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Oliphaunt

Skin is burning.

Sun is startling bright in sky. No clouds, nothing to hide its fiery face. High now, close to midday. No shade. He sits pressed against rock. Skin is slick with sweat. Bright, hard light burns cheeks, neck, shoulders. He tries to cover with hair. Burns anyway.

Orcs are in cave. Cave is dim, cool, though not damp like caves in north. Nothing here is damp. Ground is sand, not soil. Sticks to his raw feet, scrapes against marks of whip. Should not have taken punishment for new snaga. New snaga will be dead soon enough. Before whip marks have healed, most likely. Before skin has cooled from burn. Should not have taken punishment.

Orcs are sleeping. Cave is close, few steps away. Could slip inside. Shelter from sun, few hours. Slip out before orcs wake. Will orcs notice?

Yes. Orcs will notice.

Three days now since feet were whipped. Too soon to transgress again. Cannot take second punishment. (Should not have taken first punishment.) Needs to be able to walk. Other choice is death.

(Could choose death.)

Sun burns and burns. Never so hard, so bright. Punishment is his. He will survive. (He will not choose death.)

----

New snaga has been with orcs less than month. New snaga will not last week.

New snaga is man. Most snaga are men or orcs. Elves too strong. This one is not quite full-grown. Skinny. Learns slowly. He tries to help new snaga. Show him how to sit. How not to look at orcs. How to watch without being seen. How to keep quiet.

New snaga does not understand him. Speech is without weight, like twittering of birds. Now almost month, new snaga has not learnt how not to look. Has not learnt how to be silent, not seen. Too young, too much spirit.

Will not last week.

----

March in evening. Night is cool, cold. Shivers are welcome. Moon is bright overhead, stars high, cold, pinpricks. Stars do not burn.

New snaga grows weak. Cannot carry what orcs give. He takes extra. Pack scrapes burned neck, burned shoulders. Sand scrapes whip marks on feet.

Should eat, he tells new snaga. Eat, stay strong. No use to orcs if weak. Orcs not keep if no use.

New snaga does not understand. Twitters in bird language. Cries.

No crying, he tells new snaga. Keep water in body. Tongue is dry as sand. No water until march is done. No crying. Crying is weak.

New snaga cries. Will die soon.

----

March all night. Not bad march if not dry tongue and burned skin, whipped feet. Sand grows cool, stars grow bright. So many stars. What is it like among stars?

Better than here.

New snaga stumbles, falls. Once, twice, too many times. Makes noise. Orcs notice.

He steps away. Puts head down. Orcs do not look at him. Look only at new snaga.

Orcs laugh. New snaga is young. Is tender. Still have meat from new snaga's village. Salted. Orcs want fresh meat.

Soon, big orc says. Very soon. New snaga grows thin. Thin is no good. Kill before too thin.

Eat, he tells new snaga. Eat, eat. Eat or die.

New snaga twitters angrily. Casts salted meat to ground. Tries to steal his food, cast that away, too. New snaga too weak. Fight is over before it begins. Before orcs notice.

New snaga sobs like child. He puts hand over new snaga's mouth, ignores sharp press of teeth in his palm. Quiet, he says. Quiet. It is only meat.

New snaga does not eat.

----

No sport, orcs say. No sport, no sport. New snaga cries out when struck. Makes noise, painful, sharp. No sport.

Keep silent, he says. Keep silent as long as can. Orcs like to break. Like challenge.

New snaga cries out when struck. No challenge at all.

----

Third day in desert, find green place. Sand in all directions, only here trees and water. He sleeps in shade of trees. Punishment is over now.

Men come in day. Come across sand, great noise. First just men, clothes all black, faces covered.

Then comes beast.

Beast is bigger than horse, bigger than warg. Bigger than mountain. Great grey lumbering, knives like trees in face. Nose is like great serpent. Cry so loud, he covers ears.

Mûmak, orcs say. Mûmak. Even orcs are scared of beast. Scared, but pleased. Want beast. Mûmak can kill armies, orcs say. Want to see what mûmak can do. Excited.

Big orc talks with big man. He does not understand language. New snaga understands. Cowers. Eyes big, face pale.

Big man smiles sharp smile. Big orc laughs. Points at new snaga. Big man steps forward, reaches for new snaga.

New snaga screams. Cries. Struggles. Points at him, shouts in bird language.

Big orc laughs. Man-cub thinks khozd shrakhun should die instead, big orc says. What does khozd shrakhun think?

He does not speak. Keeps head low. Watches without being seen. Big orc nods.

Khozd shrakhun is strong, big orc says. Khozd shrakhun is good sport. Man-cub is weak. He laughs, spits at new snaga, kicks him in stomach. Speaks to him in bird language. New snaga weeps.

Big man takes new snaga by arm, drags him towards mûmak. Big orc grabs his hair, pulls his head up. Watch, he says. Watch.

He watches.

Big man drops new snaga before mûmak. Jabs mûmak with spear. Mûmak roars, sound is loud, loudest. Wraps serpent-nose around new snaga. Lifts him. Smashes him to ground.

New snaga cries out. Bones crunch. Blood stains sand.

Mûmak lifts new snaga again. Smashes again. Cries, crunch, blood.

Third time, no more cries.

Mûmak smashes, over and over. New snaga is nothing but bloody pulp and splintered bones. Orcs laugh. Big orc kicks him in back. He makes no sound.

Fresh meat tonight, big orc says. Orcs cheer.

----

Bone splinters make meat hard to eat.

----

Four months in desert. Whip marks heal. Big orc talks, always talks to men. No more mûmakil. Stars bright every night. Days burn, nights shiver.

Hopes not to see mûmak again.

----

He sees one in a picture, years later. He doesn't understand why Hobbit wants him to have the picture. He can't throw it away. It is his. Hobbit wanted him to have it.

He can't throw it away, but he can try not to look at it.

----

The next time -- the last time -- Kili saw an oliphaunt was many years later, by the banks of the River Anduin, before the great city of Minas Tirith. They were many, far too many, and fearsome, just as he remembered. But he had survived, and he would survive, and when the battle was over, one beast was felled by an arrow in the eye, and Kili's bow thrummed with revenge.

The battle was won.

Chapter Text

Later, they would argue endlessly about who was the elder. Thorin would swear blind he had been born before the sun rose above the Iron Hills, and Dwalin would laugh and say that there was no sun that day, a day of black clouds and tearing winds, when two babes were born of Durin's line and the fires sputtered in the forges. I am the elder, Dwalin would say. That is why I am taller.

And Thorin would laugh and clap him on the shoulder. You are taller because the midwife stretched you pulling you from your mother, he would say. You fought her, just as you fight everyone.

Aye, that's so, Dwalin would say, but it was not so. Dwalin came out of his mother's womb with his fists clenched on a day when the sky was black and the winds howled around the mountain. But he did not fight for the sake of fighting. He fought for the sake of those who were worth dying for.

----

Dwalin came out of his mother's womb with his fists clenched on a day when the sky was black and the winds howled around the mountain. His mother told him the story, over and again, smiling down at him as she held him in her lap. You will be a warrior, she said. None will stand against your sword.

Do not make prophecies, said Dwalin's father. It is too early to know yet what he will be.

But Dwalin's mother only smiled. I know, she said.

----

Farin, son of Borin, was twenty-nine years old when his uncle, King Dain, was slain before the gates of his kingdom in the Grey Mountains, and Dain's son Thror led the remnants of their people to the Lonely Mountain. Dragons, he said to his grandsons many years later, dragons are the oldest enemy of dwarves. Be wary of dragons, lads.

Balin nodded, for he had read a great deal of dragons in the books that he loved so dearly. Oin was yet too young to understand, and Gloin was not even born. But Dwalin listened to the words his grandfather spoke and swore to himself that one day, he would kill the dragon that slew King Dain.

It was a promise he did not keep. Nor was it to be the last.

----

Balin was the elder. When Dwalin was but a wee thing, he used to ask at every turning of the year when it would be his turn to be eldest, and yet, although he grew older every year, Balin grew older, too, stubbornly keeping ahead no matter how much Dwalin tried to catch up. Balin was the elder, and it was he who sat patiently and learned all that was expected of him, while Dwalin dozed over his books and itched to escape. Balin will be the lore-keeper of the Line of Durin, so his father told Dwalin, as his grandfather had told him before. His learning will protect them from losing Mahal's favour. Our traditions are our most sacred possession.

Dwalin was never in danger of being a lore-keeper. He had not the patience for it, nor the even temper that his father said was needed for a royal advisor.

Well, if Balin will be the lore-keeper, what will I be? he asked.

His father regarded him without a smile.

We shall see, he said.

----

Dwalin took to the forge like a dragon to gold. He began when he was barely tall enough to hold a hammer, and his tools grew as he did, until one day he was taller than all the other dwarves of Erebor, wielding his great hammer, feeling the strength and power of Mahal flow through his arm. Balin was the elder, but time went on and one day Dwalin was the taller, standing at the forge and feeling at last that intense joy that Balin found in books and learning. He felt it in the burn of his muscles; in the sweat that Mahal's breath drew from his brow. And he felt it, too, on the training grounds, with an axe in his hand, moving without thinking, nothing but force and fury. Mahal had hewn Balin a thinker; Dwalin he had hewn for battle.

All dwarves can fight, Dwalin's father said. All dwarves can smith.

Dwalin took to the forge, and he took to battle, but all dwarves can fight and all dwarves can smith. These were the offerings that Dwalin had, and he laid them gladly at the feet of his prince.

All dwarves can fight, his grandfather said, but not all dwarves are warriors. You, Dwalin, you will be the shield of the Line of Durin. Thorin will be your king, as Thror is mine. Mind you take care of him: kings are hard to come by.

I will be the shield, Dwalin repeated. And he swore an oath to himself, and never did he speak that oath to any, not even Balin, to whom he told many of the secrets of his soul. It lived in his heart only, but it tied him the more strongly for it.

Yet even the strongest ties cannot account for the weakness of the body and of the spirit. Dwalin did not keep his promise, though not for want of trying. But he made another promise, many years later, and that one, he kept.

----

Dwalin took to the forge like a dragon to gold, and it was the forge-fire that drew him most of all. It danced and smouldered, too bright to look on, and the heat of it was like a living creature, drawing sweat from Dwalin's skin. The forge-fire could turn a lump of sooty rock into a shimmering stream of molten metal. The forge-fire was the breath of Mahal, his gift to his children. Dwalin took to the forge, and there he felt the hand of his maker lie heavy upon him, and every stroke of his hammer seemed to sing like a prayer-chant. In later years, he felt the fierce joy of battle, the fury of the raven-feeder that cares not for the sorrow that will follow when the dead are counted. But slaughter-song, sweet though it was, never did compare with the ringing of the anvil and the breath of Mahal, scorching against his skin.

It was not until the dragon came that Dwalin met a fire that burned with dark power and did not speak to him with the voices of his ancestors. That fire, Dwalin never forgot, even in the deepest sleep. That insult, to his people, to his prince, he never forgave. He made a promise, then, that one day he would slay the beast that had thus driven them out of their home.

Dwalin did not keep his promise, though not for want of trying.

----

Dwalin stood at Thorin's side when the dragon drove them from their home, neither of them yet of age, barely standing their full height. He stood at Thorin's side through the long wanderings that followed, and he stood there before the gates of Khazad-Dum when King Thror was beheaded before their eyes, and Thrain Thorin's father ran mad. Dwalin lost his own father that day, and Frerin -- Frerin Thorin's beloved brother, who was too young to be there but was there nonetheless -- Frerin they did not find until after the battle, his eyes open and clouded in death.

Dwalin stood at Thorin's side through it all, and yet once only in his long life did he witness Thorin weep.

----

The summers were short and splendid in the Blue Mountains, the sky arching blue and cloudless above, the grass a riot of flowers below. The summers were short and splendid, but the winters were long and bitter, and at times Dwalin suspected that that was exactly why Thorin had had them settle there. They lived in caves to begin with, but the mountains were not of the right stone, rough and crystalline and impervious to the steady drip of water, so that what caves there were were shallow and offered little protection from the weather. So instead they took to building homes aboveground, little structures like those of men, and thus showed in their very manner of living the grief that they had suffered, their exile from the bosom of the earth, where their maker dwelt and whence they were sprung. These curious, tumbledown dwarf-houses were as much a sign of their loss as was Thorin's shorn beard and his mourning braid, and even years later, when they led good lives and the holes in between the stones that made their walls were packed with moss and no longer let the weather in, they knew that they were far from home.

But live they did, the short, splendid summers and the long, bitter winters, and they made use of the knowledge that Mahal had blessed them with, setting fires in their forges and delving for metals in the mountains. But Mahal's breath was weakened here, far from the depths of the rock where his heart beat ever and anon, and the forge-fire was cooler than it had been in Erebor, and Dwalin's hammer no longer sang. The goods he made were well enough, though, enough to keep bread in their mouths, and every summer they would travel to sell what they had made in the winter, and to set their hands to mending what the menfolk of the Blue Mountains had broken in the long cold months. Swords there were, aye, but none of them were too proud in those days to mend a broken ploughshare or beat out a copper pot.

And live they did.

----

They talked long into the night, Thorin and Dwalin. Erebor was all they spoke of, Erebor, their home and the beast that stole it from them. They did not say Frerin and they did not say orcs. Instead it was the dragon, and instead it was Erebor, Erebor, Erebor.

They did not say Frerin, and Dwalin did not hear Thorin speak that name for sixty years.

----

Live they did, aye, and more than live. For one day in the short, hot, summer, Mahal blessed the lady Dis, sweet Dis who had grown sombre and sad since the death of her brother Frerin before the gates of Khazad-Dum, and brought forth from her a child, the first of the royal house of Erebor to be born since Frerin himself had come into the world, only to leave it so few years later. Fili, the child was named, and he was serious-faced like his uncle and looked at the world with solemn eyes. But Dis, sweet Dis, sombre and sad since her brother had died, Dis learned to smile again, and to laugh, and she stood with the babe in her arms and laughed at his solemn face, and kissed him. And he was loved more than anything in the world, and after that the winters seemed not so bitter any more.

And yet the blessings were not done; for not five years on the heels of Fili came another child, as different from his brother as night from day. He was born with a shock of dark hair, and he learned to laugh before he learned to focus his eyes. And Fili, solemn little Fili, who for five years had watched the world with his serious eyes, grew suddenly bright and gay, and would twist his face into the most alarming grotesqueries in a bid to make his brother laugh.

And laugh Kili did, and Fili laughed with him, and they were the most cheerful of families. Even Thorin seemed less overcome with sorrow, the rage that never left him loosening its grip a little more every year as the two dwarflings grew, and he began to tell stories he had never told before, to speak his brother's name for the first time since Azanulbizar. These stories he told, of a reckless youth in Erebor and Dunland, and Dwalin marvelled at the change in him, catching sight for the first time in many years of that dwarfling he had known from the cradle.

Fili taught his mother how to smile, and Kili taught his brother how to laugh, and Thorin learned to make his peace with the past, but Dwalin -- Dwalin learned something else. Dwalin learned that there was room in his heart for more promises, or perhaps simply for greater ones. And he swore to himself that he would shield these children from all the grief that their family had borne for so many generations. That he would see that they did not forget how to laugh again. And he prayed to Mahal, deep in the earth, to strike his sword-arm from his shoulder should he fail.

Perhaps it was that Mahal could not hear him, perched absurdly as he was on the surface of the earth; or perhaps he heard and chose not to answer. But Dwalin did not keep his promise, and Mahal did not strike him down.

He was never sure whether it was a mercy.

----

There was no moon the night the orcs came.

Dwalin did not know what caused him to wake, only that wakeful he was, and on his feet a moment later, calling a warning before the watchman had realised they were under attack. His axe was in his hand, and he sprang towards where the young lads had been sleeping, but his way was blocked by a great orc astride a slavering warg. After that, there was only the desperate dance of battle, with barely enough light to see his enemy and no way to know how many there were. Black blood, hot and stinking, spattered his face and drenched his chest as he took the lives of three orcs and two wargs, his body moving without thought, long-accustomed. All dwarves must be able to fight, but Dwalin was a warrior.

And then, as soon as they had come, they were gone. The ringing of metal on metal died away, and there was only the sound of one of the lads crying. Screaming.

One of the lads was screaming.

Dwalin turned towards the sound, axe at the ready. But his promise was already broken.

----

In the last days of that short, splendid summer, Thorin Oakenshield stood before his people, his shoulders thrown back and his eyes blazing forth with the rage that had once begun to slip away. I am here, he said, to ask you all to swear an oath.

The dwarves of Erebor stood silent. Thorin regarded them all, and then he nodded. We have all lost kin, he said. The Battle of Azanulbizar claimed the lives of many. Brothers, fathers, sons. Dwalin bowed his head, thinking of his own father, and many in the crowd did the same. Thorin stood silent a moment, out of respect for the dead, who had been burned to ash as though they were Children of Iluvatar. And then he raised his head. A comfort, at least, to know that they died in battle, with an axe in their hand and glory in their hearts, he said, and a murmur of agreement ran through the crowd. Then Thorin reached down and picked up a ragged, blood-stained tunic. Once it had been a deep blue; now it was almost black with grime.

This belonged to my nephew, Kili, son of Dis,, he said, and although Dwalin did not know it then, it would be the last time he would hear Thorin speak that name for twenty-five years. We found it three days' journey north of here, along with his bones. It was not vultures that picked them clean.

A shocked silence settled over the crowd. Thorin waited until the last echo of his words had died out, and then he spoke again.

I ask you to swear that you will never turn aside from a chance to slay one of these filthy beasts. I ask that you never rest until they are wiped from this earth. There can be no forgiveness for what they have done. I ask this of you.

Silence once more. Dwalin felt the earth beneath his feet, sought to feel Mahal, but Mahal's heart beat deep, deep, and he could not feel it. He was not the shield of the line of Durin, but perhaps he could be the sword.

I swear this, he said, striking his closed fist against his chest. I swear it.

And so, too, the others swore, and none refused the oath, and as the short, splendid summer drew to a close, they opened their eyes for orcs and their hearts to fury, in the hope, perhaps, that it would dull the pain of sorrow.

That winter was unseasonably warm. It was the bitterest Dwalin could remember.

----

Mahal was the god of craft, of forging and mining, of mountains and caves. There was nothing so tightly bound that Mahal could not put it asunder, and nothing so shattered that Mahal could not knit it together as new. And so it was to Mahal that Dwalin prayed, that long, bitter winter, to forge anew the Line of Durin, to knit them together and make them strong, make them whole again. But he was perched absurdly on the surface of the earth, far from where Mahal's heart beat, and perhaps that was why Mahal did not hear him. Or perhaps it was only that there was no help to give.

They were not forged anew. They remained shattered, Dis who recovered from her frenzy only to grow sad-eyed and silent, Fili who became once more the solemn child he had once been, as if the life of his brother had been merely a flash of gaiety in a long, sombre life. Thorin, whose eyes shone with a rekindled rage.

They were not forged anew.

 

----

They talked long into the night, Thorin and Dwalin.

When first they had come to the Blue Mountains, it had been Erebor, Erebor, Erebor. But for fifty years and more, Erebor had faded, and they had sat over their ale and talked with passion of Fili and Kili, of their first teeth, their first words, the strength of their grip and the alertness of their eyes. And later, once Dwalin and Balin had taken them in hand, of their training, their lessons. They spoke critically to the lads themselves, but in those evenings, deep in their cups, they regaled each other with stories of how Fili beheaded that practice dummy, how Kili struck a target that Dwalin could barely see. Erebor, of course, Erebor. But not always, or even often.

And now, in the long, bitter winter that was unseasonably warm, Thorin spoke no more of training, or of lessons. Fili's name he barely mentioned; Kili's he never let pass his lips. Erebor it was again, Erebor and the dragon, and they did not say orcs and they did not say Kili. And when Thorin was well in his cups he would say I want you there, Dwalin. I want you at my back when we kill that wretched beast and take back our home.

And Dwalin said Aye, I will be there. I swear it. And this promise he kept.

----

And then, one night when Thorin had drunk more than was usual and they had been talking of Erebor for five years, he sat and stared into his tankard and said It never ends.

Dwalin made some comment about the ale, and Thorin raised his heavy head and looked on him with haunted eyes, and Dwalin knew that it was something else.

When we lose them -- I think, always in the back of my mind I think that one day I will wake and they will have returned. That the parting is painful, but temporary. But it is not so, Dwalin. They will not come back.

And here, Dwalin thought, here was where it was traditional to speak of Mahal, of the halls of their fathers, where they would all be reunited to await the remaking of the world.

No, he said instead. They will not.

Thorin's head sank between his shoulders. How can this be borne? he asked. But there was no answer that Dwalin could give.

Dwalin had stood at Thorin's side when the dragon drove them from their home, and when Thror and Fundin and Frerin were lost before the gates of Khazad-Dum. He had stood at Thorin's side when Kili had been snatched from them, and when they had found his bones.

And yet once only in his long life did he witness Thorin weep.

----

 

Many years later, Dwalin stood in the forge where once he had learned the first steps of the smith's art, and where, not three hours before, Mahal had spoken, accepting the hobbit as a dwarf-friend and blessing the young dwarf who Dwalin had held not two hours after he was born and who Dwalin had lost through weakness of spirit and body. He stooped to gather into his arms the heavy, rusted shackles that had bound the lad to a life of misery. They lay black in the firelight, ugly and glowering. And Dwalin felt the breath of Mahal on his skin, and when he brought his hammer down, it sang like a prayer-chant, or a battle-cry. He struck again and again, and he felt the strength of his arm return to him. All dwarves can smith, but Dwalin was hewn for the forge, for the forge and for the battlefield.

And he had a promise to keep.

Chapter Text

In late November, the weather became increasingly dreary, with long, long stretches of drizzle and glowering skies, and little chance of a walk to relieve the tedium. Fili, however, being made of rather sterner stuff than Bilbo, did not allow this minor obstacle to keep him from his exercise. He had taken up running in earnest since his first outing with his brother in September, and now he went out at least three times a week, usually with Kili by his side. Still, when the drizzle increased to driving rain in the last week of November, Bilbo insisted they should stay inside, for he had not forgotten the consequences of the last dreadful rainstorm.

So it was that, when the first day of December dawned clear and cold and frosty, Fili was up and dressed and hurrying his brother along before Bilbo had finished making his first cup of tea.

“There’s no need to be in such a rush,” Bilbo cried. “I’m sure the weather will hold for a few hours, at least.”

“Ah, how can you dawdle inside on such a day as this?” Fili asked, looking impatiently out of the window and then staring at Kili, who had yet to finish his tea. Bilbo hid a smile, for the young dwarf looked for all the world like a child on the night before Yule. “I swear, my legs have shortened by half an inch from so much sitting and so little moving!”

“Well, we can’t allow that, now, can we?” Bilbo laughed. “Soon you will be as short as a hobbit!”

“Perish the thought,” Fili said. “But do we need anything? It is market day, is it not?”

“Market day in Bywater, certainly,” Bilbo said. “Well -- some potatoes would not go amiss. And flour, of course.” For he was determined that Kili would learn to bake bread before the week was out.

“Potatoes and flour,” Fili said with a smile. “Consider it done.” And, seeing that Kili had at last managed his last mouthful of tea, he clapped a hand to his shoulder and all but hauled him out of his seat.

“Goodbye, then!” Bilbo called after them, and Fili’s voice came back in answer, though if Kili said goodbye, Bilbo did not hear it. A moment later, the front door opened and closed, and then Bilbo heard heavy footsteps thudding past the window, and all was silent. He sat down at the table with his own cup of tea and smiled.

“Odd folk, dwarves,” he said to himself.

----

Kili came back some time later, bathed in sweat and with his hair in disarray. He was carrying a handful of mushrooms with great care, and held them out to Bilbo as soon as he saw him.

“Mushrooms!” Bilbo cried, taking them from him. “Well, I should think that’s the last lot we’ll see this year, if the weather continues like this!” For indeed, he had stepped outside himself for a few minutes, and found that it was remarkably cold, the frost glittering all across the hillside and the air crackling in his lungs, marvellously clean and cool enough to steal his breath.

