It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Fíli had expected that a wave of pride would wash over him the first time he stepped into the halls of his people, that he would have to pause and take in the beauty of it all. He had long imagined the carved stone pillars reaching up and out of sight, the mirror-smooth tile floors, the never-ending rush of the River Running—that was how Thorin had described it to him and Kíli when they were young, that was the image that had stayed with them throughout their trek to Erebor.
What they found was more like a dungeon.
The walls were clawed and crumbling, the once-great stone kings had been pulled from their pedestals and crushed under Smaug’s feet, and the air still stank of his foul breath. All around, the sound of rocks falling from the tall ceiling echoed; and though they could hear water flowing somewhere not so far away, it sounded slow and thick, as if it were choked with slime.
Yet he knew that the beauty remained there somewhere, buried under the rubble that the dragon had left in its wake. Perhaps, he thought, they would someday find it; but that would take time and many more hands, and at the moment they had neither. Still, after all they had gone through, it was a relief to be there at all—and the even greater relief of discovering the Company alive forced the disappointment of their reclaimed home’s condition to the back of Fíli’s mind.
Of course, there was also the matter of the two armies marching in behind them.
"Those poor fools were the first to die," Bard had said, trying to convince the Dwarves that heading for Erebor would be a mistake. "The dragon burned them, then he came to us for his revenge."
But Fíli had refused to believe him without proof, and had planned to leave as soon as Kíli’s leg was healed enough for him to walk the long road. By that time, however, the Elvenking had shown up with a great number of armored Elves; and while Fíli and the others had feared that he would recapture and lock them away for good, Thranduil simply offered aid to the Men of the Lake and ignored the Dwarves almost completely.
Whispers soon rose among the survivors of Laketown that the Elves were planning to march on the Mountain; and Bard had struck up what appeared to be a fast friendship with the Elvenking and was spending many hours speaking with him in private. Before long, the rumors became shouts, and all able-bodied Men began kitting themselves out for what may have either been a recovery operation or a siege—although even they did not seem to know exactly what they were readying themselves for.
In any case, Fíli knew that he and the other Dwarves that had been left behind in Laketown needed to get to the Mountain first—to find their Company, or at least any of them who might still live—and in a quiet moment away from Elvish ears, he had told Óin, Bofur, and Kíli that they would leave for Erebor as soon as darkness fell.
And so they had left just after sundown and trudged through the night. With the coming of dawn they could see a cloud of dust being sent up not more than a couple miles behind—evidence of the Men and Elves already marching out. Fíli tried to urge his companions to move more swiftly, but Kíli’s leg was in pain and they were all tired from the past few sleepless days. Still, they rushed on as fast as they could, noting by the time they reached Erebor that the battalions behind them would soon be in sight.
Without knowing quite what to expect, the group made their way up the crumbled path to the Gate, seeing before they even got there that a barricade had been recently built across it. A tuft of red hair popped up over the stones; then it disappeared again, and they heard a hearty laugh.
"Safe and sound! Well, I just knew you lads would be!" Glóin called out. "Takes more than a little dragonfire to kill off a bunch as stubborn as you!"
Urged on by the thrill of finding at least one of their number still alive, the group rushed up and over the barricade. Fíli stopped atop it for a moment to reach down and give Kíli a hand up, and when they were all over the side, Glóin grinned and slapped Óin on the shoulder.
"Welcome home, brother!" he said cheerfully.
Off in the corner of the ledge they saw Bombur, smiling wide and fairly bouncing with joy. He laughed, then bounded over to his own brother and wrapped his arms around him, squeezing the thinner Dwarf and lifting him right off his feet.
"Alright, thank you…" squeaked Bofur breathlessly. "Yes, it’s good to see you, too!"
A chuckle came from just within the shattered Gate, and they all watched on as Balin came striding into the light. "Well, now, this is wonderful!" he exclaimed with his arms held wide. "Welcome home, lads!"
Fíli reached out and clasped the older Dwarf’s wrist in greeting. "Is everybody alright?"
"A little singed and a little sore, but all alive and… mostly well." He looked at Kíli. "And you, laddie? Your leg?"
"Much better," said Kíli; then he cleared his throat before changing the subject. "Where is Thorin? We need to speak with him."
"It is rather urgent," added Óin.
Balin tugged on his long white beard for a few seconds before turning his back to the barricade. "Come with me."
Bombur hugged his brother a little tighter before letting him go; and Bofur landed hard on his feet, then took a deep breath and patted Bombur’s shoulder before running in after Balin. Óin and Kíli followed them with cautious steps, and Fíli went in last of all, taking one more look back over his shoulder towards where the distant group of Elves and Men must by now be marching.
"Thorin’s been…" said Balin as he led them down the ruined hall. "Well, he's been busy."
