A/N: Hey guys, the dissertation is done and dusted, so here's the FINAL chapter! (Longer Author's Note at the bottom of the page!)
"Follow your mother, your father, and brother back home…"
Fíli awoke with a start. Although the black visions evaporated as soon as his eyes flew open, they left in their wake a sickly feeling in his stomach, and a pounding in his head matched only by the hammer of his heart against his ribcage. Lying in his bed in the sickroom, Fíli peered up at the ceiling which was spotted with flickering pools of golden light from the candles, and tried to breathe deeply. He couldn't quite remember what he had been dreaming about… but he was sure he had seen Kíli… and Thorin… and dragon fire… Closing his eyes, he listened out for Kíli's familiar snuffling as he turned in his sleep. Kíli was a heavy sleeper, but he could never stay still, especially if he was dreaming. As much as the kicking and whacks in the face annoyed Fíli, he couldn't deny that they had been a comfort to him on their journey; they were a reminder that Kíli was by his side and safe. He didn't like to think about their first night in Rivendell, when Kíli had been so deathly still as he slept, and Fíli knew this meant he really was dangerously ill. But now he could hear the soft rustling of Kíli's sheets to his right, signalling that his brother was very much alive and well.
Satisfied, Fíli was drifting back towards sleep when his eyes shot open again. Aside from Kíli's fidgeting, the sickroom was silent… Thorin wasn't snoring… Fíli listened, but he couldn't hear a sound from Thorin's bed opposite his own. Visions of the night Thorin stopped breathing suddenly flooded Fíli's mind and he sat bolt upright… The sight that greeted him made him let out a cry. He couldn't hear Thorin breathing because Thorin wasn't there. His uncle's bed was empty, the sheets crumpled. Fíli leapt out of bed, spilling a string of words which he had picked up from Dwalin and would never use in front of his mother. He hastily pulled on his boots and looked frantically about the sickroom. He hadn't realised Thorin's recovered mobility would pose problems, and now he dreaded to think where Thorin could have got to…
Fíli's eyes moved from the sprawled, sleeping form of Kíli to the cupboard by his bed where they had been storing their weapons… Images of Thorin retrieving Orcrist and going to pay Lord Elrond a visit flashed in front of Fíli's eyes and he desperately tried to blink them away… Surely the more likely explanation was Thorin had headed towards the east corridor, but Fíli was sure his uncle didn't know the way… What if he had got lost? Or collapsed in some dark, deserted corridor where no one would find him until morning? What if…? A familiar smell suddenly tickled Fíli's nostrils… Pipe-weed!
Following the scent like a foxhound, Fíli spun around to face the balcony doorway, and, sure enough, he could just make out a faint cloud of smoke drifting lazily in the night air. With an almost audible sigh of relief, Fíli stepped out onto the balcony. Thorin was sitting on the stone bench furthest from the doorway, pipe in one hand, walking stick in the other. It was the same spot Fíli had occupied a week ago, when Gandalf had followed him out onto the balcony, offering Thorin's key. Fíli's hand jumped unconsciously to the chain around his neck, and it wasn't lost on him just how much he had changed since then. Thorin didn't seem to have noticed Fíli's presence and, lost in his own thoughts, his gaze remained fixed on some unseen, distant point.
"Thorin?" Fíli said quietly, taking a step forward.
Thorin's head snapped to the side, his expression full of both shock and anger… But at the sight of Fíli his features softened. "Fíli?" he murmured. "I… I did not mean to wake you."
Fíli could tell Thorin was embarrassed at having been caught off-guard, and he wasn't quite sure what to say. He hovered awkwardly by the doorway, wanting to join Thorin on the bench, but aware that his uncle might like some privacy – he hadn't had much since they arrived in Rivendell.
"Are you alright?" Fíli asked carefully. He noted that Thorin had managed to pull on his boots and his overcoat, and couldn't deny he was impressed with the progress Thorin had made since yesterday.
"I'm fine," Thorin replied, a little guardedly. "Without the elves' herbs, sleeping is quite difficult when your brother insists on wriggling around like that."
Fíli managed a smile. He knew Lady Arwen hadn't made Thorin a sleeping draught that night because she thought it would interfere with the treatment of his thigh, but he also knew Kíli's sleeping habits weren't the reason for Thorin's insomnia. He suspected they had both been having troubling dreams.
Thorin registered the concern in his nephew's expression. "I worried you?"
"I wasn't sure how far you had gone," Fíli answered, deciding against telling Thorin his theory about him threatening Elrond with the weapons of his own kin.
"I remember the days when you had just learnt to walk," Thorin murmured. "You were forever disappearing and frightening the life out of your mother."
Fíli rocked on his heels, conscious of the impracticality of continuing the conversation down the length of the balcony, but still wary that his uncle might want to be left alone. "May I join you?" he asked finally.
