All the signs were right. It was right to return to Erebor before there were none left who actually remembered. He began seeing the mountain in his dreams every night, clearer than the memories he had been carrying around for years. The mountain on his father’s map had never glowed as brightly under a sunstone. Gandalf said it, and so did the earth-bones he had let Óin toss. It was time.
And yet, something held Thorin back. Nevertheless, he began the preparations for the journey, buying supplies, picking out ponies and recruiting members for his company. He was not one to let fear stop him.
The company was smaller than he had hoped. Apparently, goblins, orcs and a dragon were compelling enough reasons to stay away, even for promises of glory and gold. He saw interest in many faces, the hope of a home and the end of exile. In the end, their doubts usually won out. They could always follow if this madman’s plan actually worked.
And that was the crux of the matter, really. Despite all the signs being right, you’d have to be mad to go through with it.
Thorin confessed his doubts to Dís one evening, after several mugs of ale.
“Do you ever wonder if this, going to reclaim Erebor, might be the gold calling me?”
Dís stared at him. “What makes you think that? The sickness only takes those surrounding themselves with gold.”
“Father was… in the final years, when you were running after toddlers, he was no longer quite himself. It was not as obvious as with grandfather, but if you spent enough time with him… all his thoughts turned away from leading our people and towards Erebor and the gold there. And he hadn’t been close to large amounts of gold in years.”
Dís laid her hand on his. “You are not father. You are not grandfather. Why do you want to go?”
“You know the answer to that: to reclaim our home, to make sure we are no longer an exiled people but have somewhere to belong.” That question Thorin could answer confidently.
“And that is exactly why I do not doubt you. Do you think Balin and Dwalin would be foolish enough to go on another quest if they did not trust you to not only reclaim Erebor, but to be a worthy king? Do you think I would trust you with my sons if I thought you mad? Or for that matter, do you think Gandalf would approve if he thought you were ridden with gold sickness?”
Thorin shook his head. “But what if, once I see the gold, once it is mine…”
“You know the signs; you know not to be foolhardy. And once again, you are not grandfather. I do not doubt you.”
Thorin nodded and thanked her. His heart felt somewhat lighter, but still, he worried. His sister was too young to remember how their grandfather had been in Erebor. She had not spent hours in counsel with their father, arguing as the sun set and rose again. She too had suffered, but she had not seen every detail of their madness.
He drew up contracts with Balin’s help and swore in the members of his company. They were a mixed group: old warriors, a healer, a miner, a cook, a toymaker, a scribe, a thief and his nephews. Still, as he looked at them, Thorin was filled with pride. These were dwarves loyal enough to follow him to an uncertain fate, brave enough to face countless dangers. They might be few in numbers, but they were worthy. He could share the perils of the road with them, fight beside them, maybe even die beside them.
That did not change anything about the fear that gnawed at him. The same blood that destined him to lead them carried the madness that could bring them all to their downfall. He did not even fear the dragon as much as this.
His nephews, bright and young and full of hope for adventure and their future, felt none of this darkness. He did not fear for them. They carried the pride of his forefathers, but otherwise they had the sunny disposition of their late father. They were entirely free of that deadly greed and filled with stone-solid Broadbeam sense. They would not fall victim to the gold.
The evening before he left Ered Luin to see if he could recruit a few more dwarves for his company, Thorin sent for Dwalin.
He solemnly greeted his friend and knocked their heads together.
“Dwalin. I am glad you came.”
Dwalin waited silently until Thorin found the words.
“I already owe you much, my friend. Yet I would ask another oath from you.”
He paused, closing his eyes and drawing a deep breath before he looked Dwalin in the eyes.
“I fear the gold sickness. Thror’s blood runs in my veins and I have seen what it can do, as have you. I cannot reclaim Erebor only to have it laid to waste by madness. I would not have myself waste away in the darkness with gold and gems as my only joy, blind to the pleasure of feasts and ale, friends, family and laughter. I beg to Mahal that it will not come to this, but if it does… I would ask of you to deliver the Gift to me.”
