And in the dark he sits alone, to watching his final hours bleeding.

While unconcerned against the wall, the clock it ticks away the time...

The tombs under the rock were cold and unforgiving, alike to the mountain itself. Beauty, terrible beauty, and sorrow mingled in the intricate carvings depicting the life and death of the King Under the Mountain.

Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thror, son of Thrain, lay in silence in the Mountain's cold embrace. His sister's sons had been buried alongside him, their lives cut cruelly short by the foolishness of greed. That which Thorin had sacrificed all to protect had slain them in the end, and there was no tale of glory which could wipe the sorrow from an old man's heart.

No need for words, for in the dark all words have long since lost their meaning.

"I do not know why you have called me here."

The voice was a childish pout, and Gandalf stirred with the difficulty of one who had lived for too long and realized that hope was vain and all was grasping for the wind. Against the wall a dirty young waif regarded the tombs with scorn, unmoved by the solemnity of death and the mourning which echoed from every heart.

She - or It, as the Fates had been set in place since the beginning of time and neither gender nor age held any meaning to them - regarded Gandalf with a wisdom beyond his own years, pale eyes derisive and calm, as though despite her appearance of youth she had witnessed centuries of war and strife.

He could only struggle to form one question. "Why?"

The Fate regarded him with collected disregard, folding her arms across her filthy, colorless dress. "Why should I be held to answer for that? I am not my Sister; I cannot control her paths. Your king is dead. Another shall rise in his place, and time will go on. Why should I care?"

"They could have been spared this end," Gandalf implored, feeling too aged for the weight of grief upon his heart. "They were only children."

"Fate chooses whom She wills," the waif shrugged heartlessly. "Children are born, and children die. These two were no different than the Elven babe killed by a spider. Why should you mourn them?"

His fury at her calloused response burned in his eyes. The Fates knew nothing of the depth of love and devotion shared among mortals. Their lives were eternal, and they determined the destinies of the worlds. Those who understood that life was short cherished it, however, and for it to be torn so cruelly from them was a judgment that even the impassionate Fate should permit herself to understand.

"You knew nothing of them," Gandalf shook his head, his voice breaking as his gaze rivetted on the tombs.

The slabs of carved stonework did them no justice. They could not hope to describe the brash, hope filled heirs who had been cruelly slaughtered in a pointless conflict.

Gandalf remembered. He recalled every detail as though it had only been yesterday when they had started on their quest for the Lonely Mountain.

Kili was life, he thought fondly. His eyes were ever alight with mischief and his contagious laughter could lighten the most burdened of hearts.

Fili was hope. He was the sureness of an heir, with the grim determination of his Uncle yet the wisdom of his father. Had he lived he would have been a ruler that all would have revered and none forgotten.

Even when consumed by his greed in the end, Thorin had been a guiding light for his people. He was their shield and their strength; the promise of victory out of desolation.

"How can you not see them for who they were?" Gandalf accused, a catch in his voice as memories flooded him anew.

"We do not grow attached to mortals," the Fate huffed, drawing closer and nudging a rock aside with her bare toe, "Only to those whom we favor, and those are few and far between."

"Can you bring them back?"

She stilled at the abrupt demand, ancient eyes regarding him shrewdly as she edged forward and ran a hand along the tomb wall.

"You want me to alter my Sister's course. You want me to aid their petty lives. You realize what you are asking of me, do you not?"

Gandalf did not answer, and the Fate's eyes narrowed in scorn. "Do you not know the penalty of meddling with the Fates? Every life leads its course. Every hour is set in stone. Should I concede with your request, I should be unravelling a sequence of events which may lead only to further destruction. You do not know what you ask of me."

"I only want you to protect them," Gandalf gave up in defeat, his gaze silently pleading that she understand.

The Fate snorted derisively. "I can tell you where you went wrong," she conceded, her voice haughty and conceited.

A vision took form at a wave of her hand, and Gandalf winced as he witnessed the final moments of the Sons of Durin. Fili and Kili stood back to back, the elder's swords flashing in the light as the younger scavanged a goblin's arrow to replace his empty quiver.

