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Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.


A raven alighted on the windowsill, tap-tapping on the glass. Thorin, lost in thought as he read Dáin's report on the status of the lower halls, didn't notice until the bird croaked out a protest.

Thorin shook his head and turned to see the raven. It tapped again, lifting its leg to show him the letter it carried.

Immediately, Thorin cast aside his reports and hurried over to the window. The raven jumped inside as soon as he opened it wide enough, flitting over to the crackling fireplace.

Thorin shivered as a blast of cold air washed over him. Though spring promised to arrive any day now, the Lonely Mountain was still buried in snow. Of course the raven had been so impatient to come inside.

He knelt by the bird, nodding to it respectfully. This was not one he was familiar with, but there was many a raven in the service of the royal family, and more every day now that the mountain had been reclaimed.

"May I?" he asked, gesturing to the letter tied on its leg.

It croaked again, making a sound like a laugh. It yanked its leg away and hovered above the fireplace, teasing him.

Thorin scowled. He had long awaited for word from his kin in the west—or perhaps from another friend to Erebor. Gandalf had disappeared long ago; there were other small settlements of Longbeard dwarves in these parts besides Ironhill; and maybe Bilbo had thought to write him... Though how a hobbit would have gotten ahold of a raven of Erebor, he didn't know.

It was only wishful thinking, anyway. As the raven flew closer, he recognized his sister's bold handwriting on the envelope.

"Give me that," he ordered. "Cheeky bastard."

The raven squawked indignantly, and Thorin sighed. If only these beasts could speak the common tongue! They were certainly intelligent enough to understand it.

"My apologies to you and your fathers," he said. "Now. May I please have my letter, O Feathered One?"

The raven tilted its head and cawed.

"Is that name not good enough for you?" he demanded. "What would you prefer? Are you one of Roäc's children?"

The raven lifted its head proudly and crowed in pride.

"Aye, then," he said. "A raven prince—ow!" It had nipped at his finger. "Learn some respect! I am a king, even if I am no raven!"

The raven snickered and leapt into the air, flying in circles on his head. Thorin was half-afraid it would leave droppings on him, but he was saved as it landed back in front of him.

"A raven princess, then?" he guessed. She nodded. "Then I will call you Inkeri. That is a name fit for a hero's daughter, and Roäc has served my people well."

The raven croaked its approval, then stuck out her leg to him. Thorin untied the string and took the letter from her. Immediately, she flew to the other side of the room, perching on his bookshelf.

"I can let you out," he said, but she nestled herself comfortably atop the shelf and looked as if she were staying awhile.

Thorin shrugged, then opened the letter.

To my dearest brother, Thorin: it began,

The dwarves of Erebor have almost returned home. Since receiving your letter after your success, I have gathered our people and led them eastward. I would have written you earlier, but this poor bird had been injured in a storm and had to be nursed back to health. Vali, sweet as he is, took the task upon himself and refused to let it fly with my reply until it was in better shape than I am.

I am beyond pleased with you and our friends! You have reclaimed our home, our treasure, our legacy. Father and Grandfather would be proud of you. Even from your one envoy to us, songs and legends have already begun to be whispered between us of your great deeds—and of your companions, of course. My boys have no shortage of admirers themselves, despite your endless berating of their foolishness!

I am afraid that Vali, in nursing this raven, has neglected to care for his own health. You know how he is; he swears he's doing fine, that his foot isn't bothering him, right up until he nearly collapses. Those damned orcs that robbed him of a limb—I curse them more every day. But Vali bears it all with a smile, and even on those days he can barely walk he is always worrying about others. What did I do deserve this husband of mine?

Vali will recover once he can rest in Erebor. You had better have cleaned the place up before we arrive—I am NOT going to sleep in a filthy dragon's den! And though you were vague in your letter, I know you could not have slain Smaug and what sounds like an army of orcs without sustaining grave injuries. I trust you have not dismantled your infirmary between the Battle of Erebor (as folk have begun to call it, though I am not sure the name will stick) and now!

I cannot wait to show Vali through the halls of my people. I know that many frowned upon my choosing to wed a Broadbeam instead of a Longbeard, but I have no regrets. Vali is the love of my life, and even now that family history has begun to matter to this aging princess, it does not o'erweigh a lifetime of happiness with my beloved.

In truth, I can barely recall Erebor and its mighty depths. You and our parents spoke endlessly of its majesty and warmth, but I was but a babe when the dragon first came. This will be a new experience for Vali and me.

By the way, Vali's niece has joined us in our journey to Erebor. You will remember Lóna; she and my boys were always causing mischief together as children. She has embraced her womanhood in the past year and has come into her own. Her mother is an awful, stubborn creature who cast her out; Vali and I took her in, and she wished to follow her favorite uncle east.

As you know, Lóna is a Broadbeam like Vali. There are a number of other Broadbeams in our company, loved ones of our people who could not be left behind. In the same vein, there were many Longbeards who remained in Ered Luin with their friends and family. I hope that these interminglings do not become an issue in Erebor as we settle again in our homeland. I trust you will discourage any complaints about who I or anyone else chooses to marry!

The best way to prevent these and any other dissensions is to organize your government as quick as possible. In your absence, I have led the Longbeard people as the Head of the House Durin. I urge you to call a meeting of the Seven Families as soon as possible; I have spoken some with the other Heads of House and I can tell trouble is already in the air.

I hope to arrive at Erebor within two weeks of sending this letter; it may perhaps be one by the time this errant raven arrives!

Give Fíli and Kíli my love. I miss them terribly and cannot wait to see them again.

Your good sister,
Dís of Durin.

P.S. Don't tell the boys that Lóna is among our company. She insists on surprising them, and I think a bit of fun for them would be lovely.

Thorin smiled as he finished reading. Dís had given him much to think on; not least his responsibilities in calling together the Seven Families. Though Durin was chief and royal among the Longbeard dwarves, six other clans held much power and nobility, and their support was vital to the rule of any king, including and especially him.

His heart weighed guiltily as he thought of poor Vali and his long-missing foot. He had neglected to mention it in his missive to Dís, but Fíli too had lost a limb by an orc's blade and was lucky he had not lost much else. Fíli's hand had been buried where his body might have been, and he was still on the mend and confined by Óin to the infirmary lest he wear himself out by trying to rebuild Erebor.

They did not need Fíli's help in particular. Kíli and Dáin oversaw reconstruction for the most part. Dáin's dwarves from Ironhill proved excellent workers, and Thorin had emptied a modest amount of gold from his endless vaults to hire workers from Dale to aid in the recovery. There would be plenty of space for the arriving dwarves, and the foundations for a rebuilt city had already been laid.

Thorin remembered this Lóna well: though she had been seen as a boy in her childhood and gone by another name, he was not much surprised that she was in truth a woman. Fíli and Kíli would be ecstatic to greet her, and this would be an excellent surprise for them.

He glanced up at Inkeri on his bookshelf. The raven was fast asleep and looking like she meant to stay there for some time. Well, he supposed that she deserved it after her journey. He would prop the window open for her before he left the room, though.

Thorin set the letter aside and sighed. The return of his people would mean work—good, rewarding work, but work nonetheless. He'd better get started.

Thorin rubbed his head as he walked out of Balin's office. In the thrill and danger of his quest, he'd forgotten how complicated diplomatic negotiations were.

He, Balin, and Óin had met that evening to discuss the organization of the first meeting of the Seven Families in Erebor. Thorin usually counted on Dwalin as one of his chief counselors, not Óin, but Dwalin was not a Head of House.

Even Thorin sometimes had difficulties wrapping his mind around the complexities of the bloodlines and inheritance and the divisions and interminglings of the Seven Houses of the Longbeard Clan. There was Durin, the chief and royal House, with six other noble Houses: Blomgren, Kóri, Wray, Ahlberg, Kjarr, and Gunnulf.

Thorin himself was not the Head of House Durin any longer. Now that he claimed the throne of all his people, that responsibility passed to Dís. Still, he was King and heavily involved in familial politics.

Though both were of the Line of Durin as well, Óin was Head of Blomgren and Balin of Kóri. All seven families were interrelated, and they were Heirs of their respective Houses but not of Durin.

Just thinking about all this was giving Thorin a headache. He wasn't in the mood for delicate, complicated balances of favor and fortune. Though he'd not yet been officially coronated, he'd earned his crown, and he had all the trappings of of a king.

After leaving the meeting with Óin and Balin, Thorin had intended to retire to his quarters, but his thoughts wandered to the one thing he had been most trying to avoid.

His steps took him deeper into Erebor's winding halls, past where the dwarves of Ironhill toiled to restore what was left of the city and toward the treasury. The hordes of gold had been spent in part in the reparation efforts and in payments to Dale and Mirkwood, but much still remained...including the most valuable treasure of all.

Before he'd left for the Shire, Bilbo had made Thorin promise to lock the Arkenstone away. He'd agreed—of course he had. He owed the hobbit his life and much more besides, and the shock of the goldsickness and his brush with death had been enough for him to push away anything that might drag him back to the state he'd been in during the Battle of the Five Armies (as it had begun to be called; contrary to Dís's letter).

But three months had passed since Bilbo's departure, three months for Thorin to while away his time with obsessive thoughts of the jewel that still ate away at his heart. Dáin had locked it deep in the chambers of Erebor, but Thorin knew where it was. Now his footsteps took him there against his will.

What would Bilbo think? he wondered as he wandered closer and closer to temptation.

But Bilbo wasn't here. Thorin missed his...friend terribly. Those last few days before he'd left for home had been, well, lovely. Thorin had felt nearly in—no, he wasn't going to go there. Not after all his past experiences with love had fallen to pieces in every attempt.

Even the time he'd been betrothed to a perfectly lovely girl, Heir to House Wray and an absolute sweetheart, hadn't worked out. Thorin just hadn't felt anything for her. He was almost relieved when the sacking of Erebor had dissolved the relationship.

Somehow, though, Bilbo felt different. But not even whatever it was he felt for the hobbit who'd left him could drive the Arkenstone from his mind.

Thorin stopped before the door to the treasury, his hand outstretched. He'd resisted the temptation for three months...was this to be the moment he succumbed?

The Arkenstone shone bright and white in his mind, dazzling and marvelous. When the Seven Families met again, would they ask for the stone? Would they ask why he did not wield it, why he did not set it above his throne as Thrór had before him? He needed it—he needed the power it gave him, he needed...

Thorin heard the sound of footsteps behind him. He flinched away from the door, looking around for the approaching person.

"Uncle?" Kíli asked, turning the corner. "What are you doing down here?"

Thorin smiled to his nephew, hiding the guilt in his heart. "Kíli! I was just—" He glanced around, realizing this hall also led to the infirmary. "I was just going to visit Fíli."

Poor, injured Fíli, bedridden again after his amputated hand had become infected again. He was on the mend but still confined to the infirmary as per Óin's insistence. Thorin tried to visit him every few days, and it had been awhile. It wasn't quite a lie.

"Oh!" Kíli nodded. "Well, I just got off duty. I was going to visit him, too."

"Let's go together," Thorin suggested.

They walked in silence together, lost in their respective thoughts. If Thorin noticed that Kíli fidgeted and glanced over his shoulder to where the stairs led upward and out to the mountainside, he didn't say anything. And if Kíli noticed that Thorin's hands still shook and his palms were sweating, he said nothing either.

When they reached the infirmary, Kíli opened the door and bowed to him.

"You first, your Majesty," he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

Thorin only rolled his eyes. "I haven't been coronated yet, Kíli."

"Yeah, but you're basically King," Kíli said.

"Technicalities are everything to royalty, Kí," Fíli remarked from his bed. "Haven't you been around Mother enough to figure that out?"

Kíli rushed over to his brother's beside, punching him lightly on the arm. "He's always been a king to me!"

Thorin laughed, hoping his nephews didn't realize how hollow it was. His thoughts were still consumed with the lure of the Arkenstone and all it promised; he did not feel a proper king. "Thank you for your confidence, Kíli, but Fíli is right."

"'Course I am," Fíli said, propping himself up with a pillow. "I'm always right. So they should just listen to me and let me out of this damned place!"

"You're unwell," Kíli said. "If you get up now you'll only get worse."

Fíli scowled, picking at the bandage over his wrist with his one remaining hand. He still looked ill: bags hung under red-rimmed eyes; he was thin and gaunt; his hair was ragged and the fingers he had left trembled when he held anything.

The days after the Battle had been hardest, not knowing if he would live or die. Thorin's injuries, while painful, never looked fatal; Kíli's were minor. But Fíli...after the blood loss and infection set in, Óin had been forced to amputate the mangled thing Azog had left for him. Fíli had been unconscious for days, and his road to recovery had taken the better part of a month.

And now, months later, when he should be improving, he succumbed to infection again. Óin assured everyone that Fíli would live, but the uselessness and sickness ate away at the once-tireless prince.