“I do not ask this as your king, Dwalin, I ask it as your friend. I know it is much to ask. I will do whatever is in my power not to succumb to my forefathers’ curse and if I do, I hope I shall be able to do what is necessary myself. But if I am too far gone, I would have you deliver me the Gift. There is no one I can trust as I trust you, Dwalin, and I would rather die by the hands of a friend than drive the kingdom into slow ruin. Fíli will be a worthy king after me, and free of the curse. Will you give me this oath?”
They looked at each other in silence for a long time. Finally, Dwalin nodded almost imperceptibly and sank to his knees to say the words.
The next morning, Thorin rose early and readied his pack. His sister accompanied him to the gates. When they reached the road that would lead Thorin away, Dís pulled him into a tight hug.
“Be safe,” she whispered. “You will have a fine company of dwarves at your side. If you are in doubt, look at them to remember the reasons for your quest. May our next meeting be in Erebor!”
He pressed her closer before finally letting go. He mounted his pony, gave Dís one last smile and rode eastwards.
Thorin did not find any more dwarves to join them before he rode to the home of the hobbit burglar Gandalf had chosen as the fourteenth member of the company. Bilbo Baggins was not who Thorin would have chosen, but he proved himself well enough.
Indeed, the entire company did well. They travelled through green fields, barren hills, mountains, caverns, vales and forests. He would not have any others at his side in their place against trolls, goblins, wargs, orcs, spiders and elves, or for that matter, singing beside him around the campfire.
If the others wondered why he was more solemn and less likely to join their laughter, they put it down to the weight of responsiblity for the company lying on his shoulders. Only Dwalin and perhaps Balin knew it was not the dragon he feared most.
Both of his nephews proved themselves many times. Kíli matured as the journey went on and Fíli showed himself capable of leading and making tactically sound decisions when Thorin, his nephews, Gandalf, Balin and Dwalin discussed how to proceed. Thorin was more convinced than ever that Fíli would make a fine king when the day came.
Finally, they found themselves sitting on the doorstep of the mountain, trying to think of a way to get inside in case they didn’t find the keyhole on Durin’s Day. Thorin stood a little aside from the others, looking out across the burnt countryside towards the distant Mirkwood Forest, when Dwalin came to join him.
“It used to be a lot greener, didn’t it?” He said after a while. “Back when there were woods, pastures and fields tilled by the men of Dale.”
“We used to go hunting down there,” Thorin agreed. “The stags were enormous. I remember bringing down a sixteen pointer during my very first hunt.”
“Aye, I remember that day. What a feast that was. Never would have thought a scrawny little dwarrowling like you would be capable of it.”
“I’ll have you know I was never scrawny, not even back then,” Thorin protested, shoving Dwalin lightly in the ribs with his elbow.
“Oh but you were! It was lucky you were exceptionally short as well, or your mother would have never let you out of the mountain for fear you would be blown off by a gust of wind.”
They teased each other about old times for a while, glad neither voiced what weighed heavy on their minds.
It was that evening that Bilbo suddenly called out and they all scrabbled to where the door ought to be. They watched the sun and the moon sink through the sky and waited for the last sunlight to fall onto the wall. Finally, the door appeared.
Thorin held his breath as he inserted the key into the lock. It turned more easily than he thought it would, and they all pushed the door open together. Stale air smelling of smoke and heated metal wafted from the tunnel.
The company was filled with excitement and decided that Bilbo should take a look down the tunnel immediately. Balin accompanied him a short way into the tunnel, while the others sat on the ledge. They speculated wildly about what Bilbo would report.
It was not long before he emerged again, eyes wide with wonder at the immense treasures inside but still shaking from terror of the sleeping dragon.
As the dwarves pelted him with questions, Bilbo showed them the two-handled cup he had stolen, in case anyone still doubted him. It was an intricate work of art, geometrical figures and rubies lining the edges and they all inspected it closely. It was the first piece of gold from Erebor they had seen in years.
Finally, Bilbo held out the two-handled cup for Thorin. Thorin could sense Dwalin’s eyes on him as he hesitated.
