Fíli stood just inside the Gate, watching on as Sigrid made her way past the tents that lined the walls of the Mountain tunnel. Her small feet slipped on a stone and she stumbled, then she glanced back at the Dwarf before turning forward again and lifting the hem of her skirt to allow herself a better view of the cluttered floor.
The girl had been slow to agree to do this for him, but in the end she'd relented, admitting that there was nothing she would suffer for it but a little embarrassment. In fact, despite her initial reluctance, the largest part of the plan had been her own. He had asked only for her help in finding a way to have a private moment with Kíli and Thorin, but when she'd told him that a few straggling goblins and wargs had been found in the tunnels after the Battle, her eyes had lit up.
She'd even seemed rather pleased with the whole idea—though whether that was because of his assurance that he would seek out Balin afterwards or because she was giddy from lack of sleep, he couldn't say. Whatever it had been, after the plan had been laid out, she had gone to fetch him clean clothing while he ate a bit more of the cram in an effort to settle his stomach and steady his head; but she was not long about her task, and by the time she returned, he felt no better than when she'd left.
On the chance that he might need help, Sigrid had then stayed with him in the tent while he dressed—all the while keeping her back respectfully turned—and after he'd struggled into his new trousers and boots, she did indeed need to help him don the tunic. It fit none too well, being somewhat tight across his shoulders and chest, but he told her that it would do just fine for the short time that he would be needing it.
She had then helped him to put his arm back into his sling before fastening the toggle of a dark brown cloak under his chin. "You could pass for a boy now," she'd told him, pulling the hood up over his head. "Except for maybe your ears. And your beard. Perhaps it's best just to keep your head covered."
They'd then made their way to the Gate; and now that she had vanished into the darkness far ahead, Fíli began following after her. He looked to the tents on either side of him as he shuffled down the passage, skirting around boulders and trying to avoid tripping over the many Iron Hills Dwarves that lay on bare spots on the floor. Some of the soldiers were using their cast-off armor or clothing as pillows and had their arms draped over their eyes as they snored, while others were leaning against the crumbling stone wall with their chins upon their chests; but none of them seemed to notice Fíli as he walked slowly by.
These Dwarves, at least, did not appear to have taken many injuries in the Battle, and they seemed more exhausted than pained. It was likely, Fíli knew, that most of the more seriously wounded were inside the tents; and a little deeper into the Mountain, he stopped outside a large one that had a heavy blanket draped over the flap. Deep sobbing and gasping came from within—and he heard also, somewhat disconcertingly, a strange laughter. He drew closer and listened more attentively; but his thoughts were pulled suddenly away by a yell that came from further down the tunnel.
Fíli spun around and made his way into the shadows close to the wall, stumbling over a sleeping Dwarf on the way there. The Dwarf mumbled something before settling back down, and Fíli stepped carefully away from him and glanced around the edge of the canvas tent. He watched on as Sigrid ran out of a tunnel to the right of a large tent that was set up at a main junction; then she lifted the flap and hollered something that could not be clearly heard.
A few of the reclining soldiers nearby lifted their heads at the noise before closing their eyes and lying back down; and a moment later, an armored Iron Hills Dwarf came bounding out of the tent with a halberd held tightly in his thick hand. Sigrid grabbed hold of the edge of his steel cuirass and started to pull on him—and though Fíli still could not hear what she was saying, he saw that she was pointing down one of the passages.
The guard said something, waving his free hand about; then he glanced back over his shoulder into the tent before looking towards the Gate. Fíli slid himself further back against the wall and watched as Sigrid continued to motion frantically; and after pounding the shaft of his halberd into the ground, the guard lowered the tent flap and headed in the direction that she was pointing.
Sigrid followed after him, and Fíli slid out of the shadows and made his way quickly to the now-unguarded tent. He paused outside it for a few seconds, squinting into the darkness where Sigrid and the guard had vanished; then he slipped in through the flap and stopped suddenly, stilled by the sight of three wooden biers in the center of the torch-lit space.
Two of the biers held sheet-covered forms, while the third stood unoccupied; and he knew for whom the empty one was intended as well as he knew who lay atop the others. He let his gaze wander over the shrouds, noting the shape of each body underneath. The nearer was his uncle; that much he could tell from his size and from the staining on the fabric, which showed where he had been injured in the battle. Kíli had no such stains upon his sheet, as most of the blood that had been on him had been washed away by the rain.
