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Suffer the Little Ones

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You are only awake because Kili is having nightmares again. It’s your fault for telling him stories about orcs. Ma smacked you upside your head for it and you still thought it was funny, but this is the third night in a row he’s been whimpering in his sleep and you’re starting to regret your joke.

It’s not your fault he’s a coward. It’s not his fault either, Ma says, he’s only eight, barely as high as Uncle Thorin's belt.

So you’re awake when the noises come. You hear metal on metal and another sound, a wet, thick hacking noise, like when Uncle Dwalin has gone hunting and is cutting up the boar for selling. And then the screaming starts.

Something much older and smarter than you are stirs in your breast and you shoot out from under the furs and start pulling your breeches on. “Mama!” you hear yourself shout. “Mama! Wake up!”

You have Dwalin’s smallest coat around your shoulders before you think about it, and Ma is shoving Kili into your arms. She has one of the axes in her hands and she steps past you. The blade slices through the air and splits the wall of the tent like it were spiderweb.

“Go!” Ma bellows. “Hide in the forest! We’ll find you—“

“Mama, behind!”

Something is ripping open the door ties and Ma turns and hefts the axe. You dig your fingers into the shoulders of Kili’s thin shirt and run. The night air is cold and for a moment you don't even know where the sky and the ground are. Then a monster with scarred grey skin and bulging eyes rears out of the darkness with a dripping hook of rusty iron and Kili screams, a louder sound than you have ever heard him make, but you duck under the sweeping steel and haul him along. The bushes ahead are thick and long-leaved and you hunch and run, battle through, waiting for the hot pain of a hook in your back. You can hear the monster’s cursing get fainter. It is not as small and light-footed as you. Dwalin’s coat catches on the twigs but you tug it free, not thinking, blind beneath the clouded sky and thick trees, tripping and stumbling and dragging your little brother with you.

When you stop, your throat hurts with the cold air and your eyes are streaming. You can feel thin cuts stinging your face, scrapes from the bushes that saved you both. Kili is silent now, stiff and stunned and invisible in the dark, but alive and clinging to your hand.

You can still hear the monsters’ roars. Or maybe it’s those beasts the elders say they ride. You don’t know or care. The sound makes you feel like you’re going mad, like you’ve got too much beer in your blood. You have to get away. As soon as you’ve caught your breath you tighten your grip around Kili’s hand and run.

---

Twelve left for the trip to Moria, but only five return. Thorin sees them coming up the valley towards the summer camp and knows something terrible has happened. They’re only tiny spots against the stony scar of an old landslide, but these are not forerunners of the rest. They have no ponies, and even from this distance he can see that someone is limping. He fetches help and goes to meet them.

It is Dwalin who’s hurt – the others unharmed, but for their fatigue.

“We came as fast as we could. We were on the south arm of Bagildver two days ago,” Dwalin pants. “Goblins – a raiding party – heading for farms –”

“Thorin!” Dis is the only one still standing, with black blood on her sleeve and her skirts tied up around her legs to keep up with the swift pace. “Thorin, we must go back!”

“The boys,” Thorin says, keeping his voice steady. She would not have left them unless there was nothing else to be done.

“They ran into the forest,” Dis says, and the pleading in her eyes tells Thorin that she has argued with the others for two days of marching. “They will be waiting for me, brother. I must find them.”

Thorin looks at the others. Farin and Vigg avoid his eye. Dwalin holds his gaze. “I heard a child scream,” he says quietly.

“We heard only that!” Dis cries, turning a snarl on him. “You know nothing! You left them there with nothing!

Dwalin hangs his head. Thorin does not need to ask how desperate the battle must have been for him to leave the dead behind, how lucky they were to escape with five. He clears his throat. “Twenty dwarves will be ready to march out within the hour. If there is any chance –” he nods at Dis. “They’re strong enough to seize it, and so shall we.”

Dis wants to march with them, but Thorin convinces her to stay at camp. She is exhausted from two days of a ceaseless pace without food, though she insists she can go another week if she needs to. Twenty-one march out with Thorin at their head, with the lightest supplies they can survive on and the heaviest weapons they can carry.