Kili did not reply to his remark, and Bilbo bustled into the kitchen to set the mushrooms down and spent a moment or two pondering whether there were enough to make a decent mushroom stew for three, and if not, what he should do with them. “But did you get the potatoes?” he asked absently, and then turned to see that Kili had not followed him into the kitchen. “Hm,” he muttered, and went back out into the living room, finding Kili still standing in the doorway that led through to the hall.

“The potatoes?” he asked. “Where is your brother?”

Kili blinked at him. “He go,” he said.

“Go?” Bilbo asked, taking Kili by the hand and towing him through to the kitchen, since he seemed little inclined to move there of his own accord. “Where did he go?”

Kili apparently decided not to answer this. At any rate, Bilbo thought he had decided not to answer, for the silence following the question was rather longer than the complexity of it required. But a moment or two later, when Kili was sitting down and Bilbo was setting water to boil, the answer suddenly appeared.

“He go Bywater,” Kili said.

“Ah,” Bilbo replied, turning to face his dwarven guest. “Hm.” He glanced at the sky, and saw that it indeed had not been long enough for the dwarves to go all the way to Bywater and back, even if they had run the whole way. “He sent you back with the mushrooms, I suppose?”

Kili stared at him, squinting a little, though the light was not overly bright in the kitchen. He did not reply, and Bilbo frowned at him and gestured at the table, where the mushrooms lay in a neat little heap. “Did you understand me, my lad?” he asked. “He sent you back with the mushrooms?”

Kili turned his gaze to the table. “Mushrooms,” he said after a moment. “Yes.”

Bilbo waited to see if anything else was forthcoming, but when Kili simply continued to stare at the mushrooms, he turned back to his tea-making.

“Mushrooms, indeed,” he said, by way of making conversation. “Mushroom stew, I think. But we will have to wait for the potatoes! Or a nice pie -- mushroom and potato pie, yes, just the thing for a cold day like this.” He crushed some blackberries into a cup for Kili and poured hot water over them. “We will have to think of a new kind of tea for you soon,” he said. “There are so few blackberries left. I should have thought to dry some! Ah, well, it is too late, now.” And he turned and set the steaming cup in front of Kili, then filled his own cup and settled at the table with it clasped between his hands. “It can be quite cold in the Shire at winter time, you know,” he added. “Not as cold as Erebor of course, but I’m sure we will need to drink a great deal of tea!”

Kili, who had turned to watch him during this little soliloquy, blinked for a moment and then peered down into his cup. “Tea,” he said.

“Tea!” said Bilbo, pleased with the support for his thesis. “Well, I suppose we could use apples -- there are certainly plenty of dried apples in the cellar. Or raisins? Hm, I’m not sure raisin tea would be very tasty.” He stood up and wandered to the pantry, peering into the shelves. “Currants!” he cried, and took a handful of these from a great jar that he had collected earlier in the year. He returned to the kitchen with his prize, holding them out to Kili.

“Do you like currants?” he asked. “We could certainly dry them, and I think they would make excellent tea!”

Kili took the currants and thrust them into his mouth, chewing slowly. He swallowed and squinted at Bilbo. “Tea?” he said.

“Currant tea,” Bilbo replied. “Do you like them?”

“Curn tea,” Kili muttered.

“Currant,” Bilbo supplied, and then paused, frowning. “You are very quiet this morning. I suppose you are tired from your run?” Although in fact, Kili had not run for so very long, and he was not usually so uncommunicative afterwards. But he looked rather worn out, and Bilbo could think of no other reason for it, so early in the day. Unless-- “Did you sleep last night?” he asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Kili started to shake his head, but then apparently decided to speak instead. “No,” he said. “No dream.”

“Well, that’s something to be thankful for!” Bilbo said with a smile, for although Kili’s nightmares had become much fewer and further between, they were still most unpleasant when they did occur. “But you are not drinking your tea! You should make the most of it, it will be currant tea from now on!”

Whatever reply Kili might have made to this was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Bilbo leapt to his feet and hurried to open it, finding Holman Greenhand on the other side. Holman had been away tending the rope-walk in Tighfield for some weeks, and so Bilbo was delighted to see him, and of course invited him in for elevenses. They sat and talked for more than an hour about all the many happenings in the Shire, and every now and then one or other of them would direct a remark to Kili. For the most part, though, they spoke to each other, and Kili seemed content enough to sit and listen.

Once Holman had gone, Bilbo clattered around the kitchen, clearing up the plates and thinking about their next meal. “Do you think your brother will be back for lunch?” he asked. “I should think he will be hungry, having missed second breakfast and elevenses!” He never ceased to be amazed at how willing dwarves were to miss meals, not only when they were forced to by circumstance, but even when there was no good reason for it at all!

Kili peered at him. “I pardon?” he asked.

Bilbo sat down, removing Kili’s cold cup of tea and replacing it with a fresh one. “I asked if Fili would be back for lunch,” he said.

“Fili,” Kili repeated. “Fili go Bywater.”

“Yes, my lad, I know he has gone to Bywater,” Bilbo said, feeling a trifle impatient. “But do you not remember how to say that properly? He has gone. Because it is in the past, you see, but it is still important in the present. Fili has gone to Bywater.”

Kili blinked slowly. “Fili... go Bywater,” he said. “Fili go. Go Bywater.”

“Ah, now!” Bilbo cried. “You are not even trying! Fili has gone. Has gone.”

Kili screwed up his face, apparently with some great effort, for he looked almost to be in pain from it. “Gone,” he said. “Gone, gone gone Bywater.”

At this, Bilbo suddenly felt mildly uneasy. “Are you feeling all right, my lad?” he asked, for it was not at all unusual for Kili to be quiet and even monosyllabic, but he had not produced a sentence like gone gone Bywater since the very early days of his learning Common. He leaned forward and laid a hand on Kili’s forehead, but it was perfectly cool, if still a little sweaty. “Are you ill?”

“Not ill,” Kili murmured.

“Nonetheless, you are certainly out of sorts,” Bilbo declared, sitting back in his chair. “Did something happen to you while you were out?”

Kili stared at him in apparent incomprehension, and Bilbo noticed, rather to his surprise, that he was squinting again.

“Is the light bothering you?” he asked, although the sun was not shining directly into the kitchen. “Do you have a headache?”

Kili did not reply, and Bilbo stared at him in growing concern. “Did you hear what I said?” he asked. “I asked you if you had a headache.”

“What mean?” Kili said, and it seemed to Bilbo that it required a great deal of effort from him to pronounce these two simple words.

“Headache,” Bilbo said. “It means when your head hurts. I am asking if there is a pain in your head.” And he restrained himself from adding and besides, I am sure you know the word headache, for he did not wish to confuse matters when Kili seemed to be finding conversation so difficult.

“No,” Kili said. “Head not hurt.” But he squinted as he said this, one eye almost closed, and Bilbo raised his eyebrows sharply.

“Doesn’t it, indeed!” he cried. Kili winced a little, and Bilbo, feeling rather guilty, lowered his voice. “Now, what have we talked about?” he said. “You are to tell me when something is wrong. Or you are to tell your brother. But since he is not here, you are to tell me!”

Kili lowered his head, staring into his tea. “It not bad,” he muttered. “Only little hurt.”

“Well, I rather think a little hurt to you would be a tremendous hurt to anyone else!” Bilbo cried (though quietly), and he leapt to his feet. “Have you had a headache all morning?” he asked, though he was already sure that this was the case, for Kili had been quiet and almost dazed since he came back from his run. “Sometimes I just do not know what to do with you, I declare!” And he hastened away to find some willow bark, scolding himself in his own mind as he did so, for perhaps he could not have been expected to divine the source of Kili’s quietness without anything more to go on, but he could not help remember his clattering around in the kitchen and Holman’s loud laughter, and the thought made him wince in sympathy.

When he returned, Kili was sitting just as he had left him, staring into the tea. Bilbo held out the willow bark without comment, and Kili obediently took it. His hand was shaking, though, and even once he had succeeded in putting the bark in his mouth, it seemed that it took him some effort to chew it.

“Tsk,” Bilbo said. “You will drink your tea, and then you’re going to bed, young master dwarf! It will do no-one any good to have you sitting up when you’re in such a bad way.”

Kili peered at his tea once more, but made no move to drink it. Bilbo, suddenly remembering the earlier cup that had gone untouched -- not to mention the large quantities of real tea he had accidentally made Kili drink before realising that he found it unpleasant -- wondered if perhaps he was being rather heavy-handed.

“You must drink something, my lad,” he said, sitting down and putting a hand on Kili’s arm. “Would you like something else?”

Kili gave him a sideways look, and then apparently came rapidly to the conclusion that this was a foolish idea, for he grimaced and looked quickly back down. “I can water?” he asked, so softly that Bilbo had to lean forward to hear it.

“Of course you can have water!” Bilbo said, although he lowered his voice almost to a whisper, for it was rapidly becoming clear to him that Kili was in fact in no small amount of pain. He got to his feet and went to fetch a cup of water, setting it down in front of Kili as gently as he could. Kili immediately removed the willow bark from his mouth and drank deeply, and when he had finished he gave Bilbo a look of gratitude that had our poor little hobbit feeling quite, quite guilty for not offering Kili any water before.

“Now, then,” Bilbo said, taking Kili’s arm. “Bed!” And he tugged Kili to his feet and took him firmly by the elbow, steering him through the hall and into the dwarves’ room. Kili paused at the doorway, looking confused.

“It not night,” he whispered.

“No, it is not,” Bilbo murmured back. “But when we are ill, we go to bed even if it is daytime.”

Kili blinked. “I not ill,” he said.

“You are not the best judge of that, it seems,” Bilbo said, and put a hand on Kili’s back, pushing him gently but firmly until he began moving towards the bed again. “And when you are feeling better, we shall have to have a conversation about you pretending not to have a headache.”

Kili seemed a little concerned by this rather ominous pronouncement, but he allowed himself to be propelled onto the bed, and then crawled across it -- moving rather more gingerly than Bilbo would have liked -- towards his usual pillow-filled corner. Bilbo, satisfied that he was at least on the bed, hurried off to fetch a cloth and a bowl of cool water. But when he returned, he found, of course, that Kili was sitting up in the corner, looking pale and tense, his eyes now little more than slits in his face.

“Ah, now, that will not do,” Bilbo said, setting down his bowl on the little table beside the bed. “You must lie down. Sitting up is not good for someone in such a state!”

Kili opened his eyes a little wider, but did not seem to have understood what Bilbo said. Bilbo tutted and pointed at the bed.

“You must lie down, master dwarf!” he said. “I insist.”

But Kili did not lie down. He stared at Bilbo -- though squinting even more now -- and Bilbo could not for the life of him tell whether he had still not understood or whether he was simply refusing to comply.

“Now, look here,” Bilbo said, folding his arms and tapping his foot, “I understand that you like to sit up and look at the door. Of course I do! I have allowed it for months, have I not? But this is different, my lad. You cannot sit up when you are ill. You will only make yourself worse.”

Kili made no move to lie down, and Bilbo sighed in some exasperation and climbed onto the bed himself, reaching to tug on Kili’s arm in an attempt to get him to move. But Kili refused to be moved, and Bilbo sat back. “Come now,” he said, feeling rather at his wits’ end, for he truly believed that Kili would suffer a great deal more than was necessary if he refused to lie down. “Come now, my dear lad. There are no orcs in the Shire, nothing to hurt you at all, as well you know! And it is only for a little while.”

But little while or no, Kili would not be moved, and Bilbo was about to commence pulling on his arm again when the front door opened and closed, and Fili’s cheerful voice called through the hobbit hole. Kili grimaced at the noise of it, and Bilbo slipped off the bed to go and find his guest and ask him to be quiet -- or at least, as quiet as a dwarf can be. But there was no need, for Fili appearing in the bedroom doorway at that moment, a sack of flour in one hand and a perplexed expression on his face.

“What’s this?” he asked. “In bed in the middle of the day?”

“Your brother has a headache,” Bilbo said, at the same time putting his finger to his lips. Fili frowned at him, then looked beyond him to Kili, his confusion melting into worry.

“I thought as much,” he murmured. “I sent him home because he seemed so out of sorts.”

“Well!” Bilbo said. “He did not tell me that.” And he turned and gave Kili a mute glare, to which Kili paid not the slightest attention, focussed as he was on his brother.

“Ah, my brother,” Fili said, moving forward and sitting on the edge of the bed. “You look poorly indeed.” He turned to Bilbo with a frown. “But it would it not be better for him to lie down?”

Bilbo threw up his hands in exasperation. “Certainly it would be better!” he said in a strange sort of whisper that was a shout in all but volume. “But he will not do it. I have asked him and asked him!”

At this, Fili turned back to stare at Kili. “Will you not lie down?” he murmured. “It will make you feel better.”

Kili’s eyes strayed to the door, and then returned to his brother. Bilbo sighed, about to make another plea. But Fili interrupted his thought by taking off his boots and clambering onto the bed himself. He did not try to manhandle Kili as Bilbo had, but instead sat with his back to the wall and his legs spread out in front of him.

“Lie down here,” he said. “You can prop your head on my leg, and you will still be able to see the door. And I will watch it for you, too, my brother. I will make sure that nothing hurts you.”

Kili stared at him for a long moment. Fili waited patiently, and did not speak again, but only patted his leg and smiled. And after a moment more, Kili unfolded himself carefully from the corner and crawled into his brother’s lap, resting his head on Fili’s thigh and keeping his eyes fixed on the door. He stretched his body out, and Fili reached over to the bowl that still sat beside the bed and fished out the sopping flannel. He spread the cloth on Kili’s forehead, and Kili -- apparently against his will -- closed his eyes and made the quietest of noises, a look of great relief spreading across his face.

“There,” Fili murmured. “You can keep your eyes closed. I will watch the door.”

And whether it was because this was all the reassurance Kili needed, or whether it was only because he no longer had the strength to open his eyes, he followed his brother’s instructions, sagging against him as though there were no bones left in him.

“That’s right,” Fili said. “That’s right, my brother.” And he reached down and began to stroke Kili’s hair with the gentlest of hands. “I will watch the door.”

Bilbo sat down on the other bed in some relief, watching as Fili’s broad hand passed again and again over his brother’s hair. Fili, for his part, began by watching the door, just as he had promised, but soon took to watching Kili instead, although still glancing at the door every once in a while, despite the patent absurdity of looking for an attack in Bag End of all places. As for Kili, he opened his eyes for a spell, and then closed them again, and this time he kept them closed. After a while, Fili took the cloth from his forehead and soaked it again, and when he laid it back onto Kili’s brow, the poor little dwarf breathed out in a quiet sigh, his mouth falling slightly open and his hands uncurling until they were pressed palm-down on the bed.

“You should have said something,” Fili murmured, though it was clear he did not expect a reply from Kili. And he did not receive one -- indeed, it was not at all clear that Kili even heard him.

“I rather suspect,” Bilbo said, and then lowered his voice even more, although it had been on the verge of a whisper to begin with, “I rather suspect that he does not conceive of pain the way you and I do.”

Fili’s mouth flattened into a grim line, and he stared unseeingly at the door for a moment before putting a protective hand on Kili’s head. “No,” he said, and then sighed, beginning once more his slow stroking of his brother’s hair. “No, I suppose he does not.”

“Well, then,” Bilbo said, “we will simply have to teach him, that is all.”

Fili glanced at him. “A hard lesson, my friend,” he said. “I hope it will not take too many more headaches to learn it.”

Bilbo couldn’t help but agree -- and at the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder what other aches and pains Kili might be hiding more successfully than the pain in his head. But there was no use fretting about that now, and so he rose, and went to the kitchen to make Fili a cup of tea. When he returned, tea in one hand and water in the other, it was to find Fili just as he had left him, his hand still making slow, gentle sweeps across his brother’s hair. But when Bilbo entered the room, Fili raised his head and put a finger to his lips. And Bilbo, glancing at Kili and then looking more closely, saw that the last of the tension seemed to have left him, and he lay now stretched out across the bed, head in his brother’s lap, asleep.

It was rather amazing, to see such a sight, for Bilbo thought he had never seen Kili so unguarded before, even in sleep. And he set down the tea and the water on the table beside the bed without making so much as a sound, smiled at Fili, and then watched Kili for a few moments more, marvelling to himself, before slipping out of the room as quietly as only a hobbit can.

When he went back some time later, it was to find both his guests asleep, Kili’s head still pillowed on Fili’s thigh and Fili’s hand resting on Kili’s hair. And though it was still only mid-afternoon, he smiled to himself and pulled the curtains quietly closed. Outside, the sun glinted off the frost and all was bright and hard and beautiful. But inside, there was warmth, and quiet, and the slow, dim feeling of an afternoon spent sick in bed.

“Well, after all,” Bilbo murmured, “I think the weather will hold for a good few days yet.”

And he tiptoed away and left his friends to their rest.

Chapter Text

Grave

It was a glorious morning in late summer when two dwarves dug the grave. The sky was blue and stretched to infinity, and the sun was warm but not hot, with a gentle breeze blowing the perfume of the pine woods down from the slopes of the mountain. It was in a high meadow that they dug it, and although the summer had been hot and splendid, yet the rains of a week or two before had loosened the soil, so that it gave easily beneath their shovels, and though the hole was deep, it seemed to them hardly any labour at all. Indeed, each one of them felt -- though neither spoke their thought aloud -- that it should have been more difficult; that they should have had to wrestle with the earth, that the work of shaping this bed that would last for all the ages of the world should have brought sweat to their brows and pain to their arms and backs. And yet, it was not so: the earth opened easily before them, as if eager to take what they were most reluctant to give.

And so the grave was dug.

----

The ceremonies of dwarves are shrouded in mystery, performed as they are deep in the heart of mountains, lit by the forge fire and with no chance for prying eyes to see or listening ears to hear. But if any had been casually passing that soft, green meadow with its dark, yawning grave the following day, they would have seen a rare sight indeed. For the dwarves of Erebor had no mountain to shield their secrets in those days, and yet they had need of ceremony, and could not delay. And so they stood, rank upon rank, almost every dwarf from the strange settlement in the Blue Mountains, out on the warm turf in full view of any who might have been passing by. And yet, none were, for the dwarven villages were some distance from the settlements of men, and the meadow further distant still, so that it was a lonely place indeed, for all its cheerful beauty.

Many the dwarves were on that day -- more than were ever seen in that meadow again -- but there were some that stood closer to the grave than others. Chief among these were one of the two who had dug it -- tall for a dwarf, and dark haired -- and beside him, two others. These last two were a dark-haired dwarf woman, tall and pale and barely on her feet, and beside her a fair young dwarf boy, still more than a dozen years from majority, who stood stalwart as she leaned heavily upon him. All these three wore fine clothes and many braids, and hair and clothes both were bright with jewels and precious metals that shone in the clear, late summer sun. And yet there was nothing about them of gaiety, despite their splendour; rather, they seemed all three wrapped in a shroud of despair, their eyes dull and faces drawn. Indeed, many around them seemed much the same way, downcast and heavy with gloom. Some might say that dwarves are a sombre race in general, but in fact they can be as merry as any when they have a mind, and so this sight -- had there been any to witness it -- would have been a striking one indeed. But no-one saw it, but for those who were part of it, and they did not care to consider what kind of picture they made.

At the head of the grave stood a dwarf who was older than most of those there assembled, grey of beard and hair and red of robes. He sang long and deep in the secret language of dwarves, and I cannot tell you what he said, for I am no dwarf and do not know their secrets. The sound of it, though, was clear and deep and sonorous, more suited to a gloomy cavern than a cheerful summer meadow, and it might have brought a tear to the eye of even the most uncomprehending of onlookers, so wound around with tragedy was it in tone and melody. When the song was complete, he stepped back from the grave and gestured. And now the second of the two grave-diggers -- this one tall indeed, and bald, and with anger in his deep-set eyes -- stepped forward, carrying in his arms a bundle of blue cloth. Whatever might have been contained within, it must have been small indeed. This bundle he held out to the dwarf woman, but she stepped back, half-stumbling until the fair-haired boy caught at her elbow.

The first grave-digger stepped forward, then, and took the bundle from his companion’s arms. He spoke a few words in the dwarven language, and laid the bundle down into a plain wooden box that lay at his feet. Now this was strange indeed, for dwarves were accustomed to bury their dead in stone coffins; and yet, perhaps it was not so strange, for these dwarves were far from the stones of their home, that ever yielded to their hands.

The bald dwarf knelt, then, and placed a fine bow and a quiver of arrows into the coffin. But when he made to place the lid upon it, the dwarf woman stepped forward, and she lifted from the ground a bundle of her own -- clothes, and other objects, too, all wrapped up together. And now, at last, the bald dwarf spoke.

“Are you sure, lass?” he asked. “Thorin’s right. Time will come you’ll want something to remember him by.”

The dwarf woman drew herself up, but although her reply was angry, her face showed nothing but a dull blankness. “Think you, Dwalin son of Fundin, that I need trinkets to remember my own son?”

The bald dwarf sat silent, then, and the woman laid her burden into the coffin. For a moment, her shaking hand hovered over the bundle of blue cloth; then she withdrew. But now the fair-haired young dwarf stepped forward, and he bore in his hands a bundle of his own, small and oddly shaped and wrapped in a fine cloth. He laid this beside the others in the coffin, and the bald dwarf reached down and unwrapped it enough to see that it was a violin.

“This one’s yours,” he said. “His is with his other things.” And here he gestured at the bundle the woman had laid down.

“I don’t want it any more,” the fair dwarf said, and his voice was hoarse and thread-like.

The bald dwarf raised his head, then, and looked at his dark-haired companion. But this latter merely stood, bleak of face and shadowed of eye, staring down not at the coffin, but into the grave itself. And so the bald dwarf set the lid upon the box, and stood up, and with the help of many hands, lowered the box into the grave. And when this was done, the bald dwarf took a carved stone that lay beside him and laid it at the head of the grave.

There was another song, then, a dirge that sank to the earth and never rose again, that for all its beauty had nothing of light in it, not even the light of the forge-fire. And at the last, the dark-haired dwarf took up a handful of soil and made to throw it into the grave. But the woman made a noise -- though it seemed to contain no words -- and stumbled forward, as if to throw herself into the yawning mouth of the earth. The fair-haired young dwarf caught at her, and held her, and she fell to her knees and clasped him to her. No tears were shed and no words spoken, but the dark-haired dwarf stepped forward again and the silent crowd bowed their heads at the sound of soil hitting the wooden box where it lay in the bosom of the earth.

And so, the ceremony ended. Each dwarf present made their own offering of earth to the grave -- barring only the woman and the fair-haired boy -- until the pile of loose soil was entirely gone and the grave filled up, a dark oblong in the green grass. And when all had passed by and gone on their way, only three remained, one standing and two kneeling.

“Dis,” said the dark-haired dwarf, for it was he who still stood by the graveside. “It is done. Come away.”

But the dwarf woman pushed herself to her feet and shook her head. “I need time,” she said. “Let me be. I need time with my son.”

The dark-haired dwarf paused for a long moment, but at the last he took the fair young dwarf by the arm.

“You shall have it,” he murmured, and turned away.

And thus the dwarf woman was left alone, and when all the others were out of sight and none could hear her any more, she lay down upon the fresh earth of the grave and wept as though there was nothing to her but grief. She wept until there were no more tears left in her, and then she only lay upon the grave and buried her face in the loose earth, smeared it upon her cheeks and her arms and through her richly adorned hair, until she had the aspect of a scarecrow and the bright jewels had slipped from her braids and lay scattered across the dark earth of the grave like fallen stars. And at last, the sun began to sink, and the dark-haired dwarf returned, alone now, and with a look of great grief upon his face.

“Dis,” he said, when he beheld the woman where she lay upon the grave. And he knelt and held out his hands, as if pleading. “My dear sister. Please, come away.”

“I cannot come away,” the woman replied. “My son is here. He will be here ever.”

“You have another son,” the dark-haired dwarf said.

The dwarf woman lay silent, and stared up at the bright sky. But as the sun slipped behind the mountain, she took the dark-haired dwarf’s hand and rose to her feet. And he took her in his arms and pressed his forehead to hers, and thus they stood until the sun was long gone and the shadow of the mountain lay across them, and across the dark earth of the grave, still uneven with the imprint of the dwarf-woman’s body.

