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A Company of Wolves

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            [Part Ze]

Illé takes a deep breath then raises her sword, intending to cleave her opponent in two. He curses in Khuzdul and she laughs breathlessly as he blocks her swing and tries to elbow her in the face. She spins around on her toes, dropping to the balls of her feet, moving to lodge her sword in his side, but she’s blocked once more. They exchange blows for another ten minutes, before she manages to roll under his reach and press his pilfered dagger to his side. They stare at each other, breathing heavily, until a dazzling smile brightens his face.

            “I yield,” he says, sheathing his sword. “I forget how fast you are.”

            She grins and sheaths her own sword, flipping the dagger so he could take it back by the hilt. “That’s what you get for being injured for the duration of the Battle of Five Armies, brother dear. Waylaid by a tree no less. And for spending your entire time helping plan the Princes’ ceremonies. No time for training, for shame.”

            Valhad shakes his head at her. “And you, who keeps training, worrying mother because you’ve dropped all your friends since the battle and yet refuses to drop the sword.” He crosses the mostly empty training arena, the other dwarrows politely ignoring the sibling spat, and leans over to pick up the bow she had brought with. “I thought the sword and dagger were enough,” he says. “But then you learn the axe and now this? Are you expecting another war? Another Smaug?”

            She stomps over, snatching the weapon from his hands. It’s beaten and battered, probably only has twenty more years left in it, and it’s not of dwarf craft. It’s too long, too large, and too elvish. There’s a piece missing, like someone used it to block the swing of a sword, and part of the wood is stained with blood. But she can’t let go. Illé runs shaking hands along the recurve, feeling the splinters and the carvings.

            Then she can’t breathe, choking on the air trapped somewhere in her lungs, and she falls to her knees with an almighty gasp. Valhad falls with her, a hand on cheek as if to ground her. He’s calling her name frantically but she can’t answer him, struggling to breathe and there’s lights dancing in her vision. Distantly she notices her brother being pushed away and large, strong, hands gripping her shoulders tightly.

            “Focus on me, lass,” a gruff voice says. “Breathe with me. You’re havin’ a panic attack.”

            One of her hands is lifted and placed on thick, worn leather; she can feel movement—a deep, exaggerated breathing of another. She struggles to match it, but eventually she does. Illé glances up to see the royal training master, the great Dwalin, staring at her intently. He nods after a quick moment, getting up and clapping her the shoulder, making her wobble.

            “She’ll be alright,” he says to the fretting Valhad. “Take ‘er home. Yer done for the day.”

            Illé watches Master Dwalin leave, feeling a mite bit pathetic. His dismissal of her shouldn’t make her feel so low; they’ve never even met except a brief moment in the infirmary after the battle. She had handed him some bandages as she passed, not even realizing she’d given bandages to a dwarf part of King Thorin’s Company. So yes, the dismissal shouldn’t hurt, but couple that with the memories the bow brought back of the battle she just can’t handle it. She has to fight the sob that wants to force its way to sound.

            Valhad grips her arm firmly, but gently, and heaves her to her feet. He leads her out of the arena and down the street to their house. He sets her down at the table and bustles to make a warm drink. She stares at the bow and sits it on the table.

            “I’m planning on joining Prince Kíli’s archery ranks,” she says quietly.

            He whirls around, sloshing the not-yet warm drink. “For the love Mahal. You can’t be serious?” His shocked face morphs to a quiet anger. “Why? Why do you need to do it? Sometimes you can barely touch a weapon, you have nightmares when you sleep, or you don’t even sleep at all. I refuse to let my little sister join an untested new company that will most likely see at least skirmishes.”

            Illé stays silent, trying to find the words. He’s right in a lot of ways, she can hear the panic in his voice. They lost their father in that battle, their mother was still trying to get over it. Only two months isn’t long enough to swallow your grief and keep on living, everyone needed time and Illé knew she was just making it worse with her choice.

            She can’t help it, though. She can still see the battlefield in her mind. Orcs closing in on the royal family. There was one orc she spotted, going for the princes who had their backs turned. Illé couldn’t run fast enough to reach them; her shout wasn’t loud enough to be heard. No one else could see them.

            She had spotted a elf’s bow, abandoned, and snatched it up with shaking hands—shaking from the excitement of war, not the nerves that pressed into her fingers as she handed the unfamiliar weapon. She’d never touch a bow before, but she knew the mechanics. She pulled an arrow out of a body, the head was left behind, but she just needed it as a distraction.

            Illé eyed the orc carefully then let the arrow fly. It went wide, shooting beyond to hit a body being used as a shield. Whoever that was wasn’t alive anymore, but it was still awful. She cursed under her breath and looked for another arrow to use when there was a rousing cry and a body slammed into her.

            Back in the present Illé closes her eyes, pain deep in her chest. The princes had been gravely injured by that orc that day, so very close to death. To think she could’ve prevented it if she’d just been a better shot. That’s why she throws herself into learning the axe and the bow, so if she ever has the opportunity to save someone—whether they be royal or not—she will not fail.

            And joining Prince Kíli’s new company meant she can make up for failing the very dwarves who brought them all home to the Lonely Mountain once again. She tightens her hand into a fist, she will not let her brother, someone who doesn’t even know the whole story, tell her what to do. Tomorrow she will go with her brother into the mountain where the ceremony planning room is and split off before she arrives there to head to the training grounds where those looking to join where told to go.

            Valhad sighs at the steely gaze he no doubt sees in her eyes, his shoulders slumping in resignation, a sign he isn’t going to argue her. It’s been years since he’s won an argument with her and it’s come to the point that he’s stopped trying.

            Illé stands up and touches his arm. “I love you,” she murmurs. “And I’m sorry for worrying both of you, but this is something I have to do. I can’t…I can’t really explain it right now.” If she tries to put it into words she’s scared she’ll sound completely ridiculous. “But I promise I’ll stay safe, alright?”

            He puts his hand over hers. “I just worry,” he says. “You’ve been distant since the battle.” Today had been the first time they’ve spent more than half a day together in six months, so even longer than the battle. “You going to join the ranks makes me scared you’re going to disappear on me.”

            She smiles. “Oh please,” she says lightly. “I’ll be in the royal training grounds and the barracks if I make it. We’ll be seeing each other so often you’ll tire of me before long.”

            Valhad laughs and moves to begin making those drinks again. The air is happier now after Illé’s attempts to make a joke. She puts the bow on a top shelf so Valhad doesn’t have to look at it anymore, resolving to find a satchel big enough for it so she can carry it on her shoulder without him twitching about it tomorrow. They’ll probably issue her a new one, a more dwarf appropriate one, if she makes it, and she’s okay with that. The elf one can be just a pretty little reminder of her failure as a dwarf of the Lonely Mountain.

oOo

The early morning sun shines down on a kingdom still being rebuilt. Some areas have collapsed due to lack of upkeep and Smaug’s meanderings that crushed stone with a single, light step of the fire-drake’s feet. The path Valhad chose, and Illé follows him now because he’s taken this path for two months now, is wide in the beginning and then narrows from stones fallen from great heights. He claims it’s a shortcut, but Illé isn’t too sure.

            Despite her doubts they arrive quickly without incident. Illé kisses her brother on the cheek, slipping away before he could protest her leaving so soon. He had talked about showing her some of the ceremony plans for the Princes—this celebration being months, years in some cases, later than anyone had hoped, but the princes were injured terribly and needed time—but she rather it be a surprise like how everyone else will get it in three months’ time.

            There are already forty dwarrows in the royal training grounds when she arrives. From another direction Master Dwalin and Master Balin enter, talking quietly to each other. Master Dwalin is, of course, the royal training master and he occasionally hops down to the other training grounds for common soldiers and Master Balin is King Thorin’s most trusted advisor, most likely here today to assist Prince Kíli in someway.

            Master Dwalin barks for them all to fall in line and they scramble to do so. Prince Kíli had opened the call to arms to anyone who thought they knew how to use a bow or thought they could learn quickly, most of the dwarves here today were proper civilians who do smithing or such work as their livelihoods. Their line is wobbly as a result of that, but Master Dwalin doesn’t seem to care, going against all the horror stories whispered around the Mountain.

            Ten more dwarves trickle in within the next hour, looking sheepish and embarrassed to be late to a momentous occasion—dwarves did not naturally dabble in archery except to hunt, this is the first time such a company is being made. Most think it’s King Thorin’s guilt about his sister-sons’ injuries manifesting in this action for Prince Kíli (no one is sure what Prince Fíli is getting out of this supposed guilt) and some think that Prince Kíli’s consort-to-be used her elf-magic to trick their beloved king into creating this.

            Illé ignored those rumors and just focused on getting better with a bow. She doesn’t care why or how this is coming to be, she only cares that it will give her the chance to make up for her mistakes and lack of diligence. So she takes a deep breath now and tries to keep herself from swaying in the utter stillness.

            Prince Kíli walks in, hobbling slightly and shoulders curved to relieve some strain on his side. He looks pale and tired, but excited about the day. The elf-maiden, the future consort-to-be that splits her time between Erebor and Captain of the Guard in Mirkwood, follows him, tall and regal. Captain Tauriel looks like she would have Prince Kíli anywhere but here.

            “Good to see such an excellent turn out,” Prince Kíli says in a voice loud enough to carry to the ears of all fifty dwarrows. His voice is hoarse and thin, but confident. “We’re going to start simple for the beginning. Step forward two steps exactly if you’ve ever fired a bow.”

            A little less than half the line steps forward exactly two steps, Illé included. Out of the corner of her eye she sees faces she knows and that makes her nerves ease slightly. As much as she would love to make it into the archery company and perform her duty, it is nice to know there will be others she knows. She nods to them when she catches their eye, seeing smiles forming on their faces.

            Prince Kíli nods. “Alright. Take five steps if you’ve never fired a bow but thinks they can without much training.” A few dwarves step forward five steps. Illé vaguely wonders what’s with the number of steps? “Take six steps from your current position if you’ve fired a bow and have actually hit something. Add two more if what you hit was your intended target. Add three more if you made the target point or a killing shot, either works.”

            Illé takes ten new steps (her achievement being only recent, yesterday to be precise), standing along side eight other dwarrows in an almost perfect line. There are scars on their faces and arms and she recognizes Nogen, who winks at her with a grin on her face. These dwarves fought in battles and wars, undoubtedly in the Battle of Five Armies as well. Nogen she fought back to back with on several occasions, she being only a few years older than her.

            Master Dwalin sighs. “Kíli, must you play games?”

            The prince grins unrepentantly, tugging on a braid near his temple. “Aw, Mister Dwalin, it’s no fun without games.” He sobers a little as he tries to straighten his back, succeeding only a little and gaining a small grimace on his face that flickers away in a second. “If I must,” he says to the two older dwarves before turning to the dwarrows standing to attention in various groups. “You are all getting a bow today if you don’t have one. If you do, I suggest you pull it out now. I and Tauriel will be assessing your skill.”

            Illé has a cruel thought that Prince Kíli didn’t exactly look up to assessing anyone’s skill. He looks as if he should still be with the healer; his face a shade paler than it was when he’d walked in.

            She ignores the thought because Prince Kíli has Captain Tauriel, Master Dwalin, and Master Balin as his side so everything should be perfectly all right. She should really just focus on being the best she can be so she won’t have to go home at the end of the week, dejected and pathetic.

            Prince Kíli sets them up based on the information they’d given him. So the dwarrows that say they have the best shot get the most difficult positions to try while the ones who aren’t get the easiest. Captain Tauriel seems content with helping those who need it and she has to shoo Prince Kíli away from helping as well, directing him towards the more advanced to watch them shoot.

            Illé is so distracted by her thoughts her first shot goes wide, Nogen sniggers at her and she shoots her a hard glare. She takes deep breaths as her heart begins to beat at a rapid pace; her fingers start shaking in nerves. She’s screwed up twice now; a third time is going to ruin everything. She takes aim and waits for the signal to shoot. When it comes she lets the arrow fly, feeling the small rush of air and the soft sound that comes with it.

            Her arrow hits home, the head buried in the target an acceptable depth. She tries to fight the smile that wants to form on her lips, but fails as the corner quirks up a bit. Prince Kíli calls for another shot and this one too hits the target, just an inch away from the previous one. Her heart has slowed down and her hands are only shaking a little. She wants to cry in relief. She’s not screwing up. She’s actually making the shots.

            Prince Kíli has them shoot two more times before switching positions. He does that for the next hour, eyeing them critically and exchanging words with his companions. Master Dwalin corrects a few stances and postures here and there. At one point there’s moving targets and Illé panics for a second before calming down. Moving targets are the worse, but she’s worked hard on them. Whatever you were going to shoot in the heat of the moment was not going to be just standing there orcs or not.

            This little audition lasts all day, by the time they’re dismissed and Master Dwalin shows them their quarters for the week the sun is setting and Prince Kíli looks seconds away from fully collapsing. Captain Tauriel has one hand on his shoulder, looking as if she was just talking to him but is probably keeping him upright.

            Her hand aches from the too-tight grip she’d had on her bow, her fingers tingle as she stretches them. Nogen throws her arm over her shoulders and invites her to the pub in celebration of no one dying on the first day. She wants to tell her that Prince Kíli is probably the only member of the royal family who won’t accidently kill them from overwork, but she doesn’t—it’s not her place to spread rumours about King Thorin’s obsessive nature and how it’s slowly transferring to the Lion-Heir Prince Fíli. They’re just rumours and it they’re not true then they shouldn’t be known.

            She accepts the invitation, though, after she wraps her poor, abused fingers and bandages a bruise/scrap combination from the bowstring due to her nerves. Then she tries not to go overboard with the ale or the jokes. Nogen ends up needing help back to the barracks, which Illé offers with laughter and a warm heart. She earns a kiss on the cheek for that and a bright smile before Nogen is asleep literally seconds later.

oOo

Kíli sighs and throws himself on the bed, letting out a soft grunt when he jars his injuries, and biting his lip so that the grunt doesn’t turn to a cry of pain. In hindsight perhaps throwing himself like that wasn’t the greatest idea. He curls around a pillow, half using it to cushion his ribs and half to fall sleep even though this isn’t really the best time to do so. Tauriel huffs a laugh at him. In response he waves a rude gesture at her from over his shoulder and she throws a pillow at him.

            “You’re such a child sometimes, Kíli,” she says, but there’s laughter in her voice. She laughs out loud when he just takes the new pillow and covers his face with a groan. The bed creaks as she sits on the edge, hand reaching out. He can feel the slightest of moved air, but not her hand, indicating hesitance. A second later she presses her hand to his hair, carding her fingers through the free strands. “You’ll be all right here when I leave?”

            He nods against the pillow. “It’ll be hard,” he says, mostly in jest. “Mahal only knows how I will survive without you around to save me.”

            “Poorly,” she replies, mirth in her voice.

