The March of Time

37: Durin's Day

Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson, respectively. Anything you don't recognize is mine.

Quick A/N: Yeah, I know, I already failed on the updating part. Truce?

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Durin's Day

Alison's dreams were jumbled that night.

It was like looking through a camera with two different lenses; one moment she'd be standing in a park, the hot Texas sunshine beating down on her, and the next she'd be crouching on bloodstained stone, the winter chill tearing into her clothes and biting her skin; one moment there'd be a gun in her hand, and then her swords, but always there would be a person cloaked in shadow before her, invisible eyes on her as if waiting for her to approach - or waiting for her to strike.

The images kept coming, faster and faster until she could feel vertigo rushing through her head, and her dream self wondered if it was possible to throw up while she was still sleeping, until everything stopped all at once like brakes shrieking on a car, and then she jerked awake, an image of an eye burning into her mind before it disappeared as she snapped open her own eyelids with a gasp.

She was met with darkness when she awoke, and she assumed it was still the middle of the night as she slowly shifted against the wall she was leaning against, rubbing her neck and stretching out her legs as she groaned quietly.

The dream faded into the corners of her mind as she looked around in the dim light, seeing faint bumpy outlines on the floor in the living room that were the dwarves and Bard, and further on, beds tucked into distant niches of the house where Sigrid, Tilda, and Bain were sleeping.

Seeing all of them sleeping reminded Alison with a rush of guilt that she was supposed to be on standby for Kíli, who was laying in the bed next to where she was propped against the wall, and she scrambled to her knees, cursing herself for falling asleep when she was supposed to be watching the sick dwarf in case his condition worsened or he needed something.

On her knees, she peeked over the edge of the bed, and by the faint moonlight streaming in through the windows of the house, she saw that Kíli was fast asleep, his eyes closed and a peaceful expression on his face, though on closer inspection she noted the beads of sweat still coating his skin, and, more alarmingly, the way his breathing was steady, but very shallow.

Worry stabbed at Alison's heart like a hot poker, and with a gentle hand to make sure she didn't wake him, she lightly pressed the back of her hand against his forehead, biting her lip when the clamminess met her hand and his feverish skin prickled at her pores, hot and uncomfortable.

She picked up the bowl of water and the rag that were beside her on the floor, and, recalling Óin's instructions to her before he had gone to sleep, she dipped the cloth into the water and lightly dabbed it on Kíli's face, sponging away some of the sweat and trying to cool him off some, but she had a feeling it was a futile effort when she touched his face again and it was still blazing.

He stirred slightly at her touch, a grimace crossing his sleeping features, and Alison put the bowl and rag back on the floor, debating whether she should get Óin or not. She wasn't a healer by a long shot - she could barely even get the wrapper off a Band-Aid, for heavens' sake - and she was concerned about Kíli being in her care overnight, even though Óin had already given him the herbs and things he needed and instructed her what to do in case he got worse. But nothing seemed to be wrong with him at the moment besides what he was already dealing with, and Alison forced herself to calm down, telling herself she was overreacting because she had never done this sort of thing before.

Well, you were the one who decided to sign up for the part of nurse, she reminded herself, and she instinctively tensed, determined not to think about what had happened at the docks that had made her change her mind and led her back here to begin with. It was still too fresh, too raw and infuriating to think about, and she took a deep breath, ignoring the stab of nausea that went through her at the thought of Johnathan's voice in her head and the even worse fact that she had threatened to kill him - twice.

She locked those thoughts down before they went any further, though, pressing her fingers to her temples to stave off the feelings she had been going through all that day; the disgust with herself for ever saying such a thing, the rage Johnathan had coerced her into feeling, the shame for letting herself be bullied around by him, and the all-consuming fear that she was too helpless and weak to put a stop to him, no matter what words of reassurance Bard had given her. But those were things she told herself she would worry about in the future; right now, she was in the present, in Bard's quiet and still house in the night, and she was supposed to be taking care of Kíli, whose situation was a lot more dire than hers at the moment.

