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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.


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."


"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.


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.

Chapter Text

Toz smelled and heard, rather than saw, the small band of goblins approaching the edge of his camp.

It was a small camp, just a dozen orcs with a warg each. Located in the dense woods, within sight of the Misty Mountains, Toz preyed on the few travelers that still attempted to pass through Mirkwood, mostly parties of elves and the occasional merchant hoping to try their wares in the East. There were no caves in the area, but the thick treetops protected the sun's harsh beams from ever touching the ground, and it was dark enough for the orcs to shelter under the protection of tents, waiting out the hours until nightfall.

"Master Toz, we found someone wandering alone in the woods." Toz looked up from the fire at the familar, wheedling tone. Obviously the little goblin wanted his share of the spoils. Their gold or weapons, or most likely of all, their flesh. "A man." Toz sniffed the air, inhaling deeply. Either his nose was wrong, or the smell of manflesh had somehow changed very recently. He stood up as the goblins pulled the figure into the light of the fire, grasp tightening on his scimitar. The tiny figure, barely reaching the shoulder of the small goblins, staggered, his shoulders loose and arms unmoving. A thick mop of dark hair fell over his face, hiding his features. Toz motioned for them to come closer to the firelight, watching the prisoner limping heavily, a whimper of pain escaping his throat with almost every step. The orc stared at his large, bare feet, a frown twisting his already snarled features.

"Drop him." Toz commanded. The goblins complied, and Kili sank to his knees, head bowed. He could hear the heavy breathing of the orc approaching him, and beneath the thick curtain of hair that half-covered his eyes, saw a pair of black boots shuffle closer. Toz grabbed a handful of tangled brown hair, pulling it out of his face and jerking him upwards, looking at his face. He took in the wide dark eyes, the sparse hair that barely touched his jaw, the thin nose. Toz motioned silently for the heavy sack that contained the plunder, standing out of Kili's reach before upending the contents onto the dusty ground. Kili watched his armour and his weapons tumble with his blue clothing onto the dirt, heart hammering in his throat. The orc picked up the bow, testing the string idly, looking from the bow to Kili, and back again. He let it fall, poking through the clothing. The heavy furs, the geometric designs stamped on the leather, the ornate buckles of silver, the huge boots. These were not the clothes of men. They were of dwarvish make. Toz took it all in, alternating his yellow gaze between Kili and the pile of booty. He lifted the cloak, smelling the lining. His face contorted, and he dropped the fabric as though it burned him.

"Dwarf." He spat out, Kili's heart sinking as Toz kicked at the pile. The word had an electric effect on the gathering of goblins and orcs. They began to mutter, to stare at Kili and jeer. Several of the goblins howled, losing their heads and launching into an attack on the bound dwarf prince. Kili cried out, curling over as the fists and feet beat at his back and head, sharp corners of poorly-forged armour tearing into his skin. He tried to crawl away on his injured legs and bound hands, but the throng of goblins around him was too tight, and he couldn't move. He was pushed on his side, and though he tried to kick out at them somebody stamped on his ankle with their heavy boots, Kili's scream piercing the morning air.

"Enough!" Toz cuffed two goblins about the head, pulling the smaller creatures from their relentless assault on Kili. The young dwarf coughed into the dirt, winded. "Skon, control your tribe!" He grabbed Kili by a thick handful of hair, dragging him away from the knot of goblins.

"But the Great Goblin-"

"I said enough!" Toz thundered. "He is mine now. If he's one of the ones who killed your Leader, I will give him to the Misty Mountains." That was a lie - There was someone else looking for Thorin Oakenshield's company of dwarves. Someone willing to pay a much, much higher price. Kili hung by his hair, half-sitting up. He saw the goblins looming over him, clenching the crude makeshift weapons that had bruised and battered his skin. They looked at him, hungrily. They wanted to tear him to pieces. They wanted him to suffer, in the worst ways imaginable. They wanted to destroy him. The fear cramped his stomach, and made him feel sick. Seven plus twelve. Nineteen. Plus twelve wargs. Thirty-one foul creatures who ached to kill him, who left him bloodied and half-naked, bound, far, far out of reach from Thorin and Fili.

He was going to die.

Kili always expected that he would die on the battlefield. In a blaze of glory, after killing too many of his foes to count. Pierced with innumerable wounds before being finally slain by the final blow of a dying Goblin-King. The young prince, who had never seen true battle but heard hundreds of stories of his ancestors, both real and mythical, could not imagine an end more honourable, more fitting, for an heir of Durin.

But that would not be his end. He was going to die, gutted like a fish, unable to fight back after being captured in a moment of sheer stupidity, with nobody to defend him. To be hacked into pieces and eaten like a beast. The only evidence of his existence would be his clothes and weapons, to be traded off and given as trophies, to both allies and foes. He imagined Fili, leaning sobbing over his broken bow, and felt his heart split in two. His mother. Oh Durin his mother. She would drive herself mad with grief. Worse would be if they never found a thing, if they heard nothing at all. Perhaps he would remain a ghost, a spirit doomed to wander the forests at the feet of the Misty Mountains as the world grew old. And Kili would forever be known as the one heir of Durin who never laid eyes on Erebor. There would be no dining in the mansions of Aulë for him. Hopelessness rolled over him in a long, crushing wave, and he fell completely limp in Toz's hand.

"Leave!" He barked out a strong of words that were alien to Kili, a list of Orcish curses. Skon and his tiny company turned and fled, shrieking, into the gloomy morning. Toz released his hold on Kili, rolling him over with the tip of a sharp boot. "Get him tied up over there." He motioned his head towards a small tree near the middle of the clearing, thin in trunk, but sturdy enough to hold a dwarf, especially one as battered as Kili. He was dragged by his stiff arms across the carpet of leaves, flexing his fingers as his hands were briefly unbound. For several delicious moments, the intense pressure on his shoulders and arms had been released, Kili taking in the first deep breath for some hours. He was retied with his arms stretched uncomfortably around the back of the tree, wrists barely meeting. He was completely pinned, unable to move his arms an inch. He could turn his head slightly left and right, and could bow his neck, but not look up at the sky. His legs were free, but although he gave a half-hearted kick at the orc who bound him to the tree, the creature merely darted away with a cackle as the knot was tied. The heat of the fire brushed his bare skin, warming his feet, but his arms were very cold. He could bend his fingers, but his wrists were held fast. Kili blew his hair out of his eyes, watching the head Orc crouch down and pick through his belongings. He examined the bow with some interests, running his fingers over the metalwork. No doubt a dwarvish bow was new to him. He tested the arrowheads, muttering assent to their craft, and Kili felt something blossom within him, in grim satisfaction. He'd crafted and sharpened the heads himself. The bow, too, was largely Kili's handiwork. Too small for the bow of a man, and certainly an elf, Kili copied the design of a child's bow, with stronger wood, and a design that fitted his broad hands.

Toz fingered the edge of Kili's tunic, talking to himself in a foreign language. He was studying the design closely, the interlocking geometric design, replicated on the sling of his bow. He cast his eye back to the dwarf, half-hidden in shadow, before finally picking up the one thing Kili had hoped, above all hope, had been dropped on the ground and forgotten.

The orc held the small round pendant, with the broken leather thong, into the firelight, studying it closely. It was not made of silver or gold. It had been a gift from Thorin, tied around his neck the day Kili was born. It was a tiny circle of mithril, the very, very last Thorin had from his days as King of Erebor. Upon it was stamped the crest of Durin. Kili had worn it every day of his life as a reminder of his lineage, his ancestry. Half the size of a thumbnail, the mithril was worth more than a pound of gold, and Kili had always kept it hidden beneath every thick layer of clothing, as advised by his uncle. But in their hastiness to strip him, the leather broke, the pendant fell into the soft folds of his undershirt, wrapped up in the sack with his tunic and trousers. The light from the mithril flashed in the campfire, attracting the attention of all the orcs in the clearing. Toz held it with an outstretched arm, watching the white sheen on the firelight. His face was twisted even further than before as he studied it. He didn't recognise the device of Durin. But it didn't matter. It was mithril and it bore an impressive crest. That was enough for him.

"Send word to Azog." Toz gestured to an underling at his side. Kili gasped at the words, clenching his hands on impulse. The orc crowed in assent as he leaped astride a huge grey warg, crashing out of the clearing. Toz turned back to stare at him, and although Kili tried to keep an impassive face, his wide eyes and trembling lips gave everything away. Toz turned his lips in a smirk, giving the rest of the plunder a dismissive wave before thrusting the pendant in his pocket. The orcs crowed in delight and began to paw all over his things, making off with the warm cloak to line the bed, pulling on his tunic and boots, cackling at one another in laughter, fighting over his sword, too short of any of them, but still the finest blade they could ever hope to hold. Toz ignored them as he approached the young dwarf, Kili's heart sinking further and further with every step the orc took. Toz stopped several feet before the young dwarf, swinging his scimitar idly at his left. Kili drew his knees up to his chest, breathing very heavily. Their eyes met. The orc's narrowed, calculating and as yellow as fire, the dwarf's wide and dark, brimming with tears but refusing to let them fall. Toz twirled the sword, letting the beaten blade catch the firelight. It was broken and blackened, looking very dull against the orange of the fire. Kili kept his lips closed. He refused to speak a word that could incriminate him. As it was, they had nothing that could tie him to Thorin. Just a pendant. A few clothes. Without a name, they had nothing. He had a resolute, dwarvish heart and they couldn't ever break him.

Kili swallowed, transfixed, as he stared at the scimitar turning blackly in the firelight.

They can't break me.

Thirteen faces stared at each other around the table. Thirteen pairs of eyes. Some downcast, some looking up at the ceiling, some staring intently at the black-haired figure at the centre of the table. One pair was very red, although the others chose not to notice. Thirteen sets of lips, closed very tightly, refusing to break the heavy pall of silence that enveloped the incomplete company. The silence stretched from seconds to minutes, until finally Fili slammed his fists down on the table.

"We have to go back out." He made to stand up, but Thorin and Gloin grabbed his elbows, holding him fast. Thorin's pallid face strained with the effort, eyes rimmed with heavy shadows. "There's still some time before sunset. If we leave now-"

"Nobody, Master Fili, is leaving this house." The group started at the voice. Gandalf stepped into the hall, the front door squeaking behind him. "Beorn has given me very strict orders to make sure no soul passes through that door." He sat down between Thorin and Fili, the dwarves shuffling aside on the bench. "You cannot begin to imagine the horrors of the wild in these parts at night." The Bears were the least of it. "Goblins have been seen in their hundreds, scouring the countryside for any sign of the dwarves who killed their King in their domain. If you were to be caught-"

"But he has." Fili tore himself free from Gloin's hold, standing up. "Kili - he's out there! He's out there alone, with the place crawling with goblins who want to kill him!" Bilbo's heart swelled at the sight. "You're all brothers." At this, Thorin's eyes went very dim, staring down at the tabletop, sinking into dark memory. "Please." His voice had faded to a soft gasp, his wild eyes swiveling across the long table. But nobody could meet his gaze. They were all too afraid to look at him.

"We will go nowhere until morning." Thorin's voice was slow, and steady, but nobody could ignore his shaking hands, curled into fists. "We will organize search parties, with Beorn's horses to help us cover more ground." Fili leaned forward, hands on the table. Fili's golden braids cascaded downwards, brushing the smooth wooden surface. "Fili." Thorin's voice rose. "Nowhere until morning, do you understand me?" Fili's bow deepened, until his forehead touched the table.  "Fili."

Fili responded with a low animal roar, in the base of his throat. Bilbo jumped at the sound as Fili upended the long table, the hall filling with the sound of plates and cups and cutlery scattering about on the floor, with the curses and sounds of alarm by the dwarves as they scuttled out of the way. Only Gandalf, ever unperturbed, continued to puff away on his pipe as though nothing had happened. Thorin stared at Fili with wide eyes, mouth gaping silently in a vain attempt to speak. Fili stood panting over the debris, his shoulders heaving, lips parted as he gasped for air. The short, ugly breathing was the only sound in the otherwise silent hall. For what seemed like a very long while, the rest of the company stared at Fili in complete silence, agape. Nobody had ever seen him lose control like this. Fili was the strong, sensible one. He always kept his head. This sort of outburst was completely alien to them, even in this situation. Even Thorin was at a complete loss for words. Everybody held their breath, tentatively waiting to see what he would do next, expecting him to scream or lash out or cry. Fili stood, stiff and rigid, as though expecting something from somebody, the breath escaping from his body in those awful loud gasps.

Eventually, Thorin stood up. He winced at the motion and a hand drifted to his ribs. He gently touched Fili's shoulders, one arm snaking across his back, pushing down on him. Not pushing. He leaned on his nephew. His bearded chin dug into the crook of Fili's neck. And slowly, with the stiffness of the aged and enfeebled, Fili sank into the long bench seat. His head sank downwards, face hidden by a long falling mane of gold. The thick fingers of his broad hands threaded through the mass of curls and braids, Fili's shoulders shaking with the soft, snuffling sound of someone crying, and trying not to show it. Thorin's hands tightened on his shoulders, the other dwarves watching as he whispered something in Fili's ear through the curtain of blonde hair, on the edge of his breath, so soft that even Fili struggled to hear it. But whatever it was, the effect was immediate. Fili's taught shoulders slackened, and his hands fell lax, arms resting on his knees. He looked defeated.

"Well now, let's get this up." Gandalf rose to his feet, resting his pipe between his teeth and gesturing to the heavy table. While Bilbo and Ori watched, Thorin and Fili remaining silent on the bench, the others heaved the table into its original place with no small amount of muttering and low swearing. They cleared the ruined food, doing their best to mop up the spilled drinks, and stacking the dishes in neat piles. Bilbo's hands trembled as he set an empty cup down on the table, reminded very painfully of his home at Bag End. But this party could not be further from the merry night when Bilbo began his adventure. While the sun began faded outside, the company rolled out their blankets and furs in the familiar tight pile. While Gandalf puffed away at his long pipe, Dwalin and Gloin carefully helped Thorin out of his clothes and into his pile of thick furs before returning to the table. Some of the dwarves lay down and tried to get some sleep, knowing they had to be ready to leave at first light. Ori sat cross-legged, reading. Balin muttered to his brother at the table, glancing down at a worn map and counting on his fingers. Dori fiddled with his pipe. Bofur slowly whittled. But Fili had remained in his seat, head down. Limp as a doll, he didn't respond to Gandalf's hand on his shoulder, and the wizard had to shake him very hard before Fili raised his head.

"I think it best you try to get a few hours of sleep before the dawn." He flashed a kindly smile, but Fili gave no expression. His eyes were awfully blank, lips slack in silence. Tear tracks had dried on his cheeks, glimmering in the firelight. "Come now." He gave Fili a little push, but the dwarf remained seated.

"Fili, go to bed." Thorin barked from his place on the floor, resting on one elbow. "Now." Fili's eyes flickered, from the firepit to Thorin. The hollow expression left Thorin cold and he looked uneasily down at his hands. But Fili slowly rose to his feet, walking around the table with heavy, dull thumps on the floorboards. He shrugged off his cloak and left it in a puddle by the beds, kicking off his boots. He left most of his clothes in a rumpled lump, the dwarves making way as Fili shuffled through to his bed in the center. Fili lay down on his side, staring at the empty space where Kili should have been sleeping. His bed had still been set up, the thick mantle beneath a warm woven blanket, a spare shirt rolled up as a pillow. Fili stretched out his fingers, threading them through the thick fur. He closed his eyes but sleep was not going to come to him that night. His mind tortured him, with images of Kili broken and bloody, tumbling down a ravine, being torn to pieces by wargs and shot and stabbed by goblin weapons. He opened his eyes again but Kili's lifeless face seemed to hover before him, on the furs, and that was worse. Although the rest of the dwarves slowly bunked down, the soft murmurs growing quieter and slower until giving way entirely to snores, Fili remained awake, with his hand in Kili's bed, the words Thorin had whispered in his ear rolling around and around in his head.

Sons of Durin do not scream and cry.

Chapter Text

The day seemed endless to Kili.

While the sun hung unchallenged in a clear sky, light failed to pierce the heavy canopy of leaves that enfolded the campsite, which lay shrouded in a dull, green gloom. The air was hot and smoky, with the horrible, stale odour of meat starting to turn bad. He didn't know how much time passed, tied to the tree. Nobody bothered to put a watch on him - the camp was busy enough with orcs scurrying about, and Kili was held very fast to the slim tree. So he stared at the huddled figures around the fire, catching snatches of conversation. Sometimes they got carried away, talking too loudly before looking up and noticing the young dwarf staring at them. Then they lowered their voices, or switched into their native tongue, a horrible, cursed language that scratched on Kili's ears. As the day wore on, Kili's stomach cramped tighter and tighter, his mouth drew drier, his limbs stiffer and colder. Kili couldn't stay still. He shuffled and fidgeted and mewled, pawing at the ground with his bare feet. Flashing glances of annoyance were tossed Kili's way, but he refused to stay still and quiet, even as his breathing grew slower and more laboured, with the sheer effort of staying conscious.

"Oi." Kili's eyes were dazed and unfocused as he received the heavy cuff about the head. Toz crouched down before him, a snarl fixed on his warped features. Kili stared for a moment, lips parted in a heavy breath as he realised the orc held something in a black claw. A flask. His eyes widened, and was only able to manage a short cry of protest before the flask was shoved into Kili's mouth and upended. He sputtered as the molten liquid slid down his throat, settling in his stomach like a hot coal. Toz let the flask empty in the dwarf's throat, and Kili coughed as the orc withdrew, a few drops remaining on his dry lips. Satisfied, Toz turned back to the campfire, bawling out some joke in that awful native tongue. Kili swallowed and spat and coughed, trying to get the taste out of his mouth. It was the bitterest thing he'd ever tasted. But it had worked somehow. His stiff arms felt more relaxed, his ankle didn't hurt and he'd forgotten about the darkening bruises plastered over his quivering torso. Kili sucked in a deep lungful of air as he realised the sensation as it slowly built in his stomach, spreading to his limbs. He was drunk.

Kili's head lolled on a slack neck, drooping forwards as exhaustion and pain and the effects of the drink began to erode at his stout iron will. Even though he whispered under his breath, refusing to cave into sleep amongst these people, Kili's heavy eyes began to hang down, as his shuffling and struggling grew slower and weaker until his limbs remained still. And as sun began to drawn downwards into a reddening sky, Kili sank into the soft embrace of sleep. Toz untied the snoring figure from the tree, binding his hands and feet and tying him onto the back of a warg. Kili's nose fell into the coarse grey fur, and he burst into a terrifying memory-dream of flashing yellow eyes and sharp white teeth looming over him in a blue hour of twilight, with a scream and a rushing cascade of blood. He moaned aloud and struggled against the bonds, lost in a nightmare. Toz paused as he realised the dwarf was talking in his sleep.

"Fili no... Help..." Toz filed the name away in his memory as he bent down to check his boots. "Fili please." He pressed Kili's face into the fur, muffling the sound as he leaped astride the grey beast. Azog's message in response was swift and concise. He wanted the dwarf - there - as soon as possible. By nightfall.

And with a grim smile on his face, Toz struck the short whip against the side of the warg, plunging from the relative darkness of the campsite into the murky green light of the wood.

It was the hour before dawn, when Fili finally shoved aside the blankets, clambering unceremoniously across several sleeping bodies to get at his clothes. Muttered swearing bubbled in the hall, several cracked eyes glaring at Fili pulling on his trousers. Thorin, who had lain awake all night listening to his nephew tossing and turning, sat up slowly, watching the figure grope about in the gloom.

"Going somewhere Fili?" His rough voice was enough to rouse the few that had managed to sleep through Fili's thumping and shuffling. Fili's silhouette jerked in the light, and he looked over at his uncle.

"We have to get ready." He spoke shortly, making his way to the low table, half-dressed. He sniffed at the remains of last nights dinner, cramming a stale loaf of bread into his mouth.

"The lad's right." Dwalin groaned, pulling himself out of bed. "We best be ready to leave on the verge of dawn." He kicked at a half-sleeping Dori, who muttered in response. "Up, lazybones."

Fili bent down, blowing life into the fire as the dwarves began to sleepily pull themselves together. They were all tired and annoyed - but nobody dared to mutter anything aloud. In fact, they all dressed and ate in rare, pensive silence. More than one looked at the empty space beside Fili, brow creased. Eventually Thorin filled the space, sitting down heavily in his pajamas. He'd resigned himself to the fact that he would be staying behind, and watched silently as Balin spread his hand-drawn map out on the table.

"Dwalin and I sketched this last night." It wasn't entirely accurate, but it have an approximate representation of the local landmarks and dangers. Maps of this part of the world were hard to come by, either being out of date, or left entirely blank. Their heads all bent over the table as Gandalf stepped into the hall from his alcove room. "Thank Durin it's summer, and we have a good fifteen hours of daylight. That means seven hours of riding before we would have to turn back. That means we can get about here." He sketched a rough line ten leagues around Beorn's hall. "Maybe less for the forest if it's hard going." Thorin had a hand resting on Fili's shoulder. "Although single riders would cover more ground, we'd be running into the exact same problem. So we'll be going in pairs. Balin and Ori, Oin and Bilbo, Gloin and Nori, Bofur and Bombur, Bifur and Dori, Fili and Gandalf, and Dwalin can hold his own." His brother nodded silently. He'd tried to match the hardiest warriors with the youngest and least experienced, and knew that without Gandalf to keep him in check, Fili wouldn't stop and turn back in time to make it home before dark. "It's a search mission above all else. If you find Kili and... and he's in some sort of trouble, you're not to play the hero. Memorise where you are and come back so we can go as a group." Gandalf stood with his arms crossed, surveying the group. "I cannot stress this enough." Balin looked very hard at Fili. "Far too often in this situation, it's the searchers who land themselves in trouble." The rest of the room nodded silently, except for Fili, who was staring down at the map.

"He would for us." Fili spoke so softly, only Thorin could hear him. He received a stony glare from his uncle in response, and kept his mouth closed.

"We all want him back, laddie." Gloin's eyes crinkled in an attempt at a warm smile. "We'll find him, no worry. How far can one dwarf go on foot?"

"We couldn't find him yesterday." Fili stood up. "And if we don't leave now, we won't find him today." He collected his swords, slinging the weapons across his back. Fili turned towards the door, but before he could take a step, the young prince froze, seeing Thorin standing before him, white-faced and hollow-eyed.

"Don't for one second believe you are alone in wishing him back." Fili swallowed as the mask cracked, and for just a moment, the grief and pain and anxiety that plagued Thorin and hindered his recovery was written all over his face, set in heavy lines and dark shadows under his eyes. Fili thought he felt bitter loss and anguish. But he had no idea. The fear of losing Kili had wracked Thorin ever since he stepped foot out of Ered Luin. He was too young, too rash and impulsive and naive for this quest. He didn't listen to Thorin, didn't keep out of danger, didn't check anything, almost drowned himself and his brother too, lost the ponies and landed them into the trouble with the trolls. He'd been misbehaving since they'd left Bag End, and this felt like Thorin to be the final blow. If - when, not if - he was found, Thorin was sorely tempted to send him home. He would have done it earlier, if had been anybody else. But Kili was the baby of the company, not even of age. He was the one that needed checking, needed looking out for, and Thorin took his role as protector of his young nephew very seriously. It wasn't Fili or Balin Thorin had screamed for during the fight of the stone giants.

But it was only a flicker, and within a heartbeat, Thorin's expression settled back into his usual, gruff mask, not looking Fili in the eye as he clumped over to the table, sitting himself down with a silent wince. The other dwarves packed up what was left of the food and put their boots on under a heavy, quiet shroud. They were dull and slow. Thorin watched them go, slumping forward on the table as the company disappeared into the grey, pre-dawn light. He rested his head on a crooked elbow, his left hand clutching at his ribs.

Kili. He let out a low moan, closing his eyes. Kili, Kili, Kili.

He refused to think that he would never see his youngest nephew again. That he would never see Kili's cheeky, impish grin and those wide eyes. His untidy mop of chestnut hair that he inexplicably refused to braid. Thorin's heart ached in remembrance. Was it really seventy years ago, when he held the tiny child in his arms, whispering soft lullabies and gently rocking him to sleep? When Kili's hands were so tiny, his little grasp could barely fit around Thorin's thumb? When he could lie stretched out on Thorin's torso, his little head tucked just beneath his bearded chin, legs kicking at his stomach? Fili had been a strong, boisterous babe, with a powerful cry and red, chubby cheeks. But Kili had been thin and sickly, far too pale, with all the bones showing beneath his skin, and a stretched, pitiful wail that barely rose above a whimper. When Fili began his weapons training  at the tender age of fifteen, Dwalin declared the child a prodigy of the sword, if a little clumsy with an axe, and he spoke Khuzdul with easy fluency. His beard came in early, he was stronger than children several years older than him. He was quick on his feet and until Kili's growth spurt, could beat anybody in a foot-race by several yards. Fili couldn't wish for a greater heir, and he wrote to Dain with considerable enthusiasm for his nephew, wishing for the boy to spend some years in the Iron Hills, learning the ancient customs of Durin which had begun to crumble in the settlement of Ered Luin. He had to wait until Fili was forty, but away the adolescent dwarf went, coming back in seven years with a magnificent yellow beard, his lion's mane braided with gold. Thorin tried to give Kili the same privelege, but his cousin wasn't interested in the bow-slinging younger brother, smooth as a child, with clumsy Khuzdul and no skill with a forge, and Kili stayed behind, morose and abandoned.

It was then when Thorin realised that Kili was never going to be a true prince of Durin. He lacked the conduct and discipline, the skill with dwarvish weapons, and most painfully, the beard. He was painfully reminded, every day, of Frerin, who twisted his brittle wrists at weapons practice at least once a month, who would push aside his books and draw all over the paper, designs and sketches of things he wanted to make. Who would come in when Thorin was sleeping and whisper that he had a bad dream and couldn't sleep, and could he stay with Thorin for the night? Who walked in the shadows of Erebor, ignoring the despairing gaze of Thrain and Thror while Thorin was hailed as the finest dwarf prince the kingdom had ever seen. And terrified of history repeating itself, heart sickened with memory, Thorin caved to Kili's natural attraction to archery, and let the boy take lessons from a neighboring town of men, ignoring the rumblings of discontent from his comrades. When he slacked off on his Khuzdul and stopped paying attention to Balin's classes, Thorin brought Kili instead into the forge, giving him pieces of scrap to tinker with. Rather than ignoring the boy or beating his ideals into him, Thorin allowed Kili freedom and happiness enough to pursue his own goals. And Thorin thought it worked. He was a very, very fast runner, and his skill with the bow was impressive even amongst men and elves. He was fond of puzzles and riddles, and his quick mind could untangle any logical knot. When Fili returned from the Iron Hills, he noticed the remarkable change, and even went so far as to say the separation had done Kili good, who had aged on his own terms without measuring himself against his brother.

But Thorin still babied him. It became painfully obvious to everybody that he treated Kili differently. His expectations for Fili, his immediate heir, bordered on the unrealistic. Fili, who had mastered his swords, must then learn the axe, and the nuances of the forge, the literature and lore of his ancestors. And while Kili practised shooting rabbits in the woods, Fili slaved over a red-hot fire. While Kili slept soundly in his bed, Fili sat hunched over dusty tomes of histories in the complicated phrasing of ancient Khuzdul. But not once did Fili harbour discontent towards his uncle and brother. Fili had deep memories of the glory and opulence of the Iron Hills, and felt cheated as he trudged along in the Blue Mountains. The love of gold and jewels which had consumed his grandfather and great-grandfather began to grow within him. His heart began to be drawn to the kingdom beneath the Mountain which was destined to be his. Thorin felt Fili's discontent plainly, even encouraged it. Complacency, he knew, would destroy their hopes of ever regaining their homeland. So when Fili finally came of age two years ago, Thorin stood in the packed dining Hall, eyes shining in the light of a hundred lanterns, his hand tightly clinging to his nephew's shoulder. And he announced his intention to reclaim Erebor. Two years had passed, two years of sending messages to their brethren in isolated mountains, of drawing and puzzling over maps, of forging new weapons of thick, polished steel, weapons they hoped could withstand dragon's flame.

And two years later, he sat alone in the morning-lit room, surrounded by empty plates and scattered crumbs. Listening to the muffled sounds of birds and bees, as his wounds pained him and head hung heavy and tired. Thorin straightened, looking behind him to the cluster of beds. None were as close together as his nephews. They even shared their blankets on cold nights, Kili sleeping with his head on Fili's shoulder like a child. He couldn't stand to look at it. With a sigh, Thorin forced himself to stand, making his lopsided way to the front door. The morning sun was as rich and warm as butter, and he sat down in the grass quietly, leaning against the side of the Hall with sunbeams piercing his face.

Mahal. Thorin whispered a short prayer in Khuzdul, lips resting on his clasped hands. Protect him. Guard him. Ensure his safety. Nothing could move the unshakeable fear that hung in Thorin's chest, threatening to explode. Fear that his kin would return with Kili's body or worse, a scrap of bloodied clothing, a few bones. Any anger at Kili had been displaced by the crippling fear. Thorin found it hard to breathe. He arched his neck to take in the sunlight on the face, as though it would burn out the unease that swelled within him.

But despite the glorious late-summer morning, Thorin felt very, very cold.

Kili was halfway between dream and waking when he fell heavily onto the ground.

He was having the nightmare again, where he was in the woods, with the warg, and he screamed for Fili over and over but he never came and the warg pounced on him, with a horrible rushing sound. Usually in the nightmare, Kili awoke before the warg ever touched his skin, but this time, he watched, screaming and crying as the warg lifted his tiny body easily in a set of monstrous teeth, shaking him like a broken doll. As he was thrown in his dream, Kili was dumped onto the ground in real life, falling-face-first into the ground. His eyes cracked open, half-asleep, to see the teeth of a warg inches from his face.

He screamed, twisting about like a fish on dry land, thinking for a terrible moment that the dream was real, that he was twelve again in the woods outside his home, cornered and defenseless. It was the loud shouting above his head of the orc, calling the beast back, that brought reality crashing down, and Kili remembered what had happened, falling still.

It was a cool night without a whisper of wind. The moonlight dusted the orc's boots by Kili's face. Kili struggled into a sitting position with hands and feet bound, knocking himself against the legs of the orc and receiving a sharp kick in response.

