.

“Frerin, I look like a child playing war,” he muttered.

“Is it too tight?” Frerin asked, his brows raising in despair.

“No, no, it’s perfect,” Bilbo gasped, rearranging his features into a smile as best he could. “It’s just… do you think it’ll come to this? That I will need armour?”

“Better you wear it and not need it than miss it when the air’s full of arrows,” Frerin pointed out.

“You’re right. Thank you,” Bilbo sat down on the edge of the stone again, taking off the helm and resting it in his lap. “I’m very glad to know you’re thinking about me.”

“I feel we haven’t had much time together since we retook the mountain,” Frerin leaned back against the statue’s feet, draping one arm behind Bilbo’s back. “You’ve been rather busy with my brother. I must speak with you about that.”

Bilbo pulled his knees up and tucked his feet under himself. “I meant to explain it to you last night. I should have told you the moment Thorin asked me to help him sneak into the camp. I endangered the whole Company, and I am sorry, Frerin, it really was a risky business and I don’t know what got into me.”

Frerin thought he knew perfectly well why Bilbo – cautious, doubting Bilbo – had let himself get caught up in such a perilous escapade. It was the same reason he’d gone on this cursed quest in the first place, Frerin suspected. He didn't blame Bilbo at all. Frerin had done a lot of silly things for the sake of pretty faces in his time.

“I was rather angry when Dwalin woke me up and told me what happened,” Frerin said, nodding slowly. “But it all ended well, didn’t it? We have the others back, we know a lot more about Thranduil and Bard’s minds, and if that elf-captain proves true she will take word of our plight to Dain and we will soon have reinforcements. You did well, Bilbo. To tell you the truth, that isn’t my biggest fear for you.”

Bilbo glanced up at him. “What do you mean?”

Frerin squeezed his shoulder, pulling him in close under his arm. “I know what you’re like, my dear Bilbo,” Frerin looked out over the mountains of gold, turning back to smile at the hobbit. “You become very attached to people, don’t you?”

“Not everyone,” Bilbo countered. “Where are you going with this, Frerin—?”

“I’m trying to give you my advice,” Frerin cut across his words so sharply that Bilbo’s mouth snapped shut. “I know you tread a thin and winding line. And with me everyone can see your loyalty is a very wholesome, or at least a very harmless, sort of... thing.”

He saw Bilbo’s throat bob. The blush was gone now. The hobbit's cheeks were pallid in the reflected glow from the treasure and there was a sheen of sweat in the hollow of his throat.

Frerin felt his pulse stammer with a twinge of regret. He was only telling the truth, one Bilbo surely knew already. The last thing he wanted was for the hobbit to get carried away with his affections. “The others may be more protective about Thorin,” he explained. “Not me, you understand! I know you’re a decent fellow, Bilbo. But everything is very new and difficult for Thorin, and he’s really very young in his heart, and your friendship may look unsavoury – not to me, as I’ve said!” he scrubbed his hand through Bilbo’s hair, but where he expected Bilbo to lean into it, the hobbit swayed away as if Frerin's hand was freezing cold.

“It’s not like that,” Bilbo said at last. His voice sounded flat, and like his tongue was too big for his mouth. “I didn’t even mean to befriend Thorin, but nobody else would talk to him without bowing and scraping, or they were like Dwalin and could not reconcile him with the lad they remembered. And… well, without meaning to be cruel they’ve made him an outsider, like I was.”

“I understand, of course I do,” Frerin sighed. “But the others may not. I would not wish for them to think less of you after how vital you have been to our whole quest. Be careful, won’t you? Stay close to me if you need some companionship, but don’t clutch Thorin’s coattails.”

Bilbo nodded silently. He was slumped forward as if Frerin’s arm was too heavy for his shoulder.

“Give us a smile,” Frerin leaned down to meet his eye. “You’re still the hero of the hour. Come, help me in my search. It is boring work for one dwarf alone. Did I ever tell you about when I was a lad and my father lent me his best cloak-pin for a feast and I lost it in the forest? I was chasing after a dam, in the years before the goblin wars, and I think she stole it, for she never spoke to me again. I made up such a story to cover it up, about how I’d lent the cloak to a poor wood-cutter’s children and forgotten to take the pin off, and my sister backed me up… but still nobody believed us for a moment of course, and we were punished far worse for lying than if I’d just owned up the loss in the first instance…”

They went to work, but Bilbo did not help much. He didn’t seem to be concentrating and let coins and jewels fall through his fingers like dead leaves, barely glancing at them. But Frerin leaped from one anecdote to the next, and soon had the hobbit laughing and recounting some drunk nights in his own youth that had Frerin clutching his sides, rocked by guffaws.

The awkwardness was pushed away by the time they both decided that it must be nearly suppertime. They were not the only ones whose stomachs were grumbling; most of the Company had congregated around Balin and Gloin by the time they reach the atrium. Bombur and Nori were up on the wall as watchmen, but there were three others missing too.

“Where’s the lads?” Oin grumbled. “That boy better not have pulled his stitches and be bleeding out somewhere in the mountain.”

Before he’d even finished talking, Fili, Kili and Thorin appeared around the corner. Frerin watched them from across the atrium. His brother was at their head, carrying a bow and arrows and grinning back over his shoulder. “Hurry it up, if I get there before you I’m taking half your rations.”

“Easy for you!” Kili laughed at him. “You’re not heaving around a dead leg, are you, old man?”

“I’d still be faster than you. I think we’d get there quicker if I carried you!” Thorin replied. It was alien to Frerin, to see his stern, big brother so carefree. He had always been so serious when Frerin was a boy, had always talked like an aging politician. Or that was how Frerin remembered it.

“You want to test that? Do you really?” Kili jabbed his crutch at his brother. “Fili, get on his back. We’re having a race.”

“You’re going to lose,” warned Fili, but he was smirking as Thorin dropped onto one knee and let Fili wrap his arms around his shoulders. Thorin stood up with an ‘oof!’

“Ready?” Fili looked over at Kili, who was hunched over with his crutch propped out in front of him. “Now!”

Kili vaulted forward over the point of his crutch, jammed against the flagstones, but Thorin had broken into a dead sprint at the same moment, and very quickly overtook him. Fili whooped encouragement to his brother as Kili got further and further behind. Thorin had almost reached the dwarves around the fire when he stumbled to a stop, gasping. Fili slid to the floor and grabbed his arm as Thorin’s hands seized hold of his lower back. Frerin felt something bump against his elbow and looked down to see Bilbo running to Thorin’s side.

“Thorin! Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Thorin gave a weak laugh and bent forward over his knees. “Just a twinge in my back. Still building up my strength, I suppose.”

“Well, I won then,” Kili called, leaning on his crutch beside Dori. “Is the bet still on?”

“No,” Frerin strode forward and put his hand on Kili’s back. “No gambling with rations. Everyone gets their share.”

Kili ducked his head. “I was joking, Frerin.”

Frerin huffed. Since when did he have to play the scold? He looked sharply at Bilbo, clutching Thorin's arm as Thorin waved away his concern. The hobbit met his gaze and Frerin gave a tiny shake of his head. He left Thorin and went back past the fire to stand beside Frerin.

It was their first dinner as a company since they'd left Laketown, and there was more mirth around the fire that night than there had been for a long time. Frerin kept the conversation buoyant and his dwarves smiling, but his eyes were drawn over and over to his brother sitting across the fire between his nephews. He would quietly ask them questions whenever someone spoke a name or recounted a joke he didn't understand, nodding his head through their answers. The worst part was how similar to Thorin he looked to Frerin, and yet how different he held himself. His back was his stiffly straight, his brows always heavy and wrinkled, and the lines were deep under his eyes. And at the corners of his mouth appeared little smiles that were unfamiliar to Frerin. They appeared whenever Kili said something about Dis, or when Fili waved Ori over to ask for his sketchbook, and again as Thorin leafed through the earliest pages which held pictures of Ered Luin, of Gandalf, and Bag End away over the mountains.

To Frerin it felt as if he was watching someone else wearing his face, and wearing it wrong. And it disturbed him that no one else seemed to notice.

Chapter Text

Thorin left the officers' storeroom with Bilbo with his thoughts churning. It seemed his intentions weren't as obvious as he'd hoped. He'd thought for sure Bilbo must be aware of how he felt when the hobbit was around, but no, it seemed Thorin would have to find a way to talk to him about it directly. Maybe somewhere more comfortable than the storeroom. Not quite yet, though – he’d give Bilbo some time to recover from Thorin’s last foolish attempt to get his attention.

Thorin caught Fili and Kili as they came back from exploring the warren of offices just beyond the hall of kings. The lads were in fresh, but dusty, clothes pilfered from around the mountain, and Kili was leaning on a crutch that Oin and Gloin had made for him. They'd picked an old ceremonial staff as the long bar, the steel stamped with the crests of ancient Longbeard houses. Thorin was fairly sure there had been laws in Erebor against mistreatment of relics, but maybe it was worse to leave such things shut up in dead rooms than put them to dwarvish use once more.

"Good morning," Fili said brightly and then added, with a wince as if he was saying something rude, "Uncle Thorin."

"Thorin is fine," he replied, feeling heat in his cheeks. "Are you busy, Kili?"

Kili started, and glanced around like the thought Thorin might be addressing a different Kili. "Not at all, sir."

"Call me Thorin. Please," Thorin crossed his arms, and then changed his mind and put his hands on his hips. He'd been trying to decide how to talk to Dis' sons ever since they got back the night before. He expected them to be brash and welcoming, because they looked so much like Frerin, and like Grandfather. But as with the rest of the company they were now staring at him with a demure set to their shoulders as if he were Durin the Deathless returned from his tomb. It was so irritating Thorin wanted to shout at them, which would of course make it worse. Perhaps it had been a bad idea to approach them so soon. He should have given it a couple of days. But they were his kin, curse it all, and two of the only ones he had left since he'd fallen asleep. He didn't want to let them stare even if everyone else got away with it.

"What can I help you with, si— uh, Thorin?" Kili asked.

Thorin took a breath. "Would you care to teach me how to shoot?"

Kili glanced at his brother, and Thorin caught a raised eyebrow and pursed lips as some expression passed between them. "Who, me?" Kili said at last.

"Bilbo said you're known for your archery. I never learned and I thought, well, it could be useful if it comes to a fight."

Kili tilted his head to one side, and now the demureness was gone, replaced by doubtful wrinkle in his brow and the beginnings of a smile. "Uncle, you're not going to be any help with a bow in a few days. My skill takes years of practise," he winced as his brother elbowed him hard in the ribs. "Uh. But of course I want to help, might as well get started as early as possible."

Thorin grinned. "Thank you."




In the armoury above the gate Kili found a rack of antique bows strung with sinews that snapped as soon as he tested an arrow into the nearest wall. He shrugged, "I figured. There's twisted silk strings on some of the harps downstairs - I'll string it with one of those, they've held up better."

He slung a cloth bag of arrows slung over one shoulder while Thorin and Fili were heaved up a tall, wooden target between them. It had a large foot made of heavy ironwood, and though its paint had long since faded to invisibility, they could redraw that easily enough.

"We could set up in one of the higher halls," Thorin suggested. "Less likely that anyone will wander across the range without warning."

He led them across a bridge from the atrium into one of the public plazas, below the main halls of the royal palace. As they got deeper into the mountain, the silence that hung around them got thicker and thicker. No one seemed to be in a talkative mood. Fili was staring off into the distance, his gaze lost in the depths of the shadows. Kili was limping along at the tail of the group, and Thorin could feel him staring at the back of his head. He found his own gaze drifting to the floor more often than not. Thoughts were thick in his skull but none of them made enough sense for him to speak them aloud.

Kili broke the silence at last. "Mr Thorin?" he asked. "Why do you think Smaug left you alive?"

Thorin looked back at him so quickly he almost dropped his end of the target. He had been hoping someone would start a conversation, but he would not have wished for this one even if it meant silence for the rest of the day. "I don't know," he said after a moment.

"Were you really asleep all these years?"

The target seemed to be growing far too heavy, and his grip on it was slipping. He heaved it higher on his shoulder. "What do you mean?"

"Well," Kili mumbled. "I don't see how it's possible. I mean, if you weren't eating or anything."

"I wish I knew myself," Thorin shrugged. "Like bears hibernating in winter, I suppose."

There was an awkward pause and then Kili added. "You can tell us if there was something else going on, honestly."

"Kili!" Fili looked around now with wide eyes. "What are you accusing him of?"

“I'm not accusing anybody,” Kili said weakly. “I just... well, Dwalin said that the Abiding King—that you," he corrected, looking at Thorin, “were under Smaug's spell. I thought maybe…”

"Maybe what?" Thorin frowned.

"I thought maaay-beee you were awake, but trapped in the mountain," Kili glanced at the ceiling to feign disinterest, as if they were merely musing on the colour of the sky. "And you just took your chance to escape when you realised Frerin had broken in.”

"How would he survive a hundred and fifty years running around the mountain without any food?" Fili scoffed.

"Smaug could have brought him food."

His brother rolled his eyes. "Why? You're not making sense, Kili."

"If Smaug wanted to keep him alive. As a hostage. Or a servant," Kili chewed on his bottom lip, his gaze holding onto his uncle's profile as Thorin glanced back to speak to him. He felt a stab of fear in his gut, but almost relief at the same time that he had a chance to lay the answers out in the open. The only person in the company to whom Thorin had revealed what little he remembered of the last hundred and fifty years was Bilbo. Why had no one asked him this before now? Did they all think the answer would be something so shameful they preferred not to know? In fact, none of them had questioned Thorin at all – not even Frerin. They seemed to have believed the fairytale about the Abiding King right down to the letter.

“I see why you would ask me, Kili. But no. I promise you I was asleep. I didn’t even know how much time had passed until after Smaug had flown away to attack Laketown,” Thorin said gently.

“Oh,” Kili was silent for a moment. “So do you think the gods woke you up? So you could help Frerin?”

“Maybe,” said Thorin, and looked away to hide the flush in his cheeks. He remembered something of waking up, but it had not been a god. He had told no one at all about that little detail.

“It’s all very odd,” Kili said, almost to himself, and his brother must have shot him a glare because Thorin heard him mutter, “Well, it is!” and soon followed it up with, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be nosy."

"It's alright," Thorin said heavily, and then they were back to the awkward silence again.

Their footsteps echoed as they reached a grand, arched tunnel over forty feet tall and sixty wide. Thorin craned his head back to look up at the familiar, carven ceiling. The motifs twisted around like a braided river winding sharply between valleys, the vaults overlapping like the seams of a lizard’s scales. When he had last been here, it had been for a choir performance of two hundred dwarves. It felt like only a few weeks ago. This hall had been a forum for such public events, and for markets three days a week. It had been bustling and full of smiles and voices. And now... nothing but dust, cold stone, echoes. He still couldn't believe it.

Thorin always bought Dis trinkets when he passed through, gifts for when she had done well in her lessons. Grandmother said he would spoil her. The baby of the family already had a wicked temper and a trick of feigning ignorance to get out of chores. But Thorin and his sister were so far apart in age and temperament that he'd never known how to reward Dis with affection alone, so he could not helping buying her love with presents and sweets. Last time he'd come to see her she had not even greeted him properly, but dashed up to him and thrown her arms around his waist. "Thorin, I want a sword, Thorin! Frerin has one and Papa will not give me one! It's not fair, it's not fair!" she was almost in tears, cheeks pink and eyes screwed up as she gazed up at him.

Thorin could not tell her 'no', could not even bring himself to say it was Papa's decision and not his. He scrubbed her hair with a laugh and promised that she could come along to market next week and choose one herself – “only from the toyshop, mind you. Something pretty with a blunt blade with which you can defeat the ice-drakes in your cupboard.”

But three days later, there came the hot wind from the north, and even the sharpest blade could not defend them from that. Dis would never get her toy sword, only a broken promise from her big brother that he would come back soon. The memory cut at the soft flesh inside the chambers of Thorin's heart. Balin had said that Dis fought at Moria where his grandfather died, with a real sword, and that she had been second in command of Ered Luin since Fili was a baby. It seemed she had grown up fast in Thorin's absence, had survived all her losses and borne sons to replace them. He wondered what she looked like now. Like Frerin, probably; like Thorin too, though his own, aged face was unfamiliar to him now.

But Kili knew nothing of Thorin’s memories and saw only an empty cavern. He declared it suitable for practice and there was that bumpy few moments of “oh, do you—” and, “sorry, let me—” as Thorin and Fili put the board down and waited for Kili to take charge, but Kili seemed to be looking to Thorin to tell him what to do. Finally Fili pointed at his brother's coat pocket. "You've got chalk."

"Huh?" said Kili.

Fili reached in and pulled out a grey, powdery hunk of rock from Kili's pocket. He scraped it across the head of the wood in a rough X shape to make a target.

“Where do you want this?” Thorin asked, and when Fili started to lift the target up again, Thorin shook his head. “I can carry it.”

He heaved the board up onto his shoulder and headed down the centre of the hall. After about thirty feet he lowered the foot of the target onto the marbled floor and turned back to where Kili was stringing the bow. "How's this?"

“Bit further back,” Kili shouted, and Thorin gripped the target and shifted it on a little futher. Kili’s voice echoed over, “Alright, there! Stop there!”

Thorin paused, a found a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He thought of Dis deliberately mishearing instructions to escape her chores, guilting her big brother into doing whatever she wanted. He cleared his throat. “Did you say ‘not here’?” he called, and carried the target on another ten feet.

“No, there! Stop there!” Kili yelled back.

“Further? Well, alright then,” Thorin dragged the target onwards. The petrified wood left dark smears on the dusty floor, but who was going to scold him for that? He felt like being wicked all of a sudden. Kili and his brother were so small now he could barely make out their expressions now, but it looked to him like Fili was starting to grin, his arms folded as he watched Thorin push the target further and further away. Kili cupping his hands around his mouth.

“Stop! No more.”

“More?” Thorin shouted. “You’re going to have to really impress me with your skill, truly!”

He dragged the board even further, and Kili hollered. "No, bring it closer!"

"I can't hear you," Thorin yelled. "I'll just keep going until you say stop."

He started to haul the board on even further, and over Kili's strangled "Stop!", Thorin heard the woody rattle of Fili's laugh. He ducked his head to hide his own grin.

Kili looked at his brother and then threw his hands up, "I see how it is. You're both wretched, you are!"

Thorin hauled the target along to its original position and sidled back to Fili and Kili with his hands in his pockets. "Sorry," he said. "I must be going deaf in my old age."

Kili shot him a stony glare but then his face broke into a wide smile and he chuckled. "I'll talk nice and slow for you then,Gramps," he held out the bow to Thorin. "How much archery have you done before now?"

"I've never even held a bow," Thorin admitted.

"What, never?"

"Not in my life."

"Well," Kili limped over, took hold of his shoulders and turned Thorin around to face the target. "Let's start from the beginning."

The edginess of a few minutes before was gone; Kili was in his element, chattering away with barely a break to breathe. He was quick to jump in to adjust Thorin's stance or bring his hooked hand closer to his ear. An hour later they broke for a short lunch.

It was very short indeed, for Fili had only wrangled a handful of dried biscuits from the rations. They sat on the edge of the landing where it fell away into the lower, looking out over the halls below them. Fili and Kili swung their legs over the drop, heedless of falling. Thorin stayed a few inches back and kept his ankles crossed over each other, thinking what a foolish way to die it would be if one of them went over the edge but too embarrassed to tell his nephews to take care.

“I can’t imagine it,” Fili said suddenly, leaning back on the feels of his hand. “Mama living here, all gems and finery. Being a princess.”

“How much did she tell you about her childhood in Erebor?” Thorin asked.

Kili shrugged, indicting the great hall with a wave of his hand. “Nothing. She never talks about it. We just know what the older dwarves say.”

“There’s that song she used to sing,” said Fili. “The lullaby about the mountain burning. I don’t know where it came from.”

Kili pulled up his good leg and tucked his knee under his chin. “I remember it. That’s a gloomy one.”

“Maybe that’s why no one sings it anymore,” Fili wondered. “But it’s meant for more than one voice, I’m sure.”

“Teach it to me,” Thorin said.

“I can’t get the low parts,” Kili complained, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. “Fili, you sing it.”

“I can’t match harmonies, you know I can’t,” Fili countered with a laugh. “Oin tells me to just stand quiet at the back when he hears me squawking away.”

Thorin glanced between them hopefully. “Have a stab at it,” he urged. “Maybe I’ll know the tune. I think hymns for festivals were about the only thing I ever taught Dis and Frerin properly.”

“Who taught you?” Fili asked, glancing over at him.

“Everyone. It was always the job of uncles and big brothers to teach singing, back then, but I had neither, so I had to pick things up from all sorts of places. Old soldiers, councilors, cousins, clerics. My mother had a wonderful voice, too.”

“If it’s down to uncles and big brothers, then you should be teaching us!” Kili pressed.

“But you two are more like my big brothers now,” Thorin corrected. But Fili and Kili only stared at him. After a moment Thorin licked his lips. “You’re both older than me, surely?”

“Aren’t you going on two hundred?” Kili said with a frown and a smile in the corner of his mouth. “How old do you think we are?”

Thorin was silent. He had really forgotten that number, just for a moment, and suddenly his chest was seized by a crushing pressure like a landslide. Even if the brewing war came to nothing and they all lived to see the next spring, his life was more than half over. He swallowed and forced a smile to the surface. “Teach me that song, go on.”

“Alright, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Fili took a breath. “How does it start, Kili? Something about the Misty Mountains...”




“Where are we going?” Bilbo asked. He was following Thorin through the familiar great halls from which most of Erebor’s thoroughfares sprang, trying to stay inside the circle of light from.

The dwarf's footsteps echoed around them, but Bilbo's feet made almost no sound as he hurried along, taking two steps for every one of Thorin's. The floor was smooth marble slabs now, and he liked the feel of it under his bare feet as they sunk into the thick dust. It was two days since he had spoken to Frerin in the treasure room, and he had not forgotten the king’s warning, but Thorin had come up to him after breakfast and asked him to come explore the mountain. After some prodding Bilbo gave in, afraid it was becoming obvious that he was avoiding Thorin. Besides, he had convinced himself that Thorin's brazenness in the storeroom two days ago had been innocent enough, and the odd circumstances would not repeat themselves.

“The Chorus Vestibule,” answered Thorin. “It’s what I was looking for the other day when I lost my way after the parlay. It was one of the great artistries of the mountain, for there is not another as large or as well-constructed in any dwarven stronghold in all the world.”

They passed through burned caverns and dusty passages, twice detouring to avoid cave-ins where Smaug had evidently lost his temper and pulled down columns and ceilings with his claws. Thorin had to backtrack once or twice, and often stopped to shine the lantern on some exquisite carving or over a ledge to see the halls below. The grief on his face was unconcealed, and where bodies lay curled in corners, embracing each other or hiding their heads, he hurried on past them without looking. Bilbo found it hard to imagine Erebor when it was full of life, brightly lit and colourful with cloths and gems and voices. Thorin, it seemed, could not imagine it otherwise.

For a good long while they didn’t talk, and Bilbo wondered if Thorin had actually forgotten he was there (he’d long ago learned how easy dwarves were to sneak up on). Finally he started to become anxious about the silence and decided he was done waiting for Thorin to speak.

“Does it seem odd to you,” he said cautiously. “That Fili has forgiven Frerin so easily?”

Thorin glanced back at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, after that whole business during the parlay with Bard.”

“I was listening to Balin and Fili talking about it the other night and Fili seems convinced that Frerin was putting the anger on a little,” said Thorin. “By the way, you were quite right about Fili being stuck between a rock and a hard place, Mr Baggins. He intended to keep himself a hostage so that the Elfking couldn’t ransom his own big brother against him. It sounds as if Frerin’s outburst might have helped him a little in keeping up a façade of discord between them.”

“Yes, yes, I see all that,” Bilbo shrugged. “But I’m beginning to think that there’s more going on than we know between them. It’s rather as if Frerin doesn’t like Fili taking charge of anything. And he’s not his big brother, by the way.”

“Pardon?” Thorin put the lantern down while he climbed over a large statue that had fallen on its face some years ago. He held out his hand to help Bilbo over.

Bilbo waved the hand away and climbed over on his own. “Kili’s not his big brother.”

Thorin looked at him sharply. “They’re twins?”

“No, Fili’s the elder.”

Thorin frowned. “But Dwalin said Kili is Frerin’s heir.”

“Yes, I think so,” Bilbo shrugged. “What of it?”

“That is strange,” Thorin turned back towards their path and went on, Bilbo jogging in his wake. “I don’t know if customs have changed since my time, but the laws regarding the royal lines of dwarves are cardinal. Historically we tend to end up killing each other over the kingship if there’s any doubt about who should get the crown. There have been times in war where heirs have been disowned, or where the true king is so impaired by injury or madness as to be unfit to rule, but even then the next in line is usually appointed as a regent until the old leader’s death. I've never heard of a king changing the line of inheritance at a whim.”

“Fili has never seemed raw about it,” Bilbo said. “Perhaps he doesn’t mind.”

“It’s not Fili’s judgement I’m questioning,” said Thorin darkly. “But – I’m thinking like a Prince of Erebor again, when I am the pauper of a ruined kingdom. Many things have changed while I was asleep.” Thorin, stopping to rap on a wall, holding his light up to the ceiling. “I think we’d better take a left here and go around, this roof looks unsteady.”

It looked perfectly fine to Bilbo, but he supposed that hobbits had their hobbit-ish talents and he should trust dwarves to have their own. He frowned to himself. “But if you’re right, does that mean that, well, now that you’re back… does that mean you should be king instead of Frerin?” he chewed the inside of his lip, thinking about Frerin’s quest for the Arkenstone. Perhaps this explained it. Frerin might think that the king’s gem would secure his position above his brother. And Bilbo had gifted the silly rock to Thorin without even thinking of such implications.

Thorin did not answer for a long time, and Bilbo wondered if he’d gone too far. He had taken this whole conversation to be in confidence, that none of it would get back to Frerin or the others. But at last Thorin said, “I did not ever expect to be king at my age,” he looked at Bilbo, the deep lines crinkling around his eyes, his gaunt face breaking in a smile. “At my age, Mr Baggins!” and he laughed, hurrying on. “We’re almost there.”

They passed through a doorway so low that Thorin had to duck not to hit his head. The space beyond was made of interlocking chambers with many openings joining one to the next without any apparent pattern or design, so that in some directions Bilbo could see through the arches to so many rooms that they faded away into the shadows. Their footsteps echoed with an odd unpredictability as they walked, giving Bilbo the unnerving impression that they had dozens of followers just out of sight. The walls were a soft, undecorated stone, made of flat, interlacing planes, though many of the edges were smoothed into curves to remove the corners. It was like a madman’s idea of the straight-lined, geometrical architecture that was ubiquitous among the dwarves, in their writing, clothes and homes.

Thorin led him through several chambers until they reached one particularly large room with dozens of windows and archways that opened to the honeycomb in all directions. The floor was a smooth, shallow bowl. Thorin balanced the lantern on the sill of one of the windows and strode at once to the centre of the vestibule. Before Bilbo could ask what he was doing, he began to speak in the sharp-edged, guttural language that Bilbo had heard only briefly before during his time with the dwarves.

And as soon as the sounds left Thorin’s lips, Bilbo found them returning back to his ears, layers upon layers of echoes filling the chambers like a physical presence. Bilbo stood shock still for a moment, sure he could feel the sound passing through him, reverberating through his ribs and shifting like a slow flood through the structure around him. His mouth hanging open, he darted back into the next chamber and then to the next, and the multitude of Thorin’s voice followed him just as clear and loudly. Soon he was right on the edge of the lamplight and had to feel his way back to the central chamber. The sound felt alive and at home inside the structure. It was like being in a network of veins as they filled up with blood, like watching the spring floods sweep through the creeks and streams of the Shire. He returned and sat down heavily on the edge of the bowl, listening as Thorin turned on the spot and fell silent. It took almost half a minute for the last of the echoes to die away.

Bilbo pressed his hands to his face. “That was beautiful,” he said quietly, reluctant to make a sound in this obviously sacred place.

“Come, stand here,” Thorin smiled, stepping away to offer Bilbo the place where he’d stood. The vestibule sent his voice back to them in waves again, though not quite as intensely as before. Bilbo got up and shuffled over.

He didn’t know what to say, and in his nervousness he did the first thing that came to his mind, which was to begin singing Bofur’s pub song about the man in the moon. However, after only the first couple of lines his teeth snapped shut and he looked up at Thorin.

“It didn’t work!”

“No. It’s attuned to dwarf voices,” Thorin chuckled. “You are too squeaky, Mr Baggins.”

“That’s a mean little trick!”

“I’ve always wanted to try it with one of my friends from Dale or Mirkwood,” Thorin patted him on the back. “None but dwarves were ever allowed in here when I was growing up in the mountain. It seemed like a waste not to show it off. But don’t tell the older fellows in the company, they may scold me!”

Bilbo huffed and sat down again in the dust, his arms crossed over his knees. Thorin stepped back into the centre of the bowl. He closed his eyes and a low hum rolled from his throat, spreading out and coming back to them in a whimsical rhythm as it reached each chamber and bounced back at a different pace. Bilbo sat and listened for a long time as Thorin sang. His thoughts slipped away, his empty mind cradled and rocked by the sound. This was what it felt to be stone, to be water underground, to be dust in a cave that had not seen light in all the ages of the earth. As Thorin sung, the tone of the song changed and Bilbo began to feel heavier and heavier. He couldn’t understand the words, each syllable so slow and languid and lengthy he could not have repeated them even if he'd wanted to. They did not sound like the dwarf-language anymore, but something else entirely. The song curled into Bilbo’s skull and took root there, tugging him onwards through black tunnels that scraped him and squeezed him, and suddenly Bilbo knew what it was to slumber for a hundred years, to wait in a tomb with no hope of escape and no way to know how much time had passed, nor how much time would pass, perhaps the whole life of the world beyond those walls while he lay like an insect in amber and waited, and waited, and slept—

Thorin stopped, his head drooping. Bilbo came to with a start. The echoes swam around them and died away. Bilbo’s arms and legs were stiff and full of pins and needles, and they ached to the bone when he flexed them. Thorin staggered back and sat down beside Bilbo, his eyes squeezed closed and his hands rising to massage the sides of his face.

“Are you alright?” Bilbo asked, touching his shoulder. Thorin's limbs were shivering as if he was bone cold, his eyes wide and staring down at the stone floor with the pupils blown huge. Bilbo gripped tighter to his arm. "Thorin, what's wrong?"

Slowly the shivers subsided and Thorin blinked. The blue returned to his eyes. “Ah, I’m fine,” he shook his head, and looked up at the lamp. “We should go! I didn’t realise how low the oil is getting.”

Bilbo jumped up, shuddering at the idea of being lost somewhere in the mountain without light. He pulled Thorin to his feet and they set off, a drumroll of footsteps echoing behind them.

Most of the route was downhill, and Bilbo could remember many of the twists and turns as they went. He still felt a little strange and dizzy, but glad all the same. He had thought of this mountain as nothing but a source of wealth and prosperity for his friends, but he saw now that Erebor was far more than a treasure-hoard and a symbol of pride. For a hundred and fifty years that vestibule had stood forgotten, untouched by dwarvish voices, hidden away above Smaug’s head. A huge musical instrument that could not be sold or stolen, that could only be wielded by dwarves. Frerin had been right. There were parts of Erebor that were not to be divvied up to outsiders, that needed to be in the hands of the people who had created them, who understood them best.

“Thorin,” he said, hurrying to catch a hold of the arm with which Thorin held the lantern. The dwarf turned towards him. “Thank you. For taking me to see the vestibule. I know dwarves like to keep dwarvish things to themselves, and I appreciate it.”

“You’re very welcome, Mr Baggins,” Thorin smiled at him, and maybe it was the yellow light of the lantern but to Bilbo it was the warmest, softest smile he had ever seen and he could not help grinning back. Thorin said hesitantly, “Personally I think you are owed more than just monetary compensation for saving me. I will make sure you are treated as you deserve when this venture is finally wrapped up.”

“Well, now, I don’t think I did more than anyone else—” Bilbo started to say, and then his teeth clacked together and his heart began to race. “W-what do you mean, ‘for saving you’?”

Thorin glanced at the floor and then back at Bilbo. He put his hand over Bilbo’s where it rested on his arm, capturing Bilbo's fingers in his warm grip. “I know it was you who woke me up, Mr Baggins. But it was a strange way to meet, so I’m not surprised you didn’t stick around to introduce yourself.”

A tiny whimper twitched at the bottom of Bilbo’s throat. “I thought you didn’t remember that.”

“I… remember. But it was rather dark. When I heard the fairytales in the days afterwards I thought perhaps they were right, that it was Mahal who woke me,” Thorin’s gaze slid sideways and the corner of his mouth twitched in a smile. “It took me a day or two to work out. It was rather obvious, of course, once I realised you were the only member of the company without a beard.”

Bilbo opened his mouth, but only bile rose up his throat. He jerked his hand away from Thorin’s grasp, swallowing over and over to try and regain his voice. “Now, Thorin,” he squeaked at last. “You know I didn’t mean – it was a desperate measure – you wouldn’t wake for anything, but Dwalin told me that Smaug had promised to break the spell if someone kissed you—”

“Bilbo, I’m not angry! I’m trying to thank you. I can never repay my debt to you,” Thorin stepped towards him and Bilbo matched it with a step back, feeling the shadows creep around him as he evaded the lamplight. He saw Thorin swallow, his smile fading.

“It was nothing. No trouble. Anyone else would have done the same,” Bilbo stammered. He scrubbed his hands down his face. “Would you be so kind as to keep this between us? The others, they don’t need to know…”

The others are more protective of Thorin. Your friendship with him may look… unsavoury. In Bilbo’s ears was an echo from twenty, thirty years ago (he didn’t remember precisely) his father’s exasperated words, Oh, Bilbo, what were you thinking? Didn’t you consider how this all reflects on us, on the Baggins name? Do as you like, my son, but by all that’s green, don’t flaunt it! But the dwarves didn’t care – well, not all of them realised, but they had never… They knew him. He was one of them now. Yet he still he could taste bile in his throat and it wouldn’t drain away no matter how much he swallowed.

“But you deserve to be honoured,” Thorin frowned. “I want you to be honoured!” There was a deep knot between his brows and he would not look away from Bilbo’s face, as if there was some arrangement of runes there that he could not read no matter how much he stared.

“I’m here to do a job as Frerin’s burglar, not to get tangled up in fairytales and heroisms,” Bilbo shook his head. “I’m glad I could be of service, of course I’m glad, but I don’t want,” he closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath, “too much attention.”