            They stay there for another hour, her fingers moving from combing through tangled locks to unbraiding and re-braiding his hair. Thorin finally put his foot down a few weeks after the Battle of Five Armies and a mere day after both he and Fíli woke up. He decided he would not allow his youngest nephew to go without braids any longer, especially since he’s done deeds worth the most elaborate and beautiful beads. He agreed, only if, though, he could keep his beard short and if Thorin would allow him to train and command a new archery company. Kíli thinks Thorin only actually agreed to that as a compromise and through guilt in not believing in Kíli’s archery skills until it was almost too late.

            So now Kíli supports a few more braids than he used to, they weren’t as elaborate as Fíli’s but they were something to be proud of. One to symbolize his place as heir to the Lonely Mountain; another for the Battle of Five Armies; then one for the great quest the Company took; one for mourning those lost; one for his mother, his brother, and his uncle; for Tauriel; and one for his new position as commander and trainer of a new, specialized company. It took a while to get use to them, but now he can shoot arrows and spar lightly without being distracted by them. Instead he’s just distracted by his wounds, they were quite annoying.

            Kíli is mostly asleep when Tauriel tells him she has to go now and that she will see him in three months. He smiles when she leans down to kiss his forehead, he half-heartedly responds with a smile, too lulled by the pampering she’d given him and the warmth of the room. They weren’t for the long, dramatic, tear-filled farewells, something that confused more than a few dwarrows. Their thinking is that since they’ve the not-quite-forbidden-but-use-to-be-frowned-upon romance there would be a little more drama among the dwarf family and the elves. It is all surprisingly smooth. More than everything Kíli’s ever hoped for.

            Even with his half-hearted response and mostly asleep situation he grabs her hand as she rises from the bed. He smiles when she glances down at him in surprise and then smiles back.

            “Try to keep your feet on the ground,” he says, words slurring slightly in his exhaustion. “For little while longer, yeah? The stars can wait until I’m through with you.”

            She laughs and a tucks a braid behind her ear, a light behind her making her glow like she did all those months ago when she saved him from the poison of the Morgul arrow. “I promise,” she murmurs. “Now go to sleep. I’ll let Óin know you’re up here as I leave.”

            He whispers his thanks to her back as she leaves, the pain on his side deciding to make itself known by spiking and radiating. Kíli whimpers a bit and presses his face into his pillow, breathing as deeply as his ribs would allow him. Even after a month of living in this room he still marvels over the softness of the fabric and the sweet perfume of it—it smells like fruits and flowers, the same scent that lingers over Tauriel, but stronger and less natural on the pillows—it is a far and luxurious cry from the bedding he had in Ered Luin yet he found himself missing it anyway.

            He’s fast asleep within seconds, barely moving from his curled position. Nightmares plague him, as they do every time he falls asleep; he dreams of blood and orcs, screaming and sobbing, and he just wants to wake up. Reality crashes with fears when Thorin is taken down by an axe and doesn’t even twitch when he falls, Fíli runs to his aid and manages to hold off the advancements until an arrow pierces his chest and he falls to the ground with a name on his lips. Kíli can’t move, he can only just stare in horror—useless and pathetic, tears running down his face instead of saving his family.

            Kíli wakes just as the battle ends (not with his death, in this nightmare he lives with only himself and the burden of a throne he is unsuited for), there’s a silent scream on his lips and his body is frozen. His hip is lower than before, the bed dipping to the side. He glances over and sees Fíli right next to him, trying to look as if he’s reading a large book resting on his lap, but Kíli can see that he’d been moving to wake him up before he woke up himself.

            “Fíli!” He exclaims, sitting up much faster than he should. His vision falters and he head swims. He shakes it off to glare at his older brother. “What are doing? You’re supposed to be resting.”

            Fíli raises an amused eyebrow. “Tauriel couldn’t find Óin before she left so she told me instead.” He flips a page, but doesn’t read it. “And who are you to tell me I’m suppose to be resting? I’m pretty sure Thorin told you to hold off on the archery company for another two months, or were you not listening?”

            “I was listening,” Kíli says. “I just decided to ignore it.” He struggles to sit up next to his brother and is grateful Fíli doesn’t offer his help. “We need something that is easy to deploy and is quick. So far they can all shoot, some of them brilliantly, but some need a little work. Tomorrow we’re going to see if they can move.”

            “And this seriously couldn’t wait two more months?” He asks. Kíli doesn’t answer, deciding to focus on the book Fíli isn’t reading. “Is this because what Thorin said about us being vulnerable? Kíli, it’s not your burden to make sure we’re protected, whether you’re healed or not.”

            Kíli stubbornly refuses to respond, just exactly how he’s replied to every single dwarf who’s commented on the same thing. This is not their guilt to bear: his lack of skill and diligence kept him from protecting his uncle and brother during the Battle of Five Armies. Kíli is the spare; he should throw himself in harm’s way if that meant protecting the rest. They just…don’t need to know that.

            “Why are you here?” He asks instead. “Yes, maybe Tauriel couldn’t find Óin, but her talking to you just means you were suppose to find him.”

            “And I did find him. He’s busy with someone else at the moment,” Fíli says, closing the book with a small snap. “I decided to come up here. We haven’t seen each other in a while. I miss my brother.”

            Kíli immediately backs down, feeling guilty. This is true. He spends so much time trying to fix up this archery company to keep his family safe that he’s ignored them right then and there. He can’t help it, Fíli received more injuries than he in the battle, the first one to rush to Thorin’s aid when their uncle fell by a the axe of an orc, and he did get an arrow to the shoulder so deep the arrowhead exited his body on the other side. Kíli was too slow to prevent that, nor could he prevent the axe to the side before he gutted the orc, but he isn’t so worried about himself.

            He leans over, pulling Fíli’s collar down and away from his shoulder to check the wound. It is mostly healed, but still a worrying red. Fíli grabs his hand, tangling their fingers together.

            “Stop it,” he says. “I’m fine. You, on the other hand…” Fíli yanks Kíli’s shirt up to reveal the angry red wound still not even partially healed after two months.

            He winces at the sight; it actually looks as if it could be infected if the sketchy red lines tracing his veins meant anything. Kíli shoves his brother’s hand away and pulls down his shirt, covering it with the cloth instead of a bandage like he should. He took those off a long time ago, they hinder him when he tries to move fast or fight.

            “Kíli!” Fíli says, aghast. His face is pale and his face is twisted in a mixture of anger and concern—they have a tendency to go hand in hand when Kíli’s done something terrible. “What have you been doing?”

            “Things,” he answers stubbornly. “It’s not any of your business right now. I have things I need to do and upkeep takes up time. I don’t have any of that to waste. Thorin mentioned yesterday about bandits on the borders getting braver about closing in on the land around Erebor. If I can get my archers trained in the next month then I can send out my company to take them down.”

            Fíli seizes his shoulders and shakes him gently though Kíli can tell he wants to shake him like a dog with a bone until he understood. “Not at the risk of yourself! Mahal, what happened that you feel like such a sacrifice? What happen to my nadad?”

            Kíli rolls his eyes. “Stop being so dramatic. I’m right here, Fíli.” He touches his big brother’s cheek. “I haven’t left or changed. I’m still the moon and you’re still the sun.” It is a little theme nickname their mother liked when they were children. Their mother always called them “ûrzuduh” and “nûlukhuh” and it bled to their daily lives as they got older.

            “And Tauriel is the stars,” Fíli says with a fond smile. That smile quickly turns to a frown. “Kíli, you really do look awful.” He sets the book to the side and moves Kíli around until he’s laying flat on his back. “Óin should be here soon.” He touches foreheads with Kíli, closing his eyes. “You’re feverish, nûlukhuh,” he murmurs.

            “I’m not,” Kíli whines, trying to move his head away. “You’re just cold.” Fíli keeps him there so he stops struggling, but not without giving a great sigh. “Please,” he whispers. “I’m perfectly fine, I promise.”

            “No you’re not,” Fíli says firmly. “You’re hurting yourself. I will tell Thorin, but only if you don’t stop this madness within the week. I’ll let you train your archers on the condition that you end before sun down, begin two hours after sun up, and won’t try anything stupid or strenuous.”

            Kíli smiles nervously. “Don’t you think Óin should be the one giving orders like this?”

            “If he was then you wouldn’t be able to train at all,” Fíli reminds him. “With Tauriel gone you’re going to sleep in my quarters and you’re having meals with me until the dining hall is completed, understood?”

            Kíli wants to say no, that he doesn’t understand or, at least, say nothing at all. But he nods, glancing away from the piercing blue stare of his brother, the guilt eating away at him. He hates to make him worry, but what Kíli does is for him. He’s having a difficult time trying to choose between not worrying his family and protecting them, but more-often-than-not Kíli finds himself choosing ‘protecting.’ They can worry while they’re alive, not while they’re dead.

            Óin comes in then, muttering insults under his breath. “I swear. It seems dwarves are getting less and less hearty as the Ages go,” he exclaims. He places his things on the table, sorting them. “One little cut from a sword and they think they’re dying.”

            Fíli snorts a laugh and even Kíli can’t help but grin at Óin’s grumblings. They didn’t bother saying anything to the old dwarf; they knew he wouldn’t hear it. Kíli clutches at Fíli’s tunic, twisting it in his fingers as a fear decides to make itself known. What if Óin decides his wound is bad enough to warrant him being put on bed rest? What will he do then?

            “It’s alright, Kíli,” Fíli says gently, misreading his actions made in fear for a different sort of fear—fear of medicines and treatment than fear that he might be taken from his duties.

            Kíli give him a small smile that might have come out as a small grimace. Óin comes over with no preamble and pulls up Kíli’s shirt, tutting at the wound.

            “I have a paste for that,” Óin informs them. “There is the beginning of an infection, but I believe we’ve caught it before it is too late. You’ll need to keep it wrapped for a few weeks.”

            He bites his tongue to silent the protests wanting to make themselves known. A wrapped torso makes it harder to move, ten times harder with the cracked ribs he also has—that is going to make tomorrow harder if he were to show his recruits how to move and for the next few days for riding and training. He doesn’t say anything because Fíli is staring at him with disapproval and Óin is very strict about the health of others, especially the health of those in the Company.

            “I’m going to get us some supper,” Fíli says, standing. His left shoulder sags a little compared the other, showing the pain he probably wishes he could hide. “Don’t leave this room,” he orders before walking out, a limp in his step.

            Kíli watches him go with guilt still churning his stomach. He doesn’t think he can eat, but he won’t deny his brother if he wants to feed him. Óin presses a paste to his wound and it stings, his leg kicks out but he doesn’t move.

            “It’ll be alright, laddie,” Óin says. “Do you want to tell me why you’re not taking care of this wound?”

            “Not really,” Kíli says, forming the words carefully so Óin can see them if he misses hearing them. “I’ve just been busy. I’ll be more careful this time around.”

            Óin glares at him. “See to it,” he says. “You’re lucky Tauriel was worried and told Fíli to get me. Knowing you, you’d avoid everyone after she left and we wouldn’t know about this infection until it was too late.”

            Kíli has the decency to blush at the scolding, feeling like a little dwarfling who got into his mother’s jams again. Óin sets the jar of paste on his writing table and a bundle of bandages, giving him instructions on how to do it himself and informing him that he is going to tell Fíli exactly the same things so he could keep an eye on Kíli.

            He only half listens to the healer, attention drifting to the fire going. He really just wants tomorrow to come already so he can see how his archers move. Inwardly he laughs, he’s not even sure if all of them are good enough but he’s already calling them “his archers.” That has to be a good sign.

oOo

            Fíli walks down the halls of the Lonely Mountain, his heart heavy. He’s suppose to be getting his brother and him some supper from the temporary kitchens, but he decides to take a stop in Thorin’s study first to talk about a very important matter: his brother—his brother who is slowly killing himself.

Fíli wonders if his brother thinks of him as stupid that he can’t even notice Kíli’s losing weight at a steady pace or that the shadows under his eyes are getting darker with every night that passes. The sleep Fíli walked in on earlier looked fitful and restless, no doubt full of nightmares of the Battle. It hurt to know that Kíli’s suffered that every night, even with Tauriel at his side.

            It is thanks to Tauriel that his brother hasn’t wasted away by now. Fíli can see him avoiding him and Thorin with a steely determination that has Fíli worried, if it weren’t for her then Fíli would be in the dark about everything concerning his brother.

            And that is a terrible thing indeed, the last time they were this distant was…never, actually. Perhaps counting those five years before Kíli was even born yet, but that was a blurry memory that didn’t matter in the long run.

            He stops in front of the doors to Thorin’s study, hesitating for a brief second before knocking on the door softly. “Thorin?” He calls. “It’s Fíli. Can I talk to you? It’s important.”

            For a long moment there’s no answer and Fíli is close to resigning himself to putting the issue off until tomorrow, but then he hears his uncle’s gruff voice telling him to enter. He does so, pushing open the door and then closing it, letting the warm air of the room warm the tip of his nose and fingers. There is a still a cold draft in the hallways at night, which is next on the list to fix.

            Thorin is sitting in front of the fire, staring at it instead of working on the stack of papers on his desk. Fíli grins at the sight, that’s the same look Kíli gets when he’d rather think instead of work (a rare thing, but often enough for Fíli to recognize it). He takes the other chair at the fire, drawn to the flames as well.

            “What can I do for you, ûrzuduh?” He asks, glancing at him.

            The use of that childish nickname brings a smile to Fíli’s face. 65 years had passed before he heard that nickname again pass his uncle’s lips in the infirmary. Kíli was still unconscious, mumbling deliriously, and Fíli was barely holding on to wakefulness himself, then Thorin called them ûrzuduh and nûlukhuh and he knew everything was going to be okay. Since then Thorin’s used those names a handful of times, not a lot but enough to matter.

            “Kíli,” he says simply. He had told Kíli a week, but Fíli feels as if that is too long. He will tell Thorin now and then see what happens.

            Thorin sighs, shoulders curling like there is a weight on his shoulders slowly dragging him to the ground. “I know,” he says.

            “What do we do?” Fíli demands. If his uncle can see what Kíli’s doing to himself so clearly then why hasn’t he intervened yet?

            “At this moment, nothing,” Thorin says. He raises a hand when Fíli opens his mouth to protest. “I know it’s not the answer you like, but something’s driving Kíli to the point that he’s hurting himself. There’s nothing that can stop him, not even Mahal himself. The best we can do is keep him from killing himself.”

            Fíli sinks deeper into the chair, tucking his chin the collar of his shirt. “Do you know what drives him?” He asks quietly.

            Thorin shakes his head. “No, I do not. I know Tauriel doesn’t know either.” There’s a fondness in his voice when he speaks the elf-maiden’s name. Not the same fondness he holds for his nephews, but enough that Fíli knows Kíli’s gets almost giddy when he hears it. “She told me this morning about her concerns, before they went out to the training grounds.”

            “So you know that Kíli is deliberately disobeying you?”

            Thorin actually smiles at that. “I’m just grateful that he’s disobeying me by doing something good for the kingdom instead of pulling dangerous pranks at the forge. I just wish he wouldn’t be so extreme.”

            “Don’t we both,” Fíli says weakly, unable to think of anything else. “Do we really just let this run it’s course?”

            “If there is a course to run,” Thorin corrects. “If he gets no better then we will intervene. Just keep an eye on him.”