"Toz." Kili's head whipped around at the word, heart freezing in his throat as he saw the figure on the other side of the clearing. His white skin shone iridescent in the moonlight, eyes looking very black in his pale skull. He took one step towards the pair, and another, sizing the bound dwarf up. His beardless face and his unbraided hair, his eyes that struggled to hold back tears. He was barely above a child, certainly not Thorin himself. Azog had little memory of Thorin's company, his mind at the time preoccupied with Thorin and the cursed halfling that dared to stand before him. But there was little doubt in his mind that this particular dwarf ranked amongst their numbers. Kili backed into the orc behind him, breath dead in his throat as the Azog approached him. He started speaking to the other orc in Black Speech, his existing arm pointing downwards, at Kili.

"Who is this? This is not Thorin Oakenshield." Kili caught his uncle's name, swallowing with a very dry mouth. Toz visibly quailed under the harsh words of the orc king.

"I-I know he looks young, but-"

"This boy wouldn't have been alive during Azanulbizar." The disappointment was painfully obvious, even to Kili. "You fool!"

"But his clothes - they were kingly! His sword was fit for a prince!" Toz whined. "He - carried this." He thrust his hand in the pocket, withdrawing the mithril. Toz had hoped to keep it hidden, to trade off when he had returned to his southern homeland; now he bartered for his life. Kili looked up at the glimmering pendant, shining like a polished jewel in the light of themoon. It was dazzling. Azog took the trinket, the metal looking very small in his hand. He studied it closely. Yes, he knew the device of Durin very well. It had been on Thror's helmet when Azog beheaded him. Thorin wore it on his belt, the hilt of his sword and axe. This paltry scrap of mithril was doubtlessly one of the most precious things remaining in the hands of the former inhabitants of Erebor. Azog looked from the pendant to the shivering dwarf which had worn it. He stared at his wide brown eyes, his thin nose and angular jawline. Too young, indeed. His neck rolled back as a long, slow laugh exploded into the night, a fresh wave of terror washing over Kili at the awful sound.

"Bring him." Azog turned away from Toz, towards the open mouth of the cave where he rested. Kili saw the flicker of firelight from deep within, heard the banging of iron and the occasional hoarse screech and curse.

"N-No." Kili protested as Toz grabbed him by the hair. "You have the wrong person!" Did Azog speak Westron? Could he hear Kili's pleas? Or were his cries of desperation nothing but foreign, garbled gibberish in the night? "Stop!" He was slung over the orc's shoulders, and though he kicked out and screamed, Toz bore the weak attacks silently, his mind focused on the reward which awaited him within the cave. For him, it held the promise of luxury.

But for Kili, weak with hunger and thirst, bruised and shivering, the cave promised only unspeakable pain and horror.

Chapter Text

"Perhaps you would like me to tell you a tale, Master Fili." The wizard broke an hour of pained silence with a gentle aside, one so soft and nondescript that Fili, who had kept his eyes fixed on the narrow path before them, looked up in surprise.

"With all respect, Gandalf, this is not the time for stories." His hands tightened on the reins. Thin, loose things they were, for show more than actual use, but it comforted Fili to hold them. It gave him the illusion of control.

"Oh, I think you should like to hear it." Gandalf pulled his pipe from his sleeve, rifling about for his pouch of tobacco. "It concerns your father." At this, Fili stiffened, and looked away from the wizard.

"I wasn't aware you knew him." Fili muttered, gaze lowered down to his hands. Gandalf studied his reaction carefully. "I've had nothing to do with my father for a very long time."

"Oh yes, I'm quite aware." Gandalf lit the pipe with a finger. "However, I myself find the entire business abhorrent, the hushing-up and skirting around. The truth should always be told, even in matters such as these." He blew out a long cloud of smoke. "This is something you deserve - you need - to know." Fili couldn't look at him." I've been meaning to get you alone for a while," he explained, "but it is difficult when you refuse to let your brother out of your sight." He sounded almost accusing. Fili's head snapped up, and he gave the wizard a molten stare. "Am I right in assuming that he is ignorant to the truth?"

"Of course he is." Fili wound the reins around and around his fingers, watching them turn purple. "Kili thinks he died a hero before he was born. Nobody will tell him otherwise."

"And you believe this is wise?"

"It's not my right to decide what is wise." Fili snapped, face paling as he realised just who he had been talking to. "Sorry." He whispered. "What... What did you have to say about him?"

"I found him rather recently." Gandalf had a wonderful way of talking. His words babbled and flowed, like a gushing river. Even the most grisly details had the gentle cadence of a child's nursery story. It thrummed comfortably in Fili's ears. "It was about, oh, six or seven years ago," Recently? He supposed that was recent, for Gandalf. At any rate, it was better than the last time Fili had laid eyes on the man - almost seventy-eight years ago. "I was travelling along the Eastern provinces of Enedwaith, and-"

"What in Durin's name were you doing out there? I've heard it's nothing but ruins and barbarians." Fili interrupted. Gandalf raised one of his magnificent eyebrows, merely heaving a sigh before continuing with his story.

"I was travelling along the Eastern provinces, and crossed into Dunland. It is the only way to enter Isengard west of the Misty Mountains, and I don't have to tell you the troubles of that. Now I'm sure you've heard rumours of the Dunlendings. Savages and barbarians, all of that. But as long as you don't bother them, and you're not a man of Rohan, they are quite accommodating. Saruman gets along quite decently with them - they haven't attacked his tower at least - and if you pass through with enough gold and iron, they will treat you like one of their own." Fili looked over at Gandalf, wondering where he was going with this story. "I spent a night in their Hall - if you could call it that - and got to talking about this and that, who they had seen and whatnot. And the leader, Aelgar I believe was his name, told me of those who had passed through their company. Like most desolate tribes in the wildlands, they become quite a haven for outcasts and vagrants of more noble peoples." Fili's head drooped, as he realised where the story was going. "And they mentioned a rather youngish dwarf, who had dwelled in their realm some years before."

"Was it him?" In line with the custom of Dwarves, Fili could never utter his father's name aloud, or write it down. It was banished from the hearts and minds of his people, for ever. He was Isimun Ghunum.  Eternally lonely. Not simply dead - it was as though he had never been. Nobody was to ever mention him again. Nobody was to attempt to seek him out. He had been shaved and branded and cast out into the wilderness, left abandoned by his people for ever. To be Isimun Ghunum was the worst punishment a dwarf could suffer. Worst than death. Centuries of loneliness, cut off from not just their kin and tribes, but the entire dwarf people. It was a sentence delivered only by a king (or king-in-exile, as the case came to be), for the absolute highest of unforgivable crimes. Because Fili, Dis, and Thorin refused to ever speak or write it, Kili actually had no idea of his father's name. And when, as a child, he tried to ask anybody else, he was met with silence, as though he were a ghost, or an obvous, forced confusion. I don't know who you're talking about, laddie. Run along now. Fili shouldn't have been listening, even now. He should have told Gandalf to stop talking, to deny that such a being ever existed. But how could he do that? He did exist. Fili was proof of that. Kili too. Although the name had been scratched away, his and Kili's would remain, passing down the ages, as proof that a dwarf of that name did indeed once exist.

"Yes. I asked after his name, and Aelgar spoke it. He had been wandering about for the better part of sixty years, drifting about and eeking an existence from whatever labour and smithwork he could grasp. The Dunlendings kept him around for some time, contracting him to forge new tools and weapons. Most wouldn't stoop to such a low level, but desperation claims us all."  Gandalf respected the dwarf customs, but he was not going to keep Fili from learning the truth about his father. Fili was painfully aware of the heartbeat rushing in his ears.

"Have you told Thorin about this?"

"Thorin does not want to hear it. He considers the dwarf gone in the world, struck off the tongues of the living and the writings of the dead. He is determined that history shall never remember him." He blew out more smoke, the horrible sick feeling rising in Fili's chest.

"You said had." He swallowed, mouth dry. "What happened to him?" Gandalf took in a very long lungful of pipe-riddled air, noticing how wonderful the sky looked. But there was no way he could dodge the question. He had started this story, and was held to finish it.

"He got on quite well with them for the most part. He spent what little money he did earn on drink. He didn't speak much about his past, but he did mention to Aelgar that he had a son. One son." So he never knew about Kili. Fili's heart tightened. He had never known he had a second son. "He didn't mention what terrible deeds he had done, to get himself banished, but his past demons came back to haunt him." Gandalf gave one last puff on his dying pipe. Fili stared very hard at him. "He drank too much one night, the fool, and climbed into bed with Aelgar's youngest daughter." Fili closed his eyes and bowed his head, the awful rushing exploding in his ears, a roar. "She screamed loud enough to wake the Hall and he was found guilty for attacking her." That slow, pleasant rolling in Gandalf's voice had disappeared. He now sounded low, in pain. "I don't need to go into how they did it. But he has left this earth, Fili." The young dwarf's head was bowed. "Be assured of that."

"Did...Did Thorin ever tell you what he did?" Fili kept his voice very low. He didn't feel bitter or angry or upset. Not yet. He just felt numb. Perhaps in a few hours, the full extent of what Gandalf had said would sink in, and he would either burst into tears or break the furniture in a rage. But now, he just sat astride the pony in a stunned silence. Gandalf shook his head, emptying the pipe of its burned fragments.

"He believes such things are a matter of family. But I can guess." Fili looked over at the wizard, hands very tight, as the confession bubbled on his lips. The one that he had kept sealed for his entire life. One that his kin refused to hear. Fili couldn't bear it. Learning about him, his death, peeled the scab off the wound, leaving it fresh, raw, and bleeding. "It is a grievous crime, to warrant such a punishment."

"I was four." Fili looked down at his hands. Gandalf stared at the young dwarf very closely. "I-I know I was young but..." Even though the pipe was empty, Gandalf placed the stem between his teeth out of habit, looking very deep in thought.

"You remember." He finally spoke, as the pipe finally disappeared into his sleeve. Fili nodded, looking very white.

"Yes." Fili closed his eyes, breathing in and out, very very slowly. "I remember." His hands trembled plainly on the reins. "The things they say about Kili... They're not true."

"Oh? What things?" Gandalf feigned ignorance, but Fili was no fool. He gritted his teeth, shaking his head.

"The things. About him. Not being... Not being whole." He couldn't bring himself to say the word. Not about his own brother. He would never dare. He couldn't even think it. He closed his mind to the concept. Gandalf stared at him with those tired, half-lidded eyes. It was blasphemy, to utter the word itself. It was an insult to the honour of his mother. Of her lineage and ancestry. It was some moments before Fili could say how exactly he knew. He would never, ever dare to speak it to one of his kin. Not even Thorin. Especially Thorin. But Gandalf, the wise, aged wizard, was different. Although an outsider, he was considered a friend - at least, enough to somehow receive Thrain's map and key. He could be trusted. It was still some moments before he could speak. "They had red hair." His voice was very, very quiet. "He can't be..."

"Ah. I never suggest for a single moment he was." There was a new seriousness in Gandalf's voice. "And I believe you would be hard pressed to find somebody who actually believed it."

"But they call him-" Fili stopped himself. Even if Gandalf was a friend of the dwarves, he was tentative to speak Khuzdul around him. "Well, it doesn't matter, the exact word..."

"Burm?" Gandalf guessed, arching his head to look over the hill they were slowly climbing. His lips twitched in a flicker of a smile as he noticed Fili's surprise. "Don't tell your uncle, but I learned a little Khuzdul on my travels." He didn't mention who it was from. One thing at a time. "Idle gossip. Pay no heed to the chit-chat of bored housewives and underworked tinkers, Master Fili. I promise you, I have seen at least two or three mixed dwarves in my time, and your brother doesn't resemble them in the slightest. If he were a foot higher, I would be concerned." There was that familiar, lilting tone back in Gandalf's voice. It soothed Fili. "If there is one thing which infuriates me most of all about dwarves, it is their stubborn insistence on relying on the past." Fili's eyes flicked up to him. "It is dead and gone. And you must move forward. I told you the story of your father so you could put it to rest. So you could be consoled in the knowledge that he will never play a part in your life again. Not to tear open a fresh wound. Do you understand me?" Fili nodded silently, unable at that time to give a vocal response, even if Gandalf had been completely wrong. "Good." Gandalf craned his neck again, as his extra height have the wizard a view of something Fili could not yet see. "I do believe Masters Balin and Ori are beyond that ridge. I wonder how they got so far ahead." Gandalf gave the dwarf a pleasant smile. "I rather enjoyed our little outing together Fili." There was an odd note of finality in his voice. He considered the matter closed. They were not to speak of this to anybody. Gandalf obviously enjoyed partaking in secrets. Fili understood the implication in Gandalf's words.

"Yes." But it was a disembodied voice. It didn't sound like his own. "I enjoyed it very much."

"Look sharp, boys!" Azog's voice boomed low, the clattering of scimitars and spears filling the cavern as the orcs jerked to attention. Kili yelped as he landed heavily on the ground, landing on his bruised back. He rolled over and managed to get onto his knees, arching his neck to stare up at the ceiling. But it faded away into a deep, inky blackness that the firelight couldn't penetrate. "Gurk." Azog jerked his head towards Toz. "Money for this orc." Although he didn't understand the language, Kili watched the underling disappear behind a large rock, emerging with a small pouch of gold. Toz couldn't hold back his glee, his hands stretched out greedily and eyes shining. As the bag was pressed into his hands, the orc let out a loud whoop, and with a short, cursory bow to Azog, turned tail and ran out of the cavern. Kili would never see him again.

"What orders from my master?" Gurk wheedled, with a leer towards the young dwarf. Kili screwed his eyes shut tightly, reverting to the childish game of if I can't see you, you can't see me. But it didn't work and he could feel those dead narrow eyes boring down into his fraying soul.

"A band of goblins patrolling the woods came across this lone dwarf." There was the barest hint of sarcasm at Azog's voice in the last word, aimed obviously at Kili's sparse chin. The cave erupted in jeers and mutterings. They all understood the implication - This dwarf obviously had some connection to Azog's chief foe, Thorin Oakenshield. Azog pulled on a handful of dark tangles, Kili gasping aloud as his neck was forced back. Their eyes met. The orc twisted his broken lip in a snarl as he struggled to remember the angular, beardless face in front of him. Maybe he was even one of Durin's line. The thought sent a shiver down Azog's spine. To lay his hands one so young, to snuff out the life of an heir of Durin before a beard thickened on his chin, would be a sweet, rare victory. Royalty or not, there was no doubt in his mind that he was at least one of the refugee dwarves of Erebor. The mithril proved that, although Azog could distinguish no farther. Perhaps it was simply too hard to tell them all apart, when they had been stripped of their clothes and armour, their weapons torn from their hands. Without the heavy leather and fur, a very small dwarf knelt on the ground, trembling at his feet. Kili let out the breath he had been holding, as Azog released his tight grasp on his dark hair.  "Get everything you can." Azog stepped away, turning towards the fire. Kili watched the retreating form with a sick heart. He didn't understand a single word, but he could imagine the meaning very, very clearly. Thorin didn't speak much on the terror of orcs, but the rest had all swapped stories around the campfire at  night. Stories of wars, raids, imprisonment. They all painted a dark, a very dark picture of the creatures that now surrounded Kili. He was alone and defenseless, bubbling with a growing conviction that he would never, ever leave this cave. The cold fear cramped in his bones.

"Ogash, Bakub, build a frame high enough to string 'im up! Ulfish, heat our blades on the fire! Morbol, shred a bit o' leather to make a scourge!" Gurk barked the orders to the scurrying underlings. The orc crouched down before Kili, jagged fingernails digging into his chin. Gurk was reading his face, his emotions. What he read was typical. Terror gripped this young little dwarf, swallowing him whole. This wouldn't take long. He let out a low, dry cackle, his yellow eyes reflecting the firelight. Kili couldn't look at them. He should have counted his bessings. The orcs didn't have their sturdy, sophisticated machines in this cave, the ones that broke the bones and stretched cartilage. The ones that caused the most pain. Still, Gurk would make do with the simple tools he had here. Beating and burning would bring enough suffering to extract any information from this pathetic little creature.

That was the pleasure of dealing with these soft, weak bodies; they were so susceptible to pain.

"I've been counting."

Dwalin lay crouched in the bushes, the other four straining to hear his voice over the rustling of the leaves. Balin lay down on one side beside him, Fili on the other. The dull glow of the firelight came from below, flickering in Dwalin's eyes, his heavy body unmoving. "Twelve all up. And their wargs." Fili looked over at him, jaw tight.

"Have you seen..." He struggled to finish it. Dwalin kept his eyes forward, unable to meet Fili's gaze. "Have you seen any sign of him?"

"A-Aye lad." Dwalin choked the words out. "One o' the goblins was fiddling with his sword a little while ago." He could feel the young body close enough to touch him stiffen. Gandalf pressed a hand to Fili's shoulder, keeping him pinned into the earth. "He was here." Although his location now was anybody's guess.

"We need to get the others!" Ori's voice broke beyond a whisper, and Balin looked at him sternly. "Sorry."

"Nah." Dwalin shook his head. "Too long. I've been thinking. They're asleep at the mo', so it's the best time to strike. Gandalf, remember your stunt with the pinecones?"

"Of course." The wizard allowed a note of pride to creep into his voice. Dwalin grinned.

"Well imagine that - on a bigger scale." He pointed at a fallen tree alongside the warg pen. "Think you could set that ablaze?"

"I would be a terrible wizard if I couldn't." Balin gave his brother a sidelong look.

"Good. They're terrified of fire more than anything. That will be enough to get them running. If we do it all at once, then we can catch the orcs when they're being shaken awake. If we take a tent each, then it only leaves the last for us to deal with together." Fili's eyes were fixed very firmly on Dwalin. "What sort of dwarves would we be if we couldn't take down four orcs each, huh?" He clenched his fists, the metal clinking. Balin, you take the one on the left. I'll take the middle, Fili you go on the right. Ori, stay here and keep a lookout." Ha. A lookout. Ori bit back the insult, keeping his face straight. He knew the implication. Stay out of our way and let us handle it. But he didn't protest or argue. That sort of rash arrogance was the sort of thing that had led them all into this. He wasn't going to attempt any heroics.

"Are you sure about this?" Balin asked carefully, giving his brother one last out.

"It's been two days." There was a hard edge to Dwalin's voice. "We're running out of time. We can't afford to regroup and waste another night." He clapped Fili on the shoulder. The young dwarf swallowed the lump in his throat, his face sagging in gratitude. "And I'm not leavin' without a fight. Not if he's here." He was low and fierce. Dwalin was remembering the little mop of brown hair that used to scurry around at his knees and pull on his beard, touch his bald head and ask where his hair had gone and if that would happen to him too, had fallen over the first time he'd ever picked up an axe and almost severed his toes, who begged to be told stories of battles and warriors of old, the bloodier the better, who would steal his furs and run about growling like a wolf. Having watched the one he fiercely loved married to a brute and left with two fatherless sons, Dwalin came to tentatively treat the children almost as his own, reserving a special affection for Fili, and especially Kili, not seen in any of the other dwarrows. He played 'what-if', and for the most part, Thorin had let him get away with it.

"When do we move?" Fili whispered, staring down at the dying embers of the fire. Dwalin gave him one last long look, before raising his head.

"Now." He crawled on his stomach through the low bushes, ducking his head to avoid the low-hanging thistles. Fili's golden hair was caught, and he heard the sound of swearing followed by a snapping twig, Dwalin looking back on Fili, admonishing him silently. The aged warrior crouched on the ground at the edge of the campfire, careful not to move a muscle. The wargs all slept, but they knew very well the smell of dwarf, and Dwalin was painfully aware that his scent could set them off at any moment. He looked around for Gandalf, a frown marking his forehead. But eventually he saw him, a shadow of grey in the green gloom across the campsite. How did he move so fast? His beard loomed out of the shadows, jerking in a nod. He could hear the other two breathing softly behind him. Fili's hands were on his swords, the low hiss of metal sounding at his right. The orc guard sat with his back to the trio, whistling to himself as he played with Kili's sword. He looked bored. Fili's heart thudded in his chest as he caught sight of the blade, his blood rushing in his hears. How dare he touch it. To see something so close and familiar in the hands of such a disgusting creature rent his soul. Dwalin walked very quietly, hands empty. He didn't need weapons for this kill. The orc didn't hear anything until Dwalin was right behind him, and then it was too late. Dwalin's hands were on his head, and with a sickening crack of a broken neck, the orc dropped to the ground, head twisted almost backwards, dead eyes staring up at the leafy canopy.

Then the fire roared. Fili sprang to his feet, rushing for his tent as the Wargs began to howl. He burst inside, his burnished blades shining in a brilliant flash of firelight. He made out several huddle figures in the gloom, clambering sleepily about. It was all blood and steel and golden hair - Fili lost his sight in a fit of raw, primal bloodlust. All he could hear and see was the black blood of the orcs spilling over his clothes, and their choked, gargled screaming. They were already dead, but he kept up with his slashing and stabbing, breath coming out in broken sobs. It wasn't until the blade stuck in the ribs of a lifeless orc, tearing the handle from his blackened fingers, that Fili slumped foward on his hands and knees, gasping painfully for air. He tore at the tent cloth, feeling it give beneath his hands, as heavy green light fell over the bloodied corpses in front of them. Three broken bodies, hacked to pieces, littered the ground. They were the black limbs of orcs. Fili let out a long, low moan, which was cut short as a piece of blue cloth caught his eye beneath a limbless torso. A very, very familiar piece of blue cloth.

He grabbed the fabric and pulled, blood splattering as the cloak was heaved free of the littered pieces of orcflesh. It was blackened, but it was his. Fili's hands shook uncontrollably as he pressed the hood to his nose, breathing. Beyond the acrid stench of flesh, he caught the familiar scent of Kili's hair. Fili's head jerked up, battling out of the broken tent, staggering across the ground with Kili's cloak in his hands. He took several steps before collapsing onto his knees, the fur of the hood still against his face.

The rest of the campsite had already been desecrated. The wargs had fled - Gandalf saw to that - and the orcs had been polished off by the other two. Balin and Dwalin had seen that the rest of the company had been killed, and they were crouching over the bodies, ducking in and out of the tents, returning to a place by the campfire and setting things down in a pile. It took Fili some moments before he realised what they were.

Kili's sword. Kili's bow. Kili's boots. Kili's gauntlets. Kili's quiver. Kili's trousers. Kili's tunic. Fili stumbled across to the pile of possessions, the cloak trailing in his hand as he fell down beside his brother's scraps of clothing. All of his things. But no Kili. Tears poured down his cheeks as he picked up Kili's tunic, shaking his head. No. No no no no. He looked up to see Dwalin crouching down before him, his palm stretched out towards Fili.

Kili's hair clasp lay on a blood-stained glove. Fili stared at the trinket, shaking his head as his shoulders began to heave with sobs. They sounded animal, so unlike a sound he had ever made before. Dwalin pressed it into Fili's hand, wrapping the clammy fingers into a closed fist. Fili raised the fist to his lips, biting on a knuckle in an attempt to stifle those horrible sobs.

"There's nothing else." Balin announced softly, standing behind Fili. "I've checked." Fili buried his face in Kili's cloak, his sobs unable to be muffled. "Dwalin..." The grey-haired dwarf looked haggard and torn. His voice broke with the next words. "Th-There's some cooked meat in a pot by the fire." Confusion contorted Dwalin's face for several moments, before breaking in sick realisation. The horror on Dwalin's face could not be surpassed. In all of his years, Balin had never seen such an expression on his brother. Even the death of Thror didn't bring this level of pain.

"No..." Dwalin's voice was thick. "You're not... Not saying..." He breathed deeply, feeling a panic attack swell in his chest. No. It was impossible. It couldn't happen. They were only rumours made to scare people, to sully their reputation. The orcs didn't actually consume their prey. They wouldn't have the gall.

"There's nothing else." Balin repeated, and his voice was shaking. Fili's sobs stopped, and he looked at Balin with a shocked confusion. He didn't understand what the elder dwarf was saying.

"What do you mean?" He whispered, lips quivering. "What did they do to him?" Balin looked at his brother, feeling sick. "B-Balin?"

"Lad." Balin crouched down in the dirt. He tried to gently take the clothing from out of Fili's hands, but his grasp was unmoveable. He let them be, staring down at the ground. "You... You know the stories. About what orcs do with their prisoners, when they've... finished with them." Fili's eyes were blank at first. He struggled to untangle what Balin had said, trying to recall the rumours and stories through his thick haze of grief. Balin's heart thudded as he slowly realised that he was going to have to say it aloud. He was going to have to tell Fili point-blank that his brother lay in the stomachs of the orcs they had slain. But as he opened his mouth to speak, Fili's eyes widened in realisation. He shook his head slowly, utterly beyond words. Dwalin knelt in the ground with his eyes closed. Fili held his stomach and pitched forward with a groan.

Balin realised what was happening, and he managed to grab on to his shoulders, turning Fili away from the scattered clothes and weapons and onto a naked pile of dirt, holding the golden braids out of his face as he threw up.

Chapter Text

Kili watched the orcs working busily with heartsick dread.

The wooden frame rose out of the looming shadows over the course of an hour, the two orcs keeping their heads down and tongues still as they lashed the wood together with thick rope. It was built to be high enough to keep Kili's feet from touching the ground, and he watched the pair jump up to hang from the crossbeam, testing the height and strength. The frame held the both of them, feet dangling six inches from the rock floor with their arms outstretched. Gurk nodded, motioning for the frame to be brought close to the fire. He stood behind Kili, the blade of his scimitar resting on the dwarf's shoulder, curling around his collarbone. One false move and Kili's neck would be slashed, and he would bleed out on the cave floor within minutes.

Perhaps that would be better.

Kili tried not to show his fear. He tried to keep his head held high and face straight and impassive. But his thin body was wracked with violent trembling, spasms which robbed the air from his lungs. How could he be brave? This wasn't like being trapped beneath the Misty Mountains. Kili was completely alone. There was no Fili to grab his hand and say that it would be all right. No Thorin to thump him on the shoulder and tell him to run. Gandalf's light wouldn't guide him out of the darkness. He would die here, alone. So very alone. Why had nobody come for him? Surely by now Fili must have been close. He must have found one of the bands of orcs and figured out where he had been taken. Fili wouldn't stop until he found his brother. Kili still clung to the desperate, fading hope that Fili would be somehow rescue him, but he was beaten down. Helplessness and exhaustion had swallowed him, a deep abyss where the walls rose forever and he couldn't get out. He had no idea how much time had passed since he fell asleep in the wood. He hadn't slept beyond a few scarce hours. Nothing passed his lips, save that awful amber liquid that left his limbs as weak and lifeless as straw. Kili couldn't keep his head up any longer, it hung downward, the cold metal of the scimitar touching his chin.

"Oi!" Gurk wiggled the blade against Kili's frozen skin. "None o' that." He kicked at the dwarf, receiving only a murmur in response. The life had leaked out of him, oozing over the cave floor. With a heavy frown, Gurk sheathed his weapon, crouching down in front of Kili and taking his limp head in both hands. He angled the face upwards, brushing away handfuls of dark hair. Kili's eyes opened halfway, dull and glazed. His lips were cracked, the colour of dust. He was dangerously close to passing out on the ground. With a low sound of annoyance, Gurk turned towards the fire, Kili's face still in his hands.

"Water." His command was short and clipped. "And meat." Kili's eyes were pointed towards the ground, unseeing. Gurk took the crude whittled bowl of water presented to him, pressing it to Kili's dry lips. It was brown and smelly, horrible stagnant cave-water that left the stomach cramped and sickly, but the sensation of liquid in his mouth lit a fire inside Kili. His eyes snapped open, and he opened his mouth as wide as he could to greedily accept the water. It dribbled down the sides of his mouth, splattering on his chest in his haste to drink. Gurk angled the bowl upwards as the last drops of water slid down Kili's throat, raising an eyebrow. He'd downed the entire bowl in ten seconds flat, a third of it winding up down his front. Kili sucked in deep, wolfish gasps of air, punctuated by the odd cough. The water had done good - he kept his head erect on his own, his lips were already pinker, and his eyes reflected the firelight like two stars, watching Gurk with a new clear brightness. But water wasn't enough. Gurk was willing to accept the band of orcs in the forest hadn't wasted their precious food on him, and the visible bones beneath the dwarf's skin suggested it had been far too long since he'd had a decent meal. It wouldn't do to have their prisoner so weak and lifeless. So he took the lump of meat set aside for Kili, breaking a piece of with a clawed thumb and forefinger. But while Kili guzzled the water shamelessly, he stared closed-mouth and untrusting at the grey lump of meat in Gurk's hand.

"Eat." Gurk pressed the meat against Kili's closed lips. The dwarf turned his head away, stomach curling at the charred smell. He couldn't do it. These were the same people who spoke of eating him. They had vivid images of his body spit-roasted over an open fire. Who knew what poor creature had been cooked for this meal? It could have just been rabbit or mutton, but it could also have been warg or horse. Or worse. A shudder ran through Kili and he let out a moan, the sound locked behind his closed lips. "I said eat." Gurk grabbed Kili by the jaw, trying to force his mouth open. The water had brought out a new fire in Kili, and he struggled fiercely against the orc's hand. Gurk pushed him down into the stone, pinning his writhing body to the ground with his knees as he tried to prise Kili's iron jaw apart. But Kili still had enough fight in him, the disgust and horror at eating the orcish food jolting through his body like an electric current. With an ugly snarl twisting his features, Gurk reached out, seizing Kili's nose and pinching it closed. He pressed down hard into the stone, Kili unable to jerk himself free of the grasp. His eyes grew very wide as he realised what the orc was trying to do. He would either eat the meat or suffocate. And despite his violent horror, his body would not physically allow himself to be smothered. His face turned red, then purple, straining limbs growing very weak beneath Gurk's hold. Just as black spots began to gather on the corner of his vision, Kili's lips parted in a rough, jagged gasp, and Gurk thrust the lump of meat between his teeth, hand still on his nose. "Spit it out and it'll be one of your fingers next." It wasn't an idle threat. Tears gathered in Kili's eyes, and he chewed silently.

