"So you want me to find a jewel?"
"And the Arkenstone – I'm assuming that it has some distinguishing features, or do you want me to trot back up here every time I find a jewel?"
"Bilbo," Balin said, "you are looking for a large white jewel."
Bilbo raised his eyebrows. "Anything else?"
"It is the most beautiful jewel down there."
Bilbo sighed. Specific, as always.
"Bilbo, I'm sorry that I can't help you any more than this. It's... It's just that the Arkenstone's appearance is impossible to describe. But I promise you, you'll know it when you see it. When in doubt, you probably don't have it."
Bilbo looked from Balin to the rest of the company. "Very well," he said. "I think it's time for me to prove my worth as a burglar. Will any of you come with me?"
Bilbo was hardly expecting a chorus of volunteers, but was surprised.
"Alright," Kíli muttered.
Bilbo's eyebrows shot up. "I'm sorry?"
"I owe you a debt, do I not?" Kíli replied, a smile playing around his lips. "I'm hardly going to be able to pay it sitting up here while you quite possibly get incinerated."
Bilbo tilted his head acquiescingly, knowing that there was absolutely no point in arguing. The steely glint in Kíli's eye showed that he would not be swayed – the stubbornness of dwarves was not something to be fought.
"I'm going too," Fíli suddenly said.
"No," Kíli snapped. "You're-"
"Kíli, where you go, I go, and if you are going down there, then so am I."
"Fíli, this debt is mine to pay, and mine alone."
"Kíli, I'm older than you, you know how all arguments end."
"Aye, I do, and I'll have you know that this time, I have the upper hand."
"The upper hand? Kíli, it's nigh on suicide!"
"And it's not going to be any less suicidal with you there!"
"Kíli goes with Bilbo," Thorin decreed. "Fíli, you stay here."
"Thorin!" Fíli snapped, turning incredulously to his uncle.
"Thorin, how can you allow this?"
"Fíli, it is his debt to pay," Thorin said, his eyes fixed on the floor. "If he chooses to pay it here, then I cannot stop him. And neither should you."
Fíli turned away. "This is insanity!"
"Fíli, what exactly do you object to?" Kíli asked. "The fact that you're not going down, or that I am?"
Fíli looked at his brother. "Both! You shouldn't be going down there-"
"You're perfectly happy to send Bilbo down there!"
"That's because it's his job!" Fíli's voice rose to nearly a scream, ignoring the winces of the others as his final word reverberated around the small chamber and down the passage. "Not yours!"
Kíli grabbed his brother's arm. "It was not Bilbo's job to go and find me at the bottom of the cliff," he hissed, his voice dropping in volume. "But as I recall, you weren't so contrary to the company sticking to their respective jobs then!"
Kíli knew that he had won – he let go of his brother's arm and began to walk down the passage after Bilbo.
"Kíli!" Fíli called out, desperation evident in his voice.
Kíli stopped, turning back to his brother, the look on his face showing that he would not be swayed.
"Be..." Fíli's voice caught in his throat. "Be careful."
"So do you know any more about what the Arkenstone looks like?" Bilbo asked his companion, who had so far remained silent as they walked down the passage. "Only... Balin's description wasn't the most helpful..."
"Yes, he was rather vague, wasn't he?" Kíli said, his tone surprisingly light. "Well, I can't say that I've ever seen the Arkenstone, but my mother used to tell us stories about it, amongst other things. She told us that the stone was so glorious that it seemed to emit its own light, and that it could shine a light into even the darkest of places, illuminate the darkest hearts."
"What does that mean?" Bilbo asked.
Kíli paused in thought. "I don't know," he said carelessly. "I always assumed that it would cheer everyone up. Anyway, she told us that it was larger than her fist, a perfect sphere, yet somehow carved with a thousand faces that shone with its light. Every time she spoke of it, her face would light up 'like the Arkenstone.' It's a common saying among our people, so I suppose that must count for something."
"And, of course, not forgetting that it's a 'large white jewel,'" Bilbo said, smirking.
Kíli laughed, but broke off abruptly as they rounded a final corner to face the end of the passage. The roof seemed to rise into a black oblivion above them, and the only reason why they could see that they were standing before the hall was that a thin, watery light from the moon came through lower windows of glass – or quite possibly diamond. Bilbo cast a glance at Kíli, who was staring at the doorway with a look that the hobbit had never seen grace the young dwarf's face, as though he was in a trance. Kíli stepped forwards, almost without knowing he was doing so, but Bilbo put a hand on his arm.
"Kíli, maybe... maybe I should go first..." Bilbo suggested, and Kíli started at the sound of his voice, looking at Bilbo with a strange light in his eye.
"What?" Kíli breathed.
"I can go first, with my Ring, and check that there isn't, say... a dragon down there..."
"Oh..." Kíli said softly, still not sounding like himself.
