The last thing Fíli remembered, he was sitting in the pitch blackness of the Forest night, fighting sleep as he watched his campfire burn low; but now he found himself lying on his back and looking up at the giant eagles that wheeled and dashed in the sky above him. As he watched, the great birds faded into the clouds, and the world sank into silence and stillness; and Fíli sat up and glanced around the battlefield.
There were no bodies there now, no weapons, no cast-off pieces of armor. The blood that had covered the ground was gone, and in the still air there was no smoke from the pyres on which the dead should still be burning. He was utterly alone; and as he stared quietly towards the Lonely Mountain, he wondered how long he had been there, and why nobody had yet come to bring him back to the Gate.
"Does he live?"
Fíli knew that voice, though not too well, and he turned expecting to see Legolas close-at-hand. But he saw instead the Elvenking, and behind him stood Tauriel with her head bowed and her hands folded in front of her.
"Yes," she answered simply.
Thranduil nodded, then lowered himself to his knees in front of Fíli and stared deep into his eyes. "How is it that you are not dead?" he asked the Dwarf.
Fíli ran his hands over his body, feeling for the wounds he remembered taking. The slice on his arm, his aching elbow, the bruise over his spine, the hole at the back of his scalp—all of his injuries were gone, save for the cut on his side; and he knew that would be closed in good time.
"I've healed," he said with a shrug; then he turned his eyes to Tauriel, who had not moved. "Where have you been?"
She did not answer, though; and a moment later, Fíli felt something being pressed against his palm. He looked down to see the Arkenstone in his hand, and his mouth fell open as he shuddered.
"I do not want this," he lied, fighting the urge to close his hand around the Stone.
"Does it mean nothing to you?" asked Thranduil.
"It was a gift, given in good faith. Why would you turn it away?"
Fíli's eyes followed the wisps of smoky blue light as they issued from the Arkenstone, then he shook his head. "There is no good in this gift…" he said, forcing himself to look up at the Elf. "It was a mistake that it was given to me."
Thranduil glared at him, then snatched the King's Jewel out of his shaking hand. "What, then, would you have me do with it?"
"Take it back to the Mountain," said Fíli, closing his eyes and curling his tingling fingers into a fist. "Bury it, burn it… keep it, if you wish. I don't care. I do not want to see it again."
The passage of time was difficult to figure in the darkness of the Forest, but Fíli felt that it must have been at least four days since he had awoken after his wounding by the goblin. This day's march would soon be nearing its end, as well—or so he gathered from the aching in his back and the gnawing in his stomach. The last few hours he had spent slowly picking his way along, shoving aside the fallen leaves as he went so he would not wander off the track; but now he was beginning to wonder if he should stop for a bite to eat, or if he could go on for just a little while longer.
Over the last few days, he had eaten little enough that he was always hungry, but never starved; and he had sipped only sparingly at his water-skins, so that he was perpetually thirsty. In this way, he had managed to save much of the food in his sack, but every time he looked inside he felt like there was already too much missing. He feared that the end of his journey through the Forest would come many days after the last of his food and drink was gone, and that he might waste away or die of thirst before he again saw the blue sky above him.
He had seen no sign of his goat mount; and after two sleeps, he had given up on listening for the sound of its hooves or seeking out its prints in the soft soil by the path. In all likelihood, if it had not gotten lost in the Forest, then it had turned and headed back the way it had come. It was probably by now all the way back to Erebor, or it might even have set its course towards the Iron Hills, with the hand-axe still stowed securely in its saddle. In any case, Fíli knew that he would not be seeing it again; though he reminded himself that he did not actually remember seeing it at all.
It was not a comforting thought. Mirkwood was a grim and cheerless place even at the best of times; but trudging through on foot—alone and wounded, and with only an empty stomach and lingering grief for company—made for a slow and miserable passage. But still he pressed on, the rumbling of his stomach and his boots scraping along the road-stones the only sounds breaking the silence; and in that silence, his thoughts slid time and again back to the Mountain, and those people and things he had left behind.