Fíli's head grew light, and he turned his eyes to the floor, staring at the cracked stone and trying to gather both the strength to stay on his feet and the courage to again look up. But he could not raise his head just yet, and so he swayed on unsteady legs for a moment before making his way to where his dead kin lay. Once there, he pushed back his hood, then at last lifted his eyes and pressed his injured arm hard against his ribs, pulling down on the sling until his neck cramped.
Now that he was here, he really didn't know what he had hoped to do. He'd wanted a chance to be alone with Kíli and Thorin, but he could have managed that without the need to send Sigrid to distract the guard. If he'd have spoken to Balin first, the older Dwarf would have had no problem giving him some private time to tell his brother and uncle goodbye. But he was not now going to turn around and leave, so he swallowed hard and lifted his uninjured arm, resting his palm on his uncle's chest.
Thorin's armor had been removed at some point—presumably to allow for healing, for all the good it had done. Fíli glanced around and saw nothing in the tent except the biers, a few torches, and a low table with a small, closed beechwood chest atop it. There was no bed or cot for an injured Dwarf to rest upon, no crate full of bandages, no fire on which to heat water for cleaning wounds. Wherever Thorin had been laid out for healing, it hadn't been here.
Fíli slid his touch up to his uncle's head and took gentle hold of the sheet, pulling it down; then the breath caught in his throat and his hand began to shake. Thorin's skin was pale beneath his silver-streaked dark hair, though the dirt and blood from the battle had been washed off of his bruised and slashed cheeks. He seemed peaceful at first glance—but Fíli knew the way his uncle looked when he was in pain, and that expression was frozen on his features even now, in death.
He wondered who Thorin had been speaking to when he'd died, and what the last words from his lips had been. He wondered, also, if those last words might have been spoken to him, if he had only let someone know that he still lived the night before. Thorin had thought him already dead, had given up his life with that belief in his mind; but might there now be a different expression on his face if Fíli's eyes had been the last he had looked into? Would he have died happy in the knowledge that his nephew—his heir—still lived?
Fíli forced himself to let go of the sheet and slid his palm over Thorin's cheek, then he leaned forward and placed his brow against his uncle's own.
"I'm here," he whispered; then he reached up and ran his fingers through Thorin's hair. "It's over, Uncle. We won. He's dead… Azog's dead, and I'm here now…"
He smoothed down the hair on his uncle's head and stood up as straight as he could, though the pain in his back sent him hunching over once more. He turned slowly around to the bier where Kíli's body rested; then he paused, staring down at the sheet with fear and uncertainty.
The last time he had seen his brother, it had been on the battlefield, and the look on Kíli's face was still fresh in his memory—the soft dullness in his eyes, the whiteness of his cheeks, the way his head was twisted to the side from Azog's blow. Fíli didn't want to see him that way again. But he did want to see him, and so he pulled back the fabric before he could convince himself not to.
Here in the flickering torchlight, Kíli looked more peaceful and less pained than he had the night before; and he might have been merely sleeping, but for his stillness and the bruise that circled his neck. Fíli let his eyes travel over the curve of his brother's chin and up his cheek, then across to where his hair, still damp from the rain, was curled and clinging to his pale face like an obsidian crown on the dead prince's brow.
Fíli ran his fingertips over Kíli's temple, brushing his hair aside; then he squeezed his eyes shut and leaned over, pressing his lips to his brother's forehead.
"I'm sorry…" he began whispering against Kíli's cool skin; but he choked on the words, then lowered his face and buried it in the curve of his brother's neck.
I'm sorry I didn't save you, he thought, hoping that, somehow, Kíli could hear him from some distant place. He rubbed his cheek against the younger Dwarf's whiskered chin, then wrapped his arm over his armored chest, holding him tightly. We were supposed to be together, weren't we? It was supposed to you and me…
Standing up again, he allowed the tears to flow freely down his cheeks as he stared past the blur at his brother's quiet form. He saw then a strange shape under the sheet on the far side of the bier, and he pulled the fabric down to find Kíli's bow and empty Elvish quiver lying beside him.
Tauriel had given the quiver to Kíli after Smaug's attack, but Fíli didn't suppose that either of them had thought that it would be needed as soon as it had been. It had, perhaps, been the only parting gift that she'd had to give, though Fíli had thought it a strange thing for an Elf to part with at all.
Kíli had accepted it gratefully, in any case, then he'd taken Tauriel's hand in his own and placed a quick, almost chivalrous kiss on her fingers. Seeing this, Fíli had at first thought to step up and come between his brother and the Elf; but he had decided, instead, to turn away and let them speak in peace—though when he had glanced over at them again, they were still holding to each others' hands.
