Bilbo woke to the warmth of the morning sun on his face and the sound of birds singing in the tree above the Hill, yet he found no comfort in either. He knew his friends would be leaving today, he knew they would be going back to Erebor so to get on with their lives there; but he was not ready for them to leave, and so he rolled onto his back on the dewy grass and threw his arm over his eyes, trying to will away the sunlight.
Thorin, Gloin, Óin, and Ori had passed westwards through Hobbiton with shortened beards and trimmed hair nearly two months ago, but they had stayed with Bilbo for only a single night before continuing on to Ered Luin. The Dwarf-King's plan had been to bring his sister back to Erebor, but when Dís had learned of the fate of her sons, she had instead chosen to remain in the home where she had raised them. As her lady-in-waiting and dearest friend, Gloin's wife had decided to stay with her so she would not be left alone in her grief; and so Gloin and their son, Gimli, had remained in the Blue Mountains, as well.
That had left just Thorin, Óin, and Ori returning to Erebor; and while on their way back through Hobbiton, they had again stopped at Bilbo's home. This time, however, their visit had lasted somewhat longer, with one day passing easily into another, then the days fading into a week, and by now his guests had been with him for a fortnight—and still, it did not feel like they had been there for long enough.
Óin and Ori had whiled away most of their visit either wandering the green hills of the Shire or reading through Bilbo's many books, then they would invariably help with the cleaning-up before retiring to the guest rooms at night. Thorin, on the other hand, did not spend much time with the others except at dinner, and even then he was staid and silent. Most other times he was to be found smoking in quiet contemplation by the fireplace in the parlor; and when night fell, he would excuse himself to the largest guest-chamber, which was next to Bilbo's own room.
Whether he ever managed any rest, Bilbo couldn't say for certain; though sometimes when the Hobbit was on the verge of sleep, he thought that he heard the Dwarf's muffled voice singing on the other side of their shared wall. The songs were always slow and deep; lamentations, Bilbo was sure, for Fíli and Kíli. Still, Thorin never spoke openly of them, never mentioned how they had died. He barely spoke at all, in fact; and any questions Bilbo would ask of him would either receive terse responses, or else be handed off to Ori and Óin.
They, at least, spoke with Bilbo often; and it was from them that he had learned of Dís's refusal to leave her mountain home. At more relaxed times, they would bring up somewhat lighter subjects—such as how each member of the Company was prospering, how the Ravens were once again serving as swift messengers for the Dwarves, and how well the cleaning and restoration of Erebor was coming along. They told him also about matters not strictly pertaining to their own interests: how Bard and his children were adjusting to their new lives, how both Dale and Esgaroth were thriving, and how Thranduil was at least being civil these days… if not exactly friendly.
But all they had to say about Fíli and Kíli was that they had died honorably. Beyond that, Bilbo knew nothing about the princes' fate, and he figured it had been Thorin's wish for his companions remain silent on the matter. Bilbo, for his part, never pressed the issue, though his own grief was heavy and his curiosity was strong.
Most mornings, the Dwarf-King would come out of his room just after sunrise, bleary-eyed and as quiet as ever, then he would eat his breakfast alone in the dining room before sitting down by the fireplace for a pipe. Just yesterday morning, however, he had quite unexpectedly announced that he and his companions would be leaving the next day. He then gave to Bilbo a fair amount of gold to cover the expenses that he believed had been incurred while they had been there. Bilbo tried to return the money, telling him that his home was not an inn that would need to be paid for; but Thorin would not accept the gold back, nor would he agree to stay longer, no matter how many times the Hobbit asked.
And so the final day of his friends' visit passed by almost solemnly as they readied themselves to leave; but when Bilbo went to see if they needed anything towards evening, he found the chair by the fireplace empty. When he asked the other Dwarves where Thorin had gotten off to, Ori said that he had left without a word some time ago. Neither Óin nor Ori felt that they should go after him, believing that he would return when he was ready to; but after a half-hour of waiting for the door to open, Bilbo went out into the falling dusk in search of his friend.
He did not have to look far, as he found Thorin sitting on the Hill over Bag End, hugging his knees to his chest and staring up at the sky as the stars began to fade in. Bilbo climbed up onto the turfed roof and sat quietly by his side, then he brought out his pipe and lit it before casually offering Thorin a puff. To Bilbo's surprise, the Dwarf accepted; and as they passed the pipe back and forth and watched the smoke drift away on the light breeze, Bilbo spoke a little about how things were getting on in the Shire.