At last Thorin turned away and began to walk again. “Very well. We won’t speak of it again. I'm sorry, Bilbo. I did not mean to humiliate you.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo did a little jog to catch up with him. Thorin glanced over his shoulder at him, and tried to form a smile, but his face seemed to be so stiff that it looked more as if he had bitten down on a rotten fish. Bilbo elbowed him as they walked. "Here now, don't be angry with me."

"I'm not angry with you, I already said that," said Thorin, but he said it quite sharply.

"Then you must trust me when I tell you I don't like people making a fuss about me," Bilbo said. "It's all very well for you, being raised a king. You're used to being honoured and admired, being the centre of attention every time you walk into a room, but we hobbits prefer the quiet life. I know it's hard to understand."

"No, I do understand," Thorin said quickly. "I just thought that you would feel differently, perhaps… I don't know what I thought, really," he looked ahead. "We're almost home."

Chapter Text

Bard and Thranduil rode to the wall on the second afternoon after the escape had robbed them of their hostages. Frerin was deep in the mountain searching for the Arkenstone and refused to see them. Thranduil asked to speak to his renegade Captain; he had guessed that Tauriel had deserted him and believed she must be in the mountain with them.

“I am not the only one who can keep hostages,” he said to Balin, who was on watch at the time. “Tell your king that if he harms any child of my forest, even a defector, there will be no mercy for him as long as I draw breath.”

“Get out of here!” Dori called, despite Balin’s attempt to hush him. “What do you take us for? We shan't treat a friend badly just ‘cos she’s an elf! That's more your handiwork, innit?”

Bard only asked them to remind Frerin that if he wished to speak king to king, he had only to send a messenger and Bard would come himself and treat him and his kin fairly. Frerin scoffed when he heard this.

“King?” he said. “That water-rat’s not a king. He’s got Thranduil’s hand so far up his backside there’s elf fingers flapping his tongue. If they come back again, shoot an arrow at their feet.”

Nobody protested this, but nobody cheered him either.

Six days passed. Their food dwindled, but no faster than they had expected, and spirits were holding together. Balin and Gloin had well-estimated their stocks and apart from a constant, nagging hunger nobody had shown serious ill-effects from the tight rations. But Frerin refused to begin negotiations with the host and Thorin did hear the odd mutter about how much longer they might have lasted with four less mouths to feed. He felt a swill of guilt in his stomach. He had truly hoped that Frerin, without the threats to his kin hanging over him, would have been more in the mood to bargain with the elves and men in the valley below. But Frerin’s resolve to outlast the Host was stronger than ever, and hunger seemed not to bother him. Or if it did, the thought of finding the Arkenstone sustained him.

He seemed more and more desperate to find the Arkenstone before Dain arrived, as if it was the only way he could call himself King Under the Mountain. And yet Thorin had not relieved his fears. He carried the stone in a pouch under his clothes, and had spoken of it to no one since Bilbo gave it to him. He did not think the rock could mean that much to Dain or to anyone – it was not what had made their grandfather king, and it was not what would make a unifying leader out of Frerin. Once his brother finally saw that, and only then, Thorin would give him the Arkenstone. That was his decision. He only wished he could explain it to Bilbo, but he had not found a chance to speak alone to him for days.

When they were not on watch duty the dwarves busied themselves exploring – and in some cases, rediscovering – the passages and wonders of the mountain, equipping themselves with armour and weapons from its stores or honing their skills for a battle no one wanted to admit was brewing. Some of those who were not warriors by trade – Ori, Bofur and Bilbo in particular – were roped into learning the basics of fighting in a dwarvish squadron. Thorin offered to pair up with the hobbit and teach him a little sword-work, but he could tell Bilbo hated these lessons and only agreed to them when Frerin insisted on it. Bilbo was not strong enough to wield a shield and a full-sized sword, could barely move in stifling plates of armour, and he complained often about the thought of killing elves or men.

Thorin sat with him and asked him if he’d killed before, and Bilbo said that he’d ended the lives of orcs and spiders during their adventures, but only in the heat of the moment, in defense of his friends. His voice was bitter and low at the memory. “Creatures with voices and names,” he said, “no matter how evil their deeds, are still lives cut short without hope of better days for them or any kin that miss them.” Thorin did not know how to reply. In his memory he still felt the blade of his sword cutting through a kneeling convict’s neck, and how it had taken five blows through gristle and bone, and how much blood there had been. But the reluctance he’d felt at that task had been cowardice and weakness (he’d been taught) and so had kept his thoughts to himself. It was strange to hear Bilbo discuss the displeasures of duty so openly.

All the while, Thorin began to realise that Bilbo was avoiding him wherever possible, even during their shared, thin meals. Sometimes they sat next to each other because Thorin took the initiative or because there was nowhere else to go, but it was always in silence, and Bilbo often looked around at the others with fearful glances as if seeking something in their faces.

Thorin realised what an idiot he’d been about Bilbo’s intentions. His own memories of Smaug in the minutes preceding his long sleep were blurred almost to nothing, but he had confirmed the dragon’s promise with Dwalin. Much more clear in Thorin’s mind was his awakening. Afterwards he had been blind and bewildered, barely able to figure out which way was up and down. But the breaking of the spell he had felt in his bones, the lips on his mouth a fish-hook dragging him from the depths, painful in the ripping of his mind from Smaug’s chains and yet joyous. Freedom had opened around him, as if the entire mountain had been torn down to its foundations and left him lying untouched in the clear light of the sun. And through it all had been a kiss, a stranger in the darkness, and he’d clung to it in ecstasy and in fear that to let go would be to fall back into the pit of sleep.

But Bilbo felt no such elation at the memory. He had just been a stranger helping a strange dwarf, nothing more. He might even be repulsed by Thorin's feelings.

Luckily Fili and Kili had taken to their new uncle’s company with relish, and Thorin soon did not try to seek our Bilbo or his counsel. He looked for the hobbit less and less at mealtimes or when it was his turn to watch the wall. But when he did see him, somehow Bilbo looked smaller and less important than he had seemed in the days after Thorin awoke. He stuck closer to Frerin or Bofur all the time, watching them as if waiting for orders. But his smiles when Frerin spoke to him seemed forced.

Thorin hoped Bilbo had never looked at him like that.

Then, on the eighth day after the dwarves had escaped from the Host’s camp, Tauriel returned.




She arrived well after sunset, creeping alone and on foot over the mountain’s arm east of the gate. With her keen eyes she found the thin path and the collapsed wall leading up to it, and came to the new palisades completely undetected. It was her misfortune that the watchers on the wall at that hour were Dwalin and Gloin, who knew she was on their side but would probably not have been able to pick her out of a row of elves if their lives had depended on it; certainly not in the dark. When they saw Tauriel climbing over the wall (she was making no attempt to stay hidden), they let out great cries of alarm and charged her with axes drawn. It was their good fortune (for Tauriel would probably have been more than a match for both of them) that her eyes were better than theirs in the dark, and she had listened to the dwarves’ conversation enough in her king’s prisons to recognise them.

“Dwalin! Gloin! Wait!” she threw up her hands to show her empty palms. “I’m a friend!”

Dwalin growled, but Gloin lowered his weapon. “Oh. You wouldn’t be Tauriel, would you?”

“I am! Will you let me pass? I must speak with your lord at once.”

They raised their eyebrows at each other. Dwalin leaned back and folded his arms. “I’ll keep an eye on her; go and get one of the lads to confirm she is who she says.”

Soon the fire had been banked up in the atrium and the entire Company was clustered around, staring at Tauriel as she thanked Kili for bringing her a large, gem-studded tankard of river-water. They had nothing more substantial to offer her, but she drank it all and Kili fetched another. There was dust on her face with sweat-trails through it. Thorin hadn’t even known that elves could sweat. He stood at the back of the group, arms folded, watching Kili throw a blanket around Tauriel’s shoulders. She glanced up at him with a laugh, “I’m warm enough, I promise.'

Thorin felt a strange stab of envy. The rest of the Company was showing no sign that they were perturbed by the obvious affection between an elf and a dwarf. In Thorin’s time, anything more than a professional friendship between their two peoples would have been considered a scandal, especially after the rift over the gem-trade. Had things really changed so much, or were the dwarves only tolerating Kili and Tauriel while the elf was of use to them? And if they really didn’t care, what else had become commonplace among them? What other traditions and laws had faded away during their long exile?

“King Frerin,” Tauriel nodded as Frerin arrived, his shirtsleeves rolled up, tying his hair back from his face. He had not been at dinner that evening, and when Balin had gone to find him he had returned with a shake of his head and no further explanation. But they all knew what consumed Frerin’s mind, and why.

“Did you reach the Iron Hills, Elf?” Frerin panted, pushing the last of his hair out of his face. “Did you speak to Dain?”

“I did, and he sent me off that very night,” Tauriel held Frerin’s gaze as his features contracted, and then she hurried to explain. “He wanted me to ride ahead and tell you he will come to your aid. He said he would muster a force within two days, and as many more warriors as his captains could call to arms would follow after that. They found swift horses for me to return to you myself, but I abandoned them before dawn this morning to go on foot, so as to stay unseen. There is an enemy coming down from the north that is far worse than the one on your doorstep.”

“What enemy?” Frerin growled.

“Orcs and wargs in great numbers,” Tauriel’s eyes narrowed. “I saw a force of almost a thousand marching from Taen Mithrin, heading for the Lonely Mountain. They bear many banners, but most thick among them is a sigil of a red eye that I have seen painted throughout my forest. I do not know what it means, but it is clear they are answering a singular call. They must have learned of Smaug’s death and think his treasure lies unguarded—”

“It is not his treasure!” Frerin burst out. “It is ours! And no one else’s!”

Tauriel’s hands tightened around her tankard. After a long moment she said, “Much of Dale’s wealth is mixed within it, is it not? If you ally with Bard and my King, together you and Dain’s army can protect these lands together. You would lose little, and probably nothing that you did not already owe, and you can never hope to turn back this tide alone—”

“Your king,” Frerin echoed her words as if they were the only ones he heard from her. He turned towards the fire, his hands clenching and loosening by his sides. “How long until they reach us?”

“Two days at the outermost,” Tauriel said. “Probably less.”

Frerin nodded. “You have my thanks, Mistress. I must talk with my kin. We have not much to offer you as hosts, but I’m sure my nephews will make you comfortable,” he turned away.

“King Frerin,” Tauriel jumped to her feet. “I cannot stay here. I must go back to my lord and warn him and Bard of the orcs’ approach.”

“They’ll lock you up!” Kili cried, gripping her hand.

“It matters not, Kili,” Tauriel snapped at him. “Our soldiers are divided between here and the forest, or working in Laketown. They are not ready for a battle like this.”

“No, Kili is right. You must remain here, Mistress Elf,” Frerin stood on the edge of the firelight. He had turned back towards Tauriel. “Until I have prepared a message of peace for Thranduil. The best defense for three hundred miles is behind the walls of Erebor, so this is where we must dig in. I will offer them sanctuary here. Do you understand?”

Kili was clinging to her hand, looking between him and her Uncle. She held his gaze and at last ducked her head in a stiff bow. “Yes. I will wait.”

Frerin waved his arm at the company. “Balin, Dwalin, Gloin, Thorin. Come with me.”




In the armoury above the atrium, Frerin paced the span of the room as his chosen advisors stood by. Balin was at the fore, and when Frerin did not speak he stepped closer. “What do you want to do?” he asked. “You could make them an offer by letter and send it with Tauriel, but it would probably be better to send a messenger of our own. I could go, and arrange a meeting tonight, ask them to set up a tent between here and the camp. I know it’s a risk for you to leave the wall but I think you should meet them yourself.”

Frerin looked at him from under his brows. A few strands of hair had fallen from his braid and trailed before his eyes, and he pushed them away.

“Frerin?” Balin asked.

Frerin shook his head. “We will do nothing. This news may be a greater boon than we could have hoped for.”

“What are you on about?” Gloin rumbled. “There’s an orcish army bearing down on our home and you think that’s going to help us?”

“Of course!” Frerin turned around, his eyes alight and his arms flung out. “We must keep the elf-woman here – we’ll send Dwalin and Nori with a message just as we planned to from the beginning, and tell her it is for Thranduil, but they will instead go east and meet Dain before he is anywhere near the mountain. We’ll bid him turn away from the main road and wait between the eastern arms of the mountain.”

“Try and get an army into Erebor over the hills?” Gloin scoffed. “They’ll be seen! The valley is crawling with elvish scouts. And you are on the wrong side of the mountain if you plan to use your grandfather’s secret door – besides which, it would take days to bring them all in that way.”

“No, no, you misunderstand. Dain can stay well back from the valley as long as possible. While he waits, the orcs will come upon our besiegers without warning. When the battle wanes we will call for Dain, and his warriors will bear down on a force of exhausted orcs and destroy them easily. There will be none left who oppose us.”

A faint smile danced on his lips, but Balin drew back, one hand rising to grip his own chest. “Frerin, no."

Gloin nodded. "The risk is too great. If we wait even an hour too long they will break through the wall and kill us all,” Balin glanced at the others.

“Besides, it’s not just a thousand orcs, is it?” Dwalin added, shaking his head. “Is it?” he looked at Balin and Gloin. “Don’t you remember? The mark of the red eye was in Mirkwood, just as Tauriel said. You don’t keep your whole army three hundred miles from home, do you? There’s more of the blighters in the shadows of Mirkwood, and I’ll bet my neck they’re coming to meet us in the middle.”

“Aye, we don’t know who this enemy is or how long his arm stretches,” Gloin nodded. “We need all the friends we can get.”

“And they need our walls,” Dwalin added.

“Hang what we need. We cannot turn our backs on every man, woman and child of the lake!” Balin spluttered. “These orcs will slaughter the Host and leave the town defenseless and Mirkwood a wreck!”

“What do we care? Why would we worry about those greedy war-mongerers?” Frerin’s face twisted, his lips drawn back from his teeth. “They are trying to take Erebor, Balin!” he turned to the rest of them. “You all know this. We have come so close, we are here, we are home at last and they want to take it away again. Everything I’ve worked for. Everything that we fought and survived through will be for nothing if they get their way,” his voice was rising, eyes wide as he through his hand out towards the south. “Do you know what they were going to do? Do you know what Fili told me? They threatened to execute our kin, your brother,” he spat at Gloin, and turned to Balin and Dwalin, “and my heir, if Fili did not return to the Mountain as their spy and assassin. They would have had my nephew kill me to serve their purposes. Do you understand now what we are dealing with?”

Thorin twitched and stared at Frerin. What in Durin's name was he talking about? There was a low rumble from Dwalin, and a whisper ran across the dwarves. Thorin chewed at his thumbnail, shaking his head. He wanted to question Frerin, but he was so much younger than anyone else in this room, and his throat felt stuffed full of choking cloth.

“They are desperate,” Frerin pleaded. “They took our friends, our family, simply because they are precious to us. And have you forgotten that the elves closed their doors to us when Smaug first came? Thranduil has waited more than a century for the mountain's guardian to die. They will take our home the first chance they can get. We cannot trust them, don’t you see that? An alliance will only end in treachery. What else can we do?” his brow tightened, his eyes hard. “They have us besieged. They know we are few in number. Do you really think that if we open our doors to them, they will be eager and obliging to our every wish? They will pour into this mountain like locusts upon a field and either kill us all or throw us in the deepest hole in the earth. Dain will arrive to find Erebor occupied, oh yes, but it will be too late. The mountain will not be ours any longer. We must hold onto it or we will lose it forever.”

There was a long silence, and then Dwalin said grimly, “I suppose, with Dain so close at hand, it would be foolish to give up our strongest defense. If we keep the warriors from the Iron Hills close by, then we hold all the cards. If we choose to, we could call Dain to the aid of the Host later.”

Gloin nodded, and Balin looked at them, and then at Thorin. But Thorin could not think what say. Frerin was right, after all. Their position inside the mountain was their greatest asset in any battle, but they held it by the strength of a hair and a bluff. If they gave that up, what was to stop the elves and men taking whatever they liked once the fighting was over?

“Good,” Frerin smiled, shoulders slumping. The flush drained from his cheeks and the sparkle returned to his eyes. “I’m glad it’s coming to a head so soon. When this is over, there will be no more challengers for Erebor. Our quest will be over,” he seized Balin’s shoulder, grinning. “We can bring our people home!”

Balin nodded, but if he was smiling beneath his beard, it did not reach his eyes. Frerin clapped his hands. “We must be careful, now. Not a word of this to the elf, or whatever odd sweetness she has for Kili will dry up in an instant and she will flee back to her people. Tell her we will send a message in the morning, and before the night ends, Dwalin, you and Nori must be ready to march to cut Dain off. Between the elvish scouts and the approaching orcs you will have a hard time of it; you must be very careful.”

“They could throw another dragon in our path and I wouldn’t let it slow us down,” Dwalin said, cracking the knuckles of one hand.

“Don’t I know it,” Frerin beamed at him, slapping him on the arm. "You have never let me down, Dwalin. Stay true to me now."

Thorin lingered in the lamplight as the others strode out. Frerin was at the tail, and Thorin stepped forward and seized his elbow. “May I talk to you?” he asked softly. “My king,” he added.

Balin looked back at them, but Frerin nodded at him and he headed down the stairs. Frerin shut the door behind him.

“What’s the matter, brother?” Frerin crossed the room to where a rotted spear-rack had left behind a stone ledge low enough to sit on. Frerin took out his pipe and began to light it from his flint. He tried to refill it from a pouch in his pocket, but there was little more than scraps and dust left inside.

“I fear you have underestimated the honour of Thranduil and the Lakemen,” Thorin spoke slowly, afraid of stumbling. “I have spoken often with Fili these last few days. I do not think their schemes were so cruel or complicated as you make out. He did not say Thranduil wished you dead. They were just like you, stubborn and proud and desperate to protect their people,” he shot Frerin a small smile.

Frerin raised his eyebrows, breathing in deep and letting the smoke out through his nose. He lowered the pipe. “You have spent a lot of time with my nephews,” he said. “What sort of things do you talk about?”

Thorin blustered, “Well, I don’t know, the things you’d expect. I want to hear about their lives, about everything that’s happened to our people.”

“Do they talk about me?” Frerin asked, his hands resting in his lap. He looked relaxed and unhurried, as if they did not have a war breaking on the horizon outside. “Do you talk about me?”

“I suppose, a little,” Thorin licked lips. "Why does it matter?"

"I need to know what they're saying, of course," Frerin hopped off the shelf, his pipe in one hand while he stuffed the other in his pocket. “You must not listen to Fili, he is easily swayed by temptations. Do you know Thranduil offered to make him king if he killed me?” Frerin pointed his pipe at Thorin like an old tutor passing on some old proverb. “Think how that lures even the best of fellows, the thought of such power. It’s no wonder he didn’t tell you all the details. And his brother, ah, they are both so young, Thorin. They don’t understand the burden of kingship. You should not spend every day with them, it is clearly making you reckless, and childish.”

“Childish?” Thorin laughed, turning his hands outwards. “They are my elders, Frerin. Do you forget that?”

“That is exactly why it would be so easy for them to lead you astray,” Frerin frowned at him, turning on the spot to face Thorin. “I would rather have you by my side. You are wiser and older than you know, Thorin, regardless of what you were before your long sleep. I want to bring that out in you.”

Thorin shook his head, rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Frerin, this is not important, this is not why I wanted to talk to you. And when did you care about wisdom and age?” he stared at his brother, forcing himself to smile. “What happened to my merry little brother? Bilbo speaks as if he can see him, so why can’t I?”

“Your little brother?” Frerin’s voice had become very low and his mouth a flat line. In two steps he was in front of Thorin, the pipe hanging forgotten at his side. “I stopped being a little brother when you left us, Thorin, when you chose a noble death over the family that needed you. I was no little brother after that, I was the only brother. You want me to be merry? No one has fought harder than I to keep our family and our people merry, and if you were in my place you would not think me so stern. I think if you had suffered all that I have suffered you would never smile again, Thorin!” spit flew between his teeth as he flung the name out like a curse. He was leaning in towards Thorin, yet still seemed taller than him. “I envy you, do you know that? Because you slept through all the tribulations of our clan, and I had to walk the slow and bitter road through a hundred and fifty years to join you!”

His breath hissed fast and hard from his chest, and it took all Thorin’s strength not to pull away from him. Frerin straightened up, putting his pipe to his mouth. “What did you really want to ask of me?” he muttered. “Do you question my decision? Do you think you would make a better king, brother?”

“No, Frerin, I don’t want to challenge you, most especially not in front of the others,” Thorin swallowed. “I want to help. Let me take Nori’s place as the messenger with Dwalin. It would surely be better to send someone of Grandfather’s line—”

“I see,” Frerin turned away, chewing on his pipe. “Yes, I see. If you are the messenger, you control the message. And Dain will see you as the first royal voice out of Erebor since its downfall.”

“That’s not what I meant!” gasped Thorin, and his heart was racing now, his voice beginning to rise. “Why does nothing that goes in your ears come out of your mouth in the same shape, Frerin?”

“It’s true though, isn’t it?” Frerin spun back and jabbed the stem of the pipe towards him. “You should have been king! You should have taken my place! But you know nothing of our struggle, brother. You are an antiquated child, lost out of your time, with your worn-out notions and ideals. Do not play at being a king!”

“I’m not trying to take the crown from you, Frerin!” Thorin roared.

“Then swear it!” Frerin pointed at the stone beneath his feel. “Kneel and swear that you are loyal to me, that you will not usurp me!”

Thorin’s mouth hung open. He could not pull for breath, as if the air itself was solid like lead. His limbs were taut to breaking point, and he could not have knelt before Frerin even if he’d wished to. He had seen this before, Frerin's wide eyes, his snarl, the cracks in his voice. Grandfather had spoken like this, when he'd broken ties with Mirkwood after the debacle over Thranduil's gems. As the wealth of Erebor swelled Thror had grown more miserly and cold. In the last few years – so long ago, but only yesterday for Thorin – there had been days when he barely recognised his beloved Grandfather. How could this have happened to Frerin, too? Where was the keen, mischievous boy who loved his little sister above all other playmates, who charmed visiting diplomats with his smile, who was a favourite of the cooks in the palace kitchens? Was their whole family cursed to fester in their old age? Would Thorin have gone this way if he’d lived out the years as he should have – might he still go this way, tomorrow, next year, as soon as Thror’s gold was running through his fingers again?

The blood rose higher in Frerin’s face, and he stormed in close until their noses were inches apart, one clawed hand raised as if to grasp Thorin’s neck, and yet he did not touch him at all. “Why do you hesitate?” Frerin hissed, and there was a note of pleading in his voice, his breath warm on Thorin’s face. “Why do you doubt me?”

“I don’t,” Thorin gasped, and with all his strength he raised his hands and laid them on Frerin’s shoulders. “I don’t, brother.”

“Everyone has always doubted me!” Frerin mewled, his eyes tightening. “All of them, none of them think me worthy, they have always whispered, wished I was you! Always, always!”

“No, no, it isn’t true,” Thorin whispered. “They love you, Frerin, they want you to be king.”

“And yet you won’t even swear loyalty to me.”

“I do. I’m loyal to you. Look, look, I brought you this,” Thorin croaked, and reached into his coat, took hold of the cloth-wrapped bundle inside and drew it out. He released Frerin to throw back the rags, and there on his palm blazed the Arkenstone, bright and alive in its enduring beauty. In its light Frerin’s face was wiped clean of all emotion. He stared at the stone, his mouth hanging open. Thorin gripped the back of his neck, gasping, “I… I found it, just today, while I was exploring the upper halls. I was waiting to catch you alone so I could give it to you. Take it, take it!” he pressed the bundle into Frerin’s free hand, and wrapped Frerin’s fingers around it. “It belongs to you, to the king. You see? I believe in you.”

Very slowly, Frerin’s eyes rose to meet Thorin’s. He closed his mouth and swallowed, then turned away with the same sluggishness, as if a deep ache had risen in his bones. He held the stone to his heart, head bent over it, eyes falling closed. “Yes,” he said softly. “Yes, I see now.”

Thorin smiled at his back, though he feared it looked more like a grimace. After a long silence, Frerin said in a distant voice, “You’re right. You should take Nori’s place. Go with Dwalin and find Dain.”

Thorin frowned. “I… Thank you. Are you sure—?”

Frerin nodded. “Go on. Go and get some sleep. You have a long journey tomorrow.”

Thorin waited for him to speak again, and wished he knew what to say himself, but Frerin only stood and raised his pipe again, staring at the stone in his hand. Thorin bowed and backed away to the door before he turned at left.

He paused at the bottom of the stairs, just before the atrium came into sight, and leaned against the wall. He pressed his face to the stones of his grandfather’s kingdom, gasping for breath and sure his legs would give out. But they held. He ached all the way through. His back hurt, his feet were swollen, his joints were complaining, and his skin felt raw from the argument as if Frerin had been breathing fire instead of accusations. In all these long and strange days since he had awoken, Thorin had never wanted his youth back more than he did now, never wished he was still fresh and hale as he remembered.

But he had always felt old. His father had never thought much of children, and his mother had been a kind but flighty thing, overwhelmed by her status and pulled ever this way and that by duties and favours. He had always been closest to his grandparents. They had been the two pillars holding up the roof of his world, of his whole life. With them by his side he had felt at home among the wizened captains of the guard and the elders of the king’s councils. And always thus aged beyond his years, it did not feel like an injustice to look at himself now. He finally had a body to match his spirit.

It was Frerin who had clung to the youth that was stolen from him. Thorin saw it at last. He had been afraid that in the years that separated them, his brother would have changed beyond recognition, but it was far worse than that.

Frerin had not grown up while Thorin was asleep.

Frerin had changed not at all.

Chapter Text

Bilbo awoke to a hand on his shoulder, hot and heavy through his travel-worn shirt. He startled beneath his blanket, opened his eyes to the grey-edged darkness of the atrium. He was lying on his side and had to twist his neck to look at the figure kneeling behind him.

“Thorin?” he whispered.

He could barely make the dwarf out in by the sliver of moonlight that shone between the top of the wall and the lintel of the great gate, but he saw Thorin raise his hand and guessed that he was putting a finger to his lips. Bilbo sat up, rubbing his eyes, and Thorin twitched his hand to beckon him.

“What is it?”

“Sh!” Thorin tensed and Bilbo clambered to his feet, feeling his joints crack and sigh after lying on the hard stone. His stomach wrung itself around emptiness and he knew he would find it hard to get back to sleep. Yawning, he followed Thorin’s hulking shape across the gallery. They seemed to be going a long way from the rest of the company, and Bilbo began to feel uneasy. What was it that Thorin didn’t want the others to hear? He stumbled on a flight of stairs, but Thorin just looked back until he’d recovered himself and then strode on.

At last he stopped at a wide, echoing landing. It took Bilbo some time to realise they were at the dried-up fountain of the dwarf riding a boar. Thorin had his hands tucked under his arms and was pacing back and forth in front of the empty pool, his head bowed.

“Why did you bring me here, Thorin?” Bilbo groaned, pulling his coat tighter around his shoulders. “I want to go back to sleep.”

“I need your advice,” Thorin said. His voice was low and brittle.

Bilbo gave another enormous yawn. “Can’t it wait until morning?”

“I’ll be gone by morning,” Thorin turned towards him, and Bilbo wished he could see his face, for there was a fear in his voice that the hobbit had never heard before. “Frerin is sending Dwalin and I east to meet Dain and turn his army aside. You must tell no one, it is all in secret. He fears that if he tries to form an alliance with Thranduil, the elfking will take advantage of him and we will be left with nothing afterwards. He’s going to wait until the orcs, men and elves have slaughtered each other and then send Dain in to mop up whoever is left. Let all his problems wipe each other out.”

Lightning seemed to have seized Bilbo’s body and was racing from his heart to the tip of his ears and fingers. His hands were clenched around fistfuls of his clothes. In the darkness he swallowed and shook his head. “No. No, Frerin wouldn’t be so ruthless.”

“He’s afraid, Bilbo. This quest is so important to him. If he goes back to Ered Luin empty-handed, he thinks they will depose him and choose a new king. In his mind, he cannot take any risk at all that Erebor should slip from his fingers,” Thorin took a deep, shaking breath.

Bilbo wrapped his arms around himself. “He wasn’t like this. Thorin, this mountain has changed him, he isn’t the dwarf who walked through my front door last spring.”

“I wish I could believe that, but it doesn’t excuse him,” Thorin said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“And you’re asking… me?” Bilbo squeaked.

Thorin stepped in so close that Bilbo could smell him. “Help me. Please.”

Bilbo covered his mouth with his hand and closed his eyes. His mind danced from one thought to the next. They could tell Tauriel and send her off to warn Thranduil of the coming battle – and then what? That would not bring Dain any faster, it would only ruin any chance at all that the Host might trust Frerin’s word. Or they could tell the lads, see if Kili could talk Frerin out of this ploy – but it would have to be tonight, before the messengers left, and then everyone would know and Frerin would be livid that they had given the secret away. Bilbo shook his head.

“There’s nothing else for it,” Bilbo whispered. “You’ll have to go against him, Thorin. Make sure Dain arrives in the valley earlier than Frerin intends, before it’s too late to turn the battle.”

“That would be treason!” Thorin hissed.

“I know,” Bilbo muttered. “Don’t I know it. But Frerin can’t lead a war when he can’t take his eyes off his own fears.”

“Dain won’t listen to me over Dwalin…”

“He must listen to you, you’re the brother of the king,” Bilbo snapped. “Hang it all, Thorin, you are the true king! Are you not?”

“I’m not ready!” Thorin cried in the darkness. “I can’t, Bilbo!”

“Yes, you can,” Bilbo growled.

“I’m not a king,” Thorin turned his gaze back and forth, roaming across the crumbling statue of the boar, the wide corridor that led up to his grandfather’s throne. “I’m a stupid prince out of his time, too young to know better.”

“You’re bloody well all we’ve got!” Bilbo stormed towards him, arms folded. “And if you really want to know what it’s like to be out of your depth, let me tell you all about how I ran away with a pack of dwarves and pretended I was a burglar until a huge, fiery dragon called my bluff! Let me tell you about how I'd never held a sword or ridden a pony or spoken to elves or broken anybody out of prison. You think you had to grow up too fast? Let me tell you, Mr Abiding King!”

Thorin looked at him, and there was just enough light flowing through the ducts and halls for Bilbo to see his face at last. The dusted moonlight smoothed his features, the shadows made his hair as solid and black as the folds of a hood. He looked as he must have appeared a hundred and fifty years earlier, in that moment Dwalin had described, reaching out to his friends as Smaug’s spell took hold of his limbs and he realised he was doomed.

Bilbo stared at him from under his wrinkled brow. “You were bred and raised for this, Thorin. You know this mountain and her lands better than anyone. You have the power of a hundred years of legend at your back. You have three divided armies at your call. What would you do, if they were under your command?”

Thorin scrubbed his hands through his hair, turning on the spot. “I… I would bring the Host into Erebor,” he sucked in a long breath. “The gates are torn down, the palisades ruined, but this is a dwarf hall. An aggressor can break one siege after another and the defenders will simply fall back to the next layer.”

“How can they fight from inside the mountain?”

“The atrium is a trap,” Thorin pressed his palms together, his forefingers tapping against his lips as he began to pace again. “I would send the cavalry east, up onto hillside, and lead all the foot soldiers in here,” Thorin stretched out his arm, pointing back towards the front hall. “The orcs will think the way to the mountain is open and follow them inside to seize the keep. But there will be archers arrayed line after line above them and the Lakemen guarding the stairway.”

“But the gate is walled off anyway, isn’t it?”

Thorin shook his head. “Frerin and the others built it in the manner of a temporary siege-wall. I don’t know whose idea that was. Perhaps that’s just how dwarves learn it these days. Almost impenetrable from the outside, but from the inside it can be toppled outwards, with the right stones knocked away and the application of pressure to the right places. Once the trap is set, Dain’s dwarves would attack from the rear and the cavalry from the west, dividing the assailants between those inside the mountain and the rearguard outside,” he groaned. “But it will never work! The Host neither trusts us nor likes us, they will never let themselves be led by us, especially not in the heat of battle!”

“They will if they’re forewarned of your plan, and they know what you’re up against,” Bilbo said quietly. Thorin looked at him, and Bilbo held his gaze. “I’ll go to Bard and Thranduil. Tonight, before you and Dwalin leave on the sly. I’ll tell Bofur I’m going with you so Frerin doesn't suspect where I really am.”

“Go alone into the Host’s camp?” Thorin’s eyes widened.

“What’s the worst they can do to me?” Bilbo shrugged, and even managed a small smile. “The best defence is to be as small and harmless as possible, remember?”

“I never said I agreed with you,” Thorin breathed in deep, and let it out slowly. "We need a third conspirator, then, to explain the plan to the Company once everything is in motion. What about Fili?"

"Risky. He might tell his brother, who'll warn Tauriel for sure, and the secret will be out. We can't give Frerin time to counteract us," Bilbo chewed on his bottom lip. "I could bring Bofur in there as well, though it's a poor reward for his friendship."

"I don't know Bofur well, but do you think everyone will listen to him when the pressure's high?" Thorin added. "What about Balin?"

"Isn't he on Frerin's side?"

"Yes, but he's not happy about it."

Bilbo nodded. "Balin, then. It's monstrous of us, asking him to be part of a treasonous plot without giving him a choice, but I think he'd be willing to take the risk."

"Bilbo, I don't know what Frerin will think of us when this is done," Thorin rumbled. "Can you stand it if he hates you?"

"No," Bilbo sniffed, and pressed his face into his hands with a sigh. "Yes. If it's the only way to save our friends, and all those soldiers out there caught up in our mess because of the dragon. I'll still have the Shire to go home to. You won't even have that!"

"Nothing can change that. I couldn't save my people or my home, and they have left me far behind. But maybe I can still save Laketown and Mirkwood. Maybe I can keep Erebor whole until my people's children return to it," Thorin said. His hands went to his belt and unbuckled his sheath. He held out Sting with both hands. “I never gave this back to you.”

“And I hope I shan’t need it,” Bilbo winced, drew back and then finally snatched the sword from Thorin’s hands. “Let’s both hope Thranduil is willing to take military advice from a hobbit.”

“He will if the advice is good.”

“Then you better be as clever as I think you are,” Bilbo raised his eyebrows as he buckled the sword to his belt. “I’ll go back to bed first, you follow a little behind – so no one sees us coming in together.”

