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Faith

Chapter Text

When her father came in running and also running got downstairs, Sigrid’s first though was that he had a bad belly ache, but the sounds that came up from the toilet made her curiosity win over her sense of privacy. Obviously, her little sister was at her heels.

“Da, why are there dwarves coming out of our toilet?”

The question was as absurd as the situation.

“Will they bring us luck?”

Asked always optimistic Tilda, under the roar of bad humoured dwarves popping up from the simple wooden toilet seat and complaining in rough tones. The girl holding a ragdoll in front of her as if it were a kind of shield couldn’t help but notice an almost beardless dwarf struggling to haul himself out of the wooden seat, and hurried to help him out of the tight wooden hole while her older sister ran to find their unexpected guests dry clothes that would fit them.

Paler than Tilda would deem healthy, the dwarf thanked her, gripping his thigh with a hand whilst propping himself on a post with the other. It was the first time in her life that she looked upon a dwarf – a real dwarf, not a drawing of sorts, and they truly scared her.

Chapter Text

 “And so it was that our burglar was upside down, suspended by his shins by that monstrous troll and threatened to have his big feet burnt. Fíli had gone to get the others and wasn’t back yet, but I couldn’t just stay hidden and watch Bilbo be tortured. So, I unsheathed my sword and sprang at them, hacking a gash in a leg as thick as a tree trunk and commanding them to drop him!”

“Wow! And did they drop him?”

Her eyes were wide in the excitement of the story, and to imagine that it was a true adventure, not a fairytale made up by a bard or someone. Kíli shook his head lightly, with a forlorn look in his face.

“Well, actually, they did, but…”

“But they threw Bilbo atop of my little brother and this made him a most honourable mattress!”

The girl giggled, both from Fíli’s description of the scene and from Kíli’s indignant reaction, throwing a pillow at his brother on the bed beside him. The laughter was cut short by the creak of the door being opened.

“Tilda! What are you doing here? Da told you not to bother the dwarves!” Sigrid turned to the convalescent brothers, an iron grip on her sister’s arm. “I’m really sorry, my princes, it won’t happen again, I promise.”

Kíli turned to the older girl with pleading eyes.

“No, please! Tilda doesn’t bother me, she makes me company while my sluggish brother sleeps!”

A joyful pillow flew back to Kíli’s bed.

“I’m not sluggish, I’m just on stronger medicines than you!”

Sigrid stepped between the beds to prevent a battle from happening, grabbing one pillow in each hand.

“My princes, please, if you move too much your wounds might reopen and you’ll have to be stitched again!”

The idea of being in the hands of the healers again made them stop instantly, but the younger dwarf got more implications from what she said. Fíli was fast in explaining other issues.

“Milady Sigrid, please, no need to call us ‘princes’ all the time. You didn’t call us that when we were hosted at your father’s home.”

The human girl nodded and Kíli took the chance to make his point too.

“Then please, Milady Sigrid, allow your sister to come and tend us again. To be bed ridden is so very, very boring, and Tilda is such a…”

Kíli looked at the ceiling and twitched his fingers while picking the right word.

“Distraction?”

“Fíli, no!” Now his face was earnest. “She is good company. A very gracious company.”

The smile on both sisters’ faces was of deserved pride.

Kíli spoke softly to his brother after the girls got out of sight, a daydreaming look in his face.

 “Children of Men are so amusing. I wish our own people had more children.”

Fíli smiled and nodded, agreeing.

“When our people comes from the Blue Mountain to repopulate Erebor I’m sure more dwarflings will be born. The years in exile were harsh, you know. Now there will be plenty again, and our people will grow.”

The younger dwarf gave a bitter smile.

“May Mahal heed your words, brother. I’ll love to be an uncle.”

“Why just an uncle? You have so much life in you, Kee, you should spread this life around. And I would love to be an uncle, too.”

At this statement the Kíli’s face went somber, and his eyes lost part of the shine they used to show.

“Nay, brother. Since Tauriel is no more, this path is closed to me.”

“Kee… You didn’t even marry. Is not as if you were bound. You…’”

“Shut up!” Kíli shout, angry. “You know nothing! You…”

“Kee…”

With the same speed the outburst of anger came it was gone, leaving sadness in its wake and tears in Kíli’s eyes.

“…S-sorry, Fee, I…”

The blond swallowed his own sadness at the sight of his brother’s crying. He would gladly give up his right hand if only Kíli coped with his mourning.

“It’s all right, Kee. I really don’t know how it is to fall in love, yet. But I hope I’ll find out, someday. As I hope you’ll find cure for your heart. Someday.”

“Someday… The day I find Tauriel again, my brother, beyond the western seas…”

Chapter Text

There was only one corpse in Erebor’s necropolis that was not of a dwarf. It needed lots of arguments, tears and shouts, but the body Thranduil prohibited his people to take back to Mirkwood found its resting place amongst the tombs of the dwarves.

“The one who chose to fight at our side will not be laid to burn with orc carcasses. She will be stowed amongst our princesses, and may Mahal grant her spirit the peace she didn’t find in life.”

Thorin made his point, and with these words Tauriel’s body was taken to be prepared for burial. The one who longed for the stars would rest under stone, and no honours would be enough to compensate the elven undying life she spent to save Kíli.

His body was less broken than Fíli’s, but the same could not be said about his spirit.

“I must see her. I must see Tauriel.”

Kíli’s plea went unheard or ignored by every healer designated to tend the royal family until the only words heard from him were I must see Tauriel and Get out to anyone who didn’t offer at least some kind of understanding to his plea.

Until word was sent to him.

“If the healers allow it, be at Durin’s Waiting Chambers when possible.”

---x---

The wheelchair crossed the long corridors to the mortuary area with a squeak that sounded like the wail of a weeper. Fitting, Kíli thought as they approached the wide doors that guarded the place. Dwalin stopped the chair and squatted in front of the lad before opening them.

“Are you sure, laddie?” Asked the burly dwarf, compassion in his eyes.

“Dwalin… I must see her, Dwalin! I must say my farewell, I must…”

His voice faltered and Dwalin sighed, shaking his head. It would not be easy. It never was.

The doors ringed in their hinges and revealed a stone slab in the middle of the living stone. A single ray of light shone on it, revealing the sad figure of a still body. Dwalin pushed the chair closer, swallowing his own sadness. He never trusted elves, nor women – how could you trust someone who bled four days per month and didn’t die? – but that she-elf was different. She gave up her own people to help the Company, and her own life for Kíli’s sake. Kíli was so dear to Dwalin’s heart, the nephew he never had and never would have. He was not Dís’ brother, but Thorin’s brother-in-arms, besides second cousin. Kíli and Fíli were his charge, they have always been.

And he failed them.

Failed them when he let those courageous younglings do what a whole patrol should have done. He let them walk into danger, right into Azog’s trap, whilst he and Thorin took care of a bunch of stupid goblin mercenaries. Doesn’t matter the bunch counted a hundred; they could have finished the goblins together and scout the Ravenhill guardhouse together. Maybe then Fíli would have been spared of the wound that almost cost his life and that would grant him a limp for life; maybe then Bolg would have been stopped before he pierced Tauriel’s heart with the weapon meant for Kíli; maybe…

That single sunray lightened Tauriel’s face, a serious face decorated with delicate freckles; her hands rested on her breast, holding her hunting knives close to her heart. The oils and ointments that preserved her body from decay exhaled an inebriating scent that filled the room with sadness.

“You came.”

A deep voice sounded from the shadows, startling both dwarves. Kíli reached for a bow that wasn’t on his back, and Dwalin took a couple of fast steps in the direction of the voice.

“Why are you here in this sacred…”

“The same as you.” Answered Legolas, cutting Dwalin short. “It’s my lot to present my farewell to one I… cared for.”

“This is no place for… for…”

“This is the right place for those who… cared for… Tauriel, Dwalin.” Kíli said, hurt in his voice. “Don’t disturb her with your anger. Legolas did his best, once informed of the truth.”

“The son of that…”

“The disowned son of a king, aye, who gave up his heritage for the sake of justice.” Kíli turned to the blond elf, bowing his head slightly. “I beg you forgive my kinsman for his outburst, master Legolas.”

Legolas bowed, a hand on his heart.

“Apologies accepted. It might be hard to forgive someone who captured you and put you in a dungeon, even if this person was only performing his duty.”

A low growl in Dwalin’s throat showed he was not all right with the exchange of pleasantries. The dead woman was an elf, nonetheless, and he had to bow his head to this fact.

“I’ll leave you to mourn your losses. In case of need, I’ll be right behind those doors, do you understand me?”

Warning given, Dwalin retreated to the corridor, leaving brunet and blond to watch over Tauriel’s body. The silence got more and more uncomfortable, until Kíli broke it.

“You loved her.”

It was a statement, not a question.

The elf lifted his eyes to meet the dwarf’s.

“You still love her.”

“What’s the difference? She’s no more amongst us.”

Legolas shook his head and diverted his eyes, considering how to explain things.

“I loved Tauriel, her beauty, her strong spirit… A part of me believes she loved me too, in a way. But… Most of all, she loved freedom, and justice, and…”

“To be with you would give her neither?” Risked Kíli.

“To be with my father’s heir would give her neither.”

“I’ve heard you’ve been disowned. This would change things.”

“This I was. But I fear it was too late to bring her back to me.”

Kíli tried to guide his wheelchair closer to Tauriel’s body, and Legolas hurried to help him.

“She loved you already. And you love her still. I envy your love, dwarf, that can reach beyond the veils of death.”

“What do you mean?” Kíli’s hand, which was about to touch the still fingers of his beloved one, halted.

“To be an elf means to be at once in the living world and in the spirit world. Tauriel ceased to exist only in the living world. Don’t forget this.”

Chapter Text

“Dear Sigrid,
May the Valar bless you and all around you, now and until the King returns.
Da and Bain send you their love and yearnings to see you as soon as possible.
How are you faring? Last time I had news you suspected to be with child; am I an aunt already?
I have good news for us both, if it is all right with your king (Da sent him a letter explaining things, I deem). We’ll have will have a great festivity next autumn, to celebrate ten years of the demise of Smaug, along with our neighbours the dwarves. I’ve heard there’ll be people from several places, and Rohan is invited!
I look forward to see you here again, Bain accompanies Da most of the time in the management of Dale and I feel so alone! And even if he weren’t, there’re lots of women’s issues he would not understand. Sometimes I wish I were the simple daughter of the bargeman again, and that we all lived together, or at least close by.
Lots of love,
Tilda

---xxx---

“Dear Tilda,
We all here fare well and healthy with the blessings of the Valar, as we hope all of you fare also.
Full of joy is the day when news come from you, being the only Dale woman south of the Argonath can be hard sometimes. At least I can relate to Lady Morwen, she misses Lossarnach as much as I miss Dale – or should I say, as I miss Lake-Town, because it were so few years in Dale in comparison to my whole life in Lake-Town.
It is better now that I have little Sigwine, Lady Morwen is happy that her little Théoden has a playmate now – of course it will be some years until Sigwine is able to play anything more than ‘who’s mama’s laddie?’, to what he cooes and giggles. But anyway Sigwine is a Rohirrim too, so if they become friends they will not be parted when Lord Thengel goes back to Rohan. He says he doesn’t want to, but everybody knows it will happen someday, he cannot skip his duty as heir of King Fengel, even if he doesn’t like his father’s gluttonous and avaricious nature.
Lady Morwen asked me to stay to help with little Théohilde’s birthday commemoration, then we’ll take Lord Thengel’s leave and, more important, Steward Turgon’s leave, and hit the road up to see you! I’ll be so happy to be with you, Bain and Da, and to see everybody again!
Always yours,
Sigrid

Chapter Text

Bilbo heard a knock on his green round door but, unlike ten years before, it was expected and welcomed. The burly figure of Dwalin showed against the night sky, accompanied by someone more slender, yet still showing underneath his blue clothes the heavy built of a dwarf.

“Dwalin! Kíli! What a happy meeting!”

“Mister Boggins!” Greeted Kíli, joking on his own misspelling of the hobbit’s name, so many years before.

“Are we late?” Humpfed Dwalin.

“Late? Late for what?” Asked Bilbo, innocently grabbing Dwalin’s armoury before it hit the ground.

“Supper!” Was his answer, already down the corridor to the dining room. Bilbo shrugged and smiled to the younger dwarf.

“Some things never change, huh?”

“Aye!” Agreed Kíli. “Just like you are a Baggins of Bag End!”

Bilbo dropped Dwalin’s things on his mother’s glory box and shut the door behind Kíli with a kick.

“I must admit my Tookish side woke up on that quest and never found its sleep again. Come on, let’s ride the pantry.”

 

---x---

 

“Now tell me, how’re things in the west coast? Dwalin told me a lot about Erebor when he came this way, but it has been some time since any caravan stopped here. Anyway, no caravan would ever tell me about you personally, after all.”

Bilbo poured them some good wine, no shadow of the confused hobbit that almost freaked out when a bunch of dwarves overran his home ten years ago.

“Why not?” Questioned Kíli, cleansing the last of the meat broth from his bowl with a chunk of bread. “I walk amongst them every day, just like you go, whatever, to buy potatoes in the market-place or something like that. Most probably people are just too hasty to stop and drop a word.”

“Probably.” Agreed Bilbo. “So, how are things, then?”

“Pretty boring, but this means good news. Most things that break the boredom are orc raids, so… better be bored.”

“To this I must agree.” Bilbo put some tobacco in his pipe and lit it. “And Lady Dís? I hoped to see her again.”

“Ye will.” Granted Dwalin. “She’s in Erebor since last year.”

“Oh.” Was the hobbit’s disappointed remark. “Well, it would be too much to expect her to visit a humble hobbit hole in her journey, I deem.”

“Nah; Mom is not of this kind. She just travelled with a large caravan and to stop here would attract too much attention.”

“Ah, right.” Bilbo seemed more comfortable. “Anyway, we’ll be there soon, ain’t we?”

“Before Summer ends.” Kíli lit his own pipe and puffed a small smoke mushroom. “I’ll never forgive myself if I arrive late to my brother’s wedding.”

Bilbo frowned, intrigued, but anything he was about to ask was cut short by a warning look from Dwalin, who stood up.

“Then we’d better get some sleep and start early tomorrow. The ponies will be rested and provisions replenished, so the laddies at the Green Dragon granted to me.”

“Splendid!” Bilbo smiled. “I’ll just do the dishes and will be ready to sleep. If you wish a bath before resting, we have enough hot water for it.”

“We do the dishes in a minute, if you don’t mind.”

“As long as you don’t do any of the terrible things you use to sing while at it…”

All the three laughed and (mostly) orderly sent the dirty plates and silverware to the kitchen, singing the old tavern song that scared Bilbo so much when his mother’s pottery from the West Farthing was involved.

“… that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!”

“Go dump yerself in that hot water Bilbo mentioned, laddie; your pony deserves it.”

“Why?” Kíli mockingly complained. “We’re away from home just a couple of weeks!”

Dwalin grumpfed something incomprehensible and pushed Kíli in the general direction of the sleeping quarters of Bilbo’s house. As soon as the young dwarf was out of sight, the battered warrior faced the hobbit.

“Don’t. Ever. Say. A word.”

“What?” Bilbo looked up at Dwalin, two hundred percent confused.

“Don’t mention his wedding.”

“But… why?”

It seemed so absurd that Bilbo couldn’t fathom it.

“He doesn’t know.”

“Know what?”

Dwalin rolled his eyes, losing his patience and scarce subtlety.

“Kíli doesn’t know he’s going to his own wedding.”

“But you told me…”

“Aye, I told you in confidence, and I count on your discretion, understood?”

“But… But why can’t he know he’s going to… to his own marriage? In my simple hobbit mind it doesn’t make any sense!”

Dwalin looked at the walls as if pleading to the stone to lend him some strength.

“Since that elf sacrificed herself for him the lad decided he’ll never marry. But he’s a prince, and not all royal marriages happen solely out of love. I myself think it stupid, but Thorin decided it is Kíli’s duty to perform this wedding, so…”

“Goodness! I know my opinion matters nothing in such a case, but I’d lecture Thorin about it if I had a chance!”

“You’ll have it soon enough. Thorin prizes your opinion over most of ours, so maybe you can have success where we failed.”

Bilbo blinked twice, thinking, before uttering his next question.

“What does Lady Dís think about this?”

Dwalin half smiled.

“Mostly, the same as you. That’s why Thorin kept her in Erebor and sent just me to fetch the laddie.”

“Hmm.” A shadow of satisfaction crossed the hobbit’s face. “At least someone has good sense in this family.”

“And you’ll show some good sense not telling a word to Kíli until Thorin does it. And telling Thorin out of this stupid idea before he does it.”

“Seems like a good plan.” Bilbo agreed.

“So be it.”

Chapter Text

The bells of Dale rang when the entourage of Rohan showed upon the southern hill, coming from the Long Lake. A very proud Bard, accompanied by a happy Bain and an overanxious Tilda awaited for them at the gates of the town. As soon as they got in each other’s sight, the sisters ran to embrace, tears of joy spreading over her faces.

“I missed you so much!”

They said in unison.

Sigrid stepped back to take a proper look at her younger sister.

“By Ilúvatar, you’ve grown, sister!” Tilda kind of looked down at herself, thinking of how Sigrid had seen her last time. It was when her older sister was married to Dunwine, Third Marshal of Rohan, five years previously, and she was only sixteen years old. Sigrid noticed the younger one’s embarrassment and changed the subject slightly. “You’ve grown so beautiful!”

Blushing a little, Tilda beheld her sister, her changed body after pregnancy and childbirth, arms built strong with the charge of baby-sitting two infants before her own was born, fine clothes of a make that didn’t reach those northward lands yet, and a smile that was of real happiness.

“So did you, sister!”

The men greeted each other in a more sober way, but Bard cradled his first grandson in his arms as a precious treasure, a rare smile gracing his tired face. Bain was not married yet, and probably would not be in several years to come, but if everything else failed, the line of Girion was secured in that little chubby baby.

“Hope you had a safe journey?”

Bard asked his son-in-law, with a tap on his shoulder.  The blond rider of Rohan answered with a broad smile.

“Not a trouble the whole way. Of course we always set watch, but orcs don’t care about watchers if they have a mind to slaughter.”

The group of Rohirrim had dismounted and was settling their horses before anything else. It was not an army, but not a tiny group, either, and Bard wondered that no small band of orc would dare them in the open. The baby in his arms cooed.

“So, little fellow, how do you like your grandpa here?” The baby crossed his eyes, trying and failing to focus. “Ready to have some bow lessons?”

Dunwine smirked with pride.

“As soon as Sigwine is able to hold himself upon a horse, milord Bard!”

Bard smiled.

“Not too long to wait, if he takes after his mother. Now, inside Dale everybody, the kitchens will be busy to prepare you a meal fit for travellers in a few hours. In the meanwhile, the cellars will grant you some refreshment, I’m sure.”

“Had a good harvest?”

“The best in years!”

Chapter Text

An official arrival party would be held later, but the first encounter was with family and friends, not with the official staff. Ponies were left with the stablemen and the newcomers hastily led through lateral corridors not to draw attention, until they reached the royal wing. Bilbo could almost feel the difference in the atmosphere, a change that left the air lighter, sounder, and… lovelier.

“Bilbo! My good Bilbo!”

Balin crashed a hug into the hobbit’s chest, visibly moved. Dwalin humpfed for his brother greeting the visitor first instead of himself, but smiled at the sight of Dís, who moved graciously into their direction, letting Fíli run to embrace his younger brother. Dís was everything Dwalin could dream about a dwarrowdam, obviously nothing he could dare to dream for himself. She was sister of his brother-in-arms, she was his own sister in a way. In a way that meant he’d never think about her as nothing more than a sister. And, like any good older brother, he’d never let anyone ‘wrong’ get close to her.

Thorin clapped his hands on Dwalin’s shoulders, a restrained smile showing everything was all right, and that his homecoming was a joy.

“A good ride?”

“And a fast one.”

The cousins looked at the ones who greeted, hugged, shouted, laughed and cried their joy; a side smile was all they both were able to share in public, at least while sober. Thorin let Dwalin’s arm go and took a step forward.

“So, here is my burglar.”

Bilbo stopped at the deep voice of Thorin, unable to keep himself from looking and enjoying what he saw. A smile spread on his face like fire on dry grass.

“Thorin!”

Said Thorin walked lively in the direction of the hobbit, giving a damn to protocol. Anyway, they were in reserved quarters, no protocol required, for all he knew, and he would not waste time counting how many times he gave a damn to any protocol for the sake of Bilbo. That would be giving too much consideration for what deserved none.

A whoosh of silk whipped Thorin’s face and outran him in the direction of Bilbo, taking hold of the hobbit before any of them could figure out what was happening.

“What…?”

Dís was happening.

“So, here is my neighbour!”

“What do you mean, your neighbour? Bilbo is my burglar, since always!”

“Hah! How many times did he burgle something for you? And how many times did we share a tea and biscuits like good neighbours?” She elbowed Bilbo lightly in the ribs, causing him a discomfort that was more than physical.

“Burglary is not something one does on a regular basis, not if one has the chance, unlike having tea and biscuits!”

“Oh, yes? And how many times did you have a tea and biscuits with Bilbo, might I ask?”

“Ah…”

“As I imagined.” She turned to Bilbo with a perfect smile. “Welcome, my dear friend.”

Chapter Text

The sight of Erebor hit an inner chord in Bilbo, who felt without taking notice that that place meant more to him than he wanted to admit. Besides his feelings, it was huge, and overwhelming by its own nature.

“What a view!” He said under his breath, glad he was seeing it again with all the comfort of riding a pony instead of a barrel.

“It’s good to see home.” Kíli’s smile was as big as Bilbo’s eyes to the enormous mountain, even if it was still far away.

“Aye, laddies, we’re almost there.” Dwalin piped in, considering the height of the sun in the sky. “If we ride a bit harder we may reach Lake Town and sleep in proper beds for once.”

“Wasn’t it burned by… by Smaug?” Bilbo half feared to say the dragon’s name. “I thought everybody moved to Dale.”

“A lot of people, aye. But not all of them.” Corrected him Kíli. “They rebuilt it even better than it was before the dragon came first time, out of good stone from the Mountain. The King of Dale is also King over Lake Town, but their people elect their own mayor, who answers the King.”

“We hobbits elect our mayor, too, albeit the Thainship runs through the Took family line. It was given by the King of Arnor and Gondor, and only the King can take it back.”

“I see.” Kíli nodded, understanding. “Lake Town is what it is because its location allows easy trading of goods from Dale and Erebor in the North, Forest Kingdom in the West, Dorwinion in the South-east, and the Iron Hills in the East. We don’t even count the South route, because Gondor is really too far away for good trading, despite some merchants dare to take the long routes for rare and exquisite items.”

“If ye don’t shut up the ponies will believe it a lazy day and take their time; I want a warm bed tonight, if ye take my meaning.”

Bilbo didn’t take Dwalin’s meaning, and would be scandalized if he did, but thought it better not to anger the dwarf. Both him and Kíli shut up their mouths like good laddies and off they rode.

---x---

When the Mountain was close enough to be reached after a day’s ride there was no soul able to keep Kíli and Bilbo from riding non-stop, even if said soul was Dwalin’s, followed by the ponies’ souls, if ponies have souls at all, but this is a philosophic question that won’t be addressed here.

“I can’t wait to be there. Can you believe it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen my brother?” Said Kíli, in a happy anxiety.

“This is hard to believe.” Bilbo answered. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you and Fíli are that kind of twins who even create a particular language to use amongst themselves. I’ve heard about a pair of Proudfoots who are this way.”

Kíli blushed and Dwalin informed.

“They had it, until Dís found it out and prohibited them to use it. She said anything that wasn’t right to be said in Khuzdul shouldn’t be said at all.”

“It was just a childish play, we didn’t mean anything wrong by it.”

“This I’m sure.” Bilbo crossed eyes at Kíli. “Just like you didn’t mean anything by mentioning night orc raids with, what were the words? Oh, yes, no screams, just lots of blood.”

“Oh, come on, that was only a joke.”

“A joke your Uncle didn’t take well, by the way.”

“He never gets a joke well.”

“Not when the joke is on him.” Dwalin chuckled. “But he was quite all right with joking when he scared you atop the Carrock.”

Bilbo breathed deep and closed his eyes, recalling what he felt then, both the good and the bad part. He was so anguished at the sight of Thorin laying still on the bear-shaped stone outcrop, and then the relief of seeing him breathing and…

“Were I some inches taller, I’d push him over that border, for sure!”

“What?” Bilbo was stunned by Kíli’s comment.

“It was not fair.  I was already angry at him for shaking himself from me and Fíli, we were just helping him to stand up after what we deemed to be his end, and then he yelled those… those obscenities at you! Frankly, my blood boiled.”

Bilbo looked at the young dwarf with new eyes. The two brothers had been friendly to him since the Shire, but to imagine any of them standing against Thorin in his favour… The only moment he really saw it happening had been when Thorin found out he stole the Arkenstone and wanted to throw him down the rampart. If it weren’t for Fíli, he would become hobbit jelly at the Mountain’s feet, he was sure. But by then Thorin was not himself anymore, sick with gold sickness, heritage of a dragon who slept on that treasure for too long.

