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Above Gold

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Balin was old.

 

He was already old by the time the exiled Dwarves of Erebor settled in Ered Luin, after a long time of wandering through Middle-Earth without a place to call their own; his face marked with deep wrinkles and furrows as the Battle of Azanulbizar shook the foothills of the Misty Mountains by the gates of Khazad-dûm and King Thrór was mourned with young Prince Frerin; his beard and hair interlaced with white and grey when Smaug loomed over Dale, burning everything in his way before claiming the Lonely Mountain as his own. He had fought in numerous battles throughout his life--came victorious out of many of them, buried just as many friends as the result of them, and he had seen more places his world had to offer than the vast majority of Dwarves ever got to see. One thing, however, remained perfectly unchanged throughout his long life: no matter the obstacles along the way, no matter the bitter times of sorrow and difficulty, no matter what had ever happened, he had remained loyal to the noble line of Durin and its heirs.

 

Balin was really old.

 

He had always been close to the direct descendants of Durin, to the Kings and their Princes, both as an advisor--following in his father's footsteps while Dwalin busied himself with more combat-related duties--and as a friend. He had been there when Thrór slowly slipped into gold-sick madness; he had been there when Thrór died by Azog's hand; he had been there when Thráin decided to turn back to the hills of Dunland before choosing Ered Luin to be their new home; there when Thráin disappeared into thin air like a smoke ring blown away by a gusting wind; there when Thorin suffered for years in exile, tormented by the need to reclaim what was rightfully his; there by his side through all the perils and dangers their journey back to Erebor had to offer. That was a constant in his life. He had always been there when the Kings of Durin's Folk needed him.

 

Balin was so very old, and so very tired of his Kings making all the wrong decisions.

 

Being so close to the royal family and having spent all his life by their side, Balin knew that something terrible was bound to happen the very second he saw Thorin lock his eyes on the Raven Hill in the midst of the battle.  As brave as the Dwarven King was, he was also often brash, and stubborn, and once he had gotten his mind set on a goal, he wouldn't stand down even if he had to pay for it with his very own life. And that was exactly what Balin immediately knew he had to prevent, that no matter how the fight ended and no matter how many lives were to be lost, there couldn't be a Durin among the ones they would have to mourn. Too many of them had Balin buried or seen lost; he simply could not lose these, too. Not like this, not so soon after reclaiming what they were yearning towards for decades, not because of Thorin's blind thirst for revenge, putting himself and his young sister-sons in grave danger. And so, he followed them to Raven Hill that gloomy day, together with Dwalin, both of their minds set on the sole task of looking out for the Sons of Durin, of protecting them until their last breath and making sure that their inherent recklessness wouldn't lead to their ultimate ends. 

 

Panic poured into Balin’s mind and spread through his entire body like vicious poison, nearly paralyzing his limbs and bringing his breathing to a halt the moment he lost sight of Thorin and his young Princes on the Hill. Everything he feared could happen that was slowly becoming a terrible, tangible reality. The place was still infested with Orcs coming at him in steady but small waves, rendering him nearly incapable of figuring out where any of the Durins might have gone. Dwalin was fighting nearby, working his way through the masses at a pace far quicker, but his eyes were skimming far over the hordes’ heads, clearly searching for the very same thing Balin was. Had it been any other moment, any other place or time, Balin would never admit his brother’s fighting skills to be above his own, but it was not the time to give into Dwarven pride, not when something so much greater was at stake. 

 

“Dwalin!” he yelled over the hideous screech of Orcs, the blade of his sword dripping with black goo. “Brother, cover my back! I need to get to Thorin!” 

 

Although Dwalin was prideful in his own right, he did not question Balin’s request, understanding the threat of the situation they had found themselves in. Now, with his mind occupied less with defending his own life, Balin charged forward and in between the walls, as fast as his old legs could carry him, his breathing thick and catching in his throat, dark brown eyes scouring his surroundings in haste. The darkest and most painful possibilities were crossing his mind at an alarming pace as he made his way through the ruins, the icy bane clenching its fist on his heart. When his gaze fell upon a familiar figure, he nearly cried out with relief, but the sound disappeared from the back of his throat as soon as it had appeared there, giving way to a lump, nearly choking him.