Dropping her hands, she looked back up and started when she saw Kíli's eyes open and staring at her, the brown depths looking phantom in the dim light and the shadows under them more pronounced than ever in the darkness.

"Hey," she said softly, leaning forward and propping her elbows on the thin mattress. "Sorry if I woke you. Do you need anything?"

He cracked a tiny smile, saying in a mumble, "You di'n't wake me. Bad dream."

His voice was garbled, whether from sleep or the sickness she couldn't tell, but she assumed it was both as he added, "Can I...water?"

"Yeah, of course," she said, getting to her feet. "Be right back."

She slipped into the kitchen around the corner, grabbing the water pitcher off the table and a cup and bringing it back to the sick dwarf's bedside, trying to be as quiet as she could as she poured the water and held it out to him.

"Do you um, need any help?" she asked, unsure of how to phrase the question without wounding his stubborn pride, but he shook his head, taking the cup from her with a sticky yet steady hand, and she watched as he lifted his head off the pillow, taking a few gulps before handing the cup back over to her so she could set it down.

"Thanks," he mumbled, and she nodded, saying, "How are you feeling?"

"Worse than Bilbo after he got sneezed on by a troll, tha's for sure," he replied, his mouth quirking, and she rolled her eyes, even though she was grinning, too.

"You should go back to sleep before you start making more terrible jokes," she said lowly, but she was pleased to hear the soft rumble that came from his chest as he grinned sleepily.

"Only if you stay by my side, fair lady," he murmured, but his eyes still twinkled up at her as she made a face in return.

"Go to sleep," she repeated, but she still felt a tiny tingle of warmth inside as he gave her one last sleepy grin and turned his face back to the ceiling, giving a deep sigh that still sounded quite raspy.

Alison crossed back into the kitchen and took a chair from the table, picking it up and bringing it back to the bedside where she set it down and took a seat; maybe a more uncomfortable position would force her to stay awake this time as she looked back over at Kíli, who had already passed out again, looking as sickly as ever.

Seeing him so prone and vulnerable twisted her heart, and she reached out and took his hand in her own on impulse, but this time he didn't stir, and with one more look at his face, she whispered, "Please get better, Kíli. Please."

The next thing she knew she was being shaken awake by a gentle hand on her shoulder, and Alison lifted her chin off of her chest, groaning at the new kinks in her neck and blinking against the bright morning sunlight now coming in through the windows.

She looked up blearily to see Fíli standing over her, and she gave a weak smile until she glimpsed a still-sleeping Kíli beside her and she straightened instantly, swearing under her breath.

"Dammit, did I seriously fall asleep again?" she demanded of no one in particular, and Fíli raised an eyebrow.

"Unless you were trying to see how long you could keep your eyes closed, I'd say you fell asleep," he quipped, and she shot him a dry look.

"Har har," she replied sarcastically. "You are a comedic genius."

"I try," he said, shrugging, but his eyes were not on her when he said it.

She followed his gaze and found it lingering on her hand, which was still clasped with Kíli's, and then she felt her face redden when she realized they had fallen asleep while holding hands.

She cleared her throat and slid her hand out from underneath Kíli's, refusing to meet Fíli's eyes as she stood up and smoothed down her rumpled clothes. She felt immensely awkward under the scrutiny of his grey-blue gaze, and then she felt irritated that she felt awkward. They had agreed to end things, and her actions were her own; she didn't owe the elder prince anything now, and those feelings were gone, anyway. This sudden awkwardness was completely unnecessary; but when she looked up to tell him as such, his expression had gone impassive, and she figured he must've come to the same conclusion as her.

Alison nodded at him once and then attempted to step around him, making for the source of the wonderful smell of bacon, but she stopped when he suddenly put a hand on her arm, stifling a sigh as she turned to face him again.

"What?" she said, crossing her arms; not in annoyance, but more...resign, than anything.

"You're doing it again," he said, his eyes searching hers, and she crinkled her brows in confusion. "Doing what?"

"That, thing," he said, motioning to her, and when she looked even more puzzled, he sighed, his mustache-braids rippling with the force of the air. "You're shutting us out, Alison. If you're trying to protect us or if something happens that you don't want to talk about, you push us all away when we try to help you. And it's not fair to us, Alison. We're your friends; you should trust us."