The surprised smile, bordering on a grin, that broke out on Thorin's lips immediately set Fíli at ease, and he realised how out of place his formality had sounded.
"Of course," Thorin replied, gesturing to the bench with his pipe.
Fíli went and sat down at his side, and they both looked out towards the distant, wavering blue ribbons of the waterfalls. They shared a calm, comfortable silence, with Thorin puffing periodically on his pipe and Fíli watching the smoke twist and vanish into the air. So much that had been left unsaid hung between them like the smoke and, although Fíli was reluctant to break this soothing silence, he knew he might not find himself alone with Thorin again for some time.
"Why did you leave the decision about the map up to me?" Fíli asked slowly, turning to Thorin.
Thorin seemed to have been expecting the question, but he still studied Fíli for a long time before answering: "Being a leader requires you to make difficult decisions… Decisions where you must choose between your heart and your head, and often between your own interests and the interests of those that follow you."
Thorin took a long drag on his pipe, and looked out towards the waterfalls. "You feared I would be angry with you if you gave Lord Elrond the map, but you also knew it was necessary for the sake of our quest, and for our people."
Fíli felt a lump growing in his throat… The way Thorin said 'our people' signalled the shift in his attitude towards his nephew… It meant he was beginning to share the burden of the crown.
"You made the right decision under pressure, as well as any king would," Thorin continued, and then, turning to Fíli, he put a hand on his shoulder. "And I am very proud of you, Fíli."
Over the course of the week, Gandalf had grown used to Lindir knocking on his door at odd hours, delivering Lord Elrond's messages and summons. He found Lindir's twitchy, somewhat nervous demeanour quite endearing, but the elf was noticeably more agitated than usual when he called on him this time. He also didn't offer to escort the wizard to Elrond and disappeared before Gandalf could say a word. This did not bode well.
Gandalf was making his way towards the westerly terrace Lindir had described when Estel suddenly appeared, bounding around the corner, skidding to a halt in front of him.
"Gandalf!" Estel panted, clutching his side.
"Estel, my boy! Whatever is the matter?" Gandalf asked, startled by how little colour Estel had left in his cheeks.
"Galadriel… and Saruman the White… they have come to Rivendell!" Estel replied breathlessly, his grey eyes wide. "I heard them talking… to Lord Elrond… They are going to put a stop to the dwarves' quest!"
Gandalf's expression darkened, and he tightened his grip on his staff. "I should have foreseen this…" he whispered, more to himself than Estel.
Estel watched as the wizard's eyes darted to and fro, weighing up their options. He tried to straighten up despite the stabbing pain in his ribcage, and waited for Gandalf to speak.
"Thorin and his company must leave Rivendell tonight," Gandalf said finally. "I will go to Lord Elrond and distract the council for as long as possible. Estel, you must go to the sickroom and warn them… Tell Thorin they need to leave now, before dawn, and take the mountain pass. They should wait for me in the mountains and I will join them as soon as I am able."
"Right!" Estel said, though he stayed stock still as he went over Gandalf's instructions.
"Go! Make haste to the sickroom!" Gandalf cried, giving Estel a nudge with his staff, before setting off around the corner in a determined march.
Estel sprinted down the corridor, ignoring the ache in his side, and made a sharp left, only narrowly avoiding slamming into the wall. He bounded past Arwen's quarters and his step faltered… Should he let her know? Surely she would want to say goodbye… But he decided against it, there wasn't time. Distracted by these thoughts, the corner arrived sooner than Estel expected and this time his arm did graze the wall, but now he found himself opposite the sickroom doorway. With ragged, relieved breaths, Estel limped into the room… and froze. Thorin and Fíli weren't in their beds. He looked desperately around the sickroom… When Gandalf told him the plan, Estel was sure Thorin wasn't well enough to leave, but now, as it appeared Thorin was well enough to get up and wander about in the middle of the night, he was changing his mind. Suddenly he heard low voices coming from the balcony.
Estel was one of the last people Fíli expected to see bursting out onto the balcony that night, and as soon as Elrond's ward appeared looking half-demented, Fíli was on his feet.
"Estel? What is it? What's happened?" He asked urgently.
"Gandalf sent me!" Estel gasped out. "The White Council is meeting; they mean to stop you going any further!"
Fíli wasn't sure what the 'White Council' was, but the look on Estel's face told him it could be nothing good. He turned to Thorin, who was clutching the handle of his walking stick so tight his knuckles were almost white.
"I told Gandalf this would happen. I knew we should never have trusted these people!" Thorin growled, and if looks could kill, Estel would have been dead ten times over.
"Gandalf gave me instructions," Estel said, keeping his voice steady, knowing better than to protest his innocence. "You and your company are to leave Rivendell tonight, taking the mountain pass, and you must wait for him to join you in the mountains."