It was one simple cup. He had often held more precious pieces. What a silly little thing to fear.
Thorin reached out his hand.
After Smaug destroyed the door, they sat in the dark tunnel for days. Finally, when Bilbo had looked around and declared it safe, they followed him into the hall. They lit their torches and the light gleamed over mounds and mounds of gold. The younger dwarves gasped, realising that all the stories about Erebor’s wealth were not exaggerated.
Thorin took joy in his nephews’ awe and showed them all the pieces he recognised, careful to not touch anything. The spears with thrice forged heads and shafts inlaid with gold that had originally been created for King Bladorthin lay on a jumbled heap and armour was mixed with cutlery and gems in the chaos the dragon had left behind.
Fíli admired the intricate but sturdy shields, soon choosing one with engraved swords for himself. A mithril bow quiver caught Kíli’s eye and Thorin remembered that it had been Frerin’s. He told his nephew about Frerin’s weapon gifting ceremony, recalling the splendour and the feast. All the while they walked about, boots treading over clinking gold and silver coins. Thorin took care to focus on the company’s voices instead.
There was Thror’s great two-handed cup, birds and flowers carven into the massive gold, countless details made with delicate jewels. Thorin recognised the emerald necklace of Girion, who had been Lord of Dale before the dragon came. He laughed when he saw the spoon he had been fed with as a tiny dwarrowling, his name engraved in mithril runes.
And wasn’t that Dís’ favourite toy? Thorin stooped and picked up the small golden horse, its saddle and bridle made of silver thread. He had forgotten how its emerald eyes gleamed and how detailed the craftsmanship was!
“Fíli, Kíli! This belonged to your mother. She used to carry it around with her everywhere. One evening, she forgot it lying in a corridor and when she noticed it was missing, she wouldn’t go to sleep before it was found. Our father had all the guards searching for it for hours before it was finally recovered.”
His nephews looked at it and marvelled how different it was to the toys they had played with when they were little. Thorin carefully put it into a pocket. How Dís would smile when he gave it to her!
His mother’s favourite hairpins soon joined it, as well as the brooch Frerin had worn when he first joined weapon training. Thorin donned his father’s coat of gold-plated rings and one of his grandfather’s golden belts made his way around his waist, the white jewels sparkling in the torchlight.
And that brought another thought to Thorin’s mind. Where was his grandfather’s Arkenstone, which he had been so proud of? Thorin left his nephews where they were trying out some golden harps strung with silver and walked around the hall, his eyes scanning for the white, gleaming light that had shone over his childhood.
There were blood red rubies, sparkling amethysts, sapphires the colour of the sky on a summer day, as well as emeralds. Heaps of carnelians, lapis lazuli, turquoises and sugilites glittered in the light of his torch. Once, he thought he spotted the familiar shine, but when he hurried over and dug through the gold coins, he realised the glitter had merely come from a diamond encrusted silver bowl.
Thorin did not know how much time had passed before Bilbo suggested they find a way out. He felt a twinge of annoyance at having to give up the search, but Balin and Dwalin were quick to agree, so Thorin lead the way towards the front gate.
As they followed Balin to the guardhouse, Dwalin fell into step beside him.
“Your father’s armour suits you. You look right kingly in it. Did you find anything else of interest?” There was something behind the smile on his face that Thorin couldn’t quite place.
“Just a few old keepsakes. Dís’ toy horse, I thought she’d be pleased when she gets it back.”
Thorin’s hands ran over the loose jewels in his pockets as Dwalin smiled in earnest.
Roäc the raven brought both good and ill news.
The dragon had finally been slain. After decades of injustice, hundreds of victims, thousands of dwarves in exile, the terror had finally been vanquished and they could truly reclaim their home, their treasure.
But now the carrion crows were gathering, sensing their chance to get their claws on the spoils. Men, elves and all kinds of other rabble were gathering to take what was rightfully theirs from them as soon as it was finally regained.
A deep rage like he had rarely felt before rose in Thorin and he bade Roäc to send news to Dáin. He would not let anything he had regained be taken from his hands.
