?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

This Long and Winding Road - Chapter 10

Title: This Long and Winding Road
Chapter 10: Sasekh
Pairings: Mostly Platonic Kíli/Fíli, Kíli/Bilbo/Fíli, Dwalin/Ori, Dwalin/Nori, Bilbo/Thorin, minor and background pairings
Rating/Warnings: None for this part unless you count canon injuries and more pining
Word Count: 9211 (57,777 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned it, there would be more threesomes.
Summary: Fíli and Kíli have spent decades searching for the last piece of their hearts, but meeting Bilbo is just the beginning of the tale.  Because hobbits believe in love, not destiny and someone else catches their burglar's eye.

Chapter 1: Ze'                           Chapter 6: Ges
Chapter 2: Nu'                           Chapter 7: Haded
Chapter 3: Gem                        Chapter 8: Gimon
Chapter 4: Ramekh                   Chapter 9: Tager
Chapter 5: Gamekh


The dwarves of Erebor are woken up by shouting the next morning, their leader's words bouncing around their wine-soaked skulls. Thorin is furious that he and his companions slept later than intended – hardly a surprising outcome when most of them saw the dawn – and the dwarf lord berates his kinfolk as they stagger upright one by one.

Only Bilbo and Fíli are remotely rested and the prince mutters a curse on waking anyway. One night's sleep did little for the dwarf's bone deep exhaustion and whoever said that life always seems brighter in the morning was a damn lying fool.

Because Kíli is usually a morning person, up at dawn and disgustingly cheerful compared to all his kin. But today he has somehow slept through their uncle's shouting and when Fíli shakes Kíli's shoulder, the younger dwarf takes far too long to wake. Even then the archer is barely staying conscious. His skin is burning hot and he groans weakly when Fíli lifts him to his feet. Kíli will never be able to reach the Lonely Mountain, not under his own power, but Fíli will carry his amrâbulnas to the gates of Azsâlul'abad if that's what it takes.

The blond dwarf supports his brother with a careful hand as Thorin's company gets dressed in borrowed armor and throws borrowed weapons on their backs. Every move is rushed since Fíli's uncle does not hide his impatience, chivying his kinsfolk toward the exit as soon as they are dressed. Thorin does not even stop to take a headcount before following the Master and his lackey; if the dwarf lord's companions cannot keep up, then they will be left behind.

The Master leads Thorin to the main channel where his guards are loading a boat up with supplies. The man is generous now that he has the promise of dwarvish gold as payment and his manner is reminiscent of many noble sycophants.

Fíli would normally have been repulsed by the Master's toadying; he's never had any patience for royal hangers-on. However, the prince's thoughts are full of worry for his brother and his focus is on keeping the younger dwarf upright. He ignores the Master's speech completely and he doesn't even realize that Bofur is missing until Bilbo mentions the other dwarf's absence from their company. Bofur must still be sleeping back in the Master's mansion but Thorin will not wait for the miner to catch up.

“We must leave without him,” the dwarf lord declares flatly, glaring Bifur to silence when the other dwarf objects. “Do not forget that Durin's Day is upon us. Our quest is nearly over and it will not wait on anything.”

There are a few disgruntled looks, but no one dares to argue for fear of facing the same fate. When their leader orders them on board, the dwarves just heft their weapons and climb into the Master's barge a couple at a time. Fíli waits until the others are all settled before propping Kíli up against a pylon and stepping into the vessel; he finds his balance on the planks and then turns back to help his brother, but Thorin stops Kíli from boarding with a hand across his chest.

“Not you. We must travel with speed and you would slow us down,” Thorin tells his sister-son, the entire company turning to stare at him in shock. To separate amrâbulnâs without their consent is unthinkable and no dwarrow worth his Maker would leave his spouse ill and shaking within a foreign land.

Indeed, Kíli's voice is disbelieving as he asks, “What are you talking about, uncle? I'm coming with you.”

“No. You are not. Rest here and join us when you're healed,” Thorin replies and while his tone is kind, Fíli and Kíli feel a stab of betrayal when they realize that their uncle truly means to leave his younger sister-son behind. The dwarf lord is serious about leaving Kíli here in Laketown and that was not the plan. That was not the plan at all.

“Please, uncle,” Kíli begs, his distress plain on his face. “Fíli and I were raised on your stories of the mountain. We have dreamed of this day for decades and I have to be there when our company comes home. I cannot be absent when we walk into the chambers of our forefathers; if I am, I will regret it for the remainder of my days. I must be there with my brother – with my amrâbulnas. You cannot make me leave him, not for this.”

“He is right, Thorin. What Mahal bound should not be separated,” Nori says, adding his support behind the archer's plea. Thorin's decision may be practical, but it is also wrong.

The dwarf cannot sit by and let this happen, not only because his princes need a chance at glory for themselves. He has spent too long separated from his amrâbulnas to watch Thorin inflict that loss on someone else.

“We still have time, you know. A few rest breaks wouldn't kill us.”

“Truly, Thorin. This does not seem wise.”

“We will not slow you, uncle,” Fíli promises, his voice rising above the other's protests. “Let the others run ahead to find the door and we will follow at his pace.”

“You must admit it would be safer to keep your sister-sons nearby.”

“Kíli will not survive alone,” Óin murmurs to the dwarf lord, his words too quiet for the other dwarves to hear. “Leave him here in Laketown and you will come back to a corpse. Kíli's best hope lies within the Lonely Mountain and if he does not recover, surely he deserves to see the home he's dying for.”

“I said no and you shall heed me!” Thorin snaps. The healer's words have only made him angrier – Kíli is not dying; he cannot be dying – and denial makes the dwarf lord stubborn where others might have compromised.

