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The Standing-Stone Of The Sigin-Tarâg

Chapter Text

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Fíli had expected that a wave of pride would wash over him the first time he stepped into the halls of his people, that he would have to pause and take in the beauty of it all. He had long imagined the carved stone pillars reaching up and out of sight, the mirror-smooth tile floors, the never-ending rush of the River Running—that was how Thorin had described it to him and Kíli when they were young, that was the image that had stayed with them throughout their trek to Erebor.

What they found was more like a dungeon.

The walls were clawed and crumbling, the once-great stone kings had been pulled from their pedestals and crushed under Smaug’s feet, and the air still stank of his foul breath. All around, the sound of rocks falling from the tall ceiling echoed; and though they could hear water flowing somewhere not so far away, it sounded slow and thick, as if it were choked with slime.

Yet he knew that the beauty remained there somewhere, buried under the rubble that the dragon had left in its wake. Perhaps, he thought, they would someday find it; but that would take time and many more hands, and at the moment they had neither. Still, after all they had gone through, it was a relief to be there at all—and the even greater relief of discovering the Company alive forced the disappointment of their reclaimed home’s condition to the back of Fíli’s mind.

Of course, there was also the matter of the two armies marching in behind them.

"Those poor fools were the first to die," Bard had said, trying to convince the Dwarves that heading for Erebor would be a mistake. "The dragon burned them, then he came to us for his revenge."

But Fíli had refused to believe him without proof, and had planned to leave as soon as Kíli’s leg was healed enough for him to walk the long road. By that time, however, the Elvenking had shown up with a great number of armored Elves; and while Fíli and the others had feared that he would recapture and lock them away for good, Thranduil simply offered aid to the Men of the Lake and ignored the Dwarves almost completely.

Whispers soon rose among the survivors of Laketown that the Elves were planning to march on the Mountain; and Bard had struck up what appeared to be a fast friendship with the Elvenking and was spending many hours speaking with him in private. Before long, the rumors became shouts, and all able-bodied Men began kitting themselves out for what may have either been a recovery operation or a siege—although even they did not seem to know exactly what they were readying themselves for.

In any case, Fíli knew that he and the other Dwarves that had been left behind in Laketown needed to get to the Mountain first—to find their Company, or at least any of them who might still live—and in a quiet moment away from Elvish ears, he had told Óin, Bofur, and Kíli that they would leave for Erebor as soon as darkness fell.

And so they had left just after sundown and trudged through the night. With the coming of dawn they could see a cloud of dust being sent up not more than a couple miles behind—evidence of the Men and Elves already marching out. Fíli tried to urge his companions to move more swiftly, but Kíli’s leg was in pain and they were all tired from the past few sleepless days. Still, they rushed on as fast as they could, noting by the time they reached Erebor that the battalions behind them would soon be in sight.

Without knowing quite what to expect, the group made their way up the crumbled path to the Gate, seeing before they even got there that a barricade had been recently built across it. A tuft of red hair popped up over the stones; then it disappeared again, and they heard a hearty laugh.

"Safe and sound! Well, I just knew you lads would be!" Glóin called out. "Takes more than a little dragonfire to kill off a bunch as stubborn as you!"

Urged on by the thrill of finding at least one of their number still alive, the group rushed up and over the barricade. Fíli stopped atop it for a moment to reach down and give Kíli a hand up, and when they were all over the side, Glóin grinned and slapped Óin on the shoulder.

"Welcome home, brother!" he said cheerfully.

Off in the corner of the ledge they saw Bombur, smiling wide and fairly bouncing with joy. He laughed, then bounded over to his own brother and wrapped his arms around him, squeezing the thinner Dwarf and lifting him right off his feet.

"Alright, thank you…" squeaked Bofur breathlessly. "Yes, it’s good to see you, too!"

A chuckle came from just within the shattered Gate, and they all watched on as Balin came striding into the light. "Well, now, this is wonderful!" he exclaimed with his arms held wide. "Welcome home, lads!"

Fíli reached out and clasped the older Dwarf’s wrist in greeting. "Is everybody alright?"

"A little singed and a little sore, but all alive and… mostly well." He looked at Kíli. "And you, laddie? Your leg?"

"Much better," said Kíli; then he cleared his throat before changing the subject. "Where is Thorin? We need to speak with him."

"It is rather urgent," added Óin.

Balin tugged on his long white beard for a few seconds before turning his back to the barricade. "Come with me."

Bombur hugged his brother a little tighter before letting him go; and Bofur landed hard on his feet, then took a deep breath and patted Bombur’s shoulder before running in after Balin. Óin and Kíli followed them with cautious steps, and Fíli went in last of all, taking one more look back over his shoulder towards where the distant group of Elves and Men must by now be marching.

"Thorin’s been…" said Balin as he led them down the ruined hall. "Well, he's been busy."

"Busy doing what?" asked Bofur, his voice still hoarse from his brother’s enthusiastic hug.

"Searching for the Arkenstone," said Fíli, answering for the older Dwarf.

The others all looked at him for a moment; and though Balin nodded, he said nothing. Not that anything needed to be said on the matter. Everyone knew full well what that jewel meant to Thorin, what it meant to his father and grandfather, what it meant to all of the Sigin-tarâg—Durin’s folk, the Longbeards.

Of the Company, few had ever been near the King's Jewel in person. Balin and Dwalin had seen it often, of course, and Óin claimed to have glimpsed it once or twice. Of them all, however, only Thorin had ever been known to come close enough to touch it; and he had described it in detail to Fíli and Kíli when they were younger.

"It was like a rush of cut gems running up my fingers and into my arm," he’d told them once. "It was cold, but it burned… like holding onto an icy bar of metal long enough for it to freeze to your skin. But when I took my hand away there was no damage at all, just a lingering cold, a pain… but that… all that was in an instant. I touched it for barely a second, but the sensation stayed, and I could feel it for hours after." He had then paused and looked at his opened palm. "Sometimes, I still can."

Fíli peered into the darkness ahead, and in the far distance he could see a yellow light. As they drew closer, the light became more intense, and when at last they came to the end of the passage, they all stood fast and stared in awe.

The great hall—Thrór’s treasure-room, Fíli realized—was bathed in a shimmering brilliance. Here and there, fires had been stoked up, and the light reflected harshly off the silver, gold, and gems that were piled all around. The illumination shifted and danced as the remainder of the Company milled about below the newcomers, setting the hills of coins sliding like small avalanches.

"Thorin!" Balin cried out, his voice echoing off the distant walls.

Far off, a kneeling figure lifted his head. "Have you found it?"

Balin started down the stone steps that led deeper into the room, beckoning the others to follow him. "No! However, I have found something else of value!"

Thorin stared for a moment, then slowly stood. He met the group halfway across the room, smiling as he stepped up to Kíli and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"You’ve made it," he said, shaking his younger nephew happily; then he turned to Fíli and stood up tall, thrusting his chest out proudly. "What do you think?" he asked, motioning at the treasure all around them.

"I think," said Fíli, squinting against the glare, "that this is a lot of gold."

"And there are greater treasures still to be found," said Thorin, then he fell to his knees and resumed digging through the hoard.

Fíli lifted his eyes from the coins his uncle was displacing in his search and looked instead at the joyful, yet tired faces now all around him. Óin and Kíli were speaking to one another in whispers, all the while keeping their eyes on the mountains of precious metal and gems; but Bofur was standing stock-still and slack-jawed, and seemed almost to be in shock.

"Never seen such a thing, eh?" said Nori, stepping up to him.

Bofur jumped and his mouth snapped shut. "Can’t say that I have."

"The first we saw of it," said Dori, "we were running through, away from Smaug."

Fíli took a step towards him. "Smaug is dead," he said. "But Laketown is gone, and a lot of the Lakemen died before the dragon fell."

"We saw the smoke rising from the Lake," said Thorin without looking up. "When the worm didn’t return, we assumed he had been dealt with."

"It was Bard's shot that ended him," said Óin softly. "He loosed a single black arrow, and sent it straight through the beast's armored hide."

"It wasn’t completely armored," said Bilbo, stepping close. "There was a scale missing on his left breast."

"Then that is where the Bowman hit him," Óin went on, a touch of wonderment slipping into his words. "A perfect shot, worthy of his family’s reputation. He has been hailed as a hero, a leader of Men! There’s talk of him being crowned king when—"

Thorin seemed to have had enough of listening to the chatter and stood, then pushed his way through the gathered crowd. "Keep searching," he commanded.

Balin sighed as he placed a gentle touch on his old friend’s shoulder. "You’ve been awake for days, Thorin. You should rest."

"Not until it is found."

"The dragon is dead. With or without the Arkenstone, none now would question your right to rule."

"I would question it," said Thorin, shrugging him off.

Dwalin pushed a golden bowl aside with his foot. "Perhaps that foul worm swallowed it."

"Then I will dive down to the bottom of Long Lake and cut it out of his belly."

Fíli watched his uncle’s hands clench and took a step towards him, but Balin gave him a warning glance and the younger Dwarf stopped.

"We need to speak with him," said Kíli, moving closer to his brother.

"I don’t think right now is the best time, lad," said Balin, his voice low.

"We have to—" Fíli started, intending on mentioning the approaching armies; but Thorin didn’t give him the chance.

"That jewel is my family’s legacy," he said; then he looked intently at Fíli. "Our legacy. It represents all that I am, all that my father and grandfather were. Whether it lies at the bottom of a steaming lake or somewhere deep under the dragon-fouled gold within this mountain, I will find it." He bent and brought up a handful of coins. "And then I will feel no shame in calling myself king."

"Was your grandfather not the king before he took possession of it?" asked Balin.

Bilbo held up a nervous finger. "Um, Thorin… if—"

Thorin glared at him. "Had you done the job you were hired to do… had you found the Arkenstone and returned it to me, as you had been instructed…"

The Hobbit let out a little squeak; then he backed a couple steps away from Thorin and looked instead to Balin, who was giving him a tight-lipped smile. But Thorin moved near to him once more; then he reached out and moved the lapel of Bilbo’s jacket aside, revealing a fine silver-mesh shirt below.

"You have been given your first payment, burglar. Find the Arkenstone and you will receive the rest."

Fíli focussed on the shirt. "Is that…?"

"Mithril," said Dwalin, nodding. "Thorin found it shortly after we arrived. The Hobbit was the only one amongst us that it would fit."

Fíli shook his head, keeping his eyes on the gleaming mail. Despite growing up with the fairness and brilliance of mithril being told to him in bedtime tales, he had only ever seen a simple circlet made of the precious metal, and he wondered how many other treasures of its kind might be found amongst the recovered wealth. Treasures like the mithril helmet that Balin had once mentioned as belonging to his ancestor, Borin—a helmet that was said to be so light that sometimes he would not even remember he had it on, and which had such resilience that no blade could cut through it.

That claim, though, was later amended when Thorin told them about Durin's Axe: a fine, double-headed weapon which was, itself, said to have been made of silver-steel. Its edge was so finely-ground that it could cut through any armor or shield; and despite its lightness, the broad side was able to crush an orc's skull like the heaviest hammer. The mithril axe had been lost when Khazad-dûm fell; but no other weapon forged by the Dwarves was said to have been more powerful or of finer craftsmanship.

Fíli couldn't imagine for whom the shirt Bilbo was wearing had originally been crafted, since it was certainly not meant for a Dwarf—unless for a very young one, and one who preferred a more Elvish-styling over that of his own people. In any case, he could not fathom what the full value of such a thing might be; and the Hobbit clearly had no idea of its worth, either, as he was keeping it hidden under layers of what were very nearly rags.

Bilbo shifted from foot to foot. "I was just going to ask what the Arkenstone actually does," he said. "Is it just symbolic? To be honest, I don’t know much about it, and—"

"You know all that you need to know," said Thorin firmly. "It doesn’t matter to you what it does; it matters only that it is recovered and returned to me. And this is my word: Should I discover it in anyone’s possession but my own, I will see them dead!"

Bilbo rubbed his nose, then scratched the back of his head. "Yes. I see. Right."

Fíli looked around at the gathered group, who had all backed several steps away from Thorin. Various expressions played across their faces, from Balin’s paternal concern to Bilbo’s confused fear; Dori had even pulled Ori back behind himself, and now stood protectively between his younger brother and Thorin. Fíli had never seen his uncle have that effect on any of the Company. None of them had ever seen him so obsessed, so angry. None of them had ever feared him.

Thorin again turned his eyes to the gold at his feet, but a yell from a distant doorway brought his and everyone else’s attention around.

"Thorin!" hollered Glóin. He took a moment to catch his breath, apparently having run all the way to the treasure room. "You are being called to the Gate!"

"Called by whom?" demanded Thorin.

"Bard the Bowman! And the Elvenking!"

Thorin squeezed the gold in his palm, then threw it hard onto the pile before him. "What is Thranduil doing at my Gate?"

"His people marched out from Laketown," said Fíli.

"And what was he doing in Laketown?"

"He went there to help after…" Kíli began; then he looked at Fíli out of the corner of his eye.

"He was helping the Men recover from Smaug’s attack," Fíli finished for his brother.

Thorin stood and tilted his head, staring deep into Fíli’s eyes. "Was he, now?" he asked almost too calmly; then he made his way towards the doorway. When he reached it, he turned half around and called back, "Keep searching, all of you! Dwalin! Come with me!" before vanishing into the darkness beyond.

Dwalin obeyed, and the rest of the Company watched until he was out of sight. Bilbo tapped his finger against his jacket pocket and hummed softly to himself, then he did a little hop before setting off after Thorin and Dwalin.

"I need to…" he said, but his small voice was lost to the group the closer he got to the door.

Ori finally dared to step out from behind his brother. "What do we do now?"

"We search for the Arkenstone," said Balin. 

"There’s so much here," said Kíli, sliding his pack off his shoulder and setting it down on a large crystal plate at his feet. "It could be anywhere. What if we don’t find it?"

"Then we keep searching."

Fíli glanced towards the door. "And if we do find it? What then?"

Balin let out a weary breath. "Then the King beneath the Mountain shall come into his own."

Chapter Text

"Just us?" asked Ori, his voice small and shaking. "Against all of them?"

"Uncle, you can’t just—" Kíli began, but Thorin silenced him with a look.

Not long after Thorin had left the treasure room, the rest of the Company had been sent for; and now they were gathered all together just inside the Gate, listening fearfully as they were told to prepare for battle. Already the Men of the Lake and Thranduil’s people had begun to set up a camp between the ruins of Dale and the Lonely Mountain, and it did not seem likely that they were planning on leaving any time soon.

"What is it that they want?" asked Balin.

"They want what is ours," said Thorin. "And I will not let them have it."

"The orcs attacked us in Laketown before the dragon came," said Bofur. "If the Elves hadn’t been there—"

Thorin shoved him aside and stepped out into the light, then he looked over the barricade at the milling crowd. "Trying to serve their own ends, no doubt."

The others followed him out onto the ramparts, but stayed closer to the door.

"And the Elf-maid, Tauriel, healing young Kíli’s leg," Óin spoke up. "Was that also for her own benefit?"

Thorin narrowed his eyes. "Elves only ever serve their own ends," he repeated, returning his attention to the armies below. "They measure time in centuries, and people with shorter lives than their own matter little to them."

"You’re wrong," whispered Kíli, then he shied away from his uncle’s fiery gaze.

"And what of the Lake-men?" asked Fíli quickly, trying to draw Thorin’s attention away from Kíli. "It was Bard that killed Smaug. If he hadn’t, the dragon would be back here now, and the Mountain would still not be ours."

"And if Girion had managed to kill him, our home would never have been taken from us in the first place," said Thorin. "What Bard did, he did for his own people. That it meant Smaug would not return to the Mountain meant nothing to him. And now he sits at our Gate with the Elvenking by his side, calling out for our property in recompense. I will not let them have it."

"Those at our Gate have suffered from Smaug’s wrath, just as we have," said Balin. "The Men of Laketown have suffered and died… their families have suffered and died, just as ours did."

"The Elves did not suffer, let them help their new friends. Or they may leave and I will consider negotiations with Bard and the Men of the Lake, but I will not allow a single coin to leave these halls under threat of force."

"Smaug was the enemy," said Fíli. "Not—"

Turning swiftly, Thorin grabbed him by the collar and pushed him hard against the wall. "Thranduil and his people claimed to be our friends once, then left us to die." He let go of Fíli and stepped back. "Left us to burn, and to starve after."

"And so you would do the same to the Lake-men?" asked Balin softly.

Thorin glowered at him. "If they are allied with the Elves, then let the Elves aid them." He slowly drew his sword and pointed it at each of the Company in turn. "And if you value their false friendship more than the kinship of your own people, then you may leave now. Join them, if you wish."

They all remained silent at the tip of his blade; so Thorin returned his sword to its sheath and straightened up proudly before heading back into the Mountain. "Arm yourselves!"

For a long moment, no one spoke, then Dwalin cleared his throat. "Right," he said as he started towards Gate and motioned for the others to follow. "This way to the armory. Bombur, stay on guard."

Bombur looked at him, then down at his less-than-battle-ready outfit.

"Don’t worry," said Bofur to his brother as he followed Dwalin inside. "I’ll see what I can find in your size."

"Though some significant adjustments may be needed," added Glóin.

Soon, most of the Company had vanished into the darkness of the Mountain; though Fíli, Kíli, Bilbo, and Balin hung back with Bombur. Fíli rubbed his collarbone, where Thorin had dug his fingers in when he pushed him against the wall, then he turned to ask the Hobbit if he was holding up well under the circumstances. But Bilbo was now nowhere to be seen, and even as Fíli spun in a circle, he could not find him.

"Where’s Bilbo?"

Kíli glanced around as well. "He was just here. Did he go in after Thorin?"

"I guess he must have," said Fíli.

"And I suppose we should do the same," said Balin; but he did not yet take a step towards the door. He crossed his arms and looked over at the young brothers. "So, the Elves helped you in Laketown, did they?"

"Yes," said Kíli, resting his hand where the arrow had gone into his leg. "Some more than others."

"Thranduil himself didn't come to the Lake, I assume."

"Not until after the town was already burned to the water," said Fíli. "But the fair-haired Elf that took Orcrist from Thorin came before then, and—"

"And Tauriel with him," Kíli finished for his brother, smiling almost wistfully.

"The captain-of-the-guard," Fíli clarified when Balin raised an eyebrow. "You might remember her. She was the one that brought Kíli back to the Company after the other Elves had caught us in the Forest."

"Ah," said Balin, nodding. "Well, it was nice of them to help you out, even after the chase we'd led them on, I suppose." He stood quietly for a few more seconds before turning towards the Gate and starting inside. "Well, let’s get to it, then."

Balin’s delay struck Fíli odd, but he did not yet say anything about it, and he and Kíli walked behind him in respectful silence. At length, they came to a junction and stopped. Up ahead they could hear the echoing voices of the other Dwarves getting themselves ready for battle; but instead of heading that way, Balin rested a hand on Kíli's shoulder.

"Would you mind terribly going on ahead?" he asked.

Kíli took a step back. "Why?"

Fíli and Balin locked gazes. "Kíli, would you…" He looked over at his brother. "I need to speak with Balin in private."

"I don’t understand."

Balin’s knowing eyes stayed on Fíli. "It would be best."

Kíli drew his eyebrows together, then slowly began making his way down the passageway after the others; and when he had gone around the corner and out of sight, Balin started down a side corridor.

"Where are we going?" asked Fíli, falling into step beside him. But when Balin didn’t answer, he asked what he had been wanting to since he had first seen his uncle on his knees in the treasure room. "What’s wrong with Thorin?"

"Eh?"

"He’s changed."

"Aye. Power…" Balin winced, as if his choice of words had stung him. "Responsibility has a way of changing people."

"Not for the better, it seems."

"Not always. But he is doing what he thinks is best for us. For all of us."

Fíli took hold of Balin’s shoulder, trying to stop him; but the older Dwarf kept walking, so he lowered his hand and continued to follow quietly behind. They went on for a couple more minutes, first down one passage, then another and another, until at last they stopped outside a closed carved-stone door.

Balin shut his eyes, then pushed the door open, coughing bit when a cloud of dust and ash rose out of the room—then his stiffened shoulders drooped in relief.

"I was afraid they hadn’t escaped from here," he said, his voice cracking.

"Who?" pressed Fíli, fighting back a cough.

"The children and their mothers."

It was, at first, too dim for Fíli to see anything inside the room—but Dwarf eyes adjust well to the darkness of their own delvings, and soon he was able to make out many small stone beds lining the walls. Balin moved deeper inside and reached down to one of the beds, lifting the edge of the finely-stitched mattress. The fabric tore apart in his grip, and feathers fell from the hole and floated to the floor; then he dropped the mattress back onto the bed and sat down on it.

"What is this place?" asked Fíli, stepping closer to him.

"A nursery," said Balin. "One of many."

The breath caught in Fíli's throat. "Why did you bring me here?"

Balin leaned slightly forward. "Are you afraid?"

Fíli straightened his back and started to shake his head, but his resolve failed. "Yes," he admitted. "But not about the battle."

"No, I didn’t think that was it. We’ve seen worse. Much worse."

Drawing his eyes away from the older Dwarf, Fíli started wandering around the room. He had fully intended on speaking with Balin—one of the wisest people he knew—about his worries regarding the kinghood and the Arkenstone, but now that it came down to it, he found himself unable say anything.

"The strange thing about madness is that, if you are truly mad, you don’t know it," said Balin, apparently guessing what was on Fíli's mind; and the younger Dwarf turned and saw that Balin's gnarled hands were folded on his lap and he was staring intently at them. "Thorin is doing what he believes is right, but he is, at the same time, being blinded by… something else. What that could be, I can’t say. Dragon-fever, perhaps, or something more personal." He pursed his lips and let out a long breath through his nose. "But his present condition isn’t what really concerns you, is it?"

"It does, but…" said Fíli; then he quieted himself and began studying the carved stone arch above the door.

"You are wondering if you and Kíli will go down the same path."

Fíli looked down at his feet and said nothing, though he nodded slowly.

"I honestly can't say if you will or not," said Balin. "All I can tell you is that so far, none of your kin have gone that way…" He shut his mouth tightly for a moment before going on. "None have gone that way before coming to power."

"What causes it, though?" asked Fíli anxiously. "Why the madness?"

"I wish I could tell you, lad."

Fíli’s thoughts drifted back to the image of his uncle clawing desperately through the gold in the treasure room. "Could it be the Arkenstone?" he asked suddenly and without thinking. "Perhaps the closer Thorin gets to it…"

He let his words trail off, then he sat down on the bed across from Balin and glanced around once more. If it weren’t for the thick layer of dust and ash, the room might well have been abandoned just that day. There were rocking-chairs by the fireplace and books on the mantle; toys cluttered the carpeted floor, and on a few of the beds were stacks of neatly-folded children’s clothing. Fíli could almost hear the sound of young voices ringing in laughter.  

"Did my uncle sleep here as a child?"

"No," said Balin. "A young prince wouldn’t have. Your father, on the other hand…"

Fíli looked over at him. "This was my father's nursery?"

"Well, maybe ‘nursery’ isn’t the right word," said Balin with a small shrug. "It wasn’t so much that as a playroom, really. Mothers would bring their children here, then sit and talk while their little ones played. My mother and Náli's were no different. He and I were not really friends in those young days, but after our escape from Smaug, we grew much closer."

"You knew him well, then?"

"Oh, yes," said Balin, nodding. "He was brave, loyal. Always quick to smile, yet fierce in battle. He was a protector, first and last, and he would never allow a soul to come to harm, if he could help it." He grinned and winked. "Very much like another young Dwarf I know."

Fíli swallowed hard. For most of his memory, Thorin had been the closest he and Kíli had had to a father. He'd taught them to fight, showed them how to patch up wounds, instructed them on how to set traps for wild beasts—it had been his voice that had first spoken to them in Khuzdul, his hands that first formed the Dwarvish sign-language of iglishmêk before their curious eyes.

Of their birth father, Náli, Fíli and Kíli knew little—except that he had died to the swords of orcs when they were both very young, and that his portrait hanging on their mother’s bedroom wall could have been one of Fíli himself, so alike did they look.

Fíli scratched the back of his neck. "You've never spoken of him before," he said. "Why are you telling me all of this now?"

Balin sighed. "You worry about the blood you have running through your veins. You worry that whatever has taken Thorin's mind will someday take yours. But you are not Thorin’s son; you are your father’s son. You look like him, you speak like him… you even fight like him."

"I am also my mother’s son," said Fíli, nearly in a whisper, "and her blood is the same as Thorin’s."

Balin let out a long and weary breath. "When your uncle was younger, he was… rash and reckless and bold," he said. "He never thought before he acted, he just did and said whatever he wanted to, regardless of what anybody else had to say about it. You are not like him, you never have been. I don't believe that when you become king you will…" He fell silent, his eyes darting back and forth for a moment; then he looked towards the door. "Come on in, laddie. No use pretending you aren’t there."

Fíli stood and watched as his brother stepped out of the shadows beyond the doorway. "I told you to go with Thorin," he scolded gently.

"I know you did," said Kíli, staring intently at him; then he looked to Balin and the two held each other’s gaze for a few seconds before he lowered his head and turned away. "Am I also my father’s son?"

"Yes, of course you are," said Balin, standing up. "He was—"

"And yet people are always telling me how alike Thorin and I are," Kíli interrupted. "Maybe I have gotten more from that side of the family than from my father. But then, I guess I won’t ever have to really worry about it." He gave Fíli a weak smile. "I’m never going to be king."

Fíli took a step towards his brother. "Kíli—"

Before he could say any more, however, he heard distant yelling. The three of them looked up as one, then ran into the passageway outside the room; and there they paused and listened as the sound became louder and more voices joined in.

"This way," said Balin, motioning for the others to follow him as he began running down a side corridor.

They made their way along the passageway and around several corners, until at last they reached the barricaded Gate. There they found the rest of the Company, now mostly dressed in old Dwarven armor, looking down at the crowd below.

"What is it?" asked Balin. "What is happening?"

Thorin, who was now in a chain-mail coat, spun around and glared at them. "I told you to ready yourselves for battle," he said, pushing past. "It is on our doorstep. Arm yourselves!"

When he disappeared from their sight, Fíli took Bofur by the arm. "What is going on?"

Bofur shrugged. "Honestly, I’m not really sure, myself."

"Where is Bilbo?" asked Balin, looking around.

Bombur—for whom, it seemed, Bofur had indeed managed to find a fitting coat of mail—pointed down past the barricade.

A chill ran up Fíli’s spine as, for a moment, he feared that the Hobbit had fallen; but when he joined the others in peering over the side he saw Bilbo standing before Bard and the Elvenking. The Hobbit was speaking to them, and he had his hands held out in front of himself, as if imploring them to stand down.

Fíli opened his mouth to again ask what had happened, but Glóin stepped up beside him and placed a hand on his arm before he could say a word.

"Bilbo…" Glóin began; then he exhaled sharply before going on. "He gave them the Arkenstone. He gave it to the Elves and Men."

Fíli very nearly gasped. "When did he find it?"

Balin stroked his beard thoughtfully. "There's no telling," he said, almost too calmly. "But, well… at least we know that it has been found."

Kíli shook his head. "But, why would Bilbo give it to them?"

"What does it matter why?" growled Dwalin. He turned to Balin and his hard eyes softened a touch. "You and the lads best go and get yourselves ready. Doesn't look like we'll be having a peaceable end to this."

Balin nodded stiffly and lowered his hand from his beard. "Very well," he said, spinning around towards the Gate. "Fíli, Kíli. Come with me. I’ll show you to the barracks."

Fíli still had more questions, but he knew it would do no good asking them now, so he followed after the older Dwarf and motioned for Kíli to come along, as well. The three got to the barracks in short time and Balin showed them a row of fine armor hanging from the wall. They each picked a suitable set and silently put them on, helping one another to tighten the straps to a snug fit; then Balin led them across the passageway to one of Erebor’s armories.

"Pick your weapons, lads," he said, pulling an ash-coated mace off one of the many racks lining the wall. "They’re all in good condition. All fine Dwarven workmanship."

Fíli grabbed two small blades and strapped them to his legs, then he spotted a long, two-handed axe and pulled it down. He looked it over and found that it was still sharp after more than a century of neglect, then he checked it for weight and balance.

"This should do just fine," he said somberly. "I hope I'll not need to use it, though."

"And this?" asked Kíli, holding up a sturdy short-bow.

"It fits your hand well," said Fíli. "But you may also want to get yourself a blade."

Kíli pulled a square-pommelled short-sword partway out of the sheath hanging on his chain belt. "I already have."

"And arrows?" asked Balin.

Kíli slid the blade back into its scabbard. "I was given some when I was at the Lake," he said. "They're in my pack down in the treasure room."

"Oh? Were they a gift from Bard?"

"From an Elf," said Fíli.

"From a friend," Kíli added quickly.

Balin raised an eyebrow. "Must have been a close friend, indeed. Elves are not inclined to part with such things." He ran his fingers along the haft of a longsword that still hung on the wall. "Your friend was not the prince, Legolas, I assume."

"Prince?" asked Fíli.

"Aye. Thranduil’s son. Legolas Thranduilion, as his folk would say properly. I recognized his name when I heard it spoken by the other Elves when they captured us."

"He was the one that saved us from the orcs in Laketown," said Kíli. "Along with Tauriel."

Balin hummed. "Yes, so you said. It was nice to hear. Gives hope that perhaps the friendship between our peoples will be renewed."

"In time, maybe," said Fíli. "But not today. Not if Thorin has any say in the matter."

"Thorin has every say in the matter," a gruff voice came from nearby, and they all looked up to find Dwalin standing in the doorway with an enormous mace in his grip. He shifted his eyes off to the side for a moment, as if in thought, then turned and walked into the passage. "Come along now," he said, his tone easing a bit. "He is waiting for us at the Gate."

Chapter Text

"Tell me, brother," said Balin as he and the younger Dwarves caught up to Dwalin. "What happened, exactly, with Bilbo? Did he say why he chose not to give Thorin the Arkenstone?"

Dwalin’s hand tightened on his weapon. "No," he growled.

"Well, there must be a reason."

"Who's to say?" snapped Dwalin. "He did it, and he no longer fights by our side." The corners of his eyes wrinkled for a moment, then he tilted his chin up and quickened his pace. "But if it comes down to battle, I expect the halfling’s neck to be the first one that Thorin’s blade finds."

As they neared the Gate, Kíli stopped and grabbed his brother by the arm, pulling him to a halt while Balin and Dwalin walked on into the daylight. From beyond the doorway angry words could be heard being bandied between Thorin and Bard, who was standing some distance below; and Kíli squeezed his brother’s arm in agitation, the pressure evident even through Fíli’s chain-mail sleeve.

"I don’t understand," said the younger Dwarf in a whisper. "The whole point of the quest was to recover the Arkenstone. Bilbo came with us all this way, fought by our sides. He is our friend, why would he betray us like this?"

Fíli looked to the side, watching on as Thorin walked back and forth along the ledge and cried out in a way that he had never done out of battle. The chain-mail he'd been wearing earlier was now hidden under gilded plate armor, which was adorned with intricate black ravens on pauldrons that were just barely visible under a fine fur mantle. On his brow rested the ornate battle-crown of Thrór; and though his hands were covered by jointed gauntlets, Fíli could see that they were shaking and clutching.

"Perhaps he didn’t see it as a betrayal," said Fíli under his breath.

"What, then?"

Fíli shook his head. "Go get your arrows," he said. "I have a feeling you’re going to need them."

Kíli let go of his arm, then backed away; and though Fíli listened to his brother run down the passageway behind him, his eyes remained on their uncle.

The Arkenstone was the whole purpose of the Company's journey, it was the one thing that Thorin sought above all else—and yet Bilbo felt it was better to give Thorin’s prize to the Elves than to the Dwarf to whom it rightfully belonged. Was he trying to force a peaceful resolution? Was it now to be a hostage for negotiations?

Or maybe, Fíli thought, Bilbo had seen something else in the light of the Arkenstone; something that Thorin, himself, had failed to see. Something that now compelled the Dwarf-king to stand behind a hastily-constructed barricade and cry down to the leaders of two besieging armies that he was prepared to defend his crumbling kingdom with a force of only thirteen.

Maybe it wasn’t a betrayal, but a mercy, thought Fíli. Maybe Bilbo saw the madness coming on, maybe he was trying to stay it. And if that madness comes with the rule of this kingdom, if it isn’t in the blood…

Footsteps grew near behind him, and he turned to see his brother fastening his gifted Elvish quiver to his back.

"Ready, then?" asked Fíli, composing himself.

"Ready enough," said Kíli; then he looked at Fíli curiously. "Are you alright?"

"I’m fine. Why?"

Kíli shrugged slightly, then joined the others on the ledge; and Fíli took a step forward, as well, reaching up as he did to push aside an errant hair he felt brushing against his cheek. His fingers came away wet, and he stared at them for a moment before heading out into the sunlight.

Behind the barricade, Thorin had stopped pacing and was now grasping the stone before him with one hand, while the other tightly gripped the hilt of his sheathed sword.

"I will make no deals with Elves at my doorstep," he bellowed. "Send them away and I may consider your offer."

Fíli stepped to the edge and looked over, and far below he saw that Thranduil was standing next to Bard in silence. Somehow, that only seemed to make Thorin more angry, and he again began walking back and forth behind the barricade. His eyes shifted up into the distance, and suddenly he stopped and turned back to the Company, grinning crookedly.

"He’s come."

"Who?" asked Balin, straining to look around his old friend. "Who has come?"

Thorin moved aside so the others could see what he had seen: an army of Dwarves, riding their great rams around the base of the Mountain.

"Dáin!" said Dwalin. "How did..?"

"I wasn't certain if any of the Ravens of the Mountain still lived," said Thorin, seemingly pleased with himself. "Or if any that did live still spoke. So I made arrangements with a swift messenger before we left Laketown. A promise of payment should he get a message to Dáin with all haste."

"And that promise of payment," said Balin, "do you intend to honor it?"

"I knew he would come if I called for him," said Thorin, ignoring Balin’s question.

A rush of heat rose into Fíli's chest. "You anticipated the need for an army? Even before the dragon was dealt with?"

Balin tapped his finger on the stone in front of Thorin. "Dáin said he would not come until you had possession of the Arkenstone."

"Yes," said Thorin, the corner of his mouth curling up. "Yes, that is what he said."

"You lied to him," said Fíli, raising his voice. "That's why he came. You told him you already had it."

Thorin spun around to his nephew. "I did have it," he yelled. "It was as good as in my hands, but for that… thief! That traitor halfling! I should have thrown him to the wargs!"

"He saved your life, Uncle," said Kíli. "He saved all our—"

Thorin gripped the back of Kíli’s neck and pulled him close. "To further his own ends," he said. "He had to get here to take what was mine, and he needed me alive to do that. He’d have left me to Azog if he had felt it served his purpose."

Without considering his actions, Fíli dropped his axe and grabbed Thorin by the elbow, then pried his fingers off of Kíli’s neck with the other hand. The younger Dwarf fell onto the stone floor and slid himself away from his uncle until his back hit the wall behind him; and Thorin wrenched his arm out of Fíli's hold, then drew his sword and pointed it at him.

"Do not touch me," he warned; and though his nephew raised his hands in acquiescence, still Thorin did not lower his weapon.

"Thorin!" yelled Balin. "Think about what you are doing!"

"You…" said Thorin, still speaking to Fíli. "You do not yet know the… burden…" His words, as well as his sword-arm began to falter, and he lowered the blade until the tip touched the stones at his feet. "Someday you will be king…" he repeated the words he had said to Fíli in Laketown, "and then you will understand."

Fíli glanced over at his brother, who had been helped to standing by Bofur and was now rubbing his neck where Thorin had gripped him.

"Understand what?" asked Fíli, reaching down to pick up his dropped axe—carefully and almost in fear that Thorin would see the action as a threat. "What am I supposed to understand, Uncle?"

The muscles in Thorin's neck tensed, and his eyes glinted with moisture. "After all this time, after all these years, we have reclaimed our home," he said, his voice unsteady. "I will not allow it to be taken from us again. Never again…"

"They are not here for our home," said Balin, resting a reassuring touch on Thorin’s shoulder. "They are here for our help."

Thorin looked over at him, then glanced from face to face as a terrible awareness appeared to come over him. He stumbled back and lost the grip on his sword, which clattered noisily to the stones, then he reached up and placed his shaking hands on either side of his head for a moment before letting them fall to his sides.

"It’s not too late to end this," said Balin. "Call down for negotiations. Have words with Bard. He is a good and honorable Man. He will listen."

"And what of the Elves?" asked Thorin. "They are neither so good, nor so honorable. Thranduil would have the Arkenstone and every jewel in the Mountain before he would stand down."

Balin opened his mouth, but before he could speak again there came a great commotion from below and the blowing of many horns; and Thorin bent over and picked up his sword, then spun around to the barricade. 

"Those are Dwarf horns," he said, looking over the stones.

"That will be Dáin's call to arms," said Dwalin. "He must have already given his challenge. He will not have taken the news of the Arkenstone’s theft lightly."

As the Company looked down, however, they did not see the standoff that they had expected. Instead, the three gathered armies—Dwarves, Elves, and Men—were looking off to the distant hills, where a dark mass was making its way low across the sky.

"What is that?" asked Glóin, squinting. "A flock of birds?"

Dori shook his head. "No… no, it’s a cloud," he said. "Isn't it?"

"Clouds don’t move like that," Glóin huffed.

"It is a cloud," said Thorin, narrowing his eyes. "But it's not natural. There's something… something odd about it…"

As they watched, the mass spread out across the sky over the hills, then made its way towards the Mountain. Most of the Company, save Thorin and Fíli, backed away from the barricade, watching on as a darkness first swallowed up Dale then creeped closer to the Gate of Erebor.

"How near will it come?" asked Ori fearfully.

Suddenly, someone below yelled out in alarm. Fíli looked from the cloud down to the now-darkened hill below it, and he could just barely see swift-moving figures jerking and jostling against one another as they swarmed over the ridge.

"Goblins!" he yelled, and the other Dwarves all rushed back to the barricade.

Dwalin tightened his jaw. "Those are mountain goblins. Come to revenge the death of their king, no doubt."

"There is something else at work here," said Balin, looking up at the cloud that now spread out infinitely above them. "Goblins travel best under darkened skies, but they don’t have the power to conjure such a thing."

"Who, then, is aiding them?" asked Thorin.

Above them, the cloud began to churn, then from it issued a shrill cry. Bifur threw his palms over his ears and glowered towards the sky, screaming out a curse in Khuzdul—and a second later they all heard the rushing of wind as a swarm of massive wide-winged bats plunged out of the roiling cloud.

The Dwarves all ducked and dodged the attacks, then they drew their weapons and started fending off the creatures. Bifur yelled again as he jumped atop the barricade and took a mighty swing with his boar-spear, hitting a bat with the broad blade and sending it, screeching and bloody, to the stones at Dwalin’s feet.

The winged creatures gathered together into what looked like a black whirlwind before moving away from the Gate and down towards the people below. There, they swirled and dashed in an immense cyclone, then spread out into a low shrieking mass before reforming into a whirlwind and making their way first to one group, then another.

Bofur reached up and pulled Bifur off the barricade, then kicked the dead bat. "Where did those beasts come from?"

"They aren’t doing much damage," said Balin with a shake of his head. "Not much use for—"

"For more than a distraction," Thorin finished for him.

He and the others looked back out into the distance, where they could see that the goblin vanguard had clashed with the Men at the furthest edge of the camp. It seemed that the goblins were already losing, though, as a great number of them had broken off and run to the south.

"I suppose they didn’t expect three armies to be waiting for them," said Dwalin.

"Let them run away," said Glóin. "The Elves’ arrows will find them easily enough."

Thorin leaned further forward. "They aren't running away," he said. "They’re circling back around."

Fíli looked and saw for himself that Thorin was right; but he could not understand the purpose of their maneuvering, nor the presence of the bats, until he looked back to the northwest and there saw a greater threat gathering on the ridge.

"Wargs!" he yelled; then he leaned over the barricade and screamed out to the people far below. "Orcs on wargs!"

Thranduil and Bard both looked up at him, then back to where he was pointing, and as one they drew their swords.

"Gundabad orcs!" growled Dwalin. "Hundreds of them!"

Thorin grabbed Fíli’s arm, pulling him back from the barricade. "Stay down," he warned. "Don’t give the Elves a clear shot at you."

"It is not the Elves we need to fear," said Fíli, shaking off his grip.

"We will be safe here," Thorin told him, his tone weakening. "In our home."

By now, the unnatural darkness had deepened, and though most of the Company dared to step forward and look down towards the growing battle, they could see little below them. Still, shock crossed their faces with the steadily-growing noises that rose up—the screeching of bats, the howling of wargs, the screams of dying men, the clinking of Elven steel on orc armor, the bellowing of Dwarven battle-cries cut short.

Kíli looked over at Thorin. "Uncle, will we do nothing?" he asked, fixing an arrow to his bowstring.

Thorin remained staunchly silent; and Fíli looked at Kíli, whose jaw was set though his hands were shaking. Fíli turned again to Thorin and lowered his voice. "You told me that when I became king I would understand the meaning behind your actions," he said. "Tell me, what does this mean? Will we let them all die? Even our own kin?"

"The Dwarves of the Iron Hills are well-armored, prepared for battle," said Thorin, looking at the staring faces all around him. "We are only thirteen."

Balin nodded. "Aye. But thirteen of the best."

The snarling of a warg just over the edge of the barricade brought everyone's attention around; but as the beast and its rider dared to leap over the stone, Kíli loosed his prepared Elvish arrow, which slid easily through the warg’s head and into the orc's chest, then both fell from sight.

Thorin smiled at him. "Well done."

Kíli offered a weak smile of his own, then nocked another arrow.

"The fight is coming to us!" said Dwalin as he leaned over the ramparts. He stepped to the side, then with all his strength shoved a massive stone from the top of the barricade. There came the sound of crashing, then a screech as the rock crushed an invader somewhere not so far below. "The Gate will not be any safer for us than the field if we wait much longer!"

"What shall it be, then?" asked Balin of Thorin. "One last battle?"

Thorin held up his sword and stared at the blade, then turned to his twelve companions and nodded. "One last time."

"Set to cast down the wall, lads!" cried Dwalin. "Let us give them a hard welcome!"

The Dwarves, needing no further urging, all stepped up to the barricade and set their hands on it. Thorin alone remained standing on the doorstep; and after a quiet moment, he reached out to Fíli, taking him by the arm and pulling him back.

"Listen…" he said, low enough for only his nephew to hear. "If, by chance… if the battle goes ill…" He stopped and swallowed hard. "Recover the Arkenstone and take command."

Fíli felt a visceral shock. "Uncle—"

"It’s your right," said Thorin, resting his hand on Fíli’s armored chest. "I chose you as my heir for a reason, Fíli… it's in your blood to rule our people, and I would have no one else rule in my stead."

What else is in our blood? thought Fíli; though the pleading expression on his uncle’s face warned him against asking. He nodded and turned towards the barricade, but Thorin pulled him back again.

"Take care of yourself," he said; then he looked at Kíli before leaning close to Fíli once more. "And your brother. Keep him safe."

"I will."

Thorin let go of Fíli, then glanced at the smashed Gate behind him. "It was nice," he said, smiling ruefully. "Being home."

Fíli lowered his head slightly, then the pair stepped over to the hastily-constructed rampart with the other Dwarves. There Dwalin and Balin stepped aside to allow Thorin between them as Fíli sidled up to his brother, who had slung his bow over his shoulder.

"Stay with me," said Fíli, setting his axe on the ground at his feet.

"I always have," Kíli returned.

Signaled then by a nod from Thorin, the Company pushed against the barricade. The stones scraped and ground against one another, then fell away and tumbled down and out of sight, and Thorin jumped atop the remains of the rampart and held his sword aloft.

"Du Bekâr!" he commanded, and all of the others took up their weapons. Thorin spared them each a glance, then drew in a deep breath and looked at the Battle below. "Baruk Khazâd!" he cried, then leaped off the stones and began the charge down the side of the Mountain; and without a moment of hesitation, the others followed him headlong into the fray.

Chapter Text

Kíli shouldn’t have been here. He should have been somewhere safe, somewhere far from war. He should not have been down on one knee, clutching at an injured leg with one hand and wielding an ancient sword in the other.

He needed shelter, rest, time to heal. But here, on the field before the Gate of Erebor, there was no shelter; and the only rest to be had were the scant few breaths drawn in between attacks. Here, there was no healing, only fresh wounds and old ones being reopened; and Fíli wished desperately that Kíli had listened when he'd told him it would be best for him to remain at the Lake.

***

Fíli glanced around at Laketown's survivors, who were setting up a camp on the shore where they could tend their wounded; then he turned to his brother and shook his head. "Stay with Bard's children for a couple days," he said, his voice low. "You can join us when we're sure everything is well at the Mountain."

Kíli tilted his chin up defiantly. "Are you afraid I'll slow you down, as well?"

"It's just… your leg is still healing. The long march could—"

"I'm coming with you. Even if I have to follow a mile behind."

"For once, do as you're told!" said Fíli; then he again looked around at the gathered Men and softened his tone. "You've been through enough already."

The hurt in his brother's eyes was palpable. "So, the King has spoken, then?"

"Kíli, don't… I'm not…" Fíli stammered, his heart sinking in his chest. "Listen… if Thorin and the others—"

"If they're dead, then we're going to find out together," said Kíli. "But they're alive! We both know that. They're waiting for us." He placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "We're going home, Fíli, and we're going together, like we always swore we would."

Fíli looked down at his brother's bandaged leg. "I also swore that I wouldn't let anything happen to you," he said, tightening his jaw. "And we don't know what lies between us and the Mountain."

"The dragon is dead." said Kíli, smiling wide. "Where's the danger?"

***

"Get up!" yelled Fíli, reaching down and pulling his brother roughly onto his feet. "We're not done yet!"

Kíli squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm fine… I was just trying to get a better angle."

His knees buckled, but he managed to stay standing; then he turned and drew his Dwarvish blade across the face of a lunging goblin. The creature fell to the ground, screaming and scratching at its sliced cheek, and Fíli swung wide with his great-axe, taking off its head.

"Keep your eyes open!" scolded Fíli; then he added, more quietly, "You're going to get yourself killed…"

After their unplanned charge from the Mountain, the Company had come at the enemy as a more-or-less solid wall of armor and blade; but after several minutes of being rushed by wargs and dived at by swirling mobs of bats, they had become separated. By some chance, Fíli and Kíli had managed to stay together and were now fighting the enemy back-to-back, with each scanning the battlefield ahead of them and to their own left sides—and though more than once Kíli had nearly missed an oncoming threat, he and Fíli had so far been able to handle whatever had come their way.

Around them, familiar faces darted in and out of view among the sea of strangers. On one side Fíli spotted Dori swinging wildly with his broadsword; then on the other he heard Dwalin's mighty battle-cry, and turned just in time to see him dispatch yet another invader. He even imagined that he'd caught a glimpse of Gandalf's grey hair above the crowd once or twice; but the thought passed quickly, as they hadn't seen the old wizard since entering Mirkwood.

In fact, of the members of the Company that Fíli knew were at the Mountain, the only one that he hadn't yet seen was Bilbo; and he hoped that he hadn't already fallen victim to the snapping jaws of some vicious warg or been carried off by one of the monstrous bats still circling overhead. The mithril armor Thorin had given him would certainly be some help, Fíli knew, but even that would not stop the flight of an orcish arrow aimed at the halfling's head.

"Alright, then?" Fíli called over his shoulder to his brother.

"Perfect!"

"Watch your flank!"

Kíli grunted as he thrust his sword into a warg's gut. "Watch your own!"

A movement at the edge of Fíli's vision brought his attention around; and as he spun about, he sank his axe blade into a leaping goblin's skull. The creature fell to the ground, jerking violently, and the Dwarf reached down and pulled the spear out of its twitching fingers. He thrust the weapon at a distant warg, missing it by a hairsbreadth; and at that moment he caught sight of another warg's great open maw on his right, where Kíli should have been defending. He turned to face off the attack, but the beast let out a guttural growl and fell dead at his feet.

Fíli looked to the side, expecting to see that Kíli had dealt the killing blow; but he instead saw his brother staring slack-jawed at the Elvenking, who was standing next to him in burnished armor and holding a finely-etched sword in his pale hand. Too stunned to speak, Fíli gave the Elf a stiff nod of thanks; and Thranduil lowered his head slightly in return, though his face remained impassive.

The Battle closed in again—and whether because he felt some kindred with fellow nobility, or because he believed that the young princes were incapable of properly defending themselves, Thranduil did not immediately leave their sides. While the brothers cut roughly into the enemies that came their way, the Elvenking's more deliberate movements dispatched several that were making for their flanks—and so the ranks of goblins immediately around them thinned.

Despite the danger at-hand, Fíli found himself marveling at the Elf-king’s fighting style, as jarringly different as it was from the way his own people fought. The disparity, he noticed, extended even to the different races' weapons—their craftsmanship, and how they were wielded.

Those weapons preferred by the Dwarves tended to be heavy and sturdy and strong; meant for drawing back hard and driving the enemy into the ground with pure force. Their heft meant, also, that they were usually slow to wield; though they were balanced in such a way that if a Dwarf missed on the first swing, they would come back around twice as hard to land an even more devastating blow.

By contrast, Elven weapons were like curved and delicate extensions of their own lithe bodies—and they never seemed to miss. Elves didn't feint or second-guess their attacks, needed no battle-cries to ready their hearts, and no twist of the hand or shrug of the shoulder was meaningless. It seemed, in fact, that despite their claims of being lovers of peace, the Elves of the Woodland Realm were born to war.

"My Lord!" a fine, clear voice came unexpectedly from off to Fíli's right; and he turned to see Tauriel breaking through crowd. "My Lord Thranduil!"

The Elf-maid held a long silver knife in one hand and her bow in the other; and unlike the other Elves on the field, who were more heavily armored, she wore the same green cloth outfit as she had when the Dwarves had last seen her, though with the simple addition of a leather chest-piece. As she ran near, she spun around and drew her blade across the neck of a diving bat, cleanly severing its head; then she turned back to her king, ignoring the headless beast flapping at her feet.

"Your son sent me to find you!"

All at once, the stoicism fell from Thranduil's face. "Is he safe?"

"Yes," said Tauriel, giving Kíli a brief glance. "He is with with the Dwarf Lord, Dáin. They are planning a strike against the warg-riding forces on the Northern Spur."

"Where are they?"

"The guard-post at Ravenhill." She slid her knife into its sheath and tilted her head toward the Dwarves. "By your leave, I will remain here."

Thranduil's eyes narrowed, then his gaze locked with Fíli's for a moment before he turned to the north and disappeared into the melee. As Fíli watched him go, an arrow slid through the air just in front of his face and he jumped back, then he heard the moaning of a struck orc. He watched as the creature fell to the ground; then he looked to Tauriel, who had nocked and loosed an arrow before the Dwarf had even noticed the approaching enemy.

"Good shot," he said, silently scolding himself for missing the threat.

"For an Elf," added Kíli with a small grin.

Tauriel turned in a circle, checking for more nearby enemies; then she came back around to Fíli's side. "An easy shot for anyone with skill," she said, smiling wryly as she pulled the arrow out of the dead orc and set it again to the string.

Kíli laughed. "Was that an insult?"

"I think it was," said Fíli.

The Elf turned her back to the two brothers, forming a triangle of defense with them, and as she surveyed the battle before her she spoke over her shoulder to Kíli. "What are you doing here? You're not yet fully healed."

"Healed enough, thanks to you."

She released her arrow and it went through the head of a goblin some distance in front of Kíli. Its raised hand dropped the spear it had been preparing to throw, then it fell to the ground, itself.

"Keep your eyes open!" she said.

"That's what I told him!" said Fíli, smiling crookedly.

"What are you doing here?" returned Kíli. "I thought you rode off somewhere with… what was his name, again?"

"Legolas," said Fíli.

He pulled his axe back and swung it hard at a goblin, splitting its chest open; and he only realized that he had come almost too close to Tauriel's head on his backswing when he saw her stand up from ducking beneath it.

"We came as soon as we were able," Tauriel answered, seemingly ignoring the near-miss.

"That's a good thing," said Fíli. "We can really use the help right now."

"Why? Everything appears to be going well!"

The Elf-maid returned the bow to her back and drew out her twin daggers, then sprinted some distance in front of Kíli. Lowering herself to a knee, she looked up, and a moment later, a goblin-ridden warg pushed through the crowd and leaped above her. She ducked down and thrust upward with one blade, cutting through the beast's belly before rolling aside to keep from being landed on. The goblin fell off its back, screeching, but she silenced it with a slice across the throat and ran swiftly back to the Dwarves' sides.

"I could have handled it," said Kíli.

"You didn't see it coming," Tauriel told him. "I did."

"That's one reason to keep lanky Elf-folk around," Fíli joked. "They can see above the crowd!"

"I suppose you could have taken him out at the knees," said Tauriel.

Fíli smiled a bit, surprised to find that he truly enjoyed having an Elf by his side in battle. Still, there was something in Tauriel's manner that made it seem as if she was neither so refined nor so experienced as the fair-haired Elvish nobles. She was still graceful, still thorough—but rougher somehow. It wouldn't have surprised Fíli to see her kick a downed enemy, or to use the string of her finely-curved bow to strangle one to death.

But she had yet to do either of those things—or any other such crude maneuvers—and despite her restrained bluntness, she maintained her people's water-like flow in everything she did on the battlefield. The Dwarves she was fighting beside were, by comparison, more like boulders tumbling down a mountainside: hard and indiscriminate, crushing any enemies that failed to get out of the way.

All at once, the attacks around them abated as a group of ram-riding Iron Hills Dwarves moved in their direction. At their vanguard was a particularly well-kitted-out Dwarf—doubtless one of Dáin's lieutenants—sitting atop a giant war-boar and holding aloft a spiked halberd. The Dwarves pounded through the enemy ranks, crushing several goblins under their mounts' weight, then they began stabbing their lances into the heads of the ones that were still standing.

With the platoon's presence, the surrounding enemy's attentions were drawn away, allowing the trio of defenders a chance to regroup; and Fíli remained on-guard while Tauriel searched the body-covered ground and pulled the arrows out of several nearby dead goblins.

Kíli, meanwhile, bent over to pick up his own bow, which he had been using as a makeshift shield until it had been knocked from his grip. He let out a moan as he struggled to stand up straight; then he lurched forward, falling onto his hands and knees. Tauriel and Fíli both reached over to help him stand, but he pushed them away.

"I'm fine," he grunted, pulling himself to his feet.

Tauriel looked down and her eyes widened. "Have you been hit?"

Fíli turned his attention down, as well, and saw a red puddle spreading out on the dirt below them. He followed the trail of blood to where it was seeping past the armor plates protecting Kíli's thigh and knee; then he looked at his brother's face, where pale skin peeked past hair that was curled with dirt and sweat across his forehead.

"Kíli?"

"It's nothing," the younger Dwarf said, gripping both his bow and sword tightly.

"If you don't rest, your leg won't heal," said Tauriel. "You shouldn't even be in battle yet."

Kíli groaned again, this time apparently out of frustration. "You sound like my mother…"

Tauriel gave him a smile. "I would take that as a compliment."

"You should," said Fíli.

"She has always been over-protective," said Kíli. "Like a couple other people I know."

"Perhaps one day I will get to meet her and tell her you said so," said Tauriel.

Fíli laughed. "I'm sure she'll return to the Mountain once it's been redecorated. Although I don't think she would care for an Elf coming to dinner!"

"She might," said Kíli, shrugging, "if Tauriel brought wine!"

Their throng of allies soon moved on, and the battle was rejoined when a few pursuing goblins decided that they would rather face off against the three lone defenders than follow after the mounted patrol. That turned out to be the goblins' mistake, as Fíli dug his axe into the neck of the first one that came near, then kicked it away and leaned over, picking up its dropped sword. He threw the weapon towards a larger enemy that was charging in his direction, and the orc fell back dead when the blade went through its eye.

Past where the creature had been, Fíli spotted a riderless warg bent over and snapping, and he was shocked to see that Nori was kneeling in front of it. He had his axe in-hand and was swinging it wildly at the beast, and just behind him lay Ori, bloody and unconscious on the ground.

Nori pulled his hand back and took a wide swipe at the warg; but it jumped aside, then snapped at him again, closing its mouth just before it would have sunk its teeth into the Dwarf's skull. Its muzzle hit him hard on the head and he was knocked onto the ground, his axe tumbling from his grip—but rather than leaving Ori's side to retrieve the weapon, Nori turned his back to the warg and positioned himself over his brother, lowering his head and sheltering Ori's body with his own.

Fíli cried out and rushed towards them, not waiting to see if his companions were going to join the charge, and as he went he reached down and pulled a shield off a dead orc. He swung it out in front of himself and slammed into the warg, and both of them fell over from the impact.

Though dazed, Fíli rose to his knees in front of the other Dwarves and held his shield and axe above them protectively; but the warg was barely able to regain its own footing before Tauriel ran up and sank her dagger deep into its gullet. It thrashed around, trying to howl past the blade, managing only a gurgling splutter; then Kíli thrust his own sword through fur and bone into its head. It fell to the ground, twitching, then lay still; and Kíli ripped his sword out of its skull while Tauriel slid her own blade out of its throat with ease.

With the immediate threat gone, Fíli dropped his axe and shield; then he turned around and grabbed the older Dwarf by the arm.

"Let him go, Nori!" he yelled, pulling back on him. "Let me see him!"

Nori looked up, the expression on his face a mix of fear and determination; but when he realized who was there, his stiffened shoulders relaxed and he released Ori. Moving to the side, he bumped against Tauriel's leg, and she helped him to his feet before resuming her guard.

"Are you hurt?" asked Kíli, likewise taking a defensive stance.

Nori didn't answer, but bent down and picked up his fallen axe with an unsteady hand, then drew his now-frayed eyebrows together. A gush of blood flowed from a fresh gash on his forehead, and he seemed not to notice as it coursed down his cheek, through his mustache, and over his shaking and parted lips.

"Is he alright?" he asked, his voice quavering. "Is he alive?"

Fíli placed a hand on his young friend's bloody temple. "Ori… can you hear me?"

The younger Dwarf blinked and mumbled something, then took a deep breath and fell silent.

Nori kneeled and touched the top of his brother's head. "Ori? Open your eyes now, alright…?" he said, and to Fíli's ears it sounded like pleading.

"We have to get him out of here," said Fíli; then he motioned towards the Mountain. "The Gate will be the safest place."

Tauriel turned to Kíli for a moment, then she sheathed her knives. "I will take him," she said, leaning over and lifting Ori in her arms. "I will return as soon as I can."

She shifted Ori's head onto her shoulder, then glanced one more time at Kíli before making her way towards the Mountain. Nori ran on ahead of her, clearing the way with his black-splattered axe, and after they had vanished from sight, Fíli grabbed his own axe and shield off the ground and stood as the battle once more closed in around him and his brother.

By now, the cloud-laden sky had darkened even further; and the goblins, emboldened by the fading light, were screaming viciously as they threw themselves at the Dwarves. With each swing, Fíli's axe grew heavier in his hand, and more and more he found himself needing to use his orc-shield to block blows that, earlier in the day, the enemy would not have been able to get close enough to land.

Over his shoulder, he could see that Kíli was still standing; though his own, lighter weapon was slowing just as Fíli's great-axe was. A few times, the younger Dwarf had leaned back against his brother, then pushed forward again and continued the fight, and Fíli did not need to look to know that Kíli was still losing blood from the wound on his leg. He would need to get off the battlefield soon; and so Fíli decided that when Tauriel came back, they would bring him to safety—even if it meant dragging him, kicking and screaming, to the Gate.

More time passed, though, and the Battle deepened, and still Tauriel did not return. Fíli felt a moment of worry for her, but that was all he could afford before his thoughts were pulled back to the escalating fight. Each goblin now seemed to be bringing two more after it, and there was nothing except a roiling sea of red-splattered green and grey faces all around them and a hill of black-gushing bodies at their feet.

Without warning, Kíli let out a yell; and with the bloodshed now blurring his mind, Fíli could not tell if it was one of alarm or pain. He slammed his shield into the face of a charging orc, knocking it to the ground, then he spun around to his brother.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"Thorin!"

Fíli searched the area for their uncle, but Kíli took off running; and after a few seconds of confusion, Fíli started after him. He sliced open the head of a warg that his brother had managed to slide past, then his eyes were drawn to where Thorin, just barely visible past a large boulder on the battlefield, was standing up against three goblins. They were all coming in at him from the front with their dirty spears, which glided ineffectually off his already orc-blood-splattered plating, and they were leaping about like mice evading a cat.

Although Fíli and his brother knew well their uncle's abilities, and so knew he wouldn't have any problem with these smaller foes, Kíli still pushed his way through the melee towards him. In Fíli's racing mind, he imagined Kíli running full-force into a goblin's spear, or failing to dodge an ally's blade; and so he drew in a breath, preparing to yell out for his brother to slow down so that they might fight their way to Thorin's side together. But a gap in the crowd ahead gave Fíli a suddenly better view, and he felt a jolt in his chest. 

Some distance away and to the right, tall atop his white warg, Azog the Defiler was making for the Dwarf-king's back. The giant orc shook with what may have been laughter, then he leaned over and said something to his beast. Apparently urged on by his words, the warg sprung forward, and Azog held his great mace out to the side, readying it to strike.

Chapter Text

Gathering his strength, Fíli quickened his pace and caught up to Kíli, and together they screamed out to their uncle. Thorin swiftly cut the legs out from under one of the goblins bearing down on him before looking towards his nephews, then he began to turn to where they were frantically motioning—but the warning had come too late.

Through the melee that had thickened between them, Fíli saw Azog swing his weapon down, hitting Thorin dead-center of his back and sending him sprawling onto the ground. The Dwarf-king's sword flew from his grip and the two remaining goblins jumped on him and started thrusting their spears into every gap they could find in his armor. With great effort, he rolled onto his back and the goblins tumbled to the side; then they leaped onto his chest and stabbed at him again.

Prompted by its master, the white warg stalked over to Thorin and reared up, sending the goblins skittering away; then the beast came down hard and dug its claws into the space where the Dwarf's chest-piece had been forced aside by the goblins' spears. A burst of blood from Thorin's side coated the warg's paw, and the pale orc bared his teeth in a wide smile as he leaned forward, encouraging his mount to step down harder.

A moment later, Kíli broke through the mass of combatants and thrust at the warg's neck with his Dwarvish blade, and the metal slid through white fur and skin, sinking deep into the muscle. The animal howled in pain and stumbled to the side, yanking the weapon out of Kíli's hand, then it threw its head forward and hit his armored chest, knocking him to the ground beside Thorin. The warg's throes caught Azog off guard and he dropped his mace, instead gripping the fur on the warg's neck to keep himself from falling as it stumbled, howling and gnashing, away from the Dwarves.