Thorin nodded and ducked his head. His hands flexed by his sides in the silence, and Bilbo could not bring himself to turn away. He watched Thorin’s jaw flex and his throat bob. At last Bilbo said with a croak, “Good luck.”

Thorin met his gaze and gave a small nod. “And to you.”’

“I suppose I’ll see you next when the battle’s over.”

“Yes,” Thorin whispered. “I’m sure you shall.”

Bilbo felt as if the remains of their small dinner was now a great boulder in his stomach. For days he had tried to stay away from Thorin, had tried not to even think about Thorin, and it had been worse than the starvation of their pitiful rations. Frerin's company brought him no joy at all, and even Bofur's joviality was little comfort when Bilbo could not share it with Thorin. And now, mother help them all, they were both heading straight for different factions of a battle. Not a showy skirmish started for pride or a cautious warning. A real battle against terrible forces that wished to see them all eradicated from these lands. It was not the first time on this journey that Bilbo had been faced with the possibility of his own death, and that was bad enough for a tame, little hobbit.

But if this was the last time that he and Thorin spoke, then he had wasted their last few days avoiding Thorin to protect his own reputation. A deep, cold flood of panic began to rise in Bilbo. Why had he listened to Frerin? Why did he care what the others thought of him? He wanted more time with the lost king of the dwarves, the strange sleeper he'd awoken from a fairytale, the grey-haired, youthful-eyed creature who had been stolen out of the past yet had no place in the world of here and now. But they had no more time, and all the gold in the world would not make up for that. With a groan of frustration Bilbo stepped forward and threw his arms around Thorin's neck, rising onto his toes to reach right round and bury his face in Thorin's wild hair.

Thorin's arms wrapped around him at once, holding him so tight Bilbo was sure Thorin would feel his thudding heart through their clothes. He was enveloped in the weight of the dwarf's arms, the folds of his tunic, the soft press of his beard against the side of Bilbo's face. Thorin's breath came in quick, sharp gasps, and Bilbo thought, tell him how glad you are to know him, tell him you fool, don't go to battle with secrets.

But he had been here before, not a month earlier. He had been a petty hobbit in love with another dwarven king, and even if the whole world had changed it still seemed certain that the king’s answer would be the same. Besides, he wasn't in love with Thorin. He couldn't be in love with Thorin because he was already in love with his brother, and nobody in the world could be stupid enough to make a mistake like that twice. It was impossible. He wouldn't even be able to keep his back straight if he had really been carrying that much weight around.

There was a long pause in which neither of them moved, and then Bilbo loosened his grip on Thorin's shoulders. For a moment Thorin's arms clenched tighter and at last he let Bilbo slide away and back towards the steps. Bilbo swallowed. “Well. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” Thorin echoed. Bilbo knew he had to go, he could wait no longer if they were going to put their plan into action. He turned and scurried away, the sword swinging heavy at his hip.




Fili lay by the last remnants of the fire, on his side with a rolled-up leather breastplate as a pillow. The light of the embers ebbed and flowed between the gaps in the hearthstones, as the faintest breeze crept through the broken gate and whispered around the atrium. Fili could hear his brother wheezing in his sleep a few feet away. The elf was curled around Kili; they hadn't started like that at the beginning of the night, and Fili hadn't noticed when they'd wriggled together. He'd been dozing in and out since the uneasy pause in which Frerin had left the company hours earlier. All the older dwarves had gone away with his uncle and come back with wrinkles in their brows, but none of them would say what had happened.

The longer the night went on, the less Fili felt like sleeping. He could not get comfortable, though he had slept on hard rocks with no pillow plenty of times during their journey. Fear of something beyond the fire's dim glow pressed behind his eyes. It was as if he had smelled smoke on the breeze when there should be none, and he needed to know whether the fire was an unknown camp of friend or foe – or a forest blaze roaring just behind the watershed above his head.

When he heard someone shuffling around the sleeping dwarves, putting down their big feet with great delicacy to keep from waking anyone, he assumed they were just heading off to relieve themselves, or perhaps it was Dori going for his shift on the wall. But after a few moments he realised the dwarf was moving from bedroll to bedroll and pausing beside each and if looking for something. Fili raised his head.


The figure froze. He was no more than a bent shape in the darkness, with his edges outlined by the red glow of the fire. He turned to look at Fili and put his finger to his lips.

"What is it?" Fili whispered, getting up and wrapping his blanket tight around his shoulders. "Is something wrong?"

Thorin shook his head and padded closer so he could whisper. "I'm looking for Balin."

"I think he went upstairs to talk to Frerin a short while ago," Fili offered.

Thorin's features crumpled and he lowered his head into his hands. His shoulders were rigid and his hair fell around his face. Fili touched his arm. "What is it? What's happened?"

After a long moment, Thorin pushed his hair back and took a shaking breath, glancing around. "I need to talk to you. Away from the others."

Fili gripped his blanket like a cape and with a shrug followed him away from the campfire. At the back of the atrium Thorin paced with his hands tucked under his arms. "I must tell you something. I'm sorry it has to be you."

Fili flinched. So he could not be trusted with any simple task, then? "I’ll do my best to help," he said through gritted teeth.

"Oh, no, no that isn't what I meant..." Thorin came in close. "I'm asking you to betray Frerin, and I fear he will not forgive you this time. It is not fair of me to put this burden on you. I wish neither of us bore it."

Fili's heart began to race. A chilly nausea rose in his stomach. "What are you talking about? You shouldn't even say such a thing."

"Dwalin and I are leaving in secret, to intercept Dain. Frerin is sending us to delay him and let the orcs slaughter the elves and men in his absence. But I want to take a different message, even if Dwalin tries to stop me, urging Dain to hurry and join Thranduil's alliance," Thorin tilted his head, the lines growing deep around his eyes. "I have a plan that will give us the best chance of winning the battle, but someone needs to take charge of Erebor and the company while I'm gone. I hoped Balin, but if I can't talk to him, then you... you must do this, Fili."

"You want me to mutiny against Frerin?" Fili breathed. "Are you mad? I won't, Uncle, I can't!"

"Then they will all die," Thorin whispered. "Anyone inside and outside of the mountain who opposes the orcs." Fili struggled to pull air into his throat, for all of a sudden it was thick and stifling as if with smoke. Thorin croaked, "He forgot his mistake and his anger once you came home to him. He knows now that you're loyal. Maybe he'll listen to you and see that you're only doing what's right."

"His mistake?" Fili asked. His head was spinning.

"At the parlay, when he thought you'd gone over to Thranduil's side."

Nausea swirled in Fili's stomach. "He didn't really think that."

Thorin's eyes darkened as he frowned. "Yes, Fili, he did. Bilbo and I tried to defend you and he refused to believe us. Why else do you think we had to sneak into the camp without his say-so?"

"He told me it was just an act for Bard—” Fili stammered, and then the nausea and breathlessness vanished and a calming numbness spread through him. He closed his eyes. "Of course it wasn't.”

Fili had watched Frerin lie before. Little lies, tiny lies, fibs that were barely more than humorous excuses, to avoid taking tea with boring, old merchants or to keep Dis out of his hair for a few hours. He had seen his uncle conceal many secrets – like Fili's little black-haired cousin that Mama thought her sons didn't know about, who died a few winters back. Fili knew Frerin didn't always see the world the way everyone else did, that his uncle insisted on hope and optimism far past the point of defeat, that he loved his friends too jealously, and that even benign neglect could wound him as deeply as a sword through his heart. But Fili had still chosen to follow Frerin to Erebor, not just seeking his own glory, not even to protect Kili, but because he truly believed that this quest would be the making of Frerin. That this was to be the triumph that would turn his uncle’s life from a long struggle into the story of a great king. He wanted to be there when it happened. He wanted to help. Because Fili didn't believe in abandoning things because they were flawed.

But Frerin could not live with his own flaws.

After a long silence Fili looked at Thorin. His uncle was watching him with his arms folded, tapping his fingers on his sleeve, almost shivering with desperation. For the first time Fili saw that Thorin's boldness and patience were as paper shields against the world. He looked like Kili whenever Kili found himself out of his depth, leaning into Fili's enduring presence to stumble through every challenge that kingship threw his way.

"Tell me your plan. Every detail. I'll see it done," Fili said. "One way or another."

"Are you sure?" Thorin asked. "I don't know how you can get around Frerin."

"Let me handle Frerin, Uncle," Fili said softly.




The air was cold in Thorin’s lungs as he and Dwalin slipped over the wall and along the crumbling rampart until they could climb down to the floor of the valley. It was still hours until the wintry dawn, but there were no clouds. They had discussed their route briefly on the way out of the atrium. Neither of them knew how much the eastern foothills would have changed in the years since they had explored them together, how badly the paths might have overgrown or collapsed over brinks. There had been the ravages of storms, floods and the earthquakes that frequently bothered Laketown since Smaug had taken up residence there. But at the very least, Thorin’s memory was fresher, so he led the way.

It was easy to avoid conversation. They were still deep in unclaimed territory and did not know who they might encounter. Several times they froze and crouched low after their footsteps disturbed a slurry of stones down a ravine, or a night-bird flew over their heads crying a warning to its kin. Once, Dwalin grabbed Thorin but the back of his belt and pulled him to the ground. They peered between the boulders and Thorin made out the faint movement of a shape further up the hill. As it passed over a bank of pale slate he saw that it was a pair of lithe figures on horseback. Evidently the whole mountain was being patrolled.

They waited in the cold, grey light until the figures were well past before they carried on. Dawn was rushing onward and Thorin was already stiff around his joints and beginning to feel an ache in his muscles. But Dwalin’s pace had not slowed at all since they’d started, so he pushed through.

On the far side of the westernmost arm of the mountain they came to flatter, barren tundra rolling on for miles and miles all around their heading. The sky above hung low, the clouds thick and yellowish. A cold wind came down from the north all day, buffeting them as they ran until Thorin’s right leg hurt from bracing himself against it.

Still, it felt good to be out in the air with Dwalin. They had barely spoken in all this time since Thorin awoke. He knew that his friend saw him differently, or perhaps saw that he was different. But now that they had a task together the silence felt no more awkward than the many times he and Dwalin had been in a huff with each other, or one of them had won a tournament that the other had coveted, or been wounded by a poorly-wounded joke. It was uncomfortable but familiar, and Thorin knew that whenever they argued they always pretended to forget about it the next day, and had forgotten for real by next month.

“Why’re you so shut up?” Dwalin growled all of a sudden, when they were well off the hills.

“Nothing’s got me shut up,” Thorin smirked. “I’m just trying to breathe while I run.”

“Eh,” Dwalin slowed down a little to fall into step beside him. “Something’s up with you. I know you ain’t happy with the conundrum we’re in, but we can’t back out on Frerin now.”

“I know that, of course,” Thorin said hurriedly. “I don’t have to revel in it.”

He felt a rush of guilt. He wanted to tell Dwalin everything, wanted his advice, his validation of the battle strategy that Thorin had devised. But even if he didn’t know his friend as well as he once had, he was sure of one thing; Dwalin would never betray his king. The Dwalin he remembered was too honourable, too devoted to fellowship and upholding the bonds within the clan. He had not seen the clockwork wheels and patched-up rigging of kingship turning behind the curtain, as Thorin had, or if he’d glimpsed he’d chosen to avert his eyes. He believed in kings whole-heartedly.

“Come on, now, it’s more than that,” Dwalin said. “You’ve got that look on your face.”

“What look?”

“When you’re fretting,” Dwalin grunted, and looked over to shoot him a wink.

“I don’t fret!”

“Your face says otherwise. Long time since I’ve seen it, but I know. What’s eating you?”

“Nothing, Dwalin, really.”

Dwalin slowed down, glancing at Thorin again. “Is the pace too fast? Are you afraid you won’t make the distance?”

“I’m fine,” Thorin insisted. He was feeling a lump in his gut. His Dwalin – the Dwalin he remembered – would have accepted his silence long before now.

“You must be tired. All those nightmares – you can’t be sleeping well.”

“Nightmares?” Thorin choked, his heart beating a little faster. “I don’t know what you mean. I’m perfectly rested.”

Dwalin rumbled. “Things could get very bad soon, Thorin. If you have any doubts, you must tell me now, before we reach Dain. Was it something Frerin said last night, after the rest of us left?”

“No, of course not, not at all,” Thorin said, and knew he’d answered a little too quickly.

“Than what in Durin’s name is it?” Dwalin demanded.

Thorin felt the first tendrils of panic in his blood. Every footfall jarred his body. The crunch of the grass on the uneven ground sounded loud enough to wake stone-giants beneath the earth. But every action he took from here would be so delicate that he couldn’t risk giving Dwalin a chance to stop him. Thorin would have to back him into a corner before he revealed the truth, make sure he had no choice but to follow Thorin’s word over Frerin’s.

In fear that he might give something away, Thorin said the first thing on his mind that might stifle Dwalin’s questions.

“I think I’m in love with Mr Baggins.”

He winced the moment the words came out of his mouth and resisted the urge to pretend it had been a joke. For several long moments, there was only the sound of their footsteps and the rush of the wind over the tundra. Than Dwalin grunted through his moustache. "No, you ain't."

"Pardon?" Thorin blinked at him.

"We should stop for a drink," Dwalin shrugged, and pointed at a line of low, black-green bushes just head. They marked a steep-banked ditch in the moor, worn by a clear, brown creak. At this time of year it was only a few inches deep, lined in damp moss, smelling of bracken.

A dip in the land made an easy slope for Dwalin to climb down with Thorin close behind. Dwalin drained the last mouthfuls from his water-skin and crouched to fill it up again. He handed the fresh water to Thorin. It was cold on the back of Thorin's throat as he guzzled it, and tasted of snow and granite-choked earth.

Dwalin was standing with one hand on his hip, his brows heavy. "Now, I know it's a tough world to come awake to," he growled as Thorin lowered the water-skin. "No warm beds and meat with every meal like we used to have, but we all coped this long, and I know you will too. You'll find your place in it, lad. Balin and I will always be there for you."

"What in Durin's name are you talking about?" Thorin lowered his head. He could not help wondering if Dwalin would be making such promises if he knew how Thorin planned to betray his king.

"I understand. Things have changed. You're befuddled by it all. But falling back on funny business with a hobbit just to get a bit of comfort? Truly, Thorin?"

Thorin flexed his fingers, wringing out of the neck of the water skin. "You think this is some... fit of post-dragon madness?"

"I think everybody wants to go after something sweet and easy sometimes," Dwalin raised his eyebrows and jerked his head back in the direction of the mountain. "Eh? But now's not the time. You need to keep your head ready for a battle."

"You're trying to tell me how to fall in love? Me?" Thorin fell hot fire flood into his limbs and he thumped his chest with his fist. "I've been captaining the guard for almost ten years, you wooden-headed gaffer! I know how to keep my rod in my trousers and focus on my job, Dwalin! I'm damn well serious about this, though Mahal knows, I'd rather not have my stony heart bollucksing-up this mess of a situation at all." He thrust his arm out and pointed back west to Erebor. "And I expected my best friend to have a bit more faith in my sanity!"

Dwalin stared at him. The creek whispered. At last, Dwalin's eyes crinkled up and he pinched the bridge of his nose. From behind his hand Thorin heard a low, rumbling chuckle.

"What's so hilarious?" he snapped.

"Sorry, lad," Dwalin lowered his hand again and shook his head. "It's just, I think I only just remembered what Prince Thorin is really like."

"I haven't been an ounce different," Thorin folded his arms. "So it's not my fault if your memory's going bad."

"Aye, you're right there," Dwalin said softly. He kicked the toes of his boots at the moss. "Our minds have a way of making the dead more glorious and polished in our memory. It doesn't account for the dead coming back to life."

"Excuse me?" Thorin barked a laugh. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Means I missed you, lad," Dwalin smiled broadly. One eyebrow quirked up. "But the hobbit? Honestly?” he sighed heavily. “He’s head-over-heels for your brother. You know that, don’t you?”

The wind lifted Thorin’s hair and he felt his skin break out in goosepimples. He swallowed. “No. I didn’t.”

Of course.

Snatches of Bilbo rushed through his mind. I’d want him to be king… I love him… Always defensive of Frerin, always looking to him the moment he opened his mouth or lifted his hand. The story of how he'd left his home on a whim and run away with the dwarves. And yet, when he said goodbye he’d held Thorin so tight…

Dwalin shrugged. “Ah, Frerin thinks it’s nothing, and maybe the Halfling will come to his senses soon and shake it off. But take care of that stony heart of yours, Thorin, I’d hate to see it cracked,” he shook his head. “What d'ya even see in that wee fellow?"

"I like talking to him," Thorin mumbled, and shoved the waterskin back at Dwalin. "What would you know? You only ever looked at big hips and well-cut sideburns, you bull."

"Blighter. I'm not a wee bub like you. I know what young love is like," Dwalin drained the rest of the water-skin in a gulp and bent to filter it again, snorting as he stood up. "Makes you stupid. Never as good as you remember. Never as good again. Let's get moving." He hooked the water-skin over his belt and jumped the stream, heaving himself up the far bank with the help of fistfuls of tree.

"Oh, yes?" Thorin climbed after him. "Who did you fall in love with, then? Why aren't you wed now?"

"She chased me and I was too scared to slow down and too stupid to look back and see her proper," Dwalin shot over his shoulder as they broke into a slow jog. "So she gave up and married someone else. There’s never been another quite the same."

"What was her name?"

"Can't tell you that."

"Why not?"

"Because her brother would hang me from a cliff by my bootstraps if I did," Dwalin winked at him. "Let's save our breath for the journey and say no more.”

They ran on, but there was an ease to Dwalin’s movements now that had not been there before, and they began to exchange words often after that, mostly complaints about the rabbit-holes waiting to trip them and the hint of rain on the horizon. Soon enough the talk to turned to smatterings of memory from their shared life, so far away for Dwalin. Then there was an argument about who exactly had come up with the stupid idea to borrow a horse from the Lorien delegation when they were in their teens, and try to ride the huge beast down the main street in the middle of the night. Thorin was insistent that he remembered it better, but Dwalin scoffed and said he’d always had greater motives to change his story, given how furious Thror had been.

Dwalin had always been a more dependable force in Thorin’s life than the pillars of Erebor or the traditions of their forefathers. After all those days in the empty, dusty halls of Erebor, running over the tundra with Dwalin felt at last like he’d come home.

And he feared he’d lose it all as soon as Dwalin learned what he was planning.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was caught almost the very moment he took his ring off outside the host’s camp. The patrol of Lakemen were very confused about what he was for a few minutes, but soon enough he found himself in front of the grand tent with the silver-threaded pennants of Mirkwood. He was thrust through the doors into a long room. The ceiling was pinned into an elaborate tunnel of interlinking canvas that played homage to the boughs of the forest, and the floor was laid with the thick pelts of doe and elk. At the end of the chamber was a little, round table lit by tall lanterns, at which sat the elf king and Bard pouring over reams of maps. On the far side of the table, directly opposite the door, was a cloaked figure who sat back so that his face was hidden in the shadows.

Bilbo’s throat closed over as Thranduil’s gaze fell upon him. He had seen the king before, of course, but the king had not seen him. Looking him in the eye was quite different from spying on him from the corners of his palace. The age and sternness in them was such that if his chest had not locked up, Bilbo would have begun babbling his apologies – though what for, he would figure out as he went.

One of the Lakemen pushed Bilbo forward into room and bowed. “It’s the dwarves’ servant, sir, the Halfling creature—”

That unclogged Bilbo’s throat. “’Creature’?” he snapped. “’Servant’? Now, look here, I’m nobody’s creature but my own, doing honest work for my friends. My name is Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire.”

There was a chuckle from the other end of the room, and Bilbo looked up to see Bard resting his fist in front of his mouth as if pretending he had just coughed.

“You’re the one that stole our hostages, aren’t you?” Bard said quietly, glancing at Thranduil. “And he is no doubt the crack in your defences who spirited the dwarves from your prisons in the forest, your grace.”

“Perhaps,” Thranduil admitted. His eyes flicked over Bilbo from toes to crown, but the insulted wrinkle in his nose was mingled with curiosity in his eyes. His voice hung in the air like notes rung from the lip of a water-glass. “You have not stumbled upon our camp by accident, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, though you must have known you would not depart without our leave. Why are you here?”

Bilbo took a couple of steps into the room and gave the best approximation to a bow that he could. The dwarves had taught him one way to bow, but the elves in Thranduil’s palace had a different way, he’d noticed – and the Lakeman just now had been different again. He ended up with a mix of all three that probably looked ungainly as a goose. He straightened up quickly. “Yes. About that. Well.”

“Well?” Bard said, with less amusement now. “Come, now. What message does Frerin send that was too trivial to come himself, yet so important he thinks he can interrupt us at this hour of the night?”

Bilbo cleared his throat. “I’m not here on behalf of Frerin, King Under the Mountain,” he said. He felt his stomach sink even as he said it. No, he would probably never do anything on behalf of Frerin ever again. Frerin would as soon spit on him as look at him. “I am here to speak for Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror. The Abiding King, eldest heir to the line of Durin.”

Bard’s features tensed into a quizzical expression, but Thranduil was robbed in an instant of at least a fraction of his composure. His mouth opened and he half rose from the table, almost catching his feet on the edge of his robe. “What did you say?” he whispered.

Bilbo shrugged. “He’s awake, my lord. And he needs your help.”

“Well, well, well,” said a low voice. The figure at the back of the table stood up, throwing back his hood and stepping into the light. His thick brows lifted and his mouth twisted. “You have a story to tell now, Bilbo Baggins.”

Bilbo gasped and clutched his hands to his chest. “Gandalf!”

Gandalf chuckled and manoeuvred his way around Bard’s chair. Before any of the guards could stop him, Bilbo dashed the length of the room to reach the wizard. Gandalf sunk onto one knee and Bilbo threw his arms around his neck. He couldn’t help it. He’d been horribly afraid of what would happen if Thranduil and Bard did not care for his message, or worse yet, would not listen to it at all. But Gandalf – Gandalf would at least give him a chance. Now everything would work out as well as it possibly could.

He drew back with a grin. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you meet us, Gandalf? I’ve barely kept those foolish dwarves alive without you!”

Gandalf smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “I was… preoccupied, I’m afraid.” His face darkened. “What is this you’re saying about the Abiding King? The lost prince of Erebor is dead, Bilbo. No one ever really believed otherwise.”

“No, no, he’s quite lively. He was just under Smaug’s enchantment,” Bilbo said brightly. “We’ve become firm friends in the last few weeks.”

But the shadow did not leave Gandalf’s face. “Tell us everything,” he said. “There are darker forces at work than you can know, my dear hobbit. And they wear many guises.”




Thorin and Dwalin ran for most of the day. They came across the watchmen at the edge of the camp just before twilight and were brought at once to Dain. The army was busy with setting up their low, single-dwarf tents, finishing their dinners and checking their weapons before they bedded down for the night. But with the commotion of Thorin and Dwalin’s arrival many of them had got up again and gathered around the knoll where Dain’s fire burned, watching their king parlay with the messengers.

After Thorin introduced himself, Dain stared at him for a long. His whiskers twitched and his beard rose and fell as his features shifted in thought. He seemed to be waiting for Thorin to laugh and admit the joke. Thorin held his gaze and waited him out. By Thorin’s side, Dwalin raised his chin and folded his arms in silent support.

Thorin only had to look at his cousin and know his type: though they had met only a few minutes before, he felt far more familiar with Dain’s kind than Frerin’s boisterous enthusiasm and wild moods. He’d grown up with fellows and dams like Dain. Those were the dwarves that he and Dwalin had idolised and trailed after in their youth. Steady as a mountain, slow to action, but once he got moving he would have all the momentum of a great boulder down a glacial river. And he had plenty going on in his skull too. Old soldiers often did, in Thorin’s experience.

Finally Dain spoke. “Thorin Thrain’s son died before I was born, stranger, but I like to think I know his brother well enough. You do bear a noticeable resemblance to Frerin. What proof can you offer me beyond that?”

Thorin heard Dwalin bluster, “Is my word not enough, Dain?” but Thorin put out his hand to hush him,

“Tauriel brought you the ring of Dain, our great-grandfather and your namesake, with her message of the siege,” Thorin said. “She told you it was given to her by Frerin, but that was not true. I asked her not to speak of me because I knew you would not believe such a tale from an elf, but to bring you the ring as proof of her friendship with Thror’s line. A stone of black garnet is set in the centre, carved with Dain’s crest, which was still printed on all secret letters between our grandfathers when I was a boy. I was wearing it when Erebor fell.”

“I recognised the crest and the ring by its reputation,” Dain nodded. “But all I have heard was that it was lost with the mountain like so much else. Perhaps you found it after Smaug died, or perhaps it is a forgery—”

“If you accuse Thorin, you accuse me, and I have served Thror’s kin as long as I’ve breathed!” Dwalin growled, interrupting again. “Curse it all, Dain, I know the story’s mad but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. We have no time to play judge and jury when the threshold of Erebor is about to see battle!”

Thorin swallowed, his gut contracting at Dwalin’s words. It must have shown in his expression as well. Dain had not taken his eyes of Thorin’s face. “You are hiding something, though,” his cousin said. Dwalin opened his mouth again, but Thorin cut over him.

“Yes. I am,” he paused, exhaling slowly out his nose. “Dwalin does not know it, but I am not bringing you the orders that my brother Frerin wished you to follow. Nor will I pretend my message is from his mouth. I will tell you everything, cousin, but Dwalin is right. We have no time to waste. Believe me or lock me in irons as an imposter, but for Durin’s sake do it quickly.”

Dwalin turned to him with wide eyes. “What are you talking about?”

Thorin gave a small shake of his head. “I’m sorry, Dwalin. I can’t let Frerin hold back and allow the elves and the Lakemen to be slaughtered. I have a plan to work together with them, and I think it is our best chance of winning this battle with both us and our allies intact. I have left Fili to convince the company of my plan, and Bilbo is bringing my message to the Host.”

“Thorin—! Frerin is still your king!”

“And my brother. But I will not let him lose this mountain because of his pride,” Thorin rumbled. He crossed his arms and looked back at Dain. “What is your decision?”

Dain’s mouth was a flat line almost invisible in his beard. “Dwalin, come with me. I would speak with you alone,” he said at last. He snapped his fingers at two of his burliest guards and pointed them towards Thorin. “Treat this one as a guest while I am gone.”

The insinuation was clear. Thorin nodded and stepped away, seating himself on a spur of rock that jutted from the rough grassland. He made sure to put his hands in plain view in his lap, nowhere near the sword at his hip. The guards stood on either side of him, and one of Dain’s squires came up and asked him if he’d like water after his journey.

“I would like that very much,” he smiled.

The squire was gone for some time. Other soldiers drew closer, peering at Thorin and muttering to each other. Soon enough the squire returned with a flask, but he had not come alone. A hardened warrior with a craggy face beneath his long, mail-veiled helm walked beside him, and took the flask to hand it to Thorin.

Thorin realised how dry his throat was as soon as the water touched his lips. It tasted like it had been sloshing about in the oily flask for a couple of days, yet he was so thirsty that it might have been the sweetest draft he’d ever tasted. He drained the last drop and wiped his mouth. As he handed the flask back to the old soldier, he realised the dwarf was staring at him with a grim notch between his eyes. There was something familiar about those eyes.

Thorin frowned. “Hardaz?”

The old warrior’s face broke into a wrinkled grin. Two of the teeth in his smile were pure silver. “Aye, lad. That’s my name.”

“What are you doing with Dain’s folk? You were born in Erebor!”

Hardaz shrugged. “My Da and brothers didn’t make it out of the inferno, but my mother took the rest of us east, back to my grandparents, rather than follow Thror. Nain and his kin have been my kings ever since.”

"I am sorry for your menfolk. They served my grandmother well," Thorin inclined his head. “What are you doing these days? Still trying to teach lazy, royal babes their letters?”

“Now it’s just babes whose parents can pay, since you’re curious, though I’m not just an apprentice anymore. Schoolmaster of my own hall.”

“It is good to see you alive,” Thorin stood up. The guards on either side of him glanced at him as he stepped forward to embrace the old dwarf, but Hardaz pulled away before they touched.

“I can’t believe you quite yet, Thorin,” he said apologetically. “There’s a lot of black magic in the world these days.”

“I understand. Thank you for the water.” Thorin said, but he didn't sit down yet. He could see a few other warriors watching them behind Hardaz's shoulder. Thorin wished he could go to them and tell them who he was. Surely they'd believe him. How could they suspect it was all a trick? What evil magic could possibly steal the face of a dead prince so easily? And why bother?

Thorin had to make them see he was speaking the truth. Dain would be mindful of his dwarves’ instincts, and would never trust his word if the Iron Hills warriors were suspicious of the stranger. As Hardaz turned away, Thorin's hand flew out and he laid his palm on the old dwarf's arm, a gentle touch of rough fingers on chain-mail.

"Hardaz, wait," Thorin said, as the scholar-turned-fighter twisted back and met his gaze. Thorin felt his own breath lock up in his chest, and deep in his throat there was a pressure, as if thick bile was rising to the back of his mouth, sliding across his tongue and passing between the two dwarves like the thick, viscous smoke of burning tar. It tasted foul, but it felt good to expel it from his innards, like finally pulling a long splinter from a festering wound. "Tell the others what you know, at least," Thorin said with a faint smile.

"Yes, of course," Hardaz smiled back. He blinked and looked away. The bile withdrew and Thorin swallowed it down again.

Hardaz headed off with a nod. A small crowd had gathered behind the squire that had fetched him, and as soon as Hardaz reached him there was a burst of chatter and questions. Within minutes, two more old dwarves had arrived at Hardaz side and were glancing between him and Thorin, gesticulating to each other. Thorin thought he could name one of them, and the other was vaguely familiar. He could hear his own name, and his grandfather's too, bandied back and forth in their hurried conversation. The squire with the water leaned in towards them, listening intently.

The crowd was growing louder. One of the dwarves who had been listening to Hardaz and the other veterans yelled out, “He says he’s the Abiding King!” at another cluster of warriors who’d come up the slope to join them. He balled his fists around the cloth of his trousers, gritting his teeth. He had not expected the fairytale to be common knowledge in the Iron Hills, and he could not tell the mood of the mob.

Before he could judge it further, the squire who had offered Thorin water sidled up suddenly, nodding at the guards. “What’s your story, then, Mr Thorin?” he asked. “Why have you come to us? My Da was from Erebor and he used to say that when it came time to reclaim the mountain, you were going to rise up and go west to the refuge in Ered Luin, not to us in the Hills.”

“You are the only Longbeard army in running distance,” Thorin said. “Of course I came to you.”

The burly guard on his right was shifting from foot to foot. Suddenly he burst out, “Durin’s truth? You’re really him?”

“I am Thrain’s eldest son, but I’m just a dwarf of flesh and bone like any other,” Thorin shrugged, twisting where he sat to look up at him.

“Then how’d you survive the dragon?”

The squire leaned forward to get Thorin’s attention again. “Did you fight him? Day and night, for a hundred years, my brother said!”

“I heard he bit you and his venom sent you into a sleep like death—”

“Were you really dead? Did you rise from your grave?”

Suddenly there were half a dozen dwarves around him, all in their light gear for the journey, sitting on packs that bristled with weapons and armour. But their faces were turned up to him and their eyes were wide like Frerin and Dis on the rare occasions Thorin could get them to sit still long enough for a story. He felt his cheeks pink and rested his hands on his knees.

“I did not die. I was asleep,” he said, and it surprised him that his voice did not stammer. He raised his chin. “For a hundred and fifty years I slept, trapped in the dragon’s spell. But my brother Frerin sent a burglar-hobbit into the mountain, to spy on Smaug, and this smallest of creatures came upon me and he woke me. I thought only a few days had passed, but at last I came across my brother Frerin and his company and they convinced me of all that has happened. I have been helping them as best I can ever since, but I am just one dwarf, and one who knows even less of the world than any of you here…”

When Dain returned with Dwalin, it was not to a prisoner and two guards, but to a thick crowd of his soldiers covering the hill around Thorin’s seat. They parted to let him through, but he could not miss the excited cries.

“The Abiding King, sir! He’s the lost son of Thrain – he’s come back!”

“We can’t lose this battle. The gods are with us.”

Dain looked sharply at Thorin and then at Dwalin. “Get out of here, all of you. I need to speak to this Abiding King myself. Dwalin, you can stay.”

He waited until the knoll had cleared again. A ripple was spreading across the camp, excited voices rising from clusters of soldiers and spreading like sparks of a forest leaping from the peaks of trees. Dain stood in front of Thorin with his hands on his hips. “You’ve made an impression, it seems.”

“They came to me. I didn’t mean to spread rumours,” Thorin mumbled. Dwalin was watching him with his eyes half-hooded, but Thorin could not read his face.

At last Dain sighed and took a step closer. He put his foot up on the rock where Thorin sat and leaned forward to rest his forearms on his thigh, so that their faces were only a foot apart. “I’ve heard Frerin’s message. And just between you and me, stranger? I don’t think I care for it. Right now I’m not bothered either way whether you are the lost prince, but it matters very much what kind of battle I’m walking into. Now tell me what your plan is and who’s in on it, and I will consider what actions to take.”




The clouds were thick over the sun that morning. Fili had slept little better after his conversation with Thorin than he had before it. He rose early and went out onto the wall to look over the valley. He had never been in a real battle, but Mama had told him enough stories to make him afraid. She had told him of blood, and pain, and how thin was the membrane between life and death, how only luck or the deepest, most basic instincts divided them. Fear had been what she wanted to seed in him, of course. To make him avoid such things at all cost.

“But sooner or later I'll need to fight,” Fili had said. "I won't run away!"

She shook her head. “Then you’ll die. I know it in my heart. We’ve all died fighting, us children of Thror, and the dams no less for spending their last breath in their beds – they still lost everything to the battles. I wish you’d been a girl, Fili. You and your brother both. Maybe we could have changed things.”

“It’s not dwarvish to surrender,” Fili countered.

“I’m not telling you to surrender,” Mama leaned forward and gripped his hand. “I’m telling you to be truly dwarvish and endure. Be a wall, be a mountain. Let your enemies climb over you if you must, but do not let them break you down. Not for anything. Don’t be a river like Frerin and ebb and change with the weather. And don’t burn up in greatness like Thorin. You must be stronger than either of them.”

There was a spatter of rain in the air, barely thicker than the mist. Fili felt it on his cheeks. As the cold sunk into his skin, he heard voices below and hurried downstairs to the atrium.

"Where's Bilbo?" Bofur was asking plaintively. "He's been missing since first light."