“We will find you water to wash yourself,” the dark-haired dwarf said. “You will frighten Fili.”

The dwarf woman did not reply, but when he took her by the arm, she came away with him, and turned her back upon the grave. And thus it lay, alone now in the deepening shadow, dark among the fresh green grass of the mountain meadow and scattered with jewels whose fire had burned to nothing now that the sun was gone.

----

The evening passed, and the first part of the night, and the grave lay alone in its green meadow, washed grey and black now in the starlight. But towards midnight, a shadow moved across the meadow. There was little light to guide any traveller; yet the eyes of dwarves are keen indeed in the darkness, and this newcomer was just such a creature -- the fair-haired young dwarf who had stood dry-eyed at the grave-side earlier in the day. This young dwarf walked to the grave without need of light beyond the high, cold glimmer of the stars, and when he came at last to the darker shadow amongst the shadowy grass, he sank to sit upon the bare, cold earth and stare at the stone that marked the head of the grave. He did not speak, nor did he weep, but only sat and stared as if he were stunned or witless, or as if he were waiting for the stone itself to speak first.

But it did not speak, and so there was only silence.

After some little time, the moon arose, full and round, flooding the meadow with clear light. Every blade of grass, every clump of moss was outlined in silver, and the shadows grew stark and black, so that the words carved into the gravestone stood out clearly, even for those not blessed with dwarvish eyes. Around the young dwarf, the jewels that had fallen from the dwarf-woman’s hair were lit with a cold fire. Yet still he did not move, nor speak, and had no eyes for the shining gems, but only for the stone, and the words that marched across it, hard and sharp-edged and unyielding. And thus he sat for many hours, until the sky began to grow grey in the east. Then he leaned forward and bowed his head, pressing his forehead to the gravestone and closing his eyes. Perhaps he spoke at this point, although if he did it was so quietly that even one standing beside him would not have heard it. But, whether he spoke or no, he sat like this for long minutes, and tears now fell from his eyes and soaked into the words that lay upon the stone.

And then, as the light began to return to the world, he rose to his feet and stood, fists clenched, beside the grave. Where before he had been richly arrayed, now he seemed strangely ragged and shabby, though his clothes were no less fine than before, and only stained with grave-dirt at the knees. He opened his mouth, and it seemed that he would speak; but no words came, and after a moment of silence, he closed his eyes and turned away, standing stock still for perhaps a minute more before at last bending his steps away from the grave. Behind him, the edge of the sun rose over the horizon, sending his shadow long and deep before across the meadow. Beside it lay the shadow of the gravestone, and it took him many steps before he outpaced it.

----

The days passed, and summer turned into autumn. The greening of the grave was slow, for the year was fading and the grass dying away across the mountains. The dwarf woman returned often, though never again did she lie upon the grave as she had on that first day. The fair-haired dwarf came twice more, both times at night, and then did not return. The dark-haired dwarf never came back at all. The jewels that had scattered from the dwarf-woman’s hair lay undisturbed, for no others passed this lonely place who would care for such trinkets.

The first snows fell in November, and thereafter the grave lay hidden beneath a blanket of white. The stone stood proud and unconcealed, though, cleared off by the dwarf woman each time she came, so that any who passed might have read the words that were carved upon it. But none did pass, save the woman herself, until spring came and the snows melted, and the grass at last grew green upon the grave and hid the jewels, so that they were nothing but flashes of coloured fire beneath the tangled wildflowers.

In spring, two other dwarves visited the grave. One was grey-haired and wore complex, intricate braids. The other was young -- younger even than the fair-haired dwarf -- and seemed bowed with grief as he stood beside the stone, gazing at the sea of flowers that hid the grave from view.

“It’s nice here,” the young one said at last. “He would have liked it.”

“Aye, well,” the older one replied, “he should have been returned to the stone. But he’s in Mahal’s halls now, and I’m sure he likes it there.”

“I think he would have liked it here more,” the young dwarf said. At this, the older dwarf looked scandalised indeed, and not long afterwards, he hustled the young dwarf away.

----

And so the months went on. The dwarf woman still came, but now only once a month rather than once a week. Other dwarves would visit from time to time, but the dark-haired dwarf and the fair young dwarf did not return. Another winter passed, and a summer, and a winter again, and now the dwarf woman came only once or twice a year. But always she came in the early summer, on the same day every year, and on these days she would kneel, and press her forehead to the gravestone, just as the young dwarf had done years ago. The grass grew long and the moss at its roots thick, and the jewels were all but buried, and glimmered only to the keenest of eyes.

And so the years went on.

----

And so the years went on, until one day, when winter had barely turned into spring, the dark-haired dwarf returned. It was very early in the morning, the sun not yet quite risen, and he came alone, dressed in travelling clothes, and stood solemn and silent beside the grave. Solemn and silent he stood, and never a word spoke he, but only looked upon the gravestone as if it were something precious to him that he might never see again. And when the sun was risen clear of the horizon, he turned his back and strode away.

----

It was two weeks after that that the dwarf woman came, and still much earlier in the year than her appointed time. The years hung heavy upon her, and she seemed solemn and sad-eyed, weighed down with trouble. She stood by the grave in silence for many minutes, until at last she knelt and laid a kiss upon the stone.

“My dear Kili,” she said. “Your uncle is taking your brother away from me. And I--” But here she spoke no more, and only closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. It was some time before she spoke again, and when she did, her voice was hoarse.

“I have prayed to Mahal to protect him,” she said. “I have woven protections into his hair and his clothes, I have commanded them carved into his swords and his knives. But I am afraid. I am so afraid.” She smote herself upon the breast and wiped her hand across her eyes. “And so I come here to ask you. You, my dear son, who loved him so. I cannot believe that such a love could simply disappear, though the heart that bore it is dust. I ask you, my beloved Kili, to watch over your brother, if you can. I know you would have him with you in the halls of waiting, but I am not ready to let him go. Perhaps I am selfish, for you must have been lonely there without him for so many years, just as he has been lonely here. But I ask it nonetheless. I am not ready.”

This plea spoken, she shed some few tears, and pressed her lips once more to the cold face of the gravestone. And as for this stone, it stood still and silent, and made no reply.

----

In the night that followed that same early spring day, the fair-haired young dwarf at last returned, after more than two dozen years of absence. He came as before, in the depths of the night, and as before he knelt in the grass and stared at the gravestone, as if hoping to read something new there. But the inscription was the same as it had always been.

The years had changed this dwarf, as well. He was taller now, though still not tall as dwarves go. He was broad-shouldered, and confident in his stride, but sombre of demeanour, and not quite as straight-backed as a dwarf so young should be, as if something was weighing upon him. He carried two swords at his back, and knives at his hips and in his boots, and he was every inch the glorious warrior.

Warrior he might have been, but there was no-one to fight in the lonely meadow, and he did not draw his swords or his knives, but only sat silent and stared at the stone. He spoke but once through that long night, and it was to say this:

“I'm leaving in the morning to go and meet Thorin. I don't know if--” But here he stopped, and spoke no more for a time. And when he did, it was to say “Perhaps I shall see you again before so very long.”

After this, the fair young dwarf fell silent again, through all the watches of the night. But when the moon set and the sky began to grow light, he rose to his feet. “When we take back the mountain, all the dwarves will leave this place,” he said, and stood silent a moment, looking around himself at the meadow with all its grass and flowers. “We will come back for you,” he said at last. “I won’t let you stay here all alone.”

But when he had gone, the grave was alone nonetheless.

----

It was in the winter of that year, early enough that the snow had not yet settled on the ground, when the dwarf woman came again, arrayed this time in travelling gear. She knelt immediately, and pressed a swift kiss to the stone.

“They are not dead,” she murmured. “They have taken back the mountain, and they are not dead.” And here she pressed her forehead to the stone and ran her fingers across it as if it were a beloved child. “Thank you, my son,” she whispered. “I hope you are not too lonely without him.”

A shout came then from far down the valley, thin and fading on the breeze, and the woman leaped to her feet.

“I will come back for you,” she said.

But she never did.

----

The next year was the first that the dwarf woman did not visit the grave. The appointed day in early summer came and went, and the grass grew high, the flowers riotous, and none came to see that the stone was being gradually swallowed up by green. Moss grew upon the letters until they were barely visible, and no hands cleared it away, so that by the end of that short, splendid summer there was little sign of the stone at all. The dwarf woman did not come, but at the end of the summer, when the air was just beginning to think about turning chill, the fair-haired dwarf returned. He had with him two who had never been there before, a hobbit with bright eyes and a quick smile, and a solemn, dark-haired dwarf who was so narrow of shoulder as to be barely recognisable as a dwarf at all. They crossed the meadow late one afternoon, and their course was such that they would certainly have stumbled over the gravestone, hidden now as it was, had not the fair-haired dwarf suddenly stopped with a frown and caught hold of his dark companion’s wrist.

“Stop,” he said, and then scanned the field, staring hard at the area where the gravestone stood, though no sign of it could be seen.

The little hobbit paused in his steps and glanced at his companions. “Master Fili?” he said. “What is it?”

The fair dwarf shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, and then seemed to come to himself, suddenly turning to his dark companion and steering him on a new course, a course which would take them on a wide berth of the grave. “We’re just going the wrong way, that’s all.”

“Well, I hardly see how,” the little hobbit replied. “This would be the quickest way to the valley, would it not?”

But his companion did not answer him, and after a moment he sighed and hurried to catch up to the two dwarves, who were marching onwards as if they were rather in haste.

“Dwarves,” he muttered to himself.

None of them looked back at the grave.

----

And so the years went on, three, and then four, with no visitors to the grave save the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. But at last, one summer’s day, the two dwarves returned, the fair and the dark, although this time the little hobbit was not with them. They did not steer away from the grave this time, but instead made towards it. But they were somewhat off course, for the stone was now greatly overgrown, and covered with moss, and no vestige of it could be seen above the waving grass and nodding flowers. So it was that they spent an hour or more searching, and found nothing, until the fair dwarf stood still and sighed in frustration.

“It is here somewhere,” he said. “I know it.”

His companion did not answer him, but only continued to search, and at last, some half a score minutes later, he stumbled into the stone and stopped, laying a hand upon its moss-covered surface.

“Here,” he said.

The fair dwarf approached, and seemed to grow pale when he saw it. “Yes,” he said. “That is it.” And -- after a moment’s hesitation -- he set to clearing away the grass and scraping off the moss. His companion assisted him in this work, and after perhaps half an hour, the stone was largely clear.

“There,” the fair dwarf said. He stood looking down at it, and his companion did likewise. They were silent, and there was little sound but the humming of insects and the warm breeze sighing through the grass.

“Well, you have seen it,” the fair dwarf said at last. “It is enough. Come, we have a long way still to go.”

The dark dwarf did not answer this, but only knelt before the grave stone and reached out with a tentative hand, brushing his fingertips across the letters carved into the face. “What are words?” he asked.

The fair dwarf sighed. “It says Kili, son of Dis,” he said.

The dark dwarf ran his fingers along the words again, and then nodded. “I understand,” he said, but he did not rise to his feet, instead touching the words again, as if fascinated. At last, the fair dwarf reached down and touched him on the shoulder.

“Kili,” he said. “Please.”

The dark dwarf looked up, and seemed rather surprised to see the troubled look on his companion’s face. He rose, laying a hand on the fair dwarf’s arm.

“You are ill?” he asked.

“Not ill,” the fair dwarf replied. “I just -- do not like it here.”

The dark dwarf cast his gaze about, and surely all he saw was beauty, for the weather was just as fine as it had been on the day the grave was dug, nearly thirty years before, and the meadow was thick with flowers, the air warm and filled with the perfume of summer. “Why not?” the dark dwarf said. “It is nice.”

“Because--” the fair dwarf said, and then shook his head. “Never mind,” he said. “If you want to stay--”

But the dark dwarf shook his own head. “No,” he said. “We can go.”

And go they did, wading through the tall grass and leaving behind them a trampled path that led to the gravestone, now standing clear and free of vegetation, for anyone who might pass by to see. But no-one did pass by, and so the years went on.

----

And so the years went on, and none came to the grave, for those who knew or cared where it lay had long since abandoned that high valley. Soon the stone grew overgrown again, and almost a dozen years passed before any laid eyes upon it. But one summer’s day, the dark little dwarf appeared again, this time alone. He carried a fine bow upon his back, and a quiver of arrows, and though he did not have the confident stride of his fair companion, nonetheless he walked with purpose and without hesitation. It took him some time to find the stone, but he searched without rest, seeming not to grow weary or frustrated, until at last he came upon it, and swiftly divested it of the growth of grass and moss that had reclaimed it. When at last it was clear, he sat before it just as he had before, staring at it with great solemnity. At last, he reached out to trace the letters carved into its surface.

“I am sorry name is wrong,” he said. “I do not remember right name.”

After this, he spoke no more for some time, but only ran his hands over the stone, not just the inscription now but the whole of it, as if he hoped to learn more about it merely by touching it. Then he sat back, and only watched for hours, seemingly without any desire to move or to take any action, almost as though he was made of stone himself. At last, perhaps having made some kind of decision, he rose to his feet.

“I do not know who to tell,” he said. “They would come, if they knew where you were. They would come and see you. But I do not know who to tell. I do not know where they are.”

The stone gave no answer, and the dark dwarf turned and slipped away into the lengthening shadows.

----

It was almost two years later when the dark dwarf returned. He had no bow this time, and was carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle upon his shoulders. This burden must have weighed a great deal, for he moved slowly and with bowed head, though dwarves are the strongest of all the races of Middle Earth. When he came to the stone, he set his bundle down and sat just as before, staring at it for some little while. At last, though, he rose, and began to clear away what grass had grown up since his last visit. But this time, he did not stop at the grass, but dug his fingers into the earth around the stone itself, and pulled a blunted knife from his belt, using this to dig down. The earth was all bound together with grass roots, and the task was long and onerous, but the dwarf worked at it tirelessly, and seemed to need little in the way of rest or refreshment. At one point, he frowned, and worked his fingers down into the tangle of roots, digging until he withdrew a little round object. He stared at this, and then used his water skin to wash away the soil from it, revealing the smooth, red facets of a ruby that had long ago shone in the hair of a dwarf woman. The dark dwarf frowned, tilting the ruby this way and that in his palm, letting it catch the light of the summer sun until it shone with fire undimmed by its years in the earth. At last, though, he closed his fingers around it, and slipped it into his pocket, and returned to his task.

And at last, as the sun sank towards the mountain, he was able to drag the stone free of the earth, and laid it in the grass a short distance away. This done, he unwrapped his bundle to reveal a new stone, this one low and rounded and smooth, as if it had been pulled from the bed of a river. This stone, too, had letters carved upon it, though they had a rather amateurish look about them, as if the carver was unaccustomed to writing. The dark dwarf lifted this stone and laid it on top of the space where the other had been embedded in the earth, settling it carefully until it was solid and unmovable to all but the most determined. He frowned down at it, running his fingers across the letters, and then withdrew a piece of parchment from his pocket. On this parchment was written a single word, the same as that carved on the stone, and the dark dwarf now compared the two and sighed.

“I hope it is right,” he said. “I could not find dwarf, so I asked man to carve it. But men do not know dwarvish letters, and I do not know them, either. I hope it is right.”

He sat then in silence for some little time, running his fingers over the new stone, its smooth edges and shaky letters so different from the one that had gone before. At last, he drew the ruby from his pocket, and dug his fingers into the ground again, slipping the jewel back into the bosom of the earth. He covered it up with soil and moss, and laid a palm over the site where it lay.

“Thank you,” he said.

And then he rose to his feet, and took up the stone that had stood for so many years in the meadow, lifting it onto his back with a grunt and turning his footsteps away.

----

And so the years went on, the years, and the decades, and the ages of the earth. And the stone grew overgrown just as the first had, but as the ages passed, the world grew cooler, and the snows reached down from the mountains, and the grass died away, so that the stone lay now upon a bare surface, strewn with scree. If anyone had passed that way, they would have seen it, and perhaps have read the markings upon it -- although to any but a dwarf, these markings would have appeared as mere haphazard scratches made by the weather or some passing beast. But none did pass, and the dark little dwarf was the last to see the stone until the turning of the world. Perhaps it lies there still, but all who might know or care about it are long since passed out of this world. Indeed, there are no dwarves left in these days, and so only a very, very few live now who might be able to decipher the inscription. But one who did see it -- many, many years ago now -- copied it down, and I record it here:

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And one who is a great deal more learned than me has told me the meaning:

Friend.

Chapter Text

Boromir, son of Denethor, had seen many marvels in his time. The kings had long passed out of Gondor, it was true, and with them some of the splendour of that land, yet still there was much to gape at, and he had spent all the days of his youth in Minas Tirith, greatest city in Middle Earth. Yet still he found himself staring like a country farmer when first he rounded the hillside to behold Rivendell. No city, this -- barely larger than a hamlet -- yet the halls seemed to grow out of the very rock, pillars soaring skywards as though they belonged to the forest and had never been touched by the hand of mason or architect. Elves! Aye, elves of old, here in Eriador -- it quickened his blood and made him urge his horse forwards. A feeling swelled in his gut: great deeds were to be done in this place, and soon.

Great deeds indeed, for when he arrived, Boromir learned quickly that a council was to be called, that an object of great power -- a ring -- had appeared from the least expected of places. But soon among men means something rather different to soon among elves, as Boromir learned quickly enough. Men -- as he was informed more than once, by tall, serene creatures who seemed to have little enough care for manners -- lived brief lives, snuffed out almost before they were begun. Of course they were rash, hasty, always hurrying. But great deeds require great forethought, and in any case, dwarves were on their way, but not yet arrived.

So it was that he found himself wandering those marvellous halls, examining the pillars and the walls for any sign of joins or imperfections, and finding none. Beautiful it was, but Boromir was a man of action, and he chafed to sit thus as a spectator and wait, and wait. He sought out anything that might alleviate the tedium of inaction, and on the third day in Rivendell, he found it.

It came in the form of a child. This child came hurrying around a corner just as Boromir was passing by, and collided with his legs, losing its footing and stumbling with a cry. Boromir, though he had had no notion of the child’s approach, was quick-witted and blessed with sharp reflexes, and he caught the child before it could fall, and set it on its feet. It was a boy child, he saw, and not an elf, if he knew anything about it.

“And where are you off to, in such a great hurry?” he asked, disposed to be good humoured despite his restless boredom.

“Oh, hello there!” the child said, his voice high and sweet. “I’m looking for my uncle. Have you seen him?”

Boromir shook his head. “I have seen no men here, other than those I brought with me,” he said. “Only elves.”

The child laughed at this. “My uncle is not a man!” he said. And now Boromir inspected him more closely, and saw that his ears under his curly hair were pointed -- though not in the manner of elves -- and his feet were remarkably large and covered in hair.

“Well, now!” he exclaimed. “What manner of creature are you?” But he remembered, of a sudden, what he had been told about how the ring had come to be in Rivendell in the first place, and he raised his eyebrows in astonishment. “You are the halfling, are you not?”

“I’m a hobbit, actually,” the creature responded. “I don’t know if I’m the hobbit, though. There are quite a lot of us, you know!”

Boromir found himself speechless at this, for he had never seen a halfling before, and he found himself wondering if this one was indeed a child, or a full-grown adult. And he was about to ask a question about the ring, when another curly-headed creature skidded into view around the corner, and immediately hastened up to the first and took him by the arm.

“Pippin!” this newcomer hissed. “What are you doing? You can’t just talk to people! He’s probably a king or something!” And he then raised his face to Boromir, for all the world as if he thought Boromir would not have heard what he said, and made an odd little bow.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “My cousin has no manners.”

“It is I who have no manners,” Boromir replied, finding himself quite fascinated by these strange, barefoot little beings. He bowed deeply. “I am Boromir, son of Denethor, and I am no king, but I am of the line of the stewards of Gondor.”

Both the halflings looked a little taken aback at this, but after a moment the newcomer made his odd little bow again. “I’m Meriadoc, son of Saradoc, of Buckland in the Shire,” he said, and then, after a moment of silence, nudged his companion sharply.

“Oh!” said the other halfling. “I’m Pippin!” Another nudge from his companion had him bowing, though. “Peregrin, son of Paladin, also of the Shire,” he said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Boromir.”

Boromir frowned, trying to remember the name he had been told for the halfling who had brought the ring. “Then neither of you is Baggins?” he asked, when at last it came to him.

“Which one?” Pippin asked. “Bilbo or Frodo?”

This question conveyed nothing to Boromir. “There are many Baggins-es?” he asked, in some confusion.

“Oh, yes!” Pippin said. “The Shire is all over Bagginses! But there are only two here. Frodo is our cousin, and Bilbo is his uncle.”

“The uncle you were looking for?” Boromir asked, finding himself becoming a little perplexed by these many halflings who apparently abounded in Rivendell.

“No,” Pippin replied. “He’s Frodo’s uncle. He’s our cousin. Well, actually, he’s Frodo’s cousin, too, technically. Isn’t he, Merry?” He looked here at his companion, who nodded.

“First cousin once removed on both sides,” he said smartly. “Bilbo’s my first cousin twice removed on both sides and also my second cousin once removed on my mother’s side,” he added. “Frodo’s my first cousin once removed on my father’s side and my third cousin once removed on my mother’s side.”

Boromir stared at him. “What about him?” he said, pointing at Pippin.

“Pippin?” Meriadoc asked. “Well, let’s see, obviously Bilbo’s also his first cousin twice removed and second cousin once removed on his father’s side--”

“No,” Boromir put in hastily, “I mean, you called him your cousin.”

“Oh.” Meriadoc looked a little disappointed. “Well, yes. He’s my cousin.”

Boromir waited, but the halfling did not speak again. “Only your cousin?” he asked.

“Yes,” Meriadoc replied, giving him an odd look. “He’s my cousin.”

“I see,” Boromir said. In point of fact, he found himself rather bewildered by the many cousins who had just been described, and was no longer at all sure how many halflings they had been discussing. “And which Baggins is here in Rivendell?”

“Oh, they’re both here!” Pippin said. “Although Frodo isn’t receiving visitors at the moment.”

At this, Meriadoc snapped his fingers. “He’ll be with Bilbo!” he cried.

Pippin slapped a palm to his forehead. “Of course he will!” he said, and then turned back to Boromir. “Excuse me, Mr. Boromir, you wouldn’t happen to have seen our cousin Bilbo, would you?”

Boromir was saved from answering this question -- rather fortunately, for he was beginning to find himself a little exasperated -- by the arrival of a new personage. This newcomer was not a halfling, but a dwarf, fair of hair and richly arrayed in jewels and fine clothes. He strode across the courtyard towards them, and when he espied the two halflings, his face broke into a broad, beaming grin.

“What do we have here?” he called. “Hobbits, so far from the Shire? I must be dreaming!”

The two halflings started at this, and turned to see who was calling for them. When they did, both let out cries of joy and hurried forward.

“Fili!” Pippin called out, and Boromir turned his gaze even more closely upon this dwarf, for he knew the name Fili, and it was the name of the King Under the Mountain. Greatly astonished he was to hear a halfling speak so familiarly to such a person, and yet, any thoughts that he might have had that this was merely a different dwarf with the same name were dispelled immediately. For Meriadoc made liberal use of his elbow once more, digging it into his young cousin’s ribs, and spoke to him sharply.

“Pippin,” he said. “You can’t just talk to him like that. He’s the king now!” And he paused in his steps, and made a low, awkward-looking bow. “Your majesty,” he said.

The dwarf king seemed greatly amused by this, and he turned to Pippin. “And what of you, Peregrin, son of Paladin,” he said, with something of a smirk. “Have you no bow for me?”

Pippin bowed hastily. “Your majesty,” he said, though he did not particularly sound like he meant it, and when he straightened up, his gaze was direct and unafraid. “You look very royal.”

“And you look very tall!” the king replied. “Have I been away from the Shire so long? How old are you now, a hundred and fifty?”

“I’m twenty-eight!” Pippin cried, sounding rather offended. The king only laughed, and turned to Boromir.

“You have the look of Gondor about you,” he said. “But I do not know your name.”

“Boromir, son of Denethor, your majesty,” Boromir said, and bowed, although he did not lower his eyes.