It was charred and stone cold, but the taste sent an awful shudder through him, touching his core. It wasn't game or livestock, he knew the taste of deer and beef and rabbit and mutton well enough. It was heavy and metallic. The meat of something that lived on flesh. His mouth empty, Kili gasped for air. Gurk allowed him a short respite before forcing another lump of cold meat down his throat, a bigger chunk this time, that Kili couldn't chew with his mouth closed. The juice escaped out of the corner of his mouth, Gurk's stomach growling with a longing hunger. The more Kili ate, the weaker he grew. Rather than give him life, the grey lump of meat sapped the energy from his weary bones. He tried to lie to himself. It was just a chunk of mutton. A bit off the leg, that had been left in the fire for too long. But there was no fooling himself. The taste was too different, too thick and red. Kili once had a haunch of bear-meat as a child, and it tasted a little like this. But while it only had an edge of iron to it, this was unbearably bitter, and stringy. It wasn't bred for food. Whether it was a psychological trick or a a suspicion of reality, Kili had a heavy knowledge in his heart that this was the flesh of something with two legs. Something with language. It had always been the thing that repulsed Kili the most, of all the orc-tales. The stories of torture and humiliation, those he expected of their people, and he'd even listened in on with a sort of grim relish. But whenever any of his people ever whispered about coming across an orc campfire, with bones that couldn't belong to a four-legged beast picked clean, Kili always paled and turned away. It was the thing that truly set orcs apart from any other foe, their consumption of their prey. It was the strictest taboo, one no man or elf or dwarf had ever committed in written or oral history. It was a horror reserved only for the inhuman sadism of orcs.

And now Kili.

Satisfied he'd force-fed the dwarf enough, Gurk stepped back, releasing his hold and watching as Kili curled on his side, his torso wracked with dry retching. He was going to throw up. He was certain he was going to throw up. He had to throw up. He had to. He couldn't keep this within his body. His stomach had to reject it. Kili's slim chest heaved for some moments, but his stomach clung doggedly to the scraps of food, refusing to give it up. Physically, the meat was fine, not undercooked or decomposing. The revulsion was in Kili's mind. The retching died down after a time, Kili's breathing hoarse and shallow, his face wet. He couldn't stop the sobs from shaking his bruised frame, any tentative illusion of stoicism and bravery thoroughly abandoned. Even though the real torture hadn't yet begun, Kili was violated and beaten. Gurk dragged him up by the hair, a moan passing Kili's lips as he saw the wooden frame awaiting him beside the fire, the one that had been built just to torture him. The eroding hope that Fili would come for him had shattered. There was no rescue, there would be no rescue. Even if they were to come for him, if twelve dwarves were to rush the mouth of the cave, Kili wouldn't be saved. Not now. They had already broken and corrupted him. There was nothing left for his kin to save. He couldn't handle this. He was so sure he would crack within moments. As the first blow came he would collapse, scream out everything they wanted to know and more. He would give it all up in a heartbeat. He would betray them all, Thorin and Fili and Bilbo and the rest. He would surrender them to Azog as the first drop of blood fell to the floor.

Kili closed his eyes and shook his head as despair began to claw at the last shred of his humanity. His dwarvish iron will, the one that his people spoke of his reverence and pride, had dissolved, cracked, broken into pieces at his feet.

And for the first time in his young life, Kili wanted to die.

It was an astonishingly beautiful sunset that went ignored by the large wooden Hall. Somewhere in the far western distance, a fire had raged. It turned the sky red, streaked with gold across the horizon, fading to dull, velvety purple towards the east dotted with the very first stars. Thorin sat outside, still waiting, but he paid no attention to the sky. Beauty in nature failed to captivate his attention at the best of times, and now his stare was focused, very hard, on the edge of the pastures where his company had ridden off in the dawn light. As the red sky began to fade to purple, and then to grey, as the twilight deepened, as night began to take hold on the little cluster of sanity within the wildland between mountain and wood, and the shadows disappeared completely, sinking to gloomy darkness, Thorin waited.

He was not alone. Dori and Nori sat on either side of him, each lost in their own thoughts. Nobody attempted to speak. They were tightly wound, on the point of snapping. Thorin felt the two dwarves breathing slowly grow faster and faster, as fear began to take hold of them.

"He's with Balin." Dori's attempt at reasoning broke the silence. Nori jerked at the sound, his face brittle and strained. Thorin sank deeper into his glum frown. "He knows what 'e's doing. And Fili - he's got Gandalf at his side. They're in good company." And everybody knew Dwalin could hold his own. "Maybe they're even all together." Thorin hoped so, for Fili and Ori's sake. Everybody else had returned to the Hall in hour before sunset, but these five had stayed out. And now the day sank into night and still nothing came out of the darkness. Thorin was torn once more between anger and fear.

"Anything yet?" The door swung open, revealing Bofur and Bilbo on the doorstep. Bofur took a seat on the ground near the three, mug of honey mead in his hand, and Bilbo remained standing behind the exiled king. Thorin shook his head wordlessly, not shifting his eyes from the puzzle of darkness. Bilbo gave his newfound friend a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. Thorin's hand clasped around his wrist tightly, and for a moment Bilbo thought that his hand was going to be cast away. But Thorin only tightened his fingers around the thin little wrist, and let his fingers rest lax on Bilbo's hand, accepting of the comfort. Without Balin and Dwalin, Bilbo knew that Thorin felt, at that time, quite friendless. None of the others had formed the same sort of weathered relationship of close kinship with Thorin like the aging brothers. The sky above them had sunken into an inky blackness.

"I knew this would happen." Thorin's voice rose from a whisper into the darkness. "I knew a search would only result in more loss. It always does. We can't-"

"Look!" Bofur broke Thorin's despondent train, and the rest of the dwarves glared at him for having the rudeness to interrupt their king. But Bofur had stood up, pointing past them all into the darkness. "I saw a light."

"Firelight?" Bilbo asked. Dori and Nori shared uneasy glances. "So torches?"

"No." Bofur frowned, peering through the thicket of trees at the edge of the pasture. "It was white. Real white. The sort we saw beneath the Mountains." Thorin stood up at the words, ignoring the pain in his chest as he stepped out into the darkness.

"Easy Thorin." Bilbo warned, grabbing onto his sleeve. But Thorin brushed him aside, narrowing his eyes to peer into the darkness. There it was again, a flash of light, passing through the trees. They all saw it this time. He didn't realise he had been holding his breath, until it escaped his lungs in a long sigh. It flickered again, passing through the trees. Gandalf. Thorin waited in silence, hands clenched into trembling fists. He was going to kill them. There were orders, distinct orders that had deliberately been broken. They risked their own safety, as Thorin knew they would do. They put themselves in danger. The thought left Thorin's mouth dry. He wasn't happy with Fili venturing outside the Hall, even with the guidance of Gandalf. The loss of Kili was a hammer on his heart, and he knew that without his older nephew, he would break completely. They were his heirs. This was all for them. Everything. Thorin knew his own life had only one purpose - to restore his people to their former glory. And without Fili to carry on his legacy, his entire existence would have been worthless. He poured his soul into his lion-haired nephew.

The mane shone by the light of Gandalf's staff at the edge of the pasture. Thorin let out a low groan in his throat, heard only by Bilbo. He was safe then. Safe enough to ride under his own steam. He felt relief roll over him in a long slow wave. There were five ponies in all. The rest of the company had met up in the woods. They all broke into a trot as they recognised the light of the Hall, the silhouettes of Bilbo and the dwarves outlined plainly against the inside firelight. Dori and Nori let out audible gasps of relief at the sigh of Ori's familiar shape, his cowl pulled up and head bowed. He was crying quite obviously, his little sighs and sniffles carrying across the quiet darkness. Thorin's heart constricted as they grew closer, seeing for the first time black blood was splattered all over Fili. He didn't use the reins at all - his hands were wrapped around a soft blue cloak. A single gasp sounded from Thorin's voice at the sight, and he took several steps towards the approaching ponies, arms outstretched and joy in his face. But his heart froze mid-leap, the smile falling like a stone as he realised the cloak was empty. Fili cradled it to him like a child, head bowed. Thorin reached out and seized the thin reins, the pony shaking his head in annoyance at the motion. Startled, Fili jerked up, his eyes meeting his uncle.

"What..." Thorin reached out, touching the hem of Kili's cloak. He wanted to shout at Fili, to demand answers. Where was he. What had happened. What else did they find. But his voice died within him when he saw Fili's face. His questions were answered. Fili's face wasn't contorted in grief or pain. He didn't scream or cry. He was blank and lifeless as a mask. His eyes were horrible, empty holes, gaping down into a deadened husk, a pit where his soul once rested. Thorin looked desperately at the other four. Ori continued wiping his eyes with his sleeves and Dori dashed forward, coaxing his baby brother out of the saddle and into his arms. Dwalin couldn't look at Thorin. He cast his eyes up to the black sky, with the deliberate, frozen expression of a staunch warrior fighting back tears. Balin looked as though he had aged about fifty years. He merely nodded red-eyed at his king, shoulders slumped in defeat. Gandalf was staring very intently at the light of his staff, his eyes hooded and mouth turned downwards. Fili gave no recognition on his face that he saw his uncle, as Thorin sank to his knees. The sound of his broken cry tore into the night, the remaining dwarves inside the hall clambering to their feet and peering out the door. Balin and Dwalin quickly lit from their ponies, crouched on the ground at Thorin's side. Bilbo stood very still, aware of a low hammering in his heart. Fili remained entirely motionless on the pony, still clinging to the bloodstained cloak. He would never let it go. Thorin lost himself completely. He had no memory of the following moments. Just a rushing in his ears, his chest paralysed with grief. Balin told him later that he just pressed his forehead into Balin's shoulder and screamed, but Thorin was suspicious. There was a bruise on Balin's cheek that Thorin did not remember seeing before. He knelt in the thick grass, smelling the dirt and orc-blood on Balin's weather-stained clothes. At the doorway, the other dwarves clustered, whispering amongst themselves. They were numb with shock as Gandalf slid from his horse to talk to them all. Dwalin couldn't trust his voice, Ori was already inside, sitting on his bed with Dori's arms around him, and Fili remained seated on his pony, looking past everybody, into the darkness. Balin pressed his forehead to Thorin's, murmuring to him in Khuzdul. Bilbo stood between them in the little stretch of awkward darkness, the shadows of the huddled figures towering across the grass, into the night. Nobody had dared to utter it aloud, at least not to him, but even a fool could gather what had happened.

"Fili." Dwalin finally spoke. Bilbo watched the bald dwarf approach the waiting pony, arms held out. "Come down lad." It was as though he was guiding down a child. Fili sat stiff and unmoving, his knuckles white around Kili's cloak. "Come now." Dwalin tried again. The tallest of the company by several inches (although Kili was - had been - catching up), he could have lifted Fili out of the saddle quite easily. And after a few more moments of stubborn silence, Dwalin did just that, heaving Fili over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He expected the young dwarf to struggle or cry out, but Fili allowed himself to be carried, limp and silent, to the rest of the company. Dwalin set him down gingerly on the grass, unsure if Fili would stand of his own accord or collapse onto the ground. Fili swayed, but stood up, his hold on the cloak as tight as ever.

"We should - get inside." Even Gandalf found it hard to talk. Everybody except Thorin and Balin were near the open door. The night had descended upon them, the blackness closing in, writhing, it seemed, with the crying and rustling of beasts and monsters. "I'll take the ponies. Gloin, do you think you could help?"

"'Course." He seized the reins of the nearest horse, giving Fili a sidelong look. Like the others, he remained quiet. The affirmation of Kili's death was yet to strike him. Gandalf hadn't told any of them about what they suspect had happened to him. Although judging from the way Thorin clawed at Balin's sleeves, crying brokenly in Khuzdul, he knew. He turned away from the light of the Hall, hoping that the rest couldn't see his tears. Bilbo watched the others retreat to the warmth and safety of the Hall. Dwalin walked with his arm around Fili's shoulders, guiding him as he stumbled in the grass. And then only Thorin and Balin were left, with Bilbo looking on, torn. He wanted to flee to the firelight, but the sound of Thorin's voice pulled him into the night.

"C-Can't - it can't-"

"Spare your voice Thorin." Balin's voice was warm and rich as he referred to his King so personally. This was not the time for titles. "Come, lets get by the fire and-"

"No." Thorin cut over him, voice very thick. "N-Not yet." Balin nodded at the shadowed figure, in understanding. He didn't want the rest of the company to see him like this. Thorin sat on his knees with his hands splayed over his face, Balin crouched down before him.

"Do you want me to stay?" He spoke to Thorin as though he were very young or sick. Balin looked up into the open door, seeing a flash of gold move in the firelight. Thorin shook his head silently. With a sigh, Balin rose to his feet, giving Thorin one last pat on the shoulder, leaving him to grief. Bilbo stepped back, sheltered from the yellow finger of light that leaked out of the open door. Balin didn't see the hobbit as he made his way into the Hall, leaving the door open just a crack. The moon was beginning to rise, and the starlight gave him just the barest edge against the blackness of the night. Thorin remained on his knees, this time his face turned up to the iridescent stars. Dwarves didn't have many names for the stars. Not like elves, who had hundreds of names for the constellations, mapping their progress throughout the sky as the years wore on. Why would the dwarves care for stars, when they lived below ground? Bilbo watched the exiled king in silence, his breath very shallow in his throat. It appeared that Thorin had no idea he was even there, and now Bilbo was stuck. He was an outsider, spying on a very, very private moment of grief, one so raw and deep that he had sent away his oldest and closest friend. Bilbo had no right to be here.

Thorin started whispering to himself in Khuzdul. Bilbo held his breath as he listened to the low prayer in the language he didn't know, and never heard. The dwarves were careful to hold their tongues around him, and although since the incident with Azog the company allowed their speech to become more peppered with the proverbs and idioms of their secretive mother tongue, they were still guarded against the hobbit. The whispering stopped, not at a natural end, but punctuated by a sob, as Thorin let out an odd, keening sound like a dying animal. Bilbo's heart hammered in his throat, fingers searching in his pocket for his ring. Thorin's arms were stretched out, hands closing around nothing. It wasn't just Kili's death that destroyed him like this. It was to sick revelation that Kili's end was at the hands of nothig more than a rabble of disorganized orcs, and then - and then to have his body-

A fresh sob welled up in his throat at the thought. He turned his face back down to the ground, deeper, forehead pressing into the grass. His heart had broken. Fili had shut himself off from the world - Balin told him how he'd thrown up and had a terrible fit before falling unconscious, and since waking hadn't spoken a word - but Thorin's grief was entirely different. While Fili had lost his other half, Thorin had lost his heart. That was what Kili was to him. If Fili was the embodiment of his soul, his pride and grit and strength, Kili was his heart. His joy and love and tender kindness. His hope. The night was irrepressibly black. Thorin breathed in a deep lungful of earthen air, feeling the grass grow wet beneath his face. And Bilbo watched him silently, hands twitching at his side as he ached to kneel down beside Thorin and embrace him, offer his comfort and sympathy for the lost sister-son that Thorin had so obviously, dearly, loved.

But he didn't. He remained in the shadow as his nerve failed him, watching the desolate figure in the darkness, an unwelcome spy.

They tied a fresh piece of rope around his wrists first, with a long trailing end that they threw over the top of the high frame. Kili let out a short cry of protest as the orcs pulled and he was forced to his knees, his feet, and higher, arms and sides straining as he hovered in the air, his feet dangling a foot above the ground. There was something almost ceremonial, the way the orcs all sat around the fire, watching him intently. It was a ritual. Sweat broke out on Kili's forehead, from the heat of the fire or from sheer panic, he didn't know. Azog sat on a chair, the only chair, across the small firepit, the white warg crouched at his side. His hand rested on the warg's head, giving the white fur the occasional stroke, a scratch behind the ears. She leaned into his touch, waiting in patient silence.

Gurk pulled on the knotted straps of the scourge, testing the elasticity of the leather. It was good and stiff, but with enough spring in the hide to give a good snap back. Kili closed his eyes, but realised very quickly that was worse. So he kept them open, watching as Gurk paced back and forth in front of him, letting the knotted cords of leather swing back and forth.

"Name." He stopped very close to Kili, the handle of the whip under his chin, forcing the dwarf to lift his head. Kili's dark eyes widened, and he found his mouth was dry, voice choked in his throat. He opened his mouth but couldn't make a sound. The orc snarled leaning in closer. His rancid breath washed over Kili's face, his stomach churning. "Name." Gurk gave him one last chance. Kili tried to speak, but his voice was lost. The orc disappeared, Kili turning his head to try and see where he had gone, but his head was forced in place by his bound arms. No. Kili gasped for air, a plea on the edge of his lips. He heard the crack of the whip first, but felt nothing. Gurk must have struck the floor. But a heartbeat later, it came. And Kili screamed, the air finally tearing from his throat as his back exploded with agony. Seven long stripes lay parallel on the skin, oozing blood. They were nasty, deep marks, and Gurk looked on in satisfaction at the blow. This was indeed a good whip. He would have to hold on to it.

"Name." This time he leered into Kili's ear, his black fingers running along the marks, digging into the broken skin. Kili was gasping for air, stunned, but didn't dare to remain silent.

"Kili." His voice was high and frightened. Azog's lip twisted in a smirk at the sound. Fear. The young dwarf stank of it, across the fire. He was thoroughly enjoying this. "Kili!" He spoke again, terrified that he hadn't been heard.

"Well, Kili." Hearing the orc utter his name sent a fresh stab at his heart. Kili's breath hitched, listening to the orc behind him. "What were you doing in these parts, so far from home?"

"T-Travelling." Kili choked out. Why did they ask such a stupid question? Of course they knew what he was doing so far east of the Blue Mountains. Azog must have known who he was with, why he was there, the way he looked at that pendant and laughed. They had their proof. They wanted the words to come from his mouth. They wanted Kili to betray his own people. And several minutes ago, he felt he would have done so, willingly. But to see those hungry yellow eyes staring at him in cruel mockery, to have Azog himself watch the exchange with a smirk on his split lips, brought something out within him. Despite his stupidity, his naive rashness, Kili still held onto the slimmest thread of pride. And if this was going to get out, if people were going to know, Kili could not stand the humiliation of having Thorin and Fili know he gave them all up without a fight. The answer obviously wasn't enough. The whip cut into his back again, harder this time as Gurk grew more accurate. Kili gasped but didn't scream, biting hard on his lip as tears sprung at his eyes. Gurk waited several seconds, giving Kili another opportunity to speak, before raising the leather tool. This time, he landed the blow perfectly, directly over the previous marks, and Kili couldn't quite choke back the short cry that spilled from his lips as the knotted cords cut deeper into his flesh.

"What were you doing here?" His voice was harder, more demanding. Kili looked up from the ground, across to the fire. Azog stared at him, his fingers snaking through the white hair of his precious warg. Kili fixed his smouldering gaze on the orc king in a challenge. Already, Azog was beginning to frown as he watched the young dwarf. This already wasn't going the way he expected. And he couldn't place the patronymic for 'Kili'. It was starting to irritate him, and it was made worse by that dark, challenging stare.

"Hunting." He was going to restrict his answers as much as possible. Enough to avoid a beating, without giving too much away. Kili wondered how long he would last. In his heart, he knew, he wouldn't win. They would have him broken within a few hours, dragging every name, every piece of information, out of his sobbing lips. But he couldn't go down without some sort of struggle against them. He couldn't dishonour the name of Durin by being a coward. Gurk snarled, the whip swinging in his hand.

"Hunting what?"

"Food." Kili wouldn't look away from Azog. He didn't realise that the longer he did that, the longer the pale orc studied his gaze, his nose and eyes, trying to place that face amongst the others he had seen. He let out a whimper at the crack of the whip, screwing his eyes shut as the stare was broken, struggling in vain. He kicked out, but his legs only met air. "Rabbits, deer, something! I don't know!" He began to babble, his voice growing higher. High was good for Gurk. It meant he was afraid.

"Alone?" Kili swallowed at the words. "Surely the rest of your company will be wondering where Kili has gone?" Kili kept his mouth closed. "Why haven't they come looking for you?" Why indeed? A shadow passed over Kili's face, one that Azog noticed. It was what made it unbearable - to be completely alone, cut off from his people. He could endure this if Fili was at his side. But without him, this frail show of strength and pride, played out to an empty audience, was cracked and broken. Enough damage had already been done. Kili's knotted stomach would never feel the same. "Are they too far away perhaps?" It was a rather roundabout way of asking where they were, but perhaps it was less obvious than demanding outright. Gurk was a master at interrogation, he worked with fear as well as he did pain, and knew how to play with his prisoners for hours, drawing out their insecurities and teasing them. Azog chose him for a distinct reason.

"I don't know." Kili spoke honestly, for he had no idea where he was. He didn't know how long he rode the warg, unconscious, how long it had been since he'd seen his brother, what direction he walked in as he stumbled blindly through the black forest. But the answer wasn't good enough for the orc, and Kili cried out as he received another blow across the back. "I don't know!" He answered again. It was becoming his favourite answer. Gurk snarled. Perhaps he was soft in the head.

"Surely you didn't wander into the wild without knowing where you were going?" Kili's back was already wet with blood, the red starting to soak into his knee-length pants. He had. "These parts are dangerous and no other dwarves have been seen yet. They're hiding somewhere." Kili swallowed. "Aren't they?" The answer fought to escape behind closed lips. His back was on fire; he didn't know if he could stand another blow without breaking completely. They were deep cuts, they worked through the skin and tore into the thin muscles as the leather bit deeper and deeper inside with each crack. Kili's scream caught everybody unaware as another solid blow landed on his broken skin. It caught the small of his back, cutting into a tight bundle of nerves and muscle, and Kili felt as though something red-hot and very heavy had been crushed against his spine.

"Beorn!" Kili sobbed, trying to ride out the wave of agony, terrified that the same spot would be hit again. "Beorn the shape-shifter - his Hall - been there for days-" Kili screwed up his eyes, biting on his lip as the rolling tide of pain began to subside. His legs felt oddly numb. A trickle of blood began to slowly ooze down his calf. Azog leaned back in his chair, one of his rare, wide smiles stretched on his face. Kili's head hung down, humiliated. He gave them up so quickly. So much for the grand tales of hours of torture - he'd barely lasted a few minutes. Gurk stepped back, satisfied his job was done. But Azog was not going to let up so quickly. Kili was bewildered. What else did they want from him? They knew where Thorin and his Company rested - what more could they possibly want? Kili didn't realise that Azog had no intentions of even approaching Beorn's stronghold. The magic hung thick in the air about the wooden Hall, the threat of Beorn's clan of bears too great. It would take hundreds to storm the seemingly unassuming house. If there was another way, Azog would surely take it. And oh, there was another way.

"Ask him who his father is." Azog's voice rose over the crackling of the fire, the muttering and jeering of the orcs. Gurk turned back to look at his king.

Kili's eyes snapped open at the sound of the leather whip falling onto the stone, an ember of relief daring to spark. But it was quickly doused by a cold wave of fear. The orc didn't turn away from Kili entirely. Instead, he shifted closer to the fire, crouching down at the white-hot embers. They bristled with the handles of swords, scimitars, toasting forks, spears. Anything made of iron that they could get their hands on. Despite the heat of the fire burning so close to him, Kili felt very, very cold. Gurk pulled on a heavy oilskin glove, extracting the handle of a long eating-knife. The tip of the blade glowed red-hot. Kili had been burned at the forge one before - he wasn't paying close enough attention, the scrap he'd been working on slipped and landed on his leg. It wasn't big, and it was through his trousers, but it made Kili howl, and for a week the wound was wrapped in soft bandages and slathered with creams. His mother didn't let him into the forge for a good month after that, and for good reason. Even though Kili was thirty, far too old for childish theatrics, the burn brought him to tears, and even Thorin clucked and said nothing hurt more than an accidental brush with red-hot metal, especially against skin as soft and youthful as Kili's, but it would toughen up eventually.

It never did.

Kili couldn't hold back the moan as Gurk stepped towards him with a heavy scowl. The blood, which pooled on the hollow of his ankle, dripped to the floor as Kili to kick out at Gurk, but his legs were heavy, too weak to move beyond a few inches. No. This was worse, much worse than any whip. Kili knew he was going to give out in a moment. He would say, would do anything to avoid the press of burning iron against his skin. It wasn't worth it at this point. They knew where Thorin was - what else could Kili say to hurt them? He had already betrayed his kin. Gurk leaned in close, close enough for Kili to smell the rancid breath that once more washed over his face. There was no trace of courage or pride on this wet face. He'd crumbled so easily. The orc was more than a little proud. Kili breathed heavily through parted lips, as his back throbbed with every heartbeat, more blood oozing out of his broken skin, looking black in the shadow of the firelight. Just do it. He was trembling violently, ready to answer any question. To give up anything he knew. But the one question Gurk asked, the one Azog wanted to know, was the one that Kili could never answer.

"Who is your father?"

Kili burst into tears. His voice was completely lost in his throat and he shook his head, gasping for air. He began to hyperventilate from the sheer panic, bracing himself for the inevitable searing pain of hot iron against his bare skin. The honest answer, the only one he could give, spilled from his lips in a soft, broken whisper as blood dripped on the floor.

"I don't know."

Chapter Text

The Hall was already silent as Thorin pushed open the door.

He'd stayed long enough for his eyes to return to normal, for his breathing to become long and regular, but everybody still knew what he'd been doing. Nobody met his gaze. Balin shuffled along on the bench to make way for his king, Thorin forgetting the pain in his ribs as he took his place at the long table. Beorn sat at the head, his feet on the table, Gandalf beside him. It was laden with half-eaten food, plates pushed away and cups left filled. Fili still clung to the stained cloak, his glazed eyes hanging downwards on the table. Dwalin rested his hand on Fili's shoulder, giving Thorin a single nod as he took his seat. Ori still sat on his bedroll, not daring to come near the rest of the company. He felt disgraced.

"Gandalf told me what happened." Beorn spoke up as he realised Thorin wasn't going to talk. Bilbo slipped inside, the door creaking ever so slightly shut. The wizard was the only one to notice his entrance. "Terrible business. I am sorry." And he meant it, too. Even if he'd scoffed when he first heard Kili had gone missing, said he would wind up into trouble and it was better if he did, because Beorn had a few short words to give him and no mistake, he was still sorry to hear the young little dwarf had been taken from the earth. He was rough, but not heartless.

"Thank you." Thorin's voice was a hoarse quaver. "I- Thank you." He repeated, thinking the better against a longer response. He'd dried out, and now felt dead and hollow and completely exhausted. He wanted to sleep, to lie down and close his eyes for a century. Better than this waking world of death and pain. Thorin's hand trembled as he reached across Fili's shoulders, pulling him in close. His nephew's head lay in the crook of his neck, Thorin's nose filled with golden hair. But Fili was still lifeless and silent, shut off completely from the outside world. He didn't relax into Thorin's touch, and remained stiff. But Thorin held the embrace, his grasp tightening around Fili's arm. "I-I think we should leave soon." He spoke to the rest of the table. "There's little point in staying on," he continued. "We are all much fitter than when we arrived  - I think I will be strong enough to travel, at least on horseback for the next few days." He just hoped Beorn would make good on his promise of giving them ponies until the edge of the great wood. "Tomorrow, B-Balin and the elder dwarves will-" Thorin let out a long, shuddering breath, finding it hard to speak. "will go out and find a place to bury - Kili's things." Thorin bowed his head, eyes screwed up tight as a fit of tears threatened to attack him. He gritted his teeth, and in several moments, it passed, and he was able to regard the rest of his company once more. Most of them dabbed at their eyes with their sleeves, looking very glum. Ori sniffled on the floor, Thorin frowned at the sound and scanned the table, realising they only numbered eleven dwarves. He caught Dori's eye, jerking his head towards the young dwarf, gesturing to the table. Dori nodded silently, getting up from the table and taking Ori by the arm, coaxing him to join the rest in front of the uneaten food. "Bifur, you have the most skill with a chisel. Can you - can you carve something?" The dwarf nodded silently, indicating that he understood. Ori sat down at the table silently, head hanging very low. He couldn't look at any of them. "Ori." Thorin spoke softer now, gaining more control over his voice. With a squeak, Ori looked up. "I do not blame you for this. Neither does Fili." His nephew gave no recognition hearing his name, imprisoned in the tight, uncomfortable embrace. Ori nodded silently, but he still played with the cuffs of his knitted sleeves, eyes firmly downcast. "Now - if you will all forgive me, I - I think it's time for me to retire." He motioned to Dwalin, standing up with Fili still in his arms. Dwalin took the blonde from his charge, Thorin limping to his place on the floor.

But as he walked past the brown sack which held all of Kili's things, a fresh stab wounded his heart, and his knees buckled. Kili's bow, and the hilt of his sword, were clearly visible. He sank to his knees, shaking hands reaching out for the burlap sack. The rest of the dwarves pretended not to see him, talking amongst themselves in low, strained voices. Dwalin sat back down with Fili, pressing his lips into the golden curls for a heartbeat, a rare show of affection. But Fili still stared straight out before him, fingers wound in the clothing. Thorin lifted Kili's bow out of the sack, running his finger along the string. Sixty years ago, it was, when he took Kili with his brother out into the town of men, intending to forge a new line of trade with a recently established merchant. But Kili got bored, he wandered off, and walked into an archery range. When Thorin eventually found him, one of the townspeople had humoured Kili and given him a child's bow to play with, showing him how to pull back the string and position his arrow. They did it for laughs, the men holding their sides as they stood around watching a bare-faced dwarf of seventeen holding an elvish weapon. Thorin watched silently, unseen by them all. Kili's face was bright red, but he refused to set the bow aside and pulled the string with his head held high. His first shot was terribly clumsy and missed the mark completely, to the hollering of the men. The second hit the edge of the target. The third and fourth didn't fare better. But the fifth was six inches from the center. Everybody had fallen silent then, and watched as Kili hit the middle of the target with the sixth arrow he'd ever fired. And with a smile of pride, Kili turned about to see Thorin standing before him with his arms crossed.