“What’s the bloody story?” Nori was griping to Balin. “Why were Dwalin and Thorin up and about? They took off before I’d even got my boots on!”

“I told you, they’re meeting Dain to ensure he’s prepared,” Balin snipped back. "I suppose Bilbo went with them."

He looked pale and thin by the grey light. The others were in different stages of wakefulness, clearing up their beds and getting the fire going. Tauriel sat with her swords in her lap, a whetstone forgotten in one hand, her head bent towards Kili as some soft conversation passed between them. Kili’s gaze kept flicking to the empty space where Thorin had bedded down over the last few days. Tauriel’s eyes were on Frerin, who sat by the growing fire with his hands clasped between his knees, staring at the bursts of sparks as Bofur stirred them up with fresh logs.

It would be easy to rip the veil away in an instant. Fili could tell the whole company what Frerin had done and let them decide how to react. It was tempting beyond words to break the morning into chaos and let the individual consciences fall where they would. It would resolve Fili’s dilemma in an instant. But at the same time he would lose any possible control of the situation, and he had no idea what the consequences might be. The other option was to wait, say nothing at all until the very last moment, in the hope that a desperate situation would drive the dwarves to listen to Fili over their king. But that was risky, too. Anything could happen in the heat of the moment. Fili needed more time to prepare if something went wrong.

He went to Frerin’s side. For a moment he hesitated, and then crouched beside his uncle and put his hand on Frerin’s leg.

“I need to speak with you,” he said softly.

Frerin raised his head, a wrinkle growing deeper between his eyes, but then his face gentled. Fili rose to meet him as his uncle stood and gripped his shoulder. "About the orcs? Don't worry, Fili. I have everything in hand."

Fili leant in closer. "Yes. Thorin told me last night."

"He..." the wrinkle was back in an instant. His voice dropped. "What did he tell you?"

"He's not going to follow your orders. He's sent a message to Thranduil to say that Dain will join the host in battle," Fili said, as quickly and quietly as he could. He didn't think any of the others had heard, though Kili, Tauriel and Balin were all watching him intently. For a moment it seemed that Frerin would match his tone, wait for an explanation—

Then Frerin's face twisted. Fili saw his hands flying up and raised one arm to block his strike, but his uncle seized the front of his clothes and propelled him backwards until he hit the colonnade relief of the east wall. There were yells of alarm from the others. The breath was driven from Fili's lungs, more from shock than the impact. Frerin's fists were balled tight into his shirt, straining the seams, almost lifting Fili off his feet. For a moment Fili's instinct was to get his elbow up or jam his fingers into Frerin's eyes and fight and— no, no, go limp, he told himself, and with an enormous effort he let his body hang boneless from Frerin's hold. Kili was barreling towards them with his crutch under one arm, with Tauriel leaping to her feet behind him.

"Stay back!" Fili yelped, raising his hand to his brother. "Kili, stop! It's fine. Stay back."

Kili stopped, but his face had blossomed red and he snarled, "Frerin, let him go!"

Fili bared his teeth at his brother and shouted, "I told you to stay back. Let me be."

Kili stopped, his mouth hanging open and a wrinkle growing on his brow. He licked his bottom lip and shuffled two steps back, until Tauriel put her hand on his shoulder, a sword raised in her other hand.

Fili spread his arms a little, palms upward in supplication. Frerin seemed barely aware that he was in front of the whole company. His eyes were wide enough to see the veins around the whites, his cheeks flushed as he gritted his jaw so tight the tendons stood out in his neck and he could barely even growl, "What have you done?"

"Thorin made the decision. He came to me last night with his plan," Fili said, surprising himself with the smooth clarity of his own voice. He sounded like he was reporting on some boring patrol. "He begs you to stand beside him in this fight, as his brother and king. He believes it's the only way we will win."

"As my brother?" Frerin roared, drawing Fili close and slamming him back against the column. But it was only a little shake (or so Fili told himself, pressing his lips together to keep from grunting), it didn't even hurt. He forced himself to stay relaxed. "He will sell my mountain to Thranduil just to spite me?"

"We're on your side," Fili pressed. "This is what will win us the battle, Frerin. I won't tell the others about your original plan. I'll pretend you came up with the new one and Thorin was just doing what you told him."

"Don't try and hide your own crimes!"

"Frerin," Fili whispered, holding his gaze. "It's done. Arguing with me won't stop it. Ally with Bard and Thranduil, or leave them and Dain out there to die and it will be the orcs who next come knocking or Erebor's door."

"I have it under control!" Frerin snarled, but there was a whine at the edge of his voice now. "Why didn't you stop Thorin? Why didn't you wake me? You've betrayed me!"

Fili swallowed. "Believe what you want. I'm trying to keep us all alive," he raised his hands slowly and laid them over Frerin's fists. "When it's all over, Thorin and I will surrender to your will. Banish us if you must, cut our names from the royal line. But just follow Thorin's lead that far or we are all going to die. You, me, Kili," he said it with infinite gentleness, knowing exactly what he was doing, and hating himself for doing it. He hadn't learned this voice from his tutors or from his mother. He'd learned it from Frerin. "Thorin's plan is already in motion. He needs you. We need you to lead us."

Frerin shook his head, his eyes half-screwed up, his mouth a thin line. He croaked, "How could you do this to me? You're my kin. I've always loved you."

"I know, uncle," Fili said, his hands tightening over Frerin's, easing them away from his throat as slowly as he dared. "I know that. I love you too. But all the same, we’ve neither of us ever really liked each other."

Frerin turned his face aside, spat on the ground, and gave Fili a last shove before he released him. It was a token effort, merely rocking Fili back on his heels. He will never forgive me, Fili thought. Not this time. Would Frerin really take up his offer and banish him? Would he really? Yes. The quest had changed him. The gold had changed him. Thorin had changed him.

Fili wouldn’t have offered his own exile if he hadn’t been prepared to face such a consequence. If Frerin wanted to, he could wait until after the battle and then accuse Fili of some trumped-up conspiracy and demand his head. He'd raise the stakes so that when Kili tried to sway him, when he pleaded for Fili's life, it would look like mercy to ease Fili's sentence to exile. His uncle wouldn't want him and Thorin imprisoned in the mountain – he would not want him so close, where Kili and others would be tempted by their presence. He would want Fili to disappear and leave Frerin with all his prizes to himself; the crown, the mountain, his chosen heir.

He could feel Frerin watching him straighten his collar and walk back towards the fire, but Fili kept his head high and avoided his gaze.

Already his mind was sketching a plan. If Frerin banished them, he and Thorin might get some of the company on their side when they left, some few willing to follow them into exile. Bilbo would share their fate no doubt, and Nori might stick by them, perhaps even Balin; unfortunately Dwalin's conscience would be on their side but he would never leave his king. They could get steeds and supplies from Thranduil, in secret so as not to upset the delicate alliance. They could ride back to Ered Luin faster than Frerin's messages and tell the people everything that had happened. Convince them of Thorin's identity and right to lead the Longbeards. Together they would bring a force back to the mountain by next spring, and Dain would put his strength behind them the instant he was sure they knew what they were doing. He had never liked Frerin, even since Azanulbizar. With no friends left by Frerin's side it might even be a bloodless handover, and then – then Mama would be queen. Yes, that would be ideal. Someone who had not been involved in this nasty business right now, who had not been tarnished with the sentence of exile nor been responsible for waking Smaug in the first place, who had not antagonised the rift with the humans and elves. Mama would be a good queen.

Erebor would be restored to its glory, peace would reign, and Dis the Kingshield would be Queen Under the Mountain. She would not revel in it, but all the same, everyone would agree it was a pity it hadn't come to pass years ago.

Kili was by Fili's side in an instant. "Are you alright? What did you do to deserve that?"

I sold you to Uncle for the price of our lives, Fili thought, but he shook his head with a smile. "Nothing. I mouthed off."

He wanted to tell Kili. The truth was roaring to be let out, and more than that, he wanted his brother’s support, he wanted Kili to tell him he was doing the right thing. But that would be breaking his word to Frerin and right now, he must not give Frerin any more reason to see him as a threat.

Endure. Be a wall, be a mountain.

"You've bitten your lip," Kili said, reaching out to touch a rusty smear on Fili's mouth.

Fili jerked away from his hand and Kili withdrew, pouting. Fili’s mouth ached, and he tasted the blood in the back of his throat, though his probing tongue couldn't find the wound inside his cheek.

He couldn't believe he was planning Frerin's downfall. He couldn’t believe he was preparing for it as if it was as sure as next season’s trade caravans. But it felt inevitable. His uncle was going to get everything he ever wanted and then his greatest fears, all his paranoias about his sister, would come true. Like some black spell, Frerin had brought his imagination to life, the good and the evil. And Fili was helping it all along without a moment's hesitation.

All those months ago Mama had given him the little stone and made him promise he’d come home, that he had a greater task to live for. She couldn’t have known how right she had been.

Chapter Text

“Well, lad,” Dain Ironfoot clapped his hand on Thorin’s shoulder. “I hope the folks down there trust you more than I do, I have to admit.”

“You’ve followed me a long way for someone who doesn’t trust me,” Thorin croaked, glancing around at the dwarves from the Iron Hills buckling in their armour and raising their axes.

“Aye, but I had you face to face. They will only have your word that you’ll return,” Dain turned to look up at the mountain. “And most of them haven't even heard it from your mouth.”

Dwalin growled and stepped forward. “He’s the Abiding King. They should have faith that nothing could keep him from saving Erebor.”

“I don’t believe in fairytales, cousin,” Dain shook his head. But Thorin shot Dwalin a broad smile. Dwalin had barely exchanged a word with him since Thorin had overridden his brother and convinced Dain to fight with the host. But he had not expressly accused Thorin of treason either, so maybe a part of him understood why Thorin had made this decision.

Above them, two of Dain's young scouts with their golden braids flying behind them came barrelling down the hill. “The men and elves are falling back!” they cried. “The wall in front of the gate came down and they're all streaming back to meet it!”

Thorin looked at Dain, whose face had tightened into a grim smile. The hand on Thorin’s shoulder squeezed tighter. “Looks like your legend is holding true. Let’s move out,” he twisted around and bellowed to his men. “Arms at the ready! Forward! Forward!”

They began to march at a swift pace. Thorin breathed deep and could smell blood on the wind. As they crested the hill his heart beat harder in his chest until the blood pounded through his head.

He remembered long nights in his grandfather’s study, candles lit in every bracket, maps covering every surface, even tossed onto the stones beneath the table. The room was filled with Thror’s voice grumbling on and on like a drum to keep the miners’ haulage steady. Those were the nights wherein his grandfather had described to him every battle and near-battle he had ever fought, from the failed goblin invasions of the east plains to the cold-drakes of his youth, before he had led his father’s people back to Erebor. With the stove burning hot in the corner, Thror laid out the victories of his life, of his father’s life and his brother’s lives, and of his son Thrain. But he told their failures too.

These were not the heroic ballads and wondrous folk tales that Thorin had been raised on. Thror spared no details. He delved deepest, in fact, into the mistakes that had been made by him and his kin, and even when the main fault lay with one of his generals or with bad luck, he sought ways such disasters could have been prevented or adapted by the king in that hour. He told Thorin of carelessness and arrogance that led to each and every misery that Thror had ever overseen. Thorin listened mostly in silence, but Thror encouraged him to ask questions and challenge his grandfather over the lessons.

“What would you have done?” he would ask Thorin. “How could you have stopped that loss, if you could return to the battle? What did I do wrong, do you think?”

All his life Thorin had been taught not to question his elders and betters, to stay silent unless addressed, to observe but never seek more than he was given. In those long evenings everything changed. It was as if he was being fed some strange, sacred draught that let him see clear as daylight into the untouched caverns of the world. This was the mightiest inheritance his grandfather could give to him, more precious than all the gold and gems of the mountain.

Thror said that he regretted not teaching his own son better, when Thrain had been young and was being shaped as the crown prince. He had not taught his son to use his head as much as his sword. Thrain had been raised in a period of great peace, when Erebor was growing from a troop of travelling dwarves fleeing the Grey Mountains into the most powerful city in the north. Thror and his queen had been endlessly busy. They had been expanding a new metropolis into the mountain below the ruins of the ancient hall, laying down trade routes and alliances, holding together a city that was still young and shaky as a foal. Erebor – their eldest child in many ways – had been fragile and in need of nurturing, while Thrain was a hardy, clever lad who could be entrusted to nannies and tutors without causing trouble for his parents. So by the time he was grown he had never seen war for himself and believed the battles of the olden days were divinely determined, inevitable glories gifted to Durin’s folk in accordance with nature.

When the first skirmishes challenged their borders, the young Thrain proudly took his place at his father’s side. But though he had no shortage of courage or skill with a sword, Thror watched his son make the same mistakes that he had made in his youth. Thankfully the battles were still few and far between, but when Thrain lost his eye in an ugly tussle one spring Thror swore he would not be absent for another generation. He could not let the lessons of his long kingship fade once he was gone. Within a few years his first grandson was born in the waters of Erebor’s springs, a moon early during the depths of winter. They named him Thorin and in him Thror entrusted the royal line, sure now that it would never falter. They would defend Erebor and its people to the death, yes, but more importantly they would defend it well. What could ever overcome them?

But they had failed, and they had all died, leaving only Thorin to remember the lessons. All their good fortunes and wealth had been eaten up. This was the last chance to fulfill the duties of the kings and save the mountain.

Below them, the valley had turned into an ant's nest of warriors. On one side were the grey-armoured orcs and their multitude of snarling wargs, and on the other was a multitude of cavalry facing down the hill at them. The wall in front of Erebor's gate was crumbled, dust hanging in the air. The orcs with their black banners were swarming over the debris and into the atrium. Thorin tried to remember his grandfather’s voice as the battle surged to meet Dain's dwarves. He tried to remember that this task had waited for him from the moment he was born and even through a century of sleep. But there was little room for memory as they charged the orcs’ flanks and the killing began. There was little room for Thror’s rumbling voice in his mind, and less still for Thorin’s own thoughts.

As they fought he soon found that Dain and Dwalin was no longer with him, driven back by a pack of wargs. Thorin could see that the fighting was shifting below the wall, heading back down the valley as their enemy turned and fled in bunches, pursued on one side by dwarves as relentless as landslides and on the other by men and elves on horseback with long spears and swift arrows.

The front line of the orcs, the fiercest and largest warriors, were now almost completely cut off inside the mountain. They would be like a wildcat in a sack, Thorin thought. They would fight their way out however they could, or do as much damage on their way down. And his friends were all in there, the only people left in the world who knew his face.

No thought now, no memory, no time for deep musings on the lessons of old. His grandfather’s voice had been engraved into him year by year, untouched by the long sleep or muddled by Smaug’s fog in his mind, and now at last Thorin acted in an instant. He hailed a battalion of Dain’s dwarves to his side, and with their axes at his heels he charged into the mountain. Behind him he heard a roar and thought he saw, with a quick glance, the shape of a huge bear bearing down on the orcs where they were fleeing along the riverbanks. He could not think further on it. He led the dwarven warriors over the rubble of the wall and into the battle that raged in the shadow of the gate.

They found the cobblestones awash with black and red blood, and the atrium saturated in such chaos that for a moment Thorin’s reinforcements seemed to make not a ripple through the sea of twisting limbs and the storm of voices. And then the tide turned back towards Thorin as the trapped orcs recognised the new threat, and turned towards it.

But the dwarves pressed in, and Thorin’s heart leapt. They were pushing them back. They would have no choice but to surrender, or be cut down where they stood.

"Khazâd aimênu!" He bellowed. "Fear! Fear your doom!"

It went on. The Lakemen who had been driven up the stair reopened the tunnels and poured out to help the dwarves, many of them caked in black blood or dripping red from their own wounds. Thorin saw familiar faces among them, Ori and Balin and Gloin, but there was too much noise to call out to them. There were elvish arrows in the air as swift and sudden as dragonflies, appearing in the throats or eyes of orcs just in time to save a dwarf here or a struggling human there. They never seemed to miss their targets, and some of the elves were emerging from the shadows as well, bearing long, silver spears.

The orcs were far outnumbered inside the mountain. The surge of the men and elves pushed Dain's dwarves back into the courtyard. The armies in the valley would be sundered and leaderless.

It might work, Thorin thought. We might win.

Backing into the sunlight once more, he heard shouts for help somewhere over a pile of rubble. He leapt up, hauling himself over to reach a last pocket of orcs that had cornered a handful of men and dwarves, including Dain's two young scouts. He charged into the fray.

Behind him, rising from the dust and rocks that had tumbled onto the orcs flanks when the wall collapsed, rose a pale, scarred figure with a great mace hanging from one hand.




Frerin had never thought of himself as a dwarvish warrior, one of those fire-hardened types who lived only to serve the wars, whose mind was always on troop coordination and strategy. But he knew one thing for sure: he was a good fighter. He had always been a swordsman, anchored to the earth, with a stronger arm than any dwarf he'd ever faced. He had survived Azanulbizar while the law still said he was too young to be in the army at all. And he had never stopped practicing those skills despite decades without a true battle.

But he could still make mistakes. Anger made him reckless, and that anger peaked when he saw the immensely tall, long-limbed figure of the pale orc with the iron plates in his skull.

"You," Frerin snarled, though no one would have heard it above the crash of steel and the screams of battle. He recognised that ugly face. This was the orcish captain who had put an arrow in Kili's leg, poisoned him half to death, and attacked the unarmed dwarves in Laketown.

Frerin struck first, and when the Orc swiped his blade aside he moved with the parry and dived in to gut him with a thrust like a spear. But the orc was quicker than his gigantic height belied and he hunched back to avoid Frerin and began to laugh in low, guttural gulps. Frerin heard the squelch of a footstep in the mud behind him and spun, bringing his shield up just in time to knock upwards the lance of another huge, bone-plated orc. He gave a yell of surprise as the tip of the spear raked less than an inch from his eye and caught against the brim of his helm, knocking it right off his head.

"Ah!" bellowed the pale orc, his eyes widening as he saw Frerin's exposed face. "Ugûrz Grat!"

He'd recognised Frerin. All the clans of Moria knew of him, the dwarvish prince who'd cut the hand from Azog the Defiler. The story was more famous in their lore than it was among Frerin's own people.

Frerin's braid flew free as he shoved the edge of his shield into the belly of the second orc, driving it back a few feet. But the orc recovered within a couple of staggering steps and Frerin found himself facing two foes now, each almost twice his height and backing him into the wall of pillars made by the mountain wall. He remembered being a boy with a sword and a huge, white monster leering down at him, remembered the scant instant in which he'd had a chance to strike, how close he'd come to death before the crown had ever touched his head. But this time there would be no baby sister in too-big armour to save him. This time he was alone.

At least he was going to die on the threshold of Erebor.

Frerin flexed his fingers around the sword of his hand, his eyes flicking between two sets of grinning, sharp teeth, two pairs of narrowed eyes. His senses were almost overwhelming him, the smell of blood and filth thick in the air, sweat stinging his eyes, his vision alert to the slightest change in the orcs' weight and stance as they prepared to strike. The pale one would go first, he was sure of it. He was of the higher rank and would want the honour of taking Frerin's head to Azog. Even as Frerin thought this, the pale orc raised his club. Frerin lifted his shield to meet it, screaming his grandfather's name. In his periphery he saw the second orc dash forward with his glinting spear to get in under Frerin's defenses and drive cold steel into Frerin's stomach.

The club came down and hammered Frerin into the earth, his boots sinking almost two inches, but instead of feeling steel in his side Frerin only heard a strangled cry. He cast the pale orc's club aside and slashed out with a ragged howl. A line of blood welled up on his enemy's chest as the pale captain surged away. Both of them glanced towards the second orc, but the bone-plated soldier was sinking to the ground, his head hanging to one side, the meat of his neck sliced right down to the spine and his heartblood gushing onto the field.

Behind him stood Fili, his yellow hair speckled with crimson and trailing over his shoulder, his stained axe raised over one shoulder in case the orc had some fight left in him. His lips were pulled back from his gritted teeth, his eyes shadowed beneath his brows. Fili, son of the Kingshield.

Frerin's attention was drawn back to the pale orc above him, and as he struck again, Fili lunged forward beside him. As the pale orc pushed back Frerin's sword, Fili attacked from his unguarded flank, driving his axe into the orc's knee. The captain gave a bellow of rage and pain as his leg went out from under him, and Frerin took the chance to administer a killing blow. Fili drove the dying orc down with the blade of his axe and stood panting, stumbling back a couple of steps and looking around.

The surviving enemy were retreating, and the Lakemen and elves poured out of the gate to follow them. The battle was streaming away down the valley. Satisfied they were safe, Fili grabbed Frerin's shoulder.

"Are you alright?" he gasped, but Frerin could only stare at him, at the black blood on his face and the grim set to his jaw. He looked so much like his mother. Fili shook him roughly. "Uncle, are you hurt?"

"No," Frerin shook his head. He licked his bottom lip. "You saved me."

Fili frowned, one eyebrow raised. Frerin didn't understand his bewilderment. Yesterday Fili had betrayed him. He had spitefully helped Thorin keep the mountain from Frerin's control. He had chosen the legendary, perfect uncle over the one who had raised him and cared for him all his life. But today he could so easily have let Frerin die, and he hadn't. It didn't make sense.

A lot of things hadn't made sense recently. Frerin hadn't really noticed it until he'd thought about it. Ever since they'd reached the mountain, everyone around Frerin had behaved out of character. Dwalin and Balin looked at him like he was a stranger, the company had all been reluctant to follow his orders, and even dear Bilbo kept secrets from him and became awkward and cold more often than he used to. Fili had finally stepped up and shown him the heart of the matter; it was Thorin who had changed everything. And then, the Arkenstone – oh, by Durin, even the stone had chosen Thorin.

But Fili had saved him. He still cared for Frerin. Things could still go back to the way they were. If only...

All this flashed through Frerin's mind in an instant, and before his thoughts could sink any further into that black flood, a yell drew both their gazes upwards.

"Fili! Frerin! Help!"

"Kili!" Frerin and Fili cried in one voice. Kili had been with the archers above the atrium, and somehow got up onto the old ramparts by the gate. He was half-climbing, half-falling down the remains of the collapsed wall. He reached them in a moment, gasping for breath, staggering towards Fili for support.

"What happened to you?" Frerin gasped.

"It's not me – Thorin – I ran out of arrows – he's trapped –" Kili heaved for breath, his stray hair catching in his mouth and his injured leg shaking so hard he had to hang off Fili's armour with both hands. "Thorin's fighting Azog. By the pool, that way!"

He stretched out one shivering hand to point at a jagged bank of broken stone to one side of the gate.

"We'll help him," Fili growled. "Follow the others down the valley if you can, Kili, the rest of the company went that way just a moment ago."

"No," Frerin stepped forward and put his hand on Fili's shoulder. "They need a leader, Fili. Go with the company, keep them together. And keep Kili close to you."

"Uncle, Thorin could already be..." Fili's eyes widened. "You can't face Azog alone!"

"Trust your king," Frerin shoved Fili towards the valley. “Go! Protect your brother, and I’ll protect mine.”




On the bare ground beside the pool Dain's dwarves were injured, and the Lakemen either dead or running for their lives. There was only one left standing to fight.

Thorin was too slow. He took the mace full against his side and a high, breathy cry was driven from his body as he staggered back. He felt the ribs crack inside his chest and for a moment black flashes smothered his vision and he lost his footing, stumbling to stay upright. That was death to a dwarf in battle, his grandfather had always said so. He must stay rooted to the earth. He dragged his mind back in an instant but found Azog’s claw sweeping towards him.

He leaned back and felt the breeze shift across his face as the iron talons raked the air just above him. Still dizzy with pain, he fell onto his back, losing hold of his sword. He landed mostly on his good side but his crushed ribs still ground together. This time he did not feel it so badly. All his pain was fading. There was a pounding in his blood like a storm in the mountain peaks. The orc’s footsteps shook the stones around him as he gritted his teeth and raised his head.

His sword was only a few feet away. Thorin stretched an arm out towards it and then jerked his hand away as Azog’s steel-capped boot slammed down on the blood splattered earth. He rolled onto his back again and scrambled away, raising his shield just in time to turn away another blow of the mace. His sword was even further off now. He was unarmed and struggling to rise onto his knees and hold his shield up at the same time. The orc stretched up to his full height, a smile spreading across his scarred face. With a tilt of his head he considered Thorin. Then he suddenly tossed down his mace and without taking his eyes from the dwarf he picked up Thorin’s own sword, swinging it in circles with a grin. It looked like a toy in his huge fist.

Azog advanced in swaggering strides now, and Thorin tried to get up and felt his ribs shift again. He cried out, part in rage, part in pain that was dulled by the rush of the battle, but part in fear too. He did not want to die, not for glory alone, not in this strange world. Not lying here in the mud. Against any expectation or choice the last thought to spring unbidden to his mind was of Bilbo. He had told Bilbo he would see him again when the battle was done, and he had not meant to lie. Perhaps it was for the best that Bilbo would miss him the most, but still he wished he could spare the hobbit that grief. He wished he had not been such a coward in their last few moments in that dark stairway by the dead fountain. He wished he was leaving Bilbo with more than a broken promise.


He could not take his eyes from Azog’s face, but he felt someone grab his arm and haul him in to his feet in one swift movement. A tall figure stood beside him, with a long and bloody sword of his own. Thorin saw a familiar, long-nosed profile out of the corner of his eye.

“Frerin,” he croaked.

“Hold your ground. I’m with you,” Frerin cried, and his face twisted into a snarl at Azog. “Would you like to lose your other hand, you filth?”

Azog’s smile was gone, and he had dropped into a defensive hunch. He cried out in Black Speech, and Thorin had no doubt that it was a curse he spat at Frerin. They began to circle through the broken stones from the wall, Frerin and Azog’s gazes locked together as Thorin shifted to keep close to Frerin’s side. He still had no weapon, and at the same time, Thorin realised that even together he could not imagine how they could bring down an orc as tall and experienced as Azog. The orc's reach was far longer, and Frerin still had the only sword.

Thorin needed a weapon if they were going to stand a chance. Azog continued to pace around their flank as Frerin stepped away to keep their distance and suddenly Thorin saw his best chance. Something with a long reach and which, if he struck right, would be impossible to parry with the stolen sword.

“Frerin,” he hissed. “Bring him in close. Just for a moment.”

“What?” Frerin snapped back, not taking his eyes off Azog. “When?”

“Now!” Thorin cried.

Frerin dashed forward, stabbing straight for Azog’s good arm, and with a bellow that almost sounded like laughter Azog turned his sword away with such force that sparks burst from their blades.

Thorin was already moving, hurling his shield away onto the ground and leaping for the orcish mace that lay abandoned in the mud. He seized its handle with both hands, sinews bulging in his wrists as he lifted it. It felt as if it weighed almost as much as him. As his whole body clenched, the head of the mace rose from the ground dripping with mud and gore and Thorin swung it with all his might, spinning once where he stood before coming around for a second pass. It was all he had the strength for. He had to throw his whole weight behind the blow and didn't even have time to look at his target, but he knew half by memory and half by instinct where Azog must be standing in the aftermath of Frerin’s strike. He knew there would be no chance for a second shot.

The arc of the mace was as honed as if Thorin had wielded it for years. Azog was hunched over and leaning forward to meet Frerin, and at the last moment he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and began to turn his head. For a split second his brows lifted and his eyes went wide, and then the mace struck him full against his cheek.

Even dwarf bones would have been hard pressed to withstand such momentum. Thorin could not have held onto the handle if he’d had four more hands, and the mace slid through his grip as if it was greased and spun away past its victim. Azog toppled sideways from his great height, bringing Thorin’s sword around by reflex. The tip sliced through the air half an inch from Thorin’s throat, and would certainly have found its mark if Thorin had not been flung backwards as he lost his hold on the mace.

Before the orc had even hit the ground, Frerin was on him. On his right side Azog's face had been wiped off his skull, replaced by a shattered pulp of bone and spurting, black blood, the eyeball ruptured and deflated in its socket, slivers of yellow teeth pierced through the remains of a lip or hanging from the threads of pulverised gums. His remaining eye rolled around and focused on Frerin’s raised sword, and his claw lifted up to scratch at Frerin’s screaming face, but Frerin kicked it aside and drove his sword down and into Azog’s heart with his whole weight. The orc chieftain’s limbs writhed and fell back into the mud, convulsing. Frerin ground the sword in deeper, panting, but there was no more life to wring from Azog’s body.

In the distance, Thorin could hear a strange sound. As he stumbled towards Frerin he thought it was cicadas in midsummer, and then it grew louder. It was cheering. Somewhere far away down the valley, people were cheering. Around them, within the circle of the collapsed wall, there were a handful of Lakemen and dishevelled elves who had been helping the injured left behind in Erebor. They had approached the gate as the final battle raged there and had seen the last struggle between Azog and the dwarves. In the distance the cries of victory echoed around the arms of the mountain and at the gate they took it up in hoarse and weary voices.

There was room to think now, but Thorin did not think. His mind sunk into a fog of pain, rich with flashes of the battle and the humming come-down of terror. He strode to Frerin’s side and grabbed him with both arms, closing his eyes and pressing his face into Frerin’s neck. Their armour crashed together, an impenetrable wall between their bodies, but Thorin could feel his own heartbeat against the leather lining and he hoped Frerin could feel it too.

He had never had a big brother.

Until today.

Frerin’s body went rigid and then slowly, slowly unwound. He did not let go of his sword, but the other arm slipped around Thorin’s waist and clutched him close for a long time.

Chapter Text

Frerin had never felt so weary. Not wearied by the battle, not even by the years that had passed since that day at Azanulbizar when Azog had first torn apart Frerin’s family. He was wearied by the thought of what lay ahead. He had sent his nephews down into the valley without knowing how fierce the battle would be there. He felt sick with fear for their lives, and for all the others he had brought on this long journey back to the mountain. But even if all was well and the company lived, there was so much more to do.

It would have been so much easier if the Lakemen and the Elves were dead. If he only had to contend with Dain for control of the mountain. In his heart, Frerin knew Thorin had been right – they had had a much better chance of winning the battle with the three armies united – but it would have been so much easier if they had only trusted Frerin and let his plan come to fruition. It might have worked. There must have been a chance. More than a chance! He felt so sure it would have worked.

But they had disobeyed him, their king.

It wasn't Frerin’s fault! He’d only ever tried to keep everybody close, to show those he loved how valuable they were to him. Wasn’t that enough? Why did their loyalty still stray? Even Bilbo, dear, sweet, Bilbo who brightened Frerin’s mood every day with his endlessly accommodating manners and his naïve affection. Frerin’s heart ached that Bilbo would lie to him. And he must have lied. He could not have turned so suddenly to cling to Thorin. He must have favoured Thorin for some time and hidden it well, pretending he was just helping Thorin adjust.

Perhaps he knew about the stone. Quiet and sly, perhaps Bilbo had followed Thorin and seen him discover the Arkenstone. Perhaps Bilbo had realised what it meant and decided to throw his love behind the true king.

At the agony of the betrayal, Frerin’s hand tightened around Thorin’s waist and his brother gave a gasp of pain. Frerin drew back to look at Thorin’s bloodless face. “Are you alright?”

“Not at my best,” Thorin gave a weak smile and touched his side. “I think I’ve a few splinters in here somewhere. It hurts to breathe.”

Frerin squeezed his shoulder. He had forgotten that Thorin had probably never faced a battle before, certainly not one of this scale. He would not have seen broken dwarves carried to the healers, some to fight on and some to die no matter what skill was poured into their care. But Frerin had borne cracked ribs himself before, once merely after falling from his pony during a hunt. He smiled, “That’s nothing that time and rest won’t heal. Let’s sit down and get your armour off.”

He noticed that they were not alone. Some of the stragglers who had been left behind in the mountain were approaching them, staring between them and Azog’s body.

“Go on,” Frerin called to them. “Go down the valley and see where you’re needed.”

He helped Thorin settle on a square chunk of masonry, beside the pool where the river had been captured behind the wall. It was stained opaque with the pale dust from Erebor’s stones. The body of an orc floated face-down not far away, leaking black clouds into the water.

Most of the men and elves rallied together and headed away, but they still looked over their shoulders at Frerin and his brother. The only ones who lingered were two young fellows from the Iron Hills, yellow-haired and wearing the light, blue-painted armour of scouts. One was hanging from his companion with blood smeared on his neck, but his gaze was lucid enough. They watched Frerin unbuckle the catches of Thorin’s breastplate and lift it over Thorin’s head as he hissed and gritted his teeth. Frerin set the breastplate aside and pulled off his own armour, glad to be rid of the weight and heat.

“What do you want, lads?” Frerin asked the nearest of the young dwarves, the uninjured one.

“The legend of the abiding king is true,” the dwarf said, his eyes shining. He held his companion close, checking him when he slumped lower in his grip. He turned back to Frerin. “Our Mam always said it was just a story, but it's all true. He came to save the Lonely Mountain, and it was saved.”

Frerin swallowed. “Go and find your lord. He’ll want all the able bodies he can, and your brother needs a healer.”

The young dwarf nodded and turned towards the valley. He looked back at Thorin and then started a slow, careful route through the collapsed side of the wall and out of sight. Now Frerin and Thorin were alone in the dust and blood.

“Which side is hurting?” Frerin asked.

Thorin leaned to his right and raised his arm. Frerin tugged his shirt tails out of his belt and lifted up the thick linen and the undergarments beneath. He winced. “You took a heavy one, brother.”

The left side of Thorin’s chest looked like someone had thrown half a bucket of black wine over his skin, speckled with scrapes of blood where the buckles of his armour had dug into his skin. There was a dark band where the ridge of the mace had struck hardest. It was already beginning to swell around a pair of particularly inflamed spots, below which the injured ribs must lie. Frerin could see no sign, however, that the ribs had snapped far enough to puncture a lung beneath. That would be the biggest immediate danger for Thorin.

“You should be fine to walk down and have Oin take a look at these,” Frerin nodded, letting Thorin’s shirt fall over the wound again. “Do you want to lean on me?”

“I can make it,” Thorin said shakily. He rested forward on his knees, breathing shallow, slow lungfuls of air through his gritted teeth. “We did it, Frerin,” he whispered. “Erebor is won. Our people can return from exile. We will restore Grandfather’s kingdom. Everything will go back to how it was,” he closed his eyes, digging his thumbs into his temples.

Frerin felt a strange drowsiness, as if some hook behind his eyes was trying to tug him away from his body into a cold, empty place behind the veil of the world. He said, “You restored Thror’s kingdom. It’s you they’re cheering. ‘The Abiding King’. Didn’t you hear them?”