The Bagildver is a trailing mountain stretching out from the main range into old Eregion, with fertile lands all around – rich soil for men, rich pickings for orcs and goblins. They find the remains of the camp on the second day and the raiding party on the third, on the mountain's south-west arm. They know this is the guilty party by the dwarvish trophies the goblins fling aside as they flee from the arrows and axes. Almost all are killed quickly, but the few wounded are dragged into the centre of the foul circle and laid at Thorin’s feet.

“How many did you kill?” Thorin demands, putting one foot on the gushing axe-hole in the nearest goblin’s flank. “Where are the bodies? Tell me!”

The goblin beneath him groans and wriggles, but one of its neighbours, larger and twisted with the marks of old fights, begins to laugh.

“Split and munched,” he barks up at Thorin. “We sucked the marrow from their bones and scattered the rest. Sickly meat, it was too.”

“How many?” Thorin growls, raising his sword. “Tell me and I will spare you!”

The goblin sneers up at him. “Uncle,” he says mockingly, using the dwarvish word. “You want the little two, don’t you? I beat them and cut them and pulled out their livers hot and steaming even as they squealed for—”

Thorin cuts his throat before he can utter another world.

Through the roar of his rage and the growing void of his grief, he feels glad that he made Dis stay behind.

They search the forest anyway, all around the camp where dwarves slept. The tents are torn and crushed, the ponies butchered, goblin leavings strewn about as a final insult. In a clump of bushes they find a few scraps of fur torn from a warm coat, but the forest is thick and they can see no clear trails leading that way. At the goblin’s camp they find a few remains, and bones in the fire. Barely enough to account for two or three of their kin. They gather the bones up gently in a cape. Three of the older dwarves who have lost brothers and cousins cut off long braids, weeping silently, and tie the makeshift bags with them. They collect what belongings they can find – weapons and trinkets that will have to serve as burial gifts for the unburied – and go back to the living.

Thorin has not seen Dis raise her voice in many years, even to scold the children. Like him, she never says more than she needs to say. But when he comes back to her without her children, the wordless sounds she makes are louder than he can bear.

---

You don't know how long you run. You stop as Kili begins to cry. When the clouds part, a gibbous moon trickles through the trees and you realise your brother has no shoes, and his feet are bleeding. The goblins' victory horns still echo from down in the valley. Goblins have an incredible sense of smell, Balin told you, and will hunt until they drop dead. You heave Kili up onto your back and try to carry him further, but your legs begin to shake almost at once. There's an overhang up ahead, with a bed of dry ferns beneath. The thought of sleep is as rich and beautiful as gold right now. You crawl in and tuck Kili into your coat - Dwalin's coat - but maybe Dwalin is dead, which makes it your coat now. You find there's a small knife in one of the pockets, but it's no longer than your hand, no good for killing goblins.

"I want Mama," Kili grizzles. "I'm cold. My feet hurt. I want Mama."

"Shut up," you tell him, but not unkindly. "The goblins mustn't hear us."

He falls asleep within minutes. You try to doze with your back against hard stones. The overhang isn't even high enough to sit up, and your neck is bent at a painful angle. Sleep comes fitfully, and you're jolted awake every time Kili shifts or the wind rushes through the branches above, every time your arm goes to sleep or the bare earth becomes to painful. The only blessing is that you aren't woken by the horns again. Maybe they're not hunting you. Maybe Ma will find you soon.

By the time the dawn is creeping through the forest you know you won't sleep any longer. You get Kili up, tear off strips from your tunic to tie around his feet, and make him walk even though he complains. You don't dare go back down the valley to the campsite, but you remember the road you took on the way here. You can't see far through the trees, but if you go up and up and then down, you'll be in the valley below the west face of the mountain, and the road curves right in there. That's the way back to the township of tents where the dwarves are spending summer. Ma and Dwalin and the others will go that way, and Uncle Thorin will come back along there to look for you and Kili. Yes, that's the best way to go.

