The Gallery of the Kings is nothing but rubble, age-old tapestries torn down and ripped to shreds, and the river of gold that had encased the dragon still glimmers there, drops and dashes of the precious metal like thousands of brilliant brushstrokes across the pillars reminding them of how the beast had broken free of its weak confinement. The tall ceilings whisper to Thorin of his grandest failure, but he closes his eyes against it and inhales, searching for the familiar earthy scent of the Mountain’s heat in the air.
“It’s quite beautiful,” Bilbo notes, and Thorin looks on him incredulously – he looks back, shrugging, almost apologetic, and Thorin can’t wrap his head around him at all.
He gazes at their surroundings again, the dwarves scattering among the ruins, millenia of history reduced to dust-covered rags on the ground, and among it the gold shining so bright he almost feels like it’s mocking him, and thinks, where’s the beauty in this?
“I’m sorry,” the halfling mutters, “I know it’s a horrible shame, all this destruction, it’s just that… well, look at it. It shines. And who knew daylight could get this far inside the mountain? That round thing up there, what do you call them…?”
“A rosette,” Thorin supplies in a daze.
“Yes, that. That’s quite the craftsmanship. Letting all the light in. You must show me that… that roof-opening mechanism you told me about… All I’m saying,” Bilbo speaks more clearly when he catches Thorin’s gaze, “is that this place is not all gone. I – I think it’s marvelous. My mother used to say there’s a certain beauty in rubble, you know? In – in a mess. Allows for starting all over again. Cleaning up and, and rearranging. Did you know, Bard thinks nothing will ever grow in the battlefield again? Or around Dale?”
“He’s probably right about that,” Thorin sighs.
“Nonsense! Nonsense,” the halfling declares so firmly it takes Thorin by surprise, “do you know, sometimes a fire helps a tired field bear crops again? And some plants require ash to even think about growing? The ground around the Mountain and Dale might be scorched, but it is not lifeless. Not lifeless at all.”
The derelict hall ahead of them lies forgotten, for Thorin cannot tear his eyes away from Bilbo now. There is a twinkle in his eyes brighter and more precious than the wasted gold all around them, and he looks almost… eager.
“Is this why you stay?” Thorin asks very quietly, something within his chest constricting, “to eke out life from barren land?”
The burglar watches him some, his expression unreadable, then his eyes dart away.
“It’s the least I can do,” he utters, “I highly suspect the Lakemen know nothing at all about gardening. It’s all fishing and boat building and water-proofing things with them, and, well, that won’t do them much good anymore, now that they’re…”
He trails off, and silence overcomes them for some time, uninterrupted but for the gentle noise of the workers ahead.
“I would see life return to this place,” Bilbo says then, and it’s as if he’s been preparing those words for a very long time, “I mean, not… not this place, the Mountain is yours to restore, of course, but we hobbits feel sort of… indebted to nature, you know? There’s much potential here, and I can’t just leave it behind for the Men to miss, now can I?”
Thorin gazes at him, hands folded behind his back, and wonders, is this what you fight for? To see grass grow again?
To him, life has always constituted miles of solid, warm stone under his feet, and the noise of furnaces working day and night, and the hubbub of thousands of dwarves going about their business, shaping metal and singing and carving their way deeper down… There had been more fresh air in the Blue Mountains, more sky to be seen every day, more wind, more forests. Fili and Kili had been born into it, never knew anything else, and Thorin himself had gradually learned not to feel so uneasy, but there had always been something missing. Nothing like the safety of miles of solid rock up above and down below, everywhere around you, son. Nothing like the warmth of a mountain’s heart to lull you to sleep.
That’s what had been important to his father. What’s important to Thorin, right now, is that he’s standing in one of the grandest halls of the home he’d been born into, after finally having reclaimed it, and he feels cold.
After heat settles in Erebor’s forges, after its walls swell once again with the songs of his kin, will he finally be able to rest? Will he finally be able to accept that he’s home?
I would see life return to this place. Does life returning to Erebor actually come hand in hand with life returning to Thorin’s veins and lungs and heart? Or is he, much like the desperate patches of ground around the Mountain and the long-lost city of men, nothing but a desolate wasteland, barely breathing, suffocating in ashes and tainted by the blood of too many? Bilbo might believe there is hope yet for the earth to be rejuvenated, but is there such a hope for Thorin as well?