Their enemy thus distracted, Fíli struck next, running forward with all the speed he could muster and slamming his shield against the warg's side, as he had done with the one that had been attacking Nori and Ori—but this time it seemed that he had run full-force into a stone wall. The collision jarred him, knocking the air from his lungs, and he felt burning in his left elbow where it had struck against the metal.

Shaking off the shock of impact, he dropped the shield and took up his great-axe in both hands, wincing at the new pain in his arm. He swung down hard, and though he was now aiming at Azog, the warg's jerky movements instead sent the edge of the blade deep into its own flank. Fíli twisted the axe out of the animal's flesh, then again raised it to strike the rider; but before he could carry through, Azog reached down with his freed hand and grabbed Fíli by the throat.

The Dwarf was lifted off his feet, the axe falling from his grasp, and he began clawing uselessly at the orc's grip; then, somewhere past the new ringing in his ears, he heard his own name being screamed out. Just barely on the edge of his darkening vision, Fíli saw his brother crouching over Thorin with his short bow held out in front of him, nocking one of his last Elvish arrows.

Bellowing out something in his foul language, Azog swung the captive Dwarf out to protect himself from the oncoming attack, and Fíli closed his eyes, hoping the orc's tactic wouldn't stop Kíli from taking the shot. And so it didn't, as the warg snarled and howled, then it jerked suddenly and was silenced; and at the same moment, a searing pain passed just below Fíli's already injured elbow, then the pale orc roared as they both fell to the side, hitting the ground hard.

The steel grip loosened and Fíli rolled away, coughing and fighting for breath; then he climbed weakly to his knees and pressed a hand to the fresh wound on his arm. The edges of his vision lightened and he looked up, expecting to see Azog coming at him again, but the orc was instead kneeling by his now-dead warg, running his hand along its neck almost gently. The beast had a trickling hole in the top of its head, and the Elvish arrow that had both killed it and sliced Fíli's arm was now lodged between the ribs on the giant orc's right side.

After a moment of what might have been mourning over his fallen mount, Azog stood up and pulled at the arrow, tearing it out of his flesh and throwing it to the ground; then he bent down and picked up his mace before turning to Kíli. The young Dwarf was setting his last arrow to his bowstring, and beside him Thorin lifted his head weakly, then lowered it again to the ground—and when Kíli looked over at his uncle, Azog bounded forward.

"No…" said Fíli, barely whispering; then he found his voice and called out louder, "Kíli!"

Azog lifted his mace into the air, and Kíli spun back around to him and released. The arrow struck the orc in the thigh, stopping him in mid-stride—and Fíli took this chance to reach down and pull out the parrying dagger he had strapped to his leg, then he lunged ahead, digging the blade into Azog's belly and twisting hard.

The orc let out a howl of pain and anger, but the mace still remained tight in his grip, and he took another giant step towards Kíli and kicked him hard in the center of his chest, sending him onto the ground some distance behind Thorin. He then turned towards Fíli and lifted his weapon high above his head, and the Dwarf dropped to a knee and shifted half-away, preparing to dodge the strike—but it wasn't the blow of a heavy mace that hit him.

There came sudden pressure on the right side of the nape of his neck, and he saw a flash of light, then at once it felt as if his head was bathed in fire. His knees left the ground and his feet followed, then flames seemed to burst from the back of his head and flow down his spine; and somehow, past the pain and shock, Fíli realized that one of the spikes on Azog's clawed arm had pierced his scalp and skull, and that he was being hoisted off the ground like a deer on a skinning-hook.

With trembling, blood-slicked hands, Fíli tried to reach behind himself to get a hold on the metal limb—but Azog shook him hard, and his arms went numb and fell to his sides. He tasted salt and iron flowing over his tongue, then the orc shook him again. His back arched and the pain moved deeper, and soon both his spine and lungs began to burn.

The sensations were beyond any Fíli could recall, but he was unable to cry out against them. He tried to force himself to breathe, but his own weight was pulling him down, and the extension of his neck stopped the air at the top of his throat. His body started to jerk as it begged for breath, and the sharpened tip of Azog's curved claw scraped against the inside of his skull.

Cracked glass closed in on the edges of his vision, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he waited for the spike to tear completely through and send him crashing to the ground. But it didn't tear through, and from somewhere far away in the darkness, he heard Kíli again call out his name.

…Run… Fíli thought; the word echoing in his slowing mind. …Run…

Then, without warning, Fíli was wrenched to the side. He heard a sickening crunch and felt the metal slide out of his head, and for a moment the world vanished around him; then it rushed back in with a painful jolt as his back hit something hard. He fell again and dirt flew up into his mouth and eyes as the shock of impact on his chest forced them open.

For a few seconds he lay with his face on the ground, breathing in air that was now as thick as water in his lungs, then he watched the darkness slowly fade from his vision. At last, some small bit of strength returned and he lifted his head, but as he did, he heard himself scream. It was only after the sound had faded that he felt the pain again seize the deep and vicious wound at the back of his skull, and he shut his eyes once more.

Thick, gritty blood flowed past his parted lips, but he couldn't spit it away. It coursed down his throat and he choked, biting back another scream as he looked up; and through dust-filled, watering eyes, he could see that Azog was stalking towards where Thorin now kneeled. The Dwarf-king had his head lowered, and suddenly he leaned forward and pounded the ground with his fist—and Fíli could then see that his uncle was bent over Kíli, who was lying still as a stone on the ground.

A desperate fear hit Fíli and he tried to call out, to warn his uncle about Azog's approach, but his voice was stuck with the blood in his throat. He climbed painfully to his knees, then willed himself to stand; though he managed only a single step before his legs gave out beneath him. He landed hard on his hands and knees, and his left arm folded under him as pain traveled from his twisted elbow to his shoulder; and he pressed the weakened arm to his chest and began to crawl towards his uncle and brother, heedless of the dead all around him and the fighting still at-hand.

Thorin let loose with a furious scream, and Fíli froze and watched on as his uncle grabbed a fallen spear off the ground and stood, shaking with rage.

"Azog!" he cried out, glaring at his enemy.

The orc halted, then tilted his head down. "Torin undag Train-ob," he said, his tone mocking. "Rani Khozdil." He laughed deeply, then bounded forward.

The Dwarf-king held the spear out in front of himself and lunged ahead, as well, thrusting the serrated blade at his adversary's face; but Azog lifted his mace, blocking the blow with ease. The orc stepped to the side and swung out at Thorin with his clawed hand, and the Dwarf lurched forward and the sharpened metal missed his flesh, though the limb itself struck his head and he fell to his knees.

Azog pulled back his mace again while Thorin raised the spear, and the orc's heavy weapon snapped the shaft and struck Thorin where the chain-mail was now exposed at his ribs. Thorin's side appeared to collapse in with the impact and he flew sideways onto the ground, then did not move.

Fíli stared at him for a few breaths; but though he feared for Thorin and wished to help him in some way, he knew he would not be able to do a thing in his defense when he could not even stand. But Kíli—he could get to him, at least. He could wake him, tell him to get off the field, order him to get to safety. And so he continued to crawl towards his brother.

Somehow, even with so many others still fighting near them, the movement brought Azog's attention back around. He started again towards Fíli, but as he stepped past Thorin, the Dwarf-king rose to his knees; and with what seemed like a final burst of energy, he drew back the snapped spear that he still had in-hand and thrust upward with all the force he could manage.

The blade cut through Azog's back, then burst out of his chest with a sickening spray of orcish flesh and blood. Azog cried out viciously and swung around with his mace, striking Thorin on the side of his head and sending him spinning to the battlefield; then he dropped his weapon and clutched at the spear-head that still stuck out from his chest. Black blood seeped through his white fingers and an expression of shock and rage crossed his scarred face.

The blow might well have been a killing one, but when Azog looked back over at Fíli with furious eyes, the young Dwarf knew that the orc's death would not come soon enough to save him from his own. Despite the gushing wound, Azog took several great steps forward; and still, Fíli's fingers grasped at the dirt as he continued crawling towards where Kíli lay.

Azog raised his claw and Fíli lowered his head; but instead of the strike he was expecting, he heard a mighty growling and the stomping of heavy feet nearby. He painfully looked up and to his right, and there he saw Azog locked in battle with a giant black bear.

…Beorn…

What the skin-changer was doing in the middle of this war, Fíli couldn't tell; and neither did it matter. He had drawn Azog's attention, and in doing so had given Fíli the chance to crawl the last few painful yards to his brother's side.

Once there, Fíli lifted himself up onto his knees, but a sick sensation rose up in his stomach and he bent over against it. With the motion came another wave of burning from his neck to the base of his spine, and his head began to throb. His hands clenched, then fell open feebly; and a few raspy breaths later, the pain eased a bit and the movement returned to his fingers, and he reached up with his uninjured arm to take hold of the edge of Kíli's armor.

…Come on… he thought, unable to speak past his swiftly-swelling throat. He shook his brother gently. …Get up…

Fíli pulled himself closer and looked into his brother's ashen face. A trickle of thick blood had begun to fall from the corner of Kíli's pale and parted lips, but it no longer flowed from whatever wound had borne it; and though the searing in Fíli's spine began to grow again and his heart trembled in his chest, he could not look away from Kíli's soft brown eyes as they stared blankly towards the leaden sky.

…No… please… wake up…

He released his grip on his brother's armor and carefully slid his hand beneath Kíli's head; then he stopped, his veins running cold when he felt the bones in Kíli's neck scrape and grind together under his touch.

…No… no, please… Kíli, please… He drew his shaking hand out and placed it on Kíli's cooling cheek. …Don't do this…

Tears gathered in Fíli's eyes and he gasped for air; then a spasm hit his back, arching it. His gut turned and lights flashed in his vision, and he stiffened for a moment before his muscles loosened and he fell hard across Kíli's chest. His body went limp then, and he found that he couldn't move, even to blink, as he stared towards where his uncle lay on the battlefield.

But he could still feel everything—every pain, from his sliced and twisted elbow to his pierced skull; and his slack body pulled down on his already-burning spine, extending it to the point where he felt as if he might tear in two. Blood trickled down his swollen throat and he could not cough it away, while more flowed from his mouth and pooled around his cheek where it lay atop his brother's cold and dented armor.

Nearby, the battle still raged; but closer than the sound of steel-on-steel were the growls of the two giants in combat. Just out of sight, Azog screamed something that Fíli could not understand, then came a sound like the snapping of a large tree branch. From the corner of his eye, he saw the bear stalk into view with the orc's limp body clutched between its teeth.

Beorn dropped his kill to the ground, then let out a ferocious roar before moving to Thorin's side. He stopped next to him and bent over, sniffing, and the Dwarf-king tried weakly to grasp at the bear's fur, but his strength failed him and his arm fell back to his side.

…He's alive… Fíli thought, finding some small comfort in that, despite all else.

Thorin beckoned feebly for the skin-changer to come closer, and Beorn did so, twitching his ears as if listening. Whatever Thorin said, the bear must have understood, as Beorn then rose up onto his hind-legs and looked across the battlefield; then he dropped back down onto all fours and made his way to where the younger Dwarves lay.

He sniffed at Kíli, then lowered his head and wrapped his teeth gently around his plated arm, shaking him. Beorn let go and growled low as he sniffed him again before walking around behind Fíli, who felt a hot burst of air on the wound on the back of his head. A moment later something slid between the brothers; and though Fíli's mind told him to cling to Kíli, he could not keep what he now realized was a great paw from separating them.

Fíli's body ached and burned as the bear flipped him onto his back, but still his limbs were loose, his eyes fixed open. Beorn batted at him with his paw and scratched his claws across the armor that covered his chest, then nudged Fíli's cheek with his muzzle. The Dwarf's head rolled to the side, towards Kíli, then he felt the great paw batting at his pained left elbow.

Beorn walked around to the other side of Kíli and lowered his face, once more looking into Fíli's eyes, and it seemed to Fíli that the skin-changer was not as certain of his fate as he was of Kíli's. But whatever small signs of life remained in him, Beorn did not see. He growled almost mournfully, then turned and walked back towards where Thorin lay. Fíli could no longer see his uncle on the ground past his brother's face, but Beorn was large and remained in view, and Fíli watched as the bear stood up on his hind-feet and looked in the direction of the Mountain.

He lowered himself back down, but the next moment he rose again, and Fíli saw that he now held Thorin in his giant arm and was pressing him protectively to his chest. Beorn then turned towards the Gate and bounded out of sight, leaving the brothers—dead and dying—behind on the battlefield. 

Chapter Text

After the great bear made its way out of Fíli's sight, the world seemed to slow around him. Though air still flowed softly past his lips, he couldn't feel it filling his lungs—and any moment now, he told himself, those fragile breaths would fail; then his heart would cease its beating and his mind would dull, and the pain would melt away.

Yet the hurt from Fíli's wounds was already faint and distant next to the pain of knowing that Kíli had died while trying to save him. The younger Dwarf's arrows had all been spent, and so he must have rushed at the giant orc with his sword drawn; but Azog's reach was greater than Kíli's own, and the heavy mace had struck him, shattering his neck before he could even get close.

Fíli didn't want that sacrifice to be in vain. He wanted to stand, to take up arms, to protect those of his allies that fought on. He wanted to force the enemy back into whatever holes they had crawled out of. He wanted to live just long enough to see the Battle's end, and to then bid his friends and what was left of his kin farewell

But more than that, he wanted to reach out to Kíli, to hold him close as he had when they were children—the elder brother protecting the younger from the nightmares that had woken him. He wanted to tell him that the evil things he saw in his dreams weren't real, and that the sun would soon rise and chase away whatever monsters were lingering in his imagination.

And still he lay frozen on the ground, listening on as Dwarves and Elves and Men fell all around him; and in his wavering thoughts, he tried to comfort himself with the knowledge that if he did have to die, at least it would be by his brother's side—at least Kíli's face would be the last thing he saw before the world went dark.

…Wait for me, Kíli… I won't be long…

His heart beat reluctantly and weak against his ribs as time trickled past, and from the corners of his fixed-open eyes, Fíli watched enemies and allies alike rushing around madly. He heard the clash of iron on shield somewhere nearby, then a jolt of fire worked up his neck and spine as someone tripped over his shoulder. The Man fell to the ground, then scrambled off; and slowly the stinging in Fíli's back eased, though the wound on his head still burned and his elbow felt like someone was twisting it out of joint.

…The pain will be gone soon… he thought; then he turned his mind back to Kíli. …Won't it?

The sky behind the pervasive cloud darkened, and with evening nearing, the goblins' savage screams redoubled. Close at hand, one such scream was cut short, then the creature fell, gurgling and lurching, over the Dwarves' legs. It jerked and thrashed, and warmth spread on Fíli's shin where the goblin's blood was seeping past the joins of his leg plating.

Fíli's own blood had stopped trickling down his still-swollen throat some time ago, though he wasn't sure if that meant the wound was healing, or if his heart had slowed to the point where it could no longer push the blood from his body. His airway was sticky and half-closed, and as the goblin stilled atop his legs, his throat seized up. His breathing stopped suddenly, and his eyes darkened at the corners and spots danced before them; then his shallow breaths returned and his vision lightened, and past Kíli's face he could see black shapes moving against the distant charcoal grey sky.

…More bats…

As the shapes became more clear and distinct, however, he saw that they were not moving like the war-bats that had attacked earlier that day. Those had gathered together in tight, reeling spirals, flapping and screeching and dashing; while these were gliding in great, graceful circles on high. The creatures moved up into the clouds, then moments after the last vanished from sight they dove back out—only now there were a great many more of them, and as they plunged towards the earth they unfurled their vast wings and spread away from each other over the battlefield.

Somewhere past the noise of combat, a small voice called out, then others joined in, until at last hundreds of defenders were crying that the eagles had come. Fíli would have smiled then, remembering what easy work the great birds had made of the orcs and wargs at their last encounter; but as it was, he could only wonder what had brought them around this time. Had they been following the goblins all the way from the Misty Mountains? Did the Elves have secret ways with them? Could they smell the blood, even from so great a distance?

Whatever it had been, like Beorn's presence, they were a gift. Morale was bolstered and battle-cries rose up from the mouths of nearby Dwarves and Men as the eagles swooped down over the valley, grabbing goblins in their sickled talons and dashing them back to the ground. A snarling warg came near to the brothers, with its face turned towards the sky. It leaped up and Fíli felt a rush of wind from an approaching eagle's wings, then a giant open beak came into view and the warg was gone.

So it continued for many long minutes as the tide of battle turned. How many orcs, goblins, and wargs the eagles gutted and how many were just dropped to their deaths, there was no way to tell; but steadily the sounds of fighting lessened even as the smell of blood increased. Not so far away, Dwarves laughed heartily as Men cheered and Elves proclaimed victory. The nearby screeching of the eagles began to drift away, though wargs howled and orcs roared in anger from some distant place. Running feet made their way past as the defenders chased down their last remaining enemies; then the silence on the battlefield grew until at last there were no more yells, eagle-cries, or dying gasps to be heard close-at-hand.

…I guess we won, Kíli… a little late, but still…

"Those are Thorin's kin," a vaguely familiar voice suddenly spoke up; and in Fíli's shock, it took him a moment to recognize it as belonging to Thranduil's son. A moment later, the fallen goblin was lifted off of Fíli's legs and he heard its body hit the ground. "Check them."

Slim, old fingers moved into view, touching Kíli's throat. The gnarled hand then slid behind Kíli's neck; and when his head shifted unnaturally to the side, Fíli heard the soft gasp of an old Woman.

"This one is dead," a kind, though gravelly female voice said. "Has been for quite some time, I think."

Fíli's chest jolted when he heard those words—though it was merely a confirmation of what he already knew to be true.

"And the other?" asked Legolas.

The Woman's hand touched Fíli's face and turned it towards the sky, then the silver-haired stranger looked deep into his eyes as she placed a pair of shaking fingertips to his neck. She pressed harder for a few seconds; then she squinted as if in concentration, deepening the wrinkles on her dirty forehead.

"Does he live?" the Elf urged.

The old Woman shook her head slowly. "No."

…Look closer… Fíli thought, hoping still that his brother's death hadn't been for nothing. …I'm breathing…

Legolas stepped into view above him; and Fíli could see that, like Tauriel, he was wearing the same thin and simple Elvish clothing as he had been on the Lake. The lack of greater protection had apparently not done the prince any harm, though his fair hair was tousled and his face was streaked with black blood. But there was also a strange sadness and deep worry in his blue eyes—and while Fíli was sure that it was not for him and his brother, he hoped that nothing had happened to either Thranduil or Tauriel that might have brought such a troubled look to the Elf's ageless face.

"Then we must leave them," said Legolas after few seconds of silent staring; then he shifted to the side and looked into the distance. "Now come. A group of orcs have turned to the south. We must catch them before they get too far." 

He spared the Dwarves another glance, then he left Fíli's line of sight; though as he ran off, the old Woman remained kneeling, peering deep into Fíli's eyes.

…I'm still here… can't you see?

Legolas called out to her again; and she stood with a grunt—and only then did Fíli see a frightful gash across the front of her ill-fitting leather cuirass. She bowed her head as she backed away, then Fíli and his brother were left alone once more. 

As Fíli stared up in forced stillness, the pervasive black cloud overhead drifted off, apparently having been released from whatever spell that had been holding it there. Lighter, swift-moving clouds appeared much higher in the sky, blocking out patches of starlight, and once in a while sliding in front of the moon and dipping the area into a deeper darkness.

Before long, a frigid breeze started to blow in from the north; and though it froze him, Fíli could not shiver off the cold that now worked through his body. The chill and exhaustion soon took full hold, and blackness pushed in at the edges of his vision as his thoughts began to fade into a haze—and he couldn't tell if it was death or sleep taking him until he fell into a dream.

***

Brilliant yellow light shone all around Fíli, flaring out from torches and braziers, and reflecting blindingly off the shifting gold. And there in the midst of it, Thorin still searched, dug, clawed at the treasure beneath him.

Unsure why, Fíli fell to his own knees before his uncle and raked his fingers through the piles of recovered wealth. Pushing aside what he now believed were useless baubles, he uncovered the chest-piece of a gleaming set of armor; then the dunes of gold and gems all around began to fall away.

Up from underneath them rose first his brother's gilded body, then more and more dead. He stood, watching as Dwarves, Elves, and Men appeared at his feet—all lifeless, all shining as if they were coated with molten gold.

Fíli looked over to see Thorin still kneeling, though he was now staring at his nephew's hands and smiling softly. Fíli turned his eyes to his own cupped palms, and he could not draw his gaze away from the bright, pulsating stone he now held—a stone that could have been born of the stars, themselves.

***

"…Is anybody out there?"

The voice had come from somewhere in the waking world, and Fíli felt himself inhale deeply. A pain in his chest brought him fully back around, and as his vision returned he could see that the sky above was overcast again, though this cloud was whiter and looked altogether more wholesome than the one that had descended on the Mountain hours before.

He was now desperately cold, though the numbness in his fingertips and face was doing nothing to help ease the burning throughout his body; and despite his gasp, the only movement he could now feel was the air that slowly passed his lips—and even that he wasn't sure was his own breath or the winter breeze on his face.

"Anybody?" the quavering, heartsick, familiar voice called again. "Can anybody hear me?"

…Bofur?

"If you can't speak… if you can hear us at all, try to move," Balin spoke up after him; and Fíli felt a brief rush of warmth in his chest with the knowledge that at least two of the Company had made it through to the end of the Battle. "Just try to let us know you're out there!"

"We'll see you…" Bofur went on, his voice cracking. "Anybody?"

Fíli could tell from the tone of their calls that they had not found as many survivors as they had hoped. He wanted desperately to cry out, to raise his arm, to let Balin and Bofur know that he was alive; but still he could not speak, and his hand remained at his side. 

Even so, Bofur shouted out in alarm; then his footsteps ran near, and he fell to his knees beside the brothers. He leaned over them and Fíli could see that his face was bloody, though white streaks cut through the red, marking the path of many tears that must have fallen since the Battle's end.

"No… no! Please… come on, lads… please…"

He ran his fingers frantically over Fíli's cheek and down to his neck; then his brow furrowed and his chin began to shake. He turned to the side, and must have then checked Kíli, as it was only a few seconds later that all traces of hope fell from Bofur's eyes. Fresh tears coursed down his cheeks, and he pulled the hat off of his head and closed his eyes as he lowered his face.

…It's alright… Fíli thought, feeling the need to ease his friend's mind. …It's alright…

Balin limped up behind Bofur and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I… I had hoped…" the older Dwarf said haltingly; then he closed his eyes before going on. "I had hoped that he was wrong."

…He? Fíli thought. Who was Balin speaking of? Legolas? Beorn, back in Man form? Had Thorin lived long enough to say that he had seen his nephews fall?

"We have to go," Balin went on. "There are still survivors to be found. There must be."

Bofur placed a palm on Fíli's brow. "We can't just leave them here," he said. "We should bring them to the Gate."

"And we will, but it would be no respect to them if we let others die in the meantime. Gloin and Bifur… and Bilbo… and so many others may have survived. We should try to find them, if we can."

…Find them… please… just find them…

"We'll return for the…" Balin went on, but the words faded from his lips. "We'll return for the lads when that task is done."

Bofur nodded slowly and returned the hat to his head; and after a few heavy breaths he struggled to his feet, then stepped out of view. A second later, Fíli heard him again calling out for survivors—but now his voice seemed thinner somehow, weaker and even more weary.

Balin remained standing over the brothers and watched him go; then he fell to his knees and pressed his hands to his eyes. And Fíli realized then that his old friend had been trying to keep his composure for Bofur's sake, trying to give him strength when Balin had, in fact, lost his own. But even an old soldier could not forever hold in the grieving.

He lowered his hands from his face and leaned over, and warm tears fell on Fíli's cheek as their foreheads touched; then Balin turned to Kíli and bent over him, as well. As he sat back, Balin reached out to move the hair off of Fíli's bloody cheek, and the younger Dwarf caught the faint smell of kingsfoil on his hand. It was likely that he had left in the middle of his own healing to seek out survivors, Fíli knew; and perhaps it had been receiving word of Fíli and Kíli falling that had drawn him up, and urged him back onto the field.

"You… you are your father's son," said Balin softly. "He looked just the same when…" He paused, pursing his lips; then his rough fingers eased Fíli's eyelids shut. "I suppose it is a blessing, in a way, that you left this world as yourself. But I just… I know you would have been a fine king."

…A fine king… Fíli's own thoughts echoed; and he was ashamed that he was thinking those words bitterly. …Like Thorin… like Thrór…

Fíli's left arm was moved and a pain travelled up from his elbow to his shoulder, but it eased when he felt his palm being placed against his brother's own.

"Together, to the last," said Balin, choking on the words. "I will return to Ered Luin and tell your mother, myself. She should hear it from… " His broken voice trailed off. "She wanted you to stay home, you know. She wanted you to be safe. She said you were too… you were just too young to be here. She was right. Bless her… she was right."

As Balin spoke, a cloth was draped over Fíli's face; and with it came an even stronger scent of kingsfoil, as if the fabric had served as a sachet for the dried and ground herb. Although his breaths were shallow, the same rush of energy ran through Fíli's body as it had when Tauriel had steeped the kingsfoil in boiling water at Bard's home; but it did nothing more than warm his lungs, and though he felt a bit stronger in will, still he could not move or breathe any deeper.

"Balin!" Bofur called out from far away.

There was a shuffling sound as Balin stood. "What is it?" he hollered back, clearing the sadness from his own voice. "Have you found someone?"

"It's Bifur!" Bofur cried. "Come quick!"

Balin's limping steps ran off. "Is he alive?" he yelled; but whatever answer the other Dwarf had to give was too low to hear. 

…She wanted you to stay home… she wanted you to be safe… Balin repeated in Fíli's mind after his footsteps faded. …Just too young to be here…

Those words had been meant for Kíli, he knew, not for himself.

Kíli was the one that their mother worried about, he was the one that she had always said was too young—too young to drink, too young to smoke, too young to go hunting. She had always made him promise to be careful when her sons went anywhere without her, and she had always made Fíli promise to bring his brother home safely. This most recent adventure had been no different, though her warnings had been more dire, and her reluctance to allow Kíli to go had been far greater.

"It is their right to help reclaim Erebor," Thorin had said to her one night when they thought the brothers could not hear them. "And their responsibility. As my heir, Fíli—"

"Fíli is ready," she had broken in. "Kíli is not."

"You cannot keep him here forever, Dís. You need to let him go some time."

"He's too young, Thorin. He doesn't understand—"

"And he will never understand until he makes his way out into the world. You have taught him well, and he has become a fine archer. We could use that skill on the Road."

"It isn't the Road that I'm worried about—it's what is waiting at the end."

The memory faded, and Fíli imagined then that he heard someone whispering to him, and that a touch had landed on his face. Then the blackness of sleep lifted, and he found that he was still lying on his back on the field, and there was a bitter wind blowing over him. He could no longer feel the cloth on his face, nor could he smell the kingsfoil that had permeated it—and from that, he thought that perhaps the touch on his face had been a stiff gust taking the fabric away, and that the whispers must have been the wind in his ear.

But as the breeze continued to blow steady and cold across his cheek and brow, he shivered. The shock of moving staggered him; and as he was gathering his thoughts and trying to make sense of what he had just felt, a pain rushed up his left arm. When the wave passed, he found that he was now loosely gripping Kíli, where earlier their palms had simply been resting together.

Fíli's fingers jerked, then clenched around his brother's hand; and a sting shot down from his elbow into his wrist. The unexpected movement made Fíli's shoulder cramp, then his head began to swim and his mind went black for what may have been a moment or may have been an hour.

When he came back to his senses, he was still holding to his brother; but his lungs were heavy and full now, and his heart was racing—and without warning or effort, his eyelids fluttered and opened.

…What is happening? he thought, watching as his breath turned to fog above him. 

His dry tongue slid out past his parted lips, and he realized only then that he was parched with thirst. He tried to swallow, but his throat was blood-sticky and swollen; so instead he eased his mouth shut and drew in a chest-deep breath through his nose. And so he remained for quite a while, staring up at the clouds rolling by, and not daring to move for fear of bringing back the paralysis that now seemed to be trying to release him.

After a time, an icy-cold rain started dripping on Fíli's face and into his eyes. He blinked it away, then allowed his mouth to open again, letting the water onto his tongue and washing what was left of the blood down his throat. He shut his eyes and listened to the steady, slow ticking of raindrops on his and Kíli's armor until it became instead a rushing hiss; then he choked and coughed when the rain worked its way into his nose and down his airway.

The spasms stung his back and ribs, and he grimaced; then he shifted his head painfully to the side so to keep his nose clear. In a wry corner of his mind, he wondered at how he might have survived the Battle itself, just to drown in the rain afterwards—then he reminded himself of that having been a real possibility when he was frozen on the ground not so long ago, and he pushed aside the darkly humorous thought.

He opened his eyes and stared once more at Kíli's pale face; and at last he again dared to try gripping his brother's hand—and though Fíli's fingers were stiff and stung when he moved them, he did not stop until they were entwined with Kíli's own.

…I don't think I can go with you just yet… he thought; though he cautiously considered that maybe this was just a temporary thing, and that his wounds might still claim him. …Just don't get too far ahead of me…

Still, Fíli's lungs burned less and less with each breath; and he knew then that he was going to go on living, if only for a little while. Soon, his kinsmen would come to bring his and Kíli's bodies back to the Mountain; and he imagined the looks on their faces when they discovered him alive.

But even as he wondered what he would say to them about how he had survived, his mind was drawn suddenly back to the moment. He heard a deep, guttural noise rise up nearby; and though he at first thought it to be the moans of someone dying, the fearful truth was revealed when the snarling muzzle of a young warg came into view just past Kíli's face.

Chapter Text

Fíli shut his eyes and ignored the pain in his arm as he squeezed his brother's hand tighter, willing away what he hoped was a dream or a lingering fear from the Battle he had just been through. But when he looked again, the beast was still there, and its maw now hung open as it lapped at the bloody water pooling on Kíli's dented armor.

Whether the warg had been left for dead on the battlefield or had been hiding amongst the rocks at the base of the Mountain, it had likely waited for what was left of the living to wander off so it could scavenge on those that hadn't survived—though Fíli wondered fearfully if the creature had sensed some life in him, and so had instead decided that a live meal was more to its liking.

He breathed heavier and stared hard at the beast, trying to warn it away with his thoughts; but it appeared not to notice him and started to sniff at Kíli's cheek. All at once, Fíli's right hand began to shake, and he stretched out his arm weakly, then forced what strength he could into his leg, managing at last to bend his knee. His cold fingertips brushed against the handle of the parrying dagger he had strapped to his calf, but pain shocked his back and neck, and he stopped suddenly—and the warg lifted its eyes and began to growl.

Fíli gritted his teeth, and with a burst of will, he gripped the handle and drew the dagger. Screaming in his mind, he swung his hand up and dug the blade into the creature's eye; and the warg howled and leaped back, pawing at its face as it tried to dislodge the weapon. 

Looking to the ground beside him, Fíli saw there an orcish backsword lying in the mud; and even as he took hold of the weapon, the beast lunged at him. He pulled the blade across its throat, and thick black blood gushed onto Kíli's face as the warg lurched to the side—then it stumbled some distance away, where it collapsed onto the ground and lay still.

Dropping the sword, Fíli laid back on the ground, closing his eyes. His mind started to lighten and his body to ache more as the burst of strength ebbed, and he lay quietly for many long minutes. After a while, the cold rain eased, slowing to an occasional drip before finally stopping completely, and only then did he open his eyes again. He lifted his hand to Kíli's cheek, so to wipe off the thick black blood that the rain had not washed away

…You slept through all that… he thought, smiling softly. Stiffly, he struggled to sitting, willing away the burning throughout his body; then he rested his palm on the side of his brother's head and painfully leaned forward, placing his brow against Kíli's own. …Wait here for me…

He slid his fingers from Kíli's cold temple to his whiskered jawline, then drew his touch away and climbed up onto his knees. A sick feeling rose into his stomach and it took him many long breaths before he could go any further; although with much effort and will, he was at long last able to get onto his feet. Still, his balance nearly failed, and when he thrust his arms out to steady himself, his left elbow burned and he instinctively pulled it back against his body. He staggered to the side as he nearly lost his footing, but he managed to stay standing despite the unsteadiness and pain.

Looking towards the Gate, he could now see the light from campfires and torches at the base of the Mountain, and in their illumination he could just make out the forms of many people milling around the outlines of tents. Barely able to lift his feet, he began shuffling in that direction, keeping his face turned down so as not to trip over any of the weapons or bodies littering the muddy field.

Not too far ahead, he halted in his steps, as there at his feet lay the remains of Azog the Defiler. The giant orc's rigid face was twisted into an expression of rage, his pale eyes were open wide, and his leg was snapped and bent up under his scarred body. The fear that he had once instilled was gone from Fíli's mind, leaving behind only disgust and a lingering hate.

Fíli shifted his attention up and along the shattered body until he saw that the end of the orc's metal arm was pulled nearly out of the stump of his elbow; then his hand shook again as his thoughts slid back to the moment, not so many hours before, that his skull had been pierced by one of those spikes. He lifted his palm to the back of his head and his fingertips brushed against the hole there, stinging it. He pulled his hand back into view, expecting to see it covered with blood; but there was only a slight reddening on his fingers, and he curled them into a fist as he glared back down at the creature at his feet.

…Was this… was all of this just to kill off the line of Durin? he thought. He set his jaw, gathered his strength, and kicked at Azog's metal limb, tearing it completely out of the orc's dead flesh. …You failed.

Searing pain worked its way up his back as he tried to straighten his posture—and so he instead hunched over, then he stepped around his fallen enemy and continued on towards the Mountain. He glanced from side to side, nodding approvingly as he passed by the torn and twisted remains of orcs, goblins, wargs, and bats; but his heart sank when he saw that there were as many of his allies dead as there were enemies.

More Elves lay among the fallen than Fíli had expected there to be; and there were still a greater number of dead Men, and as many Dwarves, some of whom had been crushed by the weight of their own mounts when the animals had been killed. He stopped, looking over the speared remains of a giant war-boar—perhaps even the same one that he had seen one of the Dwarven lieutenants riding at the head of a section of the Iron Hills cavalry.

Just beside the boar lay also a dead warg, its jaws wrapped around the throat of a brown-haired Elf-maid. Her stiff hand still gripped the spear that she had driven through the beast's body, but that hadn't prevented it from crushing the life out of her, nonetheless. Her face was stoic and pale, and still there was terror in her lifeless eyes. He didn't know her, but he knew that she didn't deserve to die like that. Nobody deserved to die like that. Yet there they all were, lying on the battlefield around him—Elves, Dwarves, and Men; all of them cold and rigid, and with their last moments etched on their faces.

The will of kings, he thought; then he grimaced in shame. No… this was Azog's doing… this was…

His mind raced and his breathing grew fast and shallow, and for a couple seconds he felt as if his balance would fail him; but he stayed on his feet and pushed the ragged thoughts aside, then he made himself look away from the Elf and continued on. He only wished now to get to the lights of the camp and, for a while, to put war and death behind him; and as he at last neared the Gate, the murmuring of many voices drifted on the breeze towards him.

Stopping just outside the reach of the firelight, he searched the crowd for faces he might know—though all he saw were strangers caught up in their own relief of being alive, and their grief for those who no longer were. Most were too busy to see the young Dwarf approaching, others gave him a quick glance before continuing on with what they had been doing—rushing in and out of tents, passing around skins full of drink, cradling their heads in their hands. Some were seated on the ground, crying; while others were lying beside them, unmoving.

An older Man sitting near one of the campfires gave a little yell of happiness and stood, holding his arms out to a young girl who was running in his direction. They grabbed one another and the Man lifted her off her feet in his enthusiastic embrace, then he set her down on the ground again and buried his face into her hair as she cried.

Fíli watched them for a few moments, then looked over as a younger Man limped near him, bound on a task of his own. The Dwarf reached out and the boy fell back in a fright, his expression wild with shock. It was clear that he was fearing for his life, though the battle had ended hours ago; and Fíli held up his hand in a peaceful gesture and backed a step away. The stranger eyed him curiously, then stood on unsteady legs and stared long and hard at him.

"Are you hurt?" the boy asked, his voice almost too youthful to match the worry-worn expression on his face. "Do you need help?"

The continued swelling in Fíli's throat kept him silent, and so he simply shook his head. The young Man nodded at him, then scurried off, returning to whatever business he had been about before the Dwarf had stopped him. Fíli watched him go into a nearby tent, then he looked off to the side. 

There, butted up against the Mountain and just to the right of the Gate-path, a particularly large and well-lit tent had been set up; and outside it, billowing in the breeze, hung the blue banner of the Lake. He made his way there, but when he got to the closed flap he stood fast and listened. Several people within were caught up in low, intense conference; and although he couldn't hear much of what was being said, he imagined that he recognized some of the voices.

As he listened, however, a scream pierced the air. He turned—wincing at the pain in the top of his neck and fighting a wave of dizziness—and there, not too far away, he saw the girl from a few minutes before. She was on her knees now, and the older Man she had been so happy to see lay on the ground next to her with his body limp and lifeless, his mouth gaped open, and his eyes bulging. The girl clutched at his chest, gathering the Man's tunic and revealing a livid swelling over the whole of his stomach.

The Man had bled to death on the inside, possibly while he had been holding to the girl; and his passing had come so quickly that it had sent the her into a shock. A bloody-bearded Iron Hills Dwarf ran near and pulled her away from the body, then he fell to his own knees beside her and let her continue to scream and cry into the curve of his neck as an Elf-maid draped a cloth over the dead Man's face.

Fíli's head began to spin and his vision blurred, and a heaviness settled into his chest, as if someone had begun squeezing on his heart. He felt at once the desperate need to escape, to hide; and he looked around, searching for a quiet spot to sit and try not to think. But there were far too many people around him, and in every direction he turned he found pale, scared, bloodied faces.

His knees weakened and his pulse raced, and he stepped back from the flap; then he stumbled to the corner of the tent and swiftly walked around to the back. There, sheltered from the biting wind and prying eyes, he sat down and rested his head against a large boulder. He took several long, deep breaths; but though he tried to stay upright, his body pitched forward and he landed on his chest on the ground.

He tried to lift his cheek from the muddy gravel, but the wound on his skull burned; and although his mind continued to spin and his heartbeat thrummed in his ears, he could still hear the people speaking inside the tent—closer now, and more clear.

"We have not found any more alive," said one that was old and cracking with grief; and Fíli immediately recognized it as belonging to Balin. "And some we have not found at all."

"Then we should begin to gather the dead," a more robust, proud voice said.

"And what then, Lord Thranduil?" a rough, somewhat more familiar voice asked. "We cannot bury them all."

…Thranduil? Fíli thought. …He's alive… of course he is…

After a long, silent moment, the Elvenking replied. "We must burn them."

"That is not our way," yet another person spoke up—this one was clearly Dwarven, but altogether strange to Fíli.

"And yet we did so at Azanulbizar, Dáin, if you recall," said Balin. "Out of necessity, but with honor. I would rather our people be sent to ash and smoke than end up in the bellies of the carrion crows and scavengers because we took too long getting them under stone."

"Yes… yes, Cousin. You are right, of course."

"And should we separate the Elves and Dwarves?" the rough-voiced person—Bard, Fíli now realized—asked. "Is it better that—"

"No," Thranduil interrupted; then there was a pause before he went on. "My people and I came to this place seeking words with the Dwarves, that is true, but in battle, we were as one with them. If it is not opposed by the Dwarf-lords, then the remains of our dead may join their dead on the pyre."

"Our blood has already flowed together," said Balin. "What harm can there be, I wonder, to let our ashes do the same?"

"Then so shall those of the Men of the Lake," said Bard.

There was the sound of a rough throat being cleared, and Dáin spoke again. "Have you gotten any word of your son, Lord Thranduil?"

No one said anything for a time, then the Elf's voice raised—though not to answer the question. "We will take our enemies' remains far afield, so their smoke won't foul the air around the Mountain."

"Sledges shall be made with all haste to see to that," said Bard. "Lord Dáin, I would ask that we may make use of your surviving mounts to haul them."

"Of course."

"And when this is all over," said Balin, "some decisions will need to be made."

"If you are speaking about the distribution of the treasure," said Bard, "there are greater concerns at the—"

"I am speaking of a certain object that you have in your possession," Balin broke in.

"Yes, I see. It will, of course, be returned to you."

"Lord Bard and I are of the same mind," said Thranduil. "It belongs to the King Under The Mountain, whether he be dead or alive."

"Thorin lives yet," said Dáin.

"He is fading fast," Balin's shaky voice followed. "He will not see morning."

Fíli shut his eyes as he forced himself onto his side, wondering now how many of his companions had survived thus far, how many would not last the coming days, how many would never be identified amongst the hundreds of bodies littering the valley floor.

"He is still King," said Dáin indignantly, "until his last breath."

"And after he takes that last breath?" asked Balin. "What, then?"

They all fell quiet for a long moment; then Thranduil spoke. "This is a conversation that is best had between kin only," he said. "I shall see to the recovery."

"I'll join you," Bard said after him.

"Your pardon, before you leave, Bard," said Balin. "I would ask if you might go and find Bofur inside the Gate, he could lead you to…"

"Yes?" pressed Bard.

"No… no, on second thought, Bofur has… well, he has other concerns on his mind right now. I will take you there, myself."

"Where?"

There was another pause. "To bring the young princes back to the Mountain," said Balin at last. "Go on ahead and tend to your business, I will join you soon."

…The young princes? Fíli thought, and it took him a moment to understand that Balin was speaking of him and his brother.

"As you wish," said Bard.

Fíli heard a shuffling like the flap of the canvas tent being opened as the Man left, presumably with Thranduil by his side.

Shortly afterwards, Balin spoke up. "May I ask you something, Cousin?"

"By all means," said Dáin.

"When Thorin sent word to you, asking for you to bring your army to the Mountain, did he tell you that he already had possession of the Arkenstone?"

Fíli jumped at the word and sat up suddenly, despite his pain and weakness; then he pushed himself as far away from the tent as he was able, gasping when his head hit the large rock behind him. He reached back and pressed a palm to the wound there as he leaned forward and continued to listen in silence, though there were lights now dancing before his eyes and his ears had begun to ring.

"He did, yes," said Dáin.

"And so you came armed for battle because of that, alone?"

"I came because I was called for by the King."

"And, yet, you didn't come when he asked it of you a year ago. Why now?"

Heavy-booted footsteps began to pace around, and Fíli heard the clang of metal against metal, then the chink of chainmail being shaken—as if one of the Dwarves within hadn't bothered to remove his armor after the Battle, and was only now doing so.

"That was a mistake on my part," said Dáin, grunting. "I should have given my aid when he first asked for it, yes, but I feared for the failure of the attempt; I feared for the lives of my people, and for the entirety of Rhovanion if Smaug's wrath were to be kindled. I had hoped that without the support of an army, Thorin would decide not to go on his quest at all—that he would not risk his life and the lives of his kin for a trinket that would supposedly give him the right to rule a kingdom. I didn't account for his determination or his… stubbornness."

"Tell me, then," said Balin, "what should be done with that trinket now that the dragon is dead and the Mountain is won?"

"It belongs to Thorin, as it did to his grandfather before him," answered Dáin. "He fought his way across the world for it; he would have died for it, had war not come at him from some other side. I would have it remain with him, even in death."

"You have no desire for it at all, then?"

"None."

"Then I ask you, Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills…" said Balin with an air of formality. "Would you take the throne? Would you see this kingdom restored under your rule?"

Fíli's eyes started to water and his stomach to ache, but still he could not make himself reveal that he was there, that he was alive; and that inability brought with it another wave of panic that he tried to fight down with little success.

"Why mine?" asked Dáin. He sounded taken-aback. "Surely, you would be—"

"You are next in line of succession," said Balin, cutting him off. "You know that your claim is stronger than my own."

"Then let me ask you something, Cousin," said Dáin. "If I were to claim rule over this Mountain kingdom, would you remain by my side and offer me your counsel, as you did for Thorin?"

"Yes, of course." He paused. "For all the good that counsel did him at the end."

"What do you mean?"

It took Balin a long few seconds to answer. "You are aware of the… the fever that claimed Thrór before the coming of the dragon?" he asked. Dáin said nothing aloud, but Fíli assumed he had motioned that he did know of it, as Balin went on speaking. "It did not end with his death, nor with the loss of Thrain. It was falling on Thorin, as well, at the last. Now, there are some that believe the King's Jewel, itself, had poisoned their blood, but…"

…Some that believe… Fíli thought. …Some… meaning me, meaning you… 

"But what?" urged Dáin.

"But Thorin didn't have the Stone before the madness began to set in," said Balin at last. "I had seen its beginnings before we ever left Ered Luin, but he would not listen when I spoke of it. I began to fear for him. I feared, even, for his sister and her sons. Fíli… had he not died, he would have been next in line for the throne, you know."

Fíli squeezed his eyes shut once more.

"Yes, I heard that Thorin had named him his heir. He only ever had good things to say about the boy."

"And of young Kíli, as well, I imagine."

"He spoke of him with great affection," said Dáin. "Mostly of how he was such a joy to have around. Thorin told me in his last letter that he wanted very much for both of them to be with him when he reclaimed Erebor."

Fíli's chest heaved and he pressed the heel of his quivering right hand to his throbbing brow.

"Yes," said Balin softly. "But Fíli… he told me that he was, himself, worried about the sickness. He feared that it was too strong in his blood to overcome, though he'd never shown any trace of it in all his young years. I tried to tell him that when he came into succession he would not fall to it as his forefathers had, but in all honesty…"

"You worried still that he would?"

"He was so unlike his uncle," Balin's voice cracked. "But so was Thorin unlike his grandfather at the beginning."

The breath caught in Fíli's throat and he let his hand fall to his side; then he rested his head back against the rock again, this time ignoring the pain in his skull.

"There is no telling now, I suppose, what would have happened if the boy had not died," said Dáin. "But, as I told you, I put no claim on the Arkenstone, whether it is the instigator of a madness or just a pretty jewel. Thorin may have deemed it worth dying for, but I do not. It is a symbol of our people, but it is not worth more than our people, and I would rather have it lie with Thorin in his tomb until the Mountain falls than have the desire for it make this kingdom fail."

"And that right there makes you more worthy than any other who may now make claim on the throne," said Balin. "You have done well by your people in the Iron Hills, and you would do just as well by our people in the Lonely Mountain—and you are a fool, Dáin, if you yourself cannot see that."

Dáin laughed. "Perhaps I have become a fool since we were young, Cousin, but you seem to have enough wisdom for the both of us. Regardless, whether or not I would take the throne is not for us alone to decide. Let the people speak, but only after the remains of war have been washed away. For now, we have wounded to tend to and dead to mourn."

The Dwarves in the tent continued speaking; and Fíli's strength and resolve finally failed him and he slid sideways onto the cold, muddy ground. There he lay for a long while as his thoughts drifted, until at last he slipped into darkness.

Chapter Text

Fíli clawed at the burning piling as the dragon wheeled in the night sky overhead; and although he knew he was dreaming, he could still feel the flames as they licked his skin. 

But this was not how it had happened. He and the others had gotten away—they had escaped, singed and soaked and choking on the smoke of the burning town. He should have been on the boat with them, they should have been making their way to safety. He looked around, searched for his friends and kin, listened for their voices amid the screams of strangers. And still he held on.

The post he clung to grew hot and blackened; flames leapt out of the knots in the wood and singed his hair. He let go, took a deep breath, and pushed himself under. Looking up, he saw wavering red light as Smaug passed over again; then the water around him started to churn and boil.

Past the muffled sound of piers and buildings crackling, he heard people crying out for help. His lungs began to burn, and though the world above was bathed in flames, he could not stay under for much longer. He kicked and struggled and swam, and at last he broke the surface and gasped in the smoky air.

Close-by, people cried and begged; laden boats jostled against one another, and some went down with all their passengers as the wooden beams of the nearby buildings collapsed onto them. Someone screamed out that the dragon was coming back around, and Fíli turned his face to the sky, watching as Smaug neared.

He did not this time get the chance to dive down, to escape. The fire surrounded him, burned him, darkened his vision…

***

Fíli woke with a start, but his eyes remained closed even as the morning light tried to force its way in. There was a heavy smell of smoke in the air, and for a moment he imagined that he was lying on the sandy bank of Long Lake as Esgaroth burned not so far away. Slowly, though, he realized that what he was smelling was not the earthiness of old wood kindled by dragonfire, but rather the acrid scent of bodies on a pyre. 

He shifted his face on the cold ground, digging gravel into his cheek; then he cupped his right hand over his mouth and nose, but he could not keep out the smell. Past the sound of his own ragged breath in his palm, he began to hear voices. There were fewer now than there had been the night before, and they were distant and faint, and at least a little more calm. 

Lowering his hand, he moved his face again, letting out a low moan as small rocks once more ground into his skin. A shock went down from the base of his skull and into his neck, and he froze as he waited for the pain to pass. He opened his eyes partway, then he blinked hard, fighting the brightness of the late-morning sun that now cast a beam over the jagged ridges of the Mountain's spur.

After a while, he could see that he had moved in the night, as he was closer to the tent now, and the canvas eave was casting a deep shadow on all but his face. He saw also a great many large boulders and massive chunks of shattered stonework on the side of the tent nearest the Gate-path. They surely must have blocked him from the sight of anyone who might have gone that way, and so he realized that in his eagerness to escape from prying eyes in the hours before the dawn, he had managed to hide himself away too well.

Although the tent was keeping most of the breeze off of him and the sunlight was warming his brow, Fíli was still shaking with cold. After taking several deep breaths, he pulled himself up to sitting. His head began to throb and the back of his skull burned—and as he leaned forward against it, tears flowed down his cheeks and his ears started to ring painfully. Slowly, the noise and discomfort eased, and at last he dared to look up. 

The sky was a clear, pale winter-blue, and the brightness was too much for Fíli to stare at for long. He turned his face down, and his attention fell on the patch of red on a large boulder beside him. Almost against his own will, he lifted his hand to the base of his skull and cautiously touched around the wound that Azog had left behind; then he examined his fingers, finding that the only blood there was already dry.

But even though he was no longer bleeding, he knew that he would have to get help soon—that he would have to seek out healing before his injuries caught up with him, as they had with the old Man by the fire. He shuddered at the thought as he rose carefully onto his knees; but the armor he wore felt like it had doubled in weight over the evening, and he could not yet pull himself to his feet.

Reaching over with his uninjured arm, he unfastened the leather straps that secured the chest-plate across his ribs; and after giving himself a moment to work up his strength, he gripped the edge of his armor and pulled it off, dropping it to the ground. He groaned as the burning in his neck and back grew worse; but most of the aching faded quickly, and before long it was easier for him to breathe and move.

Still, he did not yet feel that he could stand, and so he slowly and painfully removed the rest of his armor, until all he wore were his trousers, boots, canvas shirt, and chain-mail tunic; then he curled his fingers into a loose fist and pressed his arm to his side. With most of his armor off, the cold air and ground chilled him, and he was now even more eager to get out of the smoky air. He struggled to his feet, and after wobbling a bit on his unsteady legs, he stumbled to the front corner of the tent and glanced around.

A couple of Iron Hills Dwarves were sitting where the old Man had died in the night; but the Man himself—as well as every other body that had been littering the camp—was gone. Most of the survivors, he figured, were probably now either helping with the burning of the dead or were ensconced in the many tents that were set up all around the base of the Mountain—healing or being healed, or simply being comforted until the end.

Looking past the camp, towards the ruins of Dale, he saw two columns of smoke cutting into the clear sky. He could not see the pyres, yet he knew who was on each. The closer of the two, which sat about halfway between the Gate and Dale, must have been the remains of the defenders; while much further off to the north, their enemies burned. He found it odd how he would not have been able to tell the difference between the pyres, if not for the distances. He had figured that when the orcs and wargs and goblins were consumed by the flames, their smoke would have been darker and thicker, like their blood; he'd thought that it would have a foul, evil look to it. 

As he stared at the smoke, his dream from the morning returned, and he saw in his mind the dragon swooping low overhead and spitting out fire; he felt the heat burn his skin and heard the screams of the people who had nowhere to run. Shaking his head, he closed his watering eyes; and he saw then the charred faces of Laketown's dead tangled up in the scorched pilings of what had once been Esgaroth.

Too few of the Lakemen and their families had gotten away from Smaug's wrath, and too many of those that had gotten away had ended up falling in battle before the smell of smoke had even left their clothing. They had escaped from the dragonfire, but still they burned; and that it was on a pyre, rather than in their homes, was small comfort.

Fíli forced his eyes open and saw the Dwarves by the campfire still caught up in conversation with one another, and he took a step towards them so to let himself be known; but as he made his way out of the tent's shadow, he stopped. The sound of rushing blood filled his ears and he moved back again, clutching at the canvas and trying his best to hide his face from the sunlight. His breaths grew fast and his heart pounded hard—and as his body tensed, he once more felt the need to escape, to find a place to gather his thoughts and to calm himself. 

He looked frantically back and forth for anyone who might be watching; then without thinking it through, he stepped around the edge of the tent and slipped inside. It was empty within, though he had half expected Balin or Bofur or some other familiar person to be there. It did not, in fact, appear to be set up for a Dwarf's liking—and when he recalled seeing the banner of the Lake flying outside it, he realized that this was likely Bard's tent, and that the disparate leaders had simply been using it as a meeting-place in the dark hours before dawn.

Someone had been sleeping there at some point, though, as in the corner there was a single cot set up with a rough woolen blanket spread out over it. A few half-opened crates lay on the dirt floor at the cot's foot; and on the opposite side of the tent, a wash basin and a polished brass ewer sat on a small table. A few more crates were stacked near it; and while some were opened and had been rummaged trough, others were still nailed shut. To the side of the center tent pole, he saw that there had once been a small fire—but it was now no more than dying embers with a steaming pot set atop it and a number of wet, blood-stained rags on the dirt nearby.

Nothing else cluttered the space, save a pile of cast-off armor and weapons near the front corner; and to this Fíli turned with interest when he saw Balin's chest-piece and his black-splattered mace amid the dented plate and bloody chain-mail. Bofur's mattock and the heavy helmet that Dori had been wearing at the start of the Battle were there as well—but it was those things that were missing that bothered Fíli the most.

Even as he gently nudged the armor aside with his foot, he saw nothing that had belonged to any of the other members of the Company. He hoped, at least, that Tauriel had managed to keep Nori and Ori safe; and Dwalin and Gloin were more doughty, so he was sure that they would not have fallen easily. Óin and Bombur and Bifur's conditions worried him greatly, though, and he cautiously reminded himself that just because Dori's helmet was there, it did not mean he had been alive when it had been removed from him. And of Bilbo's fate, he barely managed to hold out any hope at all.

Out of all the members of the Company, however, he was certain only of Kíli's death; then his jaw slacked and his knees weakened as he remembered what Balin had said about his uncle not living to see the dawn.

Fíli's thoughts raced and flashes like lightning dashed across his vision; and his left hand clenched into a fist, sending a cramping ache up his arm and into his shoulder. A sick feeling rose in his empty stomach, and it only worsened when he spun away from the piled armor.

Despite the wave of dizziness that followed, he managed to stay on his feet and stumbled towards the table that held the basin and brass ewer; and there, he placed his right hand on the strong wood for support and pressed his injured left arm to his body. He stood up as straight as he could manage, but his back spasmed painfully and he dug his fingernails into the table as sweat began to course down his face.

The chain-mail shirt he wore grew suddenly heavier on his weakening shoulders. Gritting his teeth, he looked down at the dried blood that clogged the metal rings from his elbow to his wrist. It was a testament to the quality of Kíli's Elvish arrow and the strength of the Dwarvish bow with which he had loosed it, as it had managed to go through a warg's thick skull and steel chain-mail, and yet had still dug itself into Azog's chest. He feared, though, what damage that same arrow had done to his arm; and so he steadied himself, then reached back with his now-shaking right hand and grabbed hold of the collar.

It felt as if broken glass was being ground into the skin of his left elbow, but still he tugged hard on the shirt, pulling it off; then he threw the mail to the side and studied the ripped, bloody sleeve of his dark-brown linen tunic. Biting down on his tongue, he pushed the cuff above his elbow; and after the following wave of pain passed, he relaxed his stiffened shoulders and dared to examine the wound. There was too much blood there to see it well, so he dipped his right hand into the water basin, dissolving the dirt and what was left of the warg's thick black blood off of his skin; then he took a palmful of water and ran it over his elbow, drawing in a sharp breath against the sting.

When the blood and dirt had melted away, he was relieved to see that the slice from Kíli's arrow wasn't actually as deep or as vicious as he had feared—though it was red and swollen, and the jagged edges of his torn skin were darkened. The elbow itself was livid; but he could not tell whether he had broken the bone when he'd slammed his shield into Azog's warg, or if it was just a deep bruise. He extended his arm as far as he could, then he bent his elbow and pressed it to his side, doing his best to ignore the pain and stiffness.

He slid his hand back into the basin and brought up a palmful of water, splashing it over his face. The cold wetness shocked him, and his tongue slipped out past his lips as the now-salty water flowed over them, reminding him of how very thirsty he was. He wiped his forearm across his brow, then looked into the dirty basin water.

Whether or not it had been clean when he'd gotten there, it was certainly now unfit for drinking; and so he instead turned to the brass ewer. He lifted it and examined the contents. The water within was clear and smelled fresh, and he eagerly placed the spout to his lips and tilted it up. The cold water flowed welcomingly over his tongue; but when he tried to swallow, his throat seized up and he began to choke.

He slammed the pitcher back down on the table and stumbled back, then he leaned forward and let the water run back out of his mouth and onto the dirt floor. He coughed hard, his spine and neck burning with each spasm, and his airway closed tighter as lights again danced in front of his eyes. Lurching ahead, Fíli collapsed to his knees and leaned forward, resting his brow on the edge of the table and clearing his throat against the stronger itch and ache.

After a time, he at last dared to lift his head, and his attention fell on the ewer. In its polished brass surface, he saw reflected a strange and distorted face. Sunken and bloodshot eyes stared back at him, his hair hung in ragged and bloody strands over his pale forehead, his once-braided mustache was frayed and stringy, and a great purple bruise covered the right side of his neck. He looked rough, lost, feral; a casualty, tired and torn—a stranger, even to himself.

The sight made Fíli falter back, then he fell over onto his left side and his head hit the ground hard. The flashing returned, brighter now, and his thoughts rushed past as his breaths again grew shallow and fast. He pressed his right hand to his now-aching chest, as if trying to keep his heart from bursting, and pain rushed up his his left arm and across his shoulder as the weight of his body pressed down on it. 

For several long minutes Fíli lay there, staring at the tent flap and waiting for someone to enter and find him curled up like a child wrapped in a nightmare. But no one came, and as time crept by, his breathing eased and his heart settled to a slower beat. His body still trembled, and it seemed that his life had been drained away; and he was overcome by the feeling that there was some place he needed to go, that there was something he needed to do—that he was not yet finished with some important task that had been set on him. But he did not know what that task could be, or where he was supposed to perform it.

Pulling himself back onto his knees, Fíli hung his head, fighting down a churning in his gut as he tried to recall what he should now be doing; then he caught the faint glimmer of metal in a halfway-opened wooden box near the table. Curiosity welled up inside him, and he moved closer and slid the lid aside. Within, he saw many clean bandages and rags, as well as straps of leather and wooden splints—and he saw also that the metal that had caught his eye was a pair of shears. 

He drew them out, then opened and closed them a few times, watching and listening to the sharpened blades move against one another. He thought then that perhaps he had some idea of what it was he was supposed to be doing, after all; and so he got back up onto his knees once more and turned his attention to the table. He stared hard at the stranger looking back at him from the ewer's shiny surface; then he opened the shears' blades and lifted them to his face.

Closing them around the bedraggled remnants of his mustache, he cut away first one ragged lock, then the other. He glared at the odd reflection again, then he opened the shears wide and pressed one of the blades to his chin, scraping it down—slicing into his skin as he took off a section of his beard.

The pain from the cut shocked him, and he pulled back the shears and held them tightly as he wiped away the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. He looked down to where his whiskers now lay on the ground by his knees, trying to figure out why he had done such a thing—but he did not get the chance to wonder about it for long.

"What are you doing in here, boy?" a tired feminine voice called out suddenly from behind him.

Fíli spun around, holding the shears out defensively as his body tensed. Who he saw standing at the flap of the tent, though, was not an enemy, but a young lady not much taller than himself. Her long, disheveled brown hair was cast forward over her shoulders, her small hands were curled into fists, and her tattered blue dress and the apron she wore over it were splattered with blood—and although there was something familiar about her, Fíli could neither remember her name, nor where he had seen her before.

Chapter Text

The girl's eyes widened and she stepped forward; but Fíli's panic grew when she neared him, and he threw the shears down and slid back until his head hit the table leg behind him. A sharp pain cut through his mind, and he shut his eyes as he lifted his shaking hand, digging his fingernails into his scalp—and there he felt a wound at the base of his skull, though he did not know where it had come from nor how bad it might be.

He pressed his hand harder to the broken skin and leaned forward; but a nearby shuffling noise drew his attention back around, and he looked over to see the young Woman kneeling by his side. Her face was clearer now, and she seemed even more familiar to him—yet all he could be certain of was that she looked different from when he'd last seen her, whenever that had been.

The girl appeared to know Fíli well enough, at least, as she did not hesitate in reaching out to him. He flinched and stiffened his shoulders, and she gave him a weary smile.

"It's alright," she said softly. "I'm not going to hurt you. You're safe now."

Her kind words sounded practiced—as if she had repeated them over and over again—but they eased Fíli's mind nonetheless, and he allowed his shoulders to relax. The girl nodded as her thin fingers neared his elbow, then she gently touched around the cut on his arm. Her brow furrowed, and she pursed her lips as she began to rise to her feet.

"I'm going to get help," she said. "Wait here."

In a frightening instant, Fíli imagined the clamor that would follow when others discovered that he still lived. He did not know why the idea of that bothered him, but he was certain that he did not yet want to be seen—to be found. And so, he reached out and grabbed the hem of her skirt, halting her; and when she turned and looked down at him, his cheeks began to warm.

He let her go, mouthing the words 'not yet'.

The girl eyed him curiously. "Can you speak?"

With great effort, Fíli cleared his aching throat. "…Yes…" he said, just barely above a whisper; and although to his own ears he sounded weak and rough, he was relieved that he had any voice at all. "…Not well…"

Fíli coughed against the irritation, paining his back again; then he grabbed hold of the edge of the table, pulling himself uneasily to his feet. He grew dizzy and stumbled to the side, but before he could fall, the girl's hand clamped around the top of his left arm.