Thorin had given him a thick ear and a harsh scolding, torn the bow from his hands and thrown it to the ground. Was he being unreasonable? Thorin didn't think so, at the time. Kili stood before him with very bright eyes but a high, defiant chin. Thorin said he was to never touch a bow again, and in response Kili said his uncle was being ridiculous. He was good at it, it felt natural to him, better than the clumsy, unwieldy axe and sword. He got a hard knock for that too, one that made his face smart and eyes water, and it was twenty years before he dared to pick up the bow once more. Thorin set aside the weapon, swallowing the horrible crushing sensation that reared in his chest. He lifted up the sword, running his fingers along the hilt. It was thinner than the broadswords carried by their kin, designed especially for Kili who developed the lithe, slender form of an archer. He withdrew the blade several inches from the scabbard, the polished steel gleaming in the firelight. A single tear dripped down Thorin's cheek as he raised the hilt to his lips. He wanted terribly to keep it with him, but it was impossible. He was already weighed down with numerous weapons, and another sword to add to his belt would bend his back. The bow too, would be buried beneath the ground. Thorin wanted nothing more than to bring them to Erebor, to lay them beneath the Lonely Mountain, in the halls of his ancestors, but he was terribly pragmatic. He knew they would be lucky to reach their lost homeland with their lives, let alone a sack of clothes and weapons.

Thorin reached into the sack, pulling out the clothes and running his hands over them for the last time. The gauntlets, the boots, the tunic and trousers. He spread them out across his knees, absorbed in memories, feeling the bottom of the sack. He'd seen the hair clasp glinting between between Fili's fingers, but he couldn't see the pendant. He fingered in the corners, but it wasn't there. Even Kili's tinderbox was there, and his small knife. Thorin clasped the knife, the tiny necklace forgotten. He gave it to Kili as a present the day Fili left for the Iron Hills. It was his own blade, gifted by Thror on the day Thorin found his first hair on his chin. It was the last remnant Thorin had of his grandfather, one of the last treasures of Erebor, and he intended to keep it at his side until his dying breath. But the day Fili left, when Kili tried to keep his head up high even as his eyes glistened with tears and his hands shook with grief and humiliation, Thorin pulled him aside, slipping the blade into his hand. Kili embraced him so tightly the breath was knocked from his lungs, holding on for several minutes as he blinked his stinging eyes. He whispered in Thorin's ear that he would make him proud, he would earn the name of Durin, and die with it at his side, in honour and glory.

The knife slipped from Thorin's hand as his fingers fell lax. He felt sick and cheated. How could he emphasize death and tradition and honour on his nephew, above love and spirit? Was that why Kili always fell short in his eyes? Because Kili cared more for laughter and joy than the sombre ritual of his people? What Thorin took for stupidity and selfishness was Kili's unbridled sense of wonder and adventure. He bit down on his lip tightly, wanting to scream aloud in pain and frustration. Kili had died. And it wasn't the noble, heroic death that he so wished for. It was stupid and inconsequential. It was the last sacred tradition that he had stepped on. It was the final insult to Durin's name. And how long was the list? How many crimes had he committed against the customs of his people? How much embarrassment had he caused? But as Thorin fingered the hem of Kili's cold tunic, he realised how little it mattered. He didn't care for any of it. He didn't care if Kili couldn't wield an axe or forge a decent blade or recite Khuzdul poetry. It could not matter less to Thorin at that moment. All he wanted was to stretch out his arms and wrap them around that skinny little body with an unbraided mop of chestnut hair and tell him how very much he loved him.

But Thorin's hands only closed around empty cloth.

Of course they didn't believe him.

Kili arched his back and screamed as the red-hot iron was pressed into his side, feet kicking out uselessly, touching nothing. The orc dragged the knife slowly against his skin for several moments, before letting the knife clatter to the ground. Kili gritted his teeth, forcing back sobs of pain. The knife had been pressed into the soft, sensitive skin just beneath his ribs, burning through the skin and into the muscle. He watched as Gurk extracted another handle from the fire, unable to quell the moans in his throat, escaping through closed teeth.

"I'll ask you again." They were almost eye-level. But as the orc stepped close to Kili, he found his eyes lifting higher and higher to maintain his stare into those awful yellow eyes. "Your father. Who is he?"

"I don't know - I swear I'm telling the truth he never-" Kili's desperate plea was cut off by another scream. There was a grim satisfaction in the way Gurk dug the toasting fork into his stomach. He knew how to miss the vital organs, he wouldn't cause any irreparable damage, but damn it still hurt. "I. Don't. Know." His breath was harsh and erratic. "Please." Why did he waste his breath on trying to reason with these orcs? How could he explain this to them? How could they understand that his mother had only a white scar on her wrist, where his father's name had been burned away? Gurk turned away, shaking his head as he approached the fire. "He died before I was born!" His voice was thin and weak, struggling to raise above the crackling of the flames, but Azog heard him. "Nobody will tell me anything - please I don't know!" A scimitar was pulled from the fire. "Please!" Kili begged, desperation giving him a new strength. "I don't know his name! I don't know anything!" It was a huge, thick blade, with at least six inches of it burning bright red. He couldn't begin to imagine the damage it could cause. "I swear - please - no! No!"

It was a horrible scream that filled the cave, one that sent a shiver down Azog's spine. He curled his fingers into the warg's fur, closing his eyes as he relished the sound of pain. He opened them to see the dwarf hanging lifeless by the arms, all pretense of strength long abandoned. Kili's neck lolled, horrible sobs paralyzing his chest as he struggled to breathe. His cheeks were slick with sweat and tears, hot and sticky. The blood, dripping from his feet, splattered the ground. The orcs could smell it, rich and metallic. Their chests heaved with deep, longing sighs. They longed to have their turn, to tear him down and throw him on the fire, to roast him whole and devour the burned, broken flesh. Gurk seized Kili by the chin, forcing his head upwards to look him in the eye. His eyes were half-open and glassy, the orc's fingers slipping on his wet skin. He squeezed hard, his sharp nails threatening to break the skin. That was enough to wake Kili up, his dark eyes widening.

"One last chance." Gurk whispered. "And I start cutting off fingers and toes." He would do it too, Kili knew. They didn't need him in one piece. They just needed him alive. And even that was only temporary. He was living on borrowed time. Minutes it would be, hours at best, before they threw his lifeless body on the fire, before he died in the bottom of the cave, to be abandoned forever. Kili's heart hammered in his mouth. He opened his mouth to speak, but his voice was dead. His dry throat burned from the screaming. His lips shaped the words, but nothing came out. He almost cried from frustration, his chin trembling. The orc raised an eyebrow, and waited.

"I don't know." Why didn't he lie? Why didn't he at least try and float a false name? Kili was sure that he wouldn't be able to pull it off. They would see straight through his lie. They would smell it on him. And even then, he couldn't think a name up, on his feet. He grasped desperately at the last fraying threads of his consciousness and sanity. He would fall, if they didn't stop, and either die or lose his mind completely. It wasn't a cold, mocking stare that was fixed on his face. It was level, deep in thought. And something snapped in his face, as Gurk realised, finally, that the bound dwarf was telling the truth. Perhaps a battle-hardened warrior could hold up longer, but not this creature. He was soft, young, too thin and frail. The orc was surprised. Men of course had bastard children in their hundreds, but female dwarves were too rare and precious to be subjected to such treatment. At least, Gurk had thought.

"Fine." His eyes narrowed. "You don't know." He kept his tone cool and sardonic. Kili stared at him with wide, alert eyes, terrified of what would happen next. "Your mother then." He turned back to the fire.

"M-My what?" Kili breathed, watching as yet another handle was extracted from the collection bristling on the fire. No. No no no. He couldn't take more. "My mother?"

"Yes Kili, your mother." There was a nasty sneer on his lips. "Or is she a mystery too? What are you Kili? A foundling, or just a bastard child?" Kili's face flushed red at the insult, just the reaction that the orc wanted. Kili's jaw tightened. He was neither. It struck a nerve within him, one of his deepest insecurities. He knew he wasn't illegitimate - there was a name on his mother's wrist at some point - and he didn't need a father, when he had Thorin and Fili and Dwalin.

And yet...

"Dis." Gurk thought at first he'd made some sort of cough or gasp in his throat. "Her name," Kili's voice trembled "is Dis." He watched the orc relay the information back to Azog in his native tongue. And Azog leaned forward in his chair, staring at his prisoner very closely. Kili, exhausted and beaten, was still yet to understand why Azog wanted to badly to know where he came from. And even if he did, it wouldn't have made much difference. Not anymore. He'd spilled too much blood, had suffered too much. He'd let go. He couldn't endure another touch of red-hot metal, another blow with that awful whip. His will, his indomitable strength, had been beaten out of him, it dotted the ground in red flecks, oozing down his back, soaking the tattered scraps of his clothes. Kili had set aside any hopes of survival. Gone too, were his preoccupations of dying with honour and glory. He stared limply at his end, without moving his bound arms and bloodied feet. Simply waiting.

"Dis, then." Kili's eyes flickered at the mention of his mother's name, and he was dragged back into the firelight as his soul spilled out onto the floor. "Do you at least know her father?" Kili's breath hitched in his throat. He hesitated, the pause of one who knew the answer but just not how to say it. Gurk didn't give him another chance, he struck with the still red-hot blade in his hand. He pressed it against Kili's collarbone, the iron vibrating as the dwarf screamed. He would think twice before hesitating before Gurk. As he tried to regain himself yet again, Gurk grabbed Kili's ankle, pulling the injured limb out, intending to press the iron on the underside of Kili's foot. No. Kili shook his head with a moan, kicking out with his good leg, but his blows were weak and ineffectual. Gurk gave him one last chance before delivering the blow would would truly disable him. "Her father, Kili!"

"Thrain!" His voice rang out in the cave, a cry that didn't sound like his own, the orcs falling silent as the name fell amongst them. Azog stood straight up, and even Gurk jerked backwards, as though he had been burned, the blade falling from his hands. Azog's heart leapt in sick joy as his suspicions were confirmed, as he knew it was indeed one of Durin's line, bound and bloodied before him. The line that he had sworn to wipe out. Kili curled his toes, panting as he watched Azog walk around the firepit. Mahal. What had he done? Kili forced down the wave of sickness, screwing up his eyes. He heard the low, heavy thudding, and couldn't keep his eyes closed any longer. He opened them, looking up at the white face that was focused on his. Azog watched him with narrow eyes. Thrain's grandson. Obiviously a sister-son of Thorin Oakenshield. What a prize. He would have to seek the orc who handed him in, pay him double. This was as good as Thorin himself - no, this was better. He knew Thorin had no children of his own, and with his younger brother dead, the beardless dwarf that hung before him had to be his only heir. Not only would he do anything to get this snivelling little creature back, but how he would scream and howl, when he saw what Azog had done to him! How it would break him, to see his beloved heir reduced to a bloodied mess curled on the floor at his feet! Just the thought of witnessing such misery on his keenest foe sent another shiver down Azog's spine. Kili's eyes fell downwards. He expected - anticipated - death.

But not yet. Azog trailed a finger along his burned, bloodied skin. Kili shrank away from the touch, turning his head to the side and letting out a disconsolate whimper. The orc King withdrew his hand, his white finger stained with red blood. He lifted it to his lips, breathing in deeply as he licked his finger clean.


This was indeed the blood of Durin.

A new spark lit in Azog's eyes, as the primal fire rose within him. He reached for the knife at his side, Kili raising his gaze at the hiss of steel. Azog gently, longingly trailed the tip of the blade up Kili's chest. How easy it would be, to dig through his ribs and tear out his heart. To feel it beat within his fingers, to spill that rich, sweet blood along his arms and on the stone ground. To rip it to shreds with his teeth and have streams of red trickle down his chin. The blade was on Kili's face. Oh, how he longed to spill the blood himself. To watch it trickle down the glint of his knife and pool at the hilt. To drip onto his white fingers. So he did just that, pressing the knife into the soft flesh of Kili's cheek, watching as the red line welled up and spilled over. Kili winced at the touch but didn't cry out. He seemed numb, dead to any further pain. Although Azog could surely fix that. He could make him scream once more. The knife continued its travel northwards, smearing blood along Kili's arms. Kili couldn't arch his neck, but he looked up with his eyes, breath shallow. A smirk flickered on the orc's lips as he twisted the knife, tearing through the rope that strung Kili up on the sturdy wooden frame. He stepped back as Kili fell, tumbling to the ground. He landed heavily and rolled onto his side, crying out in pain. He struggled to sit up, arms stiff and completely numb. Azog turned to look at his company.

They expected him to kill the dwarf. To slit his throat or pierce him in the heart or cut off his head, to let the blood of Durin spill on the ground. They anticipated the violent bloodshed, hoping that they would least get a taste of the remains. If it were anybody else, Azog would have. And he'd thought about it. But the temptation of using Kili to torture Thorin, it played on his mind, and now he'd entertained the idea, it refused to leave his head. Kili would not have the sweet reprieve of death. Not yet, at least. Azog would wait. He could wait, he was patient when he needed to be. Decades it had been, since his last deadly brush with Durin's line. He'd ended two lives that day - three if you counted Thrain, which Azog hesitated on - the grey-bearded King, and his youngest grandson. And soon, very soon, he would end two more, the heir and his nephew, within the space of another single day. 

"Nuglub," He called for his best archer, withdrawing the mithril pendant from where he'd thrust it into his waistband. The glint caught Kili's eye and he watched the necklace dangle in the firelight. Azog saw Kili's gaze, letting it swing idly in his hand. He curled his bound hands into fists, heart beating madly in his throat as he realised that this was far from over - Kili hadn't outlived his usefulness to Azog. Not yet.

"Yes, your malevolence?" Such a greasy, begging beast. Azog didn't think much of him. But he was by far the sharpest shot, and there was no way he could attempt this twice. Azog turned to regard Nuglub, the broken, bloodied lump of dwarf huddled abandoned at his feet.

"Send a message to Thorin Oakenshield at Beorn's Hall."

Chapter Text

They unbound his hands.

Kili sat on the floor of the cave in shock, looking down at his stiff fingers as his wrists were parted for the first time in days. He bent and flexed the aching bones, curling his hands repeatedly into loose fists, watching the knuckles turn white. His heart, it pounded madly in his chest, his raw and open back throbbing in time with his racing pulse. He couldn't breathe, not properly, it came out in shallow gasps as he fought down convulsions of pain and terror. He couldn't think, couldn't see. Kili closed eyes, hearing again and again in his mind the crack of the whip, the sound of screaming as he fought for life and sanity. How he had broken, completely, strung up like a gutted carcass, suspended in midair as his strength bled out of him. It was agony, just to sit, to breathe and have his skin moving in time with his expanding chest. He brushed his cheek, blood coming away from the back of his hand. Kili's breath trembled in his throat as he touched the cut on his face gently, checking the wound. It stretched along his cheek, from the joint between his jaw and cheekbone, almost to his cracked lips. More blood dripped along his trembling fingers. Kili swallowed and looked down at the bruises that coloured his ribs, the nasty marks on his collarbone and stomach, the worst on the skin just over his heart. Half a hand's breadth had been burned away from the red-hot scimitar. He craned his stiff neck, but couldn't see any of his back. He felt it though, the drying blood sticky and hot against the broken skin, that burned like fire. Every movement of his arms, tensing and stretching the flayed muscles and flesh of his back, sent a new wave of pain along his spine, Kili gritting his teeth.

All in all, he was lucky. Ha. lucky. How ridiculous that sounded. To be trapped and tortured, alone in a cave with an orc king who wanted his line dead - and to be lucky about it. But he was. They could have broken his bones, pulled his teeth and nails or cut off his fingers. Even with just a handful of crude weapons, there were dozens of cruel, inventive ways they could have interrogated him. But they didn't want to maim him. They just wanted him to suffer.

And now Kili knew why.

His breath halted as one of the orcs approached him, swinging a thick chain in his hand, attached to some sort of metal ring. Durin, what was this? What did they want to do now? Kili backed away, shaking his head, but another orc behind him simply grabbed the dwarf by the arms, holding him fast. Kili's cries of protest were ignored as the ring was unlocked, the orc crouching down and bringing it down over his head. Kili watched it fasten around his neck and lock into place. It was a collar, made for small prisoners like him. It bolted into place with a tiny key, half the length of his index finger. The orc turned away from Kili, stepping beyond him and into the darkness of the back of the cave. His arms released, Kili rested on his hands and knees as he watched the shadowy figure step up to the edge of the underground pond, their source of water and the occasional fish. Kili bit his lip as he saw the orc toss the key carelessly into the water, the tiny fragment of iron sinking to the bottom, never to be found. He swallowed, the collar pressing down hard on his throat at the sensation. Kili's hands curled into the rock. It would never come off. His hands went to the iron ring, feeling the intricacies of the joints and hinges, for any weak spot that he could break apart with a stray rock. But it was sound, the iron very thick and sturdy. Even an experienced smith couldn't get out, not without some sort of tool. His eyes fell to the abandoned weapons on the ground, the ones that had been used to burn him, and he reached out. The orc stepped hard on his fingers with a growl, Kili snatching his hand back, cradling his injured fingers as the beast shook his head, leering over him. He seized the heavy chain and pulled, Kili forced to stand on his own two feet for the first time in many, many hours. He staggered, protesting, pulling back on the chain as every step upset his tender back, but the orc didn't let up, dragging him around the firepit.

The rest of the cave fell back into their pattern of work, Azog returning to his chair with his legs stretched out before him. At his side, the warg lay on the stone, snarling at Kili was he was brought before the orc. The chain was offered to Azog wordlessly, and he took it with a silent nod. Kili wavered on his unsteady legs, hands trembling on the chain. Azog pulled hard, the jerk forcing Kili onto his knees. Azog motioned with his head to the left side of the chair, beside Nink, giving the chain another tug. Kili shook his head, unable to look at the awful white warg. They were in his darkest, most fearful nightmares, wargs. They gave him his oldest scar. He couldn't bear them. It was why he faltered, out on the plains, when they were first attacked by the creatures. Why he remained crouched underneath the rock for so long, before stepping out to deliver the fatal blow. There was an ugly expression on Azog's face at the disobedience. The sharp point of the metal forced through his amputated arm pressed into Kili's sternum, ready to twist in and break the bone, spill the blood. He made another jerk of his head towards the direction of Nink. This time, Kili obeyed, crawling on hands and knees to take his place beside the chair. He couldn't lean against anything with his back; he sat with his arms wrapped around drawn-up legs, resting his forehead on his knees as he breathed heavily. With every heartbeat, his skin thudded against the metal collar, the ring that fastened him like a beast, the end of the chain wrapped firmly around Azog's wrist. The silvery fur of the warg, glistening in the firelight, brushed his side, a shiver passing through Kili at the sensation. He was tired. So tired. How long since he had slept? It passed in a horrible nightmare of darkness and fire. He'd fallen down, it pressed around him and his memories grew dark. He didn't know when the days ended and nights began. How many times the sun and moon walked across the sky. How long it had been since he wandered in the woods, so alone and carefree and naive and innocent. How he had fallen from that to this, chained and stripped and beaten, his stomach filled from an unspeakable taboo.

Kili tried to turn inward, tried to block out the sounds and smells and pain. Hoping that if he pretended he was somewhere else, the terror in his heart might lessen, that he could even get some sleep. But the collar on his throat thrummed with every heartbeat, and Kili could not for one moment forget where he was, what had happened. He tried not to think about how he had given Thorin and Fili away, how the orcs would come for them next. They would tell his kin that he gave them up, that he squealed and screamed. They would all die, because of him. Fili would die. Thorin too. They would show them the pendant and burn the Hall to the ground, rooting out the last remnants of the aged, fading warriors of Erebor, the fragmentary line of Durin.

Kili had no idea that Azog had something much, much more sinister in mind.

It was pitch-black when the solitary orc reached the very edge of the wide green pastures. The house, so modest and humble from the outside, was lit by the dying embers through the single window. The night was entirely silent - even Beorn was sleeping, as the moon had passed its glistening crescendo, sinking deep below the horizon. Dawn was just a few hours off. The wooden building seemed so far away from here - he could hide it with his thumb over an eye. But Nuglub didn't dare treat any closer. He drew his bow from the quiver, working by touch in the dark. The piece of cloth, torn from Kili's pants and written in black ink, bore only two words. Carrock. Midnight. He wound it around the arrow, reaching into his pocket for the tiny mithril pendant. Nuglub tied the whole thing together with the broken string, fingers fumbling a little in the darkness. He shrugged off his bow, pulling back the string and aiming the arrow directly at the tiny square of amber light. He wasn't going to miss. He never missed. He could pin a Mirkwood moth to a tree from fifty yards away. He couldn't miss.

The arrow flew over the roof of the house and into a tree, but Nuglub didn't know it. He listened for the hiss, the soft thud of an arrow in wood, almost imperceptible in the night. He stretched to hear it, convinced he heard the barest whisper less than a heartbeat after he let the arrow fly. But it wasn't buried into the side of the house, waiting to be seen in the morning light as the front door was first opened. It was embedded high in the trunk of a thick tree, hiding within a thick canopy of heavy green leaves. It would be seen by Beorn in the winter, much too late to save Kili, when the leaves withered on the branch and fell, when snow dusted the earth, and the cloth had rotted away almost completely but the mithril still hung, shining as bright as ever, peering down at the shapeshifter between the naked branches.

But in the summer, it remained invisible.

Satisfied his job was done, Nuglub turned back, and not slowly either, slinging the bow across his back as his walk turned into a jog, and then a run, aware of the sleepy wooden eyes that stared at him across the grass. He never missed. Not once.

It was a bitterly hot day.

Bilbo cursed the sunshine as he sat cross-legged in the tall grass, head bowed. How he wished for rain. Heavy, black clouds to pour water down on him and wet his face. To hammer the drops into him, as hard as nails and warm as tea. Instead, it was the most beautiful of afternoons, with a pristine blue sky, the grass buzzing with bees, hundreds upon hundreds of flowers, some familiar, some utterly foreign, swaying gently in the soft breeze, their faces turned up to the sun.

Sun on the daisies, yes yes...

Bilbo tried to bury the memory of darkness, those wide, lamplike eyes that shone so unbelievably blue. They seemed almost childish in that bony grey face. Bilbo shook his head, chasing the images away. At his side, Gandalf looked down, lowering the slim pipe from his lips.

"Anything in particular troubling you, Bilbo?" The hobbit shook his head silently, but Gandalf rested his hand on the little shoulder. Bilbo let out a long, shuddering sigh. "I imagine they won't be going for too much longer."

"I don't mind." Bilbo choked the words out. "I-It's... It's a lovely day."

"Yes, yes it is." Gandalf took a deep drag from his pipe, sounding almost distasteful. "Although it's wasted on a day like this." Bilbo nodded silently, looking back at the mouth of the cave. They had walked far enough out earshot to leave the dwarves in privacy. Neither were fit to listen in on a Khuzdul service. Neither wanted to. Bilbo had a hard enough time keeping it together, and Gandalf couldn't trust himself to keep up the mask any longer. Not if he had to watch them seal up the possessions of that dear little dwarf, entombing their last remnants of him in the stone. Bilbo wiped at his eyes. He still struggled to believe it. Kili, although older than him by some twenty years, had seemed so young. He remembered his first impression, the dwarf who wiped his feet on his mother's glory box and tried to make off with his ale barrel. The one who teased him about orcs in the night and coaxed him into following the ponies.

The one who was the first to leap into the troll's domain for him.

"Do..." Bilbo swallowed hard. "Do dwarves, well... Where do they go? After?" Gandalf looked at him. "Well, when elves die I know they go to the Houses of the Dead, and they're reborn in Valinor." His grandfather had told him that, in one of Old Took's many childhood stories. "What about, well... What about them?" He looked over at the cave.

"Ah." Gandalf looked off into the distance for some time. "It depends, of course, on who you ask. The dwarves believe that upon their death, Aulë brings them to Halls in Mandos, much like the elves. The Seven Fathers are said to reborn through their own kin, but the rest remain to be among the Children of the End." He took another puff of the pipe, taking his time before speaking. "The elves believe there is nothing after death for dwarves. That they simply return to the stone from which they were made, and nothing more." Bilbo stared at Gandalf, his face white.

"Nothing?" He breathed, and his eyes stung. Gandalf shook his head slowly, fiddling with his pipe as he always did when he found it hard to speak. "Nothing..." Bilbo looked down at the grass, hanging his head. He wasn't much of a spiritual man (hobbits never really had much thought for those sorts of things, living their comfortable, sunny lives without much fear of death), but it was a heavy blow to him, to think that Kili's soul had vanished when the his heart stopped beating. Not to be reborn, not to wander in any hall or valley, but to simply vanish, a puff of smoke in the wind. He blinked rapidly, and wiped at his eyes. "What do you believe?" He looked up at Gandalf, the wizard chewing absentmindedly on the end of his pipe. He stared beyond Bilbo, beyond the grass and the earth, into the depths of lore and magic and legend. The lines on his face seemed to have grown heavier, even in the last few minutes, as the two outsiders sat in the sun, while beneath them, the people of the earth paid their final homage to a fallen prince. "Gandalf?"

"I believe," and he spoke slowly and deliberately, "that the soul is something beyond the physical. It is indeterminable. And we cannot weigh and judge it in words used on this earth." Satisfied that he had answered Bilbo's question, he reached for his tobacco, quite ready for another fill of his pipe. Bilbo was staring at the ground, a heavy frown on his face. He squinted through the sun as he looked at Gandalf again, head tilted to one side.

"So... You're saying you don't know?" Bilbo stretched his toes out on the thick grass. Surprised at Bilbo's boldness, Gandalf set down his pipe, and looked very thoughtfully at a bee which landed on Bilbo's hairy foot.

"No. I don't." He sighed, eyes shaded by the brim of his hat. "I know as much of the next life, Mr Baggins, as you do." But there was a flicker of the mouth, one that Bilbo did not see, and he disguised the motion by putting the pipe in his mouth. Bilbo sighed, and lay down on his back, staring up at the sky. He felt very, very small. Smaller even than normal, as he rested in the grass, with the immortal sun beating down on him. Even Gandalf seemed shrivelled, hunched over. One little life, a single light, had been snuffed out. And as he lay in the grass, Bilbo honestly could not think of anybody who shone brighter than Kili. Even the sun seemed watery and pale, as Bilbo remembered Kili's infectious brightness and joy. Even as Bilbo grew hungrier and more homesick, as the days dragged into weeks and he wandered further from home, Kili always, always made him smile. Always had a joke, a laughing sing-song, tumbling from his lips. Even after the Misty Mountains, when they brushed death and fire, Kili had kept up his brightness. Thorin scowled and Oin complained about the naivety of youth, but the smile was as warm and sweet and golden as treacle, to Bilbo. The world seemed darker - Bilbo didn't know how he was going to bear the rest of the journey underneath this shadow, with that bright smile at his side nothing more than a fading memory.

A low, gutteral scream sounded from beneath the earth.

Bilbo sat up very suddenly, and Gandalf gripped his staff out of habit, their eyes meeting at the sound. It took them some moments to place the source of the scream, Bilbo's head sinking into his hands. It was Fili. Gandalf's hand felt very heavy on his back, moving in tight, reassuring circles. They both sat in silence, waiting for the small procession of dwarves to emerge from the newly-fashioned underground tomb. Dori Nori and Ori were the first to step into the sunlight, followed by Oin and Gloin. The rest trickled out as Bilbo rose to his feet, milling about themselves in the unbearable afternoon sun. No eye was dry. But Bilbo waited, and Fili, Balin, Dwalin and Thorin remained underground.

"How long...?" He murmured softly to the little clutch of dwarves. Bofur shrugged silently as he came to stand beside Bilbo.

"Give 'em some time. They knew Kili the best, after all. Balin's helping Thorin stay on his feet and Dwalin, well, Kili was always his favourite." There was no hint of his usual mischief around Bofur's eyes. "He toned it down for the trip, but if you'd seen 'em in Ered Luin, when the brothers were wee ones, you'd be suprised. Dwalin was always a softie towards Kili." The corners of his mouth hung downward. Everybody knew why. With his chestnut locks and dark eyes, Dwalin could pretend that Kili was his own.

"Hush Bofur," Gloin hissed. All eyes turned to the mouth of the low cave, watching as Thorin and Balin stepped into the light. Thorin tried not to let his pain show, but he leaned heavily on Balin, gripping his arm with white knuckles. He kept some degree of composure. They all heard Fili before they saw him; his dry, wracking sobs echoed against the walls of the cave. Fili staggered with Dwalin's arms around him, the aged warrior struggling to hold the young prince upright as he battled his own crippling grief. His golden mane shone wildly in the sunlight, glistening as he stumbled on unsteady legs. He struggled to breathe, face hidden by a thick curtain of hair. His silence finally broke as they rose the chiseled marker over the shelf cut from the stone wall, hiding the weapons and clothes from mortal eyes, for ever. He sank to his knees in a scream and beat his fists at the stone, as though he could pound the life back into the bloodied lumps of fabric and fur sealed behind an unassuming gravestone. Thorin watched him, the words he whispered in Fili's ear whispering throughout the cave, that sons of Durin didn't scream and cry. He would never dare to speak those words aloud again. His own wet eyes and hoarse throat reeked of hypocrisy.

Thorin released his hold on Balin's arm, standing up of his own accord. He stared at the small circle of dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo hovering about on the outside. They all met his gaze, except Fili, whose knees had gone weak. He hung in Dwalin's arms, his sturdy frame convulsing in shuddering gasps of air. The exiled king took in a very long breath, looking into the black mouth of the cave, where Kili would rest. Underground, like his ancestors.

Except not.

"We should go." He turned away, unable to keep looking at the cavernous hole in the green mound of grass and flowers. His walk was slow, shuffling through a painful limp. Balin hovered at his elbow, but Thorin rejected the support and comfort. They lingered for several moments before moving, Bofur taking one of Fili's arms. He was gently coaxed away, physically, but his soul and heart remained buried beneath the earth, sealed within the makeshift crypt that held all the earthly reminders that his brother ever existed. Fili's eyes dried up and he regained the use of his legs eventually, and after that outburst he didn't cry loudly again at the thought of Kili, not with the howls and wails that consumed him beneath the earth, but with stinging eyes and sniffles, deep beneath the blankets at night as he looked across to the face that slept beside him, the face that wasn't his brother's. He wouldn't speak of him like the others did. He wouldn't mention Kili at all, not to the Company. Did that make him heartless? Perhaps he was.

Fili felt very cold as he walked in the sun, as though the warmth and light inside of him had died.

Chapter Text

"We'll leave at dawn."