The dwarf king appraised him carefully, and then nodded. “Son of the steward,” he said. “And here for the council I am told we are to have, no doubt?”

“It was not the purpose for which I came here,” Boromir replied, “but I am glad to be here, if such important matters are to be decided.”

The dwarf king nodded. “Odd that we should all happen to arrive at Rivendell at such a time,” he said, “for I, too, came on another errand. Or perhaps not odd. The wizard is here, after all, and wizards work in strange ways.”

Boromir, for his part, had little care for the errands of dwarves, be they kings or no, but only chafed under the delays he had suffered. “I was told the dwarves of Erebor had not yet arrived,” he said.

“We are a little late,” the king replied. “It is a long way on foot.”

Boromir frowned. “Have you no horses?” he asked. “Or -- ponies,” he added, feeling the slightest flush at the king’s raised eyebrow.

“We have, indeed,” the king said. “But there is one among my party who prefers not to ride.”

“A dangerous indulgence, when so much is at stake,” Boromir commented, and then felt himself suddenly the object of a cool, hard stare. There was no trace now of the amusement that had lightened the king’s face when he spoke with the halflings, and though he reached to Boromir’s chest at best, yet Boromir became suddenly aware that this dwarf was not to be trifled with.

“Dwarves are not given to indulgences, Boromir, son of Denethor,” the king said, and perhaps he would have said more, but Pippin turned to him, apparently oblivious to any and all etiquette, and tugged at his sleeve.

“Where’s--” he started, and then his face lit up, staring at something beyond the dwarf king. “Uncle!” he cried.

All turned now to see this new arrival, and Boromir turned with them, curious despite himself to see this uncle who he was reasonably sure was neither of the two Bagginses who had been mentioned. But he saw no halfling, but only another dwarf, this one dark of hair, and less resplendent than the king, though still finely dressed.

“Uncle!” Meriadoc cried, echoing his cousin’s exclamation, and then both halflings dashed forward, showing this time none of the restraint they accorded to the dwarf king. They barrelled into this new dwarf, knocking him to the ground and flinging their arms around him, and he seemed perfectly happy to be knocked down, and returned their embraces fiercely, kissing each one of them on the top of the head. Boromir found himself quite astounded at this, and he turned to the dwarf king, hoping for some enlightenment. But the king was only watching the scene with a fond smile on his face, as if there was nothing at all strange about two halflings calling a dwarf uncle.

“They are part dwarf, then?” he asked. “I do not see it in them.” Although, in truth, he had seen no halflings in his life before, and so would not know what to look for.

“Them?” the king asked with a chuckle. “No, they are hobbits, through and through!”

“But they call him uncle,” Boromir said, watching as the dark-haired dwarf struggled to his feet and helped each one of the halflings up, setting them on their feet and dusting them down.

“It is a title given for love, not for blood,” the king said. “He is a great friend of Pippin’s father, and especially of Merry’s mother, and he spent a great deal of time with them when they were growing up.”

“Indeed?” Boromir asked, rather amazed. “But how do dwarves and halflings come to be such close friends? The Shire is not close to Erebor, if I remember correctly.”

The king’s face darkened a little at this. “Not close, no,” he said. “It is many leagues distant -- far too many, for my liking. But my brother is a great traveller, and is seldom in one place for very long.”

He looked quite discontented at this trait of his brother’s, but Boromir found himself merely confused. “Your brother?” he asked.

The king indicated the dark-haired dwarf with a nod of his head. “My brother,” he said.

And now Boromir found himself once more amazed, for it seemed that not only did these two odd little halflings know the King Under the Mountain well enough to call him by name, but they knew his brother well enough to call him uncle, and to knock him down with their affection as though he were a commoner. How such things could come to be, he had not the first idea. But he asked no more about it, for the two halflings were now dragging their dwarf uncle away, chattering away to him with great enthusiasm, while he, for his part, spoke barely a word, but only listened with a serious expression on his face.

“Ho there, hobbits!” cried the king, and the two halflings paused in their progress and turned to look at him. “Where are you stealing my brother away to?” he asked.

“Elevenses,” Pippin replied, as if it was self-evident.

“Ah! Elevenses, of course,” the king said with a smile. “Then I will join you, if I may.” And he turned, and nodded to Boromir. “I will see you at the council,” he said.

“Your majesty,” said Boromir, with another bow. By the time he straightened up, the king was already striding away, quickly catching up with the waiting group of halflings and dwarf, and laying an easy hand on the nape of his brother’s neck. Boromir watched them go and marvelled at the strange customs of northern parts. And it was only once they were gone that he realised he had never got to the bottom of which Baggins it was that had owned the ring.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo awoke, he quickly became aware of two things. The first was that he was not in his own bed, and in fact, he was not completely sure which bed he was in. The second was that, whatever bed it was, Kili was sitting beside it, staring at him.

Now, both of these facts were rather disconcerting, and Bilbo quickly sat up and rubbed his eyes. It was dark in the room, the lamp turned down low, and it took him a moment of staring at shadowy corners and wondering why he was awake in the middle of the night to remember that the reason it was dark was because the room had no windows. And it had no windows because it was deep inside a mountain. And then, of course, he remembered that he was in Erebor -- but perhaps we can forgive his momentary lapse in memory, for indeed he had been there only a very few days.

Thus, the mystery of the bed was solved. The mystery of Kili -- well, it was not such a great mystery, after all. It was not at all unusual for Bilbo to wake to find Kili staring at him. The only odd thing about this particular morning was that, for the first time in many, many months, Kili had not been sleeping in the same room as Bilbo, and so in fact he had had to make a special effort to come and stare. Nonetheless, Kili was very much committed to the project of staring at all and sundry, and especially at Bilbo, so that it was not, after all, so very odd that he might go thus out of his way.

“Good morning,” said Bilbo after he had thought these various muddled thoughts. “Is it morning? I’m afraid I just cannot tell what time it is under all this stone.”

Kili looked like he could not either, but he nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “Morning.”

“Good,” Bilbo said, for he was awake now, and did not feel like going back to sleep. “Well, then. Good morning!”

“Yes,” Kili said again. “Good morning, hobbit.”

“Good morning, indeed!” Bilbo said, and then began to feel mildly foolish, for he had now said good morning three times, and although hobbits are the politest of creatures, nonetheless even they might consider that to be excessive. “You have come visiting very early. Was there something you wanted?”

Kili frowned at him. “I ask question?” he said.

“Of course you may ask a question!” Bilbo replied. “You know you can ask me whatever you want.” Indeed, it troubled him a little that Kili did not just ask, and felt the need to request permission first, for such had not been his habit for many months. But since they had returned to Erebor a few days before, he had become rather quieter even than usual, and a little shy. Bilbo supposed it was to be expected, although of course he hoped it was only a temporary alteration.

“Well, are you going to ask me, or not?” he said, when a moment or two had passed and Kili’s question still had not presented itself. “I can hardly answer if I do not know what it is you want to ask!”

Kili hesitated a moment longer. “Ori hug me,” he said. “When we come back to mountain.”

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Bilbo said pointedly. Kili frowned at him, but Bilbo only crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows. After all, just because they were back in Erebor and things were a little topsy-turvey did not mean he was willing to allow Kili to abandon the efforts he had been making to speak more correctly.

Kili’s frown deepened, but quickly transformed into a look of concentration. “Ori hugged me,” he said, “when we came back to mountain.” He glanced sideways at Bilbo, and, when Bilbo nodded enthusiastically, gave a brief nod of his own. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you hobbit remember me speak right. Ori hugged me.”

Bilbo considered tackling the issue of thank you hobbit remember me speak right, and then decided it could wait until he had cleared up the issue of Ori hugged me. “Yes, indeed he did,” he said.

“Yes,” said Kili, and then fell silent. Bilbo stared at him, but after a moment or two it became clear that nothing more was forthcoming.

“That is not a question, my lad,” he said at last. “You did not ask me a question.”

Kili looked rather as though he had not realised this. “Ori hugged me,” he repeated, and then pondered a moment. “You say -- you said dwarfs not like hug. In Shire, you said.”

“Oh!” Bilbo said, understanding at last. “Well, no, that isn’t quite what I said, now, is it? I said that in general hobbits like hugs more than dwarves do. But that certainly doesn’t mean that every hobbit likes hugs and every dwarf does not! After all, Fili is very fond of hugging you, is he not?”

“Yes,” Kili said. “Fili likes hug me. He is brother.” He nodded at Bilbo, and Bilbo raised his eyebrows once again.

“Is he?” he asked. “Whose brother?”

Kili looked confused, and then mildly annoyed. He sighed heavily -- a habit he had only recently developed, and which Bilbo secretly rather enjoyed. “He is my brother,” he said. “Fili likes hug me because he is my brother.” He shot a look at Bilbo which was only slightly short of a glare, but Bilbo was entirely unrepentant -- after all, if Kili continued to use his odd shorthand, speaking properly would never become second nature to him.

“Quite right,” Bilbo said. “He is your brother. But that does not mean that all dwarves only enjoy hugging their brothers! Why, there are some hobbits who do not like to hug at all, though I confess I find them rather difficult on the whole” (and here he was thinking chiefly of his cousin Lobelia) “and so I am sure there are some dwarves who like to hug a great deal. And Ori is--” He pondered how he might best phrase it. “Ori is unusually -- gentle. For a dwarf, anyway.”

Kili sat back in his chair and considered this. After a while, Bilbo began to wonder if he should get up and get dressed, or if Kili was likely to have another question soon. But a few moments more passed, and he decided that nothing more was forthcoming for the time being, and so he got out of bed and went to perform his morning ablutions. This done, he found clothes for himself, stumbling around a little in the dark, unfamiliar room. At last, he turned, buttoning the last button on his waistcoat, to find that Kili was watching him again.

“Hobbit,” he said, “how I can know?”

It took Bilbo a moment or two to review their previous conversation in order to understand what it was Kili was asking, but once he had done so he quickly understood. “How can you know whether a dwarf likes hugs or not?” he asked, and Kili nodded. “Well,” Bilbo started. And then a thought came into his head which was rather wicked -- though it was the kind of gentle, affectionate wickedness that one finds in hobbits, and not at all the kind of cruel and ugly wickedness that appears in some other races. Nonetheless, wicked it was, and he paused a moment and considered it. But, kind little hobbit though he was, he found himself unable to resist the temptation, and he turned to Kili and smiled. “Well,” he said, “you must hug them, of course! Or have them hug you. Then you can ask them whether they enjoyed it or not.”

Kili looked rather alarmed at this prospect, and Bilbo -- whose wickedness was not at all aimed in the direction of upsetting Kili -- quickly crossed the room and patted his shoulder. “Oh, but you must ask permission first,” he said. “Of course you must! You should not hug people without asking permission, unless you already know they enjoy it. And then, if they give you permission, you will know you are not doing anything wrong. There, is that good enough?”

Kili looked a little less alarmed, but still quite uncomfortable. “It is not wrong ask?” he asked.

“Not at all,” Bilbo said warmly. “But if you are concerned about it, then I will certainly come with you to make sure you are not doing anything wrong.” For he very much wanted to see the outcome of his gentle hobbit wickedness, as well, of course, as wanting to make sure Kili suffered not the least ill effect. “Would you like me to come?”

Kili nodded quickly. “Yes. You come.”

“Excellent!” Bilbo cried. “Well, there’s no time like the present, my lad. Let’s go and set your mind to rest.”

And in fact, they did not need to look far at all for their first subject, for Fili had awoken and found his brother gone, and of course he had immediately gone to seek him out. Naturally, the first place he looked was Bilbo’s quarters, and since it was no great distance at all to travel -- in fact, Bilbo’s room was immediately beside Fili and Kili’s, a circumstance which Fili himself had insisted on when they had arrived back -- he had already arrived on the doorstep and was raising his hand to knock when Bilbo opened the door.

“Oh!” said both Bilbo and Fili. Fili was the first to recover himself.

“Good morning, Bilbo,” he said. Have you seen my -- oh, there you are.” And here his eyes moved past Bilbo to Kili, who had stepped into the doorway behind the little hobbit. “One day I shall wake up before you, I’m quite determined!”

Kili frowned. “No, you not wake first,” he said. “You sleep long.”

Fili looked a little put-out at this -- as well he might, for in fact he was hardly a slug-a-bed, and was often up with the sun -- but Bilbo did not give him a chance to recover himself, turning instead to Kili.

“Well?” he said. “Are you not going to practice?”

Kili looked a little worried. “It is Fili,” he said. “I not need ask Fili.”

“All the better!” Bilbo cried, rather enjoying the look of confusion on Fili’s face. “It is much easier to practice when there is nothing at stake.”

It was clear that Kili did not understand this idiom, but he squared his shoulders nonetheless and stepped forward.

“Fili,” he said, “I can hug you?”

The confusion on Fili’s face only grew more pronounced at this question. “Of course you can!” he cried. “You may hug me whenever you wish. You do not need to ask!”

Kili nodded, and seemed entirely satisfied by this, though whether he had forgotten the second part of the project or simply decided it was not necessary, Bilbo could not say. At any rate, he made no move to hug his brother, and Bilbo was about to prompt him when Fili took matters into his own hands and stepped forward, enveloping Kili in a hearty embrace. Kili started a little, but quickly recovered himself and reciprocated, pressing his palms to his brother’s back and even closing his eyes as he rested his chin on Fili’s shoulder. After a moment or two, Fili stepped back, although he did not entirely let Kili go, keeping his hands on his brother’s shoulders.

“There,” he said. “Now you have hugged me. And will you tell me what it is the two of you are up to?” And here he turned and gave Bilbo a narrow look. “Or perhaps it is not you I should be asking.”

“You like hug?” Kili asked, ignoring Fili’s question. “You -- you liked hug?”

Fili frowned at him. “Of course I liked it,” he said. “Why should I not like it?” And now the look he turned on Bilbo was a little more serious. “Why does my brother think I do not enjoy being hugged?”

Bilbo considered leaving Fili to his confusion. But his consideration lasted only a brief moment, for the young dwarf was clearly concerned, and, wicked as he might be feeling, Bilbo wished to cause no actual harm. What was more, he knew from long experience that Fili was an excellent partner in crime, and would most likely enjoy Bilbo’s little plot entirely as much as Bilbo himself would.

“Your brother wanted to know how to tell if particular dwarves enjoy hugs,” he said. “And I have told him, of course, that the only way to be sure is to hug them. Or, perhaps, to induce them to hug him,” he added with a smile.

Fili frowned in confusion for a moment, but then his face cleared and a smile twitched at the corners of his lips. “Do you mean to say that Kili plans to ask every dwarf in our company to hug him?” he asked.

“Of course!” Bilbo said. “How else can he find out what he wants to know?”

Every dwarf?” Fili asked, beginning to look rather delighted.

“Naturally, every dwarf,” Bilbo said. “It would not do for any of them to feel left out.”

At this, Fili turned back to his brother, who had been following this conversation with a look of increasing concern. “What an excellent plan, my brother,” he said. “I hope you do not object if I come with you? I have a great interest in finding out the answer to your question, myself.”

“You want come?” Kili asked. “Also want hug?”

“Oh, no,” Fili said with a smile, raising his hands. “I am quite happy to watch you hugging. Though of course you must also tell me what you find out.”

Kili nodded. “Where we are go next?” he asked Bilbo. “Which dwarf we should find?”

Bilbo considered this a moment. “The library, I think,” he said at last. “Come along.” And he set off down the passageway, with Fili and Kili following behind.

----

Ori was an early riser, and was exactly where Bilbo had expected him to be: seated in a corner of Erebor’s great library next to a towering stack of books. A great deal of work had been done to clear and rebuild the various public and private chambers in the mountain over the year and a half since the dragon had been killed, but a year and a half is not so very long a time for such a large city, and the library was still partially closed-off and smelt rather odd. Still, Ori seemed perfectly happy to spend all day and sometimes all night there, reading his way steadily through all the many books and scrolls that filled the stone shelves. He had a perpetually streaming nose and red-rimmed eyes these days, but it seemed that he was not ill, but only terminally assaulted by the detritus of decaying books.

“Mr. Baggins!” he cried as soon as Bilbo came around the shelves. “I am glad to see you.”

“And I you,” Bilbo replied with an abbreviated bow. Ori’s smile grew still wider when he saw that Bilbo was accompanied by Fili and Kili, and he stood from his chair, raising a cloud of dust that had them all coughing.

“Do you not think,” Bilbo said once he had regained his breath, “that it would be worth your while to clean the library before you start to use it?”

“We have tried our best,” Ori said ruefully. “The dust is in the books, you see. Every time I open one, it is as though the place had never seen a broom. So the only way to properly clean it is to read all the books very thoroughly, and then sweep once that is done.”

Fili made something of a face at this, but Ori looked as though he was perfectly content to take on this task single-handedly. And indeed, he had made remarkable progress in the time he had had, if the shelves of cleaner-looking books were anything to go by.

“But Kili has something to ask you,” Bilbo said, remembering the object of their visit.

“Another picture?” Ori asked, with a hopeful smile.

Kili’s face lit up briefly, and then fell as he understood that Ori’s remark had been a question and did not mean that he had drawn a new picture. “I -- if hug,” he said, and then shook his head. “I ask I can hug.”

Ori looked a little confused by this, and glanced at Bilbo for an explanation, but Bilbo only nudged Kili.

“You can do better than that, my lad,” he murmured.

“Yes,” Kili muttered. “I can better.” He took a deep breath. “I ask if I -- can hug,” he said. “You. If I can hug you. I ask.”

“You want to know if you can hug me?” Ori asked, still looking mildly confused. When Kili nodded, he glanced again at Bilbo. “Of course you can hug me,” he said. “We are friends, aren’t we?” He looked back now at Kili as if he was not quite sure what the answer would be. But Kili nodded.

“Yes, we are friends,” he said, and then took an awkward step forward. Ori came to meet him, for which Bilbo was quite grateful, for he suspected it would take Kili a long time to actually reach the hugging part of the encounter were he left to his own devices. And in fact -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- it was Ori who did most of the hugging, managing to look larger than Kili although in fact he was slightly shorter. He wrapped his arms around Kili enthusiastically, and Kili, just as before, pressed the palms of his hands flat on Ori’s back. This hug, though, was shorter than the one Fili and Kili had shared, and Ori stepped back with a smile and coughed into his sleeve.

“Dust,” he said. “Well, then. What are we hugging for?”

“You liked hug?” Kili asked, looking for all the world as though he would take out a pen and paper and note down Ori’s reply -- though of course he could neither read nor write.

“Yes, of course!” Ori said. “Why would anyone not like hugs?”

Kili frowned and looked at Bilbo. “I already know this,” he said. “Ori hugged me when we came back mountain.”

“It never hurts to be sure,” Bilbo said. “And besides, now you know you can hug Ori whenever you want.”

Kili glanced back at Ori. “I can this?” he asked.

“By all means,” Ori said. “But Mr. Baggins, I’m not sure I understand.”

“Come here, Ori,” said Fili, then, and he put an arm around Ori’s shoulders and led him aside, murmuring into his ear. Bilbo, who had not planned to let anyone else into his wicked scheme, felt mildly put out, but when a broad smile dawned on Ori’s face, he decided to give up his annoyance and only enjoy the fruits of his deviousness.

“Right, then, my lad,” he said, taking Kili by the arm. “The mines next, I think.”

And to the mines they went.

----

Finding Bifur and Bofur at the mines was no easy task. The winding tunnels were easily twice as many and three times as labyrinthine as those in the city above them, and the dwarves that they passed seemed to know little more about where the chief miners were than they did themselves. At last, somewhere in the depths where they could barely hear themselves think above the sound of pick-axes clanging, they encountered Bifur. Of course, they could not speak to him with all the noise, but iglishmêk existed for just such occasions, and, after watching Bilbo struggle with it a moment or two, Fili stepped in and, with a few flicks of his fingers, conveyed a question about Bofur’s whereabouts. Bifur nodded immediately, and took them on a long, winding tour up and up, until they were far from the working faces. He turned left abruptly, and, following him, they found themselves in a great cavern, the walls glistening with seams of precious metal and studded with dark gems. The whole was lit by a single lantern, carried by Bofur, who was peering up at the walls and muttering. He looked up at the sight of Bifur’s lantern and smiled broadly.

“A visitation, is it?” he said. “Quite the little company you make.”

And indeed, this was true, for Ori had followed them from the library, so that now with the addition of Bifur they were five, which (Bilbo thought) was beginning to become rather unwieldy. Bifur’s fingers flickered too fast for Bilbo to read in the dim light, and Bofur turned to smile at Kili.

“Ask away,” he said.

Bifur turned, then, and Kili drew a breath, and then shook his head and signed quickly at Bifur in iglishmêk. Bilbo’s eyes strained to make out the signs in the poor light -- for he was neither particularly skilled in iglishmêk nor able to see as well in the dark as the dwarves were -- and in the end all he could make out was the question word. But whatever Kili had said, it had the desired effect, for Bifur made a gruff sound that might or might not have been a Khuzdul word and stepped forward without hesitation, engulfing Kili in his arms and, somehow, in his beard, so that the little dwarf seemed barely visible. Kili, who seemed to have become slightly more accustomed to this now, pressed his hands to Bifur’s back, and stood back shyly once he was let go. His hands flickered once again in iglishmêk -- and again Bilbo caught only the question word and the word for you -- and Bifur replied in the same language. Whatever the reply was, Bilbo did not know -- he understood no words of it at all -- but it was clear that Kili did understand it, for he stared, wide-eyed, at Bifur’s hands, and then glanced up at his face with a look of amazement. Beside Bilbo, Ori made a quiet noise, and when Bilbo glanced around he saw that Fili was beaming and Ori was looking rather misty-eyed.

Kili asked another question with his hands, and Bifur nodded once, and then stepped forward again, hugging Kili once more, briefly this time, but with great emotion. Bilbo found an unexpected lump in his throat, although, of course, he had no idea what had been said, and he coughed sharply.

“Dust,” he explained when all turned to look at him. Fili smirked, and Bilbo cleared his throat and turned to Kili, nudging him and pointing at Bofur. Kili managed to tear his eyes away from Bifur and turned, too, opening his mouth but producing no words.

“Me too, is it?” Bofur asked with a kind smile. “Come here, then, lad.” And he stepped up for his own embrace, and pressed his forehead briefly to Kili’s when they parted.

“Aye, I enjoyed it very much, and thank you to whoever suggested it,” Bofur said without being asked, glancing with a raised eyebrow at Bilbo. “And I take it you lads have already had your turn?” He looked here at Ori and Fili. Fili looked rather smug, Ori a little sheepish, which seemed to be answer enough for Bofur. He grinned. “Room for more in your company, is there, my lord Baggins?” he asked with a sweeping bow.

“Well, I--” Bilbo said, becoming a little alarmed at how his silly little idea was growing into what amounted to a dwarf parade. But Bofur did not let him finish.

“Grand!” he said. “Give us a moment.” And he turned to Bifur and signed a long phrase in iglishmêk which included the words hobbit, dwarf and Thorin. Bifur stared at him for a moment, then broke into a terrifying smile and turned to Bilbo, nodding vigorously.

Good hobbit,” he said in Khuzdul. “Good idea.

“Er -- well -- thank you very much,” said Bilbo, and then, remembering his manners, repeated the same words in Khuzdul.

“On we go, then,” Bofur said, hefting his lantern.

And on they went.

----

Oin and Gloin they found arguing with each other at Gloin’s quarters. The subject of the argument was not at all clear to Bilbo, but in any case, it stumbled to a halt when they caught sight of the odd little company approaching them. Gloin straightened a little and Oin jammed his ear-trumpet more firmly into his ear.

“What’s this?” Gloin asked.

Although it was Gloin who spoke, Kili turned first to Oin. The two of them had always had some difficulty communicating, partly because Kili tended to speak unusually quietly, and partly because something about Oin’s accent seemed to trip Kili up. Nonetheless, he seemed a little more at ease with Oin than with his brother, though Bilbo had never quite understood why.

“I can hug you?” Kili asked.

“What?” Oin replied, twisting his ear-trumpet so it was pointing in Kili’s direction. “What was the question?”

Kili repeated his question twice more, but each time it seemed Oin could not make it out, and at last Gloin seized his brother and put his mouth up to the ear-trumpet.

