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Frailty

Chapter Text

It was the growling of Bombur's stomach that jerked Kili awake.

His eyes snapped open, looking wide and dark at the ceiling. The low snuffling sounds of snoring, which had rocked him to sleep, seemed deafening, jarring to him. He could make out the wooden rafters in the dying light of the cooling embers. He looked to his right, to the face that slept perhaps a foot from his own. Fili was deep in slumber, lips parted in a silent dream. He lay on his back, nose turned up to the shadowed, slanted ceiling. Usually if he couldn't sleep, Kili would wake him with a short jab on the shoulder. He would be grumpy at first, but eventually his brother would talk to him, whispering softly, the low words shielding him against the terrors of the night, until he fell asleep. But Fili was dead to the world. Everybody, except him, was enveloped in a deep, restful sleep. Even his uncle. The recovery was slow and painful, and Thorin sank into a slumber that the dawn would fight to wrestle him from.

Kili stretched out his hand a little to wake his brother, his fingers hovering midair as he realised that he didn't actually want to sleep. The dawn couldn't be far off. It was the dark stillness, that perfect overhanging limbo between night and dawn, when even the beats of the darkness withdrew into slumber.

Kili sat up slowly, trying not to disturb the nest of dwarves (and one hobbit) that surrounded him. So strange, that even though there was a huge heap of space in the hall, the company refused to change their normal sleeping pattern, huddling down like a litter of blind puppies. Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Gloin, Bifur and Thorin all slept on the outside. The aged veterans and seasoned warriors, they protected the pile, laying themselves on the edge. Nori, Bofur, Bombur and Oin all formed a haphazard human shield around Fili, Kili, Bilbo and Ori. The babies. The ones that needed protecting. And somehow, even when he tried not to, Kili always ended up lying in the middle.

He rose to his feet. Sleep wasn't going to come to him again tonight. He picked his way through the pile of sleeping dwarves, trying not to trod on any outstretched fingers or long braids of hair. He paced the floorboards slowly, pausing each time outside the small window beside the heavy closed door. It was a lovely, moonlit night, where the grass was dusted in silver and the waters gleamed with a million diamonds. Kili rested his head against the glass for a very long time, pressing his fingers against the thick pane. It was the sort of night he craved in the Blue Mountains. When he and Fili would smuggle ale down to Malaad Lake with their friends, drinking and singing and dancing until they collapsed in the grass. When they would steal away into the silvered darkness, into the warm light of the taverns of Men, where Fili would lose himself in skin and hair and unraveling clothes, and Kili would drown in ale with twitching fingers and a thick tongue as nerves failed him.

His stomach growled.

Oh, to eat food. Real food, unlike the cream and honey that he'd forced down his neck for the last few days. It was far too sweet, and left him dizzy and sick, wracked with unshakeable cravings for animal flesh. A tasty rabbit stew. A leg of wood pigeon. A nice hunk of slow-roasted venison. A whole hog turning lazily on the spit. Kili's mouth watered as the fantasies grew more elaborate. Before the adventure, he'd never gone without at least two sturdy meals a day. While many others in the company had become used to going without, and hiked all day quite contentedly on nothing but a thin bowl of soup, Kili began to have awful gnawing pains as soon as the sun had reached its golden crescendo. And while Fili always gave his brother a good share of his dinner on the pretense of being 'full', Kili had often gone to sleep hungry, his grumbling stomach joining the soft sing-song of snoring, muttering dwarves.

Kili turned away from the window, and resumed his pacing up and down the hall, hoping to lull himself into some sort of sleep. But it wasn't going to come to him, and every time stepped on a creaky floorboard, his body seized up in fear and his heart pounded, as though he was forty years old again, trying to sneak out of the house without waking his uncle. He stopped beside his carefully folded pile of weapons and armour. His travelling clothes and boots. They had been scrubbed and cleaned and polished, waiting patiently to be worn on the next stage of the long journey to Erebor. His bow and quiver leaned against the wall. Once again, Kili's mouth was watering.