"Steady, now!" she said. "What's…"

She fell suddenly silent; and as her one hand tightened on his arm, her other hand moved the hair away from his shoulder. He glanced over and saw that the fabric of his tunic was stained with blood; and though he knew that it must have come from the wound on the back of his head, he felt there was a reason that he did not want her—or anyone—to know about it just yet. 

"…Isn't mine…" he lied. Still, he searched for an excuse to give her for his unsteadiness, and the answer came with the gnawing in his stomach. "…I'm just… I've not eaten…"

"In how long?" she asked, lowering her hand from his shoulder and guiding him towards the cot. "You've had something since you left the Lake, surely?"

He narrowed his eyes. How could she have known that he had been at the Lake? How did she know him, at all?

As she pulled gently on him, though, he pushed the questions to the back of his mind and went to where she was leading him. At the cot, he sat down on the woolen blanket while she kneeled on the dirt before him; but he could not hold her gaze for long, and so he turned to the side as he tried to recall when he had last tasted anything besides salt and blood.

It had been on the lakeshore—but that had been days ago, and it hadn't been a meal, to speak of. The memories were hazy, but he vaguely remembered that neither Kíli nor Tauriel would eat at all; Kíli because he'd had no appetite, and Tauriel because she had felt the scant supplies were best saved for those in greater need. He remembered Bofur and Óin accepting a few chunks of cheese from an old Woman. He remembered himself sitting on the sand, looking out across the water at the Lonely Mountain as he nibbled on the green of a leek. 

He remembered, also, one of Bard's children bringing him a bowl of thin broth.

Fíli's mouth fell open and he focussed on the girl once more; and despite his own unease, he reached out to her. She stared warily at his quivering fingers, but she did not shy away when he gathered her hair into his palm and moved it out of her face. In her features' openness, he could now see clearly that this was Bard's elder daughter—though her name continued to escape him.

"…Your hair was up…" he said, "…last I saw you."

"And you had more hair the last time I saw you," the girl returned, smiling faintly. "On your face, anyway."

He let go of her and ran his fingers first along what was left of his mustache, then over the fresh cut on his chin before letting his hand fall onto his lap. The girl placed a touch on his right arm, and he looked up from studying his bloody fingertips to see that her attention was again on his shoulder.

"…The blood isn't mine," he repeated his earlier lie. "My wounds're slight."

The girl tilted her chin up, and he could tell that she doubted his words. "Slight or not, why have they not yet been treated?"

"I fell asleep," he told her, trying to convince himself that he was being truthful enough. He cast his sight down towards the red stains on the young Woman's dress, and he was suddenly afraid for her. "You were hurt?" 

She ran her hand over her apron. "No, I've been helping the healers," she said. "And you really should let one of them take a look at you."

The muscles in Fíli's jaw tensed. Most of his memories were far from clear, but he had not forgotten the fear that he had felt earlier that morning and the evening before. He had wanted to run then, to hide, to never let anyone see him again. He did not want that feeling to return; and though he had nearly gotten over his fright at being around a single person, he wasn't sure if he would be able to adjust so well to being surrounded by a crowd.

And a crowd would come when word of his survival spread. After all, how many people had seen him on the battlefield, with no life in his eyes? If he had been an Iron Hills Dwarf or a Man or even an Elf, the clamor might not be so great—but he was one of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield; and more than that, he was the Dwarf-King's nephew and heir.

His heir…

Fíli shook his head and exhaled painfully. The girl was right that he needed help, but there were few people that he would be comfortable around right now—and of those, there were only two that might be among the healers, if they had survived the Battle.

"My kinsman, Óin," he said. "Have you seen him?"

"Not since the Lake, I'm afraid" said the girl. "But most of the Dwarves have their own camp inside the Mountain, and he may well be there. I couldn't really say for certain, though. I've been down here in the field-camp helping my own folk and the Elves."

The Elves. Fíli hung his head. "Was Tauriel among them?"

"Not that I saw," she said; then she added, in a more hopeful tone: "But I can go look for her and Óin, and bring them here, if you like."

Fíli thought about it, then let out a resigned sigh. "If you can…" The ache at the back of his skull worked its way unexpectedly into his brow, and he drew in a quick breath through his teeth. "…If you can find them."

The young Woman stood and placed a hand on his shoulder, guiding him onto his side; then she helped him to lift his weakened legs up onto the cot.

"Try to rest," she said, turning away. "I'll be back soon."

Without thinking, Fíli reached out with his injured arm and grabbed her by the wrist. He grimaced, glancing at the slice just below his bruised elbow; and though he loosened his grip, he did not let her go.

"And bring Balin," he said when she looked down at him. "But please, tell them… tell them only that they are needed. Do not tell them that I am…"

The girl nodded understandingly. "I'll see what I can do," she said. "But if your wish is to be alone, then you may not be for long. My father or brother or sister may come here for a rest at any time."

"I know," he said; and despite being gladdened to hear that her family had survived the Battle, he could not keep his mind on them for long. "Thank you…"

She eased his hand to his side and turned without another word, swiftly making her way to the tent flap. Soon, she was gone, and Fíli was once again left alone, breathing in the scent of pyre-smoke that was hanging in the air.

The silence and solitude comforted him, and he rolled onto his back and shut his eyes; then his thoughts drifted back to the Battle, and how he had taken his wounds. He knew, at least, that he and Kíli had seen Thorin in danger, and that they had rushed to his aid—and, in doing so, Kíli had stabbed the white warg just before Fíli had slammed into it with his shield. 

He ran his fingers over the swelling on his left elbow, then he slid his touch down to the cut below it. Where that had come from, he could not say; and so he considered why his throat ached so much. 

That was not, at least, as great a mystery as some of his other hurts. Azog had grabbed him, squeezed him, tried to choke the life out of him; yet the giant orc hadn't killed him. Why? He knew only that while he was being held high in the air, his arm had begun to burn. A moment later, he had fallen to the ground, and he'd looked up to see Azog standing by the dead warg. The orc had an Elvish arrow in his chest. 

Kíli's arrow.

The slice on Fíli's arm stung as he dug his fingernails into it. That wound, at least, could be forgiven, as Kíli had saved his life in giving it to him; but the causes of his other injuries, he could not fathom. His back hurt fiercely, especially now that he was lying down on it; and when he rubbed his head on the rough blanket, it felt as if a hot brand was being held against his scalp. 

What had hit him there? It hadn't been a strike from some heavy and blunt weapon, and neither was it from a sword or axe, as the hole was small; and, he somehow knew, deep. Had it been another arrow? A spear? Could he have survived either? Try as he may, the answers would not come to him; and yet he could not keep other memories from surfacing—ones he wished would have stayed hidden in the darker corners of his mind.

Kíli was dead. Fíli dimly remembered kneeling beside his brother on the battlefield, he remembered paleness of his face, he remembered the feeling of the broken bones in his neck scraping together. Then the rest of his memories came rushing back in the time it took Fíli to draw in a ragged breath, and at once he was again on the battlefield.

His heartbeat thrummed in his ears, and soon the sound faded into ringing; then he heard swords clashing and people screaming. He jumped and his eyes flew open; and as he stared up, the lights before him wavered as the spike of Azog's claw slid through his skull and into his mind. His body was lifted and shaken; then the sound of his brother calling out his name was followed by the horrifying crunch of Kíli's neck being snapped. 

Smoke seemed to fill Fíli's lungs and he coughed against it as he rolled to his side. His already-unsteady vision flared bright as he fought for air, then the lights flashed and flickered before going out like a candle flame killed by a gust of wind.

***

The fresh scent of kingsfoil filled Fíli's senses, warming his lungs and easing the aching in his head; and though in the back of his mind he could still see and hear the Battle raging around him, a greater energy was seeping into his limbs and there was more clarity in his thoughts.

He became vaguely aware of soft fingers moving along the side of his left elbow, and he moved his cheek on the woolen blanket, though his eyes remained closed. 

"…Tauriel?" he asked feebly, though his voice was now much stronger than it had been earlier.

The hands stilled on his skin. "I could't find her," Bard's daughter spoke up. "Nor Óin or any other of your kin, I'm afraid. I'm sorry."

The Dwarf opened his eyes a bit and saw that the fire at the center of the tent was burning again, and that the pot atop it was steaming heartily. There was a sprig of green kingsfoil sticking up over the rim, and he supposed then that the girl had been steeping the herb in the boiling water, as Tauriel had done in Bard's home.

He squinted at the young Woman where she sat on the edge of the cot. Her hair was now tied back into a braid, her jaw was set, and her eyebrows were drawn deeply together. 

Sigrid, thought Fíli. Her name is Sigrid.

Warmth touched his arm as she cleaned the skin around his arrow-wound; but he did not dare to look at it.

"Thank you for keeping your word," he said after a minute of silence. 

"You sound surprised. Were you afraid to wake and find a crowd?"

"Perhaps." 

"You don't seem as bad off now as earlier, at least," she told him, sliding her fingers down to his wrist. "Did the rest do you well, you think?"

"It may have," he replied. "Or maybe it's the kingsfoil and your skills. Did you learn much from the healers?"

Sigrid threw the now-bloody cloth onto the dirt; then she stood and reached down to him. "A little bit."

Fíli took hold of her hand and she pulled him up to sitting; and after he had swung his feet around onto the ground, she sat back down on the cot.

"They mostly had me running for bandages and herbs and such," she went on. "And heating water, and cleaning up." She looked down at her open palms. "It was a long evening. A long morning."

"And now I'm taking you away from your rest," he said apologetically, stretching his stiffened shoulders. 

She said nothing to this, and he craned his neck to look at his arm, the effort burning his spine and the back of his head. His sleeve had been pushed up to his shoulder, and his sight lingered on the darkened edges of the arrow-slice. From what he could tell, the young Woman had done a fine job of cleaning his skin, as almost every trace of blood and dirt had been washed away; and, whether because of the kingsfoil-infused water or for some other reason, there was also less pain there now.

"Can you stitch a wound?" he asked, looking to the girl once again.

Sigrid's answer came in the form of a small shrug, then she began to wring her hands on her lap. "I don't feel right about this."

"I'll do it, myself, if you feel that you can't."

She stared hard at him. "Do any of your kin know that you still live?"

The question took him off-guard. "Not yet," he told her; then he tried to force a return to the previous subject. "If you could tell me where I might find a needle and thread, I'll ask no more of you."

Her shoulders slumped, and she looked abruptly over at him. "I'll stitch your arm, but after that I am going to find your kin," she told him with finality; then she picked up a pack that was sitting on the ground at her feet and set it on his lap. "You should eat. I'm afraid it isn't a proper meal, but it should help to get your strength up."

Fíli accepted the pack with a polite nod; and as Sigrid stood and moved to the crates by the table, he searched inside the bag and found several hard biscuits and a skin of water. He took out one of the biscuits and nibbled on the corner of it, and when he swallowed, it went down in a hard lump. He grunted and coughed, and his head started throbbing.

"Cram tends to be dry," said Sigrid, walking to the fire and dipping a threaded needle into the steaming pot. "But it keeps for some time and fills you up."

Fíli returned the biscuit to the bag. "It's appreciated, anyway," he said. He brought out the water-skin, then uncorked it and took a cautious sip, thankful that he did not this time choke. "It's more than I've had to eat in days."

Sigrid came back to the cot with the cleaned needle and thread in her grip and the shears in the belt of her apron; and without a word, she sat down on his left side and pulled his arm out straight before setting to work stitching his wound shut. It did not hurt as much as he had feared it might, but still it stung, and he took another drink as he tried to ignore the pain. He could not keep from watching on as she worked, however, and he saw that she was doing well at keeping the stitches small and close, though her thin fingers were shaking. 

"Did the healers teach you how to do that?" he asked.

"I've been fixing cuts since I was no older than Tilda," she said. "My father came home with them often enough. And it's not much different from quilting, if I'm honest."

Sigrid had her lips pressed together and her brow was furrowed; and she fumbled with the thread as she attempted to tie off the last stitch. After three tries she at last managed it, then she snipped off the end of the thread and threw the shears so hard onto the cot that they nearly bounced onto the floor.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

"No," she told him flatly.

She rose to her feet and made her way to the table; and there she kneeled and dug almost roughly through one of the crates. After a few seconds, she stood with a length of fabric in her hand, then she very nearly bounded back to the cot.

"Yes," she corrected herself suddenly. "There is something wrong."

Warmth grew in Fíli's chest. "What is it?"

The girl folded the cloth over into a triangle and held it up to his arm, as if checking it for size. "I lied to you," she said, tying a knot in the long ends of the fabric.

At once, Fíli's hand started to tremble and he realized he was still holding the water skin. He corked it and set it down beside him on the blanket, then he curled his fingers into a fist and pressed it to his leg.

"About what?" he asked, trying to keep his voice even.

Her eyes began to well up, and she gripped the cloth tightly. "When I went up to the Gate, I did learn where two of your kin are," she said. "Your brother and uncle…"

The Dwarf's fist relaxed and he flattened his palm against his leg. "I know what happened to them," he said as the heat in his chest turned to an ache.

Sigrid sat beside him on the cot and let out a long breath. "I was afraid to say anything. You said you hadn't spoken to any of your kin, so… so I didn't think that you knew."

"I was there," he said, shaking his head slightly.

Sigrid bit her lip and sighed, then she held the fabric up, showing him the sling she had made. "It will be best if you keep your arm still until a healer can take a look at it," she said, changing the subject. "Your elbow may be broken."

He nodded in agreement, cooperating as she slid the sling around his injured arm; but when he lowered his head to allow her to ease the loop over it, she brushed her hand against the open wound on his scalp. He gasped and jerked, and she pulled her touch away. 

"What's wrong?" she asked. "Did I hurt you?"

"It's nothing…" said Fíli, gritting his teeth.

But even as he spoke, Sigrid was already leaning over and looking at the back of his head. He tried to shift away from her, and she grabbed him by his sleeve to keep him in place as she moved closer; then her fingers moved across his hair, and she pushed it gently aside and ran her touch up his neck. A moment later, her fingertips slid over the hole on the base of his skull and he pulled away again.

Sigrid gasped and sat back; then she threw her hand over her mouth as she stood and rushed towards the tent flap.

Chapter Text

"Wait!" Fíli called out, knocking the pack to the ground as he stood. Though he was still unsteady on his feet, he managed to get to Sigrid's side before she could make it to the tent flap; then he stepped in front of her and held up his hand pleadingly. "Not yet!" 

The young Woman covered her face with her palms and shook her head. "I can't do this," she said, peeking at him through her fingers. "I have to get… someone. Anyone. I can't—"

"Sigrid, please…"

She lowered her hands, then curled her fingers into fists at her sides. "You said your wounds were slight!"

"They are," said Fíli, pressing his arm so hard into the sling that the knot dug into his already-sore neck. "It isn't as bad as it looks."

"You don't know how bad it looks!"

She was very nearly yelling now, and Fíli feared that her raised voice might bring others to the tent; so he turned to the flap and pushed it aside, then blinked uncomfortably in the brightness as he glanced around. The only people outside were a Woman and an Elf, who spoke quietly to one another as they made their way through the camp. They stopped outside a tent, and the Elf motioned for the Woman to enter before him; and after they had both stepped out of sight, there was no one else to be seen.

Fíli let out a relieved breath and shut the flap as he turned towards Sigrid; but when he saw the intensity in her eyes, he faltered back.

"I can't mend something like that," she said firmly. "It's deeper than the wound on your arm, and in a far worse place."

"I'm not asking you to mend it," Fíli told her. He grew suddenly dizzy; and though he tried not to let it show on his face, he still stumbled slightly to the side. "Just, please, wait for a while before you tell anyone I'm here."

"What good will that do?" she snapped.

Fíli slid his shaking right hand behind himself, then the unsteadiness overcame him and his knees weakened; but he felt Sigrid ease a supportive arm around his back, and he did not fall.

"I know you want to help me," he said between shaky breaths. "But if you leave… you will not find me here when you get back." He cringed, realizing how much that had sounded like a threat.

"Why will you not let me get someone?" she asked, guiding him back to the cot. She helped him to sit, then rested her hand on his shoulder. "Would you really rather die?"

He turned his eyes to the ground. "I'm not dying," he said, well aware of the uncertainty in his own voice. "I have no fever, my bleeding has stopped, I'm walking and talking—"

"Plenty of people were walking and talking after the Battle," said Sigrid. "And still they died."

Fíli felt a visceral shock, remembering the old Man who had collapsed by the fire and the look on the young girl's face as she clawed helplessly at his chest. He wondered now how many others had died so suddenly over the evening—he wondered how many of those deaths Sigrid had seen, and whether she now knew the signs that such a death was coming.

He pressed the heel of his hand to his brow. "I'm sorry I lied," he said. "I'm sorry I told you that it wasn't my blood. I didn't…"

Sigrid kneeled in front of him and placed her hand on his slung arm. "Let me go get help," she said. "An Elf, a Dwarf… someone. A while ago, you asked me to seek out Balin and Óin and Tauriel. Why would you not want them here now?"

Fíli shook his head. Sooner or later, he knew, he would have to sit down with Balin and Dáin and the rest of his kin; he would have to speak with them about what should be done from here on, and the conversation was sure to be unpleasant. Balin had, after all, sounded so confident about Dáin's ability to rule the people of Erebor—though he had spoken with more fear and uncertainty about Fíli, himself.

Of course, at the time, he had believed Fíli to be dead. What now would his words be, when he learned that Fíli still lived? Would the old Dwarf still fear that he would fall, as Thorin had? Would he fear it more when he saw the wound that Azog had left behind? Would he be right in that fear?

"When you came in here earlier, I couldn't remember most of the Battle," he admitted, to his own surprise; then he turned to look at the girl. "I couldn't remember you."

Her eyes narrowed. "But you do now?"

"Yes," he replied, turning away again. "But I don't know what else I may have forgotten, or what I may yet forget. And I do not know what other effects my wounding may have had." A lump rose in his throat and he swallowed against it; then he pressed his fingertips to the blood on the back of his neck. "I cannot let my kin see me like this. They might think…"

The words failed on his lips, and he lowered his hand to his lap; and Sigrid's own voice grew more gentle when next she spoke.

"That you survived?" she asked. "That you lived through something that would likely have killed a Man outright?"

Fíli squeezed his eyes shut, and a silence fell; and at length, Sigrid brushed the hairs off of his brow.

"If I helped you to get cleaned up a bit, would you then allow me to bring a healer?" she asked. "If you did not look so wounded, would you then allow those wounds to be treated?"

"I might," he said, turning to her once more. "But I cannot say now how I will feel later."

Sigrid smiled softly, then she stood and walked to the table. He looked away from her, listening as she rustled through the crates; and all the while, he stared towards the tent flap, almost expecting someone to step in at any moment. But no one came, and when he heard a scraping sound, he turned to watch Sigrid as she drew the ewer off the table. She then went to the fire and poured the cold water into the steaming pot, presumably to cool it off. 

"I would not have been able to stop you," he said.

Sigrid set the now-empty ewer down on the dirt, then she used her apron to protect her hand as she lifted the pot off the fire. "What do you mean?" she asked; and when she turned towards him he saw that she had a bundle of white rags in her other hand.

"If you had left to get help, I couldn't have stopped you," he clarified.

She tossed the clean rags on the blanket beside him. "I know."

"So, why did you not go?"

"Because you asked me not to," she said, staring hard at him for a moment before walking behind the cot. She grunted as she set the pot down on the dirt, then she ran her fingers over his bloody hair. "When my father asked me to help the healers, the first thing they told me was never to do anything to the wounded that they did not want done."

"Even if it meant that they would die?"

"As long as they knew that's what might happen." 

She tried to force her fingers through his hair and he grimaced as it pulled on the skin around his wound. 

"And did many…" he began, but he could not bring himself to finish asking if many had died, for refusing treatment.

"Some did," said Sigrid, apparently understanding his question. "There was one Man last night… I knew him from when we lived on the Lake. His leg was…" She stopped combing her fingers through Fíli's hair and placed her hand on his shoulder. "It was broken in the Battle. It was snapped… and the bone was… you could see it…" She drew in a sharp breath. "The healers said the only way to save him would have been to give up his leg, but he wouldn't let them. They begged him to let them save his life, but he… he said he would rather die as a whole Man."

She let out a little choking noise, and Fíli reached up and placed his hand on hers. She jumped, then squeezed his shoulder gently before pulling her hand away. 

"This is going to take some time," she said, again trying to comb her fingers through his hair. "I'm not sure if I can get all of the blood and dirt out."

Fíli looked across the space to where the remains of his mustache lay on the dirt; and after only a few seconds of considering what it meant, he reached to the side and picked up the shears, then held them over his shoulder to the girl.

"Cut it away, then," he said. "If it will make it easier for you."

"Are you sure?" asked Sigrid, taking the shears. "I thought Dwarves were fond of their hair."

Fíli smiled a bit despite himself, but the smile quickly fell. "We are," he said. "But it hardly matters right now, and it will grow back in time." 

Sigrid let out a long breath, then ran her hand over the back of his head again. She lifted the hair off of his neck, and he squeezed his eyes shut as she closed the shears around a bloodied lock; then she cut away another clump of hair, then another. She worked in silence for several minutes, and his eyes shifted down towards the blanket as the dirty remnants of his hair fell onto it.

He imagined how he would look when she was done, and the thought was disquieting; though he knew that he would have had his hair cut off later, anyway, to honor the fallen. Perhaps, he told himself, he had begun taking off his mustache for just that purpose—perhaps, in some deep part of his mind, he had told himself that it was time to go forward with his mourning.

"You said that you saw my brother and uncle?" he asked abruptly.

Sigrid slowed in her snipping for a moment. "I didn't see them, really," she said. "I went to the largest tent in the Mountain because I thought that maybe I would find Balin or the others there, but the guard said the only ones inside were the dead. When I asked who they were, he told me that it was the Dwarf-King and one of the princes. I had to ask their names… I didn't know…"

"That Thorin was a King?" asked Fíli. His eyes started to burn and the ache in his throat worsened. "He was, yes. For however short a time."

She tapped her finger absently against the side of his neck; and he looked towards her briefly before the pain at the base of his skull forced him to turn back around.

"Were there any others in the tent?" he asked, knowing that if any of the Company had fallen in the Battle, Balin would have made sure that they were laid out with Thorin and Kíli. "Any other dead?" 

"The guard didn't say." She snipped a bit more of his hair, then stopped cutting altogether and set the shears down on the cot. "How does that feel?"

Fíli touched the freshly-trimmed hair at the back of his sore neck. "It's fine," he said; then he bit down on his tongue.

"Do you think we can get this off?" asked Sigrid, running her hand down the sleeve of his tunic as she walked around in front of him. "Without hurting you too much?"

"Whatever pain comes from here, I think I can handle it well enough."

The girl helped Fíli to slide his arm out of the sling, then she took hold of the bottom of his shirt and gingerly removed it as he groaned against the pain in both his arm and neck. She threw the tunic to the ground, then he heard her draw in a quick, sharp breath. He looked up at her, but her own eyes were turned towards his right shoulder; and when he glanced over, he realized that she was staring at the angular design of his skin-art.

She cleared her throat before stepping back around the cot and out of his sight, and he heard the swishing of a rag being dipped into the herbed water, followed by the dripping sound of it being wrung out. She cautiously moved the remaining hair away from his wound, and he winced as she cleaned around the broken skin. Then she threw the used rag onto the ground in front of him and grabbed another one from the pile, dipping and wringing it before pressing it to the hole.

"Hold this here," she said. "At least it will keep more dirt from getting into the wound."

He did as she asked, and a moment later Sigrid brought another cloth, still-dripping, up to his head. He felt warmth flow over his scalp and down his neck and bare back as she gently ran it over his hair; then she repeated the same actions again and again, throwing each rag to the ground as it got soiled. Soon there was a pile of bloody cloths at his feet, and when she this time combed her fingers through his hair, they did so with much more ease.

"That looks a lot better," she said, taking away the rag that he had been holding to his wound and throwing it onto the pile with the rest. "Better than it did, anyway."

Fíli offered her half a nod. "Feels better."

She came back around the cot and held out another wetted-and-wrung length of fabric. "Clean your face."

Fíli obeyed as she went back to the crates and returned to his side with yet more rags; and he wondered just how much blood he had on him if she needed so many. She stepped behind the cot again and set about cleaning his neck and shoulders—and as he leaned his head forward, his eyes focussed on his trousers, which were stained black from the blood of the goblin that had died atop his legs the night before.

He remembered then the goblin being lifted away, and he saw in his mind the old Woman that had kneeled beside him afterwards. He hoped, at least, that Legolas had managed to keep her safe; then he recalled what the Elf had said about the enemy heading south. 

"Did the orcs get to the Lake?" he asked before he could stop himself. 

Sigrid's hand froze on his shoulder. "Yes," she answered simply; then she moved the warm cloth across his upper arm—slower now, and repetitively, as if she had her mind on something else. 

"I'm sorry the Battle came to you," he told her.

His words seemed to draw her attention back and she slid the rag to his right shoulder and began to rub harder; and he looked over to see that she seemed to be scrubbing at his inked skin.

"It doesn't come off," he told her, smiling crookedly.

Sigrid pulled her hand back. "I know," she said, cleaning the back of his arm. "I just… I was wondering, how is it done?"

"With ink and needles and a steady hand."

She gasped slightly. "Does it hurt?"

"It did when I had it done. But that was a long time ago."

Sigrid ran the cloth across his shoulder blades and down the center of his back, and when she reached the base of his spine, he felt a shock of pain and jumped. She pulled the rag away, and her fingers touched on either side of where the pain was the worst.

"What happened here?" she asked.

"It's just a bruise," he said, balling his right hand into a fist. "It will heal on its own."

"What hit you?"

"I was thrown… into a boulder, I think."

She ran her fingers over the bruise once more; and though she did so more gently this time, he arched his back and grimaced.

"Maybe stop doing that?" he asked as politely as he could manage through clenched teeth. 

Sigrid drew her hand away from the bruise; and a moment later the now-cool rag moved over the ribs on his left side. "Is it something all Dwarves have done?"

"What?" asked Fíli; then he realized that she was again speaking of his skin-art. "Not all, but it is fairly common in Ered Luin."

"Where's that?"

"My home," said Fíli; though even as he spoke the word, he felt his heart sink. "My old home, in the far west."

The girl pulled the cloth off of his skin and walked around the cot, then she sat down on his right side, still staring at his arm. "Do they mean anything?"

"Some do. Some Dwarves have the names of kin, or even stories or history inked into their skin."

"What do yours say?"

"They're not words," he said, glancing at the art; then he looked Sigrid in the eye. "They match my father's, though I never learned if they had any meaning."

"You never asked him?"

"I didn't know him long enough."

Sigrid's eyes widened a bit and her cheeks reddened, then she threw the rag to the ground and rested her elbows on her knees and set her chin atop her folded hands. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know."

"It's alright," he told her with a small shrug. "All the memories I have of him are faint, and it is hard to miss someone you barely knew."

The girl's shoulders slumped and she closed her eyes. "My mother died when Tilda was born," she said. "My father was away running barrels at the time. He never got over not being there when it happened." She let out a long breath. "She taught me a lot while she was still around, at least. Cooking and sewing and knitting… and how to take care of children." The young Woman opened her eyes and looked over at Fíli. "I think she knew she was going to die. I think she was trying to make sure there would still be someone around who could take care of things without her."

Fíli smiled softly, even as his eyes began to blur with tears. "Our mother taught us how to forge and fight," he said. "Up until Thorin took over our training, anyway."

"Is she still…" Sigrid stopped and pressed her lips together, almost as if she felt she had caught herself saying something she shouldn't have.

"Is she still alive?" Fíli finished for her; then he nodded. "She's waiting for us back home." He swallowed hard. "Waiting for me now, I suppose."

At once, Sigrid's own eyes welled up and tears began coursing down her cheeks; and despite Fíli being half-undressed, she leaned against him and hung her head. Fíli wrapped his uninjured arm over her shoulder, and for a long while they sat there, still and silent except for her heavy breaths and the gentle heaving of her shoulders; until at last she calmed and became so quiet that Fíli thought she may have fallen asleep by his side.

"Sigrid?" he asked, shaking her gently. "Are you awake?"

"Yes," she said; and though she spoke quietly, there was no trace of sleep in her voice.

"You have already helped me more than I could have hoped," he told her, "but there is more that I would ask of you, if you are still willing."

She looked up at him with reddened eyes. "What do you need?"

"Clothes, first of all," he said, glancing down at his bare chest. "If there are any to be found."

"There are. Though you mightn't want those that were taken off the dying or the dead."

"I'll wear whatever will fit me, and hope that the former owners would not object."

"And what will you do then?" asked Sigrid.

Fíli hesitated for a moment. "Seek out Balin and my other kin," he answered at last, reaching over and taking her small hand in his own. "But first, I want to see my uncle and brother."

Chapter Text

Fíli stood just inside the Gate, watching on as Sigrid made her way past the tents that lined the walls of the Mountain tunnel. Her small feet slipped on a stone and she stumbled, then she glanced back at the Dwarf before turning forward again and lifting the hem of her skirt to allow herself a better view of the cluttered floor. 

The girl had been slow to agree to do this for him, but in the end she'd relented, admitting that there was nothing she would suffer for it but a little embarrassment. In fact, despite her initial reluctance, the largest part of the plan had been her own. He had asked only for her help in finding a way to have a private moment with Kíli and Thorin, but when she'd told him that a few straggling goblins and wargs had been found in the tunnels after the Battle, her eyes had lit up.

She'd even seemed rather pleased with the whole idea—though whether that was because of his assurance that he would seek out Balin afterwards or because she was giddy from lack of sleep, he couldn't say. Whatever it had been, after the plan had been laid out, she had gone to fetch him clean clothing while he ate a bit more of the cram in an effort to settle his stomach and steady his head; but she was not long about her task, and by the time she returned, he felt no better than when she'd left.

On the chance that he might need help, Sigrid had then stayed with him in the tent while he dressed—all the while keeping her back respectfully turned—and after he'd struggled into his new trousers and boots, she did indeed need to help him don the tunic. It fit none too well, being somewhat tight across his shoulders and chest, but he told her that it would do just fine for the short time that he would be needing it.

She had then helped him to put his arm back into his sling before fastening the toggle of a dark brown cloak under his chin. "You could pass for a boy now," she'd told him, pulling the hood up over his head. "Except for maybe your ears. And your beard. Perhaps it's best just to keep your head covered."

They'd then made their way to the Gate; and now that she had vanished into the darkness far ahead, Fíli began following after her. He looked to the tents on either side of him as he shuffled down the passage, skirting around boulders and trying to avoid tripping over the many Iron Hills Dwarves that lay on bare spots on the floor. Some of the soldiers were using their cast-off armor or clothing as pillows and had their arms draped over their eyes as they snored, while others were leaning against the crumbling stone wall with their chins upon their chests; but none of them seemed to notice Fíli as he walked slowly by.

These Dwarves, at least, did not appear to have taken many injuries in the Battle, and they seemed more exhausted than pained. It was likely, Fíli knew, that most of the more seriously wounded were inside the tents; and a little deeper into the Mountain, he stopped outside a large one that had a heavy blanket draped over the flap. Deep sobbing and gasping came from within—and he heard also, somewhat disconcertingly, a strange laughter. He drew closer and listened more attentively; but his thoughts were pulled suddenly away by a yell that came from further down the tunnel.

Fíli spun around and made his way into the shadows close to the wall, stumbling over a sleeping Dwarf on the way there. The Dwarf mumbled something before settling back down, and Fíli stepped carefully away from him and glanced around the edge of the canvas tent. He watched on as Sigrid ran out of a tunnel to the right of a large tent that was set up at a main junction; then she lifted the flap and hollered something that could not be clearly heard.

A few of the reclining soldiers nearby lifted their heads at the noise before closing their eyes and lying back down; and a moment later, an armored Iron Hills Dwarf came bounding out of the tent with a halberd held tightly in his thick hand. Sigrid grabbed hold of the edge of his steel cuirass and started to pull on him—and though Fíli still could not hear what she was saying, he saw that she was pointing down one of the passages.

The guard said something, waving his free hand about; then he glanced back over his shoulder into the tent before looking towards the Gate. Fíli slid himself further back against the wall and watched as Sigrid continued to motion frantically; and after pounding the shaft of his halberd into the ground, the guard lowered the tent flap and headed in the direction that she was pointing.

Sigrid followed after him, and Fíli slid out of the shadows and made his way quickly to the now-unguarded tent. He paused outside it for a few seconds, squinting into the darkness where Sigrid and the guard had vanished; then he slipped in through the flap and stopped suddenly, stilled by the sight of three wooden biers in the center of the torch-lit space. 

Two of the biers held sheet-covered forms, while the third stood unoccupied; and he knew for whom the empty one was intended as well as he knew who lay atop the others. He let his gaze wander over the shrouds, noting the shape of each body underneath. The nearer was his uncle; that much he could tell from his size and from the staining on the fabric, which showed where he had been injured in the battle. Kíli had no such stains upon his sheet, as most of the blood that had been on him had been washed away by the rain.

Fíli's head grew light, and he turned his eyes to the floor, staring at the cracked stone and trying to gather both the strength to stay on his feet and the courage to again look up. But he could not raise his head just yet, and so he swayed on unsteady legs for a moment before making his way to where his dead kin lay. Once there, he pushed back his hood, then at last lifted his eyes and pressed his injured arm hard against his ribs, pulling down on the sling until his neck cramped.

Now that he was here, he really didn't know what he had hoped to do. He'd wanted a chance to be alone with Kíli and Thorin, but he could have managed that without the need to send Sigrid to distract the guard. If he'd have spoken to Balin first, the older Dwarf would have had no problem giving him some private time to tell his brother and uncle goodbye. But he was not now going to turn around and leave, so he swallowed hard and lifted his uninjured arm, resting his palm on his uncle's chest.

Thorin's armor had been removed at some point—presumably to allow for healing, for all the good it had done. Fíli glanced around and saw nothing in the tent except the biers, a few torches, and a low table with a small, closed beechwood chest atop it. There was no bed or cot for an injured Dwarf to rest upon, no crate full of bandages, no fire on which to heat water for cleaning wounds. Wherever Thorin had been laid out for healing, it hadn't been here.

Fíli slid his touch up to his uncle's head and took gentle hold of the sheet, pulling it down; then the breath caught in his throat and his hand began to shake. Thorin's skin was pale beneath his silver-streaked dark hair, though the dirt and blood from the battle had been washed off of his bruised and slashed cheeks. He seemed peaceful at first glance—but Fíli knew the way his uncle looked when he was in pain, and that expression was frozen on his features even now, in death.

He wondered who Thorin had been speaking to when he'd died, and what the last words from his lips had been. He wondered, also, if those last words might have been spoken to him, if he had only let someone know that he still lived the night before. Thorin had thought him already dead, had given up his life with that belief in his mind; but might there now be a different expression on his face if Fíli's eyes had been the last he had looked into? Would he have died happy in the knowledge that his nephew—his heir—still lived?

Fíli forced himself to let go of the sheet and slid his palm over Thorin's cheek, then he leaned forward and placed his brow against his uncle's own.

"I'm here," he whispered; then he reached up and ran his fingers through Thorin's hair. "It's over, Uncle. We won. He's dead… Azog's dead, and I'm here now…"

He smoothed down the hair on his uncle's head and stood up as straight as he could, though the pain in his back sent him hunching over once more. He turned slowly around to the bier where Kíli's body rested; then he paused, staring down at the sheet with fear and uncertainty. 

The last time he had seen his brother, it had been on the battlefield, and the look on Kíli's face was still fresh in his memory—the soft dullness in his eyes, the whiteness of his cheeks, the way his head was twisted to the side from Azog's blow. Fíli didn't want to see him that way again. But he did want to see him, and so he pulled back the fabric before he could convince himself not to.

Here in the flickering torchlight, Kíli looked more peaceful and less pained than he had the night before; and he might have been merely sleeping, but for his stillness and the bruise that circled his neck. Fíli let his eyes travel over the curve of his brother's chin and up his cheek, then across to where his hair, still damp from the rain, was curled and clinging to his pale face like an obsidian crown on the dead prince's brow.

Fíli ran his fingertips over Kíli's temple, brushing his hair aside; then he squeezed his eyes shut and leaned over, pressing his lips to his brother's forehead.

"I'm sorry…" he began whispering against Kíli's cool skin; but he choked on the words, then lowered his face and buried it in the curve of his brother's neck.

I'm sorry I didn't save you, he thought, hoping that, somehow, Kíli could hear him from some distant place. He rubbed his cheek against the younger Dwarf's whiskered chin, then wrapped his arm over his armored chest, holding him tightly. We were supposed to be together, weren't we? It was supposed to you and me… 

Standing up again, he allowed the tears to flow freely down his cheeks as he stared past the blur at his brother's quiet form. He saw then a strange shape under the sheet on the far side of the bier, and he pulled the fabric down to find Kíli's bow and empty Elvish quiver lying beside him. 

Tauriel had given the quiver to Kíli after Smaug's attack, but Fíli didn't suppose that either of them had thought that it would be needed as soon as it had been. It had, perhaps, been the only parting gift that she'd had to give, though Fíli had thought it a strange thing for an Elf to part with at all.

Kíli had accepted it gratefully, in any case, then he'd taken Tauriel's hand in his own and placed a quick, almost chivalrous kiss on her fingers. Seeing this, Fíli had at first thought to step up and come between his brother and the Elf; but he had decided, instead, to turn away and let them speak in peace—though when he had glanced over at them again, they were still holding to each others' hands.

"…For luck," he had heard Kíli say.

"As are the arrows," Tauriel had returned, smiling kindly.

Soon afterwards, she had ridden off with Legolas, while Fíli and the other Dwarves had left for the Lonely Mountain. Until the Battle, he had seen no more of her—and he wondered now if he would ever see her again, or if she had fallen as so many others had. She was, perhaps, among those who now burned on the pyre between the Mountain and Dale; and Fíli felt a rush of regret that he had not gotten the chance to thank her for all that she had done for Kíli.

Fíli looked curiously at the quiver, then lifted it and turned it over. A bit of sand and gravel fell from it, onto the bier; then he laid the quiver back down at Kíli's side and let out a long breath. He had hoped that his brother had stowed his rune-stone inside, as he tended to when he found himself without pockets; but the stone was not there, and so Fíli knew that it had likely been lost on the battlefield—like Kíli's promise to come home, and Fíli's own promise to bring him home.

Hanging his head, Fíli turned away and looked at the empty bier where he himself should have been lying, if some twist of fate had not dictated otherwise. He wondered if it had been prepared before his kin knew that he would not be using it, or if they had built it afterwards in the hopes that his body would still be recovered. He imagined, at least, that it had not been reported to Thorin that he was missing. Balin would not have wanted to burden his old friend with that news, and to do so would have served no purpose, anyway.

Still, he wondered what reason had been thought up to explain why his body had not been found; though at this point, he reminded himself, it didn't really matter. The guard would return soon, after the search for Sigrid's imaginary warg came to nothing, and word of Fíli's presence would be sent to Balin and Dáin. There would then follow many discussions, conferences, councils; there would be questions about his survival, about his absence after the Battle, about the wound on his head and whether or not it would be a hindrance. There would be questions about who would now lead the Dwarves of Erebor.

He swallowed hard, then turned on his heel and took a step towards the tent flap; and as he did, his eyes came to rest on the beechwood chest on the low table in the corner. He stopped, shifting around to face it. It may have only been a trick of the torchlight on the brass fittings, but he thought for a moment that he had seen a wisp of light slip out through the joins in the box's lid.

Curiosity compelled him to walk near; but when he looked down at the chest from above, sudden heat filled his lungs. He stumbled back, knowing at once what lay inside without needing to look. Yet even with that knowledge and the fear of what it meant, he stepped forward again and reached out, resting his palm on the lid.

The hairs on his arm stood up, as if a chill had run through his body; but he felt nothing except pleasant heat seeping through the wood, and he gave in to the need to open the lid before he had even realized that need was within him. Then he froze in place, unable to look away from the small, brilliant stone that now cast its light into his widening eyes.

"The Arkenstone…" he whispered breathlessly.

The gem seemed to recognize its own name and flared brighter, giving off a crisp shimmer like a star that had been brought down to Earth and trapped inside an icy prison. The illumination shifted and flowed, changing from cold blue to the warming tone of a red sunrise; and still Fíli's hand rested atop the chest's open lid, though his deepest thoughts warned him to close it, to lock the Stone back inside.

But the jewel did not want to be hidden from him; and silent and still as it was, he felt that it was begging him not to leave it alone in the dark again. Despite the warning in his own mind, he let the lid fall open completely and the full brilliance of the Arkenstone escaped into the air. He lowered his palm until it hovered just above the glowing form; then he felt his hand grow heavy, and his fingertips brushed against the Stone's smooth surface.

A painful tingle worked its way into his fingers as he slid his touch over the jewel. He watched in wonder as wisps of smoky-blue and red light seemed to break off, then curl back into the brilliant core; then the prickling under his skin grew, and soon sharp, vicious cold began to cut into his fingertips.

The freezing faded into a burning that traveled through his hand and up his arm, then it embedded itself in his chest before pushing through his body and into his spine. It flowed up, then, into his mind; and there it settled as fire seemed to grow behind his eyes. It hurt fiercely, though this pain was so different than any he had ever felt. It was welcome and warm, and it seemed to belong in his thoughts—and it brought with it a vision of riches pouring out of the Gate of Erebor.

Then the Arkenstone began to speak to him, its words soft and calm; and like a whispered promise, it told Fíli how it could help to build a kingdom, how it could help him to rebuild this kingdom. His kingdom. It said that it could guide him to places where the miners could unearth more of those things that Dwarves held so dear. The iron, the gold, the gems; it knew where to find them, it knew about secret paths that would lead to new lodes.

It was the Heart of the Mountain, it told him in secrecy and confidence, and the lifeblood of Erebor ever flowed from it. All it asked of Fíli was that he follow to where that blood led, that he open new delvings, that he call for his people to chip away at the rock in their search for more things precious and rare. It told him not to fear when the veins were emptied, because there was always some deeper place to dig.

A smile rose to Fíli's lips. He understood now why Thorin had held the Arkenstone of such value, why Thrór had mourned its loss when Smaug had stolen it. It was a thing worth digging for, worth dying for—and with it in his hand, he knew that his people would prosper. They would never again have to leave Erebor, to walk the Road in search of a home. They could stay underground, in the cool and dark, where Dwarves found their greatest comfort. They could lock the daylight outside, and find their own shining light deep within the earth.

Then, without warning, the old pain from Azog's claw began anew; and though he fought it, the injury would not let itself be forgotten. It felt as if fire was licking at the back of his head, then lightning slashed in front of his vision, cutting off his view of the gem at his fingertips and forcing him to stumble back. His touch left the Arkenstone, and he fell to his knees, clutching his head as the searing radiated outward from the wound and down his neck, pushing away the more desired pain that the jewel had given him.

Fíli held his breath and gritted his teeth, and still the lights danced behind his closed eyelids. He gasped for air and forced himself to standing, wanting to again touch the Arkenstone; but when he lifted his eyes, his sight fell upon Thorin's face. Tendrils of light issuing from the open chest were playing across the surface of the dead king's pale skin, almost as if the gem was lovingly caressing him in his sleep. A strange feeling of jealousy rose in Fíli's heart and he turned to the Stone, reaching out for it; but even as his hand drew near, the fire in his mind flared again and he let his arm fall to his side.

Something in the rake of Azog's claw was pulling him away from the thing that he had only a moment ago sought to possess above all else. He heard whispers behind and within him—but these whispers were not coming from the King's Jewel. Frightened Dwarf voices were begging, warning him away from the Stone, telling him that if he rested his hand again on its icy surface, it would this time hold him tight and refuse to let go. Deep shame and fear came over him, and he shook his head and took a step back, choking on his breath and curling his fingers into a fist as the voices faded.

For good or ill, he now understood the truth behind his forefathers' madness; cold comfort though that understanding was. Why the Stone held no sway over Dáin or Thranduil or anyone else in power, he could not say, but it must have clung to the line of Durin like a jealous lover from the moment it had been unearthed. It was not a possession, but a possessor; not a tool, but a master. And it wanted to master him, as it had the Kings Under The Mountain before him, though he had yet to either accept or ascend to the throne. 

Fíli thought then about hiding it away, about burying in some deep place where he himself could not touch it; but he could not do that, he knew, without having to tell his kin why. And what then? Would they think that he had imagined the words that the Stone had said to him? Would they worry that he had gone mad?

And what right did Fíli have, anyway, to do with the Arkenstone as he pleased? To either keep it for himself, or to cast it away? His uncle had died in trying to reclaim it; and so, as Dáin had said, the Arkenstone should be buried with him. In death, at least, he should be allowed to keep it, to hold it—even if his desire for it had been forced by the Arkenstone itself, that desire had been no less real.

But Fíli knew that his own desire for the King's Jewel also would not fade, and that he would not long be able to keep himself from going to Thorin's tomb and coldly snatching the it away, like a grave robber cutting a ring from a body. Then the Arkenstone would rule him, just as it had his uncle and great-grandfather. It would whisper more tender and persuasive words to him, and he would believe what it said, though he knew the words to be lies. Then he would be just another mad king in a line of mad kings, sitting upon a shattered throne and calling for more gold, more silver, more jewels—calling for his people to dig deeper and deeper until the Mountain crumbled around them.

A sudden resolution came over Fíli and he lunged forward, slamming shut the chest's lid and locking the light inside. He stepped back and took several long breaths, trying to fill his lungs with cool air, to force out the heat that had filled him since his fingers first brushed against the Arkenstone. But he didn't know how long his strength would last, how long he could resist reaching out for the gem again; and so he glanced once more at his brother and uncle where they lay before turning his back to both them and the chest.

"I'm leaving…" he said, just barely aloud. "I'm sorry…"

He took a step towards the tent flap, then stopped and squeezed his eyes shut, realizing that he had spoken those words not to his kin, but to the Stone.

Chapter Text

Fíli drew his hood up over his head and rushed out of the tent, wishing only to make it to the Gate before the Arkenstone's call could turn him around. A few reclining Dwarves looked up when he stumbled over them, but he paid them no heed, as his eyes and all his thoughts were on the daylight ahead; and after what felt like far too long a time in the shadows, he ran out into the sunshine.

He stopped for only a moment to draw in a deep breath of cold, smoky air before he continued swiftly down the path and staggered into Bard's tent. Sigrid had not yet returned, and so he flung himself down onto the cot and flipped over onto his aching back; then he squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to will away the feeling of the King's Jewel under his skin and its whispers in his mind. He rubbed his hand against his trousers, trying to chase off the painful, though somehow pleasant burning; then he curled his fingers into a tight fist and held it to his chest as his mind lightened.

***

Standing atop the mountains of gold, Fíli held tightly to the Arkenstone; but as he watched, the jewel first dimmed then roughened and cracked, until at last it was a very ordinary-looking rock.

He threw it down, wondering why he had ever seen any value in it; then, looking up again, he saw his uncle and brother standing by his side. He opened his mouth to speak to them, but Kíli turned away while Thorin kneeled down and placed his fingertips gently on the dead stone.

"You would throw it away so easily?" the elder Dwarf asked.

Fíli knew that he wasn't speaking only of the Arkenstone.

"We both know what comes with it, Uncle," he said. "And you know that I love you, but—"

"You are my heir," said Thorin. There was anger in his voice, but pain in his eyes. "I asked you to lead our people!"

"You asked me to be a king," said Fíli, stepping toward him. "But I am not a king. I am not like you."

Thorin stood and grabbed Fíli's arm. "I chose you for a reason," he yelled, shaking his nephew. "It is your right to rule our people, and your right alone! You are the son of kings!"

"I'm my father's son," said Fíli quickly, pulling away from his uncle. He looked over then to see his brother smiling faintly. "And that's all I'm meant to be."

***

"Are you awake?"

Fíli felt himself being shaken. His eyes flew open and he looked quickly to the side, realizing only after he saw Sigrid that it had been her voice in his ear and her hand on his shoulder that had roused him. He sat up straight, ignoring the pain in his back and head, and looked down into his aching palm before again folding his fingers into a fist.

"How long was I asleep?" he asked, swinging his legs around and setting his feet on the dirt floor.

Sigrid shrugged and sat down next to him on the cot. "Not long, I suppose. I set the guard on a merry chase, but in the end I suggested to him that maybe I had imagined the warg's growls." A crooked smile rose to the girl's lips. "He was none too happy about being led from his charge."

"I imagine not," said Fíli; and though he was trying to sound as if he shared her humor, he was certain he had utterly failed.

"Is it time, then?" asked the young Woman.

"Time…? For what?" 

"To speak with Balin. You said that after you saw your brother and uncle you would send for him."

Fíli stared at her for a moment, then looked at his hand again and straightened his fingers. They were itching and shaking, and it seemed to him that they were a bit whiter towards the tips than they had been before. Suddenly, he again felt the urge to return to the Mountain, to return to the Stone; and he stood and took one large stride towards the tent flap. Then he stopped and let out a heavy breath, setting both feet firmly on the ground.

"Is something wrong?" asked Sigrid.

He turned half-around and looked to where she still sat on the cot. Her hands were folded on her lap and her tired eyes were hopeful; and he wondered just what she would say if he told her the truth of what had happened in Kíli and Thorin's tent.

"Fíli?" she asked as he continued to stare wordlessly at her. "Are you alright?"

He tightened his jaw as he turned fully around; then he stepped back to the cot and lowered himself to his knees in front of Sigrid. "I can't let Balin know I'm here," he said, resting his hand on hers—though he could not bring himself to look her in the eye. "I can't let anyone know."

"What are you talking about?" asked Sigrid, her voice thin.

It took all the will he could muster, but at last he locked gazes with the girl. "I have to leave."

She drew her eyebrows together. "Why? Where are you going?"

Fíli searched his mind for an answer that he felt comfortable with sharing—one that would not involve mentioning the pull of the Arkenstone—though he did not have to search for long. It was something that he had seen in his memory time and again: his mother, standing at the door of their home, with her shoulders slumped and her eyes wet with tears as she watched her sons leave to join their uncle on his quest. They had sworn to her that they would come back, and Fíli was determined that at least part of that promise would be honored.

"The Blue Mountains," he said. "My home, in Ered Luin."

"But this is your home now, isn't it?" asked Sigrid anxiously. "Why would you leave now, after it was so hard won?" 

He squeezed her hand. "There's someone there. Someone I left behind, someone I promised to return to…"

Sigrid's lips parted slightly and her eyes softened. "Your mother?"

Fíli nodded; then his will weakened and he let go of her hand as he sat back onto the ground. "She's waiting for us there… and she doesn't even know that Thorin and Kíli…" His voice trailed off.

"But why leave now?" asked Sigrid, folding her fingers at her chin. "And why without telling your kin? You wished earlier to see them, to speak to them. What has changed since then?"

"I understand something now that I did not then," he admitted; then he dug his fingernails into his leg to keep himself from going on about exactly what that understanding was. "I must leave, and if anyone knows I'm here, I'll be delayed. I cannot risk that."

"Where is the risk of staying until you're healed?" asked Sigrid. "There is a far greater risk for you if you leave before your wounds have been properly treated. If you would just let the Elves—"

"The Elf I trust the most, I have heard no word of," he interrupted. "I don't even know if she still lives."

"There are many others who could help you. There are healers among the Dwarves and my own people."

"I cannot stay," he said, raising his voice; then he softened his tone as he pressed the heel of his hand to his throbbing temple. "For healing or otherwise."

Why this was so difficult a thing for him to do, he could not fathom; and he wondered now why he had not just sent Sigrid away on some errand and left while she was about it. He wouldn't then have had to tell her about the thoughts and doubts shifting and twisting in his mind, he wouldn't have had to skirt around the larger truth with ones that felt like lies.

He lowered his hand and shut his eyes; and a moment later he felt Sigrid's soft fingers touch the back of his neck, just below his wound. He jumped in surprise, but he did not move away. 

"You've been through so much in so short a time," she said. "Give yourself a chance to recover. I know you are confused right now, but—" 

"I'm not confused," he lied, cutting her off. "Not about this. My mother… she has lost everyone. Her parents, her brother Frerin, her grandfather, my father… and now Thorin and Kíli. I am the only family she has left… and… if I don't go back to her, then what am I supposed to do? I don't know what…" 

The girl's touch left his neck, sliding instead to his shoulder. "Send for her. Bring her here."

"She will not come," he said, forgetting for the moment the real reason he was leaving. "Her home has always been in the Blue Mountains, with its simpler halls and shallower mines, and little threat of it being attacked or taken away." He reached up and grasped her hand, then lifted his head and looked towards the pile of cast-off armor in the corner. "Not like here. This… place that would have been better left to memory and bedtime stories."

Sigrid pressed herself to his side and wrapped her arms around him; and he clutched at her sleeve, then shifted his face and buried it in the fabric of her dress.

"Just speak with your kin," she said. "Let them help you, even if you still feel that you must leave afterwards. You do not have to set out alone, nor so soon."

Fíli felt a sinking ache in his chest, and tears forced their way out of the corners of his eyes as he turned to look at the girl. "You said the orcs came to the Lake..?"

The question seemed to catch Sigrid off-guard. "They did, yes."

"Did anyone die there? Any of your people?"

"Some," she said with a slight nod. 

He shook his head. "That never should have happened," he said softly. "None of it should have happened. The dragon should have been left sleeping in the Mountain, the orcs should have stayed in their caves, your people should have been left in peace." He swallowed hard against the ache in his throat. "I'm sorry that I… that we came here. I'm sorry for what we brought with us."

Sigrid brushed the hairs off his brow. "You didn't know any of that would happen."

"We should have known." He glanced at his still-tingling hand, then gripped her sleeve tighter. "And if I stay, it will only make things worse."

"How could you staying make it worse?" she asked. "How could your people losing another prince be a good thing? Is now not the time when they will be looking to their leaders the most?"

Fíli felt a jolt in his chest. "I am a prince, but I am not…" He choked slightly on his words, then lowered his head. "Lord Dáin will rule the people of Erebor. It will be his kingdom, and his family line will be the one that comes into succession. And if I stay… if I instead take the throne, there will always be questions among my kin about whether or not—"

He stopped suddenly; then he looked up and saw that Sigrid's eyes were wide.

"Are you saying that you should now be King?" she asked. 

"No, I should not be," he said, trying to speak with more care. "Even if once I had been primed as such. The throne of Erebor is not a place that I am ready to sit, and the responsibility that comes with it is not one I am ready to take on. If I did… if I tried, I would fail." He did not go on to say what, exactly that failing would be—that the want of the King's Jewel would drag him down into madness and drown him there. "But I would return to the Blue Mountains and do for our people there what I can."

"You would have yourself be a king there, but not here?" asked Sigrid.

"We have no kingdom in Ered Luin," said Fíli. "There is no crown, no throne, no…" …No Arkenstone, he finished silently. "There, I am a prince in name only, and only because my mother is the daughter of a king." He tried to smile at Sigrid, but it faded quickly from his lips. "As you will be one day, should your father be made king of your own people. I have already heard someone calling him Lord Bard."

Sigrid looked down at her torn and bloody dress. "I hardly look like nobility," she said, her cheeks reddening slightly.

"Do I?" asked Fíli.

She smiled faintly. "Not really, no."

He rested his hand on Sigrid's wrist. "My mother knew only what it was like to scrape and scrimp for most of her youth," he said. "And even now, she is not comfortable on a dais. She does what she can as steward in my uncle's absence, but she has always loved walking with our people, never before them; and while I would also walk with them, if I could, I would rather relieve her of that responsibility." He looked at Sigrid, noticing that she had a tear coursing down her face. "Can you understand that?" he asked, wiping her cheek with his thumb. 

Sigrid lowered her head in a small nod, but before she could say anything, a noise from the tent flap drew their attention around. The fabric was being moved aside, and both Fíli and Sigrid rose quickly to their feet; and as the girl made her way towards the flap, Fíli looked around for cover. There was no place to hide, though, and so he made for the front corner of the tent, hoping at least to stay out of sight.

"Hold!" called Sigrid, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand; then she pulled the flap aside a bit and peeked out. "This is Lord Bard's tent," she said to whomever stood outside—and Fíli imagined that he heard a sense of pride creep into her words. "What business do you have here?"

Fíli heard a deep, agitated voice outside, though he could not make out much of what the visitor was saying. Sigrid's voice, however, was much more clear.

"No, I'm afraid I don't know," she said; then after a pause she went on. "Could it have been the wind?"

There was a frustrated harrumph from outside, and the stranger—whom Fíli now knew to be a Dwarf—spoke louder, to the point where Fíli could understand what he was saying.

"There is no breeze in the tunnel," he said indignantly.

"Well, I had nothing to do with it," Sigrid told him. "I was with you the whole time."

"So you were! Chasing imaginary wargs while—"

"Did you need anything else?" asked Sigrid curtly.

"—While someone was seen leaving the King's tent," the stranger went on. "Either a boy or a Dwarf—"

"And I am clearly neither," said Sigrid, cutting him off again. "Now may I get back to my business in peace?"

The Dwarf let out a sound that was very nearly a growl. "You may!" he said. "But expect to be revisited about this sooner rather than later!"

"With an apology from you, I am sure!" Sigrid yelled out as the visitor walked away. "Once you realize that I could not have been in two places at once!" She closed the flap, then let her hands fall to her sides as she turned to Fíli. "Did you hear all that?"

Fíli shook his head. "Just some."

"You left your uncle and brother uncovered. The guard knows that somebody was in the tent."

"I don't want to make any trouble for you," he told her apologetically.

Sigrid shrugged. "As far as anyone might know, someone just went in to pay their respects."

"Well, that is what happened, after all."

The young Woman stepped over to him. "Is there no reason you would stay?" she asked, resting her hand on his slung arm. "If only for a while?"

At once, Fíli realized that he had made Sigrid understand his desire to leave—though it pained him knowing that her understanding was not based on complete honesty. He smiled gently at her. "There are many reasons I would stay, if I could," he said. "And though my reasons for leaving are fewer, they are far greater."

She lowered her head. "Will you come back?"

Fíli reached up and slid his fingers under her chin, lifting her face until he could see her eyes clearly. "I cannot say what will happen in the future," he told her. "But I don't expect that I will make my way here again. It is better that I stay where I will be needed."

"You are needed here," she said; then she bit her lip, as if to silence herself.

"The people of Erebor have Dáin now," said Fíli. "And Balin and Bofur, and… any others who may be left of the Company. My mother has only me." 

Sigrid grabbed his hand and squeezed it. "Then go to her. Go home… do what you must." 

A warmth rose in his chest with the feeling that this permission had been needed—regardless as to whom had given it. Before he could stop himself, he reached out and drew her into a hug, and she laughed lightly and wrapped her arms around him in return.

"I know I should not be asking this of you," he said against her hair, "and I will not make you swear to it, but please do not tell anyone that you saw me."

"It will become known what happened to you in time. What then will you have to say to those who think you dead?"

Fíli pulled out of the embrace. "I will tell them the truth," he said, though he was a bit shamed that he had not shared that full truth with Sigrid. "But for now, I wish for it to remain a secret."

She tilted her chin up. "And why should I keep that secret?"

"Because you said that you would not do anything that the wounded asked you not to," he told her, managing a genuine, though faint smile. "That was what you said, wasn't it?"

"Once you leave this tent, you are no longer in my care," said Sigrid, crossing her arms with an air of authority, "and I will be under no obligation to do what you ask of me. But I will give you a short time—a head start, though I will risk you being angry with me if it means you will get the healing you need. And in any case, your kin deserve to know what became of you. I will not keep that as a secret for long."

Fíli pursed his lips. "I suppose you're right," he said. "Tell them whenever you feel it is best to do so."

"If you really felt that way, then you would not object to me telling them right this minute."

"Should I keep an eye on the road behind me as I go?" he asked with a touch of humor. "Should I expect to find myself being followed?"

"Perhaps," said Sigrid. "I doubt your friends and kin will be so eager to let you go once they know you still live."

"You would not be the one doing the following, would you?" Fíli asked, raising an eyebrow. "I don't think that you could drag me back, yourself, even though you may be a bit stronger than I am right now."

Sigrid let out a quick laugh. "Solid ground feels strange enough under my feet after spending my life walking on creaking wood," she said. "And I am certainly not made for chasing down and dragging back Dwarves—or even for the road at all, I think!"

"I am not much ready for it, myself," confessed Fíli. "I know how to pack quickly and well, but I don't quite know where to find in this camp all that I might need."

"Then it is well for you that my father is not yet a king," said Sigrid, grinning. "Because it sounds to me that you could use the help of a smuggler's daughter."

Chapter Text

While Sigrid was out in the camp searching for food and any other supplies that might come in handy along the road, Fíli dug through the open crates that were sitting around Bard's tent. To his disappointment, most of what he found would have been of little use to him on a long march—though the certainty of further injury compelled him to gather a fair number of bandages, several sewing needles, and a ball of fine thread.

After stowing it all neatly in the bottom of the pack that Sigrid had brought in earlier in the day, he sat on the cot and waited patiently for the girl's return; and it was, in fact, not very long until she walked in with a bulging burlap sack in her grip and a bundle of water-skins slung over her shoulder. She set them down beside Fíli without a word, then she reached behind herself and drew a hand-axe out of the belt of her apron.

"There are a lot of weapons on the field today," she said sadly, handing him the axe. "But I didn't figure that you would want one that was too heavy until your arm gets better. And at least this will serve you as a tool, as well." 

He looked the axe over, noting its condition and weighing it for balance. Its curved head was a fine bit of Man-crafted iron, and its handle was well-shaped from ash-wood; and except for a small notch near the tip, it seemed as if it had seldom been used, even for its original purpose of hewing branches. It was almost disconcertingly clean, however, and he wondered if the previous wielder had even managed to take a single swipe at the enemy before he himself had been cut down.

"It should do fine," said Fíli, setting the axe down on the cot. "Thank you."

He drew the burlap sack up onto his lap, but before he could open it, he saw the young Woman lifting the hem of her skirt; and he watched on curiously as she revealed the leather-sheathed blade she had strapped to her leg.

"I thought you might also need a knife," she said, unfastening the straps that held the hunting-dagger to her calf. She walked around to his right side and kneeled down. "This was the sharpest one I could find."

The Dwarf nodded appreciatively. "A healer, a princess, and a smuggler," he said, grinning a bit as she secured the sheath to his boot. "You are going to go far in this world."

"Not as far as you will, perhaps," she said softly. "In any sense of the term."

The small smile faded from Fíli's lips as he studied the knife's carved-bone handle. "Anything else?" he asked, trying to make his words sound light. "Dare I ask if there is something hidden in your braid?"

She held up a finger, as if to tell him to wait, then she stood and pulled a small sachet out of her sleeve and a flint out of the pocket of her apron, passing them both to Fíli. 