“The lad wants to know if he can hug you,” he shouted. “He wants to hug you.”

“Hug me?” Oin asked, looking quite perplexed. “Why for d’you want to hug me, lad?”

It seemed that Kili had not anticipated this question -- or perhaps simply had not understood it -- for he stared and mumbled something inaudible, then shot Bilbo a worried glance.

“He wants to know if he likes hugs,” Bilbo shouted. “He has to practice, you see.”

Kili’s expression now became rather confused, and Bilbo realised that he had inadvertently revealed at least one of the ulterior motives of his little scheme. But the message seemed to have the intended effect on Oin, for after some minor harrumphing and a disapproving glare from his brother, he nodded his head.

“Well, I suppose if it is important,” he said, looking rather at Bilbo than at Kili.

“Oh, it certainly is,” Bilbo said. “Very important.”

“Hmph,” Oin said, and then set down his ear-trumpet deliberately and opened his arms. “Come on, then, lad.”

Kili stepped forward and hugged Oin, and although it was initially rather awkward, after a moment Oin closed his eyes and seemed to tighten his grip, and when he stepped back he left a hand on Kili’s shoulder a moment before pulling entirely away.

“You liked hug?” Kili asked.

“What?” Oin shouted, reaching for his ear-trumpet.

“He wants to know if you liked the hug,” Gloin shouted.

“You’re the one who’s supposed to like it or not like it,” Oin said.

This left Kili frowning. “You liked it?” he said. “This mean you liked it?”

“He wants to know if you liked it,” Gloin shouted again, and Bilbo began to rather regret involving either of them in his scheme (though, of course, it would not have done to have left them out).

“I don’t hold much with hugs, in general,” Oin said, but when Gloin gave him a hard nudge in the side, he grumbled and shoved back, then turned to Kili. “Nothing wrong with it,” he said. “Not unpleasant in the least.”

Kili did not seem much enlightened by this, but Bilbo patted him on the shoulder and then pointed at Gloin. Kili, after frowning a moment longer at Oin, turned to this new target.

“I can hug you?” he asked.

“Aye, you can, at that,” Gloin said warmly, and stepped forward. Kili, who seemed to be becoming quite accustomed to hugging now, stepped into the embrace and immediately pressed his hands to Gloin’s back.

Gloin, as it turned out, was an expert in the art of hugging. Bilbo, standing and watching, rather wished that he were being hugged as well, for everything that he could see told him that Gloin’s embrace was warm and solid, not too tight and not too loose, and involved not the least reluctance. When Gloin let Kili go and stepped back, there was a broad smile on his face.

“Does a body good,” he said.

“You liked hug?” Kili asked (for of course he had not understood Gloin’s idiom).

“Aye, I’m always glad for a hug,” Gloin said. “If you’ve ever a need for another, you can always come and find me, lad.”

Kili seemed to find this a great deal more straightforward than Oin’s answer, and he turned and nodded at Bilbo.

“Yes,” he said.

“Yes,” Bilbo replied. “Well, now, how many more to go?” And he turned to count the number of dwarves who now made up their company. But before he could come to any conclusions, Gloin spoke again.

“Ah, now, if we’re all getting hugs, we should wait for Gimli,” he said. “I’m sure he’d be very sorry to be left out.”

“Ah,” Bilbo said. Kili had met Gimli only once so far, the day of their arrival in Erebor. Gimli had been most enthusiastic to finally lay eyes on the childhood friend who he had believed dead for so many years. Indeed, his enthusiasm had been such that Kili had been rather overwhelmed (for, of course, as far as he was concerned Gimli was a total stranger, and a well-armed one, at that), and now looked somewhat apprehensive at any mention of his name. No doubt he would get over that in time, but Bilbo suspected he would not respond well to a hug from that particular quarter.

“Perhaps another time,” Bilbo said finally. Gloin, though clearly disappointed on his son’s behalf, seemed to understand this, and so the company made no further delay, but set off for their next destination, with Oin and Gloin now following behind.

----

Bilbo and Fili led their motley company, with Kili in between them and the other dwarves all trailing behind. Being dwarves, they were soon engaged in raucous chatter and the occasional snatch of song, and soon it was loud enough that when Kili turned to speak to Bilbo, none but he and Fili could hear it.

“Hobbit,” he said, “Oin likes hugs? I not understood what he say.”

“Yes, he likes them,” Fili said before Bilbo could answer. “Though he likes to pretend he does not.”

Kili frowned at him, then turned again to Bilbo. “He pretend? Why pretend?”

“Hm, well,” Bilbo said, “sometimes people like to pretend they do not like hugs, or kisses, or even cake, because they think it makes them look weak or childish.”

This only made Kili frown all the more. “Hug is childish? Kiss?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Bilbo said hastily. “But children are much more free with their affection than most grown-ups. Like Esmeralda -- she is always hugging and kissing, is she not? And she does so in part because she is so young. But it is certainly not childish to hug people -- it only means that you have kept some of the sweetness of a child, and that is a marvellous thing.”

Kili thought about this for a moment or two. “Sweet,” he said at last. “Sweet is like honey. Like honey, yes?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said, “but it also means -- it means when someone is thoughtful and kind and affectionate. When someone is good-natured and warm-hearted.”

“Like Fili,” Kili said, and glanced at Fili, who raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Yes, rather like Fili,” Bilbo said with a smile. “And perhaps a little like you, as well.”

Kili stared at him. “Not like me,” he said. “How I can be sweet if sweet is from be child? I not remember be child.”

“But you were a child, my brother,” Fili put in. “Although I think perhaps you are even sweeter now than you were then.”

Kili fell silent, then, and marched along for a while as if deep in thought. When he did speak again, it was on a completely different subject.

“Hobbit,” he said, “why all dwarfs are follow us?”

Bilbo glanced behind at the rowdy group that followed. There were five now, not counting Bilbo, Fili and Kili, but of course they made enough noise for twenty of any other race.

“Because they want to see if their friends like hugs as well,” he decided. This, after all, was not entirely untrue.

“They not know this?” Kili asked. “Why they not know?”

“Because they have never asked,” Bilbo replied.

“Why not ask?” Kili said. “It is important. How they know if can hug?”

“Well,” Bilbo said, beginning to wish he had come up with another explanation for why the dwarves were following, “I suppose they do not worry about it so much as you do. Perhaps they just hug, or do not hug, as they like, without worrying about if the other person likes it or not.”

Kili stared at him as if he could not quite believe this explanation. He turned to look at Fili. “It is right?” he said. “They not ask?”

“Right, as always,” Fili replied. “Most dwarves do not care what others think so much as you do. And they are not so brave as to go to each one of their friends and ask them as you are.”

“Brave?” Kili said. “It is not brave.”

“It is very brave,” Fili replied, putting an arm around Kili’s shoulders. “You are the bravest dwarf I know.”

Kili shook his head at this. “I not brave,” he insisted. “Not brave. You brave, I not brave.”

“Both of you are very brave,” Bilbo said, for he suspected that this conversation was going nowhere sensible. “Far too brave, sometimes. My father used to say that excessive bravery cannot be distinguished from foolishness. But then, you are dwarves, so I suppose some foolishness is to be expected. Now, enough of this ridiculous conversation! I smell Bombur’s cooking.”

Kili looked a little worried at Bilbo’s vehemence, but Fili only smirked and ruffled his hair.

“I am neither brave nor foolish enough to risk the wrath of our hobbit, my brother,” he said. “We will agree that we are both brave, and leave it at that.”

And so they did.

----

It was indeed Bombur’s cooking that Bilbo could smell, and when they entered the kitchen, they saw he was not alone: Dori and Nori both stood by the great stewpot, Dori engaged in a serious discussion about the minutiae of seasoning with Bombur, Nori simply looking bored. He brightened when he saw the odd deputation approaching, though.

“Here’s trouble,” he said, and nudged his brother.

Bombur turned and raised his eyebrows. “Dwarves in my kitchen!” he said. “Lunch is not for three hours yet, so I will thank you to take your leave.” And yet, despite these stern words, he immediately produced a thick slice of bread and honey from somewhere and handed it to Kili.

“Thank you Bombur,” said Kili, and thrust the entire slice into his mouth at once. Bombur nodded with satisfaction and then brandished his ladle at the rest of them.

“Out of my kitchen!” he said.

“We did not come for food,” Fili said, stepping forward. “Kili has something he wants to ask you.”

All eyes turned to Kili then, and he stood and stared, cheeks bulging with bread and apparently having quite some difficulty chewing. To his credit, he did make some attempt to speak, without the least care for the fact that his mouth was full of food -- Bilbo had tried many times to break him of this habit, but had had no success, and had concluded that it was a trait inherent to dwarves and could not be eradicated -- but the noises he made were so incoherent that even Bilbo could not understand them, and the crumbs he sprayed in the process led to Bilbo quickly stepping in before he should be completely covered in half-chewed bread.

“He wants to know if he can hug you,” he said.

“What for?” Bombur asked with a frown.

“He’s wanting to know if he likes hugs or not,” Bofur supplied, which had Bilbo wondering when this had become the story that was being passed around the little company, “so stir your stumps and hug him, lazybones.”

Bombur seemed to require no further encouragement, but only shrugged and put down his ladle before enfolding Kili in a voluminous hug. It looked for a moment as though the little dwarf might be having some trouble breathing, what with his mouthful of bread and Bombur’s copious beard, but thankfully the hug was brief (though enthusiastic), and Kili managed to choke down his mouthful a moment after he was freed from it. Bombur immediately produced a second piece of bread and honey, but Bilbo snatched it before Kili had the chance.

“How will you ask your questions when your mouth is so full?” he asked when Kili turned mournful eyes on him. He nodded his head pointedly at Bombur, and Kili turned reluctantly away from the bread.

“You did like -- you liked hug?” he asked.

“I liked it well enough,” Bombur said. “And was that all you wanted to know?”

Kili nodded. “Yes, it is good,” he said. “Thank you Bombur answer question.” And with this, he turned to Dori. “I can hug you?” he asked.

Dori looked rather taken aback. “Well, dear me,” he said. “I am not -- that is --” But then he looked up, and found himself the object of stares from the assembled company that ranged from disapproving (Bifur) to disappointed (Ori). “Oh, well, of course you may,” he said hastily. He made no move to step forward, though, nor to open his arms, and so for the first time Kili was forced to take the initiative himself. The hug thus proceeded much more slowly than on previous occasions, and was decidedly awkward, with Dori standing rather stiffly and hesitantly patting Kili’s back. When Kili stepped back, he looked a little troubled.

“You not liked hug?” he said.

“Oh, I am not very good at hugs,” Dori said. “But it was not bad, not bad at all! I’m sure if I were a little more practised--” And here he trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

Kili eyed him for a moment, as if trying to decide exactly what his answer signified, and then turned to Nori, who had been watching all of this with a broad grin. Bilbo found himself frowning, for of all the dwarves it was Nori he was most concerned about -- he had a biting wit that could be most unpleasant, and he did not suffer what he considered to be foolish behaviour at all gladly. But Bilbo found himself quite surprised, for before Kili could even open his mouth, Nori stepped forward and embraced Kili cheerfully, slapping him heartily on the back when they parted and then turning to Dori with a smirk.

“That’s how it’s done,” he said, and then turned back to Kili. “And I’d do it again any time, before you ask.”

Kili closed his mouth and nodded. “You like,” he said, perhaps more to himself than anything.

“Yes, I like,” Nori said with a grin, and then turned and cast his eye over the company. “Eleven, is it?” he said. “Only three to go. Shame, Kili, you should have called on me first. I’d have liked to watch.” Here he smirked at Ori and then at Oin. “Still, this morning’s turning out a lot less boring than I thought. Where next?”

Bilbo, resigned now to being followed by every dwarf in Thorin’s company, led the way. After a few paces, though, he realised Kili was staring at him.

“What is it, my lad?” he asked.

Kili’s eyes flicked to Bilbo’s hand, and Bilbo realised he was still clutching the bread and honey he had taken from Bombur.

“Oh!” he said. “Well, here you are, then.”

“Thank you hobbit,” said Kili.

----

They made a strange company, ten dwarves and one hobbit making their way along the streets and byways of Erebor. Bifur and Bofur were streaked with dirt, Ori covered with dust, and Bombur still wore his apron and had absent-mindedly brought his ladle along. But more than this, it was the first time that many of those dwarves who had arrived from Ered Luin since the previous spring had caught sight of the prince who had returned from the dead, nor yet of the hobbit who had become the first dwarf-friend in half a millennium. Just as Bilbo and his two strange visitors were the richest source of gossip in Hobbiton, so Kili and his constant hobbit companion were for Erebor, and everywhere they went there were whispers and stares. Indeed, it was the first time most of the dwarves they passed had seen a hobbit at all, and they were amazed by how short and fine-boned he was, by his funny little waistcoat and enormous bare feet, and no beard at all, by Mahal, did you ever see the like? This, then, was the famous Bilbo Baggins who had burgled back the treasure of Erebor and its prince both, who had faced down the orc army and been proclaimed a hero by none other than King Thorin himself -- well, it just went to show that sometimes a dwarven soul is born in the wrong body, and that was all there was to it.

Nor did it escape the notice of the dwarves they passed that the company was made up only of those dwarves that had first taken back Erebor, heroes all, and there were many mutterings that there must be great deeds afoot, if so many of that company were on the move, and all together. None of them had the first idea that such an august gathering might be motivated by nothing more than the silly whim of a little hobbit -- even such a hobbit as Bilbo Baggins -- and so they waited all that day and night for some announcement to be made. And when nothing happened, they nodded wisely to each other and said that it must be something secret, but very important, nonetheless.

And perhaps they were right.

----

Balin was in his study, concentrating on a scroll that bore a map, though of what land Bilbo could not say. He looked up and smiled when Bilbo entered with Fili and Kili, but the smile faded a little when he beheld the whole company that entered behind them.

“Is there something I should be concerned about?” he asked Fili.

“That depends,” Fili said with something of a smirk. He nodded his head at Kili, and Kili nodded back.

“I can hug you?” he asked Balin.

Balin’s eyebrows drew down. “Hug me?” he said. “And why would you want to hug an old dwarf like me, laddie?”

This time, though, Kili seemed more prepared for this question, and after a brief moment of thought, he spoke again.

“I try to know if dwarfs like hugs,” he said. “Some dwarfs yes, some dwarfs no. I try to know which.”

“And that requires an escort, does it?” Balin asked. “Why have you brought so many dwarves with you?”

Kili glanced back at the little company. “I not asked them follow,” he said. “They follow with themselfs."

"By themselves, Kili," Bilbo murmured, and Kili glanced at him and nodded.

"By themselfs," he said. "They also try to know if dwarfs like hugs.”

“Do they, indeed,” said Balin, not looking very convinced by this. “And why do you not just ask me if I like hugs, and leave it at that?”

Kili frowned. “Hobbit say I must hug first, then ask,” he said, and glanced quickly at Bilbo. “Hobbit say,” he said again.

“He did, did he,” Balin said, raising one eyebrow at Bilbo. “Well, if Mr. Baggins said it, then I suppose it must be true. But I have a request to make of you, then, if you would ask this of me.”

Kili stared at him. “You ask something?” he said.

“I ask that you ask me the question again, but this time in the tongue of your ancestors,” Balin said.

Kili’s face fell at this, and no wonder: although Fili had from time to time tried to revive the Khuzdul lessons while they were in the Shire, he had glumly predicted that Balin would be most disappointed by how much Kili had forgotten when they returned -- and he had been quite right. Only a few days had they been back in Erebor, but that was quite enough time for the extent of Kili’s backsliding (not to mention Bilbo’s) to become very clear to Balin, and although he never once raised his voice, still he knew many other, more painful ways to make his disappointment known.

Kili, then, stood still and stared at the ground for so long that Fili shifted, and perhaps was about to ask for mercy. But the words never passed his lips, for at last Kili lifted his head.

I-you-ask,” he said, in sharply-accented Khuzdul. “I-can-arms. I-can-put-arms. Near-you.”

Now, there were many things about this disjointed request that even Bilbo could tell were quite incorrect, and had they been in the classroom, no doubt Balin would have launched into a disquisition on verb endings or the proper placement of pronouns. But here, in his study, he only smiled gently.

Around, not near,” he said.

Around-you,” Kili amended himself, and Balin’s smile widened.

By all means,” he said, and then opened his own arms. Kili stepped into the hug without hesitation, and Balin embraced him without reservation, and smiling as though it was his request that was being granted, and not Kili’s at all. But when they stepped back from each other, it turned out there were more surprises to come.

Liked-you -- arms-around?” Kili asked in Khuzdul. This produced an approving murmur from the dwarves behind Bilbo, and an expression of great surprise from Balin -- for Kili found Khuzdul rather difficult, and generally had to be coaxed into using it. This surprise melted into a broad smile, and Balin seemed suddenly rather teary-eyed as he thumped Kili’s shoulder.

“Aye, I liked it very much,” he said, and then, in Khuzdul, “I am very proud of you.”

It was not clear whether Kili understood this last or not, but he nodded and turned to Bilbo.

“Yes,” he said. “Balin liked.”

“So he did,” Bilbo said. “Well, we are almost done!”

Balin, meanwhile, was casting an eye over the company. “It seems I am not the only one you wanted to know about,” he said to Kili. “You’ll be wanting to find my brother, then?”

“Yes,” Kili said, suddenly seeming a little hesitant. “Where he is?”

“Come with me, laddie,” Balin said.

----

But in the event, they did not go directly to see Dwalin. For when they were part-way there, Bofur caught up with the advance party and tapped Kili on the shoulder.

“Now, lad,” he said, “I’ve been watching you and I wanted to show you something.”

Kili paused in his steps and turned, focussing all his attention on Bofur. “Yes,” he said, “you show.”

Bofur nodded. “Well, then,” he said. “Now, when you’re hugging folk, you do it like this.” And he held his arms up, elbows pointing towards the ground, fingers to the ceiling, palms flat, as though rather awkwardly hugging an invisible dwarf. “Now, that’s all well and good, but there’s another way to do it, too, and that’s like this.” And here he turned his arms so that his elbows were outwards and his fingers pointing sideways. “A good dwarven hug, lad,” he said. “Can I show you?”

Kili nodded his assent, and Bofur hugged him with the first grip, and then shifted to the second. “You see?” he said.

“Yes,” Kili said, frowning. “Second way is better. Dwarf way.”

Bilbo felt rather put out by this, for of course hobbits hugged in this way too, for the most part, and it was only that Kili had invented his own odd little way of embracing without ever realising it. But he held his tongue, and waited to see what would happen next.

Kili turned to Fili. “I can practice?” he said.

“By all means,” Fili said, looking rather delighted at the prospect. Kili hugged him in the way he had been accustomed, and then -- after a moment’s fumbling -- altered his grip so that he was hugging in a more normal fashion. He shifted between the two twice more, never once letting go of Fili, who by this time was positively glowing with happiness. At last, though, he stepped back.

“Yes, I understand,” he said to Bofur. “Thank you Bofur tell me how hug. I hugged wrong.” And now he cast his eyes back at the company, clearly contemplating whether he needed to hug them all again now that he knew he had not been quite right.

“Not wrong,” Bilbo said hastily. “It is only that now you have learned a better way.”

Kili eyed him for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, better,” he said.

“Good,” said Bilbo. “Well, come on, then. We are almost there.”

Almost there they were indeed, and a few more steps brought them around a corner and into the great armoury, where Dwalin was taking careful account of the sharpness or otherwise of a number of wicked-looking swords. He raised his head when they entered, and his eyebrows drew down when he saw the size of the approaching company.

“Is it war?” he asked.

“Nothing quite so relaxing, brother,” Balin said with a smile. “But it is not my question to ask.” And he indicated Kili with a nod of his head.

By now, Kili was well-practised with his question. Nonetheless, he did not immediately raise his eyes from the ground, and it took a sharp nudge from Bilbo to send him stumbling a few steps forward.

“I can hug you?” he mumbled, still staring at the floor.

Dwalin’s frown deepened, and he reached a hand out as if to lift Kili’s chin, but arrested the motion part-way. “I can’t hear you, laddie,” he said.

Kili stood silent for another moment, but then he lifted his head, though he seemed to have some trouble fixing his eyes on Dwalin’s face. It seemed that his time in the Shire had led to a deterioration in his relationship with Dwalin in particular, and it hurt Bilbo’s heart to watch it.

“I can hug you?” he asked again, a little clearer now, though no louder.

“You want to hug me?” Dwalin asked, looking in surprise at Balin. But when his brother only smiled and shrugged, he turned back to Kili. “You have never hugged me before,” he said.

“No,” Kili replied. “I never.”

They stood like that for a moment, Dwalin staring at Kili and Kili looking everywhere but at Dwalin’s face. At last, Dwalin sighed.

“I don’t want to scare you, lad,” he said. “Maybe it would be better not.”

Bilbo thought, with a sinking heart, that Kili would not answer this. But in fact, he was mistaken, for, though apparently with some effort, Kili managed to look Dwalin in the eye.

“I will not scared,” he said.

Dwalin frowned at him, but whatever he saw in Kili’s face, it had him nodding.

“All right, then,” he said. “If you’re sure.” And he stepped forward, stooping and enfolding Kili into a hug that was far more gentle than any Bilbo had yet witnessed that day. Kili placed his hands flat on Dwalin’s back, but a moment later he seemed to recall Bofur’s instructions, and changed his grip so that he was hugging Dwalin in a more natural style. When Dwalin felt this alteration in Kili’s stance, he tightened his own embrace, and a moment later he closed his eyes and swept Kili into a great bear hug. This embrace lasted for long, quiet seconds, and Kili seemed quite content to stand still and be hugged -- and to hug back -- despite his nervousness of Dwalin. But at last, they stepped back from each other, and Dwalin cleared his throat with a growl.

“You’ve no cause to be scared of me,” he said. “I’ll not hurt you.”

Kili stared at him -- looking him now directly in the eye -- and nodded. “I know,” he said. “I am sorry. I try.”

Someone behind Bilbo coughed, and then Fili gently prodded Kili’s arm.

“Don’t you have something else to ask him?” he said.

“Yes,” Kili said. “You liked hug?”

“Aye, lad,” Dwalin said. “You always were a great one for hugs.”

Kili looked rather thoughtful at this piece of information, but a moment later he turned to Bilbo and nodded. Bilbo nodded back.

“Well, then,” he said. “I suppose there is only one more place to go.”

----

They found Thorin in the secret council chamber behind the throne. He was seated alone at the great table, and seemed deep in thought, frowning at something that no-one else could see. But when he saw Bilbo enter with Fili and Kili, his face softened.

“Hello, my nephews,” he said. “Mr. Baggins.”

“Hello, Thorin,” Bilbo said. A moment later, though, the rest of their entourage made their entrance, and Thorin’s frown returned. He rose from his seat and glowered down at Bilbo.

“You have come to ask me something,” he said. “I hope you do not plan to leave again so soon.”

“What?” Bilbo asked, but then, of course, he remembered that the last time he had come to Thorin in this room with such a deputation, it had been to ask -- almost to demand -- to take Fili and Kili away with him for over a year. “Oh, no,” he said hastily. “No, it is Kili who has a request for you, not me.”

Thorin’s face lightened a little at this -- though he went from scowling to sombre, and did not quite arrive at cheerful -- and he turned to his nephew. “Is that so?” he said. “And what would you ask of me, my nephew?”

But Kili seemed, at last, to have reached the end of his ability to communicate -- and in fact, Bilbo had expected this point to arrive rather sooner, for there had been a great many conversations with a great many dwarves, and, even though he was familiar with all of them, nonetheless he was still, at heart, a dwarf of few words. He did not speak, although it seemed he made half an attempt, and instead held his arms a little away from his sides, as if inviting a hug without asking for one. Thorin frowned at this, and looked to Bilbo. Bilbo nodded and indicated Kili with his head, and then made a gesture that approximated hugging. And this seemed to be enough for Thorin, for, with a quelling glare at the noisy group of dwarves who stood at Bilbo’s back -- and who were immediately silenced -- he stepped forward and drew Kili into his arms.

