He woke in cool darkness and, at first he was confused. All his thoughts and memories were filled with the roar of battle and the warmth of blood. Was this it then? Were these the halls of his fathers? Had he been brought here in shame and this was his punishment, to be always alone and in darkness?
Something stirred beside him and when he turned his head toward the movement he could feel a tightness in his shoulder and chest. He was bound, the stretch of bandage a familiar sensation, and his muscles protested even the slight change in his position. So, he was not dead then, for surely if his injuries had followed him into death, there would be far more pain.
His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light and he could see her, sitting on the floor, wrapped in a woolen blanket with her eyes closed, head pillowed on the side of the cot on which he lay.
She stirred again, brow furrowing, a single golden curl falling over her eyes. Thorin's chest constricted until he thought surely now he must be dying. He couldn't seem to find air to breathe and he swallowed to dislodge the lump that had formed in his throat.
Mahal, he had been such a fool. It took all of his strength, but he lifted his trembling fingers and brushed back the limp tendril of her hair. His fingers grazed the skin of her cheek and she flinched, her eyes fluttering open.
She stared at him. And then she blinked.
"Oh!" she cried, scrambling to her feet and backing away, hands held up as if to ward him off, "Oh, you're... you're awake! Oh, I have to... I'll... I'll get Oin!"
"Briallen..." he said, but his voice came out in a raspy whisper. She waved it away as she backed up, toward the tent opening.
"No, it's... I'll just... I have to get Oin, he'll... he'll want... I have to go."
And then she was gone, leaving him alone in the dark. His hand fell to the blanket and he shut his eyes. His chest was on fire, but his skin was cold. He swallowed and tried to breathe. He had been wrong. He was dead. His body just hadn't caught up to what his heart already knew.
The wind was cold on Brie's face, but she didn't mind it all that much. From the overlook she could see the whole of Dale, cheery fires burning in the courtyards and the smouldering remains of the battle in the fields beyond, people scurrying about, busy as ants, shoring up walls to make buildings safe for habitation. It would be a hard winter for the Men who chose to remain here, but the Iron Hills dwarves were already working hard to make things as comfortable as could be hoped. Even the enmity with the elves seemed to have dissipated with the news that King Thranduil had worked tirelessly, and spared no expense, to see the King Under The Mountain and his heirs well tended in their injuries. It was even rumored that he had saved the dwarf-king's life.
Brie smiled a little, despite herself. Fili had shattered a leg in his fall and would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and Kili had taken a mace blow across the face which would likely result in some unpleasant scarring. But they were alive. They were, all of them, alive. It was more than she could have hoped for. It was everything she could have wanted.
She heard the rustling of robes behind her and she buried her smile in the collar of her coat.
"Are you quite sure about this, Briallen?" Gandalf asked in that grandfatherly gruffness he had taken to using with her, "There's no need to rush. There will be feasting and celebration soon enough, and I'm sure Bard would like very much…"
Brie tuned him out as he went on about how she might be lauded and coddled and rewarded for her actions. Rewarded. Of all the ridiculous notions, that she should be rewarded for the terrible part she had played in all this. There was only one reward she would accept, the only reward she deserved, and it waited for her back at Bag End.
The Fading. She could still feel it, a flutter of darkness when she closed her eyes, pulling at her. She didn't fear it. And there was no reason to delay anymore. Everything she had wished for was fulfilled. Everyone she cared about would be taken care of. Even Bilbo, whom she loved more than her own life, would find comfort and joy and a new life with Bofur. The Ri brothers were kind, but in time they too would forget. She would Fade from their memories, just as she would Fade from life. And as for the others…
A large muzzle nudged her side, pushing away the lingering murmur, and she put a comforting hand on Beorn's neck, burying her fingers in the soft fur. His large brown eye watched her quizzically and she smiled with as much assurance as she could muster.
"No," she said, hoisting her pack more comfortably onto her shoulders, "No, I'm ready."
"Oh no you don't!"
Beorn's throat rumbled against her fingers and Brie shut her eyes, regretting for a moment that she had returned Bilbo's magic ring to him. She would very much have liked to disappear at the sound of her brother's indignant voice. She turned to see him storming furiously up the hillside, his pack haphazardly slung on his back, and two dwarves following in his wake. She shot a glare at Gandalf, who looked both unsurprised and unapologetic.
"Don't know how you expected to slip off without us," Bofur said, pulling Bilbo up short to adjust a strap on his bag, "We outlaws have to stick together, you know."
Brie rolled her eyes. "As if you would still be considered outlaws after—"
"Treason, sweet," Nori said, slinging an arm around her shoulders and pulling her in tight, "Dwarves don't take kindly to treason. Sure, we might be granted clemency, under the circumstances, but if you think we'll ever truly be welcome in the Mountain again…" He trailed off and then shrugged. "Well, I'd rather keep company with you any day."
He winked at her, but there was a pain in his eyes that did not entirely go away. Brie felt a tug on her heart, a thread of guilt. This was her fault. He had lost his home, his brothers… Dwalin. Something had happened between the two dwarves, a rift that Brie was not sure could ever be mended. And it was all her fault.
"Well, shall we be off?" Bilbo asked, looking bright-eyed and far more eager than Brie might have expected, "We've set Ori as a distraction, but I imagine it won't be long before the others realize we're missing. I'd like to be quite on our way before th—" He stopped and seemed to substitute a word. "—any undue notice is taken."
Brie looked at them all and tried to think of some way to convince them to stay, to let her go on, alone and forgotten, as she deserved. But they were all staring back at her with determined, yet cheerful expressions and she knew there would be no turning them away. She sighed and pushed her Fading a little farther back. She didn't know how long she could hold it at bay, but perhaps she could find a way to live with it. Just a little longer.
She forced a smile.
"Well," she said, "Together or not at all, right Bilbo?"
He smiled back and took her hand tightly in his.
"Together, or not at all."
And with that, the weary travelers set their sights for home.
...to be continued...
A/N: I know. I know! *ducks flying objects* Trust me, I know! There's a sequel! "Fading Flower, Broken Stone", go read that! *flees the scene, ducking even more flying objects*