"Well, I did ask," he said, sniffing the sachet. He widened his eyes in surprise. "Kingsfoil?" 

"I never knew that it had any use. At least, not until Tauriel…" Sigrid stopped and sat down on the cot next to Fíli. "The Elves brought some fresh leaves with them, but most of it came in with the Dwarves. Your kind seem to prefer it dried and ground like this."

Fíli breathed in the scent from the sachet again, enjoying the rush of warmth it sent into his chest, before placing it and the flint on top of the bandages in his pack. "We use it mainly for fevers and headaches," he said. "The Elves apparently have far more uses for it. And they certainly hold it in much higher regard than my own folk do."

"To be honest, there may be more in their words than there is in the herb," said Sigrid. "I noticed that the wounded were healed a lot faster when they spoke over them, either with or without the kingsfoil."

She glanced at Fíli out of the corner of her eye; and he could not tell whether she was still hinting that she believed he should stay for healing, or that she feared that she might have dredged up memories of Tauriel speaking over Kíli in her home. In either case, he pretended not to notice as he casually opened the sack that he had sitting on his lap. Inside, he found nuts, dried fruits, more cram, a small packet of salt, and a leather-wrapped bundle of preserved meat—all foods that were well-suited for travel.

"For someone who has never gone very far, you know well enough what is needed for a long journey," he said, securing the sack and placing it on the ground.

"I have not gone far, but my father travels often," Sigrid told him. "Or he used to, anyway. I don't suppose he'll have much cause to run barrels anymore."

"Perhaps not. Life on land will be much different from life on the Lake."

Her shoulder rose in a half-shrug "I heard talk among some of the Men that Dale would be the best place for us to settle now, and some others said they would rather go back and rebuild Laketown. I am not sure where my people will end up."

"Both places are likely," said Fíli. "There will still be need for fishermen, and trade with the Elves will not end, so I don't expect the Lake will be wholly abandoned. Though I suppose some of your folk would prefer to take a greater hand in trade with the Dwarves and stay in Dale. Either way, there are a lot of changes coming for everyone in the region."

He let his vision lose focus as he thought about how very striking those changes would be, and how fascinating the rebuilding would be to watch. The mines of Erebor would certainly reopen, so gold and iron and gems would flow out of the Mountain once more. Brisk commerce would return to the area, there would be an influx of Dwarven craftsman and laborers, people of all kinds would come from far off places to ply their trades and bring even more wealth and culture to the area. The field between Erebor and Dale might well be turned and planted with crops, trees would regrow on the mountainside, the Ravens would again carry messages between the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and their distant kin.

And at the heart of it all would be the Dwarf-King, sitting on his rebuilt throne and guiding his people through every step they took along the way. But that thought in particular troubled Fíli, and so he pushed it to the back of his mind.

"Did your father say anything about what he believes should be done?" he asked, turning to Sigrid.

She jumped—as if she, herself, had been drawn from a daydream. "I haven't seen much of him today," she said, rubbing her eyes. "He may be off somewhere going over things with the Elf-king or Balin or… was his name Dáin?"

Fíli nodded, and Sigrid went on.

"But if I know my father, he's likely had his fill of talk, and instead went out to help with the recovery. To help with the dead. Bain has been out there most of the day, and he told me that a lot of folks don't want to put their friends and kin in the fires, so they chose to help in burning the enemy, instead. He said there are still a lot of Elves and Dwarves and Men that need to be brought off the field. I suppose if there is any task my father has placed on himself, it would be that."

Fíli turned away, casting his sight on the pile of bloody rags that sat not very far from his feet. Nearby lay the shears that had been used to cut his mustache and hair that morning, and without stopping to think, he picked them up and turned them over in his hand, examining the bloody strands that still clung to the blades. 

"Do you want to take them?" asked Sigrid.

Fíli slid the shears into his pack. "I suppose I might make use of them at some point."

"Is there anything else you think you'll need?" 

"I would not want to take more from those in the camp than I already have. Life here will be difficult enough for a long while, without so many supplies coming up missing."

"The food might well have been counted as your share of the ration, anyway, so you needn't feel wrong in taking it. But what about spare clothing? Is what you are wearing going to be enough?"

"I don't expect that I'll care much if these ones are dirtied along the way," he said, rubbing his palm over his trouser leg. "And I have needles and thread for mending them, if need-be."

He leaned down and flipped the pack-flap over, trying his best to secure it with one hand; but Sigrid saw his struggle and gently pushed him aside so to fix the buckle shut herself. He gritted his teeth at the pain in his back as he sat up, giving her a small nod of thanks. 

"How far away is your home?" she asked.

"Pretty far. I'm not sure of the miles, but it will take me at least a few months to get there."

She turned aside. "Then this is definitely not enough."

"No matter how much you take on a long journey, it is almost never enough."

"So my father tells us. And that you always end up forgetting something."

Fíli smiled ruefully, recalling the fuss that Bilbo had made about leaving his pocket handkerchiefs behind in Hobbiton; then he exhaled roughly and slumped his shoulders.

Beside him, Sigrid yawned. "Have you at least checked the crates for a bedroll?"

"I didn't see any in the open boxes," Fíli replied; though he admitted to himself that he hadn't even considered searching for one. "And I didn't have any tools to get into the others."

The young Woman picked up his axe. "You do now," she told him, smiling tiredly.

She moved to the end of the cot and dragged a crate out into the open, then she slid the axe-blade under the lid and twisted. There was a loud, splintering crack, and the lid fell to the dirt; then the girl set the axe back down on the cot and began digging through the crate as Fíli watched on.

"Do you know the route you are going to take?" she asked.

Fíli shrugged. If he was going to be honest, he really had not thought about which way he should go. He had studied many maps over the years, and he had spoken at length with Thorin about the path they would have taken eastwards, had things gone more according to plan. But most of what he'd learned from both sources was now hidden deep in crumbling memories, and all his current plans were based solely on finding the westward road and not leaving it until he got to where he was bound.

Even so, he reminded himself that although the Road may have at one time been straight and somewhat safe, it was now twisting and broken, with many forks which might lead him to a bad end if he took the wrong path. The only thing that he was certain of concerned the ways he would not go; and though he considered, at first, telling Sigrid that he was going to take a different route so she could not too soon send his kin after him, he decided in the end that it would be best to tell her the truth, so that anyone that followed would not come to bad places in their search.

"I will not go north," he said after a moment. "It is not very far around the Forest that way, but it would bring me too close to the Withered Heath for my liking."

Sigrid shoved the crate aside and pulled another one out from under the cot, then grabbed the axe and pried off the lid as she had done with the first one. "What's the Withered Heath?"

"Dragon breeding grounds," he told her. "Or, at least, they used to breed there. Not many of our folk have gone to the Grey Mountains in recent years, so I cannot be sure if the dragons are still a problem. Either way, I would hate to get there and discover that they are on-guard."

"I wouldn't want to take that risk, either." Sigrid stood and picked up the axe, heading towards the table where the wash basin sat. "So, you will go south?"

Fíli rubbed his chin thoughtfully; then he reached up to tug on his mustache, remembering only then that most of it was gone. "Not too far south," he said, lowering his hand to his lap. "It would take many months just to get around the bottom edge of the Forest, and if there is any truth in what I heard about the terrain of the Brown Lands, then it would take longer still to navigate the swamps and meres."

"Then which way are you—" Sigrid spun around towards him, her mouth hanging open. "You are not going to go through Mirkwood?"

He pressed his lips together and nodded, and Sigrid kneeled down next to the last sealed crate and roughly forced the lid off. She stood and kicked the box over, spilling the contents onto the ground rather than searching carefully through as she had done with the first two, then she briefly looked the mess over before stalking back to the cot with the axe held tightly in her grip.

"Get up," she ordered, first tossing the weapon onto the dirt, then tugging on the corner of the blanket that the Dwarf was sitting on. "There is no bedding in the crates, so this will have to do."

Fíli obeyed without hesitation, grabbing the water-skins and stepping to the side as the young Woman yanked the woolen blanket off the cot and shook it. He clutched the skins to his chest and held his breath as the trimmed ends of his hair flew into the air; then he took a step back and squinted as she shook the blanket once more.

"Did I say something wrong?" he asked. 

"The Elves will never allow you to go through the Forest," she said bluntly, laying the blanket back down on the cot and folding it over. 

"Perhaps they would not normally, but most of them are… well, I suppose they are busy right now," he said. "And if I recall, south of the Long Marshes there's a path that will bring me some distance from the Wood-Elves ken. That is, if the land has not changed too much since the maps I once read were drawn."

She started to roll the blanket up, then narrowed her eyes at Fíli before returning to her task in silence. There was now even greater agitation on her face, though, and he shifted uncomfortably where he stood.

"I have been through the Forest once already," he went on, "so I will at least know some of what to expect…"

He cleared his throat, choosing neither to mention the troubles he and the Company had encountered the first time through, nor the fact that they had not actually walked the entire way.

"The path you are speaking of is the Old Forest Road," said Sigrid as she finished rolling the blanket. "It is quite some distance south-west of the Lake—some fifty miles at the least, or maybe even closer to a hundred. And the Marshes have spread in recent years and have swallowed up the trailhead, so you mightn't even be able to find that road in the first place."

"How do you know that?" he asked, shaking his head. "You have never been there, have you?"

Sigrid kneeled and began tying the blanket to the bottom of his pack. "My father has had to travel that way more than once," she said. "And always he returns with stern warnings to never go near that road. He told us that it lies south of the mountains that divide Mirkwood, and it is overgrown and nigh impassable—and that there are far greater threats there than there are on the northern path."

Fíli straightened his aching shoulders in resolution; though he wondered how much worse those threats could be than the Man-sized spiders, disorienting aura, life-sapping river, and mysterious white stag that he and the Company had already come across in the Northern Forest. Still, despite those dangers and challenges that waited under Mirkwood's gnarled boughs, it was a chance he preferred to take rather than staying at Erebor and dealing with the Arkenstone.

The mere thought of the King's Jewel sent a shudder through his body. He pressed the water-skins harder to his chest; and when Sigrid saw this, she stood and grabbed them from him, then she pulled one out of the bunch.

"This is wine," she said, uncorking it and holding it out to him. "I thought that maybe you might like something different at some point along the way. Or, anyway, that it might keep you warm on a cold night."

Fíli sniffed at the mouth of the skin and raised an eyebrow at the strong, pleasant scent; but before he could say anything, Sigrid pulled the wine-skin away and pounded the cork back into place.

"But you're likely to die in the Forest before you'll need it, anyway," she said, throwing the skins onto the cot and folding her arms. "That is, if you even make it a league before your injuries catch up to you."

"You don't need to worry about—" he began, but she did not give him the chance to go on.

"Do not tell me what I need to worry about," she nearly yelled, uncrossing her arms. "And do not for one second forget that you are leaving me here with the knowledge that I may likely have helped you…" She doubled her fists at her sides. "That I may have helped a prince, of all people, run off to his death."

An ache rose in Fíli's chest. She was right. Drawing her into his plans, seeking her help in leaving, asking her not to tell anyone that she had seen him—all of it had been wrong of him, and he could only imagine how she must now feel about the whole situation, or if she would really be able to resolve it on her end after he left. He reached out and took gentle hold of her wrist, noting how fast her pulse was under his own shaking fingers; and though he feared she would pull away, she instead relaxed her tensed arm.

"I'm sorry," he said, shifting his hand around to hold hers. "It was… it was unfair of me to ask all that I have of you."

"I know why you feel you must leave," she said, softening both her tone and her gaze. "But why must you go through Mirkwood? Going around might take longer, but it would be far safer."

"It might be safer. Neither of us can say that for certain, and the longer road could very well lead to places even worse."

She squeezed his hand. "My father said never to go into the Forest. He said that there are more than Wood-Elves to worry about there. More frightening things, more dangerous things."

Fíli gave her a crooked smile. "Then they had best make a clear path for me," he said, trying to sound confident. "Because there is little that is more frightening or more dangerous than a Dwarf waylaid on his road home."

Sigrid bit her lip, then opened her mouth; but before she could speak, the tent flap was lifted and she spun around towards it. Fíli swiftly lifted his cloak-hood over his head and turned his back to the person who was now entering.

"I thought you were sleeping," a girl's small voice said, and Fíli recognized it as belonging to Bard's younger daughter.

"Not yet," said Sigrid, then she let out a long, relieved sigh. "I've been taking care of some things first."

Fíli peeked past his hood at Tilda as she made her way to the cot. She appeared as worn-down as her sister; and although there was no blood on her torn dress, her hair was tousled and her face was dirty, and her small bare feet scuffed across the dirt as if she were simply too tired to lift them.

"Who's this?" she asked, motioning towards Fíli without bothering to look at him. "You should get him out before Da learns you have a boy in the tent. He prob'ly won't like that."

Sigrid pulled the Dwarf a few steps towards the tent flap. "It's alright," she said. "He's leaving in a minute."

Tilda shoved the water- and wine-skins to the floor, then flopped onto her chest on the cot. A moment later she lifted herself up slightly and wrinkled her nose. "Where's the blanket?" she asked. "And why is there hair everywhere?"

"Don't worry about it, I'll clean it up," Sigrid told her sister, gripping Fíli's hand tightly; then she let go of him and joined Tilda at the cot. "Where are Da and Bain?"

The younger girl laid down on her side and curled up with her face towards Sigrid. "I dunno," she said. "I think they're busy at the fires."

Sigrid sat on the ground and placed her hand on the top of Tilda's head. "You look tired, darling…"

"I almost fell asleep in the healing-tent." 

"Then go ahead and close your eyes, now," said Sigrid as she gently ran her touch over her sister's hair. "Get some rest."

The young woman started to hum a slow song, and Tilda's eyelids eased shut; and Fíli felt a lightness in his chest as he listened to the sweet and calming lullaby. After a few seconds, he drew in a deep breath and stepped close, then bent over painfully and spoke to Sigrid.

"Will there be any trouble?" he asked, his voice as low as he could manage.

Sigrid shrugged and rested her head on the cot as she continued to hum her song. Fíli placed a hand on her shoulder for a moment before turning away and kneeling beside his pack. He slid his left arm out of the sling, grimacing against the pain in his elbow and trying not to make a sound that might draw Tilda's attention; then he tied the food-sack and drink-skins as best he could to the straps before struggling the pack onto his shoulders. 

It was distressingly heavy, but he knew that his strength would return soon enough, and the pack would not then be such a burden. All the same, he could not bring himself up onto his feet just yet; and when he noticed that Sigrid had grown quiet, he turned around and rested a hand on the young Woman's back. Her breaths were long and deep, and her palm had slipped off of her sister's hair; and at once, Fíli realized that she had finally managed to fall into the sleep that he had been keeping her from. 

He lifted his touch from her back, then ran his fingertips along her braid. He thought of placing his brow to hers in farewell; but he quickly chased away the idea, and instead simply brushed the stray hairs off of her forehead as he leaned close to her ear.

"I have to go now," he whispered. "Thank you for everything."

Sigrid made a small noise, then she settled back down in her sleep; and Fíli struggled at last to his feet and lowered his head, studying his tingling fingers. He shook his hand hard, then reached over and eased his left arm back into the sling before turning away from the cot and making his way towards the tent flap.

Once there, he drew to a sudden halt. He knew that this was the wrong way to leave—but still he heard the Arkenstone echoing in his thoughts and felt the burning in his fingers and the tugging at the back of his mind, so he also knew that he could risk staying no longer. By slipping away like this, he told himself, he could at least pretend that he would not be missed, would not be pursued, would soon be forgotten; and so, he threw the canvas flap aside and stepped out into the smoky winter air. 

Chapter Text

Fíli kept his head down as he made his way past the many tents that were filled with the sleeping, the healing, and the dying. When he dared to glance to the side, he noticed for the first time that a few of those tents were the compact, sturdy type favored by Dwarves on long journeys; though there were also a fair number of cobbled-together Mannish shelters, while the largest and most well-constructed tents appeared to be of Elf-make.

That also meant that the sizable one in which Thorin and Kíli now rested had likely been provided by Thranduil, and Fíli wondered what his uncle would have to say about being laid out within something that had been constructed by Elf hands. Kíli, of course, would have had no qualms with it at all—and Fíli imagined, with grim humor, his uncle and brother sitting in some far-off place, arguing about whether or not a smaller, Dwarf-made tent would have served the purpose just as well.

Smiling sadly, Fíli turned his face down again as he continued making his way from the Gate; and a few minutes along, the toe of his boot hit something and he stopped in mid-step. He realized only then that he had let his eyes lose focus as he had been walking, and he had to blink hard several times before his vision cleared enough for him to be able to tell that the object he had nearly tripped over was the hilt of a broken sword.

Lifting his face, he saw that he had gone beyond the camp and was now on the battlefield. A quarter-mile or so away, both to his right and in front of him, people were milling about, gathering the dead and loading them onto already-laden sledges; but despite the many weapons and armor pieces lying on the ground near the camp, there were no bodies close-at-hand. 

Those casualties had likely been the first to be carted off, since the survivors would not long have wanted to see the dead. Their removal had not, however, gotten rid of the smell of blood that had seeped into the dirt; and though the evening's rain had washed some of that blood away, most of it had diluted and flowed together, blending the black and the red into a sickening brown. In places there were still to be found bold patches that marked where the dead had been taken off the field that morning, and Fíli grimaced when he saw that some of the stains were accompanied by viscera and bits of torn flesh.

Returning his sight to the ground at his feet, he shifted somewhat to the left and went on—this time with more careful steps, so that he would not stumble. But as he pressed forward, he felt himself beginning to slow; and he could not tell whether it was because of the weight of his pack, the need to work his way around the remains of the Battle, or the stress of his wounds. He was sure, anyway, that he hadn't yet gone very far, and though he did not want to see how much further the field of battle extended, he had to admit to that he did not know if he was even going in the right direction.

At last he had no other choice but to lift his eyes to the sun, hoping that it would guide him south and eastwards enough so that he might be able to skirt around Dale without drawing too near to it. When he looked up, however, his attention fell instead on the two columns of black smoke that first cut up into the sky then flowed on a low breeze towards the Mountain. He traced the nearer line of smoke to the ground and saw that the pyre on which the Men and Dwarves and Elves burned was much closer than he'd originally believed—but thankfully not close enough that he could clearly see the able-bodied lifting the dead from the goat-pulled sledges and placing them at the edge of the flames.

Where the fuel for the pyres had come from, Fíli could not say, as there were few trees near the Mountain, and those that were there were small and gnarled. Some of the wood had likely come from the remains of Laketown, he figured; and it was at least possible that there was some century-old wood somewhere within Erebor or Dale, stacked next to long-cold hearths and forges, or scavenged from falling and rotten mine scaffolding. The same wood had likely been used to construct the biers where Kíli and Thorin rested, and he wondered if the survivors would end up running low enough on pyre fuel that they would choose to break Fíli's own unoccupied bier apart so that the planks would not be wasted.

Near to the fire there were what Fíli at first thought to be large boulders; but as the light shifted, he guessed from the glare that they were actually piles of armor that had been stripped from the dead. Balin had told him once about how they had done the same at Azanulbizar; and that the surviving Dwarves from that battle had then carried it all off on their already aching and weary backs, so that the goblins and orcs could not make use of it. Here, though, the armor's removal was likely a matter of the bodies burning better if they were bare, or of the rain-wetted clothing hampering the flames—or, perhaps, the survivors just did not want something to go to waste if it could still be of some use.

Balin had also told him that while most of the dead had been burned on the pyre at Moria, the number of those that had been given a more dignified send-off in the form of a cairn had numbered only four. Those few had been among the nobility: Náin, Fundin, Frerin, and Thrór—though the King's burial was not complete, as his severed head had come up missing in the wake of the battle.

But although there would be only two Dwarves laid under stone here at Erebor, it was certain that three tombs would be carved, even if one of them would serve only to honor a dead prince that had somehow vanished off the field after the Battle's end. It was not lost to Fíli that his grandfather Thráin had also disappeared in such a way—except for the small detail that nobody had actually seen Thráin's body, and so it had been thought rash to memorialize him with a grave outside of Khazad-dûm.

It was likely, anyway, that Sigrid would tell Fíli's kin about his survival long before his tomb could be carved—or before it could be completed—and he hoped that she would at least give him some fair amount of time to leave the Mountain behind. Once he got far enough away, it wouldn't matter if they were aware that he lived, it wouldn't matter if they came after him. Distance would ease the pulling of the Arkenstone on his mind, then he would be able to tell them why he left. And if Balin came after Fíli, then nothing would need to be said. He would know without having to be told, and he would understand Fíli's decision; though whether or not he would accept it was far from certain.

After a while of slow progress, Fíli noticed that the crisp sunlight had begun to reflect brighter off the fallen weapons and shields that lay all around him, somehow making the air feel colder than it had the previous evening; but still, he was inclined to stare at the metal and study its craftsmanship in order to chase away grimmer thoughts. All Dwarves, after all, loved those things that came from the earth: stone carved, gems faceted, metals wrought and unwrought. Fíli himself had always admired the fluidity of a delicate gold chain slipping between his fingers as much as the heaviness of an iron mace in his grip; though his very favorite things were those with edges—sharpened swords, curved axes, finely-pointed parrying daggers.

But the weapons here were wrong; they were horrible and out-of-place. They had cut through Men's bellies, hewed off Elves' heads, crushed Dwarves' skulls. Even the weapons that Fíli knew had been wielded by the defenders seemed dirty and corrupted, as if the black blood that they had spilled had managed to seep into the metal and foul it. It might, in fact, be better if they weren't saved for future use, but rather burned with the dead.

At once, Fíli halted in his steps as a pulling at the back of his mind told him that he was in a place that he had been before. He looked around for something familiar that may have given him that sensation, and he found it in the form of a large boulder not more than twenty feet from where he stood, and so he altered his course in that direction. When he reached the great stone he began to circle it, running his fingers along the rough surface as he went; but when he came to the far side, he froze.

Although the rain had washed it away, Fíli knew that there had once been a puddle of red on the ground there from where he had coughed up a mouthful of blood the night before—from where he had landed after Azog had tossed him aside. Fíli slid his hand off the stone and pressed it to his mouth as a sickness rose in his stomach; then he swallowed hard and tried to straighten up, wincing at the ache in his lower back as it reminded him that it had not been quite so long ago that he had been lying on the ground in this very place.

He had been in pain, weakened, choking on his own blood, fighting for air—but he hadn't stayed here. He'd had a reason not to just lie down and save his own life by letting Azog believe that he was already dead. Digging through his hazy recollections, he managed to figure out the direction in which he had crawled; and so he looked towards where his brother had died. It would take him only a few steps to get there, though during the Battle it had felt like it had taken him ages to get to Kíli's side; but he took only a single step, then his attention was drawn by a flash of bold light to his left. He glanced in that direction, then turned fully aside and made his way to the object that had drawn his gaze.

When he reached it, shock and fear brought Fíli to a standstill as he saw the sleek steel shaft of Azog's clawed arm. His breath quickened and his head began to swim; then he tightened his jaw resolutely. Azog could do him no more harm than he already had—the pale orc and his white warg were by now burning on a pyre.

He stepped over to the limb and cautiously nudged it with his toe, almost expecting it to leap up and attack him of its own volition; then he painfully lowered himself to one knee. Sliding his touch along the metal, he discovered that it was almost glass-smooth, and so cold from the winter air that he believed for a moment that his fingers might freeze to it. Up close like this, it seemed less like steel and more like silver, and despite all of the foul use it must have had, there was not so much as a scratch on its sleek surface.

Ignoring the warning in his mind to leave it be, Fíli let his hand close around the thick bar; and as his grip tightened, he almost imagined he heard distant Dwarven voices telling him that this was a wondrous thing. The whispered admiration was both strange and compelling, and without stopping to think about whether or not he should, he lifted the limb off the ground. It was far lighter than it appeared, and it shone much more brilliantly in the sunlight than he thought such a vicious weapon could; and when he turned it over, he marveled at how the light caught on the claw-points and made them shine like faceted gems. 

It was an ugly thing to wield, but somehow beautiful to behold, and for a long moment Fíli considered claiming it as a trophy. But as he examined the fine metal, disgust creeped into his chest. The voices in his mind changed from proclaiming wonder to crying out in terror—as they had done when he had tried to lay his hand on the Arkenstone for a second time; and when he at last let his sight come to rest on the longest of the claws, the back of his head started to burn.

Fíli again felt the metal tearing the skin on his scalp, piercing his skull—but he did not allow the feeling to go any deeper. He rose quickly to his feet; and ignoring the pain throughout his body, he pulled his arm back and threw Azog's cast-off limb as far away as he could manage. He listened to the clear ringing sound of it striking some far-away weapon or piece of armor, then he curled his right hand into a fist and pressed his slung left arm to his bruised his ribs as the voices first faded to whispers before vanishing completely.

He took several deep, shaky breaths that did nothing to clear the heaviness from his lungs; then he stepped swiftly to the place where he had left his brother on the field—where he had told Kíli to wait for him. There was little to see there now, little to prove that either he or Kíli had been left on that spot with their faces covered and their palms placed together; though as he searched, he did see things that were familiar to him.

His orc-shield and blackened great-axe lay nearby; as did the arrow with which Kíli had killed the giant white warg, and which had subsequently gone through Fíli's arm and into Azog's chest. He saw, also, the backsword that he had himself killed the lesser warg with, the snapped spear-shaft that Thorin had thrown down, and Azog's great mace. What he did not see was what he wished to find the most—the thing that, if he could give it to his mother, would save him from having to tell her in so many words that her younger son was not coming home.

If Kíli's rune-stone was on the battlefield somewhere, then it was lost. Fíli knew that he would not be able to recover it without overturning every piece of fallen armor or digging through the blood-soaked dirt for hours, days, weeks. Any other survivors who came along to gather the remnants of war would likely see it as nothing more than a common rock and leave it where it lay; then the field would one day be turned and planted, and far under the grasping roots of a fresh crop the stone would remain. As Kíli would remain at the Mountain, laid under a great slab of stone; mourned by a few friends, and given cursory honors by many people that did not know him.

Thorin, at least, would be remembered in stories and songs as a hero in the history of Erebor. Thorin II Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King under the Mountain, the carving on his tomb would read. A King for a moment only, but the King that led the reclamation of their homeland.

On Fíli's own tomb, there would be few words to carve; except those that said that he would have been King one day, had he not died young. At the funeral, his kin might well mention how he had always been there in support of Thorin; but in keeping with speaking well of the dead, it would not be told how he had openly questioned his uncle, had disobeyed his orders, and had taken private counsel with Balin regarding him.

Nothing would be said about how he had failed to save the King's life, nor would they say anything about how he had not protected his brother when it mattered the most. Nobody would tell how, with Kíli's death, he had also broken the promise that he had made to their mother. It would never be known how he had failed in every charge that had been set on him, how he had broken every oath—how, even with his own death, he had failed to save the people he was sworn to protect.

But he had not died; and the thought that he'd had to remind himself of that shocked and frightened Fíli. His stomach began to turn, his eyes stung and blurred, and tears fell hot and fast down his cheeks. 

Kíli should not have rushed at Azog; Thorin should not have given his last measure of energy running a spear through the orc's chest. If they'd have waited—if they'd have held back for only minutes—Beorn would have come, he would have killed Azog before he could have killed them. Then the eagles would have finished off the rest of the enemy, and the Battle would have ended with Kíli and Thorin alive. There would have been only one bier to build, only one tomb to fill; Thorin would still be King, and in Kíli, the King would still have an heir.

Fíli choked, then his shoulders slumped and his back bowed under the weight of his pack. As he fell to his knees, a shock of pain travelled up his spine, and he clutched at the darkened dirt, wanting nothing more than to pull his uncle and brother out of the earth. He did not want to have to tell his mother what he had done, what he had failed to do; he did not want to tell her that Thorin and Kíli were gone, he did not want to tell her that they might still be alive, if it had not been for him

His breath caught at the top of his burning throat, and he grabbed a handful of bloody dirt, then slammed it back to the ground. He knew it was wrong of him to feel this way—to be wrapped up in pity for himself, when Thorin and Kíli would never see another sunrise or speak another word. Still he could not chase the away the ache, could not stop thinking about what he would now have to do; and he regretted desperately that he could never make up for failing to do what he should have done.

Lifting his face, he first stared at the frightfully cold and bright blue sky, then he shut his eyes against it. He wondered bitterly if it would be better if he didn't make it all the way back to Ered Luin, and if he came to some bad end along the road. Maybe someone would discover his body then and return him to Erebor, and lay him in his tomb beside his brother and uncle. Or maybe he could lie down here, where he should have died last night. Maybe he could will himself to sleep, and in his sleep, will himself to fade, to drift, to join Kíli and Thorin wherever they waited.

But he could not do that now, any more than he could have done it hours ago, when he had been dying. If he were to stay here, they would find him. His kin, his allies, his friends; they would be happy to see that he had survived, and they would bring him back to Erebor, unaware of how he had failed them all. They would seek healing for him, he would recover from his wounds, he would accept the throne—and he would fall, wanting to take every breath from then on just so he could feel the burning of the Arkenstone under his skin.

He tried to stand, to move away from this place, to leave behind the Mountain and the battlefield; but it was as if something was grabbing at him from the earth and holding him down. He squeezed his eyes shut, then he reached to the back of his head and pressed his palm hard to his scalp. His burning hand jerked and his fingernails dug into his skin, even past the hood and what was left of his hair; and warmth traveled outwards from the wound and down his neck, as if it was bleeding once more.

A shadow passed in front of him, and somewhere in his wavering thoughts he wondered if a cloud had gone in front of the sun or if the wind had moved the smoke from the pyre towards the south. Then the shadow grew deeper, and with it came the sound of weapons being moved aside on the ground nearby. He heard shuffling, and a soft exhaled breath warmed his cheek as slim arms twined around his neck and the faint scent of kingsfoil drifted near.

Chapter Text

Though they had only known one another for a short time, Fíli could tell who was there without needing to look. He recognized her by the sound of her breath in his ear, by the feel of the fabric of her dress, by the scent she carried on her skin; and so he wrapped his uninjured arm around Sigrid's back and pulled the young Woman near, resting his cheek on her shoulder without trying to either stop or justify his tears.

Sigrid herself said nothing as he held her close and wept onto the sleeve of her tattered dress—and for that, Fíli was grateful. He did not know what he would say, even if he were capable of speaking; and as his back continued to heave, she soothed him with a gentle caress on his arm. And so they remained for many long minutes, kneeling in the middle of the battlefield and listening to the not-so-distant sounds of survivors gathering the dead; and although he still heard the warring voices in his mind, after a time his breaths slowed and his thoughts became more clear.

Finally, he was able to lift his head from her shoulder, though he could not yet bring himself to look into the girl's eyes. "You said you wouldn't follow me," he said. "That you wouldn't come after me."

"I didn't come after you," she told him softly. "I woke and you were gone, and I just hoped to catch you before you got too far."

"To stop me?"

"To give you something you forgot."

Sigrid's hold on him loosened, and he sat back and watched on as she reached behind herself and drew out the axe that she had given him earlier—and only then did he realize that he had left it behind in Bard's tent. He reached out so to take the weapon, but he could not find the strength, and so he instead rested his fingers on her wrist and guided her arm down until the axe was on the dirt beside them.

"Is this where it happened?" she asked, glancing around.

Fíli nodded and took her by the hand; then his eyes began to well up again and he hung his head. "Why can I only think about how much I am going to miss them?" he asked before he had even thought his words through. "About how… different I am going to be without them? It feels as if I'm grieving for myself… it feels wrong…"

"Have you never lost someone?"

"No one so close to me," he said, trying hard now to sound calm. "I was too young when my father died to understand."

"You do not remember grieving him?"

Fíli shrugged. "The strongest memory I have of him is how angry I was that he'd left us," he confessed. "I thought that was what he did. I didn't know then what death was. For years, I thought he was going to come home again. I always thought I would turn around and he would just… be there. He never was."

"It will feel that way now," said Sigrid, her tone changing so that she sounded as if she were reciting trained words. "But some morning you'll wake up, and you'll get halfway through the day before you realize that you haven't thought about your uncle or brother since the last evening. And that's when you'll know you're getting better, when you're starting to move past it all."

A pain worked its way up the back of Fíli's neck and he stretched it, then he let go of Sigrid and slid his hand under his hood, rubbing the ache. He felt warm wetness under his fingers and he froze in place, then he withdrew his shaking hand and folded it into a fist, not daring to check if it was coated in blood. 

"You're too young to speak such wise words," he said, turning again to Sigrid.

"I'm only repeating things that wiser folk have told me."

"Your father?"

The young Woman gave him a small nod. "When my mother died, it felt like part of me died. I asked my da if I was supposed to feel that way. He told me that some people really become a part of you, and that you are allowed to miss that part when it's gone. He said that you're allowed to be angry about it, not just sad."

"You could not have been very old then," said Fíli, recalling what Sigrid had said about her mother dying at Tilda's birth. "That is a hard lesson for a child to learn."

"I wasn't a child for long," she said. "I had to become the lady of the house. I had to cook and clean and sew. I had to keep Bain out of trouble and make sure my father remembered to eat, I had to take care of Tilda, and… everything else." The corner of her lips rose as she turned aside. "I guess I'm becoming more like my mother every day."

He unfolded his hand and studied his reddened fingers for a moment before hastily wiping them off on his trouser leg. "She must have been an amazing Woman, if her daughter is anything to go by," he said; then he bit down on his tongue.

Sigrid sighed and gave him a faint smile; but before she could say anything to Fíli, a shuffling noise rose up behind him. He began to turn back, but the girl inhaled sharply and reached out, lowering his hood over his face; then she placed her palm on his neck and pulled him close until his cheek was resting on her shoulder.

"Sigrid?" Bard's concerned voice came from nearby. "What are you doing here?"

"What you asked me to do," she said, rubbing Fíli's arm as he tensed up. "Tending to the wounded."

Bard's feet moved to the side, and Fíli pressed his face harder to the girl's neck. 

"If he is wounded, he should not be on the field," said Bard; then his tone softened as he spoke to Fíli. "Come along now, friend. It's best you get back to the—"

The Man's strong hand gripped Fíli's shoulder; and when the Dwarf jumped at the unexpected contact, Sigrid's arms wrapped around him and she pulled him to the side. 

"This is no place for those who are unwell, Sigrid," said Bard, pulling his touch away. "Why is he not at the Gate?"

"I am bound south, Lord Bard…" said Fíli, unable to stop himself; then he gritted his teeth, hoping that his voice was at least rough enough that it might not be recognized. 

There was a long pause, then Bard kneeled and again touched Fíli's shoulder. "Have we met one another, Master Dwarf," he said, "that you are able to call me by my name without the need to see my face?"

Fíli shifted a bit more away, and he felt Bard's fingers slide across his shoulders and to the back of his neck. The Dwarf rose to his feet and turned away; then Sigrid stood, as well, and took hold of his hand.

"Father, please…" she said. "Allow him a moment to grieve. The dead have already been removed from this place, and he will not be in your way."

Bard let out a little sound that might have been him straining to stand, then he neared once more to Fíli. "Why is it important that you do your mourning here?" the Man asked. "Did you know those that fell on this spot?"

Fíli nodded, and Bard went on.

"The young Dwarves that died in this place were kin to King Thorin…" He fell silent for a few seconds, as if weighing his next words. "And they were friends to my family. But when Lord Balin and I came to gather their bodies this morning, one of them was missing. Would you know what became of him?"

Fíli turned his eyes down until he saw the blackened backsword in the dirt. "A warg…" he said, almost to himself; then he spoke just a bit louder. "Perhaps a scavenging warg dragged him off…"

"Perhaps," said Bard doubtfully as he stepped closer. "What is your name, friend?"

"Náli," whispered Fíli, giving the first name that came to mind; then he clamped his mouth shut.

"Why are you bound south, Náli?" urged Bard.

Suddenly, Sigrid seemed to have had enough of the questioning. "He is going to see if he can be of some help at the Lake," she lied. "He has had enough of the battlefield, and so long as he is near it, there is little he will be able to do except grieve. So, please, let him be on his way to somewhere that he may find himself of use."

Bard let out a long breath, but before he could say anything, another familiar voice drew near. 

"Da!" said Bain, panting heavily as he ran up to them. "The Elves sent me for you!"

"What is it?" asked Bard. "What's wrong?"

Bain came to a stop within Fíli's line of sight; and when the two of them locked gazes, the boy's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. He looked to his sister, who shook her head slightly, and he immediately closed his mouth and rubbed the back of his neck.

"You need to come," he said to his father. "They told me it's important."

Bard grunted, as if he had heard that several times already. "Go on, then," he said. "Tell them that I will be there soon."

Turning, Bain focussed on Fíli one more time, then he glanced at Sigrid before running off.

Stepping closer to his daughter, Bard touched the Dwarf's arm. "Get him off the battlefield," he said. "South, west, or north—it does not matter. Then get yourself back to the camp and have a rest."

His hand left Fíli's arm and his footsteps headed off after his son; and as the Dwarf adjusted his position to watch him go, he saw a group of people moving around the field not more than a few hundred feet away. There were still bodies there—though he had not noticed them earlier, so wrapped up had he been in his own grief—and the survivors were gathering them up and stacking them like lumber on a long, blood-drenched sledge.

Fíli turned back to Sigrid. "Your brother recognized me."

She stooped and picked up the axe, then slid the handle into Fíli's belt. "He will not say anything," she told him, tugging gently on his wrist.

For several seconds his feet felt as if they were stuck in place by the blood beneath them; then he willed them loose and went along to where she was leading—though he could not stop himself from taking one last look back at both the ground where Kíli had died, and the Mountain where he and Thorin now lay.

"How do you know Bain will not tell?" he asked as he turned forward once more.

"Because he hasn't yet," said Sigrid, letting go of his wrist and linking fingers with him. "You were asleep, so you did not see him, but when I returned from searching for Balin and your other kin… after I learned about your brother and uncle, I stopped Bain coming out of our tent. He said that you were supposed to be dead, and that when he went with Da to get your body off the field, you were gone."

Supposed to be dead… "So, then he was the reason you questioned whether or not my kin knew me to be alive?"

"He was going to tell my father that you had been found, but after I told him your wishes, he swore not to say anything until I gave him the word."

"And I take it that word has not been given."

"Not yet."

She pulled him to a halt; and when Fíli looked down he saw at their feet a body so mangled that he could not tell whether it was an Elf or a Man. Sigrid tightened her hold on him, then she gathered her skirt up in her free hand and started walking again, steering them both around the body. There were many more dead beyond; and as the pair pressed forward, they kept their attention on a rise far ahead, daring only to peek down every few steps to be sure that they would not trip over any of the fallen.

"You had no great reason to swear Bain to secrecy before I let you know I was leaving," said Fíli after a few minutes of slow progress.

"Your wishes were reason enough," returned Sigrid. "And he was of help to me, anyway, though he did not understand why you would not want to be found."

"How was he a help?"

"He lit the fire in the tent, and afterwards kept my father away."

Fíli's chest started to ache, and his temple began to throb. "I should not be making you lie to your father," he said. "There will be trouble for you when he finds out."

"You are not making me do anything," said Sigrid as she let go of his hand and instead linked arms with him. "And I know my father well enough to say that he will understand."

"Will he, really? He owes me nothing that he should be happy that you kept my survival a secret from him."

"He owes you much," she said. "You saved his children, after all. If not for you and your kin, and Tauriel and… that other Elf, whoever he was, we might well have died when the orcs came to our home… or burned when the dragon came."

Fíli again wanted to bring up the fact that none of that would have happened if the Dwarves hadn't been there in the first place; but instead, he shifted the subject back. "So, Bain will keep his word?"

"He always has. I suppose if I am like our mother, then he is like our father that way. My da may have needed to lie to keep goods running, but if he gives someone his word, he will not fail to keep it."

Sigrid stopped walking and turned her eyes down; and when Fíli looked, as well, he saw a great many bodies in their path. The pair stepped back and turned to the right, moving around the worst of the carnage, then Sigrid took hold of his hand and lifted her skirt higher as they weaved their way along the spaces between the dead.

After minute of quiet thought, Fíli cleared his aching throat. "I've been told that I am very much like my father," he said. "But I don't see it. I know I look like him, and that I have the same markings on my skin… but beyond that, I know only what people have told me about him."

"Do you like what people tell you about him?"

"I guess they wouldn't speak ill of the dead, so if there were anything in me that reminded them of him in a bad way, they would not tell me."

"But would you want to know, then? Would you want to hear it, even if it were true?"

"I suppose I wouldn't," he admitted. "Though that does not mean those failings are not there."

They fell silent as they went on for a while longer, never once either letting go of each other or focussing anywhere except ahead; and at length they came to a place where there were fewer bodies, less blood, and only a smattering of armor and weapons. Still, they did not stop until they reached the bottom of the rise they had been keeping their sights on for most of their walk; and there, at last, they halted and looked back at the battlefield. 

"Is this as far as you're going, then?" asked Fíli, noticing that her grip on him was tightening.

"My da says it's bad luck to watch someone go off into the distance," she told him. "He says that if you do, then you may never see them again. And I think that I would very much like to see you again."

He turned aside. "But you will not try to convince me to stay?"

"Would it do any good?" she asked. "It seems that nothing in this world could hold you here."

Fíli nodded, knowing full well that the Arkenstone would hold him there, if he were willing to let it. "You know why I must go."

"I know what you told me," she said, tilting her chin up. "But there must be something else. You love your brother and uncle too much to miss their funeral just so you can save a few days in a journey that will take months."

Fíli exhaled hard, trying to cool his burning lungs. "Ask Balin," he said. "Whatever you tell anyone else is no matter, but tell Balin everything that happened. Do not lie to him, do not try to… protect me by being soft in your words to him." He let go of her hand and reached up, brushing a stray hair off her cheek. "Mention to him the nursery, and he will know why I left. Tell him that he and I were right. Tell him that it needs to be buried with Thorin, that nobody must touch it."

"What needs—"

"He will tell you," Fíli interrupted, then he realized that his fingers were still on her face and he lowered his hand to her shoulder. "Tell him that I wanted him to tell you."

Sigrid shifted from foot to foot. "I do not know why you will not tell me, yourself."

"Because I am afraid of what you will think of me after you hear it," he confessed, to the shock of even himself. "And I beg you, Sigrid… please, do not ask me more."

For a moment, she appeared to be trying to force a smile, but when it failed she instead leaned close and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. He jerked back slightly, surprised by the gesture; then he gave her a crooked grin of his own when he saw that her cheeks were flushed. He moved his hand then to the back of her head and eased her forward, placing his brow to hers. 

"We don't know one another very well," he said, "but I am going to miss you."

"Then get to missing me already," said Sigrid. "And go, while you still have the light."

Despite the humor in her words, her voice was shaking; and when Fíli stepped back, he saw that her eyes were welling up. Her face reddened more and she turned away, then they grasped each other's hands for another few seconds before letting go.

He then began trudging up the ridge, not daring to turn back to see if she was watching, nor looking anywhere but towards the ground at his feet until he got to the top of the hill; and even then, he simply glanced at the horizon as he started down the southern slope. At the bottom, there was a slight flattening, then a higher rise began; and without waiting to gather his strength, he set about making his way up.

A shadow passed over Fíli was he was only halfway to the top, and he turned his face to the sky and saw a great gathering of large black birds crossing towards the northeast. He drew his cloak low over his brow, almost fearing that these were ravens that might bring word of him to his kin; and when they wheeled about and swept low, at least part of his fears were confirmed as he heard a chattering of raven-croaks.

The occurrence was almost disquieting, as Fíli had never before seen ravens in such a large congregation; and, in fact, only a few times had he seen more than two of the birds together. But while those groups had consisted of no more than ten birds, this flock had no fewer than a hundred, and he wondered if one strong-willed raven had gone about and gathered its scattered kin after the death of the dragon, and had urged them to return to Erebor in order to renew their friendship with the Dwarves that now lived there.

As Fíli stared on, several of the birds broke off from the group and alighted on the top of the ridge. He stopped his ascent, watching them warily as they strutted about, lifted their heads, then rose again into the air and rejoined their flock as it made its way east and north—a course that would take them over the battlefield and to Erebor. He followed their progress as they went over the rise behind him, then he resumed walking up the hill, wanting now to get as far as he could before yet more prying eyes could find him.

With every step he took, though, his feet slowed and his back ached a little more. Already, the pack on his shoulders was growing heavy and his head was beginning to swim; and when he reached the top of the ridge, he lifted his hand to shade his face from the sun. Squinting, he saw the undulating land that stretched out south and west; and beyond it, the dark ribbon of the Forest River where it flowed into Mirkwood. Between where he now stood and the Lake, there seemed to be much more rugged terrain than he remembered; and he could make out many boulder fields and stands of charred trees which he did not recall passing the first time through.

Still, if he continued on his course, he knew he would soon see the debris-strewn waters of Long Lake lapping at the shore; then he would see people as small black specks stooping on the sand, milling about, gathering all they could, salvaging the last bits of their lives that had neither been burned by the dragon nor swallowed by the Lake. Other people he would see also, laid out on the ground as if sleeping, but with their faces covered by whatever cloths the survivors had managed to scavenge from the litter. Already Fíli imagined he could smell the smoke from the smoldering remains of Esgaroth—so different was it from that of the burning bodies he had left behind.

Fíli looked down the hill and began to walk on; but in the space of a few steps, the sun looked as if it had already begun to lower in the sky. He thought then that the evening must be coming on, though it should have been hours away, and he almost desperately did not wish to spend another night out in the cold. A fire would be of great use against the coming chill, but there was a strong breeze on the slope of the ridge and no fuel thereabouts to gather. At the bottom there would at least be some shelter from the wind, even if there were no branches to burn.

And so he straightened his aching back and hoisted the pack higher on his shoulders, then his feet sped up as the hill grew steeper. Leaning back, he dug his heels into the ground to keep from tumbling; but the impact jarred him, and a sting worked its way up his neck and into the back of his head, then the bruise over his spine throbbed as the pack pushed harder against it.

Warmth spread swiftly up from the wound that Azog had given him, across his scalp, and into his brow; and it seemed then that the black night had fallen around him. But when he turned his face up he still saw light in the sky, and as he looked towards the sun, it appeared to flare brighter. He blinked hard in the glare, his vision blurring, and he leaned slightly forward. At once he remembered that he was on a downhill slope and he lurched back; but his attempt to right himself came to nothing, as his legs failed under him and he began to fall.

But where he should have landed on his knees and either slid or rolled down the sandy incline, he instead found himself lying on his side on flat, hard ground. He inhaled painfully, then eased his eyes open and saw the faintly glowing embers of a long-dying fire, and beyond it nothing save the darkness of deep night.

He did not know where he was or how he had gotten there, but he was shirtless and shaking with cold. Somehow, his back and arm and head hurt a little less now than before he had fallen, but there was a burning on his midsection where his left elbow rested against his bare skin. Pushing himself up to sitting, he clutched at his side as the burning changed to tearing, and after a few labored breaths, he bit down hard and dared to pull his hand away from his pained skin. Then he gasped—for in the dim light he could just see on his palm a coating of blood, borne from a fresh gash just below his ribs.

Chapter Text

Fíli shuddered against the cold as he held his palm to the new injury on his side. His eyes scanned the darkness all around him, but he could see nothing beyond the small circle of dim light the guttering fire was giving off. He felt closed-in, contained; and he was surrounded on all sides by utter silence. It did not, in fact, feel like he was outdoors at all; and so he reached out, expecting his touch to land upon a wall or the rough surface of a cave interior.

His fingers met only air, and a soft breeze blew across the bristling hairs on his arm, deepening the chill. The light wind brought with it an earthy, musty smell that was at once strange and familiar to him. He lowered his hand to the ground, drawing it over the darkened dirt and scattered leaves between himself and the fire circle, then he cautiously brushed away the layer of earth that covered the shaped road-stones underneath.

Memories came rushing back in the time it took him to draw a painful breath; but these were not the near-memories that he'd been hoping for. They were more distant recollections—nights full of uncertainty, hours of boredom, unexpected bouts of anger, and inexplicable stretches of disorientation.

Mirkwood.

Still, though he now knew where he was, he could not fathom how he had gotten under the Forest's boughs, or for how long he had been there. Days, at least, must have passed since the Battle; and if this was the southern part of the Forest, as he had planned on making for, then a week or more lay empty behind him. 

Facing the nearly-dead fire, he spotted his pack sitting open beside it, its contents spilling out over his now-bloody shirt where it lay on the ground. He lifted his eyes and squinted into the gloom beside the fire-pit, seeing then that his bedroll was laid out, and that his cloak was spread atop it as if it were serving as a blanket. Just next to the bedroll there were a number of small bones, blackened at the ends and picked clean of any meat that had once been clinging to them.

Seeing that the sling that Sigrid had made for him was also on the dirt, Fíli flexed his left arm a few times. It seemed to have a bit more movement in it than when last he'd checked, though it was still weak and there was a burning just under the skin. He craned his neck to examine the wound Kíli's arrow had left behind, then he felt around it. The swelling, at least, was much lessened, and the stitches had been well-tended; and there was little pain there, to the point where when he pressed his fingertip against the stitches, his skin was almost numb.

Now, however, was not the time to dwell on his old injuries, even if he did not remember them as being quite so old, after all. The fresh cut on his side was a more immediate concern, as was whoever—or whatever—had caused it. The wound was not very deep, but it was fairly long and had been bleeding heavier not too long ago; and from the way the blood had stained his belly and the ground below him, he could tell that he had been lying on his side before it had slowed. 

Fíli touched the slice gingerly, then looked at his fingertips. There appeared to be dirt in the blood, and when he rubbed his fingers together he felt a grittiness. A moment later, there rose up a familiar, pleasant scent, and it brought to mind the calm and soothing face of Sigrid sitting beside him in her father's tent; and only after giving her memory a soft smile did he recognize the scent as being kingsfoil. Turning again to the side, he saw that the sachet the girl had given him was lying open near to where his head had been resting, and he knew that he must have put some of the dried herb over his wound in the hopes staunching the bleeding.

That knowledge, however, did nothing to tell him where the gash had come from, though it occurred to him that it may have been accidental, as it was very near to where the blade of his hand-axe would have been if he had been carrying it in his belt. He glanced around his small campsite, searching for the weapon so that he might find blood on it to bear out the theory, but it was nowhere to be seen within the small distance that he could make out clearly. Now growing anxious, he reached down to the sheath on his leg, intent on drawing out the hunting blade for his defense, but the knife was also missing.

His hand curled into a fist and he tightened his jaw. Being alone in the darkness of Mirkwood was a bad enough situation—it was worse still to be bleeding and weaponless, and fearing that there was something out there that had already tried to kill him. His heart began to race, and he glanced at his pack again and saw the familiar shape of the shears he had taken from the tent. Grabbing them, he held the cold metal handle tight in his shaking grip—his only defense against whatever might be out there watching him.

For an instant, he considered yelling out into the nighttime for his attacker to show itself, and he even went so far as to take in a deep breath for the shout; though the urge to issue a challenge passed when he realized that whatever had injured him was likely no longer nearby. Unconscious and helpless as he had been, he would probably not have survived the night if the stranger hadn't already been either long gone or dead.

The Dwarf's nerves calmed somewhat and he lowered the shears to his lap, then he held his hands out to what was left of the fire in an attempt to chase away the chill. He turned to the side, noticing then that there was a faint brightening in the far distance, and he could just make out the suggestions of tree-shadows against the sky. East, then, must lay in that direction; and the sun was on the rise beyond the edge of the Forest.

As best as he could figure, he was no more than a day's march inside the Wood. That much he could gather from the rising sun and the breeze, neither of which he believed he would he be aware of were he not relatively near to the trailhead. The small bones by the bedroll also bore that out, as the last time he had been through Mirkwood, the only living things he had encountered were ones he would certainly not have wanted to make any kind of meal of. So he must have killed a squirrel or rabbit or some other such thing outside the Forest and brought it in with him, wanting to eat it as soon as possible before it could go bad.

He guessed, then, that he had hiked into the Wood for a day, and had gotten only so far as he now was before the evening stole the light; then he had settled in for a fire and a meal, and afterwards had tried to sleep. He had managed the first two, it seemed, without trouble, but his rest had been cut short by whatever had injured him. Sleep mattered little to him now, though, as the shock of his waking had sent a burst of nervous energy through his system; and in its ebb he was growing colder. 

The embers had failed to warm him in the slightest, so he drew his tunic out from under the disturbed contents of his pack and inspected the long, bloody tear on the fabric; then he looked at his wounded side again and decided that he would not waste the small amount of thread he had to stitch either the shallow cut or the torn cloth. Slipping the damaged tunic on, he then grabbed his cloak and threw it over his shoulders, fastening it under his chin and lifting the hood over his shortened hair—and at last the cold began to fade from his limbs.

His stomach churned, though whether it was from hunger or fear or had some other cause, he could not tell. Rooting through his food-sack, he saw that there was no more missing than he would have eaten in a few days if he had been careful about rationing it; and so he allowed himself a small bite of cram, though it made him thirsty to the point where he had no choice but to take a sip from one of his water-skins. In all, it was a meagre breakfast, and it did little to calm the turning in his gut.

Regardless of his injured and confused state, he did not want to linger on this spot for longer than necessary, on the chance that his attacker might return. Quickly, he made ready to leave, first tying the kingsfoil sachet closed, then shoving it and the rest of his scant belongings into his pack. He then rolled his bedding around his food-bag and drink-skins before securing them to his pack, as well, and at last he painfully slung the lot over his shoulders. He inhaled deeply and stretched, wincing at the stinging in his side—and as he stood he slid the shears into his belt, feeling that in the absence of any other weapon, they would serve him better than none.

By now, the area around him had lightened somewhat with the rising dawn, and he was at least able to see the gnarled trees on either side of the trail, though his eyes still could not pierce the darkness between the trunks. He kicked out the cinders of his campfire, then he thought to again search the ground for his axe and knife. He did not find them, though not far behind where he had been lying, there was a length of coiled rope. He picked it up and inspected it, trying to recall where it had come from, but the best he could figure was that he had found it along the road, and had believed it might one day be of some use. That reasoning was still sound, so he draped the rope over his shoulder—then he saw darkened drops on the dirt.

It was his own blood, he was certain, trailing from wherever he had been attacked, and he stared hard at the spots before setting off following them westwards along the Forest path. After about thirty feet, the blood-trail ended, and he halted and saw there also a thick branch with a burnt end. In some distant, dim corner of his mind, there flashed a memory of the firebrand falling from his grip and going out instantly. He heard an echoing sound in his mind—a scream or screech—then the memories faded back into a fog.

He struggled to remember more as he tried to peer between the trees on either side of him, though the darkness beyond the nearest trunks was complete. For whatever reason, he had come this way with the torch after setting up his camp and eating his dinner; and it was on this spot that he had been attacked—though by what, he still couldn't say. There were no other indications on the trail, and so he crouched down and studied the softer dirt at the edge of the path; and although there was nothing to see to the south, on the northern edge he spotted tracks.

They were animal tracks, and in the waxing light they appeared to be those of a heavy goat or ram. They seemed to work along the ground amidst a small break in the trees, but they did not come onto the trail itself, and they had apparently come first from the east, where his camp had been set up. 

Fíli ran his touch along the rope he had over his shoulder. There was a chance, at least, that he had come across a riderless war-goat on his trek from the Mountain, and that he had taken it as a mount in the hopes of shortening his journey. Those goats that had been bred and raised by Dwarves tended to accept any of them as riders without hesitation, and it was possible that he had quickly befriended it. That would explain how he had managed to have come so far, to Southern Mirkwood, in what seemed like a very short time.

Where the animal was now, however, there was no way to tell. It may have wandered off into the Wood in the dark of night, and he figured he might have gone off in search of it when he'd discovered it missing—but he would have known better than to leave the trail, and had likely stopped on this spot where he saw its prints. Had he called out to it? Had he frightened it to the point where it had attacked him? War-goats sometimes had blades strapped to their horns, and a single panicked swipe would have been enough to cut him open.

Fíli shook his head. No, it was unlikely that a Dwarvish goat would attack its rider, even in the overbearing atmosphere of Mirkwood. And still, that left the matter of the scream—and also the question of where his axe and knife had gone, as he may well have defended himself against the animal with one weapon, though not with both.

The woods around him began to lighten more as he stood thinking, and soon Fíli could see a little deeper into the thick trees; and a bit further in, he caught sight of something shining on the ground. He dared to step towards it, and as he drew near, he saw that it was the square-pommelled hilt of a short-sword peeking out from behind the trunk of a tree. He stooped and lifted the weapon, noting both that it was of Dwarven-make and that its edge was reddened—and he wondered if this sword, like the rope, had been something he had come upon on the road and kept for his use, but had dropped here in his confusion and pain.

Searching the area now in more earnest, Fíli saw that on the ground not far from where the weapon had been resting were dark-splattered leaves. He nudged them with his toe and they stuck fast to his boot; and he knew then that what he was seeing was the blood of either a goblin or warg or some other foul creature—one that had likely escaped into the darkness of the Forest after the Battle had turned against it.

All at once, he heard what he imagined might be a faint and far-off rustling. He held the sword up and spun around, preparing to defend himself; but as he did, his memories began trying to break through the haze and he froze in place. He did not remember leaving the fire, did not remember following his mount or calling out to it—but he did remember standing on the trail, holding the brand in his left hand and wielding his hunting knife in the right. His axe, though? Where had it been? Why would he not have used it, rather than the smaller blade?

Fíli narrowed his eyes and tried to think back again, tried to bring to memory what had become of the larger weapon. Instead, he recalled turning back around towards the campfire when it had crackled loudly, and that something had hit him when he'd been distracted by the sound. Something sharp had cut into the skin under his ribs, then the branch had fallen from his hand and darkness rushed in. He’d pulled the knife up into the air and slashed it down. There was a shriek, the weapon was yanked from his grip… and he ran, clutching at his fresh wound, towards the flickering fire.

There had been screeching and angry foreign words behind him, followed by what he thought might have been the sound of a hoofed animal running through the Wood—then everything around him had gone suddenly silent. He had waited, listening for a few more seconds; and when he heard nothing else, he'd collapsed by the fire and pulled off his shirt before grabbing his pack and spilling out the contents as he sought something to stop his bleeding.

He had just been fumbling with the kingsfoil when he'd heard a shuffling sound off to the side, and when he had faced that way there had been a flash of light, and darkness after.

Lifting his hand to his head, Fíli felt around for some fresh gash or lump to show where an unexpected strike might have caused the light and dashed away his memories; but he found no new injuries, and even the wound that Azog had given him was almost healed-over. 

Still, whatever had happened in that last memory, he knew now that it had been a goblin that had attacked him—the echoing of the creature's shrieks and its evil language told him as much. He looked around, searching for some sign of where it had gone; and it was not long before he saw it, sitting with its back against the trunk of a fallen oak some distance to his right. Its grey head was flopped over to the side and thick black blood dripped from the corner of its slack-open mouth, and Fíli's knife was dug up to the guard just below its right collar bone. It was clearly dead, and had been for a while; though when Fíli laid eyes on it, a hatred rose up in him and he ran forward and thrust the Dwarf-sword against the back of its extended neck.

The weapon slid through flesh and bone so cleanly that the goblin's body remained sitting in place while its head fell to the ground and rolled down a slight slope, coming at last to rest against the trunk of a nearby tree. But still Fíli did not stand down. He swung at the goblin's shoulder, severing its arm and sending the limp body to the ground; then he spun the sword in his grip and thrust it down. The metal dug into the creature's stomach, and he pulled it out, then stabbed down once more, pushing the sword clean through the mangled body and digging the tip of the blade into the ground.

Breathing heavily, Fíli set his booted foot on the goblin's chest and pulled the sword free, then he reached down with his weaker left hand and ripped his dagger out of its flesh. He stepped back and looked at the dreadful sight with satisfaction; but that satisfaction swiftly faded, replaced by a wave of disgust. He dropped both weapons to the ground and backed away. His stomach started to turn again and his thoughts grew light, and his hands found their way to the sides of his head as he fell to his knees.

The weight of his pack pulled him over and he landed on his side; and for several seconds he stared hard at the creature, watching its congealed blood flowing slowly from its severed neck. He closed his eyes for what he thought was only a moment, but when he opened them again, he saw that there was now more light all around him. He shifted himself to look up and was surprised to see bits of blue through the tangle of winter-bare branches—further proof that he had not yet gone very deep into the Wood. 

Gathering his strength, he rolled to his knees, then he looked back at what was left of the goblin. There was not yet the will in him to stand, so he instead crawled over to the headless corpse and picked up the weapons he had dropped. He ran both blades across the goblin's leather tunic, wiping away the black blood, then he slid his knife into the sheath on his boot. He was determined, at least, not to allow one of his peoples' weapons to remain with a goblin, even in death; and so he loosened the belt that held the scabbard for the Dwarven blade to the creature's body, then pulled himself higher onto his knees and fastened the sword-belt around his own waist.

After sliding the weapon into place in the scabbard, Fíli stretched his neck and rubbed his sore side, then he at last got onto his feet and adjusted the shears on his belt. Thinking there might be something else there that could be of use, he searched the area around him, but he found nothing. His attention, though, fell on the goblin's head—and in the new light, there seemed to be something odd about it that he had not noticed before.

He squinted in concentration, then crept slowly near; and once there, he drew out his newly-acquired sword and crouched. Sliding the blade under the head, he flipped it over, wrinkling his nose disgustedly at the wretched face. The goblin was as foul as any other he had ever seen, though it looked more damaged up-close than he had at first believed. The severing of its neck had been clean enough, but the front left side of the creature's skull had been bashed in by some brutal blow. That had not been his doing, he knew, as he had rushed to the fire after stabbing the creature, and he had fallen unconscious not long afterwards—but the injury was not one that even a goblin could have lived through, and so it must have been the last strike that it had taken before dying. 

Fíli stared harder at the wound for a few seconds, then he smiled crookedly as he realized it had likely been the goat that had dealt the killing blow with a well-placed kick to the goblin's skull. Since the animal was not still around, though, in its fright it had probably run off into the deep darkness of the Forest evening. The loss was unfortunate, as a mount would have been of great use to Fíli along the road—and if his axe had been stowed in the animal's saddle, then it was as long-lost as the goat, itself. That left him no other course than to carry on without either, and so he stood and returned the sword to its sheath as he spun back around towards the trail. 

His feet slipped and stumbled over the leaf-covered roots and fallen branches as he made his way out of the trees; and when he reached the path he drew to a halt and looked back over to where the dead goblin lay. Past his own heavy breathing, he thought that he had heard something moving amongst the dry leaves, and he stood fast, not daring to move as he listened. But the sound, whatever it had been, was gone, and no other noises rose up.