“I have not forgotten the karrushamrâb that you and Fíli carry,” Thorin tells his sister-son. “But a king's first duty is his people and you would only distract your brother now. His attention must be on our quest, not his husband's injury. So stay here and rest, Kíli. That is an order. Your brother will collect you once our burglar's deed is done.”

With this, the dwarf lord turns to board the Master's barge. Thorin clearly thinks that the question of Kíli's presence has been settled and he either doesn't notice or doesn't care how close his company is to outright mutiny.

Not all of them. Dwarves do not take their oaths of fealty lightly. But Thorin's more distant relatives value family over honor; Bombur and the brothers Ri look ready to attack the dwarf lord and if he honestly thinks that Fíli is going to leave his amrâbulnas in Laketown, then he has gone insane. Indeed, Thorin's company is close to splintering right down the middle, every single member already picking sides. But before Fíli can tell his uncle where to shove his bullshit orders, Kíli stops him short.

“You have to go, Fí,” the archer says quietly. “At least one of us must be there when that door is opened and I would not see our companions come to harm for lack of your twin blades.”

The blond dwarf wants to protest; in fact, he protests quite emphatically across the bond they share. But Kíli's gaze is steady and his heart beats with certainty underneath the distress he cannot hide. For once the archer has seen the truth more clearly and when Fíli actually stops to think about it, he knows his brother's right.

Thorin will not give a boon to dwarrows who sit out the final battle and the princes did not come this far to falter now. If Kíli is too injured to fight then his brother must battle all the harder; this is the eleventh hour and their future rests in Fíli's hands. Their future and the safety of their amrâbulnas.

The princes' uncle has become colder and harsher since leaving Thranduil's palace and Fíli does not trust him to protect their burglar anymore. Not when he has an awful feeling that Thorin's actions now are only the beginning of a corrupted vein. For if the dwarf lord is willing to treat his sister-sons so poorly – to abandon Kíli here in Laketown – then who knows the depths to which he'll sink before their quest is done?

So Fíli let out deep sigh, the sound as much displeasure as an acquiescence, before climbing back onto the dock and hugging Kíli tight.

“You had best survive this, little brother,” the dwarf murmurs. “I am not me without you.”

“Don't worry, laddie. I'll take good care of him,” Óin tells Fíli as he steps out of the barge and moves to the archer's side. “I'll do everything I can.”

“What? No, you cannot leave!” Thorin protests. “I need you in the mountain in case we wake the dragon. That would be a fight hard won and none of us have healing skill.”

“Then you had better not get injured. If my absence makes you cautious that can only be a good thing; I wouldn't want you to do anything stupid, or rather, stupider,” the healer retorts, not bothering to hide his disgust. “My place is with my patient and if you will not take him with you, then both of us shall stay.”

“I should have you drawn and quartered,” the dwarf lord snarls but Óin just laughs in answer and in the face of his indifference, Thorin's threats are meaningless. “Fine then. Do what you want. You clearly plan to anyway. And should someone fall without your skills, let that be on your head.”

“It always is,” the healer mutters softly as Thorin stalks to the bow of the boat. Then Óin turns back to his patient and Fíli does not have the words to express his gratitude for what the older dwarf has done. The prince just reaches out to clasp Óin's arm.

“Thank you,” he whispers and he thinks the healer understands.

Fíli gives Kíli one last hug before allowing his companions to pull him back onto the Lakemen's barge. Then he walks to the stern, only sitting down when he's as far away from Thorin as he can get. The blond dwarf holds his brother's gaze as the Lakemen push off from the dock and set the company on its way. Fíli and Kíli have never been separated like this, never, and the prince watches his amrâbulnas until Óin and the archer disappear from view.

Once his brother is out of sight, Fíli only has their bond for comfort and he nearly throws himself overboard when the pain-streaked brightness that is Kíli suddenly dims within his chest. His amrâbulnas is unconscious and the only things that keep the dwarf from jumping – other than the weight of borrowed armor on his shoulders and the knowledge that he'd sink – are the promise that he made to Kíli and the way that Bilbo suddenly gasps in distress at Fíli's side.

“Are you all right?” he asks the hobbit, looking at him worriedly. The last thing the prince needs is for both of his amrâbulnâs to take sick at the same time.

“I'm fine. For a moment, I just thought that I felt...” Bilbo shakes his head, looking back toward Laketown with a sigh. “It doesn't seem right to leave Kíli when he's wounded and I can't shake the feeling that his injury is much worse than it appeared – much worse than he pretended so as not to slow us down. I pray that we will see him hale and healthy when our quest is done.”

Although the hobbit's bond with his amrâbulnâs is still tentative at best, he must sense the same loss as Fíli, the emptiness that speaks of dire things. Kíli feels almost as faint as Bilbo does, the ashânumahâl dim and cold where the archer's emotions usually burn so brightly in his brother's heart. The younger prince isn't dead but he's far from healthy and their burglar is right to worry now.

So Fíli's smile is shaky as he pats Bilbo on the shoulder and promises, “Everything will be okay. Kíli will recover and we'll see him later on.”

Although the prince's words comfort the hobbit as they're meant to, they taste like falsehood on his tongue and Fíli can't help wondering whether Bilbo would be able to feel his brother die. Would their burglar mourn Kíli with the grief that he deserves? Or would he even care that his amrâbulnas has perished when he's so in love with Thorin anyway?

“There it is!”

Nori's shout distracts Fíli from his morbid thoughts and the prince glances up to see his family's home standing tall upon the plain. Azsâlul’abad is beautiful despite the scorched earth that surrounds her, Smaug's fire leaving ashes from the ruins of Dale to the hills above the Long Lake. Fíli can see signs of life even in that desolation, scraps of grass and brush reclaiming the land the dragon stole. Nothing dies forever and the dwarves will rebuild this land even as they rebuild the kingdom beneath the ground as well.