Fili nodded silently at the words, hunched over the long table. They sat apart from the rest, at the end of the table away from the warm light of the fire. The others left them alone, maintaining a strained chatter amongst themselves. He didn't touch any of the food. Kili's hair clasp lay in his hand. He turned it over and over in his fingers, watching the firelight catch on the silver. After a long time, they had finally pried him free of Kili's cloak in the cave, laying it to rest in the stone. He couldn't take it, they reasoned. Fili wasn't going to wear it, it was too small for him, and he couldn't expect to carry it to Erebor, not with his back laden with packs and weapons. But he kept the clasp, holding it tight in his hands and they didn't dare to take it from him. Thorin too, slipped the knife into his belt, reclaiming his gift. Sitting across from Fili, Thorin set down his honey-smeared bread, pushing a plate towards his lone nephew.

"Eat." It was a short, clipped command. Thorin tried to remember the last time he saw Fili put food in his mouth. Not today, he knew. And he couldn't recall Fili eating yesterday, either. His face was pale and drawn, dark shadows hanging under his eyes. He looked like a ghost. He half expected Fili to protest, to throw the plate at him and shout to leave him alone. He would have been well within his rights. But Fili took the plate. He looked down at the clasp in his hands, realising he would have to let it go to eat. Thorin watched as his Fili hands went up to his neck. He unfastened the first button of his undershirt, a tiny glint of mithril gleaming in the dim light. Fili fixed the hair clasp on the leather cord around his throat, the silver resting cold against his chest. He did with slow, methodical motions, disconnected. Thorin's frown deepened as Fili returned his attention to the food, breaking a chunk of bread off in his fingers, nibbling silently on the crust.

A hot, sick wave of panic rushed over Thorin. He never saw the necklace. He closed his eyes, an axe splitting his heart. It was so tiny, so insignificant-looking. No doubt it would have been lost, thrust into a pocket or at the bottom of a pack. He didn't blame Balin or Dwalin for missing it; they wouldn't have known to look for it. Thorin told his nephews quite firmly to keep their pendants hidden, even from their own people. Mithril, even a tiny flake of it, could do strange things to a dwarf. They coveted it above all else, above gold and precious stones. He remembered Frerin losing a finger in a fight, a year or so before he died, for want of his mithril ring. He didn't suspect them once of taking it. Why would they, when such treasures awaited them on the other side of the wood? Not his oldest and closest friends. His kin. Thorin leaned back in the chair, eyes half-lidded. He felt sick with longing. How could he allow it to fall out of his mind? Fili kept his head down, engaged in his reluctant chewing. The mithril still glistened, maddening his uncle.

"Fili, your shirt." He couldn't stand the white glow, it hurt his eyes. Fili's head jerked up, and he looked down at the trinkets hanging off his neck. He fixed it silently, hand resting over the lump beneath the cloth as he chewed on the corner of his bread with the small bites of someone reluctant to eat. Thorin found it hard to breathe, he bent down with his head hanging below the table. He waited until the sound of Fili's chewing had stopped before he stood up, walking around the end of the long wooden bench. He paused, to place a hand on Fili's shoulder and give it a tight squeeze. Fili set down his bread to clutch Thorin's wrist, his left hand still wrapped around the silver beneath his undershirt. Thorin lowered his head to Fili's, resting his lips on the golden mane.

"I know your agony." He spoke softly into Fili's hair the other hand tightening on his shoulder. "And I promise you Fili, you will one day think on Kili without pain. His memory will bring light into your mind." But Fili stared down at his bread. Thorin didn't see his trembling mouth.

"You're talking about Frerin." Fili's voice was low, and dead. He felt Thorin nod against his hair. His hand tightened on the clasp at his throat. "How long ago was it, Thorin? Eighty years ago? A hundred?" Thorin swallowed, saying nothing. "And you honestly think of him without grief or sorrow?" His fingers curled into Fili, and he kept up his silence, terrified his voice would betray him. But Fili knew enough. "That's what I thought." His voice broke at the last syllable, hand slipping from Thorin's wrist, curling into a fist on the table. "And you - you had a goodbye - a body - a-" Fili gritted his teeth. "I have nothing."

"You have this." He bore Fili's anger, biting back his retort that no, Thorin had less, much less, because Frerin was barely forty when he died, and he didn't have an uncle to hold his hand and wipe his tears. Because he lost not only his brother, but his father, and grandfather too, all within the space of a few hours. He was to protect Fili from such pain, not remind him of it. Thorin's hand shifted, and Fili thought he was going to touch Kili's little silver trinket. Fili's hand shook on the table. But Thorin's hand drifted lower, taking Fili's clenched fist.

He took the hand, pressing it over his nephew's heart. "This is his."

The drag of the chain started Kili out of a fitful sleep, where he dreamed that he was climbing a tree, back at home in Ered Luin, and it had caught fire. Fili had managed to jump across to a neighboring pine and he held his hand out to his brother, blue eyes wide and pleading, mouth fixed in a scream. Kili took a deep breath, looking down to the fire before jumping, launching his body out into the the vast open of the night. But his fingertips only brushed Fili, he didn't make it, and he was falling into the flames. It was almost welcome, to be woken from such a nightmare. Even if it was to have Azog scowling down on him, the chain wrapped around his wrist. He turned, and began to walking, the slack of the chain quickly giving way as Kili fell forward onto his knees. The white warg followed silently. Kili choked, hands clenched around the iron collar as he struggled to breathe.

"Stop - please -" He didn't know the words, but Azog heard the pain and desperation in the dwarf's voice. He pulled up short in his walk, allowing Kili enough time to get to his feet before marching out of the cave. Kili walked past the firepit, the eyes on him, stomach curling under their awful stares. "Where are we going?" He recieved only a grunt in return, a short angry tug on he chain in silent command for him to walk faster. Kili's head swam as he lurched after the orc king, knees weak. He was sleep-addled, almost delirious with hunger and thirst - not that he would touch any food placed before him, if he could help it - and couldn't move a limb without his torso flaring in pain. When they stepped into the moonlight, Kili after two days of cave-darkness was dazzled. He blinked, holding a hand over his eyes as he struggled to adjust to the brilliant silver light. Azog noticed the reaction with a curl of his lip. This dwarf obviously didn't spend enough time below ground. Still, he waited a moment before yanking on Kili's chain, guiding him over the jagged rocks and onto the grass. Oh the grass. Kili's toes curled around the blades in his bare feet, and he breathed in deeply. The air was exhilarating, after the hours and hours of stuffy darkness of the cave, warm and moist and reeking of orc. His chest heaved in deep gasps, and he ignored the goosebumps breaking over his skin, weak limbs shivering.

The warg crouched low in the grass, waiting. Azog pushed Kili in the small of the back, earning a sharp cry, the dwarf stumbling on the grass towards the waiting beast. He didn't speak of course, but he gestured to the white hide, a snarl on his lips. Up. Kili's throat closed in panic, and he shook his head, backing away.

"No." He breathed. "N-No I ca-" Azog hit him, right on the collarbone where he'd been burned. Kili gasped and clutched at the bone, fighting back a rolling wave of pain that spread to his fingers and toes. He couldn't scream. He couldn't give Azog the satisfaction. Heart thudding loudly in his chest, Kili approached the warg, reaching out with shaking hands. It's all right, it's just like riding a pony. A crazed pony that could turn around and rip you in half at any moment. He gulped, clenching a handful of white fur at the base of her neck. He lifted one leg over the beast slowly, his pulse fluttering in his throat as the warg let out a low growl. Azog leaped easily astride his beloved creature, tucking the chain into his belt as he reached for the scruff of the Nink's neck with his existing hand. Kili looked down at the heavy white limb, so close to his own, trying to keep his breathing slow and steady. The cold night air had shocked him out of his sleepy torpor, and he began to finally feel awake.

Then she leaped into action. Kili yelped and seized hold, white fur bursting in tufts through his fingers as he ducked his head against the wind. The alien forest swept around him as he clung tightly to the animal, blood rushing through his ears as the three tore through the night. The orc King and his royal prisoner astride the finest and quickest of the wargs. It was the fastest, most terrifying journey Kili had ever made. Even the eagles, soaring through the night, didn't induce this panic. Even though the ground lay hundreds of feet below, a rumpled patchword quilt, Kili hadn't been afraid.

That must have been because Fili was holding his hand.

But it wasn't Fili behind him. It was the white, powerful form of Azog, his good arm snaked around Kili as he clutched a handful of fur. The orc's hand was twice as big as his. Kili always had thin fingers for a dwarf - good for archery, his instructor had said - and his own hands looked very small in comparison. Like a child. Kili shivered in the rushing air, reminded of how small he really was in relation to the orc. Azog towered over him, even seated in the warg. Kili closed his stinging eyes to the wind, gritting his teeth. Where was he going? There was no contingent following behind. This was just Azog and Kili in the wilderness. Azog, Kili, and the warg, he reminded himself, tightening his grip on the fur. He couldn't forget that. He dared to open his eyes for a heartbeat, catching a rush of silver and black and a wide open grass before he ducked back down, shaking madly from cold and fear. Was he being taken to be killed? No, surely Azog wouldn't go through this effort just to kill him. He would have done it at the bottom of the cave, where he didn't have to put up with Kili's struggling. Not that he put up much of a fight.

What if he wanted an audience? Kili held his tongue, but his heart quickened at the thought. What if he was being taken to Beorn's? To be slain before Thorin and Fili, to have them watch, as he desperately gasped his last breath of air? While he screamed in pain and begged for release? A shudder ran down Kili's spine. He wouldn't be able to stand up to any more torture. There was nothing left for him to give, body or soul or mind. He was hollow, mechanical and willing, under Azog's thumb. He'd stopped struggling.

Kili's eyes opened, as after what felt an age, the warg slowed. Water gushed nearby. The sheer walls of the Carrock rose before them, glistening in the moonlight. Kili arched his neck, remembering the long, slow climb downwards after being dumped (rather unceremoniously, he thought) by the Eagles. Azog pushed on the small of Kili's back, the dwarf tumbling to the ground with a cry as Azog slid easily to his feet. He waited for Kili to rise to his feet, wincing as he rolled his shoulders, before starting his way up the stairs cut into the rock. Kili looked up at the towering stone, the hundreds of stairs that faced him, cold and hurt and hungry, heart sinking. He plodded behind Azog slowly, struggling to keep up with the orc's tall, powerful strides. He slipped more than once, the collar jerking painfully on his neck as he coughed on hands and knees. The wind froze his bare skin, cutting like a knife into the exposed, bloodied flesh. Kili walked hunched over, embracing himself as he stared at the ground, focusing only on setting one foot down in front of the other. The chain was pulled taut, and every time he tried to tug back on it, to get some slack and release the pressure on his neck, Azog deliberately quickened his pace, and Kili inevitably slipped or stumbled, landing on his back or side or stomach against the stone and crying out into the night.

Kili sank to his knees as they reached the top of the Carrock, bending over on the stone as he gasped for air. Another violent shiver tore through him at the wind, and he wrapped his arms tightly around his chest. It was so cold. Azog let the chain fall to the stone, taking several paces across the high table of stone, to the edge that overlooked Mirkwood, and beyond. The tiny shape of Erebor could just barely be seen in the moonlit sky. He grasped for the weapon slung across his back, hefting the iron in his hand. Kili grasped at handfuls of the chain, hugging it close to himself. Could he use it as some sort of weapon? He looked up at Azog, illuminated in the moonlight as the lump grew in his throat. His nerve failed him before he even considered it. Azog had two weapons. He was stronger, bigger, faster (at this point). Even if he managed to somehow subdue him and flee, Kili would still have the warg to contend with. There was no way he could do it. So Kili remained in still silence on the stone, watching Azog as his heart pounded and mouth bubbled with questions that he couldn't answer, waiting for something to happen, something he knew nothing of, as he grew colder and thirstier, joints stiffening as he remained hunched over in the darkness, his eyes never leaving Azog's waiting figure.

The dawn brought no relief for Thorin.

Sleep finally claimed Fili, after several nights of open eyes staring into darkness. Thorin managed to snag him by surprise, asking him to come sit next to him on the bedroll and have a drink. Dori had found a patch of chamomile flowers two days ago, spreading them out by the fire at nights to dry. Two heads of the dried plant in boiling water, and Fili was out like a light, snoring on Thorin's shoulder still in his cloak and furs. Thorin undressed him like a child, his fingers trembling as he peeled the layers of cloth and animal hide from his nephew's body. He had Fili's blanket rolled out beside his own. He considered keeping Kili's bedclothes, but Thorin eventually had it all rolled up and place alongside the rest of his things. They wouldn't have use for another blanket for some months, and by then they would have most likely lost it. Better it lay in the stone with his memory. The rest of the pack drew in a little closer, Bilbo and Ori laying side-by-side in a shrinking center. And for the first time in seventy-six years, Thorin tucked Fili into bed after getting him into his nightclothes, kissing his brow and sitting cross-legged beside him as he slept. Fili lay with his golden hair spread out across the pillow, face completely calm and relaxed from the soothing tea, a welcome brief respite from his grief and anguish. Thorin couldn't help but run his fingers through the tangled locks, wrapped in barbed layers of memories. Mostly about Fili and Kili as children, Thorin recounting how he used to treat them, trying to figure out in his mind if he favoured one over the other, if it could have had any influence over how they turned out.

When that hurt too much, Thorin was reminded of Frerin. Five years younger than he, with wide dark eyes and a ratty mop of brown hair. He too, never had a beard longer than an inch of sparse stubble. He had long, bony hands that his father said were too brittle for any real work. But Frerin had cunning, and he could shape metal into objects of curiosity and wonder, with a detail not found in the rest of his kin. He had been in the forge the day the dragon struck, deep within the bowels of the mountain, and Thorin had always wondered how he managed to get out. He realised now that his brother would have been accompanied out through Thror's secret door. The door that he'd never seen. He was quite good with a bow too, although he didn't wave it about the way Kili did. Thorin was supposed to tell Kili that. He closed his eyes as a fresh wound pierced his heart. He never told Kili about how his own younger brother was considered odd. It was, they said, why he had been killed. A warrior with real skill wouldn't have fallen the way Frerin had. It haunted Thorin. And on the day he gave him the knife and realised that Kili would never be like him, that he would be more like his dead brother, Thorin stood in the doorway of his nephew's half-empty room, and swore on Durin's name that he would protect little Kili from the dangers and darkness of the world.

His failure made it hard to breathe.

And in the darkness, Thorin sat beside the last faltering fragment of his family as the ghosts of his brother, his father and grandfather and nephew breathed on him, leaving his face hot and flushed. He wound his fingers in the hair and pressed his forehead's against Fili's and swore that he would give his own life before letting any harm come to his last surviving heir. But it was a false, hollow promise. Fili didn't need or want it. Fili was perfect, he was noble and valiant and strong. He was a lion. Thorin's protection was as frail and ineffectual as a shield of glass over mithril armour. But Thorin clung to his last empty promise in the night. And as the dawn rose and he opened his eyes after several hours of sleep, Thorin lay on his side and watched his nephew in slumber. He willed himself to believe in his own oath, fighting for conviction. But as the promise tumbled once more from his lips in the flickering light of burned-out embers, he pressed his lips together and fell silent. He rested his head on Fili's shoulder, bowed under the weight of his own shame and failure.

But while Fili would instinctively curl into Kili in his sleep, winding an arm around his brother and resting his cheek against that thick mop of air, Fili remained on his back as Thorin's long hair brushed the skin of his neck, arms lax in his slumber, as he endured the touch of what felt a stranger.

The dawn saw Kili cold and lonely.

He still sat hunched over, watching with dark eyes as the white figure strode back and forth before. As the night wore on, the orc seemed to become more and more agitated. He started to pace, his heavy boots clumping across the stone, from Erebor to Moria and back, the weapons swinging from his limbs. Kili was curled into a very tight ball, nose and mouth buried in folded arms. Only his eyes were visible. Each time Azog passed the dwarf in his pacing, Kili lowered his gaze, to the stone, his arms, his feet, holding his breath. Each time he expected some sort of blow to end his life. And each time, the shadow passed, and when Kili dared to raise his head, Azog was on the other side of the Carrock, his back to Kili. His frozen fingers dug into his arms, teeth starting to chatter as the dry, hot day sank into a crisp night, on their table suspended in the fading moonlight. If Azog was cold, he didn't show it. Maybe the pacing helped to keep him warm. Kili rested his chin on his knees, joints aching as the heavy blackness in the sky sank into the deepest hour before dawn, the moon drifting below the horizon, Kili unable to make the orc out at all in the darkness. But Azog, with his vision shaped for the darkness of caves and tunnels where the light never reached, saw him, and his wide eyes staring unseeing out into the black night.

Azog himself was cold, but he would never, ever show it. Unstead he kept his head raised, staring out at the night, ears tuned, listening for the slightest whisper, the barest noise eminating from the shadowy night. He waited in silence, his limbs growing tenser with each passing hour. He was sure Thorin would come. It was inconcievable, to think he would not. This was his nephew, his heir, the closest thing he had to a son. And he was a prisoner of Azog. It was only a matter of time before Azog would hear the footfalls of heavy boots making their way up the side of the Carrock.

He had a speech figured out. He'd asked one of the orcs to teach him one single line of Westron. Your life for his. He recited it in his mind. Kili would walk free, while Thorin and Azog fought to the death. Thorin was the prize, the king, the foe. Azog had no concern for the trembling child who crouched in the moonlight. Let him run away. He was no threat to him or his company. Even if he somehow rejoined the rest of the dwarf-scum, how long would it be, really, before they would track them all down, and Azog would have his head? Especially after breaking him. There was nothing left to conquer, the fight had been won. He was a husk, living on borrowed time as his life ebbed away. Azog was no longer interested in Kili. He yearned for the king, Thorin Oakenshield. He would accept nothing less.

The sky turned to grey, and Kili still had no idea why he was there. The smudge of white began to take shape, as the first threads of light began to settle on the darkness, Kili watching as limbs, a head, became visible against the darkness, gaining sharpness and clarity with each moment.

As the sky gave way to whiteness, a rim of gold on the horizon, Azog turned abruptly away from his view of Erebor, boots clumping towards the dwarf who crouched on the stone. Kili bent his head, waiting for the sound of heavy footfalls to pass him. But they stopped in front of him. And he heard the sound of heavy breathing above him. Heart frozen, Kili slowly arched his neck upwards. Azog had an ugly snarl on his face as he stared down at the young dwarf, twirling the heavy mace longingly in his hand. Kili's throat stuck, and he tried to back away, but his joints felt frozen shut, his hands and feet completely numb. He couldn't move.

What did he want? Kili remained frozen, trying to read the expression on the orc's face. It was twisted in anger. Deep, genuine anger. Kili's blood felt like ice in his veins, heart struggling to beat. Azog lifted the mace over his head, and Kili squeaked, screwing his eyes shut in anticipation for the blow that would certainly kill him. But Azog was merely slinging the weapon across his back once more. A huge hand thrust into the tight bundle of Kili's arms and legs, and the dwarf yelped in fright, eyes still closed. He struggled to beat Azog's arm and legs away, but his weak blows were easily endured as Azog found the the chain Kili had huddled close to him, yanking hard. It hurt, Kili choked as he was forced to his feet, staggering as the blood flowed sluggishly to his arms and legs. His hand gripped the chain to steady himself, gasping for air. He opened his mouth to protest, that he was in pain and he couldn't breathe, but Azog started to walk without looking back. This time, he didn't care if he had to drag Kili down the side of the eyot by the neck until he was raw and bleeding. If Kili wanted to stagger and fall, then so be it. His patience had been worn completely through, after a night of fruitless waiting in the piercing moonlight. Kili's breath was a harsh gasp as he struggled to keep up with the orc, trailing his hand against the rock as he tried to keep his balance with stiff, numb legs and arms, squinting through the grey light. Twice he slipped on loose rocks, and once he fell almost over the ledge, and would have tumbled to his death if Azog didn't reach out and seize his arm.

Kili let out a long sigh as he sank to the grass at the foot of the Carrock, struggling to breathe through a pain in his lungs. He'd been weakened already, after his days in captivity, his weary body not able to hold up to the physical stress. But it was only a short reprieve, a few moments, before Azog grabbed him by the hair, dragging him to his feet and practically throwing him on the warg. He wasn't going wait for him to delicately mount the beast this morning. Kili grabbed handfuls of hair as the warg rose to her feet, head arched as she sniffed at the lightening air. She took off quickly, leaping easily across the shallow ford despite the heavy load. Kili's head ducked back down as he struggled to process the events of the night. He'd been torn out of the cave, carried miles away to the Carrock, and left there in the open for the night, with Azog pacing as the darkness gave way to light, only to be dragged back down, presumably back to the depths of the cave. It seemed utterly pointless. But Kili had watched Azog all night, watched him start to crumble under impatience and anger. He was waiting for something to happen. Only Kili didn't know what, and he couldn't ask him. As the first rays of light began to brush the treetops, the warg leaped through the heavy forest, Kili keeping his head down, praying to himself that he wouldn't fall.

Miles away, Fili rode at the back of the Company on his sturdy little pony, the flimsy show-reins slack in his hands. Every step, every thud of the hoof into the grass, was another footstep on his heart. He was treading it flat. It was behind him - Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, Beorn's home, Kili - it was all behind him, vanishing into the past. Fili's head hung low, shoulders bent under the weight of his pack. No, not just the pack. Fili's eyes were closed. He didn't know if he could ever lift his head upright again. The awful weight pressed down on him, two hands bending his neck down and holding him fast.

He allowed himself one last look backwards. The sky, blood-red, burning with fire, hung over him, the mountains rising at the edge of his vision. Beorn's house was already a little dot. They were anxious to get started early, to leave. Fili couldn't tear his eyes away. This was his brother's land, now. He lay within it. While Fili would hope to rest in the Halls of Erebor, Kili would remain in the wildlands, a desperate stretch of land inhabited by darkness, guarded by a solitary shape-shifter. His hands tightened on the reins as a sob built up in his chest.

But he forced it back. And, lowering his eyes back down to his hands, Fili turned back to the rest of the departing company, as they walked away from the mountains, from the past, plunging forward into the dangerous unknown.



Chapter Text

They took bets on whether or not Azog would return.

Not of course, that they would ever let their leader know. And they didn't have much to trade with each other. But they exchanged rations of food, spare weapons and socks. Ogash had a tight racket going. The favourite of course, was that Azog would return with Thorin Oakenshield's head, but there were other wagers. That he would not come back at all, that he would have escaped, perhaps wounded, without his prize. Gurk of course protested he would return with the body of Thorin and of Kili too, and they would eat well that morning. Bakub bet his best knife that Thorin didn't even show up, and that they would finally be able to gorge themselves on the flesh of that tender-looking dwarf that had been driving them mad with hunger for days. Nuglub wagered three arrows that Thorin sent someone else in his stead, and they themselves had been killed. He was a crafty orc.

So when they heard the scratching and snuffling of the warg at the cave, the clutch of orcs dropped what they were doing and looked up in interest. Ogash, with the sack of loot hidden from Azog's eyes, stood up, craning his neck for an early indication. He ran to the edge of the cave passage, peering out. He swore - his bet at least, hadn't come through - and ran back, seizing the sack from the base of the rock, and in a fluid motion, dropped it in Bakub's lap, taking his place beside the fire as Azog entered the dark chamber at the back of the cave. Bakub crowed with delight, stuffing it into his pack as the rest of the orcs muttered, some throwing small stones at the lucky one.

But they all rose respectfully to their feet as Azog slid down from Nink, seizing Kili by the collar and throwing him to the ground. Kili took it silently, fingers curling into the rock. This was not good. This was terrible. A horrible lump of ice had settled in his stomach, refusing to move. Gurk stepped forward, head in a bow, eyes fixed hungrily on Kili.

"The night... Was not victorious, your Malevolence?" Kili stayed on his hands and knees, palms scraped and bleeding.

"No." Azog's voice was sharper than ever. The muttering of the orcs grew. "Thorin never came." He kicked Kili in the side, the burned side, Kili gritting his teeth as he withstood the blow in silence. He caught Thorin's name, eyes darting from side to side in desperate thought. What did Thorin have to do with it? They never went near the Carrock, and Thorin didn't show up at all last night or-

Kili closed his eyes, trying to stop the wheeling of the earth beneath his hands and feet.

Thorin didn't show up at all.

Kili put the pieces together, realising what had happened. Azog had been waiting. He had been waiting for Thorin, and he never came, and now Kili wasn't of any use to him anymore. Kili wasn't simply a source of information to them. He had been a bargaining tool, a ransom. That was why they wanted to know his kin. They'd reasoned that Thorin would have done anything to save the life of his nephew. They waited on the Carrock for him. But Thorin never came. Nor did Fili. They never came to his rescue. Kili's sick stomach lurched. No. There had to be another explanation. There was no way that Thorin, that Fili, would stand back if there was any chance that he could be saved. They would never, ever, ever leave him to die.

They wouldn't ever abandon me.

Gurk couldn't refrain from licking his lips as he stared at the hunched figure on the ground. It was some time since they had dwarf. They were as a rule tougher than men, but usually stockier, with more meat on their bones. He watched the movement of Kili's muscles through his bloodied skin, weighing him up. He wouldn't be as leathery as normal dwarves. He wouldn't be tough at all, Gurk decided. A little on the thin side, yes, but the flesh would be sweet and tender. So tender.

"What are your wishes now?" Gurk made a motion to the dwarf on the ground. Kili looked up, realising that the two had started talking about him. He looked wildly from one orc to the other, eyes dark circles in his skull, shadowed in the firelight.

"I have no use for him." Azog said simply, letting the chain fall from his hand. He stepped away from the pair, turning towards his chair at pride of place before the fire. Kili's heart hammered in his throat, shaking his head as he noticed the orc looking him up and down, sectioning him in his mind, a pale grey tongue darting over his lips.

"No..." Kili backed away, seized with terror. "No - please - no!" Gurk grabbed him by the arms, lifting him up. Kili tried to lash out at him, kicking the orc in the shins. "No!"

"Morbol, help me get 'em clean." Kili was doing more damage to his bruised and bleeding feet, ruined from being dragged up and down the Carrock, than to his own legs. So let him try to fight his way out. He slung the chained dwarf over his shoulder, Kili's screaming bouncing off the walls of the cave. This wasn't a cry of pain. This was of pure terror. Please no they wouldn't do this why didn't they come where are they Thorin where are you no no no Fili please help-

"No!" Kili screamed again as the cave-pond loomed before him. "Please -" The two orcs walked thigh-deep into the water, and Gurk slung the dwarf from his arms and into the cave-pond. The water was freezing, it shocked his quivering limbs. How could they bear it? Kili found his feet in the water, standing between the two as the pond-tide lapped at his waist. He sputtered through the water. It was so cold. They held him down so the water ran over his shoulders, Kili enduring his violent bath with sputtering cries and pleas for mercy.  When he was satisfied they'd gotten the worst of the dust and dried blood from their dinner, Gurk lifted Kili out of the water. He shook uncontrollably, his lips blue as he fought to keep air in his lungs. He'd never been so cold. How was the water so cold? But the orcs didn't feel it, the water only lapped at their knee-high boots, splashing against sturdy clothing made from animal hide. Numb all over, Kili sank to his knees when he was set on the ground beside, water running from him in rivulets. He'd swallowed a good amount of it, and while that battled his painful thirst, his stomach felt bloated and cramped.

"How d'ya wanna do it?" They spoke in a language he knew, quite on purpose. Kili moaned, rubbing his hands together as he struggled to regain the feeling in his fingers.

"Slit 'is throat." Kili closed his eyes, gasping for air between his blue lips. "Ear-t'-ear, and save the blood." Morbol looked over at his King. Surely, he would like to do the honours. "Your Greatness." He spoke in orcish again. Azog looked up at the title, to see Kili curled on the ground, waiting for death, with Morbol holding out the knife in offering. Gurk found a nice wide bowl to catch the blood, blowing out the dust and fragments of ash. A smile formed on Azog's scarred face, and he rose slowly to his feet. Kili pressed his hands over his face, shaking his head and moaning as the orc King walked towards them.

"No!" Kili's lungs burned in one last, desperate plea for his life. Morbol held his arms, the other orc pressing the bowl into his chest. The collar was a pain, but they would have to deal with it. His hair was was grabbed, Kili's neck forced back, exposing enough white skin, darkened with the barest whisper of hair, to slash. Azog saw the pulse thud in Kili's throat, beating against the collar. Kili couldn't breathe, he tried to struggle but the orcs held him fast, arms pulled taut and legs pinned to the floor with their knees. His throat broke in a sob. How could this happen? He tried to think of some sort of prayer, a plea to one of the Guardian's, to guide his soul, but only one thought ran through his frantic mind. Fili why did you let this happen to me where are you how could you abandon me why aren't you here you're always here always why aren't you here where are you why didn't you save me please please please please-

The knife stopped inches from Kili's throat as the mouth of the cave erupted in a roar.

Azog jerked backwards, catching a flash of black fur approaching the fire. Beorn. He reacted in an instant, wrenching Kili free from the orcs, circling an arm around his waist and slipping into the water. Kili was too frightened to make a sound - he managed to take in a short gasp of air as the pair plunged into the water, Azog pulling him under. Kili hadn't seen the figure of the huge black bear, he thought at first that Azog was trying to drown him. He kicked out against the arm around his waist, ears filled with the sound of rushing as he was pulled deeper and deeper under. Kili inhaled water, lungs burning at the crashing and whirling, light-headed. Finally, his head broke the surface, Kili choking and sputtering and coughing up water. The collar and chain were too heavy, Kili fighting to keep his head above water as he gasped for air. So Azog held Kili around the chest, keeping him afloat. It was completely and utterly black. Kili's breath was shallow in his throat, thinking for a horrible moment he had gone blind. He reached out with a hand, fingers brushing stone. They were in a tiny pocket of air.  He was dazed. So close, he came so close to death, to having his throat slit and bleeding out, held down while they collected the spilled blood in a bowl. And something had saved him. Whether fate or dumb luck, something burst in, and he didn't see what. His heart leaped in his mouth. What if it was Thorin and Fili. Kili took in a deep breath, ready to scream.