"Please, rest and recover," Thorin urged, placing a gentle hand on Fíli's shoulder. "Your mother has almost returned, and if she sees you like this, she will kill me. And then I'll never be king."

"Mother's coming back?" Fíli brightened, a smile appearing on his face. "And everyone else? Da and all our friends?"

"I just received her letter," Thorin confirmed.

"Do you think that girl, whatshername, Helka, is still pining after you, Fí?" Kíli teased, shoving his brother again. Fíli winced, nursing his bad arm, and Kíli hissed apologetically.

"She won't after she sees how sorry I look now," he grumbled. He waved the stump of his arm in the air. "Look at this thing. I'll never wield a blade again!"

"That's not true," Kíli insisted. "Azog did it—"

"I'm no orc!" Fíli growled, flinching away. "I'm no scum, I'm no—"

"Fíli!" Thorin exclaimed. "Calm down! No one is saying that."

Fíli took a deep breath, closing his eyes. "Sorry, Uncle. It's just..."

"Da will understand," Kíli said. "He lost his foot, 'member?"

"Yeah." Fíli stared at his bandages, still glum. "And he couldn't go on the quest. He stopped traveling and stayed home."

"But he's not helpless," Thorin said. "Vali is one of the kindest men I have the pleasure of knowing. He has found other paths to joy than fighting and traveling."

"'Sides, it's not like Da wanted to come on this quest in the first place," Kíli pointed out. "It's not his mountain, he's a Broadbeam."

"Something the Council of Seven Families never let Mother forget," Fíli grumbled, but he seemed marginally less miserable.

Thorin sighed. "Don't talk to me about the Council of Seven," he complained. "I just came from talking to Balin and Óin about when the first meeting will be in Erebor. They need to approve my claim to the throne before I can be coronated."

"Why would they not?" Fíli asked. "You won back the mountain! If that's not proof, what is?"

"The Arkenstone," he said.

"Which you have, even if you don't keep it on you," Kíli pointed out. "I do feel bad for you having to sit through that meeting."

"I'm not worried," Thorin assured. "It's just the Council members...Balin and Óin are bad enough on their own, once you get them talking politics, but throw in Audun as well? All he worries about his House's marriage alliances. It's as if Gunnulf is the only House in the Clan!"

"I always thought the one from Kjarr was the worst," Fíli said. "Colborn, is that his name? He'll agree with anything anyone says, and change his mind twenty times in one argument!"

"You all are forgetting Rangvaldr of Ahlberg!" Kíli groaned. "He's the most tiresome of the lot. I can't believe he's still alive after all this time, he's so ancient. He hates House Durin anyway, because of some ancient controversy over the royal line from before he was even born."

"The royal line has always been awash in controversy," Thorin said, his voice heavy with irony. "It's so hard to fine suitable marriages for princes." He gave a meaningful look to his nephews.

They chuckled awkwardly. "If you're worried about the Helka girl, you needn't be," Fíli assured him. "I never liked her anyway."

"And, ah..." Kíli gave Fíli a meaningful look. "I'm not too concerned about that topic yet, anyway."

Thorin wasn't sure what he meant by that, but he didn't have much room to talk. He was still unmarried after all these years, so focused had he been on the quest. And now that it was over...

"Didn't you have some lovely dwarf lined up for you?" Fíli asked.

"Yes," Thorin admitted. "Before the dragon came. I was young, but her father was Head of House Wray, and an alliance was struck. It all fell to pieces quickly, but poor Solveig harbored a grudge for ages. When she became Head of House...well, Council meetings were bad enough having to deal with rusty Rangvaldr and awful Audun, and she only made it worse!"

"Well, best of luck to you, Thorin," Fíli said. "You'll need it."

"I'm just glad I'll never have to deal with that," Kíli admitted. "I'm too far down the line of succession!"

"One of you is going to have to continue that line, you know," Thorin pointed out. "Eventually."

"What about Dáin?" Fíli pointed out. "He's an heir, and that brand-new wife of his ought to birth a baby or two sometime soon." He yawned loudly.

Thorin stood up. "I'm sorry, Fíli," he said. "We've been here long enough—we ought to let you rest."

"No, please," Fíli begged. "It's so boring here, with no one to talk to and no place to go. All I can do is read, but there's only so long I can focus on page after page of ancient Khuzdul texts!"

Kíli and Thorin exchanged a glance. Fíli's exhaustion was apparent.

"I promise I'll come visit you tomorrow, Fí," Kíli said. "Just rest, okay?"

"That's all I'm doing," Fíli mumbled, but his eyes were drooping shut.

Thorin and Kíli left, closing the door to the infirmary softly. They walked together for a ways, back up to their rooms. The chance for Thorin to take back the Arkenstone was gone now; the desire had passed and now faded into a low hum at the edge of his consciousness.

"You should write Mother back," Kíli said as they stopped at the hallway separating their quarters. "She'd appreciate it. Does she know about...Fíli's hand?"

Thorin shook his head. "I didn't know how to break the news."

"It's best she not worry while she's traveling." Kíli raised an eyebrow. "Have you heard from Bilbo? Do you know if he's returned to the Shire?"

Thorin looked away. "No," he said. "I've no idea."

"Write him, too," Kíli suggested. "Tell him we all miss him, and we hope he's doing well."

Thorin nodded, and opened his door. "I will. Goodnight, Kíli."

"'Night, Uncle," Kíli said, giving him a quick hug. He wandered off into the dark.

A chill breeze swept through the open window in his room. Thorin shivered. He glanced at Dís's letter again, then looked around the room to see if Inkeri had stayed any longer, but the raven was gone.

Chapter Text

Kíli shifted in his saddle, biting his lip and fiddling with the reins to his pony. Around him, his companions sat still and stolid, gazing unblinkingly at the horizon. He envied their focus, but he couldn't stop fidgeting.

"Kíli," Thorin murmured. "Calm down."

"I'm calm," he hissed. "I just—it's hard to stay still like this for so long. Are you sure that they're coming?"

"Your mother sent a raven this morning saying so," Thorin said. "They will ride over the crest of that hill at any moment."

"We've been here for two hours," Kíli complained. "Could we not have waited to greet them at the gates of the mountain?"

"It's almost like you don't want to see your family, Kíli!" Bofur exclaimed. "Come on, lad, just relax. Óin's been asleep in his saddle since before we even left!"

Kíli glanced over to Óin: he sat slumped over his pony's mane, snoring gently. Kíli snorted.

"I've got too much energy," he said. "Can't I go run on ahead and meet them?"

"Your grandmother, used to say that you and your brother had lightning in your veins." Balin chuckled. "I think she meant you would be great warriors, but her words ring true even when you're only being a jumpy little rascal."

Kíli scowled. "Lightning or no, you can't tell me to just stop my fidgets."

"Act like a prince," Thorin instructed. "Dís will expect that from you, and more importantly, so will everyone else."

"I'm barely a prince," Kíli pointed out. "Fíli's your heir. I'm just the spare."

"You represent the House of Durin." Thorin sighed. "We'll have enough trouble getting all the other Longbeard Houses in line without you making a fool of yourself."

Kíli clenched his teeth and tightened his muscles. He sat as still as he could for two whole minutes, before letting out an explosive breath and throwing his hands in the air. "Uncle, this is impossible—" he began, but a cry from sharp-eyed Ori interrupted him.

"Look!" Ori called. "They're here!"

Kíli sat up straight, stiffening his spine as best he could. A few miniscule pinpricks appeared on the horizon, and he felt excitement well up inside him until he couldn't hold it in anymore. A grin split across his face, and turned to his uncle.

"Thorin!" he exclaimed. "Don't you think Mother will be so proud of Fíli and I? We made it through the quest alive and well! I mean—mostly."

Fíli had been left behind in Erebor, his arm still on the mend. Óin had insisted that traveling, even such a short distance, was unwise of yet, though he was no longer confined to bed.

"Kíli! Settle down!" But even Thorin could not contain his anticipation. He laughed. "Yes, Dís will be quite proud of you, and just as relieved that you're alive—but she'll be even prouder if you pretend to be princely for just a few hours."

Kíli smacked Thorin's hand away and took a deep breath. "Pretend? Everything I do is princely!"

"Just last week you were walking around with shoes on your hands, declaring you'd invented a better way to make gloves," Bofur pointed out.

"Lightning in your veins indeed!" Thorin snorted.

Kíli turned his nose up at them, sniffing loudly. "You don't appreciate my genius!"

"And stuffy Lord Rangvaldr definitely won't," Balin reminded him.

Kíli sighed and gripped his reins even tighter, turning his gaze back to the slowly approaching company of dwarves. Every muscle in his body screamed to be put back into motion, but for his mother's sake he kept still.

Five dwarves rode at the front astride five magnificent ponies, hundreds of their folk marching in lines and driving wagons behind them. Kíli smiled as he saw his mother leading five of the Heads of the Seven Families, her dark eyes trained on him, her reckless son, even at a distance of a hundred feet.

The five ponies came to a halt ten strides from where Thorin and his company waited for them. Thorin dismounted from his own steed and approached them. Standing before his sister, he bowed, spreading his arms.

"My kin," he intoned. "Welcome to the Kingdom of Erebor. My company and I will escort you to the Mountain."

"Brother," Dís said. Though her eyebrows were arched in imperious judgement, her voice was warm. Kíli bounced in his saddle, elated to hear her familiar voice again, but a stern glance from Balin reminded him to fall still again.

"Lady Dís," Thorin said, "I welcome you as Heir of the Mountain. May you and House Durin thrive in our halls."

Kíli's mind wandered as Thorin began to address each of the other Heads of House. Dís turned her eyes back to him, and he met her gaze, unable to hold back a grin—and yes, a tear. To a stranger's untrained eye, it may have appeared Dís held only a slight distaste for Kíli, but he knew his mother well. The twitch of her lips and rise of her cheeks were a declaration of her love.

"Lord Rangvaldr, I welcome you as Heir of the Mountain," Thorin continued. "May you and House Ahlberg find peace and plenty in Erebor."

Rangvaldr inclined his head, sniffling loudly. Kíli was surprised he was still alive—the old dwarf must be practically three hundred, and every wrinkle and sag in his body betrayed it. The few scraps of wispy white hair atop his head and the ragged beard jutting from his chin looked like something better found on a mummy. Kíli thought he must sleep in a stone tomb, just to save time for his kin in case he died in his slumber. But his suspicious eyes were narrowed and calculating. He was alive and conniving yet.

"Lord Colborn—" Thorin began, but Colborn cut him off.

"Prince Thorin!" he said, fidgeting. Kíli rolled his eyes. If Colborn could lean this way and that, running a hand through his bushy brown beard and scratching his bottom, why could Kíli not act in such a way as well? He knew exactly what Thorin would say: "This is why he is a lord and not a prince."

Thorin chuckled awkwardly, clasping Colborn's proffered hand. "Welcome to Erebor, my lord. May you and House Kjarr prosper in your homeland."

Colborn held his grasp a little too long, chattering on about how excited he was to see the halls of his fathers— "After all, I was only a wee babe when the dragon came! But you ousted him well, and now we're all back!"

Thorin stepped away from him and approached the next Head of House. "Lord Audun. I welcome you as Heir of the Mountain. May you and House Gunnulf find all you desire in Erebor's halls."

"I am certain we will, your Highness," Audun rumbled. He was a stout aging dwarf, his red beard streaked with gray. He was a veteran of Azanulbizar, and the scar across the empty socket of his right eye was proof of it. Whatever disfigurements he suffered, it had not prevented him from finding love with the most beautiful dwarrowdam in the Clan, Lady Magnhild of House Blomgren.

Each of his three children had found matches of equally impressive status, and he was now looking to marry their own offspring into the royal line. His eyes strayed from Thorin to Kíli, and he grunted with satisfaction.

Kíli scowled. His heart had been stolen already, and he would find little success with Fíli. Suddenly a wave of longing swept over him: it had been a week since he'd last seen Tauriel. She resided in Dale for the time being, and finding excuses to run off across the plain was difficult, what with the restorations to Erebor and preparations for the Clan's arrival.

"Lady Solveig—" Thorin began, turning to the last of the Heads of House, but he stopped suddenly as he met the eyes of someone he had never yet seen.

"Excuse me, my lady," he said. "I do not believe we have been acquainted. I hope Lady Solveig is not unwell?"

The dwarven woman atop the final pony sighed. She bowed her head, long dark hair falling to obscure her visage. "Alas, your Majesty, my dear mother passed away shortly after your departure."

A shadow fell across Thorin's face. "My deepest condolences," he murmured. "Solveig was a good woman."

"She always spoke so highly of you, your Majesty," she said. "I regret the dissolution of your engagement, but I understand the circumstances were...complicated." She lifted her head, revealing pale blue eyes and a short, braided beard matched with a handsome mustache. She had a lovely nose, large and proud, but something about the glint those pale eyes put Kíli on edge.