Indeed, Fíli steps onto the shore with a new sense of purpose. He must be strong for his amrâbulnas; he must be brave enough to earn the future they've spent a lifetime dreaming of. To reclaim Thrór's kingdom and in so doing make it better, to give their people a home where love is not illegal and all khazâd may thrive.

It isn't only Kíli who is counting on him; it's also Nori and Ori and Dwalin. It's every dwarrow and dwarrowdam whose ashânumahâl do not fall within the narrow boundaries of the law. Fíli has to succeed as much for them as for his brother now.

If he fails his mission, then he will have abandoned his amrâbulnas for nothing and he can't bear the thought of that. Of course, the prince won't have to bear this thought for very long if Kíli dies in Laketown, but he has to believe that Óin will save his brother. Fíli has to believe that their quest can still have a happy ending; otherwise there is no point at all. If he's going to keep fighting – if he's going to keep hiking toward the Lonely Mountain – then he has to trust that Kíli will see those halls one day.

The dwarves pause for breath above the southern reaches, looking down at the gates of Azsâlul'abad and the ravages of Dale. Although Gandalf was supposed to meet them here – “the Overlook,” he'd promised – the wizard is nowhere to be seen.

Yet Fíli refuses to let the wizard's absence dampen his spirits any further. He ignores the voice in the back of his mind, the one that asks how exactly they're supposed to kill the dragon now. Thorin's company doesn't need Gandalf when they have courage, skill, and the Master's steel to aid them. Fíli will trust in his training and the Valar, and he tries not to wonder how many other dwarrows died with that same thought.

Of course, before Thorin's company can face Smaug, the dwarves must find the secret door into the mountain. If they do not enter Azsâlul'abad before Durin's Day has ended, then they will be forced to wait another year and Fíli does not have that kind of the time.

If he and Kíli cannot court Bilbo soon, they are sure to lose either their hobbit or their minds. Thorin may be ignoring their amrâbulnas now, but as soon as he comes to his senses, the dwarf lord will have his burglar wedded and bedded as fast as possible. Fíli does not doubt this and there is no guarantee that changing the law against infidelity would allow the princes to just claim their uncle's spouse. At the very least, Thorin and his sister-sons might have to share their hobbit and even if Bilbo would be willing, the thought makes Fíli ill.

So the prince spares no attention for the beauty of his people's homeland, though the statues by the gates are true masterworks of skill. Fíli just throws himself into the search when Thorin's company finally reaches Azsâlul'abad, looking for the grey stone that was mentioned on their map. The dwarves spend hours scouring the mountain and when Nori spies a hidden path to the upper reaches, they find their goal at last. But the cursed door won't open and Fíli grows increasingly frantic as the light begins to fade.

The blond dwarf smashes his blades against the stone in sheer desperation, hoping that force will work where all else failed. But the last ray of sunshine disappears without revealing any keyhole – the secret entrance Elrond promised is just smooth unbroken rock.

Thorin and his companions must have missed their chance somehow. Perhaps they lost track of time in the endless dark of Mirkwood and reached their goal too late.

Fíli's uncle has come to the same realization and the sorrow on his face is heartbreaking as he asks Balin what went wrong. However, it's the thought of Kíli that makes the prince sink to his knees in devastation, leaning his head against the rock to hide the tears upon his cheeks. The archer trusted his brother to see this through; he had trusted his amrâbulnas to do what was required and now Fíli has failed him utterly.

The dwarf falls so deep into self-recrimination that he doesn't notice when the moon rises over the horizon and shines down upon the stone. He doesn't notice the pale light flowing underneath his fingers, its magic revealing a small crevice that had not been there before.

“That's the keyhole. Look! The moon, the last moon of autumn. That's what Elrond meant! Come back! Come back!”

Fíli lifts his head at Bilbo's shout, his heart leaping when he notices the shimmering light beneath his hands.

“The key! Where's the key?!” he asks the hobbit, looking around the clearing frantically. The other dwarves have already started down the mountain and Fíli doesn't waste his breath on shouting. He just scrabbles through the dirt, searching for the key while Bilbo yells for Thorin to come back.

The dim light of dusk makes it difficult to see and Fíli is getting worried by the time his hands touch metal. His fingers close around the key and he breathes a sigh of relief as he surges to his feet.

“I've got it!” the dwarf shouts, rushing over to Bilbo before the moonlight can disappear. His hand is shaking as he inserts the key into the door and he's half expecting something not to fit. Considering the way their luck has been so far, Fíli wouldn't even be surprised. But the key slides into the keyhole easily and he's about to turn it when a hand falls on his back.

“Good work, Fíli. But let me.” Thorin frames this as a request but the prince knows that it's an order and he steps back reluctantly.

Just in time for the glory, Fíli thinks a little bitterly. He can't help wondering how this story will be told when their quest is finished, whether Thorin will be painted as the hero of the tale. Yet even if his uncle has been acting strangely, the company never would have made it this far without the dwarf lord's driving hand; such questions are unworthy of the person that Fíli tries to be.

So the prince joins the rest of his companions, standing on the sidelines as his uncle turns the key. The lock clicks and the hidden door slides open under Thorin's hands, granting the dwarf lord entrance to his homeland for the first time since his people fled.

“I know these walls, these halls, this rock,” Thorin murmurs as he walks into the tunnel, his hands pressed against the stone. “Do you remember, Balin? The chambers filled with golden light?”