"F-" Azog felt the jerk of Kili's chest, the sharp intake of air, and covered Kili's mouth, the dwarf pressed against his chest, unable to move. Kili's scream became a muffled sob. He trod water smoothly, head cocked, listening. The low, bear-like roar thrummed through the stone walls, coupled with the screeching of his orcs. The sound of steel crashing on stone. Azog was very still and quiet, waiting for the sounds to die down. Kili's mouth was still covered. He tugged at Azog's wrist, but the orc held fast, eyes up to the low ceiling as they waited. Something slithered past Kili's leg, and he fought back a shudder. The air slowly grew warm and stale. Azog was no fool; Beorn had a nasty habit of rooting out tribes of orcs that wandered too close to his domain. But the great Bear had never been seen this far west. Something drew him out. If Thorin and his company sought shelter in Beorn's Hall, then it was very likely he knew Kili was missing. Perhaps he had even come himself, at the behest of Thorin, to rescue the lost dwarf. Sneaky and underhanded indeed, if Azog's suspicions were correct. Kili felt the orc's heart beating against his back, breathing ragged and uneven. The minutes seemed to stretch into hours, the icy water sending violent tremors through Kili's limbs. Beorn was fierce, he'd caught many of the orcs by surprise, and their wargs too. His hide was thicker than their flimsy weapons, but they still fought back. Finally, silence fell. It was so cold. He shivered hopelessly, chin barely above water. But the air was hot, as though his head had been beneath a blanket for too long. The darkness was terrifying, it pressed in on him.

Then he was pulled under. Kili managed to suck in half a lungful of air before the water rushed around him, remaining limp in Azog's grasp as he was pulled deep down in the underground pond. His ears thudded under the pressure and head swam, white spots prickling behind his closed eyes. It seemed to take longer this time; Kili would have counted but his nerves were tattered rags. Then, when he felt they couldn't have gone any deeper, they rushed upwards, Azog kicking off from the floor. Their heads broke above the water, Kili's gasps of air reverberating around the cave. When the water reached Azog's waist, he let the dwarf go, walking slowly from the underground pond as he surveyed the broken scene.

It was utterly ruined. The fire had been stamped out, the dying embers casting a dull red pall over the images of destruction. The bodies of orcs and Wargs littered the stone floor, some in pieces. The stink of death fouled the air. Kili staggered to the edge of the water and heaved himself out, crawling on weak, frozen limbs, panting. He lifted his head, the breath dying in his throat as he realised the cave was chillingly silent, apart from the sound of Azog's heavy breathing. Kili rose slowly to his feet, the chain dangling from his hand as he watched the orc dash between the bodies, checking desperately for any signs of life. He found one, breath bubbling with blood as he lay, chest slashed open and a leg missing. Kili watched the white figure sink to his knees, grabbing the front of his shirt, begging for answers in his mother tongue. Kili walked slowly towards the destruction on bruised and torn feet, scarcely daring to believe it. What had happened? He made out the blackened figures in the dim light, the chain rattling in his trembling hands. These weren't the clean cuts of axe or sword. They had been torn apart, literally shredded. It was the mark of a horrible beast.

Kili looked down. Beside his own foot, the print of a magnificent paw was imprinted clearly into the stone, made from black orc-blood. It would have towered above any of the orcs, even Azog. He stepped around the broken bodies. They had all died this way. There were no weapons. Tooth and claw had killed them. Two Wargs had fallen; the rest would have scattered. Kili caught a glimpse of white fur. The lifeless eyes of Azog's warg shone red in the dull embers. Kili couldn't breathe. What would have happened, if he hadn't been dragged under? Would they have torn him to shreds too? Would his body litter those among the ground? He had no idea it was Beorn - the mystery of the shapeshifter, the dancing bears, it had all been solved after he went missing from the Hall. He hoped, deep in his heart, that it was somehow Thorin and Fili, they had come to rescue him, and finding him missing, had left to raid another goblin horde. But their weapons didn't cause this. Nothing made by dwarves did. Or could. Kili's heart was a stone, heavy and cold. It wasn't some sort of fateful rescue, not in his eyes. It was simply an attack by one of the many creatures of the wild. Nothing more.

A low sound came from behind Kili. He started, turning to see Azog standing beside him, eyes fixed on the lifeless body of his prized beast. He staggered forward slowly, Kili remaining rooted to the spot as Azog sank down beside the dead warg, moaning something incomprehensible. Kili held his breath as he watched, knuckles white on the chain. The orc stood and kicked out at a broken body, a growl of frustration sounding low in his throat. The growl became a roar, he lifted the orc and threw it over his head, the sound of bones breaking as it hit the stone wall sending a chill down Kili's back. Azog panted in anger and hatred. They would pay for this. He now had no doubt in his mind that Thorin, somehow, was behind all of this. Even if he wasn't directly involved, he had a hand in this destruction. Beorn wouldn't have done this otherwise. This cave had never been raided. Only now, when Thorin Oakenshield's nephew was in the his grasp, did Beorn suddenly have an impulse to pay this place a visit. It was no coincidence. Someone was going to suffer for this. Dearly. Kili watched the display of anger, and didn't dare make a move, a sound. He eyed the mouth of the cave, mouth dry. Why didn't he run? He looked at Azog, heart thudding. Run. Run. It's your only chance. RUN.

But he couldn't will his legs to move. He stood, absolutely frozen in the cave. What was wrong with him? Why couldn't he move his legs? Why did he stand there, stiff and cold as stone, as his last, desperate chance at escape passed by? Perhaps he was because he knew it was inevitable. He wouldn't be able to slip out, not when every movement made the iron on his neck rattle. How far could he get on his bloodied feet, before he had to stop? Not long enough to get away. Not the miles it took to find his way back to safety. But why couldn't he try? What was he afraid of? Death? That was coming soon enough, if he stayed within this dark realm. Why couldn't he move? Tears of frustration pricked at Kili's eyes, and he hung his head, the chain clinking.

Azog turned at the sound. He seemed almost surprised to see Kili still standing there, with his head bowed, the chain trailing from lax fingers. He'd forgotten about the dwarf, in his rage and grief, in the rush of adrenalin. He stood, watching those bony shoulders rise and fall in short gasps. They were almost like sobs; sharp, broken intakes of air. Azog couldn't understand. Kili was alone in the cave with him. There was nothing to stop him from running. Why didn't he try to make a run for it, when Azog's back was turned? He was broken, completely. He'd been beaten down, his last shred of hope wrenched out of his hands. He'd lost his will to go on. It was utterly pathetic to watch the shivering half-naked figure gasp for air, head bowed in exhausted acceptance. Azog rolled the shoulder of his amputated arm. It would be a mercy killing, at this point, to raise his mace and strike him across the head, to pierce his heart and leave him bleeding to death on the stone. But Azog had no wish to do it. Standing ankle-deep in the broken remnants of his company, the stink of death rising, Azog's blood-lust had left him.

At least, for now.

Casting his eyes back for one last look at Nink, Azog marched past Kili, beginning to root around the scattered pieces of his camp with an almost businesslike sense of urgency. He was dreadfully pragmatic, and saw only one way forward from this. Return to the Mountains, gather a new company, a new warg, new weapons and supplies. And then resume his pursuit. He thought at first that Thorin didn't care enough about his captured nephew to risk a life for him, but he saw now what the exiled dwarf King was. A coward. A cunning coward, but a coward nevertheless. He had sent Beorn to do his work, to scour the caves and turn them out, tearing them apart until Kili was found. Azog was snarling. A disgusting coward. He was tempted to behead Kili himself, and leave the body on Beorn's doorstep. That would show him. But no, he had a better plan. If Thorin wasn't going to come out and fight for his nephew, then Azog would go to him. And this time, he wouldn't give Thorin the option of an honourable trade. While he had been willing to let Kili free on the Carrock, no matter who won the fight, Azog now had no such mercy. He would run through their camp, slaughter them all. And he would hold Thorin down, make him watch as he tormented them all, and save Kili for last, to suffer him through the very worst torment and humiliation, at his hand, to remind Thorin that he could have spared his nephew from this pain, if he'd taken Azog's fair, honourable offer.

He turned the bodies over, trying to remember who was the shortest. Probably Ogash, who had a bit of a gut on him. Too many woodsmen, he used to brag as he patted his stomach. Azog found the orc beside the fire, head some several feet away. He peeled the leather vest from his carcass, and on second thought the rawhide trousers too, stomping carelessly over the bodies as he approached the shaking dwarf. He eyed the dwarf's broad feet; nothing they had would be big enough. Kili had his hands balled into fists, head still down. He was whispering to himself, in his mother tongue or the vernacular of the West, Azog didn't know. He was either ignoring the orc, or sank so deeply within himself that he'd completely blocked the outside world from his senses.

"Kili." Azog tried the name out on his tongue for the first time. The mop of brown hair shot up at the sound of his name, throat pressing against the collar as he swallowed heavily. It sent a shudder through his chest, to hear it being spoken with such a rough, cursed voice. Azog shoved the handful of clothes into his chest and turned away wordlessly, picking through the rest of the camp for things to take with him to the Mountains. Kili looked down at the clothes, his broken gasps of air still in his throat. For him. He held them out, staring in the light. A sleeveless vest that didn't look as though it had fastenings, and short trousers that were too wide for him, both cobbled together from poorly-treated animal hide. They made Kili's skin crawl. Azog couldn't honestly expect him to wear something worn by an orc, could he? A growl sounded from across the cave. Kili turned to see Azog glaring at him. He didn't need to speak the orc's language to read the expression on his face. Now. Kili looked back down at the clothes, biting his lip.


A spark of hope dared to ignite in his chest. Azog was going through the trouble of getting him more clothes. Kili's fingers tightened around the animal hide. He didn't want to kill him yet. Kili couldn't wonder why. Was it because he had no more underlings? He looked down at the bodies, trying to interpret Azog's change of heart. Another growl came from the orc, and Kili jerked himself out of his stupor, fumbling with the clothes. The vest, he could maybe wear, but the trousers? He looked down at his own pants. They were in rags, completely saturated, and black with his blood. At least this would block out the cold wind that seemed to whip up at night. Resigned, Kili threaded his arms through the vest, wincing as the leather came into contact with his wounded back. It was a bit long, and comically wide. He pulled the trousers on over his own pants, holding them up with one hand as he picked through the ground with the other for a piece of string or cord, something he could thread around his middle to at least hold the ill-fitting clothes closer to his body. He found a piece of leather, which must have come from some sort of sheath or scabbard, long enough to tie a knot in the waistband of his trousers. That would at least stop them from falling down. Kili found a wide belt, unbuckling it from the dismembered carcass with disgust on his face. He wrapped the vest around himself, trying to calm down as he fastened the metal clasp. Deep breaths. Slow breaths. But his heart thudded and he trembled violently, on the verge of hyperventilating.

Azog was before him again, looking Kili up and down in the orc clothes. He held out a lump of grey meat in his hand. Kili's hand shook as he took it. He hadn't eaten for two days, and felt sick and light-headed. Obviously mindful of Kili's previous battle with their food, he stood very obviously before Kili, lifting the mace in his arm ever so slightly upwards. No, please. Kili moaned, but dug his fingers into the handful of meat, separating the stringy flesh and tearing it into pieces small enough to eat, placing them in his mouth. Satisfied, Azog turned away, resuming his methodical packing of the best supplies. Kili held a hand over his mouth as his stomach strained to digest the food. It wasn't easier - hunger had robbed him of his lingering strength, but he preferred the crippling pain in his gut to the knowledge of what - who - he had been eating. Kili wiped his hands on his new trousers, bending over as he tried to force back the wave of nausea that flooded through his chest. He still couldn't comprehend this. He'd gone from being on his knees, with a knife at his throat, to being fed and clothed. Azog obviously had some use in keeping him alive. But why? Why, when Thorin obviously wasn't going to play Azog's game? When he wasn't going to come and face Azog in whatever grand meeting he had cooked up? His worth had already been tested, and shown to be useless. Kili's cramped stomach turned as Azog bend down beside the warg - not his own white beast, but the other dead creature - carving out a large haunch of the leg and wrapping it cloth.

Azog was terribly pragmatic.

Satisfied that he'd taken enough of use to get them both to Goblin-town, Azog slung the pack over his shoulder. Kili stood with his hands on his stomach, his thin bare arms trembling. His damp hair had fallen into his eyes, and he fixed his curtained gaze down on the ground. Azog paused in thought. It was wild out there after all, and he didn't have any fears that Kili would try to kill Azog in his sleep. Not after the wasted opportunity several minutes before. So he kicked at the ground, finding a scimitar underneath Morlob's body. Azog cleared his throat, and Kili looked up to see the handle of the blade offered to him. The dwarf stared dumbly at it for a long time. Azog made a sound of annoyance in his throat, pushing it closer to Kili, wordlessly telling him to take it.

Kili's shaking fingers closed around the blade, and he held it up to his eyes. What was going on?  Why was Azog giving him a weapon? Kili's head spun. This wasn't making sense to him. He couldn't unravel Azog's plan. He didn't understand the journey Azog had in mind, that it was going to be hard going, traveling to Goblin-town and then retracing their steps, tracking Thorin and his Company down, and that even prisoners needed food and clothes and if it got hairy, a way to defend themselves. He stared down at the ugly blade, shaking his head.

"I don't use these." Kili tried to convey the meaning through tone, knowing Azog wouldn't understand a word he was saying. It was true - the scimitar was curved, and he knew he'd be more likely to cut off his own arm than relearn the shape of a new blade. The orc watched as Kili walked crossed the cave to the fire, bending down to pick up the abandoned bow. There were still a dozen or so arrows in the quiver. Nuglub didn't have time to attack before a blow to the head had killed him. "I use this." He held out the bow and quiver, willing Azog to understand. "I'll take this." He slung the weapon across his back, wincing as it thudded against the broken skin. That was going to hurt. Already though, it wasn't as bad. The slashes in his back were closing up. He couldn't put pressure on them yet, but they'd stopped throbbing in time with his beating heart. He walked back to the orc, hands at his side, without a hint of a fight. This was a startling turn of events. The spark which ignited in Kili's chest started to take hold. For some reason, Azog now needed him alive. Maybe he too knew the danger of being alone in the wilderland, even as an orc king. Maybe he simply thought he might get hungry down the track and decided to wait until his other food ran out before killing him.

But for now, Kili simply took it as a sign of grace. And as Azog grabbed the chain, pulling him out of the cave and into the light of the morning, Kili kept his head down, promising to be complicit and willing. To do whatever it was Azog wanted him to do. His pride and freedom were lost, but he had something better. His life. Kili had been within a moment of death, and the blinding terror that accompanied it had a dramatic effect on him. He wasn't ready to die. He didn't want to die. He wasn't going to die.

Kili took a deep breath, led by Azog out of the dazzling morning, which made both of them grunt in pain, into the shadow of the trees. He wasn't going to die. He was going to stay alive. He was going to get out of this. He was going to see Fili again and shake him and demand to know what had happened, why he had been abandoned. Why they left him to die.

That would come later. He promised himself, his stomach clenching. For now, all he had to do was survive.

Chapter Text

The trees were a poor shelter from the full weight of the sun. Azog walked with hunched shoulders, feeling his white skin burn under the golden touch of high noon. These trees were thin saplings, their weak branches spreading out, stretching towards each other ten feet in the air but never touching, handfuls of tiny green leaves clinging to the fragile branches. The creature of darkness languished in the light, his footfalls slowing, growing heavier as the desperate search for shelter, to wait out the sun, began in earnest.

Kili kept silent as he plodded along behind. The sun beat down on the raw animal hides tied to his broken body, on his arms and in his hair. He sweated beneath the thick skins, the collar becoming hot and slippery beneath the moistening skin. But inside, he still felt cold. His bloodied feet trod on soft grass and daisies, but every step brought pain. The bow was too big for him - he felt it bang against his leg in time with his lilting footfalls, the soft slap one of only a handful of sounds. His breathing. Azog's growling sighs. The thud of his boots. The barest whisper of quivering leaves. The clink of the heavy chain that bound him to Azog. There were no birds, no scurrying insects or small animals. Nothing else to break the silence. The air seemed dead and lifeless in the bright sunlight, as creatures of both day and night had burrowed deep below, or fled through the air, at the sight of the white orc king as he crashed through their wild domain.

He paused beside an overhanging rock, arching his neck to survey the smooth grey face. It wasn't much, enough for the two of them, if they sat close together. Azog looked over at the dwarf, who had slowed beside him. Kili kept his head and hands down, face emotionless. But his eyes darted from side to side across the grass. His mind was alive. But he tried to wear a mask of indifference and exhaustion. The tiredness, at least, wasn't faked. And as Azog crouched down beneath the stone, Kili followed without needing to be pulled, crawling on his hands and knees and unbuckling the quiver that lay on his back to lean against the damp rock, sheltered from the sun. Kili sat with his legs stretched out before him, staring at his bare feet. The hours of walking had deepened the cuts and scrapes, the bruising darker than ever. His feet were almost black. He curled his toes, and closed his eyes, not wanting to look at his own mutilation. He heard the rustling of a hand though cloth, opening his eyes. Azog raised a water-skin to his mouth, drinking deeply, and Kili watched the clear liquid fall between his lips, rolling his tongue around in his own dry mouth. He longed for a drink. Azog must have seen him looking, because the flask was pushed into Kili's chest. Or perhaps he just realised that injured dwarves wouldn't last long in the sun without water. Kili sipped at the water cautiously, wrinkling his nose. It had that smelly staleness of the cave. He drank enough to wet his mouth and lips, and handed it back, staring out of the shadows into the warm sun, the green grass.

He loved this time of year most of all, when the summer turned to autumn, when only the brightest, hardiest flowers littered the browning grass, when the days weren't no longer at their longest, but the afternoons were the warmest, the most golden, they would be all year. Kili was a creature of greenery, of clambering up and down trees and lying in the grass, watching the sky roll above him. Of crouching beside gurgling streams with a piece of string in the hopeful chance of a fish. The few weeks where the seasons turned saw Kili outside, abandoning the forge, the lessons, the chores. As he turned forty, and fifty, and sixty, and even seventy, Kili continued to spend the precious days outside. His forearms browned and hair began to streak in the sun, and his uncle muttered he looked more like a Ranger with each passing summer. But Kili refused to abandon the sunlight and warmth for the shadowy traditions of his people.

This latesummer had slipped past unnoticed. Even though Kili spent his days - and nights too - enfolded in the air and light of nature, sleeping on the ground and hiking through forest, fording shallow rivers and almost drowning in deeper ones, Kili didn't notice the soft violets and windflowers and primroses slump into the ground, while daisies and dandelions thrust their proud faces towards the sky. He didn't notice the crickets and cicadas working themselves into a frenzy to avoid a season of bachelorhood and an early death. He didn't lie down and watch the shape of the clouds as they drifted through the air. Everything that had enraptured Kili in his childhood, captivating his sense of wonder, seemed colourless and grey in the light of his adventure.

And as Kili sat in the shadow, close enough to Azog to feel the orc's breathing against his arm, straining to hear signs of life in the dead forest, he had a growing, niggling worry, a fear that grew into doomed certainty with every passing moment, that this summer, the one that had passed him by with barely a second thought, would be his last. He couldn't shake it. He bowed his head as the panic began to swell in him, his throat closed and he screwed up his eyes and tried to wait out the fit of terror that wracked him, that he was going to die in this chain. That his last days were slipping by and the best weeks of the year were fading into the past, and he had done nothing. He had nothing to his name, no heroic, noble deeds. He wasn't an honourable person. He was an embarrassment to his name and culture. He was rash and naive and stupid and was going to die without clearing his name.

That was what frightened him most of all - that he would forever be known as Kili the jokester, the idiot, the simpleton. The failure. He had seventy-seven years to make a name for himself. Even Fili, who had still done nothing really, commanded respect. People looked up to him. He was at Thorin's right hand, proudly. He walked in step with his uncle. And Kili trailed on the left, tentative to keep up. Stumbling. Thorin had always said Kili was his own dwarf, and shouldn't look up to Fili. He realised now why his uncle said that - because Kili would have fallen short.

Well, it would stop. Kili clasped his hands and raised them to his lips. He swore an oath to himself, speaking internally, eyes trained on the grass. No more. He wasn't going to die in Azog's hands. He was going to survive - and he was going to be a hero. He was going to make Thorin proud to call Kili his sister-son. He was going to be valiant and honourable and courageous. He wasn't going to cry. He was going to take this fragile chance to do something. He was going to prove to everybody that he was just as good as his brother.

He had to. Kili's hand fell lax. Because if he didn't clear his name, if he died as a coward and an idiot, then the anguish, the suffering, the betrayal - it would have all been for nothing.

Gandalf, on the other hand, sat fully drenched in the sun, hat on the grass beside him, face turned up to the light, a glowing pipe in his hand. Beorn had to smile as he saw him in the grass, smoking and sunbathing, seemingly without a single care in the world. It was hard to believe that this ragged-looking old man, who shambled about with dwarves and leaned on such a gnarled old stick, was one of the Istari. But there was a gleam in Gandalfs eyes, that wasn't a reflection of the sun. That came from within, a brightness and wisdom gleaned from a life that stretched across the ages.

"I was hoping you were still around," Beorn called out as soon as he came within the wizard's hearing. Gandalf visibly smiled across the grass, taking a deep puff of air from his slender pipe. He nursed a rather nasty-looking bitemark on one shoulder, the blood running down his arm. "and hadn't cleared off to the forest."

"It would take much to move me from this lovely afternoon sun." Gandalf had even kicked off his shoes, enjoying the warmth on his bare toes. He waited for Beorn to come closer, letting out a long sigh as he caught the shape-shifter's face. Concern at his arm. "You do not bring good news."

"Just a flesh wound." He shrugged off Gandalf's worry as he approached the wizard. "Some honey on it tonight and it'll be right as rain." His expression took on a new seriousness as he stood before Gandalf. "I bring no news." Beorn said simply, sitting cross-legged in front of him, eyes cast down to the grass. "I ransacked every cave I know between here and the back door." Gandalf lowered his pipe. "Orcs yes. But only orcs."

"No Azog."

"No Azog." Beorn spoke quietly, voice almost lost in the humming of crickets and bees. "And no dwarf either." He realised, with no small degree of embarrassment, that he had completely forgotten the little dwarf's name. Gandalf nodded as he sat up, bare feet withdrawing beneath his clothes.

"It was a small hope." Gandalf muttered thoughtfully. "But a hope nonetheless. The Great Goblin's death will not go unavenged by his people. And Azog is searching the area for Thorin and his kin. I still find it hard to believe that he would be simply killed and eaten by a mindless rabble of orcs, who would not know who he was. Kili is recognisable." Kili. That was his name. Beorn held his tongue, nodding silently. A beardless dwarf with a bow was exceptional, even he would admit that. "But if he's not in the woods now, then he's either already gone, or..." He trailed off, eyes downcast.

"Or he's worse than dead." Beorn supplied, watching as Gandalf reached for his shoes. The bright afternoon sun seemed to dull.

"Much worse." Gandalf muttered, remembering the wooden contraptions that had been paraded about in Goblin-town. Either way, he was lost to them. Gandalf knew it was a slim chance at best, that they would find anything - it was why he waited until parting with Thorin's Company before saying a word to Beorn. He wasn't going to tease anybody with false hope. The wizard pulled on his worn-down shoes, leaning forward on his knees with heavy eyes. He looked as though moving was the last thing on his mind.  "Thank you, Beorn. For everything." He received a silent nod in return. "If you ever need my aid..."

"I will be sure to ask." There was a smirk at the corner of his mouth. "And if I see or hear anything about either of them, you'll be the first to know." Beorn promised.

"And now..." Gandalf rose to his feet, reaching for his hat. He seemed to have aged. There was a new weight on his shoulders, one carved from black stone.

"Your journey continues south." Gandalf nodded a silent agreement, casting his eyes to the heavy shadows of Mirkwood. "While the others travel east."

"I have given them everything I can." Gandalf stuck his hat on over grey hair. "Supplies, advice, an excellent burglar, and more than a dozen warnings to stay on the path. They will be all right." But his hopeful sentiment sounded dim. "And I shall see them before the journey's end." He hefted his staff. "Thank you again, Beorn for your excellent hospitality. And apologies for any imposition we may have caused."

"Not at all, not at all!" Beorn growled, sounding more like his gruff old self. "An enemy of the orcs is a friend of mine." And the smirk on his mouth widened half an inch. "Keep the horse 'til you reach the edge of the wood." He jerked his head towards the magnificent thoroughbred, munching patiently on the grass. "But don't bring her within the shadow of Dol Goldur Gandalf, I beg of you."

"I would not dream of it." Gandalf promised, forcing a pleasant expression on his face. Inwardly though, he sagged with disappointment.

He would be walking before long, then.


Kili's voice was soft, tentative in the sun after half an hour of silence. It stretched out so long, and he couldn't bear it anymore. He had to speak. And if he was going to speak to the orc, well, he had to start somewhere. Azog, buried in his own thoughts, shook his head in surprise, turning to look at the dwarf. Kili sat with his legs crossed, toying with the leather strap of his new quiver. "Look - I..." Kili took a breath. This could go either way. He picked up a small stone, half the size of his fist. He held it out before Azog, in a flattened palm. "Rock." He set it down before him, biting his lip. Azog frowned at the tiny object. What on earth was the stupid creature trying to do? "Rock." Kili repeated again, and pointed at Azog. The orc rolled his eyes with a sigh, turning away. "No." Kili shook his head, touching him - very, very carefully, on the shoulder. Azog raised an eyebrow at the touch. "I'm not teaching you... I..." He bit his lip in thought. He pressed a hand over his lips, shaking his head. Then he pointed at Azog, making a talking motion with his fingers. Then finally, he gestured back down at the stone. And Azog's expression smoothed in understanding.

Then it curled again. And he grasped the stone, throwing it contemptuously out from under the overhanging rock and into the sunlight. Kili watched it crush the grass with a wince, and he shrank away from the orc King, drawing his knees up to his chest and returning to staring at the ground in silence.

He tried again, twice.

His second attempt saw him picking up a stick, asking what it was, holding it out to Azog in the meekest voice he could muster. Azog's response was to take it, jab him hard in the sternum, break it in half, and cast it into the sunlight. And Kili shrank further into frustrated silence. He was sure that it was a misunderstanding, that Azog simply didn't realise what it was that Kili wanted. But oh, he realised all right. And he couldn't care less if Kili wanted to learn a few words of his language to at least foster the beginnings of communication. He wasn't going to share his tongue with a dwarf, and he certainly wasn't going to take the time out to teach him. So Azog remained in his deep, brooding silence, watching the sun shift across the sky in distaste. He missed his Nink. It took him decades to find a beast so fast and powerful, and to find it lifeless beneath a littered heap of bodies, when it still had at least ten years left, was a knife in his blackened heart. It left him bitter and sour. He hurt far worse from the death of the one creature, than the rest of his company, the expendable, stupid orcs that he could gather anew in a heartbeat. Nink was something special, and Azog felt her loss, keenly.

Kili's third attempt went even worse.

"What about this?" The afternoon wore on, as Kili fumbled with the chain hanging from his neck. Azog looked over at the dwarf, who sat with the chain pulled out in front of him. He was already running out of things to ask. "What is this?" He pointed at Azog, and then the chain, making a talking motion with his hand.

"Za?" This? There was a fire in his Azog's eyes, a curl on his lips that left Kili cold. Azog grabbed the chain, dark brown eyes widening as Kili realised his mistake. He tried to scrabble away from him, but Azog had him by the neck, with that thick chain. Kili let out a cry as the iron struck the broken, tender skin of his back. He sucked in a deep lungful of air and gritted his teeth, fingernails digging into his palms as he struggled to ride out the agony that coursed down his spine. Azog let him go, and Kili forced himself to sit up, struggling to breathe through his iron jaw. He kept his head erect, eyes clear. He wasn't going to give in to Azog, to writhe on the ground and sob in pain. Instead he drew blood with his nails, biting down on the inside of his cheek, tasting blood as the fire slowed to a throbbing, then to a dull ache. And as Azog returned to his brooding silence, leaning against the rock, Kili stared resolutely out towards the sunlight, shaking fingers masked by curled fists, trying to ignore the horrible wet feeling of blood sliding down his back. Blood, he smelled it and felt it and tasted it. And felt sick.

He resolved not to try talking to Azog again.

They sat around the fire in a ring.

Oin, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Nori, Bifur, Bombur, Bofur, Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Thorin, and Bilbo. They clung in their little familial groups, in their camp on the naked grass, beneath the stars. It was a night for brothers to hold on to each other. They fiddled with pipes and weapons and bits of clothes that could have done with a darning. Not many of them dared to speak. They all kept their eyes downcast, save for the occasional shuffling glance to the side. Even Thorin sat with his hands clasped in his lap, staring resolute at the fire. Only one set of hands moved with any real purpose, only one pair of eyes dared to looked up from the ground. And they were red, glittering with pain and frustration, the hands shaking, the mouth wrenched in a tight knot, a loud curse threatening to tumble from behind his lips.

Fili was trying to braid his hair.

Such a simple, domestic routine should not be the cause of so much pain. It should have been second nature, something done with deft fingers and a wide smile. But instead it was stumbling, pulling knots into long strands of gold, tears clinging to light brown eyelashes. The silver hairclasps were abandoned on the ground before him.

Days it had been, almost a week perhaps, since Kili last plaited his mane into the ritual braids, sitting behind his brother and weaving the hair back from his face. Fili held on to them, but after the last hellish, sleepless nights, they were falling out, tangled and ratty. It would not do to have an heir of Durin with unkempt braids. So Fili pulled out his clasps with trembling fingers, running them through his hair, teasing out the tangles and knots. And as the last braid from his temple fell loose, Fili was sure he heard a sigh in his ear, a tiny whisper as though something escaped from within him, slipped away. Fili tried to weave the curls into the traditional golden ropes that hung on either side of his head, with personal embarrassment and humiliation. He couldn't do it. Not like Kili. His archer's hands were well-practised on Fili, and he could craft the braids in his sleep. Every morning, Fili would sit on the edge of his bed, Kili behind him, deft fingers spinning straw into gold, combing the tangles into soft curls and the curls into perfect braids. His own hair was unkempt and loose, and when Fili attempted to replicate the affection, his paltry attempts at braiding hanging crookedly in Kili's dark locks, they both laughed and Kili would pull them out, saying it didn't matter, he didn't have a beard to match yet and nobody looked at him anyway. But he would let Fili put the clasp in his hair, ignoring the tugging at his scalp as it was pulled too tight, or hung loose on his hair, or sometimes, inexplicably, both. And when people muttered that Fili knew how to take care of his appearance and Kili should take a leaf out of his brother's book and put effort into his hair, they would both share a secret smile. Kili always wove the best braids. They were straight and even, the perfect tension and width, without a single stray hair. But Fili was clumsy. His thick fingers struggled to part the locks cleanly, he couldn't get them level, they looked lopsided and didn't hang right. And so he pulled them out and tried again. And again. Bilbo sat in utter bewilderment, looking up every so often to see Fili fiddling with his hair, trying and failing to replicate the braids his brother so expertly wove into his golden mane.

