"You— You cannot be serious!" Gloin's voice was a muted growl, echoed by a chorus of incredulity from the others. Bombur, especially, was peering at the barrels with the wild-eyed, greenish look of a man facing gallows. Thorin hushed them with a sharp glare and an admonishing gesture; they were too close to freedom to be undone by wittering.
Beside him, Dwalin kept his jaw clenched, but gestured: this is madness.
"Foolishness," Nori hissed from somewhere deep in their anxious cluster, and then there was a red-faced little hobbit in their midst, appearing without warning between one blink and the next, just beside Thorin's elbow. His hair was a nest of tangles, his clothing ruined with filth, and dark circles bruised under his flashing, furious eyes.
"Fine, yes, it's foolishness." Hands clenched into fists at his sides, Bilbo stamped one hairy foot, sending up a puff of dust from the straw that lined the cellar floor. "You all can just pop back to your cells then. Surely some other opportunity will just drop into our laps. Oh, maybe tomorrow they'll forget to lock the front door, and your cells will just spring open on their own, since I'll not likely get hold of those keys again— wouldn't that be a spot of luck—"
"Silence." Bilbo's expression still simmered perilously, this bout of surprising temper simply further proof of the strain he had endured for them, but at Thorin's word he quieted without argument. Before he could think better of it, Thorin reached out and laid one hand across the hobbit's nape, gentle but firm. Despite their precarious circumstances, he enjoyed a twist of heat low in his gut, feeling something like triumph, when the touch was not shrugged off... but this was hardly the time for wandering thoughts.
"Easy," he whispered, while his thumb traced lightly through gritty, sweat-damp curls. Every moment wasted brought them closer to discovery, to failure, and to elves descending upon them like crows on a carcass. "All of you, peace. Unless there is a better plan to be had this instant, and the means to enact it, we will get in the confounded barrels. Now."
It had been a spectacularly terrible plan.
Air holes had been a sorely missed luxury while they were crammed into the stinking, oaken casks, stifling every breath of noise so as not to alert their tipsy elven accomplices. Any tiny sip of fresh air would have been a blessing as they all choked silently on the cloying stink of apples or pickling brine, or whatever else their disguises had once held. Once they had been rolled into the water, however (which had been a sickening, lurching experience on its own), the leaking under Thorin's lid had been bad enough without assistance.
They bobbed and crashed along the waterway, and the rushing torrent was a deafening echo buffeting through the barrel, louder than thunder or orcish drums; if the river did not kill him, Thorin was convinced his skull would simply crack from the din. He could not hear anything of the others, beyond the explosive cracks of barrels slamming against his own, and fear gripped his heart with pitiless claws, razor-sharp and more frigid than the water splashing his face. These dwarves and their little burglar— old friends, companions, and kin— were under his protection.
Betrayal and grief had not bested him, nor had the relentless battering of the Defiler's hatred. He had survived the licking flames of a dragon's avarice, the wretched exile that followed, and more importantly, he had brought his people through as well— leaner, humbler, but stronger.
Having his brains dashed across the inside of a butter barrel was no fitting end for Thorin Oakenshield, nor for any of his loyal company. He would not be brought so low, battered and drowned, on the coattails of Thranduil's hospitality. He would breathe free air again, with spine straight and eyes forward, eastward, toward home. His kinsmen would walk the halls of Erebor, grand and vaulted, and the songs of their victory would be sung long into the next Age.
He would cuff Bilbo Baggins for suggesting such a fool plan as this, then hold the hobbit so close that not a whisper of air might pass between them.
It followed, of course, that the river chose that precise opportunity to throw his barrel hard upon some unyielding obstacle, and pain exploded through the base of Thorin's skull.
And he knew nothing but darkness.
There is fire, so much fire, rolling deep and merciless in his belly, scorching into his chest. A searing glut of flame and fury, pushing, pulsing; it is his rage, burning merciless and cruel, to loose upon his enemies.
He is the dragon, the destroyer... a beast of greed, of hate, remorseless, furious. His heart is a pit of coal, of obsidian, black as night and sharp as fractured glass. Impossible ice, cold and unfeeling, gleaming in a wreath of flame and the molten depths of a mountain.
He is the dragon; he is the monster. There is nothing but ash beneath his ribs—
Thorin woke, thrashing, gagging great heaves of water onto the stones beneath his back; he felt as though he'd been turned wrong-side-out, with every nerve singing the agony of a flayed man. Every desperate lungful of air threatened to crack him in two, rending his ribs asunder, and every cough felt torn from his very foundation. The light was too bright, his eyes too blurred, and he dug his fingers hard into smooth, shifting rocks, desperate for solid ground.
"Thorin!" Only then did he notice the weight pressing down on his hips, not immovable but heavy enough to keep him from rolling over without effort. He twisted back, flopping his shoulders down flat despite the pain of every motion, and blinked up at the bright blue sky far above. Barely a heartbeat later (miraculously, his heart still hammered strong), the view was darkened by a bedraggled, sopping head of curls. Bilbo was deathly pale, looking more like a wraith than a hobbit; there were river weeds hanging from his collar. "Thorin, oh— just breathe. Deep breaths."
His own voice was beyond reach, lost beneath the ragged panting and the fading burning of his lungs, but Thorin managed a gasp that was perilously close to a laugh. Though his arms felt weighted, leaden, he still dragged them up enough to clutch at the soaked wool of Bilbo's trousers, grasping tight.
The hands that closed over his own were as cold as the river, but their grip was steady, keeping him tethered until he caught his breath. Around him, he heard hoarse voices and harsh coughs— nearest to him, Dwalin was cursing, and Ori was fretting over his brothers. There was no wailing, though, and no bitter snarls of grief; perhaps the river had been merciful.
Perhaps, he considered, watching wide blue eyes peering down at him... perhaps the luck of a hobbit had seen them through their trials once again.
AN: I'm having a lot of fun playing around a bit with canons for my own nefarious purposes. From everything I've seen so far, it looks as though the next film is going to have dwarves bobbing along in barrels without lids, while book barrels were closed up and cramped— I waffled about which to go with, but shoved-in-a-tub-Thorin won out. Anyway, next up should be Lake-town, with Bilbo feeling ill, and also the last comfortable bed before Erebor and Smaug— I'm thinking that means some sex is about due. Yes?
Thank you all for reading, and for the lovely reviews I've received so far. The response to this story has been wonderful and humbling, and you're all just brilliant!