"There, right there!" the Fate said excitedly, pointing to a goblin rising behind Thorin.

In the instant that Kili whirled on the foe Thorin also turned, his hesitation marginal as the goblin was unexpectedly slain with the arrow of its own kind. His pause was brief, yet deadly, for in that instant a second goblin took hold of the opportunity and ducked under Thorin's shield, driving its sword under the edge of his armor and twisting it viciously into his side.

"Did you not see?" the Fate questioned as the vision faded, "Your folly was bringing a thirteenth member on your silly little quest, Gandalf. The boy was a number of ill luck from the start, and yet you hoped you could absolve the dilemma by inviting the hobbit to join you."

A sad smile flitted across Gandalf's eyes; the Fate knew little of the loyalty of the Dwarven race if she believed Kili would have remained behind had he not been permitted to accompany his kin.

The Fate shook her head, tsking in contempt. "Do you understand now? I cannot alter the course you have set for yourself. Not without... unpleasant consequences."

Gandalf's only response was to cast her a withering stare. What consequences could prove worse than this? was his unspoke accusation.

With shift of minor uncertainty she clarified, "I shall have to dispose of the unlucky number."

Still when they whisper in his ear, he tries to read between the lines

"No! Surely not!" he objected at once, rising to his feet in dismay.

Though he towered over her slight form, the Fate was unfazed by his horror. "Why not? You have seen the events which played out. Your pretty little archer is his King's bane. If you wish for a life to be spared, you must be willing to sacrifice another. Do not be so downhearted, Gandalf; I only ask for this one life and will return to you two others which would not have survived. You should be grateful for your good fortune."

"Should I condemn Fili to a life without his brother?" Gandalf retorted, his voice raising to a near shout. "Shall I plague Thorin with the guilt of killing his sister's youngest son?"

"At least the mother would still have one son left to console her," the Fate shrugged apathetically. "It is better than none at all, I should think."

Her logic was undeniable, and yet Gandalf was repulsed at the thought. "Is there no other way?" he demanded. "Can you not spare all their lives?"

The Fate scrunched up her nose in contemplation before offering off-handedly, "There is ... another way." She eyed the wizard with unfettered disdain. "You may not like the results."

"Will they all be permitted to live?" Gandalf pressed, summarizing all the members of their company in his question.

"Your fourteen pets will all stand under their pretty little mountain by the battle's end," the Fate confirmed.

"And Kili?"

"He will... survive." Her eyes flashed silver and the Fate regarded him with cold defiance, ordering in no small terms, "You cannot interfere, Gandalf. When I make my move, you will allow me to do as I will. If you should disrupt my plans, I promise that the consequences will be severe."

A hand clenched his throat, for Gandalf knew the dire warnings against bargaining with Fates. Foregoing all caution he nodded reluctantly. "Agreed."

She smiled, and he had the impression he had signed a contract he would later regret.

What I see in the night, what I feel in your heart,

All your dreams, all your lies; can you tell them apart?

Gandalf saw her when they were waylaid outside the goblin caverns, her eyes gleaming craftily as wolves and goblins were replaced by wargs and orcs, Azog himself as their leader. He fought against his desire to act when Thorin stood against Azog alone, holding to his promise not to interfere though every fiber of his being screamed that this was not the way it was intended to be.

When the Fate flitted from the shadows and tapped Azog's shoulder, guiding his attention to the young dwarf fighting alone, when she whispered lies of good sport and enticed him with promises of crushing a prince's spirit, it was everything Gandalf could do to divert his attention away and assist Bombur instead.

When Kili's screams reverberated amidst the conflict Gandalf could hold back no longer and he turned to the Fate with an unspoken plea, begging that she alter her course and cease her malicious torment. She only smiled and shook her head, mouthing silently,

You chose this.

Her promise was upheld and they survived; Fili, Kili and Thorin, along with the rest of their company. Gandalf could feel no cheer in this accomplishment, however, for it had come at too grave a cost.

See the hands on the clock, are you watching them turn?

For your candle's quite low, we've been watching it burn!