Bilbo wasn't entirely satisfied with the answer as Kíli turned back towards the door, but the dwarf made no sign of movement, and so Bilbo pulled out his Ring, and vanished. The hobbit tentatively walked forwards, spending seemingly forever stopping and listening for any kind of noise to indicate that a dragon was awaiting them. When he finally emerged from the passage and had his first view of Erebor, he saw something that took his breath away.
The tales that the dwarves had told of the wealth of Erebor had fallen short of the sheer magnitude of Thror's hoard. If Bilbo had thought that Esgaroth was large, then Bilbo had been sadly mistaken – Erebor could have quite comfortably housed three indentical copies of Lake-Town along the floor that Bilbo could see alone, and the ceiling stretched into darkness above Bilbo to a height beyond measure. From the hobbit's vantage point atop a flight of stairs, at a height that would have easily killed a man should he fall from the platform, he admired the great carven pillars that seemed to hold level after level above him. But what took his breath away most was what lay on the ground level – Bilbo dared not think about what lay below. The amount of gold seemed to trivialise its worth, as it covered the floor more effectively than a flood. It piled high in mounds like sand, carelessly thrown about and scattered with jewels of more colours than the hobbit could name. Yet he could see no sign of any sort of dragon, dead or alive. Bilbo pulled off the Ring, his mouth half open as the magnitude of his task was finally made clear to him.
"Is this it?" came a voice to his left. "Is this what I lost my hand for?"
Bilbo turned to see Kíli staring at the hoard of Thror. The muscles around his eyes had tightened and his lips were curled into a grimace. The young dwarf's voice sounded disgusted, disbelieving, as though the reality seemed to have fallen short of his expectations. But Thorin had promised Kíli something more than endless gold and jewels – Thorin had promised his younger nephew a treasure not so easily found. Erebor had always represented a place of happiness, where Kíli would forever feel safe, and the cold chamber filled with gold did nothing to help that. He could not see how a vast hoard of treasure was going to hold his family together, when it seemed that it was tearing his family apart.
"'Is this it?'" Bilbo suddenly repeated incredulously, looking at Kíli. "Really? That's your reaction?"
Kíli's eyebrows raised as he turned to look at the hobbit. He could sense that Bilbo was trying to cheer Kíli up in his own slightly strange way, and appreciated it nonetheless. "And what's yours?"
Bilbo turned disbelievingly back to the piles of gold. "How on earth are we going to find the Arkenstone in all this?"
"Any sign of it?"
"Well," Bilbo called back over the hill of gold that lay between himself and Kíli, "I've found several white jewels. None of them seem to be carved with a thousand perfectly identical faces, and none of them seem to be emitting a light of their own. However, they are all 'large white jewels,' so I suppose that must count for something."
"You sound about as successful as me," Kíli called back. "Oh – damn!"
"Are you alright?" Bilbo shouted, hearing the dwarf's curse, casting aside his latest candidate for the Arkenstone in favour of scrabbling up to the top of the mound, the coins sliding treacherously under his feet.
"Yes, I'm fine," Kíli called, sounding rather irritated. "This is about the fifth time it's happened."
"Fallen over again?" Bilbo asked with a hint of amusement.
"Yes, and each time it happens, it takes me about an hour to get up again," Kíli snapped. "Every time I try and use something to hold onto, it always slides out underneath me. I swear, this hoard is conspiring against me to make my life as difficult as possible."
Bilbo snorted with laughter. "Because inanimate gold hoards are so well known for their conspiring abilities."
"'Inanimate?'" Kíli asked incredulously. "This thing is hardly inanimate, it's as animate as you or I."
The sound of gold sliding some way to Kíli's right made him smirk as he finally got to his feet.
"See, I told you! It's virtually impossible to stay upright for very long!"
"What are you talking about?" Bilbo called back from behind a mound to his left. "I'm yet to fall over once."
Kíli's stomach clenched. "So that wasn't you?"
"So what wasn't me? Kíli, what are you talking about?"
Kíli suddenly scrambled over to the top of the mound, sheer speed allowing him to reach it without falling over, before he slid down to where he thought he'd heard the gold falling over itself. He would later question the wisdom of his actions as he frantically began digging through the coins, only to reveal something that he'd hope never to see.
"Master hobbit," Kíli breathed as the gold slid towards him to reveal a large scaly tail. "Put your Ring on. Now!"
A/N: I am so unbelievably sorry that I haven't updated for so long! And I'm going to do my standard thing of grovelling for forgiveness and saying that real life hasn't let me do anything beyond university preparation. (However, the good news is that I now have an offer from my first choice, so YAY!) Beyond that, though, I've come to hate this chapter (as I always do when it takes me a while to write a chapter.) None of the characters seem to be working for me at the moment... So for those of you who have been patient enough to wait for this update, then thank you all so much for your patience, and I'll try and be quick with my next one.