But at the Carrock… He couldn’t recall the faces of anyone but Thorin, and angry Thorin yelling at him and making him want to jump down the stone outcrop by himself, no need to be thrown down. But then… the change in the dwarf’s words and tone… the unexpected hug… and that smile…

Thorin’s smiles were so rare, and because of its rarity, so precious. Bilbo could recall his smile when he understood his plan with mentioning parasites at the Troll Shaw; that moment in the Carrock; when he saw him with the keys of Thranduil’s dungeons; when…

It was kind of embarrassing to himself to acknowledge he knew by heart every occasion Thorin smiled his precious smiles, but it was true. Bilbo couldn’t say the same about Dís, who had the same sapphire eyes, the same stunning smile, and the same sexy beard.

No, wait, beards are not sexy, at least amongst hobbits, so how could he…

But Dís was not a hobbit, and her beard was sexy, even if it reminded him so much of Thorin’s.

Or exactly because of this.

Bilbo heaved a sigh, knowing the dilemma he just fell into would keep his mind busy for hours, to no result. It had been heaven when he got to know Dís, who looked every inch of Thorin in a female as one could wish for, but then her personality, as strong as her brother’s, had also a sweetness and an understanding only someone who faced motherhood could have. Of course one could say Thorin had qualities only someone who faced war could have, and it would be true. Yet, Bilbo suspected to be mother of Fíli and Kíli was some special kind of war, too. He was very fond of those two, and wouldn’t mind to spend more time around that family. To know Kíli had been angry at Thorin atop the Carrock… Warmed his heart to the Durin sons even more.

“Well, I suspect my first impression on Thorin wasn’t exactly the best, to say the least.”

“To say the least!” Agreed Dwalin, chuckling.

“Aye, to say the least!” Kíli laughed too, and so they hurried to reach Erebor before dusk.

Chapter Text

“Fíli. Kíli. My lads.”
Kíli took in a deep breath, knowing his uncle always started a serious conversation with him and his brother with those words. Most of the day had been feasting on their good journeying, meeting old friends, and this night, already high on mead, it wasn’t entirely reasonable to have a serious conversation, but when Thorin called on it, so it would be.
“Aye, Uncle.” The brothers answered in unison. Fíli was more at easy, used to have Thorin closer to him, preparing him for the responsibilities to come. Kíli felt lost, like he felt sometimes at the Blue Mountains, where he had to take so many decisions without Thorin to guide his steps nor Fíli to burst up his confidence. Only Dís, who more suggested than decided, more pointed out different views of a problem than guided him in the right direction. At least, that was his feeling about it. Thorin was always ‘do this, do that’, a sure leadership of what the settlement needed; Dís, on the other hand, always forced him to make his own decisions, and discussed the possible results of each alternative. It was tiresome and trying, and he was never sure if his decision was the best. He always feared he was not being fully representative of Thorin, but just momy’s lad playing to rule the settlement. It was obvious how Fíli felt so much more confident.
“You must know, from now on, that I’m about to grant you both some mighty gifts. Our library hasn’t any record of such gifts, yet, and it is up to you to take them or not. Just remember the future of our people is concerned.”
This sounded scary, that talk about the future, and sure it was named a gift only because they could refuse. But usually Thorin made such game of words when he wanted to convince them to take the course of action he intended, despite their own wishes. Kíli felt a shiver down his spine.
“We hear you, Uncle.” Said Fíli, smilingly. Whatever it was, the older brother felt more confident about it than the younger one.
“Fíli, you’ve been by my side most of the time, and I’ve watched you and your deeds closely. Despite your young age, you achieved more in terms of warfare and wisdom in the dealing of state issues than many a weathered warrior or councillor. I deem you ready to take on more responsibilities and the bonus that comes with them. So, it was decided by me and agreed by the Council that the day of your wedding will also be the day of your coronation. I’m abdicating the throne to you.”
“What?”
Fíli went white as chalk and Kíli reached a hand to his elbow fearing his brother would faint. A wedding gift could be anything, but the crown of Erebor was more than expected, much more.
“Next Durin’s Day, Fíli, when my cousin Dáin Ironfoot puts Nina’s hand in yours, I’ll also put the crown of our ancestors on your head.”
Thorin smiled one of his rare and precious smiles.
“But… But why?” Fíli almost cried. “Uncle, you dreamt all your life to retake Erebor and to see the dragon gone, how can you…”
“And this I did, Fíli. I achieved this dream. Our people prospers, the kingdom of Erebor is restored. I fought most of my life to grant our people would strive in exile, to build our halls in the Blue Mountains, to keep the Seven Kingdoms united… I can barely recall a day, since Smaug took Erebor, that I didn’t fight for Durin’s folk wellbeing. And it was worthy, every day of it. But now…” His sapphire eyes took a longing look to the infinite. “Now I feel my task is done. I’m two-hundred-five, my mind is sane, my body is healthy and, moreover, I have more than capable heirs, surrounded by more than trustworthy councillors. Why should I wait?”
“Uncle…” It was Kíli to speak now, eyes wide as saucers. “Like you said, you achieved your dreams, why not to enjoy its results? It is your time to rule in times of peace, without worries and…”
Thorin stopped his younger nephew with a gesture of his hand and a smiling shake of his head.
“Kíli. My lad. Soon you’ll know there’s no ruling without worries, if you didn’t find it out yet.” Kíli agreed with a nod, pursing his lips. Only he deemed it was because he was inexperienced and the Blue Mountains had a lot of undesirable neighbours. “I won’t disappear like our hobbit burglar is able to. I’ll be right here to help and advise you both when needed. But I also will have the chance to live lighter, to travel a bit at my will and not the will of duty, to drink a goblet of wine with Dori, a mug of ale with Bofur and a shot of spirit with Dwalin and I won’t have to choose which one I’ll do each day. Bilbo explained to me the concept of retirement, and I liked it. Actually, I’ll propose to the next king and the Council to extend this concept to everyone. It is quite simple: you work for several years, and then, at a certain age, you retire from work and so you can spend your last years with your family and doing things you like instead of your work only.”
“Erm… why would someone work at something he or she doesn’t like?”
Thorin blinked and considered it, as even when he worked as smith for humans it was, well, it was smithing.
“I don’t know about hobbits and humans, but for us it would be more like working only the amount of hours one is inclined to. Or, to exemplify it in my person, I’ll be able to work a bit at the forge instead of having council meetings, and traveling to see my friends when I have a mind to it.”
The brothers turned to each other.
“It sounds good!”
“Aye. And if some people chose to continue working, it would not be a problem, if they are to do things they like.”
“This sounds really good.”
“Aye. And this I intend to do, if only I have a heir willing to accept the Raven Crown from my hands. Will you, Fíli, son of Dís?”
Fíli felt a little uncomfortable whenever someone mentioned his name as son of Dís, not of his father, but he knew it was because the blood of Durin’s line ran to him through his mother rather than his father, of far humbler lineage. Calling him son of Dís meant he was being called to his duty to Durin’s folk, and that was above any personal wish. Moreover, he was being trained to take his uncle’s responsibilities on his shoulders since he knew himself as a person. Only he didn’t expect it to happen with Thorin alive. It had always been something that would happen several years, or even decades, ahead.
But then, to take the crown and having Thorin alive and kicking at his side was the best world he could imagine. To be named king when the one he loved as a father was dead would be a horrible beginning for a kingship, despite it being the norm. The king is dead; long live the king, was the norm. What would the new words be?
“Uncle, I-I…” For a moment the blond dwarf stuttered, afraid saying uncle instead of a more formal wording would be wrong, when said uncle addressed him as son of Dís. But it was no formality, only them three where there in Thorin’s studio.
“I’ll be around for a long while, most probably, and you can counsel with me anytime you wish, of course.”
“I… I never thought I would have to make such a hard decision, Uncle. I’… I can’t imagine you in any place of Erebor that not the throne. But if this is your wish, and you truly trust I’ll be able to… to reign…”
“I’m sure you’ll be a great king for our people, Fíli. I would not offer the crown to you if I weren’t completely sure.”
The warm smile that reached his sapphire eyes left no doubt Thorin was being sincere. Kíli beamed with pride on his older brother.
“Hey, you’ll do great, Fee! You’ve been prepared for this all your life. Adad would be proud of you!”
A subtle tear played in Fíli’s eye as the mention of their father called back memories of his early childhood. It was not much, but the smile and the shine of dark green eyes like his brother’s on a blond face like his own was a precious picture only his mind held.
“Yes… Yes, he would…” Fíli smiled back at Kíli, and then at Thorin. “Yes, I will do it, Uncle. Counting on your guidance, I’ll do it. Mahal help me that I govern Durin’s folk with your wisdom and courage.”
They embraced warmly, Fíli’s heart beating fast. He would be king, but Thorin would be there too, and he would marry Nina and have some heirs and…
“Kee…” He turned to his brother, faking an angry warning. “Don’t you dare to spoil the upcoming king’s heirs like Thorin did to us!”
“What, me?” Kìli pointed at himself with both hands, pretending to be indignant. “Of course I won’t do the same, Fee. From me, the least you should expect is that I’ll do worse!”
They shared a good laugh and then Thorin turned to Kíli, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Now, Kíli. My lad. I must talk about you.”
“Sure!” Kíli smiled wide. “But don’t worry, I’m ready to do it.”
“What?” Asked Thorin with a frown. “Are you sure?”
“Of course! Nothing will make me more happy than to pledge fealty to the new king. Not with you being still around, I mean.”
Thorin perceived Kíli’s misunderstanding, and heaved a sigh. Kíli didn’t know his plan, after all.
“Oh. So. Kíli, there is more about it. As a fact, aye, I expect you to pledge to the new king of Erebor, because this is what the kings of the other six clans are expected to do. But there is something more I expect from you. As I said, I’m about to give you both mighty gifts. The Raven Crown is Fíli’s, and yours…” Thorin pulled a piece of blue velvet from something that outstood on his bureau, slow and deliberately, enjoying the surprise. “Yours is the Wolf Crown. If you take my offer.”

Chapter Text

It was the fourth day since Sigrid and the Rohirrim arrived and also the fourth day of loud Rohirrim feasting. Tilda had left the feasting hall to walk in the gardens, tired of the loud talking and clattering of mugs of the guests. All right, she knew all free peoples should unite against orcs and goblins and stuff, but did the Rohirim have to be noisy like dwarves? Her head ached, and she asked her leave. Her head was just stopping from throbbing when she noticed she was close to her father’s studio, and its window showed light inside. Curious as a cat, she got close to know what was happening.

 “Did you see your sister?”

Bard asked Bain, after a warm clap of hands on his shoulder as a greeting.

“I just left her and the baby. He looks like Tilda when she was tiny, only with lighter hair.”

The bowman smiled at the description of his grandson, Sigwine.

“That he is, Bain! But I was asking about Tilda herself. I’ve kept the news from her too long, now. Albeit it is a happy occasion, she must know about her marriage at least a fortnight before it happens.”

“Only a fortnight? I can’t believe you didn’t tell her yet, Da! She should have time to prepare, you know.”

Bard dismissed his worry with a gesture.

“Everything is prepared, Bain. Her new home will lack nothing, be it here or on her fiancé’s land. I mustn’t mention how rich he is, of course.”

Bain rolled his eyes.

“It is not about this, Da; Tilda should have time to prepare herself, her heart and mind, for such a step. It is not like going for a picnic, it is going to live the rest of her life with someone she barely knows!”

Bard pursed his lips and frowned, while taking a bottle of wine and a pair of goblets.

“Aye, I know. But I wished to wait until he reached this land, and it didn’t happen until this morning. Actually, I wasn’t sure he would make it.”

Bain agreed, knowing how dangerous the mountain passes could be. Then something occurred to him.

“How old is he by now? It’s been years since I’ve seen him last time.”

“Eighty-eight, for all I know.”

The young man gave half a smile at the number. You could never know with dwarves. Fíli was older than Kíli by five years, yet one could mistake him for someone Bain’s own age.

“Most men are dead or widowers by the age he’s taking his first wife. What if Tilda doesn’t agree to this marriage? You know it can happen.”

“I don’t think so. I’m sure she will be surprised, but Tilda is a smart lassie. She’ll see it is the wisest choice.”

Said smart lassie fled from the garden as silently as she could, considering her urge to cry, so she was unable to hear when her father and brother lifted their cups and toasted her upcoming wedding, and lost the information that could change all her actions from then on.

“To Kíli and Tilda!”

“To Tilda and Kíli!”

It would be several days until she knew the name of her husband-to-be.

 

---xxx---

 

Meanwhile, in Erebor…

The brothers beheld the uncovered crown with awe. Fíli suspected it was coming, Thorin mentioned he was about to give Kíli a solid sign of his authority over the Blue Mountains but he hadn’t been allowed to see it before, so the surprise was real. He couldn’t believe so a fair craftmanship could also show so much strength, and for a moment he almost envied his brother.

Kíli, on his part, was speechless. The piece of art Thorin named Wolf Crown was made of some sort of steel, an unusual choice for a crown, but in this case it fit. The stylized shape of a wolf’s head could be noticed in the grooves, strong fangs, piercing look, watchful ears, and paws that would come down to its wearer’s cheeks like the claws of the raven did in the traditional crown of Erebor. The metal had a bluish sheen, polished enough to be used as a mirror, weren’t it curved, with indentations that now detailed the wolf’s design and then revealed the traditional knots of Durin’s line. The lack of gold, unimaginable in something of dwarven make with such a meaning, was more than compensated by the wisps of mithril that painted it with a richness of detail that no gold filigree would achieve. It shone like starlight.

I always thought it is a cold light, remote and far away.

Kili could hear his own words uttered in the first night of his captivity in Thranduil’s dungeons. But the voice that answered him that night sounded so real in his ears that Kíli almost looked around in the hope of seeing her one more time.

It is memory, precious and pure. Like your promise.

It had been the first time their hands touched without the strain of captive and capturer on them. He would never forget it. It was a memory precious and pure like the light of the stars, too.

She would have liked it, or at least acknowledge its beauty for what it was. And it had a pure beauty, like that of the stars.

“It is beautiful…”

Kíli’s hand reached for the crown before his brain commanded it; he was not the only one.

“Mithril cast on blue steel…” Fíli’s dreamy voice passed beside Kíli, and reached out his hand too. “Strength and beauty shown in the head of a wolf, the most loyal of all beasts of prey.” He turned his eyes to Kíli, worried. “The wolf leader doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself for the safety and wellbeing of the pack. This sounds too much like you, little brother. This crown is meant for none but you, I swear.”

Kíli diverged his eyes from the new crown only to stop at Fíli’s back, where he knew an ugly scar and lots of pain kept the memory of the Battle of the Five Armies alive in his brother’s life as in his.

“None in this studio can brag about being less willing to sacrifice for our folk, big brother. You and Uncle are aware of your duties only too well for me, or anyone who cares about you, to sleep well when you’re out on patrol or whatever.”

Fíli dismissed Kíli’s praise with a smiling shake of his head and Thorin eyed him softly.

“To do less would be in my blood, Kíli?”

A smile of agreement and understanding crossed the space between them.

“No, Uncle. Nor would it be in mine.”

The affectionate hug and touching of foreheads was broken by Thorin, who held Kíli’s arms and looked piercingly into the youngster’s eyes.

“That is the crown of a king. The dwelling of the Long Beards in the Blue Mountains has grown and prospered in the last ten years more than it did in fifty. I expect you to know why.”

“Because Erebor was retaken, and this allowed us to trade in better terms with our neighbours.” Kíli frowned. “The bettering in the general economy made people more willing to grow their businesses and their families. The burst in births demanded new services and more products, affecting the economy positively, because the families having more children already had the resources for it, unlike it uses to happen in human settlements. A sound economy allows to keep a better guard, and so our patrols are able to protect both the settlement and the surrounding area from raids of any kind, lessening losses and…”

“Shh… Kíli, I just made a rhetoric question.” Thorin shortened the endless answer. Kíli looked down at his toes, as if he were a dwarfling that had done something wrong and waited for a scolding. “I know you know exactly why everything is as it is in the Blue Mountains. And not because your mother told me so.” If Kíli were still a child, Thorin would have cupped his face to make the lad to look up again. As it was, a deep sigh was all it took. “The Blue Mountains’ dwellings are ready to be independent from Erebor. They only need a king. I count on you.”

Kíli couldn’t help but to cover his mouth with a hand. It was too much, it was…

“But… But Fíli… Erebor and the Blue Mountains… All Longbeards… It cannot be separated!”

“And it won’t.” Assured Thorin.

“Now I’m understanding even less.”

“History of other peoples should have the same attention you give to economics, lad.”

“It’s been done before… by Men…” Murmured Fíli when he got the idea.

“And not far from our home in the Blue Mountains, by the way.” Completed Thorin.

“Of course!” Kíli finally understood. “Like the realms of Arnor close to us and Gondor in the south. Though far apart, and ruled by two kings, they worked together as one wide realm!”

“And their first kings when the ruling was divided…”

“Were two brothers!”

“Actually, Isildur and his brother Anarion ruled together but Isildur was counted as High King of Arnor and Gondor.” Clarified Thorin, a smile in his eyes for having his heirs quite literate in foreign affairs. “Like the King of Erebor is king over all the Seven Clans, and will also be over the King of the Blue Mountains.”

“But it will be different with us.” Kíli granted, with a smile.

“Of course it will, your imp. Because we’re brothers.”

“And because you’re both Longbeards, heirs of Durin. Never forget this.” Advised Thorin. “I never left Dáin forget it, by the way.”

“Nah, you and Dáin are only cousins.”

“Don’t underestimate a cousin, Fíli. Cousins are the brothers Mahal gives you at a safe distance so one doesn’t kill the other whilst growing up.”

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other, grinning like fools. Thorin planned everything to be perfect.

“You both have done everything together since Kíli was able to crawl. I remember Balin saying you were twins separated by five years, and I must agree with him. You grew up together, learnt things together, pestered me together… almost died in battle together… now it’s time to rule together, to be crowned together. What do you say, Kíli son of Dís? Do you accept my offer?”

Kíli blinked hard and his voice almost trembled.

“This is the most unexpected gift I ever imagined, Uncle, but aye, I accept it. With you and Fíli and Amad to support me, I believe I’ll be able to do it, Mahal allow it and Durin guide me!”

Thorin held Kíli’s shoulder affectionately, then put his card on the table.

“So, then, it is settled. The day of Fíli’s wedding will be the day of his coronation, and the day of your coronation too, and of your wedding.”

Chapter Text

“Siggie! Siggie!”

Sigrid hurried to open the bedchamber door, dizzy from sleep.

“Hush, what…” Her sister’s red eyes left no doubt there was trouble, and woke her to full awareness faster than a blast of a horn of Rohan could do. “Come in, the baby is asleep.”

Tilda rushed in and into her sister’s arms, sobbing like a child.

“Hush, Tilda, what’s going on? What happened?”

“Siggie, it’s terrible, it’s so terrible, Siggie!”

“Calm down, calm down… Sit here with me and tell me what’s so terrible, will ya?”

Hushing her sister like she did when they were children and their mother was no more, Sigrid brought Tilda to her bed and made her to sit. Rocking her back and forth and humming an old song, the older sister slowly made the younger one calm enough to speak.

“Siggie, I want to die!”

“No, this I’m sure you don’t. Now, tell me what happened.”

“Nothing happened, not yet, but I will… No, I cannot, I cannot…”

“Cannot what, Til?”

“I cannot marry! Not him!”

“What?”

“I don1t want to marry that man in a fortnight, Siggie, Da cannot be doing this to me!”

“What man? Tilda, breath, breath, breath again and then you tell me, I cannot understand what you’re talking about!”

Tilda did as she was told to, slowly recovering the ability to talk coherently.

“Da wants to marry me to an old man. I overheard him talking to Bain, he didn’t tell me yet because the man is so old Da didn’t know if he’d make it to Dale, but he did. Now this man in here and Da wants me to marry him in a fortnight!”

Sigrid frowned at the absurd of Tilda’s revelations.

“An old man? Who’s this old man, Tilda, for heaven’s sake?”

Tilda noticed she didn’t have a plain answer to this.

“I don’t know! Da and Bain just talked about him, Da said everything was prepared, mentioned he’s rich, but I couldn’t get a name. But he’s old, Sigrid, he’s so very old! I respect elderly people, you know, but I don’t want to marry one! I can even get old along my husband, but not have a decrepit man to begin with! It’s not fair!”

Sigrid took a swaddle to wipe the fresh outburst of tears.

“How do you know he’s old if you don’t even know who this man is?”

“Da told it. Bain Asked how old the man is and Da said he’s eighty-eight. This is almost ninety, Sigrid, this is old, on any account!”

“Oh, Tilda!” Sigrid could only embrace her sister and pity her. Her marriage arrangement to Dunwine had been almost in the dark, but he had come to live in Dale and serve in her father’s guard for a year before they wed. Now, what was planned for Tilda…

“I wanna die, Siggie, what else could I do?”

Sigrid rocked her sister back and forth again, trying to find some comforting words or an idea to save her from such a terrible fate.

“Maybe his age can be an advantage, Tilda; he’ll probably die in a few years and…”

The sobbing grew stronger, making it clear the idea was not a good one. Maybe a dirtier one…

“Perhaps you can maintain a façade with him and have an affair with someone younger, maybe even a son of his.”

“Sigrid! This would be cheating!” Even abhorring the idea of marrying that man, the idea of betrayal was not an acceptable one. “And it would more likely be a grandson, considering his age. Anyway, he doesn’t have sons, it’s his first marriage.”

Sigrid found it strange.

“First marriage at this age? What’s wrong with this man?”

“Everything! Everything is wrong with this man, and I will not marry him!”

For the first time Tilda was having an assertive posture, and Sigrid hoped it put the idea of wanting to die well away from her sister’s mind.

“So, this is decided and I completely agree. Now what will we do?”

Swift as it came, Tilda’s boldness left.

“Ah… What… What will we do, Siggie? What will I do?” Tears found their way back to her eyes. “If I only could escape this fate…”

“Escape…” Sigrid repeated the word, eyes far away, thinking. “Escape…” She suddenly lifted her head. “Tilda, I think you can escape! I’m not sure it’s still possible, but I think I know of a way for you to escape!”

“What? How?”

Hope was in their voices again as Sigrid explained her plan to Tilda.

“When me and Dunwine were engaged, after some months we begun to want to meet more time than it was allowed by custom. You know Dale was being rebuilt, but there were still several gaps and holes in the walls. We found one of those passageways that none had fixed yet, and we used it to go outside Dale and… well, there’s a chance the hole is still there.”

Tilda’s eyes shone with hope.

“Aye, it may! People are working more on repairing houses and workshops and silos than worrying about the walls, at least since that last raid two years before you wed, when the ravens gave alarm and the orcs were dead before they reached the outskirts of the Mountain, do you remember?”

“Aye, I do! And this is your hope!” Her mind raced. “I have a saddlebag here with Sigwine’s things. I’ll empty it so you can put some food and clothes. Don’t forget some tools like a fire kit and a knife, and a sleeping roll. Our horses are outside, they don’t stand stone stables like we have here, I’ll go outside with you, I introduced you to my horse already, didn’t I?”

“Aye, that big hazelnut one, isn’t it?”

“That’s it. Broda will take you anywhere you want to and never let you fall, I assure you. What makes me wonder…”

“What?”

“Where will you go to?”

Tilda’s eyes lost a bit of their light at the question.

“Where do you live?”

“In Gondor, but I can’t hide you there, Da would find out.”

“Dorvinion has commerce with us, this rules it out; Rohan has good relations, too. I don’t know where else, Sigrid, what do you think?”

“Hmm. There are towns more to the south than Gondor, and from Rohan you can take the old Green Way north and reach Bree, it’s a place with all kind of folk. But all these places are too far away, I don’t know how far you’d be able to go on your own, Tilda.”

What little light her eyes held was soon lost, but she refused to give up hope.

“The Halfling came from far away, too…”

“Aye, further than Bree.”

“The elves of the forest would send me back as soon as I set foot there.”

“Long time commercial fellows. With the dwarves of the Iron Hills there’s no hope, their chieftain is Thorin’s cousin, and Thorin is…”

“… Ass and pants with Da, I know. Maybe… Maybe the wood people, those who live between Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains?”

“This is closer, aye. They’re a rude people, I’ve heard.”

“Any rude woodsman will be better than an eighty-eight years old parchment skinned fellow, I deem.”

Sigrid looked into Tilda’s eyes and saw resolution there.

“So be it. Go fetch your things, I’ll find some traveling food, then I’ll find you at your rooms, in one hour.”

 

---xxx---

 

All colour left Kíli1s face in a blink.

“My… what?”

“Your coronation. Your crowning.”

“No, the other part! Thorin, what did you say?”

His voice was really angry, leaving no doubt he understood the words quite well.

“The new king of the Blue Mountains is expected to wed a princess of one of our most important allied realms. Just like the new king of Erebor will wed the daughter of the Chieftain of the Iron Hills.”

“Uncle, I don’t think it was a wise move…” Fíli tried to reason, but Kíli was outraged.

“Expected to wed? You never wed! Why should I…”

“The Council imposed it…”

“To Mordor with the Council! I will not wed! There was only one woman in this world I’d wed, and she lies in our very catacombs!”