            Fíli nods. “He’s going to start eating all his meals with me and we’re going back to sharing a bed until Tauriel comes back. I was on my way to get food while Óin fixed him up.”

            “Good initiative,” Thorin says, nodding approvingly.

            Fíli takes a deep breath. “Now that we’ve discussed Kíli,” he says lightly. “Have you written that letter for Bilbo yet?”

            Thorin’s lips press thin and he glares at him. Fíli chuckles and claps him on the shoulder, rising from his seat. There are many things to do and one would think asking a hobbit for forgiveness is not at the top of that list, but it is. Fíli can see how the regret and guilt eats at Thorin every day, the two emotions raging their havoc on not just the King Under the Mountain, but through every dwarrow in the Company for every action and inaction done in battle. It is nasty and disheartening.

            “I must go now before Kíli gets any ideas,” Fíli says. “And I think you should sleep. You look like you need it.” He laughs when Thorin swats at his hand half-heartedly then walks unhurried from the room, leaving his uncle-king to stare moodily into the fire.

            He greets Bombur heartily in the temporary kitchens—nothing is attached and everything is scarce, only needing to feed the Company for this kitchen. There are other, more functional kitchens elsewhere for the few hundred dwarfs that are now living in Erebor—and lets the dwarf laden his arms with cheeses and salted meats. Most of which they couldn’t eat tonight, but Bombur refuses to listen. Apparently he too saw the way Kíli’s cheekbones are more pronounced and the bones in his wrists are in a sharper relief.

            And Kíli thinks he’s being subtle.

            Óin is gone when Fíli arrives and Kíli is fast asleep, curled up in the middle of the bed with only his boots and archery gloves off. His hair is a mess and he’s snoring louder than usual. Fíli sighs at the sight, feeling an overwhelming wave of love and fondness for his brother. He looks to be sleeping soundly for once and Fíli loathes waking him, but he also knows that Kíli needs to eat at least something, even if it’s just a block of cheese.

            Then his dear brother whimpers, mouth twisting to a frown, and his hands clutching the pillow he holds to his chest. It seems his sound sleep has been invaded once more, darkening his thoughts and dreams.

            Fíli places the food on Kíli’s writing desk, right next to the bottle of paste and bandages, before shaking his brother’s shoulder gently. Kíli flinches, his eyes flying open, and his breathing catches in his chest.

            He shushes him softly, pulling him into a hug, and rubbing his back with whispered words of a lullaby under his breath. He cradles his brother close, at a sort of loss for what to do. Kíli often suffered nightmares as a child to the point were their mother threw her hands up, but Fíli found that his little brother found comfort in him. They’re older now and Fíli’s mere presence can no longer calm Kíli down.

            It takes a good while before Kíli is calm once more and he pulls away, staring his brother in the eyes. His cheeks are dry and his breath rattles in his chest a bit, hitching every other time.

            “Are you hungry?” Fíli asks.

            Kíli shakes his head just like he thought he would, but then he says, “I could still eat.”

            Fíli smiles brightly, happy that his brother is willing to eat even if he is not hungry. They will get some meat on those bones and Kíli will stop looking like a skeleton left out to dry in the sun. He makes sure Kíli stays on the bed while Fíli gathers the food and brings it to his brother. They sit and eat, talking for far longer than they’ve talked in months. Kíli keeps asking different questions and prompting Fíli for longer answers when he feels they are too short. This leaves Fíli doing most of the talking when all he wants to do is ask Kíli about everything.

            He never gets the chance because Kíli is just too good, all of that practice during their childhood really comes in handy when he wants to steer his brother away from the real issue. When Fíli finally gets the chance to ask, both of them are yawning until their jaws creak.

            “When do you need to change the bandage?” Fíli asks, deciding to give up on the issue for the night and making a vow to ask Kíli about it at one point.

            Kíli yawns again before answering with a slightly slurred “tomorrow.”

            It’s childish to think that Kíli is the only one of the two to have nightmares, that Fíli is too old for such things. He’s not and he forgets that to, instead, focus on his brother and when he has nightmares or fears.

            This leads to him sinking into sleep with Kíli at his side, close enough that if either of them have a nightmare they’re both going to wake. Which he does—have a nightmare, that is.

            Kíli dies first, before Thorin, in his dreams. It’s a testament to Fíli’s priorities that he’s more concern about his brother than his uncle-king. He dies slowly and painfully, full of whimpers of fear and cries of pain. He calls Fíli’s name with a beg on his lips to rid him of the fire in his veins but Fíli’s too selfish to do so. He just coaxes his brother to live a little longer so he doesn’t have to feel the empty hole in his heart sooner.

            He wakes up stiff and heart racing, sweat drips down his face to roll down his neck to the pillow. Fíli tries to catch his breath, but it hurts. He sits up slowly before he realizes there’s no need, Kíli isn’t in bed anymore. Instead he’s at his writing desk, jotting a few things down. His brows are pinched in the middle and he looks exhausted.

            “You alright?” Kíli asks, glancing up at him as Fíli pads over to his brother. He moves to his feet, reaching out for him. “Fee?”

            Fíli scrubs his face with a hand, using the other to tangle with his brother’s. “Yes,” he says. “Just ‘nother nightmare.”

            Kíli pulls him into a hug and Fíli feels a little guilty. Kíli hates to feel weak and for people to see his perceived weakness so he prefers not to be helped if he doesn’t desperately need it, which is why he’s hardly helped when he has nightmares. Fíli, on the other hand, hates to not be helped after a nightmare; he wants the physical, comforting touch of another to remind him that none of it is real.

            He feels guilty because he feels like he should do something for his brother yet doesn’t because that would just make Kíli feel worse. It’s complicated and unreasonable, he knows that, but he still can’t help it.

            Most would think it’s the opposite. In fact, it was certainly the opposite when they were younger. Kíli would always run to their uncle or mother when something terrible happened (whether it was truly terrible or he lost his favourite toy) with tears streaming down his face and sobbing up a loud storm. Fíli liked to keep things to himself, Thorin always pushing into him about how he was the next in line for the throne and such things and, as a result, he should always be strong.

            It changed a little when Kíli got older and the whole family (mostly Dwalin, Balin, Thorin, and Dís) realised Kíli was taking after their fairer family-folk with the lean frame and perpetually young looking face. Kíli started to get teased more—most often when none of his family was around—and he learned, unfortunately, that it just got worse if he showed how often it hurt.

            So Kíli turned his weakness inward, and then Thorin got an earful from Dís about what he was teaching Fíli so, somehow, he ended up telling people when the work was just too much for him sometimes. Only to family, though, or the trusted few. No one else.

            Fíli banishes most of the guilt away and buries his face in his taller, yet younger, brother’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around him tightly. Kíli huffs a small laugh, resting his chin on top of his head.

            “You want to help me?” He asks.

            “With what?”

            Kíli pulls away ever-so-slightly. “I had the archers that appeared yesterday sign a list. I’m going to transfer their names to a chart so I can use it to evaluate them better and match their names to a face.”

            It’s really something he can do on his own, but Fíli sees what Kíli wants and can’t help but feel grateful for it. Their roles are switched, Kíli acting more like the older brother. It is ten kinds of not-right, but Fíli couldn’t find himself to care at the moment with the nightmares still whispering bad thoughts in the back of his head.

            So they sit there until the sun rises and there’s a knock on the door, a dwarf with their breakfast. Fíli doesn’t bring up the fact that Kíli slept a bare of an hour and Kíli doesn’t even mention Fíli’s nightmare.

            It’s terrible and wrong, but Fíli can’t bring himself to care at them moment.

oOo

            “Tell me, Illé. Do you have a crush on our brave Prince Kíli?” Nogen asks, leaning a bit closer than what can be called comfortable.

            Illé jerks back in surprise. “What? Of course not!”

            The slightly older dwarf-lady sighs in exasperation and pulls away slightly, she grabs one of Illé’s hands and beings dabbing her fingers with a damp cloth. “You’re going to make your fingers fall off,” she mutters under her breath before saying louder: “You’ve been staring at him since our break started. It’s actually a little creepy.”

            She shakes her head, turning her attention from the princes to Nogen. “He just doesn’t look too well,” she says. “And Captain Tauriel coming yesterday made sense, she’s a master archer in her own right and consort-to-be, but Prince Fíli’s attendance has no reason at all. I’m just worried.”

            “Creepy,” Nogen repeats.

Illé bites her tongue to keep from say anything to the contrary. She is right; her obsession with the prince’s safety could be construed as something…different. She is going to have to be more careful from now on before anyone gets the wrong idea.

“And you need to stop trying so hard,” Nogen continues. “You’re going to make it into the ranks. You shouldn’t worry about the princes or getting in, just relax.” She pats Illé’s cheek gently. “You worry me,” she says quietly, she pulls away when a shadow falls over them.

            Illé glances up to see Fáfnir grinning down at them. “‘Lo, Fáfnir,” she greets, confused. “Can I do something for you?”

            “I challenge you to a contest!” He says dramatically, pointing at her.

            Illé grins and stands, using Nogen’s shoulder to help herself, and dusting herself off though there isn’t much to dust off. “I hadn’t realised you were fond of losing, Fáfnir,” she says, putting as much good-natured teasing into her voice as possible.

            He catches the attempt and his smile brightens. “Oh, I don’t think so. You’ll be the one to lose.” He leans over a bit to whisper: “I want the princes to see my skill a bit better.”

The best part is he doesn’t sound arrogant or frustrated, just matter-of-fact. There are a good number of dwarfs here today, having only lost three or five of them to annoyance and hard work, it’s not wrong to want to put yourself out there a bit more to be noticed.

            She won’t actively try to lose—it’s a good idea to show off her skill as well—but she’ll do her best not to humiliate Fáfnir. She doesn’t know him very well, didn’t even know he existed until last night when they all went for a drink, so she doesn’t know how good he is with a bow.

            They set up slowly, she tries her best not to look back at the two princes, and a small crowd starts to form with whispers of bets being placed. Fáfnir goes first and his shots are fantastically good, not quite the center of the target, but only a few dwarfs have hit the center and it hasn’t been consistent. There are already groans from the crowd and money passes around.

            Illé sets up her bow and is prepared to shoot when Prince Fíli approaches her from the side. She’s already too far into it to not shoot the arrow so she lets go of the string and watches it fly to hit the target just three inches or so from the edge. She turns to Prince Fíli nervously as he looks at where her arrow hit then turns to her.

            “May I ask your name, Lady Dwarf?” Prince Fíli asks politely—much more politely than a prince needs to be to a dwarf like her.

            Illé swallows thickly and answers, “Illé, daughter of Galhad.”

            “Why do you have a elf bow, Lady Illé?” The Lion Prince asks, reaching out as if to touch the physical memory she holds in her hand but he backs off. “Kíli says you had it yesterday as well.”

            “It was gifted to me,” she says, lying only slightly. “During the Battle. I thought it best to hold on to it, as a reminder. I will use a dwarfish bow if need be,” she offers though she doesn’t really want to. Despite being slightly to large for her, Illé’s manage to learn around the bow and can use it to her advantage.

            Prince Fíli glances behind him to his brother and Illé sees the younger prince nod. Dread clutches her heart; will her princes make her change bows?

            “It’s not a requirement,” Prince Fíli says, studying her intently as if he’s trying to read her mind. “We are just worried about your ability to move with a bow that’s larger than it needs to be for dwarf-size. Your stance is rather wide to accommodate it.”

            She bites her lip, the prince pointed out the one trouble she has with this bow: the size and weight. She’s trained herself around it, but they are right—there is doubt she could move swiftly if the need arises and considering this company is being made for quick endeavors then she needs to be swift. Prince Kíli had announced at that beginning of the day he wanted to see more of their shooting and that after the break they would work on movement.

            “You’re right,” she says, willing her voice not to crack a little. “Is there an extra bow?” She glances to Prince Kíli to see him pressing his lips together in a thin line and writing something down on the paper he’d brought.

            “Here, Illé,” Fáfnir says. She turns and he’s holding out a bow to her. “It’s one of the extras from those who left over night.”

            She takes it with nervous fingers. Her shooting is going to be completely off now and she is going to humiliate herself in front of the two dwarfs she couldn’t humiliate herself in front of. She’s going to lose the contest, she’s not going to be able to hit any targets, and she is going to go home ashamed to ever think she could do this.

            Prince Fíli steps back so he’s next to his brother again. They’re looking at her expectantly and the crowd is silent, from the corner of her eye she sees both Fáfnir and Nogen give her encouraging smiles. She takes a deep breath and nocks the arrow, pulling back on the string until it touches her cheek and she kisses the arrow. The string digs into her fingers, through the worn guard-gloves that don’t fit her just right, and her heart is hammering in her chest.

            Illé lets the arrow fly and it hits the target right next to her off shot. She scowls and grabs another, taking slower breathes this time in an attempt to slow her heart, and lets the arrow go. This one is more controlled and is closer to the center but not enough. Angrily she shoots three more arrows, each of them getting closer to the center but never quite hitting it.

            She wipes at her cheeks, hoping no one sees the tears tracking down her face. Illé goes for one more arrow even though she is only suppose to shoot six. This one is an inch away from Fáfnir’s when it embeds into the target.

            Fáfnir cheers and claps her on the shoulder. She should feel proud of herself, but she can’t help but think how stupid she is. Who in their right mind would learn an elven-made weapon for a dwarf company? It’s one of the stupidest things she’d ever done and she can’t believe it took until today to figure that out.

            She doesn’t look at the princes as she stalks over to where she’d been sitting before, too angry with herself to worry about them for once. She sits down, pulling the elf bow into her lap and siting the dwarf one in front of her. She didn’t realise switch from one to the other would be so difficult; they’re the same weapon just different sizes.

            Nogen sits next to her and doesn’t speak for a long moment. “I think you did pretty well,” she says quietly, watching dwarrows challenge Fáfnir. “I think the princes are impressed.”

            Illé wipes her cheeks again; frustrated that she can’t stop the tears. “I doubt it,” she mutters. This is it, she’ll be the first dwarf asked to go home, what with her shoddy shooting skills with a bow actually made for her.

            Their break ends ten minutes later and no one’s approached her about going home, much to her relief. Illé leaves the elf bow to the side, wrapping it up so it doesn’t get damaged by wayward feet, and sidles up next to Nogen as Prince Kíli explains what he wants them to do.

            They’re all aching and groaning when Prince Fíli calls practice to an end—over his brother’s protesting—but there’s a definite happiness in the air as they stumble into the pub they’d visited last night.

            “I can’t feel my bottom!” Onar shouts over the dim of excited voices.

            “I didn’t know you had a bottom!” Nyir shouts back, swinging an arm over Onar’s shoulders. “Skirfî, Virfî, did you know Onar had a bottom? I thought he was as flat as the broadside of a river-stone.”

            Onar shoves him off as everyone in the vicinity laughs loudly. “For that,” he says, poking Nyir in the shoulder with his mug. “You’re buying me another drink.”

            Nogen drops into the seat next to her, knocking their shoulders together. “I’ve got you something.”

            Illé raises an eyebrow. “What is it?”