“I remember,” the old dwarf answers softly. His eyes are wet as he follows after Thorin, the other members of their company a step or two behind.

The air inside the mountain is dusty, every breath reeking of death and dark decay. Yet there is a sense of life as well, a breathless anticipation that Thorin feels within his bones. Azsâlul'abad has always been able to recognize her children and she has been waiting for this moment for so long.

“Herein lies the seventh kingdom of the Sigin-tarâg,” Glóin murmurs, reading the inscription that stands above the door. “May the Heart of the Mountain unite all dwarves in its defense.”

The words remind Thorin of his purpose, bringing his mind back to the present from a sea of memories. Whatever life his people made in Ered Luin, the Sigin-tarâg belong here and Thorin will never be able to rest until all his kin are home. He will never be able to rest until he is King Under the Mountain with his rightful place reclaimed.

“Bilbo, it is time,” the dwarf lord tells his burglar. “Enter the mountain and bring the Arkenstone to me. If Smaug still lives, you must not wake him. I only need the gem.”

“You want me to find a jewel?” the hobbit asks, looking up at Thorin in confusion. “How am I supposed to... I mean, there must be hundreds down there. How will I know which one is right?”

“Trust me. You will know this gemstone when you see it,” Thorin tells him. “Now, go, and quickly...”

“Uncle, wait! You don't mean to send our hobbit by himself?” Fíli interrupts, several of the other dwarves nodding their agreement. “Bilbo can't face Smaug alone; it's much too dangerous. And what's this about stealing? I thought you meant to kill the beast.”

“Don't be a fool!” the dwarf lord snaps, his glare silencing the rest of his companions before they try to challenge him as well. “We cannot fight the dragon. With only ten other warriors – and not one an archer – that would be suicide. Even if your brother were here, this is why I hired Bilbo. I needed a burglar to infiltrate the Lonely Mountain underneath Smaug's nose and bring back the Arkenstone. Once I have that gem, I can summon up an army and then, well, then we shall drive the monster out.”

Only the King's Jewel will make his crown legitimate, giving him the power to silence all his doubters. Thorin will call an army of dwarven warriors to his side to fight the dragon and when Smaug the Terrible has fallen, he will mount the monster's head on a spike above the gate. The dragon's skull will serve as a reminder, a warning to anyone who thinks of standing against the King of Carven Stone.

“I... I suppose that makes sense,” his sister-son replies. “But still, you cannot wish to risk our hobbit's life. Let me go in with him, uncle. I would keep our burglar safe.”

“It's all right, Fíli,” Bilbo says, denying the prince's offer before Thorin can do the same. The hobbit reaches out and touches Fíli's shoulder, giving the younger dwarf a smile that makes his uncle burn with sudden jealousy. “You do not need to do that. I appreciate the offer but I signed on to be your burglar and I will not let your people down. Indeed, I promised I would do this and I think that I must try. Smaug is probably sleeping anyway.”

“All right, if you're sure,” Fíli murmurs. “But if you get in trouble, just shout and we'll be there.”

“I will,” the hobbit promises. Then he turns away, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders firmly as though to pin his courage down.

“Do be careful,” Thorin tells Bilbo softly before he steps into the mountain and the hobbit's answering smile warms him from head to toe. The dwarf is not a monster. He loves his burglar dearly and does not wish to see him die. But Thorin also loves his people and his kingdom and missing this chance to help them would destroy him utterly. If the dwarf lord wants to stand with pride before his maker then he cannot stop on the edge of glory; he cannot let his future slip away.

Besides, Bilbo has proved himself quite sneaky over the course of their long journey. The hobbit has managed to evade goblins, spiders, and the elves of Mirkwood; Thorin should not worry about a single dragon. His beloved will be fine.

This is the only option. I must have that gemstone now.

The dwarf lord doesn't doubt this statement. He doesn't doubt his choices or the future that he sees. But Bilbo is barely out of sight before Thorin starts to doubt his burglar; the hobbit can't possibly succeed. Despite Bilbo's courage, the dwarf's beloved is no warrior and he has never faced a monster such as Smaug the Terrible. If Bilbo wakes the dragon, he will be slaughtered instantly – and he had best do no such thing before he finds the Arkenstone.

Every passing minute puts Thorin more on edge and soon he cannot stand still anymore. Instead, the dwarf lord paces in front of the secret entrance, glaring at his companions when they try to speak. Thorin isn't in the mood for conversation, not when he knows that Fíli isn't pleased with his decision and judging by their expressions, half his company agrees.

However, all personal feelings aside, their burglar must still pull his weight. If Bilbo is to receive a share of the Lonely Mountain's treasure, then he must earn his prize and there is no one else with the specific skills they need. No one else with a scent that Smaug won't pinpoint instantly.

Although…

Perhaps Thorin should convince the hobbit to relinquish his portion of the gold. After all, Bilbo won't need treasure when living as the dwarf lord's consort and Azsâlul'abad will have many mouths to feed. It may be years before the Lonely Mountain can support his people fully and dwarves have always relied more on trade than self-sufficiency. Trade that must be bought with coin if Thorin knows his allies' greed. The dwarf lord must secure his kingdom before the debtors and the beggars come a calling and if he is to do this, he must have plenty of gold along with the Arkenstone.

But his burglar still hasn't returned when the mountain suddenly starts shaking and the secret passage glows with reddish light. Thorin's companions trade worried glances, their expressions mirroring the misgivings inside the dwarf lord’s heart.

“What was that?” Fíli asks. “Should I go check on Bilbo?”

“Give him more time,” his uncle replies.

“Time to do what? Die?” Balin says and Thorin did not expect mutiny from that direction. Not at all.