"You think this is about trust?" she echoed incredulously, ignoring the pang that went through her gut as she recalled the dock conversation and what she had said about Johnathan. "Seriously? I've put my life into your hands more times than I can count! And you think I don't trust you? Fíli, this isn't about not trusting you; I do trust you, more than you even know. But right now, this is strictly a me problem. So, please, just drop it, okay?"

He looked surprised, as if he wasn't expecting her to argue, but after a few seconds of his eyes searching hers, he nodded and stepped back out of her way.

"Very well," he said. "It's not my business to pry. But..." He hesitated, casting a worried glance over his shoulder, and Alison raised her brows when he turned to look at her again, his features unreadable.

"What is it?" she asked, goading him into speech, and he let out another sigh.

"It's nothing," he said, shaking his head and trying for a grin. "I was just thinking something foolish."

Alison opened her mouth to question him, but she was cut off by Bard's voice calling from around the corner, "Are you two getting breakfast or not? I'd suggest you hurry before Bain eats the rest of it."

"Hey!" Bain protested, and the kitchen burst into laughter as Alison and Fíli traded one more unreadable look and walked around the corner, grabbing plates and occupying the now-vacant seats of Bofur and Tilda, who had gone into the living room to trade enthusiastic stories with each other while Sigrid followed more slowly. Óin gave them a brief but friendly nod before pushing his own chair back and taking his medicine pouch over to Kíli's bedside, and then it was only Alison, Fíli, Bain, and Bard left in the kitchen.

"Well," Bard said after a while to break the silence. "Today's the day, isn't it? This 'Durin's Day' you mentioned earlier."

Alison nodded while Fíli took a swig from his cup. "That's right," she agreed. "It's the last day of autumn, which means it's the last day for them to find the hidden door into the Mountain."

"And if they don't?" Bain piped up, looking around at the other three. "What happens if the dwarves can't find the door, and they're shut out of the Mountain?"

An uneasy silence settled upon the room as they all shared tense glances, and Alison's grip tightened instinctively on her fork.

"Well," Fíli eventually said. "That means that the dragon can't be killed, our homeland would never be reclaimed, and the battle will still probably happen." He hesitated, sharing a look with Alison, one that was clear to read. "Hope would fade for all of us."

"Then let us pray that it will not come to that," Bard said, his tone ominous and his grim features more solemn than ever. "And let's hope that your friends indeed find their way into the Mountain, for all our sakes."

Every step was agony for Thorin.

Not because it was strenuous; Mahal, he'd been through far more grueling efforts than simply climbing stairs, no matter if each step was taller than him by a head and he had to pull himself up by clinging onto the stone, hundreds of feet in the air. No, it was the agony of anticipation that was thrumming through his veins, the feel of being so close that allowed him to ignore the rocks digging into his hardened palms and the way his healing bruises and cuts were beginning to be overlapped with new ones. It was knowing that his home lay under his very feet as he and the Company climbed higher and higher up the hidden stairs, and that by tonight, he could be walking through the halls he had never forgotten, could be inside of his old - future - kingdom once again, and that thought was almost too much hope to bear.

Of course, there was still the matter of the dragon inside, but Thorin's aspirations could not be quashed so easily in this moment; it had been a long time since he had dared to allow himself to hope, and he would not let the whispered name of a beast dampen his spirits when he was on the doorstep.

Even Alison's warnings before he had left did not weigh as heavily as they had the past day, though he could still feel the phantom touch of the thoughts poking at holes in his guard, searching for a way to seep back in and fill his mind with nothing but dark imaginings of the future again. But that would have to wait.

The sun was steadily going down when the Company finally reached the top of the great stone likeness of his grandfather, Thrór, and after a precarious walk across the shaft of the monumental battle axe, they emerged upon the small rocky ledge the hobbit had glimpsed earlier from down below in the valley, and Thorin's heart constricted so tightly he thought it might fail entirely as they stepped onto the ledge, facing a steep wall of blank grey stone. But Thorin could feel it in his fingertips and toes; this was the place they were meant to find.