"Busy doing what?" asked Bofur, his voice still hoarse from his brother’s enthusiastic hug.
"Searching for the Arkenstone," said Fíli, answering for the older Dwarf.
The others all looked at him for a moment; and though Balin nodded, he said nothing. Not that anything needed to be said on the matter. Everyone knew full well what that jewel meant to Thorin, what it meant to his father and grandfather, what it meant to all of the Sigin-tarâg—Durin’s folk, the Longbeards.
Of the Company, few had ever been near the King's Jewel in person. Balin and Dwalin had seen it often, of course, and Óin claimed to have glimpsed it once or twice. Of them all, however, only Thorin had ever been known to come close enough to touch it; and he had described it in detail to Fíli and Kíli when they were younger.
"It was like a rush of cut gems running up my fingers and into my arm," he’d told them once. "It was cold, but it burned… like holding onto an icy bar of metal long enough for it to freeze to your skin. But when I took my hand away there was no damage at all, just a lingering cold, a pain… but that… all that was in an instant. I touched it for barely a second, but the sensation stayed, and I could feel it for hours after." He had then paused and looked at his opened palm. "Sometimes, I still can."
Fíli peered into the darkness ahead, and in the far distance he could see a yellow light. As they drew closer, the light became more intense, and when at last they came to the end of the passage, they all stood fast and stared in awe.
The great hall—Thrór’s treasure-room, Fíli realized—was bathed in a shimmering brilliance. Here and there, fires had been stoked up, and the light reflected harshly off the silver, gold, and gems that were piled all around. The illumination shifted and danced as the remainder of the Company milled about below the newcomers, setting the hills of coins sliding like small avalanches.
"Thorin!" Balin cried out, his voice echoing off the distant walls.
Far off, a kneeling figure lifted his head. "Have you found it?"
Balin started down the stone steps that led deeper into the room, beckoning the others to follow him. "No! However, I have found something else of value!"
Thorin stared for a moment, then slowly stood. He met the group halfway across the room, smiling as he stepped up to Kíli and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You’ve made it," he said, shaking his younger nephew happily; then he turned to Fíli and stood up tall, thrusting his chest out proudly. "What do you think?" he asked, motioning at the treasure all around them.
"I think," said Fíli, squinting against the glare, "that this is a lot of gold."
"And there are greater treasures still to be found," said Thorin, then he fell to his knees and resumed digging through the hoard.
Fíli lifted his eyes from the coins his uncle was displacing in his search and looked instead at the joyful, yet tired faces now all around him. Óin and Kíli were speaking to one another in whispers, all the while keeping their eyes on the mountains of precious metal and gems; but Bofur was standing stock-still and slack-jawed, and seemed almost to be in shock.
"Never seen such a thing, eh?" said Nori, stepping up to him.
Bofur jumped and his mouth snapped shut. "Can’t say that I have."
"The first we saw of it," said Dori, "we were running through, away from Smaug."
Fíli took a step towards him. "Smaug is dead," he said. "But Laketown is gone, and a lot of the Lakemen died before the dragon fell."
"We saw the smoke rising from the Lake," said Thorin without looking up. "When the worm didn’t return, we assumed he had been dealt with."
"It was Bard's shot that ended him," said Óin softly. "He loosed a single black arrow, and sent it straight through the beast's armored hide."
"It wasn’t completely armored," said Bilbo, stepping close. "There was a scale missing on his left breast."
"Then that is where the Bowman hit him," Óin went on, a touch of wonderment slipping into his words. "A perfect shot, worthy of his family’s reputation. He has been hailed as a hero, a leader of Men! There’s talk of him being crowned king when—"
Thorin seemed to have had enough of listening to the chatter and stood, then pushed his way through the gathered crowd. "Keep searching," he commanded.
Balin sighed as he placed a gentle touch on his old friend’s shoulder. "You’ve been awake for days, Thorin. You should rest."
"Not until it is found."
"The dragon is dead. With or without the Arkenstone, none now would question your right to rule."
"I would question it," said Thorin, shrugging him off.
Dwalin pushed a golden bowl aside with his foot. "Perhaps that foul worm swallowed it."
"Then I will dive down to the bottom of Long Lake and cut it out of his belly."
Fíli watched his uncle’s hands clench and took a step towards him, but Balin gave him a warning glance and the younger Dwarf stopped.
"We need to speak with him," said Kíli, moving closer to his brother.
"I don’t think right now is the best time, lad," said Balin, his voice low.
"We have to—" Fíli started, intending on mentioning the approaching armies; but Thorin didn’t give him the chance.
"That jewel is my family’s legacy," he said; then he looked intently at Fíli. "Our legacy. It represents all that I am, all that my father and grandfather were. Whether it lies at the bottom of a steaming lake or somewhere deep under the dragon-fouled gold within this mountain, I will find it." He bent and brought up a handful of coins. "And then I will feel no shame in calling myself king."