“You're afraid,” he growls at the old warrior. Balin has always been one of Thorin's most loyal supporters; he should not be questioning the dwarf lord now. “You are afraid and hiding your fear behind concern and cowardice.”

“Of course, we're afraid,” Fíli cuts in. “We're worried about you. And Bilbo. This isn't like you, uncle. This isn't honorable.”

“A sickness lies upon that treasure hoard,” Balin adds. “A sickness that drove your grandfather mad.”

“I am not my grandfather!”

“So prove it,” Fíli challenges hotly. “Bilbo has saved your life thrice over. He saved you from Azog and from the Mirkwood's spiders; he rescued us from Thranduil's kingdom and if you will not go to help him, then let me go instead.”

That is the last straw. Thorin does not need a lecture about loyalty from his damn sister-son. So the dwarf lord draws his sword and marches into the secret passage, ordering the others to remain outside until he knows what's going on. He doesn't want to endanger the rest of his companions if he doesn't have to and there is still a chance that Bilbo has only been delayed.

However, as Thorin walks the deeper into the mountain, he becomes more certain that this is not the case. The dwarf lord can hear the echoes of a voice ringing through the tunnels, sinister and booming though he can't make out the words. There is only one creature such a voice could belong to; the monster who had stolen Thorin's hearth and home.

Smaug had destroyed everything that the dwarf lord cared about and in this moment, all he wants is to see the dragon burn. Smaug must suffer for the wrongs that he has done.

But when Thorin finally sees Bilbo, the burglar is running toward him. He's sprinting up the stairs instead of fighting Smaug or thieving as he should. His hobbit is a coward and when the dwarf lord sees that Bilbo's hands are empty, rage washes through his mind. The burglar has failed to keep his promise, has failed him, and there can only be one punishment.

Thorin stops Bilbo’s flight with the edge of his blade, his mouth twisting into a feral grin as blood drips down the hobbit's neck. His burglar shouts something about Smaug but the dwarf lord will not listen to excuses. Bilbo either turns back now or dies by Thorin's hand.

His love for the hobbit seems a pale and distant thing next to the fury in his veins. The dwarf lord does not care that he owes Bilbo several life debts and meant to marry him. Such emotions cannot touch Thorin; the past cannot sway him from his purpose any more than the betrayal shining in his burglar's eyes. All that matters is the Arkenstone. All that matters is destroying his kingdom's enemies and Bilbo would have died then if Fíli hadn't stayed the dwarf lord's hand.

“Thorin, what are you doing?!” the prince shouts, wresting his uncle's sword away from their burglar. He had not expected to find this when he'd followed Thorin; he was only worried for his amrâbulnas and unable to stand by waiting anymore.

Doing nothing while Bilbo and his uncle faced the dragon would not win Fíli any favors and the erratic flashes of emotion he'd been receiving from the hobbit spoke more of terror than victory. The prince's connection with Bilbo seemed to be getting stronger – or perhaps it was Kíli's unwelcome silence making those faint whispers deafening. The hobbit had not acknowledged any difference – he was too busy loving Thorin – but Fíli found himself running inside the secret passage to help him anyway.

Even if Bilbo was never more than a dear friend, even if the hobbit married Thorin and never once looked back, the prince could not allow his amrâbulnas to face danger by himself. Fíli was prepared to fight a dragon. He was prepared for anything but the sight of Thorin with a blade to Bilbo's neck.

Although the blond dwarf had wanted to punch his uncle several times during their journey, Fíli had never truly wished to kill him until now. But the prince saw red when he met Bilbo's panicked eyes.

“What are you doing?” Fíli shouts again, shoving his amrâbulnas behind him and glaring at the dwarf lord. “Uncle! Answer me!”

The prince is prepared to stab Thorin if he won't back down but the other dwarf barely seems to notice that his sister-son is present, his gaze strangely hazy despite the violence in his eyes. Instead, it is Bilbo who responds. The hobbit lays a hand on Fíli's shoulder and murmurs, “He didn't mean it. It's all right. Can we please get out of here?”

“Are you crazy? It is not all right!” the prince growls, rounding on his burglar. Bilbo has put up with far too much already and this is where he draws the line. Nothing about this situation is remotely fine.

However, before Fíli can get into a proper rant about unhealthy relationships and things that are very not okay, the dwarf learns the true reason that Bilbo didn't want to have this conversation now. Smaug the Terrible is suddenly bearing down upon them in a wave of flame and fury and the trio dives for cover just as the rest of their companions appear upon the steps.

“You will burn!” the dragon roars, spilling flame in all directions. Fíli can feel the heat from feet away, Smaug's fire raising blisters even though it does not touch his skin.

Now that he has seen this creature in the flesh, the prince doesn't know how he and Kíli ever thought that they could win. The brothers were fools; Thorin and his companions were all fools and now they are going to pay for their folly with their lives. The dwarves would have needed an army in order to have a prayer of winning; with eleven, they need a miracle simply to survive.

With this thought in mind, the dwarves take their chance and run as soon as the wyrm stops spitting fire. Smaug is blocking off the secret passage so Thorin's company is forced to flee deeper into the mountain, the dragon following only a few breaths behind.

“Did we lose him?” Dori whispers when the group rounds another corner and the roar of flames dies out. But the dwarf has barely spoken before Smaug drops down right in front of them, the wyrm's chest glowing bright red as he prepares to roast his prey alive.

“Head to the western guardroom! There may be a way out!” Thorin shouts. He jumps from the causeway as the dwarves are forced to scatter, Smaug's flames licking at their heels.