Kíli left the studio banging the door behind him, leaving behind a brother that understood him and an uncle that did his best. But politics could easily go beyond the best one was able to do.

“Would… would you be able to talk to him?” Asked Thorin, almost begging with his eyes. Fíli ignored the look with a humpf.

“Now? Now that you pulled his heart out with a spoon and hit it with a flaming hammer?”

“Fíli, the whole Council agrees it will be better for Kíli if he has someone beside him when he takes on the whole responsibilities of kingship, someone to share his anguishes, to ease his worries… It’s been ten years, it’s time for him to move on!”

“Is it?” Fíli questioned, scowling. “What do you know, or, in this case, what does the Council know about losing someone the way he did? Has anyone of them married after losing his One?”

“Not all royalty marries out of love, Fíli. You know it.”

“Aye, I know, in theory. But Amad married out of love, I am marrying out of love, why do you think Kíli – Kíli, of all dwarves you know – will accept to marry out of… of… politics?”

The blond prince all but spat the last word and left the studio banging the door behind him.

Thorin bowed his head and run his fingers through his hair.

Someone would have to fix those hinges soon, probably.

Chapter Text

Kíli left the sound of the banging door behind him and stole away with heavy steps. The thought of Thorin considering buying him with a crown…
To Mordor if it was a mithril decorated crown, or if with the crown came the legitimation of his rulership on the Blue Mountains! It was buying a part of him that had no price, and never would.
Brooding on these thoughts and wandering aimlessly, it took not long to notice he was not anymore in any part of Erebor known to him. Actually, this was not very hard, as he never spent long time there. A realm that inhabited his dreams since his childhood held nothing but the memory of his short-lived love story, and it hurt.
Knowing to walk back would eventually lead to some inhabited place, he let himself slide down the wall and sit comfortably on the floor. The coldness of the stone at his back felt good, refreshing, and the silence quieted his troubled mind. Everything summed up, there was no reason to hurry back.
There was nothing to hurry back to.
There was no one to hurry back to.
Thorin, his very uncle… more than a father to him… That was treason, he could only feel betrayed. Thorin knew how he felt about wedding, he knew his decision, how could he…
“You don’t know the pressure that’s on him.”
Kíli resisted the urge to look around for the source of the voice. Tauriel would not be there, not even as a ghost. He would be glad if he had a ghost to talk to, some kind of image of her to comfort him, but after the first years he got used to have her voice like a whisper out of nowhere, or her fleeting smile in a dream, and nothing more.
For all he knew, it was more than any widower used to have.
Counting his blessings, he buried his face in his hands, breathed deep to calm down and make a decision level-headed. Or whatever level-headedness he could muster after being betrayed by his kin. He would not bargain his heart for a crown.
Why didn’t his mother warn him about this? Was she aware at all? What would she do in his place? Dís was his anchor at Blue Mountains’ ruling, patient and firm in her guidance. He wasn’t willing to run back to the Royal Wing, too risky to find or be found by Thorin or any other that agreed with him.
And Fíli? Was he a part of the dirty plan, too? It was hard to believe, but his big brother had become closer to Thorin along the last ten years, being personally trained for kingship. He could not risk trusting. Not even his brother.
Well, if Thorin believed he was mature enough to be king on his own, then he would be mature to make decisions for his own life on his own. Right now, the only result to be avoided was to be found and forced to marry a foreign princess he didn’t care to know the colour of the beard.
If his own volition counted, said princess could go chase goats in the skirts of the Mountain while he made a new life elsewhere.
And it would count.

---xxx---

Tilda paced the floor of her sleeping quarters, sure the one hour Sigrid mentioned had come and gone away long ago. She packed and repacked the saddlebag three times, making sure there was enough room for the food. Her hair was held in a simple ponytail to keep it out of her face, and her feet were covered by her sturdier boots. Wool trousers would conceal her legs under the dark green skirt of her dress while riding, and a brown coat would keep the chill of down away.
Finally, a soft knock on the door announced Sigrid was there. Tilda let her in and closed it quickly, lest someone would see the movement in the corridor and suspect something was going on in the middle of the night.
“Are you ready?” Asked the older sister.
“What took you so long?” Asked the younger one at the same time.
“I had to nurse Sigwine and then Dunwine came back from whatever feast he was attending and wanted to have some feast with me too, if you take my meaning.”
Tilda nodded, embarrassed.
“Here, I took some of our entourage provisions, they are dry and light and shall be enough for a couple of weeks. Each of this water skins will last you for two days, and you can replenish along the way.”
As quickly as Sigrid spoke, the traveling food disappeared into Tilda’s saddlebag. There were dried fruit and meat, sausages, shelled nuts and way bread, thin and hard, but that would turn soft enough to eat when sprinkled with water. Dried travel rations would become a nourishing soup once rehydrated.
“Do you have everything you need?”
“Aye.” Nodded Tilda. “A knife, fire kit, sleeping roll, a comb, soap, extra clothes and some money. Besides my healer satchel, of course.”
“Good. Don’t forget mittens, your hands can go numb when you ride long in the night and it gets hard to unsaddle a horse when your fingers are stiff.”
“I have them here in my pocket, and some peanuts, too.”
“Nice!” Smiled Sigrid. “I got you some salt, too, and a small cooking set.”
“Ah, Siggie!” Tida had to stop her packing to embrace her sister. “You thought of everything!”
“The Rohirrim are not exactly nomads, but they travel a lot. Even living in Gondor, Lord Thengel is always traveling, and Dunwine with him.”
“And you take care of his traveling gear?”
“Everything. His and his March.”
“Then I’m sure your Lord Thengel is well served!”
“Now, off we go. You must be far before the sun rises, if you want to have a good head-start.”
“Ah, Siggie, I would be lost if it weren’t for you!”
They walked with care along the dark corridors of the castle, avoiding with care the most used areas. Soon a back door used mostly to discard garbage let them out in a garbage-smelling alley, and from there they walked briskly to the limits of Dale, each of them holding one side of the saddlebag plus a water skin.
“Are you sure it is this way?” Asked Tilda, anxious.
“Of course I am, Tilda, I sneaked this way times enough to be sure. Just one more turn left and…”
And the outer wall had been repaired.
“No…” Sigrid looked at the wall with forlorn eyes. “I’m sure it was here, Tilda, right here…”
The saddlebag was left on the ground and she banged her hands on the wall as if it would miraculously open a magic passage.
Needless to say, it did not.
“Siggie… Siggie, stop!”
Tilda grabbed Sigrid’s hands, scared of seeing her always focused sister in such anger.
“It was here! I know it was here, Tilda!”
“But it isn’t anymore, Siggie, and hitting the wall won’t help it.” The girl understood that underneath went an anger of having her town changed while she was away. “Maybe there’s some other gap in the wall, we just have to find it.”
“Oh, Tilda, I’m so sorry! I was sure we could get you out in this spot!”
“Maybe the restoration efforts have been harder than I took notice. But there might still be a gap or another, we just must find it.”

---xxx---

The bright side of being a royal was that none questioned orders.
The still brighter side was that being known as the reckless part of royalty meant none questioned absurd-like orders, like to saddle up his pony at weird nightly hours.
But Kíli’s mind wasn’t on any bright side of royalty, life and everything. Betrayal was the recurrent word crossing his thoughts. It was not fair. None of it. Not royalty, nor life, nor being left alive when Tauriel…
“Don’t lose your faith.”
The voice echoed in his mind, pleading. But how could he comply if everything around him was so wrong? Kíli brought the pony to an easier canter, allowing the mare to rest and himself to look around, even if he was sure the source of the voice would not be visible to mortal eyes. A lone star in the west caught his eye, the pure shine calming his heart and easing his mind.
“Never, amaralimë. Because Mandos awaits for everyone, and then we’ll meet again.”
With this sad hope in mind, the haggard dwarf resumed his journey, no destination, no regrets, no forgiveness.

---x---

Both sisters were sweating and swearing by the time they found a place where a tree grew close enough to the wall to be used as a stair, but the ground level outside was bellow enough to prevent them from daring their necks in the fall.
“We could walk on the wall until we find a place where the ground outside is closer.”
“With this saddlebag between us and all watchers noticing a couple of women walking on the wall? No thanks. We go down again.”
Tilda looked right and noticed the first change in the colour of the sky.
“We must go fast if we are to succeed at all.”
“So we will!”
The next chance of escape proved true. A gap was hidden behind tall bushes, that covered it on both sides of the wall, and it was almost the same level in the inside as in the outside.
“Tilda, here! I think we found it!”
“You’re right! I can see the outside!”
They crawled down through the overgrown bushes, dragging the saddlebag behind them, puffing and swearing.
“I didn’t know you had such a colourful vocabulary, little sister!”
Tilda answered with a colourful sign of her hand.
“You don’t seem ignorant to any of my colourful words, big sister!”
“But I’m living amongst rude horsemen, you know…”
“If this is to be accounted as an excuse, I’m living all my life amongst rude fishermen, and you know what I mean.”
They both giggled. They were outside the city of Dale, and now it was just to…
A low toned whistle came from Sigrid’s lips, and she asked her little sister.
“Do you ride bareback?”
“Not if I can prevent it. I thought Rohirrim horses were not like the elven breed that stands no saddle.”
“Some of ours are, but Broda is not a Mearas and will do both. We just have to reach the place where we stowed the saddles and horse gear. On his back it would be faster. Can you whistle like I just did? Broda will answer to this call.”
“You… You’re really giving me your own horse for me to flee, Sigrid? Won’t your husband get mad at you?”
Sigrid shrugged.
“Only if he finds it out. For all I know, Broda was the only one of our horses you were introduced to, so he must have confided in you as someone who was allowed to handle him.”
“And the saddle and stuff?”
“Oh, who would imagine little Tilda had such burglar’s skills?”
Sigrid’s theatrical voice was enough for her sister to giggle, but soon it was stopped by the sound of hooves approaching in the coming down.
“I didn’t register Broda was so tall.” Tilda murmured, half in awe, half afraid.
“It means he’ll ride fast once you’re upon him.” Sigrid threw the saddlebag to its place and hoped up the horse. “Here, take my hand.”
“You’ve become quite a rider, sis.” Tilda settled herself the best she could behind her sister.
“There’s no other option in the Ridermark. Now, off we go!”

Chapter Text

Bard massaged his temples, trying to ban a migraine that insisted in follow him all day long. Maybe not actually all day, just right after Dorwinion’s embassy left the King’s Halls. Which was the first meeting in the morning. And now the sun had already set.

The tiny bits of bread decorated with cream cheese and tomato, or with salami slices and olive served as refreshment mid-afternoon did little to settle his stomach. The bowman tried to remember what he had for lunch, until reaching the conclusion he didn’t lunch at all. New Esgaroth guild of merchants had an appointment with him and Dorwinion crew took their time.

At least his own people’s demands had been lighter on his head; the usual decisions on next patch to repair, reports on patrols, complains about noisy neighbours, authorization for new stalls at the market, reports on harvest and stocking for winter and…

 “Da? Are you all right?”

Bain’s voice brought him back to real world.

“Wha… Ah, son, sometimes I miss being a bargeman, I swear the oar weighs less than the crown!”

With these words he stood up, only to be overcome by a wave of dizziness.

“Da!”

The young man ran to his father’s side, steading him with strong arms. Bard sighed.

“Just a hollow stomach and a clogged mind, son.”

“Nothing a good meal won’t cure, huh?”

“Exactly!”

“That’s a good thing. Our Rohirrim fellows hunted a couple of deer and are roasting them as they use in their land. Dunwine asked why you weren’t enjoying the barbecue, so I came to fetch you.”

“Ah, that’s a good lad.” Bard ruffled Bain’s hair as they left King’s Halls. “Both of you, actually.”

“By the way, he mentioned Sigrid’s horse is missing. I told him we’ll be searching for it first thing in the morning.”

“You did well. I’m sorry for the beast, but there’s not much one can do when their horses don’t stand to be stabled.”

“Aye, spoiled little brats, those beasts.” Bain laughed.

“True!”

Bard’s headache subsided with meat and mead, indeed, and laugher on top. The bowman felt good that most of his responsibilities went to a corner of his mind for a time out, and he could almost feel like a bargeman once again. Almost.

It was close to midnight when one of his main responsibilities came to Bard’s mind.

“Tilda!” I forgot to talk to Tilda!”

“What?” Asked the nearest Rohirrim, confused.

“My daughter. Sigrid’s sister, I mean. I had to have a conversation with her, but…”

“She must be sleeping by now, Da. Not a good thing you didn’t talk to her today, but stirring her sleep won’t mend it.”

Bard shook his head at his own distraction, but agreed to his son. Mental note: At first light in the morning, tell Tilda about the wedding arrangement. He loathed the political aspect of the union, but level-headed Tilda would agree it was for the best. Besides, he turned down at least half a dozen delegations asking her favour for some distant, irrelevant and/or greedy suitor. Prince Kíli (and, if Thorin King Under the Mountain kept his promise, Kíli King Under the Blue Mountains) lived quite a distance away, but on the civilized part of the world. The friendship and solid relations between Erebor and Dale was to be taken in account and made stronger. And if the dwarf prince was even younger than Fíli, whose bearing made more than one Dale citizen look twice and sigh, the better for Tilda, young and full of life as she was. Yes, it was a good match and she would be happy.

 

---xxx---

 

Tilda was happy.

Not the laughingly kind of happy, not the happiness that makes you want to jump and dance. It was more the happiness that makes you smile a secret smile of victory. She had outsmarted an ignominious plan to bind her to a walking museum and now she was free. With a lot of help from her sister, but it didn’t matter. She was free, and so, she was happy.

Impossible to know for how long her escapade would go unnoticed, so her main goal was to go as far away from Dale as she was able before anyone found it out. And, obviously, no one finding out she escaped Dale would know how much she was happy.

“Good Broda, good friend Broda…”

The horse neighed in response.

Felling the miles sweeping behind her at the sure galloping of her sister’s horse, Tilda began to relax. Whoever found out her runaway, none would know for sure her direction. She made Broda to circle a wide range before turning to her real goal. She hoped it would be deception enough.

Now, south-west to the eaves of Mirkwood, beyond which a new life would be. A simple life, an honest life, dealing with fishes from the Anduin, as fishery was something she knew how to do. And healing, of course. That was something she had to thank for being a noble, the time to study things she liked and not only the ones she needed to survive. But fishing was good, you didn’t need sick or hurt people to be able to work. Better for everyone if she could earn her living from fishing instead of from healing. Actually, much better than to deal with court gossip and stiff-necked ambassadors. No more suffocating corsets for Tilda the Free!

 

---xxx---

 

 “Where is my headstrong younger son?” Dís asked Fíli a short while after starting lunch. “I didn’t see your brother at breakfast, but that’s not unusual, considering you younglings agenda. Or the lack of it, more precisely.”

Dís was in a marvellous state of humour, having met Kíli after a year away from the Blue Mountains, and Bilbo after even more time. She had no idea Thorin had been that fast in revealing his disastrous decision. Or even aware of his disastrous decision.

Fíli eyed his mother from the other side of the table, reaching for a second serving of venison to complete his plate.

“Didn’t see him all morning long, Amad. Probably at the forges, pouring anger on a poor piece of steel.”

“Anger?” The dwarrowdam questioned, uplifting one eyebrow.

“Anger.”

Fíli offered no further explanation, mouth full of mashed potatoes keeping him too busy to develop.

“And what, in Durin’s name, might have angered my son enough for him to hide in the forges, I wonder?”

Thorin mumbled something inaudible, eyes on his plate.

“What?”

Now he mumbled a little louder, still not daring to glance at his sister.

“Thorin son of Thrain, do you have any say in my son’s anger?”

Her voice was rising as her suspicion grew, and what Fíli said next only contributed for Dís to fume.

“Of course he has. Who else imposed on Kíli a political marriage?”

“What? Thorin, what did we talk on this matter?”

“Uncle wants Kíli married in a fortnight, but probably forgot to inform you. As if the loss of Tauriel meant nothing.”

Thorin swallowed as fast as he could without choking and pointed his fork at Fíli.

“First, it’s not me, it’s the Council; second, I never disrespected Tauriel’s memory, she was granted…”

“…a tomb along our ancestors, aye, but Kíli’s widower’s state…”

“Kíli’s not a widower, they didn’t marry at all!”

“Not in dwarven fashion, but…”

“And in what fashion a Durin’s heir is supposed to marry?”

Both dwarrow were standing now, Fíli using his fist to point things out by hitting the table and Thorin with his fork at close range to his nephew’s nose.

“Shazara!” The dwrrowdam shouted both quiet, losing her temper at last. “Fíli, my brother might be stubborn, stupid and clueless, but he’s still your uncle and king and deserves your respect as such.” The prince bowed low and gestured a deep apology to said king, sitting again to hear the conversation in silence. If his mother was taking the fight for herself, he would be glad to be only a spectator and not at the wrong side of her wrath. Dís turned to said brother, who was confused as to what she considered he was clueless, which made him more clueless than before. “And you, Thorin, remind yourself you are the king and that the council advises, doesn’t rule.”

“But…”

“No ‘buts’, brother, no Council forced you to marry and no Council will force my son to marry. Moreover if he considers himself a widower, dwarrow rites or not!”

Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose and sat down, breathing deep. When he opened his eyes the resemblance of calm was back to him. Tatics applied.

“Díssy…”

“Don’t Díssy’ me, Thorin! Not this time!”

Tatics failed.

“Dís, please. It’s not as if Tauriel were Kíli’s One. She was not even a dwarrowdam, you know it, her soul could not have come from the same forge as Kíli’s.”

“Thorin, the lad is not past the pain of losing her. You know it. You can’t make him love…”

“Dís, it’s not about love, it’s about moving on!”

To these words the dwarrowdam stood up again and faced her brother and king (in this order) from the top of her four feet, three inches stature, voice low and dangerous.

“His father died seventy-five years ago and I didn’t move on, Thorin. How can we ask this from him?”

“But he was your One, Dís. That’s different.” He wet his lips, considering how to approach the next subject as she nodded slightly, agreeing partially at least. “Also, the marriage we considered…”

We, who?”

“Me and our neighbor king.”

“Humpf.”

“The Council is pressing for a marriage, but I didn’t let them have their say on who he shall marry!” Thorin defended himself, but Dís’ expression was still doubtful. “The Blue Mountains are far, Dís. More than traveling goods, it will be good to have cause for Kíli to travel here more often, and his consort queen’s family being our neighbor will be a fuel.”

“Humpf. That might be.” She conceded. “Although a humanling is hardly the matter to wed a dwarf. Most of them are insipid and frail, from my experience.”

“Could you suggest any better match, by the way?”

Dís pondered his last words and the whole situation before answering.

“I’d not make him marry if not out of his own free will, if I had my way. But I concede state matters matter, and being a son of Durin bears responsibilities heavier than one’s own desires. Yet,” And here she used her knife to point at her brother. “It would only be fair, logical and comely to ask him first about his wishes, ask his opinion on the matter, – Mahal, it’s about who he’s to spend the rest of his life along! – maybe point out options and listing advantages and disadvantages of each choice, but never, mind you, never decide for him, making the choice in his stead like he were a dwarfling lacking logical reasoning! He’s been a fine ruler at Ered Luin for the last ten years, does it account for nothing?”

Thorin bowed his head, unable to disagree. When the issue arose, when the Council pressed, and when him and Bard envisioned that solution, it all seemed so right. But now…

“I’ll talk to the lad. My decision was hasty and didn’t take in account his own opinion on the matter. Thank you, Dís.”

He rose from the lunch table and bowed to his sister, who eyed him suspiciously.

“Thank me exactly for what, may I ask?”

“For pointing out the obvious, obviously.”

With this he left them, both gladly surprised by his change of mind. Maybe, just maybe, a bit of good sense could be infused in that thick head of his.

Chapter Text

Wind on his face and freedom in his mind. Tripsy’s mane would be whipping his face but for a set of braids he plaited during their first long rest. A pity, Kíli deemed, such a fiery mane subdued in tresses when his own feeling was that everyone and every part of everyone should be free from any restraint. Yet, this didn’t occur to him all the way from the Blue Mountains, nor along the previous three years he owned that pony. Maybe because he never hasted the mare as much as the last day long, never urged her to a full gallop for such a long time, so her mane never troubled him.

The eaves of Mirkwood were getting closer, more distinct each passing hour. Obviously, no usual equine could gallop for hours with no rest and remain unscathed, so he set a pace interspersing some free gallops with a good steady march and short rests. It worked well enough before, on trips to the villages of Men to negotiate commercial treaties, to the Shire to visit Bilbo when his mother was in the mood and they could find an excuse, and during caravans when he was younger, before the quest. Incredible how his life was simpler before the quest, and a part of him longed for that simplicity. Well, he never got comfortable with pompous things, anyway. Wherever he was going to, court schemes would not be his focus. Then Tripsy could wear her mane free and graze in peace. Probably, all Kíli wanted for himself was to have no braids in his own hair, and all they meant in dwarrow tradition.

A small creek ran from the forest, allowing exuberant bushes to grow in the late summer weather. A nice place to stop, let Tripsy graze, and refresh himself. He could endure for hours yet without pause, but the pony had to be spared. So, he spent a while stretching, another while drinking water and replenishing his canteen, and another while yet relieving himself. He was halfway done with his business when a neigh drew his attention. That was not Tripsy, if he ever heard the mare neigh. No, it was not possible that anyone had followed him from Erebor, no searching party would be so fast in tracking him, he was sure. Road robbers, maybe? Most probably. No way he would let anyone mess with his plan, not so easily…

“Freeze!”

His shout was accompanied by action, bow tense with an arrow pointed to the source of sound, ready to shoot anyone with funny ideas right between the eyes.

“Ah!”

The woman in front of him cried, hands in the air and turning her face away, as if it could prevent her from being shot. A tall brown horse took the chance to rear and bolt, leaving an astounded Kíli behind. Seeing his target for what she was, he lowered the bow and withdrew the arrow, confused.

“Who are you?”

“Look what you did!” Cried the woman as soon as she noticed the menacing arrow wasn’t there anymore. “You spooked my horse! Broda! Broda!”

The brunette shouted in the general direction the brown stallion ran, following it with a low toned whistle.

“’ma sorry, madam, it wasn’t my inten…”

“Of course it wasn’t, who’d be so stupid as to spook someone’s horses on purpose in the middle of nowhere? Brodaaa!”

Kíli blinked at the lecture the young woman just gifted him, torn between ashamed and amused. Luckily, a neigh answered her last whistle, and her glare softened. Risking his chances, the dwarf stepped forward with an extended hand, greeting her in the manner of Man.

“Please accept my apologies, milady. I’m at your service.” He hesitated to name himself as would be proper, unaware if she was to be trusted with his connections.

Yet, realisation downed on her like the setting sun on her face, surprising him.

“Kíli?” She smiled, rightly connecting the name to its owner. “Really, Kíli, after all this years?”

“Do I know you?” He frowned.

“Of course!” She squealed, excited. “I mean, I expect you remember me? From Lake Town? You stayed at our house, remember?”

“Wait!” For all he tried to forget things that hurt, some things were unforgettable, the sweet between the bitter. “You’re one of Bard’s daughters? Really?”

“You remember!”

“Sure I remember! You took care of me and my brother when…”

The words died on his lips. When he couldn’t care if the Mountain crumbled to dust. When his tears were spent but not his pain. When he lost the will to live.

Noticing the shadow crossing his face, Tilda was fast in acknowledging its source.

“I’m so sorry about your loss, Kíli. I knew lady Tauriel meant so much for you, but everybody kept telling me and Sigrid not to mention her name because it would upset you, and upsetting you would be bad for your healing and…” She heaved a sigh, finishing the phrase without words. Kíli understood what went unsaid.

“Thank you, Tilda.”

There wasn’t much to say on the subject without touching deep scars, but he was glad her mention of Sigrid helped him to identify which of the sisters the woman was, having not seen her since those days in the Healing House. He was also touched by her remembering Tauriel and acknowledging his mourning, even after all that time, unlike certain members of his own family.

Broda chose the awkward moment to come back, neighing softly on Tilda’s shoulder. Tripsy answered in kind, from her own grazing spot several bushes away.

“So, you…”

“Going to Lake Town?”

They chuckled at the simultaneous attempt of conversation. Tilda realized she’d have to find an excuse for being so far from home, alone.

“Erm, well, aye, New Lake Town, actually…”

Kíli noticed her voice was a bit unsteady, and misunderstood.

“Problems? Why did Bard send you alone?”

“Well, erm…”

Now she was stuck. Holding Broda’s reins, Tilda bit her lip, looking for a convincing lie. Nothing came to her mind.

“No problem, I understand confidential issues.” Kíli came to her aid. Not pressing her meant he could keep to himself if she asked the same of him.

“Oh, aye, that’s it, confidential matters.” Relieved to have her lie set, she gave in to curiosity. “And you? I didn’t know you were back to this side of the Misty Mountains. Every time I ask, they say you’re in the Blue Mountains, far from here.”

So, now it was his turn to find an alibi. At least he could try to diverge.

“I was. I arrived hither just some days ago, and am on my way already. Things to solve west of the forest, I’m taking the Old Forest Road.”