The Fate never gave him rest, scrutinizing his every move with those shrewd, timeless eyes of hers. When he began to mend Kili's brutalized hand the Fate shook her head and he forced himself to appear ignorant, despising the sight of the mangled paw that testified the archer's loss. He had never felt such hatred for another being save the Necromancer; not until this moment. The Fate's only response was to laugh at his dismay, her shrilll voice unheard save to his ears alone.

She followed them across their journey, ever watching, ever knowing. Not a moment would pass without her straying into Gandalf's line of sight, regarding him coldly, reminding him of his promise.

No interference.

Do you lie here awake as the shadows look on?

Should they cry for your sake? Should you sleep in their arms?

The nights seemed to draw into years and he could offer no comfort to Kili, knowing that it was his decision which had brought tragedy to the young prince. There was no consolence which could ammend the loss the former archer had suffered, and thus Gandalf kept his silence. The knowledge that they would escape a far more brutal destiny was of no solace to the wizard, for no sacrifice is worth the blood which must be shed.

In another life Gandalf had enjoyed the period of rest in Beorn's lodge. In a day and age unravaged by war it had proved a moment when he could let down his guard and trust that Thorin and his followers would be safe for a time.

Instead he was plagued by doubts and the memories of a war which had yet to take place, and not for the first time he wondered if he had chosen wisely in sparing Thorin and Fili's lives in exchange for the broken shell of a young man.

Still Fate watched and shook her head, and he had no foreknowledge of what would have taken place should he have chosen a separate path.

For the shadows see all and they rarely forget,

Every dream that you've had, every act you regret!

"And what shall we expect now?" he posed the question in a low voice as he clamped his pipe between his teeth, his eyes unfocused as he watched the two brothers banter while they practiced their sword techniques.

The Fate shrugged one shoulder, unconcerned with the outcome of yet another passing race. "You determined rightly in one matter; they are stupidly devoted for being mortals."

He allowed a brief twitch of a smile but would not allow her response to belay the question. "Will they survive in spite of Beorn's assistance?"

The Fate tilted her head to the side and considered her quarry dispassionately. "They will live," she assented.

Gandalf closed his eyes in a silent prayer of thanks, a burden as he had not thought he would ever be free from lifting off his shoulders.

He did not see the coy glance of the Fate as she shook her head in impervious pity, fading from the wizard's sight.

The choice had been made and Fate had held to her bargain. The Sons of Durin would live to see their kingdom, just as she had foretold. Fili and Kili would survive to raise their children in an era of peace, and the line would continue on. The young one would never regain his former talent in the art of his beloved bow - though it would improve well enough to fulfill his own task which the Fates would set before him - but he would be remembered throughout the centuries as a renowned left handed fighter; the most skilled of his race. The elder would be praised for his wisdom and gentleness, and would prove a greater ruler than all who had gone on before him.

Yet there remained a price to be paid for interference, and the wizard's debt was not yet fulfilled.

When Thorin was lost to madness for greed, the Archenstone buried with him lest Fili allow himself to fall prey to the avarice coupled with the alluring gem; when Kili accompanied a second mighty quest with Gandalf and was slain defending a man of Gondor; when Fili's youngest daughter fell to her death in the old ruins along Erabor's outskirts and was reborn as a Child of Fate... Only then would the price be repaid.

For there is no life without its course, no hour which is not set in stone, no alteration without sacrifice.






The Embers muse might have plotted this chapter, but the Muse from I Will Protect You wrote the final conclusion. Those who know its conniving, unpredictable tendencies might have guessed that by now.

The Embers muse (mini-muse!) is so excited to have finished its very first story, and it offers its thanks and its chocolate covered raisins (as it hates raisin and considers itself very generous to be giving them away) in gratitude for the amazing reviews and comments offered by all its loyal fans.

The author also sends her thanks, as this story would not have been finished without the support from her readers.

... And, the Muse from I Will Protect You glares at the readers and forewarns that it is far from hibernation stage and intends to collaborate with mini-muse for another angst filled fic. Pity those poor, abused Sons of Durin.