There had been many hugs that day, some more successful than others, but none could compare to the embrace that Thorin Oakenshield bestowed upon his nephew. Though Dwalin was both taller and broader, Thorin’s presence was enough to fill any room he entered, and so he seemed almost a giant, engulfing Kili in his arms without the least reservation, laying one hand on his back and the other on the back of his head. Many dwarves had closed their eyes, but Thorin buried his face in the crook of Kili’s neck, and clutched him as if his life depended on it. And Kili, too, seemed strongly affected, pressing his face into Thorin’s shoulder and wrapping his arms around Thorin’s back in the way that Bofur had shown him. The dwarves behind Bilbo murmured and coughed, and perhaps there were one or two sniffles (from the dust, no doubt), but they did not speak more than this, seeming as transfixed as Bilbo was himself. And our dear hobbit watched with a lump in his throat and a prickling behind his eyes as the dwarf king embraced the nephew he had lost for so very long, and had regained only to let go once again.

But no embrace can last forever, and at last, Thorin pulled away from Kili. But he did not leave go entirely, instead laying a hand on either side of Kili’s neck and pressed their foreheads together, so that their breaths were mingled and their eyes could see nothing but one another.

“Yes, my nephew,” Thorin murmured with a slow smile. “I will hug you.”

Kili did not smile back, but he kept his eyes closed and reached up to press his own palms to Thorin’s neck. And if there was no smile, there was certainly something -- an expression that Bilbo had come to interpret as an almost-smile -- and that, in itself, was remarkable.

Finally, Thorin stood back, and there came a great harrumphing and clearing of throats from the assembled dwarves, which resulted in another scowl from their king. But they held their ground, for no doubt they -- like Bilbo -- were eager to hear Kili’s next question, and the king’s response. Kili, though, seemed to need a little time to work up to it. Thorin did not push him, but only stood patiently, though it was clear he knew that there was a question to come.

At last, Kili nodded. “You liked hug?” he said.

Thorin’s mouth twitched. “There were many years when I thought -- when I knew that I would never hold you in my arms again,” he said.

Fili made a quiet noise beside Bilbo, but Kili only frowned.

“It mean you liked,” he said. “You liked, yes?”

“Yes, my nephew,” Thorin said. “More than I can say.”

Kili nodded. “I also liked,” he said quietly. And this, though it was no great speech or declaration of emotion, had Fili coughing harshly beside Bilbo and Thorin turning his face away before putting out an arm once more and drawing Kili in for a brief, tight hug. He laid a firm kiss on top of Kili’s head, and then let him go.

“I am glad,” he murmured.

Someone behind Bilbo -- it sounded like Bofur -- blew his nose noisily, and Thorin turned to the assembled company with a scowl.

“I’m sure you all have many tasks that lie undone,” he said.

Immediately, all the dwarves seemed to remember that indeed they had very important business elsewhere, and they scattered almost without a backwards glance, with the exception of Balin, Kili, Bilbo and Fili. This first turned to Kili and Bilbo and nodded his head.

“I think it’s about time for another lesson,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Kili nodded and followed as he turned away, and Fili went after him, but when Bilbo turned to follow them all, Thorin put a hand on his arm.

“Mr. Baggins,” he said. “A word, if you please.”

“Of course,” said Bilbo. “Although if you are going to shout at me, I’d very much prefer it if you warned me first.”

“Shout?” Thorin asked with a frown. “Why should I shout?”

Bilbo had half a mind to say because you shout an awful lot, and most of the time for no good reason, but he was both far too polite and far too sensible, and so he only shook his head. “Well, what is it, then?” he asked.

“Gandalf told me you were a burglar,” Thorin said, “but he never said you were a miracle worker. I never should have imagined that a year in your green little country could do such things, could bring my nephew so very far. And yet, here he stands, as I have seen him with my own eyes, and I can only think that I have a great deal to thank you for, Bilbo Baggins. A very great deal indeed.”

“Oh, well,” Bilbo said, feeling very pleased and also rather embarrassed, “it was nothing, you know. He did most of it himself.”

“And yet I doubt not that if he had been by himself, he would still be the shaking, cringing creature he was when you found him in the wildlands,” Thorin said.

Bilbo, who had seen a great deal of Kili’s strength of character in the last year, did not quite agree with this sentiment; yet he could not deny that Hobbiton and the constant, careful companionship of both Fili and himself had played a large part in helping Kili, and in any case, he was quite happy to take a compliment, so long as it was at least partly deserved.

“The important thing is that he is not,” he decided, “and we can all be very glad of that.”

“Very glad indeed,” Thorin agreed. “But now that you have once more returned my nephews to me, do you wish to return to the Shire? I will be pleased to provide you with an escort, but you will have to leave soon if you wish to arrive before winter.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, feeling a sudden pang of disappointment, for it had no occurred to him that Thorin might not want him in Erebor. “Well, I had been planning to stay until next spring, but of course--”

“Good,” Thorin said, with such firm conviction that Bilbo looked up at him in surprise. “You know you are always welcome here, Mr. Baggins.”

“It is rather a long time,” Bilbo said, feeling suddenly that it was not perhaps entirely polite to invite himself to Erebor for almost a year.

“If you were to stay all the years of your life, I would count it a great boon,” Thorin said, with great seriousness.

“Oh, well,” Bilbo said, once more finding himself both pleased and embarrassed. “Well, I’m sure I will not impose on you so very -- and in any case, Kili --” He cleared his throat and managed to pull himself together (though only barely). “Thank you for the invitation,” he said, “and I will certainly stay, for this winter, at least. And now, I must be going -- I am sure Balin is itching to tell me off for forgetting my vocative endings again, and it would not do to keep him waiting.”

“Certainly not,” Thorin said, gravely. “Goodbye, Mr. Baggins.”

“Goodbye,” Bilbo squeaked, and hurried away.

----

It was much later in the same day when Bilbo entered Fili and Kili’s sitting room to find them both seated near the fire, Fili sharpening a knife and Kili engaged in studying the new pictures that Ori had drawn over the year they had been away. They both looked up when he entered.

“Good evening, you two,” he said, seating himself on Kili’s left. “It has been a busy day, and no mistake.”

Fili made a noise of agreement and went back to his knife, but Kili kept on staring at Bilbo, until at last Bilbo turned in his seat to face him.

“Something you wanted to ask me, my lad?” he asked.

“All dwarfs liked hugs,” Kili said. “You said dwarfs not like hugs, but all dwarfs liked.”

Fili stopped sharpening his knife at this and looked up with a frown. “Did you really say that, Bilbo?” he asked.

“Ah, well,” Bilbo said, “that is not quite what I said, as we have discussed before.” He patted Kili’s knee. “It is more complicated than that, you see. It does not only depend on the person themselves, but also the person that they are hugging. I rather think that all the dwarves you hugged today perhaps do not like hugs in general, but they do like hugging you.” And here he pointed at Kili, almost prodding him in the chest.

Kili frowned at this, and Bilbo expected another question -- perhaps a whole string of them -- but in fact, after a moment he merely nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “I understand.”

Bilbo was not completely sure that Kili really did understand, but he was tired and had no wish to push the matter. Instead, he turned to something that interested him rather more. “And what about you?” he said. “You have hugged many dwarves now, not to mention a number of hobbits. Have you decided yet if you like hugs or not?”

Fili set his knife down at this, and gave his full attention to the conversation. Kili, though, seemed not quite ready to answer this question; he thought about it for some time, and when at last he spoke, it was to say something that Bilbo had not expected at all.

“It is complicated,” he said.

“Is it, indeed?” Bilbo asked, not quite managing to smother a delighted smile -- for he had never heard Kili use this word before, and had certainly never taught it to him.

“Yes,” Kili said. “It is not I like, not I unlike.”

“Then what is it, my brother?” Fili asked, leaning forward to touch Kili’s arm.

Kili glanced at him. “It is -- it is like with dwarfs,” he said. “I like hug of dwarf -- of, of dwarf who is there when Fili stole me from orcs.” Fili grimaced at this description of what had occurred, but Kili was looking into the fire and did not see the expression. “Only these dwarfs,” he said. “These dwarfs and -- and mother. I not think I like hugs from any other. Only these.”

Bilbo was inwardly crowing at this answer, for although it was not unheard of for Kili to so clearly and coherently express his likes and dislikes, still it was rare indeed, and to be celebrated. But Fili tapped him on the knee.

“That is all?” he said. “You are not forgetting anyone?”

Kili frowned at him, and then his eyes widened.

“Hobbit!” he said, and turned quickly to Bilbo. “I not forgot hobbit, only it is clear. It is clear, like hugs from hobbit. Yes.” And, without warning, he suddenly hugged Bilbo, holding him tight to his chest and stroking his hair. Bilbo was almost too surprised to react, but managed to wrap his arms around Kili for a moment or two before the little dwarf set him back in his chair.

“Yes,” he said. “I not forgot hobbit. Only it is clear.”

“Well, it is certainly clear now,” Bilbo said, straightening his waistcoat and aware that he was smiling broadly but unable to do anything about it. “So you mean, then, that you only like hugs from your friends and the people you love. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes,” said Kili. “Friends only.” He thought for a moment. “Hugs are good from friends.”

“Well, it is lucky you have so many of them, then,” Bilbo said. “You will never be short of hugs.”

“Yes, lucky,” Kili said. “Yes, I am lucky. I am more very lucky.” And he turned to Fili and hugged him, too, just as precipitously as he had hugged Bilbo. Fili, though, seemed more prepared, and laughed as he reciprocated. But when Kili brushed his lips against Fili’s temple, his laughter stopped, to be replaced by a look of stunned wonder. The lightest of kisses it might have been, but a kiss it nevertheless was, undeniably, and when Kili let go of him Fili raised a hand to his head in a gesture so similar to the one Kili had made when he had been kissed for the first time that Bilbo could not help but laugh himself.

“Thank you Fili steal me from orcs,” Kili said, and then turned to Bilbo with an expression of great solemnity. “I am most luckiest dwarf.”

“No, my brother,” Fili said hoarsely, grasping Kili by the forearm. “It is I who am the luckiest.”

“Oh! This again,” said Bilbo. “Really, there is no need for the two of you to always be competing. But Kili, listen: when you thank someone for something, you say thank you for doing this, not thank you do this. Do you understand?”

Kili asked him to repeat himself, and Bilbo did so, and so the evening began to wind its cosy way onwards. Fili kept touching his fingers to the place were Kili had kissed him, and Kili was very solemn and bright-eyed all evening, and everything was just as it should be.

And secretly, Bilbo rather thought that he was the luckiest one of all.

Chapter Text

Kili stared at the mountains in the distance. They weren’t the same ones. Were they? They weren’t the -- the ones he’d seen before. He’d lived there, for a long time. In those other mountains. He’d lived there, with Fili and his mother. They weren’t the same ones. He remembered what the other ones looked like. They weren’t the same.

Were they?

Across the camp, Urukmadh stood up. Kili dropped his eyes from the mountains, dropped his head. He stared at the withered grass until it blurred. Winter. How long had he been with the orcs? He’d been taken in the summer. This year? Or last year? Had there been another summer since? There had been hot days, definitely. Days when it was hard to sleep because it was so hot. But were they all part of the same summer, or had there been another one?

He thought he should probably know. It wasn’t normal, to forget things like that. He definitely wouldn’t have forgotten it before. When he’d lived in the -- in those mountains. Those mountains, with Fili and mother and -- and uncle. And uncle--

Uncle, uncle -- he frowned, then closed his eyes against the spike of pain in his head. Uncle. Uncle. Dark hair, deep voice, tall. Uncle was going to come and find him. All he had to do was wait, was stay alive until Uncle came. He just had to stay alive. Uncle had always kept him and Fili safe, always. Uncle, uncle --

Uncle what?

He swallowed. He knew Uncle had a name. But what was it? It was -- it was -- something with. With an s? Maybe? He considered a number of syllables beginning with s, but none of them felt right.

Maybe there had been a third summer.

No, surely not. Surely he could not have lost track of time so thoroughly as to not know whether he’d been with the orcs for half a year or almost three. Surely not.

But he could not remember his uncle’s name.

Urukmadh laughed at something that Ashtzau said. A moment later he was stalking towards the tree where Kili sat. Kili hunched down, trying to seem as small as possible. He braced himself. He just had to stay alive until Uncle came with Fili. Just stay alive.

A moment later, Urukmadh’s iron-shod foot caught him in the side of the head.

Later, when the orcs were sleeping, he stared at the mountains again. They slipped in and out of focus, dancing in the early morning light. They were not the same.

Were they?

----

Sometimes, when all was quiet -- in the early morning, when the sky was still a deep blue and the sun not yet risen, or late evening, when the orcs were yet to wake though dusk had fallen -- Kili thought he heard the stars singing to him. He watched them, in the depths of night, when he could, when no-one was looking at him. High, cold, distant. Not warm like the sun, not soft like the darkness. But still, sometimes they sang.

The words, he didn’t know the words. The language. They didn’t sing in the language of orcs, foul and cracking against his teeth and tongue, nor yet in the voice of men, which he did not speak any more for fear of punishment. He thought he had once known another language, too, but if so any fragment of it was long gone. A dwarf language, perhaps? Did the dwarves have a language of their own?

He resolved himself to ask Fili, if he dreamed of him again. Fili knew everything there was to know about dwarves. Maybe Fili even knew what language the stars sang in.

Before he fell asleep, he settled himself, hands on knees, eyes closed. Fili, he thought. What do you look like? You have yellow hair, and a broad nose. You have braids and the first hairs of a beard. Your eyes are -- are blue. Blue? He paused, momentary panic gripping his stomach, as his carefully constructed image refused to open its eyes. Blue, surely. He considered other colours. Brown, maybe? Yellow? No, no -- dwarves do not have yellow eyes. Do they?

But no: blue. Fili opened his eyes, and there they were: blue. Yes. He should not have forgotten such a thing. How could he dream about Fili if he did not remember what he looked like.

He concentrated, then, watching the image of Fili until he fell asleep. Often, these rituals brought no luck: he dreamed of orcs, of pain and filth, and sleep was no different from waking. But this day, he was lucky. No sooner did he sink into sleep, but Fili was there, taking him by the hand.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” Fili said to him. He knew Fili said the words, but he didn’t hear the voice. He’d forgotten the voice long ago.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t find you.”

“One day, I’ll find you,” Fili said. “I promised, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” he said. “I know you will. I’m waiting. I’ll keep waiting.”

“Good,” said Fili. “You promised me you’d stay alive.”

“Sometimes I don’t want to,” he said.

“But you promised me you would,” said Fili. His mouth turned down and his hand gripped tighter on Kili’s. “You promised.”

“I will,” Kili said. “I’m sorry. I will. I promise.” He paused. “Do the dwarves have a language? he asked.”

Fili laughed. “Of course they do,” he said. “Doesn’t everyone have a language?”

“What about the stars?” he asked. “I hear them singing sometimes.”

In his dream, then, there were stars overhead. He looked up at them, sideways, as if he was really looking at something in the distance, even though he thought Fili probably wouldn’t mind if he looked at the sky. They were singing, cold and clear.

“That’s not the stars,” Fili said. “That’s mother. She’s singing to you.”

He frowned. “Mother?” he said. “Who is mother?”

Fili took him by the shoulders and turned him around. There was someone standing far away under the stars. Too far away for him to see them well.

“That’s mother,” said Fili. “She’s been waiting for you.”

He stared at the figure, far away under the starry sky. But she did not come any closer, and when he turned to ask Fili about her again, he was gone.

When he woke, he wondered about mother. But then the orcs woke up, and he forgot to think about her any more.

----

There were pictures in the dark.

He kept his head down, eyes down, always down. But when the orcs weren’t looking, he looked at the pictures. Dwarves they were, in the pictures. And dwarf-writing, sharp and angular. He wants to touch it, trace it. It is the first time in years he’s seen anything that belongs to dwarves.

He could not, of course. Could not touch, could barely look. Only occasional glances from the corners of his eyes. Still, it was enough to see some things: dwarves building, dwarves smithing, dwarves fighting. Here, deep in the mountains, there had once been dwarves.

But which mountains are they, then? He’s heard the orcs talking about them, but he didn’t recognise any names. But he doesn’t know the orcish names for dwarvish kingdoms. It could be anywhere. Even -- even Erebor.

No. No, perhaps he had never laid eyes on Erebor, but he knew that it was one mountain, alone. This was a range, towering and grim against the night sky when they at last slipped through a hidden door. One of the other places, then. The one where the battle had happened, or the place where the cold-drake killed -- someone. The king. Or -- or even the mountains where he’d lived, a long time ago. He had lived in a house -- he thought, he thought he remembered that -- but someone (who?) had told him a story once about dwarves living in the mountains themselves, years before. Is that where they are now?

When the orcs are asleep, he stares at the pictures, trying to read the words underneath. He knows he knew these letters, once; now, though, they blur and intertwine before his eyes. He blinks and looks away. But he knows the letters. He is sure of it.

He checks to make sure no-one is watching, then, with the slightest of movements, he draws a letter in the dust beside him. What letter is it? An F, he decides. Of course, an F. The first letter of Fili’s name. And next comes--

Next comes--

But he did not know what came next. He knew there were four letters. But he only knew the first one. He stared down at it, bile in his throat. He had been trying to remember Fili. He had been trying. But now he had forgotten how to write his name.

Fear twists within him, and he shuts his eyes tight. What do you look like? What do you look like? He thinks once there was a time when he only spoke to Fili in dreams. Now, it is not the same. Dreams are only darkness, blood and pain. Dreams are like waking. Fili comes to him in a different place.

Yellow hair, Fili has. Braids. A broad nose. And his eyes are black, or brown, or blue. Not yellow. His eyes are not yellow.

He closed his eyes. Concentrated. It was too long since he’d last seen Fili. Too long. And now -- what colour were his eyes? He’d left it too long. He was starting to forget. No, no. He could not forget Fili. He could not.

And there, in the darkness behind his eyelids, Fili smiles at him. His features waver on his face. Eyes slip from blue to black and back again. But not yellow.

Where’ve you been? Fili asked. I’ve been waiting.

In the forest, he says. It was a long way. I didn’t see you.

You didn’t call me, Fili says. I would’ve come.

I forgot, he says. Sometimes I forget how.

Fili’s smile disappears. I told you not to forget me, he says. I told you.

I’m sorry, he says. Fili cuffs him around the head, and he cringes. But there’s no bite to it. Fili never hurts him badly. And anyway, Fili isn’t real, and neither is the pain.

Don’t do it again, Fili says. Now. What have you forgotten?

Your -- your eyes, he says. What colour are they? I know, really, I just don’t want to forget.

Brown, Fili says.

He looks closer and sees they are brown, after all. He doesn’t know why he forgot that.

What else? Fili asked.

I can’t remember how to write your name, he says. Only the first letter. I’ve forgotten the rest. I’m sorry, I know I’m stupid. Please. How do I write it?

It’s easy, Fili said. He’s smiling again now. It’s just like your name.

He frowns. I don’t have a name, he says.

Don’t you? asks Fili.

No, he said. He considered it. Something tugged in his brain. But -- no. No. I’m a snaga, he said. I don’t have a name.

Oh, says Fili. He doesn’t sound very interested any more. I thought you did.

Will you show me how to write your name? he asked. So I don’t forget it all.

That’s not what you need to remember, Fili said. What do you need to remember?

Not to -- not to die, he says. I need to remember not to die until you can find me.

That’s right, Fili said. That’s the only thing that matters.

What if you don’t find me? he asks. You’re not even real.

Fili cuffs him again, shoves him. It hurts more this time. He should not have said that out loud.

Of course I’m real, Fili said. And I’ll find you. Don’t die until I find you.

What about after you find me? he asks. Can I die then?

Fili looks as though he’s never considered this. I don’t know, he says. Probably. It’s not important.

He nods. Are you coming soon? he asks.

Very soon now, says Fili. Just don’t forget.

Don’t forget.

He opens his eyes to the darkness. The orcs are sleeping all around. Somewhere outside the mountain, the sun is up. But here, there is nothing but darkness. Darkness, and pictures, and the marks underneath them. He knew how to read them, once. Now, he can only remember one.

I won’t forget, he whispered to himself. He looked around. Looked at each orc. All sleeping. Sleeping truly, not pretending. There was nothing nearby, no sharp stones or thorns. So he gnawed his thumbnail into a point. Where would be the best place? Somewhere he could see, but the orcs would not notice. At last, he settled for the inside of his left elbow. His skin was thin, there, thinner than elsewhere. But still it took time, the point of his thumbnail too blunt to make clean, precise lines like the ones beneath the pictures. He began to despair, for it seemed the whole would be nothing but a bloody mess and no use to him at all.

But at last, it is done. He raises his elbow to his mouth and licks the wound, and for a moment, before the blood wells up again, the shape is clear: F.

Fili.

He will not forget.

----

He almost drowns in the summer. It’s not the first time, and he’s sure it won’t be the last. But it’s the first time he lets it happen.

He doesn’t remember much about it, afterwards. He’s up to his chest in the river, and then there is a hand on his head, forcing him down, a guttural laugh before all he can hear is the silence of water and the blood beating in his ears. He struggles. And then he stops. He opens his mouth. Lets the water in. It’s dark, down there. Quiet. Peaceful.

Why not? he thinks. Why not?

When he next becomes aware, his chest feels like it is cracked open. Forked-Tongue is laughing somewhere above him, kicking him in the back again and again. He coughs, spits out water. Curls around himself.

He hears the other orcs laughing. That worked, then, Hang-Foot says. Kick it again, just to make sure.

Forked-Tongue’s foot connects with his stomach. He vomits, rolling as he does so, aware that if any of it splashes on Forked-Tongue he will have a great deal more to worry about than a bruised back and stomach and an aching chest. He’s lucky: Forked-Tongue isn’t in the mood for more. He leaves him lying in the mud. And that’s when he realises he is alive.

Why?

He does not know. He lived, even though he should have died. A dread grows in his stomach. He should have died. He tried to let himself die. It is the one thing he is not permitted to do, not ever. He did not think. He should have thought.

When he closes his eyes, Fili is there. He does not have to conjure him: he is there already, a vague, shadowy shape. Shadowy he may be, but his fists are solid enough. One of them catches him in the cheek, and he makes himself small, tells himself the pain is not real.

You promised, Fili says. He is angry, so angry. You promised not to die.

I didn’t die, he says. I’m not dead.

Fili grabs him by the shirt, hauls him up. His shadowy face is only inches away. He smells rotten, like putrefying flesh.

Only because I wouldn’t let you, he hisses. If you had your way, you’d be dead.

Fili drops him to the ground, kicks him once in the chest. It is like a hammer blow. (It is not real.)

I’m sorry, he says. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Never, never.

Fili sits down beside him. He brushes his hair away from his face. He thinks once he used to want Fili to touch him. He can’t remember why.

Make sure you don’t, Fili says. He’s not angry any more. Promise me.

I promise, he says. I promise.

When he opens his eyes, he looks at the sign on his arm. F. So he will not forget. So he will remember Fili, and his promise, and the one thing he is not allowed to do.

He wonders if maybe it would be better to forget.

----

He opens his eyes. Head is spinning, melting. Eyes blur. Blood in mouth. He must -- he must --

Sit up. He must sit up.

He pushes himself up from ground. Ribs ache, sharp. Not broken. But hurt, ribs will hurt for days, weeks. Blood in mouth is from cheek. He has bitten it inside. At least not tongue. New Big Orc likes to be answered. He has learned this already.

New Big Orc laughs. He blinks until eyes focus. New Big Orc is pointing at him. Looking at other orcs.

This one is strong, new Big Orc says.

Takes a kicking, Forked-Tongue says. Old Big Orc used to let us do it. He licks his lips. Always greedy, Forked-Tongue.

New Big Orc snarls at him. You want old Big Orc, I can send you to meet him, he says. You want that?

Forked-Tongue lowers his eyes, shakes his head. New Big Orc stalks over to him. Kicks him again, same place in ribs. He falls. Pushes himself back up.

My snaga, new Big Orc says. Got it?

Orcs mumble. They understand. So does he. New Big Orc is jealous. Doesn’t like to share. Good for him, maybe. Or bad. Jealous Big Orcs don’t last. Other orcs get angry. Bored. Bored orcs are never good.