Fíli grabs Bilbo and dives left when the fire rushes toward them. The prince makes sure that he lands first so as not to crush his hobbit, though he's unable to hold back a curse when he slams into the stone. His hip is probably going to bruise, too much pressure at this angle, but he won't allow the pain to slow him down. The dwarf just pushes himself to his feet and then grabs Bilbo’s hand without thinking to help his hobbit up as well.

Skin to skin for the first time and the prince nearly falls when the burglar's emotions slam into his mind. Because this touch is not a touch, it is fear, panic, worry as the ashânumahâl sings out strong.

The connection nearly overwhelms Fíli after so long with naught but shadows, the dwarf and his hobbit resonating in perfect harmony. Yet the bond is not complete, not yet, and the prince almost starts weeping from the joy of it when he feels Kíli join their song. With Bilbo's strength to bolster him, the dwarf can sense his brother across the leagues that separate them. Fíli feels the archer awaken and reach out for his amrâbulnâs, his spirit weak but growing stronger, and this right here is worth both the struggle and the cost. This is what the three of them were made for, what they were bound for, and Fíli will not doubt Mahal's choice again.

Not even when Bilbo pulls away and the link is broken, the hobbit shaking his head as though to clear stray cobwebs from his mind. What connection remains speaks only of confusion before even that sensation slips away and Fíli is left with emptiness where his burglar had been.

Bilbo's silence hurts all the sharper now that he's felt true completion and yet the prince cannot stop smiling. Because Fíli is finally certain that this blankness is not natural; Mahal did not forge their binding with a flaw. His brother was right; somehow the burglar's denial is holding back their Maker's blessing. Bilbo is the one controlling their ashânumahâl and the princes need only win him over to feel that joy again.

Fíli is even more determined to succeed now that he knows just how good the three of them would be. His sense of purpose is matched in kind by Kíli's, the archer glowing once more in his brother's heart where he belongs. The princes' bond is the foundation on which Fíli built his world and even running from a dragon seems much brighter than before.

Although the dwarves' chances are quite slim – as slim as a fine-edged axe – that doesn't make their quest impossible. Dangerous, yes, but Fíli will keep himself and Bilbo from being eaten by the dragon no matter what it takes. He will not have Kíli recover from his injury only to perish from the loss of his amrâbulnâs instead.

Unfortunately, staying alive is far from easy since Smaug dogs the steps of Thorin's companions with a single-minded rage. The wyrm is everywhere at once, his claws scraping the walkways high above them and his dread fire waiting at the end of every turn.

Fíli has to pull Bilbo down half a dozen side tunnels to keep from being roasted, grateful for the stone sense that keeps him from getting lost. With each near miss, the prince's boots grow a bit more singed and the hobbit's eyes a bit more panicked, Smaug's furious insults echoing like thunder from the stone. It's impossible to tell how close the wyrm is following and the pair runs until their breath burns inside their lungs.

Eventually Fíli and Bilbo reach the western guardroom and the prince is overjoyed to find the rest of their companions waiting there. But this relief is short-lived, the dwarf's heart sinking quickly as he looks around. Thorin's company will not escape in this direction; the passage is blocked with rubble and the floor of the guardroom is covered with the scorched bodies of their kin.

“They must have come here, hoping beyond hope,” Balin whispers, his voice wracked with grief. “With the exits blocked, it would have been a slaughter and that wyrm is not the type to leave his prey alive.”

“Can we not fight?” Fíli asks. “Smaug is powerful, I know, but the legends say that all dragons have a weakness. Have our kin not triumphed against his kind before?”

“With an army, maybe, or an archer like your brother,” Dori tells the blond dwarf with a slow shake of his head. “But even then, we would likely not survive.”

“We could try to reach the mines,” Nori offers, looking at Ori and Dwalin worriedly. “We might last a few days in the deeps.”

“No, we will not run and hide like cowards,” Thorin growls and for a moment, he looks like his old self again. He looks like a leader worthy of a crown. “Fíli is right. Even if it's hopeless, I would rather die with a weapon in my hands. Head for the forges.”

“We'll never make it,” Balin protests. “Smaug will hunt us down.”

“Not all of us. Not if we're careful. Lead the dragon to the forges,” the dwarf lord orders firmly. “This may end in fire, but dwarf and wyrm will burn together if we must burn at all. I will claim the dragon’s beating heart as a token of our victory so that Mahal knows his children were sons of Durin to the last.”

Thorin’s plan is mad and yet, what other choice do the dwarves have? They cannot run from Smaug forever and if the dragon is too strong to face in open combat, perhaps something mad will be their path to victory.

Even if they fail, Fíli would rather go down fighting than hiding in the dark. The prince promised that he would change the law or give his life in the attempt and he will not break that promise. He owes that much to his brother and their allies for getting them this far. Indeed, if Nori feels as much for Dwalin as Fíli felt from his completed trinity then he doesn't know how the other dwarves can stand to be apart.

The prince isn't that strong. He would fight to Valinor and back for the chance to keep his hobbit; he will break his uncle's heart and feel no guilt at all. Even without the ashânumahâl, Thorin doesn't deserve to court Bilbo anymore.

He may be the King Under the Mountain, but that does not give him leave to attack his future consort without cause. Even though the dwarf lord appears to have regained his senses for the moment, Fíli cannot trust him. The prince saw the light of madness in his uncle's eyes – the same dragon sickness that ruined Thorin's grandfather – and he intends to watch the dwarf lord closely from now on. He does not wish to hurt his uncle, but he cannot allow Thorin to hurt Bilbo if his thoughts grow dark again.

However, when the company starts their run to the forges, the hobbit seems to have forgotten that his beloved tried to kill him. Instead of fearing Thorin, Bilbo glues himself to the dwarf lord's side and watches Fíli warily.