Thorin listened in dignified silence as the Hobbit mentioned how Sandyman's mill had nearly burned down that spring, and how the owners of the Ivy Bush Inn were thinking of adding a new wing. He looked at Bilbo curiously when he said that the greater-than-usual amount of rain this year had actually led to a fairly better crop of pipe-weed that had the drying racks in Little Delving overflowing. He smiled faintly when Bilbo told him about how Banbar Bolger's best sow had gotten away from her pen and had her litter in Farmer Diggle's tool shed.
By the time the pair had smoked the last of the Longbottom Leaf that Bilbo had packed into the pipe, the night had come fully on. The weather was fine, the sky was dark, and the stars were clear; so rather than suggesting that they go inside to enjoy the fire before turning in for the evening, Bilbo instead laid back on the cool grass and slid his hands under his head. Here and there small white clouds floated by, and for a while he let his eyes follow their progress as he listened to the night-sounds all around him, though he could not keep his mind off of how much he would miss his friends when they left — of how empty his house would seem when they were gone.
At last he could not help but turn to Thorin, and he saw then that the Dwarf's shoulders were slumped and he had his hand pressed to his brow. Bilbo hesitated for a moment before asking if there was anything he wanted to say, since they would not likely have another chance to speak for quite some time. Thorin answered only with a shake of his head, and so Bilbo returned his attention to the sky.
A few minutes later, Thorin laid back onto the ground. Bilbo tried not to look at him at first, but when he heard Thorin's breaths deepening, he figured he had gone to sleep. He shifted to the side and saw that he was wrong, though, as the Dwarf's eyes were half-opened and welling up; and after sparing the Hobbit a quick glance, Thorin did at last close his eyes, forcing out the tears that been gathering at their corners. Bilbo didn’t know if his friend went to sleep then, but he himself soon grew tired, and he did not notice when he drifted off.
He woke some time later to the sound of singing—much closer and clearer than what he had heard through his bedroom wall, but in the same deep, mournful tone. Bilbo did not understand the Dwarf-language, and he figured he never would, but he did not need to know the words to understand what was being said. He heard Fíli and Kíli's names, and Thorin's voice cracked; then the song came to a sudden end, as if he had reached a part that he could not bear repeating.
Bilbo eased his eyes open and saw that Thorin was sitting again, and that his face was once more turned to the sky. The Hobbit couldn't tell if his friend knew he was listening, or if he was talking to himself or to the stars; but presently Thorin began to speak, and it was as if a dam had burst as he told of how his nephews had gone to the Iron Hills, and how they had never made it back to Erebor.
They had been eager to serve as escorts for a number of Dáin's folk that had decided to help in the rebuilding of the reclaimed Lonely Mountain; and Thorin had sent them off gladly, knowing that they were both well-suited to the task. The trip there had gone well, as had been reported by a Raven sent out by Dáin when Fíli and Kíli had arrived; and another Raven came soon afterwards with the news that the princes and their charge were on their way back to Erebor.
The group did not arrive on the day they were expected, but there was not much fear that anything had gone wrong, since the Dwarves that would be marching in from the Iron Hills were likely to be slowed by the tools and goods they would be needing to rebuild the Kingdom Under The Mountain. It was only after nearly a week had gone by with no sign of the travelers that Thorin had begun to worry; and so he at last sent out scouts, led by Dwalin, to search for them.
Less than a day's march out from Erebor, the party came across many smashed wagons and the picked-over remains of dead goats in a stand of trees near the eastern foothills of the Lonely Mountain, though there was no other sign of the three dozen Dwarves that had set out from the Iron Hills. The scouts searched the area, but they did not get far before they were waylaid by a troop of goblins. After a brief skirmish, all but one of the goblins lay dead, and that last one survived only by offering to lead Dwalin and the others to where the Dwarves were being held.
He took them then to an iron mine that had been abandoned and forgotten by Thror's people when Smaug attacked; though it was never learned whether the goblins had taken over the mine shortly after the arrival of the dragon, or if they were refugees from the Battle. What was certain, however, was that when Dáin's folk had come near with little in the way of weapons but many tools for working stone, the Dwarves had proven to be an irresistible draw and had been captured for slave labor.
Not wholly unexpectedly, when the scouting party crossed the threshold into the mine, the goblin that had been guiding them sent up a call that there were intruders—an act for which Dwalin was quick to gut him. Many other goblins soon came running from out of the mine's depths, but all fell swiftly to the scouts' blades. A quick search of the main tunnels was then made, and the captive miners and their families were found all together in a deeply-dug and filthy prison.