Thorin stood uncomfortably, unsure of how to reply. Kíli fidgeted, then fell still as he remembered his obligation to look presentable.

"I am Lady Lún," she announced. "I have taken my mother's mantle, and am now Head of House Wray."

"Lady Lún," Thorin repeated. "As Heir to the Mountain, I welcome you to Erebor. May you and House Wray find our halls to your comfort."

"Thank you, Thorin," Dís said. "Now that the formalities are over, let's get moving. There are several hundred dwarves behind me who are dying for a hot meal and a warm bed!"

A ripple of laughter spread through the gathered crowd. Kíli guffawed, relaxing for the first time since the company had arrived.

"Erebor awaits, and we left Bombur behind!" Thorin exclaimed. "He has prepared quite a feast in your honor!"

There were so many faces—new and old, familiar and otherwise—that Kíli's head nearabout spun and fell off his shoulders before the evening was out. The reception banquet was a grand affair: loud, rowdy, and festive in the Longbeard fashion. All House rivalries and differences were put aside as the newcomers to the mountain dug into Bombur's delicious spread.

After properly gorging himself, Kíli decided to wander through the crowd and greet those he knew. He didn't reckon on being accosted by many people he had no memory of, but now that Erebor was restored, his standing as prince actually meant something, much to his surprise.

There seemed to be no end to bootlicking politicians, harried wives demanding if he had seen their husbands anywhere, and obnoxious adolescents asking for favors. He did see some friendly faces among the crowd—childhood playmates, shopkeepers he had oft purchased from on errands for his mother, the occasional family friend—but they were few and far between.

Kíli had wanted to greet his parents immediately upon their arrival, but Thorin's plea to show restraint in his excitement kept him separated from them until later that evening. During the feast, he had entertained some of the lesser nobles of House Durin by telling stories of the Quest.

He had been struggling to go over to Dís and Vali since he had risen from his seat, but there were so many people around that it took far longer than it ought to have. At last he managed to make his way to the grand table where Thorin sat, hosting the Heads of House and their spouses. Lord Rangvaldr sat at his right, Dís at his left.

Kíli beamed and rushed to greet his mother. Dís spat out a chunk of meat, surprised as his

arms wrapped around her, but she quickly leapt out of her chair to grab him.

Her embrace was tight and fierce, but she smelled like home. Kíli buried his fingers in her hair, tears flowing freely from his eyes.

"Mother," he whispered. "It's so good to see you again."

"Kíli, my sweet boy," she said gruffly. She let go of him and beamed, taking her first good look at him since her arrival. "My, haven't you grown up! You're no overgrown child—and your beard's begun to grow in!"

Kíli ducked his head, blushing. "Mother, don't embarrass me in front of all these lords!" he protested.

"I don't care about politics right now," Dís said. "I am with my son again!"

She hugged him once more, then ushered him into a chair between herself and Kíli's father. Vali reached over for an embrace, but didn't try to rise. His leg must be bothering him again.

"Kíli!" Vali exclaimed. "We are so proud of you. I worried day and night about you and your brother—where is Fíli, by the way? I haven't seen him."

Kíli opened his mouth to reply, but no words came to him. He made eye contact with Thorin, unsure of how to break the news.

Thorin swallowed. "Dís, Vali...I didn't write to you about it because I did not want you to worry, but—"

Dís rose to her feet, her cheeks deathly pale. "If he is dead I will end this celebration faster than Mahal's hammer can strike iron," she warned. "Where is my son?"

"Darling, calm down," Vali murmured, tugging on her hand. "I'm sure he's alright. Thorin wouldn't—"

"Fíli's fine!" Kíli blurted out. "He's definitely, absolutely alive. Don't worry about that. It's just, he's—well, he's on the mend, is all. He got hurt pretty bad in the Battle of the Five Armies, and—"

"But the Battle was months ago," Dís pointed out. Slowly, she sat down in her seat. The other Heads of House had gone very still, watching the family drama play with greedy eyes. They were dying to find a weakness in the House of Durin, Kíli knew it.

"Fíli will be back to normal in no time, Óin assures us," Thorin said. "He may not be able to fight as well, or at all, but his mind is sharp as ever, and—"

"What happened to my boy?" Dís spat through gritted teeth.

"Fíli lost a hand," Kíli said quietly. "It got infected last month. He's up and about, but Óin didn't think this grand feast would be good for him. Not yet, at least."

Dís took a deep breath. "Well. That's all?"

"I promise," Thorin assured her. "You can visit him as soon as the feast is over."

Dís gripped the table with white knuckles. "Alright. Thank you, Thorin."

"I ought to start a society for those of us afflicted with limb loss," Vali joked. He patted the stump of his leg, which ended in a wooden peg. "Does anyone else want to join?"

"Does a missing eye count?" Lord Audun asked, raising an eyebrow over his empty socket.

Kíli relaxed. His father always knew how to diffuse a tense situation. He was as easygoing as his mother was uptight. Dís smiled at her husband, allowing some of the tension to fade.

After a few more courses, which Kíli shoved into his already full stomach with delight, Thorin brought the celebrations to a close. Dwarves of the Iron Hills, Dáin's company, arrived to show the new residents of Erebor to where a city had been built under the stone to accommodate them.

The Heads of House took their wives and joined the crowd, save for Dís and Lady Lún. Dís and Vali rushed off to the infirmary to see Fíli, leaving Kíli alone with Thorin and Lún.

Thorin cleared his throat. "My lady, do you not wish to accompany your people to their residences? I have prepared a room for you as well, of course—"

Kíli stopped paying attention as a bellow surprised him from behind. He whirled around to see a familiar face: his cousin Clovis!

"Kíli!" Clovis exclaimed. "What are the odds of meeting you here?"

Kíli laughed, rushing to embrace him. "Clovis! What're you doing here? You're no Longbeard!"

Clovis patted him on the back and stepped back. Sheepishly, he scratched at his beard. "Actually—it's kind of complicated."

"What, don't tell me you're a bastard," Kíli joked. "Maybe those old hags were right about your mother!"

"My mam's a lot of things, but she ain't no whore," Clovis disagreed. "I'm a Broadbeam through and through, but Mam might wish it weren't so now."

"What do you mean?" Kíli frowned, suddenly realizing there was something he was missing. "She didn't disown you?"

"She did, and Dad woulda done worse if he were still alive," Clovis admitted.

"Aw, Clovis—" Kíli began to comfort him, but Clovis cut him off.

"It's not because I was hanging around Uncle Vali too much, though Mam does hate all her brother-in-laws. It's cuz...Kíli, I don't go by Clovis anymore. See, I'm a woman. My name's Lóna."

Kíli's cousin smiled awkwardly, showing not nearly enough teeth. She'd lost some recently, and Kíli suddenly noticed the scar on her forehead and the tattered dress she'd wrapped herself up in.

"Oh!" he said. "Well, then. Lóna's a fine name. I'm sorry to hear about your mam, but she's no good if she'd cast you out over a thing like this."

Lóna sighed in relief. "Kí, your family has been just too good to me. Your mam took me in the second she heard the news—she didn't even have to be convinced by Uncle Vali. She always scared me, but she's done so much for me. I only wish she were more my size, but I'm too big for her dresses so we had to buy some on the road!"

"It sounds like you've got quite the tale, Lóna!" Kíli exclaimed. "You've got to tell me and Fíli all about it."

"Where is Fíli, anyway?" Lóna asked.

"The infirmary. He...lost a hand." Kíli sighed. He'd have to get used to this sort of thing, he supposed. "He'll be so excited to see you, though! He's dying for visitors, and I'm sure Mother's tears won't be much comfort for his predicament."

He slung an arm around his cousin, ready to go for a few drinks with her, but he walked right into Lady Lún as she talked with Thorin.

"Oof!" Kíli exclaimed, stepping back. "Oh, I'm so sorry, milady—I didn't see you there!"

Lún stepped back, casting her eyes down demurely. "There was no harm done, your Highness."

"Oh, just Kíli is fine," he said. He felt vaguely unsettled about the way she fluttered her lashes over those pale, pale eyes.

"Then you may call me simply Lún," she said. She smiled to him. "It is a pleasure to meet you at last—his Majesty was just talking about your valor in the Battle of the Five Armies."

Kíli furrowed his brows. Lóna tugged on his sleeve, giving him a stern look.

"Um, yeah," he said. "I've gotta go. I'm sure I'll see you around, Lún! Goodbye!"

Lóna dragged him away, waiting until they were a fair distance away from Lún to burst out, "She is bad news, cuz. Did you see the way she batted those lashes?" She clucked her tongue. "Stay away from her."

"Don't worry, I have no plans to be seduced," Kíli assured her. "I've got a girl already."

Lóna clapped her hands. "Tell me all about her!"

Kíli cursed internally. His damn tongue! So much for keeping Tauriel a secret.

"Well, I can't," he admitted. "It's...Uncle wouldn't like it."

"Are they a boy? A commoner?" Lóna grinned. "Forbidden love is so exciting."

"Worse than that," he said glumly. "Thorin would be fine if I went for a lad, and he could come to terms with a commoner, but there's one thing he could never get over."

"It's not like you're in love with an elf," Lóna scoffed.

Kíli didn't meet her eyes. Lóna stared at him, then put a hand to her forehead.

"Oh, Kíli," she groaned. "An elf? Really?"

"Her name is Tauriel, and she's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he blurted out, relieved to finally be able to talk to someone. He hadn't even confided in Fíli, though he was sure his brother suspected something. "She saved my life in the Battle, and she's living in Dale right now—" He broke off. "You're don't think I'm crazy?" He had expected her to interrupt him by now.

"Oh, absolutely," Lóna assured him. "But I couldn't be happier about it. My cousin's in love with an elf! This is too good to be true. I can't wait to see the look on Auntie Dís's face!" She burst into laughter.

Kíli groaned. "I hadn't even thought about Mother..."

"Don't worry, your secret is safe with me," Lóna promised. "Have you told Fíli? No?" She giggled. "He'll be livid. When you and I were falling head over heels for every boy and girl and otherwise back in Ered Luin he was always so frustrated. An elf's just the extra plume on the helmet!"

"You're the only one who knows," Kíli said. "It's so hard to sneak away to see her, I haven't—"

"I'll help you," Lóna said. She pulled him into a rough embrace. "I can't believe it! Kíli, in love with a stinky elf! Or—I'm sure she smells fine."

"Thanks, Cl—I mean, Lóna," he said, scratching his beard. "I need all the help I can get."

Chapter Text

Fíli wasn't sure what was worse, people treating him differently or people treating him exactly the same.

He'd reunited with family, reconnected with friends, and reconciled with foes, but no one seemed to recognize what Fíli needed. To be honest, he didn't even know.

The ghost of his left hand haunted his days. Even months later, he would forget he'd lost it and reach for a glass or a quill only to meet it with scarred-over stump. The fever had left him, and he was up and about in the month since the return of his people to Erebor, but the angry fog inside his head remained.

Sometimes he wished they hadn't come back. The look on his mother's face when she first saw his amputated hand was something he'd never be able to forget; the woeful empathy in his father's comforting embrace hollowed his heart even more than it already had been.

In his darkest moments, Fíli wished that Azog had finished the job instead of simply giving him a matching deformity. The mark the Pale Orc had left on him would be the last stain on the line of Durin, one that lived on as long as Fíli did.

Of course he was grateful to be alive. The thought of the pain his death would have caused his family and the Company horrified him, and he treasured his existence so much more now that he'd come so close to losing it. But while the joys were more intense now, so were the pains.

His first public appearance had been difficult. The stares were bad; the way no one would meet his eyes when he looked at them was unbearable.

No one said anything to his face, but he heard the whispers.

"Poor lad..."

"—after all that family's lost, this is just tragic!"

"...heard he's weak now—"

"He was always a bit odd, it's that Broadbeam blood..."

"—is he even fit to lead? What kind of an heir—"

Worst of all was the insult to his uncle: "Shouldn't Thorin have watched out for him?" As if Fíli needed taking care of. As if Thorin had failed in his duties. As if—

Fíli knew that Dís blamed Thorin for this, in some small part, but even she could recognize how irrational that was. Fíli was a grown man, responsible for himself, and Thorin did not deserve to have this misfortune placed on his shoulders. Especially not with the Council of Seven quickly approaching.

People meant well. Most of them did, anyway. Oh, there were souls who hated the Line of Durin and thought it was high time another family took the throne, but they were few and far between. But rumors flew anyway, and Fíli hated that he was the center of Erebor's gossip. Regardless of intent, the whispers hurt.

"Why're you so blue, Fíli?" Lóna asked one night, sliding him a mug of ale. She, Fíli, and Kíli were in the royal kitchens. The place was empty save for them, and Kíli had snuck some of Bombur's favorite ale for their pleasure.