"This must be it," he voiced aloud to the Company as they joined him on the ledge. "This must be the hidden door."

He could sense everyone behind him holding their breath, and he took a step forward, turning to face them and drawing the key out of an inside pocket of his shirt, the key Gandalf had given him so long ago in Bag End.

The light of the setting sun turned the solid metal gold, and it gleamed like a small torch in his hand as Thorin raised it, a smile breaking over his face as the Company watched in awe, and he said, "Let all those who doubted us rue this day!"

The Company cheered, their yelling voices echoing over the valley below, and when the cheering died down, Dwalin stepped towards the wall of stone before them, reaching out his tattooed hands and beginning to pat the stone with experienced fingers.

"Right, then," he said. "We have a key; which means somewhere, there is a keyhole."

"Excellent observational skills, brother," Balin said jovially from behind Thorin, and the dwarves chuckled, their spirits as high as Thorin's were in that moment.

Dwalin continued to feel along the stone, searching for a place where the keyhole would be, and Thorin turned to look out over the valley. In the distance, the southwestern spurs of the Mountain rose up on the rim of the basin, and through a gap in the ridges, Thorin could see the sun, fiery red and gold as it sank further and further down to the horizon.

The last light of Durin's Day...will shine upon the keyhole. He thought, looking back to the wall, but Dwalin was still searching, his movements becoming faster, more jerky, as his fingers delved into every crack and crevice on the stone. Where is the keyhole, then?

The rest of the Company was starting to get jittery, Thorin could tell. They swiveled their heads back and forth between the wall and the fast-sinking sun, and Thorin felt the own stirring of panic inside him, though he forced it down. We will find it. It is there. It has to be there. But still...

"Nori," he said, jerking his head to the wall, and the sly dwarf understood instantly, snatching a glass and a spoon (Thorin vaguely wondered if Nori had decided to take some more "souvenirs" from the house in Lake-town) out of his pack and striding to the wall, where he crouched and placed the glass and his ear to the stone, beginning to tap the rock with a spoon as he tried to hear where the hidden door was.

Thorin looked back to the ridge and saw the sun sinking further, a quarter of it already vanishing behind the spurs, and his heart squeezed again, though this time in panic instead of thrill.

"We're losing the light," he said, turning back to Dwalin and Nori, who were still scouring the wall. "Come on!"

Dwalin began kicking the wall in frustration, alternating between that and pushing, and Nori snapped, "Cut it out, will ya? I can't hear when you're thumping!" But he sounded just as worried as Thorin was beginning to feel.

Come on, come on, give us more time, he thought agitatedly, but when he glanced back, the sun had sunk vindictively lower in just the few short minutes he had turned away.

"I can't find it!" Dwalin growled. "It's not here!"

"No," Thorin said, refusing to believe it. "Break it down!"

The dwarves grabbed their weapons and stepped up to the wall, attempting to open the door by sheer force, but in his gut, Thorin knew it was no use. The last light of Durin's Day was the only thing that would open the door; but right now, the light was fast fading, and the door was still shut, and the keyhole nowhere to be seen.

"It's no good!" Balin said from behind them, sounding pained, but resolute. "The door is sealed! It can't be opened by force; there is a powerful magic on it." The dwarves stopped beating their weapons and fists and boots on the stone and turned to face Balin with incredulity and some fear, and Thorin felt himself go cold at the words.

"Balin," he said hoarsely. "Don't say that."

The white-haired dwarf gave no answer, for at that moment, the last glimmering rays of sunlight vanished completely, and Thorin felt as if he had been plunged into an icy sea as he whirled to find the sun gone, nothing more than a faint rosy glow on the horizon behind the spurs of the Mountain.

"No!" The wounded sound came out of him of its own accord, but he didn't care. The despair, the anger, the disbelief shattering inside of him - it was too much. It couldn't be true. It was not true.