"Tonight?" Fíli breathed, his mind racing. He looked uncertainly at Thorin.
Thorin's narrowed eyes moved from Estel to Fíli. "Can we trust what the boy says?"
Fíli, still getting used to his uncle asking his opinion, took a moment to answer: "Aye. Estel is on our side."
"Then we must prepare to leave!" Thorin said decisively, and, leaning forward on his walking stick, pulled himself up from the bench.
Estel's shoulders sank in relief, and he turned back into the sickroom. Fíli and Thorin followed him inside, with Thorin positively striding as he stabbed his walking stick into the stone floor with each step.
Fíli rushed to Kíli's bedside and shook his brother awake. "Kíli! You need to get up, now!"
"Wha –?" Kíli mumbled, almost slapping his brother across the face as he rolled over.
"Come on, Kíli!" Fíli said, giving him a shove for good measure, as he returned to his own bed to properly dress.
"What's going on?" Kíli asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. He stopped at the sight of Estel. "Estel? What are you doing here?"
"We've got to leave tonight," Fíli said, pulling on his fur-lined jacket and fastening his belt. "Before anyone tries to put an end to the quest once and for all. Now get dressed, Kíli!"
Kíli didn't need telling again. There was a booming note of authority in Fíli's voice that was new to him, and it made him move. Fíli fastened his vambraces and made a beeline for the cupboard by Kíli's bed. He met Kíli there and the two brothers quickly collected weapons.
"What about the others?" Kíli whispered, his brow furrowed as he swung his quiver over his shoulder.
Fíli thought for a second, then put a hand on Kíli's shoulder. "Go to the east corridor, tell them we have to leave now. Make sure everyone is packed and ready to go, Thorin and I will meet you there."
Kíli nodded. Although he still didn't quite understand what was happening, he could do what Fíli asked. He straightened up and in a second had vanished from the sickroom. Grabbing his twin falchions, Fíli swiftly slid them into the sheaths strapped to his back, and turned to Estel and Thorin. Thorin was struggling to fasten his black vambrace, the other already being strapped to his broken arm to hold the bandages in place. Estel's hands kept twitching towards him, but he stopped himself, knowing Thorin wouldn't appreciate his help.
Fíli retrieved Orcrist and the oak shield, and went to Thorin's side, placing the weapons on his bed. "Uncle, I can do that," he said gently, his gaze indicating Thorin's arm. Half-expecting Thorin to stubbornly refuse, Fíli resisted the urge to smile when Thorin nodded and held his arm out to him.
"We can't leave through the front door," Thorin said, turning to Estel, as if to distract him from his compromised position.
"I have been sneaking out of Rivendell after hours for twenty years," Estel grinned. "I can show you one of the many back doors so you can slip away unseen."
"What is going on?"
Estel spun around to see Arwen entering the sickroom, holding a candle. Her blue eyes moved searchingly from Estel to Fíli.
"I heard someone galloping past my door," Arwen said, when no one else spoke. She looked pointedly at Estel. "Why are you all out of bed?"
Thorin narrowed his eyes at Arwen, his jaw stiffening; he clearly wasn't impressed with her arrival, but seemed to be restraining himself, seeking to avoid another unpleasant incident. He looked to Fíli; unable to decide for himself, his wary expression was asking if Arwen was also to be trusted. Fíli couldn't be sure that Arwen didn't know of her father's plans and the White Council, but the concern and something close to bewilderment marring her soft features told him she really had no idea what was going on.
"We have to leave, my lady," Fíli said finally.
"Leave? But why?" Arwen asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.
Fíli opened his mouth to reply, but Estel jumped in with what Fíli assumed was an explanation in hasty Elvish. Arwen rounded on Estel and the two began a quick-fire exchange, hardly pausing for breath between bursts of unfamiliar words. Fíli listened, trying to follow the heated conversation through their facial expressions and frantic hand gestures. Thorin's name was being mentioned a lot, and Fíli knew this couldn't have been lost on Thorin, who was listening at his side.
Finally Arwen and Estel seemed to reach an impasse, and Arwen turned back to them. "I understand why you must go, even though I would rather give Thorin another few days to heal," she sighed. "But you must take these herbs and ointments with you…"
Arwen opened the drawer of Thorin's bedside table, and Fíli went to grab his pack.
"This is for the pain," Arwen said, handing Fíli a large glass vial of clear liquid. "And these will help the wound heal." She produced a further three vials and two small jars of ointment. Once Fíli had safely stored them away, she turned to a cupboard behind her and pulled out several rolls of bandages and a white wad of gauze dressings. "Tell Óin that the wound will need its dressings changed daily, and Thorin's arm will need to be re-bandaged at least once a week…" She turned to Thorin. "You should also take regular breaks to rest, and you must keep yourself hydrated."