Briefly, he considered going back east, towards the nearer edge of the Forest and greater safety—but though days had gone by, and the tingling that the Arkenstone had left in his fingers had subsided, he still feared closing the gap between himself and the King's Jewel. And so he set his mind again on heading west, and after glancing at the glowering trees above him, he grasped the hilt of his sword and turned to the right, making his way along the trail that would take him deeper into Mirkwood.

Chapter Text

The last thing Fíli remembered, he was sitting in the pitch blackness of the Forest night, fighting sleep as he watched his campfire burn low; but now he found himself lying on his back and looking up at the giant eagles that wheeled and dashed in the sky above him. As he watched, the great birds faded into the clouds, and the world sank into silence and stillness; and Fíli sat up and glanced around the battlefield.

There were no bodies there now, no weapons, no cast-off pieces of armor. The blood that had covered the ground was gone, and in the still air there was no smoke from the pyres on which the dead should still be burning. He was utterly alone; and as he stared quietly towards the Lonely Mountain, he wondered how long he had been there, and why nobody had yet come to bring him back to the Gate.

"Does he live?"

Fíli knew that voice, though not too well, and he turned expecting to see Legolas close-at-hand. But he saw instead the Elvenking, and behind him stood Tauriel with her head bowed and her hands folded in front of her.

"Yes," she answered simply.

Thranduil nodded, then lowered himself to his knees in front of Fíli and stared deep into his eyes. "How is it that you are not dead?" he asked the Dwarf.

Fíli ran his hands over his body, feeling for the wounds he remembered taking. The slice on his arm, his aching elbow, the bruise over his spine, the hole at the back of his scalp—all of his injuries were gone, save for the cut on his side; and he knew that would be closed in good time.

"I've healed," he said with a shrug; then he turned his eyes to Tauriel, who had not moved. "Where have you been?"

She did not answer, though; and a moment later, Fíli felt something being pressed against his palm. He looked down to see the Arkenstone in his hand, and his mouth fell open as he shuddered.

"I do not want this," he lied, fighting the urge to close his hand around the Stone.

"Does it mean nothing to you?" asked Thranduil.

"Nothing…"

"It was a gift, given in good faith. Why would you turn it away?"

Fíli's eyes followed the wisps of smoky blue light as they issued from the Arkenstone, then he shook his head. "There is no good in this gift…" he said, forcing himself to look up at the Elf. "It was a mistake that it was given to me."

Thranduil glared at him, then snatched the King's Jewel out of his shaking hand. "What, then, would you have me do with it?"

"Take it back to the Mountain," said Fíli, closing his eyes and curling his tingling fingers into a fist. "Bury it, burn it… keep it, if you wish. I don't care. I do not want to see it again."

***

The passage of time was difficult to figure in the darkness of the Forest, but Fíli felt that it must have been at least four days since he had awoken after his wounding by the goblin. This day's march would soon be nearing its end, as well—or so he gathered from the aching in his back and the gnawing in his stomach. The last few hours he had spent slowly picking his way along, shoving aside the fallen leaves as he went so he would not wander off the track; but now he was beginning to wonder if he should stop for a bite to eat, or if he could go on for just a little while longer.

Over the last few days, he had eaten little enough that he was always hungry, but never starved; and he had sipped only sparingly at his water-skins, so that he was perpetually thirsty. In this way, he had managed to save much of the food in his sack, but every time he looked inside he felt like there was already too much missing. He feared that the end of his journey through the Forest would come many days after the last of his food and drink was gone, and that he might waste away or die of thirst before he again saw the blue sky above him.

He had seen no sign of his goat mount; and after two sleeps, he had given up on listening for the sound of its hooves or seeking out its prints in the soft soil by the path. In all likelihood, if it had not gotten lost in the Forest, then it had turned and headed back the way it had come. It was probably by now all the way back to Erebor, or it might even have set its course towards the Iron Hills, with the hand-axe still stowed securely in its saddle. In any case, Fíli knew that he would not be seeing it again; though he reminded himself that he did not actually remember seeing it at all.

It was not a comforting thought. Mirkwood was a grim and cheerless place even at the best of times; but trudging through on foot—alone and wounded, and with only an empty stomach and lingering grief for company—made for a slow and miserable passage. But still he pressed on, the rumbling of his stomach and his boots scraping along the road-stones the only sounds breaking the silence; and in that silence, his thoughts slid time and again back to the Mountain, and those people and things he had left behind.

Sometimes those recollections dug too deep, and after a while he would notice that he had gone on for quite some time without any aim; and so he would stop in mid-thought and sit on the path as he tried to clear his mind enough that he might be able to go on without wandering off the trail. So far, he had not lost the Road for more than a few minutes—but his going seemed far too slow, to the point where even hours after setting out for the day, he felt that if he looked back over his shoulder he would still be able to see the remains of his campfire from the night before. 

He set up his evening camp whenever it got too dark for him to walk on without seeing the ground beneath him, but any sleep that he managed was invariably shortened by disturbing dreams. He would often wake abruptly to find the night still all around him; then he would fall back to sleep and dream again, and again the dreams would wake him. Usually, it was the images of the Battle and the burning of Laketown that roused him; but though other dreams were more calm, they were no less disturbing.

In those, he could see nothing, but heard familiar voices all around him, speaking as if it were just another day. When that had first happened, he'd thought he had been found, and that the happy exclamations he heard from Balin and Ori and Bofur were real—until he realized that Thorin and Kili's voices had joined in. Fíli had then woken with tears on his face, and the rest of the night he had spent staring intently towards the darkened trees, as if they had been the ones that had been speaking to him.

The dream from this morning, however, had been different; not for the presence of the Arkenstone, which he had seen often in both his sleep and his walking daydreams, but in that it involved a person that he knew little enough to count as not at all. Aside from seeing Thrandul from afar on the lakeside and at the Gate, the only time Fíli had come into contact with him had been in the Battle; and besides listening to his muffled voice through the canvas of a tent, it had also been the only time that he had heard him speak. Tauriel's presence in his dream had not been as much of a mystery, at least, since Fíli had really begun to think of her as a friend by the time the Battle had forced that friendship to a premature end—and he had actually found himself more than once wondering if she had even survived. 

It seemed, anyway, that the odd dreams were one of the few effects of Mirkwood on Fíli's mind, though the first time he had gone along one of the Forest paths, the whole situation had been much more unstable. He remembered being nervous back then, and frightened and angry and anxious all at once. He had seen and heard things that were not there, and he had wanted to strike out at anyone who might have given him or his brother a glance that seemed hostile in the slightest. 

He felt none of that now; but what he did feel was loneliness and sadness and grief—and it seemed that not all of it was from his own mind, but was pressing in on him from the trees that glowered down at him from all sides. The tall elms and oaks and birches really did seem to have lives and feelings and thoughts of their own, and he felt that he wouldn't have been surprised if they had suddenly chosen to strike up a conversation as he went along, so to fend off their own despair.

At times, when the sense of loss was the strongest, they even looked almost to be hanging their limbs lower and lower; and he found that he was able to reach up and let his fingertips brush along the bare branches and trailing vines. When he dared to do so, however, they seemed to pull back a little from his touch, and he took to ducking under them instead of pushing them out of his way when he came to any that were low across the path.

That aside, the Forest felt far less enchanted and foreboding to Fíli than it had on his first trip through; but he could not say whether that was because most of the Elves were away, because he was on the Old Forest Road instead of the Elven Path, because he was not accompanied by a large group of strangers to this land, or for some other unfathomable reason. Still, it felt like eyes were following him along from the gaps between the thick trunks, and so he usually kept his gaze on his feet and continued on in silence.

Fíli scratched thoughtlessly at the healing cut on his side, then winced at the irritation of his fingernails scraping over it. His other injuries were much improved, at least. The bruise he'd gotten on his back did not hurt much anymore, but once in a while he would feel a twinge in his spine that he had to stop and breathe through before going on. His weakened left arm was also in a far better state than it had been, and he felt that soon he would remove the stitches that Sigrid had given him, as the cut was by now very much closed.

Even the wound on the back of his head seemed to be giving him little trouble since his encounter with the goblin near the trailhead, though he was far from certain if that was a good thing. He had seen many head injuries over the years—Bifur's not being the least of them—and they always had some lasting effect. But then, he thought, maybe he did not notice that effect because it was he himself who had the injury—maybe someone else would see easier how he had changed. If he had changed.

The thing about madness, he thought, repeating Balin's words to himself, is that, if you are truly mad, you don't know it.

Fíli bit down on his dry tongue. It could be, he told himself, that he was a very different person than he'd been before the injury; but who was here in the Forest to tell him as much? Still, he was thankful that things had not ended worse for him. He might have, after all, been laid to rest, awake and aware, under some great slab of stone—there to be left to suffocate or starve, or to revive and claw at the rock, desperate to escape. 

He remembered clinging to Kíli in fear when they were children, when Óin had been telling them about how he had once attended the funeral for his friend's uncle after a mining accident. The miner was to be laid in the burial chamber of his father, who had succumbed to a fever years before; but when the chamber was opened to allow for the interment, they found the patriarch's dusty, petrified remains lying crumpled on the floor just inside the great door. It turned out that the old Dwarf had woken at some point after his burial, and though he had managed to somehow force the cover off of his tomb, he had not been able to escape the chamber, itself.

Fíli also recalled another such story, though this one had been overheard rather than told to him. He had been quite young at the time, and was prone to sneaking out of bed at night to snack when everyone else was asleep. One evening, when he had reached the kitchen, he'd heard his uncle and mother speaking to a guest inside the adjacent dining-room. Their voices were low, but when he drew close to the door he could hear bits of what was being said—and he'd realized with horror that they were talking about a Dwarf who had been thought dead, but who had woken up screaming as the flames of a pyre had begun licking at his skin.

At the time, Fíli did not know what a pyre was, besides that it had something to do with fire; and in his mind he had concocted the image of someone falling asleep while working, then tumbling into a forge. It was only years later that he had found out that the burned Dwarf had been a soldier at Azanulbizar; and it had been many years later still before he had heard the whole story. Learning all of the details, though, had only served to make the terror of the whispered tale even more keen, and for a long time he could not look at a fire without picturing a twisted and bloody face being consumed by the flames, or hearing a shrill voice crying out for release.

Those stories still haunted Fíli more than any other tales he had heard as a child, and he shuddered now as he recalled them. He wondered why they had not come to mind when he had been facing the possibility of his own burial, or when he had been watching the casualties burning on the field between Dale and Erebor—and now he found himself fearing that some of the people who had been placed on the pyre after the Battle had not yet been dead.

He wondered if any had woken up screaming, or if they had not even gotten a chance to make a sound before the fire and smoke stole the breath from their lungs. Had some of them been caught up in the same paralysis that had held Fíli himself tight? Had they felt themselves being lifted, stripped in the cold air, then thrown into the flames? Had they been unable to tell anyone that they were still breathing, that their hearts were still beating, that they could feel themselves being burned alive?

A sting cut through Fíli's head and his stomach began to churn as he remembered that such a fate had come to many of the people of Laketown when Smaug attacked not so long ago. They had screamed for help, had cried out for only a moment before their skin charred and cracked; they had been terrified, not only for themselves, but for their children, their parents, their friends…

Fíli stopped walking, suddenly aware that the sound of his boots on the ground had changed. He turned his face down and saw that the trail was no longer below him, and an ache worked its way into his chest when he realized that his feet had been wandering as his mind had been drifting. He lifted his eyes, but there was nothing ahead save a deep darkness that not even his strong Dwarf eyes could cut through; and so he turned on his heel and looked back the way he had come.

There was a long, straight gap through the trees; but the thick layer of leaves on the ground had prevented any prints his heavy boots may otherwise have left behind. Still, his best guess was that the trail lay in that direction, and he set off again, walking slowly and paying great attention to everything around him, in the hopes that he would not miss the path when he came to it.

Regardless of his new diligence, after a few minutes he began to feel as if he had gone the wrong way. The light was by now beginning to fail, and the cold of the Forest night was setting in. He did not stop walking, though; did not stop focussing on the ground as he shuffled along, kicking aside the browned leaves in the hopes that he would find the road-stones beneath them.

But there was little enough light in Mirkwood at all times, and the winter days were getting shorter so the night fell swiftly, and before long he could no longer see his boots or the leaves, or even his own hand in front of his face. He could not then go on looking for the Road, and he hoped only that he would at least have some better clue as to where he was in the morning. Right now, however, there was a deep pain in his stomach, and he knew that he had no choice but to set a fire, and maybe to have a meal—or the dim suggestion of a meal.

He flexed his fingers, grimacing at the sting and stiffness the chill of oncoming evening had forced into them, then he sat hard on the ground and leaned his shoulder against the thick trunk of a tree. Reaching out, he cleared the area in front of him as best he could of dry leaves, then gathered some of them into a pile. He dared not move very far from the tree, and so he kept his foot pressed to the trunk as he groped around in the darkness for any fallen branches and sticks that might make for him a decent fire. When the stack was set, he took the rope off his shoulder and set it on the ground, then he began to slide his arms out of the straps of his pack, so to find his flint.

The pack had only been lowered just a bit when a sound nearby drew his attention and froze him in place. He wasn't certain, but it seemed that he had heard the rustling of leaves not very far ahead of where he sat. In any other wood, that would have meant little or nothing to him; but Mirkwood nights were always impossibly quiet, and any sounds that cut through the drowning silence were out of place.

"Hello?" he said softly, though still he was shocked at how loud his voice had been. "Is somebody there?"

There was no reply, and he wrapped his hand around the haft of his sword. 

Not an Elf, he thought. They wouldn't let themselves be heard…

That did not comfort him, and he eased the pack back up onto his shoulders and wrapped his hand tighter around the hilt of his sword. He listened again, and for many long seconds he heard nothing; then the faint sound of snuffling came from off to his right, as if something was sniffing at the ground there. He pulled his sword slowly out of its sheath, cringing as it scraped eerily and loud against the brass locket; then he held his breath and listened to the deep silence once more. Faintly, past the sound of his own heart in his ears, he could just make out quick and raspy breathing, like the panting of some thirsty animal.

Raising his sword, he passed it slowly in front of himself, and the tip of the weapon hit the stack of sticks he had set for his fire, knocking them to the ground. He shrunk back against the tree as his sword-hand began to shake; then the blade lowered to his side, almost as if it had chosen to do so on its own. He let out a long-held breath, and when he inhaled again, he became aware that the air in front of him was warmer than it had been a few minutes before. Holding his left hand out, he waved it slowly in front of himself, and a hot burst of moist air blew across his fingers.

Jumping to his feet, he pressed his pack to the tree and swung his sword down hard. The blade met nothing, and he heard at once the sound of scraping behind him. He spun about, backing away from the tree and stumbling over his firewood. He fell hard onto the ground, then scrambled away and rose to his knees, again holding his sword out—but besides his own heavy breathing and his knuckles cracking as he tightened his grip on the hilt, he could no longer hear anything.

"Where are you?" he asked in a whisper, though his voice still seemed uncannily loud.

At the very least, it seemed that whatever was out there was neither a goblin nor a warg; and the fact of its breath being hot told him that it was not one of the giant spiders that called the Forest home. Regardless, if it had been any of those things, it would not have simply come near, then left without attacking. On thinking harder, Fíli considered that it might well have been a fox or a badger; though if that were the case, then it was a large and unusually bold one.

Still, he told himself, whatever the creature was, it had at least not tried to do him any harm, and the greatest chance was that it had simply been curious about him. That did not make him feel much better about being approached by something that he could not see, however, and he no longer felt so safe about staying here for the evening. But there was nowhere else for him to go in the darkness, and any path he might pick out would probably lead him only deeper into the Forest, and away from the Road.

Fíli's stiffened shoulders relaxed as no other sound rose up for many minutes, and he turned his mind again to needs other than his defense. He was still cold and hungry, despite his fright; though he wasn't sure now if a fire was a good idea, as there was a chance that it might attract whatever was skulking around. On the other hand, he told himself, it was likely that anything that lived in this place would have eyes that could pierce the darkness, fire or no—and the flames might even serve as a deterrent to any creatures that might come near.

And so he laid the sword on the ground, then set about quickly slipping off his pack and drawing out his flint; but before he could get his kindling set back up, he heard the sound of scraping once more. It was more distant now, and off to his left, and his eyes flitted in that direction as he rested his hand on his sword. He held his breath, listening attentively as the noise continued; but it was now steadily growing further and further away, until at last it vanished into the distance.

Chapter Text

Fíli had managed to stay awake for the first few hours after his fright, but eventually the warmth and flickering of the fire had lulled him to sleep. As was usual in this dreadful place, he had not escaped dreaming; though this time those dreams had simply been continuations of his trek, and there had been little unusual or out of place about them—except for the eyes that followed him along from the gaps between the trees. They were yellow eyes, narrowed and intent and close to the ground; and whenever he tried to look directly at them, they would blink out of sight.

When he woke in the morning, there was a strange heaviness in the air, and what little light made it to the Forest floor had a dull and dirty look to it; though he was not certain if that was Mirkwood's doing, or because of his own hazy vision and unsteady mind for lack of food. He hadn't eaten at all before falling to sleep, in fact—both for the fear that the smell from his opened sack would bring back whatever had come to him in the darkness, and because he wanted to make his food last for as long as possible.

But now his gut was gnawing and the center of his forehead was throbbing, and he was dizzy to the point where he could not sit up without tilting to the side; and he felt that he had no choice but to dig into his rations. Still, so to save what little he had left, he ate only a small handful of dried fruit and washed it down with a sip of water; then he brought his knees up to his chest and pressed his palm to his brow. Slowly, the pain in his mind eased and his dizziness faded—though his stomach still ached and groused—and he lifted his head and searched the area with somewhat clearer eyes. 

There were no animal tracks on the ground around him, nor was there any other indication that a creature had been there at all—and even the trunk of the largest tree nearby seemed to be untouched, though he was sure that the scraping he'd heard must have been claws against the bark. All that remained of his campfire was ash, and though he'd thought that it had been large enough that it would have burned for many hours, in the dim light he could see that the actual fire-ring was quite small. Everything around him, in fact, seemed closer and smaller than he had imagined the night before, and he wondered wistfully if the trees had neared to him in an effort to stave off their own loneliness.

Although Fíli had lost all concept of what direction he'd been heading in when dusk had fallen, he could still see the wide gap in the trees that he had been walking along the day before—and he was thankful, at least, that he hadn't wandered away from it. Down one end of the alley there was a deeper darkness, and he figured that west must lie in that direction, since the morning light would not have brightened it much there yet; and with no other indication of which way he should go, he decided that was his best bet.

So he heavy-heartedly gathered his belongings and walked on, dragging his feet through the thick layer of dead leaves on the Forest floor in the hopes of bringing the road-stones into view underneath. But he saw no trace of the Road, and the further he went, the darker the air around him grew; and though by an hour into his day's journey the sun should have been high above the Forest, brightening it at least somewhat, he instead came to an area where the shade was deep and the atmosphere was thick. At once, he feared that he had found his way into a bad place, but while his pace slowed, he did not stop walking.

A few more minutes on, he saw something dark on the ground in a clearing ahead of him. He halted, staring hard at the object and wondering if it was some kind of resting animal; but it did not move and no sounds rose up, and so he crept carefully forward. Then he stood fast and pursed his lips when he saw that it was the remains of a campfire that had been burnt down to ash and charred branches—and he had only just managed to wonder who had set it when his heart sank.

The campsite, he knew, was his own; but he had not spent the morning walking in a circle, as the place where he had woken just an hour or so before was not the same. The fire-ring here was larger, the trees were further away, and on the ground there were clawed tracks like those of a wolf or wild dog overlapping with his own hand- and boot-prints. On the trunk of a large tree nearby, he saw deep gouges; and on the dirt beside it was the mark of where his coiled rope had been placed.

Fíli sat down hard and buried his face in his hands, trying to sift through his memories. How had he gone to sleep here and woken some distance away? He could not have been sleepwalking last night, because he would not have been able to follow the tree-alley in the darkness. Did he spend an entire day making his way through the woods, only to forget doing so—as he'd forgotten his trip from the ridge to the trailhead? Was his dream actually a hazy memory of yesterday's walk? And why, if he had spent all of yesterday walking, was this campsite only an hour from the other? Had he traveled further on, then turned back for some reason? Or had he been going in circles, and was he just now coming back around to where he'd begun the day before?

Fíli grimaced as he dug his nails into his scalp, then he let his hands fall to his lap and glared up at the shaded tree-skeletons, cursing them silently. Whatever was going on with his mind, he was sure that the Forest itself was not uninvolved. Perhaps it was as enchanted as before, though it hadn't felt that way at first; perhaps it wanted to toy with him, to play with his thoughts, to lead him astray. 

Without warning, something darted between the nearby trees; and though he saw the movement from the corner of his eye and heard the rustling of leaves, it still took him a moment before he realized that he had not imagined it. He stood quickly and drew out his sword, spinning towards where he had seen the movement, but there was nothing there. 

Another noise brought his attention around to the right, and when he turned that way he saw a pair of narrowed yellow eyes staring back at him from the darkness between the trunks. They were the same eyes as he remembered from his dream; only now, when he looked at them they did not vanish. Instead, they shifted to the side, then widened and seemed to grow soft.

Whatever the creature was, it was not large, and the way it was moving gave it a curious aspect, rather than a malicious one; and so Fíli let out a long breath and lowered his sword, though his grip on the handle did not loosen. 

"It's alright," he said, trying to sound confident and unafraid. "Come on out…"

The animal slid further back into the shadows, dimming the brightness of its stare, then it stepped ahead again and made its way into the somewhat brighter light beyond the trunks. Now that Fíli could see it clearly, he thought that it might be a cross between a wolf and some type of dog or hound—and it did not seem menacing in the least. It stood only about as tall as Fíli's waist, its ears were softly drooped, its muzzle was small, it was lean almost to the point of being bony, and its matted light-brown fur was mottled on the legs. It really looked rather absurd overall, and the sight actually brought a grin to the Dwarf's face. 

"Are you one of those more dangerous things that Sigrid warned me I would find here?" he asked with a touch of grim humor.

The animal stepped haltingly forward, then it stopped and stared at the sword in Fíli's hand. He nodded in understanding, then he slowly slid the weapon back into its scabbard as he looked first at the animal's large paws, then at the matching prints all around the clearing.

"Is this your spot?" he asked; then he cautiously kneeled and held out his left hand in a peaceful gesture. "Sorry about last… about the other night. I thought you were something else. Something worse."

The animal padded near and sniffed at his arm; then it whined slightly as its eyes met Fíli's own.

"I don't suppose you've seen a goat around here?" he asked. "Or an axe?"

The wolf tilted its head, and Fíli let out a quick breath and stood, wondering if he had really expected an answer. The animal leaped back at his sudden movement, bristling the fur on its neck; but despite a bit of surprise at its posture, Fíli did not find himself frightened. 

"Well… it was nice meeting you, but I need to be going," he told it; then he glanced around. "If I can even find the Road…"

The animal lowered its scruff and started to pant excitedly, then it turned to the side and scraped its claws on the large oak tree that already bore its claw-marks from the other evening. It then ran some distance away before stopping by another tree and looking back at him.

Fíli furrowed his brow, then stepped over to the wolf, watching on as it pawed softly at the tree. It then let out what sounded almost like a happy growl, and Fíli bent over and ran his fingers across the deep gouges he now saw on the trunk.

"What is this all about?" he asked.

The animal whined again, then it barked once before turning and running swiftly away from him. It disappeared into the darkness between the trees, and after a while of staring after it, Fíli returned his attention to the scratch marks it had left behind. He examined them closer, then looked up; and not far away, in a straight line from the first two trees, he saw another damaged trunk.

The corner of Fíli's mouth turned up as he walked to the third tree, then a lightness rose into his chest. Further ahead, he spotted yet another gouged tree, then he saw another beyond that one; and as he hurried along, his heart began pounding hard against his ribs—half in hope, and half in fear. But within a few minutes, the fear fell away when his heavy-booted foot landed with a thump on the by-now familiar stones that made up the Road.

Fíli collapsed to his knees and knocked his knuckles against the stones, so to check if they were really there; then he rubbed his brow hard with his palm and began to chuckle. What had compelled the wolf to show him the way out of Mirkwood's trackless expanses and back to the path, he could not say; but the animal was either quite intelligent, or else it had been domesticated at some point before taking to the Wood. Fíli's best guess was the latter, though the distinction mattered less than the animal's intent, and he was thankful for it beyond the ability to do much besides laugh long and low.

When he at last calmed his heaving shoulders and lifted his face to the path ahead of him, he remembered that he still had no idea which way to go—though he knew that if going in one direction brought him to one of his old campsites, then he could simply come about and go the other way. In the meantime, he would hike as far as he could with the light that the day had left; and so he drew himself onto his feet and hoisted his pack higher on his shoulders, then he set out down the path.

The light continued to fail as he went along, and in short time a ticking sound began all around him; and when he turned his face up, cold drops fell on his cheeks. At once, his joy at finding the Road faded when he realized that the darkening was not because of the nearing evening, but because of a coming storm. This was not a pleasant situation, by any means. There was no shelter here, no place to hide himself from the weather; and the rain would surely soak any fallen branches to the point where he would have no fire to keep himself warm.

He stopped and quickly drew off his pack, then unfurled his bedroll and gathered as many sticks into the woolen blanket as he could, hoping that they would stay dry enough so that he might make a campfire when the storm passed. After tying the bundle shut, he fixed it again to the bottom of his pack, which he then stuffed to the top with kindling before returning it to his back. Worrying for the state of his food-supplies, he eased his nearly-empty canvas sack under his left arm, then he wrapped his cloak tightly around himself and lowered his hood over his brow as he walked on.

If the trees had been thick with leaves, he was sure that much of the rain would not have made it through the canopy—but though he could see no light through the winter-bare branches above him, they did not seem to be keeping any of the heavy drops from making it through. Soon, in fact, the light sprinkle shifted into a downpour; and the hissing of the rain on the dead leaves all around him was almost maddening after being for so long in the silence of the Forest.

His going grew more difficult the longer the storm went on; and in short time his cloak and clothes were soaked, his boots were filled with water, his dripping hood was low over his eyes, and his spine began to burn as his now-wet pack weighed him down. It would not be long before he knew he would be able to go no further, and when his foot dragged unexpectedly across the road-stones and he landed on his knees in the mud, he decided that it was indeed time for a rest. 

The gnawing at his stomach, at least, he knew he might be able to ease, and so he slipped off his pack as he sat, then pressed his back to a large oak at the edge of the trail. He reached into his food-sack and rooted around for a few seconds, then he curled his hand into a fist and withdrew it empty. There really was little left to eat, and so he closed his sack and slid it back under his arm, then pulled his legs up to his chest and rested his brow on his knees.

His left elbow was aching more now than it had in days, and if he had been in a better mood, he would have smiled at the memory of how he and Kíli used to make fun of the older folk who would claim they could feel the bad weather in their bones. As it was, despite his earlier thrill at finding the trail, he had little humor left in him. He gritted his teeth at the ache in his arm and began to rub at it; but his fingers froze in place when he felt that the stitches there were gone, and he realized that he must have removed them in the day that lay empty behind him.

The rain began to quicken even more, and Fíli's legs and shoulders began to shake as the cold moved through them. With the shivering came a raising of the hairs on his arms, and the muscles in his neck tensed and his teeth began to chatter. Even his fingers, though he had them folded into fists, were beginning to go numb, and he had to flex them several times to bring the feeling back into them.

As much as he wanted a fire at this moment, he was certain that the wood he had gathered was already too waterlogged to catch alight; but even if the rain had not soaked through the woolen blanket, he still would not have been able to light a spark in the downpour. He was bound to spend the rest of the day—and possibly the coming night—pressed up next to the giant oak; but he decided that he could at least make some use of the situation by gathering some rainwater, so that he might not go thirsty in drier days ahead.

Two of his water-skins were empty, and so he drew his knife out of the sheath on his leg and sliced the narrow top off of one of them, then he held the makeshift cup out to the rain. Slowly, it began to grow heavy with gathered water; and though he thought of storing it, he instead brought it to his lips and drank it eagerly. He hadn't realized just how thirsty he had become, as over the past week he had grown accustomed to the dryness in his throat; and after filling the cup again, he once more drank it all down. 

He held the cup out for a third time, letting it this time fill to the top, then he popped the cork off the empty drink-skin and tried to pour the water inside; but his hands were unsteady from the cold, and most of what he had gathered simply spilled down the side. He gritted his teeth and tried to calm his shaking; then, somehow past the rushing of the rain, he heard a noise nearby.

Lifting his face, he peered into the darkness on the other side of the muddy path; then he smiled softly when he saw a pair of yellow eyes staring back at him from a dreary gap between the trees.

"Come on out," he said, raising his voice above the storm.

The wolf moved slowly into view, then it stopped and looked down at the path, which was by now really much more like a river. The animal scrunched back and leaped across, landing just in front of Fíli—then it lifted its head up almost proudly.

"Did you want to make sure I didn't wander off again?" asked the Dwarf, grinning wider.

The wolf turned in a circle before lying down in the mud and resting its furry chin on its paws; then its eyes flitted in Fíli's direction almost expectantly. He looked down at the cup in his hand, then held it out.

"Thirsty?"

The animal raised its scruffy brows at him, but did not move otherwise.

"Right," said Fíli, lowering the cup. "There's water everywhere right now."

His stomach growled painfully and loud, and he leaned over, clutching at it; and the animal stood and stepped nearer to him. It sniffed at his aching arm, then turned to the side and pawed at the food sack under his cloak. Arching an eyebrow, Fíli loosened the tie that held the bag shut, then he reached inside—and when his hand found the oiled-leather packet within, he gave the animal a nod.

Despite his food-stores being low, he hadn't yet eaten any of the dried- and salted-meat that Sigrid had given him, as he knew it would make him quite thirsty. But now he had plenty of water to spare, and so he drew out a small piece of the tough meat and threw it into his mouth before taking a long drink from his leather cup.

He felt a burst of warm breath on his hand and looked down at the wolf again. It placed a paw on his leg, then opened its eyes even wider and curled its lip up, almost as if it were smiling.

"Are you hungry?" he asked; and without even stopping to think, he reached back into the bag and pulled out another piece of meat. He then held it out in offer, but the animal made no move. "Go on. It's alright. You've earned it."

The wolf sniffed hesitantly at the meat, then took it gently from his fingers. 

"I guess it's the least I could do, since you showed me to the Road," said Fíli, securing the sack again. "But don't expect more than that. To be honest, I haven't much food to spare."

A rivulet of icy water flowed unexpectedly over Fíli's scalp and down his neck. He shook from the chill and the animal stepped aside; then Fíli hugged his legs to his chest and again rested his brow on his knees. A moment later, he felt warmth and pressure at his side, and he let out a quick laugh before lowering his hand and scratching at the wet fur on the wolf's back.

Chapter Text

Somehow, Fíli was able to fall asleep while the rain persisted; and when he opened his eyes some time later, he found that the wolf was no longer by his side. The woods were again silent and still, and the dim light of the Forest day was once more all around him; but as cold and wet as the Dwarf was, he was in no mood to continue his trek—though even if he had been in the mood to go on he could not have done so, as the trail was by now hidden beneath several inches of filthy water.

He decided, then, to find himself a more comfortable place to rest—and he saw that behind the tree under which he was sitting there was a short, flat-topped hill that looked to be at least a little drier than the swamp where the path had once been. And so he gathered his things and struggled to his feet, then slipped and slid as he made his way up the muddy knoll.

When he reached the top he spotted a ring of small stones that must have once encircled a campfire, but he had no fear that whoever had set it was still nearby, and so he sat down beside it and removed his pack once more. Although he had not thought it possible, he was colder now than he had been in a long time; and despite having little hope that his stowed firewood would be dry enough to catch alight, he unbound the bundle and examined it. To his great surprise and relief, the wood was not as wet as he had feared it would be, and even the tinder and kindling in his oiled leather pack was mostly dry.

Fíli wasted no time then in laying his fire-bed, but it proved to be difficult getting the tinder to catch a spark, as his hands were shaking and his fingers were numb, and the flint kept slipping from his grip. After a long while, though, one of his sparks finally fell right, and soon he had blown the flames into life. The young fire grew slowly, and his hands and face started to warm, but still he shivered; and when his fingers had finally gained enough strength, he set about gathering more wood.

Not far down the side of the rise, he found a fallen elm that seemed to have been dead for quite a while. The long branches were neither rotten nor spongy, and so had not soaked up much of the rain; and the thought came to him that he might make of them a drying rack for his soggy clothing. Breaking off a number of limbs, he dragged them back to the fireside, and there set to work binding them together with the bandages that he had taken from Bard's tent.

The work warmed him somewhat, and so when he had finished his task, he was not reluctant to strip himself bare so that he could lay out his clothing and boots on the rack for drying. Sitting then on his damp bedroll, he threw a few of the branches he had left over from the construction onto the fire, and the flames grew into a small blaze; and though Fíli feared that his clothes might catch alight, he did not move them away so that they might dry as quickly as possible, and he would not have to spend the whole night bare on the ground.

The Wood was growing darker again by now, but it did not have the same dreary feeling as earlier, and it was clear that it was the nighttime coming on rather than the storm returning. Strangely, although he was naked and felt rather vulnerable in general, the nearing evening did not hold the same dread for him as it had for the past week or so—but still he was startled when the sound of shuffling rose up from the darkness at the bottom of the hill.

He gripped the handle of his sword where it lay on the ground beside him; but soon a by-now familiar pair of wide eyes came into view over the rim of the rise, and he loosened his hold on the weapon. A few seconds later, the wolf padded into the ring of firelight with something red in its mouth, then it stopped abruptly and stared at him.

Fíli glanced down at himself. "Do I look a little odd to you when I'm undressed?" he asked; but the animal stood fast, and so he focussed on what it was carrying between its teeth. "What have you got there?"

After a few heavy breaths, the wolf stepped forward and dropped the object at Fíli's side; and without stopping to think, the Dwarf lifted it and turned it over in his hand. It looked rather mangled and was covered with blood, but to Fíli's eye it seemed to be either a rock dove or a partridge—though he had no idea how the wolf could have found either in the Forest.

"Did you want me to cook it for you or something?" he asked almost breathlessly.

The wolf turned in a circle and laid down beside him, then it began licking absently at the blood-spot that had been left in the dirt; and Fíli returned his attention to the bird. It did not look bad, by any means. The meat smelled fresh and seemed to be altogether more wholesome than he thought anything killed in these woods possibly could—and as he examined it, his stomach began to grumble.

Fíli looked to the wolf again, and it let out a quick breath through its nose; and so, taking that as permission, the Dwarf grinned and tossed the bird onto a broad branch as he drew out his knife. He hoped, anyway, that the wolf had intended to share it with him, as the thought of a relatively hearty meal was making him hungrier by the moment; and when he slit the bird up the belly and saw how deep-red and rich the meat was, he grew even more eager and worked faster.

He made short work of cleaning out and preparing the bird, and soon it was plucked and skewered and set over the fire, while the small liver and heart he set on one of the hot stones at the edge of the flames. As the meat began cooking, he wiped his knife on a handful of wet leaves and gave the wolf a sidelong glance. The whole time he had been working, the animal had watched on patiently, but now it was sniffing at the bloody remains on the branch. 

"Go on, then," said Fíli, nodding. "I don't need the scraps, and you're the one that caught it, after all."

Needing no further urging, the animal swiftly gobbled up the head and feet and insides of the dead bird, then it licked the branch clean of blood and rested its grisly chin on Fíli's bare leg.

He raised an eyebrow at it, but soon the long-missed and tempting smell of roasting meat began to rise up, drawing his thoughts to the fire. It was too soon yet to eat the bird, as he wanted to make certain that it was cooked through—that anything foul would be burned away—and so he simply turned it over on the flames and ignored the aching in his stomach as he waited for it to char.

"Where did you manage to find this?" he asked the wolf. "I haven't seen any other living thing in the Forest besides you." The wolf raised its head, and he leaned down and lowered his voice, whispering affectedly. "Did you eat everything?" 

The wolf raised its droopy ears, and Fíli chuckled and rubbed its scruffy head.

Casting his sight then on his drink-skins beside his pack, he grabbed the wine and looked it over. Sigrid had given it to him with the suggestion that it might do him well on a cold night, though many of those had gone by without him tasting it even once, since he had been saving it for last-use, should his water run out. But now seemed like a fine time to try a bit—an accent for the roasting meat, he thought wryly—and he uncorked the skin and sniffed at the contents.

When he had smelled it in Bard's tent, the scent had been overwhelmed by the pyre-smoke in the air, but now he could tell how fresh and fruity and crisp it was. He was tempted then to take a large swallow, but he decided instead that he would restrict himself to one small drink only, so to keep the rest for the uncertain days ahead. The heady red wine's strength and sweetness surprised him, and he had to clear his throat against the burn; and next to him, the wolf whined a bit, then pulled itself up to its full height and nudged the drink-skin with its nose. 

"You really shouldn't," said Fíli, returning the cork to its place. "Wine isn't good for dogs."

The animal tilted its head and settled back down with its chin on his leg once more; and Fíli cleared his throat again. 

"You are a dog, though?" he asked. "Or a wolf? I don't believe I've ever seen anything quite like you before." He ran his fingers through the mess of shortened hair on his own head, then he smiled softly at how it was probably not unlike the wolf's own matted and messy fur at this point. "Except for maybe myself," he added. "Is that why you're here? Do I remind you of yourself? Did you think we were related or something?"

Fíli lowered his hand then to his mustache and felt along it. It was growing back fast, and it felt odd to him where it hung loose and unbraided over his lip. He imagined that his beard must by this time look ragged and wild, as well; and as his fingertips moved over his chin, they brushed against the scar from where he had sliced himself in the tent. He wondered now if he should have carried through with shearing it off completely for his mourning, and he picked up his boot-knife and ran his thumb along the blade. 

"Have you a whetstone?" he asked absently; and when the wolf let out what seemed to be a whimper of confusion, he held the knife down. "It's getting a bit dull."

The animal made a little noise that sounded almost like a laughing bark, and Fíli slid his knife into its sheath then turned towards the fire once more.

The bird's skin was by now well-blackened, and though his stomach was still warmed by the wine, he again felt the gnawing of hunger and anticipation. He withdrew the stick on which the meat was roasting, and despite the bird being nearly too hot to touch, he began eating it eagerly—almost fearing that this was a dream, and that the meat would vanish before he had a chance to finish it—and as he stripped each of the bones bare, he tossed them to the wolf.

Much sooner than Fíli had hoped, the meat was gone; and though it had been more than he'd had to eat in weeks, he was still hungry by the end of it. He snatched up and ate the sizzling liver from the fireside, then he popped the bird's charred heart into his mouth and chewed, enjoying both the tannic flavor and the pleasantly firm texture. It went down hard when he swallowed; and despite his earlier decision to take only one small drink of the wine, he helped himself to another sip.

"Thank you for dinner," he said to the wolf as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It was your idea, wasn't it? Not some Wood-Elf's?"

The animal made a snuffling noise, and Fíli shrugged then turned his eyes towards the now-dark trees above him. 

"No, I guess they wouldn't be so kind to me." He re-corked the wine, then lowered his face. "At least, I'm sure neither Thranduil nor his son would be. Others might, perhaps. Tauriel, certainly. But I would think she'd at least let me know if she was out there."

The animal tilted its head up as it continued to gnaw lazily on the bones, and Fíli scratched it under its bloody chin; but he stopped when he felt a smooth, hairless patch underneath the fur. It felt like a scar; and when he angled his head down, he saw that it was not just one, but a series of three, like claw-marks trailing down the animal's throat. 

Growing curious, Fíli began feeling along the animal's bony back, frowning when he found many more scars of varying ages and severity under the matted and tangled fur. What awful things, he wondered, had left such wounds behind? He slid his finger along a particularly broad scar on the wolf's neck, and the animal looked up suddenly.

"It's a hard life in the Forest, isn't it?" he asked, pulling his hand away; then he let his sight wander down his own bare body. "It's a hard life all over these days. I've quite a few scars, myself. More than I used to, at any rate."

Even in the dim firelight he could see that the wound on his side was healed over quite well; and though it itched, there was no reddening around it—probably thanks to the kingsfoil that he had applied when the cut had been fresh. His elbow also looked somewhat better, as it was no longer swollen or bruised from where he had slammed it into the shield during the Battle; but the arrow-slice below it did not look quite so well. It did not hurt, really, and in fact it felt rather numb around the wound itself; but there was a darkening of the skin there, and when he pressed against it he felt a bit of hardening, as if there was scar tissue on the muscle, itself.

Lifting his hand then to the back of his head, he felt carefully around the scar that Azog had left behind; but he did not let his touch linger there for long, and instead swiftly rose to his feet and stepped over to where his clothes were drying. His trousers and boots and cloak were still damp—though his tunic was fairly dried, and he pulled it off the branches and held it up to the light. The hole that the goblin had left in the fabric was longer than it had been before, and he feared that if he continued to put off mending it, it would tear all the way around; and so he sat again by the fire and drew out his needle and thread and shears, and soon he was busying himself with stitching the tear shut.

He thought he was doing a rather poor job at it, though, and he nodded at the memory of Sigrid suggesting that he bring a spare set of clothing with him. She had been right about that, of course. At this rate, by the end of his journey he might very well be reduced to wearing a few scraps held together with bits of string. 

Fíli thought often, in fact, about all that he and Sigrid had spoken about in the few hours before he had left Erebor—and always, the memories of their conversations led to him wondering how long it had been before she had told Balin about his survival. It was doubtful that she would have waited very long; and the more he thought about it, the more surprised he was that he had not been tracked down before he had gotten into the Forest. The goat mount might well have been the answer to that, he knew, as it would have shortened the trip significantly; and since his kin would have thought he was on foot, then they likely would not have expected him to move along as quickly as he had.

"Would it really have been so bad if they'd have found me, though?" he wondered out loud; and when the wolf raised its head, he went on, beyond the threat of embarrassment. "I'm sure Balin would have sent the Arkenstone off to some other place if I'd have…"

The mention of the King's Jewel silenced him, and he looked down at the fingertips of his right hand as he tightened his jaw. The tingling the Arkenstone had forced under his skin was gone, but the desperation of its call was still at the back of his thoughts; and he knew that if he had the power to order Balin to send it off to some far away place, then he would also have the power to order it returned to him—and this time he might not be able to let it go.

Fíli's left hand began to cramp where he was holding tightly to his shirt, and he released the fabric and flexed his fingers a few times, trying to force some strength into them. They continued to ache, though, and he rubbed them against his bare leg, then he awkwardly tied off the last stitch and snipped the thread. He looked over at the wolf, who was still staring at him; and he held the shirt up, showing it how he had mended the cloth.

"How's that look?" he asked; and the animal resumed chewing on a bone as he lowered the tunic to his lap. "Good enough, I suppose."

He slipped the shirt on, then rotated his shoulders to check its fit. It was a lot looser now than when Sigrid had first given it to him; and he knew well that was because the long days of marching on a perpetually empty stomach had begun to waste him away. He looked again at the scrawny animal by his side. It had likely spent most—if not all—of its life under Mirkwood's boughs, and it certainly showed in both its scarring and its weight. Why it had ever thought to share its small meal with him, he wished he could say; except that perhaps it had itself grown lonely after so long in the darkness and silence of the Forest.

"How long have you been here?" he asked, scratching its neck. "Did you live with people before you came here? Or have you always been here?"

The wolf seemed to be greatly enjoying the attention and it rolled to the side and stretched out, and Fíli rubbed the fur at its ribs. It shifted, then, onto its back, and his hand froze in place as he studied its scarred underside.

"So, you're a girl, then?"

The animal whined and quickly rolled onto its belly, then pawed at his leg; and Fíli turned his eyes towards the hidden treetops. 

"It's best if I don't linger in one place, so I'll not be staying here for much longer," he said. "But I won't mind if you come along, at least for a while."

A few quiet minutes passed, then he looked to the wolf once more. It was again lying down with its chin on its paws, and it seemed as if it had not turned away from him at all in that time. Fíli yawned and laid back on his still-damp bedroll, then he pulled his pack near and rested his head on it. Folding his hands over his chest, he stared up into the darkness, listening to the crackling of the campfire and watching as the sparks first drifted up, then faded out of sight. 

"Do you have a name?" he asked, reaching over and placing a hand on the wolf's head.

The animal moved closer to him and pressed itself to his side, resting its chin on his arm, and Fíli smiled. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt secure—though whether it was because of the meal or the wine or his new company, he could not tell.

Chapter Text

For each of the next three evenings, the wolf would curl up next to Fíli as he went to sleep, and always she was still there when he awoke. Whether because of her presence or for some other reason, Fíli had noticed that his dreams had neither been so bold nor so disturbing as before; though his most recent sleep had been cut short by the mumbling of voices in his ears. When he had opened his eyes, the voices had cleared for just a moment, and he'd recognized them as belonging to Balin and Kíli and himself—a memory of a time when the older Dwarf had been telling them some tale about Azanulbizar.

When his vision came into focus and the voices faded, Fíli found the wolf staring at him and panting gently; and after looking into her keen eyes for a moment, a name had slipped into his mind from the far-off childhood memory that had been echoing in his dream. He had tried a number of names out on her over the past few days, hoping to be able to call her something other than 'you' as they went along, and always she had greeted them with indifference—but when he'd spoken this one aloud, she had perked up her ears and wagged her tail excitedly.

After sharing a few bites of dried meat, they had then set out towards the west again, walking on for what Fíli felt must have been two miles. His feet began to speed up as the path sloped downwards, and his back was beginning to ache and his stomach was grumbling, and he knew that soon he would need to stop for a rest. But before long, the slope that they had been making their way down flattened out, and just a little farther along he stopped suddenly and gaped at the wide, black river cutting across the path some fifty feet ahead. 

"This could be a problem," he said under his breath; and beside him the wolf growled softly.

He had not been aware that the Forest River went through Southern Mirkwood, but if it was the same distance from the western edge of the Forest as the northern branch was, then he at least knew how far he had yet to go. That was not a comfort to him, though, as he remembered that the Company's hike to this point had taken them a fortnight, at least—and his food stores were much too low to last another two weeks in the Forest.

If the wolf could have caught another bird or other small animal from time to time, the situation might not have been so dire; but though she had stopped and stared into the darkness between the trees once or twice as they had gone along, she had yet to run off again in search of a meal—and Fíli supposed that was simply because there was nothing out there to find, though he was certain that her senses were keen enough to spot any prey from quite a distance.

"Well, maybe there will be better hunting on the other side of the River," he said with a shrug.

The animal made no sound, and he glanced down to discover that she was no longer at his side. He turned in a circle, squinting into the darkness between the trees, then he looked back along the trail; but she was nowhere to be seen. He rested his hand on the haft of his sword, then sighed as he turned west once more.

"I wish you'd warn me before you run off," he said barely aloud, striding cautiously forward.

He did not know what dangers lay on the black river this far south, but he remembered well its effects on the Company when they'd gone through the Northern Forest—he remembered how it had tried to draw them in and drown them in forgetfulness, he remembered how it had sent Bombur into a deep sleep that he could not be roused from until the spiders' poison had woken him many days later. And now, there was no one there to hold Fíli back, should the dark water try to pull him in.

As he neared the River, however, a sense of dread set in; and he stood fast when a sinking ache worked its way suddenly into his chest. He recognized the vines that hung from the trees above him, he recognized the stones that were jutting up out of the water, he recognized the remains of the broken bridge that sat on the bank. This was not Southern Mirkwood, as he thought he'd been traveling through, it was not the Old Forest Road; he was in the northern part of the Forest again, on the Elven Path—the same road that he and the Company had taken on their way east.

Why he had taken this route, he could not say; though he knew that he must have chosen to do so for good reason. Maybe he had decided that the Long Marshes were too large and boggy to pass, or maybe he had taken Sigrid's warnings to heart—or maybe he had simply chosen to take a road that was at least somewhat more familiar to him. In any case, he was now even more uncertain of how long it had taken him to get to the Forest; but if Sigrid had told Balin and the others that he was making for Southern Mirkwood, then they would have been searching for him in the wrong place all along.

Guess that's why they haven't tracked me down yet, he thought with a shake of his head. 

But still his path lay before him, and he knew he would have to find some way across the slow-flowing river and continue on. The first time through, the Company had climbed on and scurried across the low-slung branches and vines; but now the stiffness in his fingers and his still-weakened left arm would make that course nearly impossible—even without the added complication of the water itself trying to lure him in—and so he tried to think of some other way.

He ran his hand along the rope that was coiled over his shoulder, but he knew it would do him little good, as it was not long enough to reach the other side, and he also had no hook with which to snag a hold on anything. A few leaf-covered steps led down to the brink, but he dared not step on them, as they looked slick and were tilted from long years of roots pushing up on them from underneath; and at any rate, the remains of the stonework bridge were cracked and oddly-angled, and simply too far-spaced for him to be able to hop across.

"What do you think?" he asked the wolf. But his voice fell flat against the trees and he looked to his side, only then remembering that the animal had wandered off. "Right…"

He quickly returned his attention to the River, and as he stared at the dimness near the far bank, he thought for a moment of making a bridge of freshly-felled trunks; but when he lowered his hand to his waist, his touch landed on the haft of his sword, rather than the head of his axe. He glanced down at the ground and turned in a circle, searching for where he had dropped it; then he squeezed his eyes shut and took several steps back away from the River. 

Already, the water seemed to be stealing his senses and making him forget, and he knew that if he did not soon find a way to the other side, he would have to go back some distance and give his mind a chance to clear. Turning to the right, he looked upriver for a way across; but for as far north as he could see, gnarled and twisted branches came thick to the bank, thin and brittle vines dipped down close to the near-stagnant water, and winter-dead ivy lay coiled and criss-crossed on the dark soil, hiding whatever dangers might be underneath.

Downriver, the going seemed a bit easier, with fewer trees and vines, and here and there sandy patches that looked firm enough to step on without sinking in. And so he turned that way, then made his way along the bank, all the while being careful not to look too deep into the water beside him. But despite his best efforts he still found himself being pulled towards the River with each step south; and after a time, the toe of his heavy boot splashed down into a small stream that was being fed out from the River to some roots that were jutting out of the ground like skeletal fingers clawing their way out of a grave. He faltered back, then side-stepped away from the water until it was no longer close enough for his foot to reach.

Looking then to his right, he saw the trunk of a long-since-fallen tree that was lying very nearly straight across the River; and though it was not quite long enough to reach the other side, he figured that with a great enough leap he could make it from the end of the trunk to the far shore. In any case, he felt that the more time he spent searching for a better way across, the more likely he would be to find himself instead sliding happily into the depths—so he scrambled up the pulled-up roots, then balanced on his hands and knees with all the care he could manage on the slightly-tilted trunk.

As he made his way across on all fours, he kept his eyes at first on the western bank, but once or twice he glanced at the log beneath him, then looked further down into the water. Before he had gotten very far, he was no longer concerned with what lay ahead of him, and his body sank lower and lower on the trunk as he went forward; then a comfortable fatigue started to set in, and his crawling slowed as he stared even deeper into the water. 

A familiar whining came from the shore behind him and he blinked several times, trying to bring himself back to wakefulness; and though he wanted to turn and ask the wolf why she had run off, his head bobbed and his palm slipped off the side of the trunk. He landed hard on his chest, and he pulled his hand away from the water—but the black depths had begun to look warm and welcoming to him, and he was beginning to feel that he could wrap the water around himself like a blanket.

He let his fingers dangle down towards the water once more, and the black surface seemed to rise up to meet him. The wolf whined again, and Fíli was certain that she would come and curl herself up by his side if he happened to fall asleep; and sure enough, he heard her stepping on the log, and the trunk shook slightly under her weight. His fingertips then dipped into the river, and a chill traveled through his hand and up into his arm—but it was a comforting chill, and he leaned over and reached further until the water came up over his wrist. He closed his eyes and drew in a long breath, though he did not feel himself exhale.

***

When Fíli awoke, he felt the familiar cold stones that made up the road under his back and heard the crackling of a nearby fire; and he grunted and rolled to his side, keeping his eyes tightly shut as he tried to recall just how he had gotten away from the dark water. A moment later he felt movement at the back of his head—then he blinked and smiled when a soft burst of warm air hit his neck.

"Where'd you run off to?" he asked, reaching up and rubbing the wolf's leg.

She whined a bit and pawed at his shoulder, and Fíli rolled onto his back again and saw above him what was possibly a dissipating morning fog. After a few seconds of staring at the mist, he pulled himself to sitting, then he scratched under the wolf's chin as he took a better look around. The first thing he noticed was that the River was no longer in sight, in either direction; then he turned to the fire and saw that his rope and pack lay just beside it. His bedroll, food-sack, and drink-skins were still tied securely in place, however, and he thought it odd that he would have set the fire and not settled the rest of his camp.

Right now, though, he was less concerned about that than he was about the gnawing in his stomach, and he grabbed his pack and pulled it near, intent on having a little breakfast; but before he could open it, he saw a hand-axe on the ground behind where the pack had been resting. He lifted the weapon, turning it over and examining the notch in the head—and although he could only vaguely recall what the axe that Sigrid had given to him looked like, he knew that it was the same. 

His heart began to thrum in his ears, and he turned to the fire, eyeing it carefully. It seemed strange to him; it seemed wrong. The wood was stacked differently and burned closer to the center than any Dwarf would have cared for, and he knew that he himself would never have set it in such a way—and, so, he and the wolf were not alone; but that she was not on-guard told him that she had no fear of whoever was there.

Gritting his teeth, he gripped the axe tighter and leaned close to the animal as his eyes scanned the woods on either side of the trail. "Where is he, Nár?" he asked. "Where's your friend that set the fire?"

The wolf lifted her head as a rustling sound came from above and not too far to the right of the path.

"She has no name," a somewhat familiar voice drifted down. "And if she did, it would not be a Dwarf name."

Fíli let out a small groan; then he set the axe on the ground and pressed his hand to his aching brow. "Hello, Legolas," he said flatly. "I trust the Battle went well for you."

A long, silent moment passed; then a faint sound like feet hitting the leaf-covered Forest floor was followed by soft footfalls, and soon the Elven prince came striding into the light. He looked much the same as when Fíli had last seen him, though he now had a satchel slung over his shoulder and he wore a long green cloak on his back; and he was peering down at the Dwarf past sunken eyebrows.

"Better than it did for you, it seems," he said coolly.

Fíli's jaw tightened, then he turned again to the wolf and ruffled the fur between her ears. "She doesn't seem to mind the name," he said, shifting the subject back; then he spoke to the wolf, herself. "Do you, Nár?"

Legolas made an almost-exasperated huffing noise; but he said nothing, and Fíli went on.

"Does she belong to you?"

"My people do not keep pets," said Legolas, his voice registering some slight bit of disgust with the last word. "She belongs only to herself."

A crooked smile rose to Fíli's lips, and he looked up, expecting to see the Elf still standing near the trees; but he found him instead crouching on the path and staring at him past the fire. The flickering flames gave his pale face an eerie aspect, and his already-bright eyes very nearly glowed in the illumination. Somewhat startled by the sight, Fíli cleared his throat and moved slightly away from him.

"How long was I asleep?" he asked, trying to regain his composure.

"Nearly a day and a half."

The answer took Fíli by surprise, though ache in his stomach told him to believe the Elf. "The River had its way, then. It felt like only moments."

"You were fortunate that it was only your hand that went into the water," said Legolas. "If you had fallen in fully and managed not to drown, you would have been asleep for much longer, and you would have forgotten many other days, besides."

I don't need the River for that, thought Fíli, looking down at his hand. "And will you now be dragging me back to your dungeons?"

"I could easily have done that when you were asleep, if I had wanted to." 

Fíli gave him a small nod. "Fair enough," he said. "So then, why are you still here?"

Legolas tilted his chin up. "I would ask the same of you. Or, perhaps, how you are here." He paused, looking deeper into the Dwarf's eyes. "The dead do not tend to walk around the northern Forest, despite what the Men of the Lake would say. Though they may not have been half-mistaken in this case—as I have seldom had cause to doubt my own eyes, and I saw you dead, myself."

The memory of Legolas staring down at him on the battlefield brought with it echoes of pain in the back of Fíli's head, and he reached up and rubbed at his healed-over wound.

"Did you?" he asked with feigned ignorance. "Well, that is strange, isn't it?"

Still, despite his affected nonchalance, Sigrid's warning about Southern Mirkwood repeated in Fíli's mind, and he wondered if the dead were among the dangers he would have encountered if he had taken the Old Forest Road. He suppressed a shudder and lowered his hand to his lap.

"Well, thank you for… well, for not letting me drown, I suppose." He looked at Nár, who was staring at him expectantly. "And thank you, as well. Even if you were spying on me the whole time."

"She was not spying," said Legolas.

"No? It wasn't she that told you I was at the River, then?" 

Legolas gave no answer; and Fíli nodded, feeling as if he had scored a small point on the Elf.

He lifted his cloak-hood over his head, then grabbed the rope and fixed it to the bottom of his pack before slinging it up onto his shoulders. Gathering his strength, he struggled to his feet, but a wave of dizziness sent him stumbling to the side; and after righting himself, he stretched his back and looked again to Legolas.

"Not that I don't appreciate your help," he said, "but all I need from you now is to find out which way is west."

The Elf tilted his head to the right; and without giving him another word, Fíli began walking in that direction. A couple steps along, however, he stopped and let out a few shallow, ragged breaths as his head began to swim.

"Is something wrong?" asked Legolas, rather indifferently.

"Why? Are you concerned about my welfare?" asked Fíli, sliding his pack off his shoulders. "If what you say about how long I was sleeping is true, then I haven't eaten in about two days. Some people need to do that once in a while, in case you've forgotten." He leaned a bit to the side, clutching at his pack as if it would keep him from falling; then he lifted his food-sack and pulled it open.

"Did you enjoy the partridge?" asked the Elf.

Fíli gritted his teeth, then drew a crumbling chunk of cram out of the bag. "So it was from you, then?"

"I would not be so kind to you."

The pain in Fíli's head grew suddenly worse, and he looked down as Nár padded over to his side. "Couldn't keep quiet, could you?" he asked. "What else did you tell him?"

The wolf let out a little bark, and Fíli hung the pack over the crook of his elbow, then he threw the small piece of cram into his mouth as he began moving once more down the path; but before he managed more than a few strides, his eyes went blurry and his knees grew weak. He shook his head and stopped walking again, then he glanced down at the wolf as she whined loudly.

"Just… don't," Fíli scolded her, still chewing on the tough cake. "I'm not happy with you right now."

He swallowed the cram, coughing as it went down in a hard and dry lump; but when he grabbed at his water-skins, he found that they were more full now than when he'd last checked them. He glanced over his shoulder towards the Elf; but before he could ask anything about the skins, Legolas himself spoke up.

"You forgot your axe."

Fíli rested his hand on his belt. "What makes you think it's mine?"

"Is it not?"

Fíli lowered his head in half a nod, then he began turning back around. He could not hold his balance, though, and his knees buckled and he pitched forward—but a hand landed on his chest, stalling his fall, and he was eased to sitting on the trail. He felt the hand move to his shoulder for a moment before it pulled away; and after a deep breath, Fíli turned his eyes to where Legolas now crouched before him.

"I guess I'm more hungry than I thought," said Fíli, grimacing. "Cram is more heavy than hearty, I think…"

Legolas stared at him, then looked over at the wolf, who laid a paw on his leg and let out a small growl. The Elf then sighed and swung his satchel out in front of himself, drawing from it something wrapped in a dark green leaf. He held it out to Fíli, who glanced at Nár. She lowered her paw from Legolas's leg and instead placed it on Fíli's own; and he at last took the packet from Legolas's grip.

"What is it?" he asked, squinting suspiciously.

"Waybread," said the Elf. "It is called lembas."

"Do I eat the leaf, or just what's inside?"

Legolas furrowed his brow, then he stood and walked a few steps away before stopping and looking into the darkened trees. Fíli unwrapped the bundle and snapped off a corner of the bread, then placed the piece tentatively on his tongue; then his eyes widened at the pleasant sweetness and he chewed on it eagerly.

"That one cake should last you at least a couple of days," said Legolas without looking down, "if you do not eat more than you need to at a time."

"That may be difficult," admitted Fíli, rewrapping the bundle. "And I thank you for it, but what I really want is just to get out of your Forest."

Legolas cast his eyes up towards the hidden sky, then turned and held a hand out to the wolf. She rushed to him, then he bent over and spoke softly; a few seconds later, the wolf returned to Fíli's side, panting and wagging.

"She will go with you," said Legolas. "For whatever reason, she enjoys your company. Stay with her and she will not allow you to lose your way."

Fíli scratched the top of Nár's head. "She hasn't yet."

"You will find that the Forest is not so overbearing as it was when you first passed through," Legolas went on, "and the trees will not now be so inclined to lead you astray."

"I've noticed that already," said Fíli, resisting the temptation to take another bite of lembas. "But, why are there no—"

"The spider population has been greatly thinned," Legolas cut him off, "and if you do not leave the trail they should not be a problem for you." He walked back to the fire, then he lifted the axe and returned to Fíli's side and held it down to him. "I would not suggest that you use this on any living trees while in the Forest."

"Where did you find it, anyway?" asked Fíli, taking the weapon. "I lost it a week ago, at least."

"It was just off the path, in the woods not far from the trailhead."

"Strange, then, that you wouldn't have simply left it there," said Fíli, resting the axe on his lap. "It hardly seems a thing an Elf would be inclined to hold on to."

The muscles in Legolas's neck tensed; then he started making his way into the midst of the darkened trees. "Be sure to put out the fire before you leave it."

Fíli's hand tightened around the axe handle. "Legolas?" he called out, suddenly and to his own surprise. The Elf looked back over his shoulder; but he said nothing, and Fíli went on. "I would appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone you saw me here."

Legolas's eyes shifted to the side for a moment, then he turned away once more and disappeared into the darkness; though as he went, Fíli felt a strange wave of regret wash over him. There was much that he wanted to know about what was now going on at the Mountain, but he had been unable to bring any of it up. At least, he thought, Legolas hadn't asked any questions of his own, though Fíli wasn't sure of many of the answers, himself.

Nár, perhaps sensing Fíli's distress, rubbed her shaggy muzzle against the Dwarf's chin, then turned in a circle before lying down and placing her head on his leg. The unkempt fur on her brow rose as her yellow eyes widened, then she let out a quick breath through her nose.

"I don't mind you, really," said Fíli, rubbing the animal's back. "But would you please stop telling the Elf about everything I do?"

Chapter Text

Two days and the night between them had passed since Fíli woke from his river-crossing, and in that time he and Nár had continued west along the trail with no troubles. Now, the second evening had fallen and the Forest darkness was deep; and though Fíli had been following as best he could the sound of Nár's panting and the soft rustling of the leaves under her feet, she had moved steadily ahead while Fíli slipped and stumbled behind.

"We best settle in, I think," he called out; then he listened in the pitch blackness as the wolf came back to his side. "We'll get moving again with the light tomorrow. Or what light there is tomorrow, anyway."