Fíli raised the mug and drank heartily. When he put it down, a layer of foam coated his mustache, and a grin was plastered upon his face. "Blue? What are you talking about?"

Lóna bellowed in laughter, a sound so familiar Fíli nearly forgot that they weren't loitering behind the forges back in Ered Luin where their fathers worked late into the night.

"That's more like it!" she exclaimed. "Drink up! We'll get that right hand stronger'n ever just through lifting ale!"

Fíli laughed along, glad for the excuse to drown his sorrows away. He did his best to ignore her joke about his hand, knowing she meant nothing by it but support.

Across the table from them, Kíli swallowed his own drink, slamming his cup down on the table. "Mahal's toenails, I've missed this!" he proclaimed. "Just the three of us, passing the nights away with our good friend, Alcohol!"

"Aye," Lóna agreed. "After such a long journey here, wasting away in the sick wagon with Uncle Vali, I'm relieved to be a place that's a little more alive!"

"Were you ill?" Fíli asked. He could understand why his father was in the sick wagon, but not Lóna. Vali's leg was always bothering him, especially after walking too much. He had a peg to replace his foot, but that hurt him with every step.

"I had a cold, and then I just liked to hang around Vali," Lóna explained. "Auntie Dís was always being heckled by the other important folk, and none of the others had much time for an oddball like me."

"You're not that odd," Kíli said, but Lóna only snorted.

"Am too, and proud of it," she declared. "What's a little queerness between friends?"

"I'm sure Da appreciated the company, what with his foot and all," Kíli said.

The reminder of his father's missing limb only brought Fíli's mind back to his own. He stared down at the stump of his arm, wondering if he, too, would be forever subject to aches and pains that laid him up for days at a time. At least Vali could wield a blade in need, even if traveling was hard.

"Hey! Fíli!" Lóna swatted him on the shoulder. "There's that glum look again. Is it about your—"

"I don't wanna talk about it," he interrupted.

"Lay off, Lóna," Kíli muttered.

Walking home that evening, Fíli's sense of balance wasn't the best. Kíli guided him back to his quarters, and in parting asked, "Wanna go down to the city tomorrow? They're having a knife-throwing competition, and I know you could win."

Fíli, his hand on the knob, sighed and leaned against the doorframe. "Kí...I can't."

"Busy?" Kíli said. "That's too bad—"

"No, Kíli." Fíli burped loudly, his head spinning. "Eurgh...aside from the headache I've got brewin', I can't...I can't throw knives no more. I haven't touched a blade since—"

"You're just as capable as ever, I know it!" Kíli insisted. "Come on, Fí, give it a shot?"

Fíli turned the knob and stumbled into his room. "Sorry. I'd be lost there if I went. See ya tomorrow...have fun at the competition."

He collapsed into his bed and heard Kíli sigh and shut the door behind him. He laid there on top of his blankets full of stomach-churning self-pity for nearly an hour, wishing he could just fall asleep and forget his sorrows.

He was alive, wasn't he? So why did he feel so awful?

He hated how often Lóna brought up the sore subject of his sorer arm, but it was just as bad when Kíli completely ignored it had ever happened. Fíli was different now, but he hated it.

At least, he fell into an uneasy sleep, dreaming of days past not so long ago.

Fíli's head didn't ache as much as he'd anticipated the next morning, but he didn't have to come up with another excuse to get Kíli off his back. Vali invited him out into the city, to spend some time together as father and son.

"Remember when we used to do this back in Ered Luin?" Vali reminisced. "Just you and me, 'n' sometimes Kíli, walking through the city and looking for trinkets to bring home to your Ma."

Fíli cracked a smile. Around them, the underground city was full of commotion, filling the once-ruined and dragon-stinking halls with life. Colored lights were strung along stalls in the market, adding a cheerful glow to the torchlight in the massive halls.

"Feels different, though," Fíli mused. "Back there, I always felt...out of place. Here, it feels like I'm finally where I'm supposed to be."

Vali slung an arm around his shoulder. "I'm happy for that." He wandered over to a booth selling rough-cut gemstone jewelry and picked one up, holding it up to the torchlight. "Think Ma would like this?"

"Red's not her color, is it?" Fíli said. "Maybe that purple one?"

"Mm, she's got plenty of purple." Vali brushed his thumb over the gem. "I think she'd like it."

"Well, if you say so," Fíli said.

Vali picked up a bracelet with small green crystals set in its silver band. "This looks princely, don't you think?"

"I suppose," Fíli said. "Not Kíli's style, though. He prefers flashier stuff."

"Not for him," Vali said. "For you."

Fíli blinked. "I mean...I like it. It's pretty. Subtle."

"It would fit that handsome wrist of yours." Vali clasped it on Fíli's right hand. "I'd try the other, but I'm afraid it would slide off."

Fíli didn't know what to say. "Thanks," he mumbled.

Vali bought the bracelet and the necklace, sliding some coin to the grateful vendor. He took Fíli by the arm and led him back into the crowd.

"Fíli, I've been meaning to talk to you," he said gently. "It's unfortunate, what happened to you, and frankly I know exactly what you're going through. You hate being reminded of what you've lost, you hate the stares and gossip, you wish things could go back to what they were before. And on top of it all, after all emotional pain, it hurts literally. You get ghost pains, the stump hurts, it—"

Fíli wrenched himself out of his father's grasp. "Yes, I know. I know! Why do you have to—"

"You've got to confront it, Fíli," Vali said seriously. He reached out his hands—his perfectly intact hands—and put them on Fíli's shoulder. They were stopped in the middle of the street, people walking around them on either side.

Fíli couldn't look him in the eye. He kept his gaze cast down—but somehow that was worse. That way he could see his hands—his hand, the silver-green bracelet, the wooden stump at the end of his father's leg...

"Fí." Vali cupped Fíli's face in his hands. "Look at me, Fí."

Eyes full of angry tears, Fíli looked. Vali's face was careworn, wrinkled far too young, gray streaking his golden beard. Fíli resembled him in many ways, but not in the eyes. Vali's eyes were dark brown, just like Kíli's. They were warm and kind, welcoming and forgiving. Fíli's own icy blue stare was an echo of his mother, sharp and cold.

"You're so much like Dís," Vali murmured. "Proud and royal, always thinking of the Line of Durin before ought else. I wish you'd had the carefree childhood I wanted for you, but your mother and Thorin raised you as an heir."

He turned and began walking again, continuing to speak. Fíli strained his ears to hear him over the chatter of the crowd.

"I look at you now and I could not be more proud of the man you've become," Vali said. "You are fit for the mantle you will wear someday. My son, a King of Erebor!" He laughed. "I'd never have guessed as a lad that I'd marry a princess, and less that I'd be father to a king. I'd never have guessed most of what's happened to me—but I don't regret a minute of it."

"How?" Fíli demanded. "How can you? If you hadn't gone on that journey those orcs never would have hurt you. You'd be whole!"

"A foot doesn't make you whole, Fíli," Vali said. "Neither does a hand. All you need to be whole is a full heart." He clapped Fíli on the shoulder. "I can see you don't want to listen to me. I just want you to know that you are strong. You're an heir of Durin, and of good solid Broadbeam stock, too. You'll get through this and be all the better for it."

Normally such praise from his father would lift Fíli's spirits, but this time Vali's words rang hollow in his ears. He wouldn't have said or thought any of this if he didn't feel pity for him—and pity was the last thing he wanted now.

"Thanks, Da," Fíli muttered. "I think...I'd like to be alone for bit, if that's alright."

"Of course," Vali said. He embraced Fíli, then turned and walked back into the crowd.

Fíli watched him disappear into the streets, then lifted the hood of his cloak and headed for the nearest pub.

After drinking so much the night before, putting more ale into his system wasn't perhaps the best decision. Fíli kept his hood low over his face to conceal his true identity, hiding his left arm in the folds of his cloak. He drank and drank, and when at last his coin ran out, he let himself get kicked out of the pub. It was probably evening by then, but without the light of the sun it was hard to tell.

He stumbled out back and heaved up half the contents of his stomach. What a prince he was, vomiting in an alley! His head aching, throat burning, and pride stinging, Fíli swore to himself that he wouldn't go out drinking again anytime soon.

"Damn my fate," he muttered, wiping spittle from his mouth. "Damn that orc...damn everything!"

Behind him, Fíli heard footsteps. He turned around with bleary eyes, his head spinning. Another dwarf stood in the alley, but Fíli was having trouble making out who they were.

"Who're you?" he mumbled.

The dwarf was silent. As he approached, Fíli squinted to see him better: he was wrapped in stocky brown clothes, his face shadowed by a hood not unlike Fíli's own.

"Whaddya want?" Fíli demanded. He burped up a little more puke, pulling a face as he swallowed it back down.

Suddenly the dwarf rushed at him. Fíli yelped and swatted him as he felt the dwarf clutch at his throat.

"D'ya want money?" he choked out. "I don't have any—spent it all—"

"I don't care for money," the dwarf snarled, squeezing tighter.

Fíli heaved, trying to pry the fingers off his neck, but with only one hand it was nearly impossible. "St-top!" he wheezed. "I'm th' prince! Don' you—"

"I know who you are," the attacker growled, and Fíli began to see black spots in his vision.

He had never felt more useless in his life. There had been a time not long ago that anyone who so much as laid a finger on him would taste steel a second later, a time where he was respected, a time where he could hold his own in a fight. Now, handless and friendless, he was being choked to death in an alley. What an ignoble demise for an heir of Durin! Even in death he would disappoint everyone.

"What in Mahal's balls?" shouted a new voice.

The grip on Fíli's throat loosened momentarily, and using his last ounce of strength he kicked his attacker in the stomach. He fell backwards, hitting the ground with a painful thud.

"Ya monster—" yelled the new voice. Fíli heard the sound of a solid kick, and a moan escaped his attackers lips. As he struggled to get back on his feet, he witnessed a brief scuffle that ended with the attacker running out of the alley and back into the street.

"Here, let me help you up." Another dwarf approached him, offering him a hand. Fíli grabbed it with his own, letting himself get pulled upright.

"Did he getcha too bad?" the dwarf asked. She peered at his neck, then grunted. "Nah, you'll be alright. What'd he want with you?"

"I...don't know," Fíli said. He could barely stand upright, and every bone in his body ached. He felt so helpless.

"Damn, you look in a bad way," the dwarf said. "I'm Ragna, Ragna Widespanner."

"I'm..." Fíli coughed, then doubled over as he hacked up a little more vomit. "Well, mostly I'm feeling awful."

"I'm sorry about that man," Ragna said. "I work here—on the side, you know. Usually we don't let that sort in the pub, but..." She frowned. "Say, aren't you the fella we kicked out—?"

"I'll be on my way," he mumbled. "Thanks for th' help, but..."

"Oh, no, mister!" Ragna grabbed his arm. "There is no way I'm letting you off in this condition. Come on with me."

"Please, ma'am, my family'll be waiting up for me if I don't—" he stammered.

"Then I'll help you back to them," Ragna said pleasantly. "Where do you live?"

Fíli winced. There was no way he was telling her who he really was—not only would she treat him differently, he didn't want this awful night to reflect back on Thorin.

"Um, the—the craftsman's corridor," he said. Lóna lived there, working as a smith for the royal family. She would help him out, and she wouldn't blab. "My cousin, she..."

"Alright," Ragna said. "Now don't stress, mister. I'll get you home."

She led him, stumbling, through quiet alleys. She knew the city much better than he did. It was no wonder, even considering he'd lived in Erebor much longer than she—he hadn't been part of the construction crew like Kíli had. He'd been laid up in bed.

At last Fíli recognized Lóna's little apartment. Mumbling thanks to Ragna, he knocked on the door, hoping she was home and not out with Kíli.

Ragna loitered in the street until Lóna opened the door. She waved goodbye to Fíli, then disappeared into the darkened streets.

"Fí, what in Mahal's name happened to you?" Lóna demanded. "Come in—"

Lóna led him to an armchair, which he collapsed into gratefully. He groaned, rubbing his head.

"I made some...poor decisions," he mumbled. "I went out with Da this morning but left him to go's all kinda a blur since then."

"Who was that girl?" Lóna asked.

"I dunno, Ranga Wade-something," he said. "Worked at the pub and helped me home."

"That's kind of her." Lóna frowned. "Though I'd check your pockets."

"I don't have any coin left after the pub," he admitted. "And why'd she steal from me? She stopped me being robbed."

"What?" Lóna slapped his shoulder. "Fíli! You've gotta tell me things like this!"

Groaning, Fíli related his tale. "I even told him I was the prince!" he exclaimed. "He only got more violent after that! Said he already knew! If Ragna hadn't stepped in, I don't know..."

Lóna sat back, troubled. "Fíli, that's...not good."

"Damn awful is what it is," he said. "Lóna, I'm useless. Helpless. I survived Smaug and Azog and Woodelves, and a common thief is what gets me? I'm a disgrace!"