            She presents a pair of archer guards and gloves, seemingly brand new and the perfect fit. Illé hesitates before taking them and fitting them over her bandaged fingers. They’re a little tight but that’s because of aforementioned bandages. She inspects them with an admiring eye, noticing the small pressing of her name in Cirth.

            “Where did you get this?” She asks. “When did you get them?”

            “Picked them up a little bit ago,” Nogen answers. “Ordered them this morning and asked for a rushed job. Considering the maker is my brother, he was more than happy. They fit, right?””

            “Yes. They’re perfect, Nogen, thank you!” She throws her arms around the older dwarf and hugs her tightly.

            Nogen smiles. “Maybe now you’ll stop shredding your fingers,” she comments. She then turns to Nyir as he hands out the drinks Onar actually made him pay for.

            Illé smiles thinly and turns down the drink offered. Instead she claps Nogen on the shoulder and heads out of the pub, taking a stop at the barracks to grab her new dwarfish-bow, and then heads to the empty training grounds.

            She puts on her new gloves and picks up the bow after stringing it; she pulls the quiver onto her back and takes out an arrow. She nocks it and pulls back, holding that position for a little longer than necessary until her limbs start to tremble. It’s only then that she lets the arrow go.

            Illé finds she doesn’t get much sleep that night.

oOo

            Thorin sighs and re-reads the letter he wrote to Bilbo. It sounds absolutely terrible and he’s embarrassed that such a thing came from him, of all dwarves. He crumples it up and throws it in the fire before turning to the notes from yesterday’s meeting about supplies.

            They are severely lacking in many things—fresh fruits and greens being one of them; despite a great dislike for them and meat being the number one thing to fill their stomachs, fruits and greens were important to eat. He smiles at the memory of his Company’s disgust in Rivendell at the food they were served.

Most of the reactions were exaggerated; he knows fully that his nephews consider fruit a treat like sweets and greens for special occasions. He sometimes wonders where they got that from, but then he remembers Víli their father and how he viewed them.

Dale is still being rebuilt and Erebor use to rely on the Kingdom for many of its trade and the same the other way. Dwarves are magnificent craftsmen and make things to last, they are not farmers and while some of Erebor knew the hardships of becoming farmers they would rather not again.

Thorin scratches his chin and idly messes with a braid falling over his shoulder as he thinks. They can make due on the meat side of things, he will have Balin create a plan to send out hunting parties. Perhaps Kíli’s company would be take part, or some of it at least. Bombur accepts meats from others, those coming back to Erebor and bring these goods as a gift, but there are so many mouths to feed. Before they know it winter will be here sooner than they like and their stocks will be too low.

He makes a frustrated sound at the back of his throat. There is just too much and not enough at the same time. He loathes to make his people work so hard just after going through the Battle of Five Armies, especially his Company, but he has no choice.

There’s a knock at his door and he wonders faintly if Fíli’s come to visit him again but it’s Balin who walks in when he gives permission, carrying a tray of enough food for two.

            “I have not been by your side for all these years,” Balin says, setting the tray down right on top of Thorin’s papers. “To watch you waste away from overworking and misplaced guilt. You’re lucky your Halfling was so smart.”

            He smothers a smile. “Do not forget Fíli as well,” he says. Bilbo may have used the Arkenstone to gain their allies for the Battle, but Fíli is the one who accepted the Arkenstone back and placed where it belonged. All without Thorin’s knowledge, of course, but Fíli just stood tall and proud when Thorin tried to punish him (it was his reaction that kept Thorin from actually doing so).

            Balin shoots him an unreadable look. “You’re going to eat and then you’re going to sleep,” he says.

            “Are you ordering this as my advisor?”

            “As your friend,” Balin says firmly, shoving an apple into his hand. “Dwalin and a few others went hunting today, they found these. Eat it.” He waits until Thorin takes a bit before sitting down and grabbing a slice of meat; he pulls the papers Thorin is agonizing over closer to himself to read.

            He waits until Thorin’s done with the apple and the pieces of dried meat he’d also shoved into hand before he pulls out a small roll of paper. “This is for you. Courtesy of Nori.”

            Thorin swallows quickly—almost choking but that can be ignored—and takes the roll from his oldest friend. The thief had refused his offer to become part of his court and, instead, went back to his thieving ways. Thorin offered to look the other way if he didn’t do much harm or damaged as long as he could keep him in the loop of things that he would not normally know about.

            It’s a bit heavier than he expected and he unrolls it carefully, a small bag clunks down on his table. He puts it to the side for a second to read the letter. It is a standard update on proceedings, a small note about the bandits. Thorin furrows his eyebrows at that; the bandits are getting braver.

            It’s the small scratch of words at the bottom that has him narrowing his eyes. He takes the small bag and unties it before turning it over so two rings drop out. One is silver edged in gold with elaborate engravings, the other is gold edged in silver with the same engravings except for one that is just slightly different.

           They are the perfect size for his nephews’ fingers.

            “He didn’t steal them, did he?” Balin asks.

            Thorin grins. “He says he didn’t, but I doubt that.” He picks up the gold one most obviously for Fíli and inspects it. “They’re very personalized. It could be safe to assume that he stole the rings then paid to have them engraved. He likes the boys well enough.”

            He tucks them back into the bag and ties it, dropping it to the side. He will gift them to his nephews during their coming-of-age ceremony—thinking of that sends a stab of guilt in Thorin’s chest. It’s amazing Fíli still holds his uncle in good graces after Thorin all but forced him to postpone his coming-of-age ceremony so it would take place in Erebor instead of Ered Luin.

            Kíli’s was also postponed but not by years, only by months. He came of age just a month after their quest began and he was the one who refused to have even a small feast for the moment. Thorin hadn’t wanted to let down another nephew, but Kíli would not want his brother to be left alone and seemingly forgotten.

            He is a terrible uncle and an even worse king, but he hopes to fix that now. With the Arkenstone back where it belongs in the heart of the mountain—even more so that only two dwarfs know exactly were the Arkenstone is and Thorin is most certainly not one of them—Thorin almost feels right of mind. He can imagine Dís scolding him for letting it get this far, so far that he has to agonize over a letter to send to someone that he greatly valued yet greatly wronged.

            That seems to be a pattern going on in his life.

            “What did Nori say of the bandits?” Balin asks.

            He hands his friend the letter to read before taking another piece of meat to chew on. They will talk more of it tomorrow during council; he will have Fíli join them despite the fact that it will take him from his brother for a few hours.

            When Balin finishes reading there is a frown on his face. “We are vulnerable,” he says, repeating the same thing everyone has said since word of the bandits reached Thorin. “And they’re getting closer. Every attempt to stop them, from Man or dwarf has lead to nothing but vicious attacks. The Lonely Mountain itself is safe, so is the re-building Dale, but what of the other towns and villages?”

            Which is why Kíli is pushing so hard for his archery company to be finished soon. According to his report he should have a working company in two weeks. They won’t be perfect, but they’ll do in emergencies.

            “We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Thorin says. “Along with talks about the caravans from Ered Luin. For now…” He hands Balin the second and last apple from the now smaller pile of food. “You should sleep.”

            “So should you,” Balin says. He takes the apple from him and stands. “Perhaps if you send that letter to Bilbo now he’ll receive it in time to come to the lads’ coming-of-age ceremonies? It’ll be an excuse to see him and apologise to his face.”

            Thorin glares at him, but Balin isn’t phased. He just gives him the same understanding, peaceful look he gives Thorin whenever he thinks he’s being too thick. It’s the same look he gave Thorin outside the hidden door of Erebor when he was being daft about Bilbo.

            Balin leaves only a few minutes later with strict instructions for Thorin to get some sleep and to not think so hard about what he wants to say to the hobbit. Perhaps he’s right, he could invite Bilbo to his sister-sons’ coming-of-age ceremonies and apologize face to face. It makes the most sense. Though the invitation is going to be written by someone else, would he be more willing to come if Thorin were to write it himself?

            He would be less inclined if Thorin were to write it himself.

            Any one of the Company could write the letter and Bilbo would come running, but once Thorin wrote it. He honestly doesn’t want to think about.

            His door creaks open and Kíli pops his head in. “Thorin?”

            “Kíli,” he says. “Knock.”

            His nephew puts on a smart-ass grin and walks in, knocking lightly on the edge of the door as he did so. “Can I come in?” He does what he asks without waiting for an answer.

            Thorin rolls his eyes, but smiles anyway at the young dwarf. His smile grows wider when Fíli follows his brother, scowling and glaring at Kíli’s back. Obviously this little midnight trip was not completely agreed upon and Kíli did what Kíli does: whatever he wants while everyone hangs on for the ride.

            “This is for you,” he says, holding out a list of names. “I figured you’d like an update.”

            Thorin takes it, eyes barely skimming over it to humour him—noticing a few familiar names—, and puts it to the side before eyeing both his nephews sternly. “This could’ve waited,” he says. “Until tomorrow. Both of you should be sleeping.”

            Fíli takes the same seat he sat in last night and slouches down in a position completely unsuited for a prince; Kíli leans against Thorin’s writing desk, something unreadable flickering in his expression. (And Thorin wonders when this happened, when did his expressive nephew start to hide his feelings? He’d noticed during their Quest as well).

            “I wanted to see you,” he says quietly, shooting a glance towards Fíli. “It’s been awhile.”

            Thorin follows his gaze to see Fíli nodding off, his chin dipping low then snapping up as he jerks awake. He smothers a chuckle at his nephew’s expense and turns towards Kíli again to see him smiling fondly.

            “He’s tired,” Kíli explains, though it’s unnecessary. “I tried to get him to stay, but he wouldn’t listen. He seems to think I’ll disappear somewhere if he lets me out of his sight.”

            “He’s worried,” Thorin says. “You’ve been worrying everyone, nûlukhuh. What would your mother say if she saw her boys like this?” Its hurts to speak of his sister, but the words must be said. He almost regrets it when Kíli flinches ever-so-slightly.

            “She would scold us then read us a story,” Kíli offers. “Especially at this time of night.”

            “You…want me to read you a story?” Thorin asks incredulously, not quite sure where Kíli is going with this.

            Kíli snorts. “Not at all. In case you haven’t noticed, nadadaz’amad, you’re rubbish at story telling. Especially the ones that aren’t suppose to be full of fears and death.”

            “And blood,” Fíli mutters tiredly—Thorin will not admit that he almost jumps at the sound of his voice— “Don’t forget the blood.”

            “Exactly,” Kíli says, jerking a thumb in his brother’s direction. “Look at Fíli here, quaking in his boots at the mere thought of hearing one of your stories.”

            Fíli looks absolutely still except his chest and shoulders moving with every slow breath he took and the way he is slowly inching off his chair as he goes boneless with sleep. Thorin snorts in amusement at the sight.

            “Oh yes, I can see it. He’s absolutely terrified,” he intones deadpanned.

            Kíli grins and drags a stool over, being extra careful to not make it screech so he doesn’t wake Fíli. “I was wondering if there was anything you could tell me about the bandits?”

            “Kíli,” Thorin says warningly. He does not what his youngest nephew to get it in his head that he can rush into this only half-cocked. “Serej bund—.”

            “—I’m not empty headed,” Kíli says tersely. “Nor am I an idiot. I am asking you for information, aren’t I?”

            “Kíli,” Thorin says again, sharply this time. Fíli snuffles a bit then settles down, sliding off the chair a bit more. If he stays in that position any longer he’ll get a crick in his back and neck.

            “Thorin,” Kíli pleads, sounding oh-so-young. He’s of twenty again, tugging on Dís’ skirts going “nam ‘amad, nam!" just to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Please, let me do this.”

            “Why?” Thorin asks simply. He is not disregarding him, nor is he giving an indication that he’s going to turn him down. He just wants to know why Kíli is trying oh-so hard to do this.

            Kíli adverts his eyes from Thorin, his expression flickering with that same unreadable expression as before.

            “Please,” he just says again, not looking at Thorin at all. His eyes are on the carvings on his writing desk. He traces one of them with his finger absently. “Just…trust me. For once, trust me, nadadaz’amad. My uncle, my king.” Quietly, almost a whisper, and possibly not for Thorin’s ears at all, he hears: “Adad.”

            There has only been one time Thorin never truly trusted his youngest nephew: when the lad decided to pick up the bow instead of a more reasonable dwarf weapon. Yes, there have been other small cases of mistrust, but never to that extent. So, he cannot fathom where this plead is coming from.

            “We’ll talk about it after some sleep,” Thorin says after a long moment studying Kíli. “It looks as though Fíli is out for the night. Would you like to drag him out or leave him there?”

            Kíli cracks a smile—much how Thorin had been hoping—and shakes his head. “Can he stay here? I’ll fetch him in the morning.”

            “How about you both stay for the night?” Thorin offers. “I need to speak to Fíli about attending a council meeting tomorrow. I’ll speak to you both then about matters.”

            Kíli agrees to that and goes to his brother, straining to heft Fíli up a bit more and arrange him so he will not fall again. Fíli stirs, mumbling and reaching for his brother.

            “Kee,” he murmurs.

            “Go back to sleep, Fee,” Kíli says fondly. “I’ve got you.”

            Thorin smiles at the display. He grabs a fur blanket from his bed and turns to tuck it around at least one of them when he sees Kíli settle on the floor, leaning against the chair, his head resting against Fíli’s thigh and staring at the fire as its flames devour the logs.

            He sighs, holding his tongue. His nephew will be fine. It’s only been two months; Kíli will be back to full health again given time. Thorin grabs another blanket then settles on the other side of Fíli, startling Kíli.

            “Thorin—!”

            “Shush,” he says, reaching up to toss one blanket over Fíli then using the other to cover Kíli. “Go to sleep.”

            Thorin crosses his arms and leans deeply against the chair, tucking his chin into the collar of his shirt. He feels Kíli shift next to him, but knows he’s not sleeping no matter how slow and deep his breaths get. Fíli’s foot twitches once, twice, then settles until an hour latter a nightmare makes him kick Thorin in the shoulder.

            It doesn’t escape Thorin’s notice—after calming Fíli down enough he drops off to sleep again only to wake again a few hours later—that Kíli only sleeps a collective of about thirty minutes that whole night. Perhaps more, perhaps less. After all, Thorin was able to sleep and couldn’t keep an eye on his wayward nephew the whole night, but by the way the shadows under his eyes are darker the next morning, Thorin thinks he just might be right on the amount of sleep.

oOo

            Kíli walks at a leisured pace through the market, his personal guard keeping anyone and everyone from getting too near. He hates it, but Thorin had made a clear and sound argument for and no one would even bother listening to him if he tried to refuse. It felt strange to be treated as a Prince for once—back in Ered Luin he and Fíli…one could barely tell who was part of the royal family. The mighty Dwarf King and the Heir of Erebor working in the smiths like common folk and Kíli worked occasionally in the smiths when he got older, but not as often. They had worked like anyone else and one had to look closely to see if they were treated differently.

            Here and now is different. The biggest difference is, of course, the personal guard. Another difference is that no one looks at him like he’s half-elven scum. Kíli doesn’t know if it’s because the elves helped them in the Battle of Five Armies or because he’s got a high and permanent status as official prince along with his braid proclaiming his achievements or because his archery company is with Thorin’s blessing. It’s doesn’t really matter, his just happy not one is turning their nose up at him.