 

His voice was ragged as he exclaimed “Kíli!” his hand clenching on the young Dwarven Prince’s arm as if to make sure that he was still alive, not a ghost who came there to mock him. “Where is your brother?” he demanded, although something terrible was painted in those soft features and big, pleading eyes. “Where is he!” 

 

“He went upstairs,” Kíli spat those words out, visibly shaking but trying to keep his composure, trying to act adult . “He told me to wait here.”

 

It felt as though something had punched Balin in the stomach, pushing the little air he still had in his lungs out and causing his head to spin. “No,” he breathed, as he looked up to the top of the crumbling tower. There, harshly cut on the grey endlessness of the unforgiving sky, his worst nightmare seemed to be coming true. Azog held Fíli out in front of him like a ragdoll, the Crown Prince’s feet dangling over the ledge mockingly. The Pale Orc saw them, both of them, standing down there in the dilapidated courtyard, watching every twitch of his muscle. It was Kíli’s sharp, horror-filled inhale that made Balin act, knowing that there was nothing he could do but hope, hope for a stroke of luck, hope that there was someone watching out for them, just like he hoped the day Thrór fell.

 

“Catch him,” Balin ordered, his voice firm despite the numbness crawling up his arms and legs. “Catch him!” he repeated, louder, grabbing the poor dumbfounded lad by his shoulder and pushing him forward. 

 

The dull thump of two armour-clad bodies clashing made him wince, eyelids falling shut for a terrible second, his sword hand shaking for the first time since he had learned how to wield a blade. One second only was how long Balin had allowed himself to be weak, to process, to prepare, for as soon as his eyes met the tangled mess of limbs, he knew there was no more time to waste. Pushing his dirty sword back into its scabbard, he nearly launched himself forward, knees meeting the ground with an unpleasant sound. His heart nearly split into halves as he heard the smallest, most vulnerable little whimper forming the single word: “Fíli?”

 

 “Go!” was all Balin said, trying to ignore the excruciatingly creaking wheezing no creature should ever make, his hands finding a gushing wound with hard-learned speed. He was looking down at what seemed to be a dying Dwarrow, so painfully young, who just yesterday was first learning how to write under Balin’s watchful eye. “Go!” he insisted, warm blood spilling over his cold fingers. “You can’t help him now, Kíli, do you understand? You have to go find your uncle. Go!” 

 

Kíli made a broken sound, one that would more suit a wounded animal than a Prince, but he did as he was told. He fumbled with his own sword, his eyes never leaving Fíli’s paling face as he stumbled backwards, nearly tripping over his own feet. If he was going to cry, he wouldn’t let Balin see. He ran off, in the direction opposite to where all of them came from. A strange thing it is indeed, to be in shock so great that you dare not even question the orders you were given, when you don’t even look back at what might be your brother’s last moments. They were always together, Fíli and Kíli, inseparable from the very moment the youngest one was born. Their mother used to say that there could never be one without the other, just like there could never be light without darkness and, in that moment, as he tried to stop the bleeding of what could very easily be a fatal wound, Balin hoped that, just this once, Mahal would see to it that they were not left in the darkness.

 

*

 

Men were weak. Men were short-sighted. Men were stubborn. Men were infinitely easier to deal with than Dwarves.

 

It had been the moment Thranduil's rangers had brought word back to his Halls that a party of Dwarves, of all things, had been captured during scouting that it became clear that whatever ill news or sick objectives they had been bearing, it would not end in mirth and that it would, inevitability, affect the Elvenking himself. Of all the vermin plaguing the green plains of Mirkwood, seeping chaos into its deep roots, it had to be Dwarves that were brought to him. And not any Dwarves, no--it had been Thorin Oakenshield himself, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, the rightful Heir to the throne of the Lonely Mountain, and his friends. There had been an alliance between the Mirkwood Elves and Ereborean Dwarves once, back mere decades before Smaug the Terrible burned down Dale and made himself at home inside the Mountain. But the fragile peace between the two races began to crumble when Thrór claimed Elven stones for himself, and later shattered completely when Thranduil refused to sacrifice the lives of his people to face a dragon. Indeed, it seemed like the Valar decided to play a joke on him to put Thorin Oakenshield on his path.