The hobbit twitches fiercely when the prince walks closer and while he cannot understand it – didn't he feel our bond as I did? – Fíli doesn't have time to discover what has spooked his burglar now.

What the prince doesn't realize is that the ashânumahâl is the problem as far as Bilbo is concerned. When Fíli touched him, the hobbit's heart glowed molten and he had never such perfect joy before. It spread through his body like a bonfire, warming him from head to toe, and yet he somehow knew that this emotion did not belong to him alone. Bilbo could feel Fíli deep inside him, a sharp delight that matched his smile, and then the hobbit sensed his brother, strange as the thought still seems. Kíli's wild joy bubbled up within him, the archer greeting Bilbo with a wave of happiness. Love and welcome wrapped around the burglar and in that moment, he was treasured as he had never been before.

This is how my life is meant to be, the hobbit thought with blinding clarity. Yet even as this understanding burst within him, Bilbo stepped back again.

Because the burglar is in love with Thorin, thank you very much. Although the dwarf lord has been acting strangely since reaching Erebor, Bilbo is a Baggins not a fickle Brandybuck and he will not give his chosen up for some fever dream. What he felt could not be real; it was just the Lonely Mountain playing tricks upon his mind.

So the hobbit leaves Fíli’s side as soon as they find the others, staying close to Thorin and trying not to think about the prince’s touch again. Bilbo does not trust it; happiness unearned is happiness without a clear foundation and he will not trust his future to such shifting sands as that. Yet the echo of connection lingers like a whisper on his skin until the hobbit finds himself watching Fíli suspiciously. Bilbo doesn’t know if he would be strong enough to let go a second time and he will not risk disaster by giving in to lunacy.

Although, if the burglar did, he would be in good company. Madness seems to lie at the heart of Erebor and he is truly worried about Thorin’s state of mind. While the dwarf lord’s eyes have lost their burning glow, his words carry hate enough to burden Bilbo’s heart. The hobbit thought this quest was about reclaiming the dwarves’ homeland, not carving out a pound of flesh to avenge their suffering.

In fact, Bilbo doesn’t much like the ruthless stranger that he’s begun to see in Thorin. The burglar doesn’t know that person and yet, he cannot judge the dwarf lord for his anger, not when returning to the Lonely Mountain has clearly made his old scars bleed. The hobbit’s beloved has been reminded of everything that Smaug stole from his people and if he hates, he does not do it without cause. Thorin has decided to make a stand – he is done running from his family’s enemies – and while Bilbo fears that this plan will end in failure, he will not abandon his beloved now.

So the burglar swallows his doubts as Thorin’s company runs deeper into the mountain, trying to reach Erebor’s main forges before the dragon hunts them down. Glóin and Nori disappear along the way, forced from the path by the same blast of fire that singes Bilbo’s coat.

The hobbit sees Dwalin falter for a moment, the warrior taking one step toward the edge before Ori grabs his arm. Bilbo cannot hear what the younger dwarf whispers to his husband, but Dwalin turns and charges forward seconds later – leading Thorin’s company down the final stretch. Nori and Glóin will have to fend for themselves until the dragon falls – not that I should worry about Nori anyway. He always seems to come out fine.

Truthfully, Bilbo is far more worried about his own survival when Thorin decides to use Smaug’s flame to ignite the forges’ frozen coals. He taunts the dragon into a frenzy and then smiles at his burglar – a smile that says, “Oh, of course, this was totally the plan.”

That grin makes Bilbo shake his head in exasperation even as he ducks away from Smaug’s latest burst of fire – these damn reckless dwarves will be the death of me. But he still moves to stand by a switch on the upper landing when Thorin gives the order; he doesn't know what this lever does, but he will pull it when he's asked.

So Bilbo stands and waits for Thorin’s signal, watching the dwarf lord make all manner of mysterious preparations on the floor below. Although dwarvish mechanisms are ingenuous, they seem rather complicated to the hobbit’s eyes and he’s surprised that Thorin never falters as he runs around the floor. The dwarf lord hits switches and pulls levers while Balin and Dori hammer Smaug with flash-flames and Fíli does his best to tie their enemy in knots.

The prince’s task is dangerous and Bilbo has to bite back a cry when Smaug’s claws catch on his coat. But then Nori and Glóin appear in mining carts above the dragon, tangling the wyrm with ropes so that Fíli can dart away.

Together the dwarves manage to distract Smaug until Thorin is finally ready. The dwarf lord stands at one end of the forges and shouts out the dragon’s name.

“Come here, you witless worm!” he continues, his voice booming out above the sound of turning gears. Thorin taunts Smaug with insults until the drake charges forward, his chest glowing molten once again. Then Thorin signals to Bilbo and the hobbit pulls his lever just as Smaug runs by.

So that's what it does, he thinks when a dozen streams of water pour out of the wall. They hit the dragon square in the face, dousing his fire in an enormous cloud of steam. Suddenly the burglar finds himself the focus of Smaug's anger and it's all he can do to dodge those snapping jaws. Bilbo tumbles through the air as the stone stairs crack underneath him, the hobbit bouncing off the dragon's leg before then rolling to his feet.

“Lead him to the Gallery of Kings,” Thorin shouts from somewhere behind the burglar, apparently forgetting that the hobbit has no idea where that is. But Bilbo must be going in the right direction since the dwarf lord doesn't offer further instructions after that.

The hobbit runs as fast as he can, sprinting through the nearest archway into an enormous hall. Each wall is lined with statues, ancient dwarven kings staring down from lofty heights. This must be the gallery that Thorin mentioned but those stern stone faces offer Bilbo no advice.