He ripped the map out of his shirt, unfolding it so forcefully he feared it might tear, but the parchment held together; beaten up, weathered, and travel-stained though it was, it was still readable, and Thorin's eyes tore across the map, recalling the ancient moon runes he had seen in Rivendell to his mind, though it was hard to concentrate when his hands were quaking and his eyes blurring.

The Company watched him try to control himself in silence, until he finally choked out, "The last light of Durin's Day...will shine upon the keyhole." He looked up, letting the map flutter in his hands as he faced the still and solemn Company before him. "That's what it says." He inhaled a shaky breath. "What did we miss?"

No one answered him, but Thorin's eyes sought Balin the most, and when he caught the expression on the older dwarf's face, he felt as if he had been punched in the gut. "What did we miss? Balin?"

"We've lost the light," he said eventually, his voice heavy and hollow, and Thorin now felt claws sinking into him as Balin faced him, his face lined and weighed down.

"There's no more to be done," he continued lowly. "We had but one chance. I'm sorry, lads...but it's over."

Thorin stared down at his hands, unseeing, the key in one and the map in the other, and all he could feel was...emptiness, while after a long hesitation, the dwarves turned away and began to make for the hidden stairs once again; though this time, they would be walking away in dejection instead of climbing to hope.

As if from a very great distance, Thorin heard the hobbit begin to splutter in indignation, calling after them, "Wait a minute, what? No - no, where are you going? You can't give up now!"

But no one listened, and the burglar turned to face Thorin, looking flabbergasted and incredulous. "Thorin," he said - no, pleaded - and Thorin finally looked up, his chest tight and his jaw clenched so tightly he was starting to get a headache, but he didn't care; no amount of pain could compare to the yawning emptiness inside of him at that moment.

Thorin looked from the hobbit back to the key in his hand, wondering what went wrong, what had stopped them from finding the hidden door. And then he thought of Fíli and Kíli back in Lake-town; Kíli, who was gravely ill, and Fíli, looking after his brother and probably wondering if they had made it into the Mountain yet. He felt bile burning the back of his throat as he was suddenly grateful that his nephews were not here to see this, to witness such a disappointment and failure that had become of their quest. They did not deserve to see such a loss, such a crippling blow, after everything they had gone through just to get to this one moment.

And then it was gone. Their one chance. Gone. Nothing more than a gust of ashes and a fable whispered amongst the world, the tale of a defeated king-in-exile who had failed his people. Gone.

Something seemed to break inside of Thorin, then, and he stared down at the key again, barely aware of the hobbit still staring at him, repeating, "You can't give up now" like a mantra, like if he said it enough times it would reverse time and the door would open with the last light of the sun. But Thorin knew that it would not work.

The Quest for Erebor was over. They had failed. Thorin had failed.

And he let the key fall.

It wasn't supposed to end like this.

That was the only thought running through Bilbo's head as Thorin shoved the map into his arms and walked away, following the others as they headed down the Mountain.

The way Thorin had looked while dropping the key on the ledge, while walking away from Bilbo; it was the look of someone who had lost everything, of someone whose last hope had been burned away, leaving something hollow and empty in his sapphire eyes as he left, accepting defeat, because Bilbo didn't know what else to call it.

It wasn't supposed to end like this.

After months trekking across the Wilderness, after being sucked out of his ordinary, peaceful life in the Shire and thrown into a quest to reclaim a homeland from a dragon, Bilbo knew that he did not go through so much hardship to be stopped now, on the very doorstep of their journey's end. He had come so far, had ventured with insane, uncouth dwarves and a strange human girl that had become like family to him, had faced Orcs, goblins, and giant spiders and seen Elves and Eagles and a skin-changer and so, so much; it wasn't fair. It could not end like this.

This thought is what urges him forward to the wall, staring down at the map in his hands intently, desperate for answers, because Valar above, it was not supposed to end like this.

He heard Lord Elrond's voice in his head as he stared down at the map, reciting under his breath as he followed the Elf-lord's words: "'Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the keyhole.'"

Well, there was a problem already. "The grey stone...when the thrush knocks..." There had been no thrush present as far as Bilbo could tell when they had been trying to open the door, which just made him wonder: why?