"…For luck," he had heard Kíli say.
"As are the arrows," Tauriel had returned, smiling kindly.
Soon afterwards, she had ridden off with Legolas, while Fíli and the other Dwarves had left for the Lonely Mountain. Until the Battle, he had seen no more of her—and he wondered now if he would ever see her again, or if she had fallen as so many others had. She was, perhaps, among those who now burned on the pyre between the Mountain and Dale; and Fíli felt a rush of regret that he had not gotten the chance to thank her for all that she had done for Kíli.
Fíli looked curiously at the quiver, then lifted it and turned it over. A bit of sand and gravel fell from it, onto the bier; then he laid the quiver back down at Kíli's side and let out a long breath. He had hoped that his brother had stowed his rune-stone inside, as he tended to when he found himself without pockets; but the stone was not there, and so Fíli knew that it had likely been lost on the battlefield—like Kíli's promise to come home, and Fíli's own promise to bring him home.
Hanging his head, Fíli turned away and looked at the empty bier where he himself should have been lying, if some twist of fate had not dictated otherwise. He wondered if it had been prepared before his kin knew that he would not be using it, or if they had built it afterwards in the hopes that his body would still be recovered. He imagined, at least, that it had not been reported to Thorin that he was missing. Balin would not have wanted to burden his old friend with that news, and to do so would have served no purpose, anyway.
Still, he wondered what reason had been thought up to explain why his body had not been found; though at this point, he reminded himself, it didn't really matter. The guard would return soon, after the search for Sigrid's imaginary warg came to nothing, and word of Fíli's presence would be sent to Balin and Dáin. There would then follow many discussions, conferences, councils; there would be questions about his survival, about his absence after the Battle, about the wound on his head and whether or not it would be a hindrance. There would be questions about who would now lead the Dwarves of Erebor.
He swallowed hard, then turned on his heel and took a step towards the tent flap; and as he did, his eyes came to rest on the beechwood chest on the low table in the corner. He stopped, shifting around to face it. It may have only been a trick of the torchlight on the brass fittings, but he thought for a moment that he had seen a wisp of light slip out through the joins in the box's lid.
Curiosity compelled him to walk near; but when he looked down at the chest from above, sudden heat filled his lungs. He stumbled back, knowing at once what lay inside without needing to look. Yet even with that knowledge and the fear of what it meant, he stepped forward again and reached out, resting his palm on the lid.
The hairs on his arm stood up, as if a chill had run through his body; but he felt nothing except pleasant heat seeping through the wood, and he gave in to the need to open the lid before he had even realized that need was within him. Then he froze in place, unable to look away from the small, brilliant stone that now cast its light into his widening eyes.
"The Arkenstone…" he whispered breathlessly.
The gem seemed to recognize its own name and flared brighter, giving off a crisp shimmer like a star that had been brought down to Earth and trapped inside an icy prison. The illumination shifted and flowed, changing from cold blue to the warming tone of a red sunrise; and still Fíli's hand rested atop the chest's open lid, though his deepest thoughts warned him to close it, to lock the Stone back inside.
But the jewel did not want to be hidden from him; and silent and still as it was, he felt that it was begging him not to leave it alone in the dark again. Despite the warning in his own mind, he let the lid fall open completely and the full brilliance of the Arkenstone escaped into the air. He lowered his palm until it hovered just above the glowing form; then he felt his hand grow heavy, and his fingertips brushed against the Stone's smooth surface.
A painful tingle worked its way into his fingers as he slid his touch over the jewel. He watched in wonder as wisps of smoky-blue and red light seemed to break off, then curl back into the brilliant core; then the prickling under his skin grew, and soon sharp, vicious cold began to cut into his fingertips.
The freezing faded into a burning that traveled through his hand and up his arm, then it embedded itself in his chest before pushing through his body and into his spine. It flowed up, then, into his mind; and there it settled as fire seemed to grow behind his eyes. It hurt fiercely, though this pain was so different than any he had ever felt. It was welcome and warm, and it seemed to belong in his thoughts—and it brought with it a vision of riches pouring out of the Gate of Erebor.
Then the Arkenstone began to speak to him, its words soft and calm; and like a whispered promise, it told Fíli how it could help to build a kingdom, how it could help him to rebuild this kingdom. His kingdom. It said that it could guide him to places where the miners could unearth more of those things that Dwarves held so dear. The iron, the gold, the gems; it knew where to find them, it knew about secret paths that would lead to new lodes.