Thorin turned his head to look at him. “No, I didn’t hear them say anything like that.”

Frerin had heard them. He was sure he'd heard them. “I am left in your shadow.”

“That’s not true. They’ll be so glad to see you, Frerin,” a knot tightened on Thorin’s brow. “This… this business with Dain, I know I went against you but… we can forget it, can’t we? It all worked out.”

“Yes. It worked out very well,” Frerin replied, or at least, his mouth said the words. He didn’t think he’d told it to speak. He was thinking of Erebor restored, of their grandfather’s throne shining beneath the glow of the Arkenstone. He had come so close. His people would have loved him. He had done everything he could, he had journeyed across the span of the world and defended the mountain against elves, men and orcs. He had played a crucial part in the worst battle the Longbeards had fought since Moria, and one that had ended with far fewer dead. The exiles should return and see what a king Frerin had become. Even Dis would realise how wrong she was. Fili would return to his side. Kili would love him more than ever. And they would have long years of peace and prosperity ahead, ruling once more in their sacred home.

But Thorin was the elder brother, the true king. Frerin's deeds would be forgotten. They would remember him for the disasters and the disappointments and the years of poverty. All the good he’d done, all the rewards he deserved, would be claimed by Thorin. Frerin would vanish into history, a between-times king, the king who’d never sat on Erebor’s throne but only on a rough wooden chair in Ered Luin with pig shit on the floor and bastards in the town's cribs.

“Should we go down the valley?” Frerin’s mouth asked, even as his heart began to beat harder and harder and his mind hung in the empty air several feet above his head. “I need to find the rest of the company. I want to know how they fare.”

“Yes,” Thorin gripped his arm to support himself as he stood on shaking legs. “I’m just going to get some of this foulness off.”

He shuffled towards the pool and eased himself to his knees, unable to bend over too far. His hair hung around his face as he dipped his hands in the muddy water and scrubbed his palms. He cleaned them until the skin was pink and shining, but still he did not seem satisfied and continued to rub his fingers and scrape a handful of sand under his nails and knuckles.

Frerin crouched and picked up a polished, square curl of classical Erebor stone, the corner of some great pillar long destroyed by Smaug or by time, that the company had commandeered for the wall. He turned it over in his hands, admiring the precision of it as he sat watching from the rubble. He saw Thorin’s shoulders slump, and then his brother splashed a handful of water over his face and scratched his cheeks dry with his nails. Droplets caught the light as they fell from his hair.

Frerin remembered his own face in the basin all those years ago after Azanulbizar. His beard had been barely a scrape on his chin, while his grandfather’s crown sat on a cushion across the tent. He could remember Dis crying out in her fitful sleep, lying in Frerin’s bed where Frerin had insisted she rest up, her broken arm bound tight against her chest. He had never thought he could recover from that day. He thought the memories would stain him and cut his insides for every moment of his life. He thought he would never be able to close his eyes again without seeing visions of his grandfather's severed head, of the piles of dead stacked twenty high, without smelling the burning bodies. But he had made it through. He had been strong. And he had done it alone. He had done so well, given his inexperience and reluctance. And still those he loved abandoned him. Dis looked at him with scorn. Fili despised him.

But Fili had still followed him across the world and saved his life in battle. Things between them had been alright before (Hadn't they? Hadn't they? Hadn't they?). Fili now despised him only because Thorin was better.

“Thorin,” he said, as Thorin stared down at the rippling water without moving. “Are you alright?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” Thorin said, but there was a hitch in his voice.

Frerin swallowed. The broken stone in his hand was very heavy, but he didn’t let it go. “You’ll feel better after a good sleep.”

Thorin gave a hollow laugh, glancing over his shoulder at Frerin. “I am no adherent of sleep these days, I’m afraid. I will have to find my own remedy.”

“Time helps,” Frerin nodded. "I know. The bad memories fade as you get older."

Thorin did not reply. He stood up one leg at the time, favouring his right side. He started to turn back towards Frerin.

It wasn’t really a decision. Frerin had not been dwelling on it. He was sure it would not even have happened if Thorin had turned around sooner and met his gaze in that crucial moment. But the curled chunk of stone had been there all along, like a dragon sleeping out of sight, and it was inexorable upon its awakening. The urge rushed through him like a jet of flame. Now! Now! It must be now, or you will lose everything!

He struck with all his strength at the place behind Thorin’s ear, once, and then when Thorin cried out and staggered forward he struck again. Thorin fell to his hands and knees. He began to look back, raising his hand to defend himself. Frerin did not want to see his face, he could not, he could not look at his brother's face, so he seized a handful of dark hair and shoved him forward and down, down into the filthy water of the pool. He straddled Thorin's back and grabbed one of his clutching arms as he did so. Thorin fumbled for the wrist holding his head with his other hand, scratching, twisting Frerin's flesh as if to rip the bones right from their sockets, but Frerin bared his teeth and pushed his face deeper into the water. He squeezed with his knees at the same time, into the broken ribs, and Thorin began thrashing with a terrible, heaving strength. But Frerin was heavier and stronger.

He would have to kick Thorin’s ribs in later, he thought to himself, to make it look as if the lungs had been punctured all along. It could take a while for the damage to show itself with such an injury. A dwarf could seem pained but strong, and later he could be gasping for breath with blood in his mouth and then he would die with his face going grey-blue and his eyes bulging and the healers could not understand why it happened sometimes and how to stop it. So yes, he would have to kick Thorin's ribs in once he was dead, and they'd all think it had been Azog's mace that had killed him.

Frerin began to cry, silently, his face frozen with wide eyes as Thorin bucked beneath him, churning the water so violently that the corpse of the orc a good distance away was rocked by the waves. The tears made cold trails on Frerin’s cheeks and dripped through his moustache into his mouth. He sucked for breath and they ran onto his tongue and tasted of hot blood.

Someone was screaming his name. He thought he must be imagining it, but then he felt small hands on his face and arm, trying to push him off Thorin, and he saw the brown corona of Bilbo’s hair in the corner of his eye.

Frerin! Frerin, stop! STOP!

Where had Bilbo come from? How had he managed to sneak up so close without Frerin noticing him? He cursed aloud. The stupid hobbit, why, why did it have to be him? Now Frerin would have to kill him too and that was cruel, that was wasteful. Bilbo was not an obstacle, he was simply unlucky for once in his short life.

Frerin growled and released Thorin’s arm long enough to twist, grab a handful of Bilbo’s shirt and shove him away as hard as he could. Bilbo stumbled backwards and fell with a thud that sounded like it would leave a decent bruise. Frerin had not let up his grip on Thorin’s hair, and put both hands on it now even though it did not take all his weight to hold it down anymore. Thorin was not fighting very hard anymore.

“Let him go!” Bilbo was roaring in a voice that Frerin had never heard from him before as he launched himself on Frerin again, wrapping his arms around Frerin’s neck and dragging his head back to look up at the sky, at the peak of Erebor high above him. “Frerin, stop this!”

Frerin drew back one elbow and slammed it backwards into Bilbo’s belly. He heard the hobbit gasp as the air was driven from his lungs. His grip loosened and Frerin took hold of Bilbo’s arm and jerked it away from his throat. He wrenched it, prying Bilbo off his back in one movement and flinging him to the ground again. He heard the thud of a skull hitting bare earth and in the corner of his eye he saw Bilbo lie curled in the mud, perhaps stunned or perhaps just too winded to scream.

Frerin turned back to Thorin, but he found that his brother lay still now. His dark hair was spread through the water around him like tendrils of blood flowing outwards from a wound. There was no twitch in his body. Frerin found himself breathless, like his brother, and like the winded Bilbo. He did not lift his hand out of the water yet. He had to be sure. He could not let his resolve falter now. He had to be sure. It was almost done. It was almost over.

He felt the pain first as a dull and heavy blow in the middle of his back. It took only a moment for the agony to blossom white and blinding as lightning, deeper and deeper in his chest. He looked down. The crimson tip of a sword blade emerged between the third and fourth buttons of his tunic.

“Thorin?” Frerin said, staring at the sword, wondering how his brother had managed such a feat. He released Thorin’s hair and stood up, staggering only a little as wave after wave of pain coursed through him. The sword remained lodged in his body. His vision spun around him and he saw Bilbo standing not two feet away, one hand outstretched with the fingers still curled as if to grasp the now-absent handle of a short sword. Frerin remembered distantly that it was Thorin who had taught him his swordwork. He had learned well.

Time seemed to leap forward and he found he was sitting down in the mud, resting back on one elbow. The world swayed back and forth like a flag in a fickle breeze. Bilbo had run to Thorin’s side and locked one hand around Thorin’s collar, trying to drag him out of the water. He wasn’t strong enough. He sunk his hands into the water to wrap his arms around his shoulders, letting out a high groan, his knees digging into the earth, and with two mighty heaves he hauled Thorin's body backwards onto dry land.

“Wait,” Frerin said. His tongue seemed very heavy. Nausea was rippling through him now. He reached behind him and took hold of the burnished handle of Bilbo’s little sword. He gritted his teeth, took a breath and dragged it back. Sparks flashed against his eyeballs but the blade slid out of his body, scraping bone and sucking at muscles as it went. Wet, hot blood poured over Frerin’s hand until the sword had completely emerged. He brought it round in front of his eyes. He frowned at it. Such a small blade.

“Thorin,” Bilbo was crying, and Frerin saw that he had somehow rolled the dwarf onto his back and was kneeling beside his head. “Thorin, wake up. Please wake up.”

Frerin watched them with something like disinterest. He saw the hobbit press his ear to Thorin’s chest, and then grip Thorin’s chin, tilt his head back and open his jaw. He saw Bilbo lock his mouth over Thorin’s lips as if to kiss him, cheeks puffed out, and then lift his head to take another breath and push it again down Thorin’s throat. A moment later Thorin coughed, water dribbling from the corners of his mouth, eyes squeezed tight shut. Frerin watched Bilbo grip his shoulder and roll him onto his side, heard Thorin retching so hard it rocked his whole body.

Frerin's vision seemed to come and go in a haze of black and grey. When he next blinked he found Bilbo padding towards him, reaching for him. Bilbo’s mouth was open, his brow crinkled with what seemed to be grief. He fell to his knees in front of Frerin, reached out, took hold of Frerin’s cold hand and pressed it to the leaking hole in his chest.

“Frerin,” he whispered. “Frerin, keep your hand on the wound until I can get some bandages or, or something. Oh, dear. Oh no.”

He had seen how much blood was on the ground and soaked into Frerin's clothes.

Frerin felt the corners his mouth tug into a smile. He rasped, “Don’t tell Kili what I did.”

Bilbo made a choking noise, shaking his head, and then he began to scream for help, for someone to find a physician, anybody. And Frerin thought, it’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I’m a terrible king. And he thought, it’s not fair, it’s not fair at all. Nobody ever gave me a chance. And he thought, as his head grew too heavy to hold up and he sunk back against the dirt that lay before the gates of Erebor, he thought, he thought, I’ll fix it all when I





(Original post by Ewebean rebloggable here)



“He’s dead,” said Kili, looking down with a smile. “He’s dead at last.”

Fili didn’t reply, but the sunlight seemed to grow and the weight of the stones and earth around them felt lessened.

They stood over Azog’s body with their hands still gripping their swords. Kili’s useless bow was tucked under his arm. He’d refused to leave it behind despite his exhausted supply of arrows. They had returned up the valley to the gate as soon as the chaos below died down.

“Let’s not celebrate,” Dwalin spat on the ground. “He doesn’t deserve to be remembered even with disdain.”

“Help! Somebody help!”

Fili raised his head. He recognised Bilbo’s voice at once, even though he had never heard it sound as fearful and desperate as this. But there was no clash of battle and no one had seen Bilbo in the heat of the fight. Kili glanced back at him and Dwalin, eyes wide.

“Was that…?”

“That was the bloody hobbit,” Dwalin barrelled ahead of them in a dead straight line, jumping over the rubble without breaking his stride. Fili picked his way more carefully. He was afraid of treading on somebody. There were bodies everywhere, bits of bodies too (a hand here, still in its gauntlet, and over there were some guts with the owner a few feet further on), and splashes of blood (red-black-red-black) like it had rained buckets of the stuff. Fili tried not to look. He was responsible for some of this. He killed some folk. Orcs, for sure, but they made the same faces as everyone else when they died. Fili kept himself from looking by pretending the bodies were just empty clothes that people had left behind, perhaps to go swimming. Anything he could do to keep from looking at them and thinking, oh, Durin’s Beard, we killed a lot of people.

He was focusing so hard on not looking at things that he almost walked into the back of Dwalin. He stepped aside at the last moment and Kili stopped beside him in turn. Dwalin was looking across the empty, churned earth west of the gate, in front of the pool that had swelled up at the base of the wall. The makeshift barrier here hadn’t fallen outwards with the rest of it and so the pool was still mostly blocked up.

Dwalin was looking at the bodies in front of the pool. He started to walk forward, unspeaking, and Fili and Kili followed him. Bilbo had stopped screaming for a healer, now. The battlefield between the broken wall and the gate was silent.

There were two dwarves lying there. Fili knew who they were before they had to get close enough to see their faces. He knew and his first thought was a panicked flash, that means Kili is the king now. He felt strangely unprepared on Kili’s behalf, and for his own sake. He knew about the whole mess between Mama and her brother when Frerin became king. He’d pushed her away when she tried to tell him he was wrong and then she’d run off with a nomad and he’d hated her, hated her in ways he had only ever expressed while extremely drunk and Fili had been tying his hair back from his face and helping him get home without anyone spotting him. Frerin becoming king had poisoned their friendship and Fili had always promised he wouldn’t let it happen to Kili, what happened to Frerin, but he was equally sure that Mum would have done everything to help Frerin the first time around and it had still turned out badly. Fili had to do better. He thought he'd have years to work it out, but it was now, it was happening.

And then the dwarf who lay on his side twitched and sat up with some effort, and Fili saw it was Thorin and he was so glad that Kili would not be king it took him a moment to realise that Frerin was still not moving.

Dwalin ran towards Thorin, but Kili was standing still as a rock at Fili’s side. It was only then that it hit Fili that he might have lost an uncle and a slow drip of disbelief, cold and black as water underground, began to fill up the spaces inside of him. Bilbo sat over Frerin, holding the dwarf’s head in his lap. One hand was pressed to a bloody, wet place on Frerin's chest with the other he was tidying the hair that had gotten loose and hung around Frerin’s ears. The hobbit's skin was so pale it looked grey. His face was wiped blank as fresh linen.

Kili began to walk towards Bilbo, his movements slow and staggering as if a sudden light-headedness had overcome him. Fili followed two paces behind. He heard his brother give a low groan and Bilbo's head jerked up as Kili fell to his knees beside where Frerin lay. The king's face was bloodless, almost purple in the crevices and wrinkles of his skin around his nose and brow. His eyes were closed, though whether he had shut them himself or if Bilbo had done it for him, Fili couldn't know. No movement stirred his breast or mouth, and his hand lay with the palm upward as if to receive some token, perhaps from the mountain that stood proud above him.

“H-how did it happen?” Kili asked, and Fili heard the crack in his voice and dropped to his knees beside his brother. He slung one metal-plated arm around Kili’s shoulder. He could feel his brother shuddering, his fists gripping his knees as if to brace himself from a faint. Trying to be brave. But at his question Bilbo flinched and bent forward over Frerin, shaking his head.

“Were you with him, Bilbo?” Fili asked. His voice sounded to come from someone else’s mouth, it sounded too clear and composed. “Thank you. I’m glad he wasn’t alone.”

“No, no,” Bilbo gasped and clapped one hand over his mouth. “I… I don’t know how it happened,” he mumbled through his fingers, squeezing his eyes shut. “I found them like this.”

“Azog,” Kili said, leaning heavily against Fili. “It must have been Azog. Frerin was coming to save Thorin.”

He bent his head. For a moment there was silence, but for the crying of the crows on the broken wall above them. They would be coming down in droves to tear at dead flesh soon enough. The armies must rally together, count their numbers, collect up the dead and cover them until they could be laid to rest. Fili did not feel grief yet. He wondered why not. He could only think about everything they had to do. The tasks filled up his skull like a flooded mine.

He felt Kili tense in his embrace and start to pull away. Fili clutched him tighter, but Kili fought him off, diving for something that lay on the ground behind Frerin’s head. He lifted it up, and both Fili and Bilbo’s gaze followed it.

“Bilbo,” said Kili. “This is your sword.”

It was red almost to the hilt with blood, bright and sticky, the rich blood that came straight from the heart, and not from any orc. Kili looked from the blade to the exit wound in Frerin’s chest, and Fili sucked in a sharp breath. The sword fell from Kili’s hand, ringing on the stones like bells. Fili looked at his brother and saw his mouth open, his brows come together, and the shadows deepen under his eyes.


Fili grabbed for Kili as he tried to lunge over Frerin’s body. Their armour clanked together, an ugly sound like a bruise, their limbs tangled, Kili almost tripping up over Fili’s ankle. Fili pulled them both back, afraid that Kili would knock Frerin’s body, and that thought was more terrible right now than the thought of the red blood on the little sword.

“What have you done? Why? Why, you liar?” Kili’s voice rose with every word, ragged and raw with exhaustion and hours of joining the war-cries. Bilbo hunched into himself, head bent, and Kili screamed. “Stop touching him! Get away from him!”

He was trying to get at Bilbo again, and Fili could barely keep him back, his muscles aching as he tried to hold his ground in the dust. Bilbo pulled away, laying Frerin’s head gently on the ground. He stood up, taking two steps backward towards the pool, shaking his head.

“Yes, I’m a liar,” he said. His voice was thin as spider-silk, his face white and gaze locked on Frerin’s face. “A liar and a thief and a murderer.”

I’ll kill you!” Kili fought even harder to be free of his brother’s hold, writhing and jamming his elbows into Fili’s side, so frantic that Fili was afraid he would hurt himself or both of them. “You stabbed him in the back? You should run! Run before I cut your throat, you traitor!”

Dwalin had arrived at their side, with Thorin’s arm around his shoulders to help him stagger forward. For a moment they both seemed too stunned or tired to intervene, but then Kili gave a particularly violent lurch and Dwalin let go of Thorin and jumped to push Kili back.

Fili could not bear it, that rage in his brother’s voice, his bright and loving brother who thought the best of everyone, cold elves and bloodthirsty dragons alike (for even as Smaug had sunk down into the lake beneath the burning houses Kili had watched the water drown his golden scales and said with something like regret, “He must have been so old.”) And now there was no pity or disbelief for Bilbo, only hate and snapping teeth. When Kili’s voice turned to khuzdul curses, fouler and uglier words than Fili expected him to even know, he couldn’t bear it. He clamped his hand over Kili’s mouth and hauled him against his chest, out of Dwalin’s hands, sinking back down onto one knee and pulling his brother down with him.

“Stop it, stop, Kili,” he hissed in his ear. “Please. Hush.”

And Kili stopped, twitching and heaving for breath, and Fili felt his tears on the back of his hand. Fili looked up at Bilbo, who stood with his hands hanging at his side.

“Why?” he asked. “Why would you do this?”

But Bilbo just shook his head. His face was wiped blank now, but Fili saw at last that there was a smear of crimson on his cheek almost at his ear. There was no sign that he was cut. It must be Frerin’s blood.

“You saved my life,” said a voice. For just a moment Fili thought it was Frerin speaking, and his heart leapt up and got stuck in his throat, his eyes stinging, and then he realised no. It was only Thorin. The new, magical uncle from out of the bedtime stories. He looked as ruined as the rest of them right now. Nothing like the hero that was supposed to drive out the dragon and come like a storm over the misty mountains to save his people.

“What?” Dwalin turned towards Thorin. “Who did?”

Thorin stood at Frerin’s feet, like a lore-reader convening a wake. One hand was pressed to his side against some unseen hurt. “Bilbo,” he said quietly.

Bilbo shook his head. “No, Thorin. No, don’t tell them.” He took another step backwards, as if he really wished to run but was trapped by the pool. “Frerin didn't want them to know. Don’t tell them.”

Thorin looked at him, and then followed his gaze to Kili’s face. He licked his bottom lip, and Fili said sharply. “Tell us.”

“Frerin and I killed Azog,” Thorin said in a rush. “We were the only ones left behind the wall. I went to wash my hands, and someone hit me and pushed me under the water. Next thing I knew I was pulled out while I was still senseless and Bilbo woke me up,” Thorin looked over at Bilbo, who refused to meet his eye. “And Frerin was dead.”

“Then he did it!” Kili croaked, jerking out of the circle of Fili’s arms. He didn’t try to attack Bilbo again, only struggled to his feet and threw an accusing finger in Bilbo’s direction. “He pushed you into the water. He’s… he’s in the pay of Thranduil, or…”

“Bilbo’s not strong enough or heavy enough, Kili,” Thorin said. “It was a dwarf who attacked me.”

“So he had an accomplice!”

“There was no one else here,” Thorin looked back at Frerin and dragged his hand down his face as if to scrub the sight away. “And why would Bilbo drown me one moment and save me the next?”

“Frerin’s your brother!” Kili roared. “Why would he hurt you?”

Thorin did not answer for a moment. He shook his head. “I swore I was loyal to him, I swore he was my king. I even gave him the Arkenstone.”

“The stone?” Fili frowned. “Where did you get the stone?”

“Bilbo came across it,” said Thorin. “But I told Frerin I found it myself. I thought that would prove my fealty to him.”

The crows cackled their hunger to the sky. The wind streamed through the broken wall, lifting Thorin’s braids. Behind him stood Erebor and the grey clouds shaded with the oncoming dusk. In a moment of quiet they all heard Bilbo groan and Fili’s head twitched around to see the hobbit sinking onto his haunches. He was digging his fingers into the hollows of his eyes, shaking his head. “Oh, no,” he mumbled. “Oh, no, Frerin, no.”

“What’s wrong?” Thorin asked, and the concern in his voice sent a tooth-gritting shudder through Fili’s body, for Bilbo was still a liar who swore to love the king, a thief who took the sacred stone, a murderer of a handsome, flawed, strong, jealous, beloved, scorned, enduring uncle. Fili looked at Bilbo and he saw Bilbo with black, wriggling, blind worms instead of blood. He thought he would never look at the hobbit with kindness again. But then Bilbo raised his head and Fili realised that Bilbo saw himself just the same way and his anger scattered into grief.

Bilbo sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “He didn’t want the stone to prove himself to other people. He needed it for his own ego. He thought it would find him because it was his destiny. Because he was the rightful king. Only to be told that the stone had found Thorin instead.”

He shook his head again, digging his fingers into his hair. His voice was clear and loud. He almost sounded as if he was talking about some battle in long-ago history, out of one of his books. “It proved all his fears. And it wasn’t even true. I found the stone. It certainly wasn’t fate. The gods weren’t guiding our hands. I was just the first one through the door.”

Chapter Text

In the days that followed Thorin heard stories of Azanulbizar. Many of Dain’s dwarves had been in that battle, including Dain himself, and their minds seemed fixated on those shared memories. It was as if the warriors took some comfort from telling stories far more bitter than the scenes they saw before them. When he was working beside them to raise shelters or carrying supplies or dig latrines, many of them took Thorin for a veteran himself, and asked him to share his own memories, to which he had to mutter, “No, I wasn’t there, I was… too young.” But he heard of the bodies piled six high, his grandfather and Fundin and other names he recognised, and of how many survivors never found their brothers and cousins and crib-mates even though they searched for days.

Thorin had never seen dwarven bodies disposed of anywhere except entombed in stone, even if the tombs were little more than holes chipped out of walls. But at Azanulbizar they had burned their dead. They had had no choice. The halls of Khazad Dûm were too dangerous to enter, and there was no other cave for a hundred miles that could possibly play mausoleum to that battle. It would have been a great shame in Thorin’s time, to be a ‘burned dwarf’, but after Azanulbizar it was remembered with pride by veterans and mourning kin alike.

Every day he learned something new. Every day he found some tradition he had thought was eternal and sacred was gone.

He had so much to do that he barely slept, which in truth suited him fine. He worked beside the other dwarves to nurse the wounded, to build new homes for the refugees of Laketown before winter bit too deep, to clear away the worst rubble from the gate and remove the wall entirely. Several times the dwarves around him began to talk excitedly about the rumours that the Abiding King had returned and won the battle, apparently oblivious to Thorin standing among them.

In between the work he made sure he was present at every meeting of the armies’ leaders. He had to convince Dain and Bard and Thranduil and so many others that he was who he claimed to be. The first time Thranduil saw his face his eyes went wide and his mouth opened, and he agreed, yes, Thorin did bear a striking resemblance to the lost prince. But there had been dark magic in many corners of Thranduil’s realm and he weighed Thorin’s story against rumours of evil spirits that could take many physical forms, even of friends long dead.

Dwalin and Balin backed him up, and they all knew the part he had played in uniting the five armies against Frerin’s wishes, but trusting him in the heat of battle was not the same as believing him to be a lost king. Their doubt fed stormclouds in Thorin’s belly, but he held his tongue and promised to provide any proof they requested. They sent him to the old wizard, Gandalf, who examined him and his story in great detail, asking about every memory he had of Smaug’s ways and the time Thorin had spent in his lair. There was not so much to tell really, little more than he gave Bilbo on that first night, but Gandalf soon smiled at him and began to talk about, “When you were asleep…” and “When you dream of Smaug…” as if they were truth rather than framing them with if and how and why.

Even as he fought to explain the truth, he had to tread with great care around the secret that his brother did not die in the heat of battle. They had each told the same story, the five of them – Thorin, Bilbo, Fili, Kili and Dwalin – they all swore that it was an orc, one lone survivor of Azog’s retinue, who slew the self-crowned King Under the Mountain. They said that Frerin died defending Thorin, when Thorin was injured and unarmed, that Thorin took up his sword when Frerin was killed and finished off the orc, and that the others came upon them just as Frerin’s life faded.

“Think what would happen if we told the truth,” Fili had said numbly, while he and Dwalin prepared a sling to carry Frerin’s body down the valley. Kili sat in the dust with his back against a fallen pillar and his knees pulled up to his chin, staring at the churned mud around his feet. Bilbo was still slumped by the pool, his head in his hands. Fili looked around at them, “I can’t even imagine… it’s not just what people would think of Frerin, but the rest of our family. Proof that we all go mad eventually, perhaps. And there’d be dwarves who wouldn’t care what he’d done, they’re say he was still a king and they’d call for Bilbo’s head. Or blame a conspiracy of Thranduil’s and ruin our chance at peace. It’s too dangerous.”

So they’d all lied, and no one had questioned their story. Carrying the secret hurt Thorin worse than the pain in his broken ribs, and he wasn’t sure why. Was he angry at Frerin, at never getting a chance to hear Frerin explain himself? At his nephews and Dwalin for agreeing so readily to protect Frerin’s memory? At Bilbo for killing his brother and escaping any trial or justice? He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure how he felt about any of them. It was almost like the early days, when he had just woken up among strangers who were afraid to approach him without bowed heads and suspicious, wide-eyed glances.

At least then he had had Bilbo for company, but ever since the battle Bilbo had avoided all dwarves and slept in Gandalf’s tent within the elf-king’s quarters. Thorin did not ask after him, but Bofur did on a more-than-daily basis, and Thorin listened when Bofur brought news that Bilbo was still feeling fragile with a serious bump on the head and did not want to join them for dinner. Fili and Kili were not at the fire that particular night either, but Thorin was more relieved by their frequent absences. He could hear the anger simmering under Kili’s voice and he knew that Kili sought someone to blame for Frerin’s death.

“Wispy hobbit,” Gloin grumbled.

Bofur rounded on him, “He weren’t made for battle, were he? I think he’s done mighty well. I didn’t see the rest of you sneaking under the noses of a hundred guards to rescue me!”

“I think he must be grieving,” said Ori’s small voice, his hands busy with mending Nori’s shirt. There might be rivers of gold in Erebor, but cloth right now was rationed even tighter than food. When a few of the others glanced over, Ori lowered his needle. “You all know how infatuated he was with Frerin. Poor Bilbo. It must be hard to lose him.”

“Aye,” Bofur nodded. “I’ll see if he won’t take a cup of tea with me tomorrow and let all his woes out.”

There was a supportive mumble from the circle, and in the midst of it Thorin heard his own voice growl, “No.”

Bofur glanced over, sucking in his lips as if he’d been caught swearing. Thorin cleared his throat. “Don’t spread that around, Bofur, and don’t ask Bilbo about it. About how he loved Frerin. It’s none of your business. The hobbit will sort himself out.”

“You think so, do you?” Ori squeaked, hands balling in the trousers that lay across his lap. The fire glinted in his eyes. He snapped at Thorin. “Bilbo’s been our friend for far longer than you've been awake, so what do you know about it? Don’t be so old-fashioned!”

Thorin had never heard Ori raise his voice before, let alone to the Abiding King. He wanted to roar at the young dwarf, but his tongue thickened in his mouth and he could not find any answer at all, let alone way to explain how cruel it would be to let Bofur go blundering into Bilbo’s tent to talk about Frerin. He felt the glares of the other dwarves around the fire and pulled in a deep breath, stood up and strode away. More secrets. More differences. More reminders that he did not belong in this time or place.

It all made Thorin so weary. And then he started to wonder, maybe the weariness wasn’t because of the lies and the stares and the loneliness. Maybe it was because he was old now. Maybe it would only get worse and he would shrink and wrinkle and grow softer in the head until his own grandfather would not have recognised him.

Thorin wanted to go home. In the darkest corner of his heart he still hoped, against all evidence and consequence, that this was all a dream. That he would wake up to find Frerin and Dis jumping on his bed, calling him to breakfast with their grandmother, that he would pull on silks and calf-leather and walk through Erebor’s halls full of warm light and busy, living dwarves. But home was gone and all the family he had held dear were dead, all but Dis on the other side of the world (and she would not in all likelihood remember him as anything more than a name in her history lessons).

Thorin needed to run ahead of his grief just to catch up with the present.




Slowly, slowly, Thranduil, Bard and Gandalf started to call him ‘Prince Thorin’. The rest of the Host and the Iron Hills dwarves began to realise who he was as well, and he could no longer work beside them with stares and whispers. It almost felt like a joke, fighting to wear his own name, but at least it was still a fight he was winning. Kili was ‘Prince’ as well, at least for the first few days, and then finally talk began to rumble among Dain’s council about what to do about Erebor’s throne.

To his surprise it was Bard who reported to Thorin that decisions were being made without his counsel. The Lakeman found Thorin as he crossed the camp one morning and told him there had been several hasty meetings in quiet corners of the camp away from the ears of Thorin’s closest companions, meetings between Dain and his council with Thranduil and Gandalf. Bard had been invited to several.

Thorin pulled Bard behind a nearby pile of feed bags, smelling of must and horses. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Nobody made me swear an oath of secrecy,” Bard shrugged. “I think you're of sound enough mind to know what they're saying. And I heard you were the one who sent the hobbit into my tent to steal my prisoners while I slept. You could have come yourself and slit my throat, but you didn’t. I think I like you for that.”

“I fancy you would not be so congenial if you’d caught me that night,” Thorin growled. “How does that make us friends?”

“It doesn’t, but the fact that I hold no grudge against you might,” Bard raised an eyebrow and glanced around. He sat down on a sack of feed so that his head was closer to Thorin’s height, resting his hands on his knees. “I am a newcomer to this ruling business, Mr King-Abiding, but all this nudging and whispering behind people’s backs is sadly not a surprise to me,” he said with a sigh. “And now here I am whispering to you in turn. Not because I care who is on the dwarf throne but because I think Erebor will be good for Laketown, and I want to leave the arguments between myself and your brother in the past.”

“If you have something for me, come out and give it,” Thorin said, leaning against the grain sacks and folding his arms.

Bard told him what he had heard. Thorin thanked him. He was still not sure he liked the bargeman, nor was he convinced all his good intentions would make him a long and beloved ruler of Esgaroth, but he appreciated the favour. He went to Dain that night and asked to share a drink with him after supper.




They sat at a rough camp table, the kind that left splinters in your knees if you weren’t careful, but the goblet placed before Thorin was pure silver, set with rubies carved with tiny reliefs of the kings of old. It was filled with good wine from somewhere in the east, one of the few luxuries in the camp that was more than decoration. Thorin sipped slowly.

“What troubles you, cousin?” Dain asked at last. “You know I’m always here to counsel you, but I can't offer advice if I only hear silence.”

Thorin swallowed down the taste of wine in his mouth. He put down the goblet. “There are rumours of a coronation, Dain. My coronation. Yet no one’s told me.”

Dain tilted his head. “It's only a symbolic gesture, I didn't think to bother you about it. But you can’t expect us to forget about it entirely, can you, Thorin? Of course I must show my support for your ascension. You are next in line for the throne.”

“Frerin’s edicts are still law unless the new king chooses to rescind them,” Thorin raised his brows. “Frerin declared Kili his heir. His word supersedes the regular laws of inheritance. How would it appear to our allies, or to the people in Ered Luin, if we did not at least make some attempt to respect my brother's decisions? You don't know what the refugees in the Blue Mountains want, Dain. Frerin was their king and they must be given a chance to say where their loyalties lie.”

“Thorin,” Dain leaned forward. “Are you saying you don’t want to be king?”

“I am saying that the law is the law,” Thorin held fast. “Ignoring it at such a crucial time is tantamount to a coup.”

Dain rumbled deep in his chest. He knocked back the rest of his wine in two gulps and put the cup down heavily on the table. “Stop with this nonsense,” he said heavily. “Inheritance laws? Really, Thorin? I don’t even have onus to spit on Frerin’s edicts, because Frerin was never the true king, was he?” he knotted his hands on the table. “When Thror was slain the crown passed to his eldest living heir, and that was you all along. We just didn’t know it. Frerin was a king by mistake, a steward prince standing in for his elder brother. His word is not law. You are already the king of the Longbeards, you old fool, you have been since Azanulbizar.”

Thorin’s jaw tightened. After a moment he said, “They’re saying I will need a regent.”

“Of course you’ll need a regent,” Dain replied. “You’re inexperienced, you’re totally unfamiliar with the political landscape, you don’t even know the names of your own councillors.”

“And that regent will be you?”

“Who else would it be?” Dain shot back.

Thorin’s heart was thudding in his chest. He dragged in a long breath through his nose. He could smell the wine, and oily smoke from the lamps, and the tang of metal. He said at last, “When I fell asleep I was still older than you were when your father died. I heard you were a hero at Azanulbizar, though only a youth with the beginnings of his beard. The Iron Hills still took you as their king.”