This went on some time before Thorin touched his nephew on the shoulder. Fili jerked out of his nightmarish, shaking weaving, eyes fixed on Thorin. He was brittle and strained. Thorin settled behind him, tugging gently on his hair, coaxing Fili to straighten his back. He complied silently, curling his hands into fists as he felt Thorin's hands on his right temple.

"They won't be as good." Thorin's voice cracked the still darkness of night. It was an intrusive sound, Fili's face flickering at the voice. He gave no verbal recognition of his uncle's words. They weren't hopeless, though. Dis used to braid Thorin's hair, part of her role as sister and domestic caretaker of the exiled king. But when her husband came, Thorin had to weave his own braids in the morning light. Then his sister found herself alone again, and neither of them deigned to continue their lost ritual. Thorin sectioned off a lock of golden hair, combing it through his fingers before loosely twisting the tresses in his hands. Fili endured the braiding silently, trying to ignore the little pulling of tiny hairs on his temple. Kili knew how to do it without snagging on any loose hair, but Thorin kept muttering as he stopped to unpick a tangle. His hands had none of Kili's skill. It felt like an attack, having these foreign fingers weaving through his hair and pulling uncomfortably on his scalp. He held his tongue, but couldn't stem the burning in his eyes, a single tear glistening on his cheek as he finally blinked. Thorin fastened the first braid, letting it hang down. While better than Fili's abortive attempts, it still didn't sit right. It didn't curl around his ear to rest on his shoulders quite like Kili's did. His trembling fingers brushed the hair of his scalp, feeling the slightly crooked line of braiding, the few loose hairs, a tiny snag. It wasn't as good. It wasn't the same. His hand sank to the ground, Fili closing his eyes as Thorin moved to the other side of his head, repeating the meticulous process that he couldn't quite master.

Thorin's own heart broke as he felt the golden hair sift through his fingers. He felt - he knew - he was intruding on one of Fili's most personal rituals with his brother. He knew he was desecrating Kili's sacred ground, as he wove the braids into Fili's hair, feeling his nephew shake under his hands. He knew Fili didn't want his help, his touch, and it was politeness and respect that kept his tongue still. But he continued to weave the tresses into their normal shape with firm, unyielding hands, pressing his lips together to prevent any unwelcome sound from bubbling up in his throat. The pair were stiff, carved from stone. Fili on the ground, cross-legged, with Thorin kneeling behind him, the half-shaped braid in his hand trailing further and further down Fili's back. It was a paltry, unwanted attempt at consolation, painfully ineffective. Thorin could feel the bitter grief and resentment eminating from Fili, who forced a passive, unobtrusive expression on his face as another tear drifted down his cheek and into his beard. But he didn't stop. He couldn't, not now. He had to braid all four ropes into Fili's golden mane before he sat back down in his space on the grass. He couldn't admit defeat. He couldn't accept that Fili didn't want him. He had to show that he could be there, he would always be there for his nephew, the lion-hearted light of his life. The last flickering candle in a growing darkness. And as the last of the four clasps was fixed in his hair, and Thorin let the braid fall against Fili's back, his bright-eyed nephew bit his lip very hard, as a muffled sob fought its way out of his mouth. Fili ducked his head at the sound, tugging at his newly woven braids as the tears returned, blurring his vision and pressing down in his chest. Thorin retreated without a further word or touch, edging back to his original seat by the fire, casting only the occasional sidelong glance at his nephew as he nursed a crushed, fragmented heart. He had lost. He had lost the fight for Fili, battling against Fili's own grief and pain and desolate mourning. He had lost.

He looked up at the stars, the stars he could not name, wanting to scream out at them, their cold, mocking brightness. Tiny pinpricks of light in a deep velvety blackness, beyond count. Was it Bilbo, or Gandalf who theorized that the stars themselves were the souls of dead elves, resting in the sky? Or was it somebody else entirely? He felt, cheated, robbed. Nobody spoke of his own people with such wonder. Not even the dwarves themselves had such delusions of grandeur and majesty. Only doubt, uncertainty of their own fate. Thorin lay on his back and closed his eyes, listening as Fili couldn't contain himself anymore, dissolving into the harsh, jagged breathing of someone fighting back loud tears. In his heart, he reached out to him, enfolded him in his arms and stroked his hair, told him it would be all right, in the end. No harm would ever come to his dear sister-son, not while he walked the earth. That he would see Kili again in the immortal Halls, it would be as if they were never apart. But this was all in his heart and mind. Thorin's body remained still in the grass, his arms at his sides, limp and unmoving as Fili cried, bitter, lonely tears that he couldn't swallow back.

He remained still. Because he had lost.

Chapter Text

They rose in the sunset. Kili walked cautiously, one pace behind the orc with his mouth purposefully shut, eyes fixed on the darkening grass. He was terrified of saying a word. His back still stung, badly, and although he tried to wipe his hands clean on his trousers, his palms were stained with dried blood. Azog thumped on ahead of him, heavy boots stomping on the grass, the chain hanging loosely from his hand. For hours they walked through the trees, Kili occasionally glancing up at the sky as the light faded and twilight deepened. The slanted beams of moonlight pooled on the ground, and Azog tried to avoid them, side-stepping the silvered light and tugging on Kili's chain, silently ordering him to hurry up. Kili didn't need telling twice. He'd gotten reckless before. He'd forgotten his place, he'd thought he could talk to Azog. As though he were a creature of reason. But he didn't, he wasn't. He was an orc. And not just an orc, but their king. One who made a name, a reputation, in bloodshed and darkness and pain.

Why would Kili ever want to talk to him?

He berated himself, his stupidity, as he trod on the forest floor. Sticks and twigs made him wince but he held his tongue, determined to make the walk in silence. Relative silence. His stomach started growling again, the sound painfully obvious in the still night. Although Azog had a feast on warg meat in the afternoon, Kili couldn't touch the raw flesh and went hungry. Somewhere, far away, an owl hooted. It was the first bird Kili had heard for hours, and he closed his eyes, relishing the sound. He stopped still for a moment, listening keenly. He wanted to hear the sound again. But his neck jerked and Azog pulled him away with a growl, Kili scampering on wounded feet to catch up. He still kept a pace behind, eyes locked on the figure, who gleamed brighter as the darkness deepened, towering above him. Kili was just over  half of his height. Slow hours passed, Kili walking forward, stumbling in exhaustion, stomach groaning. It was a relief to step into a clearing, to have the moonlight drench his skin. It dazzled him, gave him a glimpse of brightness. But as he crossed the clearing, Kili noticed, for the first time, what loomed above them, beyond the tops of the trees, frowning down at him on the edge of the sky.

They stood in front of the Misty Mountains.

Kili froze, feeling sick. What? He hadn't seen them, in the dark of the trees, with Azog side-stepping the light. He had no bearings, no sense of direction in this alien land, but his gut swore blind that they were heading towards Beorn's house. It was the only thing that made sense. That was where Thorin was. And that was where Azog wanted to be. Why were they at the Mountains? His eyes darted to Azog. This didn't make sense. They were going backward. What could Azog want from this place? Why did he bring Kili? Why did Kili have to be alive in this place? He couldn't imagine anywhere worse, after the horrors of Goblin-town. A very cold shiver ran through Kili's chest, in remembrance of the dilapidated shanty town, the mockery of what used to be one of the great Halls of his ancestors. But Khazad-dûm lay in ruins, picked over by scurrying foul beasts, who slept in homes meant for the kings of old. Even the ruins would have crumbled almost to dust. Too long it had been, since dwarven hands had tended to the broken remnants of iron and stone. Now crude wooden sticks had been erected over the carved facades of dwarf Lords and Kings, while the foulest creatures snuffled about in the deepest darkest pits. Kili dreaded returning to the blackness and terror.

This can't be happening.

Azog tugged at the chain, but Kili still refused to move. He stood transfixed, staring up at the Mountains, still a days' walk away, cold sweat running down his back. He couldn't go back there. He couldn't. They might not recognise him, but Kili was a dwarf and that would be enough for them to wreak revenge on the death of their king. They would drag out those huge wooden contraptions for him, the ones that caused deep, crippling pain, rather than the flesh wounds he suffered through. They would kill him, in the name of their king.

"No." It was the first word out of Kili's mouth since his failed attempt to talk to Azog. He backed away from the orc and the Mountain, eyes wide as his pulse hammered against the iron collar. "No - please." He gasped, his voice hoarse and rough, weak from not speaking. Azog wound the chain around his hand, tightening his grip, and pulling Kili towards him. Hard. Kili stumbled forward and fell to his knees, his hands clutching the ring of iron as he coughed. "N-No." He stammered, but rose to his feet, staggering behind Azog. His heart thudded in his ears and he couldn't breathe. Not this. Not the Misty Mountains. Was that Azog's new use for Kili? Now that he was worthless, now that it was clear that Thorin no longer wanted him, was he going to hand Kili over to the goblins that infested his ancestral home? Kili remembered the gaggle of creatures in the forest, how they lashed out and beat him when they found out he was a dwarf. How they howled in memory of their fallen king. Their hatred and bloodlust ran to their bones. To be in their home would be a fate worse than death.

They returned to the cover of the trees, but Kili could feel the mountains staring down at him. There was a chill whisper in the air, it brushed Kili's hair into his eyes and breathed into the curve of his ear. A cold finger ran down his spine. And he lurched on, his eyes stinging with tiredness and stomach cramped with hunger.

Just put one foot in front of the other.

One foot in front of the other.

One foot... in front...

Kili pitched forward in a stumble, letting out a choked cry as the chain pulled down hard on his neck. Azog had the patience to turn and watch as Kili heaved himself back to his feet, shoulders slumped as he limped slowly behind him. He was a limp, pale shadow in the grey light of dawn. The sky above was white, the grass a dull, heavy shade of lead. It was a world without colour, of black and white and grey. The grass, at least, was soft. But the damage had already been done - his feet were ruined, scraped and cut and bruised, and although he tried to make his way forward, he battled with every step, gritting his teeth through the pain. He stumbled more and more often, his eyes drifting closed as his head swam. He couldn't focus, he needed food and rest and sleep, as his consciousness grew darker, more fragmented. This time it was only a dozen steps before Azog felt another sharp jerk on his hand. He looked back to see Kili sitting on the ground with his right foot in his hand, shaking his head as he bit down on his lip in obvious pain. The orc waited, waited for Kili to rise to his feet, but he stayed on the ground far longer than he should have, holding his injured foot. Throbbing with impatience, Azog gave the dwarf a firm tug on the neck, Kili's head darting up.

"I can't." His eyes were very bright. "Please - can we stop - I can't - look." He pointed to his feet, stretched out before him. Azog didn't know the words, but he understood the sentiment, a snarl on his lips. He didn't have the time or patience to deal with soft-footed dwarves who insisted on taking a break every few minutes. Every hour that passed, Thorin slipped further and further away from him. Mirkwood rose nearer, an impenetrable forest that even Azog didn't want to contend with. They had to keep moving. He eyed Kili's torn feet, letting out a low, growl of annoyance. A long scratch in the arch of Kili's right food had left him with a hobble. Blood as dark as garnets clotted his big toe. Half the skin on his left heel had been scraped away. Azog cast his gaze outwards, to the miles of forest they had to cover before reaching the foot of the Mountains. Kili looked up at the orc, his eyes very wide and dark in his pale face. The blood on his cheek was black. Wordlessly, he pleaded with Azog, begging for a respite. Just a few hours. Azog swung the chain lightly, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at those wide, dark eyes. He looked up at the sky. Daylight was coming, and with it the blistering heat that he couldn't stand. They hadn't traveled far enough. At this rate it would be two days, not one, before they made it to Goblin-town. He didn't have enough food and water for the both of them to last that long. Kili was already obviously suffering after turning his nose up at the warg meat, looking ghoulish and drawn and utterly exhausted.

Should have eaten. But he didn't say it aloud. Instead, Azog crouched down, and in a single fluid motion, swept the dwarf up in his arm and over his shoulder. He was surprised at how light the dwarf was in his arm. Azog was easily three times his weight, he lifted Kili like a half-full sack of potatoes and slung him easily over his back. Kili gasped, but had the sense to keep his arms and legs still as Azog turned back towards the mountains, wanting to make the most of the last precious minutes of darkness. He stomped in the grey light, twigs and leaves crushed under his heavy boots, closed flowers bowed in sleep trampled into the earth as his blood boiled. He did not expect this. To be walking through the forest, without a contingent or a mount, carrying the injured heir of Thorin Oakenshield, bordered on humiliation. He wasn't doing it for Kili's benefit, not in the slightest. Azog wasn't a creature of pity or mercy. In his eyes, the dwarf had thoroughly deserved every drop of blood spilled, and if he couldn't handle the punishment given to him, well that was his own weakness. But they couldn't keep stumbling along at this slow pace. So Kili had his respite, spared from the exhaustion and pain of walking on his torn feet. He was bordering on delirious, all sense of time completely vanished. He couldn't recall how many days it had been since his stumble in the forest, but he knew he couldn't have slept more than a few hours in all that time, and it was playing absolute havoc with his head in the lingering darkness.

And in the grey light, slung over Azog's shoulder like the burden he was, neck lolling at his brisk, steady pace, Kili's eyes drifted closed. And although he fought against the creeping fog that smothered his mind, it was mere minutes before he sank absolutely lax into the orc's grasp, heavy breathing slowly rising in the air as Kili succumbed to sleep.

Fili opened his eyes to a morning sky.

It was almost disconcerting, at first. He had forgotten, for a panicked moment, that they had left Beorn's Hall, the safety and comfort of his enchanted domain, back to the wilderland. But then he remembered. His thudding heart slowed and he rolled over onto his side, pulling the blanket up to his nose. Dew had settled over the campsite, the smell of wet earth pressing into Fili's face. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. It was comforting, somehow. It reminded him of the summer nights, when he used to sneak out into the darkness and roam the outside world, buoyed by the cool air and delicious silence after long, hot days in the forge, the training yard, the library. He sank into warm memory.

He and Kili had the best adventures at night. He remembered the time they managed to smuggle a barrel of honey mead out and held a party down at lake Malaad on the summer solstice, inviting all the young dwarves (and several pretty ladies from the neighbouring town of men). They danced and sang and made so much noise that they were of course caught sometime after midnight, Thorin himself coming down in furs thrown over his pajamas, thunderous voice piercing the still darkness. The party was Fili's idea, but Kili stood up and claimed all responsibility, and had to spend the next month mucking out the stables and doing the worst jobs in the mines and forge.

Another time, they actually made it all the way to a tavern of men. Kili was happy to just sit at the bar and drink himself silly, but the silver in Fili's hair attracted the attention of a very pretty young lass, who turned out to be a blacksmith's daughter. Fili didn't remember much of the night, but he woke up face-down in a patch of rich grass, a floral handkerchief wound in his fingers and a serious headache. He lay there for some minutes, groaning in the pale morning sunlight, before he was rolled onto his back, and Fili stared up at the impish face of his brother, who emptied half a bucket of water on his face. He bellowed at Kili, and attempted a staggering chase before collapsing in the grass, clutching his head.

They were not so far in the past. Fili inhaled another lungful of rich, earthy air. The night with the blacksmith's daughter was perhaps fifteen years ago, and he'd seen her several times since, watching as she grew thicker, the lines growing heavier around her face and mouth as children multiplied, and yet Fili remained the same. But he kept the handkerchief. It was at home, in the little box he kept under his bed, the one Amad promised to bring to Erebor with her. Fili wasn't rebellious by any means, his fun was only ever harmless, but Kili always took the blame for it. It didn't matter if he got in trouble, his brother would argue, ankle-deep in pony muck, or on his hands and knees on the floor of the forge. He was just Kili. He said it with a breezy, lilting tone, but Fili couldn't ever ignore the way his soft brown eyes looked down as he spoke. Just Kili.

Fili opened his eyes. Thorin lay beside him, his nose pointed towards the sky. His hair was a black spider's web across the grass. He remembered the look on his uncle's face over the years, whenever he berated Kili. How it began with anger when Kili first stayed out after dark to trap rabbits, sank into disappointment with the party at Lake Malaad, and then finally annoyed acceptance when he came stumbling in at dawn, drunk, causing enough of a distraction for Fili to slip in and crawl into bed, unnoticed. That was just Kili, he would eventually sigh in exasperation. Just Kili again. Fili had resolved, on the night he came of age, that he would confess that he was responsible for at least two-thirds of the things Kili had been punished for. But when he stood at the front of the grand dining Hall, with Thorin's arm around his shoulder, clinging to him tightly as he loudly proclaimed his intention to reclaim Erebor with his newly of-age heir at his side, Fili was overcome with shock and pride, so deep that he couldn't speak. It ballooned in his throat and he couldn't move his lips. So he kept quiet, accepted the honour, the gifts, staying up with the adult dwarves for the first time, drinking and sharing stories until the sky turned to white. And while Kili slept restlessly, alone in their bedroom, Fili said nothing about just how much he was to blame for his brother's failure.

It was his deepest shame. Fili carried the pain and humiliation within him, and it didn't lessen over the last two years. It grew. And as they set out on their quest, it swelled within him, consuming his heart. At Rivendell, Fili couldn't take it anymore, he told Kili that he was going to confess everything. Kili cried. Tears were in his eyes as he pleaded with Fili to keep quiet. Uncle Thorin thought Fili was so good. That he was perfect. He was so proud of him. It didn't matter what he thought of Kili. Kili was just Kili, he wasn't measured up to anything. He didn't have the pressures and responsiblities of being the first-born, he didn't mind taking the heat. He took the punishments for Fili for a reason, and to tell the truth now would be a betrayal. He clung at Fili's sleeves and begged him to promise to keep quiet. That they were just stupid kids and it didn't matter what happened then, they would both prove themselves to be heroes on this journey, and Thorin wouldn't ever have his perfect shining vision of Fili tarnished. And Fili crumbled, looking into his brother's wide brown eyes brimming with tears, as he threatened to destroy the hope and pride that kept them both afloat. He promised to take the secret to the grave.

But they never said which grave.  And as he watched the exiled king lay in the grass with his face turned upwards, Fili swallowed, tongue rasping his dry mouth as he realised he couldn't hold it in any longer.

"Uncle Thorin." He didn't call him uncle much anymore. Thorin told him not too, out of safety. That if the orcs had any idea that Fili was his kin, he would be a target. Azog's blood oath on the line of Durin included him, and his brother too. Better for the orc king to think Thorin was the last heir of his ancestors. Fili watched Thorin's eyes open, with the alert sharpness of somebody long awake. He turned his head towards Fili, brow creasing in the slightest beginnings of a frown. Fili took in a deep breath. "Can we... Can we go somewhere? And talk? Alone?" He couldn't look him in the eye. Thorin watched his nephew cling to the blanket, his bright blue eyes sadly dim, mouth pulled downwards in the distinctive sag of someone who teetered on the edge of a devastating realisation.

"Of course." There was only one thing this could be about. Kili. The name hung in the air between them. Thorin pushed the blankets aside and sat up. The rest of the camp still slept, aside from Gloin on the final watch, but Fili didn't want to risk anybody else hearing this. They didn't matter. This was a secret for Thorin's ears only. "We'll go by the river." The babbling of the water would mask the sound of their talking. Fili sat up slowly, the edge of the blanket still wound in his fingers as he struggled to work up the nerve to follow his uncle.

I'm sorry Kili. He rose to his feet slowly, as though enfeebled. Perhaps he was. The guilt rushed in his ears. He should have done this in Rivendell. He should have done this when he came of age. He should have done this when Thorin stood before them at Lake Malaad, face contorted in rage, shaking finger pointed towards Kili, promising that he would make his nephew punish for this reckless, idiotic insult towards their line. What good would it be now, to clear Kili's name when his heart had stopped beating? All he would do is bring shame down on his own head.

Then so be it. Fili took in a breath, as something hardened within himself. Time to stop entertaining an illusion.

Kili had another dream. This time, he dreamed that he stood at the edge of a vast lake. The water was as thick black and black as tar, the sky heavy and grey with cloud. He stood there, unmoving and silent. Completely alone. Then he heard a shout, looked in the water to see a familiar mop of golden hair struggling in the black water. So Kili dove in, even though he wasn't much of a swimmer, fighting to get to him. But something from within the water grabbed at the chain on his neck, and pulled Kili down, under the water into the blackness.

He scared himself awake. Kili jerked upwards, breath harsh and heart pounding as he pulled himself into a sitting position. He lay on a bed of dirt and leaves. He reached out, touching wood. A single shaft of gloomy light shed some colour into the cave. But it wasn't a cave at all, Kili realised as he looked around, breathing in deeply. This didn't smell like a cave. They were inside the hollow of a tree. At his side, Azog slept, leaning against a gnarled tree root, eyelids flickering, lost in some dream. Azog had wound the chain tightly around his hand before sleeping - but it had slipped. Kili's heart was in his mouth as he looked down, seeing it looped just once around Azog's fingers, slack. No. He looked up, checking to see if Azog was really asleep. The orc breathed deeply, an odd, low wheeze coming from his throat, almost a snore. He was out to the world. Kili's hands shook as he ran his fingers down the chain.

Did he dare?

His heart threatened to burst out of his throat. His slim fingers shook violently, and he almost fumbled as he started to unwind the end of the chain from Azog's hand. It let out a single clink, and the dwarf froze, listening keenly for the sound of Azog's breathing. But it was steady as ever, and he resumed the meticulous act of inching the chain out of Azog's sleepy grasp. And finally, finally, it was bunched in his hand. Kili clutched the chain to his chest, breathing heavily as the ramifications of what he had just done burned through him. He was free. He looked at the shaft of light. He could slip out, could vanish into the sunlight and make a run for it. He could recover the ground he had lost and make his way back to Beorn's Hall. If he knew the vague direction of the Mountains and the Carrock then hopefully he could get his bearings, figure out which way to head and use his headstart.

Kili looked down at his feet, heart sinking, down out of his throat and into his stomach. It plunged through his chest like a stone through water. He touched the cut on the underside of his foot, just lightly, wincing at the sensation. They were properly black and purple now, discoloured with blood and bruising. How far could he make it before he stumbled and fell, unable to keep up? How much ground could he realistically cover before Azog woke up and came after him, crushing everything in his wake with those long loping strides wrapped in heavy leather? How long would he have before he was caught?

And what if he was caught? Azog would see him as a threat now, not just an annoyance and a burden. He'd obviously thought Kili would have slept longer, would have thought the chain in his hand was a deterrent enough. But he had exposed a weakness. He was vulnerable, for the first time to Kili, and he had an opportunity. Azog had anticipated Kili contemplating such an attack. He lay purposefully on top of Kili's bow, the handle of his mace buried underneath him. Kili wouldn't be able to get near any weapons, not without waking him.

Kili looked down at the chain in his hands. No weapons. He pulled the chain taught in his hands as a new sensation flooded through him. This wasn't panic or terror. Nor was it uncertainty. The tentative, but real possibility of ending Azog's life struck him, like a blow. Kili was left breathless, staring at the sleeping figure that still towered over him. Was he strong enough to do it? Could he loop it around the orc's neck, and pull it tight, cut off his air and strangle him? Did he have the nerve to try and kill him?

It was the only way to properly escape, he reasoned with himself. He couldn't leave Azog asleep and run. He was too fast, and Kili too slow, weakened from hunger and thirst. He had to kill him. He had to do it. Azog slept lightly, face twitching at the sound Kili's chain made as he started to move. The dwarf froze, breathing very, very softly as he waited for Azog's face to relax. He wound one end of the chain around his hand. He would sneak up behind him, would pull it tight. He'd get Azog in shock, and if he was behind him, then Kili would remain out of his grasp. He would flail and struggle, but Kili was half-certain that he could hold on for the few minutes it would take to end Azog's life. It was his only chance. He had to do it now, before they reached the Misty Mountains, before he was carried too far away from Thorin and Fili. Because although he tried to think that they would come and rescue him, any day now, his hope grew weaker and weaker, the barest, slimmest thread. It wasn't enough just to survive; Kili had to break free of Azog's grasp, else he would die. Too many days had slipped past. Kili knew, in his heart, that if he were going to be rescued, if Thorin and Fili were going to come for him, it would have happened by now. Mahal, they could have walked from Beorn's house to the Carrock and back in this time. Perhaps they searched in the wrong direction. Perhaps they had travelled east. But wherever they were, they weren't here. Even if they came to save him, even if they were just over the hill, they still weren't here. His hopes of rescue were dying embers in the snow, threatening to blacken, to shrivel into dust. He couldn't depend on them. It was a gut-wrenching, devastating thought. He couldn't depend on them. Not now. They were lost, they were gone and he was alone, and he held in his hands his last, final chance of salvation. His only remaining hope.

Kili held his breath, feeling his pulse beat against he iron collar. He could do this. He wet his lips and rolled his shoulders, working up the nerve. He could do this. He had to do this. He crept towards Azog in silence, the chain ready. He was so tall - even as he half-lay in sleep, Kili had to stand, wincing at the pain in his feet, the chain hovering in the air, suspended by his hands in the gloom.

Do it.

It was as though a fire had been lit in his chest. It was a shock, that stung him and shook his limbs. Just do it. The sudden pulse of courage was enough. Kili swept aside his misgivings, his fear and dread that it wouldn't work, and he would suffer worse than ever, for his attempt on Azog's life. The images in his mind, that he would be left for dead here, arms pulled from his body. He would be hanged by the neck from a branch and left to choke, his body growing stiff and cold. The mace that pierced Azog's arm would run him through and leave him with is heart outside of his body, beating on the ground. Kili pushed it all away as he steeled himself, heart thudding violently as he stood beside Azog with the chain in his hands, ready to strike. And with a short gasp of air, Kili let the chain down, resting against Azog's skin. He stirred at the motion.

And without a moment to spare, the dwarf burst into life, pulling on the chain with every fibre of his being.

Chapter Text

Azog jerked out of his sleep as the chain was pulled tight around his neck.

For a blinding moment, the orc was seized in terror. He couldn't breathe. His good arm was frozen at his side, as his eyes widened, mouth making wordless, gaping shapes in the dim light of the hollow tree. What was happening. It was confusion and panic, and only when he heard a broken gasp, almost a sob, in his ear, did Azog grasp behind him, his shaking hand coming into contact with a leg wrapped in coarse animal hide. The gasping voice gave a cry, and his flagging hold around Azog tightened. A huge white hand grasped at the chain, but his fingers were too thick to hold on to it, to get his fingers underneath it and pull it away from his throat. He twisted and struggled, Kili's feet dragging as he was forced upwards. He hung on with all of his weight, his will, forcing his exhausted arms to maintain their suffocating hold. Azog reached with his good arm, touching Kili's side. He felt the dwarf cringe back from his touch. He'd been burned there, Azog remembered, with one of their knives, red-hot from the embers of the fire. So he clenched his hand into a fist, crushing it into Kili's side with all of his might. Kili's scream left Azog's ears ringing. Agony flared up his side, it left him breathless, unable to move. The chain slipped from Azog's neck, the orc falling forward onto his hand and knees, choking and gasping for air. Kili clutched his side, blood running down his chin as he tried to bite back the pain. White spots danced on the edge of his vision, and he couldn't focus on the orc. Azog turned, still gasping for air, settling his gaze on Kili. There was murder in his eyes; the bloodlust consumed him, his rage cold, overflowing. He was going to kill him. He was going to tear the skin from his bones and splatter the ground with his blood. He would tear him apart, limb from limb, leave his entrails amongst the leaves and dirt. Kili crawled on his hands and knees towards the light, staggering to his bloodied feet as his face touched the sunshine, the chain trailing from his shaking fingers as he lurched forward on the grass of the outside world.

Azog's roar snapped at his heels. Kili bit back the molten pain that coursed down his side, limping in a half-jog as he wove through the trees. He had to keep moving. He had to force down the urge to collapse into the earth with screams and sobs, putting as much distance as he could between himself, and the orc that roared for his blood. He could hear Azog behind him, an animal boom of primal rage, and although he threw himself headlong into the forest, it wasn't long at all before Azog caught Kili's leg, sending him tumbling to the forest floor. Kili dragged himself by his arms, kicking out as Azog dragged him closer, taking his ankles, knees, waist, pinning him into the litter of grass and leaves. In moments he had Kili pinned to the ground with a knee in the small of his back. He grabbed a handful of hair, forcing Kili's head back as far as the iron collar allowed, leaning in to whisper in his ear. They were short, ugly words that had no meaning to Kili. But the intonation of Azog's voice, the knee digging into his injured back, the murder in his eyes, they were threat enough. He was going to die. Azog forced Kili on his back, so he could see the dwarf better. Their eyes met. The adrenalin of what he had done was starting to ebb away, leaving Kili cold with terror. He moaned for air, fingers grasping handfuls of grass, searching desperately for anything he could use as a weapon. He would have given anything for a stick or stone, something he could use to at least try and defend himself against the monster who leered down on him. Azog's face was twisted in an ugly snarl. He had a horrible, dead look in his eyes as he stared down at the dwarf. Their twin breathing filled the otherwise silent wood, both gasping for air. Kili was going to suffer. Oh, Azog was sure of it. He was going to beg for death, before long. Nobody could escape punishment, after such a sneaky, violent attempt on his life. He was going to start right now. He'd break the fingers, for a start, and cut a few off. Then the ankles, so he couldn't run away. Then other bits Kili wouldn't need. The ears. His tongue, that would stop the talking. He wouldn't be giving Kili back to Thorin Oakenshield. He would be giving back a broken, bloodied husk. He would show Kili the true meaning of pain. What he experienced now barely scratched the surface of what Azog could do. He breathed in deeply. The scent of fear hung thick before him. Kili lay on his back, unmoving, eyes still locked with Azog, blades of grass and leaf matter bursting between his fingers.