They had followed the map, and he could feel, somehow, that this was the place they were meant to be, where the hidden door was supposed to be, and the sun had set on today, Durin's Day...

"The last light," he said aloud, beginning to pace. "The last light..."

It wasn't supposed to end like this.

"Yes, yes, I know!" Bilbo snapped to himself. "But why did it, then? Why?"

And then he was interrupted by a tapping sound behind him, an annoying knocking that made him spin around, his nerves prickling with irritation, and then he stopped, his heart leaping to his throat at what he saw.

A bird - no, a thrush, it had to be! - was perched on a rock near the wall, cracking a snail shell against the stone, creating the knocking noise, and Bilbo was hit with the realization that this must be what the map had been talking about.

"Well, a little late on that one, thanks," he thought bitterly, looking up at the sky with distaste, but he looked away as he was suddenly bathed in moonlight, the silvery crescent beaming down on him, and he turned away from the light, telling himself to not get distracted.

He looked back at the wall, and it took him a few minutes to realize that something was happening. The shadows and the light were coalescing on the stone, creating dancing patterns of night upon the grey as he observed, a thought nagging at the back of his mind.

"The last light..." He repeated thoughtfully, watching the moonlight on the rock, and then it hit him like a lightning bolt. "Oh my - the last light!"

As if it had been waiting for him to say it, the moonlight suddenly glanced upon a hidden cleft in the rock that didn't seem to have been there before, and Bilbo realized that this must be the keyhole. The keyhole!

His heart fluttering madly, he began to shout in glee and relief, his lone voice echoing strangely over the valley as he called, "Come back! Come back! It's the light of the moon, the last moon of autumn! The door!"

Bilbo laughed out loud, suddenly feeling a thousand pounds lighter as he looked at the wall and the keyhole, until then he realized another problem: he didn't have the key.

"Oh, confound it all," he grumbled, dropping his eyes back to the ground and beginning to search the ledge frantically. What an adventure it would turn out to be if he had finally figured out how to open the hidden door, and Thorin had gone and lost the key.

"Where's the key? Come on, it was just here... Where is it?" He muttered to himself, silently urging the dwarves to get a move on and get back up here so they could help him look for the damned thing. "It was here, it was just -"

Bilbo's foot suddenly hit something solid, but he knew it was not a rock as it clanged and he whirled, his heart dropping to his toes as he saw the key skidding towards the edge of the cliff, and he threw himself forward with a strangled yelp, knowing in his heart that he was too late, he was too slow to catch it before -

A heavy boot slammed down upon the key, stopping its mad race to the cliff's edge, and Bilbo looked up, breathing heavily as he met Thorin's wide blue eyes. Slowly, carefully, the dwarf bent down and grasped the key, straightening back up with it in his hand as the other eight dwarves struggled back onto the ledge, out of breath from their descent and then re-ascent on the hidden stairs.

"So, this is it, then?" Dori panted, clutching at a stitch in his side. "It's moonlight, eh?"

Bilbo nodded as Thorin approached the wall cautiously, holding the key like it was the most important object in his life - and in a way, it was.

"It is," he confirmed, while they all watched Thorin. "And the thrush knocked on the stone, just like the moon runes said it would..."

But he trailed off as Thorin noticed the keyhole, and they all fell silent as he inserted the key slowly, as if expecting it not to work; but when it did, there was a sharp, collective intake of breath from the Company as Thorin turned the key.

There was the sound of stone grinding against stone, and then a resounding boom coming from the inside of the rock.

"Bless my beard," Glóin whispered in awe.

Bilbo saw Thorin's shoulders tense from behind, but he only watched as he lifted his hands and pressed them to the stone, pushing; with a muffled grunt and a strong shove, the stone caved in on itself and a wide door suddenly opened in the side of the Mountain, leading into darkness as it opened with a sound of depthless stone tunneling into shadow.

There were several long heartbeats of dead silence; no one dared to breathe, and Bilbo's eyes began to water, for he was afraid that if he blinked, then the image of the open door would be shattered, and he would awake to find that it had all been a mirage.