It was the Heart of the Mountain, it told him in secrecy and confidence, and the lifeblood of Erebor ever flowed from it. All it asked of Fíli was that he follow to where that blood led, that he open new delvings, that he call for his people to chip away at the rock in their search for more things precious and rare. It told him not to fear when the veins were emptied, because there was always some deeper place to dig.
A smile rose to Fíli's lips. He understood now why Thorin had held the Arkenstone of such value, why Thrór had mourned its loss when Smaug had stolen it. It was a thing worth digging for, worth dying for—and with it in his hand, he knew that his people would prosper. They would never again have to leave Erebor, to walk the Road in search of a home. They could stay underground, in the cool and dark, where Dwarves found their greatest comfort. They could lock the daylight outside, and find their own shining light deep within the earth.
Then, without warning, the old pain from Azog's claw began anew; and though he fought it, the injury would not let itself be forgotten. It felt as if fire was licking at the back of his head, then lightning slashed in front of his vision, cutting off his view of the gem at his fingertips and forcing him to stumble back. His touch left the Arkenstone, and he fell to his knees, clutching his head as the searing radiated outward from the wound and down his neck, pushing away the more desired pain that the jewel had given him.
Fíli held his breath and gritted his teeth, and still the lights danced behind his closed eyelids. He gasped for air and forced himself to standing, wanting to again touch the Arkenstone; but when he lifted his eyes, his sight fell upon Thorin's face. Tendrils of light issuing from the open chest were playing across the surface of the dead king's pale skin, almost as if the gem was lovingly caressing him in his sleep. A strange feeling of jealousy rose in Fíli's heart and he turned to the Stone, reaching out for it; but even as his hand drew near, the fire in his mind flared again and he let his arm fall to his side.
Something in the rake of Azog's claw was pulling him away from the thing that he had only a moment ago sought to possess above all else. He heard whispers behind and within him—but these whispers were not coming from the King's Jewel. Frightened Dwarf voices were begging, warning him away from the Stone, telling him that if he rested his hand again on its icy surface, it would this time hold him tight and refuse to let go. Deep shame and fear came over him, and he shook his head and took a step back, choking on his breath and curling his fingers into a fist as the voices faded.
For good or ill, he now understood the truth behind his forefathers' madness; cold comfort though that understanding was. Why the Stone held no sway over Dáin or Thranduil or anyone else in power, he could not say, but it must have clung to the line of Durin like a jealous lover from the moment it had been unearthed. It was not a possession, but a possessor; not a tool, but a master. And it wanted to master him, as it had the Kings Under The Mountain before him, though he had yet to either accept or ascend to the throne.
Fíli thought then about hiding it away, about burying in some deep place where he himself could not touch it; but he could not do that, he knew, without having to tell his kin why. And what then? Would they think that he had imagined the words that the Stone had said to him? Would they worry that he had gone mad?
And what right did Fíli have, anyway, to do with the Arkenstone as he pleased? To either keep it for himself, or to cast it away? His uncle had died in trying to reclaim it; and so, as Dáin had said, the Arkenstone should be buried with him. In death, at least, he should be allowed to keep it, to hold it—even if his desire for it had been forced by the Arkenstone itself, that desire had been no less real.
But Fíli knew that his own desire for the King's Jewel also would not fade, and that he would not long be able to keep himself from going to Thorin's tomb and coldly snatching the it away, like a grave robber cutting a ring from a body. Then the Arkenstone would rule him, just as it had his uncle and great-grandfather. It would whisper more tender and persuasive words to him, and he would believe what it said, though he knew the words to be lies. Then he would be just another mad king in a line of mad kings, sitting upon a shattered throne and calling for more gold, more silver, more jewels—calling for his people to dig deeper and deeper until the Mountain crumbled around them.
A sudden resolution came over Fíli and he lunged forward, slamming shut the chest's lid and locking the light inside. He stepped back and took several long breaths, trying to fill his lungs with cool air, to force out the heat that had filled him since his fingers first brushed against the Arkenstone. But he didn't know how long his strength would last, how long he could resist reaching out for the gem again; and so he glanced once more at his brother and uncle where they lay before turning his back to both them and the chest.
"I'm leaving…" he said, just barely aloud. "I'm sorry…"
He took a step towards the tent flap, then stopped and squeezed his eyes shut, realizing that he had spoken those words not to his kin, but to the Stone.