 

Many things could be said about Thranduil, but that he was blind or easily fooled were not among them. As soon as he had laid his eyes on that blasted Dwarf, he knew what their goal was, where they were headed and what it meant. Their lot rarely left the safety of their mountains and caverns once settled, never bothering to travel the Middle-Earth, and so seeing the Ereborean Heir there could only have one meaning--they had found a way into the Lonely Mountain in spite of the dragon. It had posed an opportunity there for the Elvenking to finish all his businesses with the Dwarves once and for all, but hoping that Thorin would be wiser than his predecessor had been foolish. All Thranduil had asked of him in return for granting their freedom and safe passage out of Mirkwood was what was rightfully his to begin with: the Elven stones that were once sent to Erebor, but never returned once the gold-sickness ruled King Thrór’s head. The offer, of course, had been declined due to stupid Dwarven pride and stubbornness. 

 

Bitterly swallowing the Dwarven party escape, Thranduil was not yet willing to admit his defeat. As soon as he had heard the news of Smaug's killing, he had gathered his army and marched to Dale with the aid for the Men, and then further to the Mountain to give Thorin--now barely King under the Mountain--an offer once more. There were thousands of Elves as well as dozens of Men against just thirteen Dwarves, yet still there had seemed to be no means of peace, not with the aid from the Iron Hills approaching. The battle between the three armies lasted but a few minutes before it was swiftly interrupted by something far worse--Orcs and Trolls and Wargs running down the hills and instantly putting an end to whatever conflict and whatever honour there was to preserve between the Dwarves, Men and Elves.

 

And Thranduil cursed him, oh, did he curse Thorin Oakenshield and his obstinacy, for it had led not only to the loss of one of his best captains, not only to putting the life of his only son at risk, but also  to the deaths of many Elves, losing their blessedly immortal lives in a war that was not theirs. Even the Elvenking himself had to find himself in the middle of the fight, with Orcs swarming everywhere, launching and charging at him from all sides as he wielded his sword and took his stance on Raven Hill. He was there for a reason, searching for Legolas, for if there was any harm done to him during this battle, Thranduil would have Thorin's head. However, in his near-panicked scanning for the Elven Prince, he had found someone else, and a sight he didn't quite expect.

 

There was not much his eyes could still see after being nearly blinded by the blaze of dragon fire, but from the little he could distinguish and from whatever blanks he could fill in with sounds and smell, he understood what was playing out right in front of him. His former captain of the guard was on her knees, her terrified scream cutting through the chilling air like a sharp knife as a pale creature loomed several feet away, holding something smaller but equally afraid. As a ray of pale sun fell onto the Orc's blade, Thranduil's instincts ordered his movements before his mind could catch on, before he could realize that what he was doing was not only hazardous, but also that it was to help someone he resented with such passion. 

 

Thin Elven sword flew from where Thranduil stood as no more than a silver stripe, sinking right between Bolg's eyes as his own blade plummeted into the Dwarf he was holding in his great hand. Silence took over the ruins as the Orc's corpse fell to the ground. "Move," the Elvenking ordered shortly, some inexplicable haste and worry guiding him as he moved forward, not giving Tauriel a single look. He knelt down, hands reaching out towards to the one of the bodies that still seemed to cling to the world of the living, albeit barely. "He's alive." 

 

"Kíli?" The raw emotion and devastating grief in Tauriel's voice caused Thranduil's heart to clench in a displeasing way, a memory of loss so great it nearly tore him apart gnawing at the edges of his consciousness. He barely remembered anything from that day, all of what happened pushed away into the darkest corners of his mind, kept under lock and key, but no matter  the protective wall he had built around it, some part of him knew that this must have been the same way he had sounded when he lost his wife.

 

"He's still alive," he repeated with strange and incomprehensible insistence in his voice as he took Tauriel's hand and guided it to press firmly at the wound gaping in the young Dwarf's chest, his breathing shallow, eyes unable to focus on anything. 

 

Tears poured down Tauriel's face as she followed the instructions she was given, shoulders shaking, but even in as much fear as she must have been feeling in the moment, fear of nearly losing something so, so dear, she still turned her gaze at Thranduil, and through trembling lips she asked, "Why?"