Fíli quickly set about making his camp, but despite the chill in the air, he tried to keep his fire small. Over the course of the last couple days he had seen the tattered remains of black webs strung here and there between the tree trunks, and he always hurried past when he noticed them; and now that the fire was giving some light, he saw more just to the side of the trail. 

At least, he thought, he had yet to actually see any spiders, and he supposed that what Legolas had said about their population being thinned was true. That did not make him feel any safer about being near where they had once lived, however, and he stared warily up at the darkened treetops, half-expecting to see some nasty creature scurrying down—though he knew that if anything was out there, Nár would give him fair warning. But still he drew his axe off his belt and laid it beside his bedroll for his defense in the night; then he turned his attention to his aching stomach.

Since crossing the River, the wolf had once in a while bounded off into the midst of the trees; and she had always come back a couple minutes later, licking bits of blood off her mouth. She had yet to bring anything else for Fíli, but given how quickly she had eaten whatever she had caught, he knew that her prey must have been too small to share—rats or mice or shrews of some sort. But in any case, her hunting seemed to have filled her up enough that whenever Fíli offered her anything from his food-sack, she had refused it.

The Dwarf himself hadn't eaten anything but lembas in the past two days, and it was a welcome change from dried fruit and cram and preserved meat, all of which just made him thirsty; and even considering the fact that Legolas had refilled the water-skins while Fíli had been asleep from the River, he did not want to waste what drink he had. Still, though he had been trying to keep from eating more of the waybread than absolutely necessary, he was already down to a small chunk—and that, he knew, would not last him much longer.

"I wouldn't mind a hare for dinner," he said, looking over at Nár. "I don't suppose you smell any around here?" The wolf tilted her head and Fíli let himself smile a bit as he took nibble of the Elvish bread. "No? Not a squirrel, even?"

Nár laid her head on her paws, but as Fíli rewrapped the lembas in its leaf bundle, the animal turned suddenly and looked off into the woods north of the trail. She sniffed at the air, perked up her ears, and opened her bright eyes wide.

"What's wrong?" asked Fíli. "What is it?"

He squinted into the darkness, wondering if Nár had sensed something fit for eating, after all; then he tightened his jaw and slumped his shoulders.

"Is it Legolas again?

Nár growled low, then jumped to her feet and moved a few halting steps away from the fire. Just within the reach of the darkness, she set her paws firmly on the ground and curled her lip up into a snarl; then she moved another step closer to the trees and bristled the fur on her neck.

Fíli let his hand fall on the hilt of his sword. Alright, it isn't Legolas…

"Nár… get back to the fire…" he told her; but the words had barely left his mouth when the wolf launched herself into the shadowy woods. "Nár!"

A rush of panicked energy ran through his body as he stood and drew out his sword; and with his free hand, he pulled a long branch with a flaming end from the fire and held it out towards where the wolf had vanished. He saw nothing, but the sound of yelping and snapping came suddenly out of the darkness, and Fíli stepped off the edge of the path.

He knew he should stay on the trail, knew that it was not wise to leave the fire; but despite the warnings in his own mind, he was not willing to let Nár fight on her own. He bounded ahead, and with his movement the brand went out completely; and so he threw it back towards the fire and started feeling around the trees as he made his way forward.

His hand came to rest on a cold, bristly branch and he pulled back, then hesitantly reached out again. He ran his fingers down its side, then he tapped it softly with his knuckles. Even past the nearby growling, it sounded hollow. Jumping aside, he swung out hard, drawing his sword across what he now knew to be a spider's limb. There was a crack as the blade cut through the creature's shell, and the severed leg fell to the ground with a muted thud; but neither a screech of pain nor any retaliation followed.

Cautiously, he grabbed hold of the leg that still stuck up in front of him, then he moved his touch down to where it met the creature's body. The spider was on its back with its limbs already curled up in death. His hand slid back up to the snapped end and felt where some thick, sticky fluid was dripping from where he had severed it. A foul smell rose up—not blood, but rot. The spider had been dead already for some time.

Whatever Nár was now fighting, however, was very much alive, and a furious crashing of bodies against tree-trunks brought Fíli's attention back around. He wheeled about and made his way towards the sound, hoping that he would not run into a tree as he groped and stumbled, following the growling and snarling as best he could. When he drew nearer, a deep and resonant howl halted him; and he gritted his teeth, tightening his grip on his weapon as his heart began to race.

A Forest wolf… 

The howl was answered by another, slighter and shorter one that could only have been Nár's own, then there was a sudden, fierce growl, followed by a yelp. The combatants separated and Fíli heard snarling both to the left and ahead of him, and a moment later the shadowed creatures came together again with a thud. He heard a frail whine, then something tumbled across the ground to his right.

Sudden silence fell, and Fíli's eyes darted back and forth as he listened anxiously. Past the rushing of his own blood in his ears, he heard ragged breathing to his side; and ahead of him, rough and fast panting. He shifted his feet on the leaf-covered ground, then took one step sideways, towards where he was certain Nár lay. But before he could make it to her side, something hit him in the chest and he was sent flying.

He landed hard, his back arching over a great root that was jutting out of the ground. At once, the base of his spine began to burn, and he grunted and strained, doing his best to ignore the pain as he tried to draw himself away from the root; but then the animal stepped onto his chest, digging its claws into his skin and forcing the air out of his lungs with its weight. He struggled for breath, and when he at last managed to take one in, it was hot and smelled horrid—like the creature was leaning close to his face.

Although he had managed to keep a hold on his sword as he fell, his instinct now was to push the creature away from him; and so he fought to reach his left hand up to its throat. There he felt rough fur and he shoved against it with all the strength he could manage, though his arm was weak and his elbow burned. 

The animal pushed back down against him and its teeth snapped together inches from his ear. Fíli tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword and he swung it up, and the steel vibrated as the broad side of the weapon struck the beast's skull.

…A warg… 

He had fought enough of them in the past to know what they sounded like, what they smelled like, what it felt like when a weapon came into contact with one—and he now knew that he was in a far worse position that he had at first believed. But he did not have the time to mull over why he had not sooner realized what the beast really was, and he swung his weapon up again, being sure this time to angle the tip of the blade towards where he knew the creature's neck must be.

The sword glanced off the warg, and he drew back once more, but his next swing was stalled when the weight on his chest eased unexpectedly. The sound of the two animals clashing came again from off to his side, and he rolled to his knees, gasping for breath; then he rose unsteadily to his feet and stumbled towards the fray with his sword held at the ready. 

Nár and the warg were thrashing and clawing and snapping too much for him to get near, and even if he managed to get into the fight, Fíli knew he would have a terrible time trying to tell the two of them apart—but the decision of whether or not to join in was made for him when the combatants lurched together in his direction. Something struck him on the head and he saw a flash of light as he spun onto the leaf-covered dirt, his sword tumbling from his grip. The animals stomped and growled, fell to the ground, and rolled against Fíli where he lay trying to get his bearings; and without stopping to think, he reached out and grabbed a handful of fur with his stronger hand.

The fur was rough and long, and the immense muscles underneath it tensed firmly. The beast roared and stomped and dragged him across the ground, and still Fíli held tight to its shaggy coat; and after a few tense seconds he was able to tell that it was the creature's foreleg that he had in his grip. The warg pulled back on him, then its teeth snapped close to his face again. Fíli drew out his boot-knife with his free hand, and when he felt the warg's hot breath near his face once more, he thrust the blade through the fur and flesh of its throat.

The warg began to pitch and gurgle, and in the midst of its struggling it wrenched the knife out of Fíli's grip and tossed him off to the side. It stepped down hard on his left arm, then stumbled over him; and he pressed his now-burning elbow to his side and curled himself up, trying to protect the rest of his body from the warg's throes. Once it had gotten far enough away that he felt he would be safe in moving, he climbed to his knees and began feeling frantically around the Forest floor for his dropped sword.

He found it some few feet away, and with it once more in-hand, he drew himself up and made his way to where the warg now writhed and gasped. It shifted and kicked, and from what Fíli could tell, it was lying on its side. Stepping wide around behind the beast, he reached out blindly and grabbed onto a length of fur, then felt around until he found the base of the creature's neck. He drew his sword up high, then swung it down at the creature's head with all the strength he could manage.

The blade failed to cut through the hard skull, and the warg kicked harder, then rolled to its feet as it hacked past the knife in its throat. Fíli shoved it over onto its side again, and though its claws were now scraping the ground alarmingly close to him, he pulled his sword back then thrust it forward, this time stabbing at the beast's softer underside. The blade went through with much more ease and the warg let out a long whine, and he pushed the sword deeper still and twisted.

A gush of warmth coated Fíli's hand, and the beast shuddered, then lay still; and he pulled the sword out of its body and slid it into its sheath, then he stepped back and tried to calm his shaking hands. His spine ached, his left elbow throbbed, and his head was swimming—but it was not for himself that he was now most concerned.  

"Nár!" he called, not bothering to worry if anything else was out there listening. "Where are you?"

There was complete silence now all around him, save the pounding of his own heart in his ears and the hissing of his breaths through clenched teeth. He stepped past the dead beast and started feeling almost desperately around the trees. He would not let himself consider the possibility that Nár had died in the fight, or that she had run off. No, she was there somewhere, maybe hurt. Definitely hurt.

He held his breath and listened again, but still he heard nothing; though some distance away, he could see his firelight flickering on the trail. And so he made for his camp in the hopes that a torch might help him to seek out his companion—but before he took more than a few steps, he did at last hear something. Soft whining, he supposed. Whimpering, the rustling of leaves.

"Come here, Nár…" he said, holding out a shaking hand. "Come here… come to me."

Rustling rose up again, and panting breaths came near; then the wolf rubbed her head under Fíli's palm. He lowered himself to his knees beside her and began running his hands over her fur. He felt stickiness on her neck—blood, but too thick to be Nár's own. She had likely been in the middle of the fight when Fíli had stabbed the warg in the throat, and the beast's black blood had coated her fur just the same as his own hand.

"Don't ever run off like that again," he scolded gently, wiping his fingers on his trouser leg. She whimpered once more, and Fíli sighed and stood. "Come on," he said, keeping a palm on the animal's head as he led the way toward the campfire. "Let's get cleaned up."

At the fireside, Fíli sat down hard on the ground and looked to Nár, who laid down beside him. He had been right that the stickiness he had felt on Nár's neck was not from any wound of the wolf's own, as it was thick and black as pitch. Fíli rubbed the top of her head softly, then reached over with his left hand to better help him search through her fur for wounds, though when he did so his elbow began to burn even more.

He turned up his left sleeve, examining his arm as best he could in the dim light. The joint did not seem to be dislocated, at least, and though it ached mightily, he was sure it wasn't broken. Most likely he would be fine after resting it for a while, though he felt that the sling Sigrid had given to him would again be finding use. He shoved his sleeve further up onto his shoulder so to better see his upper arm, but when he twisted his torso to look at it, he felt pain in the skin of his chest and his back spasmed.

Lifting his tunic, he looked to where the warg had dug its claws into him. The area was red and welted, and he was sure bruises would be raising there later, but his skin was not broken and his ribs did not feel cracked. He let out a relieved, though painful breath, then lowered his shirt and pressed his pained left arm to his body as he turned his attention to the wolf, who was still panting heavily by his side.

"Let's take a look at you now," he said, scratching her head once more. "Does anything hurt?"

His words slurred slightly and he shook his head; and Nár shifted off to the side, then pulled her paw out from underneath her and began licking it. At first, Fíli could not quite figure out why that should be significant; then he took a deep breath, and his thoughts cleared a touch. He lifted and examined the wolf's paw and found that it was swollen, but did not appear to be fractured; so he drew a length of bandage out of his pack, and soon he had wrapped Nár's paw and lower leg as tightly as he was able.

"Is that better?" he asked.

A sudden ache pressed in on his temples and a flashing light played at the edge of his vision, and he winced and doubled his fists. These sensations meant no good, he knew, and he began feeling around his own head. There was a bit of haze in his thoughts, and he could not quite recall the whole of the fight he had just had with the warg—but he remembered something had hit him, and he had seen a flash of light. But there was no wound on his scalp, as far as he could tell, and slowly his lightheadedness lifted a bit.

He allowed himself a quiet moment of staring into the fire before drawing more bandages out of his pack, then he turned again to Nár. The warg-blood on her neck was mostly in one spot, but it was so thick and sticky that all he managed to do was spread it around and blacken the cloth when he tried to clean it away.

Nár lowered her head and let out a small whine, and Fíli drew his eyebrows together in concern. 

"What's wrong?" he asked, feeling gently around her neck. "Did I hurt you?"

His unsteady fingers came to a gash under the blood and he pulled his touch away, though not quickly enough to avoid paining the wolf and making her shrink back. She lifted her head again, then rested it on Fíli's lap and turned it to the side; and the new position made it easier for the Dwarf to see the wound. It was thankfully shallow and not too long, but it appeared that the vile black blood had seeped into it.

Drawing one of his water-skins near, he fumbled with the cork. "This will probably sting," he told her; then he gave his scarred elbow a quick glance. "But trust me when I say that leaving warg-blood under your skin is a bad thing."

Fíli allowed some of the water to flow over her wound, then he patted at it gently with one of the bandages; and when he was fairly certain the blood had been cleaned away enough, he brought out his small sachet of kingsfoil. Nár sniffed at it, then let out a quick breath and shrunk back, as if she had smelled something rotten.

He smiled faintly at her, then his eyes lost focus and he tilted off to the side. He straightened his back and blinked a few times to clear his vision; then he again lifted his hand to his own head. The scar at the base of his skull seemed soft to him, and when he pressed his fingertip harder against it, small shocks of pain like the tingling of a sleeping limb radiated outward from it and around the sides of his head.

…No… not now…

Whatever else he did, he knew that he had to at least finish treating Nár's wound; he had to be certain that she would be well enough to watch over him if he fell into a sudden sleep. And so, he lifted his weakened left hand and held open the wolf's wound to allow the kingsfoil better entry. More black blood came trickling out, and Fíli picked up a clean bandage and again patted the gash, then he pressed the fabric into the cut itself to soak up all he could.

When he withdrew the bandage, however, it stuck to her raw flesh and opened the wound a bit more. Nár whimpered, and Fíli cringed, hoping that he had not hurt her too badly; but as he leaned close to see what damage he had done, the trickle became a flow—then the black blood began to pulse out with each beat of the animal's heart.

Chapter Text

Fíli touched the freshly-flowing blood on Nár's neck, then rubbed it between his fingers. It felt almost right, it felt almost like proper blood—it was not as thick and sticky as the warg blood elsewhere on her fur. It must have been just a trick of the light that was making it appear black. 

He wiped at the gash again, then held the cloth near to the fire and examined it; and though it did seem at least a bit redder close to the flames, he could not be certain that was not just the firelight reflecting off of it. When he brought the bandage near to his face for a better look, though, the smell that rose from it was overbearing and distinct, and he threw the cloth into the fire, wrinkling his nose disgustedly at the foul odor.

The wolf lifted her head slightly before resting it again on his lap, and Fíli's right hand began to shake and his left arm ached as it tensed. After gathering his thoughts and steeling his nerve, he slid his hand under Nár's chin, then cautiously pulled open her mouth and lifted her lip. Sharp, slightly-curved teeth came into view along her top and bottom jaws—strong, thin, vicious teeth; made for tearing and rending, and holding tightly to prey so that it could not escape once it had been gotten hold of. Warg teeth.

Fíli shoved Nár off of his lap and slid away from her, glaring at the animal as she stared back at him with large, soulful eyes. This didn't make sense. Wargs were, without exception, large and heavily-muscled and solid. When they looked at you, you could tell that they were wondering what your blood tasted like, and they were ever inclined to satisfy that curiosity. Nár wasn't anything like that. She was thin and scruffy and short, with a small muzzle and drooping ears and a thoughtful expression.

And if she was a warg, then why would Legolas have let her come along with him? Why would he have encouraged it? Was it just some kind of sad Elven joke? Had he watched them from the trees as they made their way west along the trail, laughing silently to himself and wondering how long it would take the Dwarf to discover what an Elf likely found so obvious? 

The flashing lights returned to the edge of Fíli's vision, and his mind began to swim; and he grimaced and pressed the heel of his hand to his temple, though he did not look away from Nár. She tilted her head, then stood and took a painful step towards him; but when he slid back more, she stopped and held out her injured paw.

"Go…" he said, waving her away. "Leave…"

Nár let out a quick bark, then she whined softly before beginning to limp around in circles in front of him.

"What are you doing?" he asked, curling his quivering fingers into a fist. "I told you to leave…"

But Nár paid him no heed, and he kept his eyes on her as he inched closer to the fire. Whatever the animal was, whatever help she had given him thus far, he could no longer believe that she would not do him harm somewhere along the Road. He needed her gone, far away from him; he did not want to hurt her, but neither did he want her any longer by his side. And so he grabbed the cool end of a burning branch, then stood up as straight as he could manage and shook it at the animal; but still, she neither moved away nor stopped turning in circles.

"Get out of here!" he yelled, throwing the firebrand hard in her direction.

Although he had been trying to miss Nár only slightly—so to startle her off—the branch went much wider than he had intended, and it hit the trunk of a nearby tree, shattering the burning end and sending embers falling to the Forest floor. Despite his unsteadiness and confusion, Fíli ran over and stomped on and around the stick so that it would not catch the leaves alight, then he picked up what was left of the branch and gripped it tightly as he made his way back to the campfire.

He looked down into the flames, and past the growing flashes at the edges of his vision, he saw Nár at last stop walking around. She barked again, then whimpered softly; and Fíli threw the stick into the fire, then shut his eyes and rested his hand on the square pommel of his sword. 

"Please…" he said past clenched teeth, "…just go."

Nár growled, and Fíli's eyes flew open; and even as his ears started to hum and the flashing moved closer to the center of his vision, he began to draw the weapon out of its scabbard so to chase her away. But the blade was still coated with warg-blood and it stuck as he withdrew it; then his already shaky grip failed and the sword fell to the ground beside the fire.

He stumbled to the side, throwing out his hands in an attempt to regain his balance; and the animal barked again, then again. The sound seemed impossibly loud, and Fíli's head began to throb even worse, so he pressed his palms to his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. His thoughts began to shift and dash, and the ground felt like it was moving beneath him. Suddenly, Nár stopped barking, then she began pawing at his leg; and Fíli opened his eyes and leaned slightly towards the fire.

"…Get off…" he said, reaching down and trying to push her away. "…Go… I need… I need to…"

Something was wrong—he wanted her to leave, he wanted her to go away, he did not want her to be there. But why? He was angry, he was frightened. Why?

The smell of smoke filled his nose and he breathed out, trying to clear it away, and at once his legs gave way beneath him—and as he landed hard on his knees, he felt Nár sink her teeth into his right arm.

…No…

No, this wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. Why would she do this? He pulled back, but she did not let go.

"…Nár… stop…" he said, his voice distant in his own ears.

He looked down at the wolf and saw blood on her neck. Black blood. Why was it black? Why was she attacking him?

…A warg… she's…

Nár bit down harder and tugged on his arm, and he reached over with his weakened left hand and pushed feebly against her bloody head.

"…Let go…"

The lights before his eyes flared up, then the world below him seemed to fall away as his strength gave out. Pain shot through his left arm and into his wrist and fingers, and in a far-off corner of his mind he realized that he must have landed on his injured elbow. But all of the thoughts he could focus—as shaky as that focus was—were on his right arm, where the animal was sinking its teeth into his skin….

*** 

"Shoot it, Kíli!" Thorin cried out. "Kill it!"

Crouching low in the tall grass, Fíli watched on as his brother and uncle both loosed their arrows. The warg that had been bounding at them howled in pain, then fell to the ground; and Fíli jumped to his feet and ran to it, slicing open its throat. Black blood gushed from the wound, and the beast jerked and gurgled, then its muscles relaxed in death.

A moment later, Kíli and Thorin walked over and looked down at the creature. Only one arrow had hit the beast; and though they all knew who had missed, Thorin gave Kíli only the slightest of disapproving glances before removing his own arrow from the dead warg's foreleg.

"Suppose that's the only one?" asked Fíli, drawing his sword over the animal's fur so to wipe its blood off of the blade. 

Kíli looked around warily. "Wargs travel in packs, don't they?"

"Most of the time," said Thorin. "But not always. From the tracks and the farmers' reports, I'd say this one was a lone hunter."

Fíli nudged the dead beast with his toe. "I don't know, Uncle. Considering the number of goats the farmers said were—"

"One warg can kill dozens of goats in a night," Thorin interrupted. "Even if it is not hungry."

"Why would it kill something it doesn't intend to eat?" asked Kíli.

"Do not confuse wargs with wolves," said Thorin. "A warg will hunt for sport more often than for food. And if you are fortunate, it will not make better sport of you by biting you till you bleed, then letting you go so that it might track you down later when you think you are safe. A warg will never truly let you escape. It will always track you, it will always find you, and it will always kill you—so you must never leave one alive, especially if it has had the scent of your blood."

***

Fíli's head ached and his left arm was stiff and searing when he awoke; and though he could not recall the moment when he had lost consciousness, he was surprised that he had woken at all. He had expected Nár to kill him, to finish him off when he had been helpless. But perhaps that was because she wanted to play with him; perhaps she was still there, waiting for him to wake so that she might chase him off into the darkness of the trees, so to hunt him down later.

He kept his eyes shut and lay still as he listened; and though he could hear nothing around him—not even the crackle of the fire—there was a tugging at the back of his mind, a pull telling him that he was not alone. It was not a panicked sense, it was not a fear—he was being watched, not hunted; but still, he jumped when he heard a voice speak up from somewhere nearby.

"You are awake?"

Fíli ran his tongue over his dry lips and opened his eyes, then he watched as his breath turned to fog and drifted up in the still air. There was light beyond the highest of the branches, and it filtered down weakly through the gnarled limbs, giving the Wood a gray, cold feeling. He stared up at it for a few seconds, then craned his aching neck to look to where the fair-haired Elf crouched just beyond the remains of the campfire.

"Did you kill it?" asked Fíli.

Legolas drew his eyebrows together. "Did I kill what?"

"The warg. Is it dead?"

The Elf nodded sightly. "It is, though not by my hand," he said, turning Fíli's boot-knife over in his palm and holding it up. "You left this in its throat. You did well. It is no small feat to kill a warg in the Forest darkness."

Fíli tightened his jaw. "I'm not talking about that one…" he began, but an ache between his eyes silenced him. After the pain eased, he tried to sit up, but his strength failed him, and so he remained on his back and resumed staring up at the trees. "The other one."

"There was no other warg here last night," said Legolas, sliding his hand around Fíli's arm and pulling him to sitting. "I saw signs of only one."

The Dwarf shook off his grip and looked down to where he had felt teeth cutting into him not so long ago. His sleeve was already pulled up, and though there were many small bruises marring his arm, the skin there was intact. He flexed his hand and rotated his wrist, and found that none of his motion was reduced, though the muscles of that arm ached mightily. 

His left arm, though, felt much worse; and he very nearly gasped when he saw that it was completely bandaged from fingertip to elbow. He tried to lift it, but shocks of pain travelled from his wrist to his shoulder, and he gritted his teeth against it as beads of sweat began to form on his brow.

"You know the one I'm speaking of," he said, looking back to the Elf. "The one you sent with me. My guide."

Legolas narrowed his eyes. "She is not a warg."

Fíli held up his right arm; but he said nothing, and Legolas went on.

"A warg would have bitten you through to the bone."

"She attacked me. Whether or not she managed to—"

"Nár was trying to save you," Legolas broke in. "She knew that something was wrong, she knew that you were falling. She tried to pull you back from the fire, but she could not do so before your left arm was already burned."

Fíli looked at the dead campfire, understanding now where the pain in his bandaged limb had come from—though he was not convinced that the animal had been trying to save him from it. Then Legolas's words repeated in his mind and he turned to him once more.

"I thought you said that she had no name. Why did you call her Nár?"

Legolas pursed his lips and held the boot-knife out to Fíli. "She… likes the name."

"She told you that, did she?" the Dwarf asked, snatching the knife from Legolas and sliding it into his leg-sheath. "Did she also tell you that she has black blood?"

"I already knew."

"And you couldn't have bothered telling me?"

Legolas did not answer, and Fíli pressed his unbound hand to his throbbing brow.

"Have you been following me since the River?" he asked, lowering his voice.

"No," said Legolas as he moved back a bit and kneeled on the road-stones. "I was some few miles away when I heard howling, though I did not know for certain that it was you that the warg was howling at. In fact, I thought that you would be much farther along by now."

Fíli let out derisive breath, thinking that Legolas might not have been in such a hurry to get there if he had known. "Not all folk can move as swiftly as your own can in the Wood," he said, then he turned his eyes to the bite-marks on his arm.

A silence of several minutes followed; and when Fíli lifted his face again, he saw that Nár had reappeared and was now sitting by the Elf's side. Legolas scratched the animal under the chin and whispered something to her, and Nár looked over at the Dwarf and barked. Fíli recoiled, setting his left hand down on the ground hard; then pain shot up through his arm and he fell to the side, clutching protectively at his burned limb.

Legolas grabbed his arm once more; but Fíli this time shoved him away roughly and kicked at his legs. The Elf moved swiftly out of the way and Fíli's foot met air, jarring his back and shoulder, and sending a jolt up from his neck and into the base of his skull. He let go of his left arm and grabbed at the back of his head, digging his fingernails into the skin around his healed-over wound, then he rolled to his knees and glared at Legolas.

"Don't touch me…" he said through his teeth.

The Elf crouched just in front of Fíli and fixed him with a curious stare. "You are not well."

"A warg tried to eat me last night," said Fíli, glancing at Nár. "Two wargs. And I was pushed into a fire… so, no, I'm not well. But I'll recover."

"That is not what I'm speaking of. Your wounds from the Battle still remain. Why did you not stay at the Mountain for healing?"

Heat rose in Fíli's chest and he sat back onto the ground. "That is none of your concern."

"Perhaps not," said Legolas. "But I am within my rights to question why you are in the Forest at all."

Fíli looked towards his belongings, then pulled his pack onto his lap and picked the wine out of the bunch of skins; and after fidgeting with the straps for a moment, he managed to get it unfastened. He uncorked it and sniffed at the contents, then took a quick drink. Though he had already tasted it once, its strength still surprised him, and he had to clear his throat before speaking.

"Then you may question it, if you wish," he said, his voice suddenly rough. "But unless you plan on keeping me here indefinitely, then perhaps you should just let me be on my way."

"It is doubtful that you would make it out of the Forest on your own."

"That is also none of your concern."

"Anything that happens within the Forest is my concern," said Legolas. "And since you clearly did not know what dangers lay here before trying to make your way through, I have twice had to save you from your own ignorance and foolishness."

Fíli exhaled sharply. "I never asked you to do so."

"You couldn't have. You were unconscious both times—and I, perhaps wrongly, assumed that you wanted to go on living." The Elf tilted his chin up. "Or are you saying that you would rather have died than accept my help?"

For a brief, frightening moment, Fíli did not know how to answer that question; then he took another drink of wine and shrugged. "No, I don't suppose I would have," he admitted. "But if it will make you feel any better, you needn't worry what becomes of me from here on. I give you my word that I will not find you personally responsible if I do not make it out of the Forest alive."

Legolas turned to the side, looking along the trail for a moment before returning his attention to Fíli. "I cannot allow that," he said. "But now that you are, apparently, awake and aware, I will give you a choice of paths."

The fingers on Fíli's left hand tried to curl themselves into a fist, but were stopped by the tight bandage wrapped around them. Pain shot up his arm and he bit down against it, then he took a mouthful of wine before nodding stiffly.

"I'm listening."

"Turn around and go back the way you came," said Legolas. "Return to Erebor, to your—"

"And my second choice?" interrupted Fíli, not even giving the first option a moment to settle in his mind.

Legolas's eyes widened a touch, as if he had not expected a return to the Lonely Mountain to be so easily dismissed; but he quickly straightened his expression and went on.

"Come with me to the Palace," he said. "It is no more than a week's march, and there you could be healed by my people."

Fíli let out a brief, humorless laugh. "I've spent quite enough time there already," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "And the view from my cell was less than lovely."

"Whatever our past grievances might have been, your people and mine are now allied," said Legolas. "When you are well, you will be allowed to leave on your own. Without escort."

"So I would be a guest of the Wood-elves, rather than a prisoner this time?" asked Fíli. "I'd be nothing more than a patient?" 

Legolas nodded, but said nothing; and Fíli took another long drink of the wine.

Healing at Thranduil's Palace, he knew, would be the better option under the circumstances; but though the Elves were skilled healers, he had little desire to spend more time around them than was absolutely necessary. Then, there was also the very real chance that they would send word to Erebor about his survival, and he would be obligated to return to the Mountain and explain why he had left in the first place.

Worse, the Arkenstone would still be waiting for him there; and although it was likely in Thorin's tomb by now, he was certain he would not be able to resist going to it, touching it, claiming it. He shuddered at the thought, and his neck began to ache as the muscles in it tensed.

"I choose neither," he said at last. "Both of those paths would take me east, and my destination lies in the west. I will not turn from it, for healing or otherwise."

Legolas stared at him for several seconds before speaking up. "That being the case, there is one other path you might take."

"I can't wait to hear about it," said Fíli flatly, lifting the wine-skin again. 

"You will go west, as you wish to—but you will not go alone."

A noise made its way out of Fíli's throat, though he himself could not tell if it was a laugh or a cough, or if he had choked on the wine.

"No," he said, looking at Nár. "I have traveled far enough already with that—"

"I was not speaking of sending her with you," said Legolas. "Though if she chose to go along with us, I would not stop her from doing so."

"Us?" asked Fíli, widening his eyes; then he shook his head so hard that he grew dizzy and tilted off to the side. "No," he said, righting himself. "I'll not be going anywhere with you. With either of you."

"It would only be as far as the edge of Mirkwood," the Elf told him. "I would see you safely to the Wilderland—and you may die there, if you wish."

Fíli squeezed the wine-skin tightly as he lifted it to his lips, and this time he did not stop drinking until it was empty. He threw it to the ground and thrust his hand into his food-sack, bringing out some salted meat; then he began eating it slowly and deliberately as the Elf watched on and waited for an answer that Fíli was in no hurry to give.

It was clear that Legolas was not going to let him go on alone—why ever that may be. And though the Elf had helped him twice already, he had also allowed a warg to travel with him through the Wood. Either way, Fíli was certain that there was no real concern on Legolas's part when he had given his aid. He had likely helped him simply because he had been there, and would have felt guilty if he had not done so.

Did Elves feel guilt? Fíli doubted it, really. If Legolas had not gotten there in time enough to help him—if he had come across the Dwarf's dead body—then he would have not cared at all, just as he had not been concerned enough for Fíli and Kíli on the battlefield to see for himself if they still lived. 

From the corner of his eye, Fíli saw Legolas pick up the wine-skin; then he turned and looked on directly as the Elf sniffed at its open mouth.

"Where did you get this?" asked Legolas, narrowing his eyes.

Fíli shrugged. "From a friend," he said, waving the dried meat at Legolas. "You know what a friend is, I assume?"

Legolas's jaw tightened, and he smelled the wine-skin once more. "This is from my father's private cellars," he said. "It is reserved for his table, alone. Unless your friend is an Elf of high standing, you should not have it."

Fíli swallowed the tough meat and forced back a smile. Sigrid was certainly no less of a smuggler than her father if she had managed to liberate the Elvenking's best wine from his tent. The Dwarf straightened his expression and wiped his mouth again; and at once his eyes lost focus and he found that he had to blink hard to bring them clear.

"Send the vintner my compliments," he said, grabbing the skin and throwing it next to his pack.

Legolas lowered his hand. "Have you made your decision?"

"You seem determined that I should go with you, in any case," said Fíli. "Why would that be, I wonder, when you have already made it quite clear that you do not care for my kind?"

"You should, perhaps, consider the difference between a friend and an ally. It is fortunate for you that I don't have to like you to offer you my help."

"Or to force it on me. And even then, you only do so when it suits you."

"Do you think it suited me to twice come to your aid, when your troubles were of your own making?"

Fíli did not answer, and he watched on as Legolas's stare shifted into a glare. He was soon unable to hold his gaze, though, and so he turned aside and began studying the textured bark of a nearby tree—but it was quite hard for him to keep both his eyes and his thoughts from losing focus.

"Your decision?" asked Legolas unexpectedly.

Fíli jumped, then looked into the Elf's keen eyes for a second before turning his face down and knocking on the road-stones with his knuckles. "How long should it take to get to get to the western edge of the Forest?"

"A little less than a fortnight, perhaps. Though I cannot say for certain, given your current state."

"That is the way I will be going," said Fíli. "If you choose to go along, then I suppose there's nothing I can do to stop you." He glanced at Nár before turning to Legolas once more. "Though I wonder why I should trust you at all when you sent a warg with me last time."

Legolas nodded stiffly, then stood. "Then we will leave after you have had a rest."

"I've had plenty of rest already." Fíli rose to standing, himself, though his knees felt weak underneath him. "And the sooner I'm out of your company, the better I'll be."

He stumbled a bit to the side, then planted both of his feet as firmly as he could manage on the ground; and after a feeble attempt at straightening himself up, he leaned over to grab his pack. His fingers clenched shut when he thought they were around the strap, but when he opened his hand he saw that it was empty. He flexed his fingers, rotated his neck, then leaned over again—this time pitching towards the dead fire and stopping himself just before he could trip over the charred wood.

"Are you alright?" asked Legolas, though there seemed to be less concern than humor in his voice.

Fíli looked up quickly and his eyes went blurry again. Panic and confusion came over him and he placed his fingers on the back of his head, fearing that the wound was once more giving him trouble. But his head drooped and he began to lean forward as a sleepiness began to set in—and at once a thought came to him, and he drew his hand around to his face and closed his eyes.

"About that wine…?" he asked past his palm.

"A rare, heady red from the Dorwinion region of Rhûn," said Legolas. "And you should, perhaps, sit down before you fall down."

Chapter Text

Fíli had always enjoyed Elvish wine; and indeed, so did many of his kin. The sweet varieties from the vineyards of Lindon were actually quite common on Dwarf tables all up and down the range of the Blue Mountains, and were among the few things made by Elf hands that had ever been allowed in their halls—though Thorin had claimed that was only because there were no decent Dwarf vintners in the region, and that the grapes grown by Men were unpalatable even before fermentation. 

But while Fíli had many times drained entire bottles of the light and refreshing Lindon wine without so much as a blink of tiredness afterwards, the wine of Dorwinion had hit him faster and harder than any ale or spirit made by Dwarves or Men ever had; and despite Legolas's claim of it having been from Thranduil’s cellars, Fíli wasn't sure that it was of Elvish make at all. 

He didn’t know how long he’d slept after emptying the drink-skin; and though his dreams had not been unpleasant, when he awoke his stomach would not settle and it felt as if his head rather than his arm had gone into the fire. The gathering of his belongings and the beginning of his trek westwards with Legolas and Nár had then been a blur—and even now, an hour or so into the day's journey, he was not feeling much better. 

Fortunately, no words had yet passed between the travelers—and while there was no harsh sunlight in the Forest to make the throbbing behind his eyes worse, still he lowered his cloak-hood over his face so to at least feel as if he was on his own. After a while of walking along so covered, though, his feet started dragging and his eyelids began to droop, and at last the toe of his boot caught on something on the path and he stumbled forward.

"Do you need a rest?" asked Legolas flatly.

"No, I don't need a rest," said Fíli, righting himself. "I just need to get out of this forest. It's making me ill."

"That is more likely the wine. The Wood itself is healing."

Fíli let out a small grunt. "That may be so," he said, "but even if the trees are feeling a bit better, there's still naught here but spiders and goblins and black water… and Elves." He turned his attention to the animal walking between them. "And wargs."

"I told you before—Nár is not a warg."

"Don't call her that," snapped Fíli. "She doesn't deserve the name."

"And why is that? Did it belong to somebody significant?"

Fíli flexed the fingers on his right hand, then pressed his slung left arm against his side. "You might not consider any Dwarf significant, but the real Nár was a loyal friend of my great-grandfather."

"And you saw that same loyalty in the wolf?"

"The warg," said Fíli, looking up at Legolas. "There is a clear distinction between the two that I am sure you were well aware of before you sent her with me."

Legolas nodded slightly. "Her father's father was a warg," he said. "However, her father's mother was a great wolf of the Forest."

"And her mother?" pressed Fíli. "Another warg?"

"A hound of the Lake."

Fíli turned his face down and began studying the black-caked scruff on the animal's neck. "So she's just a mixed-breed with bad blood," he said; then he shook his head and looked forward once more. "It doesn't matter how much wolf or hound she has in her, part of her is still a warg. When she grows older she'll show that side of herself."

"She is already grown," said Legolas. "I have known her for sixty-four years, and in that time, she has never shown any sign of having bad blood. Further, Elves cannot speak to the evil creatures of the world. If Nár was one of them, I would not understand what she has to say."

"That doesn't mean that she is incapable of doing evil things," said Fíli—though he was somewhat shocked to learn that the animal was so old. "I'm sure her grandfather killed plenty of—"

"She is not her grandfather," Legolas cut him off. "And that you would hate her for what he might have done speaks much for your way of thinking."

Fíli glared at Legolas for a few seconds before returning his attention to the path ahead. "And is it so different from your own reasons for hating the Dwarves?"

"I do not hate Dwarves," said Legolas, though perhaps a bit too quickly. "If I did, I would have left you to the Forest."

"Which was what I asked of you in the first place. I would have been quite happy going it alone."

"And you would have died."

"And I don't believe you would have mourned me if I had come to that end."

From the corner of his eye, Fíli saw the Elf’s hand curl into a loose fist.

"Though it is true that I have little to do with Dwarves if I can help it," said Legolas, "I am not going to allow one to die within my father's kingdom. Especially one that fought by my side in battle."

"You weren't by my side," said Fíli, his ire rising. "The only person that stayed by my side the whole time was my own brother, and he died there. Of your kind, your father, for all his high-handedness, fought by our sides until you called him away. Tauriel fought by our sides until—"

"I did not know that my father was with you when I sent for him," Legolas interrupted. "And lest you believe that we had wholly abandoned your kind, we were helping Lord Dáin defend Ravenhill against the advancing orc forces while you were fighting the rabble on the field."

"That rabble on the field included Azog the Defiler," said Fíli, spitting out the name like a curse. "You were defending where the strength of the enemy wasn't gathered, and that strength took the lives of my kin." His head began to throb again and he squinted against it, then he gritted his teeth when he saw a small flash of light at the edge of his vision. "Though I suppose those lives meant little enough to you, since you threatened to take them yourself when we first met you in the Forest."

"You were trespassing in the Forest. And yet we still defended you against the spiders, if you recall."

"Most were dead by our own hands before you arrived."

"Then you are clearly unaware of how many we killed before making ourselves known to you. And perhaps you also forget that we fought for your safety at the water-gate and on the river, and afterwards fended off the orcs' attack in Esgaroth."

"You fought the orcs on the river because you were in danger from them, as well… not for the sake of my people."

Between them, the wolf began to whine slightly; and a few seconds later, a pain shot through Fíli's head. He drew in a sharp breath; then he cleared his throat and adjusted his pack straps over his sore shoulders before going on.

"And as for you aiding us in Bard's home… I will admit that it was admirable of you. But afterwards you couldn't have bothered to stay to help further, though it was clear my brother wouldn't have survived his wound without healing. Tauriel, at least, did what she could for him, but you left and did not return until after Laketown had been burned to the water."

"You are speaking of things that you do not understand," said Legolas indignantly.

"And though Tauriel also gave us what aid she could in the Battle, I saw nothing more of you until it was nearly over," continued Fíli, looking up at him. "And even then, my brother and I mattered little enough to you that you couldn't have yourself taken a moment to search for our heartbeats or feel for our breath instead of leaving it to the shaky hands of an old and exhausted Lake-woman."

The Elf's eyes widened. "You were aware?"

"I was very aware," said Fíli, his voice uneven. "And in pain, whether or not that means anything to you."

Legolas slowed his pace, then he glanced at Fíli for a moment before turning his eyes again to the path ahead.

"Had I known—"

"Had you known what?" Fíli broke in. "Had you known that I was alive, or had you known that I was aware?" He felt something brush against his hand and he looked down to see Nár pressing her head against him. He pushed the animal away, and she instead sidled up to Legolas. "Or had you known that I was in pain? I am sure you would have kept about your business, in any case."

"My business involved hunting down the fleeing wargs and orcs," the Elf said, scratching the wolf on the top of the head. "I could not have checked every body I saw on the field. Or would you have preferred that I had done so, and left the retreating enemy to kill the refugees on the lakeshore?"

Fíli squeezed his eyes shut, remembering what Sigrid had said about orcs attacking the Lake-men's camp. He wondered now how many fewer survivors there would be if Legolas and others like him had not run the enemy down, or if the Elves had not given them food and helped them to build shelter against the oncoming winter. Then, despite himself, he thought more bitterly about how Thranduil had refused the Dwarves of Erebor the same aid when Smaug first attacked—and additionally, about the Men who had turned Fíli and the others away when they had come begging for help in healing Kíli's leg.

"Oh, yes… your father was very quick to give them aid—"

"Which is something that your own people were unwilling to do," Legolas countered, "though it was your actions that led to Esgaroth burning in the first place."

"Except Thranduil didn't help them out of kindness. He did so because he wanted the treasure in our mountain, and allying himself with the homeless and desperate Lake-men was the easiest way to get to it. Once their usefulness has been outlived, your father will cut them loose. He'll turn his back on them, just as he did Thrór's people when the dragon came."

The muscles in Legolas's neck tensed. "We could not have fought Smaug with any hope of our own survival," he said, apparently choosing not to address Fíli's claim that Thranduil would betray the Lake-men. "We were too few and the dragon was too powerful."

"Too powerful, and yet one Man killed him with a single arrow while his world burned around him. And I was not speaking about you refusing to fight Smaug, but about you turning the Dwarves away after he was already holed up in the Mountain."

"And where were we supposed to find quarters for all of your displaced kin?"

"I have seen the size of your palace, and I am sure some accommodations could have been made, if only for a while." Fíli felt a slight tremble in his chest and he pressed his hand to it before going on. "But even if you couldn't have housed those people that you had once considered your friends, you could at least have given them some small amount of food, or allowed them safe passage under your trees. Though I cannot say that I am surprised that you didn't, since even now you wouldn't let as few as thirteen Dwarves pass freely through the Wood."

"Would you have taken kindly to a troop of Elves passing through your mines and tunnels uninvited?"

"Our mines and tunnels don't extend six hundred miles and divide a region in two," said Fíli. "What's more, they were built by our own hands over centuries, whereas your people simply saw a wildwood and claimed it as their own. And now you would have travelers take the long way south through the Brown Lands, or chance going north through the Grey Mountains and the Withered Heath rather than allowing them a shorter, safer passage through Mirkwood—even when those travelers pose no threat to you."

"Our restrictions are not only for the protection of our own people," said the Elf. "The Forest is not a safe place for those who are unused to its dangers, as you should well understand by now."

"And was imprisoning us also for our safety? Was it better for us than providing an escort to the eastern border of your lands?"

"In fact, you would have been in much less danger if you had stayed where we had put you."

"And all it would have cost us was our freedom."

Legolas stopped walking suddenly and glared down at Fíli. "And the cost of your escape was war and death," he said, raising his voice to nearly a yell. 

The Elf's outburst shocked Fíli, who stepped back and instinctively gripped the hilt of his sword. Between them, Nár pawed at the ground, and Legolas shook his head almost apologetically at her; then his bright blue eyes darted back and forth for a moment before he looked to Fíli and continued speaking, though in a more subdued tone. 

"Your kind claim to have a love of beautiful things in your pursuit of gold and jewels," he said, "but the beauty that you find all too often draws evil to your doorstep—as it did in Erebor, as it did in Moria. And yet you never claim responsibility, and you never make amends to those whose lives are ruined because of your actions, because of your greed."

For a frightening instant, Fíli saw the Arkenstone pulsing brilliantly in his memory; but he forced away the image and removed his hand from his sword, then he curled his fingers into a defiant fist at his side. 

"You consider your own people to be an evil, then?" he asked; and when Legolas shot him a fiery look, Fíli let out a satisfied breath. "I will say that I don't know history as you might tell it, but we were always taught that the Elves settled outside of Khazad-dûm because they wanted the mithril and gems that the Dwarves there were bringing out of the mines. Is that not true?"

Legolas focussed on some point past Fíli for a moment; then he again began walking, with the wolf by his side. "It is true," he said. "But the Elves of Eregion were not of my kindred."

"Whether or not they were of your kindred makes no difference," said Fíli, falling into step beside him and Nár. "The Elves have always come baying at our gates, seeking some way to take for themselves what our mining has brought to light. The wealth of the Dwarves draws your people to our doorstep as readily as it drew Smaug; and once that wealth is no longer in our hands, you want nothing more to do with us."

He stopped speaking for a moment to give Legolas a chance to reply—a chance to defend his kind; but the Elf said nothing, and Fíli spoke up again.

"You call us greedy," he said, "but Thorin told us how Thranduil offered us freedom from your dungeons only if we ransomed ourselves with jewels from the Mountain. He would have kept us locked up for a hundred years for want of a necklace."

The Elf looked quickly over at him; then he lowered his head as he turned forward once more. "I cannot speak for my father," he said after a time; and though the expectation of more wanting to be said hung on the air, he did not go on.

"Then speak for yourself," said Fíli. "You may have aided us against the spiders and orcs, but you also threatened to put an arrow through my uncle's head, took away our belongings, imprisoned us without cause, and would have left my brother to die in Laketown had one of your better kin not chosen on her own to stay behind and heal him. You cannot speak for your father, but you are your father's son, Legolas Thranduilion. You are just like him."

Legolas narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. Beside him, Nár began to whine, and Fíli stared hard at her until she quieted herself and stepped a little away from him—then he turned his attention back to the path ahead.

A deep silence fell between the travelers, and few minutes further on, Fíli's mind began to swim and his stomach started to churn. He willed the sensations down, hoping that they were lingering effects from the wine; but for a brief moment, he thought he saw sunlight filtering down from the trees ahead of them. He turned his face up, searching for the beam; but it flared and flashed out, and Fíli stumbled to the side.

Nár moved near to him and again growled softly, but the Dwarf did not this time pay her any heed. From the edge of his vision, he saw Legolas glance down at the animal; then, at length, the Elf spoke up.

"The necklace you mentioned was made of mithril and adamant by the Elves of Eregion before Moria fell," he said, though it almost sounded as if he were speaking to himself. "It was given to a Lady of the Forest when this realm was still known as the Greenwood, and she had it when…" 

His voice trailed off, and Fíli studied his distant expression. He appeared lost, somehow. Sad, even. It was an odd thing to see, and it made Fíli falter back. Legolas seemed to notice his reaction, and he straightened both his expression and his shoulders as he continued.

"It was taken from her," he said. "And when it was recovered many centuries later, the jewelers of Erebor were commissioned in good faith to repair and restore it. However, when Thrór learned of its provenance, he demanded four-times the agreed-upon price for its return—and he would not be moved on the matter, even to maintain the good will of our people. He taunted my father, even, by allowing him to come within reach of the necklace before coldly denying it to him." The Elf turned to face Fíli, the sadness in his eyes now replaced with determination. "So please, tell me now that there was no greed on your great-grandfather's part."

Fíli felt a pang of shame for Thrór's actions, but still he hardened his words as he spoke. "So the Dwarves of the past made mistakes, and now their sons' sons must pay for them?" he asked; then he cringed at how alike that had sounded to Legolas's comment about Nár's ancestry. 

"And how is that any different from the way you feel about the Elves?" asked Legolas, likewise echoing Fíli's earlier words. "You condemn us all for things that were done hundreds of years ago, by different folk in different lands."

"The difference is that the Dwarves that wronged you in the past are long dead," said Fíli defensively; though he then found himself needing to blink several times against a stinging ache behind his eyes. "While the Elves that wronged us still live. And they will continue to live long after the last of my kind is gone."

There was a pause before Legolas responded. "Do you believe that Elves cannot die?"

Fíli's face began to warm. He had forgotten, for the moment, that he had seen the torn and crushed bodies of many Wood-elves on the battlefield; and that neglected memory now came back to him in a rush of guilt.

"I know you can die," he said, softening his tone slightly. "But you don't live knowing that you will die."

"Accidents can claim us, just as they can you," said Legolas. "We can fall in battle, we can succumb to grief—"

"But you cannot get sick and you do not grow old," Fíli interrupted; then he flinched as a flash like lightning cut across his vision. "Never a one of you has frozen to death for being homeless on a winter night, or wondered if you would starve before your next meal, or feared that your child would not survive its first few days. You can keep yourself safe, you can lock all dangers outside, and you will live for ages without ever needing to see the suffering of others, or to hear of their sorrows… because all that matters is that you will outlive…"

The words faded from Fíli's lips as he chased after a drifting memory; then Nár started panting heavily, and he watched on as she ran ahead and started turning in circles in the middle of the trail. The Dwarf squinted at her curiously, but his thoughts were drawn abruptly back to the moment by the Elf's angry words.

"Do not presume to tell me how my kind may die," he said, though his voice sounded strange, almost hollow—as if he were speaking in a distant room. "Or dare to claim that we suffer less than you because we live longer. The memories of the Elves do not fade, and our sorrows remain as clear and raw after centuries have passed as they were at the moment when they were new."

"So because of that, you find it easy to dismiss the sorrows and suffering of my people?" asked Fíli; then he gasped as a warmth started spreading out from his temples and around to the back of his head. "Because our hurts may fade in time, if we do not first take them to the grave?"

"I do not dismiss them," said the Elf. "But nor should you expect me to take them on myself, when I do not have the gift of being able to forget even my own."

Fíli's brow began to throb, and he heard a deep ringing in his ears; but shaking his head only made both grow worse. Then, at once, the memory that had been trying to force its way into his mind returned—and he heard Thorin boldly and clearly decrying the Elves' lack of concern for those with shorter lives than their own.

"He was right…" said Fíli, barely loud enough to even hear himself. "We are nothing to you. We die so much easier than you do… and if you take any notice at all, it's brief and cold…"

The warmth and aching in his head worked its way unexpectedly down to the nape of his neck, and there it began to grow hotter and seemed to burst out the base of his skull. He threw back his hood, so to let in the cool air, then he squeezed his eyes shut as he clutched at the wound that Azog had left behind.

He grew suddenly more dizzy, and he opened his eyes when he realized that he was no longer walking. His back bowed under the weight of his pack and his knees began to weaken, and at once the burning in his mind flowed down his spine. He craned his neck as he drew his hand off the back of his head and looked at his palm, searching for the blood that he had just felt flowing from the wound. 

But there was no blood there, though he could not figure out why that would be. He was bleeding; he was sure of it. He'd felt the heat moving down his neck, soaking into his shirt collar. He could practically taste it at the back of his throat. 

Lowering his hand, he looked down at the road stones under him, then his eyes shifted to the side and he saw a pair of feet clad in light shoes. Elf shoes? An animal—a dog of some type—stepped into view next to the strange feet, and it started pawing at his leg and whimpering, as if it wanted something from him.

Growing even more confused, Fíli turned his face up and began to study the fair-haired stranger's features; and in a flash of broken memory, he saw the same face—streaked with black blood and framed with unkempt hair—staring down at him with eyes that were nearly hidden under sunken brows. Above the Elf, eagles wheeled and dashed in the darkened sky; then Fíli felt the cold, hard ground under his back. He tasted blood, smelled smoke, heard distant screaming and crying; then the Elf in his memory shook his head stiffly before turning away.

"…You saw us, and you did nothing…" said Fíli, fighting to make sense of what he was seeing. "…You just… you ran near, you saw two dead Dwarves… and you just kept on running…"

At once, Fíli again found himself looking into the clean, irate face that was actually before him—a face that was, for some reason, both familiar and unusual to him. He felt he should know this person—this Elf—but he could not remember his name; and the intensity in the stranger's bright blue eyes warned him not to ask.

But though Fíli wanted to turn away, he could not force himself to do so. The Elf's gaze was odd, unblinking, piercing, cold. He did not seem unkind, but distant; and as Fíli looked deeper into his eyes, trying to draw out the Elf's intent, he felt his legs give way beneath him and he began to fall.

Chapter Text

In some deep part of his mind, Fíli expected the Elf to catch him when his balance failed; though another, more aware part wasn't surprised when his knees hit the ground hard. The impact jarred his spine and neck, and he gasped and fell back to sitting on the cold road stones, and there he began to shiver; but when he tried to hug his knees to his chest for warmth, he found that his left arm was bandaged and cradled in a sling, and it burned fiercely when he moved it.

And so he instead crossed his legs and pulled his cloak tightly around himself; then he turned his eyes to the path as he tried to recall where he was, and why he was in unfamiliar company. On the edge of his vision, he saw the lightly-shoed feet move a step in his direction, then they stopped and shifted away, and only then did Fíli dare to look up.

He studied for a moment the intricately-stitched satchel slung over the strange Elf’s shoulder, then he looked to the bow and quiver on his back, and finally he focussed on the odd person's pale and almost otherworldly face. The stranger’s lips were pursed, his arms were folded tightly across his chest, and he was glaring at the trail ahead without blinking—he seemed angry, incensed, insulted. Somehow, Fíli knew that he was himself the cause of this ire, though he could not remember what he had done to bring it on; and so he thought to at least try to figure out who the Elf was, and how they knew one another.

There was only one name that came to mind, but Fíli knew that it wasn't right—not exactly right, anyway, although there was an association there that he could not place. Still, the name repeated over and over in his thoughts, fading and reforming like an echo, until at last he felt his lips move and heard his own irresolute voice rise up.

"Thranduil…" he said, then he clamped his mouth shut.

"What of him?" someone—the Elf, Fíli realized—asked.

Glancing up, he saw that the stranger was now staring at him; but his gaze was unsettling and eerie, and Fíli turned away again. A sting pushed suddenly around his temples and into his brow, and because his right hand was holding his cloak shut against the winter air, he instead lifted his left hand to rub at the ache. But the pain in that arm redoubled as the sling tightened around it, and he drew in a quick breath through his teeth and at last let go of his cloak, so that he could pull the knotted end of the sling off from around his neck.

The Elf let out what might have been an exasperated sigh. "You should not do that."

Fíli ignored him, then rested his left arm on his leg and began trying to massage away the stiffness and aching under the bandage. But the more he touched it, the more it hurt, and he felt his brow dampening despite the chill.

"Leave it," said the Elf, more forcefully now.

Still, Fíli paid him no heed, and he started to fumble with the knot that was holding the bandage in place, so to let the cool air onto his burning skin. He could not manage to loosen it, though, and the pain began to worsen; but he believed that if he stopped now, it would hurt even more, and so he dug his fingernails into the bandage just above his wrist, trying to scratch away the searing irritation in his skin.

The Elf took a swift step in Fíli's direction, then he kneeled and grabbed the Dwarf's shaking right hand. "Stop," he commanded. "You'll injure yourself more."

"Let me go," said Fíli, trying to pull away as the Elf tightened his grip. "What do you care if I…"

He stopped, choking on his breath, then he forced himself to look up. The Elf's jaw was set and his blue eyes were narrowed; and although Fíli did not know why he should do so, he eased his struggling. The Elf's pale fingers then released his right hand and moved instead to the bandage on his left arm—and Fíli was almost awestruck at how gentle his touch was when he pulled the cloth aside and carefully examined the skin underneath.

A sound like whining came from off to the right, and despite Fíli's growing curiosity about his injured arm and the unexpected concern that the Elf was showing it, he turned and focussed on the strange animal next to them. It was staring at him with wide eyes, and its floppy ears were twitching almost anxiously; but when Fíli squinted at it, its stance changed in an instant, and it lowered its head and stuck its tail between its legs as it timidly backed a few steps away.

Fíli's mouth fell open slightly as he wondered at the wolf's strange behavior. Was it a wolf? Or a dog? Somehow it looked like both, but neither. It was female—that much Fíli remembered, at least. But there was something about her that did not sit quite right with him, there was something off about her; and as he stared at the darkening of the fur on her neck, his right arm began to throb. He curled the fingers on that hand into a fist, then looked down at it. He could not see his skin under his sleeve, but he recalled that there were many small bruises there, though he could not remember how he had gotten them. 

His left arm, however, was in a much worse state, and he was just as in the dark about how it had gotten that way as he was about the more minor bruising on his right arm. Try as he might, he could not figure out why it was hurting so badly, and why the Elf was so insistent that he leave it alone. He looked to the slender fingers that were tightening the knot that held the bandage in place, and his mind began to swim with questions that he knew he would not be able to answer for himself.

"What happened to me?" he blurted out at last, shocking himself with the agitation in his own voice.

The Elf's fine hands stilled on his arm. "Do you not remember?" he asked after a moment of silence.

Fíli shook his head slowly, but he said nothing; and there was another long pause before the Elf spoke up again.

"You were burned," he said, his tone telling Fíli that this was something he should already have known.

"When?" pressed Fíli. "How?"

"The night before last. You fought with a warg, and afterwards fell into a fire."

"A warg? I don't remember any…"

Then, at once, Fíli heard howling in his memory and recalled the feeling of rough fur in his grip—but it was a shattered remembering, hazy and incomplete, like an imagining from a story that had once been told to him. By his side, the wolf growled softly; and Fíli flexed the fingers of his right hand into a fist once again.

The bruises. The warg had bitten him, hadn't it? But why had it stopped there? He'd never fought a warg that had held back from biting all the way though skin and muscle, even to the point of snapping bone. Why would this one have done so? Did it die before it had gotten the chance to get a good grip on him? Was it already weakened before he had engaged it? Had the Elf chased it off?

Lightning dashed in front of Fíli's eyes and he jumped, then his breaths began to quicken and his chest to ache. He blinked hard and shook his head, then again locked gazes with the Elf.

"What happened to it?" he asked through clenched teeth. "The warg… is it…"

The words froze on his lips as his thoughts lightened; then his vision blurred and his head drooped as a rapid exhaustion came over him. In his mind he again heard growling and snarling, felt the air being forced from his lungs as the warg stepped onto his chest, smelled the beast's foul breath. 

Then, somewhere past the shifting and fading thoughts, he felt his arm being released. Strong fingers curled under his chin, and his face was lifted; and past the remembered sounds of battle, he heard a distant voice speaking.

"…Can you hear me?…"

…Yes… Fíli thought, barely aware that he had not given the answer aloud; then he imagined that he had perhaps managed to nod.

"…Open your eyes…" the voice went on.

Fíli felt himself being shaken slightly, and he struggled and fought in his mind, trying pull himself away from the sleep that he was falling into. His eyelids fluttered and opened, and he found himself once more looking the Elf's uncanny eyes. Only they were closer now, and even more intent; and Fíli jerked and gasped, startled by their nearness.

With the slight clearing of his thoughts, the name Thranduil returned to his mind—but still he knew it was not right. Not for this Elf, not for the one kneeling before him. The name he was searching for carried with it at least a little less contempt, though Fíli had not known it for nearly as long, and he was now growing desperate to find out just who this person was.

"What is your name?" he asked, his voice rough.

For a long moment the Elf said nothing and made no move; then he lifted his hand from Fíli's chin and placed his fingertips on the Dwarf's aching temple.

"I am Legolas," he said simply, as if he were speaking to a child.

"Legolas?" repeated Fíli.

It felt like the first time he had ever said it, though he knew he must have done so before; and more than that, he knew that the last time he had spoken that name it had been in anger. Legolas Thranduilion, he had called the Elf, and he had meant it as an insult.

Thranduilion…

"You're his son, aren't you?" he asked, unable to stop himself. "The Elvenking's son?"

"Yes," said Legolas, his intense eyes softening. "Can you remember who you are?"

The Dwarf nodded. "Fíli," he said, looking up at the darkened trees. "Where are we? What is this place?"

Legolas's touch left Fíli's temple, then moved to the back of his head. "This is the Forest of Mirkwood," he said, feeling around a tender area on Fíli's scalp.

"Mirkwood?" No. This was wrong. Fíli was not supposed to be here, he was supposed to be with the Company. He pushed Legolas's hand away and looked around. "Where are they?"

"Where are who?"

"My Company… my kin. Where are they?"

Legolas squinted slightly. "They are in Erebor."

"Erebor…" Fíli whispered; then his eyes widened and he began to stand. "I'm supposed to be…"

Legolas placed a hand on his shoulder, holding him down. "You need to rest."

"I can't," Fíli snapped, trying still to rise to his feet. "I have to—"

"What is the last thing you remember?" asked Legolas, cutting him off.

"The last…? What does it matter? I don't have time for…"

Before he could go on, his mind was again disturbed by a fog, and he shut his eyes as all the energy drained out of him. It felt then as if the ground had opened up and he was tumbling into some deep chasm; but before he could fall too far, strong hands seemed to grab him and pull him back. He was shifted about, and a weight that was on his shoulders was lifted away; then he was guided onto his side and he felt pressure on his cheek and temple.

A touch, firm and warm, landed on his brow, and he heard a voice speaking strange words from some far-off place. He became aware then of a sweet, fresh smell like honey and sage; but though the scent was not unpleasant, still he jerked away from it in surprise. The touch on his brow moved instead to the back of his head, and as the scent grew stronger, the distant voice continued. 

Fíli still did not know the words, yet somehow he felt that he was being told to listen; and amidst the foreign speech, he thought he heard his name being spoken. The hand left the back of his head, and fingertips brushed lightly over his eyelids, and at once, fractured memories began to trickle in.

He remembered Tauriel healing Kíli, he remembered waking up on the battlefield, he remembered Sigrid tending his wounds, he remembered the slice the goblin had left on his side. All those times, all those moments, that same scent had been there: kingsfoil, fresh or ground, steeped or torn—a refreshing, enlivening scent that brought with it the relief of both pain and fatigue. A scent that he had known since childhood, though never so well as in the few weeks that had just passed.

"Look at me." Legolas's voice was sharp and near now, speaking words that Fíli understood. "Open your eyes."

Though he did not know why, Fíli was compelled to obey; and when the world came back into focus he found that he was lying on his side, with his head resting on his pack. Legolas was kneeling and staring down at him in concentration, and all at once Fíli remembered those things that he had forgotten from the past couple days—from fighting the warg, to Nár biting him as he fell into the fire, to his foolishness in drinking all of the wine, and to the discord between himself and Legolas.

Fíli squeezed his eyes shut again, and the Elf's hand moved to his neck and his soft fingertips slid over the sensitive scar at the base of the Dwarf's skull; then the smell of kingsfoil grew once more, and Fíli pulled his head back.

"Leave it," he said weakly, looking to the Elf. "It's over."

Legolas lifted his hand away. "What is over?"