“I had help!” Dain stood up so suddenly he knocked the scrappy table. The goblets rocked and Thorin grabbed for his before the wine could slosh from its rim. “I had uncles and advisors and I listened to them. I was young and foolish and I had much to learn. Not every new king has the good sense to do that. You should follow my example.”

“I want your help, Dain, but I do not want you to rule me,” Thorin growled back. “Why are you so insistent I must be king?”

“Because we cannot have another Frerin, boy!” Dain pressed his hands to the table, head bent between his shoulders. “This may be our one chance to rebuild Erebor as it was. Nothing must jeopardise that. We cannot let some young upstart rule alone!”

"Kili is not Frerin, and neither am I!" Thorin snapped.

Dain hissed. "How would you know? You slept through his entire reign."

Thorin resisted the urge to surge to his feet and stand eye-to-eye with Dain. He did not need to prove anything to his cousin, least of all that he was not afraid of him. His fingers fiddled with the base of the goblet, feeling the profiled faces of the kings carved into the huge gems. His voice was low and steady when he spoke, looking up at to meet Dain’s gaze. “I am not the youth I was when I fell under Smaug’s spell. I may have slept, but still I grew and changed with the years. You see that in the grey of my hair and the lines on the backs of my hands. I am not a boy. I only have his memories,” he stood up, lifting the goblet and draining the last of it. He placed it back on the table between them. “Thank you for the wine.”

Dain had straightened his back. Thorin took his cloak from the back of the chair and folded it over his arm. “Erebor will have the king it needs,” he said. “I promise you.”'

Dain said nothing, and Thorin left without another word, the storm growing fiercer in his gut and the weariness weighing heavier on his shoulders.




Fili had not seen much of the company for days, though he and Kili had made no open decision to avoid them. They had just been too busy. They went out early to help the labour teams wherever they were needed, and usually came back after dark, eating whatever food was left in the pot. Three days ago they'd gone all the way down to Laketown to help escort a large group of refugees up to Erebor. Almost all of them were the elderly, the children, or those survivors who'd been wounded in Smaug's attack. Some of the men riding beside them had been volunteers in Bard's army, who had spat at Fili or glared at him and Bofur when they'd been prisoners. Now they spoke to the dwarves with the same resigned exhaustion as they spoke to each other. The battle together had at least hidden, if not erased, the bitterness the Lakemen had felt for the dwarves. Or perhaps it hadn't been the battle. Perhaps it had been the death of their king, the one responsible for this whole quest and for awakening the dragon.

The remains of the wall outside the Erebor gate had been pulled down or stabilised by the time they returned after the long, slow journey with the townspeople. Snow had been falling intermittently on the hills around the lake and there were not enough shelters and tents for everyone. Unspoken throughout the camp was the fear of how many deaths there would be if they suffered one bad freeze overnight. The refugees were settled as comfortably as possible in the inner chambers beyond the atrium, as the front door still stunk of rotting blood. Fili watched many of them pocketing the golden wall-lamps and even prying the gilding off the tiles in the back halls, but he said nothing about the theft. Most of them had lost homes and boats to Smaug, and even if compensation from the mountain was given to the leaders of the ruined town, who knew how much of it would trickle down to these poor wretches?

The brothers got back to the camp very late that night, after the company was asleep, but were woken at dawn by Ori. He had a message from Thorin, asking Fili and Kili to meet him in private as soon as possible. He would be back after a 'polite' breakfast with Bard.

"Why's he taking tea with Bard?" Kili asked, but Ori could only shrug.

"I suppose they're going to be the heads of Dale and the Mountain," Fili said as he pulled his boots on. "They ought to at least pretend to be friends."

They waited by the fire until Thorin returned. In the worsening winter light he looked older than ever, wearing work clothes and thick, leather gloves for gripping chisels and picks; grave-carving tools. He took them off and left them under the fly of the tent. There were few places to talk quietly in a packed, canvas city filled with three armies, scores of horses and hoards of grooms, cooks and pages. Thorin led the two of them out of the camp and down to the river.

Ice was beginning to gather around the edges and over the pools that cut into the muddy banks. Their uncle settled himself down on a dry, granite boulder worn smooth by old floods. His hand went to his ribs and gripped the fabric of his coat for a moment, but the pain didn't show in his face and soon he let go and rested his hands on his knees.

It must have been here at the ford that they waded across to escape the camp. Fili remembered holding tight to Oin's arm, slipping on the rocks, ears wide in fear of an alarm that never came. At the time the river had seemed like a malevolent, black torrent that had taken eons to cross, threatening to suck them down into unseen whirlpools and pits, but now he saw only a bubbly stream capped with silver by the thin clouds.

FIli and his brother stayed standing, Kili with his arms crossed and his chin tucked into his collar to keep out the cold. At last Fili spoke. "What is it, Thorin? Why did you bring us here?"

"I want your advice," said Thorin. "What have you heard about Frerin’s successor?"

The two of them glanced at each other. Kili shook his head and Fili shrugged. "Nothing. But we guessed there'd be some mess about whether you or Kili are expected to make a bid for the throne. If Mother and the Ered Luin elders were here they'd argue for Kili, I'm sure of it, but they're not..."

Thorin nodded. "Dain is of a single mind. He views Frerin’s word as null because he took the crown even though he was not Thror's eldest living heir. I know," he raised his hand as Kili gave a strangled cry. "I know, it is not fair to delegitimize Frerin's legacy when no one could possibly have known I was alive, but Dain will resort to that if he must. He fears for Erebor's future at this delicate time. Solitary kingship of the Longbeards is always withheld from dwarves who've not yet reached their eightieth year, if I am remembering my history correctly. Kili is close enough in age to govern alone, but if I become king, I will need a regent. In this Dain sees the chance for his age and wisdom to play midwife to Erebor’s rebirth."

"So he'll be king in all but name," Fili muttered. "I see. He's a fair-minded old boar, but he won't be able to help favouring the Iron Hills above Ered Luin's folk. The dwarves he knows and trusts. And there's plenty of families in his city who'd love a piece of the mountain before our people can even get a sniff of it."

Thorin nodded, picking a long leaf of dry grass from a cranny in the rock beneath him and slowly shredding it between his fingers. "I like Dain, but I don't know if I could go axe-to-axe with him in a battle of political will." He tossed the remains of the grass stalk away, his gaze following its path as the wind caught it and blew a few specks into the river.

"Do you really need a regent?" Kili frowned. "Are you that much younger than me?"

Thorin blinked at him for a moment, and at last a bubble of laughter rose in the back of his throat. His breath misted in the air. "Yes, Kili. When I fell asleep, I was very young. Didn't anyone tell you that?"

Kili stuck out his bottom lip and shook his head, tucking his hands under his arms. He muttered, “Thought you were more’n eighty, anyway.”

"So what are you asking us?" Fili asked, trying not to grind his teeth together. "You mean to oppose Dain and put Kili on the throne? You'll start a war, Thorin, and we've only just finished one."

"I have another option for him," Thorin chewed on his bottom lip. "Because the truth is that Dain is right, isn't he? I will need his help if I become king. Everything is so different today than it was in my time. I'm not ready, certainly far less than either of you two. Really, it’s as if I was the young nephew and you two were my seniors.”

“We’re not the uncles here,” Fili shook his head.

“You are. And I may never be ready," Thorin ducked his head, looking down at the wrinkled hands resting on his lap. "I may not have so very long to live, certainly not as long as my grandfather reigned, perhaps not even as long as Frerin ruled. Learning to become king under Dain's tutelage – well, my eyesight will probably fail and my mind begin to wander before he deems me competent!" he laughed again, but Fili's felt a grim frown spread across his face.

"You don't know that, Thorin," he said quietly, stepping forward to grip his uncle's shoulder. "Who knows how the dragon's spell affected you? You're no invalid. Your life may stretch far longer than any dwarf since Durin."

"I feel old," Thorin said, bowing his head with a shrug of his shoulders.

Fili gave him a wan smile. "So what do you want to do about it? Sit here and cry?"

Thorin took a breath. "No, I have a better plan. With Dain's help to make sure it is all recognised as legal, I will accept the crown. This reinforces the normal laws of succession that Frerin attempted to circumvent. Then I will abdicate and the kingship will by default pass to you, Fili. No one can argue against the legality of that."

For a long moment there was only the distant chatter of the camp and the mumbling of the river over the stones. Kili had dropped his arms and was staring at his brother’s face, but Fili could not look away from the old dwarf.

"But it's yours," Fili said quietly. "You're the Abiding King. It's only right that you reclaim Erebor!"

"No, Fili," Thorin smiled. "Erebor is not some prize to be won by whoever was lucky enough to be born first in Durin's line. I played some small part in the final hour, but I did not take the long and bitter journey home to the mountain's arms. It deserves a king who knows all that has been lost, who has walked that journey beside its people and taken up their burden when so many of them faltered and died in exile. I am young and I am still learning my place in this world. But you are ready. And I believe Dain knows that."

Fili tore his gaze away and looked over Thorin’s shoulder. He stared at the great face of the Lonely Mountain, flecks of black stone showing through fresh snow on its peak, beautiful and immutable. The mountain did not know all that had happened here. The mountain did not remember the dwarves who called it home, nor the names of their kings and petty battles. Only the living dwarves far away in Ered Luin could recount all that. Only when they returned would this place be worth the price they’d paid.

At last Fili turned back towards Thorin and drew in a breath, his hands clenching by his side, and finally nodded. “Very well.”

He said nothing more, did not complicate his agreement with conditions or warnings. He couldn't think what to add anyway, not because there was nothing to say but because there was so much smouldering beneath his skin, his thoughts leaping from one peak to the next without pausing for breath. Thorin's hand drifted again to his ribs, but his features were beginning to lift, his eyes crinkling at the corners. There was hesitation in his face – as if he had placed a huge sword in the centre of a ring and knew he could not snatch it back without a fight, without cutting himself or his kin – but relief as well. It had been a heavy sword to carry. Fili had always known that. And the ring around it was populated with many friends.

Thorin shook his head a little. "There's much we should talk about before I take this to the Iron Hills contingent." His tongue darting out to lick his bottom lip. "I do wonder what my grandfather would think—"

Before he could say more, his gaze was drawn away. Fili followed it and saw that Kili had started as if in a panic and turned away from both of them. He was walking along the banks of the river, his steps uneven, stumbling in rabbit-holes.

Fili jumped to attention and darted after him. “Kili!”

He reached his brother within a few strides and seized his arm. Kili spun, shaking him off. His face was twisted in a snarl. “Just like that? You won’t even discuss this with me?”

Thorin had leapt up, his fists flexing by his side. Maybe he wasn't used to being an uncle, but Fili knew there are certain sounds every young dwarf knew no matter what generation he was born into, and one of those was the tone of a fist-fight bristling just under sharp words.

“Kili, what else can I do? We’ve been going over this for days,” Fili tried to take hold of his brother’s shoulders, and once again Kili jerked away from his touch.

“We thought Thorin would be king!” Kili cried. There was a hitch in his voice that cut something deep inside Fili. “We thought the crown would fall to his line and both of us would be free of it forever. Did you know? Did you want this all along?”

Fili shook his head, and with wide eyes he glanced back at Thorin, who had slipped in closer as slowly as he dared, ready to jump in and break the lads apart if need be.

“Kili, there will be no new line from me,” Thorin said, raising his hands. “Whether I rule for a day or a hundred years more, you and Fili will still be my heirs. But I felt that Fili is – I mean, I talked to Balin and Dwalin – or rather –” he pulled himself up short, swallowing down the words.

“You thought he’d do a better job than me,” Kili finished for him, nodding with his mouth dragged down and his eyes dark beneath his brows. “Why? Because he’s got five years on me? Or because he wasn't Frerin's favourite? Because we all know everything Frerin touched was a mistake, don’t we?”

“You never wanted to be king,” Fili said, hearing a thread of astonishment in his voice. He almost felt like Kili would start laughing and admit the joke.

“But I was willing to try!” Kili said, thumping his fist on his chest. “I’ve spent twenty-seven years trying to change everything about myself so I can do my duty, but no, it’s not good enough, it was never going to be good enough for you or Dain or Mama—” and with the bark on the last word he stepped forward and shoved Fili full in the chest, sending his brother stumbling backwards as Thorin grabbed for his arm.

Fili’s back foot hit the frosty grass as he foundered and with a yelp he slipped backwards down a runnel in the bank, his boot cracking through a plate of ice and into a muddy pool only a few inches deep. Freezing water swamped through the seams of the leather and soaked his sock in an instant. Thorin had a hold of one flailing hand and anchored Fili before he could fall right into the river.

Kili’s voice had trailed off and he grabbed for Fili’s other hand, and in a moment the two of them had pulled him back up onto the bank. Fili cursed, shaking his wet leg to try and fling the worst of the water off before it soaked up past his ankle. Kili dropped his arm at once and took a step back. The blood drained from his face. He looked between Thorin and Fili.

“I sound like him, don't I?” he said quietly. He took another step backwards, sucking in a breath through his nose. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Fili soothed, wiping his muddy foot off against the tussocks. “Kili, brother, no harm done—”

Kili had covered his hands with his face, shaking his head. Fili hobbled over and wrapped his arms around his shoulders, dragging him to his chest. Kili’s shoulders heaved, his voice clogged with tears and muffled against his Fili's clothes.

“How could he? How could he try to kill his own brother? I would never hurt you, never, I would die first!”

“I know,” Fili whispered, fingers digging into his brother’s hair, thick and matted after days without a comb. They had been working themselves to the bone when they should have been looking after each other. “I know that, Kili. You’re not like him.”

“I wanted to be!” Kili croaked. “He’s still in my head, Fili, I still feel ashamed to disappoint him, to give up a crown I never even wanted, and he… and he…” he raised his head, scrubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand as he looked over Fili's shoulder to find Thorin’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Thorin. I’m so sorry for what he did to you. What he tried to do.”

“You don’t have to be sorry for him,” Thorin sighed. “He should never have made you carry him for so long, made you into the vessel for all his ambitions and conceits. You owe him nothing, Kili. He is dead. You are your own dwarf.”

He had moved in close to speak quietly, and Kili’s shivering hand reached out for a handful of his coat and pulled him in close, until Thorin put his arms around them both. He felt stiff and awkward against them until Fili wrapped one arm around his waist and Kili another around his shoulders and at last his muscles relaxed. Warmth flowed between their bodies and made Fili forget his soaking boot.

"You've done all you can for us, Thorin," Fili murmured. "It's over now. You can let us take the lead."

Chapter Text

Bilbo was aware the dwarves thought he was lying in bed all day staring at the canvas wall crying about Frerin, and he felt guilty for worrying them. But in fact he was keeping quite busy and content. He could have avoided work because of his bandaged head, which he'd cracked on a rock when Frerin had pushed him away during their struggle. Thranduil himself had tended to the cut, bound it and declared his skull was intact and that he should rest until he felt healed. But Bilbo wanted to help however he could, and it was quite good to be small and slightly broken, because it meant that most of the jobs people gave him were those that were not too physically strenuous – doing sums about how long the latest deliveries from Mirkwood would feed the camp, writing messages for Lakemen who were good leaders but bad spellers, taking a census of the refugees in the mountain – and he liked to keep his thoughts busy. Keeping his thoughts busy with work meant not thinking about Frerin.

However, Bilbo suspected that Gandalf was beginning to invent tasks to keep him occupied. He’d spent the last two days wandering the barren slopes with two bored, young scouts from the Iron Hills, taking samples of the plants growing around the mountain to try and figure out why the infamous ‘desolation’ was so desolate. Bilbo tried to explain to Gandalf that he was more of a potterer-abouter than a gardener. Yes, his mother’s rhododendrons were considered the best in the Shire, but Bilbo had not inherited even a fraction of her talents. Gandalf insisted that a hobbit would still have more knowledge on green, growing things than anyone else in the camp (except some of the elves, and theirs was slanted more towards forest cultivation than to farming). The wizard explained that Bard and Thranduil were very interested to know whether the desolate soil around Smaug’s home might be coerced into fields and paddocks, or whether it was so cursed that there was no point in considering it arable within Bard’s generation. It was a very important job, Gandalf said.

Bilbo did not believe that two of the most important people in the land really craved his gardening advice, but he trusted that Gandalf would not put him to completely useless work. It seemed likely that someone would want to know the best cultivation program eventually. So Bilbo had agreed to crack his knuckles and see what he could find.

He had to keep him thoughts busy, after all. He must not let them stray. He must not think about Frerin.

Everyone else seemed to be very busy too. News of an approaching coronation spread quickly through the camp. Bilbo heard of it from Bofur, while they both sat smoking outside of Gandalf’s tent. The north wind had picked up that evening and whipped their smoke-rings away even when they sat on the leeward side, and they each had a blanket around their shoulders to ease the biting cold. Bofur told him all the news. None of the Lakemen had bothered the dwarves like that horrible incident during the hostage situation. The inside of Erebor was starting to look almost hospitable. Nori was doing much better after the knife in the gut that had made him the worst wounded and the most-celebrated hero in the company. Bofur added, almost as an afterthought while he packed his pipe again, “Oh, and they’re having a coronation tomorrow.”

“Who for?” Bilbo asked.

“They’re crowning me King of the Eagles, as is my birthright. What to you mean who for, you clod? For Thorin, of course,” Bofur laughed.

“Oh. Naturally,” Bilbo looked down at the embers of his pipe. “The king need abide no more.”

“They’re all talking about him as if he’s already king,” Bofur blew out a long plume of smoke in the sky. “Because technically he’s been king since Thror died and we all just didn’t know it. They’re just making it official. It’s a bit rude, innit? Treating Frerin like he was never even here. We’re all a bit put out, us folks who’ve come from the Blue Mountains, but we’re only thirteen—twelve,” he corrected himself with a small frown. “We’re only twelve, so we don't get much say in the matter.”

Bilbo said after a long pause. “I’m sure he’ll be a good king. Not that it’s any of my business. I’ll be off home soon.”

Bofur watched him over his pipe for some time, and then he said (with the sly tone of a dwarf with gossip, that Bilbo was very used to by now), “Well, you can make up your mind as well as the rest of us. Thorin's actually done all the kinging he’s ever going to do, all in the last few weeks since he awoke.”

"What? What do you mean?" Bilbo cried. "Is he ill?"

"Not at all. And really, I shouldn't be telling you this, even I'm not supposed to know, but Nori heard it from Ori who heard it from Kili, and really, if Kili's told Ori, it might as well be public decree..."

So what happened the next day was no surprise to Bilbo.




Snow had begun to drift down from the thick, milky clouds. They filled the sky so heavily that the top of the hills were hidden and Erebor itself was invisible. The flakes sank through the air like silt in still water, making Bilbo shudder and wrap his cloak tight around his shoulders. None of the elves or warriors from the Iron Hills were showing any sign that they felt the cold, but a few of the Lakemen were shivering, and the children were grizzling. Still they had all come to watch, since there was little else for entertainment around the camp.

Bilbo and Bofur had got a good perch on a stack of crates, which afforded them a decent view of the dais that been hastily built for the proceedings. Thorin stood in the centre, tall and handsome in a grey fur cloak with golden chains around his neck, hung with antique medallions. His hair had been combed elegantly over his shoulders and there were silver beads winking like stars in his dark beard. Fili and Kili stood behind him, looking out at the watching crowd of refugees and soldiers. Balin was between Thorin and Dain, intoning something about how this crown had been passed down the line of someone-or-other for such-and-such years, and may the bearer serve and protect their people for that long again. Thorin knelt so that Dain could touch the mithril circlet to his head ("It's actually one of his grandmother’s diadems," Bofur whispered to Bilbo with a chuckle. "It was the best they could find at short notice"). Thorin made oaths to speak only truth and act only with honour and courage.

His voice carried right across the camp, and Bilbo felt it wend its way under his skin and through his veins to his core. He had not realised how much he had missed Thorin’s voice.

Dain declared Thorin the King Eternal. Thorin rose to his full height, stepped forward on the dais and raised his hand.

“I have my first proclamation."

The heaviness in his tone made it clear that proceedings were about to take an unexpected turn. Not everyone was as well-informed as Bofur, and a murmur rippled across the crowd. The children from the lake stopped grumbling and kicking their heels and raised their ears with bright-eyed curiosity. Thorin’s speech was short.

“The dragon has left my body withered and changed by his magic,” he said, his voice flat from over-practicing the speech. “I have grave doubts about how my mind may have, in ways too subtle for myself or my kin to yet measure, been damaged over years of exposure to his evil. I would hesitate to entrust kingship to any other dwarf who bears such a burden, and can make no exception for myself. Therefore I shall this very day cede my claim to the Longbeard throne."

A gasp rippled across the crowd.

For a heartbeat, Thorin paused and then continued over the whispers. "I pass the crown to my sister’s son and my eldest heir, Fili, Son of the Kingsshield. If any of my subjects oppose my decision, let them speak now.”

No one did, as everyone important had been informed with plenty of time to quibble about it before the coronation and no doubt anyone else was too embarrassed to make a scene right there with so many people watching. The choreographed resignation went on without interruption. Fili stumbled slightly as he stepped forward and managed to make it look like an awkward bow to Thorin, who smiled and held out his hand to usher him forward. He took off the crown from his head and took Dain's place on the dais. Balin missed his cue and had to be elbowed by Dain to begin the whole ceremony again, but the rest of it went on exactly as it had just done. It would have been dull if it hadn’t been a surprise for most people; the crowd leaned forward and listened even closer, children climbing onto their parents’ shoulders, wounded dwarves insisting on being lifted up, and even the elves leaning forward a little more.

Finally Fili finished his oaths. The king was crowned with the mithril diadem on his golden hair. And as he rose and stood, there came a clapping from the elves standing at the outermost rim of Thranduil's retinue, first one and then two pairs of hands. Bilbo couldn't quite see the faces of the initiators, but he caught a flash of long, red tresses and a fair-haired companion, so he could guess. Within moments his view was blocked as the rest of the elves raised their hands, and then Dain's warriors, and the Lakemen and the children and the nobles standing on the dais, Bofur whistling between his fingers to join the a thunderous drone of applause that echoed off the walls of the valley and set the horses tossing their heads. Bilbo could see Thorin grinning wider and wider, Kili's eyes crinkling in a smile as he gazed at his brother, Dain nodding as he thumped his palms together, and he saw too the pink spots growing in Fili's cheeks as he raised his chin and kept his face dispassionate. Too young? Maybe. Untested? For certain. But he was the best they had at short notice, thought Bilbo, and for once that might just be enough.

(And at that he was forced to gather all the strength in his heart so as not to think of Frerin, and how young he must have looked the day he was crowned, and how proud he might have looked if they’d made him lord of Erebor today, and most resolutely of all, what Bilbo had seen from across the yard, when he had been invisible, exhausted and uncomprehending: How Frerin’s face had twisted like a black stormcloud lit by a bolt as he raised the stone to strike his brother.)

Bilbo found his hands shaking. He balled them into fists and tucked under his arms, staring at the dais with his eyes unfocused.

Traditionally there was a feast, of course, but everyone knew it would be mostly the same fare as they’d had every night since the battle. The kings had done their best, though. The wounded and the refugees got double rations. Dusty harps and trumpets of gold and silver had been brought out of Erebor to be played beside battered Laketown fiddles and drums, and a small squadron of pipers from Mirkwood rounded the music off with much more enlivening songs than Bilbo remembered from Rivendell. Between Dain and Thranduil there was even enough ale and wine to rouse every soldier’s thirst, if not to quench it. In the end every party’s success hinges on how loud the guests are anyway, and after a day of surprises and the first hopeful celebration since the battle, the camp was very loud indeed.




The feast seemed to be winding down and the roads in the camp were thick with revellers wandering back to their beds. Everywhere, elves, men and dwarves sat on folds of canvas or patches of grass with new friends. No one glanced at Bilbo as he headed through the tents towards the company’s little patch on the edge of the Iron Hills contingent. Oin and Gloin welcomed him from where they sat around the fire and directed him into the tent the company shared.

It was the first time he had visited them here, and he found it laid out almost exactly as he remembered all their camps during the long months of travel together. Precious few items remained from the beginning of their journey, yet when Bilbo stuck his head between the canvas flaps he could immediately identify everyone's bed: Ori’s blankets were folded and immaculate, Dwalin’s new axes sat at the head of his pillow, Dori had a collection of teas clipped from plants on the slopes of Erebor, and there was a lump of clothes that Balin always placed between him and his brother to keep Dwalin from rolling into him in the night. Even the alignments were the same. Nori Dori and Ori made a trio in three opposing directions. Bifur, Bofur and Bombur’s beds were carelessly thrown down at odd angles but always with Bifur in the middle. Fili and Kili were squashed close together near the entrance… but of course, they were usually only a few feet from Frerin, and his bedroll was absent, a thin space left on the beaten grass between Kili and Balin. Bilbo himself was missing too of course, though he had never taken up much space to begin with so there was no gap for him. And there was no thirteenth bed for Thorin either, only a rocky patch of dirt that had been considered too lumpy for anyone else to spread their blankets on it.

Bilbo supposed they would never travel together again, those who remained of Frerin’s company, and even if they did it would never look quite the same.

Nori was the only one inside the tent, resting up and looking grouchy for missing even a moment of the feast. “The rest of ‘em will be back soon,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Blasted wretches sent me away when the dancing started, to keep me from pulling my stitches. I hope they all have headaches tomorrow,” he muttered, and rolled over to face the wall of the tent. Bilbo went back out and sat with Oin and Gloin, who were having a heated discussion about the details of some battle centuries earlier. Bilbo could not offer much support to either side of the argument, so he accepted a pipe from them and sat watching the fire. He drifted in and out of the conversation, perking up at one point when he heard Fili’s name and a mutter from Oin, “…brave lad. I wouldn’t take that throne for all the gold in the world…” but before he got any further, they all heard the voices of the others returning. None of the royal dwarves were among them.

When the rest of the company saw Bilbo there were smiles and tipsy cheers, which was heartening for a moment and then made Bilbo’s gut twist. They didn’t know what he’d done, after all, or they would not be coming over to clap him on the shoulder. For just a moment, the memory started to slip through, of the juicy, tearing sound the sword had made as it went through Frerin, and how Bilbo had kept pushing even when he felt a scrape of ribs like a spade against buried rocks, even though he could have stopped, he could have stopped before the blade went all the way through and maybe Frerin would have lived—

“How’s your head, Bilbo?” Ori asked.

Bilbo smiled and touched the bandage. “Better,” he said firmly. The pipe-smoke now tasted like vomit in his mouth.

“Well, sit down!” Dwalin growled, gripping his shoulder. “We still haven’t heard how you made it through the battle, you dandy hobbit! Tell us, tell us everything.”

“There’s nothing to tell, really, I got hit on the head with a stone and missed most of it,” Bilbo insisted.

Dori offered him a tipple – “Fiery stuff from the Iron Hills, sip it slowly, lad,” – and Bilbo settled down between Bofur and Bifur. The dwarves didn’t ask him why he’d been avoiding them. He supposed they’d drawn their own conclusions, which could only be preferable to the truth. The conversation danced merrily around the circle, but Bilbo kept watching the logs crackling in the fire. He wondered how soon before the camp's wood was going to run out, and what they would all do then.

There came voices down the path. One by one the dwarves fell silent and all heads turned towards Thorin and Balin as they came around the corner. Balin was talking in a low rumble, gesticulating often like a school teacher. Thorin had his head bent towards him, listening intently until he happened to glance around the circle and saw Bilbo. He stopped and said something to Balin, not waiting for an answer before he strode past the fire to stand in front of Bilbo. He was still in most of his royal finery for the ceremony, though he had abandoned the medallions and the grey fur in favour of a thick, wool cloak. One of his hands was clenching and unclenching by his side, but with the firelight behind him Bilbo could not read his face. Everyone in the circle was watching, some of them pretending to carry on stilted conversations, which made Bilbo’s cheeks pink.

“May I speak with you, Bilbo?” Thorin asked at last.

“Yes, of course!” Bilbo said much too quickly, and jumped up and started to walk away from the fire. He realised Thorin had not specified ‘in private’, but it seemed to suit Thorin, because he hurried after Bilbo and inclined his head to point the way.

Thorin led him down a quiet lane between the tents until they reached the nearest gate. Bilbo was not sure why they needed to go all the way out of the camp, whatever it was Thorin needed to say. He was seized by the sudden fear that Thorin was going to take him down to the river and drown him there so that he could never reveal his grim secrets, or perhaps as some dutiful brotherly punishment for his crime. Bilbo could not even convince himself not to be so silly. After all, would he ever have suspected Frerin of any such brutality? And yet here they were, and at the mere thought, Bilbo’s bumped head throbbed.

“So,” he said, to break the tension and perhaps gauge some measure of Thorin’s mood. “Where are you holed up? I notice you don’t have a bed in the company’s tent.”

“You notice a lot, Mr Baggins,” Thorin said stiffly, and after a pause. “I don’t sleep as often as I should, and I haven’t found a bedroll anyway. I’ve been catching some rest on Balin or Dwalin’s pallets when they’re away from them.”

That could not be very often at all, Bilbo thought, but didn’t say so. He could not bring himself to nag Thorin as he might have done before the battle. He switched tactics. “I was at the ceremony of course. You did not lose face, giving the crown to Fili. It seemed very noble."

"Perhaps. Some would call me a coward, shirking my duty," Thorin shrugged. "I shall be expected to withdraw from public politics completely after this. There is no lesser standard of competence for a courtier than for a king. My judgment would be under constant scrutiny, and it would hurt Fili by association."

"Oh, no, surely not!" Bilbo frowned. "Anyone who knows you..." but he could see at once how anyone who wished to oppose Fili could attack his uncle first. "And here I thought it was such a clever little story about the dragon’s hypnosis. I am truly sorry if anyone thinks less of you for it.”

“Some will, or at least they will use it against me if it suits them,” Thorin said heavily. “But it was the best we could come up with. We were up half the night writing it – Fili, Balin, Dain and I. It should not have taken so long, but dwarves … well, there’s a reason most of our crafts aren’t designed by committee.”

He shot Bilbo a thin smile and Bilbo laughed. Yes, he could imagine the discussion very well. He'd noticed that about dwarves, how they never thought a thing properly examined unless everybody had taken a turn arguing all sides of a dilemma back and forth until nobody on the outside could be sure who supported what. Hobbits held slow committees too, but for quite different reasons, for it was considered impolite to argue for your own interests and better to guess and promote everyone else's, a feat which took great skill when everyone was doing it at once.

"Why did you really hand over the crown, then?" Bilbo asked quietly. "If you are giving up so much."

Thorin shrugged. "I don't know if I could explain it all in one night, Mr Baggins. But my age was perhaps the easiest part to understand. I am too young to be a king at such a crucial time. Fili will do a better job."

"Were you really so much younger than him when you fell asleep?"

"I can see I should have made a general correction at the ceremony," Thorin chuckled. "I remember living barely half of Fili's life, Bilbo. By our laws, my coming of age was still years away!"

Bilbo stopped and turned to stare at Thorin. "Y-you... you're not even of age?"

"Not quite. I was old enough to be a captain, but not old enough to be married without my parents’ permission. And not nearly old enough to govern alone," Thorin stared at him for a several long seconds. "Is that so troubling?"

Bilbo made a choking noise in the back of his throat and swallowed it down quickly. He croaked. "No! Not at all. I... I'm friends with lots of my younger cousins, of course, but I suppose I thought... well, you don't look your age. Obviously you don't. It never occurred to me."

What a fool he'd been. He'd thought he was the first one to treat Thorin like an ordinary fellow, yet in his own way he had been lulled into the myth of the Abiding King like everyone else, believing Thorin was a grown warrior, youthful but still in the prime of his life, inexperienced but old enough to understand conflict.

"Well, I don't feel my age no matter how you measure it," said Thorin, turning back to the path. “I feel somewhere in between, or something else entirely.”

He didn't lead them down to the river, but towards the hills until they reached an outcrop that afforded some shelter from the wind. The moon was out in its full glory tonight and there was enough light to see each other clearly now that they were away from the fires and torches. Thorin paced beneath the upthrust of rock like a hound wearing a place to sleep into the sparse, brown grass. He opened his mouth once or twice as if to speak and then closed it again, rubbing his beard and tucking his hands until his arms. Trying not to sigh in exasperation, Bilbo settled himself on a large stone and patted the empty space beside him. There was barely enough room to seat two, and not enough to be separate, but Thorin settled at last. He did not flinch as their legs pressed together. Bilbo looked much shorter with his feet dangling over the edge of the stone. But Thorin's spine was still rigid, his hands gripped his knees and his eyes turned back towards the lights of the camp as if he wished he could return as soon as possible.

Bilbo was reminded of that first night after Thorin awoke, when they sat side by side against the wall of the watchtower, Bilbo bursting with polite welcome and Thorin cautiously reaching out for contact. He seemed far more nervous tonight, and Bilbo had no strength to be curious or cheerful.

"Thorin—" he started to say, but at the same moment Thorin had mumbled something and Bilbo missed what it was. He looked over. "Pardon?"

"What were you going to say?" Thorin asked, and Bilbo raised his hands and shook his head.

"No, no, it's not important. What did you…?"

Thorin sighed. "I wanted to tell you that I'm not angry, if that's the reason you've been avoiding me. I don't blame you for Frerin's death. It hurts to be grateful for what happened, but still, I know you were doing all you could to save me and I am glad to be alive."

“I… you’re welcome,” Bilbo said, and felt sick enough to throw up the meagre feast. You’re welcome. Any time. I’ll kill my friends whenever you need a hand. He hunched his shoulders. "I haven't been avoiding you.”

"Oh. You haven't?"

Bilbo tipped his head side to side. “I've been avoiding everyone, rather," he admitted.

There was silence for a moment, and Thorin said, "What are you going to do now? You'll be welcome to live here in the mountain as long as you wish."

"No," Bilbo shook his head. "It's no place for a hobbit. I'd wilt without my lettuces and song-thrushes. Gandalf is going west again, back to Rivendell and probably beyond. He'll see me safely home one way or another, and I have to tell you, home can't come soon enough," he pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them. "If we leave by the end of the week he thinks we might even get to the mountains just as the passes open up again in spring. I think he wants to take a few detours on the way, to see Rhadagast and the Lady of Lorien perhaps. I would not mind that."

"By the end of the week," said Thorin as if it was the only part of Bilbo's words that he'd heard. He sounded as if he'd just gulped some of the fiery Iron Hills liquor and it had gone down the wrong way. "That's very soon."