Sometimes those recollections dug too deep, and after a while he would notice that he had gone on for quite some time without any aim; and so he would stop in mid-thought and sit on the path as he tried to clear his mind enough that he might be able to go on without wandering off the trail. So far, he had not lost the Road for more than a few minutes—but his going seemed far too slow, to the point where even hours after setting out for the day, he felt that if he looked back over his shoulder he would still be able to see the remains of his campfire from the night before.
He set up his evening camp whenever it got too dark for him to walk on without seeing the ground beneath him, but any sleep that he managed was invariably shortened by disturbing dreams. He would often wake abruptly to find the night still all around him; then he would fall back to sleep and dream again, and again the dreams would wake him. Usually, it was the images of the Battle and the burning of Laketown that roused him; but though other dreams were more calm, they were no less disturbing.
In those, he could see nothing, but heard familiar voices all around him, speaking as if it were just another day. When that had first happened, he'd thought he had been found, and that the happy exclamations he heard from Balin and Ori and Bofur were real—until he realized that Thorin and Kili's voices had joined in. Fíli had then woken with tears on his face, and the rest of the night he had spent staring intently towards the darkened trees, as if they had been the ones that had been speaking to him.
The dream from this morning, however, had been different; not for the presence of the Arkenstone, which he had seen often in both his sleep and his walking daydreams, but in that it involved a person that he knew little enough to count as not at all. Aside from seeing Thrandul from afar on the lakeside and at the Gate, the only time Fíli had come into contact with him had been in the Battle; and besides listening to his muffled voice through the canvas of a tent, it had also been the only time that he had heard him speak. Tauriel's presence in his dream had not been as much of a mystery, at least, since Fíli had really begun to think of her as a friend by the time the Battle had forced that friendship to a premature end—and he had actually found himself more than once wondering if she had even survived.
It seemed, anyway, that the odd dreams were one of the few effects of Mirkwood on Fíli's mind, though the first time he had gone along one of the Forest paths, the whole situation had been much more unstable. He remembered being nervous back then, and frightened and angry and anxious all at once. He had seen and heard things that were not there, and he had wanted to strike out at anyone who might have given him or his brother a glance that seemed hostile in the slightest.
He felt none of that now; but what he did feel was loneliness and sadness and grief—and it seemed that not all of it was from his own mind, but was pressing in on him from the trees that glowered down at him from all sides. The tall elms and oaks and birches really did seem to have lives and feelings and thoughts of their own, and he felt that he wouldn't have been surprised if they had suddenly chosen to strike up a conversation as he went along, so to fend off their own despair.
At times, when the sense of loss was the strongest, they even looked almost to be hanging their limbs lower and lower; and he found that he was able to reach up and let his fingertips brush along the bare branches and trailing vines. When he dared to do so, however, they seemed to pull back a little from his touch, and he took to ducking under them instead of pushing them out of his way when he came to any that were low across the path.
That aside, the Forest felt far less enchanted and foreboding to Fíli than it had on his first trip through; but he could not say whether that was because most of the Elves were away, because he was on the Old Forest Road instead of the Elven Path, because he was not accompanied by a large group of strangers to this land, or for some other unfathomable reason. Still, it felt like eyes were following him along from the gaps between the thick trunks, and so he usually kept his gaze on his feet and continued on in silence.
Fíli scratched thoughtlessly at the healing cut on his side, then winced at the irritation of his fingernails scraping over it. His other injuries were much improved, at least. The bruise he'd gotten on his back did not hurt much anymore, but once in a while he would feel a twinge in his spine that he had to stop and breathe through before going on. His weakened left arm was also in a far better state than it had been, and he felt that soon he would remove the stitches that Sigrid had given him, as the cut was by now very much closed.
Even the wound on the back of his head seemed to be giving him little trouble since his encounter with the goblin near the trailhead, though he was far from certain if that was a good thing. He had seen many head injuries over the years—Bifur's not being the least of them—and they always had some lasting effect. But then, he thought, maybe he did not notice that effect because it was he himself who had the injury—maybe someone else would see easier how he had changed. If he had changed.
The thing about madness, he thought, repeating Balin's words to himself, is that, if you are truly mad, you don't know it.
