When the sun rose on Erelin, it had to fight its way through the constant haze of smoke to reach weak tendrils of light down to the houses below. Bilbo was upstairs, smoking, and thinking.
It had been worth the effort to haul his crippled leg up the several flights of stairs, even knowing that he would have to climb back down again. He could see more from there, and the air was a trifle fresher - but the main draw was the solitude. There was a tension in the air downstairs, as Fíli and Kíli moved cautiously around one another, eyes always fixed on the brother they did not know. Kíli had given up talking about leaving, but he was tense and quietly distant, keeping Fíli's friendly overtures at arm's length. Fíli was boiling over with enthusiasm and undirected energy, with nowhere to spend it. It was, frankly, rather exhausting to watch them both, and he had retreated for a few moments of quiet contemplation before his visitors arrived for the morning.
The sun shone dimly down on the city, doing little to rid the close streets of the damp muskiness that pervaded every corner. Bilbo blew out a neat ring of smoke, looking down at the city with unfocused eyes. He would have to send round for the Delvers, who would see to the burial of the old Dwarf's body now that she had passed away. He had no idea what constituted Dwarvish burial practices; he had no need to know. They looked after their own, in the end, and it was not his place to pry.
A grim, horrible part of Bilbo started to wonder what would be done as the numbers of the dead and dying rose. Would there be enough Delvers left to manage the dead? He had read of plagues before, in the cities of Men - of bodies stacked like cordwood, or burned, or thrown into mass graves to be forgotten. He thought uneasily of the stacks of masks and vials of medicine in his cupboards, and wondered what the Governance knew of the plague that he did not. Bilbo bit down on the stem of his pipe, trying to decide. He could go in search of answers, venturing out into the city again, or he could remain where he knew the Dwarves would be able to find him in their suffering. Neither option seemed entirely attractive.
The Governance had sent him supplies and medication, worse than useless though it might have been, and yet Kíli said the Dwarves were directed not to bring the sick to him for help. It made no sense. Bilbo puffed on the pipe a few times, absentmindedly savouring the quality of the leaf, and tried to work it out. What reason stood behind it? The most cynical part of him suggested, though very quietly, that it was nothing more than a show of caring, with an eye to Bilbo's letters home to the Shire. Should he accuse them of undermining the health of the Dwarves, the Took might very well reduce the numbers of Healers sent to the cities of Men. Then again, perhaps it was just rumours among the lower levels of Dwarvish society that had them convinced the authorities of the city wished them kept away from the Healer.
He blew out a long, slow breath, watching the smoke drift away and mingle with the dull haze of the air outside. A plague, and the superstitions of Dwarves, would have been enough to keep him busy. Now, he also had his hands full of troubled Dwarves who seemed to be rediscovering past lives they had lived, and whose hopes were somehow dependent on Bilbo, strange as it seemed. And to top it off, his own mind was troubled by vague recollections he could not quite catch hold of, and which he had no reasons to believe were anything but the troubled musings of an over-tired mind - and yet, he did believe them. He was not dreaming in the way of the Dwarves, but there was no doubt in his mind that he knew them. Whatever had brought them to their deaths, and then to his home, he had been a part of it, once, and was intimately tied to their work and worries, though he could not remember why.
Irritated, he hauled himself to his feet and banged the window shut, stomping down the stairs with more force than was necessary. Once, he had wanted nothing more from life than a quiet pipe and some solitude. Once, he had thought that possible.
Fíli was pacing downstairs, marking a path back and forth from kitchen to infirmary, and looked up gratefully when Bilbo appeared. "I was beginning to think you had snuck away over the roofs!"
Bilbo rolled his eyes expressively, gesturing to his leg, and pushed Fíli aside gently so he could go through to the kitchen and pour a mug of tea. "That's not likely. Where's your brother?"
Fíli almost glowed at that, grinning happily and darting ahead to pull a chair out for Bilbo. "Still here. He's sitting with the old lady."
"Right," Bilbo said. He limped over to his writing desk and took up pen and paper, dashing off a quick note and sealing it with the seldom-used official stamp of the Healer. "I'll need you to take this along to the Delvers. We must see her body taken care of."
Fíli nodded solemn agreement and took the envelope from Bilbo, but hesitated on the brink of the door, and spoke in a hushed tone. "I don't think it will be a problem, but please don't let Kíli leave? I don't want to lose him again." His shoulders were tense at the thought, and Bilbo waved him off impatiently, but couldn't suppress a wave of sympathy.