"Was your grandfather not the king before he took possession of it?" asked Balin.
Bilbo held up a nervous finger. "Um, Thorin… if—"
Thorin glared at him. "Had you done the job you were hired to do… had you found the Arkenstone and returned it to me, as you had been instructed…"
The Hobbit let out a little squeak; then he backed a couple steps away from Thorin and looked instead to Balin, who was giving him a tight-lipped smile. But Thorin moved near to him once more; then he reached out and moved the lapel of Bilbo’s jacket aside, revealing a fine silver-mesh shirt below.
"You have been given your first payment, burglar. Find the Arkenstone and you will receive the rest."
Fíli focussed on the shirt. "Is that…?"
"Mithril," said Dwalin, nodding. "Thorin found it shortly after we arrived. The Hobbit was the only one amongst us that it would fit."
Fíli shook his head, keeping his eyes on the gleaming mail. Despite growing up with the fairness and brilliance of mithril being told to him in bedtime tales, he had only ever seen a simple circlet made of the precious metal, and he wondered how many other treasures of its kind might be found amongst the recovered wealth. Treasures like the mithril helmet that Balin had once mentioned as belonging to his ancestor, Borin—a helmet that was said to be so light that sometimes he would not even remember he had it on, and which had such resilience that no blade could cut through it.
That claim, though, was later amended when Thorin told them about Durin's Axe: a fine, double-headed weapon which was, itself, said to have been made of silver-steel. Its edge was so finely-ground that it could cut through any armor or shield; and despite its lightness, the broad side was able to crush an orc's skull like the heaviest hammer. The mithril axe had been lost when Khazad-dûm fell; but no other weapon forged by the Dwarves was said to have been more powerful or of finer craftsmanship.
Fíli couldn't imagine for whom the shirt Bilbo was wearing had originally been crafted, since it was certainly not meant for a Dwarf—unless for a very young one, and one who preferred a more Elvish-styling over that of his own people. In any case, he could not fathom what the full value of such a thing might be; and the Hobbit clearly had no idea of its worth, either, as he was keeping it hidden under layers of what were very nearly rags.
Bilbo shifted from foot to foot. "I was just going to ask what the Arkenstone actually does," he said. "Is it just symbolic? To be honest, I don’t know much about it, and—"
"You know all that you need to know," said Thorin firmly. "It doesn’t matter to you what it does; it matters only that it is recovered and returned to me. And this is my word: Should I discover it in anyone’s possession but my own, I will see them dead!"
Bilbo rubbed his nose, then scratched the back of his head. "Yes. I see. Right."
Fíli looked around at the gathered group, who had all backed several steps away from Thorin. Various expressions played across their faces, from Balin’s paternal concern to Bilbo’s confused fear; Dori had even pulled Ori back behind himself, and now stood protectively between his younger brother and Thorin. Fíli had never seen his uncle have that effect on any of the Company. None of them had ever seen him so obsessed, so angry. None of them had ever feared him.
Thorin again turned his eyes to the gold at his feet, but a yell from a distant doorway brought his and everyone else’s attention around.
"Thorin!" hollered Glóin. He took a moment to catch his breath, apparently having run all the way to the treasure room. "You are being called to the Gate!"
"Called by whom?" demanded Thorin.
"Bard the Bowman! And the Elvenking!"
Thorin squeezed the gold in his palm, then threw it hard onto the pile before him. "What is Thranduil doing at my Gate?"
"His people marched out from Laketown," said Fíli.
"And what was he doing in Laketown?"
"He went there to help after…" Kíli began; then he looked at Fíli out of the corner of his eye.
"He was helping the Men recover from Smaug’s attack," Fíli finished for his brother.
Thorin stood and tilted his head, staring deep into Fíli’s eyes. "Was he, now?" he asked almost too calmly; then he made his way towards the doorway. When he reached it, he turned half around and called back, "Keep searching, all of you! Dwalin! Come with me!" before vanishing into the darkness beyond.
Dwalin obeyed, and the rest of the Company watched until he was out of sight. Bilbo tapped his finger against his jacket pocket and hummed softly to himself, then he did a little hop before setting off after Thorin and Dwalin.
"I need to…" he said, but his small voice was lost to the group the closer he got to the door.
Ori finally dared to step out from behind his brother. "What do we do now?"
"We search for the Arkenstone," said Balin.
"There’s so much here," said Kíli, sliding his pack off his shoulder and setting it down on a large crystal plate at his feet. "It could be anywhere. What if we don’t find it?"
"Then we keep searching."
Fíli glanced towards the door. "And if we do find it? What then?"
Balin let out a weary breath. "Then the King beneath the Mountain shall come into his own."