"That's not what I meant," Lóna said. "You're injured, Fíli, no one expects you to be the same as you were."

"Thanks," Fíli muttered.

"But if that attacker knew who you were, he'd been following you," Lóna pointed out. "And if he was following you, I don't think he's just a thief."

"What are you saying?" Fíli asked, his mind to muddled to put it together.

"I'm saying that may have been an attempted assassination," Lóna said gravely. "And if that's're in a lot more trouble than you think."

"You can't tell anyone," Fíli insisted. "Lóna, for the sake of my pride and for the sake of Thorin's crown—"

Lóna swore. "Fíli, we can't just ignore this!"

"Lóna, please," he begged. "Think about Thorin—if word of this gets out, it will reflect poorly on him. And I don't want my parents knowing how weak I am."

Lóna stared at him for a long time, her gaze troubled. "Alright," she agreed at last. "But if anything remotely like this happens again—if it's not just an isolated incident—"

"We'll deal with it then," Fíli promised. "Thank you, Lóna."

"Are you going to tell Kíli?" Lóna asked.

Fíli looked down. "I can't," he mumbled. "He'd just worry. And I don't need more people concerned about me. I can hold my own."

"But Fí, you..." Lóna sighed. "Fine. I won't tell Kíli. But you should. Neither of you are the type to keep secrets from each other, and you shouldn't start now."

But Fíli wasn't listening. His head was lolling back in Lóna's armchair, sleep finally overtaking him. Perhaps now, after all this, he could sleep his troubles away...

And if he couldn't—well, he'd deal with them in the morning.

Chapter Text

The Battle had changed everything. Tauriel found herself lost in the world, utterly alone. She was unable to return to the Greenwood even if she had wanted to, but just as unable to remain by Kíli's side in Erebor.

For a month or two she had wandered about the slopes of the mountain, hoping the only dwarf that would find her there was the one she loved. Such a transitory life had its advantages, but she could not stay so close to Erebor forever. After a frighteningly close encounter with a dwarf from the Iron Hills, Tauriel resolved to settle down in Dale.

At first, the people of Dale were happy to have her amongst them. Her people had been allied with them in the Battle of the Five Armies, and they didn't seem to be aware of her friction with Thranduil. Elves were fearsome warriors, and they saw her as a protector of sorts, the herald of a more permanent arrangement with the Greenwood.

But as Tauriel did nothing to prove such assumptions, less flattering rumors began to fly. She kept to herself, so she must be a witch come to curse them. She had red hair, so she must have an evil heart. She walked about at night, so she must be consorting with wraiths. Men came to fear her and all her kind, blaming their problems upon the elves.

Tauriel didn't mind these whisperings much. She did not feel the need to prove herself to the strangers around her, and the few humans she interacted with on a regular basis knew her as a good, if odd, neighbor.

To make herself useful, Tauriel aided in the reparation efforts. Dale had fallen to ruin after the dragon came to Erebor, and the Battle had wrecked the city even more. The northern wall had been utterly destroyed, and many workers labored on rebuilding it.

The other workers stayed well away from her, but the man overseeing the project paid her fairly. Tauriel didn't care for the opinions of the laborers, nor did she value mannish coin, but she respected the overseer's dedication to fairness and hard work.

Tauriel fell into a routine. She labored on the wall in the day, then wandered the city and the hills at night. Once or twice a week she would meet with Kíli, when he could sneak away from his princely duties, and they would spend an evening together in secret.

It was a month after the return of Kíli's people to the mountain when Tauriel looked at her new life and saw with surprise that she had become used to it. Gone were the days of duty and certainty that she had once known in the Greenwood, but she had found a new home in Dale.

Still, something didn't seem quite right. For all she and Kíli dreamed of a future together, she couldn't see a possibility that did not require them to flee Erebor and perhaps Middle-earth entirely. The lands east may accept a dwarf and an elf in love—there was more chance of that in unfamiliar territory than here, at least.

Dale could not be a permanent home for her. But she couldn't go elsewhere, not yet—Kíli was tied down to the mountain and his family, living the stories he'd grown up on. He didn't want to leave, though he knew the chances of their relationship surviving under the mountain were slim.

So Tauriel whiled away her hours build a wall for a city that was not hers, a wall that separated her even more from her beloved. With every stone she set, her view of the mountain diminished, and she felt even more alone.

As she labored on the wall one morning in late winter, she heard a gruff voice calling her name.

"Tauriel? Miss Tauriel?" said the overseer. "Lady Elf?"

Tauriel paused, laying down her stone and her trowel. She looked up at him, raising an eyebrow in question. "Yes?"

"Erm—Master Bard wants to speak with you, Miss Tauriel." The overseer glanced over his shoulder, and Tauriel followed his gaze. Bard the Bowman, savior of Dale, dragonslayer, stood with his arms folded at the edge of the worksite. Some of the other workers glanced back at him nervously, wanting to impress him with their efforts.

"Bard?" Tauriel frowned. She didn't know why he requested such an audience, but she was curious enough to find out. "Alright."

She rose from her spot, dusting silt off her hands and shaking out her cloak. Standing up, she towered over the overseer, but Bard was a tall man and almost reached her height.

Tauriel made her way toward Bard, nodding to him as she approached him. She was not his servant nor his subject and paid no subservience to him, but she respected the man. It took someone of great courage and strength to slay a dragon, and the fact that a mortal could achieve such a feat was even more impressive. Here, standing before her, was proof that the legends of the old days lived on, and that men were not as weak as elves may say, even if they were not among the Edain.

"Master Bard," she greeted him. "It is an honor to meet you again, in better circumstances."

Bard chuckled. "Yes," he agreed. "I much prefer to make my introductions when my clothes are not sopping wet and scorched with dragonfire."

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" she asked.

"Will you walk with me?" he invited. Tauriel nodded, and they started off through the city.

"I wanted to thank you for your efforts here in the city," Bard said. "You are the talk of the city, even still, and I know much that talk is not kind."

"You are welcome," she said, smiling. "I am glad to offer my services, even if they are so meager as wall-building."

"That is why I approached you today," Bard said. "I know you are capable of much more. I have seen it myself, in the Battle. And, if you do not mind me saying, you are far too lovely to work with such brutish men as we!"

Tauriel shook her head. "There you are mistaken, Master Bard. I may be of the elvenfolk, but your men are not brutish." She paused, recalling the repugnant Master of Lake-town and his weedy assistant. "Well, not most of them, at least. You are proof enough of that."

"I thank you for that," he said, bowing his head with a smile. "But, and I do not mean to be prideful, I fear I am the exception."

They walked in silence for awhile. Bard led her on the high roads, quiet places undisturbed by the bustle of the marketplace below.

"The people of Dale wish to make me their king," he said.

"I have heard such rumors," Tauriel said. She watched him carefully, unsure of what it was he wanted from her. He stared straight ahead, but his brows were furrowed in worry. She could see wrinkles by his eyes and mouth, signs of stress and old age coming far too soon.

"After some consideration, I agreed to their demands." He smiled half-heartedly. "I am of the Line of Girion, after all, and I believe in my ability to lead. I proved my worth in Battle and I do not wish leadership to fall into less honorable hands."

"You would be a wise king," Tauriel said.

"Thank you." Bard stopped in his walking and turned to face her. "But not everyone wishes for my leadership. There are those who harbor grudges against me; Geoff Lickspittle despises me for his brother's sake. May the gods rest Alfrid's soul." He rolled his eyes, and Tauriel smirked. Geoff was the only one who missed that awful man.

"And Hilda Bianca," Bard continued. "Do you know her?"

"Not personally," Tauriel said, "but yes." She was a formidable woman, a leader of the people in her own right. In the days after the Battle she had formed a guild of craftswomen, training them in defensive skills as well as trade secrets. Tauriel admired her resolve, and was curious of the group's workings. If the people of Dale trusted her more, she might have considered joining them.

"She has been a friend to me in the past," Bard said, "but of late she has become a rival. She and her guild have become a political body as well as a trade one. They remember the Master and fear another tyrant ruler. They would rather the city be governed democratically."

"Hm!" Tauriel exclaimed. That was a novel idea, one requiring great effort on the part of the citizens. But after Tauriel's frustrations with her own king, she could see its appeal.

"In short, I have become concerned for myself and my family," Bard said. "I would not suspect Hilda Bianca of such things, but Geoff Lickspittle may resort to treachery if he does not get his way. I could use support...and a bodyguard."

"Oh." Tauriel blinked. This was unexpected. "Master Bard, I do not know..."

"You were my first consideration," Bard said. "An elven warrior living in my own city would be the perfect ally."

"I do not know if my help would advance you politically," Tauriel warned. "By your own admission I am far from the most popular citizen of Dale."

"But you are renowned for your strengths," Bard said. "No one would dare to cross you. I doubt you would ever be called upon to defend me, in truth. I would pay you well, better than what you get working on the wall. And it is a nobler job than physical labor."

"I do not mind the work," Tauriel said, but the offer was tempting. Excitement rose within her: this was a chance to put her skills to good use, to make connections, to have a purpose again.

What would Kíli think? He would doubtless be excited for her, but the prospect of getting tied down in Dale was troubling to her.

"I understand if you wish to think it over," Bard said.

But Tauriel had already made up her mind. What did she have to lose from this job? Nothing. And there was much to gain—friendship, a purpose, good company.

"I accept," she said. "Thank you, Master Bard."

He smiled. "Thank you, Mistress Tauriel!"

That afternoon, Bard took Tauriel to his home to introduce her to his children. Tauriel had already met his daughters, but she wasn't sure if they remembered her.

She should not have worried. As soon as she entered Bard's home, little Tilda rushed up to embrace her.

"Tauriel!" she exclaimed. "Hello! Do you remember me?"

Laughing, Tauriel patted her on the head. "Of course I do, Tilda! I thought you may have forgotten me."

"She would never forget the pretty elf lady who rescued her," said a quieter voice. Tauriel looked up to see Sigrid watching her shyly. "Nor would I."

"It is wonderful to see you again," Tauriel said. "Hello, Sigrid."

"Are you going to destroy the kitchen again?" Tilda said hopefully. "That was so exciting!"

"And scary," Sigrid said. She nudged Tilda. "Get off her. Elves like their space."

"Have you met many elves?" Tauriel asked. "Besides me."

"A few," Sigrid said. "We saw the elven warriors, of course. And King Thranduil sends messengers from time to time."

Tauriel nodded. She wondered if she knew any of those messengers, though she didn't ask.

"Um, hello," said a young boy.

"This is my son Bain," Bard said, putting his arm around him.

"Well met," Tauriel said. She nodded to him. "I am Tauriel, your father's new bodyguard."

"Ooh!" Tilda exclaimed. "How daring!"

"You need a bodyguard?" Sigrid asked, frowning at her father.

"It's just a precaution," Bard said. "Tauriel will function as an advisor of sorts, as well."

Tauriel nodded. "I am glad to see you all safe and happy," she said. "I hope I can help you stay that way."

"How are the dwarves?" Sigrid asked. "I mean, the ones who were with us when the dragon came. We get reports about what's happening in Erebor."

"Um," Tauriel said. Kíli spoke of his friends and family often, but she didn't know how much she ought to say to them. "I'm not really in contact with them. But last I heard they were all fine, I think."

"What about the sick one?" Sigrid asked.

"Yes! The one who liked you so much!" Tilda giggled. "Do you still talk to him?"

Tauriel coughed, turning her face away from them. "Kíli is alright. He's much better now. We fought together in the Battle, but I, ah, haven't seen him much since then."

Sigrid raised an eyebrow. Tauriel could tell she didn't buy this story. If they were alone, she might have spilled her secret. She was dying to confide in someone, and to have a friend. But with Bard standing there, she thought better of it.

"And the blond one?" Tilda asked. "I liked his funny mustache."

"Fíli is—well, he lost a hand in the Battle," Tauriel admitted. "But he's much better now."

"Ouch," Bain murmured.

"And what about—" Tilda began again, but there was a harried knock at the door.

Bard strode over to answer it. The door flung open, a wide-eyed and wild-haired man fell inside.

"Hoggert!" Bard exclaimed, helping him back to his feet. "What's going on?"

"There's a scene in the square," Hoggert panted. "Geoff Lickspittle started shouting about how cruel you are and all, and usually we'd just ignore him, but Hilda Bianca's got her panties in a twist and she started yelling back and now their supporters are getting antsy—"

"Tauriel, come with me," Bard ordered. "Children, stay here."

"Oh! The elf!" Hoggert stepped back, clumsily making a hand sign to ward against evil.

"She's with me," Bard said. "Come on, Hoggert."

Hoggert glared at her, but didn't protest anymore.

Tauriel sped off to the square with Bard and Hoggert. The shouts of the crowd rose through the streets, and she found herself nervously fingering the hilts of her daggers. Hopefully this confrontation wouldn't come to violence, but she was worried.