That would send her away from his route, as Lake Town, Old or New, was east of where they stood, and he hoped their encounter could pass unnoticed by the Bardlings. As he had not decided his real destination yet, planting information on a path he was not likely to take could be useful.

“I see…”

Tilda tried to disguise her anxiety by guiding Broda to where she heard Kíli’s pony neigh. Her lie about heading to Lake Town would become obvious when they reached a point where she should ride east instead of west, as her intended path was exactly what the dwarf just said was his intended path.

She’d have to think about it some other moment, as Kíli was talking to her again.

“Erm, I don’t know how this sounds, please don’t take offense…”

“Aye?”

“Well, I don’t know how much you’re used to travel, but it’ll get dark soon. I was considering to camp for the night when you scared me…”

“Wait. I scared you?”

“You know what I mean…”

She laughed as an answer to his sheepish smile and Kíli continued.

“So, I’d offer for us to camp together. It might be safer, you know.”

She did, and sighed in relief.

“Aye, I’ll take your offer, master dwarf, no offense taken. Actually, I was about to ask you the same thing.”

It was his turn to laugh.

“So, brilliant minds think alike, people say!”

Tilda accepted Kíli’s help to unsaddle Broda, left her stuff beside a tree trunk and started to cleanse a patch of ground from leaves and twigs. Kíli was right, she wasn’t very used to camp, but it didn’t take a genius to know fire could spread if not isolated. Some stones found its place lining the hearth area, and Sigrid’s camp gear held a small pot with water by the time Kíli came back with firewood. He looked at the contraption with curiosity whilst kindling the fire.

“Nice camp kitchen.” He mentioned.

“Thank you.” She answered, absently, mixing dried rations to the water.

Sigrid had shown her the camp kitchen before she mounted Broda to depart, in the wee hours of morning, and it was really clever. The lower part, above which a pot could be hung up, was a fifteen per fifteen inches square iron structure, connected to a higher part at one side, measuring the same area but with a broiler instead of the empty space that allowed the pot to hang clearly over the fire. On the broiler she could grill meat or vegetables directly on the iron grate, or use a skillet, if she had one. An iron rod crossed over both parts, so she could hang a pot or a kettle over the lower part, directly over the fire, whilst hooking meat to dry and smoke over the higher part. The trickiest and nicest part was that it could be folded by clever articulations, resulting in a small pack easy to store in any saddlebag, or tied outside of it.

“Bread?” He offered her a loaf from his own rations. She accepted with a smile and they ate in the silent contentment of tired limbs.

“So… Is the forest road good to travel?” Tilda asked, trying to sound uninterested.

“It was when I came through it some days ago.” Kíli answered, putting another stick in the fire. “It’s been more used since the Retake. Seems the evil that lurked in Dol Guldur lingers there no more.”

“Wow. That’s great.” She had completely left Dol Guldur out of her accounts.

Kíli chuckled.

“I assumed you should know, living closer than me.”

“Well…” Tilda bit her tongue, angry at herself for being so easily caught. “I just wanted to hear it first hand, you know. They say it’s the road of the dwarves.”

“Aye, it was made by my people, log ago.”

The conversation died again, Tilda wringing the fingers of her mind in search for questions that wouldn’t give away she was a runaway, yet grant more information, and Kíli trying to figure out how to ask the woman to keep silence on his whereabouts.

“Almost done.” Said Tilda, stirring the soup.

“I’m glad to have someone to share this meal.” Remarked the dwarf, handling her a slice of cheese. “Albeit, I must ask you a favour.”

“Aye?” She lifted her eyebrows, curious on what the prince might request.

“My… journey… needs secrecy, too. It would be especially helpful if you don’t mention it to anyone when you reach New Lake Town, or even when you’re back to Dale.”

“I won’t go…” She bit her tongue and tried again. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. Not my business, anyway.”

“Thanks.”

Tilda scooped some soup to her bowl and handled the ladle to Kíli.

“Erm. I’m really not so well packed for traveling as you. I’m prepared only for dried rations or game.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! You don’t have a bowl?”

“Nope.”

“Maybe you can use the cooking pot? It’s hot, though, but we can cool it in the creek…”

“Don’t worry, I’m used to deal with hot stuff.”

“Certainly not a pot of boiling broth straight from the fire with bare hands?” She dared.

“Close enough!” He laughed, using the ladle to take the pot off the fire by the handle and down on the ground next to him, helping with the side of his gloved hand. “It’ll cool enough to handle in a jiffy. Tools get hotter than this in a forge.”

“You don’t eat tools, you silly!”

He tasted the soup from the tip of the ladle and smiled.

“Now you have a point. Hmm, tasty!”

Tilda giggled, feeling a light heart after several hours of tension.

“So, now we draw straws?”

“What?”

“To choose who’s keeping watch first.”

“Oh, so.” Kíli considered it for a while. “I should keep watch, I’m used to spend nights outside. Patrols, escorts, you know.” It would be shameful to allow a woman to keep watch whilst he slept, and he would have none of it. “You sleep.”

“But you can’t stay the whole night awake. It’s unhealthy.” She reasoned. “We take shifts.”

“No way. What would you do if something happened?”

“I’d wake you.”

“You’ll be tired tomorrow.”

“So will you if you don’t sleep.”

“I’m used to it.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

“Why do you care about healthy?”

“I’m a healer. If you get sick, I’ll have more work to do.”

“You’re selfish!”

“Maybe. But look, if we didn’t meet I’d keep awake most of the night to keep watch by myself. If we take shifts I’ll sleep half of the night and I’ll be better off.”

Kíli weighed the offer. He didn’t sleep at all the previous night. The night before that, they slept at New Lake Town, and Dwalin made little to no effort to stay discrete next room. To sleep half of the night would be a blessing. Yet…

“No, it wouldn’t be honourable.”

“Bullshit!”

“What?”

He didn’t expect such language, really.

“Excrements of a bovine.” She enlightened him, to his blinking surprise. “There’s a lot of ways to say the same thing to over sensible ears, you know. Yet, actually, bullshit is really precise to express my opinion on this honourable stuff of yours. On the matter of taking shifts to watch, I mean.”

“Oh, so. What a relief. It means you’re allowing me to be honourable in other aspects of life, at least.”

“Probably.”

Kíli shook his head, defeated. The woman could be a pain in the ass to what his good manners prompted him, but she was pragmatic.

“Right, you won. We don’t need to draw straws if there’s a shift you’d prefer, though.”

Tilda almost clapped her hands, delighted, a broad smile adorning her face.

“A reasonable dwarf, at last! I’d prefer to take last shift. I’m a morning person, mostly.”

“Really? I’m a night owl, mostly. Maybe for being used to night patrols since I was a wee lad.”

He remembered well that time, what felt an age ago. To be on night patrols made him fell so grown up, he didn’t figure out that him being allowed such dangerous task meant there were too few adult dwarves to grant safety for the settlement. Which made him curious.

“And what draws you to the morning?”

“Fever.”

“Sorry?”

The woman was never tired of surprising him.

“Wee morning is not an unusual time for fever to break. Babies also seem to love to be born before sunrise, just to keep their mothers busy the whole night.”

“I’m sure they don’t do it on purpose!”

“Let me guess, that’s what you did, huh?”

“Humpf. Who was it, Mom or Fíli who told you?”

She laughed outright.

“No, none of them gave you out, silly. I just guessed, that’s all.”

“I see…” He nodded, figuring out the kind of company he had found for the night. “Well, you go to sleep, then. I’ll do the dishes.”

“How kind of you. Thanks!”

“Never mention it. You cooked the meal, I do the dishes, it’s only fair.”

“Not much cooking, really. Just dried rations in a pot of water.”

“Not much dishes, really. Just a pot, a bowl and a couple of tableware. We’re even.”

Tilda smiled and went to get her sleeping roll whilst Kíli washed the gear in the creek. Feeling muscles she didn’t even know existed, the woman closed her eyes and slept like a stone, if ever stones slept.

Chapter Text

The forges of Erebor were scorching hot, wide and many. The main forge, the one Thorin used Smaug’s fire to relit when they took the mountain back, was a good sample of the remaining ones, most of them close by. Yet, when you consider a place half a mile wide, the number of people working in there isn’t small. Also, close by can mean a mile or two. And the meandering of tunnels and paths interconnecting them makes it easy to avoid someone if you want, by simply leaving one of them when the one you don’t want to meet enters the other side of said forge. Which can be achieved if you know the right people willing to keep you informed. And people sympathetic to Kíli were not in shortage, ever.

This was what Thorin ran over and over again in his mind, flustered by his failure in finding Kíli in just another forge, having spent most of his day and early evening in a fruitless search for his nephew. Enough was enough, and he abandoned his plan of talking to Kíli that very night on behalf of his dinner. He knew he was grumpy enough without skipping meals, and wasn’t willing to go hangry on top of everything.

“I imagine Mr. Shallowbogs’ face when you beat his sixty-er and turned your own conker into a ninety-niner…”

“It was hilarious, I can assure you, Dís. Old Mrs. Brownlock’s eyes grew big as a frying pan when she recorded it in the championship report, and the Mayor had to pay his lost wagers from his own purse because Rosamunda Took was in charge of the Mayor’s Treasury instead of her fiançé Odovacar Bolger, who was officially tending a fallen hedge at his family’s properties in the South Farthing, but everyone but Rosamunda knew he was in doubt about marrying her for fear of her grand-grandfather the Old Took (that’s also my own grandfather, by the way), and she wouldn’t let a penny escape the Treasury without all formalities and evidence that it was really accountable to the needs of the Shire and not a personal expense of the Mayor, which it was.”

Thorin was dizzy at Bilbo’s account of a conkers – conkers, of all sports! – championship, when his sister’s reply took the ground from under his boots.

“But did they marry?”

“What?” Bilbo startled, unison to Thorin’s silent startling.

“Did Rosamunda marry Odovacar?” Thorin noticed his sister’s voice was different from what he was used to. Almost… wishful. “Did he overcome his fears?”

“Well…”

The king under the mountain chose that moment to enter the room, leaving no space for romantic speculations.

“Your son in nowhere to be found at the forges.”

“Good evening to you too, dear brother.”

Dís replied, nonplussed, eyes on the hobbit who was uncomfortable by the sudden attention Thorin granted them.

“Thorin! What a…”

“Thank you, Bilbo.” Thorin interrupted. “I feel the same, but my mind is elsewhere right now. Thank you also for entertaining my sister, if entertainment it was.” Bilbo and Dís exchanged looks as if trying to understand what Thorin’s talk was about and, no wiser for looking at each other, formulated their own theories. “Dís, where might Kíli be?"

She took a thorough look at her brother and speculated.

“The forges?”

“I searched all of them.”

“Sparring arena?”

“Almost spent some stamina there on my way back, but no, Dwalin granted me.”

“Kitchens?” She guessed the next logical step.

“According to Bombur, no.”

“Could he simply be sleeping?”

“Fíli won’t say a word, and I can’t possibly break into the lad’s quarters.”

“Maybe out in the forest?” Suggested Bilbo, to Thorin and Dís’ surprise. “Well, he likes shooting his bow, he likes the wild, and out there would be somewhere less people would pester him about… you know.”

The hobbit defended himself, thumbs under his suspenders. The dwarven siblings looked at each other like the other just had to had this idea earlier and didn’t on purpose.

“It’s already dark outside.”

“Not the first time he’d slept out in the wild.”

“Alone?”

“You know him less than you’d like to admit.”

“His father wasn’t an elf, I expect you to know.”

“Patrols around the Blue Mountains weren’t a weekend stroll, I expect you to know.”

You let him sleep alone in the wild?”

Everybody slept in the wild.”

“Alone?”

Shazara!” Bilbo’s shout silenced them in no time, part because the word commanded them to and part because they didn’t expect a hobbit to use a word in Khuzdul. “If Kíli needs a time for himself to ponder the mess you imposed on him, Thorin Oakenshield, my friend,” And here Bilbo took in a deep breath and looked pointedly at the aforementioned dwarf. “You’ll allow him this time. You’ll allow him this time and be glad to still have a nephew to complain about your idiocies. Because the alternative would be very, very distressing.”

Thorin crossed his arms over his chest, visibly pissed off.

“Well, looks like everyone but me knows better how to deal with my second heir, and what would be better for the future of the kingdom I am responsible for. Considering this, and that I spent a whole day trampling this mountain up and down for nothing, it seems wiser to give up on this mess and let you to deal with it.”

Here he uncrossed his arms to point an accusing finger to both Dís and Bilbo, a snarl on his face, and stomped away grabbing a chicken leg in his way out.

“Maybe we should talk to Kíli in the morning.” Suggested Bilbo, eyes still on the door Thorin slammed harder than needed in his way out.

“Aye, a whole day of pissing my thick-headed brother off might have softened my son’s own thick head.” Said Dís, fingers playing with a bead in her beard, absently.

“Agreed. And, by the way, the answer is yes.”

“What?” She looked back at Bilbo, confused.

“Odovacar and Rosamunda. He overcame his fears, and they married, the following spring.”

“Really?”

Dís’ eyes shone with joy for the happy ending of the Shire love-story, helping Bilbo to find his own courage and take a step closer to the majestic dwarrowdam.

“Yes. Because for him she was so gorgeous, and strong, and kind…” He reached out a hand, not yet bold enough to touch her hair or beard, knowing how intimate it was for dwarven standards, settling instead for touching the back of her hand with the tips of his fingers, light as a feather. “That it didn’t matter if her family was powerful, or if there was a chance her own brother would be against their union, or what anyone would think or say about them. He was courageous enough.”

Dís was no fool, nor innocent, and the darkening of Bilbo’s eyes spoke volumes of what was said behind his words. His touch on her skin was like fire, so she left the silver bead to itself and interlaced her fingers to his. She was in the mood to burn.

“At least Odovacar didn’t have to deal with a dwarrowdam. He would be at risk of finding out she already had had her One in her life.”

Bilbo took another small step closer to Dís, holding her hand just a little firmer.

“What would that mean, in effect? Would she despise him? Order that he was thrown down from the ramparts for his boldness?” She snorted at the picture, and he continued. “Hobbits are brave enough to face such things, you know, although I believe Odovacar would suffer if his feelings were utterly rejected.”

“Utter rejection could be the case if his dwarven Rosamunda didn’t know Odovacar enough to know he’s a sincere hobbit and that his friendship is precious to her.” Bilbo’s eyes lightened up with hope, and she resumed. “Yet, if she already had found her One and became a widow, for instance, he should know there would never be that full passion bards sing about in ballads and lays. Rosamunda would most probably be like a very close friend and companion. Not the intensity of a fire conflagration, but the steady warmth of a well-tended hearth. Do you understand?"

Bilbo breathed deep, understanding more than what she said in spoken words.

“I do.” He brought their joined hands closer to his face, eyes set on her sapphire orbs. “And I’m sure that would be more than enough to make a hobbit like him the merrier person in whole Middle-earth.” His lips closed the little space left to lay a chaste kiss on her knuckles, the scent of her skin inebriating like wine. “It would be my pleasure…” Bilbo reluctantly moved away from her hand, focusing instead on her adorable face, black soft beard on alabaster skin. “To tell you about the ridiculous courting habits of hobbits.”

Dís smiled sheepishly as she retorted, uplifting one eyebrow.

“It will be my pleasure. I went through all ludicrous dwarven habits on courtship, so we can exchange anecdotes on the matter.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

“As will I, dear Bilbo, as will I.” She took a step back, away from him, and bowed dwarven fashion. “I bid you good night, my friend. We might look for my wayward son in the morning.”

“Good night, my precious lady. It will be my pleasure.”

With these words, Bilbo left a smiling Dís in the royal family dining room, making a small victory dance and punching the air when he was sure none could see him.

Chapter Text

Next day found them in a better mood than it would if any of them had kept watch on their own individual camp along the night. Tilda made tea and put bread to warm on the grate, Kíli refilled the waterskins and saddled the horses, and soon they had the camp dismounted and packed to go. They worked together as if they hadn’t done anything else in the last couple of years, and even Broda neighed in a friendly tone to the dwarf who spooked him the day before.

Half the day had passed with the horses at a good pace, the runaways chatting peacefully about anything and nothing in particular. It felt strange, yet comforting, that they knew each other but a long time had passed without much of a personal contact, so news and information were shared by their people and they could talk about the same topics without much effort on explaining what was it all about.

For instance, dynamics of the economy between Blue Mountains, Grey Havens and Evendim were compared with Erebor, Mirkwood and Dale, the latest set including the Iron Hills and the former considering the Shire; Kíli’s accounts of his misfortunes of broken bones, sprains and childhood illnesses made Tilda laugh and prescribe limb immobilization, painkillers and poultices, just like her own accounts of aristocracy blunders made him laugh and offer tips on how to bear a long council meeting without seeming as bored as you really were.

They had won the top of a hill when Kíli noticed something to the East, and frowned.

“Hey, Tilda, for all you’ve been good company, I fear it’s time for us to depart. If you don’t head east from this point, you’ll miss Lake Town.”

“Wha…”

She started to question when her gaze fell upon the glistening town in the distance. There it was, her fake destination, unmistakable. She swallowed dry.

Kíli had already dismounted, tying Tripsy with a length of rope to a sturdy bush. The he rummaged his packs for some bread and a spiced salami. Tilda was still frozen on the spot.

“Come on, let us share a meal before we depart. Bilbo would call it elevensies. Did you know halflings have up to seven meals a day?” He turned to the statue on the horse. “Tilda? Are you all right?”

The woman seemed to come out of a trance at the sound of her name. Perturbed eyes darted from the town to the dwarf and back, settling then on her own hands on the reins. Slowly, she dismounted seeming more tired than the morning should grant.

“Aye. I mean, no.”

She watched Kíli tie her horse to the same bush in silence, gathering up her courage. Too fast was he ready, looking at her, torn between curious and worried.

“Is it something you want to talk about? I have two ears to hear and one mouth to shut up. And I can keep my mouth stubbornly shut, you know.”

“Kíli, I, ah… I’m not heading to Lake Town. Not at all.”

He nodded at her statement, slowly. Things began to click in place.

“I see…”

She fidgeted with the clasp of her cloak, in only to look somewhere else than his piercing eyes.

“I didn’t want to lie to you, but they… they cannot know…”

Her sobs came unwished by her and unexpected by him, who took some seconds to understand what was happening and take action.

“Hush, hush, it’s all right… it’s all right…”

He took a step closer and reached a thumb to her weeping face, trying to show empathy but also respect to her personal space. It was all it took for her to throw herself in his embrace and cry freely on his shoulder.

“Hush, calm down, calm down, it’s all right…”

“No, it’s not, Kíli, it’s not…”

He should have known better, right from the start. A woman riding alone; actually, a princess without escort; evasiveness on her destination and reasons; a route that was definitely not the fastest or shortest one from Dale to Lake Town; and then…

“You intend to travel far, don’t you?”

“Ho… how do you know?” She asked between sobs.

“Your stuff. Dried rations endure long but ain’t as tasty as fresh food, so people tend to leave them for longer travels, not a two days journey. Even taking the long route you took, you’d reach Lake Town today, certainly. And your camp kitchen. It’s very nice, but a bit cumbersome if someone’s to ride just a couple of days.”

His deep voice reasoning close to her ear helped Tilda to calm down, and she was able to inhale deep instead of just crying. Leather, pipe-weed and warmth. It was comforting.

“You’re right. I intend to go far. Very far.”

“How far? If I may be so bold to ask, of course.”

“Of course you can. I mean, you’re  just asking, you’re not judging me. Of course you can.”

By now she was able to lift her head from his shoulder and wipe her eyes with a hand. Kíli produced a handkerchief from nowhere.

“Here. Take it.”

“Wha… Thank you.”

She wiped her face clean, thankful. A puffy face was bad enough even without snot all over it.

“Bilbo made such a fuss over a forgotten handkerchief once that I got used to have one handy ever since.”

Tilda smiled at the mention of the Halfling. He had been the nicest person when the Company stayed at her house, even if compared to Dori, who insisted on serving tea for everyone for the short time they stayed, and Bombur, who took over the kitchen. Even Bofur had been too worried to be the good humoured fellow she came to know in the years after the Retaking. Kíli himself had been in too much pain for her to register if he was nice or not, only getting to know his true self after the Battle, and then he was again in pain, this time both physical and emotional. She tucked the handkerchief in her pocket.

“Thank you. I… I’ll wash it in the next creek we find, if you allow me.”

“That’s fine, don’t worry.” He touched her cheek with two fingers, as if making sure it was dry. “Wanna talk?”

She looked down, perturbed.

“You don’t have to, though. But if I know where you’re going to, I may be able to help. I’ve travelled more than you, I believe.”

“Aye. Aye, I’ll talk to you. What sits heavy in my chest might get lighter if aired out.”

He simply took her hand and led her to what little shadow the bushes could offer at the almost mid-day time. Tilda sat down, obediently, gathering her thoughts. Kíli went to fetch their waterskins and the forgotten bread and salami. The woman had her eyes lost in the distant New Lake Town when he came back and sat down beside her.

“Bread?”

He offered a loaf and she took it with a nod of thanks. Tilda ate it bit by bit, in silence, and Kíli let her to her thoughts whilst cutting the salami in thin slices. Pressure wouldn’t do any good, he deemed.

His patience was rewarded at last.

“Do you… Does your people make marriage arrangements?” She asked, voice slow and low. “Make persons wed to tie alliances or such?”

He understood her predicament instantly and lifted his head from the salami task.

“Sometimes. Sometimes they are stupid enough to demand it, and sometimes people are stupid enough to agree. Only ever heard of it happening in royalty, and even so, seldom. But a dwarrowdam is never forced to marry.”

Tilda nodded, agreeing with the mention of stupidity and wishing to be a dwarrowdam just for once. She noticed how his gaze fell to his own hands playing with the knife.

“I don’t know how much it is usual amongst my people. All I know is that I… I…”

Kíli predicted more tears coming and acted on damage reduction.

“That you’re not of the stupid kind?”

“Exactly!” She cried. “I can’t, I won’t, I’ll never…”

“Shh, calm down, calm down… You’re away from him now. Who is the crap? Say a name and I’ll skin him alive for touching you without your consent.”

“No, it’s not like that… I didn’t marry. Not yet. I’ll never. Not to him. I won’t!”

Resoluteness was back to her voice and the dwarf smiled, encouraging her brave spirit.

“Good! Now, what’s your plan, if you’re not going to Lake Town?”

He could see some doubt in her face, and she silenced for some minutes, fidgeting with her clasp. Tilda weighed her options. To travel alone was her original plan, but she didn’t count on finding anyone in the wild. To be able to sleep with someone on watch had granted her rest with peace of mind, which would be impossible if alone. Kíli was perfectly respectful, but also fun to talk to, always a prank he perpetrated with his brother on the tip of his tongue to send away the boredom of riding for hours long. On top, he said he was going to cross the forest…

“How much can I trust you to keep my destination confidential?”

Kíli considered her question for a whole tenth of a second.

“Completely. As I said, I have two ears to hear and one mouth to keep shut. Whomever tried to impose marriage on you deserves only my wrath, not any information on you. Moreover, I don’t intend to return to Erebor anytime soon. Or late, by the way. I’m gone for good.”

Her relief got mixed up with curiosity.

“Why?”

“Your people is not the only one stupid enough to try to impose on others personal life.”

“Oh?”

“Thorin conditioned my rising to king under the Blue Mountains to giving up Tauriel’s memory and taking a wife. I’ll do neither.”

“Nor should you! You… she… she loved you to her death, how could you simply…”

Tilda was angry enough to be out of words. Which, coming from someone who never allowed a provocation to stay unanswered, was quite a lot.

“Exactly. I can’t, and I won’t. So if my non-returning to lands of mutual acquaintance is enough to earn your trust, you can trust me.”

The woman bit her lower lip, considering things under the new light Kíli’s revelation kindled. It was not hard to decide.

“I’ll trust you. I’ll trust you and also ask for your help. You said you’ll take the Old Forest Road…”

“That might be.” He interrupted. “I have no destination in mind, to tell you the truth.”

“Oh. Sorry, I presumed…”

“All right, it was what I told you, actually. Anyway, how can I help you if I take the Forest Road?”

“I intend to cross the forest. Find a place to live amongst the woodsmen who live between the forest and he river. They say they’re a rude people, but it’s easy to dub as rude a people who lives far away and you don’t really know.” She smiled, sheepish. “Just as we dubbed dwarves as greedy and stubborn, for instance, when your people lived far away from us.”

The example picked up his curiosity and he asked, with a smirk.

“Really? And my people living close to yours has changed your opinion? We creaturs of Mahal ain’t greedy and stubborn anymore?”

“Of course it changed. Now I know dwarves are not that greedy as people deemed.”

“And stubborn?”

“With a passion!”

They laughed, their mood getting better by the minute. Kíli shook his head at her sincerity and good humour and decided.

“I’ll cross the forest with you. As I said, I have no destination in mind, as long as my path leads me away from Erebor.”

Tilda smiled back, thankful.

“So, we have a deal, then.”

“I think so.” Then he added, face serious. “On one condition.”

“What condition?” Inquired the woman, suddenly worried on what the dwarf would demand.

“First watch is mine.”

“Dealt!”