New Big Orc goes back to fire. He sits. Other snaga is there. Cowering. New Big Orc had snaga, band of five when he killed old Big Orc. Now he has two snagas, band of eight. Other snaga is man. Young, he thinks. Stupid, too. Doesn’t understand orc-tongue well.

He likes to do that, other snaga whispers. The leader. He’ll beat you for anything if you’re not careful.

He pretends he does not understand. Other snaga does not know he understands man-language. Orcs do not know, either. Better that way. Orcs would not like it. Other snaga is stupid. Keeps speaking man-language. Saying obvious things. Should shut up.

Other snaga does shut up. But after orcs are sleeping, he talks again. Whispers, very quiet. Maybe not even talking to him. But he hears. He understands. Does not know why. Does not know how he can understand man-language. How does he know it? He does not know. It is in his mind. That is all.

Other snaga talks about people. Other men. Some words he does not know. Men who will come and find other snaga. Who will kill orcs, take other snaga back with them. Men who want to be with other snaga enough to come and find him.

Other snaga is very stupid.

He sits. Keeps head down. Does not reply. Hopes orcs do not hear. Wishes he was sitting further away from other snaga. But cannot move now. Does not want to wake orcs.

Shut up, he says at last. He says it in orc-tongue. Better not to speak man-language. And anyway, words are too soft. Mouth is hard, cannot make these sounds.

Other snaga stares at him. So you aren’t deaf, he says. What’s your name? Is there anyone coming for you?

He forgets himself. Too amazed to stop himself staring. From speaking. No-one’s coming, he says. Not for me. Not for you. Your people are dead. Orcs sucked marrow from their bones. Better just forget them.

Other snaga does not understand. Does not understand orc-tongue, but even if he spoke in man-language, still would not understand. New snaga, must be. Only weeks, months. He has seen this, many times. New snagas do not know. Do not understand that they should forget. Snaga does not have people to come for him. Snaga is nothing. Snaga has no-one.

Other snaga is frightened, he thinks. Frightened to hear orc-tongue. He falls silent. At last, falls asleep.

He does not sleep. Arm itches. He rolls up sleeve. Scar is fading again. He finds sharp stone. Carves sign again. F, he knows it is F. F means Fili. He does not know what Fili means. Only knows he must remember it. Must remember it, and must not die.

He frowns. Blood drips down his arm. He said to other snaga, should forget. But he remembers. Remembers this word. It is not man-language word. But it is not orc-tongue word. Where did word come from? He does not know.

Maybe it would be better to forget. Forget Fili. He presses fingers over wound. Arm is slick with blood. He does not know how many times he has carved it. Scar always fades.

Scar always fades. But sign can be carved again. No. No. He cannot forget. Must not forget. This is what sign means: he must not forget.

Fili. And he will not die.

----

He licks wound. Keeps it clean. When orcs cannot see. When orcs do not look. And other snaga does not learn to be quiet. Keeps talking, talking. He does not reply. But other snaga talks. Talks about men who will come for him. Does not learn. Does not learn to forget.

Fourth day with new Big Orc, other snaga learns. Talks too much, too loud. Half-hand is on watch. Hears him. Comes over. Kicks other snaga. Kicks him, too. Growls.

New Big Orc wakes. Angry with Half-hand. Half-hand explains: snagas were talking. Then new Big Orc angry with them.

What were you talking about, filth? he says. Grabs him by the chain. Hauls him so he’s dangling. Breath cannot come through throat. He scrabbles at collar. No use. No use.

Let him go, please, other snaga says. We weren’t doing anything, we were just talking.

New Big Orc drops him. Turns to other snaga. He curls around himself. Tries not to listen. All the same. Sound of bone breaking is loud.

New Big Orc does not kill other snaga. But jaw is broken. Eye is hanging from socket. New Big Orc pulls out eye. Eats it. Other snaga groans. Even now, cannot be quiet. Other snaga will not last much longer. He hopes death will be quick.

Then new Big Orc turns to him. Picks him up by wrist. He lets himself dangle, limp. Braces himself.

But new Big Orc stops. Looks at something on arm. What’s that? he asks.

He looks. It is sign. Sign he carved in arm. No orc has ever noticed sign before. But sign is bleeding again. New Big Orc ripped it open by picking him up. Now he is looking at blood.

Cut it, he says. Thorns in woods. He keeps eyes on ground.

New Big Orc lifts him higher. Stares at arm. Close, now. He can smell breath. Stench of rotting flesh. Warm, foetid. Arm feels like it will tear from socket. But it is not worst. Worst is that new Big Orc has seen sign.

That’s no cut, new Big Orc says. It is mark. Big Orc’s mark.

Stomach lurches. No, no, he says. Holds up other arm. Big Orcs’ marks are here.

New Big Orc snarls. Licks his arm. Looks closer.

It is khozd mark, new Big Orc says. He turns to other orcs, shaking him so he swings by the wrist. This snaga has khozd mark on it. Your old Big Orc was too soft. Let snaga have khozd mark.

Orcs jeer. Let’s kill it, says one. Not one from old band. He does not know name. I’m hungry, orc says.

New Big Orc isn’t listening. He lifts hand, lifts and lifts until he is dangling three feet from ground. His face is level with new Big Orc’s face. He keeps eyes down, hangs limp. He is obedient. He is good snaga.

You want khozd mark, filth? new Big Orc says.

No, he says. No, only want your mark. Only your mark. Cut myself. Don’t want khozd mark.

New Big Orc laughs. Laugh is not good laugh. Does not mean good things.

Well, let’s get rid of it, then, new Big Orc says. Drops him to the ground. He lands badly, falls. New Big Orc grabs wrist again, drags him across camp. He does not struggle, does not try to stand. Lets himself be dragged.

New Big Orc drags him to fire. Pulls out knife. Thrusts knife into fire. Other orcs watching, greedy faces in firelight. Behind him, other snaga groans. Still does not know when to shut up.

Then new Big Orc pulls knife out of fire. Grabs his arm. Presses knife to inside of elbow, over sign. He is ready, ready for this, but pain is still shocking. New Big Orc laughs somewhere above him. Shoves him to ground.

I’ll give you khozd mark, new Big Orc says. Rips his shirt. Kicks him until he rolls over, face-down. Face is buried in mud. Head rings with pain. He should brace himself, prepare. But he is dizzy, half-lost. Only realises when chest starts to ache that nose, mouth are plugged with mud. He tilts head. Just enough to breathe. Not enough so that new Big Orc can see his eyes.

New Big Orc sits on his back. Shirt is gone now. He does not know where. He is ready. But he is surprised. Solid, hard line across back, three, four inches long, over left shoulder-blade. First, only line. Then pain. Feeling of blood rolling down back. New Big Orc has cut into back with knife. He was not expecting it.

Then: more cuts. First one up-and-down, next sloping, short. Two more, sloping, long, further to right. Back is burning, arm is burning. Dizziness is worse. He hears orcs laughing, far away. New Big Orc laughing. Pain moves across back. Left to right. Short lines, long lines. Sounds disappear. It is like drowning. But he does not drown. Only waits. Breathes. Nothing else is important. He just breathes. Breathes, breathes. Does not die.

----

He repairs shirt, but does not wear it. Every movement rips khozd marks on back open. He does not want to put on shirt, does not want it to stick to khozd marks. So he does not wear it.

New Big Orc likes it. Likes to see marks, see blood when they tear. Khozd shrakhun, he says. Licks his back. Khozd blood is better, he says. Tastes of iron.

He does not think about khozd marks. Thinks about burn. Burn inside elbow. Sign is gone, now. Nothing but weeping sore. When sore heals, there will be red mark. Then white. And sign will be gone. He cannot make sign again.

He sits, while orcs sleep. Tries to remember sign. He thinks he knows it. Could write it in dust, so he does not forget. But no. He cannot write it. If new Big Orc sees, he will die. And he cannot die. It is what sign means, what Fili means. He cannot die.

Stomach twists, hot, poisonous. He does not understand why he cannot die. He wants to find Fili, whatever it is, and break it. Smash it, grind it until it is nothing. He wants to stand up, go to new Big Orc where he sleeps, kick him in the face. Wait for teeth, for knives. Wait for death.

But he does not do these things. He cannot do these things. He does not know what Fili is. Only knows that he cannot die. He must survive. It is only thing. Only thing that is his.

He presses fingers against sore on elbow. Fili was there. Now it is gone. But he still knows what it means. He will not forget.

----

There are pictures in dark.

He’s seen them before -- or seen others that look same. Pictures are men, short and wide, all have beards. Under pictures are marks. Marks are pointed, straight. He has seen before, other time, inside mountain. Only ever inside mountain. Men put marks here to show it is inside mountain. It is strange. Surely men know it is inside mountain? Do not need marks to show this. But he does not understand men. Only knows what marks mean.

Arm itches. He does not scratch. Sits. Still, still. Waits. Waits for orcs to sleep. Does not look at pictures, does not scratch arm. Waits. Waits.

When orcs sleep, he looks at pictures. Wants to go closer. See faces of men. Wants to touch, trace marks, feel what faces are like. Fingers twitch. But he can only look. So he looks. Head only half up. If orc wakes, he can look at floor. Orcs will not know he looked at pictures.

Arm itches. Sleeve is ripped. Underneath is burn mark. Old, now. Years, at least two. But itches. Aches. Why? Mark is old. Should not itch any more.

Burn is strange. Looks like where Big Orc’s mark is burned away. But Big Orcs’ marks are not there, inside left elbow. They are on right arm, higher up. Three. Two old ones, burned away like mark inside elbow, and current Big Orc’s mark at bottom. But here is mark inside elbow. Aching. He has not thought about mark before. Does not remember where it came from.

He thinks. Remembers first Big Orc. Remembers second Big Orc. And now Big Orc is third. Does not remember others. Were there others? He does not know. But -- no. Would he forget, forget Big Orc?

No.

Maybe.

He stares at burn mark through sleeve. What was there?

He raises head halfway. Looks at pictures. Marks under pictures. He wonders what marks are for. Wonders what men who made pictures were like. All dead now. But still there, in pictures. Maybe it is what pictures are for. So nobody forgets.

Useless. Men do not live here now. Only orcs inside mountain. Men are all dead, all forgotten. Pictures mean nothing.

Burn mark aches. He frowns at it. What was there?

It does not matter. Maybe something, maybe nothing. But it is gone now. Nothing there now but white scar. Years old. Nothing has been there for years. Maybe nothing was ever there at all. He does not remember.

----

He does not remember.

But he does not die.

Chapter Text

It was an unseasonably warm morning in early January when Bilbo opened his door to find Esmeralda on the other side, out of breath and with huge, shining eyes.

“Mr. Kili!” she cried -- or rather, shrieked might be a better word, for it was clear she was trying to make herself heard throughout the entire hobbit hole. “Where are you? You must come and see! It’s important!”

Now, this announcement might have rather troubled Bilbo, except that the little hobbitling was so clearly delighted, and so he was sure that nothing could be seriously wrong. Indeed, immediately afterwards, she caught her breath and curtseyed to Bilbo.

“Hello, Mr. Bilbo,” she said, at a more pleasant volume, though still with great agitation. “You can come too, if you like.”

“I certainly do like!” Bilbo said. “But come in -- you cannot talk to Mr. Kili from there. And what is it that you want us to see?”

“It’s a secret,” said Esmeralda in a loud whisper, and then jumped up and down with glee when she saw Kili on his feet and looking rather uncertainly towards the door. “Mr. Kili!” she cried, and raced across the room to throw her arms around his leg. “Will you come and see? Will you?”

“Calm down, my dear,” Bilbo said. “You will make yourself ill.”

Kili patted her on the head. “What see?” he asked.

“It’s a secret!” Esmeralda said again. “Come on, hurry!”

“Hurry?” asked Fili, entering the room from the kitchen. “Are we hurrying? Where? Why?”

“It’s a secret,” Bilbo and Esmeralda chorused.

“Ah! A secret,” Fili said, looking pleased. “I do enjoy a good secret. But you will have to let go of my brother’s leg if he is to get ready to go out, Esme.”

Esmeralda reluctantly did so, and then hopped impatiently from one leg to the other as the three of them prepared for their little outing. She was a good little hobbitling, though, and she did not whine or beg them to hurry, though it was clear she wanted to. At last, Bilbo declared that they were ready, and she clapped her hands together in excitement and seized Kili by the hand.

“Come on, then!” she said, tugging him towards the door. “Come on, Mr. Kili, come on!”

Kili, looking rather bemused, followed her without demur, and Fili and Bilbo brought up the rear, both of them most entertained by the antics of the little hobbitling. Despite her short legs, it was hard to keep up with her as she skipped down the hill and over the bridge, towing Kili behind her as she went. As they climbed the opposite bank of the river, it became clear that she was making for her own hobbit hole. But when they arrived there, she did not go in, but instead turned aside at the last moment and went to a strange low, slatted wooden box that sat upon the greensward.

“Here!” she said, letting go of Kili’s hand and dropping to her knees. She lifted the lid of the box and peered inside, then looked up at Kili with an enormous, beaming smile. “Look, Mr. Kili!”

Kili knelt down beside her and looked into the box, and Bilbo and Fili did likewise, despite not having been specifically invited, for of course they were both very eager to learn what the secret was. And what a secret it was! For inside the box were four tiny rabbits, all different colours, nibbling peacefully on the grass. They seemed quite tame, and not in the least perturbed by being stared at by two dwarves and two hobbits. Indeed, when Esmeralda stuck her hand inside the box, one of them hopped over to investigate it.

“Bunnies!” announced Esmeralda, at ear-splitting volume. “Mr. Kili, bunnies!”

Kili carefully inspected the box and its contents and then looked at Esmeralda with a puzzled frown. “They are rabbits,” he said.

“Bunny rabbits,” Esmeralda said. “My uncle brought them!”

Kili nodded, but he did not seem particularly enlightened. He looked up at Bilbo and Fili. “They are bunny rabbits,” he said, rather as though he was asking for confirmation.

“They are,” Fili said. He was smiling broadly and seemed to be greatly enjoying himself. “Babies, unless rabbits are smaller in the Shire, too.”

“Yes, they’re little babies,” Esmeralda said. “Do you want one, Mr. Kili?”

Kili looked rather doubtful. “It is for eat?” he said. “They are very small.”

Esmeralda gave a horrified gasp. “You can’t eat them,” she said. “They’re pets!”

“A pet is like an animal that is kept by a person,” Bilbo supplied before Kili could ask. “Usually a dog, but sometimes cats or rabbits or other things.”

Kili looked mystified by this explanation. “Kept?” he said. “Why kept? Not for food?”

“No, just for -- companionship, I suppose,” said Bilbo.

“They’re for stroking and cuddling,” Esmeralda announced. She reached in and picked up one of the baby rabbits. “Stroking, see?” she said, running her little hand across the rabbit’s fur. “They’re so soft!” She hugged the rabbit to herself. “It’s nice, that’s why they’re pets.”

Kili stared at her, and then looked back at Bilbo and Fili. “I not understand,” he said.

“Why don’t you try?” Esmeralda said holding the little rabbit out towards him. It was remarkably calm, and seemed very content to be handled. “She’s so soft,” Esmeralda said again.

Kili hesitated, then reached out a hand and brushed the tips of his fingers very lightly over the rabbit’s fur. He paused for a moment, eyes suddenly rather wide, and then pressed his fingers more firmly into the fur at the nape of the rabbit’s neck.

“Isn’t she soft?” Esmeralda asked.

“Yes,” Kili whispered, staring at the little rabbit as if he had never seen one before. “Soft.”

“Why don’t you hold her, my brother?” Fili asked. “Then you can stroke her more easily.”

Kili glanced at him, still looking quite amazed, then looked back at Esmeralda. “I can hold?” he asked, still almost whispering.

“Mama says you have to be very careful,” Esmeralda said. “They’re only little babies, and we need to look after them.”

“Yes, I understand,” Kili said. Esmeralda beamed at him and then passed the rabbit into his hands. The creature was small enough that he could easily have held it in one hand, but he cupped it gingerly in both and then drew his hands into his chest and cradled the rabbit in one arm, running the other hand gently across its back.

“Why don’t you do this?” Esmeralda said, and, lifting a second rabbit from the wooden hutch, she pressed it to her cheek. “It’s nice.”

Kili stared at her and then, with infinite care, lifted his own rabbit up to his face and pressed his nose and cheek carefully into its fur. The rabbit squirmed a little and butted its little head against his nose, and Kili closed his eyes, seeming suddenly rather overwhelmed. Bilbo found himself wondering whether Kili had ever felt something as soft as a baby rabbit’s fur before. He thought of Kili’s habit of touching everything, as if somehow he understood objects better when he could feel them under his fingers, and wondered what it must be like for someone so tactile to spend so many years among the orcs, where there could surely be nothing soft to touch or stroke.

“See?” Esmeralda said. “Cuddles are nice.”

“Nice,” Kili whispered, lowering the rabbit from his face and staring down at it as it burrowed happily into the crook of his elbow. “It is soft.”

Bilbo felt a swelling in his chest, and he glanced at Fili to see he was watching his brother with a rather stupid-looking smile. There was such great affection in his face that Bilbo had to look away for fear his heart would grow so large that it would block his throat and cause him to perish from sentimentality. Esmeralda, meanwhile, had tucked the second rabbit it into Kili’s arms beside the first, and the two had snuggled up against one another in an almost indistinguishable ball of fluff. Kili was stroking them both, staring down at them with an expression of great wonder on his face.

“Do you understand now why we don’t eat them?” Bilbo asked.

Kili glanced up at him and opened his mouth, but did not speak. He nodded, looking rather dumbfounded.

“They are pets,” he managed at last. “They are more soft.”

Esmeralda giggled, reaching into the wooden box to pet one of the other rabbits. “It was a nice surprise, wasn’t it, Mr. Bilbo?” she said.

Bilbo looked from Kili, deeply absorbed once more in his furry burden, to Fili, watching his brother as if he wished to do nothing else for the rest of his life.

“Yes, my dear,” he said. “It was very nice indeed.”

Chapter Text

Fili was bright as the snows of the mountain, serious as Durin that was and would be again, beloved as the gold that sprang from the living rock beneath the hands of Mahal’s children. These things he knew, for his father often told him so, laughing and kissing him and wondering how such a solemn child could have sprung from his blood, from his flesh. His mother laughed, too, and told his father that it was just as it should be, that those of Durin’s line were ever fated to earnestness, that she had escaped herself only by dint of being blessed with such a husband, with such a son.

“He is of Durin’s line, aye,” said Fili’s father. “But that is not all he is.”

And Fili would remember that, all through his life.

----

It was the board that first caught Fili’s eye. Bright it was with mother-of-pearl and jasper, edged with gold. Upon it lay the playing pieces, each exquisitely carved, half from lapis lazuli, the other half rock crystal. It was not his mother’s: this he knew in a moment. Rich, but not rich enough, not enough gold, the stones only semi-precious. Few things his mother had saved from the wreck of Erebor, but all of them were more costly than this. Fili was young still, young indeed, but dwarves are taught to recognise the value of stone almost before they learn to talk, and this he knew.

“What is it, Da?” he asked when his father came home.

“That?” his father asked, swinging Fili up into the air and pressing his warm lips to Fili’s temple. “That is a game, my son. A game for two players, see?” And he pointed to the two sets of pieces, rock crystal and lapis lazuli.

“Can I play?” Fili asked.

“You are young yet,” his father said, setting him back on his feet. “It requires patience, this game. I myself only learned it when I was almost sixty.”

“And you still have not learned the patience that goes with it,” Fili’s mother said as she passed through the room, laying a fond hand on her husband’s cheek.

“Ah, your mother has found me out,” Fili’s father said, dark eyes sparkling with mirth. “She has realised that she married a frivolous fool.”

“I realised that from the moment you first opened your mouth in my presence,” Fili’s mother said, and smiled a secret smile.

“But can I play?” Fili asked, and his father returned his attention to him, smiling still, but more thoughtful now.

“I will teach you,” he said. “If any child can learn, it is you, my changeling son. Will you be crystal, or lapis?”

“Crystal,” Fili said, and settled himself at the board.

He would remember this, too.

----

“No, see, the mûmak can’t move like that,” Fili said, putting the piece back to where Kili had moved it from. “And even if it could, you shouldn’t move there, because then I could move here, see?” He pointed to his raven.

Kili frowned at the board. “Why does it matter if you move there?” he asked.

“Because then I can win in two moves,” Fili said. He pointed at Kili’s city. “It’s unprotected.”

Kili screwed up his face as though there was something bitter in his mouth. “This game is boring,” he said. “Can we go outside?”

“It’s not boring, you just haven’t learned it properly,” Fili said. “It’s complicated, that’s all. You need patience, that’s what Da said.”

At the mention of their father, Kili quietened a little, staring in concentration at the board. He stared and stared, and then let out a sigh of frustration. He picked up his mûmak again and moved it, correctly this time, but nonetheless leaving his city even more unprotected. “There,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.”

“You shouldn’t move there,” Fili said. “I’ll win.”

“Then win,” Kili said. “Maybe then we can stop playing.”

There came then the deep voice of their uncle from where he sat in the corner staring into the fire. “It is unworthy of you to allow your brother to win simply because you tire of playing,” he said. “It is a good game for you, Kili. It will teach you to think.”

Kili, who had started a little when Thorin spoke, hunched his shoulders a little and nodded. “Yes, uncle,” he muttered. “I’m trying.”

Perhaps he did try, and perhaps he did not, but outside, the sun shone from the fresh blue of a spring sky, and Kili’s eyes were drawn again and again to the window, and when Fili won, only a few minutes later, Kili seemed not the least perturbed.

“Again,” Thorin said. Kili’s shoulders sagged with disappointment, and he tore his eyes from the window to stare in mute plea at their uncle.

“It is the first day of spring, my brother,” their mother said, setting down her pipe. She turned to Kili with a smile. “Enough for today,” she said. “Fetch your coat.”

Kili leapt up with a whoop, and was gone from the room almost before the echo had died away. Fili stared at the board, still laid out before him. He had always been crystal before, those many years ago when he had played with his father. Now he was lapis, because Kili had wanted crystal. But Kili did not want to play at all.

“Do not frown so,” his mother said, rising from her seat and settling herself opposite him, taking the pieces from the board one by one and packing them away. “The sun shines for you just as it does for your brother.”

“I thought he would like to learn it,” Fili said. “Da liked it.” Kili was like his father in all things but looks, and Fili felt uneasy now to learn that there was something of Da that was not reborn in Kili, that was lost forever.

“He is young yet,” Fili’s mother said. “Fifteen is not an age for strategy.”

“I learned when I was four,” Fili said. “Da taught me.”

“I know he did,” Fili’s mother said, smiling and leaning over to kiss his temple, just as his father used to do. “But you were a strange, serious creature when you were four, and your brother has a head full of sawdust.”

“Fili’s not serious,” Kili cried, bursting back into the room in a great maelstrom of chaos. “And I like sawdust, it smells nice. Come on!” He seized Fili by the hand and pulled him to his feet, thrusting his coat upon him and bestowing a hasty kiss on their mother’s cheek all at the same time. “There’ll be frogspawn in the river! Come on, Fili, come on!”

And Fili felt his disappointment slip away as he ran after his laughing brother, out into the bright spring of the Blue Mountains. After all, Da hadn’t learned until he was sixty, and that was so many years away. When Kili was sixty, Fili would teach him, and then Kili would be just like Da again, in everything but looks. Yes, Fili decided. He would teach Kili to play when Kili was sixty.

But he did not.

----

They arrived in July, and everything was a whirlwind of activity for some weeks. There were quarters to arrange for Bilbo, and new people to meet, and tours of old workings and state rooms reopened in the year and more they had been away. There were feasts, and duties, and training, and some days Fili found himself longing for the peace of the Shire, where there had been little enough to occupy them but pipe-smoking and the occasional troupe of hobbitlings. There were days when he did not see Kili for hours, days when he would not have seen him at all, were they not sleeping in the same room, in the same bed. He watched, always, for signs of the darkness that had begun to take Kili away when last they had been in Erebor, watched for the slow fading. But he did not see it, though Kili was quieter even than usual, and for that his heart was glad indeed.