How long would it take? Not long, at all. An hours hike, and he would be away enough from Beorn's domain. It would be the grey hours before dawn. Rabbits would be out in the hundreds, falling over themselves to graze in the relative safety of the early, early morning. Kili was an excellent shot, and he would have one killed, skinned and cleaned in a matter of minutes. How long to roast it? No, too long. He would have to cut off the choicest bits and make a stew. It would be more than enough for one. He could have it cooked and eaten just before dawn. And if he ran - not too quickly of course, on a full stomach - he could make it back into his bed just before everyone began to wake.

Rabbit stew. Kili swallowed a mouthful of thick saliva. It was the most modest of his elaborate food fantasies, but his insides groaned in yearning. He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. He could almost smell it.

That did it then. His eyes snapped open, and he reached for his boots. It was wrong, and he knew it. But the taste of just-killed rabbit danced on the tip of his tongue and he couldn't stand it any longer. Danger was only a dancing shadow on the edge of his mind, he paid little heed to it. Kili pulled the tunic and cloak on quickly, working by touch in the deep shadows. Out of habit, he dressed in his full armour, slinging his swords across his back. This was the wild, and you could never be too careful. Not that any harm could home to him. He was a warrior. A Prince.

"Kili?"

The voice came out of the darkness, soft and sleepy. The dwarf froze, heart hammering in his throat as he struggled to place the voice. It wasn't rough or accusing. It was inquisitive.

"Go to sleep Ori." Kili breathed, not looking back. "I won't be long."

"Where are you going?" He sat up slowly, noticing Kili had his bow and arrows across his back, silhouetted plainly against the gleaming window.

"To catch a rabbit or something. I'm starving." Ori scratched at his beard.

"I don't think Beorn would like that." He breathed, careful not to wake the rest of the company.

"I know he won't, that's why I'm going now." Kili hissed back. "I can't stand any more bread and honey. Us dwarves aren't made to live on this mess. I need some meat or I'm going to be sick."

"But-"

"Shh, Ori." Kili cut over him. "I know, all right? Look just go back to sleep. Pretend you didn't see me, okay?" He glanced back at Ori, but all he saw was a shifting shadow int he darkness, which gave a long sigh.

"Just be careful. Beorn says-"

"Not to go out, I know." Kili grasped the door handle. "But listen. It's quiet. Nothing is out there. And if they do, I'm armed. I'll be all right. See you in the morning." The threat hung unsaid in the air between them. Don't you dare tell on me. As though he was a child to be tattled on. Because he knew if he was caught, he was going to get in trouble. He entertained, for a brief second, the idea of rousing Fili, to take him out and share the feast, but he knew what his brother would say. That it was stupid. And unsafe. That he just had to shut up and stick the cream and honey for a few more days until Thorin was well and the rest of the company strong enough to travel once more. Fili was all for sneaking out and getting into trouble ten years ago, but the last two years drove a new weight of responsibility on his shoulders. He was of age. His childhood was over, and he couldn't be caught sneaking out like some irresponsible boy, things were different now. His brothers voice rang quite plainly in his ears. With a deep breath, Kili pulled open the door, stepping into the outside world.

And all in a moment, Fili's voice was switched off. The smell of the night air in his face, brushing his hair back and flapping his loose bits of clothing, was as instantly cooling and refreshing as a bath in a springtime river. The door closed behind him and he stepped forward into the silvered wonderland. He took another step, and another. Thorin, Balin and Beorn, Gandalf, their warnings and admonitions melted away as he plunged into the wildlands.

Once he had passed the Carrock, Kili turned left, keeping his eyes and ears sharp as he walked through the wood. He didn't realise that he was heading in exactly the wrong direction. He thought he was heading east, away from the Misty Mountains and to the wide green meadows and fields. It was still very dark, and the landscape, which was already alien to him, seemed impenetrable. The moon set and it became completely dark. Kili tried to make a torch but it had rained in the night and nothing from his tinderbox could stick to a damp branch. It took almost an hour and a half of walking before Kili realised that he was lost.

No. He screwed up his face, in a long sigh. He wasn't worried about being in any sort of real danger. This wood felt far too calm and soft for that. But he now had two choices. He could either sit and wait for the dawn, climb a tree and figure the direction out of this wood, or he could try and turn around, head forward now and hope that he was heading in the right direction. He could either risk getting even more lost for the chance to sneak back unnoticed, or wait in relative safety, knowing he would get caught for sure.