"Thank you for your concern," Thorin said icily, but the flicker of hurt in Arwen's eyes coupled with a look from Fíli made him add, in gentler tone: "And thank you… for all you have done for my family."
Arwen smiled knowingly. "You are most welcome, Thorin Oakenshield." Her gaze then moved to the book lying on Fíli's bedside table. She went to retrieve it and held it out to Fíli with both hands. "And something for you, Fíli." It was the leather-bound history of Durin's folk.
"I… I can't accept this," Fíli said, peering up at Arwen curiously.
"It is yours," Arwen replied. Fíli took the book in both hands as Arwen had done, and she placed her fingers gently over his. "Never forget who you are, Fíli."
"Thank you, my lady," Fíli replied, looking up at Arwen with a small smile, which she returned.
"We need to go," Estel said, with a cough, looking from Arwen to Fíli with a strange expression on his face.
Fíli nodded, and carefully slipped the book into his pack. After a murmured exchange of farewells, he and Thorin pulled their packs onto their backs and followed Estel towards the east corridor.
They found the company waiting for them, assembled by the doorway to the veranda. Surveying the twelve faces crowded before him, Fíli saw that there were looks ranging from mild terror (Ori), to sleepy bemusement (Nori), to murderous indignation (Dwalin).
"What's going on, Thorin?" Dwalin asked, flexing his fingers around his axe as his black gaze moved from Thorin to Estel. "What have the elves done now?"
"Our host is meeting with a council at this very moment which means to put an end to our quest," Thorin replied. "We must leave now before they have that opportunity. Gandalf is stalling them and will meet us in the mountains."
"Why don't we put an end to their council instead?" Dwalin growled.
The shadow of a smirk appeared on Thorin's lips. He was about to reply when Balin stepped forward.
"Are you sure this is the right course, Thorin?" Balin murmured, his eyes flitting to Thorin's walking stick. "Would it not be better to wait until you are recovered? Maybe the elves can be reasoned with."
Dwalin rolled his eyes. "I assure you I am quite well," Thorin said stoically. "And this is not a discussion, we must away before dawn." He looked to Estel. "Estel is going to see us safely out."
Thorin turned and indicated that Estel should lead the way. As Estel set off down the corridor, the company following, Dwalin drew level with him. "Any funny business, lad," he said, his voice menacingly conspiratorial as he leaned forward so only Estel could hear. "And my axes will make you and I the same height."
Estel didn't say a word, but a nod implied he understood perfectly. A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth; out of all the peoples he had met in Middle Earth, dwarves really were the ones most adept at delivering threats of death and maiming. He led the dwarves deeper into the labyrinth of wooden corridors, heading towards the most easterly doorway; a crooked, almost dwarf-sized doorway hidden behind the servants' quarters. Once they had arrived, Estel turned to Thorin. "This leads straight onto the mountain path, follow it and you will soon be out of the valley."
Thorin gave a stiff nod – the best thanks Estel could have hoped for – and then disappeared through the doorway, with Kíli at his side. Fíli hung back to count the company as they passed and ensure they left no one behind. Once everyone was safely through the doorway, Fíli turned to Estel. In an awful moment, he realised he might never see Estel, or Arwen, or Elladan and Elrohir again, and his heart suddenly felt heavy.
"Will we ever meet again?" Fíli asked, unable to resist voicing his fears.
Estel put a hand on Fíli's shoulder with a smile. "Of course, I will be at your uncle's coronation."
Fíli couldn't help but smile too. "I'll hold you to that. And Estel… Thank you. For everything."
Estel opened his mouth to reply, but then Thorin's booming voice sounded from beyond the doorway: "FÍLI!"
Fíli gave Estel a look of contrition, Estel only grinned, and so Fíli disappeared out onto the mountain path. He made his way to Thorin at the head of the company, counting everyone again as he moved past them, just to make sure. He reached Thorin, who was taking determined strides, his walking stick hardly touching the ground with most. Kíli walked at Thorin's other side, subtly shadowing his uncle's movements. As Fíli joined him at the front of the company, Thorin couldn't help but smile. The sun was just beginning to rise in the east, and a tiny, golden spot, seemingly no bigger than a coin, appeared on the horizon, calling them towards the Lonely Mountain. With his nephews by his side, Thorin felt stronger than ever, and he knew he had made the right decision. He couldn't send them back to Ered Luin, but he could bring them home.
A/N: And that's it, folks! BUT don't despair, I'm planning a sequel centred around the Battle of Five Armies and its aftermath, so do look out for that. I know it's a cliché to say this has been a real journey, but I have been writing 'Family Tree' at a really crucial stage of my degree and it's got me through a lot! I also forgot to mention that my interview at the School of Education was successful and I've been offered a place on their English teaching course! I honestly cannot thank you all enough for reading, reviewing, following, and favouriting – you have no idea how much it means to me. You guys are insanely awesome and you have made me very, very happy :-)