Fíli and Kíli were, at that point, still alive, though their shirts had been shredded by goblin-wielded lashes, and the skin on their backs was welted and, in places, raw. The rest of the Dwarves that had been traveling with them were all accounted for and in surprisingly good health.
That was in no small part, it was later learned, because Fíli had realized the goblins' intention to make slaves of them from the start. For their safety, he had ordered the Dwarves in his charge to surrender to the overwhelming force, so to give their captors no reason to do them any harm. The brothers had then succored them with the knowledge that a rescue party would soon be sent out from Erebor. To their credit and honor, Dáin's people had obeyed without question, and because of that, all had survived the week underground with little food, water, fresh air, or light.
Additionally, Thorin’s nephews had taken it upon themselves to bear the brunt of the goblins' ire while they had been enslaved; stepping in to draw the whip-masters’ attentions every time a miner would stumble or slow. But though Kíli was now feverish from infection, and Fíli's eye had been slashed and was swollen shut, still they aided in opening the cages and cutting the bonds of the other prisoners—and soon all were freed, and they made ready to leave.
As they were making their way out of the mine, however, many more enemies showed themselves. The goblins had silently cut off the exit, and had then sat in the darkness of the side-tunnels and waited for the Dwarves to near; then they attacked all at once, when the light of day was within sight of the fleeing prisoners and scouts. Screaming out a battle-cry, Dwalin led the charge forward while the princes took up the rearguard, and slowly the rescue party and the miners and their families made their progress towards freedom.
It was said by witnesses that Kíli took a spear to the ribs and fell back, and that his brother remained by his side even as the screeching of many more goblins came from behind them. Though the miners who were with them tried to stay at their defense, the princes still ordered them forward with the others, commanding them to smash the timbers that made up the mine scaffolding as they went past. Again, the Iron Hills Dwarves obeyed without hesitation, and soon the wave of defenders, most of whom were armed with their mining tools alone, broke through the enemy blockade and ran out onto the sunlit foothills.
Still, from behind there was the calling of angry goblin-voices; and among them, it was realized with dismay, the echoing yells of Fíli and Kíli. Dwalin made ready to rush back into the mine after them, but there came a sudden rumbling, followed by the crashing of boulders; then a cloud of dust rolled out of the tunnel and flowed down the hill, choking and blinding the escapees, and knocking them off their feet. When the rumbling ended, but before the dust had come close to clearing, Dwalin and the others dove back into the mine; but they did not make it even a dozen yards in before they came upon the remains of a cave collapse.
Out from under the boulders was seeping thick black blood, and it was clear that a great number of goblins had been crushed by the fall. In hope, the Dwarves called out to Fíli and Kíli, who, they learned after a quick head-count, were the only ones missing. But no answer came back; and when the miners started to try to clear away the rubble to find them, the tunnel began to shake once more. Heartsick, Dwalin ordered the miners and scouts out of the tunnel lest it collapse again; and after a time, he decided that they could make the wounded wait no longer and withdrew to Erebor, leaving behind a few keen-eared scouts whose task was to listen for the princes, should they manage to lift their voices past the stones.
As soon as the party reached the Mountain with word of Fíli and Kíli, a great many Dwarves volunteered to go back for them; and among the volunteers was Thorin, himself, who was one of the first to make his way into the mine. But every effort to bring the princes out failed, as each boulder that was shifted and every time a pickaxe rang against the stones, more of the tunnel would come down and the walls began to crack and crumble. At the last, there was a roof-fall that nearly claimed the lives of those who were working the recovery, and the hill above the mine fell in, leaving a deep sinkhole behind.
After many days of effort and failure, the heavy decision was at last made to close off the mine; and Fíli and Kíli were left where they had fallen, their tomb being one that they had made for themselves—as the certainty was that the princes had collapsed the tunnel in an effort to keep the goblins from coming up behind the fleeing Dwarves. It was, of course, never known whether they had believed they could escape, or if they had caused the cave-in hoping only to take as many of the enemy with them as possible; but whatever their intent had been, their sacrifice had assured the survival of many of their people.
In their honor, those whose lives they had saved—as well as many other Dwarves of Erebor—had shorn their beards and shortened their hair. Thorin had done the same in their memory; and even after Fíli and Kíli's memorial had ended, and the great slab of stone that now blocked the entrance had been carved with the princes' names, he had stayed at the mine. For a week he spent his evenings sitting by the stone and listening for the sound of his nephews' voices on the other side.