            Kíli arrives at Bofur’s shop—which also has a workshop in the back. The dwarf’s leg injury from the Battle prevents him from continuing on as a miner, so he chose his next best talent—just minutes later, scowling at the distance. The shop is busy, dwarrows cooing and shouting over carvings of the Quest for Erebor and the Battle of Five Armies. Dwarflings are begging their parents for intricate and extravagant toys that move in impossible ways.

            He avoids the crowd the best to his ability (which is pretty damn good) and heads to the back where Bofur is filling out orders. He has other dwarves working for him in the front, but Kíli knows Bofur would rather be working up front himself instead. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how one looks at it—with his sudden and appropriate popularity he doesn’t have the time.

            “Bofur,” Kíli calls over the dull roar of travelling sound. “I’ve got an order for you.”

            Bofur’s head jerks up and there is a brilliant smile on his face. “Kíli! ‘m boy! Long time no see. What did you say?”

            “And order,” he says. “I’ve got a large order for you. Should keep you occupied for a while.”

            He takes the paper from Kíli and reviews it, eyebrows climbing until they disappear up under his hat. “You want thirty bows?”

            Kíli nods. “Yes, as soon as possible too.”

            Bofur frowns and starts muttering under his breath. He interrupts his own thinking out loud to ask: “So, decided on your company members yet, I take it.”

            “I’ve officially taken command of the archery company last week,” Kíli says, unable to keep the excitement from his voice. “I apologized to those who didn’t make it and let everyone who did celebrate. Now my thirty archers are in the forests for a few days, playing a little game.”

            “Game?” Bofur’s eyebrows came down just in time for one to rise curiously. “What sort of game?”

            “Capture the flag,” he says happily. “There’s six teams and they have three days starting this morning.”

            Bofur smirks. “Sounds like fun. They’re not gonna end up killing each other are they?”

            Kíli frowns. “I sincerely hope not. The point of this is to test their strategy and ability to sneak around. Dwarves are not proficient in that aspect.”

            “Hey now,” Bofur says, pointing a carving tool at him. “I’ll have you know…” he trails off, actually unable to think of anything to counter that. “Never mind,” he says. Instead of speaking he reaches over and pulls out a piece of cloth with a design on it. “What do you think about this?”

            Kíli glances it over. It’s a stylized wolf head, only outlined to have it facing the right and its ear pricked up. “It’s nice. I like it. What’s it for?”

            “Your company,” Bofur answers, much to Kíli’s surprise. “Thorin thought it’d be a good idea to get you your own seal for the company. It’s to symbolise they’re yours. Tauriel brought this after her visit from Rivendell. I’m thinkin’ about carving it into all the bows. That okay?”

            “It’s perfect,” Kíli says, his throat closing up a bit in an overwhelming wave of emotion. And here he thought Thorin most definitely didn’t approve of his company. Now with this seal though, and that he never stopped him, Kíli feels a bit more confident with all of this. “When do you think you can have them done?”

            “Give me a week,” Bofur says. “I’ll hold off on other projects.”

            “No, no,” Kíli says quickly. “Don’t do that on my account. Bofur—.”

            “Lad,” he interrupts gently. “You’re a mite more important than just a prince of Erebor. You’re my friend. I will hold off on other projects to get these done in a week. Alright, laddie?”

            Kíli sighs. “Alright,” he says reluctantly. “Just let me know when you’re finished.”

            “Will do,” Bofur says. “Now shoo, I’ve got a large order to fill.”

            He shoves Kíli out of the back room with a hearty laugh. Kíli stumbles, one of he guards actually reaching out to steady him. He shook the dwarf off, grimacing.

            “I’m fine,” he says. “You don’t have to baby me.”       

            “King Thorin and Prince Fíli mentioned you were still injured from the Battle of Five Armies,” the dwarf that hadn’t caught him says simply. “We just want to make sure we have our heads after today.”

            The other dwarf sends his comrade a scandalised look, but Kíli just laughs out loud. He has to tone it down when his ribs twinge.

            “Don’t worry about it,” Kíli assures them. “They won’t actually decapitate you. Thorin’s more likely to toss you from the battlements.”

            They exchange horrified looks, a little unsure if he’s kidding or not. Of course Kíli’s kidding, Thorin absolutely hates the battlements, and would never willingly go on them just to throw someone off.

            “I’m just joking with you,” Kíli says, laughing still. “I appreciate your concern, but you need not be so overt about it. I’ve been taking care of myself for 77 years, I’ll last a little longer.”

            Speaking of that, he touches his side and tries to think of the last time he pasted and bandaged it like Óin said to. Fíli watched him do it last night, but then got pulled away this morning for something that didn’t really concern Kíli.

            So, last night it was. Perhaps he could go for the rest of the day without it. He needs to do many things before he sought the council of Dwalin for a few exercises to make his archers quicker. Just as that thought crosses his mind he spots a few familiar faces coming up the path, looking irritated and annoyed.

            “Well, team three,” he says without properly greeting them. A few of them stiffen and one dwarf looks as if he thinks he’s about to be kicked out the company. “It’s the end of the first day, don’t feel bad about getting your flag captured so soon. Just keep in mind that you’re suppose to keep it, not give it to the other teams.”

            They all shuffle on the balls of their feet, glancing down at their toes. Kíli can’t help but think they look absolutely adorable despite the fact they’re all older than him and covered head to toe in dirt and have very dangerous weapons attached to their backs (and sides if you count the swords, knives, and axes, though not each dwarf has all three). All right, adorable is probably not the word he wants to use.

            “Don’t worry about it,” Kíli assures them. “We’ll work on it. This was just a practice run. Next time you play this game it’s going to be a lot more difficult.” They all groan and Kíli can’t help but grin. “Go get cleaned up and eat a decent meal. Just because you’re out of the game early doesn’t mean you get to laze around for the next two days. We start some training tomorrow morning.” More groans. “Go on, shoo.”

            They trudge off, muttering to each other. Kíli knows it’s nothing terrible about him—all right, it’s a little terrible but just some insults. It’s expected. Dwarfs do it to Dwalin all the time; even he and Fíli did it to Dwalin. It just comes with the territory; as long as they respect him and listen to him he’ll allow the minor complaints about him.

            “Sire,” one of he guards says.

            Kíli turns to him, the world spinning together slightly in his vision when he did so. “Yes?”

            The dwarf hesitates before saying, “Perhaps we should go back to your quarters? You look a little…pale.”

            He thinks about saying no to that and that the guard is suppose to guard him from external attacks not worry about something that is none of his business, but then the world kind of mixes it colours together and he says: “You know what? I think that’s a brilliant idea.”

            Kíli turns back around and stumbles; a hand goes to his back to steady him then immediately backs off. He’s grateful, but annoyed that he’s still sick after two weeks of that stupid, smelly paste Óin gave him. He thought the infection is suppose to be gone by now?

oOo

            The map is sketched with a light hand and fairly accurate marks. Illé studies it closely, choosing to not remark on the neat drawing skills her prince apparently holds in his talents. Fáfnir hovers over her shoulder, reaching to point out the thin line of a river that cuts through an area that is supposedly only a few yards from here.

            “I can hear it,” Nogen says with no prompting. She’s up in a tree, keeping an eye out for movement in the brush. “The map’s pretty accurate. I’m impressed.”

            “Well, the prince did live in Ered Luin his whole life,” Onar says. “I figure it’d be required to know how to make a decent map, especially for hunting.”

            Illé presses her lips into a thin line. “Do you see the flag?”

            Nogen shakes her head. “No, they didn’t put it near the river.” She starts to climb down the tree; being the tallest dwarf out of them she was the right pick to climb the tree quickly. “Where else could they have put it?”

            “It’s been two days,” Onar says. “One more day and we don’t have to worry about it.”

            Fáfnir fingers the flag he’s got braided with his belt. Prince Kíli had divided them up into six teams and gave each team and different brightly coloured flag. They were to hid them somewhere in the forest, have someone guard them, then attempt to steal the other teams’ flags. Whoever still had their flag at the end of the three days would win, if more than one team had their flags safe whoever caught the most flags won out of them. Anyone who lost their flag is to report back to the Lonely Mountain.

            Illé’s team still have their flag—if there is any chance of their flag being taken Skirfî and Virfî, who are guarding it, will let them know with a horn call—and they also have two other teams’ flags. The one braided with Fáfnir’s belt and the one Illé ties in her hair. They’re not really flags, just large pieces of cloth so they work well with hearty knots.

            From the horn call last night another team is gone, that leaves only three other teams. They have two captured flags, one other team has one captured flag, and the last team just has their own flag. Apparently all three of them hid their flags too well and are at a stalemate.

            Illé chuckles under her breath as they move to the shadows of a tree. She would have never guessed Prince Kíli would arrange for his one-week new company to play a tactical game in the forest.

            “Nogen,” Illé says. “Climb that tree.” She points out a tree with a little more coverage. “And let me know if you see anyone coming. Fáfnir, keep an eye out for anyone else. Onar.” She crooks her finger at him. “Come help me read this.”

            “Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” Nogen says cheekily, quickly climbing the tree.

            Fáfnir stars at her for a moment before tightening his grip on his bow and crouching down near the bushes to peer out. Onar hovers over his shoulder now, squinting at the marks they had made about flag placement.

            “I think we should work together with the other team who has a flag,” Onar says quietly. “We have two, they have one. If we work together on a truce and take over the other team, we’ll give them the flag as long as they don’t go after ours. That way both teams tie without Prince Kíli saying someone lose because they don’t have enough flags.”

            Illé presses her lips together and nods. “That’s a good idea. Nogen,” she hisses up at the taller dwarf in the tree. “Keep an eye out for the other team who has a flag. We’re going to team up.”

            “We are?” Fáfnir asks, ducking his head in. “Why?”

            She gestures to Onar to explain his plan again. It’s a good plan, but it makes her a little uncomfortable to be trusting a team they are up against. Not that she has anything against her fellow dwarfs in the company. She just didn’t want to lose. Or tie. This is the only way, though.

            “Do you see anything?” She calls up to Nogen.

            “Kind of,” the dwarf replies. “There’s a tree moving. It’s shaking a bit too much to be just an animal, it might be another team. I can’t tell which one though.”

            Fáfnir still hasn’t ducked his head back out to keep watch so he is in the perfect position to say, “I’ll go check it out from the ground.”

            “Don’t get caught,” Illé warns.

            He scoffs. “As if,” he says. “I’ll be so sly they won’t even know I’m there.”

            “Like a fox,” Onar says with a laugh. “Fáfnir the Fox. That’s your new title. I’ll be sure to tell Prince Kíli when we see him.”

            “It’ll be great if he is caught,” Nogen says. “Then we can call him that ironically. Those are always the best.”

            “Shush,” Fáfnir says. “I hate you so much sometimes.” No one gets a chance to reply because he slinks off exactly like a fox on the prowl.

            Illé watches him go a bit enviously. To be so smooth and sly like that is a miracle. She’s probably more like a little bear cub, clumsy and inelegant. She makes Nogen stay up in the tree with a sharper eye now that Fáfnir has gone off and Onar continues to mutter over the map that she ends up handing to him. Illé grips her bow tight and moves to Fáfnir’s post, peering through the trunks carefully. Not only did they have to worry about the other teams, but there are, of course, wild animals out here.

            If maybe they caught some game at the end of this game they could take it back to the Lonely Mountain for the kitchens.

            Fáfnir comes back quickly. “It’s the team with Andvar and Hár in it, they have a flag on their belt.”

            “Think they’re willing to team up?” Onar asks.

            Illé nods. “Hár likes you, Fáfnir,” she says. “And I know Andvar bet on me when we had our competition during recruitment. It wouldn’t hurt, they don’t know where our flag is anyway.” There is no punishment for being caught, but everyone kind of figured it would be in their best interests not to be. “I think they’ll be willing.”

            “Who’s the messenger?” Nogen asks.

            They all turn to Fáfnir, who turns around to see who they’re looking at when he realises it him. He groans out loud, but that’s the only complaint he makes. He just straights the rucksack on his back and heads back out.

            “Let’s follow,” Illé says. “If they say yes we’ll be there, if they say no then we don’t have to worry about it.”

            Nogen scrambles down the tree and Onar folds up the map, both of them nodding. They quickly and quietly follow Fáfnir to the other team.

            Andvar—easily recognizable by the dreads in his hair that are tightly coiled together on top of his head and the two gold bead dangling from the short braids from his sideburns—picks up his bow when Fáfnir rustles the bushes as he enters them. Illé holds back a snort, the dwarf is a lot more sure-footed than that, the noise making is totally on purpose.

            “Who’s there?” Hár calls.

            Fáfnir comes out of the bushes, hands in the air with his bow on his back. “It is I, Fáfnir the Fox,” he says with great gusto.

            The other teams stares at him in confusion and a bit of annoyance. Nogen’s shoulders jerk as she tries to hold back her laughter and Onar bites his wrist guard and pinches his nose to keep from snorting.

            “What do you want?” Andvar asks, raising an eyebrow.

            “Well,” Fáfnir starts, rocking on his heels to the balls of his feet. “My team has two flags—not including our own, of course—and your team as one. The other team as none. We figure, lets team up and get the flag together.”

            Andvar shakes his head. “And why would we do that? You’ll just take the flag yourself.”

            “I swear,” he says. “On my honor as an archer for Prince Kíli, the flag we take is yours. We’ll tie so neither of us lose.”

            Hár sidles up to Andvar and whispers not quietly: “It’s a good idea,” he says. “It’s been too days. We’re not getting any closer.”

            Andvar lowers his weapon and straightens his shoulders. “Fine,” he says. “We’ll team up.”

            Illé and the rest come out of the hiding, much to the surprise of the other team but amusement of Fáfnir. Ah, he knew they were following.

            “Who’s your captain?” Andvar asks, eyeing each of them.

            To be honest, they hadn’t really decided on it. Illé motions for Fáfnir to step up but he shakes his head, actually taking a step back. Then Onar is her next choice, but Nogen puts her hand to the small of Illé’s back and shoves her forward.

            “Illé,” Andvar says gleefully. He sticks out his hand. “Truce?”

            She shakes it, shooting a glare at her I-thought-we-were-friends. “Truce.”

            It takes a few hours, but they manage to find the other team’s flag. With a twelve minds thinking together they covered a lot more ground than before. It turns out the remaining team is hiding their flag in a pile of dead trees. Lightning must have hit the roots just right to have three trees fall over each other and catching on other trees to make a shelter of sorts. It isn’t completely sturdy and probably won’t keep the rain or snow out, but it works to keep their flag protected.

            “We should hit them tomorrow,” Andvar says quietly, staring at the three dwarfs protecting their flag. “It’ll be a nice surprise for them and it’s the last day then anyway.”

            Illé nods. “Sounds good,” she says.