"Yes, I know," Bilbo rested his chin on his arms.

Thorin cleared his throat and spoke in a rush. "I was planning to go west as well. I imagined we might have the chance to travel together. I want to visit Ered Luin, and see my sister at last. Someone must bring them news of all that has happened."

"But you couldn't leave at once," Bilbo frowned. His throat seemed to have filled with rocks. He wanted to be back in Bag End more than anything right now, and he had resigned himself to going without his friends. But the thought that he might miss a journey with Thorin by only a few months dragged him in the other direction.

"Perhaps I could," Thorin's voice rose and echoed around the stones, a crow of mingled fear and delight. "What's keeping me here, after all? It's not as if I'm king!"

Bilbo licked his bottom lip, trying to untangle his own thoughts. "I'm less help than baggage in a proper fight. I'm sure Gandalf would appreciate an extra sword for the journey, if you want to join us."

"I do want that," Thorin answered, but he did not sound happy about it. In fact, Bilbo had never heard him sound so miserable. He shook his head. "I want a great many things, and most of all to see my grandmother, ah," he closed his eyes as if some deep pain had struck him. "There are so many things I wish I could speak about with her. But I want also to spend more time with you, Bilbo, even a little. Would... would that be a burden on you? You need only say so, I will understand."

"I'm not sure I understand," Bilbo frowned up at him. “Why in the world would you be a burden to me, Thorin? If you think things will be uncomfortable because... because of what I did, well, I imagine they may be at first. It has been a bad time for both of us, and we aren’t likely to forget it any time soon. But all the same, it's no reason to abandon a friend if you are willing to forgive me. If anything, I think forgetting about it will be easier together than apart."

Thorin was looking at him, and now he was smiling, struggling to cover that pain behind his eyes. It was a real smile all the same, that wide and potent smile that Bilbo could not help but return in kind. But as soon as he did so, Thorin's smile vanished. He looked down at his hands, clamping one over the other to hide their shaking.

Bilbo had already seen it, and he put his small fingers over Thorin's, feeling a thrill of fear rush through his blood. "You silly dwarf, what's the matter? Is it all catching up to you at last? I know I can't begin to understand what it's like, losing as much as you have, but we really will do our best to keep your spirits up. I'll even stay here with you if you can't bear to leave Erebor so soon," he had not intended to do any such thing, but as soon as he said it he knew that home could wait, that not for a moment would he consider leaving Thorin when he was still needed. He had killed for Thorin; he could certainly suffer life in Erebor for one winter at least.

"It's not that," Thorin said breathlessly. "It's something you did, Bilbo, when we first met, and I can't stop thinking about it no matter what I do. And I know it meant nothing, but now that all my tasks are done and my duties passed to Fili, I have nothing else to occupy my thoughts, so it will not leave me alone!" 

His voice was so low and rough that Bilbo could barely make out the words. He leaned forward to listen. Interrupting Thorin to make him speak up seemed unconscionable.

"Do you know what I speak of?" Thorin asked.

Bilbo didn't, but he strained his mind to work it out, even closing his eyes as he chewed the inside of his cheek in concentration. He heard Thorin say with a note of hope, "Tell me to stop, as soon as you wish, and we'll never speak of the matter again."

He had taken hold of Bilbo's hands, one in each of his own, cupped with the palms facing up and raising them gently. Thorin must have bent his head, for he pressed Bilbo's hands to his own face so that Bilbo's thumbs brushed his cheekbones. Bilbo could feel the soft pelt of his beard, and it was oddly and achingly familiar. He did not know why he still had his eyes closed. He could not bring himself to disturb a single chord in this moment. But then he realised of course this was familiar, for he had held Thorin's face twice before, twice seizing him out of desperation and fear for his life – once in the depths of Smaug’s lair, again by the pool beneath the ruined wall. And this third time Bilbo’s heart was racing just as quickly and still he could not think what was happening even as his grip told him that Thorin was bending towards him. And then his mouth was on Bilbo's mouth, lips closed and breath coming shallow and quick through his nose, his kiss so hesitant as to be almost chaste.

Bilbo thought, oh, by all that's green, he's so much younger than I can believe! And then he opened his mouth and kissed Thorin back, kissed him properly, hungry and fierce as he had not kissed anyone since he was himself a tween running wild across fields of yellow barley and coming home late enough to give his mother vapours. He gripped Thorin's face tighter and felt heat in his gut and even lower, and thrilled at the brush of the beard against his chin, alien and glorious in its strangeness. In that moment he was completely in love with the warm, smoky smell of Thorin's skin and the clenching muscles he felt as he slid his hand down Thorin's neck to fumble at the ties of his shirt, the callouses on Thorin’s hands as he wrapped them around Bilbo's face, the heavy strength of him pressing against Bilbo until he almost fell backwards off the rock, and the pure dwarvish-ness of him. And at that thought Bilbo gasped and pulled away.

When he opened his eyes Thorin was looking at him with wide eyes, the pupils blown to fill the blue irises with black. His hands still cupped Bilbo’s face and chin, so big they felt more protective than lustful now.

"I'm sorry," Bilbo choked, his gaze flicking across Thorin's features and down to the sliver of skin at his throat where Bilbo had opened Thorin's collar. He swallowed, but then in his memory he felt his blade sliding through living meat and grinding between ribs and he shook his head. "I want to offer what you’re asking for. It's just... Thorin, I can't look at you and not see your brother."

Thorin nodded, dropping his gaze and his hands. Bilbo missed them instantly as the cold rushed in against his skin. He mumbled, "I can't unstitch how in love with him I was, even after all he did. I wish I could, but the thread's too strong. For me to leap onto anyone else so soon – anyone else – it makes me afraid of myself, that I could be so fickle."

Thorin smiled, wry and regretful now. He nodded. "Of course. I have my answer. It means a lot, when everything else in this world is so hard for me to unravel."

"You should still come with us," Bilbo said. "Not because I'm likely to change my mind all of a sudden, but all the same I am very fond of your company."

Thorin nodded, still with that half-smile on his face. "I would like that." After a moment he added, "Do you think I did the right thing?" his hands rested on the stone beside Bilbo’s and they gripped the bare rock until his knuckles showed against his skin. "Giving up my birthright?"

"Do I think...?" Bilbo's brows shot up and he shot Thorin a very disdainful look from under his lashes. For the first time he felt completely like the Bilbo from before the battle, before the murder. “For goodness’ sake, I was hired as a burglar, not a political advisor. I wouldn't know a good dwarven king from a box of firecrackers. Evidently," he muttered, pulling his knees up to a chin again. “You made up your mind, Thorin, and it’s done now. You cannot abide any longer. Make yourself anew.”

They sat on the rock for much longer than that, the conversation turning to other things, particularly the long journey to come. For once Bilbo knew more about the route and the dangers they might face than his companion, which was probably a first since he'd run out his front door to join a pack of disreputable dwarves.

But presently they agreed that the others might be wondering what had kept them. They got up and made their way back to the camp, but they walked a winding route with slow steps, heads turned towards each other, uncaring when their hands brushed every now and then. And at last, for the first time in several long and weary days, Bilbo thought only of the dwarf that stood beside him.

Chapter Text

Frerin was buried the day before they left Erebor, in the heart of the mountain beside the dusty graves of other lost warriors. Fili placed the Arkenstone on his breast before they sealed the tomb. Other treasures were laid around his body too, gems, trinkets and pieces of armour from Smaug’s hoard. Bilbo’s mirthril coat was among the offerings. He could not bear to look at it, let alone take it home and keep it in Bag End. It would be like inviting a ghost across his doorstep. (Yet he kept Sting. Somehow he couldn’t blame the sword.)

Frerin was also the first king to be buried here, for no dwarf king had died beneath the mountain’s shadow in the seven centuries since Frerin's ancestors had turned their eyes on the mountain. The first kings had left for the Grey Mountains before their time; Thror had died far from home; Thrain was lost; only Thorin had come the closest, enclosed by stone walls, but now he oversaw his brother’s grave instead of lying next to him.

Bilbo stood a little way off, standing with Thranduil, Bard and Gandalf, and watched ten dwarves – including all of Frerin’s kin – heave up the great slab and lay it on the tomb. Orcrist was placed on top. Prayers hummed through the chamber. Bilbo felt very tired, and black shadows were creeping into the corner of his vision. He could not stop thinking about Frerin alive, Frerin laughing, Frerin wrapping his arms around Bilbo that day on the carrock. He would never hear his voice again, and Frerin would never have the chance to see his grandfather's legacy restored. Bilbo wished he could think of the terrible things Frerin had done instead, but that was worse, that was so much worse, because no matter how Bilbo stacked the deck he could not make himself believe that Frerin had deserved his death.

He trailed at the end of the funerary party as they wended back up the wide stairs to the surface. He jumped when he found a dwarf dropping back into step with him, and looked up in surprise at Kili.

“How is your head, Mr Baggins?” Kili asked. His voice was stiff and robbed of its usual cheek. He was dressed in his blue hood and oilskin coat, his own clothes in which he’d arrived in Bag End all those months ago. Thranduil must have summoned not just Orcrist but all the dwarves’ belongings from the forest, and the elves had cleaned and pressed Kili's clothes so that they actually looked quite respectable for a funeral. Someone had even held Kili down long enough to comb and braid his hair in a similar style to his brother and uncle.

“Not so bad,” Bilbo swallowed. “Are you well, Kili?”

“Yes, my few bruises from the battle are almost gone.”

No doubt they both knew that wasn’t what Bilbo meant, but Bilbo didn’t press the matter. “What about Tauriel?” he asked instead. “I’ve seen her about with that young prince, and she has some impressive bandages. Have you had much time with her?”

“I try to make her stay still and rest, but she says she’ll heal faster if she keeps busy,” Kili grumbled. “I… I don’t really know what’s going to… you know. What’s going to happen between us. She was very angry when she learned Frerin deceived her and tried to leave the elves to die, after all she did for us. I don’t blame her for being angry. And I don’t think she blames me for Frerin. But since the battle… I wonder if it’s harder for us to leap into things now that all the obstacles are gone and everyone is friends again. It makes it more real.”

Bilbo nodded. “Well. I don’t know why I should need to tell you this, Mr Dwarf, since you lot always call me a stodgy wee greenhorn who wouldn’t know how to talk to a lady to warn her she was on fire, but that’s what these things always feel like when decisions have to be made.”

Kili gave a soft chuckle. “Oh, yes? Expert on courting now, are you?”

“I always have been, in my own way. You just weren’t listening,” Bilbo glanced at him with a smile.

“You are a better advisor than an example," Kili laughed. "All tongue-tied with Frer—”

Bilbo looked at him sharply. Kili's face crumpled and his brow grew heavy. “Were. I forgot for a moment. I’m sorry.”

Bilbo couldn’t reply. His throat was full of rocks. And then Kili said in a rush, “I just came to tell you I forgive you, and I will think of you as a friend after you leave,” he shoved his hands in his pockets, his voice dropping to a mumble. “I should go find Fili. Goodbye, Bilbo.”

And he was gone, stomping up the stairs with his shoulders hunched and his head low. Bilbo watched him until he disappeared around the corner. He wished he could say ‘thank you’, but some part of him knew that Kili, despite his best intentions, was not ready to hear it.




Six of them set out west: Bombur was keenest of all the dwarves to get home and see his wife, who had been expecting another child when they left for their journey. Bofur went with him “because people keep trying to get me to lift heavy things around here”. Balin joined them despite his reluctance to leave Fili with only Dain and Dwalin as councillors, because no one at Ered Luin would likely believe their story if there wasn’t someone reputable there to tell it. The numbers were rounded out by Gandalf, Bilbo and Thorin.

Within a day's ride they saw at last the destruction of Laketown, though at its south end it was barely recognisable as the same town in which they’d sung and feasted the night before they went up the mountain. Men, elves and a dozen of Dain's dwarves swarmed over the ruins, labouring to clear the mess and rebuilding homes and docks. The stench of ash and rot was so terrible that they went about with scarves and rags filled with cloves or crushed pine needles tied over their faces. Bilbo would have been happy passing through without stopping, but Gandalf was more diplomatic and they stayed for a couple of hours to greet Bard’s captains in charge of the rebuild and praise the workers for their efforts.

Bilbo noticed Thorin missing very soon after they’d climbed off their ponies, and he found the dwarf standing on one lone pier over the crushed town, his hands clasped in front of him. The cracks in the old timber were filled with sparkling flakes of gilding that had fallen from Smaug’s scales. Out on the muddy water, a huge claw still protruded above the waves, pointing straight towards the sky.

“It’s hard to believe he’s dead,” Thorin said, as Bilbo came up to stand beside him. “I swear I can still feel his fire on the back of my neck, hear the slow beat of his heart echoing in my head.”

Bilbo pressed his lips closed and finally said, “I’m sure that will pass with time,” and patted Thorin’s arm. Some things were too big for one little hobbit to deal with, especially when he had a heart-full of his own heavy feelings right now. But he thought he knew something of how Thorin felt.




They had a great many other adventures on their way as they travelled around the bottom of Mirkwood. Most of the party was more subdued than they had been on the ever-eventful trip towards the mountain, but to Bilbo’s surprise it was Thorin who was the most spirited of all. The further the distance grew between them and Erebor, the more the years seemed to fall away from him. He walked less and less like Balin, sedate and sure-footed, and much more like one of his nephews, bounding ahead when the trees opened up before them and presented some new landscape in the sharp winter light, dancing back to Bilbo’s side to point out distant peaks or a herd of deer trotting away from their voices. More than once Bilbo made him slow down and rest, for though his ribs were healing well, Thorin was always rubbing his back or limping on overworked feet.

“You’ve been lying about getting thin and weak for a hundred years,” Bilbo scolded him. “Take care of those old bones.”

“I’m not even tired,” Thorin answered.

“You make me tired just watching you!” Bilbo complained.

“Yes, Thorin, listen to your missus,” Bofur called around the stem of his pipe, and chuckled when Bilbo shot him the foulest glare that a hobbit could manage.

Gandalf went south to Lorien as they skirted around the edge of Mirkwood, and instead they were accompanied by a pair of elvish scouts as guides. The elves left them at the borders of the forest and Gandalf met them again at Beorn's house. There they wintered the tail-end of the season under the bear's roof, for a late snowfall trapped them there for seven straight days, until the smell of pony shit and mouldering hay was so familiar that they no longer noticed it. The shape-shifter went out even when the snow was piled up against the doors, perhaps to hunt, but more likely because he was worn out by having guests for too long, Bilbo thought. Even a small, polite cluster of dwarves took more attention and looking after than the old bear had patience for. But he was still genial with Gandalf and resisted throwing them out altogether.

It was too cold in the stable most nights for Bilbo, despite all the blankets Beorn offered and the elves’ fine weaves that they’d carried with them. He often lay awake at night feeling more homesick than he had at any other time in their journey, except perhaps in the first couple of weeks before Frerin had taken him under his wing. Bilbo was much thinner now than he had been then, and tougher too (or so he thought to himself; perhaps in the same way that meat shrinks and leathers when it’s smoked above a fire.)

One night he could not sleep at all, for the cold kept him from getting comfortable, and made him so alert that he could not ignore all the other things that irritated him: the scratchy straw on which they’d made their beds, Bofur’s snoring, and the stink of Beorn’s dogs in the next stall. It all conspired to keep him awake, especially now that he was not being tired out by hours of walking every day. At last he got sick of it all and stood up, stomping in a small circle as quietly as he could with his hands under his arms. No wonder dwarves stuck with their brothers through thick and thin, he thought. It would always be useful to have a warm body nearby with all that muscle and fur. He considered going over to Bofur and making him share his blanket, but a particularly loud snore made him reconsider. And then he thought of Thorin.

Frustrated to the brink of daring and made confident by his invisibility in the darkness of the stable (since going unseen had always served him so well in the past), Bilbo thought, “Why not?” A few months ago he would have been reluctant to ask for warmth in front of his friends simply because of all their jibes about the delicate hobbit and his bare feet, and would never have dared go near Frerin of all the dwarves, back when his secrets had felt constantly on the brink of exposure. But why had it ever mattered what they thought? He didn’t care. He had saved his friends about half-a-dozen times, escaped dragons with only singed heels, and watched armies spill so much blood it seemed the world would never be clean again. And then he'd done far worse. Wanting to stay warm was such a little thing to ask for after all that. Never mind what anyone thought; he was freezing, and he was not afraid of anything.

He shuffled across to where he knew Thorin was sleeping in the crook between one great, carven pillar and the rough wall. He hunched down, listening to Thorin’s slow, steady breath, and felt the shape of one shoulder under his hand. He followed the edge of the blanket to where it was crumpled on the straw, tugged it open and crawled underneath. He felt Thorin tense and his breath catch as he woke up.

“It’s me. I can’t sleep for the cold,” Bilbo whispered.

After a moment, Thorin mumbled drowsily, “This is becoming a habit, Mr Baggins.”


“Waking me up.”

“Mmm, well, you've yet to object to it. Goodnight, Thorin.”

Bilbo curled up on his side, pressed against Thorin’s warm back with the blanket tucked underneath his body. After a moment he slung his arm over Thorin’s ribs, beneath the dwarf’s elbow, and felt Thorin clench his arm overtop. Heat flowed through Bilbo’s blood and flushed his skin, washing away the numbness of the snow outside. Within minutes he fell into a deep sleep, undisturbed even by the howl of wolves in the distance.




It became common indeed, especially once they went up over the northernmost pass and the skies became clear and colder high up in the tundra. Thorin was still in the habit of lying down later than anyone else, taking more than his share of shifts on night watch and rising again by the time the first line of dawn light appeared on the horizon. But he never complained when he found Bilbo already dozing on his bedroll, and took great care not to disturb him too much when he settled down against his side. If they didn't move around too much – Thorin lay as still as a rock once he could be convinced to sleep at all, and Bilbo rarely tossed about unless the chill was getting to his feet – two layers of blanket just about fitted over both of them, so there were no more troubles with the cold. And if any of their companions thought much of their sleeping arrangements, they did not say so, but Bilbo was sure he would not have been bothered anyway. He had not slept so well since Bag End.

Two weeks after leaving Beorn's house they came down into the Ettenmoors and turned south towards Rivendell. One night they slept in a valley full of bell-heather, each of them tucked into the grassy patches between the pink and purple shrubs. It was that night Bilbo was woken by Thorin's voice, while Thorin slept on.

He opened his eyes and was not sure what had alerted him at first. He thought he had heard something, perhaps a whooping owl, perhaps a creature of a fouler nature, and he held his breath and listened in fear of the latter. But soon he heard a mutter from his bed-mate, felt Thorin flinch and then relax. Bilbo realised he was just talking in his sleep again.

It was not the first time he had heard Thorin muttering in his sleep. It happened three nights out of seven, Bilbo guessed. Less so recently, but he suspected that was because he was getting too used to it to wake up. The sleep-talk was generally nothing but soft rumbles that could have been mistaken for snoring if not for the irregularity of the sound. A nuisance but nothing that bothered Bilbo in the morning.

Tonight the dwarf was lying on his front with his head turned away from Bilbo, who was stretched out along his side. His voice grew louder, loud enough that Bilbo almost shook him awake to quiet him in case he woke someone else. But by then he was too curious about what Thorin might be dreaming of. He raised his head and leaned over. He watched the muscles of Thorin's face twitch as he murmured.

The words were clear, but Bilbo did not recognise the language. They were sharp and hissing sounds, booming deep in Thorin’s throat and then twisted by the tip of his tongue just as they left his mouth. A numb fear crawled into Bilbo as he listened to Thorin repeat a particular phrase once, twice, three times, and it stuck in his thoughts as the dwarf’s voice turned to mumbles and died away. It was not a language Bilbo knew, yet it was familiar, and all at once he thought he remembered why. He had heard it that day in the chorus vestibule, when Thorin had sung so long and hypnotically that Bilbo had lost track of time. The shape of the words was the same, Bilbo was sure, even though they had not had that hissing edge that they had tonight. But after a moment Thorin snorted and wriggled until he was facing Bilbo, his eyes still closed and his breath even now. He did not speak again.

There were a few strands of hair caught in the corner of Thorin’s mouth. Bilbo reached out and tugged them free, tucking them into the tresses behind Thorin’s ear. He stayed on his elbows staring at Thorin for some time, and it took that long before he realised there was no moon or stars between the clouds and yet he could see the shape of Thorin’s face quite clearly.

Bilbo rolled onto his side away from Thorin and pulled the blanket up to his eyes. He squeezed them shut and tried to get his breathing under control. His heart was rattling away behind his ribs. He could not get the strange words out of his head, and found himself counting the syllables and mouthing the shape of the sounds under the blanket.

It took him a long time to get to sleep that night.




Thorin and Oin were up ahead somewhere, singing some ridiculous, old ditty that had been popular when Oin was only a tiny lad. Bofur and Bombur were at the rear. They were all riding in single file, but as the path widened Bilbo hurried his pony and trotted up to Gandalf’s side.

Gandalf looked down at him with a one thick, bushy brow raised. “You look troubled, Master Hobbit. Whatever’s the matter?”

Bilbo did not miss his glance towards the front of the group. He quickly stretched a smile onto his face. “Nothing dire, truly. I’m bothered by a little piece of poetry I can’t translate. I thought perhaps it was elvish, but the words don’t make any sense. Now I'm wondering if it's, you know, that secret dwarvish language.”

“I see. Well, my Khuzdul needs oiling, but I might be of some help,” Gandalf nodded. “Can you recite it off the top of your head?”

“I can try,” Bilbo licked his lips. Now that he came to it, he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear those words again, even from his own mouth. He had the feeling that short though the phrase was, if he tried to stop it partway through his tongue would simply carry on without him. But he was too curious to leave it. He spoke the phrase to Gandalf as slowly as he dared, feeling clammy and flushed when it was done.

Gandalf was frowning deeply. “Do you know, I don’t think I can tell you what that means,” he said heavily. "It's certainly not Khuzdul."

“Ah. Good,” Bilbo sighed. “It’s probably nonsense, then. Some made-up mumble.”

“Now, now, I said I couldn’t interpret it,” Gandalf raised one hand. “I did not say I did not recognise it. Where did you hear it, Bilbo?”

Bilbo chewed the inside of his cheek. “Well. I…”

“It was Smaug, wasn’t it?” Gandalf rested back in his saddle. There was a line between his brows as he stared off towards the Misty Mountains. “Did you eavesdrop on him in his lair?”

“Yes. Well. Yes,” Bilbo hunched his shoulders. “Yes, I was rather afraid to ask. Because it was from Smaug, after all. That’s where I heard it. When I was spying on Smaug. Yes.”

“There’s no other creature it could have been, if I’m right,” said Gandalf. “Those words sound to me very much like dragon-language. It has grown among them since the earliest days of their inception. The story goes that they speak it only to each other, never even to their masters. Even Morgoth their creator had to learn it from them by threatening them with terrible punishments.”

Bilbo fell silent. “Do you think maybe Smaug… talked to himself?” he asked cautiously. “Just… wandered around his tunnels singing songs like we all do when the echoes sound lovely?”

“Well, you heard him, you said,” Gandalf glanced at him, and Bilbo felt himself squirm under the wizard’s eye. “Who else would he be talking to?”

“He was very lonely, I’m sure,” Bilbo agreed quickly. “Very old and lonely. I talk to my pans and chairs and geraniums all the time when I’m home in Bag End and there’s no one about.”

Gandalf chuckled. “There you are, then. It’s either that, or…” Gandalf let a long breath out through his nose and Bilbo saw his eyes widen and his mouth go very thin all of a sudden. But he shook his head. "No, I'm sure we would know if a second fire-drake had appeared in those lands. None have been seen even in the Grey Mountains for a thousand years, but for Smaug. And the Lake-Men have been watchful of the sky ever since he first arrived."

"I'm sure we would know!" Bilbo squeaked. "Erebor is big, but it's not big enough to hide a second dragon. Perish the thought, Gandalf!"

"Of course not. But my thought wasn't quite that. The second dragon would not need to remain in the mountain, you understand, only stay long enough to, er, consummate. I have never had friends among the drakes so all I know is second-hand stories of their habits, but they do say – and I'm sure you would have been the first to spot this if it were the case, when you were creeping about his lair – they say that dragon-language is spoken most to their eggs as they grow over decades, imbuing the unborn newts with the poems of their forbearers and even the powers of a dragon's cunning tongue and mesmerising eye. They don't stay long with their parents, for they learn all their wicked lessons before they take their first breath. A frightening thought, that even when it is crawling blind out of the egg a dragon has a clever mind and can bewitch you before you know it. Let's not dwell on it any further, or you will have bad dreams tonight, Bilbo. If Smaug had eggs in the mountain we would know about it by now, and they would anyway not survive without their father to keep them warm with his fire."

Bilbo felt a shudder run right through him from crown to toes. He could not feel the bright, spring sunlight anymore, and he wished he had not had such a big breakfast. He shook his head, teeth too tightly clenched to speak, and then managed to swallow and keep his voice from trembling as he said, "No. He must have gone mad with loneliness. That's all it was."

But that wasn't all, and Bilbo knew it. Gandalf had forgotten that Smaug hadn't been alone. Smaug had had someone to talk to.

Bad dreams, Bilbo chided himself. It’s nothing but bad dreams.




They cut close to the foothills as they approached Rivendell, avoiding the woodlands where they had encountered the trolls on the journey out. One night they camped in a bowl of rough, herbfield grass just out of the wind, with a tranquil tarn of clear, umber-brown water captured in the centre. There was a golden sunset across the plains that night, and the water of the pool was so still that if you did not know which was up and which was down you could not have told the sun from its reflection. Bilbo could picture that same light lingering on the chimney of Bag End far away. He longed for the smell of his garden and a pinch of Old Toby. And at the same time, apprehension had begun to grow inside him, like a knot winding around and around itself in his stomach. Of course he wished to see his round door and the green hills that he knew better than the shape of his own hands. But he tried to imagine no more mornings wedged between a line of dwarves with someone pushing into his hand a cup of strange, new tea trimmed from the bushes the day before. What a strange life it would be, without arguments and foul jokes and woollen clothes that would be stolen if left unattended – usually by Bilbo. A lonely life.

They had the light until late in the evening, but the Misty Mountains kept their little camp in shadow the next morning and it was still cold enough to fog Bilbo's breath when he awoke. He was alone on the bedroll, but there was fresh kindling over a growing fire close by. Gandalf and the other dwarves were still asleep, wrapped up tight until only a few wisps of beard and hair emerged from the tops of their blankets. Bilbo got up and pulled on his coat, poked the fire with a stick and then wandered up towards the lip of the bowl.

He found Thorin sitting on a boulder a good way down the outer slope. There was no wind this early in the morning, and the clouds had crept up during the night to catch at the face of the mountains and hang low around them. Thorin sat unmoving with his back straight, his knees apart and his hands resting on his thighs. He might have been a statue set to watch the weather pass through this desolate place for eons, but for the shiver of his hair in the breeze. Not for the first time, Bilbo wondered why it seemed more natural to Thorin to strike such poses than to relax even when no one was watching him. Although really, the only question was how long it took Thror to train his grandson to look like a king at every waking moment.

Bilbo stomped through the tussocks to stand beside Thorin, tucking his hands under his arms. “Morning. How long have you been up?”

Thorin shrugged. “Only an hour or so.”

Bilbo gave a huff that turned into a chuckle. “Better than yesterday, I suppose.”

Thorin turned to look at him from under his brows. “Mr Baggins, stop cosseting. You are not my grandmother.”

“No. S’pose I’m not.” Bilbo smiled and looked out into the thick cloud again. Thorin followed his gaze, and for a few moments they both stared out at the grey morning. And then Bilbo, hands still tucked under his arms, leaned in to kiss him. He was aiming for Thorin’s cheek, to be polite, but Thorin caught the movement from the corner of his eye and his head turned. His eyes went wide, his lips opened to speak, and Bilbo’s mouth pressed the words away.

For a while they kissed without touching anywhere but their mouths and their bumping noses, soft as the grey dawn. Bilbo has his eyes closed but his hearing seemed very sharp. His ears filled with the wet motions of kissing that he had never in his life thought sounded musical except when he was doing the kissing, and beneath that came Thorin’s irregular breaths, an aching groan from his throat, and far above the notes of a skylark looking for some morning sun. And then Thorin’s big hands were on his shoulders, squeezing his still-folded arms, sliding in beneath them to wrap his fingers around Bilbo’s waist. Thorin surged to his feet, stepping downhill so that he was barely above Bilbo’s height, and Bilbo slung his arms around Thorin’s neck to hang there for a few minutes, leaning into his warmth and solidity.

Thorin's hand knotted in his curls. Bilbo could not get used to the beard, he did not ever want to get used to the beard, the beard was delightful. But still, kissing it was not really enough. He could feel Thorin’s arousal against his leg, and he reached back to take hold of one of Thorin’s hands, cupping the knuckles in his palm, and led it down until Thorin’s fingers curled hot around his buttock. He gave Thorin’s fingers a squeeze of encouragement and Thorin’s breathing became, if possible, even faster.

One hand gripped the outside of Bilbo’s thigh, one his waist, and without warning Thorin lifted him, twisted where he stood and tumbled backwards into the long grasses. With a squeak of surprise Bilbo was carried down with him. Now he was straddling Thorin, his hands gripping that dry and scratchy face, his eyes closed and all sound forgotten. His hands went to the ties of Thorin's shirt and tugged frantically until they began to come apart like he was combing snarls of his hair. Thorin dragged the tails of Bilbo's shirt up of his belt and ran his calloused hands up his bare ribs, moving with Bilbo's panting breath. All Bilbo could think about was the swelling heat between their hips and he was suddenly aware of how long it had been since he'd wanted someone like this, with such intensity it felt almost like fear.

Bilbo drew back, Thorin raising his head to try to chase his mouth. His face was flushed in patches, his hair mussed and getting in his eyes, all the colours of his skin and hair enriched by the growing morning light. Bilbo could not believe he'd ever looked past him at anyone else. He pressed his mouth down again, biting Thorin's lip and pulling open his shirt to scrape the tips of his fingers down a thickly furred chest, taking care to avoid the still-tender bruises over the healing rib. He felt Thorin's belly shudder, heard his breath quicken. The grass was pricking Bilbo's knees and he had to shift his weight, so he used it as an excuse to kiss his way through Thorin's beard and into the soft skin of his throat.

He didn't want to stop. All of a sudden Bilbo felt acutely aware that their companions were just over the hill, asleep or stretching awake, and that the mist was clearing. They would be sharing a camp for days more and suppose this chance didn't come again until Rivendell, until the Blue Mountains, until ever? The same wild instinct that had convinced Bilbo to seek out Thorin's warmth that night in Beorn's house now rose up again. He was beginning to recognise it at last as selfishness, but a wonderful, glorious selfishness that for him meant freedom. No more 'proper', no more respectable Baggins reputation, no more guilt. He could have things that he wanted and curse whoever turned their nose up at him. No, not curse them – they simply didn't matter.

He reached down, tugged open Thorin's belt with the deftness of a now-practised burglar and slid his hand down the front of his trousers. Thorin gasped, a low thrum that sounded absurdly loud in the morning air. Bilbo laughed into the hollow of his neck.

"Sh, sh,” he hissed.


"Are you alright?" Bilbo raised his head, his hand wrapped around the warm, solid weight of Thorin's cock. It felt broad and taut as everything dwarvish, but it had been a long time since Bilbo had been in any position to compare such things and he wanted more than anything to see it, to look between it and Thorin's face and – well, gloat. Marvel at how unexpected this adventure had turned out to be. Thorin still had not replied, his lips half-open and inflamed, his pupils huge and black in his eyes. Bilbo circled the tip of his cock with his thumb, beneath the scratchy cloth, and Thorin groaned and threw his head back, his eyes squeezed shut. That seemed answer enough.

Bilbo wriggled between his legs and tugged his trousers down a little until he could free Thorin at last. It was just like any other cock, though larger than most hobbits's in Bilbo's experience. It rose from a forest of thick, black hair, darker and unmarked by the silver that graced Thorin's head and beard. But most importantly it was perfect and gorgeous because it was Thorin's. Bilbo could see goosepimples on Thorin's belly, and the threat of discovery was only growing stronger by the moment, so without further announcement Bilbo sucked the head of Thorin's cock in. Thorin jerked and made a choked-off cry. Bilbo held his hips down with his elbows and wrapped his fingers around the shaft as he drew softer, rhythmic noises from Thorin's throat.

He took very little time to finish, which was quite flattering, in Bilbo's opinion. He drew off just as Thorin melted into shivers, spurting across his navel. Bilbo rested for a moment, feeling spent even though he was still hard, and finally crawled back up to lie his head on Thorin's splayed arm. He glanced up at him. Thorin was staring at the sky, his eyes unfocused.

Only then did it occur to Bilbo, a creeping little voice at the back of his mind, that this might be the first time anyone had touched Thorin like this.

Much louder than the larks or the creeping voice came a whistle that cut through the air and made them spring apart as if jolted by a sudden shower of cold rain. From the ridge above them came Balin's voice lingered long on his vowels. "Bilbo-o! Tho-or-i-in!"

Bilbo stood up and cupped his hands around his mouth. "We're on our way, Balin!"

He heard nothing more. He climbed to his feet and reached out to help Thorin.

Thorin's was still panting, the flush rapidly leaving his cheeks. He looked at Bilbo's hand for some time before he took it and heaved himself to his feet, gripping his belt and trousers to keep them from falling down. He grabbed a handful of brown grass and cleaned his belly quickly, belted himself up and closed the ties of his shirt. He stood, one foot uphill, looking down at Bilbo.

"Why did you do that?" he asked, neither accusing nor self-pitying, but in the voice Bilbo had often heard whenever he could not understand some proverb or habit of the new world.

Bilbo bit down on his bottom lip and saw Thorin's throat bob as he swallowed. After a moment Bilbo said, "I don’t know. I wanted to all of a sudden.”

Thorin’s brow tightened. “Do you think you’ll want to do it again?”

There was a growing hope in his voice. Bilbo tilted his head and could not hold back a wink. “Yes, Thorin. Probably,” and he mirrored the dwarf’s growing smile, though Thorin’s was small and half-hidden under his beard.

Thorin reached out and combed down Bilbo’s disarrayed hair. "Can I... do the same for you?" he rumbled.

"If you want to," Bilbo said, and then added, “But for hobbits, breakfast comes before everything else. Come on, or they’ll start to wonder.”