"Yes, yes - now be off with you, before we find ourselves the centre of a murder investigation," Bilbo said briskly, and Fíli darted away with the bewildering energy of the young. Bilbo leaned into the passage to check on Kíli, who was sitting pensively by Dria's side, arms wrapped around his knees as he considered the body of the old Dwarf. Bilbo withdrew, not wanting to intrude, and fixed himself a quiet little breakfast, trying to steel himself for the day ahead. It was likely to be the wildest day yet.
The Delvers could not be faulted for their promptness. They returned straightaway with Fíli, and covered Dria's face respectfully with a carefully embroidered cloth, bearing her away in a silence so deep that Bilbo would not use words to threaten it. Kíli didn't move as they worked, keeping his self-contained silence, but watching every movement with dark eyes.
There were sounds outside the door, and Bilbo sighed, shaking off the melancholy that had fallen over him at the ceremonial removal of his latest patient. "Looks like I'm in demand again," he said dryly. "Help if you like, or clear out, please. There's more than enough Dwarves outside the door to suit me." Kíli nodded silently and left, and Fíli followed after him anxiously, as if afraid that his brother would vanish again if he let him out of sight.
Bilbo looked carefully at each of his patients as he worked, studying them for any signs of the plague, but it was hard to distinguish. The Dwarves were all tired, worn down by years of hard labour and unkind treatment, and most were not as well fed or clothed as they ought to be. Fevers were not uncommon, particularly in those who had suffered injuries they hadn't bothered to bring to him for treatments. Coughing, sadly, was nearly epidemic, from the filth in the air. With no other symptoms to look for, Bilbo was at a loss to identify those who were potentially becoming ill.
He talked to them all, though, looking for information - and it was a strange departure for Bilbo, who usually did his best for the Dwarves without engaging in idle chatter. Those who revealed they lived or worked near the docs were given the masks the Governance had sent Bilbo, and he warned them to keep their distance from the sick wherever possible. It felt like putting a plaster on a mortal wound, but there was nothing else he could do without more information. He sighed to himself, realising it meant he would likely have to go to the Governance for more information, much as he hated the thought.
He sent the last of his patients away with a stack of masks and let the door swing closed, though it cut off a little bit of natural light from outside. He took his cane in one hand, moving slowly along the passageway as he stretched muscles made tight by the rush of concentrated activity. The smell of eggs and bacon greeted him, and he sniffed appreciatively, moving a bit faster.
"Come on, then!" Fíli said with a laugh, sweeping a ridiculous bow and gesturing Bilbo toward the table. "My dear brother has consented to make us all a bite to eat!"
Bilbo chuckled dryly and sat, letting the cane drop to rest against his chair. "And why are we not blessed with your own culinary endeavours?"
Kíli snorted quietly. "Him? Look how posh he is! I don't reckon he's ever cooked a day in his life!"
Fíli shrugged good-naturedly, but there was a hint of hurt in his eyes. Kíli's jibe had sounded good-natured, if somewhat guarded, to Bilbo, but it was clear that Fíli took it personally. Bilbo wondered oddly whether Fíli had ever been teased before, growing up in such a constrained, formal environment with so few other children. Kíli, on the other hand, was clearly used to the sharp, often cruel banter of the ships and docks - had more than likely been a target of it many times, in fact. It was one more thing they would have to learn and unlearn together. He put a hand to his head as a sudden image sprang to mind of two heads, one bright and one dark, bent together in shared laughter.
Fíli dropped a plate of hot food in front of him, and Bilbo shook away the strange thought. It probably was a memory of some sort, he thought dully, but he had no context for it. He got ideas and hints of memories, but he had no way to stitch them together into something meaningful. At least if he was dreaming the terrible dreams the Dwarves seemed to share, he might have some chance of making sense of what he was trying to remember.
The food was hot and plentiful, and Bilbo ate in a pleasant enough silence. Fíli was overly appreciative in his eating, and Kíli watched him with a wary sort of amusement, putting his food away quickly and quietly, as though not sure when he would see more. They had just got to the point of pushing back their plates and sighing in contentment when a pounding came at the door, and Bilbo started violently.