You climb all morning, and then carry your brother through the afternoon. The trees thin to shriveled beeches and you can see distant peaks. The ground grows dry and dusty, but soon the slope flattens and you find a mountain tarn. The brown water is clear and you're both so thirsty that you drink until your bellies hurt. Hunger has become constant, more painful than the scratches on your face and hands. Dwalin's coat seems incredibly hot and heavy but you don't dare leave it behind in case you have to spend another night in the forest. At last the ground turns downwards. At the bottom of the valley you'll find the road. Ma and Thorin will be waiting there. You can almost see them. They'll have dried meat and bread with butter, their arms will be warm and their voices soothing. You just have to keep going downhill.

(You don't know that you're not walking down the southwest arm of the Bagildver; you're east of the mountain, and you've just crossed the saddle back to the main range. You're in utterly the wrong place, walking further and further away from where Thorin will be looking for you)

(You don't know that you should always stay put when you're lost in a forest)

(You don't know that your uncle will never find you)

(You don't know you'll never see Ma again)

When you come across a creek you follow it rather than battle through the ever-thickening forest, stepping from stone to stone or wading up to your waist when the banks become too steep. You think it's strange, because you don't remember a river below the east face, but perhaps you missed it on the way. Or maybe it goes underground later. You weren’t raised in a mountain, but you still think like a dwarf, without real knowledge of the flatland. Dwarves think about maps in three dimensions, trust in their internal compasses, and believe the world above ground works in two dimensions like a drawing on a page. You don’t see how the curves and changes of the land drive your path, expand distances and warp direction. You don’t notice where the river is going. You don’t understand that points in the distance are stable: that the snowy peaks and the glimpsed head of Bagildver could be your guides. You’re going the wrong way.

"I'm hungry," Kili whispers, his arms loose around your neck and his head resting on your shoulder.

"I'm hungry too," you say. "We'll be safe soon. Then we'll eat."

But the sun goes down just as the slope starts to level out, and you're so tired. There's a smooth beach of sand nearby with dry rocks to shelter you from the wind. You sleep for the night, and don't stir even for Kili's nightmares. When the sun comes up it seems to have risen early. Your head feels too heavy to lift and Kili is difficult to wake. His eyes are glazed, and when he tries to stand he cries out and sits down again. You unwrap his feet and find that one of the cuts, scabbed with dirt and blood, is surrounded by red, hot skin. You make him sit on the edge of the stream while you wash it as best you can, though you can tell how much the cold water hurts. You tell him how brave he is. He smiles faintly, but he's swaying a little. You'll have to carry him.

You keep stopping to rest. You're so tired. You hold Kili tight, because he keeps falling asleep, his arms hanging boneless against your chest. You have to press handfuls of water to his mouth just to get him to drink. The stream is wider now, shallower and easier to follow, but still it takes all day to travel even the length of the valley. The road must be soon. It must be. Thorin and Ma will be just past the next bend. Every time you get dizzy you pick a rock just ahead and tell yourself, just reach that rock, reach there and you can stop for the night. But you don't ever stop. You just pick another rock and keep going.

Sometime in the evening, when the first stars are sharing the sky with the dying sun, you smell smoke. Your heart begins to beat fast, though your blood feels thick in your veins. Around the next curve in the river there is a well-trod path on the bank. You hurry on and come suddenly upon a cluster of huge stone houses, man-sized dwellings. One has a roof blackened by recent fire, and a dead mule lies a little way away, its head cut fully from its body. You stand dazed for a moment, but the light is getting worse. You walk around the burned house to see the other buildings. Candlelight flickers behind the shutters and there are voices inside.

A tall human - (he's actually no more than a boy, like you, but you don't recognise him as such) - is standing outside the largest house. When he sees you he gives a yell and begins to bang on a pot hanging beside him. A rust-tipped spear is in his hand. "The goblins are back!" he yells in the common tongue, which you find difficult for you to follow. "The goblins are back!"

(You can't see what you look like, filthy and bloodied and in a too-big fur coat, your hair already darkened with dirt, leering out of the shadows. You can't blame the boy for panicking, though it still seems monstrously unfair)

Men pour out of the big house. They are rough-clothed farmers, some bandaged from a recent battle, but they have antique weapons and shields and they roar at you in a clamour of voices. They're so huge, as big as giants in the old stories. An arrow whistles past your face, another thuds into a solitary fencepost nearby.