They spent their days fortifying the main gate but in the evenings and the night, the Arkenstone weighed heavily on his mind. Something at the back of his mind told him he shouldn’t, but often he went to the hall where the treasure lay. He rediscovered long lost trinkets and jewelry. Before long, he began shifting the great piles of gold, always seeking to find the jewel his grandfather treasured so much.
The clink of gold and sparkle of gems began following him into his sleep.
Thorin spent little and less time speaking to the members of his company except for giving orders.
When Dwalin asked him if spending so much time with the hoard was wise, Thorin told him he was cataloguing the treasure so that it could be evenly divided. For a moment, Thorin wondered why he should divide it at all. He was king after all, so why share?
But then Dwalin gave him that look again, the look Thorin couldn’t place. Was it mistrust, or anger, or perhaps even greed? Would any of his dwarves attempt to take more than was theirs by right?
Men and elves appeared before the main gate. They asked to parley and demanded he let them steal. He shot an arrow at them. This time, not only Dwalin gave him a look.
“Maybe we should at least listen to them,” Balin said. “Hear them out and try to find a compromise.”
“Bard did kill the dragon, and their town was destroyed,” the hobbit put in, then shrivelled under Thorin’s glare.
“They are thieves! The gold was stolen from us once before, it is ours by right and they have no right to it. No one shall take it from us again!”
More looks from the company. Fear, hatred, conspiracy? Thorin could not tell.
The men and elves declared a siege on them and there was nothing to do but wait for reinforcements from the Iron Hills. Wait, and search for the Arkenstone. Now, Thorin demanded the others help him search. He offered rich rewards for whoever found it and brought it to him.
They sifted through the piles of gold, restacking it as they went. It felt warm under Thorin’s hands, friendly.
The others took breaks. Thorin kept on looking throughout the nights, sleeping only a bare minimum while bedded on the piles of gold. It sang to him.
“Thorin, you should eat,” the healer said. “Eat and get a good night’s rest on an actual bedroll.”
“It will do you good, Uncle.”
“If you like, we can keep looking while you rest.”
Thorin stared at their faces. This time, there was no doubt about the look on their faces. Pure greed. He could not trust them.
“Leave me be! I will find it soon enough and then I can eat and rest all I want!”
Exhaustion forced him down eventually. The bald one helped him to the room where they had made camp. Dwalin, his mind supplied. Dwalin.
He ate without tasting and then slept.
When he woke, the others were eating again. He must have slept for a long time, Thorin realised. “Did reinforcements arrive?” Without waiting for an answer, he asked the more important question. “Did you find the Arkenstone?”
Someone must have found it and taken it from him. He looked around and his eyes settled on a face.
The thief. He had taken a thief with him on this journey. How could he have been so blind?
Thorin got up and strode over to the thief’s pack. He rummaged through it, throwing around clothes, lock picks and a length of yarn. The Arkenstone was not there. Somebody else must have it.
“Thorin, what are you doing? Calm down, please!”
He barely heard them.
And then there was the hobbit. He had never been trustworthy, had he? Thorin rushed over, picked him up and began shaking him.
“Where is it? Where did you put it?”
The strong one grabbed his arm while the one with the hat pushed the hobbit behind him. Thorin tugged away from the arm restricting him.
Thorin stared around him. It could have been any of them.
The axe-head was mad, wasn’t he?
The bald one and Master Whitebeard were always whispering, conspiring, giving him looks.
Perhaps the healer and his brother wanted to grind it into a powder and sell it as medicine.
The one with the hat, the strong one and the weakling were all untrustworthy, lower-class scum.
As was the fat one; he could have swallowed it whole in his greed... perhaps he should slit him open to get at it....
And the fair and dark young ones... they could take over, couldn’t they? They could take everything he had away from him!
Thorin rounded on them. His sword was gone, as was his axe, but that didn’t stop him. He flung the dark one at the wall as hard as he could. The dark one crumpled and sagged down motionless. Thorin’s fist collided with the fair one’s face, once, twice. Before he could strike a third time, the bald one and the strong one were upon him, wrestling him away from the traitor.