"I'll get it!" Fíli declared, shooting up and dashing to the door before Bilbo could object. Kíli got up too, but crept around the table to stand near Bilbo, effectively putting the whole solid bulk of the table between them and the unexpected visitors. Fíli flung the door open, and Bilbo saw his shoulders slump for a second before he straightened mechanically and stepped back. "Look who's walking on his own now," he said, with a light, flippant attitude that earned him a growl from someone on the other side.
Bilbo stood up and grabbed his cane, moving around until he could see that it was Dwalin and Thorin on the doorstep, the latter looking decidedly ill, but no longer inebriated. His eyes were red and bloodshot, and his face had the pallor of a Dwarf who had not often seen the sun, but Dwalin had clearly made him change his clothing and remove the worst knots from his hair. He still looked very far from a king, but at least now he did not look so much like a beggar. Bilbo's hand tightened angrily on the handle of his cane, and he nodded sharply. "Good to see you, Dwalin. Please, come in." He carefully omitted any word to Thorin, but of course Dwalin pushed the ragged Dwarf ahead of him, until the group of them seemed to quite fill Bilbo's kitchen.
"Are you going to be bruising or maiming anyone today?" Fíli asked with bitter politeness, the words so cold they stung. Thorin glanced up at him sharply, anger flaring in his red-rimmed eyes, and then dying just as quickly as he took in the still livid colours of the black eye he had given his nephew.
"No," he said quietly, looking away. "I was not myself. I will lay no hand on you, or any other." Dwalin gave a grunt of approval, and flung himself down at the table, helping himself to Fíli's unattended mug of tea.
"Who's this, then?" he muttered, nodding his great bald head sharply toward Kíli.
"He's-" Fíli began, glancing at Kíli, and then hesitated. Kíli did nothing so obvious as shake his head, but there was a wideness to his eyes, and a twitch of his lips, and Fíli gave a tiny nod. "He's a friend of one of Bilbo's patients."
Of course, Bilbo thought with a tired shake of his head. Of course the lad would be hesitant to give away his new-found identity, when he was not yet sure of it, and when faced with two rather threatening looking Dwarves. The truth would out, in due time. He sat down again, and Fíli dragged over another chair, placing himself between Bilbo's side of the table and Thorin's - who Bilbo had yet to so much as glance at openly. He would not give Thorin the satisfaction of seeing him quiver, nor of seeing his anger. After a hesitant moment, Kíli came over to join them, and they all waited expectantly.
"Well?" Fíli said after a minute. "What can you tell us, now that you are sober? Explain this, please, before we all run mad!"
Thorin glanced at Kíli, frowning in concentrated disapproval. "Our business is not for the ears of Men."
"Your business," Bilbo said sharply, "while it is being conducted in my home, is for the ears of whomever I choose to allow to listen. The lad is far more welcome here than yourself, Thorin Oakenshield." He fixed Thorin with a cold stare, pleased with himself for not saying more. Thorin looked deeply displeased, but wilted after a moment, seemingly having no strength to fight.
"What would you have me say? You've clearly worked it out for yourself." He shrugged, even that simple movement seemingly exhausting. "We died, and then we came back - and we did it again and again."
"Five times?" Fíli pressed, leaning forward eagerly. "I've remembered five different - well, deaths, I suppose." He frowned at the thought, and Bilbo saw Kíli give a little shiver at the idea. Thorin nodded slowly.
"Five times, Mahal be damned."
"I recall only three," Dwalin rumbled.
"They'll come back to you," Thorin said despondently. "One by one, and then the memories to follow. They come faster as you begin to remember, and as more of the company are brought together."
"So why do you remember, and we do not?" Fíli asked, looking puzzled. "I thought maybe we were meant to remember with age, but you're not that much younger than Uncle Thorin." He nodded to Dwalin as he spoke.
"I always remember," Thorin rasped, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. "All of it, for a thousand years. I have known from the earliest times of my life, every time, and I have spent my lives finding you all. Five times, I brought us together to do the impossible, and five times I have failed." His voice cracked under the weight of that desolation, and Bilbo struggled not to let himself feel sorry. He cleared his throat meaningfully.
"And what of me?" he asked, but then felt it wasn't a very clearly worded question. "We met nine years ago, and you cursed me, and flung me from a window. Why?"
Thorin looked up at him, and there was a sudden flicker of regret in his eyes that Bilbo did not want to see. He did not want Thorin's apologies. "Because it was wrong," he said in a choked whisper. "You were never meant to be here, trapped, with us."