            The night is quiet as they set up camp and good distance from the other team’s flag. They don’t light a fire so they don’t attract their attention—relying on the greens Brúni and Bílr dug up earlier instead of a warmed meal—and they sit close together for warmth, the teams sitting so they’re separate and huddling with their respective members.

            Nogen leans her shoulder against Illé’s back and her mouth close to her ear. “Can you redo my braids for me?” She asks quietly. “They got a little messed up.”

            She blinks in surprise. “Sure, “she says. “You’ll have to turn around around.”

            “Of course.”

            Nogen shuffles so she’s sitting with her back towards Illé and the younger dwarf sees exactly what she’s talking about when she says “a little messed up.” One of her braids is completely undone and another one is on the way.

            Illé reaches out, hesitating. “Do you want the same braids? Or do you want me to do something new?”

            She hums. “Do something new.”

            “In that case, I’m undoing everything.”

            Nogen gives her permission and Illé does indeed undo all of her braids. There aren’t that many, surprisingly enough, but there were enough that it looks like Nogen’s hair is a permanent curly when it’s actually pretty straight. Illé runs her hands through them until they soften into waves and she piles the beads and hair thongs in her lap. She quickly and expertly puts three medium sized braids at her hairline then ties them back with a thong. The left over, loose hair she braids in one braid then knots it near the crown of her skull. Illé then weaves the six braids into that knot to get them out of the way. She leaves the short, delicately braided hair on Nogen’s jaw alone. It’s done so tightly—to keep it from catching in her bow—she must only take it out to fresh it up ever few months.

            Hár whistles quietly.. “Looking good, Nogen. Do me next?”

            Illé shakes her head, laughing. “One dwarf is good enough for me tonight.”

            Nogen feels her hair and grins. “Let me do you,” she says, reaching out.

            She sits quietly and lets her do her hair completely new. Nogen doesn’t touch the two interwoven braids on each side of Illé’s face, but she spends a good long while on the hair topping her head. When she’s finished Illé reaches up to feel two thick braids of all her hair braided together towards the base of her skill then Nogen pinned the ends to her crown with a clasp she appropriated from Onar. The flag that had been in her hair

            “You should get into expert braiding,” Fáfnir says. “Both of you. That was quick and it looks good.”

            Illé flushes and glances away while Nogen laughs and accepts the compliments with faux-haughtiness.

            “We should get some sleep,” Illé says, desperately trying to get everyone to stop talking about braiding skills. “I’ll take first watch.”

            “I’ll take it with you,” Andvar says. She smiles at him and he gives her a nod. “I can’t sleep anyway. Austri is on that team, he’s a little bit of a mischievous bastard.”

            It’s silent, the rest of the dwarfs fall asleep quickly, tired from a long day of hiding from each other, and Andvar and Illé are left the only two awake before she even blinks. The night animals come out, an owl hoots as it flies past and she can see the eyes of a fox in the bushes as it slinks around their camp. She smiles at the nature, closing her eyes and breathing in the scent of coolness that comes when the moon rises.

            There’s a long howl that has her snapping her eyes open and grabbing her bow. It sounds like a dozen or so wolves, but it could just be two, their howls bouncing echoes of each other. She glances to see Andvar alert as well, scanning the area.

            She reaches down and shakes Nogen awake, putting a finger to her lips when the dwarf looks as if she’ll make a loud protest. “Wolves,” she whispers, instantly putting her on alert. “Wake the others. Including Andvar’s dwarfs.”

            They’re all awake and prepared when there are more howls, sounding a lot closer than before. Illé grits her teeth and nocks and arrow, pointing it towards the ground for now. There shouldn’t be wolves getting closer to a large ground of dwarfs, their smell should intimidate them and it’s not like there hasn’t been a plentiful spring so they are hungry and looking for scraps. There is plenty of food in the forest that doesn’t happen to live in a mountain.

            “They’re coming from the east,” Brúni whispers. “That’s where Austri’s team is.”

            “Sounds like a lot of wolves,” Onar says worriedly.

            Illé goes from gritting her teeth to grinding them. “Screw this,” she says. “Training is important, but this take precedence. We’ll explain it to Prince Kíli tomorrow night.”

            She squares her shoulders and starts to jog towards the other team’s camp, being careful to avoid branches and particularly noisy bushes. The rest of the dwarfs, all seven of them (should be plenty to scare off a pack of wolves), follow her. Andvar quickly catches up.

            “There were three of them at the flag,” Andvar says. “That makes ten of us when those wolves finally come. They’re going to be scared off so quickly we’ll wonder why we were so worried.”

            Illé wants to agree with him, but there’s a bad feeling in her stomach that just won’t go away. The howls pick up, sounding louder and more in number, and she too picks up her pace until she’s sprinting to the third team’s camp.

            The other team is awake and alert, they pay the eight dwarfs barely any attention when they appear since there is something a bit more important and pressing than capturing any flags. Andvar comes up to Austri, an arrow of his own nocked and seconds away from being prepped.

            “How many do you think?” He asks.

            “More than should be normal,” Austri answers. “I don’t understand.”

            “Something in the air,” Hár murmurs. “There’s bad winds coming. No worse than Smaug, but bad enough.”

            There are no more howls, instead growling fills the quiet. Someone lights a torch and eyes are illuminated in the shadows. Twenty sets of eyes, twenty wolves.

            More than half of them swear profusely. Illé takes a moment—a moment that is not as precious as it could be since the wolves seem content with just growling at them at the edges of the clearing—and notices a red glint of madness in their eyes. The sight of that makes her uneasy, that is not what should be seen in healthy wolves.

            There is a beat of silence and stillness before the closet wolves launching itself forward. Onar shoots it in the head and it falls to the ground with a loud crash. That is the starting signal and the clearing is filled with howling, growing furry bodies as the rest of the wolves attack the dwarfs.

            Illé is forced to step back, nailing a wolf in the chest and making it collapse on the ground with wheezing growls. She slides out her dagger and finishes the job—even if they are attacking, something is obviously wrong and she doesn’t want it to suffer.

            A furry body slams into her; knocking her to the ground and making her drop her dagger and bow. Teeth snap at her, trying to get her face. She shoves an arm against its throat, reaching out blindly with her other hand for her weapon. She falters and the wolf gains some advantage, getting so close saliva drops on her face and she can practically tell what it had for breakfast.

            Then it yelps and stiffens, falling to the side with an arrow sticking out of its neck. Nogen’s suddenly in her line of sight, shoving her bow back in her hand and yanking her up by the arm.

            “You alright?” She asks.

            “Yes, thanks,” Illé answers. She shoots a wolf going for Nyir, killing it.

            After that the wolves are dealt with quickly, their number dwindling at the sheer force the dwarfs create. Soon all twenty wolves are on the ground, dead and cold.

            “That was definitely odd,” Hár comments. “And wrong. Very, very wrong.”

            “Really?” Fáfnir says. “I would’ve never guessed.”

            “Who’s going to tell Prince Kíli about this? I vote not me.”

oOo

            Fíli squeezes his eyes shut as a spike of pain throbs in his head, this damn headache just won’t quit. He shakes himself and grips his twin swords tightly. He ignores the sweat sliding down his face and stacks the wooden dummy with his right sword, landing a heavy and powerful hit, before twisting to the side and thrusting with a lighter, but no less deadlier, touch of his left sword. The combination sent deep gashes into the dummy and sent a small vibration of pain to his shoulder.

            He jumps back from the dummy, crossing his swords with flourish before grabbing a nice drink. His shoulder still hurts after two months and a half, but he is getting itchy just hanging around Erebor watching his brother work himself to death. He is tired of council meetings that he doesn’t really need to be a part of because Thorin and Balin have a good handle on everything. With Kíli sending his company out on different training exercises (despite how much they look like games, Fíli knows better) Fíli finds himself unable to hang around his brother with a good reason.

            He can say it’s just to keep an eye on Kíli he, he can even say that to his brother’s face if he doesn’t also mind his brother getting annoyed with him and possibly not talking to him and taking even greater pains to avoid him.

            To be honest, he would rather have that not happen. He cares for his brother too much.

            Fíli attacks the dummy viciously once more, just barely holding back his strikes. He is angry and annoyed at the world. Everything will not stop, not even for a moment. His mother dead—a mere month before they made it to Erebor to destroy Smaug—his uncle-king crumbling under the weight of a rule people fought against, his brother shattering under burdens he did not need to shoulder, and Fíli himself torn between his duty to his people and his duty to his family.

            Balin said it himself though Fíli is less inclined to believe it. Fíli stands as a shining gold for the people of Erebor to turn to, the sun in the sky as the moon wans slowly. It’s a terrible metaphor that makes his heart clench.

            He is the Heir to the crown, a Heir of Durin’s line, some even calls him the Lion Prince of Erebor, but he feels like no such thing. He stands as a wall between the clashing tempers of his brother and uncle and he stands as a rock for the people who need such to lean on, but he has no idea how to stand for his own wellbeing.

            Fíli jumps back and literally lets his swords fall to the ground with a clang, shaking his hands angrily. He hates thinking about this, it just made everything more confusing and annoying. He sighs and presses one hand to his forehead and his other rests on his hip.

            The sound of knocking on stone interrupts his thoughts and he glances over to see a lone dwarf standing at the opening of the private training room.

            It’s Bifur, standing on edge, and speaking to him in Iglishmêk. Fíli struggles to understand what he’s trying to say—learning and knowing Iglishmêk has always been more of Kíli’s thing. They both know the standard hand signs and can make conversation, but while Kíli is apt picking up individual styles Fíli isn’t—and it makes his head a little more.

            “Oh!” It finally occurs to him what Bifur is saying. “Are you sure?” He clumsily signs the question while saying. He probably switches a word or two, but Bifur nods.

            The older dwarf disappears for a moment then comes back with his axe. Fíli grips both of his swords tightly and widens his stance. Their weapons clash and Fíli’s shoulder aches but holds firm. Bifur grins at him and dances in a complicated set of footwork that leaves Fíli dizzy, but not so much that he cannot block the axe swing. To any Elf or Man their movements would look clunky and inelegant, but to a dwarf this is more of a dance—a dance Fíli knows the steps to well.

            He can strike and dodge, parry and feint like he is at a grand ball and not a training ground with weapons. While Kíli can land an arrow in the center of the target every time and move so quickly you are dead before you realize your enemy is dwarf and no elf, Fíli moves like the wind and the leaves in the breeze. He is the wave on the sea dwarves avoid due to fear of roaring unknown and power that moves beneath their feet. Dwarrows made be carved from stone, but stone moves beneath your feet in a quake that sends shivers through every other people.

            Bifur stumbles and his axe falls wrong, leaving an opening for Fíli to dart in and press the tip of his right blade against his stomach—a move he taught Kíli, who then adapted it for his shorter daggers. The older dwarrow grins, his fingers moving as his words speak “yield” in Khuzdul.

            Fíli smiles back, sheathing his sword and clasping Bifur’s arm heartily. The older dwarf did the same, wrapping his hand around Fíli’s forearm and squeezing tightly.

            There’s a clattering at the entrance that has Fíli whirling around, hand going to the hilt of one of his swords. It’s only Valhad, one of the prevalent dwarrows in charge of arranging his and his brother’s coming-of-age-ceremonies.

            “Oh, my Lords,” Valhad says, looking embarrassed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt like that.”

            Fíli smiles. “No worries. What do you need?” He drops Bifur’s arms and nods to the older dwarf as he leaves. “Did Thorin send for me?”

            Valhad shakes his head. “No, actually I wanted to talk to you, Prince Fíli.” He leans over to pick up something wooden that he must’ve dropped. “I need your opinion on something. It’s very important.”

            He holds back a laugh at the other dwarf’s expense. “What is it?”

            “Your crown,” Valhad says. “There use to be others, but the vault that held them was crushed by Smaug and the one King Thráin wore as prince, though found in Dunland, our King felt it is unsuited for you. He asked me to make another with your input.”

            Warmth spread through Fíli, Thorin before would have just stick to tradition and made him wear Thráin’s crown no matter how much he protested. It would feel wrong to wear the crown of a dwarf from a different time, a different era really. This Thorin, though, he thinks more and more of his nephews than himself. He even thinks more of Halflings than himself and it is wonderful.

            “What do you have in mind?”

            Valhad flushes. “Ah, that’s a question in of itself. I have no idea. Both you and your brother are warrior princes so it would be something small and well-fitted, but easily seen and understood for those not part of our kingdom.”

            Fíli walks out of the training grounds, gesturing for him to follow as he heads to his quarters. Watching the slightly older dwarf move reminds him of someone, but he can’t quite place it. “I agree,” he says, unbuckling his swords. “Say, Valhad, who is your father?”

            “Galhad,” he replies immediately. “And my mother, Hyllé.”

            “Where are they now? Do they live in Erebor or do they reside in Ered Luin?”

            “My mother decided to stay in Ered Luin,” Valhad answers. “My sister followed our father when King Thorin called for arms for the Battle of Five Armies. He fell,” he says, not a hint of grief and only strong pride in his tone. “I came here after my leg was healed, I broke it falling from a tree in Ered Luin. My sister, Illé, is part of Prince Kíli’s company as one of his vicious dwarf-wolfs.”

            Fíli snaps his fingers. “Ah, the one who held the elf-bow.” That is something you couldn’t forget. It’s one thing to pick up an elf fighting style in the first place, it’s another to actually use a bow made by and for an elf. It explains why Valhad’s movements look familiar, his sister moves the same and Fíli’s seen enough of the archery company train to know these things.

            Valhad smirks. “That would be my sister. She just doesn’t know when to quit.” He puts down the scribe he is using and holds out a drawing. “How would this be? We would need to figure out the metals and King Thorin is very adamant on using jewels, but I think this general design will work well for you. Of course, any alterations you’d like I can put in.”

            Fíli inspects the sketch. “I love it,” he says. “Small and complex. I think Thorin will approve.”

            It doesn’t have the harsh lines like Fíli thought it would, it reminds him more of branches of a tree instead. There’s a place for a medium sized jewel right in the center then places for jewels decreasing in size on either side. He can see movement in the lines and he rather likes that.

            Valhad clutches his things to his chest nervously. “It’s alright?”

            “It’s perfect,” Fíli assures, smiling at him. “I’d probably take that to Balin right away so they can start working on it. I doubt it’ll take long, but two perfect crowns in two months may take up all that time.”

            Valhad nods frantically and rushes out the door, doubling back to take the drawing that he forgot. Fíli manages to hold back his laughter until he’s sure the other dwarf is far away enough not to hear the echo.

            “What’s so funny?” Kíli asks, tracking in dirt and look tired.

            Fíli sighs good-naturedly and beings to tell him everything as he throws a cloth at his brother. Kíli laughs and wipes his face, taking his boots off at the door to protect Fíli’s rugs.

oOo

            Bilbo puts the letter down and leans back with a sigh, smoking his Old Toby and blowing circles in the air. There is no Gandalf to create impossible things with his smoke and no Kíli or Fíli to chase them about like children. He hadn’t thought he’d miss traveling the Wilds with thirteen dwarfs and a wizard, facing goblins and wargs and Azog the Defiler then the Battle of Five Armies after Smaug but he does, he misses it so much.