But finally he couldn't take it anymore, and he blinked, once, but when he opened his eyes, it was still there, solid and real before him.

He gave a hoarse chuckle, and that was what finally seemed to break the spell over the Company.

"Erebor," Thorin breathed into the silence, and Balin stepped up behind him, looking as if he were trying to hold back tears.

"Thorin," he whispered, and the younger dwarf placed a gentle hand on his shoulder as Bilbo took a step forward, falling into place behind the two as they all began to make their way, dazedly and sluggishly, after the two dwarves.

Thorin stepped through the doorway, closely followed by Balin and Bilbo and the rest of the Company, and by the strong moonlight filling the tunnel they walked into, Bilbo saw Thorin's hands caressing the stone on either side of him, though he pretended not to notice the slight tremor he could see going through the dwarf's hands.

"I know these walls," he whispered, his voice rippling along the stone and reaching Bilbo's sharp ears. "These halls. This stone."

Bilbo put his own hand out on impulse, his fingertips skimming the stone, and he jumped a little bit when something rose up to meet his touch, a sense of... power, within the stone, that thrummed through his fingers as he pulled his hand away, and from then on he told himself that the tales of dwarven mountains being alive were in fact true, because no mere rock could feel like that, as if it had an identity, a power to it that was all its own.

"Do you remember it, Balin?" Thorin continued, his voice low with the touch of memories as he walked further into the tunnel, followed by the sniffling white-haired dwarf. "The feasts and songs, the sound of the miners in the deep, and the smiths in the ringing forges, the scent of food and drink, the sight of chambers filled with golden light? The life that echoed, at all hours of the day and night?"

"I remember," Balin whispered, and Bilbo knew he would have to be deaf in order not to hear the suppressed emotion in the older dwarf's voice.

"What's this?" Nori's voice said from behind them, and they all turned to see him pointing at an engraving on the wall above the door, a carved depiction of something Bilbo didn't recognize with dwarvish runes written above and below it.

"The throne of the King," Balin supplied, and Bilbo finally saw it, though the lines emanating from something above the throne still confused him as Glóin began to translate the runes of the picture.

"'Herein lies the seventh kingdom of Durin's Folk,'" he read in wonder. "'May the heart of the Mountain unite all Dwarves in defense of this home.'"

"Is that what's above the throne?" Bilbo asked, pointing to the small round image of the something above the throne, the thing that was giving off what he assumed to be light.

"Aye," Balin answered, a hint of reverence coming into his tone. "The Arkenstone."

"The Arkenstone," Bilbo repeated slowly. He had a feeling he had heard of it before, and he flashed back to an image of Thorin and Alison walking side by side through the rain months ago, discussing something about a stone, though he hadn't paid much attention then, especially since only a few minutes later he was almost shot in the throat by Johnathan Ashburne. But it didn't hurt to ask. "So, um, what's that, again?"

Before Balin could reply, probably about to go off into this whole spinning lesson about the Arkenstone and its origins and whatnot, Thorin cut in from where he was standing further down the passageway, looking around the corner where it curved, and from how Thorin said it and how everyone looked at him afterwards, Bilbo suddenly had a feeling that they had arrived to the point where his part on the quest came into play at last.

"That, Master Baggins," Thorin said, gesturing to the engraving. "Is why you are here."

Bilbo gulped as silence enveloped the tunnel, all the dwarves staring at him with unfathomable expressions. Why do I have a feeling this is going to be a lot more dangerous than it sounds?

Author's Note

Smaug, son, you better watch out. Because now it's your turn to come out and play. (That sounded a lot cooler in my head).

I decided to split up these next few chapters because there's a lot that's going on, so they're probably going to be shorter than usual, though hopefully longer than this one. Just a heads up on that.

So next chapter we get a Nori POV, and Bilbo's inevitable confrontation with Smaug...

Thank you for all of your reviews/favorites/follows (look how close we are to 200! AHH!)! I'll try not to be sucky at updates this time around, because I have a pretty set plan in place from where I'm going to leave you while I go to work at a three-week overnight summer camp that allows no technology! (Yay) So I'll try to leave y'all in a good place before then!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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