It was an easy choice. Kili shouldered his bow, trudging on further in the inky blackness, not realising that every step took him further away from the safety of Beorn's hall, and closer to the ancient mountains, looming over him in the night sky that he could not see.

He gave up after he tripped and fell over a gnarled tree-root, falling face-first into a deep pile of cones and needles. Swearing loudly, he struggled to his feet, brushing the fragments of plant matter from his cloak, but as soon as he put his left foot down, Kili collapsed, face contorted with pain. Twisted, at the very least. Probably a sprain. He swore again, pulling off his boot and rubbing at his ankle. It was going to swell magnificently, knowing his luck. With a long, resigned sigh, Kili replaced his boot, shuffling against the thick trunk of a tree with his legs spread out before him, waiting for the dawn to pierce the night. Inwardly, he flogged himself. Stupid. What an idiot. How could he ever think this was a good idea? Kili had been driven by his stomach, like a petulant child, when he should have shut up and stuck out the hunger pangs, like his brother did. His face flushed in shame in remembrance of the times he'd accepted Fili's dinner, downing it in short, wolfish gasps. How his brother used to look at him with both pity and hunger, a sad smile twitching on his lips. Those times, Kili couldn't look at him. He looked so much like their mother, when he did that, he had the same blue glow of her eyes, the same nose and downward turn of the mouth. And he didn't want to be reminded of his mother, so he always looked squarely at his food when he ate, and Fili misinterpreted his brother's avoidance as simply concentrating on his dinner. He didn't think Kili would be embarrassed about his hunger. It was understandable, he was still young, he needed to harden up and it was going to take a while. Fili was all right, he was of age and could hold his tongue and not stare at the cookpot with uncomfortable longing, take his bowl with grace rather than snatch it out of Bofur's hands, spilling the soup in an eager desire to raise it to his lips. Kili would toughen up when he was older.

He certainly didn't feel old enough now. He felt like a childish fool. Kili drew his good leg up to his chest, resting his chin on his knee. A nighttime stroll in the blackness, alone in a strange land? He was just asking for trouble. He leaned back and sighed. His eyelids felt very heavy. His brain was addled and thick as his mother's soup. While he felt wired and energetic as he walked, even while lost, as the bloodflow slowed and his breathing returned to normal, Kili began to feel very, very sleepy. He tried pinching himself through his thick clothing to stay awake, but his leg sank down lax, and his head drooped forward. And as the grey fingers of dawn began to claw at the edge of the horizon, the lone dwarf, lost in the woods with a twisted ankle, began to snore, face twitching as he sank into a dream of dragons fire and piles of gold so large that he could climb them like a mountain.


Fili arched his back in a long yawn as the first golden rays of sunlight touched him gently on the cheek. He flung his arms outward in a stretch, eyes still closed, his mind thick and hazy. "Sorry Kili." He mumbled out of habit, dropping his arm down onto the warm body beside him.

Except nothing was there.

He frowned, turning on his side as his eyes slowly cracked open. The space beside him was empty. He thrust his hand into the space where Kili slept. It was cold. Fili jerked up suddenly, eyes wide open as he flung back the blanket they shared. His heart froze in his chest. Beside him, Bilbo stirred at the sudden movement.

"Whazza matter?" He mumbled, eyes still closed. Around him, the dwarves started to rise sleepily from their soft beds. Fili stood up, treading on several fingers as he marched out of the circle. "Fili?" He propped himself on one elbow, rubbing at his eyes. A number of dwarves groaned and muttered, sucking on sore fingers. Thorin's eyes slowly opened.

"Kili's not here." The elder brother tried and failed to keep the tremor out of his voice. Thorin rose to a sitting position.

"He's probably in the outhouse Fili." Dwalin muttered thickly, pressing his face in the pillow. "Calm down."

"His bed was cold and-" Fili gasped. Thorin got up on his knees. "His clothes are gone." Ori closed his eyes, feigning sleep as his heart pounded madly. "His bow and swords too. He's taken everything."