He started up the hill, not waiting to see if Thorin was following. After a moment he heard the crunch of heavy boots and hands tearing at the shrubs as Thorin hurried to pull himself up the slope. “But you still want to go back to your Shire,” Thorin called, a little breathlessly. Bilbo looked back at him, and was reminded of being a tween in his grandfather’s house and having small cousins follow him around bothering him with questions.

“Yes, of course,” Bilbo answered.

“And I’m still going to Ered Luin.”

“Because you should go,” Bilbo said firmly, glancing back at him. “Think what it will mean to them to have you back. Their lost prince!” he stopped as they reached the top of the ridge. The cloud was beginning to burn off now, and they could see the others meandering around the fire, still rubbing the sleep from their eyes and digging out their bowls from their packs. Bofur raised his hand to them, and Balin looked up from the tarn where he was filling the kettle.

“I don’t understand what’s in your head, Bilbo,” Thorin said in a low voice.

Bilbo turned to him and squeezed his hand with a sigh. “I wish I knew myself.”

Chapter Text

“Welcome,” Elrond spread his arms to embrace Gandalf. “I am very glad to see you on your feet, Mithrandir. We heard news from Lorien, and feared—”

“Oh, now, let’s not think on such things now,” Gandalf cut him off with a tiny shake of his head and a broad smile. Dark memories flashed in the depths of his mind, but there was plenty of joyous thoughts on the surface to bury them again quickly. He turned to gesture to his companions. “We are glad to be back under your roof, my friend. You are all introduced, I believe. Except for Thorin, lost son of Thrain – and you must meet Thorin. What a tale we have to tell about Thorin."

Gandalf chuckled as Thorin gave a stiff, old-fashioned bow and Elrond's eyes widened in surprise. He knew that Elrond would recognise the bearing of a dwarvish diplomat from a lost age.

"Welcome, Thorin, son of Thrain. I know your name, but I don't believe I've heard it spoken since your grandfather ruled beneath the Lonely Mountain."

Gandalf inclined his head, and watched Thorin follow the others up the stairs. But the smile fell from Gandalf’s face as he saw Elrond turn from the visitors and look back at him. A frown was growing on the elf’s brow, and his mouth had stretched into a thin line.

“What’s the matter?” Gandalf asked.

Elrond leaned in close and said quietly, “There is something wrong with that dwarf."




Bilbo had been sitting in the little arbour on the edge of the waterfall for hours, reading a history of the lost Gondolin. It was a book for children, but Bilbo’s Quenya was rough and he was finding the idealised bedtime story much more palatable than some of the huge tomes that populated most of Lord Elrond’s library. The book was also light and small in size compared to the rest, which suited a hobbit very well. Bilbo was so engaged in the tale that he didn’t notice he had a visitor until the quiet of the birds warned him that he was being watched. He raised his head from the book propped up between his knees.

Thorin was hovering in the archway of the arbour, a couple of steps below the platform where Bilbo sat. His brow was heavy, his mouth downturned, and he was picking at the painted rail of the steps with his fingernail.

Bilbo stretched out his legs and laid the book open on his lap. He had just reached the part of his book where Tuor was going to ask Turgon for Idril’s hand in marriage, and he wanted to get back to the story and find out how the king reacted as soon as he could. But he could not avoid talking to Thorin any longer. His conversations with the once-Abiding King had been difficult ever since that morning on the hills two days past, and since they’d arrived in Rivendell with all its sumptuous welcome Thorin had been even worse. He didn’t stay in the dwarves’ room at night; Bilbo wasn’t sure where he was sleeping, or if he was sleeping at all, or simply off fretting by himself. Bilbo knew it was his own fault for leaving Thorin at a crossroads, uncertain of whether their future would be one they shared together for a time or if they would separate within weeks. But Bilbo felt annoyed too. He couldn't give Thorin an answer about his feelings one way or another because either way would be a lie; he simply didn't know.

“Are you alright?” Bilbo asked at last, meeting Thorin’s gaze.

Thorin came up the steps and crouched down on his heels right in front of Bilbo, between his feet. He folded his arms on his bent knees. “What are your feelings on this Elrond fellow?” he asked.

Bilbo raised his brows. This was not the conversation he had been expecting. “I beg your pardon?”

“Do you think he’s an amiable friend, or a staunch traditionalist, or what?”

Bilbo shrugged with a frown. “I like him very much, is all I know. He’s a little haughty perhaps, but name an elf who isn’t. Are you having some disagreement with him, Thorin?”

Thorin shook his head. “Not unless he has some disagreement with me. His secretary turned up just now asking me to come and speak with him and Gandalf, at once and alone. I want to know why.”

“I haven’t the foggiest. Why would I know?”

Thorin huffed a long breath out his nose. “Neither did the secretary, but when I refused to come without more details he said he’d heard your name bandied about. Have you said anything to Gandalf about… well…?”

It took Bilbo a moment to realise what he meant. He closed his book with a snap. “Anything indiscreet, you mean? No, Thorin, of course I haven’t! What business is it of theirs?”

“Then there must be something else,” Thorin glanced around and gave a little shake of his head. “But I can’t think what, or why they’d be so urgent.”

“You used to be king of the dwarves,” Bilbo said tetchily, his fingers tapping the spine of his book. “I’m sure they have their reasons to seek your counsel. Go and see them, it’s nothing to do with me.”

“Alright, no need to snap,” Thorin’s eyes flashed. He stood up and turned away without so much as a goodbye, his hands shoved in his pockets, but just as Bilbo was about to open his book again he saw Thorin stop at the top of the stairs.

Gandalf and Elrond were coming along the leaf-strewn path, and when Bilbo saw their faces he knew in an instant that this was not a conversation about indiscreetness. This was something far worse. He gripped the railing of the arbour and pulled himself to his feet, tucking the book under his arm. Thorin’s shoulders were thrown back and his hands were hanging by his side now.

“Mr Dwarf. What kept you?” Gandalf said, and his voice was mellow but his eyes were cold as grey granite, and Bilbo did not miss the way he settled himself on his heels between Thorin and the path back to Rivendell. Behind them was the bank that tumbled down under the waterfall. No escape that way. The low rush of water filled the air as Gandalf waited for an answer. Thorin gave him none.

“Shall I leave you three to it?” Bilbo hissed as he slipped past Thorin, holding the book close to his chest.

He meant to hurry on up the path, nodding at Elrond as he went. But as he approached the elf, Elrond’s face softened and a wrinkle appeared between his eyes. He held out his hand to touch Bilbo’s shoulder and stay him. He asked, with all the concern of a physician for a delicate patient, “Are you well, Mr Baggins?”

Bilbo frowned up at him. “Perfectly well,” he twisted around to look back at Thorin, and then at Gandalf. “Perhaps you should tell me what this about?”

“Thorin, I think you have not been completely honest with me,” Gandalf took another step closer to the arbour where Thorin stood upon the top step. Thorin's spine was taut and his brows were low over his eyes, but Bilbo saw as much confusion there as Bilbo himself was feeling.

“You may have to rattle my memory,” Thorin said. "I've never lied to you, that I know of."

Gandalf dug his thumbs into his belt. He made an impatient grumble between his lips. “But you promised me you would tell me everything, when we spoke after the battle. You swore to me you remembered nothing from your time under Smaug’s spell – or nothing of interest. But you do remember.”

Thorin tilted his head now, his lips parting as he struggled to find a reply. At last he said. “No, I don’t. That’s the truth. What would I hide from you?” and now his gaze turned to Bilbo. “What does he mean?”

And Bilbo guessed at last, and turned to look at Gandalf with growing horror. “Hang on. You’ve got it wrong, Gandalf.”

Elrond’s hand tightened on Bilbo’s shoulder. Gandalf did not take his eyes off Thorin as he spoke. “Bilbo pretended he'd heard the words from Smaug, and it took me this long to realise where they really came from. The dragon taught you his language, didn’t he, Thorin? I have never heard of any drake offering such secrets to an outsider. A thing like that sticks with you, I imagine.”

Thorin shook his head. He reached out and took hold of the railing, his knuckles showing white beneath his skin. “Those were just dreams. I don’t remember anything about them when I wake. They’re just nightmares,” he gaped at Bilbo. “What have I done?”

“You talk in your sleep,” Bilbo swallowed, shaking his head. “I didn’t think anything of it, Thorin, I really didn’t. Gandalf, why are you both so angry about this? It's like he said, they're only dreams.”

“Because words carry power, Mr Baggins,” Elrond droned. “Even after those who devised them are dead. And I want to know, Mr Dwarf, why Smaug really kept you alive all these years," his face grew grimmer as he stared at Thorin. “You carry a shadow beneath your grief that does not smell of dwarf.”

Bilbo watched Thorin’s chest heave for breath. His gaze flicked between Elrond and back to Gandalf. “You said there was nothing wrong with me,” he accused. “You swore to me that I would suffer no ill-effects besides my lost years. You're a wizard, you're supposed to understand these things.”

“I sensed nothing at Erebor,” Gandalf said heavily, and Bilbo at last heard some note of sympathy in his tone. “And I did not see this until now. I fear the dragon in his decades of solitude laid some shards of himself in your heart—”

“They are just nightmares!” Thorin roared, and Bilbo flinched to see his features twisted with sudden fear. “What do you think, that I am going to begin – begin breathing flame, or… or… growing scales?” he threw his arm out towards Elrond. “Or is this all a round-about way of finding a new fault in dwarves, of reaffirming the greed and gold-lust that you think us so famous for?”

“Nobody thinks you’re going to grow wings,” Bilbo pleaded, and looked up at Gandalf. “That's impossible. Thorin shook off Smaug’s spell, we all told you that. He tried to kill the dragon as soon as he woke up, I saw it with my own eyes. Smaug wanted to get a hold of him again and he fought it, and won!”

“It is not fire I fear he was gifted,” Elrond cut in, and his hand tightened once more on Bilbo’s shoulder. “It is the spell itself. The dragon’s eye, and the power to sway others with words alone. And we need to know whether he has used it on anyone, Bilbo. Such as yourself.”

“Oh, for the Mother’s love, that’s ridiculous,” Bilbo snapped, and looked over at Thorin. “You don’t have to listen to this a moment longer, Thorin. Thorin?”

But the dwarf was staring Bilbo now, his eyes wide, and for a moment his throat moved as if to speak but at once he clapped his hand to his mouth. He looked between the three faces, and then shuddered and bolted down the steps. Gandalf stepped aside, and would probably have been knocked down if he had tried to block Thorin's way. Bilbo watched the dwarf bolt towards the gardens, his head bent and his steps uneven.

“You two,” Bilbo looked up at Elrond, and shoved the book into his hands. “As if things weren’t bad enough already!”

“Bilbo!” Gandalf grabbed for him as he stomped between them, but Bilbo ducked away from his hand. He turned to face the wizard, his arms folded and brows raised. Gandalf shook his head. “We want to help him.”

“Then next time, maybe you should start with that,” Bilbo growled. “You don’t understand, do you? He’s a boy. He’s a boy who lost his entire world and can’t keep up with the new one. And you think he wants to hurt me?”

“He may not know what he’s doing,” Elrond said coldly.

“Then trust me to know what I’m doing!” Bilbo snarled at him, jabbing his finger at the ground.




He found Thorin in the statue garden, a secluded grove filled with figures worn down to mildewed shapes barely identifiable as limbs and faces, clothed in ivy that bound them tight to the earth. No doubt they were still far younger than Elrond or Gandalf. Thorin was tucked between the base of a dancing youth and a low wall around the edge of the garden. He had crouched down on his haunches, head bent over his knees and his hands dug into his hair as if to block his ears from some terrible scream. He turned his neck to see Bilbo approach and then squeezed his eyes closed.

“Hello,” Bilbo stopped a few feet away from him. He twisted his fingers and heard the joints clicking beneath the skin. He took a step forward. “Stop hiding, Thorin. You look like a child scared of the trolls under the bridge.”

After a moment Thorin lowered his hands and wrapped his arms around his knees, but did not raise his head.

“So it was true, then,” Bilbo murmured. “What you said at the coronation, why you gave up the throne. Did Fili and Dain know?”

Thorin shook his head. He croaked, “I thought I was imagining it. I told myself it would get better if I went away from Erebor, that it was nothing but a memory pressing behind my eyes,” he buried his face in his knees again. “This is why things have changed between us, Bilbo, why nothing makes sense, why you said you couldn't love me and then kissed me... and all the rest... only days ago. Because… because I did to you as Smaug did to me, held your mind captive, seduced you with magic words, and I didn’t even realise it…”

Bilbo let out a long sigh and crouched down beside Thorin. He put his hands on Thorin’s arm, making him flinch, but Bilbo did not let go. Thorin’s skin was warm and Bilbo could make out the shape of his muscles through his shirt. “That’s not what happened, old man. Elrond doesn't know what he's talking about.”

"But he's right," Thorin raised his head slowly, staring at the bare roots of a juniper tree nearby. His voice became flat and distant. "I do have the dragon's eye. I've used it before."

Bilbo shook his head. "What are you talking about?"

Thorin turned to look at him. "In the camp, when we rescued Fili and the others. I made the guard by Bard's tent surrender with a single word. And when Dwalin and I found Dain, there was a dwarf who knew me, and I told him to go and tell everyone who I was, and off he went. I didn't understand how I was doing it, but I knew it wasn't natural, and in the heat of the moment I thought it was my only choice..." Thorin suddenly seemed to realise he was holding Bilbo's gaze and he buried his face in his knees again. "Don't look at me, I'll enchant you!"

Bilbo shook his arm. "Thorin, for pity's sake, you're not going to do any such thing. I simply don't believe it!"

Thorin drew a shaking breath. There was a sob in his voice as he spoke. “I will never be myself again. My body is withered and my mind is warped and all I hoped to become is long gone. It would have been better if Frerin had succeeded in killing me.”

A stone dropped down Bilbo’s throat and stuck there, though he tried to swallow it down. “Don't you dare say that, not after what I did for you."

"Better that, than for me to repay you with evil sorcery!"

"Oh, for—” Bilbo resisted spitting the worst swear Bofur had ever taught him. “I know what it feels like to talk to dragons, you stupid dwarf, I remember his words winding around the crevices of my mind. I faced Smaug himself, looked him right in the eye, and walked away – well, ran away – without him getting his claws on me or my mind. I would know if you had done any such thing, whether you meant to or not. And I broke his spell on you, remember? I am stronger than that dragon, Mr Dwarf, and I am certainly strong enough to resist your charms if I so wished!” he shook his head. “You want to know why things hurt and don’t make sense? Because sometimes that’s just what love feels like, and you’re too young to know why yet. Thorin, look at me,” and when he would not, Bilbo leant against him and seized two handfuls of hair around his ears, forcing his head around. Still he lowered his eyes to avoid Bilbo’s gaze. “I have been chasing you, whether I realised it or not, from the moment I first saw you sleeping in the mountain. Before I knew you, before you'd even laid eyes on me, before you had any chance to change my mind. I kissed you on the hills last week because I wanted to, probably more than anything else I have ever wanted in my life," and he dragged him in to kiss him roughly. “Now wake up and look at me!”

Thorin met his eyes at last, his tongue darting out to touch his bottom lip as if to taste Bilbo’s mouth there. "And if there really is something of the dragon crawling under my skin?" he asked.

"Then use it," Bilbo hissed. "You are still good, Thorin. You are still thoughtful and fervent and loving. If you trust yourself to wield a sword, you can bear this power as well, keep it sheathed if you wish or, if you must, raise it and fight to protect what is yours." Bilbo sighed and ducked his head for a moment. "Gandalf and Elrond were right to be worried, but not for me. Yes, I shouldn't have jumped you on the hill last week. But it was my mistake, not your dragon-eye."

Thorin's eyes widened and and he reached out with one hand and cupped the side of Bilbo's had. "No, don't say that! Bilbo, I wanted you, I wanted - that. I've never before... and... and I'm glad it was you!"

"Nope. No," Bilbo shook his head, trying not to laugh even as the stone swelled bigger in his throat and tears pricked in the corners of his eyes. "It was too fast. You know what I told you the night before you left Erebor to find Dain? I said this quest made me grow up all of a sudden. And it's true, and once the quest was over that made me feel wild and clever and brash, the hobbit who became a burglar and helped save a kingdom. But that's not what being grown-up should mean. Mother of all that's green, you're so young," he dug his fingers into Thorin's silvered hair, shaking his head. "I should have taken more care with your heart. I should have owned my responsibilities. Otherwise, well, I'm just like Frerin, aren't I?" he sniffed and turned his head to the side to wipe the tears away on the shoulder of his coat. His throat began to clear at last.

Thorin closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. At last he said quietly, “How can I ever be sure you really mean what you say? I could be making you say this, it could be part of the enchantment—”

Bilbo gave a soft chuckle. “We have time to be sure, Thorin. I know you’ve lost more time than is fair, but your grandmother lived to be very old, didn’t she? And so shall you and I. I’ll come to Ered Luin with you; we’ll go tonight, leave Gandalf here if he's going to be a bother. Then I’ll go home, and you must too – return and rebuild Erebor. Be their memory of the old days, teach Fili your grandfather’s lessons, grow out your beard. And if you don’t find yourself a handsome dwarf to warm your bed—” Thorin made a choking, scandalised noise in the back of his throat and Bilbo laughed. “Don’t be coy, you fell for the first person you’d met in a hundred years, you obviously don’t have high standards. As I was saying, if you want to, send for me. Or come to the Shire yourself. Balin and Bofur will give you directions. I shan’t have any permanent company, I think, not at my age. I will have plenty of time to think. So I’ll wait for any spells and palls and beguilements to fade and then I’ll write it all down, everything as I remember it, and on the last page I’ll write about you. So if you… when you come to see me, you can read it for yourself, and you’ll know I wrote it with a clear head.”

Thorin closed his eyes and let out a low, animalistic groan. He threw his arms around Bilbo’s shoulders and pressed his face to Bilbo’s chest.

For a long time they stayed that way, among the ivy and the worn stone, until Bilbo’s knees ached and the weight of Thorin grew too much. He sat back against the pedestal of the statue, his arms around Thorin until at last the dwarf raised his head and shuffled around to sit beside him. Bilbo took his hand and slipped his fingers between Thorin's knuckles, gripping him tight. Thorin rested his head on the crown of Bilbo's hair. They watched the branches of the juniper tree shift in the breeze, rocking the tiny green berries buried in its thin leaves.

"Why did he do this to me?" Thorin murmured. "Why did he keep me alive all these years?"

Bilbo said nothing for a moment. Finally, "I think, for all that he was huge and terrifying and calamitous, Smaug might have been rather vain and pathetic as dragons go. The runt of his litter, perhaps. No friends. No master to serve, or if he ever had one, it seems he abandoned his duties long ago. Nothing to do but destroy and steal and burn everything he came across. Maybe in the beginning he kept you as a trophy, because he took pleasure in the grief he'd caused your kin and your people. But in the end I suspect he was just so lonely he couldn't bear to eat you. And yet he must have known that if he ever released his hold on you, even a little, you would hate him and try to hurt him or flee. So perhaps... in his vanity and unbearable solitude... he really thought he could make you anew. A dragon in dwarvish form. He was wrong, of course. You're here with me now, so I know he was wrong. It would have taken him ten thousand years of whispering in your ear to transform even half your spirit into a drake, and you would have died of old age long before he could risk waking you. But I suppose he still had to try."

Bilbo squeezed Thorin's hand. "And I know it's selfish of me, but I'm glad he did. Because I would never have met you otherwise."

"Perhaps you would have," said Thorin. "Perhaps in another world I might have escaped him, and we'd still have found each other. Perhaps in that world I'd be old and crotchety, but we could still be friends."

"We would always be friends," Bilbo ran his fingers over the veins in the back of Thorin's hand and felt the pulse beneath his skin. "But I would still be sorry to lose this one."




Bilbo explained a little of the situation to Balin, and a little less to Bofur and Bombur, trying to make Elrond's diagnosis sound like a funny, elvish prejudice against dragon-victims rather than a concern with any real basis. They had a lot of questions that Bilbo had to deflect with a feigned ignorance, but despite clear suspicion they quickly trusted that Bilbo probably knew what he was talking about. Bombur was most reluctant, and that was mainly because he had planned to swap a lot of recipes with Lindir and was quite disappointed to miss the opportunity to hone his craft. But after some grumbling he was convinced that it would not be worth staying behind and travelling the rest of the way home alone, and was mollified by reminders of his new baby waiting for him.

The five of them left the next morning at dawn, slipping away in very much the same way that they had all those months ago. But this time Bilbo did not drag his feet and look over his shoulder, wishing he could stay in the peace and comfort of the valley. This time he found himself at the front of the pack, and when they paused at the first crossroads he turned to find the others watching him. For a moment (it was still quite early in the morning) he forgot where he was and thought that the dwarves were looking to Frerin behind him. But no, that was not possible. They were looking at him. Balin was waiting with a note of cynicism in his eye, but nevertheless staying quiet, Bofur leaning on his stick with his head nodding forward, and Thorin stood with his gaze locked on Bilbo. No one could claim that Bilbo was under anyone's sway. Quite the opposite. He was in charge. How in the world had that happened?

"Well, I've never been to the Blue Mountains in my life. Balin, you better go ahead."

"Splendid," Balin said, and they headed off.




Dis buttoned her coat right under her chin that morning. In the sharp, dawn air she could smell the sap of the kindling under her arm as she crossed the paddock behind her house, her wide boots crunching over the frost. A few strands of hair escaped her braid and she flicked them away from her eyes with an irritated puff of breath. Her fingers were clenched and freezing, the tips turning pink, wrapped around the handle of the bucket. The hatchet tucked into her belt bumped with each step. Thankfully she did not have far before she could leave both bucket and hatchet at her house. She's walked all this way because she liked the taste of the stream water from the edge of the forest better than the neighbourhood pipes. It was worth the hike, and the morning walk was a good time for thinking.

It would be a longer walk to bring the wood to the Great Hall. There had been logs in the shed last week, but the wood had been spirited away bit by bit, sold for next to nothing to this dwarf or that dam who came with other appeals and left with wood because Dis could give them nothing else. Gloin’s wife had promised to buy a fresh cartful and send it up to the hall this afternoon, but until then Dis would make do with the rough-chopped sticks under her arm. She would get the fire going, warm the hall through and be ready for a day’s work before most of the town was rising from their breakfasts. She’d get through today, arguing taxes and making promises, and then when the stars were bright and the candles were burning low she could go home and drink sweet water, sleep heavy in her too-quiet house, dream of her sons, or perhaps of Vili tonight. Or maybe she would see the dragon and halls of golden light.

But to her surprise there was someone waiting at the back door of her house, sitting on the step and waving a long bit of straw to tease the sparrows who’d come to eat from the scrap-bucket. Dis paused for a moment to watch him. It was a young dwarf, and as she got closer to recognised two thick, red plaits hanging past his collar.

“Gimli,” she called as she nudged the gate shut with her knee. “What are you doing here, lad?”

Gimli jumped to his feet and shuffled out of her way. He was at his full height, getting broad in the shoulders, but still not quite as tall as her. “Came to find you, Miss!” he cried. “They’re back!”

“Who’s back?” Dis put down the wood by the door for a moment so she could get the bucket inside.

“You know,” Gimli was hopping from foot to foot, his short, whiskery beard wiggling. “Them’s that went off east. Some of them have come home!”

Dis froze with her hand on the roped door-handle. Her next breath shivered into her chest and dragged all the warmth from her body. It took all her will to keep the ice from her bones long enough to turn to Gimli. “Some of them?” she echoed. “Who has come home?”

“Mr Balin, and Bofur and his brother, and some folks I don’t know,” Gimli tucked his hands behind his waist in sudden deference. His mother was always telling him to mind his manners around Dis and bow to her just like he would to his king, but he usually forgot. He licked his lips. “Everyone’s running about in their dressing gowns and the like, they’re saying they killed the dragon and we’ll all be going to live in Erebor soon. And they’re saying—” he swallowed, and Dis felt needles prick her all the way up her spine. No. No. She did not want to know. “They’re sayin’ King Frerin is dead, Ma’am.”

The wind seemed to be screaming Dis’ ears and yet she could feel nothing on her cheeks. She heard a crack as the bucket hit the step. Cold water spread over her boots and seeped into her socks. The air was too thick to breathe, but at last she pulled for it and down it came, cutting her deep, clapping her awake. “And my boys?” she croaked. “What are they saying about my boys?”

Gimli’s cheeks puffed out and his eyes went wide with the thrill of the news. “Oh, Fili’s been crowned King of the Mountain! That’s what Bofur said! And Kili’s run off to marry an elf-lass, but blimey, I don’t know if I believe that. He does tell some stories, Mr Bofur…”

Dis closed her eyes and breathed out the ice once more. Her hand crept to her breast, gripping a handful of coat, and she could feel her heart pounding through three layers of wool and the oilskin. At last she drew back her shoulders and opened her eyes.

“Take me to them,” she said. “Take me at once.”

Afterwards she barely remembered the race through town. Gimli had been right, the streets were full of dwarves with their boots on over their nightgowns. Some of the oldest dwarves, the ones who remembered the mountain, were weeping into each other's arms. Others were cheering and running to fetch bottles and cups to toast the occasion. All faces turned towards Dis as she approached.

Frerin, her own voice whispered in her mind, but it was a cold voice, the voice of a queen. Frerin. Frerin. Your brother Frerin is dead. Your Frerin.

It could not be true. She would not believe it until she heard it from Balin himself. Her brother could not leave her. Not the brother who had held her hand as they watched the mountain burn, the brother who'd fought beside her at Moria, the brother who'd given up his bed for her the day he became king. The brother who'd kissed her weeping eyes at her husband's funeral and who'd rocked her baby son to sleep every night when she lost the strength to carry him herself. The brother who could make her laugh even when she was so angry at him she wanted to hit him. And to think, she had argued with him, threatened to hurt him, wished that this quest would prove fatal, and that was the last she had seen of him. It could not be true. He must have come home. He must have come home to her.

He could not be dead.

Gimli took her to the Great Hall, and she regretted that she had left the firewood behind at her house. The doors were wide open, and a crowd had gathered there to clamber over each other and peer inside. But the babble faded to whispers, and the whispers died away as the dwarves stepped back to let their princess through. Dis did not look in their eyes as she strode up the steps, her hands balled in her skirts to keep them from tripping her.

The hall itself was not so packed. A single table had been dragged out of the storeroom and laid with a hasty breakfast of bread, jams, tea and a barrel of stout beer. Nobody was sitting and eating, however, but stood in clusters around the table: at a glance Dis recognised half of the council, some still in their dressing-gowns or without a single braid in their hair. Gimli’s mother was there, and Bofur’s sister with her apron still on and floury handprints on her dress. Dis saw Bombur and his wife wrapped in each other’s arms, and Balin off to one side talking avidly to two old nobles, though there was no sign of Dwalin.

Standing behind Balin was a strange, curly-haired little figure who looked to Dis like a hobbit. He was dressed in rough silks like the sort they had in the Iron Hills, cut in an old-fashioned, dwarvish style but with brighter colours than most. Dis had never in all her years seen a hobbit travel all the way to the Blue Mountains, but no other creature would be wandering round without shoes in the middle of winter. He was chattering away to Glori, who stood with one hand on her hip and four of her sons’ cousins flanking her, but there was the beginnings of a smile on her face as the hobbit threw his arms out in a grand gesture. And then Dis realised that beside Glori, listening to the hobbit with his back to Dis, stood a dwarf who was no part of Glori's family.

“Frerin,” Dis whispered, and she crossed the room nearly at a sprint, a gasp on her lips. Her hand reached for him, tangling in his hair, which lay spread across his shoulder instead of Frerin’s characteristic plait. He turned towards her as she gave a soft laugh of relief. “Frerin! By Durin, I heard you were—”

His eyes were lined, his face thin, and there was silver in his hair. He wasn’t Frerin. Dis closed her mouth and stepped away. “I’m sorry. My mistake.”

The stranger was staring at her, his brows tightening. “Dis? Are you… yes, it is you, isn’t it?” and as she nodded his features smoothed into a warm, hesitant smile. “I’m sorry, you won’t remember me.”

But all at once she did. It could not be true; but it was. She knew his face. Dis shook her head, not to tell him no but only because she could find no words, even when she opened her mouth to answer him. Her throat was choked, and there were tears in the corners of her eyes, and this could not be so. A smile spread across her face even as she tried to hold it back.

“Thorin,” she said. “You came back.”

“I told you I would,” Thorin said, the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Though not as soon as I intended, little sister.”

Dis made a noise that was half a sob, half and laugh, and she grabbed his face and pulled him down to kiss his brow, the way he had bade her farewell when she was a girl and she had still had two brothers. And then they both had their arms around each other, crushing so tight she had no room to breathe. He's home, Dis thought, he's home with me. We may be the last, but at least we're together. And she knew that once again the world had changed forever, for worse and for better.






Thorin stopped at the bottom of the hill below Bag End. The sun was high, somewhere past noon, but with autumn coming fast there was a low mist down around the creek that rambled through the low moors below the road. Away across the fields a farmer was rounding up half a dozen sedate sheep, and in the grass by Thorin's feet a few chickens were pecking about in search of ants.

Thorin didn't know what he would do if Bilbo turned him away. It had been a six-week journey from the east, but the road back would begin to get difficult through the shaws as the rains came in. If that slowed him down he would be risking snow on the passes, which was unthinkable if he intended to travel alone without a caravan. Yet it would be equally unbearable to stay as an unwelcome guest in Bilbo's house for the entire winter. He would have to find work and board in Bree, or perhaps hurry on to the Blue Mountains where the last of the colonists who remained there would certainly take him in.

These thoughts kept his heart racing as he sat on a low, stone wall and listened to the quiet, rhythmless music of the Shire. The creek whispered beneath the mist, the leaves chitttered, and a goat brayed somewhere down the road. Thorin had a bit of journey-cake in his pocket which he ate while he found his pipe and his pouch of leaf. The smoke calmed his nerves a little and stilled his quivering hands.

The decision to come here had taken him months. In the end there had been no question; the truth had crept inexorably through the halls of Erebor until he'd been reminded of it every step he took, every morning that he awoke, every night as he lay down: I do not belong here. The only hard part was the wrenching, agonising day he left the Lonely Mountain at last. He had kissed his sister, trying to preserve the sight of her smile, a small, cautious and precious smile that he had seen more and more often these last few years, but never enough. He had bowed low to his golden-haired king to whom he'd sworn undying loyalty and been dragged back up and gripped tight by Fili's arms in return. It had taken some time to farewell Kili, because he was made to kiss and hug several times over each of Kili's growing brood of half-elven children: Thorin's two grand-nieces and their elder brother, the big-eared, grinning, auburn-haired grand-nephew who had been named for Frerin. Finally he had embraced Dwalin for several long minutes, listening to his friend's rough breathing. As children he and Dwalin had promised each other they would die together on the field of battle, but for the first time in his life Thorin accepted that would never now happen. And at last Thorin had left behind the mountain in which he'd been born. Looked upon Erebor's white peak for the last time and walked away.

He'd made his peace with losing them. He'd given all he could, seen them grow into their potentials, and they needed him no longer. He'd come to terms with his own fate, one without hope of grand ambitions or great deeds, neither death in battle nor mighty edifices built to rival the works of all the world. That was not for him, not anymore.

He couldn't sit here any longer. He had to get up, walk along that road, and face Bilbo.

Outside the round, green door at the top of the hill he stopped, raised his fist and paused for a long time before he knocked. Very soon he heard the patter of feet on the far side, and the door swung open. Thorin looked down. A small hobbit stood there, with very large, blue eyes. He stared at Thorin. Thorin stared back. Did he have the wrong house?

"Who're you?" the small hobbit asked.

"I'm Thorin," said Thorin. He glanced past the small hobbit into the hall beyond. "Is this your house?"

"Yes," the hobbit said snippily. He had a prim little voice that reminded Thorin of elves. "My name is Frodo Baggins. I live here."

A slow, swelling disappointment began to creep from the tips of Thorin's fingers inwards, towards his heart. Bilbo had married. He had a family. He had left Thorin behind. He should have come earlier. He should have come years ago. He should never have returned to Erebor in the first place.

He swallowed and through the ringing in his ears somehow heard himself say, "Is your father in?"

"No. My father's dead," the small hobbit frowned. "Why're you here?"

Thorin swayed backwards slightly where he stood and just managed to keep himself upright by putting his hand out to grip the frame of the door. The ringing was growing louder in his skull. He pulled for breath that wouldn't come. All this time, this long journey, the years of rebuilding a place for himself in the world and learning to respect the dwarf he had become. The decision to finally leave. But what he'd come here for – the life he'd come here for – was already dead.

He couldn't believe it. There must be a mistake.


Thorin turned. In the garden a few feet away stood Bilbo, with his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, his knees and hands grey with mud and a ragged, straw hat perched on his head. He pushed the brim of it up as he squinted at the dwarf on his doorstep. There were a few strands of silver in his gold-brown hair, and a round paunch beneath his rough work-shirt, but his face looked not a day older.

"Bless the mother, it is you!" Bilbo laughed. "What are you doing here? You should have written ahead, I've got nothing fresh in the pantry— oof!"

He didn't get another word out, because Thorin had crossed the space between them and collided with him at speed, wrapping him up in his arms and lifting him almost off his feet. Bilbo gave a little grunt of concern and waited for Thorin to set him down again. He drew back, a smile spreading across his face, but stayed within the circle of Thorin's arms. "Well, now. Anyone would think you hadn't seen me in twelve years."

"I'm sorry I didn't write. I didn't think, and then I realised I should, but then I was already over the mountains and I was afraid you might not want to see me, and I should have written, I should have, and then your son said you were dead—”

"My son?" Bilbo blinked and peered past Thorin at the small hobbit standing on the doorstep now, his arms crossed and his bottom lip stuck out. "Oh no, no, Thorin, this is my nephew, Frodo! I took him in after he was orphaned."

"Your nephew," Thorin closed his eyes and shook his head. "Thank the creator."

"What, did you think...?" Bilbo laughed again and reached out rub his thumb over the rise of Thorin's cheek. "You silly, old man. I wouldn't know how to have a son if they gave me illustrated diagrams. Oh dear, I've got mud on your face," he reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket that despite the state of his hands was somehow as clean as clouds, licked it and rubbed at the mark on Thorin's cheek. "There's the handsome dwarf I missed."

And he winked at Thorin, as if they'd been parted a day instead of a decade, and slipped out of his hands. “Come on. Come in and sit down, I'll just wash up out here. Frodo, run and put the kettle on. And fill it all the way up,” the worn wrinkles of his face creased up as he smiled. “I have a feeling Thorin’s going to be here a while.”