"I was not expecting to require your services on the first day," Bard admitted as they raced along, "but I am glad I approached you when I did."

Tauriel grunted her agreement, not really listening to him. The street spilled into the square, and she beheld the scene before her.

Standing on a platform was a man vaguely resembling Alfrid Lickspittle. The name was accurate: Geoff's beard was full of foam as he spat out accusations against Bard's name.

"He'll lead us all to ruin, just like he did Alfrid!" Geoff warbled. "He cut Alfrid loose and left him to die—"

"You don't know what you're talking about!" cried Hilda Bianca from the other side of the platform. "Bard's a man of his word! But power corrupts even the most faithful man! You can't trust a king or master or anything, haven't we all learned that the hard way?"

A crowd had gathered to goggle at the argument, and they didn't like what they'd saw. Tauriel could hear grumblings amongst them, and they weren't happy.

"What's she on about? No kings, no nothing, what kind of—"

"—acts like anyone misses that rotten brother of his!"

"Oh, and I bet she'll do a better job than Master Bard, that's what she thinks!"

"And I swear after that he'd never take his hands off 'em—"

"—thinks she can say whateverthehell she wants, like some sort—"

"Lickspittle oughta get off that stage before I push 'im off!"

A group of hard-faced women stood by Hilda Bianca, their arms crossed. Many wore swords or brandished spears, and they looked dangerously unsettled. There weren't many folk defending Geoff, but there were enough to worry Tauriel.

"Look!" someone cried from the crowd. "Bard's here! Let's see what he's got to say!"

Bard pushed his way through the crowd and stood between Hilda Bianca and Geoff. "Distinguished citizens, please—"

"King Bard!" shouted a voice. A chant echoed their call: "King Bard! King Bard! King Bard!"

"Oh no," muttered Hoggert. "You gonna do anything 'bout this, Elf?"

Tauriel glared at him. "My name is Tauriel."

"Don't you go a-witching me with your elvish names!" Hoggert cried, stepping back.

She rolled her eyes. Maybe Bard was right about the brutish men of Dale. Knowing that she was not going to get on Hoggert's good side anytime soon, Tauriel turned and vanished into the streets.

"Hey! Where're you going!" Hoggert cried. "Bard'll hear about this—"

Tauriel paid him no mind. She slipped around the crowd, not bothering to fight her way up to the stage. Meanwhile, the commotion in the square only intensified. In trying to calm the crowd, Bard's intrusion had only intensified their frustration. With three sides to the argument, the people of Dale were confused and angry. They didn't know who to listen to.

Tauriel lurked in the shadows behind the platform, watching this all carefully. Bard could deal with this on his own, unless he was attacked. She kept an eye on the armed women by Hilda Bianca. They were the folk she was most worried about.

"I will not stand while you dishonor the memory of my beloved brother!" Geoff shouted. "If there are any good folk in this crowd—"

"Your brother was—" Hilda Bianca broke off into a stream of curses.

"Geoff, Hilda, please!" Bard exclaimed. "This is getting out of hand—"

"You betrayed me, Bowman!" Geoff growled.

"And your whole people!" Hilda Bianca snapped. "You oughta know better than this, Bard!"

Now they both ganged up on Bard, shouting into his face.



"—what do you care for the people?"

"And you'd leave us defenseless—"

"You'd leave us all out to dry!"

"—your own pockets just like the Master! King indeed!"

Full of rage, Geoff lunged at Bard. Tauriel sprang out of her hiding place to intercept him, relieved that was unarmed. She flipped him over, watching as he tumbled to his feet.

The crowd gasped. Hilda Bianca staggered backwards, making the same sign against evil Hoggert had before.

"Elf-witch!" she cried.

"Where did she come from?" someone in the crowd whispered.

Geoff cowered on the floor, whimpering, "Don't kill me, don't kill me, please!"

Tauriel sighed and yanked him back up to his feet. "I am not going to kill you, Lickspittle."

"Citizens of Dale," Bard said wearily, "I apologize for this messy scene. It was...unplanned."

"You cannot silence us!" one of Hilda Bianca's women called.

"I wasn't planning on it," Bard said. "In the future, I will accomodate for such things. But we must not resort to violence like Master Lickspittle initiated. I have hired Mistress Tauriel as a guard, and she will help to keep the peace here in Dale."

The crowd murmured; Tauriel heard snippets of what they said. Very little of it was friendly.

"This isn't the end, Bowman!" Geoff cried, wiping his mouth.

"I did not think it was." Bard ran a hand through his hair, sighing. "Please, go about your business. This square is a place of business; I am sure there are vendors here who would love your attention."

Slowly, the crowd dispersed and business went back to normal. Geoff stumbled away, still muttering curses on Bard's house. Hilda Bianca exchanged a few words with Bard before she led her guild away.

Bard led Tauriel down from the platform and back into the streets. "That's the sort of thing you'll have to deal with," he said. "And it will only get worse before my coronation."

Tauriel nodded. "I will be prepared," she said. "And the rest of the city ought to be, too."

Chapter Text

"On this day at the dawn of spring, I am honored to address you all as the Heir to the throne and acting ruler of Durin's folk and all the Longbeard Clan," Thorin pronounced. He glanced down at the notes he held in his hands, then continued, "As I preside over the Council of the Seven Families, I hereby bring this meeting to order."

The assembled nobility rumbled their approval. Colborn pounded his fist heartily upon the table and Dís delicately clapped her hands together. She wore a new necklace about her throat, a dangling red gem that drew the eye and complemented her cooler blue outfit.

Thorin stood at the head of the table, overlooking the assembled council. Each Head had their own ornately decorated chair, arranged in order of seniority. Behind them stood several petitioners and representatives from each House, commonfolk invited to the council to voice their concerns with their Head.

This was far from the first Council he had led, but now he felt an extra weight upon his shoulders. He was no longer the heir of a lost kingdom, but a prince primed to inherit.

"As the first order of business, I recognize the Heads of each House," Thorin said. He nodded to each of them briefly, then turned again to his notes. "I warmly welcome the petitioners who accompany them, and finally, I thank the servingfolk here today."

There was another, less enthusiastic, murmur of approval.

Thorin cleared his throat, concluding his introduction to the meeting with the words, "I now will turn the time over to Lord Rangvaldr of House Ahlberg, senior member of the Council, to voice his concerns."

Rangvaldr coughed, rising to his feet with creaking bones. "I beg the Council's forgiveness if I remain seated," he rumbled. "This old dwarf is not who he used to be."

"Of course." Thorin inclined his head.

Slowly, Rangvaldr sat back down. "I have several items of business," he began. "Firstly, I am grieved to inform the Council that while the location of House Ahlberg's noble estates holds great historical significance—I myself dwelt there in my youth before the dragon came—the quality of our housing is...poor. My nobles have charged me to request of the Council improvements and compensation."

He lifted two fingers, beckoning to a dwarf who stood beside him. "Lord Arvid has accompanied me to second my claims."

Lord Arvid stepped forward, a bead of sweat dripping down his forehead. He was a young dwarf, younger even than Kíli and Fíli. He bore a striking resemblance to Rangvaldr; Thorin wondered if they were perhaps related.

"My lords and ladies, your Highness," Arvid said, his voice warbling up to a higher register with each word. "Lord Rangvaldr is my grandfather, and I live with him in our estate. I can attest that my lord's words are true. Walls are crumbling and floors are unsound. Drafts from who knows where disturb our comfort, and sound from the city carries through our windows. The other estates face worse problems; the estate of my betrothed is missing a roof!"

He took a deep breath, red-faced, then concluded, "If this is how we treat our nobility, then—then Erebor is not as mighty as I was raised to believe!"

Rangvaldr patted his grandson on the back. "Well done, lad," he murmured gruffly.

Thorin sat through these recitations with barely concealed boredom. It was true that Ahlberg's estates were less grand than Rangvaldr remembered, but their tale of woe was much exaggerated. There were better-preserved portions of the mountain, it was true, but Thorin knew that had he placed them anywhere else a massive outcry would have poured forth from the elite of Ahlberg. Besides, his associates had been much more focused on building new homes, not restoring old ones.

Thorin rose again. "This is unfortunate news," he said. He kept his disdain for Rangvaldr to himself; it would not get him anywhere. "What are your proposed solutions, my lord?"

"A force of workers to restore our homes, fifty gold to each affected family, and temporary resettlement for the period of renovation."

"Fifty gold!" Óin exclaimed. "Lord Rangvaldr, that is asking too much of the treasury!"

Rangvaldr ignored him, fixing his gaze on Thorin.

Thorin closed his eyes briefly, pondering the situation. This was the first of many such requests that would occur over the course of the Council; he could not appease everyone.

"With the Council's approval, reparations should be made," Thorin declared. "You may choose between the fifty gold and the relocation; it likely amounts to the same cost."

"My lord, I advise you to take the gold," Colborn whispered not-so-quietly from across the table. "It will make a better investment—"

"I must discuss this with my House," Rangvaldr interrupted. "But it is a favorable compromise—should we choose the contractor ourselves."

"Granted," Thorin agreed. He looked to the rest of the Council. Colborn watched with interest, tapping the table with fat fingers. Dís was absorbed in her notes, ignoring everyone else. Óin muttered to Audun across from him while Balin absent-mindedly picked his nose. Lún, opposite Thorin at the foot of the table, watched with pale, unreadable eyes.

"Does the Council approve this motion?" Thorin inquired.

There was a rumble of assent. So soon after Erebor's restoration, no one wished to offend anyone else more than necessary. Only Óin remained silent.

"Let us vote, then. All in favor?"

Six hands raised. Óin did nothing. Thorin himself did not vote; the monarch's vote was saved only for the unlikely case of a tie. He still held much way in the Council, and could refuse to hold a vote should he so wish.

It was clear that the motion had passed, but formality dictated that each House ought to have its say, and Blomgren had not voted. Thorin sighed. "All against?"

No hands. Thorin turned to look at Óin. "How does House Blomgren vote?"

"House Blomgren respectfully abstains," Óin grumbled.

"The motion is passed." Thorin nodded to the scribe who stood at his elbow, who made a quick note of the development. Usually the position of scribe was fulfilled by the heir in training, but technically Thorin was the heir until his coronation, so one of Dís's trusted maids stood in until a proper heir was named in Fíli...should he be able to write after his injury.

"Does House Ahlberg have any more petitions?" Thorin asked.

"Yes," Rangvaldr said. "The anniversary of the recommencement of our noble House is approaching, and we seek permission to organize a celebration in the public square..."

The meeting continued with few hiccups. Ahlberg's celebration was approved unanimously, as was Rangvaldr's request for additional guards at the edge of his noble estates.

The other Heads had similar item of business. Balin spoke passionately of efforts to educate the commonfolk of every House and those unattached; only stingy Audun voted against his well-organized plans.

Audun himself asked for access to ancient texts concerning marriage laws and customs among the Khazâd. Thorin sighed as his seemingly innocuous request was approved. It was immediately followed by a request for a private audience with each of the princes, a desire he feigned unrelated to his first petition. Dís, the boys' mother, voted against it with a scowl—as did Lún, though she offered no explanation as to why. Regardless, the motion passed.

Thorin dreaded to hear the complaints of his nephews. Fíli had never been fond of the idea that a marriage might be arranged for him, and Kíli's excuses ranged from petty to offensive. Still, the younger lad had grown less irresponsible of late; he might see sense where Fíli's bone-headed opposition to a royal match blinded his foresight.

Óin's request was predictable: a plea for the infirmary to be restocked and reorganized. Perhaps in spite, Rangvaldr abstained; everyone else approved the measure.

His second proposal was more convoluted. Óin asked for the positions supporting the royal house to be restaffed in light of Dáin's upcoming return to the Iron Hills. While this was reasonable, Thorin was taken aback by his request for more diversity in the new selections—meaning, less of the staff ought to come from the House of Durin.

"The royal line is supported by all the Houses," Óin said. "I myself accompanied his Majesty in the reclamation of Erebor and his rightful throne. The staff surrounding the king ought to reflect that."

"Lord Óin," Dís said coolly, "I respect your efforts and love you as one of my family. But I must disagree. Tradition states—"

"Perhaps tradition is not as important as we sometimes esteem it," Balin interrupted mildly. "Lady Dís, you know of my deep and abiding love of Thorin and the princes, and you as well. My House feels the same, and we are eager to prove it."

"If we keep our closest men and women within our House, we reduce the risk of treachery," Thorin pointed out. "Do you not remember my fourth-great-grandfather, King Óin—whose name you bear!—who was murdered in his old age by an assassin of House Wray?"

"And who was quickly denounced by my foremothers!" Lún declared, a shadow of disapproval crossing her face for the first time since Thorin had met her.

Thorin scowled. Something about that girl made him uneasy. Perhaps it was her striking resemblance to her mother Lady Solveig, the woman he had once been betrothed to. Perhaps it was the way she kept her feelings close to her chest with a bland smile and a blink of those pale blue eyes. Or perhaps she simply gave him the willies.