"Probably went for a stroll." Bofur suggested, facing the ceiling with still-closed eyes. "Looked like a wonderful night."

"If he did, I'll have his skin." Thorin muttered, deep in his throat. "Beorn told us all to stay inside 'til dawn."

"By the looks of things, dawn was some time ago." Balin noted the morning sunlight rather blandly. "Fili, wait for breakfast and then we can all go out to loo-"

"Fili." Thorin spoke rather sharply as his nephew pulled his cloak on over his pajamas, thrusting his feet into boots. "By Durin's beard, what are you doing?"

"I'm going to look." By this time, all the dwarves were awake, sitting or standing in the hall with sleepy eyes fixed on the half-dressed Fili. All except Ori, who lay very obviously with his eyes closed, occasionally forcing a tiny snore. "You can sit here and eat breakfast but I can't-" He let the heavy door swing closed with a bang, crushing dozens of flowers underneath the weight of his heavy boots as he ran into the morning sunshine, his cloak hanging on his shoulders.

"Ishkaqwi Khazad-ul!" The dwarvish curse dropped like a stone into a deep, dark pond. Nine faces turned to stare at Thorin, mouths agape. Even Ori, who still pretended to be asleep, flinched, and his false snore died. Thorin managed to take two steps before sinking into a low chair, clutching at his ribs. "Dwalin, Gloin." He groaned, and jerked his head in the direction of the door. The two dwarves obeyed silently, shouldering their neatly folded travelling clothes and sliding their hands into gloves. All the dwarves noticed Gloin taking his axe. Bilbo looked down, seeing that Ori's eyes were screwed tightly closed, and his jaw was very tight.

"Ori?" Bilbo frowned. Ori gave an audible gasp. "Ori, are you pretending to be asleep?" Bofur and Oin, hearing the hobbit, turned to look at him. Ori gave out a very loud, fake-sounding snore.

"Ori." Oin crouched down beside the 'sleeping' figure. "Ori. Where's Kili?" After several moments, Ori finally opened his eyes with a long sigh, heaving himself into a sitting position.

"H-He said he wouldn't be long-"

"Where is he?" Nori knelt in front of his brother. "Ori look at me. What did he say?"

"He said he was hungry." Ori played with the cuffs of his pajamas, unable to look at any of them. He kept his eyes firmly downcast, stumbling over his words. "He s-said he couldn't eat Beorn's food anymore and he wanted to hunt. He said he would be back by dawn and I couldn't tell anyone."

"Mahal." Nori sighed, shaking his head. Thorin's fists trembled with fury.

"I-I told him not to go, I swear!" Ori cried plaintively, wringing his hands. "I wanted to wake Fili or Thorin but he said he was fine - he told me not to tell anybody and - and-"

"And you listened?" Thorin's voice boomed from the chair. He stood up, face white with the effort, and sank back into his seat. "Why did you let him leave?"

"I don't know!" Ori was on the edge of blubbing, chewing on the end of his nails, still unable to look at anybody in the room. "He had his sword and bow - and I-I didn't want to tell!"

"Thorin, don't stress the poor lad." Balin lay a hand on Ori's trembling shoulder. "Calm down son, nobody is blaming you." Ori nodded silently, but his torn cuticles, antagonising the hole in his fraying cuffs, showed obvious signs of nerves. "Come, we'll get some breakfast. Dwalin and Gloin will find the boys and we'll all laugh about it over supper."

"Nobody is laughing about this." Thorin's voice was a low rumble. Balin gave his King an uneasy look, but still extended his arm to the quivering Ori, forcing his wrinkled features into a stiff, uneasy smile.

"Kili!" Fili's voice carried through the closed door, shattering any of Balin's hopes of calm. He half-staggered as he ran, crushing a bee. He knew the others thought him overreacting. But they could never understand the tight knot of fear that clenched in his stomach, leaving him sick and anxious. They didn't realise how wrong this was. Kili would never be gone this long without warning Fili first. He could understand why Kili could possibly leave in the night for whatever reason. But he would be back by now. He would have intended to return to his bed before Fili's eyes had ever opened. He knew how his brother worked. This was very, very wrong.