Fíli bit down on his dry tongue. It could be, he told himself, that he was a very different person than he'd been before the injury; but who was here in the Forest to tell him as much? Still, he was thankful that things had not ended worse for him. He might have, after all, been laid to rest, awake and aware, under some great slab of stone—there to be left to suffocate or starve, or to revive and claw at the rock, desperate to escape.
He remembered clinging to Kíli in fear when they were children, when Óin had been telling them about how he had once attended the funeral for his friend's uncle after a mining accident. The miner was to be laid in the burial chamber of his father, who had succumbed to a fever years before; but when the chamber was opened to allow for the interment, they found the patriarch's dusty, petrified remains lying crumpled on the floor just inside the great door. It turned out that the old Dwarf had woken at some point after his burial, and though he had managed to somehow force the cover off of his tomb, he had not been able to escape the chamber, itself.
Fíli also recalled another such story, though this one had been overheard rather than told to him. He had been quite young at the time, and was prone to sneaking out of bed at night to snack when everyone else was asleep. One evening, when he had reached the kitchen, he'd heard his uncle and mother speaking to a guest inside the adjacent dining-room. Their voices were low, but when he drew close to the door he could hear bits of what was being said—and he'd realized with horror that they were talking about a Dwarf who had been thought dead, but who had woken up screaming as the flames of a pyre had begun licking at his skin.
At the time, Fíli did not know what a pyre was, besides that it had something to do with fire; and in his mind he had concocted the image of someone falling asleep while working, then tumbling into a forge. It was only years later that he had found out that the burned Dwarf had been a soldier at Azanulbizar; and it had been many years later still before he had heard the whole story. Learning all of the details, though, had only served to make the terror of the whispered tale even more keen, and for a long time he could not look at a fire without picturing a twisted and bloody face being consumed by the flames, or hearing a shrill voice crying out for release.
Those stories still haunted Fíli more than any other tales he had heard as a child, and he shuddered now as he recalled them. He wondered why they had not come to mind when he had been facing the possibility of his own burial, or when he had been watching the casualties burning on the field between Dale and Erebor—and now he found himself fearing that some of the people who had been placed on the pyre after the Battle had not yet been dead.
He wondered if any had woken up screaming, or if they had not even gotten a chance to make a sound before the fire and smoke stole the breath from their lungs. Had some of them been caught up in the same paralysis that had held Fíli himself tight? Had they felt themselves being lifted, stripped in the cold air, then thrown into the flames? Had they been unable to tell anyone that they were still breathing, that their hearts were still beating, that they could feel themselves being burned alive?
A sting cut through Fíli's head and his stomach began to churn as he remembered that such a fate had come to many of the people of Laketown when Smaug attacked not so long ago. They had screamed for help, had cried out for only a moment before their skin charred and cracked; they had been terrified, not only for themselves, but for their children, their parents, their friends…
Fíli stopped walking, suddenly aware that the sound of his boots on the ground had changed. He turned his face down and saw that the trail was no longer below him, and an ache worked its way into his chest when he realized that his feet had been wandering as his mind had been drifting. He lifted his eyes, but there was nothing ahead save a deep darkness that not even his strong Dwarf eyes could cut through; and so he turned on his heel and looked back the way he had come.
There was a long, straight gap through the trees; but the thick layer of leaves on the ground had prevented any prints his heavy boots may otherwise have left behind. Still, his best guess was that the trail lay in that direction, and he set off again, walking slowly and paying great attention to everything around him, in the hopes that he would not miss the path when he came to it.
Regardless of his new diligence, after a few minutes he began to feel as if he had gone the wrong way. The light was by now beginning to fail, and the cold of the Forest night was setting in. He did not stop walking, though; did not stop focussing on the ground as he shuffled along, kicking aside the browned leaves in the hopes that he would find the road-stones beneath them.
But there was little enough light in Mirkwood at all times, and the winter days were getting shorter so the night fell swiftly, and before long he could no longer see his boots or the leaves, or even his own hand in front of his face. He could not then go on looking for the Road, and he hoped only that he would at least have some better clue as to where he was in the morning. Right now, however, there was a deep pain in his stomach, and he knew that he had no choice but to set a fire, and maybe to have a meal—or the dim suggestion of a meal.