"So I haven't been with you all this thousand years?" Bilbo asked, trying to piece together the bits of information. "Where have I been?"
"We never knew," Thorin said quietly. "You were with us the first time - and ask me no more of it. I will not speak of that time to anyone; you must remember alone." He fixed Bilbo with a clear, unblinking gaze. "We looked for you again and again, and you were not to be found. We thought you were the blessed one, the one who had found peace."
"So it was jealousy?" Bilbo demanded, feeling heat rush into the tips of his ears. Thorin shook his head.
"No. When you saw me, I was not in my own mind. To see you in this forsaken place, when we thought you safe-" he shook his head. "And it sometimes becomes muddled in my head, after all this time. I saw you, and I thought you had betrayed me. You were not to blame."
"No, I never thought I was," Bilbo snapped. He took a deep breath, then another, trying to calm himself. "So why am I here now? Why is it different this time?"
Thorin shook his head wearily. "I cannot say. Perhaps to see an end to it with us."
"That's not a particularly hopeful sentiment," a new voice said, and Bilbo turned quickly to see Bofur standing behind him, arms folded casually as he leaned against the doorframe. "Sorry, let myself in," he said offhandedly. "Hope you don't mind if I join the conversation." Bilbo obligingly shuffled his chair, moving much closer to Kíli, who had also shifted around closer to Fíli.
"Hope is worse than useless to us," Thorin spat, glowering darkly at Bofur. "What hope has there ever been? Every hope has led us to disaster!"
"Doesn't mean it doesn't exist," Bofur said easily. "Look around. A fortnight ago, we were alone. Now we are drawing together, and that is hope itself!"
"No." Thorin's voice was flat and dull. "That is our doom, and has ever been. I swore it would be different this time. I let you all go." He stared out the window with its wavery glass, looking out at the street. "We are better to live and die alone here than to take up arms again."
"Is that why you sent me away?" Fíli sounded incredibly young, and Bilbo saw the mask of cool indifference the lad usually wore slip a bit, as Kíli glanced sharply at him. "Why you took me from my mother?"
"You were better off there," Thorin protested, looking rather trapped. "I provided you with the best education any Dwarf could have! Of course you would be better off there than with us!" It sounded like a well-rehearsed defense.
Fíli laughed sharply and shook his head, moving a fraction further away from Thorin, closer to Kíli. "I won't thank you for it."
Thorin slammed a hand down on the table, and Bilbo and Kíli jumped sharply. "I have never asked for thanks!" he roared. "I have tried to keep us together, and it has failed! I have tried to lead us home, and it has failed! We are at the end of all things, and I can do no more!"
"Why is it the end?" Kíli asked quietly, not looking up from the surface of the table.
"There are no more Dwarves," Thorin said wearily. "We have been reborn again and again, but always in the same manner, to Dwarves and of Dwarves. When we die this time, there will be no more chances."
"For what?" Dwalin asked, voice a low rumble. "What is the purpose of all of this, Thorin?"
"I don't know," Thorin said tightly. He looked away. "When I died, I thought it was over. I had lived my time, and I knew I would go to rest with my fathers and my kin, until the remaking of the world. It was not such a bad thing, in the end, to die with such a certainty." He frowned, eyes lost in a distant past. "But then I woke again, and I remembered everything, though a hundred years of the world had passed. I was no more than a child. I sought you all as soon as I grew old enough, and the company was put together and remembered." He shook his head, fingers wandering absently through the long, ragged strands of his dark beard. "But we were too young and foolish, and unprepared. I led us all to our deaths."
"Where?" Dwalin wondered, rubbing absently at a shoulder, and Bilbo noticed they were all seemingly fingering their scars, wondering which one had been earned in such a time. "Where would you lead us?"
"To the same place we were always meant to go," Thorin murmured sadly. "To Erebor."
"Erebor? As in the mysterious legendary mountain where Dwarves live free?" Bofur asked skeptically.
"It was our home!" Thorin growled, angry lines carved into his tired face. "I thought that must be our doom - to return there and set things right." He glanced at Fíli, looking shamefaced. "You and your brother were little more than infants, that time. We were too hasty, but it was a time of great peace after great evil, and we thought it would be simple. It seemed a blessing - a second chance to make things right."
"They did not want us," Fíli said slowly, eyes nearly shut in concentration. "They said we were mad?"