            He mostly misses the quiet nights, because he never realized how lonely he actually was until he no longer hears Balin weaving tale after tale in the darkness night with the sound of Ori scribbling away—either drawing the scene or writing the story down. Kíli and Fíli piled together, the younger dwarf already asleep while Fíli just smiled fondly. Nori and Dori would sit close to Ori, as if to protect him from the shadows. Bofur would whittle away at a piece of wood, turning it into a bear while Bifur would all but lean against him, practically asleep. Bombur would already be snoring away, digesting their meal. Óin and Gloin practically sitting back to back, whispering their own stories to each other, Óin’s head close to his brother to hear his words without his trumpet. Dwalin would be close to Thorin as the regal dwarf sat moodily against a tree—moodily, but listening intently to Balin while his eyes flickered from the fire to his nephews.

            His thoughts on memories drove him to pick up the letter again, reading first the formal invitation to the Heirs of Durin’s coming-of-age ceremony and then second the personal message written in Fíli’s hand pleading him to actually come. Had it been anyone else’s written word he would have thrown the letter in the fire and drafted an apologetic rejection letter that may or may not have ever left the Shire.

            But this is Fíli—dear, young Fíli who has the heart of a lion and the claws of one too. He can never deny the young dwarf nor his brother if he too came knocking. Bilbo sighs and lets his head drop to his hand, his eyes going from the letter up to roam around his living room.

            It’s too empty still, his belongings not yet returned to him. Well, returned is the wrong word. Bilbo has bought and haggled for his items since he’s come back to his home, people had raided his house and stole his things with the thought of his death on the road or his possibility of never returning.

            He folds up his letters and tucks them into the pocket of his vest, putting it next to his precious ring. He hasn’t used it since he’s arrived back at the Shire, but the urge is there whenever someone comes knocking at his door. Hobbits are very persistent, especially when something mysterious and not-quite-right has happened.

            Bilbo stands from his comfortable chair—though comfortable is relative now and it doesn’t bother him as much as it should he thinks—and takes a deep breath. He’s actually going to do this. He’s actually going to leave his hobbit hole once more and go travelling the wilds for a group of dwarfs.

            But he is.

            He spends a little more time packing this time around now that he’s not trying to hurry after the Company. And he also has a better idea of what he needs for his trip too. He carefully packs clothes and items, pondering if he should take something from his home as a present for Fíli and Kíli or if he should as Lord Elrond for advice when he inevitably stops in Rivendell.

            To be honest, he’s not too keen on travelling to Erebor on his own and he hopes someone is willing to escort him, but he cannot hold onto hope.

            His thoughts were drowned out by a soft knock at his door. With well-practiced caution Bilbo peers through the window to see an elf of all things. He opens the door with a wide smile.

            “Elladen!” He says. “What a surprise. Come in, come in.”

            The tall son of Lord Elrond bends as he walks in, shedding his travelling cloak and hanging it neatly on the rack near the door. “Master Bilbo,” he says with a smile. “It’s good to see you too.”

            Bilbo had stopped at Rivendell not even a few months ago on his way back from Erebor and his week there was spent getting to know Elladen and his twin brother Elrohir. His brightest memories with the elf-twins is actually from their stay in Rivendell on their Quest to reclaim Erebor after Gandalf led them through the secret passage to the Last Homely House. There had been certain camaraderie between the twins and Fíli and Kíli surprisingly enough. Only Bilbo, besides Fíli and Elrohir, got to be a witness to Elladen’s and Kíli’s little archery competition—which led to Bilbo being one of the few people unsurprised by the whole Tauriel and Kíli thing that sprouted.

            “If you don’t mind me asking,” Bilbo says. “What are you doing here?”

            “I received a Raven from Kíli,” he answers. “Asking if Elrohir and I would like to come to their coming of age ceremonies. Elrohir is, unfortunately, too busy with something father sent him out on, but I am happy to go. He mentioned you received an invitation as well and I can to see if you would like to travel together.”

            “That would be delightful,” Bilbo answers. He makes the elf warrior some tea and sits him down in his most-comfortable chair that’s slightly too big for Bilbo so it’s slightly too small for Elladen. “I’ll be packed in no time. Relax a bit, I’m sure you’re tired from your trip.”

            Elladen laughs lightly. “It takes more than the length from Rivendell to the Shire to tire an elf, Master Bilbo. Please, be as quick or slow as you’d like. We should have a smooth trip to Erebor. King Thranduil is granting us passage. Apparently he too has been invited, personally from the princes themselves.”

            Bilbo laughs. “Only they would be so bold.”

            “It will take us about a month and a half to reach Erebor,” Elladen informs him.

            His eyes widen in surprise. “That short? It took several the first time around.”

            “That’s because of Azog,” the elf answers. “And the many obstacles besides him. Also, you have an elf this time around. My father will loan us horses when we reach Rivendell.”

            “Oh thank you!” Bilbo says in relief. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like anything to eat?”

            “I’m fine,” Elladen says. “Thank you.”

            Bilbo puts one more thing in his bag, writing a quick note to himself to ask Lord Elrond about something for the boys. “Alright,” he says, giving his home one last look around. He has a deep-rooted feeling he’s not going to be back for a long, long time again. “I’m ready.”

oOo

            Thorin scowls at the council, their words dull and unintelligent. They have no idea what they’re talking about as they discuss the bandit threat sweeping closer to south just outside the mountain.

            “They’ll never enter our lands,” one dwarf says assuredly. “To be honest, our might is too much for them. We took back out home and fought for it. We have our Kingdom Under the Mountain once more. This being said: we should not worry about it. These reports are from Men, not dwarf. It is not our problem.”

            “And if we keep to thoughts such as those,” Kíli speaks up before anyone else. He ignores the hand Fíli puts on his arm. Thorin refrains from glaring at him until he hears what his nephew has to say. “Then the mistrust and stigma against our people will only darken and grow. At this time we cannot afford to be alone in this world. Smaug was only the first of darkness to come. There is more. Taking care of these bandits will strengthen camaraderie between dwarf and man.”

            Another dwarf lets disgust twist his expression. “We have the elves of Mirkwood,” he says. “And the standing amity of the Man Bard. We need no more than that.”

            “We do not have the elves, as you say,” Kíli corrects. “The elves of Mirkwood are their own, Tauriel aids us through her own wish and an agreement with her King Thranduil. That friendship is not to be played with. King Bard of Dale—.” He says the Man’s title with pointedness; a mocking tilt to his words as if he can’t believe the dwarf forgot their neighbour’s ruler. “—He has enough to worry about with the reconstruction of his city. These bandits affect them more than you think. It’s a disappointment that any of you would think it good to leave them to the petty fingers of thieves.”

            The same dwarf scowls. “You speak—.”

            “That’s enough,” Thorin says.

            Kíli frowns. “My King,” he says formally, but he doesn’t say another word when Thorin raises a hand for his silence.

            “Well spoken, Kíli,” Thorin says, trying to convey his sincerity through his gaze alone. “But the council speaks some words of wisdom. We are worse off than Dale and her King. Leave the bandits to the Men and let us rebuild.”

            Kíli opens his mouth to argue, but Fíli puts more pressure where his hand is on his brother’s arm. His younger nephew huffs and leans back, disproval on his face, but he doesn’t lose that regal air about him so Thorin can’t really be completely angry with him.

            “We should send them at least a message of support,” Fíli says. “We won’t actively go after the bandits, but if Dale’s King runs into trouble and he asks directly for our help. Will that work?” The way he phrases his question is hard and unyielding, leaving no desire in the council to actually answer it except with confirmations.

            He can see Balin stifle a smirk. Thorin clears his throat to keep from laughing. “Fíli will write the message for King Bard. Meeting adjourned.”

            There is the scraping of chairs against stone as dwarfs move to leave when Kíli says, “What about the wolves?”

            Everyone freezes and Thorin glares at his nephew.

            “Wolves?” A dwarf asks. “What wolves?”

            “The ones my company killed a week ago,” he answers impatiently. “They report a madness in their eyes, something was terrible wrong with them.”

            “They’re wolves. Of course something was wrong with them.”

            Thorin rolls his eyes at that. Obviously he is one of the dwarf nobles who made their home in the Iron Hills after Smaug’s attack, they had a tendency to be revered and most likely to sit on their asses than actually go to the wilds and see real wolves in action. To be honest, Thorin would rather not have anyone but those who followed his family to Ered Luin, but doing so would leave Dáin in a position to sprout words against Thorin and he’d rather not give him the chance.

            “Kíli, drop it,” Thorin orders quietly. “We’ll talk about what your company saw later. For now, the meeting is over and we can all head back to our families now.”

            “Thorin,” Kíli says, always confrontational. “If you don’t want to answer the bandits, then the wolves are the only things left.”

            Fíli sighs. “Come on, Kee,” he says. “Let it go. He’ll list to it later.” The two of them dissolve into a quiet argument.

            Thorin shakes his head and waits until the council leaves—only Balin left behind besides the three of them—and turns to his nephews fully.

            “King Thorin,” Kíli says, and it’s a testament to his anger when he calls Thorin king and not uncle. “My company has worked hard for a month to face these bandits. They worked from dawn until dusk, working the strings of their bows until their fingers bled. Are you really going to deny them the chance to fulfill their duty?”

            “You trained them for glory?” Thorin asks, turning to his nephews. Kíli glares at him defiantly, shoulders squared and expression determined and angry; Fíli looks as if he’s to come between them, torn between his loyalty to his uncle-king and his snarling wolf of a brother. “What happened to word of you protecting your people and family?”

            Kíli presses his lips together in a thin line. “You’re mocking me,” he accuses.

            “Do not put the people under your command through unnecessary risks,” Thorin says. “It’s been a very short time since you’ve even formed them, let alone started training them. Having them going after bandits when they’re not ready—when they have an unfamiliar weapon in their hands—is not the smartest move. The way you’re acting, it truly seems as though you’re going for glory rather than protection.”

            He opens his mouth then shuts it again, eyes wide and looking betrayed. It reminds Thorin of the look Kíli gave him when he was left in Lake-town all those months ago.

            “It is not unnecessary,” Kíli says quietly. “And the fact that you think I’m a glory-hound is...insulting.” He struggles for a moment as if ‘insulting’ is not the word he wants to use. “I highly doubt Bard has the manpower to face bandits ransacking his people,” he says. “And you not letting me, or anyone else, help him isn’t…Thorin,” he says desperately. “Let me help them. I’ll only take which archers are the best and I won’t take any ‘unnecessary’ risks. I promise.”

            “No, Kíli,” Thorin says sternly, making no room for argument with just the tone of his voice.

            Kíli doesn’t say a word, doesn’t huff his displeasure, or does his expression show his emotions other than disappointment. Instead he turns heel and marches away, his shoulder squared and his footfalls deliberate.

            “Kíli!” Fíli calls.

            Thorin sighs. “Keep an eye on him,” he orders his oldest, more sensible nephew. “I know he’s going to do something rash.”

            Fíli looks at him with the same look of disappointment his brother had for him, only there is less anger and a little more understanding. “If he gets it in his head to go after the bandits, I won’t be able to stop him. Knowing a few of his archers they’ll stay behind just to keep me from trying to reason with him.” He sighs, sounding so weary. “You shouldn’t be so harsh on him. You know what he’s going through. It’s taking him longer than we thought to work through it.”

            And doesn’t Thorin already know that? He still has no idea what’s gotten into Kíli’s head that he has to be so sacrificial. In the Battle of Five Armies he was the first to fall of the three of them, only later did he learn Fíli fell second and then Kíli last. Something must have happened during that time that caused such a shift in Kíli motivations and health.

            “I’ll look out for him,” Fíli says. “Just—.” He cuts himself off. “I’ll let you know.”

            Fíli trots off in the same direction his brother went and Thorin resigns himself to the fact he must have screwed up again, but he had been truly trying to keep Kíli safe. Yes, they should help Bard, but the King of Dale has no manpower and Thorin is in the same situation.

Truly, the only thing they have is Kíli’s archery company and though they’re becoming well trained with their bows and most of them are warriors in their own rights—not to mention they are wholeheartedly into their jobs that some of the other dwarves are frightened with how far they’ll go when given the chance. Their encounter with the wolves in the woods are not the only reason they’re called a company of wolves—despite all of this, though, Thorin does not want to risk any of them for something that is surely going to fail.

It is not for a lack of faith in Kíli and his wolves, but for the fear that their first mission were to be a rove of blood-thirsty bandits who don’t look to be stopping any time soon.

Thorin drags a hand down his face and thinks of how Dís would’ve handled this. Probably with more finesse than he and more success. Never more has he missed his sister.

oOo

            “There are those of you here,” Prince Kíli says clearly, his voice ringing. “Who value and respect our King Under the Mountain. You have no reason not to, but if your loyalty to him outweighs your loyalty to me then shoulder your bow and go for a drink in the taverns tonight. You still hold a place in my company, but you hold no place with my mission tonight.”

            Silence ripples over the 36 dwarfs present in the training area. A few older dwarfs, in their early hundred or older, grab their weapons and a walk out, giving the prince respectful nods as they pass. He nods back in complete understanding. This leaves exactly 31 dwarfs left. Illé tightens her grip on her bow, planting her feet on the ground and squares her shoulders.

            A long moment pasts and two more dwarfs leave, looking embarrassed. One more dwarf starts to leave, but he doubles back shaking his head. After that no one seems to want to leave, leaving 29 dwarfs facing Prince Kíli with determined expressions.

            “What’s our mission?” Andvar asks, his voice is solid and sure.

            Prince Kíli smiles at him, looking a little relieved. “I don’t know if you’ve heard the reports of bandits around the land of Dale and our own Erebor. They’ve come closer to the southern valley, just inside our boarders. We’re well within our rights to take them out now before they reach the outskirts of Dale itself.”

            Illé frowns deeply. “Then what are we waiting for?” She asks, her voice a little higher than intended but it gets the desired result of other dwarfs agreeing with loud voices. She sees the prince’s smile get wider, nodding at her. Illé forces herself not to let her nervousness show.

            “Pack,” the prince orders. “We leave in thirty minutes. Keep what you’re doing quiet and secret. Meet me back here immediately.” And then he disappears.

            Illé hesitates before she follows Nogen and Andvar—who quickly became a close friend after capture the flag—to the barracks that house their things. They all already have their bows and arrows, but dwarfs move to grab daggers and swords, a few even think to grab a medical kit set up for their company especially. It’s light and has everything they need for a basic patching up that will hold until they get somewhere safer or to Erebor herself.

            They arrive back at the training area before long and Master Dwalin is waiting for them, arms crossed and a scowl on his face. The few dwarfs who were ready faster than them stand behind him, looking seconds away from bolting and absolutely terrified.

            “Kíli,” Master Dwalin growls.

            “Oh, come on,” Prince Kíli grouses. He’s coming up behind the group, looking annoyed. “Don’t tell me Thorin sent you.”

            “He doesn’t actually believe you’ll do it,” Master Dwalin says. “It’s Fíli who sent me. He doesn’t know where you are.” He gestures to the archers. “Kíli, think about this.”