 

Chapter Text

It was not a pleasure. At all. Bilbo accompanied Dís’ attempts to wake Kíli, or make him answer his bedchamber door at least, because it was impossible to a living dwarf not to hear Dís’ shouts and threats – and shouted threats, by the way – unless they were comatose, which was out of question. Probably. Even so, the hobbit decided he would rather be dead than comatose in the case Dís shouted at him like that. Of course, such a heinous punishment would only be due if he hid from his mom in his bedchamber for two days long, and a respectable gentlehobbit would never do such thing in sane mind. Which made Bilbo stop and consider a couple of facts:
First, Kíli was not a hobbit.
Second, he himself would feign being comatose if his mother shouted like that.
Third, Kíli’s mind was probably not sane.
All things considered, all the efforts to wake the lad up, all Dís tried to make him open the door, from menaces to cajoling, all was vain. Yet, Fíli kept his peace as if nothing were happening, slouching on the sofa with a book in his hands, a slight dithering of his moustache braids the only sign he was alive at all. Like a gargoyle watching over the turrets of a temple, waiting. Waiting for what? An Armageddon that would never come, most probably. But watch had to be kept, anyway. Not for the sake of the (not)upcoming Armageddon, but for the ones who awaited for it.
Reaching such conclusion was what made Bilbo take action at last, when the mason crew was ready to put the poor door down by sheer force.
“Stop. The lad is not there.”
“What?”
“But…”
“Just stop, can’t you see?”
The dwarves called to open the door at any cost eyed him as if he were mad. Well, mad Baggins had been his nickname in the Shire for the last ten years, why don’t put it to good use?
“How can you tell?” Was Dís’ sensible question, fists at her hips and a pout worthy a whole spring in Rivendell.
“Release the masons. I’ll explain, then.”
The dwarrowdam looked discontent, but released the workers anyway. To counter the favourite of the King Under the Mountain could count as unwise even for the Princess Under the Mountain, and she knew it.
Which didn’t prevent her from tapping the floor with an angry foot as soon as the masons left.
“So?”
Bilbo studied her for a minute, weighing how to break the news without incurring in the formidable lady’s wrath.
“It’s not your fault, I hope you know.”
Dís’ sapphire eyes softened just enough for the hobbit to know he hit the target. Bilbo took the chance and stepped forward, knowing that to look upwards to someone of dwarf height made his eyes take a puppy-like configuration that helped him to touch sensible hearts, even if said sensible hearts were buried underneath, well, tons of pride and stubbornness and low self-esteem hidden under arrogance. Well, several decades of exile explained much of it – the low self-esteem part, specially – but Bilbo knew sensible hearts were there for whom had the courage to reach for them. That he learned on the Carrok, and never forgot.
“What… What did I miss, Bilbo? When have I been less than I should be for him?”
Her voice was soft, not an ounce of how she shouted while banging at her son’s bedchamber door.
“Nothing. Never. As I said, it’s not your fault. Tho…”
“Thorin did it. He forced Kíli into agreeing to …”
“No, Amad, not even Thorin.” Fíli had seemingly awoken form his pseudo-reading state and came to them, offering a supportive hand to their hobbit. Most of what he would say was to enlighten Bilbo, anyway. “I was angry at him, too, at first. But he tried. For what Mister Balin says, Uncle put it off with the Council for years. Then they forced it on him, threatening to withhold support like they did before the Retake, and, as Uncle buried the Arkenstone in the deepest mine shaft as a sign of redemption of the Gold Sickness, some clans think they can force their hand. I just don’t know why I was never present at such meetings, if it would matter to me for a longer time than to any other lord of the Seven Kingdoms, being the crown prince of the Longbeards. Not that I care about it, anyway, or, cared, until Uncle broke the news of his retirement. I still don’t know what to make out of it.”
“Not one hundred yet.” Dís murmured, almost to herself.
“What?” Asked Bilbo, close enough to hear her whisper.
She looked back at him, although her eyes were distant.
“Fíli is not one hundred years old yet. This means he’s not allowed to take part in decisions that concern the well-being of our people for longer than a century. Even if he’ll be High King of the Seven Clans in less than a moon, because it was decided by Thorin and agreed by the Council, he’s not one hundred years old yet, so the old traditions command he’s not a full-fledged decision maker, not for his own life decisions, nor for ones who will be under his hand. When Thorin puts the crown on his head, yes, but not yet.”
“ What?”
“Amad…What the…?”
It was Fíli’s turn to face Dís’ and seek for explanation and understanding at the same time. The dwarrowdam looked at her firstborn with a proud smile, and then turned to the hobbit at their side.
“I’ve told you some of this during our afternoon teas in the Shire, my dear Halfling friend. I just don’t know if you understood what was being said underneath.”
Bilbo then, before his unexpected journey, would have dropped his porcelain tea cup on the stone floor, but Bilbo now, ten years after, just gripped his hands tighter. Sometime later he’d find out Dís’ hands were caught between his fingers, but that was another problem. She looked at her firstborn, a sad smile on her face.
“You know I was eighty-four when I knew your father. Just some years older than you were when the stupid quest almost took you, your brother and my brother away, thanks Mahal and all the Valar the Enemy didn’t accomplish it. Well, back to our story. If I were any peasant, any commoner, it would be no problem, but I am of Durin’s line. So, every lord and lady and rich merchant was sure to have an opinion on my life.”
“But nobody would make you forsake your One!” Protested Fíli, visibly angry at the mere idea. “It would be… unthinkable, to say the least.”
“And who’s to say who is or isn’t the One of another? You know this is a knowledge reserved only for the very souls who were forged in the same fire. Who’s to say you are Nina’s One but she herself, and vice-versa?”
Fíli slowly nodded, agreeing. To know the One match to a soul was a mystery not even the priests dared to explain, being far too personal, unique, and true. The realization that Nina was his One had been overwhelming, an epiphany, like finding the final piece of a puzzle he wasn’t even aware was missing. And it was not even love at first sight.
Bilbo knew about the One thing amongst dwarrow, and kind of understood the underlying concept, albeit it was not considered a real thing in hobbit culture. Of course there were couples who claimed to be soul-mates, but it was exception, not rule. He himself considered it mostly romantic babbling, believing love was something built on mutual respect and admiration, cemented with tons of friendship.
Dís took in Fíli’s comprehension of the matter and continued, for both his and the hobbit’s enlightening.
“The point is, Thorin was ninety-eight by then. Even if he was the surrogate ruler our people for three years already, after your grand-adad Thrain had gone wandering, he wasn’t allowed, by tradition, to speak for me and your father. We had to wait until he was one-hundred to start official courtship, or ten years of surrogate ruling so as to be considered the lawful ruler, whatever came first. I’m glad it was his one-hundredth.”
Fíli was flabbergasted to say the least. He heard some funny stories about how his parents gave a damn on every and any tradition to be together. Some stories were not really funny, like the time the Council of Lords almost got him decapitated for breaking into Thorin’s house to, supposedly, kidnap Dís, until it was clarified the house was on fire and his father actually broke in to save her from the flames.
Yet, there was something more bothering his thoughts.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me about this one hundred idiocy?”
The answer was as obvious as ridiculous, and Dís gave it with a defeated sigh.
“Because you’re not one hundred yet.”
“This… this is nonsense!”
“This is tradition.”
“Just because something is tradition doesn’t imply it is right, or the best thing! This is stupid!”
“It’s tradition that keeps our people alive and striving!”
“Is it? Is it?” Fíli pointed to the locked door where his brother was not behind. “Is my brother alive and striving right now? What did tradition do but to make him go away?”
“How can you be so sure he went away?” Dís was more than upset now. “Fíli, did you help him out of Erebor?”
“No.” The blond dwarf conceded with a bitter laugh, yet adding his point. “But I’d rather had, if I had the chance. That he’s gone away without telling me is sign enough that things are not well with him.”
“This is exactly my feeling.” Bilbo offered, contrite. “If this is anyone’s fault, it is mine. Dwalin told me about a wedding arrangement, but he made me promise not to mention it to Kíli and try to talk it out from Thorin’s head before he announced it. I just didn’t count on not having the time to do so. I… I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner, Dís.”
The dwarrowdam looked at the hobbit, unable to grab all that was said in his few phrases. The hands that grasped hers so strongly just minutes before were limp at his sides, not even fingering the rim of his vest pocket in his usual nervous mannerism. All she saw was a defeated being who blamed himself for what was beyond his power. Just one question remained, albeit she suspected the answer.
“Why… Why didn’t you tell Kíli along the journey? It takes months on the road from the Shire hither, why didn’t you…?”
He knew. He knew it would come to this, and that it would be hard to explain. He had dwelt on this same question many sleepless nights on the road, many a day he rode in silence watching the archer and asking himself why he didn’t just blurt out what weighed in his heart. Dís sapphire eyes didn’t help him to think straight, though, and reminded him just why he kept his silence.
“I couldn’t. I… I couldn’t break Thorin’s trust in me. He sent Dwalin to fetch me, to fetch us, and confided in Dwalin and in me that no word would be said.” He spread his hands out, trying to illustrate the dimension of what he said and felt. “I know, I know all this arrangement stuff is stupid, I’m of the same opinion as you both, none should mess with the lad’s choices of the heart, but I have… I have…”
“Honor.” The three looked at where the deep baritone voice came, to see Thorin framed by the door-post. “Not that I know why I deserve it directed at me, but… I’m glad to have it.”
“Did you find him?”
Dís asked, anguished, but understanding in a jiffy what happened. Not even the weight of a surprise wedding would break Bilbo’s loyalty to Thorin. In a way, it made her feel better.
“Not yet.” He stepped into the apartment Fíli and Kíli shared. “But I have some information, at least. He asked for his pony, as well as his traveling gear and weapons, two nights ago. For once the stable’s laziness in sending travellers’ things to its due place did us good, as now we know his real intentions. I’m leaving in one hour with a searching party. Anyone willing is welcome to join me, even if I take full responsibility for his… escapade.”
Thorin looked down when his last words left his mouth, regret and shame obvious in the stance of the proud king. But then he was more than a king – he was sibling, he was uncle, he was brother-in-arms. When he looked up again and stared at his burglar, his eyes had a strange sheen, determination the least attribute to it. His voice could have been of command, as the leader Bilbo came to know so many years before, but it was more. It was confidence. It was regret… and hope.
“Will you follow me, Bilbo Baggins… one last time?”
The hobbit pursed his lips to keep himself of punching his regal friend in the face, but answered nonetheless.
“One last time? Are you kidding me? One more time, most probably. Of an unnumbered set of times, for sure. And if I understand you asking me as considering the mere probability that I would not go, then I must be very angry at you, Thorin Oakenshield. Not as angry as Kíli surely is, but angry anyway. Let me get Sting and I’m ready.”

---xxx---

In the depths of Mirkwood, in a palace of stone yet carved to resemble the entwining of tree boughs, a heated discussion took part.
“We can’t just ignore their invitation. It would be undiplomatic.”
“Undiplomatic, to say the least, was to invite us for a celebration when all we have to recall from that occasion was death and mourning. Gross is a better word. Insensitive. Uncouth. Tart.”
“Father, we had this discussion before and…”
“Flinty. Hard-hearted. Rude. Untaught.”
“They had losses too! Far more than we had!”
“It was the retake of their mountain of rubbish. To involve us in their mess was ungracious. Churlish. Gruff. Unaffable.”
“This celebration doesn’t mean only feasting and merrymaking. It is also tribute to the fallen in battle.”
“Their petty lifespan means they’d fall sooner rather than later. If to battle, sickness or old age, is of little importance. On the other hand, our people who fell that day would have yet long centuries of a life full of purpose. They can’t even grasp the concept of it in their little and primitive minds.”
“Being mortals doesn’t make them insensible to the hurt of losing a beloved one, father. I’ve seen their pain and shared in it.”
Only then Thranduil conceded to look Legolas in the eye, one eyebrow uplifted in accusation.
“Don’t remind me of what you shared with them. Or, as a matter of fact, who.”
“You’ll never learn, will you?” Now it was Legolas’ turn to accuse, anger reverberating in his voice and soul. “You dub them as discourteous for not taking into account our own losses, yet you disrespect these same losses. Tauriel…”
“Tauriel was a rebel who abandoned our realm, acting against my orders, and was banished for it. Yet, you still take her side against my best judgement, even after being disowned and accepted back again. You fill me with disgust, my son.”
“So be it then, my father.” The last word the elven prince uttered tasted bitter in his mouth. “My presence won’t be a disgust to your all-wise self anymore. If ten years are not enough for you to let go a stupid grudge on someone who is all kindness and good will, I’ll pay my own respects to her myself. But I should know, shouldn’t I?” He asked rhetorically from over his shoulder as he left the throne room. “Hundred and seventy weren’t enough for you to let go a couple of pebbles…”
“Pebbles? As pure as the gems of Lasgalen! Mine by right! Go, go then, run to your rough and grotesque friends! It only shows how much you’re alike them, you ill-mannered prat. Crass. Loutish. Uncivil. Coarse-grained.”
Legolas shrugged on his way out, having heard that kind of litany times enough.
“Ragged. Indelicate. Clodish. Unparliamentary. Lumpish. Displeasing…”

Chapter Text

The remaining of the day was spent riding at a good pace, putting as much distance between them and New Lake Town as possible. Short gallops allowed Broda to spend his stamina, yet the rohirrim stallion cut them shorter than needed to wait for Kíli’s pony, who followed him restless and proud. Stretches of slower pace granted them all time to rest while still traveling, and the dwarf and the woman used that time to talk, sharing stories from those ten years apart.

“Da has always been a leader of sorts, even if he didn’t pursue it. That’s why the former major didn’t like him. He always questioned things and fought for what was right, so people sought him to help with disputes and quarrels with the major. He never told us about our forefathers having being kings of Dale! We only found out when you party came and was brought before the major for your invasion of the town’s armoury.”

“It was entirely my fault. That we were caught in the armoury, I mean, not that your father never said anything.”

Tilda giggled.

“I imagined as much, Kíli!”

“I shouldn’t have gone to the… invasion, as you put it. My leg was a mess and my stubbornness almost cost us the quest.”

“You were trying to do your best. I think we all do stupid things when trying to impress our parents, or, in your case, your uncle.”

“Thank you for the compliment! It’s been a while since I was called stupid last time…”

“No! It’s not like…” She tried to apologize.

“I know, I know, I’m just teasing. It was stupid enough, I must reckon.”

“Right!” She laughed. “I threw a plate to that orc before Sigrid pulled me under the table, as if it would do anything but enrage it. It was more than stupid, I think.”

“No, no way, Tilda! It was… brave. Very brave, indeed.”

“Do you think so?” She was dubious about his statement. “I was just a brat acting out of fear, and impulse. I don’t see any bravery in it.”

“No?” He questioned, looking at her with more attention. “Fear freezes people, just like a rabbit or a deer freeze at the sight of a predator. That orc was definitely a predator. Even if you and your sister were not its primary target, you would be a collateral it would enjoy to kill, in the best case scenario. You didn’t freeze. You reacted. Of course you were afraid, but fear wasn’t your main drive. It was courage.”

The woman silenced after what he said, lost for a while in what it could mean. She spent the last several years hearing now and then that it was a stupid thing she did, throwing a plate at an orc, being even used as example of what should not be done in certain circumstances. Like in her training as a healer: if someone is bleeding, don’t throw a plate at an orc, just stanch the haemorrhage.

“I… I don’t know if it was really courage. People tend to say it was just stupid. But then…” Tilda looked at the dwarf riding beside her, someone she acknowledged as a weathered warrior and, as such, his opinion was important to her. “Do you really believe it was courage?”

Kíli considered her for more than she questioned. What little he knew of her from ten years before, mostly during his long recovery from the battle, and now, in the not-quite one day long of talking, sharing stories of their lives. Strange, he deemed, it was like they’d never been apart, yet this adult Tilda was so much more than he would expect any person to be. She was the same spirited being he knew then, now seasoned with experience and persistence in pursuing her goals. She had told him how her training as a healer had been, starting in the aftermath form the battle even if only because more experienced hands were tending to more serious wounds. But after that the adults were driven to the rebuilding of Dale and Erebor, yet diseases and minor accidents continued to happen as always, and not so many hands were willing to help Óin amongst the dwarves and Hilda amongst Men. So Tilda helped them both, learning the hard way, following her heart.

“Tilda, do you know what the word courage means?”

“To be brave?” She tried. “To be daring, audacious? Nothing of this seems to apply to me, really.”

I’m not daring, says the woman who fled from a forced marriage in the middle of the night galloping a rohirrim stallion to cross Mirkwood alone.” Kíli shook his head, incredulous, and Tilda laughed at his description of her recent affairs. He waited until she recovered from the laughing fit to resume. “Tilda, courage means… to act with your heart. If you ain’t someone who follows your heart, I don’t know who else could wear this title.”

“I… Thank you.”

She dropped her gaze at the compliment, embarrassed. Acting according to her heart had led her to multiple troubles all life long, and now having Kíli praise exactly this pattern of action was confusing, to say the least.

On his side of the following silence, Kíli considered his last words, and found himself a liar. He knew to whom else he could bestow the title of courageous without a blink of his eyes, but the memory hurt too much. If Tauriel didn’t act with her heart that day, at Ravenhill, she would be alive, and he would not be tormented by guilt.

 

---xxx---

 

Making camp was fast and easy, both knowing what the other was expected to do to settle for the night. Unsaddling the horses, preparing the terrain, collecting firewood, roasting a rabbit Kíli managed to hunt whilst riding, brewing some tea to break the chill of the night… No fight about who would take first watch this time. Tilda dived into her sleeping roll and soon sleep claimed her.

Kíli stuffed his pipe and lightened it, the sweet smell of Longbottom leaf spreading around their little camp. The stars of the last summer nights shone bright, reminding him once more of the elf who told him with great excitement about how the stars were memory, pure and precious. They would always be memory to him, pure and precious memory of his One. It didn’t matter if they didn’t have time to follow courting protocols and proper wedding rites. They said their vows to each other in the short moments of break Legolas granted them, between Tauriel being stabbed and her death, whilst the elf prince fought the orc Bolg. Regardless of those few and ragged words, albeit true, he knew she was his One since Mirkwood, even if she didn’t have a clue. He knew, his heart knew, and this knowledge was enough for him to claim Tauriel’s love, the light of his fire, with all of his soul. That knowledge was also what kept him going on despite her absence, because no good was ever achieved by those who sought death before their due time. To fall in battle was one thing, to fall defending his people, or any defenceless person, was deemed right in the beliefs of his people; yet, none should shatter what was forged by Mahal, none had the right to melt his own stone and steel. It was the only thing that kept him from pursuing his own end.

The embers of his pipe were long dead, sparks of their little fire competing with some late fireflies, when he noticed Tilda tossing in her sleeping roll. Before Kíli decided if it was a good idea to wake her, she settled down again, mumbling something incomprehensible. He kept observing her, just in case – he knew what a nightmare could do, and would help her out of it if he could.

Moments later she sat up with a heart-freezing scream.

 

---xxx---

 

It was night in Lake Town and Tilda was worried. Sigrid was away in Gondor and Bain was helping Bard to kill a dragon. She was alone in their little house and she couldn’t find her ragdoll. Could it be lost, tucked inside a pocket of the clothes they lent to the dwarves? She sought in all places she used to forget the doll, but all she could find were dried herbs. The door creaked as someone opened it and stepped inside.

“Time to go, Tilda. You’re mine now.”

“No!” She shouted at the stranger. “I’m not! Da would never…”

“But he did.” The old man interrupted her, silhouetted against the door frame, dragon fire behind him obscuring his features. He stepped inside the house, aided by a heavy staff. “I’m the only one who can protect Dale from the orcs. He sold you for weapons.”

“It can’t be true…”  She stepped back, away from the old man, disgusted at his presence. Then something, or, better saying, someone on the table caught her attention and she felt relieved at once, strong enough to challenge the old man. “You are wrong. The dwarves are with us. We are safe. I am safe.”

Even with her bold words, Tilda stepped back once more, just enough to touch the table. Fast as a snake, she took a plate and threw it at the man, who disappeared with a flash of dragon fire. Relieved, she turned to the dwarf on the table, assessing his wound. The leg was swollen, and he shivered in fever. She cleansed his forehead with a damp cloth and tried to assure him.

“The elf healer is coming. Hold on!”

Kíli grabbed her hand with his trembling one and looked at her as if wanting to say something. She waited, but he said nothing more.

“Kíli?”

Apprehension filled her healer senses and she moved closer to look into his eyes. They were glazed, and the hand in hers trembled no more. Reality hit her. Kíli was dead. Kíli was dead. Tilda cried with all her soul.

“No! No! Not Kíli, no! No!”

 

---xxx---

 

“Tilda. Tilda. Calm down. It’s all right… It’s all right…”

Tilda trembled in his arms, tears flowing free on her cheeks. One of Kíli’s hands drew soothing circles on her back, whilst the other carded her hair, like his mother did to him when he was a wee dwarfling. He missed it, because nightmares were his dutiful companions since the Battle of Five, but he was no dwarfling anymore and grown-up dwarves didn’t have nightmares, for all he knew, nor did they seek for comfort when afraid of the dark. He knew other races had bad dreams even as adults, and comforting Tilda was not a problem for him. After all, she was a child not that long ago.

His deep and calming voice finally made effect, and her breathing became lass ragged. Soon the woman was not trembling anymore, and wiped her eyes and face with the sleeve of her gown, trying to gather some resemblance of normalcy.

“Do you feel better?” Kíli wiped a strand of hair from her blue eyes. “How can I help you?”

“I… I’m better now, thank you.” She rested her forehead on his shoulder, taking deep breaths to even the last of her discomfort. “I… I had a very bad dream, that’s all.”

“It is all right now, Tilda. I… I just wish I could make you feel better.”

And he really meant it. It was not only because little Tilda eased his recovery days while he healed from the wounds the Battle of Five granted him. It was because this grown up Tilda he got to know was a precious being, in manners he was not quite able to explain yet.

“Thank you, Kíli. You do. You really do.”

“What happened?”

He simply quoted what Dís used to ask him when he was distressed, knowing how much it helped him to vent out what he felt. If it would work with nightmares, was yet to be seen.

But it did.

“I… I dreamed of the… the man I was supposed to marry. It was not… not quite pleasant.”

To talk about the obscure figure that appeared in that doorframe was one thing; to tell Kíli she screamed in her nightmare when she saw him dead was completely another one, and he wouldn’t know about it, not form her lips at least.

Kíli considered what she said, and what it was like to wake up to his own nightmares, and tightened his embrace.

“You’re safe now. He… he won’t find you, I promise.”

Tilda felt her body melt into his at those words, feeling beyond reason that she was secure and safe in his arms. Nothing in her life prior to fleeing Dale ever gave her any promise, any sureness of anything. Even her Da becoming king didn’t mean any certainty, only that their challenges would be different. Now, for once, someone promised her she would be safe.

As a reward, Tilda felt he deserved some explanation, or at least some description of what thunderstorm her dream unleashed on her.

“I couldn’t see his face. I was at home in Lake Town, where… you know, our little house.” She tried to explain, waving her hands to describe the small dwelling. “He… he demanded me to follow him… he… he said I was his, that Da sold me to him… I…”

Tilda swallowed her anguish, and Kíli tried to comfort her again.

“Hush, calm down…”

She felt she owed him some explanation.

“I don’t know who he is, aye? But I know he is so old he could barely reach Dale. I can’t – I can’t! - marry him. I can’t…”

Kíli frowned at the dubious description of the offending man.

“Maybe you should have tried to know who he is. Some races of Man are long lived, like the Dúnedain.”

“But why would Da wish for an allegiance with the Dúnedain? They’re such a forlorn people, wandering all of Arnor, with no place to rest…” Kíli frowned, but she took no notice, face buried in his chest. “I know not having a town to call a homeland doesn’t mean a people isn’t reliable and trustworthy, you know, most people of Lake Town were descendants from old Dale, but… it just doesn’t make sense. The Dúnedain wouldn’t seek for an alliance with Dale, it wouldn’t bring them any advantage, considering how sparse and far apart are their dealings in Rhovanion.”

Tilda shook her head and Kíli thought about the long years of wandering of his people and knew that aye, it was true, no sensible people would be eager to seek allegiance with Durin’s people during their wandering days. Why would Dale seek allegiance with the Dúnedain or any other wandering people?

“So, all you know is that he is far older…”

“He is almost ninety!”

“Almost ninety and barely reached Dale. Not information enough to find out who the guy might be, I’d wager.”

“I don’t want to know who he might be. I just want to be away from him.”

Kíli pondered about the whoever dwarrowdam could be the one Thorin and his thrice-damned Council chose for him to marry. He, too, wasn’t keen to know who his pseudo-intended could be.

“Sounds like we both are under a similar curse. I simply don’t want anyone beside me after I lost Tauriel, whom I loved, and you don’t want to be beside someone you don’t know beforehand and didn’t choose.”

Tilda fidgeted the rim of her dress, downcast eyes.