"A restaffing must occur," Thorin agreed slowly, "as Lord Dáin leaves for his own lands and takes his people who have given us much assistance—"

"Also of House Durin," Dís added.

"Thank you, sister." Thorin nodded. "Therefore, we only vote on...whether an effort should be made to exclude further members of my House to serve the royal line."

"It is not an exclusion of your House, only an inclusion of ours!" Óin protested.

"All in favor of Lord Óin's proposition?" Thorn asked.

After a moment, Óin raised his hand. So did Balin. Lún, pursing her lips, joined them, perhaps in protest of the insult against her House.

Relieved, Thorin realized no one else joined them. It seemed this matter would be settled in his favor.

"All opposed?"

Dís's hand shot up. Audun, after carefully stroking his beard, glanced at Thorin and did likewise.

Rangvaldr made no movement. Colborn, on the other hand, fidgeted relentlessly, his eyes flicking back and forth between a huffy Óin and a steely Dís.

"How do Houses Ahlberg and Kjarr vote?" Thorin asked.

"Colborn," Dís said smoothly, "the crown requires your loyalty."

"Which you can show by submitting your people into its service," Óin countered.

Colborn was an indecisive lad, ascended to Head too soon after the unfortunate death of his mother, and his rushed ascension to the Council manifested in wishy-washiness. He stalled and stalled—before at last blurting out, "Kjarr votes against!"

Dís smiled. Colborn sat back in relief, glad to have made a decision, even if his troubled glance toward Óin showed he hadn't any idea if it was the right one.

"Rangvaldr," Dís prompted.

Rangvaldr furrowed his bushy gray brows. He looked at Thorin, then snorted. "Ahlberg...abstains."

Thorin glared at him. Of course he would cast the tie-breaking vote to him!

"We are at an impasse," Thorin announced heavily. "Unless the proposer wishes to table the request for another meeting..."

"I do not," Óin said stiffly.

"Then, as acting ruler, I will cast the deciding vote."

Thorin stroked his beard, slowly growing out now that his vow to cut it short until Smaug's destruction was fulfilled. He was in a corner. Either decision would make him look bad. He would appear either weak to concede or stuck up to stick to his opinion. Rangvaldr had done this intentionally, a test of his leadership.

Thorin carefully considered the expressions of his fellow Council members. He did not know if he could risk offending his friends Balin and Óin, and he did not wish to get on the bad side of the mysterious Lún. Dís would berate him but forgive him if he turned against her; it was likely Audun was voting with her to get on her good side to cement the marriage alliance he so desired. Colborn's opinion was practically immaterial.

Thorin sighed. Óin had a point. If he was to be a true diplomat, he must be prepared to make personal sacrifices.

"I vote in favor of Lord Óin's proposition," he said reluctantly. "It is more important to unite the Longbeard Clan than to surround myself with family."

Dís muttered something into her beard.

"What was that, dear sister?" Thorin needled. She shut up, but he knew he would pay for that later. "If Óin is finished, I believe it is the turn of House Durin to speak. Do us proud, Lady Dís!"

Casting him a deadly glare in the way only siblings could, Dís began. "I have heard from my niece Lóna, who unfortunately could not attend today's Council, that there is a lack of law enforcement in the lower levels."

In the end, her request for more constabulary in the city was approved. Colborn, as per usual, had forgotten most of his requests and rambled off a list of things House Kjarr needed: more space for his commonfolk, better lighting in their sacred caves, funding for a mansion in which to house the elderly. None of his ideas were fleshed out enough for a vote, and his propositions were postponed to the next Council meeting.

At last, they reached the final House. Lún spoke for House Wray, but she had little to say.

"I express Wray's gratitude to the dwarves of Durin who have so thoroughly prepared our new home and welcomed us into the mountain," Lún said. "We have no requests at this time, but we are willing to offer our aid in the needs of the other Houses."

"Are you trying to indebt us, girl?" Rangvaldr asked suspiciously.

The only companion Lún had brought with her, a stocky dwarf with scars and a missing ear, gripped the hilt of his sword.

Lún raised a hand. "Patience, Eluf," she said. "I am sure my lord meant no offense."

"My apologies, Lady Lún," Rangvaldr said gruffly. "In ages past, when I was new to this Council and King Thrór sat at its head, such manipulation was commonplace. Forgive me; I am a suspicious old dwarf."

"It is forgotten." Lún looked at Thorin, opening her mouth as an idea struck her. "Actually, your Highness, there is one small thing. It need not be voted on; but seeing as the Lord of Blomgren's proposition passed, may I suggest a warrior of my House as your bodyguard?"

Thorin blinked, surprised by her suggestion. "Who might this be?"

"Why, my faithful Eluf." Lún gestured the one-eared dwarf to come forward. "He is utterly loyal to his employer, and his family has served my line for generations. I can call upon his sister to protect me, for all of Wray would be honored to have one of their own at the king's back."

"I will consider it," Thorin said. "Thank you, Lady Lún. And you, Master Eluf."

Eluf bowed, then stepped back behind Lún.

"Thank you, Lords and Ladies of the Council," Thorin said. "And thank you to those who came to stand in support of them. Please—the remainder of this meeting is private and concerns state secrets; only Council members and my scribe may remain. I excuse you to the antechamber, where Chef Bombur awaits you with refreshments."

At the mention of food, the room quickly cleared. The Council had already gone on for over two hours, and Thorin envied them. His own belly was quite empty.

"Now," Thorin said, "traditionally, the King brings forth his concerns at this time. In my grandfather's day, as many of you may remember, he would often lead the meeting on even longer than the Heads' petitions!"

This exhorted a round of laughter; the atmosphere of the room relaxed a little. Thorin smiled, watching as Rangvaldr chortled heartily. Thorin had been present at only a few of Thrór's Councils, as it was his father Thráin who served as heir and scribe, but Rangvaldr remembered those days well.

"While I cannot make promises for the future," Thorin continued once all was settled, "today I have only one item of business to discuss."

"Let us pray this pattern continues," Dís drawled.

"Mahal willing." Thorin took a deep breath, preparing himself for what was to come.

There was little for him to be nervous about—his claim to the throne was solid, and the approval of the council was truly only a formality. But still, he had a sense of unease. There was something just a bit off about how the Council members—even Dís—looked at him with expectation. He felt the absence of the Arkenstone like a physical wound, as if his heart were missing.

"As the Heir to the crown of Erebor, I present my claim to the Kingship," Thorin intoned. "I ask for the Council's approval to ascend to the throne. I, Thorin II, called Oakenshield—son of Thráin, son of Thrór—heir to Durin the Deathless and reclaimer of Erebor—I declare myself as the rightful King of the Longbeard Clan, ruler over the citizens of our Seven Families and those beyond the bounds of the mountain's walls. If there be any dissent, let it now be voiced."

There was a long, painful pause. At last, Dís spoke: "I see no disapproval." She smiled warmly, the red gem at her chest glinting in the torchlight.

"Wait," Rangvaldr rasped.

Thorin froze. "Yes, my lord?"

"I have heard countless rumors of the goldsickness that his Highness suffered during the reclamation," Rangvaldr said. "I do not doubt the validity of his claim or the royal blood in his veins, only his fitness to rule."

"My lord!" Dís exclaimed, rising to her feet. "You dare—"

"This dragonsickness tore our mountain asunder!" Rangvaldr warbled. "I watched it as it consumed King Thrór—I do not wish for the same disease to fracture our kingdom again!"

"How can we be certain that this sickness has left us?" Audun seconded.

"As Chief Healer, I can ascertain that Prince Thorin is sound of mind," Óin interjected.

"The sickness flows in his blood," Rangvaldr said, "even if it is now dormant."

"Do you condemn the line of Durin?" Dís demanded. "Do you turn your back on the rulers who led us since Durin the Deathless first took breath? Do you spit upon me and my sons along with Thorin and our forefathers?"

"The line of Kings is yet unbroken," Balin said. "My lords of Ahlberg and Gunnulf, be careful what you say!"

"You insult the honor of our House!" Rangvaldr shouted. "We are loyal to the crown—that is why I advise caution!"

"Prince Thorin has proved himself worthy to rule," Lún said her voice as calm and steady as always. "My beloved mother, may Mahal guide and bless her soul, was of the belief that the Quest for Erebor was the test of his divine right to rule." She lowered her gaze demurely.

Thorin ground his teeth. She did not mention what Solveig had also believed: that it was sure to fail, and that it was she who turned the Council against him when he begged for their assistance.

"Still..." Lún said, her voice lilting like her mother's had just before delivering the final blow to his original plans for the reclamation, "taking the time to make sure of his current stability will not harm anyone."

"You will destroy the reputation of Durin!" Dís snapped. "I will not have this!"

"A true king would not hesitate to bear the King's Jewel," Rangvaldr said.

"Yes—and where is the Arkenstone?" Audun demanded.

At this, Thorin's vision went red. He clenched his fists, struggling with every fiber of his being to control himself. He had watched this mess in a haze, holding his tongue lest he prove himself unstable in anger. But at the mention of the that accursed stone, he could not contain himself.

"Silence," he declared, his voice wroth as he rose to his feet. "Your claims are baseless. The Arkenstone has been locked in the secretest depths of the royal treasury to protect it and all the kingdom. It—it spreads lust for gold into the hearts of all who hold it."

"Then you admit to dragonsickness," Audun said sharply.

"No dwarf under this mountain has the strength to resist its thrall," Thorin declared. "It symbolizes power, but it holds a power of its own. I have cast it aside as my grandfather ought to have done. Your obsession with the Arkenstone is proof of its power over your hearts even now!"

"This is madness," Colborn spluttered. "I—I do not doubt the line of kings, but this nonsense about the stone—"

"I propose a time of probation," Rangvaldr said, his voice chilly. As the argument progressed, each Head had risen to their feet, shouting across the him. He sat composed and calculating in his position beside the scribe, his nostrils flared but otherwise unreadable.

"Prince Thorin," he continued, "you shall have one month to prove yourself entirely sound, and then the matter shall be voted upon."

"A month?" Thorin demanded. "I led our people in exile for one hundred years! I reclaimed Erebor! I restored our homeland! I have led you thus far! Is this not probation enough?"

"I believe in your Highness's strength," Lún said, "but my lord of Ahlberg has a point. We must be certain, and take every precaution."

"Since when has the coronation of a ruler been voted upon?" Balin snapped. "Even to bring it forth to the Council is only a formality! No other king—"

"No other king has presented such a situation," Audun said.

"If there really is no reason for this probation, you can wait it out without trouble," Colborn pointed out.

"House Wray holds the Line of Durin in high esteem," said Lún. "We are confident of Prince Thorin's capabilities, but we still approve this test of patience."

Thorin could feel his blood boiling with fury. He took deep breaths, clenching his fists. If he blew up now...

But had he not been patient enough?

Swallowing his rage, Thorin grimaced. "Very well," he said through gritted teeth. "I consent to this—probation. You will see it proved useless, in time."

Thorin barely remembered the rest of the meeting, conducted by a frosty Dís with his permission. He stormed out of the Council chamber without even pausing to speak with his sister.

Thorin strode through the halls with fury on his face, scattering all who stood in his path. He wandered blindly away from the upper levels where the royal house was quartered and all royal affairs were conducted, down deeper into the endless, winding halls of the mountain.

His feet took him, unbidden, to the place they always did—the treasury. When his mind was clear, Thorin was wary of that place and what its chambers contained, but angry as he was now, only one thing filled his rotten heart: the Arkenstone.

How dare they dispute his right to rule? How dare that smug-faced Rangvaldr and conniving Audun and senseless Colborn bring into question all he had suffered and sacrificed to become King? He had driven Smaug from the mountain—he had rebuilt the city below—he was the only one with the right to reign as King Under the Mountain!

And how dare that Lady Lún with her pale blue eyes taunt him with her false platitudes of "faith" and "belief"! Thorin didn't know what it was she wanted, but if she was anything like her mother, he would not trust her an inch.

Without thinking, Thorin threw open the door to the treasury, intent on seizing the Arkenstone and shoving it into Rangvaldr's face. But much to his surprise, he was met by a familiar friend on the other side of the threshold: Dáin Ironfoot, his faithful cousin!

"Thorin!" Dáin exclaimed. "And what're you doing down here all alone?"

"I..." Upon hearing Dáin's voice, Thorin was filled with horror and shame. Perhaps Rangvaldr had a point—maybe the goldsickness did still rule his heart. "I..."

Dáin furrowed his brows. "Is know?"

Mutely, Thorin nodded. His thoughts were scrambled as he tried to wrench his mind away from that wretched jewel.

Dáin closed the door to the treasury and slung an arm around Thorin's shoulder. "Are you alright, Thorin?"