Perhaps he'd gotten lost. It was possible. Although Kili preferred the trees of the forest to the mazes of mountain tunnels and caves, he was still a stranger in a strange land. In the pitch-black night where the moon had set, it would have been very easy for his younger brother to take a wrong turn and lose his way. Perhaps he'd stumbled in the dark. The image flashed before Fili's eyes, of Kili lying still on the ground, eyes open, with a trickle of blood slowly oozing down his cheek. Fili stopped short in his walk, screwing his eyes up shut. No no no no no. He swallowed hard, fighting down the panic attack that bubbled in his chest. No no no.

"Kili." The young dwarf moaned, standing on the edge of Beorn's bee pastures. The woods loomed out at him, looking dark and threatening, even in the morning sunshine. "Kili where are you?" He whispered, voice shaking. He threaded his fingers through his golden mane, tugging down on the ends in thought. The stupid child. What had he done? Once again, the image of Kili lying in the dirt with open eyes haunted his mind, and this time it refused to go away.

"Easy laddie." Fili started at the broad hands tightening on his shoulders. "Did you check the outhouse?"

"Of course I checked the outhouse Dwalin." Fili's voice was thick. "I've run around everywhere and he's gone. I met Gandalf and Beorn out in the hives and they never saw him. He's not anywhere! He's gone!"

"He's not gone Fili, he's obviously wandered off somewhere. Probably tripped in the dark." Fili let out another groan. "Or just gotten himself lost. We'll get the rest of the company together and send out a search party. No doubt we'll find him sleeping under a tree with no idea of where the time went." It was a rare speech from Dwalin, but one Fili sorely needed. "No sense in thinking the worst." Not yet. But Fili wouldn't be consoled, and it took some rough-housing from Dwalin and Gloin before he finally gave up and turned away from the wood, returning to the safety of Beorn's hall.


"'ello."

Something was poking Kili in the throat. He moaned, shuffling a little against the tree. His eyes were still closed.

"Go 'way Fili." He mumbled, wrinkling his nose. The point dug in a little sharper. "Ow!" Kili finally opened his eyes. "Wha-" His voice died in his throat. A lump of ice settled in his chest, his heart skipping a beat.

He was looking into the eyes of a goblin.

"Hands on yer 'ead." It had a sharp voice, like nails on tin. He let out a single, hacking chuckle which sounded more like a cough. Kili swallowed, the tip of the short blade drawing a single bead of blood. "Now." His hands, which were lax at his sides, clenched into fists. "Don' even try." Kili's eyes darted around, realising with a horrible lurch that no less than eight of them had formed a tight circle around him, their yellow eyes staring out in the shadowy gloom. "Hands up." Wordlessly, Kili tented his fingers, resting them on his mop of chestnut hair. The blade at his throat was withdrawn, Kili forced on his knees. As soon as he was sure the sword couldn't catch him, Kili struck. He wrenched his arm free of the gnarled hand on his wrists, surprising the goblin who held him, reaching for the knife in his pocket. He slashed the goblin on the arm, the creature springing back with a horrible shriek, clinging to his wounded limb as blood, thick and black as tar, gushed on the ground. Kili lunged forward, plunging the knife into the stomach of the goblin who held the blade to his neck. The handle was ripped free, and Kili reached for the sword slung over his back. Adrenalin surged through his veins, and he forgot the pain in his injured ankle in the effort to fight. But before he could draw the blade from its sheath, a hard blow to the back of his legs send him crashing to the ground, a well-placed boot into his ribs leaving the young dwarf winded. He rolled over, seeing the flash of the goblin scimitar in the gloom, watching as the weapon plunged into the soft earth just inches from his head. He tried to spring to his feet, but Kili was tackled, pinned by no less than four goblins, face pressed into the dirty mat of rotting leaves.

"Little swine." A voice rasped in his ear. "Pass me the knife, Skon."

"No!" The goblin with the wounded arm shouted, staggering towards the pinned dwarf. "We have orders. Any catch must go to Toz first." Kili's heart hammered in his throat, looking up to see the foul creature licking his lips. He remembered the rumours he heard about orcs and goblins, and what they did with their caught prey. His head spun. They wouldn't.