"Yes," Thorin growled. His hands formed into huge fists on the table. "I went to the representative of the King - the descendant of the man who took my throne - and told him our story. They laughed at us for madmen, and when we would not leave, they cursed us as enemies and drove us away. It was winter, then." He shivered, and around the table, four other Dwarves shook in unison, as though memory had a physical affect. "We were driven away in the cold, to the very shores of the lake - but it was not the shore, after all."
"We fell into icy water," Bofur said suddenly, eyes wide in horrified remembrance. "They pushed us to the ice, and it broke, and we were drowned." He looked up at Thorin, disbelieving. "Even the children?"
"Yes," Fíli murmured, arms coming up to wrap around his chest for warmth. Kíli eyed him, then scooted a bit closer, until their shoulders touched.
"Your own people?" Bilbo asked, horrified.
"It's not a particularly convincing story," Thorin said bitterly. "We learned from that, though, and never went again until we were ready." He narrowed his eyes in age-old fury. "And we never looked for help from outsiders again."
"So we've been trying to go back to this same place, then - this Erebor?" Dwalin asked, shaking his head. "It makes no sense, Thorin! Why have we returned? If we were given a second chance, then clearly we wasted it."
"Erebor is our home," Thorin hissed, anger and hatred bubbling up through his words. "For a thousand years it has sat in the hands of thieves and murderers, and of their descendants. I would have taken it back and given us a home, and then perhaps we would have found peace!"
"Not from war," Bofur said gently, shaking his head. "Never from war. We find our peace in one another, and in what we have been given."
Thorin glared at him, eyes threatening. "You're a man of faith now, Bofur? That's something new. Tell me of your god, old friend. Tell me why he has cursed us so." The words were vicious, spat from his mouth with malice and rage.
"Why must it be a curse?" Bofur asked reasonably. "We are told that Durin returned to his people time and again, and it was grace to them. Mahal may have given us a gift."
Fíli gave a groan and buried his head in his hands. "Please, no more! Mahal is a tale for children!"
Kíli looked at him curiously. "What is Mahal?"
Bofur peered around Bilbo to glance at Kíli, who had escaped his notice before. "You'll not have heard much of Mahal, lad," he said dismissively. "He is for the Dwarves, and nothing to do with Men."
"It's a legend!" Fíli said angrily, sitting up. "They say Mahal created the Fathers of the Dwarves from stone, and gave them life, because he wanted children of his own to teach! It's no more real than all the stories that go with it - of Elves and magic and the rest."
Bofur nodded, but didn't look bothered by Fíli's outrage. "Aye, it's a story - but it's a good one!" He smiled winningly at them. "And it's as likely a story as any other. Those of us who hold to the old ways find it a comfort."
"Like Ulmo, on the seas," Kíli murmured, nodding understanding.
Bofur looked at Thorin. "How many of us are there in this Company?"
"Thirteen," Thorin said glumly. "Myself and my nephews, Dwalin and his brother, you with your own brother and cousin, and then five more who were my kin, if distantly."
Dwalin gave a low whistle, and the others shook their heads despairingly. Bilbo glanced around at them in confusion.
"What am I missing?" he asked, annoyed.
"Thirteen," Bofur said sadly. "It's an unlucky number indeed! To take thirteen on a venture is said to guarantee it's failure."
Bilbo blinked, counting quickly in his head, and then looked directly at Thorin. "Fourteen," he said. "I'm fourteen, aren't I?"
"It was one of the reasons you came along," he admitted grudgingly, then blinked a few times, clearly processing the information. "Fourteen again," he mused quietly. "Now that you are here, we might be fourteen."
"Are we seriously thinking of judging all of this on the merits of lucky numbers?" Fíli asked incredulously, glancing around the table.
"Not luck, lad," Bofur told him slowly, a smile spreading over his face that seemed to light the room. "We're talking about a gift. If this is our last chance, then it seems Mahal has seen fit to give us our best chance." He clapped a hand on Bilbo's shoulder, shaking it encouragingly. "It's a sign. Hope is not lost!"
OK, wow, I'm getting rather dreadful about updating in a timely fashion. Sorry, guys, really and truly! It's been a bad few days on the personal side of things, but I feel like things are on the upswing now, and hopefully I'll be able to get back to a much more regular posting schedule. Thank you for your patience!