He slumped his shoulders, the weight of his kingly robes weighing on his soul. "I...don't know."

"Let's get you back up to your rooms," Dáin said. "Mayhap a drink would do you some good."

"No, no drinks tonight," Thorin said. "I don't want my head fuddled more than it is already."

"How did the Council of the Seven Families go?" Dáin asked, probably thinking it was a safe topic for small talk. Thorin only grunted in response.

"That bad, huh?" Dáin chortled. "Well—when's your coronation? My lads and I are heading home—I was just taking their wages out of the treasury as we agreed—but I wanted to stick around if it's to be soon."

"The Council refused to set a date," Thorin grumbled. "Rangvaldr questions my sanity—I am on 'probation'."

"What!" Dáin exclaimed. "That snot-nosed bastard! I oughtta—"

"Don't." Thorin pushed him away dejectedly. "Balin and Óin and Dís protested, but they were outvoted."

"Well, you'll prove all is well," Dáin said confidently.

"Will I?" Thorin rubbed his forehead.

"You're Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór—"

"That's just what I'm worried about," he snapped.

Dáin stopped short. "You mean..."

"I do not wish to speak of it," Thorin growled.

They walked the rest of the way to Thorin's rooms in silence, Dáin at a loss for comforting words and Thorin stewing in rage. When they reached their destination, Dís was already there, pacing by the fireplace. The red jewel at her neck glowed angrily, but the cold fury in her eyes as she looked up at him was far more frightening.

"Thorin—" she began, but Dáin waved a hand.

"This is a bad time," he said. "Leave the lad alone."

"He is no lad!" Dís snapped. "He is a ruler and ought to behave like one!"

"Am I ruler?" Thorin shouted. "I didn't see you rushing to my defense when Rangvaldr—"

"That's not true, and you know it! Thorin, I swear to Mahal—"

"Shut up, you two!" Dáin interrupted. "This conversation can wait until tomorrow. Dís, you and I will do what we can, but... Thorin needs to find someone else to vent to. We're too entrenched in politics to lend a sympathetic ear."

Dís glared, but she stormed away. Dáin lingered as Thorin sat at his desk heavily, his face in his hands.

"Have you anyone to confide in?" Dáin asked gently. "Some ladylove, or one of your Company?"

"No," Thorin mumbled. Well, there was— He was long gone.

"Find someone," Dáin urged. "Anyone—even a journal, or a letter. You cannot let this stew. Hell, write to Thranduil if it would make you feel better to cuss his pointy ears off his head—"

Thorin chuckled weakly. "I...I'll talk to someone. Thank you, Dáin. You are a true friend."

"I pray to Mahal for you," Dáin said, and left.

Thorin sat at his desk for at least an hour. The sun had set by the time he picked up a quill.

There was only one person he could think of. It had been too long since they'd spoken, and Thorin missed him terribly, more than he liked to dwell on. He regretted every day the way that he'd parted with him—the way he'd failed to reach out when he had the chance.

Sometimes Thorin would lie awake at night thinking about all this, and at those times something in his chest felt funny in a way his mind refused to understand. He would fall asleep frustrated, and wake up in denial. Sitting here and now, he didn't want to think about that. It only added to his mountain of issues.

But Thorin knew that his dear friend would not put up with this moping and frustration, were he here. He'd have something to say that would snap him out of it, even if that something was its own problem. So now...

Dear Bilbo, (he began,)

     I apologize for not contacting you earlier! The whole Company holds you dear to their hearts and wishes to hear from you. I trust you have returned safely home to the Shire and found everything there to be in order.
     Things in Erebor are

Thorin paused, clenching his jaw. His anger renewed, he wanted to throw his quill into the fire along with this pointless letter. Bilbo had probably forgotten him already, or at least did not care to be reminded of their harrowing quest. Besides, he could not begin a letter by saying "everything is awful and I wish I'd stayed in Ered Luin"—not only because it was not really true if he paused to think, but because it would be horribly rude.

He scratched out the previous line and tried again.

     Here in Erebor, much change is happening at every turn. My kinfolk have returned from Ered Luin, my sister Dís among them.
     I think you would have liked Dís—eventually. She is much like me, frustratingly stubborn and quick to mock outsiders, but her heart is far wiser than mine. And her mind is far sharper, if our mother was to be believed.
     Dís certainly would have disliked you at first, but so did I. And I learned to l

Thorin broke off again, dropping his quill on the letter. Ink splattered all over the last sentence, blocking out any proof of whatever foolishness he had begun to ramble on about.

Love? Thorin pulled at his beard, anguish filling him. No—that was quite ridiculous! Certainly there had grown a fondness between them—he remembered how Bilbo clutched his hand at his sickbed, scolding him for his wounds—the last hesitation before bidding him farewell still haunted him, but—love! Certainly not!

Frustrated, Thorin seized the letter and cast it into the fireplace. There—all evidence of whatever madness had overtaken him was gone.

But still within him his heart was unquiet. He was angry about the Council's "probation" and terrified of the Arkenstone's thrall, but that warmth when he thought of Bilbo flickered in his heart just as strong.

Thorin wanted to lie down and forget about all this in his sleep. But he knew he would have to face Dís and Dáin tomorrow, so he forced himself to try once more.

The second letter got further than the first, before devolving into an illegible scrawl borne of anger toward the Council. It ended in the same place as the first, but still he tried again.

Dear Bilbo, he wrote with inkstained hands—but that wouldn't do. Scowling, he got out another piece of paper.

Greetings, Master Baggins.

     It has been too long since your departure, and the Company feels your absence. There is no one here in Erebor to stop Óin and Glóin's bickering or to entertain poor Balin as he rambles on about ancient lore.
     I hope your journey home was smooth and your hobbit-hole as comfortable as you remember. I doubt you will have as many reparations to do as we have here in Erebor, but we dwarves love our work.
     Please, tell us all about the Shire should you wish to respond to this letter. We are eager to hear from our favorite burglar.
     Óin and Glóin banter as always, though now that Glóin is reunited with his wife Nigríd and his son Gimli, Óin has become more of a doting uncle than a bothersome brother...

Thorin found that it was much easier to retain a professional distance when he spoke for the whole of the Company. He updated Bilbo on everything they had achieved in his absence, from Dáin's support to Bofur's oddities to Dwalin's efforts to reintegrate back into Longbeard society. As he came closer to his own heart, though, it was hard not to slip into the familiarity they had fostered near the end of their journey east.

     My sister Dís has returned home with her husband. She is my stalwart supporter, and I am grateful to Vali for lightening her moods. I only wish I had someone to lighten my own!
     You would have grown to appreciate Dís, I think, and certainly Vali would have

He broke off before saying "accepted you easily into the family". What kind of lovesick proposal was that?! It was not the sort of thing he wanted to imply.

     entertained you with his jokes. He is certainly a far less serious dwarf than me or my sister. The boys must get their humor from their father; it certainly does not come from their mother's side of the family.
     You left so soon after the Battle that Fíli's condition was still quite serious. Our lad is back on his feet and better than ever, bearing the loss of his hand with a cheerful smile that inspires us all.

(That may have been an exaggeration, but Thorin thought Bilbo would not like to hear the truth.)

     Kíli, meanwhile, has shown surprising responsibility and growth. He led much of the restoration effort and has taken to walking the mountainside alone in contemplation of our wondrous home. I am quite proud of him.
     As for myself,

Ah, here was the difficulty. Thorin did not want to burden Bilbo with all his problems, but he knew Dáin had encouraged him to compose this letter for that very reason.

Chewing thoughtfully on the end of his quill, Thorin contemplated his current situation.

Life was not all bad, after all, despite the frustrations of the Council. He had much to be grateful for. His family was whole again, save for those who had passed into Mahal's rest. And even with this pointless probation, he was certain to be king.

     I am grateful to be surrounded once more by family and friends. The Company misses you dearly, as do I,

Thorin scowled at that accidental admission, but he had gotten too far in this attempt to start over completely. It was true in any case, in a context of friendship as well as—

He shook his head, dismissing the thought, and continued.

     and we all eagerly await your response.
     I do face some frustrations, however. Today was the first Council of the Seven Families, a meeting of all the greatest lords and ladies in my Clan to discuss matters of importance here in Erebor.
     I will not bore you with politics—I am certainly bored of them enough!—but suffice it to say that while most issues were dealt with swiftly, the one most important to me was not.
     Lord Rangvaldr of House Ahlberg, the eldest and crabbiest of all the Council members, has imposed a time of probation upon me. I had hoped to be coronated and thus officially declared King by the end of the month, but he is worried about my sanity!
     It is true that I suffered from goldsickness, as you well remember, but I am deeply remorseful of it and I am perfectly sound of mind now. This matter infuriates me, but no one seems to find much issue with it save Dáin and Dís! Even Balin and Óin, also Council members, took Rangvaldr's side after long.
     I have worked with the Council long enough to know Rangvaldr holds sway over the minds of the others. Balin and Óin are loyal as always, but afeared of his wrath. Ahlberg is an ancient and wealthy House with much power, and Rangvaldr is near universally revered in our Clan.
     The other two lords, Colborn and Audun, are of like mind. Colborn never has a solid opinion on anything, and Audun's only concern is forcing his granddaughters to marry into the royal line. (Though why he'd want his blood tainted with House Durin's "insanity" is beyond me...)
     Lastly there is Lady Lún. I do not know what to make of her. She has only recently joined the Council after the death of her mother, Lady Solveig. Solveig openly despised me—I was betrothed to her before the dragon came, and she resented me for breaking off the engagement. But Lún is unreadable, and that makes me uneasy.
     The Arkenstone preys on my mind even after I hid it away in the deepest vaults of the treasury. Perhaps Rangvaldr has a point—though I am still confident in my capabilities as King.
     I apologize for burdening you with my sorrows. Feel free to respond to me in kind, if you wish to respond at all.

     All my best,

     Thorin II Oakenshield
     Son of Thráin, Son of Thrór
     Prince Under the Mountain

Thorin beheld the completed letter with relief. There—he had done it, both without falling into anger or waxing absurdly poetic. The whole message had gone on much longer than he expected, but he was pleased with his results.

As soon as the ink dried, he sealed it in an envelope and addressed it to B. Baggins of Bag End, Hobbiton, the Shire. That would be quite enough information for any royal raven to find him.

Thorin opened his window and looked out onto the mountainside. It was the beginning of spring, and snow still covered the slopes. He saw ravens wheeling in the sky up above and called out to them in their own tongue: "Ravens! Come hither!"

Three of them spiralled down and perched on his window. One was bold enough to hop inside, tilting her head and letting out a questioning croak.

"I remember you," Thorin said. "Inkeri, the King's daughter."

Inkeri fluffed her feathers and squawked proudly.

"Would you carry another message for me?" Thorin asked. "This is a long journey, and not for the weak of wing, but I will gladly reward you."

Inkeri nodded, sticking out her leg.

"Thank you," Thorin said. "Just one moment—I ought to inform the recipient what he should give you as thanks. He has not received a raven message before."

Thorin reopened the letter and added in a little scrawl:

     P.S. This raven is highly intelligent and of royal birth. Her name is Inkeri. You should give her some sweetmeat as payment for her service. And tell her if you are not going to write back, for otherwise she will stick around and bother you until you do so.

Thorin tied the letter around Inkeri's leg and bowed to her.

"Thank you, your Highness," he said.

Inkeri croaked and flew off, accompanied by her friends. As he watched her soar off into the clouds, Thorin sat back and exhaled. It was done.

The moon glimmered faintly in the sky, a waxing crescent barely visible through wisps of clouds. The flap of raven wings briefly shadowed its light, and soon Inkeri disappeared over the horizon.

Thorin's relief did not last long. He was satisfied with his letter, and could assure Dáin that he had reached out to someone...but an odd nervousness bubbled within him still. Or perhaps it was not so odd.

He desperately wanted to hear back from Bilbo, more than he had realized before. He had wanted to talk with his burglar, really talk, since...sometime in Mirkwood, after Bilbo rescued the whole Company and personally fretted over Thorin. But the quest had kept him back, and then his own damned mind in more ways than one.

Thorin had been trying to deny this all evening. He had been trying to deny it for months, in truth. He had buried his feelings for Bilbo, thinking it was best for everyone, but he now knew it was pointless to do so. They existed, and their depth and complexity astonished him.

He had always been a bit queer. Solveig's resentment was not entirely unfounded, as he was never all that fond of her to begin with. Love, romance, sex—it had never quite appealed to him, especially pertaining to dwarrowdams. But such things had never truly been important to him; he was too focused on the quest and perfectly happy to remain single, especially as Dís provided two healthy and wonderful heirs in Fíli and Kíli.

Loath as he was to admit it, he at last accepted what he had known all along. He, Thorin II Oakenshield, with his titles and status and grandeur had at last fallen prey to the inexplicable ties of attraction: he had begun to fall in love with Bilbo Baggins.