 

That he could not answer, not to her, not truthfully. He could not dare to say that he knew the foul taste of loss, and that if he could take action to prevent something so pure from being infected, he would do his very best to do so. "Because it is real," he told her simply, rising back to his feet. He still needed to find Legolas, to make sure that he was safe and unharmed. Thranduil played the role the Valar so clearly wanted him to take here--he gave one of the Sons of Durin a chance of surviving the day, and perhaps, if the young Dwarf was to see the light of the morrow, then there also would be a light to guide them towards a better, bloodless future.

 

*

 

Hobbits were not made for war. 

 

They hadn’t got the sharp eyes and lean bodies of Elves, helping them guide an arrow; nor the broad frames and strong arms of Dwarves, letting them wield heavy axes; nor the tactical and strategic skills of Men, allowing them to lead armies. Hobbits were made for the Shire and its quiet and peace and green hills--for farming, and gardening, and sewing, and cooking, and ale-brewing, and pipe-weed leaves drying, and repairing. They were not made for negotiating with Trolls preparing to eat their friends, or wandering aimlessly through Goblin caves and playing riddles with strange creatures, or rescuing the aforementioned friends from Elven prisons, or climbing mountains, and certainly not for stealing from dragons.

 

Hobbits were not made for adventures, thank you very much.

 

And yet, despite knowing that, Bilbo Baggins found himself on an adventure, miles and miles far away from Hobbiton’s little rivers, houses with round doors and the comfort of his own armchair, doing things that no proper Hobbit would even think of doing. All of this had been brought onto him on a day entirely ordinary, when nothing in the sky or earth would suggest that it would be the one to change him forever. Thoroughly confused and on the verge of panicking that night, when thirteen Dwarves had come into his home like it was their own, talking about journeys, and mountains, and piles of gold, and a dragon, of all things. They had all been loud, and crude, with no manners whatsoever, dressed in strange clothes and smelling like leather, warmth and a promise . It had been when the moon was shining high in the clear, star-specked sky and humming and a low song of deepest sorrows and yearnings filled the many rooms of Bag End that a Took had awoken in Bilbo’s heart.

 

For the many, many days and nights there’d been to follow their departure from the Shire, doubts and worries would haunt Bilbo’s mind--some of them speaking of the consequences he would inevitably have to face upon his return, family and friends left in utter confusion at his sudden disappearance, or the Sackville-Bagginses getting their hands on his belongings, while others spoke of the threat of never making it back home looming over his head, or the constant discomforting feeling of not belonging with his new companions. It had taken him quite some time to fully get adjusted to the Dwarven ways of being--to their bushy, braided hair, to their tattooed hands and sharp axes, to their booming voices and crass mannerisms. It certainly hadn’t been of any help that their leader disliked Bilbo so openly and looked at him with something in his eye, something so deeply hurt and offended that there were times when such a look had been enough for Bilbo to reconsider his decisions all over again. 

 

As the moons passed, seasons changed, and Bilbo had gotten used to the Dwarves, he had begun to notice that in the between f their mocking, and prodding, and taunting, they… genuinely cared about him. It hadn’t been long after that Bilbo had realized that he cared about them too, and that there were very few things in all of the world known to them that he wouldn’t do for them. They had become a family to him, of sorts, a kind of family he had never known: close and loving, willing to do anything it could possibly take to save one another. However, not being a Dwarf and an outsider still, it put Bilbo in a position entirely different in the means of protecting the ones he never wished to see harm upon; it had given him a way of doing something that had to be done, but simultaneously, something that could put an end to what they had been building between each other since that night in Bag End.

 

If he had the opportunity to go back in time, Bilbo was quite certain he would have done the very same thing. Having Thorin look at him like he had betrayed him hurt so very deeply it felt like his heart was collapsing in on itself, but it ultimately brought the desired effect--the dragon-sickness had broken. What hadn’t broken, however, was that cursed Dwarven pride and stubbornness, the one that led Thorin, his sister-sons and two closest friends to Raven Hill against all better judgement, sentencing them to almost certain death. 