He flexed his fingers, grimacing at the sting and stiffness the chill of oncoming evening had forced into them, then he sat hard on the ground and leaned his shoulder against the thick trunk of a tree. Reaching out, he cleared the area in front of him as best he could of dry leaves, then gathered some of them into a pile. He dared not move very far from the tree, and so he kept his foot pressed to the trunk as he groped around in the darkness for any fallen branches and sticks that might make for him a decent fire. When the stack was set, he took the rope off his shoulder and set it on the ground, then he began to slide his arms out of the straps of his pack, so to find his flint.
The pack had only been lowered just a bit when a sound nearby drew his attention and froze him in place. He wasn't certain, but it seemed that he had heard the rustling of leaves not very far ahead of where he sat. In any other wood, that would have meant little or nothing to him; but Mirkwood nights were always impossibly quiet, and any sounds that cut through the drowning silence were out of place.
"Hello?" he said softly, though still he was shocked at how loud his voice had been. "Is somebody there?"
There was no reply, and he wrapped his hand around the haft of his sword.
Not an Elf, he thought. They wouldn't let themselves be heard…
That did not comfort him, and he eased the pack back up onto his shoulders and wrapped his hand tighter around the hilt of his sword. He listened again, and for many long seconds he heard nothing; then the faint sound of snuffling came from off to his right, as if something was sniffing at the ground there. He pulled his sword slowly out of its sheath, cringing as it scraped eerily and loud against the brass locket; then he held his breath and listened to the deep silence once more. Faintly, past the sound of his own heart in his ears, he could just make out quick and raspy breathing, like the panting of some thirsty animal.
Raising his sword, he passed it slowly in front of himself, and the tip of the weapon hit the stack of sticks he had set for his fire, knocking them to the ground. He shrunk back against the tree as his sword-hand began to shake; then the blade lowered to his side, almost as if it had chosen to do so on its own. He let out a long-held breath, and when he inhaled again, he became aware that the air in front of him was warmer than it had been a few minutes before. Holding his left hand out, he waved it slowly in front of himself, and a hot burst of moist air blew across his fingers.
Jumping to his feet, he pressed his pack to the tree and swung his sword down hard. The blade met nothing, and he heard at once the sound of scraping behind him. He spun about, backing away from the tree and stumbling over his firewood. He fell hard onto the ground, then scrambled away and rose to his knees, again holding his sword out—but besides his own heavy breathing and his knuckles cracking as he tightened his grip on the hilt, he could no longer hear anything.
"Where are you?" he asked in a whisper, though his voice still seemed uncannily loud.
At the very least, it seemed that whatever was out there was neither a goblin nor a warg; and the fact of its breath being hot told him that it was not one of the giant spiders that called the Forest home. Regardless, if it had been any of those things, it would not have simply come near, then left without attacking. On thinking harder, Fíli considered that it might well have been a fox or a badger; though if that were the case, then it was a large and unusually bold one.
Still, he told himself, whatever the creature was, it had at least not tried to do him any harm, and the greatest chance was that it had simply been curious about him. That did not make him feel much better about being approached by something that he could not see, however, and he no longer felt so safe about staying here for the evening. But there was nowhere else for him to go in the darkness, and any path he might pick out would probably lead him only deeper into the Forest, and away from the Road.
Fíli's stiffened shoulders relaxed as no other sound rose up for many minutes, and he turned his mind again to needs other than his defense. He was still cold and hungry, despite his fright; though he wasn't sure now if a fire was a good idea, as there was a chance that it might attract whatever was skulking around. On the other hand, he told himself, it was likely that anything that lived in this place would have eyes that could pierce the darkness, fire or no—and the flames might even serve as a deterrent to any creatures that might come near.
And so he laid the sword on the ground, then set about quickly slipping off his pack and drawing out his flint; but before he could get his kindling set back up, he heard the sound of scraping once more. It was more distant now, and off to his left, and his eyes flitted in that direction as he rested his hand on his sword. He held his breath, listening attentively as the noise continued; but it was now steadily growing further and further away, until at last it vanished into the distance.