They tried to hold him, but he was already running, taking one last look at blood in dark hair and a bloodied, broken nose.
Thorin ran, but the pounding of his boots could not drown out the voice whispering in his head.
“Nephews,” it said. “Sister-sons.”
There was a dull ache as well. Guilt.
He ran and his feet led him surely.
He was back with his gold. He dug through it, sorting coins from trinkets until his breath steadied and the ache subsided. The gold was warm and comforting. It sang to him, spoke to him and drowned out the voice that said horrible things to him.
Gold was safe.
Hunger drove him back to the camp. Something, Thorin didn’t even know if it was the gold or the voice, told him to be friendly, to apologise. They had the food and they outnumbered him.
There were looks, lots of them. This time, Thorin knew what they were saying. Anger, fear. Only the bald one no longer looked.
The dark young one had bandages around his head but was awake. The fair one was at his side, his face swollen. The others closed around them as Thorin approached.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me,” he heard himself saying. “I know nothing I can ever say or do will make this right again. I will understand if you cannot forgive me.”
The others reluctantly made way. The dark one hesitated before taking hold of the hand Thorin offered and eventually pulled him into a hug. The fair one maintained his distance.
Thorin also offered his apologies to the thief and the hobbit, as well as to the group in general, before sitting down next to the dark one again.
Eventually, the one with the hat came over to him with a steaming bowl.
“Bombur decided to use the last of the dried meat to make a stew. I’m afraid it’s back to cram after this.”
Thorin thanked the fat one and the one with the hat and eagerly ate the stew while watching the others.
There was still fear and anger in their looks and the strong one and the thief made sure the weakling was in the corner furthest away from him.
That the bald one, the one who was the first to give him looks, was still not looking at him, was strange. The healer and Master Whitebeard came over to talk to him. There was fear in their looks, perhaps suspicion, and definitely greed like in all of their faces, but from somewhere, Thorin was able to give replies that satisfied them and the looks dwindled. After a while, even the fair one smiled at him.
Thorin lay down in a corner to sleep as the sky grew dark. He dreamt of the Arkenstone.
When he awoke, a raven had come with the news that their reinforcements were almost there. Finally, he could sweep away the thieves and beggars before the gate and his gold would be protected. And then he would search for the Arkenstone until he finally found it, until he found the traitor who took it.
He had finished his breakfast and was about to go back to his gold when the bald one approached him. There was still something in his face, but it wasn’t the usual look.
“There is something I need to talk to you about, Thorin. Away from the others.”
Thorin nodded and followed the bald one to one of the side rooms. The voice in his mind again whispered Dwalin, and to his surprise, relief.
Thorin knew that could only mean one thing.
“Did you find the Arkenstone? Do you know who stole it from me?”
“My king, you know I have always kept all my oaths to you. I swore to protect your life with my own and there was never a moment in which I wouldn’t have laid my life down for yours gladly.”
Thorin looked at him in confusion. The bald one’s eyes were shining. Was he crying?
“Thorin, my friend, there is only one oath I have ever wished to break, only one I ever wished to be released from. But I fulfilled all those other oaths to my king, and now I will fulfil the one to my friend. Forgive me.”
He brought their heads together and Thorin was now certain he was crying.
There was a sharp, horrible pain in his chest.
Then the veil rolled back.
For a moment, he thought he heard his nephews’ laughing voices.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dwalin dropped to his knees, cradling Thorin’s dead body. Long minutes passed.
Finally, Dwalin pressed a last kiss to his friend’s forehead. He stood and walked away.
With a deep breath, he straightened and opened the door to the main room.
Balin was the first to take note when he entered. He saw his brother’s face and blanched.
“Dwalin, what happened? What have you done?”
Dwalin strode past him with his face set, unbuckling the scabbard of his sword. He took his axes from his back.
When he reached Fíli, he laid them at his feet and knelt.
“I put my life at your mercy, King Fíli.”