"Mm, I can almost smell it." Kili recoiled at the twisted nose giving an experimental sniff in his hair, stomach turning. No, no no no. "Throw 'im on an open fire, skin and all, let the juices run and the hide crackle." They talked about him, as though he were a beast for slaughter. "Turn 'im over, let's get a good look." Kili was forced onto his back, arms and legs held fast. He couldn't move, couldn't speak. His heart was twisted in terror. "Young an' plump." A black finger poked Kili in the cheek, brushing his modest beard. Kili arched his back, cowering away from the goblin-finger "Can' we just eat 'im now Skon? I'm starving." An involuntary whimper sounded in Kili's throat, one heard by the small company of goblins, as his fear burst. He writhed and struggled madly in the tight grasp, panic fuelling his white-hot terror.

"I said no!" Still clutching his arm, Skon stood over him. Several drops of black blood landed on Kili's face, and he flinched away, the tiny clearing ringing with hoarse laughter. "Anything we find goes to Toz!"

"But 'e's on'y on the lookout for the Dwarf-scum!" The orc whined. "'e won' care about one little boy-scout." They didn't realise he was a dwarf. They thought he was just a man - and a very young one at that. If it wasn't for the sheer panic that flowed through him, Kili would have been insulted.

"One scout, Ngurk, means more will be about." Skon stepped back. "Strip him down and tie him up." Kili let out a cry as the hands pawed at his cloak, unbuckling his weapons and tugging at his boots. "Hurry up, it's almost dawn already." They took his tunic and trousers, and his undershirt too, leaving him in a rather weather-stained pair of knee-length under-trousers. He curled his toes, hoping nobody would notice the size of his bare feet. They were looking for Thorin. Of course they were. They would never stop looking, after what they had done to the Great Goblin. They would hunt down the ones that did it. They would drag them deep into the mountains, where they would never get out, and end them in front of thousands. He shivered at the thought of what they would do, if they knew he was one of the dwarves who slew their King. Rather than being insulted, Kili hoped they would keep mistaking him for a man, and so far (and the fact made his insides shrivel with shame), it was convincing them. Kili had always been scrawny for a dwarf, being early-born in the middle of a terribly cold winter, and several weeks of little food had left him leaner than ever. They tied his hands behind, sitting him up and bending him over, pushing on the back of his head to subdue him. His bare skin flushed golden in the light of the single torch the goblins held, the marks of his old scar almost white. He could feel them looking at it. The mark started at his left shoulder, encircling his prominent shoulderblade and around his torso, ending six inches below his collarbone. The jagged marks of teethbones. It looked like a huge animal which had attacked him, when it wasn't. In reality, it was a rather normal-sized warg. He had just been very, very small.

"Get up." Kili was forced roughly to his feet, black twisted hands on both elbows. They were shorter goblins, creatures from the deepest, darkest holes in the mountains. Kili came up to their armpits, and he seemed shorter, slouching forward in terror of antagonising his wounded limb. He was pushed forward, and as soon as he put pressure down on his injured ankle, Kili screamed, knees buckling. "Oi." He was cuffed over the head, hauled back to his feet. Kili had to limp forward, biting his lip hard to muffle the sounds of pain with every second step. And with every footfall, the cold fear that seized his heart grew, blossoming through his chest, his arms and legs, leaving them heavy and dead. He was deaf to the screeching and laughing of the goblins around him. He was paralysed. Durin help me. He pleaded inwardly, eyes stinging. Fili. Thorin. Gandalf. Anybody. Someone had to be looking for him by now. Please don't let them do this. He felt as weak and helpless as a child, bound and half-naked, dragged along on an injured leg in an alien forest with his weapons out of reach. Was this some sort of punishment, for his rash, stupid actions? For heading out, alone, into the darkness, getting lost, hurting himself, falling asleep? He had been in danger before of course, but never alone. Never without his brother. Never bound and stripped and injured.

Kili's body had shut down from the panic - he became limp and unresponsive, and they had to drag him, swearing curses in his ear as he was dragged deeper and deeper into the shadowy, desolate wood.