“It is not simply someone I didn’t chose, Kíli. It is a very old man I didn’t choose, it’s someone who could be my great-grandfather, and it just doesn’t…” She blinked, and wiped a stubborn tear from her cheek. “It is not as if I am a stupid romantic that fancies a charming prince, I know my sister married to reinforce alliances between Dale and Rohan, but her husband in only ten years older than Sigrid, they… they have things in common to talk about; he is younger than Da, at least. What would my life be, with someone who reached old age with… without even having had a wife once? Doesn’t it sound strange? If he never got a wife there must be something very wrong with that man. What if he hates women and this marriage is just… just to produce an heir?” Tilda’s voice lowered to a bare whisper at the idea that scared her. “Would he… would  he take me with uncaring hands and… do things… to make an heir… even if I didn’t want to? Would he… would he force me and…”

Her hands hid her sobbing face and Kíli couldn’t help but to embrace her again and let her tears wash freely on his shoulder. He caressed Tilda’s hair, trying to find self-control not to go back to Dale and punch Bard in the face for subjecting his daughter to such an ordeal. No dwarf would ever decide on a maiden’s choice, and it included the choice to say no.

“Tilda, I… I hope we’ll never see the Lonely Mountain again after we escape from its sight, but… but if ever you are forced to marry this man, or any other, this I promise you: if your husband ever forces you to do anything – and I mean anything – apart from what you’re willing to do, I, Kíli son of Dís, will personally kill this man. Come to me with a single bruise and he’ll find his doom at my hands. This I promise by Durin’s beard, and may Mahal’s anvil shatter before this promise is broken.”

Chapter Text

The wind playing with her braids was enthralling to say the least. She missed it, Dís had to concede. Unfortunately, the rare occasions she had to feel the wind in her tresses were such as these – cases of crisis – or her escapades to the Shire. Cases of crisis were becoming rarer by the year, which she was thankful. Yet, escapades to the Shire could be more often, for all she knew. Kíli seemed to have no qualms about her predilection for Bilbo’s scones, and looked happy enough watching the sunset from Bag-end’s front bench whilst she exchanged recipes with Bilbo in the kitchen. Moreover, if she were to exchange more than recipes, her son seemed to be unbothered by it.
Now, how could it help when her younger one decided to vanish?
She was distracted from her musings by Bilbo, who guided his pony closer to her with curiosity.
“I knew you didn’t mind to travel, but I wasn’t aware of your fighting skills.”
“I don’t mention it unless needed.”
“Your war axe is... quite impressive.”
Dís smiled at the compliment, nodding with a knowing expression.
“Not used to this kind of lass, huh? Does it bother you?”
“What? No! I... I kind of... I like it. It... suits you. Really.”
She kept her half smile, contented.
“When Thorin mentioned you looked more like a grocer than like a burglar, I imagined you would be more tempted by a lass with gardening shears than by a shieldmaiden with a battle axe.”
“Hmpf. Those never tempted me, actually. Insipid gossipers unable to think outside their little boring lives. They would never dare to... taste untasted wells, so to say.”
“And you?”
“Me, what?”
“Would you dare?”
He wasn’t sure her questioning was teasing or actual doubt, but his mind was set on his goal. Bilbo squared his shoulders and uplifted his chin, as if it could make him look burlier.
“I’ve dared a dragon. Anything less than a furnace with wings is feasible. Or, what is it you think I wouldn’t dare?”
“That’s what I wonder myself.”
The hobbit was startled by Thorin’s deep voice rumbling at his side.
“Brother.” Dís acknowledged his presence. “We were talking about flowering hobbit lasses who wouldn’t dare to taste a... what was it, Bilbo? An untasted well?”
“Well...”
“Of course he would.” Thorin measured Bilbo with a piercing gaze. “Given the chance.”
“Are you so sure?”
“I’d bet my beard.”
“He might be given a chance, then.”
“You’re too kind.”
“No, I’m not. But I’m fair. And you are a fool.”
“I won’t dispute this.”
Bilbo was a little overwhelmed by their interaction, unsure about what, precisely, they were talking about. He cleared his throat to remind them of his presence.
“Aye?”
Both turned to him, questioningly.
“Erm... Any news from the scouts?”
“Unfortunately, nothing yet.”
“Then why are the most of us heading south?”
“Because it’s the easiest way if someone wants to run away from Erebor, as we believe is Kíli’s intent. Too rough terrain to the North, Dáin’s people to the East, Forest Fairy to the West. To the South there’s Rhûn, Gondor, Dol Amroth, Umbar, Harad...”
“More than enough places if someone wants to hide, huh?”
“Not enough if the one in search of him is as determined as me.”
“You forget, brother, the same determination that runs in your blood runs in his veins, too. And that it’s called stubbornness.”
“That’s not entirely true. You should know the difference between stubbornness and determination by now.”
“Which is...?” Asked Bilbo, just to be sure.
“People call it stubbornness whilst you don’t achieve what you seek. When you achieve it...”
“If you achieve it, brother...”
“When you achieve it, people say it was determination.”
“Which makes you...?” Questioned Bilbo.
“I reclaimed a mountain, didn’t I?”
“Indisputable.”
“See, Dís? Not stubborn.”
Dís rolled her eyes. It would be a long day of riding.

---ooo---

The searching party rode for just a couple hours before they found something, albeit not tracks belonging to Kíli. A small group of Rohirrim with their stout horses saw them heading south and halted the party.
“News from the North, o people of the anvil?”
“This is our land and you seem far from your own to come questioning for news, people of the horse.”
Bilbo facepalmed at Thorin’s amount of tact – which was null.
“I’m Dunwine son of Folcwine, Third Marshal of the Ridermark. We’re riding on behalf of Bard the Dragonslayer, King of Dale, whose daughter, my sister-in-law, has been kidnapped. Any news from the North to enlighten our search, o people of the anvil?”
Thorin’s countenance changed immediately. The ones who knew about the wedding arrangement got startled, Dís bringing a hand to her mouth to muffle a cry of dismay.
“We are friends to King Bard and his family. I’m Thorin son of Thrain, King under the Mountain, and greet you and your party into our land, o Dunwine son of Folcwine. From Erebor to this place no sign of Princess Tilda was seen. We have more scouts to the North, East and West, for our own purposes, and I’m confident they would give notice if any ruffian was seen in these parts. What happened?”
“None knows for sure, your Highness. King Brad found her missing this morning, her chambers in disarray, the window forced from the outside. He fears some unsatisfied merchant guild is to blame, but...” Dunwine dismounted and stepped closer to Thorin, so as to talk to his ears only. “His son, my brother-in-law, mentioned Bard dismissed recently a rich fellow from Rhûn who came to propose marriage to Princess Tilda. Didn’t look like the kind who takes no for an answer, in Bain’s opinion.”
“That’s grave news. We’ll keep one eye on any clue of her whereabouts while on our own chase. Yet again, better to seek south.”
“Thank you very much, your Highness.” Dunwine’s gratitude was real, as was his worry, and all he could do was to offer the same. “And in what manner can we reciprocate? What is this chase of yours, if I may be so bold and ask?”
For all his worry and empathy about Tilda’s kidnapping, Thorin wasn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of confessing his nephew ran away.
“Well, we’re on a... traditional game called... track the tracker. Out best scout is given a... lead… and then we try to find him. It’s... very entertaining.”
Dunwine frowned at the strange dwarwish game and more so when he noticed the amount of weapons they had on themselves and their mounts. He had no wish to be in the poor scout’s boots, when he was found. Which made him wonder...
“Your Highness, once you are so certain there’s no chance the bandits headed this way, would you mind our company in your track the tracker southward? If this scout of yours is so good, he might be able to aid us in our need.”
Considering how fitting it would be if Kíli were the one to rescue Tilda from her captors, if they effectively found Kíli, Thorin had to agree. Not that Thorin had any kind of romantic inclination, of course he didn’t!
“The sooner we track this tracker and Tilda’s kidnappers, the lighter my heart will beat.”

---xxx---

The “Traditional Track the Tracker Tournament” resumed the searching pattern, each rider at a shout’s distance from the next one and drawing chevrons across the land. The addition of the Rohirrim party allowed them to cover a wider range. Also, it allowed them to skip the area the blond humans had covered before in their search for Tilda. This gain had them reaching Bard and his own party by the end of the afternoon, when they were preparing to camp.
Dunwine greeted his father-in-law and quickly explained the presence of the dwarves. Bard frowned and hurried to meet the King Under the Mountain.
“What is this Track the Tracker bullshit, Thorin?”
“The bullshit one uses to cover up the stupid deeds of a relative.” The dwarf muttered. “I’ll explain in full with less audience around us.”
“Understood.” Bard nodded. “I thank you for your help in the rescue of my daughter. I’ll skin her kidnapper alive as soon as I put my hands on his filthy being. I’m afraid the wedding will have to be postponed if we fail to find Tilda soon.”
The pain on Bard’s face was visible, and Thorin sympathized with the man. One more reason to draw the bowman away from the middle of the camp and break the news.
“Speaking of being afraid… I’m afraid Tilda’s kidnapping might not be the only reason to postpone the wedding.”
“What?” Bard frowned. “Wasn’t it all settled? Didn’t we have an agreement?”
“Well, actually…” Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Seems we having an agreement doesn’t mean Kíli has an agreement… He insists he’s a widower to Tauriel and, as such, unwilling to marry any other person.”
“What?” Bard was about to conquer a perpetual frown on his forehead. “What does he claim against my daughter?”
“Nothing! Nothing!” Thorin hurried to clarify. “As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure I told him the name of his would-be-bride before he stormed away and… well, that was the last I saw of him. Our Track the Tracker bullshit, as you correctly classify it, is our effort to find my nephew and bring him back to fulfil his… duties.”
Bard frown softened a bit.
“Good. I mean, it’s bad enough as it is, but it is good he doesn’t have anything against her. I shooed away intendants enough on his behalf to have him despise my little girl.” He closed his eyes and breathed deep, trying hard to hide his pain. “If we only find her before anything bad happens…”
Thorin clapped the shoulder of the bowman, compassionate.
“We will, my friend. We will see it done. I don’t worry about Kíli, he’s more than able to fend for himself in the wild, so, whenever we find him, he’s found. Yet Tilda… She’s our priority from now on.”
Bard thanked him profusely, once more convinced that the blood alliance between their houses was the best thing their families and kingdoms could ever dream.

Chapter Text

Some more days of traveling brought them to the forest river, the one that the Company barrelled down in their flight from the dungeons of the elven king. After crossing it, while the horses rested from their swim, Tilda decided it was for the best to take a bath, much needed after all that traveling.
Tilda’s laughter could be heard as the merry sound of fresh water cascading down a rocky spring. The river that ran down from the elven forest was fresh, and the day was sunny, and she was hot from the ride and happy for the company. It had been years since she bathed in a river like that.
Her laughter was so contagious Kíli forgot for the moment that he bled in those waters from the wound inflicted by and orc when Thorin’s company was fleeing Thranduil’s dungeons. Of course he could forget it, it happened ten years before and he was not even there when Tauriel found blood marks where Óin tried to tend him in less time than one could spell painkiller. Certainly, that place bore no memories for him, no more than Tauriel telling him about Legolas following her could do.
The riverstone was warm and comforting under his crossed legs, and his eyes watched without seeing as Tilda enjoyed the warm water ponded in some stone shallows. She had taken off her outer clothes so they would not be soaked in the river crossing, and now enjoyed being only in her undies to take a bath. Kíli could not keep himself from wondering how long had it been since he saw a naked ankle last time.
He diverted his eyes from the unsettling sight, scolding himself for the inappropriateness of staring at Tilda’s foot, and blushed. He never had any problems with barefooted hobbit lasses when he travelled to the Shire, and he knew it was not because their feet were big and hairy. He simply could not imagine any hobbit foot in other place than the ground; now, that young woman’s pale feet reminded him of silken sheets and the warmth of a fireplace in the Blue Mountains’ halls.
Still with the sound of splashing water and crystal laughter in his ears, Kíli reached for his water skin, hoping a draught of water could calm down his confusion. He was drinking when Tilda called him.
“Kíli, look! I’m a mermaid!”
Frowning and considering what in Ulmo’s sake did she mean with it, Kíli turned his head to the direction Tilda’s voice called.
Then he choked on his own draught of water.
In her innocent play in the river, Tilda had just put herself upside down and showed above the surface a fan of bare feet and ankles that could be described as vaguely mermaidish only by some childish conception.
Kíli was sure Tilda meant nothing but that childish conception, his brain told him, but some differences in culture were never fixed in his mind and a pair of naked ankles played in the water right there in front of him…
“Tilda, stop it!”
Her delicate feet found their way down from the surface and Tilda’s wet face showed above the rim of the water.
“What happened?” In two or three quick steps Tilda left the river and was beside Kíli, still dripping water. She surveilled the vicinity. “Is there anybody out there? Are we safe?”
Kíli tried to divert from what was really disturbing him with undesired effects. But the water made her cotton underwear to cling on her body and its weight to pull her neckline down. Not that any neckline was really needed when the fabric of her undies clung to her body like a second skin.
And the most disturbing was that Tilda didn’t even care.
“We…” He tried to find excuses. “We’ll never be safe this close to the elven river. I know it is enjoyable to take a bath, but, if we risk…”
Tilda’s crystal laughter struck him like a slingshot projectile.
“You’re afraid of water!”
“What?”
“You’re afraid of water, that’s why you keep away from the banks, even when…”
“Shut up!” Kíli was on his feet now, ignoring whatever could be said that might be true. “I just don’t want us to get caught by, by…”
He looked desperately around them, sorting what could be chosen as a menace ready to catch them.
A blue jay chirped in a nearby tree, cherishing the sunny afternoon.
“By a chilly wind?”
Kíli looked down at the rock under his feet and sentenced.
“Tilda, this was cruel.”
For once she perceived that he was really upset, despite ignoring the real reason for it, and tried to fix things between them.
“Kíli, sorry, I didn’t mean…” A cold hand reached for his face, asking for forgiveness. “It is all right if you fear water. You were very brave to cross this river like you did, fear and all, and…”
That was the last drop of river water in the cup of his thin patience. Kíli grabbed her hand, taking it off his cheek and staring sternly into her eyes, assuring himself that way he would not look at any other disturbing place of her body.
“I’m. Not. Afraid. Of. Waaa…!”
The last word was literally drowned in the river in which Tilda just pulled him in, grabbing his wrist with her free hand and moving fast as a fish.
“Tilda!” Kíli was sputtering as his head popped out of the water. “Why did you do this?”
“The best way to overcome a fear is by facing it!”
Her smile was too genuine for Kíli not to notice the prankster behind it. Of course, it was the kind of smile himself and his brother graced their victims times enough.
“You… I faced a thrice accursed dragon, you wicked mermaid!”
“Aye, but it did not spit water!”
She had a point, even if the logic behind it was twisted. At least, it had the effect of chilling down his earlier reactions to the sight of Tilda’s ankles, and he was kind of grateful for it.
“Gnn… Right.” Kíli agreed, gritting his teeth. “Now, now that I waded across the river once and survived your attempt of assassination by drowning, might we please get out of here and dry ourselves while we have sun on our heads?”
Kíli accompanied his exaggerated speech by equally exaggerated gestures, only to hear Tilda laugh again. So she did, and answered with the same exaggeration. For a fraction of a second, he wondered why was it so important to hear her laughter.
“Surely, Milord, for none knows when a wicked mermaid might attempt against your noble life again.”
He held her hand hoping his embarrassing situation of before had gone unnoticed and helped Tilda out of the water and back on the flat stones their things were drying on. Her hand was still in his, for the support her body needed not, but her soul.
“I got scared, you know.” Kíli mentioned after they both wringed underwear and hair the best they could and sat down to sun themselves.
“Of… of the water?” This time Tilda’s voice was not teasing, but genuinely concerned. “I didn’t mean… I mean, I…”
“Hush, it’s all right.” Kíli dismissed her apologies. “Actually, I got scared about you. I thought you were in danger there, with your head under the water. I would never forgive myself if you got drowned.”
It was not a complete lie, and it was what Kíli had to justify his strong reaction to Tilda’s mermaid tail joke.
“Oh.” She fidgeted with the string of her chemise. “’Ma sorry, I really didn’t mean… But then it makes sense, you know. Dwarves live in the mountains, how would you know I could not get drowned?”
“Of course you could get drowned, you’re child of Men.”
Tilda smiled at his misconception.
“Kíli, I’m from Lake Town.”
“And so?”
“I learned to swim before I learned to walk, Kíli. All children from Lake Town do.”
“There’s no such thing as all whatever do whatever, Tilda. It’s like saying all dwarves are smiths, or all elves are…” Kíli’s eyes lost the brilliance of the argument and left the sentence unfinished. “… whatever.”
Tilda noticed the change in Kíli’s tone but could not quite figure out what it meant. All she could do was to explain things better with the data she possessed.
“I know people are not all the same. Yet, all children from Lake Town learn to swim before they learn to walk. This is a fact.”
“Why?” Asked Kíli, taking heart to look at her direction again.
“Because all who don’t, get drowned.”
The statement was so crude it sent shivers down Kíli’s spine, bad shivers.
“Do your… Do your people let babies drown?” He could not control the disgust in his voice. It was unthinkable, on any account of his.
“What?” Tilda noticed the disgust in Kíli’s voice. “No! Of course not! They’re taught to swim least they get drowned!” The horror of what passed though the dwarf’s mind struck her. “Kíli, how can you think this of my people? We take care of each other, we… No mother or father would ever, do you understand me, ever let a baby go close to water without knowing how to swim! This is… this is… Kíli, how could you even think my people would be capable of such a thing?”
The young woman was so upset by what Kíli understood, or rather, misunderstood, from her words, that by now she was already up and grabbing her bit of clothes from the stony riverside, right to where horse and pony seemed to be having a quite fairer conversation than their owners. Kíli lost more time taking his pieces of warfare garment while putting his boots on, and stumbled right behind her.
“Tilda, wait! It was not… I didn’t mean… Tilda, I did not think…”
“Aye, that you did too!” Was all she conceded to shout from over her shoulder. “I saw your face, Kíli, the disgust in your face! What do you think, us Lake Towners, humans, are so heartless that we don’t take care of our youngsters? Our babies don’t sprout out of stone, they are hard to get, our mothers die to have babies, did you know?”
“I… I…” Kíli had lots of positive answers starting with I, but for once he considered the Children of Iluvatar might have an everlasting stock of wind and how Mahal prepared his own people to deal with it.
A will as hard as stone was part of it.
A patience the size of a mountain, too.
He angered a human woman, and would have to weather it.
By the time Tilda reached her rohirrim steed, peacefully grazing by the eaves of the south margin of the river, Kíli was beside her, half of his things scattered all the way from the river bank to the horses.
“Tilda, please, I…”
“You what? Want to criticize humans from Lake Town some more?”
He reached for the horses’ reins before Tilda could do it. She was better than him in the water, but Kíli was versed enough in the deals ashore. Now, to deal with an angry woman… that was not his mother…
“I ask you to hear me and to forgive me. I misunderstood you. I understood you wrong.”
“You… You what?”
Tilda heard so much about the stubbornness of dwarves in the last years that it was hard to believe her ears.
“I… Misunderstood you. I didn’t realize what you meant when you told about babies who don’t swim. It’s obvious. I mean, the truth is obvious. No father or mother would let a baby to crawl around unwatched and uncared for. I’m sorry.”
Tilda’s anger boiled down under Kíli’s puppy eyes. How could it not? Besides, she never heard about a dwarf saying he was sorry about anything.
“I… I think I’m… over-reacting a little.” She said, wiping a drop of water from her brow. The other hand played with the portion of the reins she had taken hold with the intention of running away from Kíli as soon as possible. “Maybe not just a little…”
The dwarf reached out his free hand and cupped her face the best he could. Tilda was not extremely tall, for a human, but four inches were enough to make him to tilt his head up to face her. Cupping her face made him feel she was closer to him.
“We’ve both been under a strain that leads to nowhere safe. Why don’t we… Why don’t we end our traveling for today, dry our clothes, allow the horses to graze, make a hot meal and give ourselves some rest? It might do us good. Both of us.”
Tilda didn’t expect such a reasonable suggestion from Kíli, focused on her escaping as she was, but it made some sense. Her panic on being caught spoke louder, nevertheless.
“We should be going. We’re too close to Lake Town, people there can recognize me and…”
“Tilda…” Kíli dared to arrange a lock of hair behind her ear. “We’re miles from Lake Town by now. No bargeman would be so bold as to come here at this time of the afternoon, only to reach Lake Town after dusk.” Then he reconsidered. “Aye, your father would be so bold, but since he doesn’t work as a bargeman anymore…”
This statement almost brought some relief to Tilda, suppressing her anxiety.
“You’re right. We should stop…” But then some kind of panic took hold on her again. “But no, Kíli, what if they recognize me? All the bells of Dale must be tolling by now, everybody knows I’m a runaway!”
He let his shoulders to drop down.
“Tilda, you know bargemen don’t come this way this hour of the afternoon. Nobody will see us, and anyone who sees us won’t know who we are.”
“But if… But if…”
“But ifs we might think in the morning. We’re both tired and in need of a hot meal. Trust me, after some days of hard riding, both rider and horse need some rest.”
Tilda’s horse seemed to agree, neighing softly.
“Maybe… Maybe you’re right.” She dropped her eyes to Kíli’s hand, still holding a lock of hair in his fingers. He noticed he had forgotten to let it go and withdrew his hand quickly, embarrassed. Tilda looked back at his eyes, not completely happy about his last action. “We should camp here for the night. We all must take some rest.”
Kíli let out a sigh, glad they were on good terms and agreeing about something. If they had all the way to the woodmen dwellings to go, it would be better to be in harmony.