Your blood rushes to your head and you turn and run, leaping down the bank and across the ford, stumbling and almost dropping Kili every few steps. In the forest on the far side you hide to catch your breath. You aren't thinking anymore. You're too tired to think. All you can remember is the face of the scarred goblin outside of the tent, and the roar of the men. Soon there comes the barking of dogs and you heave yourself up, carrying Kili in your arms because he can't hold on any longer, and run deeper into the forest. The men don't follow you far from their homes, but you keep going anyway until you fall and find you can't carry your brother any further. You can't. You curl up where you are, holding him to your chest, listening to him breathe, shallow and slow.

In the morning you almost don't get up. Your thoughts meander across your mind like scum drifting on a pond. You don't think about what it means if you don't stand up, all you know is you don't have the strength anymore.

Your brother stirs in your arms. "Fili," he murmurs, so quiet you imagine it as much as you hear it. "I'm so hungry."

You have to stand up. You have to. You grab knotted bark and low branches and haul yourself to your feet. You’re in a little hollow between to thick-rooted trees. The daylight hurts your eyes.

"Stay here," you tell Kili, but he’s already sleeping again. You take off Dwalin's coat and wrap him up in it, but he doesn't wake. You can't feel the breeze through your thin night-shirt. You can't feel anything. You start to walk, holding onto the tree trunks for support. The forest seems to swim around you, and the sound of birds are over-loud in your ears. When your hand grabs onto sharp spines instead of peeling bark it takes a moment for the pain to reach your consciousness, but at last you yelp and pull back, holding your fist to your chest and glaring at the offending bush.

Spines. The bush.

Wild raspberries.

They extend for twenty feet through the trees, thick and tall as a man, heavy with an early summer haul and still pale pink like Kili's tongue. You groan and grab the nearest handful, heedless of the spines now, shoving them into your mouth. You eat and eat, scattering a few birds, and slowly your mind rises from the surface of the swamp and you remember your brother. You pick more raspberries, making an apron of your shirt, and carry as many as you can back to the hollow between the trees. You manage to shake Kili awake, make him sit up against the roots and show him the berries. He starts to cry as he eats, snot dribbling down his face to mix with the berry juice on his chin. You leave him with the pile and go back for more. You both eat so much you throw up, and Kili cries again, but you laugh and promise it doesn't matter, in the forest you can make a mess and no one cares. When you've brought back three lapfuls of berries, staining your already filthy nightshirt even worse, you finally stop and nap in the noon sun with Kili tucked under your arm.

The last thing in your mind before you fall asleep is the knowledge, sure but somehow not frightening, that those raspberries saved both your lives.

"Do we have to keep going?" Kili asks, when you've both woken up and eaten more. You shake your head.

"We'll stay here a while. Until we're rested."

You start to remember lessons Balin gave you about the forest. ‘It's not a natural place for dwarves,’ he said, ‘but we've been doing a lot of unnatural things since we left Erebor.’ You break of fern stems to chew, but they taste bitter and stick in your teeth, so you dig up the roots instead. They're not easy to eat, but you remember Dori teaching you a myriad of ways to make fire. Fire is natural to dwarves, everyone says that.

You can hear water and you take Kili to find it, cutting marks in the trees so you can get back to the raspberry bushes. There are tiny, speckled fish in the pools, no larger that your little toe, but you can't even think about trapping or catching them yet. You wash Kili's cut feet again. The bad one looks a little better. You let him play in the sand while you collect stones, looking for the right colour and the way they catch the light. You spend the rest of the day working on a little pile of sticks and dry lichen, trying to get a spark, and after hours and hours you finally coax a tiny flame to life. The roots are easy to stomach when they're heated through, and you eat as many raspberries as you can manage. You're already thinking of bivvies made of branches and woven leaves to keep the wind and the worst of the rain out. And though you've never made one yourself, you've seen humans using hollow branches and loops of flax to make snares for the fat pigeons that nest in these woods.

(It will be almost a year before you catch your first pigeon, but from the beginning you were thinking about it. From that moment in front of the first fire, you wanted to survive)

That night Kili is restless, asking when you can both go back to Ma and Thorin. To quiet him you sing your uncle's song about the Misty Mountains. You miss some of the words and you can't sing it like Thorin can, but it puts Kili to sleep without a frown on his brow.