"I was just… I was confused… for a bit…"

"That was not merely confusion."

Fíli let out a long, ragged sigh. "Whatever you choose to call it, it's over," he said. "Give me room now, please…"

He assumed that his voice must have been clearer and more steady, as Legolas backed away; and after a few seconds of gathering his strength, Fíli tried to lift himself up off the ground. He did not manage it well, though, and he fell back onto his side; and so Legolas gripped his arm and pulled him to sitting. The Elf stared at him for a moment, as if he feared the help would be resented; but Fíli simply nodded, and Legolas lowered his own head in response before letting go and sitting back.

The Elf picked up an open jar of green ointment off the ground, then he quickly capped it and thrust it into his satchel—but still the smell of kingsfoil lingered on the air, and Fíli breathed in deeply, trying to let it fill his lungs. For an instant he felt the cloth that Balin had draped over his face billowing in the breeze and bringing with it the same fine fragrance; then the memory faded and he looked over at Legolas.

"That ointment," he said, "what did you do to me with it?"

"I let you breathe in the scent. Nothing more."

"And the words you were speaking? I did not understand them, but—"

"They were Elvish," said Legolas. "I would not expect you to understand them."

Shutting his mouth, Fíli wrapped his right arm around himself as he started to shiver against the cold once more. Abruptly, the Elf stood and began making his way around the area; and soon Fíli heard the rustling of leaves and the snapping of dry branches, and he turned his eyes up just as Legolas laid an armload of firewood and kindling on the ground nearby.

"I believe we have gone far enough for today," the Elf said, sitting down and drawing a flint out of his satchel. "You are in need of rest and warmth, and perhaps a meal."

Fíli turned aside again, offering no disagreement, and before long he heard the striking of the flint, followed the crackling of the tinder catching alight and the soft whoosh of the young flames leaping into life. The cold began to push back, and the smell of smoke chased away the scent of kingsfoil in the air; and as the heat grew on Fíli's cheeks and arms, he realized how very dry his throat had become.

He drew his pack near, then pulled one of the water-skins off his strap; and as he took a long drink of the icy water within, he heard a sound beside him. He glanced to the side as Nár limped cautiously near; then she stopped and peered at Fíli past her bushy brows before settling down between him and the Elf. Although Fíli did not want to be so close to her, he did not make a move to either reposition himself or push her away, but still he eyed her warily before turning his attention to Legolas.

The Elf's face was passive again, though in his distant expression there seemed to be a lingering question that he had no intention of asking. The anger from earlier appeared to have left him, at least, despite the certainty that all of Fíli's vitriolic words were still fresh in his mind—though now, most of those words made little sense to Fíli, and he in fact regretted saying them.

He and Kíli had grown up listening to Thorin and the other elders deriding the Elves for their coldness and cruelty; but the brothers had always had their doubts, and they'd decided early on to find out for themselves what Elves were truly like. Once or twice they had even sought them out in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and those that they had managed to find were either quiet and reserved or open and merry. On the whole, though, they seemed to be good people, and nowhere near as heartless as the older Dwarves had always claimed.

But still those stories had lingered in Fíli and Kíli's thoughts, and they did not really want to believe that the things that Thorin had told them were not true. The tales must have been true, otherwise there would not have been so much hurt and anger in his eyes and voice when he spoke of them. And so the brothers figured that even if the Elves of Ered Luin were not altogether untrustworthy, it did not mean that their eastern kin were quite so kind.

The Company's stop in Rivendell had further confused the matter, as their hosts there had been haughty and critical, and had even sought to stop them from continuing on their quest; but the Dwarves had at least been given a warm welcome, plenty of food, and comfortable beds to sleep in. When they met the Elves of Mirkwood, however, the welcome had not been so warm; and though the Company had been given much food, they had also been imprisoned for no good reason and their belongings had been taken away. Even Legolas's first words to them had communicated malice and contempt; and so, the elders' distrust of the Elves had finally begun to make some sense.

Regardless, Fíli had sought to keep himself from believing that all the Elves of the Woodland Realm were so cold; and Tauriel had proven that faith to be well-placed with the concern she had shown the Dwarves in general, and Kíli in particular. But then Thranduil had marched on the Mountain, and if danger had not come from another side, it was certain that the Elvenking would have attacked Erebor, himself. As it turned out, the Elves who had at first come to do battle with the Dwarves ended up fighting beside them; but before Fíli could resolve his own doubts and confusion, his brother lay dead beside him on the field.

Legolas, then, had left them there; and though Fíli now understood that it had been for good reason, when he again saw the Elven prince, he had felt little but resentment towards him for it. And so Thorin's words about Elves caring nothing for any but their own kind had repeated over and over in Fíli's memory, until he had at last allowed that disdain to come out of his own mouth in the wake of what he had believed to be Legolas's treachery in allowing a warg to travel with him through the Forest.

Now, however, Legolas seemed to be genuinely worried about Fíli's well-being; enough so to allow him a rest and the warmth of a fire, though the Elf did not need either, himself. And he had done much more, besides—insofar as treating Fíli's wounds, providing him with directions and advice, watching over him when he was unconscious from the black river, giving him food, and filling his water-skins unbidden. None of that benefitted Legolas in the least, so why would he have done it if he had been as hateful and callous as the stories had said? Why would he not simply have walked away and allowed Fíli to get lost and die in the dark expanses of Mirkwood?

Fíli looked to Legolas again. His face was still towards the fire, his eyelids were half-closed in concentration, and he did not even appear to be breathing. The Dwarf squeezed the water-skin in his hand slightly, then held it out in offer. He was sure that Legolas could see him, but the Elf remained motionless, so Fíli lowered the skin to his lap and re-corked it, then he tapped absently on it with his fingertips.

"My uncle and brother," he said without giving it much thought, "where are they?"

Legolas's eyes flitted in his direction. "You should rest," he said softly. "We will speak of them later."

"I didn't mean… I just…" Fíli stammered, knowing that it must have sounded like he didn't even remember Thorin and Kíli's deaths. "I just wanted to know if they were interred by the time you left the Mountain. Were they buried?"

The stiffness in Legolas's shoulders eased a bit. "They were."

Fíli turned his face down. "And were they together?"

"If you are asking if their tombs are in the same chamber, then yes."

A lump rose in Fíli's throat. He should have been there, he knew—he should have stayed that long, at least. Sigrid had said as much, had practically begged him not to leave before then; but at the time all that Fíli could think of was getting away from the Arkenstone, as far and fast as he was able.

The Arkenstone…

"And the tombs… they were covered?" he asked quickly.

Legolas shifted his position, and Fíli looked over to see that he had taken his bow off his back and was examining the string. "Yes," he said, "though the lids had yet to be carved by the time I left Erebor."

For an instant, Fíli felt his fingers brushing against the King's Jewel and heard it whispering in his mind, and he jumped, clutching the water-skin tightly.

"The chamber was not yet sealed, then?" he asked, cringing at the distress in his own voice.

"Lord Balin said the engraving would be done within a fortnight, so it may well be finished by now. But the chamber may remain open for some time, regardless."

"Why is that? What are they waiting for?"

Legolas gave him a sideways glance. "For you."

Sweat began beading on the Dwarf's brow. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, wiping his sleeve over his forehead. "Do they expect me to return to the Mountain?"

"In a manner of speaking," said Legolas, resting his bow on his lap. "The Lords Balin and Dáin still hope to find your body and bring it back to Erebor, so that you may be laid to rest with your kin. I don't believe they will seal the chamber until all hope of that is gone."

Tears gathered in the corners of Fíli's eyes and he turned aside. He was sure that Sigrid had told Balin about his survival, but he supposed now that there was a chance the old Dwarf hadn't believed her. Balin had, after all, seen Fíli dead on the field, himself; and even if he'd hoped Sigrid was correct, he may have chosen to believe his own eyes rather than her word. Or it could have been that he did believe her, and had sent out scouts in search of the missing prince. But if they had gone towards Southern Mirkwood, as Fíli had intended on making for, then they would have had no chance of finding him; and when their searching had come to nothing, Balin may have come to believe that Fíli had perished along the Road. 

In any case, Fíli imagined now that the chamber would remain open forever, and the Arkenstone would be in easy reach of anyone who wished to take it. It would be as simple as pushing aside the lid to Thorin's tomb. That was, if the Arkenstone had been buried with Thorin. Perhaps Balin or Dáin had claimed it, despite what they had said of wanting nothing to do with it. Fíli himself had never even considered taking it as his own until he had heard its call—what if it had done the same to his elder kin in his absence? What if they had set it back above the throne it had once crowned, and it was once again serving as a symbol of the King's right to rule?

Fíli wiped his face with the back of his hand, trying to chase away the fear that he knew might well be unwarranted. There was a chance, at least, that Legolas knew what had become of the Arkenstone. Maybe he had seen it in Thorin's tomb; maybe he could at least give Fíli some comfort in the knowledge that neither Balin nor Dáin had taken possession of it.

"I assume that you attended my brother and uncle's funeral," he said, trying to sound casual. "Well, my funeral, I suppose…"

"I did not," said Legolas. "My father was there, however."

Fíli furrowed his brow in disbelief. "I didn't think he would have chosen to attend, even if he'd been invited."

"He was not the only Elf there, and it was a significant gesture on your lords' part that they were allowed to pay their respects."

"Was Tauriel there, as well?" asked Fíli.

Legolas's expression fell. "No, she was not."

For a fleeting moment, Fíli considered asking why she had been absent; but he thought better of it, and instead nodded stiffly. "So, there's peace at the Mountain, then?"

"Peace, you may call it. Or tolerance."

"Reluctant as it must be." Fíli cleared his aching throat. "Aside from the Elves, do you know who else was at the funeral?"

"Only so much as was mentioned by Lord Balin."

"Perhaps you could tell me, then," said Fíli, "if there was a Man… a giant of a Man. A skin-changer from west of the Forest. He bore my uncle off the field during the Battle."

"Beorn," said Legolas. "He was there, yes. As were Lord Bard and his family, as well as several other Men from the Lake and a fair number of Dwarves from the Iron Hills."

"And what of the Dwarves of my company?" asked Fíli hopefully. "Do you know who still lives?"

"I'm afraid I cannot say," replied Legolas. "Though I saw a few in Lord Balin's tent, I do not know them by their names."

Fíli eyed Legolas curiously, realizing only then how often Balin had already come up in their conversation; and he thought it especially odd that the Elf would have learned so much from him, or that he would have known at all who had been in his tent. Fíli did not mention his doubts aloud, though, and instead rubbed the back of his aching neck and turned his eyes toward the fire.

"Besides my uncle and brother, I fear I may have lost more of my kin," he said. "I know one of my elder friends was found on the field after the Battle was over, though whether he was alive or dead, I never learned." He looked deeper into the flames, wondering for a moment if Bifur had been among the burned; but he forced the thought away and turned again to Legolas. "The youngest of our company was also injured, but we got to him during the Battle, itself. Tauriel took him and his brother to the safety of the Gate, but—"

"There was no safety at the Gate," Legolas interrupted; then a strange look rose into his eyes and he returned his attention to the bow on his lap. "Not, at least, until the Battle was ended."

Fíli pressed his lips together. He had assumed that when Tauriel had gone with Ori and Nori into the Mountain they would have been in a more secure place, but he didn't know why he had ever believed that. Even when the Battle was young, orcs and wargs had been trying to make their way over the barricade, and he supposed now that a good number of them might have holed themselves up inside at their first opportunity.

Sigrid, at least, knew that there had been enemies within Erebor, or else she would not likely have gone the route of drawing the guard away from Thorin and Kíli's tent by claiming there was a roving warg in the tunnels; but Fíli hadn't given it much thought beyond the fact that it had afforded him a chance to spend some time with his brother and uncle. Now he wondered if Ori, Nori, or Tauriel had come to harm once they reached the Gate—though at least he had some answer as to why the Elf-maid had not come back to his and Kíli's side as she had promised.

"Mithrandir and a halfling were at the funeral, as well," Legolas spoke up, breaking into Fíli's thoughts.

Fíli stared at him, wide-eyed. The name Mithrandir was familiar to him, though he could not place where he had heard it before; but it was the news of the Hobbit that had drawn his attention around. He had expected no good word at all of him and had been afraid to ask—after all, it had been only a few short months since he had first picked up a sword, and the Battle had been so fierce and confused that Fíli was sure he would have been among the first to fall.

"His name is Bilbo," he said after a minute. "He came with us from his home in the Shire. I'm glad he did, though he might not be quite so glad of it. He and my uncle did not exactly part on good terms."

"They may have, at that," said Legolas. "Thorin called for the halfling just before dawn the day after the Battle, and they spoke their last as your uncle passed on."

Fíli's eyes began to well up again. "Do you know what was said between them?" he asked, hoping that Thorin's final words to Bilbo had been kind ones.

"No," Legolas told him. "They were alone at the time, as far as I am aware."

The tears escaped Fíli's eyes, and he lowered his face; but a moment later, Nár let out a small whine. Fíli jumped and looked over at her, realizing only then that he was tightly gripping the fur on the animal's back—though he hadn't noticed that he had allowed his touch to fall there. He let his fingers loosen, then lifted his hand away and rubbed at the lingering ache in his brow.

"I am sorry for your loss," said Legolas, his voice low.

A weak, slightly dubious grin found its way to Fíli's lips. "I don't, perhaps, deserve your sympathies after my words earlier. And from what you said, yourself, I think that any you might offer me may just be a polite lie."

"I have no reason to lie," said Legolas. "And despite what you may think, I do not hate your kind."

Fíli shrugged. "I don't actually believe that," he admitted. "They were more my uncle's words than my own, I think. I won't say that I don't believe any of it, but certainly not all of it. And if I am to be honest, I don't believe that you, personally, would have either taken any real joy in killing us, or that you would have left us to die."

A touch of unease flashed in Legolas's eyes. "You're wrong," he said. "I would have done both."

The comment took Fíli off-guard and his mouth fell open; then the exactness of the Elf's words brought a small smile to his lips.

"Are you saying you would have done so, but no longer?"

Legolas stared at him with a softening expression, but said nothing; and so Fíli uncorked the water-skin and held it out once more. This time, the Elf accepted the offer, and after a small drink, he nodded appreciatively and passed the skin back. A deep silence then fell as they both turned towards the fire; and though the weight of unasked questions still hung heavily between them, they did not speak again for many hours.

Chapter Text

For the next few days the travelers went on with no troubles—though the number of miles they covered was difficult for Fíli to reckon, as Legolas had several times taken them on shortcuts through the deep woods. When he had first done this, Fíli had feared that they would lose themselves in the Forest; but they came back to the path in good time, and he had to admit that it was a good thing the Elf's head was much harder to bewilder under the gnarled and glowering trees than was his own.

He was glad to have company at all, really, even if he did not say so aloud. He and Legolas had not actually spoken much to each other while on their course, except to discuss what they would eat, when they should rest, and whether or not a fire should be set; but though Fíli had been happy with the lack of conversation at first, the silence had gradually grown oppressive to the point where he would have welcomed even open debate.

And so, as the third day's trek was nearing its end, he had brought up the subject of his injured arm, and whether or not it might be a good time to change the bandaging. Legolas had then told him that it would be fine for a few more days; but he seemed to pick up on Fíli's unspoken insistence, and at last agreed to clean and re-dress the burns when they stopped for the evening.

Now, Fíli watched on as Legolas's long, thin fingers unwrapped the cloth from around his arm; and though it did not hurt much anymore, he feared that when the bottom layer of bandaging was removed it would probably hurt quite a bit. So he grimaced as he waited for that surge of pain, but when the last layer was drawn off, he felt only a slight sting—and when he saw darkness on his skin and smelled the fresh scent of kingsfoil rising up, he understood just why the Elf had insisted that it could have gone a few more days.

"The bandaging does not need to be changed very often if the ointment remains covered," said Legolas, apparently guessing where the Dwarf's thoughts were; then he picked up a water-skin from his side and began to clean Fíli's arm. "Although I do not believe it will need to remain covered for much longer, as you are healing well. You will, at least, have no need of keeping it in the sling from here on."

Fíli rotated his aching neck. "Thankfully," he said. "It gets rather uncomfortable after a while."

They fell quiet again as Legolas continued to clean the old ointment away, and Fíli bit down softly on his tongue as he saw how much water he was using for that purpose. Not so long ago, he himself had hesitated in using his scanty water supply for anything except sipping; though when the Elf had joined him, its conservation had ceased to be an issue. Legolas carried no water of his own, and he never drank of Fíli's except when it was offered to him; but whenever the supply ran low, he would go off with the skins to some secret spring in the woods, always returning soon afterwards with water that was fresher and more clear than Fíli thought could come from anywhere within Mirkwood.

Food had also been plentiful enough, and Fíli was glad that the gnawing in his stomach was now a thing of the past. Just the day before this one, Legolas had given him another cake of lembas, though he hadn't needed to eat any of it yet, since it turned out that the Forest was not quite so devoid of edibles as he had believed. Many of the noxious-looking plants, Legolas had explained, actually had roots that could be eaten after they were cooked; and several of the colorful and bitter-smelling types of mushrooms had stems that were meaty and satisfying—although Legolas warned him against touching the caps or shaking loose any of the spores, as they would make someone sick in quite a hurry.

In fact, most of the food that Legolas foraged for them was surprisingly wholesome, though Fíli had initially been reluctant to try the first few things the Elf had dug out of the ground or scurried up into the branches to retrieve, as they did not appear healthy at all. Soon, however, Fíli was eating almost everything the Elf provided without question; the only exception being some rather innocuous small green fruits, and that was solely due to the smell that rose up when Legolas cut into them. They did not smell foul, by any means; but they smelled like apples, and Fíli had never liked apples.

And plants weren't the only things out there to eat, as Legolas proved when he went to fill the water-skins this evening and came back with a freshly-killed hare. He had quickly skinned and cleaned it and set it over the fire; and Nár had started panting and wagging excitedly as it roasted. Despite himself, Fíli grinned at her enthusiasm—the meat smelled wonderful to him, after all, and he could only imagine how the animal, with her stronger senses, must be longing for it.

Fíli had grown somewhat more at-ease in her presence over the last few days, though he still did not feel quite comfortable around her; and while she usually padded along beside Legolas as they were walking, she would occasionally slide close to Fíli when they settled in for a rest. That had, at first, not pleased the Dwarf—but after a while, he had given up on worrying about it, and no longer tried to warn her away with a glare whenever she came too near. Regardless, whenever he woke from sleep, he would find the animal lying by his side; and although he had shoved her away the first time she had done that, afterwards she had begun scooting back from him as soon as she saw his eyes open.

But now her attention was elsewhere, and Fíli returned his own thoughts to Legolas's progress in treating his arm. After a few minutes of cleaning away the old ointment, the Elf set the water-skin down, then turned to his satchel. As he rooted through it, Fíli held his arm up and examined the burns, finding that they weren't as bad as he had feared. There had been blisters there at some point, but they were all gone by now; and while most of the skin below his elbow was red and slightly swollen, it was at least intact.

His palm was mostly free of injury, and he figured that he must have curled his fingers into a fist when he had fallen into the fire, so protecting it. When he turned his hand over, however, there he found the worst of the damage. His fingers were red and scarred, and in places burned so deeply that he was certain that he would have lost them, had Legolas not gotten to him in time. 

They were also stiff, as he learned when he tried to bend them. Deep pains shot out from the bases of his nails and, it felt, right into the bones of his fingers; then his hand spasmed and his wrist jerked. The wave of pain flowed up his arm, skipping past his elbow and jumping into the deep muscle of his shoulder. He bit down against it, managing not to make a sound; but still, sweat beaded on his brow, and he reached up with his uninjured hand to wipe it away.

Legolas shifted around, looking first at Fíli's face, then at his crooked and cramped fingers.

"Don't try to move it yet," he said, setting down the jar of ointment he had just opened.

"Sorry…" said Fíli through his teeth; then he watched on as Legolas took hold of his cramped hand. "Were the burns much worse before?"

"Very much worse," said the Elf as he pressed his fingertips gently here and there on Fíli's hand and wrist. "It was fortunate for you that Nár pulled you away from the fire as swiftly as she did."

The wolf lifted her head and made a little noise of curiosity, and Fíli spared her a glance before turning again to Legolas. Slowly, the pain and cramping eased under the Elf's touch; then Legolas looked him in the eye—as if warning him to stay still—before picking up the jar of ointment and beginning to spread it gently over the reddened skin on his arm. Though the application stung a bit when he reached the worst of the open burns, the pain soon faded, and Fíli's tense shoulders loosened; and as the scent of kingsfoil brightened his senses he drew in a deep breath.

Legolas returned the cap to the ointment jar and stowed it in his satchel, then picked up Fíli's pack and handed it to him. "Bring out your shears and clean bandages."

Fíli started digging through his bag as best he could with one hand. "How did you know I had shears?" he asked, passing them and several white cloths to Legolas. "Did you search through my things when I was asleep?"

The Elf shook his head as he began cutting several of the bandages into smaller lengths. "I saw them by accident after you were burned," he said. "I would not go through your belongings without permission."

"You weren't so worried about that when we first met," said Fíli lightly. "We never did get anything back from you, and I am sure Gloin is still angry that you even touched his picture frame."

"It was returned to him," said Legolas, wrapping the shortened bandages around Fíli's fingers. "If you recall, it was only your company's weapons that were taken, and everything else you were allowed to keep."

Fíli turned aside, thinking that it might have been better if certain other things had been taken—those things that had allowed access into the Mountain, those things that had made it possible to waken the dragon: the coins they had used to pay Bard for passage, the map and key. Fíli could not help but wonder if the past couple months might have gone quite differently, and at least a little for the better, if Thranduil had been more unkind.

He reminded himself, though, that even if Smaug had not been roused, there still would have been death. It was a certainty that the attack from the goblins and orcs and wargs still would have happened, and neither the Dwarven army from the Iron Hills nor the Elvenking's host would have been there to defend the people of Laketown when they did—and Erebor would now be in the hands of evil folk, who would also likely have taken Smaug as an ally.

"Regardless," Legolas went on, breaking into Fíli's thoughts, "the weapons that were taken from your company will be returned to them, as per my father's word. Though I expect your weapons, in particular, will be placed in your tomb in lieu of your body. Of course, if you had gone to the Palace as I had suggested, you would have them yourself by now."

"I'm sure I would," said Fíli, trying not to think of his empty tomb or the two occupied ones that shared its chamber. "But they weren't irreplaceable, by any means. They never earned names or had any legacy, and I certainly did not treasure them as much as my uncle did Orcrist and Deathless."

"Deathless?"

"A Dwarvish sword that belonged to Thorin, and his father and grandfather before him," said Fíli. "You took it from him, same as you did Orcrist, though I doubt you deemed it of enough value to wield. It was one day to be mine, but I suppose it is well enough that it will go to my kin in the east."

The Elf looked at Fíli, then returned his attention to the bandage in his grip. "Was it so named after Durin the First?"

Fíli let out a small laugh. "So you aren't completely ignorant on Dwarf history, after all?"

Legolas said nothing as he went on binding first Fíli's hand, then his wrist and arm; but when he tied off the bandage just below the Dwarf's elbow, he hummed curiously.

"Turn around."

"Why?" asked Fíli, drawing his eyebrows together.

"Let me see the back of your arm," Legolas clarified. "Turn it towards the firelight."

The Elf was so insistent that Fíli did not hesitate in doing as requested. Legolas then pressed his fingers to the back of his arm, and it felt to Fíli as if there was something hard under his skin, and that beneath that hardness there was a deep bruise, though there was no pain on the skin itself.

"These marks," said Legolas, pulling Fíli's rolled sleeve further up his arm and gingerly touching the back of his shoulder. "Were you aware of them?"

Fíli shrugged as Legolas slid his fingertips back down to his elbow. "What marks?" he asked. "What do they look like?"

"They are like darkened veins," Legolas told him, moving his touch across the scar that Kíli's arrow had left behind. "Where did you get this wound?"

Legolas lifted his hand away, and Fíli reached over and felt around until his fingers landed on hard projections under the skin of his upper arm; then he touched the damaged skin just below his elbow.

"It happened in the Battle," he said, pulling his sleeve back down and turning his face towards the fire. "It's nothing that you need to worry about."

From the edge of his vision, Fíli saw Legolas sit back; and after a few seconds, the Elf let out a long breath and removed the roasted hare from the flames. 

"If you wish to be healed, it would help if I knew the cause of the injury," he said, laying the meat on a thick length of bark. "I am sure that, wherever you are bound, you would like to get there alive and with both arms intact."

Fíli's lips turned up into a slight smirk. "I thought you more a hunter than a healer."

Legolas nodded. "Hands that do harm are slow in healing," he said, drawing one of the knives off his back. "Just as hands that heal are slow to do harm. But between them, a balance can be reached."

"I suppose so," said Fíli with a slight shrug. "My kinsman, Óin, could fight as well as any, and still patch up most hurts. And, well… as for your people, Tauriel at least seemed to have managed that balance quite well."

Legolas gripped the knife tighter, then he thrust the blade down, splitting the hare up the middle with a single stroke; but he did not speak, and Fíli cleared his throat before going on.

"If you must know, it was an arrow-wound," he said. "And it doesn't need healing. I'm not so inclined as you are to find scars an evil."

"The scar itself may not be an evil," Legolas told him, laying the knife beside the hare where it rested on the bark. "Though what was left under your skin by the arrow's passage might be."

"It wasn't poisoned, if that's what you mean."

"Can you be certain? Orc arrows—"

"It wasn't an orcish arrow," Fíli interrupted, grabbing a piece of hot meat. "It was Elvish."

Legolas gave him a sidelong glance. "If the orc reclaimed it from the battlefield, it might still have been poisoned."

"It was not an orc or any other enemy that loosed it. And it was an accident that it hit me, at all."

"Then it was not an Elf that shot you," said Legolas with an air of pride. "None of my kin would be so careless with their aim, even in the middle of battle."

"My brother was not careless in his aiming," Fíli snapped; then his cheeks warmed, and he softened his tone. "His arrow hit its mark, it just… it grazed me on the way."

An expression of disbelief rose into Legolas's eyes. "Did he recover it from the battlefield beforehand?" he asked. "Was it removed from the body of an orc or warg before it struck you?"

"No, it was fresh. He had a quiver of them at the start of the Battle, and the one that hit me was among his last."

Legolas squinted at him. "And where did he get a quiver of Elvish arrows?"

Fíli's chest began to ache as he wondered if he should have mentioned the quiver at all. "From a friend."

That answer seemed to distress Legolas, and he turned his face down and away. "The same friend that gave you the wine?" he asked, tearing a small piece of meat off the hare and holding it out to Nár, who eagerly ate it up. "I cannot imagine that you would have known any Elf well enough that they would have given you two such valuable things."

"Are you implying that Kíli stole the arrows?" asked Fíli, growing angry again. He finished eating the meat he held, then roughly wiped his fingers on his trousers. "As you accused my uncle of stealing Orcrist? Contrary what you may believe, Legolas, not every Elvish thing in a Dwarf's possession must be stolen."

Legolas's critical glare eased. "Orcrist was returned to Thorin," he said. "It now lies upon his tomb."

A lump rose in Fíli's throat. "I thought that you had claimed that sword for yourself," he said. "You called my uncle a thief and a liar for having it at all."

"I was mistaken," said Legolas; and it was clear that he was having trouble speaking those words. "Though it took me a while to learn the truth of the matter."

Fíli pressed his palm to his temple as an ache began to grow there. "And I suppose I should be happy that you did learn the truth, at the last," he said. "But though Orcrist likely makes for a fair tomb ornament, it would have served my uncle better if it had been in his hand when Azog was bearing down on him."

"I'm sure it would have," said Legolas almost sadly. "But might it at least give you some comfort to know that Orcrist slit the throat of Azog's son?"

Fíli swallowed hard. He had never even considered where orcs and goblins had come from, beyond the tales he'd heard in childhood of them clawing their way out of mud pits and stinking swamps, fully-grown and murderous. That they had family of any sort was a ridiculous notion that Fíli was not ready to accept.

"How is that even possible?" he asked. "Do orcs… they don't love, do they? How can they have children?"

"It is dismaying, but love is not necessary for bringing of children into the world. But in the case of Azog…" Legolas's words trailed off, and he appeared to be lost in thought for a moment before going on. "The first orcs in this world were not born as orcs, and the eldest of them that still remain had lives and kin before they became what they now are. Azog and his son, were among the eldest."

Fíli shifted uncomfortably where he sat. "If they were not orcs at the beginning, then what were they?"

Legolas fixed him with a steely gaze, then he turned back to the fire. "Azog's son, Bolg, was the orc that shot your brother at the water-gate," he said, ignoring Fíli's question. "It was also he that led the attack on Lord Bard's home."

"Then Orcrist at least served some use in your hand," said Fíli, his voice cracking. "And I'm sure my uncle would be happy that you returned it to him at all." He cleared his throat, then scratched his chin in thought. "Though, did you not say that you had not been at the funeral?"

"My father placed it on his tomb," said Legolas. "It was, at first, to be laid alongside Thorin's body; but by my father's request, your lords allowed it to be left in the open, so that all who saw it would know that the Elvenking and the King Under The Mountain were allies at the end."

"Reluctantly and unintentionally so," said Fíli. "But I suppose that is enough, since friendships are rare between our folk." He reached out with his now-shaking hand and picked a piece of meat off the hare, though he did not feel yet like eating it. "And on that subject, I believe you already know who the friend was that gave Kíli the quiver and arrows."

Legolas nodded. "And I'm sure that they were well-given," he said. "And that being the case, if the arrow was fresh from the quiver before it hit you, then you are right that it would not have been poisoned. But do you recall anything getting into the wound after it was opened?"

"Dirt and rainwater, I suppose," said Fíli; then he glanced down at Nár, who had her fuzzy chin resting on her paws. "And warg blood. Kíli's arrow felled one before it went through my arm and into… into an orc's chest."

"Then his aim was true," said Legolas. "It must have been, if he managed to kill both a warg and an orc with one shot."

Fíli considered, for a moment, telling Legolas that Kíli had not killed the orc—that he had not killed Azog—but instead he just stared harder at Nár. "The arrow would not have hit me, except that the orc was using me for a shield," he said. "Kíli risked wounding me in order to save my life. He can be forgiven for that."

Legolas shifted his gaze aside. "Yes, he can." He paused, then focussed on Fíli once more. "Warg blood in a wound can cause infection, but I have never seen this type. Can you recall anything else about the wounding?"

The Dwarf looked at the piece of hare that he still held, but his appetite was now gone; and so he tossed the meat on the bark and reached up to the back of his head, scratching it softly. "It is difficult, at times, to remember everything that happened in the Battle," he admitted; then he self-consciously lowered his hand and tapped his fingers against his leg. "And, if I am to be honest, there is much about it that I do not want to remember."

After a moment of silent staring, Legolas moved a little closer and raised his hand. He stopped, holding his fingers an inch or so from Fíli's temple and looking at him intently, as if asking permission to continue. When Fíli nodded in assent, Legolas touched carefully around the side of the Dwarf's head, then moved his fingers to the base of his skull. Fíli flinched when his fingertips brushed against the tender scar that Azog had left behind, but he did not pull away.

"Was this from an arrow, as well," asked Legolas.

Fíli shook his head slightly. "No," he said, then he cringed when Legolas pressed a bit too hard, sending small shocks of pain down his neck. "It was—"

He clamped his mouth shut, and Legolas drew his touch away from the wound and sat back. 

"You needn't speak any more of the Battle, if it is that difficult for you," said the Elf; then he picked up the piece of meat that Fíli had set down and held it out to Nár. "It was a mistake to bring it up in the first place, considering the effect it had on you the last time we spoke of it."

"We said a lot of things that day, you and I," said Fíli, looking down at Nár; then he turned back to the Elf. "And I know that I was not the only one affected by our words, and that my sorrows were not the only ones brought to the fore."

The firelight reflected off of Legolas's eyes as they flitted in the Dwarf's direction; but he said nothing, and Fíli went on.

"Grief may be a foreign thing to you, Legolas, but I know it well enough. I may not have felt it myself until recently, but I have been surrounded by it all my life. I've seen it in my elder kin, my uncle, my mother… and I now see it in you. We have spoken, at least, of who I have lost, but not of the reason for your own grief. Your father still lives, I know, but of Tauriel you have said nothing."

Legolas looked towards Fíli so suddenly that the Dwarf flinched and Nár lifted her head; then the Elf grabbed his knife off of the bark and the dirty rags from the fireside. 

"I am going to clean these," he said, rising abruptly to his feet. "Rest here for a while."

With that, he stalked away from the ring of firelight—and against Fíli's own better judgement, he called out after the Elf.

"I'm sorry," he said simply; and though he wanted to say more, the words caught in his throat. 

Legolas drew to a halt, but did not turn around, and Fíli could see that he was gripping the knife so tightly that it seemed as if he might snap the handle. The Elf sighed, then loosened his fingers and spun the weapon back to its sheath as he walked into the midst of the darkened trees.

"I will not be long," he said, his voice fading as the distance between them grew. "Do not leave the fire."

Fíli watched him until he was out of sight, then turned his attention to Nár as she stood and started padding after him—though just a few steps on, she stopped and looked back.

"Go on, then," said Fíli, waving her off.

The wolf whined and peered into the darkness between the trees, then looked to Fíli, as if she was trying to decide who needed her company more. At long last, she appeared to have made up her mind, and she came back to the fireside and laid down. Fíli stared at her for a moment, then looked to where Legolas had vanished into the trees.

He did not want to think of any of his friends, old or new, having died—but he knew that if Tauriel still lived, Legolas would have had no reason not to tell him. Still, he also knew that he should not have mentioned her in the first place. He had no idea, after all, how Elves mourned. Perhaps it was a peculiarity of theirs that they would act as if it never happened; perhaps it was forbidden, even, to speak of the dead.

And even if that were not the case, what right did Fíli have to try to force Legolas to open up about it? Was it so he would not feel alone in his mourning? So that he would know for certain that he was not the only person in this Forest that was grieving for someone? 

Fíli knew that miles away, people were grieving for him—for his brother, for his uncle, for all the others that hadn't survived the dragon's rampage or the Battle that followed it. And who else of the Company, he wondered, was being mourned? Bifur? Gloin? Nori and Ori? He lowered his head.

"I sent them to the Gate, you know," he said, looking over at Nár as she continued to stare dolefully up at him. "Nori and Ori and Tauriel, I mean. I thought they would be safe there."

He rubbed at the ache in his head, then reached over and kneaded at the stiffness in his shoulder.

"Did you know Tauriel?" he asked. "Do you miss her? My brother really… he liked her. A lot, I think. More than my uncle would have cared for, at least." Nár whined, and Fíli shook his head. "Don't tell the Elf I said that."

He released his shoulder and pulled a piece of meat off of the hare, holding it down to Nár, and she sniffed at it a few times before taking it tentatively from his fingers.

"You're not such a bad little beast, really," he said, smiling weakly as he turned to the fire. "Kíli would have loved you."

Chapter Text

Fíli ran his fingers along the smooth stone wall as he made his way down the darkened corridor; turning first one corner, then another, until he saw a faint golden glow ahead of him. Thrór's treasure-room, he knew, lay in that direction—but the treasure he was seeking was somewhere else, in some other chamber. And so he spun about and began walking back the way he had come.

"Where are you going?" someone asked from behind him; and he turned to look into Balin's face. The old Dwarf smiled kindly and pointed down a side-tunnel. "You are going in the wrong direction, laddie. Your room is this way, and it is well past bedtime."

"I was looking for the Arkenstone," said Fíli as Balin took him by the arm and led him down the hall. "Where is it?"

"You don't need to worry yourself about that," said Balin. "It's been a long day, and you need your rest."

They stopped outside a familiar heavy stone door, and Balin pushed it open, motioning for the younger Dwarf to enter the room before him. Fíli took a step inside, then stood fast and stared at the three intricately carved tombs at the center of the nursery. One of the tombs still lay open and empty, and on its side was carved his name.

Fíli shook his head and turned again to his old friend. "There's a mistake, Balin," he said. "This isn't where I'm supposed to be."

"Oh, well, y'see… your father wanted you to have his old room," Balin told him, smiling wider. "Now get to bed before your mother finds out about all the trouble you've been getting yourself into…"

***

Fíli's eyes flew open, and the cheerless treetops came into view above him as the nursery faded from his sight. He let himself take several deep breaths, watching them turn to fog as he gathered his thoughts, then he sat up and looked around. It was early morning now—earlier, it seemed, than he usually awoke—and the faint glow of dawn was doing little yet to chase the gloom from the clearing where the travelers had settled in for the evening.

Legolas was nowhere to be seen, though Nár was still by Fíli's side, as she had been when he had fallen asleep. When she saw him look her way, she lifted and tilted her head; and a moment later, she let out a quick breath through her nose and shifted her attention towards the nearby trees. Fíli turned that way, as well, then watched as Legolas stepped out of the darkness with three filled water-skins in his grip.

"Good morning," said Fíli flatly.

The Elf halted a few feet from the spent fire and lifted an eyebrow at him. "You are awake?"

"I suppose so," said Fíli, thinking the question rather silly, even for an Elf.

Legolas nodded, then sat down and rubbed Nár's back. "I thought that you would sleep for another hour, at least."

"Well, I suppose we shouldn't waste that hour, then," said Fíli, taking the water-skin that Legolas was holding out in offer. "The Road is waiting."

***

Fíli heard a whine and glanced down to where Nár was padding along between him and Legolas. All of her attention seemed to be on the dried meat that the Dwarf had pinched between his fingers; and when he waved it in front of her, she started wagging her tail excitedly. He pressed his lips into a tight smile, then tossed the meat onto the trail ahead of them; and Nár froze, setting her paws firmly on the ground before running on ahead and snatching it up.

"I thought you didn't like her," said the Elf, breaking the silence that had persisted for the five hours since they had begun their day's trek.

"I don't have to like her to offer her my help," said Fíli, purposely echoing the words that Legolas had said to him a week earlier. "I'm not going to let her starve, anyway."

"She would not starve," said Legolas. "But if it means anything, she appreciates the gesture. For some reason, she likes you." He gave Fíli a sidelong glance. "Though she cannot make sense of your distrust towards her."

The smile on Fíli's face grew wider as the animal came back to his side. "Are you speaking for Nár, or for yourself?"

"I just thought you might appreciate me passing on the sentiment, since you cannot understand her."

Fíli scratched above the bandage on his arm and shrugged. "You know, the Dwarves of Erebor were able to speak to the Mountain Ravens in the old days," he said, trying to avoid mentioning that the sentiment was appreciated—at least somewhat. "So it isn't beyond all possibility that I might one day understand what Nár has to say."

"Beasts are not the same as birds, and understanding one does not mean that you will be able to understand the other," said Legolas. "Besides, Ravens are intelligent creatures, and it is more likely that they could speak the speech of Dwarves than that your folk could speak theirs."

"Are you implying that birds are more intelligent than Dwarves?" asked Fíli lightly.

"I didn't say that. But though your kind might hear fairly well, you don't seem to be very good at listening."

Fíli grinned and glanced to the side, and there his gaze lingered for a moment on the inky spider-webs strung between the trees just off the trail. Since the day after the warg attack, he had seen fewer and fewer webs as they had gone further west, until all signs of the spiders' presence had at last disappeared altogether; but the morning before this one the webbing had suddenly shown up again, then had grown thicker, and for a time Fíli feared they might run into the foul creatures that had spun them. Now, however, the webs seemed to again be growing more sparse and ragged.

"Why have we not seen any spiders?" he asked. "Surely they cannot all have been killed?"

"They are out there," said Legolas. "But there are not as many coming out of the south of late, and I have taken us along paths where they no longer gather."

"There is more than one path through this part of the Forest?"

"There are many, but most are known only to the Wood-elves. I assume you took the old Elven Road your first time through—at least, before your Company wandered off the track. But the one we are on now will bring us out somewhat further south than where you entered on your way east. The foothills of the mountain range that divide the Forest lie some seven leagues or so to the south of us, though I am sure you cannot see them."

Fíli looked to the left of the trail and squinted. "How could anyone see them, really?" he asked, turning his eyes ahead again. "Besides the distance, there are many trees and a deep darkness between us and them."

"At any rate, we should be to the border of the Forest in five days time," said Legolas. "And the spiders, trees, and darkness will cease to be an issue for you."

"Five days? I thought it would be at least a week."

"I had actually hoped we would be as few as three days away by now, but I hadn't taken into account your need to stop so often. Nor the length of your legs."

At this, Fíli actually let out a small laugh. "Well, I'm sure you'll be happy to be rid of my company when we get there," he said, rubbing where his pack-strap had begun digging into his shoulder. "And I'm not complaining about the lack of spiders. I've quite had my fill of them, along with everything else about this Forest."

"I suppose you are including Nár and myself," said Legolas. "Of course, if you had returned to Erebor as I had suggested, you could have at the very least arranged for traveling companions that you enjoyed being with, rather than ones you simply tolerate."

"You're giving yourself and Nár too much credit by saying that I tolerate you," said Fíli, only partly in jest. 

"Regardless, you have not gone too far that you cannot still turn back."

Fíli sighed. "Perhaps. But there is really nothing for me in Erebor now."

"Nothing?" asked Legolas. "Not even the treasure that should at least in part be yours?"

The golden hoard of Thrór flashed brilliantly in Fíli's memory; and he swallowed hard as he lifted his shoulder in a small shrug. "There is a greater treasure waiting for me in Ered Luin."

Legolas gave him barely a glance before facing the path again. "Greater even than the Arkenstone?"

Heat rose in Fíli's chest and his feet stopped in mid-step. The Arkenstone. That was a subject deep and personal, and Fíli knew that he would never have mentioned it to the Elf, even in his most confused moments; and so he cautiously considered the possibility that Legolas may have only brought it up incidentally.

"Is that a topic of conversation that I have forgotten about?" he asked, forcing his expression to remain passive as he began walking again.

"Not unless you count what you have said in your sleep."

Fíli's shoulders drooped. "When was this?"

"Just this morning. Though I did not at first realize that you were sleeping."

"And how could you not have realized that?" asked Fíli. 

"You sat up, your eyes were open, and you were speaking as clearly as you are now," said Legolas. "Elves sleep thusly as a matter of course, but I did not know that Dwarves were of a kind to do such a thing."

"We're not," said Fíli, a little sharper than he'd have liked; then he doubled his right hand into a fist. "Not usually."

"I only understood the truth of the matter when I heard you address Lord Balin. Though it does now make clear to me some... confusions that I'd had when I first found you in the Forest."

"What confusions?" asked Fíli, wondering now if he had ever spoken to the Elf about anything else in the midst of his dreaming. "And what of the Arkenstone? What did I say about it?"

"You wished only to know where it was."

"And did you answer me?"

Legolas nodded. "I told you that it now lies upon Thorin's chest."

A touch of relief tempered Fíli's worry and he let his fist loosen. "I hoped that was where it would be. It meant a lot to my uncle, and it is only right that it was buried with him." He took a deep breath in an effort to clear the quavering from his voice, then looked down at his feet as they scuffed over the road-stones. "I know you weren't at the funeral, but do you know, at least, if it was Balin or Dáin that laid it in Thorin's tomb?"

"It was neither. The honor was to be Lord Bard's, but at the last moment he passed it on to your halfling friend."

Fíli smiled faintly, though his chin was beginning to shake. "I suppose, then, that Bilbo and Thorin parted in kindness, after all."

They fell silent for a moment before Legolas spoke up. "I am curious, though, why you did not choose to claim the Arkenstone for yourself."

The ache in Fíli's temple grew suddenly into a sting. "That is none of your concern," he said, rubbing his head; then he realized the turn the conversation had taken. "And who said that I had any claim over it in the first place?"

"It is the King's Jewel."

"Yes, and it was buried with him."

Legolas fixed him with a by-now-familiar stare, but Fíli simply glared back at him, no longer intimidated by the Elf's piercing blue eyes; then Legolas looked forward again and tilted his chin up.

"Fíli, Son of Náli and Dís," he said. "Being In Descent From Durin I Deathless, Eldest Sister-Son And Chosen Heir Of Thorin II Oakenshield, King Under The Mountain." He turned to Fíli once more. "As Lord Balin told the carvers should be written on your tomb. Chosen heir, implying that it was you who should have taken the throne after your uncle's death."

A stiffness started working its way up from Fíli's left wrist as he tensed the muscles in that arm. "Being written in stone does not make something true," he said, carefully massaging out the pain in his left hand with his right.

"If you had decided not to assume rule, then why could you not have said as much to your kin?" pressed Legolas. "Why did you leave, rather than letting your voice be heard?"

"You and I neither know nor like one another well enough to speak of that," said Fíli through his teeth. "As I am certain you do not feel inclined to tell me whether or not you look forward to assuming rule when your father is done being king."

"My father will never be done being king," said Legolas quickly.

Fíli's cheeks warmed. How, really, could Legolas ever take the throne? Thranduil could not die, after all, of old age or disease, and it was highly unlikely that he would ever meet his end in battle—and he certainly did not seem the type to abdicate.

"So what's an Elven crown prince do, then," said Fíli without giving it much thought, "living forever with so little chance of coming into succession?"

"What does a Dwarven crown prince do when he chooses to leave his kingdom behind without a word to his kin?" countered Legolas.

"He goes back to where he belongs. He goes home."

Legolas stopped walking, frowning down at Fíli as he also drew himself to a halt. "Is there no reason you would return to the Mountain?" he asked. "Is there no plea from any voice that would turn you around?"

The question was odd and abrupt; and the way the Elf's tone was turned almost to the point of threat made Fíli's ire rise.

"And whose voice would be calling for me," he snapped, "besides those that already think I'm dead and wish only for my remains to be returned?" He shifted his eyes down and away, then tightened his jaw in resolution as he looked up once more. "That, then, is your answer, Legolas—if I die before we part ways, then you may bring my body back… otherwise, I will continue west until I either reach Ered Luin or I meet my end along the Road."

The Elf squinted slightly. "You would return to Erebor only in death?"

"Death is safe," growled Fíli; then he bit down on his tongue.

At once, Legolas's eyes widened, as if something had occurred to him or a memory had been woken; then he drew one of his long knives with such swiftness that the Dwarf jumped back and let his hand fall on the pommel of his own sword. The Elf stood fast for a few seconds, staring deep into Fíli's eyes; then he turned on his heel and crouched at the edge of the trail. After brushing aside the dead leaves there, he sunk the tip of his blade into the ground; and Fíli held his breath as he stepped cautiously near. A tremble began in the Dwarf's chest as he watched Legolas carve something in the dirt, then the Elf pulled his knife out of the ground and shifted to the side.

"How do you know of this?" asked Fíli, kneeling beside him and running his fingertips along the familiar Dwarven writing that had been left in the blackened soil. "Where did you learn these runes?"

"What do they mean to you?" asked Legolas, wiping his dirty blade off on his palm.

"If you do not already know what they say, then I will not—"

"I am not asking you what the runes mean. I am asking if they hold meaning for you."

"More than you know," said Fíli, raising his voice to nearly a yell. "Now tell me where you learned them!"

Nár came up to Legolas, and he scratched her scruffy head; then he slid the knife into its sheath as he stood. "They were carved into a small stone."

Fíli pressed his hand to his throbbing temple. "And where did you find that stone?"

"I did not find it. It was entrusted to me, and I was asked to give it to you."

"Then why did you not?" demanded Fíli, rising to his feet.

"I tried to," said Legolas as he began to move down the trail once more. "You gave it back to me."

Fíli's sight fell on the runes for another moment before he rushed to catch up with the Elf, then he grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to a halt. "I may not remember everything that has happened since the Battle, but I am certain that I would never have—" He stopped, tightening his grip on Legolas's arm. "Who gave you the stone? Who asked you to give it to me?"

There was heavy agitation on Legolas's face, and for a long few seconds he said nothing; then he let out a breath and turned aside.

"A friend," he said simply.

Fíli's jaw went slack. "Tauriel?" he asked barely aloud; then he let go of the Elf and took a step back. "How did she die?"

"I did not say that she died," said Legolas, walking on.

"You don't need to say it," said Fíli as he fell into step beside him. "She would not have asked you to give it to me if she could have done so, herself."

"That does not mean that she died."

"Did she not?"

In his rush to keep up, Fíli stumbled over a high stone and landed on his knees on the path. The Elf continued on for a few more steps before stopping, himself; but he did not turn to Fíli, nor did he speak. 

"You know that I count Tauriel among my friends," the Dwarf went on, glancing over at Nár as she came up to his side. "Do you really find it so strange that I would like to hear some word of what happened to her?"

For nearly a minute, there was still no reply; then Legolas let out a sharp breath and Fíli looked to see that he was now staring into the air between them. His lids were half-closed, and the muscles in his neck were tensed.

"You considered her to be a friend after knowing her for only a short time," he said, just loud enough for Fíli to hear. "However, she was a friend to me for many hundreds of years before she met you or any of your kin. So you will forgive me if I do not feel obligated to pass on word of her to you."

"So because I did not know her as well as you did, then I have no right to learn how—"

"Would it comfort you to hear that she did die?" asked Legolas quickly, taking a step in the Dwarf's direction.

"Would it comfort you to say it?" returned Fíli, falling back to sitting on the trail. "Or would you prefer to try and forget that it ever happened?"

Legolas shook his head slowly. "I cannot forget."

"I know," said Fíli, as gently as he was able. "But if your memories do not fade, do you really want this to be one of them? Do you want to forever remember how you refused to tell me something that you knew I needed to hear?"

For a long while, Legolas made no move; then he sighed and looked away.

Fíli's right hand began to shake, and when he could not still it, he instead pulled his knees up and hugged them to his chest. "Tell me, at least, about the rune-stone," he said. "Where did she get it? How did she come to give it to you? Where is it now?" He swallowed hard. "Do I not at least have the right to learn of that?"

Legolas lowered his head in what might have either been a nod or a moment of silent thought; then he turned at last to Fíli. "I believe it may be time for a fire."

Chapter Text

While Legolas went off into the woods to fill the water-skin that they had emptied earlier in the day, Fíli himself gathered and set the fuel for the campfire—though his bandaged hand made it difficult for him to spark the flint, and so that task he had given to the Elf when he returned. The fire, then, was as large and boisterous as Dwarves are wont to make; but though the flames now danced and crackled merrily, they were doing little to either chase away the cold or lighten the mood.

After a small meal of lembas and water, the pair spent a long while focussing on the fire—as they each were wrapped up in their own thoughts, and neither was eager to be the first to speak up. Eventually, Fíli pulled one of the sticks from the pile beside him and began to carve the same runes into the ground as Legolas had done earlier with his knife. Next to him, Nár lifted her head and watched on with curiosity; and when Fíli finished drawing, she leaned close, as if trying to read what he had written.

"I doubt many of your kind know even this much of our language," said Fíli, looking to the Elf.

Legolas glanced at the runes. "I know a few Dwarf-words," he said. "But most are only in your place-names or your battle-cries. Or your insults."

"Which I'm sure you have heard many times over the years," said Fíli with a grin that quickly fell. "You told me that you gave me the stone, but I don't remember you doing so. That should not come as any great surprise, I guess—but remembered or not, I don't believe that I would ever have turned it away."

"Perhaps you wouldn't have, if the situation had been different."

Though Fíli stared at him in expectation, Legolas offered up no details; and the following silence stretched on for several minutes. Finally, the Dwarf sighed and began tapping the stick against the burning branches before him.

"My mother used to say that trying to get a straight answer from an Elf is a bit like slate-mining with a pocket-knife," he said wryly. "It's all slow chipping away; a lot of effort for little reward."

"Has your mother spoken with many Elves?" asked Legolas.

"More than my uncle ever did, I suppose—and at least a little more peaceably. Thorin had no desire to even go near the ones who lived in Ered Luin, though my mother at least saw the necessity of keeping peace with the neighbors."

"And did she consider any of those neighboring Elves to be friends?"

"If she did, she never said as much." Fíli bit down lightly on his lip. "I'm sorry if my words earlier troubled you. I should have known that you would take offense to a Dwarf claiming friendship with an Elf."

"It was not only that claim that troubled me," said Legolas, stiffening his shoulders.

"What was it, then?" pressed Fíli; then he recalled what Legolas had said earlier about how long he and Tauriel had been friends. "Was it because that claim came so soon after we met her?"

The Elf's jaw tensed, but he said nothing; and Fíli gave him a small shrug.

"Your kind may have centuries to build relationships, Legolas, but those of us who live briefer lives cannot afford to take so long," he said. "We must learn in short time who to trust, or we may miss our chance. And then what, but to regret that we lost a friendship before it could even be made?"

A quiet moment passed, then Legolas cast his sight on the trees just off the trail. "You knew that Tauriel considered you to be her friends, as well, did you not?"

Fíli nodded. "She proved as much when she decided to help my brother in Laketown, rather than rushing off once the orcs were dead." He looked down at Nár, then tilted his head in the Elf's direction. "Not that I any longer fault you for leaving, Legolas; but I guess what bothered you most, then, was that Tauriel did not go with you."

"Would it not have troubled you, if you had been in my place?" asked Legolas. "To have the friendship of a long lifetime pushed aside for one that was much newer, and bound to end much sooner?"

"It would have troubled me greatly," said Fíli, tapping at the fire again. "And I cannot say just why she chose to remain behind with us, except that maybe she felt we were in greater need of her help than you were. But you did not truly believe that she was going to give up your friendship for ours, did you? It takes a fierce loyalty, I think, to say 'we will be friends for life' when that life is not likely to end."

"Yet, even an Elf's life may not last," said Legolas softly. "And death may not forever pass us by."

A sting cut through Fíli's chest, and he inhaled deeply in an effort to ease it—but the pain only worsened, and when he bent over against it he tossed the stick into the fire, so that the Elf might not guess at the true reason for his change in posture.

"I did not understand death when I was a child," he said, sitting back again with great effort. "But when I grew older, I became certain of it. I knew that one day my friends and kin would die, and that I would join them wherever they waited. Or that they would join me, if I were to get there before them." The pain in his chest began to ease and he drew in another deep breath; then he unconsciously lifted his hand to the healed-over wound on the back of his head. "I always hoped that I would get there before them. I was supposed to get there before them. I tried."

"You sought death?" the Elf asked, narrowing his eyes. "You wished for it?"

Fíli rested his hand on his lap. "Not for my own sake," he admitted, as much to himself as to Legolas. "Not for glory or honor, but for a reason. I guess I'd always believed that, since I had to die, it would be in some great task. I'd have gladly sacrificed myself for my uncle, for my brother, for any other of my kin or friends… or in the defense of those who could not protect themselves. But that Kíli and Thorin died in my place…" His voice trailed off, and he hung his head.

"That is why you left Erebor, then?" asked Legolas. "Why you refused to return? Because you felt that you failed them?"

At first, Fíli thought to deny the accusation; but he instead nodded slightly in both defeat and the desire to not explain the other reason he had left. "I don't want to die," he said. "Though I know that I am going to, one day—and I am done thinking that I will fall in some great purpose. Really, all I want now is to get home. There are people there that I want to give my goodbyes to, while I still can. But one person, more than any other."

Legolas stared at him curiously.

"My mother," Fíli clarified. "She is waiting for us to return—for me and Kíli and Thorin." His vision began to blur with tears, and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. "And she should at least get to see the last of us, while there is still a chance."

Their gazes locked, and it seemed to Fíli that a look of understanding had risen into the Elf's eyes.

"I have long known that Dwarves are quick to love," said Legolas, "but I never before thought about why that might be. They... you form bonds in months, weeks... days. Far too hastily, I always believed. For my people, it usually takes much longer to build a friendship."

"Because you feel that you have all the time in the world?" asked Fíli, giving him a weak smile. "Bit of a shock finding out that isn't always the case, isn't it?"

Legolas let out what might have been a sigh. "Once, I did not believe that my kind could die," he said somberly. "When I was young, and did not know so much of the world. Death was a thing foreign and strange, and out of our reach—spoken about seldom, and only in regards to others. Our lifetimes were not meant to end…"

"But still, you are given a lifetime," said Fili gently. "And I suppose we all can say that we have had one of those. Some shorter than others; some better, some worse… some wasted, and some worthwhile… but all lifetimes nonetheless."

Legolas bowed his head; and when he turned again to the Dwarf, his expression was one of resignation. "Do you truly wish to learn what became of Tauriel?"

"Only if you wish to tell," replied Fíli. "Though, for your sake, I would be content if you only told me of how you came to give to me the rune-stone, and where it is now."

"The two tales are entwined—and together, they will take a long telling." 

"Well, we may not have a lifetime for that, but we at least have all night," said Fíli, squinting at the dreary trees above them. "And I do not feel that I will be sleeping for many hours."

There was a long pause before Legolas again spoke up. "Though one event does lead into another, there is a place where I think I can start easily enough from," he said. "That place being Ravenhill."

"Ravenhill?" asked Fíli, remembering only then that Legolas had defended the old Dwarven guard-post in the Battle. "When Tauriel came to me and my brother on the field, it was when your father was fighting by our side. She said that you were at Ravenhill, and that you were asking for him. Before he left to meet you, he asked if you were well. He seemed worried."

A crease formed between Legolas's eyebrows. "It was some time later that Tauriel joined us there," he said slowly, as if the words did not seem quite right to his own ears. "She told us that there were Dwarves within Erebor, and that they were in danger. She had come seeking Lord Dáin, who she felt might know the tunnels of your kin well enough to mount a defense—but he and his garrison were at the time in a clash against the goblin forces swarming over the Ridge." He looked down at his open palms. "Tauriel asked, then, if I and my father might come to the Dwarves' aid in Dáin's stead." 

"And did you go?" Fíli urged.

The Elf's eyes flashed brighter as they shifted in the wavering light. "I alone returned with her to the Gate," he said. "And when we arrived there, we found a number of slain Dwarves."

A lump formed in Fíli's throat, and the pain in his chest began anew. "Were any of my Company among them?" he asked, fearing still for Nori and Ori.

"None that I saw," said the Elf. "Though I'm afraid could not take the time to check them, so I cannot be certain. We moved then deeper into the Mountain, and there we found a great many orcs trying to break into a chamber. We did not know what was within, though that they were unable to enter suggested that it was being barricaded from the other side. We took the orcs by surprise, and were able to kill most of them in short time. Most, though not all."

"Bolg?" asked Fíli, biting down against the pain behind his ribs.

Legolas gave him a quick nod. "He and some of of his followers fled into the tunnels when we arrived. The orcs he left behind were easily dealt with, and when they were all dead we discovered that the chamber was an armory. A group of Dwarves had locked themselves within, seeking to keep the weapons of your people away from the enemy."

Fíli glanced down to where his square-pommelled sword rested on the ground beside him—a Dwarvish weapon that had found its way into a goblin's possession, but which a Dwarf had subsequently reclaimed. He said nothing about it, though; instead encouraging Legolas with a tilt of his head to continue the story.

"Some of the Dwarves in the armory were themselves close to death," the Elf went on, "and Tauriel stayed to tend to them while I set about hunting down Bolg and his guard."

"That was when you killed him, then?"

Legolas shook his head. "Unfortunately, an Elf's mind is more easily confused in the winding stone tunnels of the Dwarves than in the open forest or plains," he said. "I tried to track them down, but it came to nothing. I returned then to the armory." He looked deep into the fire. "I am afraid that Bolg and his followers had found their way back there before I did. Tauriel was badly wounded, but fighting still; and most of the orcs lay dead before her—Bolg being the sole exception."

Between them, Nár let out a little whine; and a moment later a pain hit Fíli behind his eyes.

"And what of the Dwarves that were there with her?" he asked, wincing.

"She had done what she could to protect them, but none still lived," said Legolas. "She had wisely kept Bolg's back to the door, however, and he did not see when I arrived. And so I—"

"And you cut his throat?" Fíli interrupted.

"It was not so simple as that; but, with Tauriel's aid, that was how the fight ended. I then helped her back to the Gate, and there we found that Beorn had arrived with Thorin, and was watching over him."

Fíli's heart sank. "Did my uncle say anything to you?"

"He was not conscious," said Legolas; and when Nár began to whimper he regarded her briefly before returning his attention to the Dwarf. "He was heavily injured and barely breathing, and I did not believe he would awaken at all."

A sick feeling rose up in Fíli's stomach, and he briefly considered asking Legolas to stop speaking, so to give him a chance to gather his thoughts; but he was, by this point, almost desperate to hear more. 

"What then?" he asked, frowning. "What did you do?"

"Tauriel, wounded as she was, wished to stay and see to Thorin's care. And so I left them there, knowing that Beorn would be certain to guard the Gate, and that no further harm would come to them. I returned then to Ravenhill, seeking out Lord Dáin. I told him of what had happened to Thorin, and asked that he return with me to—"

He stopped, his sight falling on Fíli's lap; and when the Dwarf looked down, he discovered that his right hand was shaking. He doubled his fist, but his hand would not be stilled, and from the corner of his eye he saw Legolas rest his own touch on his satchel where it sat on the ground beside him.

"And did he return with you?" asked Fíli quickly. 

"Yes," said Legolas. "As did my father. But we were… delayed. By the time we got there word had spread that there was safety now to be found within the Mountain, and many wounded had flooded into the Gate."

"Yet… you told me just the other day there was no safety in the Mountain," said Fíli, somewhat confused. "So, what was it, then? Was it safe there, or was it not?"

"There was safety there from the enemy, but none there yet from death," said Legolas. "Many… most of the people who sought refuge in your halls at that early hour still succumbed to their wounds, as there were not yet many healers amongst them."

"And what of Tauriel?"

Legolas shifted a bit where he sat. "She was not there," he said. "I asked around, but none of the other survivors there were able to recall seeing her leave, and Beorn was of no kind to speak at the time. Thorin had by then awakened, but all he could say clearly was that his nephews… that you and your brother had fallen."

Fíli's stomach churned again as he thought of his uncle lying within the shattered Gate, bleeding on the inside and barely lucid. "Did you believe that she had heard his words and had come looking for us?" he asked, grimacing. "If she did, she never found us."

Legolas opened his mouth, then shut it again as if he had thought better of what he was going to say. "She would not have forsaken Thorin's healing, even in the midst of her own grief. It was more likely that she had gone to seek out herbs, bandages, or clean water—none of which was to be found within the Mountain, and all of which would have been desperately needed."

"I could not imagine how far she must have needed to go to find them," said Fíli, his voice uneven.

"Not long after, the Eagles showed and the Battle turned. Lord Dáin then rejoined the fight—though he chose to remain near the Gate, so to protect those seeking refuge inside. Healers soon began to arrive, and my father took it upon himself to guide them and set their tasks. He asked me to stay, but I would not."

"So you went out to find Tauriel, then?"

"I did."

"And what of the old Lake-woman that I saw you with on the battlefield? I thought her an odd companion for you."