Chapter Text

The searching party was slow in covering terrain even with dwarven help. It took them days to ride what would be done in a short while, looking for signs of the so-called kidnapper.
During supper none was too keen to talk, worried as they were, but the warmth of the meal in their bellies and of the fires around their camp settled their mood. Men and dwarrow both defined watches, and some went to their bedrolls early. Bard, worried to the last drop of blood, circled the camp as far as the light of the fires reached, a bear caged in the circle of light.
The night owls, like Bofur and Nori, played cards whilst hens, like Dwalin and Dori, were long snoring. Thorin rested his back against a large boulder, keeping his own watch over his closest family. Bilbo, always the curious one, sat cross-legged near a fire, where some Dalemen shared stories with the Rohirrim. One of Bard’s rangers, a mature fellow with clever eyes, was finishing a story.
“… And the poor fisher, after rowing all the way to the springs of the river, found the place the old woman told him. Once he pulled his boat to the shore, and said the magic words she taught him, the sand in the chest she gave him turned to pure gold. Then he gave it to a beautiful maiden who stood there waiting, exactly as the woman said there would be. In the end, not only did he keep the gold, but also found the woman’s daughter and they wed and lived happily ever after.”
“But why didn’t the old woman spend her gold and pay for her ride across the lake? I never understood this part.” One of the younger guys asked, annoyed.
“That’s because you don’t pay attention, Jarred. The old woman was a fairy, and she was testing the fisher. She wouldn’t let anyone greedy near her daughter, that’s why she begged for the ride and only then told him there would be a prize.”
“Oh, I see.” Bilbo shared his opinion. “It’s like the stories where the hero must have a pure heart to achieve his goal. I’ve heard some of the kind.”
“But this, master Halfling, is not about achieving a goal. It’s about having a pure heart and keeping faith. If he were greedy and said the magic words before he reached the right place, the boat would sink with the weight of the gold. He would drown and wouldn’t find the maiden. The fisher was selfless and kept faith on the fairy’s words, that he would find happiness at the end of his journey. And so he did.”
Bilbo nodded, agreeing, happy to have one more story to add to his collection.
Dunwine cleared his throat, granting the attention of the story sharers for the next one.
“The pure of heart might journey even when they ain’t aware of it. There are paths, hidden to most, that only the pure of heart might tread.”
“Are there? Where to?”Asked Bilbo. “How can one journey without being aware?”
Dunwine smiled, knowingly. The hobbit asked exactly what it took to hook the audience.
“There are. There are places far, so far away, no mortal can reach them.”
Bilbo nodded again, understanding. The Undying Lands. He heard about them in the House of Elrond.
“Bulshit. Wherever an elf can go, a man can go too.” Said one of the Dalemen, not to challenge Dunwine’s words, but to induce him to continue.
“Really? Would you dare to go to the Golden Forest, where the elf witch is queen? Or to take one of the swan ships that sail away from the Gray Havens and never return?”
“Oh, come on. Everybody knows nobody enters the Forest of Golden Leaves and comes back unscathed. Only a fool would set foot in Lórien.”
“And yet, it is about Lórien that I’m about to tell. Not the forest, but the Power.”
A chorus of ohs and ahs followed the statement, and Bilbo felt someone sit beside him. He didn’t need to look to know it was Dís, the scent of her warm skin so close taking him by surprise.
“I love to hear stories too.” She whispered in his ear, rising goosebumps. Bilbo smiled and reached out his hand, unsure if it was proper to hold hers in public. She squeezed it affectionately, making clear it was all right. If not for everybody, for her, and this was what mattered.
“When the world was young, and no Sun nor Moon were to be seen in the skies, the Powers could ride from East to their lands in the far West with nothing more than their will. Anyone with eyes sharp enough could stand on the sands of the shores of Vinyamar, in the long sunken lands of Beleriand, and look straight to the shores of the Undying Lands in the West. It was long, long ago, before the world was made round.”
Lots of nods and words of agreement. Everybody knew some legend of the First Days, and the terrible War of Wrath that defeated the Enemy, Morgoth, and rearranged Middle-earth as it was shaped now. Dunwine took a sip of tea and continued.
“When my grandsire was a bairn, he had a strange dream. In this dream he walked a long time in the dark, through deep banks and amidst overhanging hedges, and then tall trees and brambles, always hearing a whisper that seemed alive. The moon shone not, yet there were great glow-worms creeping about the borders of the path, so then it was no more a complete dark. When he made his way through the last of the vines, the day was clearing, yet he couldn’t see the sun. The land was covered in mists, and he could feel sand under his feet, as well as hear the sound of waves on a beach. Then, the scent of fresh baked bread made his belly to growl with hunger. Ye all can relate.”
Dunwine earned some laughter, used this gap of time to bite down some bread himself, and resumed.
“He ran to where the delicious smell came from, and found a small cottage, with many small curtained windows, on a small hill. It was made of wood and had living offshoots growing from its columns, and lianas flowered wild. Now, take heed: it was winter in Rohan, and he wore a woollen sleeping gown. Yet, flowers bloomed all around the cottage, and his feet were warm even walking barefoot.”
Dunwine was a good storyteller, and his small audience was silent as a mouse. Fíli, hungry for stories like a wee dwarfling, had found his place beside Dís not long after she joined Bilbo, and barely breathed.
“A beautiful woman appeared at the door when he was about to knock on it. If it was an elf or a fae, none knows, but she was kind, and invited him in. Her name was Vairë. Soon he was fed fresh bread and cream and honey, and other children, as young as him or yet younger, sat beside him and ate too, laughing and chatting like old friends. When they all had their fill, a handsome man came and invited them to a large chamber with a fireplace. My grandsire found it strange, because the chamber was larger than the whole cottage as seen from the outside, but he was afraid to ask any question and be shooed away from that beautiful place. As soon as all those children sat down on the rugs and cushions, the man and the woman sat down too, in front of the fire, and he began to tell a story.”
“A story inside a story. It’s a beautiful technique.” Bilbo whispered in Dís’ ear, and she smiled, agreeing.
“The man introduced himself as Lindo, and said: “Ye all wandered to these lands and were invited to our home. Ye are to know the story of the Cottage of Lost Play so ye’ll never forget it, and can tell others not to be afraid if their feet ever wander hither. It began the day when the Powers hid Valinor, enclosing it from the rest of the Earth. There are two paths left for those who might wander in peace. A gorgeous path, the bridge of the rainbow, was set by Oromë, yet so slender is the work of his hands that only the Powers themselves travel it. No living Men may tread it’s swaying threads and few of the Eldar have the heart for it. The Eldar travel more often through the Straight Road, which lingers where the old path of Belegaer once was, their ships allowed this grace by the Powers themselves after Arda was made round.” The children exchanged curious glances, as many of them didn’t even know it hadn’t been round since forever. The man, or elf, noticing their confusion, resumed. “The day the last king of Númenor, Ar-Pharazôn, fell to the lies of Sauron and set his fleet against Aman, it was also the last time Erú Ilúvatar, the One, intervened directly on the matters of his Children, Elves and Men. So, he crushed the Númenorean host under stones, and made the world to become round. This is why mortals cannot sail over the seas and try to find the Undying Lands anymore. Yet, there is also the path ye all trod, made by request of Manwë himself, who looked with sorrow upon the hiding of Valinor. Irmo,one of the Masters of the Spirits, who is also called Lórien, created this path, through which you came, the Olórë Mallë, the Path of Dreams. Children of the Eldar, and of Men, and of the peoples who came after, all are welcome to our little Cottage. Older people might come, once and again, yet it is only the pure of heart that are allowed this path.”
Bilbo heard those words and wondered if some of his childhood weirdest dreams didn’t find an explanation in the Olórë Mallë theory. As memories of early childhood often befuddled his brain, it would not be a surprise if he found out some of them were really memories instead of whisps of dreams. Yet, wouldn’t it be too much presumption to deem himself pure of heart enough to have trodden the Paths of Dream?
Dunwine resumed, mesmerizing the audience . The hobbit obligued.
“Then Lindo said to my grandsire and all the children at the Cottage of Lost Play: “This path ye’ll tread back to yer homes, and may yet tread back to hear more stories and play more games. But now is time to go home, and sleep yer rest, and be in peace.” With these words Lindo said his farewell, and my grandsire and the other children left the cottage to find each their own path back home.”
Dís sighed.
“It was a beautiful dream your grandsire dreamed, master Dunwine. I wish this Path of Dreams could really be trodden.”
“But it is, your Highness. My grandsire trod it, I just told you. Do ye doubt my words?”
The dwarven princess smiled sheepishly, written on her face that it was hard to believe such a fantasy.
“Then allow me to tell you the last words of this story, for they are yet to be told. When my grandsire left the Cottage, he asked Vairë for a token, to remember it, as he knew he was growing up and the world was harsh, so he feared the night would come when he would wish to find the Olórë Mallë yet his heart would not be pure enough anymore. Vairë smiled and picked a flower from the lianas growing on the roof, put in his hand, and closed his fingers around it. When he woke up next morning, shivering from the cold the snow outside granted, the flower was still in his hand, unwithered.”
As if daring anyone around that fire to dispute his words, Dunwine brought his own hand to his collar, fingered something and produced a necklace with a locket. The necklace was made of silver, sturdy enough to endure the rough lifestyle of a rider of Rohan. Inside the locket, a crystal ampoule filled with clarified oil contained a single, five petaled, white flower, of a kind none of them ever saw.

Chapter Text

He had been walking through the forest for hours (or days, he wasn’t sure), weariness overcoming his limbs, but he couldn’t stop. He would never stop, not until he found what he missed, and it sure was so close, behind the next tree, the next hill, the next… But it was hard to find, in the ever changing forest, through the disturbing mists.
Kíli opened his mouth to call out, but no sound came. Again. His whole body hurt, he was tired, but he couldn’t stop and was unable to cry for help.
“Please, let me see you…” He mouthed to the mists, no sound leaving his lips, only tears streaking his cheeks.
“You are looking in the wrong place.”
The voice startled him, and he looked around in hope of seeing its owner.
“I miss you so much!”
He mouthed in silence, hopping she would hear him anyway.
“It’s not yet the time for you to follow me here. I must spend my time of waiting, you know.”
He felt cold arms embracing him, weightless fingers caressing his chest, and the breath of her voice in his ear was all he could focus on.
“But…”
“Shh… You should find it by yourself, love. You found it before, you don’t need me for this.”
“I can’t…”
“You must.”
“No! I don’t want to!”
The cold contact left him at his cry, a sad sigh and the feeling he disappointed the one he wished to never hurt.
“It was right there…” Her voice came from afar. “Don’t scare it away…”
“No! Please, stay!”
He cried for her, but it was too late, she was gone, leaving him alone once more. The forest darkened, the mists turning from silver to lead gray, and all Kíli could do was to weep for his lost hope.

+++---+++

Bilbo was puffing his pipe beside Fíli, who patiently sharpened each of his knives with a whetstone. They were rituals, both actions: breath in, puff out perfect smoke circles, meditate on life, the universe and everything whilst the smoke rings faded, breath in… wet the stone, slide it against the knife’s edge, cleanse the infinitesimal amount of draff left, see the result against the light of the fire, wet the stone…
Dís watched the silent no-interaction with sad eyes. There should be another pair of hands either puffing a pipe or sharpening a sword, or yet fletching arrows. To forge arrow points was one thing, but fletching the arrows demanded a sense of balance that was more refined. She decided to break the silence to keep her mind away from her pain.
“Bilbo, dear, I hate that you were right, but I’d hate even more if I hadn’t you here to know my son’s mind better than myself!”
Bilbo had no time enough to be flabbergasted by her compliment when Fíli stepped in, jealous.
“So are things now, then? First, my little brother leaves without telling me a word; second, nobody asks me if I know about him; and now the burglar gets all praise for finding out Kíli’s missing!”
“Pardon me?”
Bilbo couldn’t understand Fíli’s outburst.
“Me and Kíli have been ass and pants since he was in swaddles, Bilbo. Everybody knows it. Then, why didn’t anybody ask me about him? Wouldn’t it be easier?”
“Fíli, son, I don’t get the point…”
“The point is, what’s the point in being older brother, crown prince, whatever, if none ever takes me in account? I could have told Thorin forcing Kíli into marriage wouldn’t work. He didn’t bother to ask me. Then Kíli vanishes and nobody wonders where he really is for two days. Nobody bothers to ask me, again. Will anyone hear me when Thorin leaves the throne or will I be a decorative item of the treasury? This is not right.”
Dís was confused and ashamed at the same time. Fíli did have a point.
“Fíli… Your words are true. Yet, did you consider I have lived here in Erebor the last whole year and didn’t have a clue about Thorin’s plans, either? That this marriage thing took me by surprise as much as you, or as Kíli?”
Bilbo chuckled, breaking the awkward mood that was settling between mother and son.
“You know, Fíli, it was all your fault that I knew Kíli wasn’t there, don’t you?”
“Pardon me?” The dwarf cried, surprised. “What did I do to grant you this information?”
“More what you didn’t’, actually. You and Kíli are ass and pants since he was in swaddles, as you said yourself. If you knew where he was, I was absolutely certain you’d not say a word. Yet, if he really were in his bedchambers, you’d be planted like a tree in front of that door and shouting your mother down of her intention to talk to him.” Then he added, as if in second thought. “Or trying, at least.”
Dís turned to his older son, pondering Bilbo’s words.
“It that so, son? You knew it all the time?”
The dwarf only nodded, acquiescing.
“Then why didn’t you tell me, for Durin’s sake?”
Bilbo could see the twinkle in Fíli’s eyes, all mischief and loyalty to his little brother.
“You see my point now? Nobody asked…”
Dís pinched the bridge of her nose, feeling defeated.
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Because you know your offspring?” He offered.
Bilbo laughed.
“Really, this family never ceases to surprise me. And I love to see how you change from jumping to one another’s throat in a minute to melting hearths in the next.”
Dís threw his a meaningful look and then back to her son.
“Fíli, I’d box your ears if I had any hope it would fix anything, yet, as it didn’t in the past eighty-seven years, I’ll just keep it for future reference. And charge you for it, of course.”
Now Fíli looked a little worried, scratching his head and glancing at her sideways.
“Are you sure there’s not a way I can escape it this time?”
“No, there isn’t.” Dís shook her head, unmoved by her son’s pleading voice. What Kíli had of puppy eyes, Fíli had of melting voice. The dwarrowdam was well aware of it, though not always immune to it. “Once we find your brother - if we find him, Mahal grant me this grace! – you’ll both hear the lecture of the age, I swear!”
Fíli hugged her warmly, sharing in her worry.
“I’ll be glad to hear this lecture, if only for having my brother back to us!”

---+++---

The anger Legolas felt faded after a couple days of riding. His father was an intolerant prick, no doubt, but the prince himself hadn’t been any different in the past. Blame his upbringing. How could he be any different when his role model was Thranduil son of Oropher? Growing up with stories off the lost land of Doriath, of the glorious Menegroth, the halls of Thingol. Pity none of those stories taught about the fall that comes from pride, focusing instead on the betrayal of others. Always blaming others, never considering one’s own flaws.
Likewise, it was the dwarrow’s greed that brought Smaug, not Smaug’s own greed. Blaming the victim. It sure was easier than taking his own share of responsibility for not helping the exiles. It was not even the case of fighting the dragon – the elven army was unlikely to have more success than the dwarrow one – but allowing all those people to wander with no aid at all.
Tauriel was right, though it took Legolas time to understand. It was one world they all shared, elves, dwarrow, men. And halflings, he added mentally after a moment. Whatever endangered one of them, endangered all of them.
He learned. It took time, but he learned. If he learned, there was hope his father would learn too, one day. But Legolas suspected it would take a very long time, and to be stuck in that palace didn’t help. But how could he make Thranduil leave the comfort of his dwellings to see the truth that was outside?
To think about solutions felt better than simply being angry. Reasons to be angry he had plenty, but so believed Thranduil. What made him better if he acted no different from his father?
His musings were cut short by the whack of an arrow hitting a tree close to him. Centuries of warfare training took control, bow and arrow in his hands faster that one could spell danger. His horse neighed, ready to answer his any command. A trained warhorse would not rear in fear under attack, and Sador had been trained by the best. Legolas too, but his thoughts had been too far away to do him any good. He would never be caught unaware if his mind were where it should be.
His arrow flew to the source of the attack, followed by a succession of shots aimed to every moving spot he could descry. They were many, but the quantity didn’t scare the elf. He had dealt with several orcs simultaneously more than once. Each of his arrows found it’s mark, and none of theirs was able to scratch him. Strange, orcs were gross, but this was ridiculous. Almost as if they were trying not to hit him.
Yet, there was a limit to how many enemies one can take down alone.
When he noticed the arrows had thin, almost invisible strings attached, his arms were already entangled. Spider web. Before Sador had a chance to break into gallop, a heavy net was already upon them. Hoping against hope, Legolas used his hunting knives to disentangle them, but the orc archers were simply too many.
When the spider bite came, his blood was running fast, adrenaline dripping with his sweat. Dizzy, the elf struggled against the venom, but the forest swirled around his head. Losing his strength and ability to move, all he could do was to watch with disgust as the larger of the orcs made a signal to stop the remaining ones from shooting. Some of the others came closer, securely binding his arms and legs, as well as gagging him, all the while grunting in the hideous language of theirs.
Unable to move or even to shout, all Legolas was able was to think how come he had been ambushed, defeated and imprisoned. He hoped his mind would clear from the venom fast, so he could plan an escape. If the orcs didn’t kill him right away, there was a chance they wanted him for ransom. Whilst still alive, there was hope.

Chapter Text

Tilda had cleansed a good area of ground from leaves and twigs when Kíli came back with wood. The clean patch would grant them more comfort to sleep and, moreover, tranquillity that the fire wouldn’t spread whilst they slept.
“This will last for the night.” Said Kíli, dropping the wood on the ground. “And this will make a merry meal!” A pheasant was proudly pulled from behind his back, obviously killed by a precise arrow.
“Hmm, this will be tasty!”
Tilda smiled and sat down to pluck the feathers while Kíli kindled the fire. Funny how just a couple of days had been enough for them to settle a routine of mutual help and support, the dwarf mused.
“We’ll make a good ride tomorrow after this rest.”
“I hope so.” She said, frowning. “Da must have sent patrols to hunt me, by now.”
“He doesn’t know where to seek you. Tracking takes time, and we’ll use it in our favour.”
“Won’t your people be hunting you, too?” Asked the young woman, gathering the guts off the pheasant and discarding it with the feathers on a large leaf. “Is a prince of Durin’s line so easily disposable?”
Kíli shook his head, adding wood to the fire, a shadow of sadness on his face.
“They probably will, because I’m someone they expect to fulfil a duty. My brother is crown prince, they don’t need me, actually.”
“Only to tie alliances, like me.”
He heard the sadness in her voice and looked at Tilda with understanding.
“Aye, just like you.”
Silence settled down, both of them gazing at the fire whilst the bird roasted, each one lost in thoughts of their own lives and family they left behind. Kíli shook his head, trying to shoo the sudden sadness away.
“It’s getting chilly. I have a flask of liquor somewhere here.” He rummaged through his pack whilst talking to his young traveling companion. “You know, the first thing I ever shot down was a pheasant? Thorin took me and Fee for an outing once, and I had gotten my first bow just some weeks before. It was around this season in the year and…”
The conversation flowed smoothly after this, the tension of being expected to be adult and responsible forgotten for the time being. But every now and then their talking slipped back to stories involving Sigrid, Fíli, Thorin, Dís, Bard or Bain, being impossible to talk about their lives without mentioning any of them. Fíli’s little pranks and Bain’s shenanigans made them laugh more than once, but soon it became plain that those memories would hurt more than amuse, at the prospect of not meeting them anymore.
“What will we tell the woodmen?” Tilda changed the subject, sad eyes set on the bonfire.
“Didn’t figure out yet, but we have a long stretch of forest to ride until we’re there. It takes a moon to cross it, we have more than a fortnight ahead of us, I’m sure we’ll think of something that doesn’t raise suspicions.”
“Aye.” She agreed with a smile. “Dale doesn’t trade with them on a regular basis, so we can say anything and it will be fine, like, I’m a widow wanting to settle away from my former home and you are my servant.”
“Your servant? Not very dignified for a son of Durin, no way!” He smirked back. “We can say I’m a retired merchant and you’re my housemaid.”
“Housemaid?” Tilda returned him a humpf. “Of course I know how to tend a house, or even to helm a demesne, but this doesn’t make you my overlord. No, I’m a rich woman and you’re my bodyguard.”
“I’d have no problem guarding your body, but…” The realization of what else his words could mean hit him and Kíli wished his brain worked faster than his mouth at least for once. “No way, I’m a hunter and you… you’re my cook.”
“A simple cook? No way, I’m a barger and you’re my shoreman.”
“No, I’m a blacksmith and you’re my apprentice.”
“Hmm, this one sounds better, but no, too hot a work. I’m a weaver and you are my apprentice.”
“Fabric isn’t a thing that lasts like good smithery; so no, we dwarrow make things to last. I’m a masonry man and you’re my brick layer.”
“You think I’m a mule to carry so much weight? No, I’m a painter and you’re my model.”
“As if someone would wish to look at me any longer than necessary…” He scowled. “No, I’m the painter and you are my model.”
“What’s the problem with looking at you? You’re a fine man to my eyes. So I’m the sculptor and you’re my model.”
“I’m not a man, I’m a barely bearded dwarf, and this isn’t fine for a dwarf.” He thought hard of some other idea to change the subject from his looks. “I’m a horseshoe maker and you work leathers.”
“I’m a saddle maker and you make reins.” Tilda didn’t drop the subject, to Kíli’s despair. “I’m not a dwarrowdam, so it doesn’t matter what they think is fine. Now I’m a rider and you’re my stableman.”
“No, I’m the rider and you…” Kíli gulped down the fantasy that just hit his imagination. “All right, you’re the rider and I’m your saddle.”
The absurdity of the idea, in Tilda’s mind, was enough for her to drop the dwarf appearance subject and to turn to a humorous banter. “We can’t count on horses all the time, Kíli. I’m the walker and you’re my staff.”
The dwarf chocked on the idea of her holding his ‘staff’, and tried to find some neutral stuff.
“I’m your staff and you’re my light.”
“I’m your light and you’re my heavy.”
“Dwarf bones are quite heavy, true; you’re my light and I’m your shadow.”
“You’re my shadow and I… I…”
Tilda failed to find a suited word to continue the game.
“You’re my light.” Kíli stated again.
“No, we used this word already, Kíli!”
The dwarf heaved a sigh.
“But it is true, Tilda. When I left Erebor I was all darkness in my anger. Then you came and brought light to me. Also, my heart stood heavy in my chest, and you made it lighter. So, you’re my light, either way.”
Tilda lowered her gaze, struck by his soft words.
“Then it isn’t fair. You found such beautiful things to say and named yourself as being my shadow. You’re so much more than a shadow, Kíli. So much more.”
A sad smile reached the corner of his eyes.
“No, I’m not much more than a shadow, Tilda, not really. Not since I lost Tauriel. I do my duties to the kingdom, I war when I must, I attend meetings and I smile when I’m supposed to, but I’m just a shadow. My light has gone with her, and now I’m only a shadow of whom I was.”
“Don’t say such thing!” Her small hand found his dropped shoulder and squeezed it. “If this is only a shadow of yourself, Kíli, then I wish I could see you whole again, and I must say even the shadow of you is so much more than most people out there.”
“Nah.” He dismissed the praise. “I feel battered and old, Tilda, far beyond my age. These ten years after the reclaiming of Erebor feel like a hundred, weigh like a thousand. All I can hope is that my life ends swiftly and I can see Tauriel again.”
“Kíli, no!” Tilda admonished, thinking fast for something to lighten him up. “You can’t, if you… If you pass away, who’ll help me reach the woodsmen? And… And you’re my shadow, remember? Where will I rest from the sun if you’re not here?”
Her effort was rewarded with a sad smile.
“You don’t need my help, Tilda, you were heading there before we met, remember? You’ll do just fine.”
“Doesn’t matter!” She insisted. “It might be true I was heading there already, but traveling with you is…” The young woman stopped to find the right word to describe what it was to travel with Kíli instead of alone, and it was hard. She didn’t reason until then what traveling with him really meant. It was safer, of course, having someone to share night watches instead of sleeping with one eye open and the constant fear of being discovered by a searching party. But safer was kind of utilitarian, and not enough. Thinking of utilitarian, it was also healthier, as Kíli’s hunting skill provided them with fresh meat more often than not, but health was not the reason she preferred to travel with him. Having his company meant she would have someone to talk to, and time passed so faster! It was also funny, Kíli had always a joke or the memory of a prank to tell and make her smile. But it didn’t dissipate his somber moments, the sadness that showed in his eyes when he talked about Tauriel or the anger when mentioning the decision of marrying him away out of politics – an anger she shared, obviously. But to travel with him was not only for fun, or for sharing angers. It was more. So much more that it was hard to settle for just one word. “…Better.”
All these thoughts ran across her mind in the fraction of a moment it took for him to turn his eyes from her down to the fire, and her last word brought his gaze back to her face.
“Better?”
Tilda smiled at the surprise she saw in his face, and had to supress the urge to reach out and stroke his cheek.
“Aye, better!”
“I think…” Kíli considered his own feelings on the last few days. “I think better is more than I… I think better sounds good.”
Kíli smiled, and this time the smile reached his eyes, and it was not sad.

Chapter Text

It was not much. A hoof print here, the remnants of a fire there. It seemed the earth itself was helping to hide any track, to disguise any clue as something out of nature itself. What could be a trail of horse footmarks soon had to be dismissed because a random wild boar herd decided that was the best path to wander around and poke the ground after worms and roots. What could be the remnants of a roasted hare was mixed up with splinters of a tree that was struck by lightning, making it impossible to figure out if the hare had been roasted by a camp fire or by a force of nature. If the little they found was really trace of runaway Kíli or kidnapped Tilda, it seemed some fuzzy power was playing hide and seek with the searching party. And winning.

They had crossed the Forest River some miles before, and were following a possible track up its right margin. Bard scowled at the choice, claiming all it would lead them to would be the old barge berth where the Laketowners collect the barrels that came down from the elven halls. He was right, of course, and cursed a little more.

Bilbo watched the surroundings, curious. There was something familiar and yet not, and he questioned the nearest dwarf.

“I don’t remember passing this way when we came from the Shire, Dwalin.”

“No.”  Dwalin agreed. “We crossed River Running right after we left the forest road, and headed to New Lake Town by its left margin. We are coming from Erebor by its right banks, this place was not in our coming route.”

The dwarf king let himself down to the large stones that covered the terrain. Bilbo hurried to his side, worried.

“Thorin, are you all right?”

 “I know this place.”

Thorin’s deep voice rumbled in an ominous tone, startling the hobbit.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Don’t you remember?

To the hobbit’s surprise, Thorin reached for the stone with his bare hands, feeling the grain of the sand, seeming to merge with the nature of the rock. His chin trembled, and something, a fleeting shine, bordered the strong Longbeard’s eyes.

“I could have lost Kíli here. I allowed Óin to tend to his wound for five minutes… five minutes… it was poisoned, and I allowed five minutes…”

Bilbo watched as Thorin rubbed the stone with his hand, now as if he were able to crush it to dust, then as if in a soft caress. Something splashed on the stone, and the hobbit realized it was a tear drop.

“Thorin… You did your best. We just escaped the elven halls, you were worried on the whole Company, besides, no one could have known it was poisoned. Don’t blame yourself!”

Thorin turned his sapphire eyes to the hobbit, and he could see the turmoil in there.

“Bilbo, my naïve friend… none mends an arrow wound in five minutes…”

“And none escaped those dungeons since the world was made round, so, can you just stop? Your self-pity won’t fix what was done, nor will it help us to find the lad. Nor to find the lass, which you said is to be our priority, if I remember correctly. And Kíli survived the poisoning, so, just shut up, will you?”

Fast as a snake, Thorin’s hands were on Bilbo’s cheeks, forcing him to look into his eyes. The hobbit had seen the shine of madness in those eyes before, and was relieved to see it wasn’t there now. Just worry, sadness, and regret. If those callused hands left the feel of the stone on his face, he would mind it later. Or not at all.

“He did. But not thanks to me. It was Tauriel who saved his life.”

“Yes, that’s it. And he lived to see Erebor retaken, and you as its rightful king. And now we’ll find him, and it will be all right again.”

Thorin could almost laugh at Bilbo’s optimism, but only a bitter chuckle left his mouth as he lowered his hands from the hobbit’s face.

“He lived to see me mad with gold sickness. He lived to see me shame our name by denying Bard and his people what was their right.”

“Yes, but you overcame it, didn’t you? Because it is not in your blood. It was just what you said, a sickness. It is over now.”

“Over… If my madness is truly over, how did I fall for the Council’s pressure? I’m not strong enough, Bilbo. I failed Kíli. He’ll never forgive me.”