            Prince Kíli opens his mouth, but Andvar takes a deep breath and steps forward. “I have kin in Dale,” he says. “My cousins decided to stay there to help rebuild, they forge metal works for carriages and houses. I refuse to let them be raided by filthy thieves.”

            Someone else calls out something about friends living in Dale. Dwalin sighs.

            “We’re not doing this just for Prince Kíli,” Fáfnir says. “We would follow him in a heart beat, but we’re doing this for Dale. If we’d been aware of how bad it was we would’ve gone earlier, whether our prince allowed it or not.”

            Prince Kíli snorts and crosses his arms to match Master Dwalin’s stance. He looks just as intimidating, but in a different form. Illé can’t think of the words to describe it properly.

            “With those words,” the prince says. “We’re heading out. Report me to my uncle-king, but that’s not going to stop me.”

            He brushes past the older dwarf, gesturing for them all to fall in line. Illé hurries to behind his shoulder, Andvar coming up next to her behind his other shoulder. Their prince is tense and angry; she doesn’t think she’s seen him this angry before.

            They don’t take horse and went they make it outside the mountain to the southern valley the prince takes them to the left and into the trees. Prince Kíli gives them a small run down of what he knows about the bandits so when they come upon them a few hours later the company is more-or-less ready for them.

            There are twelve men sitting around in their camp, there’s no fire and they look unfairly relaxed. Illé scowls, how could anyone be like this? It makes no sense.

            Prince Kíli doesn’t wait; he immediately steps out of the coverage of the trees with his sword in hand instead of his bow. Illé vaguely wonders what the point is of creating an archery company if their commander doesn’t use his own bow, but she keeps those thoughts to herself. The prince is angry and she fears he isn’t thinking clearly. She vows to keep an eye on him and to let Andvar know of her worries before everything gets too horrible.

            “You’ve crossed the boarder into Erebor,” the prince says calmly. The Men leap up—startled by the sudden appearance and one of them looks terrified at the sight of so many dwarfs. “State your reasons.

            “Oh, what fair princeling is this?” One Man says, snickering. He obviously knows their culture well enough if he can recognize the bead in the prince’s hair. “You’re a bit too elfish to be a dwarf, don’t you think?”

            Prince Kíli scowls, gripping his sword tightly. He shifts when Nogen tries to get in front of him defensively, making it so she’d have to be obvious if she were to try and protect their prince.

            “Men,” Illé snarls. “Only speak when they have something idiotic to say.” She has her bow with an arrow nocked in one hand, holding the arrow in position with her fingers, and has a throwing knife in her other hand. She may not be able to accurately throw one to get a death, but she can cause a distraction.

            The prince holds out a hand to keep her quiet. “And you’re a bit too far from home, don’t you think so?” It’s not a perfect rebuttal, but it get’s the effect of the men loosening their shoulders. “Why are you raiding villages?”

            “Because we can,” is the answer he receives. “And because we want to. There’s really no harm in it. Except to the villages, I guess.” The Man speaking smirks.

            “I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Prince Kíli says politely. “And to never come near Erebor nor Dale ever again.”

            The Man who mocked the prince stands; coming in front of the people he obviously leads. “And if we don’t? Even telling us to get off your lands doesn’t mean we’ll actually do it. And if we did, there are always more settlements to raid. I’m sure we can find a good foot hold in the Iron Hills, don’t you think?”

            Illé isn’t sure what happens next, but she is sure one of the bandits is the first to move. A knife whirls from the mess of bandits, striking a tree and staying there. The leader glares at whomever did it, but he ends up just shrugging, raising his sword, and charging at Prince Kíli with a mighty yell.

            Prince Kíli braces against the strike, grunting a bit at the weight. Illé lunges forward and embeds the knife in her hand in the man’s side before whirling around and shooting her arrow into another man’s hand. The leader goes down quickly after that; distracted by the knife in his side he doesn’t notice Prince Kíli cleaving his sword into his chest.
            Illé loses sight of the prince after that as he goes for one opponent and she goes for another. She tosses Nogen a knife and orders her to release the horse the men had, she nods and goes for them.

            There were twelve bandits, with the death of their leader and, what looks like, the death of three more there are eight left. She helps Hár finish another one off just in time to hear a grunt of pain from Vestri. He stumbles back, hand to his shoulder. Illé goes to him, slapping Austri on the shoulder as she passes him to get his attention, and then she drags the injured dwarf to behind some trees.

            “Keep him here,” she tells Austri. “Pick off anyone you can aim for, but keep him from bleeding out. Don’t take out the knife.”

            Austri nods solemnly and Illé smiles at him.

            Andvar finds her when she comes from behind the trees. “I can’t find the prince,” he says. “And some of the men caught their horses before they could run. I hate to do it, but we need to take them out.”

            Illé nods, drawing an arrow from her quiver to nock it. She can see three horses and she sends an arrow to the flank of one of them. It rears, screaming in pain, and takes off, not listening to its rider and going right under a low-hanging branch that knocks him right off. He struggles to his feet, but Brúni is there to finish him off before it’s too late.

            “Watch out!” Someone shouts. “Illé” It sounds like Nogen.

            She doesn’t turn in time and the dead weight of a horse slams into her, knocking her down and pinning her under its weight. The rider tumbles off with a surprised shout and Fáfnir shoots him.

            Illé struggles to free herself as she does a quick run through of everyone in the clearing. It’s then that she spots her prince, he’s so focused on a bandit trying to stab him in the head that he doesn’t see the man coming up behind him.

            The Man raises his sword, ready to cleave the unsuspecting Prince Kíli in the back. Illé shouts, but everyone else is caught up in their own little skirmishes. She struggles against the dead horse on her legs, clawing at the dirt and tree roots in an attempt to pull herself out. She grabs her bow that is just within arm’s reach and doesn’t even think to aim it, just nocks an arrow and lets it fly. It slams into the Man’s shoulder, jerking him back with enough force that he drops his sword. Prince Kíli whirls around and drives his dagger into the Man’s stomach, holding it there with a twist until the Man stops his choking.

            Nogen heaves the horse off Illé and she almost sobs in relief—but doesn’t. She lets Nogen check her over, running her own eyes over the older dwarf-lady for injuries. Luckily, except for a scrap on her chin and a bead from her hair missing, Nogen looks perfectly fine. She whispers thanks to Mahal and holds on to Nogen, not really having the strength to let go. Her nose throbs, though, indicating that it’s broken. She can’t quite remember when that happened.

            “Prince Kíli!” Andvar shouts, gaining everyone’s attention.

            Illé turns to see the brave prince on his knees, hands over his face, and breathing so heavily his shoulders tremble. Illé moves with Andvar to the prince’s sides, her hand going to his shoulder and Andvar’s hand going to his other shoulder.

            “Are you hurt?” She asks quietly, trying to keep her words from the others. Nogen blocks the three of them with her body, using her considerable height and glare to intimidate them all. Illé wants to thank her loudly, but holds back to focus on the prince. “Prince Kíli?”

            Andvar gives her a worried look over the prince’s back, just as unsure of what to do as she is. “Do we need to call someone?” He asks even though there’s no one they can really call this far into the woods.

            Prince Kíli shakes his head. “Call me Kíli,” he says hoarsely. “Leave the prince out.”

            Illé hesitates, that seems a bit much. “I can’t,” she says, mostly to herself.

            He heaves a sigh and sits up straight, dropping his hands from his face. His cheeks are dry, but his eyes are rimmed red. He seems almost embarrassed to have broken down like he did in front of them. “Illé, Andvar,” he says slowly. “Call me Kíli. It only seems appropriate considering you two are now my captains.”

            He stands, hand to his side and Illé can see the crimson staining of red against the dark brown of his leather armour. Andvar shakes his head at the news prin—Kíli just sprung on them and moves closer to grab Kíli’s arm.

            She supports Kíli’s other side. “I don’t really care what we can call you,” she says, sounding braver than she felt. “You need to see a healer. You’re bleeding, Kíli.” She tacks on the name as an after thought, and her insides warm when Kíli looks pleased.

            Then his expression turns to confusion. “I’m bleeding?” He asks, looking down to see the red under his hand. “Oh.”

            “You didn’t know?” Andvar asks, alarmed.

            Kíli shakes his head. “It hurts,” he admits. “But I didn’t…” His knees buckle and he would’ve fallen to the ground if Andvar and Illé weren’t there.

            “Let’s go home,” Illé says. “Onar, you and Nyir run ahead and let them know to have Óin waiting for us,” she calls to the two dwarfs standing on the outskirts of the group. They immediately take off as fast as their feet can carry them. “Hár, Brúni, Bílr, Northri, stay behind and see what you can find out about the bandits. I want to make sure they’re the only ones.”

            Andvar nods. “Check for other weapons,” he adds. “We could deal with a few things to be melted down for the smiths.” He glances down at Kíli for approval and the prince nods. “The rest of you, we’re going home. Vestri, stay near your brother. I don’t want you dying on me.”

oOo

            It took all of Thorin’s will power not to grab his youngest nephew and shake him until sense rattles in his brain. Instead he drags a hand down his face in exasperation as Fíli and Óin fret over the injured dwarf. Outward Thorin is calm and annoyed, standing on the fringes of activity as Kíli gets paler and paler. Inward Thorin is battling his true annoyance with worry—worry that increases when Fíli unbuckles Kíli leather armour and removes it, a river of blood that had been kept by the pressure releasing to drench the cloth around him.

            “My company,” Kíli gasps out.

            Fíli rolls his eyes. “They’re fine. One has a knife wound in his shoulder, but it’ll heal nicely. Other than that, the worse is a broken nose. Everyone else have scrapes and bruises. You’re the worst off, you idiot.”

            Kíli clutches as his brother’s arm as Óin prods the wound. A knife must’ve slipped through the seams of his armour—though, the only way to do that is if Kíli’s armour wasn’t made correctly or wasn’t strapped the right way.

            Thorin is leaning towards “wasn’t strapped correctly” and that gives him even more reason to want to shake his nephew. Of all the idiotic things Kíli’s done in his life, this is sincerely the stupidest ever.

            It takes an hour before Óin is finishes cleaning out the wound and wrapping it up. It’s not poisoned and not too deep—the armour was good for something at least—but Kíli keeps flinching away and muttering about his company while Fíli tries to sooth him.

            When everything’s done Thorin orders the healer and his oldest nephew to leave the room. Fíli only protests a little before Kíli quietly asks for him to leave as well. Oh good, he knows he’s in trouble. Let it be known that Kíli isn’t not smart, just stupid most of the time.

            “Dwalin told me about what your company said,” Thorin says, deciding that Kíli’s in enough pain that the shouting can be pushed back a few minutes. “That they would’ve gone earlier if they’d the information then.”

            Kíli grins. “And there we go.” He doesn’t sit up, just lies there staring at the elaborately craved ceiling of the infirmary. He sighs. “I know you’re mad at me. But I couldn’t just let them keep raiding villages. They were working on getting the trade markets just inside Erebor. That’s two leagues from anywhere near us. I could tell. They could’ve hit them then galloped away before any of us could make it out of our beds.”

            “You’re right I’m mad at you,” Thorin says. “Furious. You went against my direct order not to go after them. One of your archers has a knife wound, another a broken nose that could’ve been a lot worse, and you have a wound to the side. That’s your fault, by the way. How stupid can you get? You didn’t properly strap on your armour before marching out.” Thorin pinches the bridge of his nose. “There are terrible punishments for this sort of thing. What were you thinking, Kíli?”

            Kíli doesn’t answer him, doesn’t even look at him, and just presses his lips together in a thing line. Thorin sighs and takes a seat in the chair next to the bed. His nephew is erratic and nothing thinking clearly—obviously there’s something in his head Thorin just doesn’t understand.

            “Do you have a death wish?” Thorin asks abruptly. “Fíli’s told me of your actions for the past month and I’ve noticed myself. Even Tauriel voiced her worries before she left. What I cannot fathom is why? Kíli, what happened in the Battle?”

            Thorin fell first. Then Fíli. Kíli last.

            Kíli’s answer is unexpected and disconcerting. His nephew’s breathing hitches and he closes his eyes, expression twisting into something tragic.

            “Don’t ask me that,” he begs. “Just, please don’t.”

            His eyebrows reach his hairline and his frown deepens. “Kíli, what—?”

            “Get out,” Kíli whispers.

            “Kíli.”

            He throws an arm over his eyes. “I don’t care how you punish me,” he says. “Just get out. Please.”

            Thorin sighs. “We’re not done talking,” he warns and gets no reaction. He stands and turns to leave, but then turns back to put a hand on Kíli’s head, ignoring the way his nephew stiffens. “I’m not going to punish you,” he says. “Because you’re hurting beyond just the wound in your side.”

            Kíli’s breathing hitches again.

            “I’ll send Fíli in,” he continues. “We’ll talk later.”

            Just as he starts to walk away something tugs on his sleeve. He glances around to see Kíli holding him back ever-so-slightly. His arm is still over his face, but Thorin can see his mouth and the way the corner of his lip twitches into a small smile.

            “You’re a good uncle, Thorin,” he says quietly then lets his grip relax.

            Thorin swallows thickly and leaves the room in a hurry. He tells Fíli to keep his brother company in sharp tones, ignoring the look his oldest nephew gives him, and then he does away with himself in his quarters.

            He doesn’t rush because he’s a king and a dwarf all rolled into one person. He holds himself tightly together as he passes citizens of his kingdom, nodding when others greet him but refrains from small talk.

            He makes it to his quarters and collapses into a chair like he’s a puppet with his strings cut. Thorin covers his face with a hand, trying to shove Kíli’s words out of his head. He had decided long ago he was not a good uncle, hardly even a good king, and he could never go back to the time when he maybe could’ve been. Back when he was a prince and may never get the throne what with the long lives his grandfather and father both would live.

            He’s tried to be a better king and uncle, though. His head is clear and he’s noticed how awful he’s been not just to his family, but to his friends as well. His nephews and Bilbo have suffered the worse and it kills him inside to notice how bad it got before now.

            Kíli is at fault for what happened but so is Thorin, if he’d just calmed down and listened to him and Balin, Dwalin, and even Fíli instead of trying to mold to the dwarves of the Iron Hills’ thoughts then this situation wouldn’t be as terrible.

            Thorin takes a deep breath, letting his hand fall from his face. He drops his head back at stare at his ceiling. He suddenly doesn’t like his life at all, he wishes he never left Ered Luin—and if anyone ever found out he’s thinking this they would all die of shock.

            Life then was mortifying and hard, but he had the love of his nephews, his sister was by his side, and his mind hadn’t been clouded.

            He heaves himself from his seat, the little moment of almost-hysteric introspection doing wonders by actually calming him down—setting things out like that always made things make sense and a little clearer.

            Right now, though, he has more papers and reports to look at, a write up of what happened between the archery wolves and the bandits to scratch down for the records, and there is definitely a visit from Balin coming up in the next hour or so to coincide with Thorin’s reaction in Kíli’s room in the healing wing.

            The knock on the door is earlier than expected, but Balin peeks his head in and Thorin sits back with a small smile at remembered routines.