It was weeks, then, before Fili grew accustomed enough to all the changes in the mountain that he felt able to take life in his stride once again. Weeks until he found ways to make time for quiet evenings with his family and Bilbo, for hours spent outside the secret door with Kili, for rambling along the mountainside as they had done in the Shire. And when, at last, he found his way back to these things, his mother told him that it was a disgrace he should still be living out of a pack, when she had brought all his possessions with her from the Blue Mountains. And thus, Fili found the gameboard again, mother-of-pearl and jasper, and with it the pieces, lapis and crystal, faded not the least with the passage of time, though they had not been touched for more than twenty-five years. He paused when he uncovered this treasure, sick suddenly with memory, his fingers curling around the solid shape of the board. Semi-precious only, the stones were, and yet to Fili they meant something much more than the gold he might get for them.

“I forgot all about you,” he murmured to the board. He laid it carefully upon the table in his sitting room -- which served now as a common room for both himself and Kili, since Kili’s sitting room had been converted into a bedroom for Bilbo weeks before -- and set the pieces up in their places. And it was there still when Kili came in from his lessons, and Fili with it, reading by the fire and waiting.

“Hello, my brother,” he said, laying down his book and smiling. Days there were, many and too many, when he did not see Kili from morning to night. But when he could, he waited here for him to return, and greeted him, and showed him thus that he was his brother, and that nothing could be done to change that.

“Hello, Fili,” Kili replied, sitting carefully in his chair. His eyes were drawn immediately to the board, and he stared at it without blinking. “What is that?” he asked.

“It is a game,” Fili said. “Our father used to play it.”

Kili frowned in thought. “Father,” he said. “I forgot.”

Although Fili knew that his brother watched him always, he could not quite prevent himself from grimacing, and he did not miss the worried twist to Kili’s mouth. “It means the dwarf who was married to our mother,” he said. “Who was to us as she is. Like Adalgrim to Esmeralda.”

Kili’s face cleared a little at this last, and Fili tried to be glad, and not to resent that there was so little left of his father in the world that even his own son could not understand who he was without comparison to a creature of a different race entirely. Even before the orcs, Kili had never remembered their father, but then he had laughed and shouted and thrown himself into life as though he was the same soul in a different body. Then he had felt the lack, had wanted to know. Now, even that was gone.

“Game,” Kili said. “For children?”

Fili pulled himself from his gloomy thoughts and shook his head. “Not this game,” he said. “It needs too much patience for children to play -- most children, at any rate.” He remembered his father’s voice, his smile, the long hours spent learning how to play. He had never been bored, not once. “Come,” he said, gesturing to the table. “I will teach you.”

Kili rose from his chair and sat beside the low table. He stared intently at the board, and at the pieces, and Fili nodded his head towards them.

“You can touch them,” he said, for he saw Kili’s hands twitching and he knew, as far as he could know anything about his brother’s shadowed mind, that Kili longed to know how the carved stone would feel beneath his fingers.

Kili reached out and brushed his fingertips against the carving around the edge of the board, and then gently touched one of the crystal ravens. He stroked its beak, its half-spread wings, each feather rendered to the smallest detail. Fili watched, fascinated, as Kili made his way slowly around the board, touching each piece with a frown of concentration -- though he gave only the slightest of touches to the mûmakil. What, Fili wondered, did his brother think about at such times? Some things -- more than he had first thought -- had not changed, but some had, and this was one. Kili had always liked things he could grasp in his hands, it was true, but never had he been like this, so eager to see with his fingers, to connect with everything in some more tangible way than simply by observing it. Once upon a time -- long ago now -- Fili had thought he knew everything there was to know about his brother. But he had been wrong, for he had never once imagined that a creature like this could be somewhere in Kili’s mind, once everything else had been buried or stripped away.

Fili felt himself begin to slip into maudlin thoughts, and he straightened in his chair and pushed them firmly away. He focussed instead upon the great, fathomless depth of love he felt for his brother -- as he was now, just as before -- and on the affection that surged within him at the sight of Kili’s careful examination of each of the game pieces. And at last, Kili withdrew his fingers and looked up.

“How it is play?” he asked.

Fili smiled. “All the blue pieces belong to one player, and all the clear to the other,” he said. “Which will you have?”

Kili shook his head. “You choose,” he said. But his fingers twitched, and he stared long and hard at the bright, rich blue of the lapis lazuli.

“Blue,” said Fili, turning the board so that Kili could reach. “I think you should be blue.”

And Kili reached out and touched one of the miners, the lightest of touches on his carved helmet.

“Yes,” he said. “Blue is good.”

----

Bilbo appeared in the sitting room just as Fili was explaining the special rules that came into force when the miners of one player surrounded the camp of the other. The little hobbit peered with curiosity at the game board, and drew up his chair to sit between them.

“Hello, you two,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“I am teaching Kili a game,” Fili said. “Our father used to play.”

“Father is like Adalgrim,” Kili said.

“Yes, I know what a father is,” Bilbo said. “Although I have heard little enough about yours. A very pretty board, certainly! But it is a dwarven game, I suppose?”

“Indeed it is,” Fili said. “More common among our father’s kin than our mother’s.”

“And no doubt it has more rules than all hobbit games put together,” Bilbo said, making a face. “Are you sure it is suitable for Kili?”

Fili glanced across at his brother to see him looking at the little hobbit with a frown.

“Father did play,” he said. “Fili want I should play.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows a little and looked at Fili. Fili looked back, and made no comment. Perhaps the game was complex -- indeed, there was no perhaps about it, for dwarves delighted in rules upon rules, which was not the way of elves or hobbits, as Fili well knew -- but that was no matter. If Kili could not remember all the rules, Fili would simply teach them to him again.

“Well,” said Bilbo at last, “I suppose you should play, then. But do not worry if you do not win, my lad. I am sure it takes years to master.”

“Perhaps he will surprise you,” Fili said.

“Hm,” said Bilbo. “Perhaps he will.”

----

But Kili did not. He learned the rules well enough -- much faster even than Fili had expected, the intricacies of them seeming to fit into his mind in a way that much simpler matters did not -- but he showed no talent at all for the game, losing time after time, rarely lasting more than a quarter of an hour before Fili had him trapped. It was not as it had been before, when Kili was younger: there was no impatience, no desire to end the game. Kili seemed content to play for hours, never once moving incorrectly, and yet losing and losing and losing again.

“Are you sure you want to play?” Fili asked him one evening as they sat down at the board. He had discussed it with Bilbo, listening to the little hobbit talk, worrying. Perhaps he only does it to make you happy, Bilbo had said. It cannot be enjoyable for him, to always lose. And Fili had agreed, had been suddenly sure, with a miserable feeling in his gut, that he had been taking advantage of his brother for weeks now. And yet this night, after days of not mentioning the game at all, Kili had asked if they should play. We not play long time, he had said. You not like any more play? And Fili, so used now to the strange ways that Kili had to tell them what he wanted, had fetched the board immediately.

“It is good game,” Kili said. “Father did play.”

“He did indeed,” Fili said. “Then make the first move, my brother.”

So they played, for an hour and more, five games in all.

Kili lost every one.

----

“He is young, still,” Fili’s mother said. “He has only just learned to play. If you give him time, I’m sure he will become a more worthy opponent.”

“It is not his worth that concerns me,” Fili said. “Of course it is not. But he plays and plays, and he does not improve. I swear he is no better now than he was when first I taught him, though we must have played a hundred games since then.”

Fili’s mother fell silent, then. It was a dark silence, a sad one, with which Fili was familiar and wished he was not.

“Perhaps he cannot learn,” she said at last. “Perhaps it is just as he is with reading. His mind is not the same.”

And in truth, it was no new thought to Fili, though he had never spoken it aloud, nor even allowed it to remain at the forefront of his mind for more than a moment or two. Once upon a time, Fili had planned to teach Kili to play when he was sixty years old. That time had come and gone, and now all the things that had made Kili seem like their father were lost, and would most likely never be regained. And this, too?

“No,” he said. “I do not believe that.”

His mother nodded and took his face in her two hands, leaning down to kiss his temple.

“Then have patience, my son,” she said, “and perhaps he will surprise you.”

“Aye,” said Fili, though another plan was already forming in his mind. “Perhaps he will.”

----

So the day came when Fili sat down at the game board with his brother and played, and for the first time in his life, he did not play to win. It took him by surprise, how difficult a task it turned out to be: though he thought of the best move each time and then made a different one, he seemed by pure chance to fall into lucky position after lucky position, and won the first game quite by accident. He supposed it must be so, with two poor players facing each other. Yet it rankled, nonetheless, for he wished nothing more than to show Kili what it was like, to best someone, the joy of victory even in so small a thing. Perhaps then, he thought, Kili would try harder, would try to learn how to win instead of simply how to play.

The second game, then, Fili tried harder to lose. He did not simply play poorly, letting chance take him where it would: he deliberately chose strategies that would leave him open to attack, that would give Kili the most favourable opportunities. This, it seemed, was more difficult still, for it required him to be able to predict what Kili would do. And whatever else Kili was, he was an unpredictable player. He would take one tack and then, seemingly at random, shift to another, displaying no ability to keep a consistent strategy despite his apparently endless patience. Perhaps it was this that caused him to continually lose. Certainly, it must have been this that led to Fili staring at the board, after almost three quarters of an hour playing, and realising that, despite his efforts, there was only one permitted move he could make, and it would win him the game.

“Perhaps we should stop,” he said.

“Why stop?” Kili asked. “It is good game.”

And so Fili made his move, and sat back with a frown. “There,” he said.

And Kili stared at the board and nodded. “You won,” he said.

“I did,” said Fili. “I won again.”

----

It was Dwalin who understood what Fili could not -- and perhaps no wonder, for it had always fallen to him to teach both tactics and strategy to Fili and Kili, and none knew their ways of battle better than he did. It so happened, then, that he came to deliver a message one evening when Fili and Kili were playing, and stayed to watch the game. And at this, Fili determined that Kili would win, for he wished very much for him to find favour in Dwalin’s eyes, even at Fili’s own expense. So he did everything he could to lose, thought through every move with great care as to what chances it might give Kili. And yet Kili threw every opportunity away, and moved seemingly almost at random, so that Fili grew more and more anxious as the game went on. Dwalin spoke not at all, but only watched, brows drawn down over his glimmering eyes. Displeased with both of them, no doubt, and yet Fili could not bring himself to change his tactics now. So he played on, poorly and worse than poorly, and yet still Kili did not win, did not even gain the upper hand, until at last Fili found himself once again trapped, with no recourse but to take the move that would win him the game. Take it he did, and Kili nodded serenely at him, as he always did.

“You won,” he said.

And Dwalin rose to his feet. “Fili,” he said, “a word. Outside.”

Fili rose, too, feeling like a child of forty-five, sure he would be scolded for his terrible form. And yet, Dwalin did not seem angry when he closed the door behind them, but only frowned at him, apparently in thought.

“You were trying to let him win,” he said.

“I was,” said Fili. “Much good it did me.”

“Aye,” Dwalin replied. “He is more skilled than you.”

Fili stood up straight at this, sure he must have misheard. “He has no skill at all,” he said. “I cannot understand why he does not improve.”

And Dwalin raised his eyebrows. “You think a dwarf with no skill could have forced you into winning when you were trying so hard to lose?” he asked.

And this, this was a moment in Fili’s life where all he thought he knew seemed set by the ears. His mouth dropped open of its own accord, and he stared at Dwalin, all agape. “What?” he asked.

“You didn’t know he was doing it?” Dwalin said. “I thought I taught you better than that, laddie.”

And Fili thought back, back to more than a hundred games, and not a single one lost. Back to when he had tried to predict Kili’s strategy and found himself unable. Back to being faced with only one choice, despite it being the one thing he had been trying to avoid.

“Oh,” he said. “Oh.”

“Aye,” said Dwalin. “The lad’s a natural. Takes after your father.”

“He does,” Fili breathed. “He always has.”

----

When Fili sat down once more across the board from his brother, it was as thought nothing had changed. And yet Fili knew something that he had not known before, and understood his brother both better and worse for it. He sat, staring at the pieces, now carefully rearranged into their starting positions, and considered what he might do with this, this knowledge. Once -- not so long ago -- he might have demanded answers, have given in to the worry that so easily turned to anger. But he was different, now. Everything was different now.

“We should play again?” Kili asked, when Fili did not speak for some moments. And this, Fili did not understand. Kili was losing deliberately -- time after time after time -- and yet he still seemed to want to play, and never seemed to tire of it. He raised his head and contemplated this strange, unpredictable brother of his. And he made his move.

“If we play,” he said, “will you try to win?”

Kili stared at him, his face entirely blank. He seemed frozen, as though he were a statue, and not a dwarf at all. And then he looked away.

“We should play?” he asked.

And so Fili knew: Dwalin was right. Of course he was. And he opened his mouth to say we should wait for Bilbo, and then closed it again. Bilbo, yes, Bilbo was the one who could talk to Kili, who could understand why he did the things he did. But Fili was Kili’s brother. Fili had taught Kili to play, not once, but twice.

Fili would not wait for Bilbo.

“Why do you let me win, my brother?” he asked. “You have let me win all these many times. Why should I play, if I know I will always win?”

Kili stared at the board. “You like win,” he mumbled.

“I do,” Fili said. “It is good to win. But only if I know I have won fairly. It is not fair if you do not try.”

Perhaps it was the wrong thing to say, for Kili immediately began to hunch into himself, his head dropping between his shoulders. And then, perhaps it was not wrong, after all, for indeed it was only the truth. But Fili did not care to see his brother withdraw from him, and so he leaned across the board and took him by the shoulders.

“Do not hide,” he said. “It is no great thing. It is only a game.”

Kili sat, gaze fixed upon the board, face half-hidden by his hair. “You are not happy,” he said. “I thought you are happy win. It is easy, let you win. Make you happy. But you are not happy.”

“Easy, is it?” Fili asked, thinking of the game they had just played, how hard he had tried to lose. “You think this game easy?”

Kili glanced up at him, a brief frown, no more. “Yes,” he said. “Many rules. But easy game. Only must think what you do next. It is easy.”

And true it was -- all it took to win the game was a knowledge of the rules and the ability to predict your opponent’s mind. So it was that Fili, though his brother was in many ways mysterious to him still, was able to make the winning move. “Do you want to make me happy?” he asked.

“Yes,” Kili said. He nodded, wide-eyed. “I want this.”

“Good,” Fili said. “Then promise me you will play to win. That is how you can make me happy, my brother.”

Kili stared and stared. But there was no way out of the trap Fili had laid for him, and although for a moment Fili feared he might simply curl into himself entirely and refuse to choose one way or the other, he did not. He stared, and he stared, and then he swallowed and nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “It make you happy. I promise.”

Fili smiled. “Then let us play,” he said.

----

And Kili won.

At first, Fili had some thought of making things easy for his brother -- of playing to lose, even though he had just made Kili promise not to do that very thing. But it became evident in short order that there would be no need: Kili needed no help to win. That first game -- when Fili still knew little of his brother’s skill -- was over in ten minutes, and only lasted as long as it did because Kili hesitated long and silently before making the final move.

“Finish the game, my brother,” Fili said at last. “As you promised.”

And so Kili did, his hand shaking as he placed the raven into an empty square.

“I won,” he whispered.

“And how does it feel?” Fili asked, but indeed, he might as well have asked himself, for he felt a swell of triumph far greater than he had ever felt for his own victories.

Kili stared at the raven that had won him the game, reaching out to brush his fingertips across its carved wings. “I not know,” he said.

Fili nodded, and took the raven from his brother’s hand, setting it back to its starting position.

“Then we will play until you do,” he said.

----

It was during their next game that Bilbo entered the room. Seeing that they were playing, he sat quietly down and took up his book. But when Kili made the winning move -- after barely more time than the previous game -- and sat back with an anxious look at Fili, the little hobbit looked up.

“You won again, did you?” he asked Fili, not troubling to keep the mild disapproval from his voice.

“Not this time, my friend,” Fili said, and felt the stirrings within him of unworthy pleasure at Bilbo’s look of great confusion, for it was rare indeed that he knew something about his brother that the hobbit did not.

Bilbo rose to his feet and peered at the board, but he understood little of the game, and perhaps could not even tell how it was that Kili had won. At last, he turned and smiled at Kili.

“Your brother has taught you well, then,” he said. “You are getting better.”

“Ah, I had nothing to teach him, as it turned out,” Fili said. “He has always been better. It is only that now he chooses to use his skill to win, rather than to lose.”

Bilbo seemed not at all enlightened by this. “But is it an easy game, then?” he asked.

“Yes,” Kili said. “Easy game.”

“It seems my brother has a peculiar talent for it,” Fili said, “for in fact, it is not at all easy. But if I cannot be proud to be the most talented player in Erebor, I can most certainly be proud to be his brother.”

He smiled at Bilbo, and Bilbo smiled back. But Kili did not look pleased, nor even displeased: he looked confused.

“Proud,” he said. “I not know this.”

And now Fili was content enough to step back, for he had long accepted that he was not gifted at explaining the meanings of words, and had often caused more confusion than he had solved. Bilbo thought for a moment or two, and then produced his explanation.

“It means when you are happy because someone you love has done something impressive,” he said. “If your son or your brother has made an excellent cake, for example.”

“Or fought well in battle,” Fili interjected, fearing that the mention of cake might confuse matters, and besides was a rather undwarvish source of pride.

“Yes, yes, or in battle,” Bilbo said, with what might have been said, were he not such a polite creature, to be a roll of the eyes. “So you are happy, because you like to see them show off their skill, and sometimes you are happy because people know you are the friend or the brother, and some of their triumph reflects on you. That is proud.”

Proud,” Kili said. He sat silent, staring at the board without seeing, and Fili allowed him to sit, to consider it. And at last, after long minutes of quiet, he looked up.

“You are happy I win,” he said. “You smile. You are happy.”

“Yes, my brother,” Fili said. “I am happy to see you win.”

“Yes,” Kili said. He frowned. “It is different,” he said.

And Fili did not reflect upon the meaning of this. He did not wonder what Kili meant, for he knew well enough, and he did not care to think of those times when it had not been safe for his brother to win at any game, did not care to think of what games he had played then. He had learned his lesson and recognised the anger that came all too easily, and he knew that, should he let it come, none would suffer but himself and his brother. So he did not reflect, but only nodded.

“It is different,” he said.

“Because you are my brother,” Kili said.

“Because I am your brother,” Fili replied.

Kili sat silent again, and Fili let him sit. And when he had considered all the things there were to consider, he nodded his head.

“Yes,” he said. “We should play again?”

“Aye,” said Fili. “We will play as long as you want.”

----

And so they played. Fili never again gave thought to the idea of letting Kili win -- indeed, he struggled for the first days even to prove himself a worthy opponent. But as he grew to learn his brother’s habits and modes of thought, his tactics and his strategy, the games became more evenly matched, and grew longer, and hard-fought indeed. Kili won more often, still -- he was strangely gifted, just as Dwalin said -- but Fili sometimes bested him, and was even largely confident that he did so through his own skill and not because Kili took pity on him. And as they thus learned how to oppose one another, Fili began to look more and more forward to those quiet evenings, once or twice a week, when Kili would ask we should play game?

But there came one evening, perhaps two months after Kili had begun to win, that Thorin came to their sitting room, Dwalin at his elbow. It was not unheard of, and yet far more common was it that they should go to his chambers, only steps away from their own, there to eat and to drink, to tell stories and sing songs. But on this day, Thorin came to them, and did not seem surprised to see them playing their game, but only sat and gestured for them to play on.

Play on they did, but it quickly became clear to Fili that something had changed, for Kili abruptly began to lose. He did not lose in the way that he sometimes did, when Fili, thinking long and carefully, fought him to a standstill. Instead, he began to make the worst possible moves, and would have quickly been defeated, had not Fili become so accustomed to how he played -- and how he did not play. So it was that, perhaps only two or three moves before the game would have been over, Fili paused, reflecting on the last few minutes and understanding why it was that he felt strange and uncomfortable.

“Thorin did not come here to see you lose, my brother,” he murmured. “He came to see you play honestly.”

At this, Thorin, who had been still as stone since entering the room, leaned forward a little and frowned. But Kili stared at the board, and seemed to find it hard to meet Fili’s eye.

“Thorin,” he whispered.

“You promised you would play truly,” Fili said. “It is what Thorin wants to see.”

And he made his move, with great deliberation. He did not try to let Kili win -- for he knew that if Kili did not want to, then no schemes of his own could force the issue. But after a moment of hesitation, Kili made his own move, and Fili knew immediately that he had changed his strategy. Close indeed he had been to losing, close enough that for most players there could be no recovery. Yet recover Kili did, and more than recover, and Thorin’s frown grew deeper as they played on. When Kili made his final move, and trapped Fili beyond his own boundaries, he dropped his hand from the game-piece and stared fixedly at the floor, only glancing up once, sideways, to Thorin’s frowning face. But Thorin was not watching Kili, but only looking at the board, and his frown was not one of anger, but only of deep thought. And at last he rose to his feet, and came to stand by Kili, bringing a hand to rest upon his shoulder.

“You have learned to think since last I saw you play,” he said. “I am sorry that you learned it in the way you did. But I am proud of you, my nephew.”

Kili glanced sharply up at Fili, and then half-turned his head to look up at Thorin, but apparently thought better of it at the last moment. “Proud,” he whispered.

“Aye, proud,” Thorin said. He gripped Kili’s shoulder a moment more, then sighed. “There are matters I must attend to,” he said, and strode to the door. But when he reached it, he turned and gave Kili one last, penetrating stare.

“Dwalin,” he said, “it is time Kili learned more than just history and Khuzdul.”

And Dwalin gave a slow smile. “Aye,” he said. “That it is.”

----

Fili was bright as the snows of the mountain, well-suited to rule as Durin that was and would be again, beloved as the gold that sprang from the living rock under the hands of Mahal’s children. This was what the people of Erebor said as he passed among them, and glad they were to know that one day he would be their king. A prince of Durin’s line, a prince indeed. But that was not all he was.

All day, and sometimes all night, Fili was a prince. But each night he came back to his chambers, high in the side of the mountain, and here he was only Fili, Kili’s brother, Dis’ son. On this day, deep in the gold-drenched summer of Rhovanion, he found himself standing, full of weariness, on the threshold of the balcony he had long since had carved into the mountain so that his brother could more easily see the sky.

“Hello, my brother,” he said.

And Kili, who sat in the long evening light with their father’s game board before him and a frown on his face, looked up and nodded his greeting.

“Hello, Fili,” he said. “You were long today.”

“But I caught the light, even so,” Fili said, and settled himself across the board from his brother. “Who are you playing against?”

“You,” Kili said, and now he frowned again. “I remembered -- long time ago. I played against you.”

Fili’s breath caught in his throat. Many years it had been, many years since his brother had come back to him, yet still there were memories locked in his mind, and if there was any rhyme or reason to their manner of making themselves known, it was not one that Fili could divine.

“Yes,” he said. “We played, a long time ago.”

“You were there,” Kili said. “Mother. Thorin. But not father. I do not remember father.”

“You never did,” Fili said. “He died when you were very young.”

Kili nodded slowly. “But you loved him,” he said.

“Very much,” Fili replied. He stared at the game board, the rich light caught in the rock crystal playing pieces, as though they had some fire deep within them. “And he loved you, Kili. He would have been so proud of you.”

Kili reached out and touched the lapis raven -- always his favourite, with its spread wings and delicately carved feathers. “What he was like?” he asked.

Fili considered his answer; but at the last, there was one only he could give. “He was like you,” he said.

Kili looked up at him, frowning at first, and then long and thoughtfully. Fili let him look his fill, and, as the edge of the sun grazed the horizon, he pointed at the board.

“Shall we play, then?” he asked.

“Yes,” Kili said, and Fili felt some of the weariness slip from him as he began the old, familiar routine. But as he reached out to make the first move, Kili shook his head.

“I can be crystal?” he said.

And Fili, after hundreds and thousands of games in which his brother had always, always chosen the bright, rich blue of lapis lazuli, found himself frozen briefly, his hand hanging over the piece he had planned to move. But he recovered, and turned the board, gesturing for Kili to move first. Kili, though, stayed silent a moment, watching him.

“I did surprise you?” he said.

And Fili smiled.

“You always do, my brother,” he said. “You always do.”