After his week's vigil had ended, he did not go back to Erebor, but sent word to Balin and Dwalin that they were to be in charge of the Mountain until he returned. He never told anyone where he was bound, or how long his journey would be; but in the dark of the night, when his retainers were all in a deep sleep, he had set out on his pony towards the west. He went on alone for a time, but Gloin, Óin, and Ori had tracked him down and joined him a few days on; and though he had ordered them back to Erebor, they refused to let him go on alone.
Having said all this, Thorin fell into silence and laid back onto the ground once more, closing his eyes and folding his hands on his chest; and Bilbo thought about how his perceptions of Dwarves had changed over the few years since he had taken to the road with Thorin and his kin. He remembered the ones he had met when he was younger—the ones who had passed through the Shire on their way to Breeland and beyond. In those young days, he never believed that their kind were anything but stalwart and stoic, he never imagined that they cried or fell into quiet mourning. Over the time he had spent with the Company, he had sadly learned different. Dwarves were, perhaps, made of stone; but even stone could crack if it was hit in just the right place. That place, for Thorin, seemed to be the lives of his sister-sons; and their loss had shattered him.
The Hobbit wasn’t sure if his friend managed to sleep after his story was done being told, but neither of them spoke again; and Bilbo closed his own eyes and let exhaustion and grief take over, then he himself fell into an uneasy rest. Now, though, the sun was on the rise; and Bilbo lifted his arm from his face, knowing he could no longer fight the coming of the day. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes hard, then he turned to the side and saw that the spot where the Dwarf had been last night was bare. He rose quickly and unsteadily to his feet then, hoping that his friends had not left without saying goodbye—as he wanted very much to wish them well and to give them a fine meal before they headed out.
But when he stepped inside Bag End and looked around, he saw nothing to prove that they had been there at all, save a single piece of folded-over paper that was sitting on the dining table. The words upon it were written in a fine script that he recognized as being Ori's hand—and really, there was not much to it, except for many thanks for allowing the Dwarves to stay. Just at the end, though, there was a short mention of how they were looking forward to seeing him again when they came back through in a couple months' time.
Bilbo reread the note as he shuffled to his bedroom, and there he fell onto his bed and tossed the paper onto the blanket beside him. He was glad to hear, at least, that they would be returning to his home for a visit so soon; but as he did a short bit of figuring in his head, he realized that a couple months would not give them time to get all the way to Erebor and back.
Light then hit him hard in the corner of his vision and he shifted his head toward the window, where the sun was now shining bright and harsh through the glass. He groaned and stood and made his way over, intent on shutting the curtain and locking out the day; but there on the sill he found another note. When he opened this one he saw that it had been written in Óin's bold strokes. It was a more private letter, more personal; and in it, the older Dwarf gave his thanks for whatever words Bilbo had said to Thorin in the night, as they seemed to have eased some of the Dwarf-King's concerns—though Bilbo knew that it was only his listening, and not his own speaking that may have done his friend any good.
Still, the note went on to say that Thorin did not know that Óin was writing this message of thanks, and that the intention was to leave it where only Bilbo might discover it, so that the sentiment would be known to the Hobbit, alone. At the end were signed the names of Óin and Ori; and after was a P.S., which said that the change of plans had been Thorin's alone, and that if the others had been given the choice, they would all have stayed in the beauty and calm of the Shire rather than heading back west.
Bilbo eyed the letter curiously. A westward-road and a two-month trip likely meant that his friends had gone back to Ered Luin, for whatever reason—and to Bilbo's mind, that was a good thing. It was unlikely that Thorin was ready for the trek back to the Lonely Mountain just yet, and to be in a place that was more like home to him would certainly help in his healing. That also meant, Bilbo thought with a soft smile, that he might himself join his friends on their eastward journey when they came back through; then he would be able to return to Erebor for a visit of his own, if for no other reason than to give Fíli and Kíli his farewells.
He returned the note to the sill and made his way back to his bed, sitting first on the edge, then letting out a long and weary breath as he laid back onto his quilt. His eyelids grew heavy and closed, and his body sank into his feather mattress as the restlessness of the disturbed night caught up to him; but as his mind started drifting back and forth on the edge of sleep, he heard a muffled sound like Dwarvish singing on the other side of his bedroom wall.