"She happened into my company when I killed a warg that was pursuing her; and she told me that she had come from the shore with the news that the survivors there had been attacked by a band of goblins. She feared that another attack on the camp would come, and so asked that I return with her there, to see to the safety of her people."

"I suppose that you did go with her," said the Dwarf, rubbing his dampening brow with his still-shaking hand. "To help where you could, while you could?"

Legolas pulled his satchel up onto his lap. "Even with my thoughts on finding Tauriel, I could not ignore the Woman's pleas," he said. "And although I told her that I would take her first to the Gate for her own protection, she refused. She demanded that she be allowed to return with me to the Lake, and her determination was such that I did not deny her that—though I did insist that she don the cuirass that I myself had been wearing, as she was far more likely to come to danger than I was."

"I had been wondering about that," said Fíli. "The chest-piece was… well, it did not fit her, really. I was concerned that she had been attacked, since there was a deep cut in it."

"You needn't have worried so. The gash had come when I was wearing it, courtesy of Bolg in our final confrontation."

Fíli's mouth fell open as he considered how Legolas himself might not have survived the Battle, had the orc's blade not been blocked by a simple leather shirt; but he chose not to mention that chance aloud, and instead shifted the subject back. 

"And I imagine it was when you were on your way to the Lake that you found me and my brother," he said; then a realization came over him and he looked suddenly up at the Elf. "Thorin had by then told you that we had fallen… you already thought us to be dead, and yet you still stopped to check on us?"

"Yes," said Legolas, his downcast eyes glinting in the faint light. "And you were not wrong about my own hands being the better ones to search for signs of life in you. But at that moment I had my mind on other concerns, and I believed that you had been dead already for a long while."

"But still you stopped. No others did so, save my own kin."

After a long moment of peering into the flames, Legolas went on. "When we arrived at the Lake, we found that the camp had, indeed, been attacked again," he said. "The refugees had managed to defend themselves to a point, though a number of them were injured and several of them had died. For the survivors' safety, I led them back to the Gate, and we arrived there just before a rain began to fall, some few hours before dawn."

Fíli felt his gut twist more as he thought back to the young girl who had run so happily into the old Man's arms, and how soon that happiness had been dashed when he had fallen dead before her. She had likely been one of the people that Legolas had led back, and the old Man must have been one of those who had marched on the Mountain.

Bard's children must have also been amongst those that the Elf had brought to the Gate, then; and Fíli's heart ached as he recalled the cracking in Sigrid's voice when she had told him of the attack on the shore. That she and her brother and sister had managed to live through both the dragonfire and the orcs that followed was a stroke of great luck. Or, he thought, perhaps it was less luck and more preparation; as it was certain that the children's father must have long ago begun teaching them how to survive.

He lifted his hand again to the back of his head and pressed his fingertips to his scar there. "The camp was set up at the Gate by then, I suppose?" he said, trying to chase away the recollections. "I got there not long after the rain ended, myself. But… well, I have to wonder—though it may not be my place to ask, Legolas—why you did not let your father know you had returned by then."

Legolas turned swiftly to Fíli. "How did you know that we hadn't spoken?"

"I overheard him talking with Bard and two of my kin. It was asked of him if he had heard any word of you, though he did not answer. I took his silence to mean that he hadn't."

"At that point, I had not met up again with him," admitted the Elf. "But only because I was still otherwise occupied."

"Still looking for Tauriel?" asked Fíli, though he already knew the answer.

"I searched for her… but she was not to be found in any of the tents in the field camp."

Fíli motioned towards the runes in the dirt. "I assume you must have found her at some point, though," he said. "Since she asked for you to give me the stone."

"I did find her, yes, but not until after the sun had risen," said Legolas, tightening his grip on the satchel that still rested on his lap. "She was wounded… worse, even, than when I'd left her at the Gate. But she would not allow herself to be healed."

"Why not?" asked Fíli breathlessly.

"She would not say. And all that Lord Balin could tell me was that she had been falling over and over into a deep sleep, and in that sleep speaking words that he did not understand."

Fíli leaned forward, narrowing his eyes. "How would Balin have known that?"

"Because it was in his tent that I found her."

Chapter Text

Fíli stared at the Elf for a long and silent moment. "Why was she there?" he asked at last. "Why did she not go the healing-tents of your own people?"

"Because she did not wish to," said Legolas. "And by the word of several of your kin regarding her actions in Esgaroth and on the field, Lord Balin gave his leave for her to remain in his tent—and for me, also, to stay by her side."

"That was how you came to learn so much from Balin, then?" asked Fíli. "About who was at the funeral, about the… about what was to be carved on my tomb? About how my uncle called for Bilbo before dying?" His throat began to sting once more. "I thought it strange that he would have told you so much, but I suppose it was not so strange, after all."

Legolas shook his head slightly. "Lord Balin and I spoke only rarely," he said. "Most of what I learned I had… overheard when he was speaking with others."

"Were there injured Dwarves in the tent, as well?"

"There were, yes; but a partition had been set up between them and Tauriel. I am afraid that I can only say with any certainty that there were four Dwarves being healed there, and two aiding in their healing. One of those tending to the wounded was an elder of your kin who had been at Lord Bard's home when the orcs—"

"Óin?" asked Fíli hopefully, cutting him off.

"I did hear that name spoken in address; though whether it was to him or not, I do not know."

"And... were any other names said? Recognized or not? Your hearing, I am sure, is more than keen enough to have picked up on them; and your memory strong enough to recall."

"Most words in the tent were whispered, and very often in your own language. But truthfully, little was said aloud at all. I had begun to wonder how your people might have communicated their needs in such silence—but I saw then that there was also a clever use of gestures."

Fíli nodded; then he lifted his shaking hand and drew it across his mouth before holding his palm up towards Legolas. "It's called iglishmêk," he said, lowering his arm once more. "It's a hand-language. It was meant originally for use in the forges and mines, where words spoken aloud might get lost in the din; but we use it also in healing-houses, so not to unnecessarily disturb the wounded… and so not to worry them, if the news is dire."

"So I assumed," said Legolas. "The other Dwarf aiding in the healing of your fellows was another member of your company. I do not know him by name, but he almost constantly wore a ragged hat."

"Bofur," said Fíli. "I knew already that he still lived. I saw him on the field after the Battle."

Legolas let out a little hum of understanding. "Lord Balin, at one point, asked someone if they might deliver some news to his brother at one of the pyres; so if he, too, was a member of your company, then—"

"He is," said Fíli quickly in his relief. "His name is Dwalin."

"Beyond that," Legolas went on, "I am sorry, but I do not know who was hurt, who was well, and who was not at all to be found."

The ache in Fíli's chest began to grow again, though this time it was duller than before, and he turned his eyes towards the darkened trees. He was gladdened, at least, to have learned that Óin and Dwalin had made it to the end of the Battle; but still, that meant that he could only be certain that five members of his company still lived—or six, if he counted himself. Clearing his throat, he forced his gaze back to Legolas.

"I've been meaning to ask you," said the Dwarf. "Did they say what they thought happened to my… that is, why I was not found on the battlefield?"

"Only that they feared your body might have been dragged off by a scavenging warg."

Fíli bit down on his tongue and glanced at Nár. "There was a warg that neared to me and my brother after the end of the Battle," he said. "And I think that it would have dragged me or Kíli off, one or the other, had I not killed it first."

Legolas's eyes searched the darkness beyond the fire for a few seconds. ”It was only after Thorin's body was removed to the bier-tent that Tauriel would let anyone tend to her," he said, returning to his original subject. "And even then she chose your… Óin, rather than sending for a healer from amongst the Elves."

"That doesn't make sense," said Fíli, his head swimming. "Óin is… really, he is a great healer… but he knows little about Elves. Surely Tauriel must have understood that."

Nár began to whine, and Legolas regarded the animal with interest before turning again to Fíli. "I believe she did understand that," he said softly. "Your kinsman told her as much, himself—that all he could offer her was comfort, and some small relief from the pain. He asked many times if he might bring someone else in to help, but she would not allow it. Nor would she let even me treat her wounds, and I could not do so against her wishes."

Fíli closed his eyes. "Because you…" he whispered, remembering Sigrid's words from when he himself had refused a more qualified healer. "Because you never do anything to the wounded that they do not want done…"

For over a minute, all was silent, save the crackling of the fire; then Fíli opened his eyes and saw that Legolas had his face turned towards the trees. The Elf looked suddenly back to him, as if he had been caught doing something he shouldn't have; then he began to speak again, as if there had been no pause or interruption in his tale.

"When I had joined Tauriel in Lord Balin's tent, I had asked that my father be told of where I was; and yet, he did not come to speak to me there until the morning of the funeral of your kin. He insisted that I attend, but I refused, choosing instead to stay with Tauriel."

"And for that I do not blame you," said Fíli downheartedly. "It's all fair and good to pay respects to someone after they've died; but it is more important, I think, to spend time and to speak with them while they still live."

The wolf let out a quick bark, and wave of dizziness at once struck Fíli. A small moan escaped his lips, and he shut his eyes against the deepening ache behind them; then he felt a touch on his arm, and he forced himself to look at the Elf.

"You do not seem well," said Legolas, lifting his hand away. "Perhaps we should not be speaking of this right now."

"But we are speaking, which we have done seldom enough," returned Fíli. "So go on, then, while you still have someone to speak to."

Legolas sat back. "And if you falter?" he asked. "If you forget everything that we have spoken about? What use would it have done telling you, at all?"

The Dwarf thought for a moment, then he tilted his head toward the open satchel on Legolas's lap. "I think, then, that it might do me well if you were to lend me your ointment. Just for a while, so I might keep my senses. I have my own bundle of kingsfoil, but dried it seems to be far less potent."

"Kingsfoil?" asked Legolas; then he noticed where Fíli's focus was and he pulled the ointment out of his bag. "It is called asëa aranion," he said, holding out the jar. "Or athelas."

Fíli offered him a small nod, remembering that Tauriel had called the herb athelas, as well—but it was the name asëa aranion that rose clearer in his thoughts. "King's-leaf, then," he translated, to his own surprise; then he took the jar and opened it, relaxing his shoulders slightly when the fine scent rose up. "I knew it helped in treating headaches and bringing down fevers, but before Tauriel used it on my brother's leg, I did not know that it was good for much else."

"I did not know that Dwarves knew of any of its virtues. I did smell it in Lord Balin's tent, and your kinsman made use of it when treating Tauriel—but I thought that both instances had been at the urging of my people."

"We have always used it, and never at an Elf's behest." Fíli lifted the jar and breathed in deeply, enjoying the rush of warm energy it sent through his body. "The Men of the Lake seem to find it of little worth, however. Bard called it a weed and said that they feed it to their pigs."

An almost horrified expression crossed Legolas's face. "Athelas is rare," he said. "It grows only in the wild and will not allow itself to be cultivated; it should not be used for such… common purposes."

"I imagine that the pigs of Laketown were quite healthy, anyway," said Fíli; then he looked down into the jar and saw how little was actually left inside. "Have you wasted most of your ointment on my arm?"

"It has not been wasted if it has been of good use."

"Still, what if it is needed later?"

"For what greater purpose do you believe it should have been saved?" asked Legolas. "Without the athelas, your fingers might well have been lost, and an infection would have been a certainty. Calling its use a waste in such circumstances would be akin to calling it wasting food if you ate while you were starving."

The corner of Fíli's mouth turned up in a frail smile. "Not so long ago, I did call it that," he said. "And I was." 

Legolas lowered his head almost guiltily, as if he hadn't until that point realized how hungry the Dwarf had gone in his earlier days in the Wood. The Elf then closed his satchel and set it on the ground before turning again to Fíli. "After the funeral, an angry Iron Hills Dwarf came to Lord Balin's tent," he said, possibly eager to shift the subject back. "He claimed that for days he had been seeking the person who had disturbed your kin's bodies where they had been resting, and that he would not end his search until the intruder revealed himself."

Fíli's cheeks warmed, but he said nothing.

"I asked him the details of what had happened," continued Legolas. "He said that Lord Bard's daughter had alerted him to a warg in the tunnels, and that when he had returned to his charge after a fruitless search, your brother and uncle had been uncovered, and the Arkenstone's chest had been shifted. I told him that I knew nothing of it and he left; but Tauriel had heard his words, and she asked that I learn all I could about the incident. And so I left her in your kinsman's care and went to Lord Bard's tent, with the intention of asking his daughter if she had seen anything."

"Did Sigrid tell you about me, then?" asked Fíli, feeling it was useless now to deny that the young Woman had helped him.

"To her credit, she did not. And though her family was also present, she took it upon herself to ask me to leave."

Fíli let out a quick breath through his nose. "And Bard said nothing?"

"In fact, it was he who actually led me outside. It mattered little, though, as I had already seen traces of coarse, light hair in the dirt inside the tent."

Setting the ointment jar on the ground, Fíli ran his fingers over his trimmed mustache, then felt along the shortened hair on the back of his head. "Not much to go by."

"But enough to start with," said Legolas. "Once outside, I searched the ground. The weather had been clear since the night of the Battle, and in the dried mud I saw the tracks of heavy boots leading behind the tent, then back around to the front."

Fíli cleared his throat. "I'm sure you didn't recognize me by my footprints, no matter how fair a tracker you are."

"No, but when when I followed them behind the tent, I found pieces of armor such as I remembered you wearing on the field." Legolas's already-bright eyes seemed to lighten even further as he leaned towards the fire. "There was also a large boulder there, and on it was a staining of dried blood where a Dwarf's head might have rested, if he had been sitting on the ground."

"You knew about the wound even then?" asked Fíli, reaching up again to the back of his head.

"I knew only that you had blood in your hair, as I had seen it when I believed you to be dead," said Legolas; then he paused as he seemed to be gathering his thoughts. "I returned to Tauriel to tell her what I had learned. She then passed to me the stone, and asked that I seek you out and give it to you. I asked her what it was, what its purpose might be—but she only called it a token of a promise. Beyond that, she never told me why it was so important that it be given to you, or where she thought you might have gone."

"Was Balin there when you spoke of me?" asked Fíli anxiously, avoiding the more difficult question of where Tauriel had gotten the stone, in the first place. "Did he overhear what she had said?"

"He was not there at the time, nor were either of the Dwarves that had been healing the wounded," replied Legolas. "And Tauriel asked that I not mention to them any of what we had spoken about."

Fíli's eyelids grew inexplicably heavy, and he put his hand to the renewed pressure in his chest. "So much of what you are telling me makes no sense," he said through his teeth. "Why would she not have wanted you to tell my kin that I was alive? Was it because she was uncertain? So not to get their hopes up if it wasn't true?"

"I don't know," confessed Legolas; and for a few seconds he said nothing else, but stared into the fire without blinking. "It made little sense to me, either, and so I did not leave then and there. Several days passed, and still I was by her side—and still she asked me to find you and to give you the stone. At last she told me that if I would not bring it to you, she would forsake her healing and go to find you, herself."

"And so you left? How did you decide on the course?"

"By luck or by chance. I set out westward on a borrowed horse, and when I reached the edge of the Wood I saw the remains of a fire, as well as bootprints leading onto the trailhead."

"Did you find goat-prints, as well?" asked Fíli, casting his sight on the coiled rope where he had earlier hung it on the low branch of a tree. "I mean… well, I cannot remember, really, but I am sure that I had come across one, and had ridden it to the Forest. I don't think I could have gotten so far as I did, so fast, if I had not had a mount."

"There were goat-tracks, yes," said the Elf. "But they did not enter Mirkwood. Chances are that the animal feared to go under the trees, just as my borrowed horse did, and that you had then sent it on its way."

Fíli shook his head. "I'm certain it came further with me. I saw its prints on the dirt, well within the Forest."

"You must have been mistaken," Legolas told him, furrowing his brow. "You may have seen the tracks of another animal and only believed that they had been made by a goat."

"Well, I… maybe," said Fíli defeatedly. "It was dark, and the tracks were unclear… and, though I cannot be sure, I believed them to be split-hoofed."

"It could have been a deer, then," said Legolas; then he returned to his previous subject. "I entered the Forest at the trailhead, and a short distance along, I found your hand-axe—though I did not know that it was yours, at the time."

Fíli looked to where the axe rested on his pack. "I suppose I must have dropped it without noticing," he said. "In a stumble, maybe, or when I was distracted."

"Perhaps," said Legolas. "In either case, I did not wish to leave it there, and so I brought it with me as I went along. At length, I came to another campsite, and there found drops of blood on the path—and a dead, weaponless goblin under the trees."

A flash of memory made Fíli flinch, and he motioned towards the Dwarvish sword beside him. "He had a weapon," he said, lifting the edge of his shirt to reveal the healed slice under his ribs. "I took it from him after he died."

Legolas studied the scar for a moment. "I thought you might have," he said as Fíli lowered his shirt. "But though there were many stab-wounds on the body, and its head and arm had been severed, I saw that it was not a blade that slew the goblin."

Shaking his head again, Fíli was nearly overcome by a wave of vertigo and he tilted to the side. "No, it wasn't," he said, righting himself. "That is why I felt that the goat must have come with me into the Wood—I remembered hearing it running, and I am certain it was a kick to the skull that killed the goblin."

"As I said, there are deer to be found in the Forest," Legolas told him. "Most of them are quite elusive, and the stags are territorial. You are lucky that it did not choose to attack you, as well."

"So I owe my life to a Forest deer that liked me just slightly more than it did a goblin," said Fíli with weak humor; then he curled his quivering fingers into a fist and pounded it softly against his leg. "Well, what then happened? You went on looking for me?"

"I did," replied Legolas. "But it was not long before I came upon Nár." Beside him, the wolf lifted her head, then settled it down again on her paws. "She told me that she had, in fact, seen a Dwarf; but that you had seemed harmless, so she had ignored you in favor of seeking out and chasing off any more goblins that might have entered the Forest. Still, she came with me, and we eventually found you some miles along, staring into a nearly-dead fire."

Fíli straightened his unsteady hand and rubbed his palm against his trouser leg. "I don't remember that," he said. "I suppose, then, that I must have been sleeping."

"Yes," said Legolas. "And though I understand that now, I was not aware of it at the time. You did not seem more than a little surprised to see me, but I supposed then that you were being dismissive and distant. I spoke to you… I asked you how you still lived, but you did not answer me—except to say that you were healing, and to ask where I had been. I gave you the rune-stone and told you that it was from Tauriel; but you simply looked it over, then told me that you wanted nothing to do with it—and to burn it, even, if that was my wish."

Fíli squeezed his eyes shut and saw a flash like lighting in the darkness; then he opened his eyes again, trying his best to focus on Legolas's face as it wavered slightly before him. "I did not hear you," he said. "But I remember... I had been dreaming of the Battle… of the end of the Battle. I had heard your voice, but when I looked, it was your father that I saw—and Tauriel with him… and it… it was not the rune-stone that I believed had been given to me."

Without warning, a pain cut through his chest; and he grimaced as he reached to the side, groping blindly for the kingsfoil. From the edge of his vision, he saw Legolas move closer, then the Elf picked up the ointment and pressed it into his palm.

"I would not have turned it away, Legolas…" the Dwarf said, taking in a deep breath of the kingsfoil before continuing. "Ever, if I had been in my right mind. The stone was not worth much... anything, really... but it was dear to my brother… and to our mother. She had given it to him before we left… to remind him of his promise to be safe, to come home…"

Puzzlement moved across Legolas's face, then a realization rose into his eyes and he looked toward the runes carved in the dirt. "Return to me…" he said, translating them. "I misunderstood what she…"

The words died on his lips, and Fíli wondered at how Legolas knew the runes' meaning—but it was only a few seconds before a larger concern edged that question out of his mind. 

"You thought that it was a message for me?" asked the Dwarf; then he let out an exasperated breath as some of what the Elf had said to him over the preceding days at last began to make some sense. "That Tauriel was making a plea for my return?"

Legolas frowned deeply. "When Tauriel called it a token of a promise…" he said. "I can only imagine now that she knew of its worth to your brother and your mother, and so to you." 

"Truthfully, I thought the stone had been lost on the battlefield," said Fíli, his voice cracking. "I don't know how Tauriel came by it, unless she found it after the Battle, or…" Heat grew suddenly at the back of his head, silencing him; and he again lifted the kingsfoil to breathe it in—though the scent now seemed to be doing little to help.

"If I had known that you were sleeping when I first found you in the Wood, I would have waited until you were more aware," said Legolas, his eyes downcast. "But when you turned the rune-stone away so harshly, I thought that whatever had passed between you and Tauriel had been bitter; and I was angered by the cavalier way you had spoken of what I had believed was a gift from her to you. So I took the stone back and left you there, though Nár insisted on staying near to you."

Fíli gently rubbed the wolf's neck before pulling his touch away from the healing gash there. "So the bird was your idea, then?" he asked the animal; then he looked again at Legolas. "And I guess I was also right about you not being so kind to me at the time. I don't think I would have been, either."

"In honesty, at that moment I did not care if…"

A sudden ringing in Fíli's ears blocked out the sound of Legolas's voice; then the ringing ended, replaced by a deep quiet. Brief dizziness followed—and though he watched the Elf's mouth continue to move, for a few more seconds he could not hear what he was saying.

"…and I had asked the horse not to wander off," Legolas's voice finally faded into clarity once more, "so I found it still at the edge of the Forest. And as I rode back to Erebor, I was determined that I would not tell Tauriel that you had refused the stone until she was more healed—but neither did I want to lie to her and say that I hadn't found you, or that I had found you dead."

"What did you tell her, then?" asked Fíli, well aware that his own words had begun to slur.

"I told her nothing," said Legolas, almost in a whisper; then he opened his mouth as if to continue, but instead hung his head and turned away.

Chapter Text

The ointment nearly fell from Fíli’s shaky grip, and so he set it on the ground beside his pack. "Tauriel died while you were gone, then?" he asked. "While you were off searching for me?"

Legolas gave him a small nod. "Had I known that she was so badly wounded, I would not have left her," he said softly. "But she hid the pain well. She hid the truth well… even from me."

The implication of the Elf's words at once struck Fíli, and again his ears began to ring and his chest to ache. "Do you believe that she knew that she would not recover?" he asked. "Do you think that she sent you after me so that you would not have to be there when… when it happened? So that you would not have to see?"

"I do not know," said Legolas. "But when I left to find you, Tauriel's parting words to me were that I needn’t fear for her, that no harm would come to her in Erebor… that she would be safe there." He drew in a deep breath. "Perhaps she also believed that death is safe…"

Fíli's heart sank. "I'm sorry, Legolas," he said, barely able to speak past the burning in his throat. "I didn't mean to—"

He was silenced by a sudden cough, and lights danced before his eyes as his stomach began to churn. Beside him, Nár whined, then she quickly stood and moved to the center of the trail, where she set about walking in slow circles. After watching her for a few seconds, Fíli looked again to Legolas, and he saw that his attention was on the animal, as well.

"We will speak no more of this right now," said the Elf. "Already, we may have gone on for too long."

Fíli cleared his throat, trying to force down the nausea. "Even if we do stop speaking, I will still be thinking about everything that you have told me. There cannot now be much left to say… can you not at least finish the tale?"

"I could, yes; but if you do not rest, you may not remember any of it."

"What would you suggest I do, then?" asked Fíli, slumping his shoulders. "I cannot sleep now, after all that I have already learned."

Legolas looked down at his open palms. "I could help you," he said. "If you do not object."

"Help me to what? To sleep?"

"Perhaps. Or at least to clear your mind."

From the corner of his eye, Fíli saw the wolf stop walking around; then he watched on directly as she laid down on the trail and raised her bushy brows at him. 

"How?" he asked, turning again to Legolas.

"With words. And touch also, if you will allow."

Fíli pursed his lips and placed his palm on the unfurled bedroll below him. Over the past week, he had learned quite well that once the Elf got it into his head that something must be done, there was no way of convincing him otherwise. And really, Legolas was not wrong about him needing a rest, as Fíli himself by now very much recognized the signs of a falter. So what harm could it do, he wondered, to let the subject go for just a while? What danger would there be in allowing Legolas to help him steady his thoughts?

"Fine, then," he said, moving the axe off of his pack. "But promise me, at least, that you will go on with the tale when I am rested and my head is clear."

Legolas nodded in agreement, and Fíli pulled the pack onto his blanket, so to make of it a pillow; then he laid down and folded his hands on his chest as the Elf kneeled beside him. Even as Fíli shut his eyes, a gentle touch fell on his brow, then Legolas's soft fingertips brushed over his closed lids—and although his head and body still ached and his stomach still turned, his trembling hands stilled and the ringing in his ears at once ceased.

Before long, the Elf started to speak in his foreign tongue; but soon his calming words began echoing and repeating in other, unfamiliar voices. Fíli wondered wryly if the trees were joining in, but the wondering was quickly replaced by the odd realization that he was not only hearing the words, but feeling them, above and around and within him. In short time, the voices blended into a harmony—a chorus without a tune, chanting invocations and incantations in a language that he did not know, yet somehow understood.

'Rest…' they said, Legolas's voice the clearest amongst them. 'Find a quiet place in your mind…'

Fíli did as they told him, seeking a corner deep within himself to hide; and while the voices went on, Legolas's touch grew heavier and warmer as it moved around his face and head and neck. His stomach gradually settled and his pain melted away, and it seemed then that the blanket rose into the air, and that he was being rocked like a child in a cradle.

'Sleep now…'

His thoughts began to dash and slip away. But though he was vaguely aware that he was simply drifting off, still he felt that if he let go he would forget all that he had learned of the rune-stone, of the Battle, of Tauriel, of himself; and so he clung to those thoughts, even as they tried to flee.

'Be calm… be still…'

The words were soothing, but Fíli did not want to risk losing his memories again, and in his mind he began clawing his way out of the haze. He jerked his head to the side, gasping as if he had just surfaced after a deep plunge; and again, he felt the hard ground beneath him. Though his eyes were still shut, he reached up and took hold of Legolas's wrist, squeezing it as tightly as he was able and pushing the soft touch off of his brow.

'You do not need to be afraid—'

"I am not afraid," said Fíli, cutting off the voices; then he forced his eyes open and saw that the Elf was frowning down at him in what seemed to be confusion. "I just... I don't want to forget, Legolas… promise me that if you do this, I won't forget."

The puzzlement in the Elven prince's eyes faded then to sympathy. "I cannot promise that," he said, his voice once again alone, and his language no longer foreign. "But if we go on speaking as we have, I believe that you will falter, and you will forget." 

Fíli released his arm and rolled to the side, facing the fire. "Then we will not go on speaking, and I will try to rest on my own. Your words are comforting, Legolas… but I feel that if I keep listening to them, I will fall into too deep a sleep, and lose every memory from the last few hours… or days. It has happened before, and I do not wish for it to happen even one more time."

"How often has it happened before?" pressed Legolas.

"Twice, for certain, since I have been in the Forest," admitted Fíli without hesitation. "Maybe more. I cannot count the days here, and before you and Nár came along, they were all the same."

"Then how can you be sure that you will not forget now, even without my interference?"

Fíli reached out and grabbed the water-skin that Legolas had earlier filled, then he started to push himself to sitting; and though he was having no troubles doing so, still the Elf took hold of his arm and eased him up. 

"I cannot be sure," said the Dwarf, uncorking the skin as Legolas moved back to his own place by the fire. "But there is… something in your words that worries me." He took a quick drink, eyeing the tree-roots that were stretched across the path. "Well… maybe not your words, but the others'…"

"What others?" asked Legolas.

Fíli waved the water-skin toward the hidden sky. "I don't know," he said. "The others. They spoke with you just now, said the same things in your language… but they were strange to me, unfamiliar. Did you not hear them?"

Legolas's eyes widened a touch. "I heard them…" he said, turning his face to the gnarled branches. "But you should not have."

A shudder went through Fíli's body as he, too, glanced at the glowering trees around them; then he let out a heavy sigh and re-corked the skin, setting it back down beside his pack. Reaching to the side, he took hold of the ointment that he had left on the dirt; then he brought the jar to his face and breathed in deeply, and immediately his lungs warmed and his senses brightened.

He shifted his attention to the runes he had earlier carved in the ground, and he was suddenly certain that he would not now falter if the story were to be finished. But when he turned to tell the Elf as much, he saw that Legolas was staring intently into the woods on the far side of the path. His brow was deeply furrowed and his jaw was set, and his right hand was curled into a fist on his knee; and so Fíli again looked to the campfire—but before he could focus on the flames, Legolas spoke up.

"Pedig edhellen?" he asked. … Do you speak Elvish?…

Shocked by his own understanding, Fíli did not immediately answer; then he shook his head defeatedly. "No," he said. "My uncle would never have allowed it."

"Yet you know what I asked of you just now," said Legolas, facing him. "You knew of asëa aranion, you knew when I told you not to be afraid." 

"And I cannot explain that," said Fíli, his hold on the ointment jar tightening. "But though I knew what you said, I myself could not speak the words. And I have never before understood your language. I don't know if that makes any sense to you. It makes none to me."

Legolas tilted his chin up. "Might there be a chance that you learned some of the Elf-tongue when you were younger, from the neighboring Elves in Ered Luin?" he suggested. "Accidental lessons—words repeated often when you were near, unraveled through use, and forgotten until now?"

"The Elves of the Blue Mountains never spoke their language to us, or around us," said Fíli. "And if that were the case, I might also have understood those who spoke in Rivendell, or in Mirkwood the first time through… or from Tauriel's mouth when she was healing my brother. But really, you are the only Elf I have spoken to recently, and it is only you that I have understood—so perhaps it has more to do with you than it does with me."

An almost-offended look rose into Legolas's eyes, but he said nothing; and Fíli rotated his sore neck and stretched his stiff shoulders.

"Well, whether because of your words or not, some good has been done, I think," he said. "My mind has cleared somewhat, and I don't believe that I will falter before the night is over. Might you now go on with your story?" He waited for Legolas to reply; then at last he grew impatient and held the jar of kingsfoil out. "I'll not be needing this now, I think."

Legolas tightened his fist for a moment, then he took the jar and re-capped it; and when he slipped it back into his satchel, his hand remained inside as he stared into the emptiness between himself and the fire. Yet still he said nothing, and again Fíli grew weary of the wait.

"You did not stay at the Mountain long after you returned there, I imagine," he said. "Why did you decide to come after me? I am sure that you did not care if I lived or died at that point."

A small sigh escaped the Elf's lips. "I did not come after you," he said, removing his hand from the satchel and again placing a clenched fist on his knee. "I was on my way back through the Forest when Nár came to me."

The wolf raised her head as Legolas spoke her name; then she stood and moved nearer to the fire, where she again laid down between her two companions.

"How did she find you, though?" asked Fíli, looking from the animal to Legolas. "How did she even know that you were back in the Wood?"

"She knew because her senses are much keener than your own. When I returned to Mirkwood after leaving the Mountain, I had for a time stayed on the path, until at last I had nearly caught up to where you were—by that time, very close to the Forest River. I had decided, then, to leave the trail, so to avoid having to go near you; but Nár felt that I was not so far away, and she was able to track me down."

"I guess that must have been when she ran off, then," said Fíli. "While I was trying to find my way across the water."

Legolas nodded. "I told her to be careful around you," he said, his tone changing to one of apology. "I warned her that it might not be wise to trust you. Still, she wished to remain by your side; so I went on my own way, whilst she—"

"While she came back to me at the River," Fíli interrupted, finding it easier now to follow along with the tale. "I remember that. I had heard her whining and stepping on the log where I lay, but I had no want to stay awake by then. I guess that's why she went back to get you again. But still I wonder why you then decided to save me from the water."

"It was for Nár's sake," said Legolas. "She told me that you were in danger, and I did not wish to hurt her by refusing to help. And so I brought you away from the River, then stayed nearby to be sure that you would awaken."

Fíli rubbed the fur on the animal's side. "I owe her much more than I knew, then," he said. "I had thought that you'd come to me on your own, but now it seems that every good thing you did for me so early on was at her urging. Saving me, watching over me, giving me the lembas… and I suppose she asked you to fill my drink-skins, as well, and to return my axe."

"No, she did not," said Legolas; but when Fíli looked to him, he swiftly returned to the previous subject. "When you finally awoke, I thought it odd that you were speaking as if you and I had not seen one another since the Battle… and yet you remembered both the wolf and the River, which were the first things that you should have forgotten, as the Water ever steals the newest memories quickest. I have to confess that I was at a loss as to what was really happening with you."

"So you followed me to find out?" asked Fíli. 

Legolas shook his head. "Despite my curiosity, I still wanted little to do with you," he said. "And so when we parted ways I continued on toward the north-west. Not too far along, however, I came across a small pack of wargs. They proved easy enough for me to handle, but I did not know if there might be any more nearby—so I stayed in the area for a time to rid the Forest of as many as I was able."

Fíli traced his finger along the one of the scars on the wolf's back. "Do you suppose they came in from the west, while your folk were away at the Mountain?"

"Most likely, as they do not normally dare to stray so far into the Wood, for fear of our arrows. Or else, these particular wargs were less familiar with Mirkwood's defenses and did not even consider that there was any danger here for them. In either case, they were many and widely spread as I hunted them down. After two days, I had believed that I'd killed the last of them and was preparing to move on—but I then heard distant howling. One voice I knew to be a warg, and the other I recognized as Nár's… though I had thought it strange, since the two of you should have been much further along by that time."

"Did you overestimate the length of my legs even then?" joked Fíli halfheartedly.

To Fíli's surprise, the Elf cracked a small grin of his own; but it weakened and fell, then he went on. "I feared for her," he said, "and so I came as quickly as I could. I found you then, injured and unconscious, with Nár standing guard over you."

"And did she tell you what had happened?" asked Fíli, running his touch along the barely-healed-over wound on the animal's neck. "About what I had done?"

"She told me that you had killed the warg in her defense, but she could not say why you had fallen afterwards—except that she had felt that something was wrong before you did."

"Those feelings might have had something to do with me trying to chase her off," said Fíli, his cheeks warming. "But I think that maybe she sees more than she says. I've noticed she has odd ways about her when I'm… when I'm not well."

"I would heed those odd ways. You may have a fair amount of disdain for the warg blood she has in her ancestry, but there is great intelligence and awareness that comes with it."

"I am sure of that," said Fíli; and when the wolf then lifted her head and their gazes met, he smiled faintly at her. "I hope she forgives me, anyway, for being a fool. She has been a good friend, and I let her blood blind me to all that she has done for me."

"To her, forgiveness is unnecessary. She knew only that you were frightened and worried, and she would not hold a grudge over such a thing. Or over any thing. Animals often don't, where people would, for far too long." Legolas stiffened a bit and tilted his head, as if mulling over his own words. "In any case, I could not ignore her concern. I checked you over and found no sign of you having bled into unconsciousness, and the only head wound I found was an old one."

Almost on its own, Fíli's hand lifted to the scar that Azog had given him; then he self-consciously lowered his touch to the animal's back as Legolas went on.

"Still, it was at least enough to convince me that Nár might have been right about something being wrong with you. I was then determined to learn the truth of the matter; and when you later forgot not only where you were, but who I was, I could no longer dismiss the wound as simply a glancing blow, such as your halfling friend had received."

"Bilbo was struck on the head?" asked Fíli fearfully.

"Yes," said Legolas. "And for a time he was unconscious, but he was at least able to walk steadily and speak well soon after waking. His kind seem to be hardier than they appear."

Fíli let out a relieved sigh. "He has some luck in him," he said. "Though not quite enough, perhaps. It might have been better if Thorin had given him a helmet instead of a mail shirt, silver-steel or not."

Legolas turned to the Dwarf with sudden interest. "The halfling wore a mithril corslet?"

The question of whether or not he should have brought up the chain-mail at all crossed Fíli's mind; but still, he answered. "It was too small for any Dwarf," he said. "At least, any that was not still a child. I suppose that is why Thorin gave it to Bilbo… he was the only one amongst our Company that it would have had any hope of fitting."

"May I ask what it looked like?"

Fíli shrugged. "I could not see it well, really, but I do remember that it was finely made. The rings were small and linked so tightly that I doubt even the thinnest blade could pass through, and the collar was beaded with pearls and white crystals. Honestly, it was unlike any mail I have ever seen, and it seemed almost more meant for ceremony than for war."

"Was there with it a belt of the same styling as the collar?" asked Legolas eagerly.

The line of questioning struck Fíli odd, but he felt no need now to keep silent on the subject. "I did not see one, though it may likely have been under Bilbo's coat. Or, if not, perhaps it is still somewhere in the Mountain." He lifted an eyebrow at the Elf's brightened expression. "Was the shirt known to you?"

The corner of Legolas's mouth turned up slightly. "Yes," he said. "Although I have only ever had it described to me. It was neither made by nor for any Dwarf, but by the Elves of Eregion for one of their own. It was lost centuries ago on the Pass of Caradhras, however, and I cannot say how it ended up in Erebor."

"It wasn't made for you, by any chance?" asked Fíli, thinking now that the shirt had seemed rather suited to a young Elf-prince. 

"It was not," replied Legolas. "I have told you already that the Elves of that land were not of my kindred. And even so, Eregion fell many years before I was born, and nothing made there would have been meant for me. All the same, I would like to have seen the corslet."

Fíli stared at his wistful eyes for a moment, then moved his attention to the wolf and scratched the fur between her drooping ears. "Perhaps Bilbo will show it to you when next you meet him."

"Perhaps," agreed Legolas.

There was a long pause, and when Fíli again looked to the Elf he saw that he was once more peering deep into the fire, and that his longing expression had been replaced by one of restrained grief. Legolas seemed then to realize that he was being watched, and he shifted a bit where he sat, though he did not turn his eyes from the flames. Fíli regarded him in silence for a time, then lowered his gaze to the Elf's hand, which was still curled into a fist on his leg; and from between his thin fingers, there shown for an instant the flash of firelight reflecting off of metal.

"What have you there?" the Dwarf asked, trying to sound casual.

Legolas turned his face down, then he slowly opened his hand, revealing a length of fine braided silver in his palm. For a moment, he made no other move, then he pinched the end of the chain and held the necklace up before him. Fíli watched without blinking as the firelight dashed off the faceted gem on the simple pendant at the bottom; and though he thought it vaguely familiar to him, he could not even hazard a guess as to where he had seen it before.

"It's lovely," he said; then a rush of heat rose into his chest. "This is not the necklace that Thorin spoke of? The one for which your father would have traded us our freedom?"

"No," replied Legolas. "That was made of adamant and mithril in Eregion several thousands of years ago… while this is simple silver and white beryl, crafted in Mithlond no more than seven hundred years past." He lowered his hand, resting the pendant again in his open palm; then his eyes turned towards the runes in the dirt. "Its value to most would be small, but to some few its worth cannot be measured. It is not mine, nor was it ever meant to be, and I carry it with me only in the hope that I might one day find the family to whom it is now an heirloom—that I might return it to them, and so let them know what fate befell its owner."

As Fíli listened to Legolas's solemn words, his own grief began again to grow; but still, he found himself pulled into the simple beauty of the polished silver as it sat in the Elf's pale hand. Then, at once he recalled where he had seen it before—resting against Tauriel's skin, when she had moved aside while treating Kíli's wound and the collar of her shirt had slightly opened. At the time, Fíli hadn't given the necklace more than half a thought, as his mind had rightfully been on other matters; but now he realized how dear it must have been to her, and how meaningful it was that Legolas had claimed it after her death, with the intention of returning it to her kin.

"I wish you luck, then," said the Dwarf. "It is an honorable thing to do, and I am sure that… that they will appreciate you making the effort."

Unease worked its way across Legolas's face. "Simpler tasks may be performed, and the honor just as great." He shook his head and let out a long breath. "I told you that my father placed Orcrist upon Thorin's tomb, but perhaps I should instead have let you know that I had returned the sword to your uncle whilst he still lived." He glanced at Fíli, then returned his attention to the necklace. "I rested the hilt in his hand as he lay on the stones within the Gate, after he told me that you and your brother had fallen. And though he did not have the strength to lift it, I saw in his eyes that he knew what he held."

Fíli's vision blurred with tears. "I don't understand," he said, his voice cracking. "Why are you telling me this now?" 

Legolas closed his fingers around the necklace. "Because people speak of what is due the dead," he said, sliding his fist into the satchel by his side, "but no less is owed the living." 

He withdrew his hand then, still curled into a fist, and held it out to the Dwarf; and when he unfolded his fingers, there lay Kíli's rune-stone in his open palm. Fíli's throat began to burn, and the tears that had been gathering in his eyes fell down his cheeks; and he cautiously lifted his hand and let his fingertips hover over the stone. 

"Did you fear that I would turn it away again?" he asked, choking on the words.

"I did before, but no longer," confessed Legolas. "I realize now my mistake in taking it back in the first place. Had I thought it through, I would not have done so… and much would have been different."

The ache in Fíli's chest at once returned; but Nár remained lying quietly by his side, and he did not this time fear that the pain was a herald of a falter. He let the tips of his fingers brush against the stone; then he took hold of it and held it up, examining the runes in the flickering firelight, hardly daring to believe that it was really in his hand. 

"Do you think that I will remember this tomorrow?" he asked, wiping the tears from his face with the back of his bandaged hand; then he turned and saw that Legolas had his own hands folded and his head bowed low. "Any of this? All of this? All that you have told me?"

"I cannot say," replied Legolas without looking up. "But if you do not remember, do you wish for me to tell you everything again?"

Fíli ran his thumb across the runes, offering up no answer. Pleased as he was to both have the stone and to have learned of the survival of more of his kin, he was not at all certain if he would have gone on happier without the weight of the story that was now upon him. And by this point he had to admit to himself that he was growing truly tired, and weary of all thought; and as he looked down at his blanket, he yawned deeply.

"Ask me in the morning," he said, laying himself down and resting his head on his pack. "If I do not first ask you how I came to have the rune-stone."

He heard shuffling, and he watched on as the wolf scooted over and curled up by his side. He moved the stone to his weakened left hand, then reached out with his right, moving his touch across her back and up to her neck, stopping just short of her wound. He drew in a long breath and eased his eyes shut, and for a few minutes all was silent, save the crackling of the fire and the panting of the animal beside him—then the Elf spoke up.

"Losto vae," he said, barely aloud. "Abarad."

A faint smile found its way to Fíli's lips. "Good night, Legolas," he returned, clutching the rune-stone to his chest. "And thank you."

Chapter Text

The next three days came and went without much conversation; though this time the silence between Fíli and Legolas felt relaxed, lacking the heaviness of the earlier part of their journey together. It seemed, really, that they had already said most of what they had needed to say to one another—and in fact, they had both been lost in their own thoughts for much of the time.

On the fourth morning, however, Fíli had opened his eyes to find Legolas watching him intently from the far side of the smoldering fire. It was a bit disconcerting, as the Elven prince was usually in quiet contemplation at such early hours; but when Fíli had asked him if he'd again spoken in his sleep, Legolas had told him that he had not, and so the Dwarf had let the subject be.

It was only then that Fíli realized that Nár was not there. Her absence troubled him, as he had again grown used to her being by his side at night; and while it was not uncommon for her to go off in search of food in the Wood, she never did so while Fíli was sleeping. Legolas, however, had assured him that she was almost certainly fine, and that there was really no sense in waiting for her since she would doubtless catch up to them along the trail—and because the day was wasting, it would be best for them to head out as soon as possible.

With this, Fíli could not help but agree, and the pair had then quickly shared a small breakfast of water and foraged fruit before breaking camp and continuing west. But they had not traveled very far when the air began to feel strange; and when Fíli turned his face to the darkened trees above them, he thought for a moment that he saw the twisted branches move. A cold and musty-smelling breeze then blew in unexpectedly from the path ahead, and he shivered against the the foreignness of wind on his skin.

"I didn't think we would be getting any air until we got closer to the edge of the Forest," he said, lifting his cloak-hood over his head to keep out the draft. "There must be a fair bit of weather blowing out there, if it's reaching us so soon."

"We are quite close to the border already," said Legolas. "We will be there before long. Perhaps even by day's end."

A smile rose to Fíli's lips. "Just last night you told me that we would not get there until tomorrow," he said. "Have you taken us on more shortcuts? I would do no good as an Elf. I've no sense of direction or distance in this place."

Legolas gave him a sidelong glance, yet said nothing.

Again, the two of them fell silent. But unlike the comfortable reserve that Fíli had grown accustomed to over the past few days, it felt forced and almost oppressive. A little farther along, and with nothing else to draw his thoughts, he began to grow anxious that Nár still had not returned. He felt suddenly compelled to draw out and study the rune-stone in order to calm his mind, as had become his habit since the Elf had given it to him; but when he slid his hand into his trouser pocket, he could not feel the stone. In a panic, he reached deeper, and there found a large hole in the cloth.

"Wait!" he said, stopping to search the ground near his feet. "Legolas, wait!"

Legolas drew to a halt. "What is it?"

"We have to go back! I've lost the stone!"

"You haven't."

"I have! I put it in my pocket last night, but there is a hole there! It must have—"

"You discovered the hole in your pocket yesterday," Legolas cut him off, moving a step in his direction. "You feared that the other pocket might also tear, and so you placed the stone in your pack."

Pressure grew in Fíli's chest, and he eased his pack off his shoulders and opened the flap; and upon digging deep inside, his fingertips brushed against something small and cold. Clutching it tightly, he withdrew his hand and studied the stone now in his palm, then he swung the bag back onto his shoulders as he and Legolas started down the path once more. They continued on for several more minutes without speaking, and all the while Fíli read and reread the runes, as if he hadn't already set them to memory, until at last he could no longer keep quiet.

"What happened yesterday?" he asked, almost fearing the answer. "What have I this time forgotten?"

"Do you recall nothing of the day just passed?"

"If I do not remember stowing the rune-stone in my pack, then it is likely that I do not remember anything."

Legolas nodded. "As I feared."

"So, something did happen?" asked Fíli, his heart sinking. "Well, what was it? Did we argue again?"

"Nothing of the sort," said the Elf. "Although I believe that I may have some of the answer to the riddle of what has been ailing you since you entered the Wood."

Fíli gripped the rune-stone harder in his weakened left hand. "Do you mean there is more to it than my having been stabbed in the head?" he asked; then he clamped his mouth shut.

"The wound is at least somewhat to blame," said Legolas. "But like as not, there is more at work than only that. Still, there are questions that I will need to ask you before I can properly answer any of yours." He tilted his head towards Fíli, almost in respect. "If you will allow."

"Go on, then," said the Dwarf, not bothering to hide the impatience in his voice. "Though I doubt I will have every answer you seek."

Legolas faced forward. "When did you leave the Mountain?" he asked, wasting no time. "And what path had you planned on taking to the Forest?"

A twinge of pain in Fíli's left wrist made his shoulder jerk, so he loosened his hold on the rune-stone just a bit. "I set out from the Gate at about noon the day after the Battle," he said. "I was going to follow along the shore of the Lake, then cross at the ford where the Forest River runs into it. After that, I was going to turn south and cut through the Long Marshes, and then make my way to the Old Forest Road. But somewhere along the line, I must have changed my mind."

"It is well that you did. That path is blocked at the eastern edge of the Forest, and the Marshes are in these days nearly impassible. You may have begun going south, but turned north when you became aware of this."

"I may have, but how far would I have needed to go to learn that the way was blocked?"

"The Old Forest Road lies some twenty leagues south of the path that you took, though the leading edge of the Long Marshes is much nearer. I know that you do not recall when you came upon the goat-mount, but if it was early on in your trek, then a ride to the edge of the fen might have taken you just over half a day. Once you saw the terrain that you would have needed to take the goat through, however—"

"I would have changed my course," interrupted Fíli. Legolas was not wrong. Mountain goats were not suited for the wetlands, after all—they were prone to illness when they spent too much time away from dry air, and a battle-goat was especially heavy and likely to sink in the mere. "I had been wondering why I hadn't stuck to my original plan, but guess that makes sense."

"It is fortunate, in any case, that you did not take the old way through Southern Mirkwood, as there are many evil things there that would not have allowed you passage."

"Not that the Northern Forest has been much kinder to me," said Fíli. "Though I have to admit that the company hasn't been so bad, considering I might otherwise have been walking amongst the dead."

A slight grin crossed Legolas's face, but it did not linger for long. "As it was, you may have been four days on your journey from Erebor to the border of the Forest."

"If I had kept a good pace."

"And you said that you have lost time twice?"

"At least twice. Well, it's at least three times now, isn't it? There may have been more. Honestly, I am uncertain. Time in Mirkwood seems to set its own rules."

Legolas nodded. "When did that first happen?"

"Not long after leaving Erebor. I came to a ridge just past the battlefield, and as I made my way down, I fell. The next thing I knew, I had woken within the Forest with a slice on my side."

"And had you any forgetfulness before entering the Wood?"

"A few moments, perhaps," said Fíli with a shrug. "Though I cannot say for sure. I mean… I did forget the name of Bard's daughter for a time when she was treating my wounds, but that may have been because the Battle was still heavy on my mind."

"Yet you did eventually recall what you had those times forgotten?"

"Yes. At least, I think so. Much as I remembered those things that I had forgotten when you and I had been arguing."

"And do you remember anything from the days that you have lost while you were in the Forest?"

"Only pieces. Like shards of dreams that remain after awakening." Fíli squinted slightly. "Have you ever experienced that? Do Elves dream? I have never even seen you sleep."

"We do dream, but differently from you," said Legolas, though he did not elaborate. "Can you tell me what you do remember?"

Fíli tapped the rune-stone against his leg. "Well, from the first time, I remember the fight with the goblin near the trailhead," he said. "And the sound of running in the trees. What I had thought was a goat, at least until you told me it was probably a deer."

"And the second time?" pressed Legolas.

"I just remember walking," said Fíli. "But it must not have been for long, because the next day I was only an hour from my previous camp."

"You had slept the day away," said Legolas, almost under his breath. "Do you recall if you had used your dried athelas to treat the wound the goblin had given you?"

Fíli raised an eyebrow. "I did, yes. Actually, that is the very last thing I remember of that time. Well, besides a flash of light. I thought that perhaps I had been struck on the head, but I found no new wound there when I awoke."

Legolas regarded him briefly, then faced forward once more, and the pair walked on for some distance without saying another word. After a time, Fíli shifted his attention to the side, again searching the darkness off the trail for Nár—still wondering where she had gone, and worrying that she would not return.

"How did the Wood feel to you when you first awoke here?" asked Legolas suddenly, shocking the Dwarf out of his reverie.

Fíli sighed. "Really, I hope there is a point to all of this," he said. "Do you have answers for me or not? If you have some idea of what is wrong with me, why not simply say so?"

"Because this time I want to be certain," Legolas told him.

The reply was tinged with remorse, and Fíli felt that maybe the Elf was still regretting the mistake he had made in taking the rune-stone back. For that, Fíli could not blame him, and so he searched his memory.

"The Wood felt… well, it felt lonely, I suppose," he said. "Or sad, maybe. I thought it odd, though. When my Company came through from west to east, it felt very different."

"In what way?"

"In every way. Back then I could not focus here. It was as if I had not slept for days, or as if a fever had addled my mind. I was hateful with even my own kin, anxious, unable to rest. And the Wood, itself… I was wary of the trees… they seemed angry."

"They were," said Legolas before quickly changing the subject. "When did you first understand Elvish?"

Fíli rubbed at the ache growing in his temple. "The day that you and I… the day of our disagreement," he said. "You spoke over me when I faltered, and somehow…" He shut his mouth tight as another memory forced its way unexpectedly forward. "No… wait…"

"What is it?"

"When you gave to me the rune-stone…" said Fíli. "The first time you gave it to me, when I turned it away… did you speak Elvish to me then?"

Legolas glanced down at him. "Why? Do you remember me doing so?"

"I thought that I had been dreaming," said Fíli. "I had believed that I'd heard your voice ask 'Does he live?'. But I… now I remember it being in your language. Or perhaps I had dreamt that much."

"You did not dream it," said Legolas. "But nor was it a question. I had said to Nár, 'He does still live'. I was… surprised. I did not think it was possible."

"Neither did I," said Fíli with a weak smile. "But though I had at first heard you, when I looked I did not see you… it was…" He let out a slow breath and slumped his shoulders. "Your father, with Tauriel by his side."

"So you told me," said Legolas softly; then he shook his head. "Have you ever seen a white hart within the Forest?"

Fíli's jaw slacked. "Not since I passed through with the Company," he said. "It showed up as we were crossing the River. My uncle shot at it, but his arrow went wide."

"I know."

"And how would you know that? Were you watching us even then?"

"My father told me."

"Oh? Was it spying for him?"

"Not exactly," said Legolas. "The Hart comes and goes, it watches, it guards the Forest; and where it is, there also are the thoughts of the Elvenking. It was when the Hart saw your Company at the River that my father learned that you were in the Wood, and he then sent me and the Guard to find you."

"If he… do you mean your father…?" Fíli eyed the forbidding trees with suspicion. "How does this work, Legolas? Are your father and the Hart as one? Does each know everything as the other?"

"The relationship is not quite that simple," replied Legolas. "Mirkwood is tied to the Hart, and the Hart is tied to my father. They speak with one another—the King, the Hart, and the Wood; and so too is there an empathy among them. What one feels, the others may, as well."

Fíli's mind was beginning to swim. "So… was that why the Wood was angry with us when we first came through?" he asked. "Because the Elvenking was angry with us? And did it feel sorrowful after the Battle because Thranduil…" His words trailed off as the back of his head began to warm.

The Elf slowed his pace and looked down at him. "Are you well?" he asked. "Are you in need of a rest?"

"I'm fine," said Fíli, waving his hand dismissively. "Why are you asking about the Hart, anyway? What has it to do with me?"

Legolas seemed to hesitate for a moment, then he drew in a deep breath. "It came to you last evening," he said. "And I think that it perhaps had done so several times before I joined you on your journey."

The Dwarf stopped walking as Legolas's words sank in, then he rushed to catch up. "So, your father knows that you are helping me?"

"He does now, if he did not before."

Another breeze blew in from the west and Fíli pulled his cloak tighter around himself. "But… if the Hart had come to me before you found me in the Wood… why would your father watch me if you were not yet in my company?"

Legolas peered into the trees to the side of the trail. "I do not believe that he was watching you," he said. "At least, not at the beginning. He was not back in the Forest by the time you began making your way through, and his link to the Hart is strongest when they are both within Mirkwood. Still, even I do not know for how far distant they may speak."

"Why would it have come to me at all, then?"

"It is possible that it heard the fight between you and the goblin," said Legolas. "The Hart does not tolerate evil things in the Wood, and it will always seek to destroy them. It is likely, then, that it was the Hart's hooves you heard running through the trees, and also its prints you mistook for those of a goat near the trail."

"As I recall, you said nothing about seeing any tracks, yourself," said Fíli, somewhat bewildered. "How is it that you, with all of your skills, missed them on the soft dirt?"

"I was not concerned with the Forest deer at the time," replied Legolas. "They are common enough near to the borders, and the Hart's tracks are like unto any other large stag. I believe now, however, that it was a kick from the Hart that killed the goblin after you had stabbed it."

A slight stinging began to radiate outward from the scar on the back of Fíli's head, but squeezing the rune-stone tighter seemed to help push the feeling down. "Then I suppose I owe it my life," he said with some effort. "But again, what business would it have with a single Dwarf?"

"It was likely only curious about you. I do not think that it had ever known any besides an Elf to use athelas, and in its confusion it may have tried to speak with you. But in seeking your thoughts it may have strained your mind and left you senseless."

"So, it was trying to speak through my mind?" asked Fíli, his heart racing. "I have heard that is a thing that Elves can do with one another, but I have never known of it being done with other races."

"Ordinarily, such a thing would not happen with one of your kind, as a wall of sorts would have prevented the intrusion. That is why I believe your head wound must have at least something to do with it."

"So, was that the light I saw?" asked Fíli, grimacing. "The flash? The Hart had… it had stabbed a hole in the… in the wall while trying to see into my mind? And the hole remains? Was the Hart trying to force its words into my thoughts, or to draw my own out? Might that be why I can now understand you when you speak in your own tongue?"

"I can think of no other answer," replied Legolas.

Fíli shuddered. "Tell me, then… what happened last night? What, exactly?"

The Elf lowered his head slightly. "Some time after we settled our camp and ate dinner, Nár became restless," he said. "She was unable to tell me why, but it set me on-guard, as her senses are in ways greater than my own. I went, then, to search the Wood for what was troubling her. I found nothing, and when I returned to camp, Nár was gone. The Hart was there, however, and the two of you were staring deeply into one another's eyes. It was—"

"Do you think that Nár ran off because she feared it?" interrupted Fíli. "Because of her warg blood? Do you think that she felt that she would be considered an evil to the Hart?"

"It is very likely," said Legolas. "Regardless, I believe that the Hart was again trying to speak with you, but you were silent and motionless. So the two of you remained until at last it became aware of my presence." He pressed his lips together before going on. "After it left, you remained… still for several hours, and it was close to dawn when you finally went into a proper sleep. I let you rest, then, until you woke on your own some time after midday."

Despite the strengthening winter wind, sweat began to bead on Fíli's brow. He did not cast back his hood, though, and instead pulled it down more over his face, so to hide from the spying trees. "And when I awoke, I had forgotten yesterday," he said. "But still, at the trailhead I lost much more than just a single day."

"Your head wound was newer then," said Legolas, "and so your mind was more strained when it tried to speak with you, costing you more days. Yet I do not think that the Hart purposely caused your memories to fail. It is likely that that it only wanted to find out why you were here, and in trying to get an answer out of you, it did more damage than good."

Fíli shook his head. "This is some strange magic, Legolas," he said. "And I am sorry, but when you say it meant me no harm, I am not sure that I believe you."

Legolas sighed. "And yet you now have an awareness that you lacked before," he said. "You were able to feel the state of the Forest itself when you awoke here, the trees have not sought to lead you astray, the River did not steal your thoughts when you touched it, and you heard the Forest sharing my words when I was seeking to clear your mind. None of those things would have happened, had the Hart not tried to speak with you; and in the end, I do not think that is such a bad thing." He focused on the path ahead. "We are nearing the border."

Turning forward, Fíli saw, far-off in the gloom, a weak and ghostly shaft of sunlight cutting through the trees. "So, will I have no more days lost once I leave your Forest?" he asked. "Will I forget, also, your language?"

"I cannot say for certain. But when you are beyond the edge of Mirkwood, you will be beyond both the Hart's territory and my father's sight."

"And what of my other troubles? My mind has slipped several times, and I once nearly forgot you and many other things besides. I don't think either the Hart or your father or even the Forest had much to do with that."

"Perhaps not; but in those cases, you did eventually remember the things that you had forgotten. However, I cannot say what troubles you will have after you leave Mirkwood. You may get better, or even somewhat worse."

Fíli shivered again, though not from the cold, and turned once more to the path before them. Although there was still light there, it appeared more shadowy than bright, and he wondered for a moment if they might be walking out from the midst of the trees to find themselves under overcast skies—then he remembered what the Elf had said about him having spent the whole of the morning sleeping.

"What time do you suppose it is close to being?" he asked.

"Nearing to sunset. We set out late, though I had hoped that we would get to the edge of the Forest before dark. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case."

"Even so, I suggest we press on. I'm not keen on spending another evening under the trees, after all that you have just told me."

"I would not worry about encountering any more troubles here," said Legolas. "From either the Forest itself, or the Hart."

Though he did not go on to say why, Fíli supposed that the white Hart had spoken to Legolas, as well—but that what they had said to one another was personal, and no concern of the Dwarf's. So Fíli cast his sight forward, seeking out any sign of a break in the trees; but it appeared that the light at the end of the trail was swiftly dying. The breeze from the west grew stronger and the crooked branches above started to shudder, and soon a few dead leaves came fluttering down onto the stone path.

The pair walked on without speaking for a long while, and Fíli thought that an hour or more must have passed before evening finally fell and complete darkness crept in. He heard then a familiar panting and the shuffling of pawed feet beside him, and he smiled wide when he felt Nár press herself to his leg, as if making certain that Fíli would know that she had returned.

"Where have you been hiding?" he asked her, scratching the top of her head. "I thought that maybe you had forgotten about me."

She snuffled a bit, then her pattering steps moved slightly off to the side as she positioned herself in her usual place between Fíli and the Elf. With the animal again by his side, Fíli felt a bit lighter on his feet. He still had the rune-stone held firmly in his weaker hand, so he loosened his cramping fingers and ran his thumb over the carved words, following along beside Legolas and Nár as best he could. It sounded to him as if they were both stepping heavier than usual, and he guessed that they were doing so for his benefit—so that he might easily be able to keep up with them in the darkness—and he trusted that neither of them would lead him into a tree or let him fall over a high root.

As it turned out, his trust was well-founded, though necessary for only a short while. Before long, a faint light began to shine though the trees far ahead, illuminating the path at his feet and the vine-choked trunks to either side. Soon, he could again make out Legolas's pale, contemplative face; and when he looked to Nár, he saw that the animal's eyes were glowing in what Fíli realized was distant, leaf-filtered moonlight.

They went on after that at a more hurried pace, and before much time had passed, the wind started to blow harder. It stung Fíli's cheeks and he drew his hood down more and kept his attention on the dim path. Then, without warning, the wind stopped, and Fíli lifted his eyes to see that they had stepped out from under the trees, and he was now looking out across a great plain, gray and stark under the light of the star-field and the glare of a nearly-full moon—the Wilderland.

The sight was equal parts welcoming and odd to Fíli, as the moon seemed nearly as bright as dawn after weeks in the Forest gloom, and the atmosphere itself was almost too open, too exposed. For a few seconds, the Dwarf felt the need to rush back under the shelter of the trees; but he swiftly chased away the urge, and the group walked on for a few more paces before at last coming to a halt.

"You will not be returning to Erebor in death, it seems," said Legolas with what was possibly a touch of grim humor.

"Or ever, then," said Fíli in a whisper.

He opened his hand and focused on the stone where it rested in his bandaged palm, then looked over as Nár again pressed herself to his leg. Her head was lowered nearly between her front legs, and she seemed almost dismayed, so he gave the shaggy fur on her neck a small, reassuring scratch. He then pushed his hood back and faced the darkened boughs of the Forest, which were lightly swaying under a breeze he could now barely feel. He squinted, searching the gloom and half expecting to spot the white Hart slinking between the trunks; then he turned to the west, where he knew the River Anduin must somewhere lay, with the Misty Mountains rising far beyond it.

"I assume you wish to wait until morning to set out," said Legolas, breaking into his thoughts.

"I may not be able to sleep easily," said Fíli, his sight flitting again towards the cheerless Forest; then he turned to the Elf, whose own eyes were cast towards the sky. "But I believe I've spent quite enough time walking in the darkness. And to be honest, I wouldn't mind sharing a camp for one more night. It may well be a long while before I have anyone to even speak with, let alone anyone willing to share a meal and fire. I best get my companionship while I'm able."

Legolas looked to him and bowed his head slightly, then he shifted suddenly towards the east; but if he had seen or heard anything under the gently creaking branches, he did not say.