The hobbit suppressed a knot in his throat at the sight of Thorin so unusually frail and exposed. He was not used to see the strong dwarf so dismayed, not outside the heat of battle. It was unsettling.

“Thorin… The lad has a good heart. He won’t deny forgiveness once you talk to him, once you… show him your true self. It might even be good for his rulership, to know sometimes even a king stumbles. We’re not perfect, none of us. Don’t carry this weight on your shoulders.”

“You’re too kind, my dear Bilbo. You forgave me and assume Kíli will, too. But our family is too stubborn, too proud…”

“If you are not too proud to acknowledge your own fault, he will not be too proud to forgive you.”

“I can only hope you are right.”

“I usually am, in what regards to Durin’s line, if I am so bold to state it.”

“Proud hobbit.”

“Stubborn dwarf.”

This line granted a small smile to form on Thorin’s face, even if it didn’t reach his eyes. Bilbo felt better for him.

“I should keep you closer to me. It would prevent several disasters.”

“I would love to.” Bilbo sighed. “But my place is in the Shire, you know.”

“Is it? What will you do if your courting my sister works?”

Now Bilbo was stuck, and he knew it. Having Dís visiting him in the Shire or visiting her in the Blue Mountains was one thing, but how would they work things out if they were to be more than good neighbours? They didn’t talk about it yet, and Thorin’s question was due.

“I… I don’t know. I hope she’ll find Bag End worthy of her presence, but now that you asked, I wonder if it is really fit for a princess. I… I must ask her. If she doesn’t deem it fit... I don’t know what I’ll do.” An idea occurred to him. “What would you advise? You know her far better than me.”

Thorin considered the hobbit from head to toe and back. What ran behind his blue eyes was yet to be known, but Bilbo felt a shudder.

“I don’t know about Dís… but I would deem Bag End fit, if it were to become a place for me.”

“Oh.”

Bilbo didn’t know what to do with that answer, and the next comment confused him even more.

“Me and my sister have… the same tastes for a lot of things, if you take my meaning.”

He didn’t, or didn’t want to, take the meaning, and tried his best to ignore what went unsaid.

“So… you think she would like to live in Bag End? Of course we could travel to Blue Mountains frequently, or even live part time in each place.”

Thorin answered with another question.

“Would you like to live part time in Erebor?”

“What?”

“Thorin King!” A man from Dale rushed to the stone outcrop they were resting on, interrupting the awkward dialogue. “We found tracks!”

Thorin stood up at once, ready to follow said tracks. Bilbo was at his side, expectant.

“Horse or pony?” The dwarf asked, eager to know to whom the tracks could lead.

The answer was short and alarming.

“Orcs!”

Chapter Text

The dwarf finished his bowl of stew, cleansed in with a bit of bread and put it aside, noticing Tilda barely touched her own food, eyes lost in the flames of their small camp. Where it another times, he would gladly offer to finish her bowl for her, but it was not the matter now.

“Tilda.” He called, and then again, a little louder, when no answer came. “Tilda. Are you all right?”

“What?” She glanced up at him, startled. “Sorry, I was… thinking…”

He nodded, acknowledging her need to think but steady in caring for her nourishment.

“Ain’t you hungry?” She looked at the bowl in her hands as if it was a novelty, not something she had been fidgeting with for the larger part of an hour. “What bothers you? You’ve been quiet for some hours already, and I… I’m kind of missing your voice.”

The twinkle in his eyes had the purpose of lightening her mood, but he couldn’t deny himself his words had a measure of truth.

“I think… I think today was the first time I delved deeper in all that happened, or didn’t happen, actually, because I… ran away… and the whys and the hows and…”

She stirred the food in her bowl, searching for words that would clear her mind instead of dumbing it and making her run in circles as it happened all day long.

Kíli took the bowl from her hands, putting it aside and sitting cross-legged in front of her, letting Tilda play with his fingers instead of the food.

“You can talk to me about it, you know. Our situation isn’t that different, after all.”

The young woman considered his words, consciously, and at another level took in his stance, the rumbling tone of his voice, the openness of his gaze. Opposite to the judging eyes she would expect from anyone out of Lake Town. She breathed deep and opened her heart.

“Da must be at a dire situation to have done this. Even in our poorest days, he would never… never do something that would hurt us in anyway…” Kíli mentally exchanged the last phrase for never sell us away, but bit his tongue, unwilling to make her more revolted. “I… I’m not very much into politics, albeit he’s making us to have classes with wiser people. By the way, did you know Mister Balin teaches us diplomacy?”

Kili uplifted his brows, curious.

“No, I didn’t. Are relations between Erebor and Dale this good, then?”

“I don’t know. If they were this good, we wouldn’t need diplomacy classes, would we?”

He snorted, amused, and Tilda couldn’t refrain her own giggle. Soon her eyes sombered again, and Kíli’s fingers had all her attention once more.

“I know alliances are made, and marriages are often decided on what’s better for trade, defence and so on. Sigrid married like it, and was even afraid of her husband and first, because he’s, well, I don’t know if you’ve seen him, but he’s quite a huge man… But he is a good man, they at least knew each other for almost a year before the arrangement was made.” Kíli heard and nodded. He too knew stories like this. Only wasn’t comfortable with being part of one. “But what Da chose for me… Kíli, I can’t possibly marry a decrepit eighty-eight years old bachelor, can I?”

The number stuck him, too much coincidence to be left alone.

“What’s the problem with an eighty-eight years old bachelor? I think I’m a perfectly marriable eighty-eight years old bachelor, or would be, if I weren’t a widower, thank you very much!”

His amused tone took away all possible seriousness of his words, effective in making her giggle again.

“The day you convince me you are eighty-eight years old is yet to come, Kíli son of Dís!”

“Good diplomacy classes, but terrible dwarven history and nature classes, I’d say, Tilda daughter of Bard the Dragonslayer!”

The mention of her father’s name brought the seriousness back to her face.

“Doesn’t matter anymore. I abandoned Da and all duties he counted on me to perform. All classes he provided me are wasted. Everything he expected from me…”

Tears welled from her eyes, and Kíli went on his knees to get closer and be able to reach her face and dry them. The understanding in his hazel-green eyes was all it took for the dam to break, and she wept freely on his shoulder, grabbing his forearms as a life buoy.

Her words and her sobs, the similarity of their situations, and the truth that he was a deserter too, someone who forsook his people and ignored his place, his responsibilities, throwing away everything invested in his training for rulership… It hit him hard. So hard his hands caressing her back were not just to soothe her, but himself too. His comforting words, assuring her it would be all right in due time, were directed at his own fears as well as to hers. No more Kíli son of Dís, the reckless nephew of Thorin Oakenshield, but Kíli the Runaway, the Irresponsible Brat who threw his duties on others’ shoulders. Not a beautiful name to embellish his tombstone.

“They had not the right to impose it on you. There’s a limit to what duty can claim from you.”

“I think so too, Kíli, but… but I know I disappointed Da nonetheless. How will I learn to live with this shame?”

“I… I don’t know. I’ll have to learn it myself, I deem.”

Soothing circles drawn on her back with his hands, her fingers on his forearms like a kitten pawing a pillow to sleep.

“Tilda…”

“Hmm?”

“It might be better if you lay down to sleep. You’ll wake up stiff if you don’t.”

“Oh…” She conceded in a sleepy voice, realising he should be uncomfortable for being so long in that position. “Sorry, you must be in pain…”

“No, not really, I feel no pain after my legs go numb…”

“Wha… Kíli, I’m so sorry, I…”

“Hush, I was kidding. Now go to your bedroll. I’ll keep watch.”

“Wake me up when you’re tired, will ya?”

“I will.” He lied.

The woman took her bedroll and spread it near the fire, her head close to Kíli’s once again crossed legs.

“Good night, Kíli.”

“Good night, Tilda. Sleep well.”

She closed her eyes and dropped into sleep almost immediately, the calm rhythm of her breath showing nothing of the turmoil in her chest.

Kíli watched, ears keen on any sound from the forest, eyes set on her peaceful face, pondering how would it be like to watch that face for a longer time, for longer days, for longer years. And why couldn’t the bride arranged for him be as sweet, witty and also fierce, like Tauriel.

Or like Tilda.

Chapter Text

“We didn’t have report of orcs around for a long time. Whatever the White Council did in Dol Guldur, it worked for years. What could have changed now?”

Bard’s questioned mostly to himself, but Thorin was puzzled just like his neighbour king, and ostensibly more bitter. Orcs were a curse to Durin’s line, Azog and Bolg being just the fresher reminder of it, so far. While other clans fell to the charms of Sauron and his foul master, the sons of the first father resisted, and suffered for it.

“I don’t like this elvish and wizardish White Council at all. Never heard of someone of our races to be invited to one of their meetings, as if our fates weren’t part of this world at all, or had no importance. They remember our existence only when it fits their convenience.”

“And we don’t even know what their convenience is.” Complained Bard.

“True.”

The searching party had been restless since the sight of orc tracks, undoubtedly. It suggested a route coming from north and heading to southwest, which was strange, considering it would mean them coming from the heart of the elven kingdom. Dealings with the elves had been quite good in the last years, as far as possible (which meant good trade with Dale and Lake Town and no open aggression with Erebor, including free pass through the old Dwarf road), and none of the current kings of dwarf and of men had reason to suspect treason on the elven king’s part, which led to the hypothesis of Thranduil’s people either not being aware of orc activity or unable to stop them, both scenarios horrible enough without the current predicament both mortal kings were facing.

Looking for runaway Kíli had been forgotten since the dwarves knew about Tilda’s kidnapping, and now even the importance of her kidnapping was lessened by the discovery of orc activity. One could negotiate with a regular kidnapper, but an ordinary kidnapper could be killed (or worse) by an orc pack, and so the younger Bardling. Albeit still dark, still in need of repairing, so to say, Mirkwood was getting lighter and its people, stronger; the Dwarven Road that crossed it was deemed once again a safe road, caravans crossing it with no more trouble than a bunch of robbers once in a while, nothing a regular escort couldn’t deal with. But an orc pack…

“We must decide on looking for your daughter or hunting this pack.”

“You seem to have forgotten your heir.”

Thorin squeezed his eyes and tried to dispel an impending migraine by sheer power of will.

“Kíli is capable of fending for himself.” He considered his words and completed. “Mostly.”

“But and orc pack…”

“An orc pack would be disastrous both to the kidnapper or anyone traveling the forest as a whole or the Dwarven Road in particular, immediately, be it my nephew or anyone else. We don’t know if they’re really heading there to, but it would be a fair guess if they intend for the Misty Mountains, where we know they infest. Whatever they aim to, these orc tracks mean anyone in the surroundings is in danger. From my previous experience, I’d say hunt the orcs, else you’ll be trying to fix one issue and when you least expect it, there’ll be a bunch of orcs messing everything around and preventing you from fixing whatever you were trying to.”

“For all it pains me, I must agree.”

Bard fingered the string of his bow, anxious to put it to good use. But there was no enemy, no shadow he could shoot an arrow at; instead, the anguish of not knowing what was happening to his daughter. At least she didn’t simply run away like Thorin’s nephew… And she fought bravely. All evidence in her chambers pointed to struggle, from the broken furniture to the smear of blood in the windowsill. It pained Bard to consider it could be his little daughter’s blood, but a part of him knew how fierce Tilda could be, and that she had training enough to offer resistance to a regular man. The dagger she used to keep under her pillow had been found somewhere on the floor, smeared with blood. It helped him to sleep at night.

Thorin brought him back to reality with an undeniable offer.

“Then, let’s hunt some orc.”

Little did Bard know of how much his daughters were thick as thieves, neither of how skilled in the art of deceit Sigrid had become whilst living in Gondor’s court…

 


 

 

It was late afternoon when they took the old forest road, and they decided to ride at least a couple of miles before camping. They would be protected by the large trees, even if Kíli didn’t think trees to be his friends. Anyway, it would be harder to be seen if they camped out of the main track, and so they did.

“Should we make a fire?” Asked Tilda, searching her saddlebag for provisions.

“It is getting cold at night. We had no notice of pursuers, so it may be safe.”

Her little cooking set was soon put close to the happy bonfire Kíli lightened after they both cleansed the ground from loose leaves and twigs that could allow the fire to spread beyond the boundaries of their camp. Water and dried provisions found their way into the small pot and waited to boil to make a wholesome soup, whilst horse and pony grazed the underbrush.

“May I put my sleeping roll beside yours? Only... Only to keep the warmth…”

Her shy question made Kíli to smile, and he lowered his own sleeping roll beside hers.

“We both need warmth. You…” A fingertip traced her eyebrow and then down her face, stopping just to play with her lower lip. “Children of Iluvatar have not the heat of Mahal’s forge.... I can… I may…”

Tilda could feel the skin of his finger warming her lip, and remembered how he helped her to warm herself in other occasions. His skin was not just warmer than hers, it was like if someone feverish touched her. But with him, it felt good.

“Aye. It is cold and…”

If it was him to approach her or if it was her that got closer to him, she didn’t care; their lips touched like she had fancied several times before; but, unlike what she feared, they didn’t split apart as if something wrong was being done. It felt good to touch and to be touched, and her fresh lips lent him the pleasure of novelty.

 “Do you want me to heat you…?”

Kíli’s question was half a plea and half a promise, and Tilda took both.

“Kíli, I…”

Any possible answer was drowned in a furious kiss that took her by surprise but immediately made her sure it was all she wanted in this world. His lips and tongue were warmer than hers, like his finger that just touched her lips, and made her consider if all of his body was warmer than hers. The perspective was entertaining.

The furs of the sleeping rolls were stretched on the ground before she knew what was happening, and they felt comfortable under her body. Feeling relaxed, her woollen trousers absence was just a welcomed detail, and the feeling of Kíli’s hands caressing her thighs was more than welcomed.

His lips were playing again with her earlobe whilst his fingers played with a more delicate flesh, which by now pulsed under his care. Kíli’s breath was heavy, and Tilda felt his urge as her own.

“I won’t do anything you don’t...”

“I want it! Kíli, I want it, please, do it…”

He closed his eyes, hiding from her the shine of a thousand stars as his lips traced kisses from her mouth to her chin and throat and down and down and down… Her legs refused to stay together, welcoming his attentions with an urge Tilda didn’t know existed, but that now made all sense. How to ignore that urge when it was Kíli who touched her and…and now his tongue touched her somewhere she never imagined a tongue was supposed to play like it did, making her to be inside a maelstrom of stars.

“I’m not like Men…”

His hoarse voice made Tilda pay attention to his whole body, because she needed it, and aye, it was more than she expected; yet, how could it not be, if Kíli was more than anyone she ever knew?

Impulsively, she dared to touch him, taking in her hand the cockshot of her attention. It was hotter than her own skin, as everything in Kíli was; it was thicker than she expected, and she wondered how it would fit in her slender body. The mere thought made her flesh to throb, and the throbbing became almost unbearable, as if her body craved for his inside of hers.

“I don’t want Men, I want you!”
Her whole body howled for his, and now he heard it. Kíli’s hands made its best to keep touching her in the best places, and then to guide the part of him that she wanted to the place her body craved.

“I don’t want to hurt you!”

Kíli held his body back, touching yet preserving Tilda’s maidenhead. His member was already wet with precum and her whole pussy leaked with anticipation. Nothing would take her back now.

Tilda grabbed Kíli’s hips and pulled him into her, felling everything there was to be felt, pain and pleasure and completeness. His gritting teeth showed how much he was holding himself back, but the moans of her need reached his soul and he knew it was time to make his best. Not for his pleasure, but for hers.

After the first shock of occasional pain, his warmth felt good inside of her, and the movement stirred feelings in her body that not even his kisses had awakened. The sensation was not better nor worse than when Kíli licked and suckled her, but different, like the difference from heating your hands close to a fire and to heat your body eating a hot soup. One made you feel all right for a night, but the other would keep you going for days.

And Kíli moved so caringly, filling her body with his love and desire in an overpowering way, faster and hotter and…

“Kíli…!”

“Don’t leave me!”

Tilda opened her eyes with a start, sitting up in her sleeping roll in the middle of the night. Kíli was watching the darkness at the other side of the fire, bow and quiver at hand, as usual.

“I’ll better stop having these dreams if we’re to be friends until the other end of this forest.” Tilda thought quietly, forcing herself to close her eyes again. It would be a long night.

 

Chapter Text

Tilda woke up to the chirping of birds, confused. Usually she would wake long before sunrise, years of training in the healing halls ingrained in her internal clock. Thirst parched her lips, and she stood up to fetch her waterskin. Dizziness overcame her, and she sat down again to prevent a fall.

Only then she noticed her mug beside her sleeping furs, a lukewarm concoction begging to be drunk. Her thirst prompted her to drink without care about what was brewed in it. Hasty gulps graced her with the knowledge that it had willow bark, lots of willow bark, making it bitter enough to shame a wormwood potion used to get rid of parasites.

Kíli was nowhere to be seen.

“Whatever prank he had in mind this time, I’ll make him pay dearly for it…”

She mumbled as she tried again to stand up, slowly this time to prevent another wave of dizziness. Her success was awarded with a soft neigh from Broda. Tripsy was grazing close to him, which indicated the dwarf should not be far, at least.

Her waterskin had been replenished, and she drank eagerly, both to quench her thirst and to wash down the strong taste of willow bark. Her joints felt sore, and her eyes felt like sand had ingrained behind them. So, she had gotten ill. All she didn’t need right now in her runaway life. She let herself collapse on her sleeping furs once more.

“G’morning, sunshine!”

Kíli greeted her from the opposite direction from the campfire, fast steps on the brink of a run until he was in front of Tilda, arms full with assorted leaves and boughs bearing fruit. A couple ptarmigans dangled from his belt, vouching his bow had been put to good use. They had traveled days long without fresh meat, and it would be a welcome change.

“Morning. What is… all this?” She gestured at his gathering results. “You didn’t wake me for my watch.”

He knelt down, putting the green stuff beside him and taking her hands in his. They felt strangely cold to her touch. She looked up at him and his worried eyes bored into hers.

“I tried to. I called you and you didn’t stir, so I…” His mind ran fast over the truths he could say yet didn’t dare. So I was bold enough to touch your cheek whilst you were asleep and wouldn’t reject my approach. So I took the chance and caressed your face. So I came close to your face and felt your breath on my skin. So I took advantage of you being asleep and spent the better part of an hour just looking at you and wishing you were a dwarrowdam, but not really, else you’d have a beard hiding your beautiful face. “I got worried and felt your brow, it didn’t seem as cool as humans uses to feel, then I made willow bark tea and went to fetch some herbs.”

“I’ve got a fever, I think. Thank you for the tea.” He smiled broadly at her thanks. “It was quite strong, though.”

His smiled faded as fast as it had shown and Kíli stammered some excuse, to what Tilda felt she had to fix it right away.

“You don’t have to know the precise dosage of stuff, silly. You’re not a healer!”

“I’m sorry anyway. I just wanted to take care of you and…” He turned his eyes down to the things he gathered. “Here, I found elderberry for the fever, it’s sweeter than willow bark, Amad always used it for me and Fíli; and white mallow in case your throat is sore; and I found some lemons, some people say it’s juice makes you healthier. And some berries, too.”

The woman looked at the assortment of medicine the dwarf had gathered; he had no healer training, of that she was sure, Óin never mentioned Kíli as his pupil. When they chatted about her own training, he expressed surprise at simple things she mentioned, making her giggle at his ignorance.

“Kíli, I… Thank you again, what else can I say? How did you know what to…”

He noticed her confusion and assured her with a smile.

“I was the problem child, remember? Born too early, always too thin, always nose deep in trouble and mayhem… I was bound to catch a cold or a fever now and then. And I have good memory, that’s all.”

Tilda picked some berries from the stem he brought and smiled in thanks and acceptance of his care. She could get used to it.

 


 

The ride had been hard and long, everybody intent in following the orc tracks. It was quite different, to search for hidden clues and raging across a clear path. Bilbo believed he was used to ride after the journey from the Shire to Erebor, but it had been a leisure walk, nothing compared to the fury Thorin was using to lead them now. He was sure they covered more of the Old Forest Road that day than in a whole week with Dwalin and Kíli. At least, that was what his aching muscles claimed.

By the way of Dwalin, it was him who tried to keep Thorin at a sane pace, unsuccessfully, and now pouted at the edge of the firelight. For once, Bilbo could relate.

“Feels like chasing chicken, huh?”

The hobbit didn’t hear Bofur approaching and got startled.

“What?”

The dwarf with the weird hat stuffed his pipe, purposefully, and offered the pipe weed pouch as a token of peace.

“One day ye’re coming to a party in Erebor; the next, ye’re running after Kíli; before ye can find a hoof print in the right direction, whoops! Go find the lass; but no, wait: let’s hunt orcs.” Bofur illustrated the change of goals by juggling his pipe from hand to hand. “Pretty wild goose chase!”

Bilbo would find it amusing if it didn’t depict exactly how he felt. And not about riding…

“Yeah…” Bilbo sighed, unhappy.

“But then, what would life be if one couldn’t look around now and then?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ye see, it’s like mining. If ye follow a quartz vein, ye’ll get quartz, but when ye blink, whoops! There’s copper! And if it weren’t good enough, blink again and there is gold!” The miner’s eyes shone at the mention of his favorite metal. “And ye know what? Sometimes ye’ll find a quartz vein while mining granite, ordinary granite fer building Men’s houses.”

“And so…?” Bilbo asked, dubious on what in goodness his friend meant with all that ramble.

“Don’t ye see the beauty it is? Ye go mining dull granite and end up with gold in yer hands. And the best part, ye still have all the granite, quartz and copper ye mined in the process.”

“Fascinating.” Said Bilbo, not feeling it.

“Exactly!” Replied Bofur, excited with his own dander. “That’s why I wonder, once we put our hands on the filthy orcs, what more will we have gained?”

The hobbit chuckled.

“Not many wounds, I hope.”

“Nah, don’t worry about wounds. Wounds leave battle scars, and do ye know? Battle scars are badges of honor. Never forget it.”

Bofur stretched, emptied the pipe to stow it in his pocket and stood up;

“Well, that was a nice chat, Bilbo old fellow.”

“Yeah… I guess…” Mumbled Bilbo, pondering if saying half a dozen words while Bofur talked non-stop should be accounted as a chat.

His eyes wandered from the forest to the camp fire, and to those around it, and his mind wandered too. It was not the same as mining, as actively pursuing a prize, but from the day those dwarves set foot in Bag End and rid his pantry, he had found more and more that he wasn’t aware it was possible to be in his life.

First of all, adventure; then, courage; in the heart of the Misty Mountains, a magic ring; at the official end of the journey, richess; more meaningful than any of that, true friendship.

Watching certain sapphire eyes staring at him from across the fire, he was sure he didn’t set foot out of his round green door expecting to find it, yet it was undoubtedly there: love.

 “I thought the ones on watch should be observant of the forest around us, not of the middle of the camp.”

The harsh voice in his ear made Bilbo shudder, coming back to reality.

“Dwalin.”

The hobbit turned his attention to the burly dwarf at his side. To punch him would be improper, so he settled for cross his arms and fume at him.

 “Unless ye weren’t on watch.”

“I wasn’t.” He admitted.

“If so, what worries ye? Ye can’t hide the crease on your forehead so easily.”

Bilbo considered the warrior, knowing he was much more than the harsh surface he displayed around. After all, he was one who faced Thorin in his gold madness, as more than a subject, but as friend and a brother in arms.

“Have you ever…” Bilbo struggled for an allegory. He found it in food, as a proper hobbit should. “Did you ever have to choose from one dessert or another? Like, you are in a big banquet and you must choose between pudding and blackberries pie?”

Dwalin regarded him with curiosity.

“Maybe.”

“What did you do?”

“I took one and then the other.”

“But what if you couldn’t? What if you had to help yourself of dessert only once and then never more?”

Dwalin smiled at the apparent dilemma, much to Bilbo’s distress.

“Then I’d take some of each and be done with it. Who could stop me from having what I wanted?”

“Oh. None, I guess.”

“And you?”

“Me, what?”

“What would you do, if you had to… choose desserts?”

Bilbo knew Dwalin was no fool, yet he hoped he didn’t see his true dilemma. Actually, he wished someone who understood did see, and helped him out of it. Without breaking any heart.

“I think… I think I’m a hobbit and my tableware isn’t fit for fancy desserts. I… I would be content with what fits in my little dessert plate.”

Dwalin shook his head, bemused. His eyes wandered to the other side of the camp fire, where people close to his heart chatted lightly.

“Bilbo, Bilbo… No wonder Thorin calls ye a fool now and then. Like when ye gave up yer one-fourteenth share of the treasure and contented yerself with just a pair of chests from it.”

“It would be more trouble than profit, really.”

He ignored his statement and resumed.

“Yer problem, Bilbo, is that ye don’t consider alternatives. Ye like blackberry pie? Great, have it. Yer mouth waters at the thought of pudding? All right, have it too. It’s that simple.”

“Dwalin, my… my little dessert plate wouldn’t hold both at once.”

“Nonsense. Ye can always use a larger plate.”

“A larger…”

Dwalin’s laughed and left for the camp fire, leaving behind a perplexed hobbit. Confusticate and bebother those dwarves!