 

I’ve grown very fond of them , Bilbo’s own words from Esgaroth rang in his agonizingly pounding head as he came to, the world blurry in front of his eyes, sticky hotness dripping down his temple and further down onto his cheek. And I would save them, if I can. His guts were twisting with nausea, limbs strangely heavy, and there was a dull pain radiating from the side of his head where an Orc had hit him, rendering him unconscious for Yavanna only knew how long. A small exhale came out of his mouth, one shaped like the name of the Dwarf he came here looking for in the first place, and as soon as that thought shone in Bilbo’s cloudy mind, he was already back up on his feet, unsteady as they were, and he dashed toward where the sounds of a fight could still be heard.

 

He got there, at the top of ruined stairs leading down from a steep slope to a frozen lake just in time to see Azog leaning over Thorin, black hair spilling around his head like a veil when his arms fell down and a blade sank into his chest. A scream rose up in Bilbo only to be stopped by a ball of terror that suddenly appeared in his throat, nearly choking him, letting only a weak squeak move past his lips. It was as if his feet froze to the ground in an instant, immobilizing him completely, eyes widening but perfectly unable to move away. All he could do was stand there, watch the Dwarf he was so determined to save struggle, wriggle on the ice before his body shifted, sword rising up to pierce the Pale Orc’s own chest. In a blink of an eye, their positions changed, with Thorin kneeling over his enemy, hands steady, taking in his very dubious victory. 

 

When Azog’s movement came to a complete halt, when it was certain that he was dead, Thorin… stood up, of all things, and that stupid, stupid thing was what snapped Bilbo back to action, back to pursuing what he came to Raven Hill for. “Thorin!” he screamed, as loudly as his tightened lungs would allow him, already making his way down to the lake. “Thorin Oakenshield, sit down! Right this instant!” 

 

“Bilbo?” There was weakness and exhaustion in his voice, but there was also unspeakable relief to be heard as his sword dropped to the ground. He’d won. There was no need for him to fight anymore, the least not the kind of fighting one could do with a weapon. Bilbo’s hands clenched on the front of Thorin’s armour with a strength that he would not suspect himself to have as he pushed the wounded Dwarven King back down to the ice-clad surface. He did not like having him so close to the fallen enemy, but even this determined, Bilbo wouldn’t be able to drag someone this size away. Especially not in his condition. 

 

He shook his head, either at himself or Thorin, as he reached to the torn cloth. “Shh, don’t talk,” he blurted out, barely able to control his own movements. This couldn’t be the end. Not like this. Not right now. Not when there were still so many things left unsaid. “Don’t move. Lie still.” A retch shook Bilbo’s frame as he looked down upon a deep wound bleeding profusely, quickly pouring out onto chilling skin and soaking into clothes. It took him all the willpower he could muster to press both of his hands firmly against the cut, to put pressure on it despite an opposing groan. 

 

“I’m glad you’re here,” Thorin muttered, his words sounding all kinds of too breathy, too heavy. “I wish to part from you in friendship.”

 

Another erratic shake of his head and another almost painful grit of his teeth caused Bilbo to nearly break apart. “No.” He refused to hear whatever dying speech Thorin had prepared. No, he wouldn’t allow that, he wouldn’t let that happen. “You’re not going anywhere, Thorin. You’re going to live.”

 

The corners of Thorin’s lips quirked slightly as if Bilbo’s words amused him, as if life was already slipping away from him. “I would take back my words and my deeds at the gate. You did what only a true friend would do. Forgive me.” His hand crept slowly, tiredly over his side to rest on top of Bilbo’s shivering ones, fingers clenching ever so slightly. “I was too blind to see. I am so sorry that I have led you into such perils.”

 

Bilbo scoffed, a pathetic cracking sound, nearly a sob. “No, I…” he drew a breath. “I’m glad to have shared in your perils. Each and every one of them. It’s far more than any Baggins deserves.” He looked up to the sky, almost as if he was searching for something, as if what he could feel under his fingertips was too terrible to acknowledge, no matter how painfully real it was. “And I will gladly share in many of them to come. You’re not… you’re not, Thorin. The eagles are coming. Just… just stay with me. Please.” 

 

No matter his helpless pleas, it seemed as though Thorin was already beyond capable of hearing, of listening, perhaps seeing him anymore. “Farewell, Master Burglar.” His lips hardly moved, his voice barely above the faintest of whispers. “Go back to your books and your armchair. Plant your trees, watch them grow. If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place.”

 

The most bitter of tears poured down Bilbo’s face. The eagles were coming.