So the burglar just keeps on running as Smaug smashes through the wall behind him. Chunks of stone fly past his head before he's suddenly enveloped by a falling tapestry. The dragon could have killed him then, ended Bilbo's life with one quick bite as he flails in heavy fabric, but Smaug can't resist the chance to taunt his enemy.

“You think you can escape me, Barrel-rider?” the wyrm snarls, his claws digging giant furrows in the stone. “You think you can deceive me with your lies and flattery? You have come from Laketown. These filthy dwarves and those worthless Lakemen have hatched a scheme to steal my treasure; they dare to think that they can kill me and claim this mountain for their own. But I am Smaug the Terrible and tonight the fools shall burn!”

The dragon lopes past Bilbo toward the far end of the hall where the hobbit can just make out a blocked up gate against the stars outside. Smaug is going to take his vengeance by attacking Laketown and a bolt of terror shoots through the burglar at this thought.

“Wait, please!” the hobbit shouts as he struggles to his feet. “You must not go to Laketown. You cannot, please, my deeds are not their fault. If you must punish someone, punish me!”

“You care about them, do you? Good. Then you can watch them die,” the wyrm replies. There is no mercy in Smaug's heart and Bilbo doesn't know why he expected otherwise. However, his plea still served a purpose; he delayed the dragon long enough for Thorin to arrive.

“Smaug!” the dwarf lord shouts from one side of the gallery. “Come face me, lizard! You craven coward!”

Thorin's voice echoes through the hall, drawing the dragon's attention with the promise of swifter vengeance against his enemies.

Bilbo runs for cover as Smaug stalks toward the dwarf lord. He ducks behind a pillar and then turns to watch the confrontation with his heart lodged in his throat. Thorin looks so small next to the dragon, barely more than a mouthful for a beast that size.

Where are our companions? the hobbit thinks, looking around the chamber. Fíli would not allow his uncle to face the wyrm along.

Yet Bilbo cannot see them. The dwarf lord appears to be standing by himself on top of a large structure that is wrapped in iron bands, this mess of stone and metal so tall that he can look Smaug right in the eye. Thorin keeps taunting his enemy as the fire drake slinks closer and if this plan does not succeed – the plan that Bilbo really isn't sure of – then the hobbit is about to watch the dwarf lord die.

Indeed, the burglar is close to doing something stupid when Thorin shouts a word in Khuzdûl and his companions reappear. Fíli and Glóin pull him to safety while the others throw their weight against the ropes beneath his feet. Smaug stops short, watching curiously as the dwarves strain with effort and the hall begins to echo with the sound of snapping bands. Rope by rope Thorin's companions free the structure that he had been standing on and when the last band falls, that giant mold bursts open to reveal the shining golden statue of a dwarven king.

Solid gold from head to toe, the sheer ostentatiousness of the image makes the hobbit wince. Clearly Thranduil had been correct about Thrór's lack of subtlety.

However, Smaug doesn't share Bilbo's disapproval. The dragon prowls closer, ignoring Thorin and the other dwarves to look the statue in the eyes. He seems fascinated by his reflection in the shining metal and when the statue suddenly begins to crumple, the wyrm is caught off guard.

To be honest, Bilbo is surprised as well since Thorin hadn't exactly shared the details of his plan. If he had, the burglar might have asked him why on earth he thought a fire drake would be hurt by liquid gold. But perhaps the dwarf lord knows something that his hobbit doesn't because his crazy scheme appears to work.

As the statue dissolves, a wave of gold slams into Smaug and knocks him from his feet. The dragon thrashes wildly, screaming as the molten metal coats his skin from horns to tail. Bilbo ducks back behind the pillar when that wave of gold rushes toward him, passing so close that a few sizzling drops land on the bottom of his trousers and leave tiny burning holes.

The burglar has nowhere to run, but before the gold can overtake him, the metal starts to settle in the center of the hall. There is a depression in the stonework, one large enough to bury Smaug completely when the weight of liquid gold drags him under once again.

The metal closes over his head and for one breathless moment there is silence. Bilbo cannot see any sign of the dragon - the surface of the gold a smooth unbroken mirror – and surely nothing could have survived that molten avalanche. However, the hobbit has barely started to relax his guard when Smaug resurfaces.

“Revenge?! I will show you revenge!” the fire drake roars, lurching from the pool of gold and charging down the hall. He smashes through the gates of Erebor without pausing and then runs onto the plain. Bilbo chases after him while the rest of Thorin's company stands gaping, the hobbit reaching the exit just as the dragon leaps into the air. Smaug shakes the gold from his scales with one great shudder before spreading his wings and gliding off toward Laketown, the rushing wind carrying his last few words to the hobbit's ears.

“I am fire,” the dragon growls. “I am... death!”

Bilbo can only watch Smaug disappear into the distance, helpless to stop him or warn those still in Laketown of the danger they now face.

“What have we done?” the hobbit whispers, dropping to his knees in horror. Bilbo fears for Bard and for his children, for every innocent who will pay in blood for the mistakes of Thorin's company. He's afraid for Óin and Bofur and the safety of his friends. But most of all, the hobbit fears for Kíli, the idea of a world without the archer making him tremble deep inside.

“Kíli!”

For a second, Bilbo thinks that he has spoken. But then Fíli drops down next to him. The prince's expression is a picture of despair to match the burglar's and he buries his face in his hands with a mournful cry.

“We have killed him,” Fíli moans as the hobbit wraps an arm around his shoulders, too distressed to worry about triggering another vision now. Indeed, Bilbo cannot separate the prince's feelings from the throb of terror within his chest. In this Fíli and the burglar are united, a single name on both their lips, and several miles away, in the city on the water, Kíli sits up suddenly.


Chapter 11: Ze'sasekh