Blind fury consumed the orc, as he beat the quivering body beneath him into the ground. His knee in Kili's stomach, Azog struck the dwarf with his existing hand, Kili winded at the blows that rained down, blackening his ribs. He lashed out, trying to fight off the hand that beat him. Azog grasped the forearm of his left hand, Kili's eyes widening as the orc held the limb upward, his face contorted, eyes burning and narrow. Kili tried to pull free, thinking Azog was attempting to pin him. His grip tightened, Kili wincing in pain, trying to shake free. Azog's fingers dug into Kili's skin, red crescents forming as he clutched the fragile arm. Kili but his lip but didn't cry out, trying to prise open Azog's iron grip with his free hand. Azog saw the dwarf swallowing down a cry, refusing to make a noise. Trying to be strong, trying to fight back. A fresh stab of rage coursed through him, and with a snarl twisting his face, Azog squeezed. Hard.

Kili's scream sent the few remaining nesting birds chattering into the air. Azog felt the bone break in his clenched fist, the crack beneath his skin sending a physical shudder of pleasure down the orc's spine. It was made all the sweeter by Kili's screaming in paralytic agony. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound. Kili's vision was lost in a wave of white-hot pain. This didn't ebb and flow, he couldn't bite his lip down and ride it out. This was an agonizing fire, it burned through his arm and down into his heart, consuming him. He couldn't breathe, his voice was lost in his throat, he choked on a silent cry as the air left his lungs. And with a smile, Azog tightened his grasp. Kili howled, sucking air into his lungs with a fresh ear-shattering cry, writhing in agony as the pain doubled under Azog's tight hold, pressure on the broken arm blinding him. Azog maintained his grasp, enjoying the sound of Kili's voice ringing in the air, his helpless cries of anguish so out of place in the soft light of the early afternoon. Kili was striking out, his free hand beating against Azog's chest in weak, ineffectual blows, as limp and lifeless as straw, toes curling as he fought against the agony, his bruised chest convulsing. His nails scratched against Azog's pale skin, drawing blood as he tried to counteract the pain, thrashing beneath the orc as wildly as he could. His bright eyes had misted over with pain, vision blurry and unfocused. Azog bore the weak attack without flinching, and with his fingers locked tight around Kili's broken arm, he raised the limb further in the air, keeping Kili pinned to the ground with his knee.

It wasn't often that Azog undertook such work with his own hands. Executions, especially on the battlefield, were beyond count. His name was well-earned after years of violent bloodshed, and he lost track of the lives he had ended with the sword and the mace. But acts of interrogation, of torture, they were beneath him. They were jobs relegated to lackeys, while he sat back and watched. Kings, even of orcs, didn't often get their hands dirty inside their chambers. But these weren't his chambers. There were no wheedling underlings to throw Kili to. Just the orc king and the dwarf prince, together on the grass in the latesummer afternoon. And Azog was overjoyed. He wanted this task to fall to him. He wanted Kili to learn what it was like to truly, deeply suffer, to have his bones broken, to pass out from agony and beg for death. This wasn't a gentle beating. This was pain, real pain, and Azog would have nobody else be Kili's teacher.

Kili saw stars. They pricked before his blackening vision, as he took in another ragged lungful of air, only to have it burst out in another scream. Azog closed his eyes, relishing the sound. Kili couldn't do anything to counteract the molten agony that blossomed in his arm, coursing through his chest and down to his fingertips. He arched his neck, cheeks glistening in the afternoon sunlight as another broken cry ripped from his throat, choked with a gasp as the air in his lungs died, eyes dulled. Nothing could have ever prepared him for this pain. It throbbed in time with his heart, doubling with every ragged beat, as Azog pushed the broken bone further. There was no question as to why he did this. Kili deserved it, in his eyes. Thoroughly. He pulled upwards, the socket straining as he hung Kili up by his broken arm, holding him down.

And with the smirk growing on his face, Azog began to twist the arm.

The dam broke. A final, broken rasp of a cry tumbled from Kili's lips, an exhausted, jagged scream as an explosion of agony rocked his soul. And he was falling, as the ground crumbled beneath him, the rock was dust, he was slipping into darkness, a rushing noise in his ears rising to a roar as his vision gave out to a black nothing. Kili sank into the earth, hanging by his broken, twisted arm, his neck lolling and eyes closed as a loose pulse fluttered against the iron.

Azog guessed rightly what had happened. He let the broken limb fall from his hand, and Kili fell against the grass, mouth half-open, his face stained with dried tear-tracks and blackened, congealed blood, eyes closed. Azog released his knee, crouching over the lifeless figure with that smirk on his face. But it faded in realisation, twisting into an ugly snarl as he realised something very uncomfortable about the latest round of torture and punishment he'd inflicted on the dwarf. He screamed, of course. And he cried, yes. He didn't bear the pain with anything remotely resembling composure or courage. But-

But he never begged. Azog rose to his feet, looking down at the drawn, shadowed face that he had physically punished into unconsciousness. He no longer felt satisfied with what he had done. Instead, he felt cheated and angry. He growled, and kicked at the lifeless form, Kili's limp body rolling on the mess of grass and leaves. He knew a few words of Westron. He knew please and no and stop and mercy. Those words were familiar to him. They were always on the lips of his dying victims.

But not this time. White-hot rage boiled within Azog, an uncomfortable, creeping sensation of failure snaking up his spine. Kili didn't beg this time.

"So." Fili's strained face flinched at the sound of his uncle's voice. Thorin leaned back on his hands, trying to assume an air of ease, of composure. As though that would help. "What was it, Fili?" Fili wasn't looking at him. His blue eyes, so dark, were focused on the river, watching the water course over the rocks, the sound babbling gently below them. Thorin lowered his gaze to Fili's hands, frowning. Fili was toying with the cuff of his sleeve, a loose thread. He picked at it and teased it, slowly pulling it out. Fili wasn't one to wring his hands. He was nervous. Throin shuffled a little closer to him, close enough for their knees to touch. Fili kept his resolute gaze downwards. His fingers were trembling. He wound the loose thread around and around his index, watching the skin turn purple. And still he wouldn't meet his uncle's eye. His heart thudded loudly, loud enough, he was sure, for Thorin to hear. He couldn't open his mouth, couldn't trust his voice. Couldn't bring himself to utter the truth.

Thorin waited in the silence, heaving a long sigh every few moments. He was patient. Thorin already felt as though Fili slipping away from him. That warmth, that closeness and comfort, it had died between them over the last few days. His embraces with Fili were awkward and strained. He tensed and stiffened under his uncle's touch, struggled to meet his eyes, responded only in mumbled half-sentences. He wasn't Fili anymore, not to Thorin. Something inside had been snuffed out. And it was an arrow through his crushed heart. He'd already lost Kili, and as the days wore on, it became painfully obvious to Thorin that he was losing Fili too. This private audience, it was the last slim, fraying thread that dangled above Thorin. And he reached out for it in desperation. He knew that Fili would either return to the campfire as a nephew or a stranger to him, there was no in-between. And he would battle fiercely to reclaim him.

"Fili." He leaned in, his voice barely rising above the soft gushing of the brook. He touched Fili on the face, a finger under his chin, pleading with his nephew to raise his gaze. Fili complied, but it was a creaking, mechanical motion, heavy with reluctance. He faced Thorin but still couldn't stare straight at him. His eyes focused on Thorin's lips, watching them move as he spoke. "Fili, you brought me here for a reason." It was like cornering a frightened doe. Fili's blue eyes were horrible to look at, dull and lowered. But Thorin wouldn't shift his gaze, watching for the barest flicker of recognition. "You were going to tell me something." Fili's lips moved, pursing for a moment. Then they parted, Fili taking in a long breath. He still looked at Thorin's mouth, not his eyes, trying to stay the rising panic and tightness in his chest.

"I..." His voice was more of a broken sigh. Thorin lowered his hand to Fili's shoulder, waiting for his nephew to speak. Fili was reluctant, cautious. Afraid. He could see the fear in his dark blue eyes, as he teetered on the edge of utter devastation. "I have... I have to confess something." He whispered. Thorin had to lean in to hear him, as Fili spoke on the edge of his breath. He tightened the thread around his finger, closing his eyes. He opened them once more, and this time his gaze was back down at his hands. Thorin watched the purple finger in silence. "We lied."

"We?" Thorin moved still closer, their sides pressed together. The hand on Fili's shoulder began to snake around his back, and Fili let him, tense, rigid. "You and your brother." He couldn't speak the name, not if he could help it. He kept his eyes fown on Fili's hand, but felt the head nod beside him. He tightened his hold. Perhaps if Thorin squeezed hard enough, his fragile veneer would break, a glass mask that hid nothing, and he would find Fili underneath. "What did you lie about?" It seemed easier to get Fili to talk, when he wasn't looking into his eyes.

"About - when-" Fili's voice cracked, and he swallowed, taking in a breath. "About when," he repeated, with more control, "when we were children." He closed his eyes, taking the plunge. "And would get in trouble." There was a rushing in his ears. The water rose over him. "It wasn't always Kili, Thorin." He couldn't breathe. "Some of the time... most of the time..." The roar grew louder. "It was me." The grip on his shoulder tightened, quite painfully, then slackened. At his side, Thorin was silent, as though he wanted Fili to keep talking. "I would... I would plan things or do things, and Kili would just go along with me..." Why was it so hard to speak? "And then if - when - we were caught, he would take the blame." He didn't feel as though some weight had lifted from him. His shoulders felt bowed over, with a terrible burden. There was no relief in his confession. Only sick fear and anxiety. He tried to shuffle away from Thorin, but his uncle held him close, refusing to let go. "He wasn't an idiot, o-or stupid, or rash or any of those things." Fili's eyes stung. "I was." He blinked rapidly, listening to Thorin breathe silently at his side, waiting for a response. To be sworn at and scolded, to be called a fool, a child. The things Thorin would call Kili. He expected it. He wanted it. So when Thorin finally spoke, it was a blow to Fili, one that struck him in the heart, and he tore away from his uncle, staring at him with his eyes wide, looking very, very dark in a white face.

"I know."

Thorin was momentarily winded at the brisk movement at his side. It hurt his injured ribs, he swallowed down the stab of pain, getting up on his knees as he watched Fili backing away on him, sitting on the grass. Thorin crouched, watching carefully as Fili's eyes grew large and wild.

"You know?" His voice rose above the gurgling water, mouth plainly shaking.

"Fili, let me explain." Thorin spoke very quickly, as the thread was jerked out of his reach. "It wasn't a sudden revelation. I think I always knew." Fili's chest was heaving. Why was this affecting him so much? Thorin kept his hands spread and open, a gesture of peace. "Some of the trouble you got up to, I know he wasn't the mastermind behind. But every time, you would keep quiet and he would step forward - it didn't take long for me to realise he was covering for you."

"And you just - you just let him?" Fili clutched handfuls of soft grass. "You called him an embarrassment!" Thorin felt cold. This was new. He had never, ever seen Fili angry before. Not once. Fili always kept himself calm  and respectful around his uncle. He maintained the perfect picture of decorum and composure. But the cracks had formed, ever since Kili had gone missing, and he slipped up, upending tables and sobbing. This was different still. This wasn't grief. This was aimed at him. "You - You made him think he was worthless!"

"Now Fili, I doubt he actually thought that-"

"He did!" The tears in Fili's eyes spilled over as a sob broke from his lips. Thorin crouched wide-eyed in the grass, slowly shaking his head. The thread was still around Fili's finger. It tingled and grew numb, but nothing could be farther from his mind. "He thought he was nothing, he said he was just Kili and he didn't matter!"

"Fili please-"

"Why. Why did you do it." His eyes were feral. This rage, it was utterly alien to him. This wasn't Fili. This was a monster in his skin. Thorin's throat closed, as he realised what the mask hid.

"I..." Words failed Thorin. He shook his head and moved his lips, but no sound came out. What could he say? He could lay his soul bare, confess that he wanted so badly to believe that Fili was perfect, that he bought into the lie that the brothers built up over the years, at the expense of Kili's self-worth. That it grew so easy to blame Kili, who accepted the punishment with humble silence, that it became second nature. That he was only going along with what Fili and Kili were doing. That if Fili had such a big problem with it, he had fifty years to confess the truth and it wasn't Thorin's fault that he'd waited until now. Weak, ineffectual words with no meaning. Drops of water on Fili's stone heart. So he bit it all back. And Thorin sat back down on the grass, shaking his head. Saying nothing. Fili stared at him, mouth open, waiting for a response as the tears dripped into his beard.

"Say something." Fili's teeth were gritted, he smouldered with an inner fire. The grief and anguish exploded in a white-hot rage, one Fili couldn't control. His confession, his secret shame and humiliation he nursed for years, was no secret at all. Thorin knew, he knew exactly what was going on, and he said nothing, he continued to tell Kili he was an embarrassment to his line, continued to punish him, to make him feel as though he was nothing. Just Kili. He was furious with Thorin. But he was angrier with himself. Angrier for going along with the lie. For hurting Kili while he was treated as though he were perfect. For pretending, for years, that he was the princely heir of Erebor, while Kili was nothing more than the naive, stupid child. And worst of all; for believing it. Thorin stared at him, wordlessly. There was nothing he could do. He had experience with this anger before. Had learned that words were meaningless, gestures brushed aside. Those dark blue eyes met his, they bore down within him, gleaming with that bitter, inward rage.

Durin, Fili looked so much like him.

Thorin had tried to ignore it, for a long time. He used to run his fingers through those golden curls as Fili slept in his crib, genuinely hoping that his straw-coloured hair would darken, like a proper heir of Durin, rather than the blonde, so reminiscent of the Eastern dwarves from which Dis had taken a husband. But blonde it remained, trailing down his back, and more of it grew along his hardening jawline. And Thorin couldn't look at his nephew without being reminded of everything that had happened. What had been almost destroyed. He was relieved, when Fili started to trim his beard, a sign of solidarity with his uncle, braiding his hair differently. It helped. But now, he had returned. The banished prince of the Ironfist dwarves, declared Isimun Ghunum and struck from the hearts and minds of his people, he returned in the eyes of his son, the stiff iron jaw, the curl of his lip. And Thorin felt afraid. It stirred in his chest, memory of that dark rage. What it had done to his sister.

"I'm sorry." Thorin could say no more. It was a terrible, pathetic attempt at absolving himself. He knew how it looked to Fili. As though he didn't care. But Fili was too far gone, he had given in to his guilt and grief, it came out from him in bitter, misdirected anger. And Thorin could do nothing to fight it. He couldn't shout back and raise his fists. Fili would only strike back, would say something that would truly damage their fragmenting relationship beyond repair. All he could do is offer a paltry apology, kneeling in the grass with his hands stretched out before him. He couldn't even repeat it. It would only sound disingenuous, false and hollow, if he said it again. So he knelt wordlessly, fixing his gaze on his nephew.

Fili stood up in silence. And he turned away from Thorin, with his head held high, eyes now dry. The mask fitted back over his face, but it wavered. He jerked his hands as he rose to his feet, and the thread around his finger finally broke, falling to the ground in two severed pieces. He stuffed his shaking hands into his pockets, willing his lip to cease its infernal trembling. Thorin stared at the space in the grass where his nephew had been, listening to the thudding of his boots carry out of earshot. His shoulders sagged, head falling forward. He allowed himself a few seconds of silent peace, breathing slowly in and out, listening to the soft bubble of the nearby river, before rising from the grass, tracing Fili's footsteps. Thorin's broken heart thudded weakly in his chest, battling a horrific, sick wave of agony. Fili's eyes stared at him in his mind, the grief and anguish and rage. The anger he had never seen before. Fili came to confess his deepest shame, only to learn that Thorin had been harbouring the same lie. And rather than seek comfort from his uncle, rather than find solidarity, he pushed him aside, blamed him. This ran deeper than the botched confession. Thorin was no fool. He knew what danced on Fili's mind, what remained locked behind his shaking lips, what he would never, ever dare to say, even in the hottest fit of anger. He knew Fili blamed him for Kili's death. 

Thorin knew, as he walked back to the campfire, seeing Fili pack up his things with shaking hands, bridge of his nose still wrinkled, eyes burning as he breathed in short gasps, that Fili's half-hearted tolerance of his uncle's overcompensating show of affection had dissolved completely. He wouldn't sit stiffly in one of Thorin's awkward embraces. Wouldn't submit to having his hair braided by his uncle. Wouldn't lie beside him in the night and endure Thorin's arm across his chest. He would turn away from him completely, refusing to be touched.  

Nephew or stranger. No in-between.

Chapter Text

The night was still, apart from the sound of violent retching.

The chain slipped from Azog's fingers, banging against Kili's chest as he sank to his knees, pitching forward as the horrible lurching in his stomach leaped into his throat, mouth filling with the bitter, rancid taste of bile. The orc stepped back, letting out a frustrated growl as he watched Kili vomit in the pale moonlight for the fourth time since they'd resumed their journey in the late afternoon. Kili's stomach clenched painfully around nothing as he gagged, a mouthful of sticky, lumpy bile and raw meat spattered on the grass. Sweat trickled down his forehead as he coughed, screwing his eyes up at the awful smell rising from the ground. He propped himself up on his unbroken arm, the other curled protectively against his chest.

The burning agony had faded to a dull ember in his broken limb, thudding in time with his heart, so long as he kept it still. But it hadn't been kept still over the last day and a half. It was jostled and battered and  pushed around. Like him. After breaking his arm, he gave Kili only a few minutes of sweet unconsciousness before shaking him awake. Kili awoke with a cry of confused pain, clinging to his arm as for a moment he couldn't remember what had happened. But then it rushed back to him. Trying to kill Azog, in his sleep. Being chased into the forest floor and held down while Azog delivered his just punishment. And he looked up at the pale orc, fear sickening his heart, constricting his chest and making it hard to breathe. He had doomed himself. It was a death knell, he knew. There would be no pity from the orc king, not towards the dwarf who tried to strangle him in his sleep. Kili's last, glimmering spark of courage, of hope, it died when he looked into Azog's face, gritting his teeth through the pain of his broken arm. Thorin and Fili, they left his mind completely, left him alone in darkness and despair. And with a tug on his chain, Azog hauled Kili to his feet, his stormy face turned westward, towards the looming mountains.

Azog hadn't shown any fresh mercy towards his prisoner, hadn't tried to nurse his limb. But he didn't punish Kili further, either. He'd passed judgement, saw Kili's broken arm as a fit deterrent, reasoning with himself that if he did anything more to hurt the dwarf, he quite possibly wouldn't be able to survive the journey. Azog was no fool. He saw Kili was thin and frail for a dwarf, and a week of imprisonment had tarnished his soul and burned him out. Kili had tried to bind his arm in some sort of splint, but every attempt left him screaming in pain as he placed pressure on the broken bone. Azog made him walk, despite his feet; Kili had lost his carrying privileges, as far as Azog was concerned. He had to carry on, one arm cradled in the other.

Then he started to get sick.

They walked through the night and into the morning, Azog finally stopping to under a thick pine, sheltered from the high noon sun. Kili slept on his side for a long time, longer than he had in a week. As he was shaken awake in the sunset, though, he still felt drained and exhausted, his skin hot to the touch. He ate Azog's food with no small degree of distaste, the uncooked meat heaving and churning in his stomach. Within an hour it was out on the grass, a cold sweat breaking out on Kili's forehead. He grew very pale as the night wore on, heavy shadows ringed under his eyes despite a long sleep. He reasoned it was the food, and tried to drink a little water to keep his strength up. But that ended up in the bushes too, Kili's queasy stomach throwing everything back into his throat. He was ebbing away. Azog groaned and sighed as Kili would kneel in the grass and retch, shuddering violently, again and again. He stumbled along in a nightmare, completely sapped of his energy.

Kili couldn't rise to his feet after the fourth time. He couldn't sit up. He couldn't move. His eyes were half-lidded, breath a shallow gasp. He could feel Azog's exasperated stare, heard the low growl in the orc's throat. He took in a longer breath, tried to collect his remaining strength and rise from the puddle of sick, trudging on forward in the silvered light. But his legs failed him. He simply didn't have the strength to rise to his feet. Azog paced back and forth in front of him, the growling increasing slowly in volume. Kili groaned. He couldn't move. He didn't understand why he felt this way, what had happened to him. He wasn't just injured - he was sick. He was rotting, from the inside out. It must have been something he ate, some of that awful meat. Kili didn't understand that it wasn't right for one of the wounds from that awful whip to continue throbbing after so long, didn't see the nasty yellow colour creeping along the exposed flesh in the small of his back. He didn't know the meaning of the word infection, or exactly why it was so important to keep wounds clean. It was one of the many things that nobody ever told him, that slipped by the wayside.

Azog prodded at Kili with his foot. Receiving nothing in response, he jabbed him in the side roughly with his boot, the dwarf curling away from the blow. He swallowed hard, trying to clear the taste of bile from his tongue. He felt dizzy, he couldn't lift his head. Azog prodded at him again, muttering something in Black Speech. Kili ignored him, shaking his head as he gasped for air. He couldn't move.

"Please." Kili moaned into the grass, voice hoarse and cracked from days of disuse. "Please don't make me... I can't..." Azog's boot left his side at Kili's voice. "Please..." Kili slumped against the earth as his arm gave out, a flash of pain snaking up the broken limb as he knocked his elbow. He breathed in, the smell of dirt and vomit burning his nostrils. Sick and exhausted and in horrible pain, Kili clutched a handful of grass, eyes stinging. Azog's boot pressed tentatively at Kili's empty stomach. He got only a soft moan in response, Kili lying on his side, face pressed into the grass. With a sigh, Azog crouched down on the grass beside the trembling figure, reaching out to touch Kili on the shoulder. He was burning up. The dwarf lifted his face at the contact, his thin face glistening in the moonlight from sweat and tears.

"Help me..." His voice was the barest whisper. Azog watched him in silence. "Please help me Azog I can't..." Kili's good hand clutched at his stomach. "Please... Please understand me. Help. Help me." He was whispering through soft, broken sobs, vision blurred with tears and a creeping darkness. "Please..." He shook his head, his useless pitiful pleading for an ounce of compassion falling on deaf, heartless ears. Humiliation left Kili's pale face reddening in the moonlight. This was the creature who killed his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and uncle Frerin too. Who swore blood on him and his kin. And Kili lay at his feet, begging for help. Fili would have closed his mouth, would have stood up and soldiered on. Thorin would have given his last breath in ensuring that the orc was killed. But Kili, huddled over on the ground, he pleaded for mercy. He was a disgrace to the name of Durin and he knew it.

Azog remained still, mind ticking over. He didn't know what help meant. But he knew please and that was enough to gauge that Kili was begging to be cared for. Kili's dark eyes were fixed on him, trembling mouth forming wordless shapes as his voice died in his throat. Kili groaned, curling over as another wave of nausea attacked his stomach. But he had nothing left inside him, nothing to heave onto the grass, and it passed in a few minutes, Azog still crouched on the ground beside Kili, watching him. His hair was damp from the sweat, plastered across his face. But the gleam of his eyes shone through the curtain of dark tangles, towards Azog. Still pleading. Wordlessly, the orc slid his arm under Kili's back, helping him to sit up. Kili pushed the hair out of his face, wiping at his mouth as Azog opened the pack, sifting around. But while there was still a little food and drink, a crude salve, there was nothing that could alleviate a stomach-sickness. He eyed Kili, sitting with his head bowed, breathing shallow and ragged as he held his broken arm, realising with a grunt there was only one thing he could do.

Azog took the uninjured limb, threading it through the strap of the pack. The other he did carefully, Kili biting back a cry. He didn't understand what Azog was doing. Why was he wearing the bag? Kili swallowed as the weight settled on his back. Azog took his arm, pulling him to his feet. No. They weren't going to simply continue walking. They couldn't. He couldn't. Kili forced down a sob of exhausted frustration. He expected Azog to take the chain, to pull him away and force him to resume the march. But Azog, he knelt down on the grass in front of Kili, looking over his shoulder at the dwarf and giving him a quick jerk of the head. Kili's throat closed, he shook his head slowly, refusing to believe it. Azog jerked his head again, a snarl wrinkling his nose as he knelt in the grass. Kili approached the orc slowly, winding his good arm across Azog's collarbone. It was so warm against his neck. Frighteningly warm, for the cool night. He slipped the mace under Kili's leg, hooking the dwarf close as he grasped the other leg. Kili's forehead leaned downwards, resting the sweaty skin against the back of Azog's neck. The orc rose to his feet, readjusting the burden against his back. He could feel Kili's breath on his skin, tangled brown hair falling over his shoulders. Kili clung to him like a child, his good arm wrapped around his collarbone and squeezing his shoulder. His head swam and stomach lurched in the moonlight.

And with his face turned to the west, Azog resumed his march upon the mountain.

"Your Greatness."

There was no hall to greet Azog the Defiler. No great chamber to receive the most brutal of orc kings. They stood, suspended on their wooden platform hovering over the darkness. The throne before them sat empty. Two goblins stood on either side, necks inclined in a bow of deep respect, one that was replicated across throughout the cavern. Only Kili and Azog stood erect, watching. Kili wavered on his feet, unable to shake the memories of his previous encounter deep within this mountain. He kept his gaze lowered, without appearing suspiciously avoidant. He dreaded being recognised, but it seemed inevitable. How many dwarves could there possibly be, travelling between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood? Who, except that of the company of Thorin Oakenshield, could get this sort of attention from Azog himself? There was nobody else Kili could be.

But that was who they were, he remembered the sarcastic bow of the Goblin King, the mocking laughter. Nobody. He closed his eyes, curling his toes into the wood as one of the orcs beside the throne started to speak. Long, drawling words in the Black Speech. He knew the wheedling tone, the forced grace and appreciation. He'd heard it before, by Thorin. Not for him. By him. Thankfully the lords of Men blindly embraced such flattery, when even Kili, clinging to the edge of his uncle's cloak, could hear the thinly veiled contempt.

"Our facilities are open to you, O Azog the Defiler." Even Azog himself had to refrain from rolling his eyes at the exaggerated tone. "I am Baduz. Anything you require is open to you and your..." Pale yellow eyes fell on to Kili as lips curled in a snarl. A snarl of familiarity. He knew that beardless face. He was one of the goblins who dressed down the dwarf clan, narrowly escaping with life and limb after Gandalf's theatrics. Oh yes, he knew that face. "Guest."

"Prisoner." Azog corrected the goblin, giving Kili a short jerk on the chain, downwards. Bow you idiot. Kili stood, dumb and deaf to the foreign exchange. Azog growled, delivering a rather swift kick to the back of Kili's legs. He buckled forward onto his knees with a short cry, the mocking laughter from the goblins bouncing from black stone, rising into the impenetrable darkness. Kili bent his head downwards, painfully aware of the many eyes that fell on him. The wood felt as frail as matchsticks beneath his feet, on the verge of breaking, leaving him to fall into the cavernous black below. Perhaps it would be better if it did. Kili kept his eyes closed, head bowed as the talking rose around him. He tried to be small, ignored. But he knew it was impossible. He knew they were all interested in him. They knew who he was, and they weren't going to simply let Kili go without their share of retribution, surely.

Azog had the same nasty, sneaking suspicion. He couldn't trust these goblins, not while he had something so precious to them. It was respect of Azog that kept Kili alive so far. He had to tread carefully, had to make sure Kili remained in his sight at all times, lest they try to carry him off into their dark pits of torture and execution. It was the precarious time between kings, where the goblins jostled and shunted each other about for power, scrabbling over popular opinion and control of their ragged armed forces. Azog had been, had done, the same thing. Only before dozens of orc-heads stood pierced upon sharp pikes, was his own bid for power complete. His own line needed forging, and that could only be done by destroying countless others. His name was earned in blood, his respect through violence, rather than lineage. And he knew the four goblins before him had the same ambitions.

"But surely you require food and rest." The awful schmoozing grew in tone. "Our finest rooms are prepared for your Malevolence," that wasn't saying much, "and anything else you require shall be readied for you."

"I need an army." Azog didn't pull punches. He wasn't going to dance around with an upstart  like this. He saw Baduz pause, jerk upwards with widening eyes. He obviously wasn't expecting that. "With your finest wargs. And enough supplies to last for the better part of a year." He hoped it wouldn't take that long, he really did. He was just hedging his bets. He smiled inwardly, at the look on the stupid goblin's face as he struggled to digest this information.

"We shall negotiate such conditions after dinner." The fool tried to be delicate. Azog let out an audible growl. He did not negotiate with the likes of this rabble. "Meanwhile, let us take charge of your prisoner. We have an excellent healer-"

"No." Azog cut him off, tightening his hand on the chain. Kili looked up, feeling the orc king's grasp on him tense. "The dwarf stays with me."

"With all due respect, O Azog the Defiler," and Kili's eyes met that of Baduz for a moment. "I don't believe you quite understand the situation of your prisoner." Was that jealousy in his tone? Kili looked back down, wishing more than anything that he could understand just a single word of their awful native tongue. "It's clear to me, to all of us, that he is quite close to death. Surely, if you want him to survive-"

"That is exactly what I wish for, Baduz." Oh, it was hard to keep his language clean and respectful. He wanted to throttle this greedy fool. There was something very deliberate, in the way he had been shown to this large open area, rather than the private quarters of the former kings. Now he knew why. He wanted this to be public. "Which is why he shall remain with me."

"I assure your Malevolence that we shall not harm him in any way." His voice oozed honey. "He is yours, and we shall treat him as such." But Azog still eyed him with deep mistrust. "As I said before, we have an excellent healer, from the forges of Isengard. He will care for your dwarf with the utmost skill. Within a day, it shall be as if he was never wounded." Azog couldn't hold the snort of derision at that. He highly doubted any healer was as good as that, even amongst the cursed elves. "I give you my word as loyal servant to our dear departed King, I shall personally account for his safety." His speech finished, Baduz stood before Azog, having asserted himself as the most eminent of the four that thronged the empty goblin throne. Azog looked down at the kneeling figure, remembering the painfully long trek through the woods, the vomiting and shaking. The beating and burning, the sickness, the broken arm. Even he was ready to admit that he had pushed things too far. Enough damage was done, and he knew, looking down at Kili, that if he didn't receive any care, proper care, he would grow thinner and sicker and paler, until his weakening heart finally stopped beating. Azog's blood was boiling, but he kept his face impassive.

"And I shall personally hold you responsible for it." There was a considerable threat in those words. The pull of the neck made Kili start. He stumbled to his feet, watching with slowly widening eyes as Azog held his chain out to Baduz, eyes molten fire. No. Kili watched the goblin step forward, taking the chain in his grew fist. Those pale yellow eyes stared down at him, a smile Kili didn't like flickering on his lips.

"Excellent." He shifted his gaze back to Azog, reassuming the mask of false respect. Azog gave him a short, single nod. "Grimuz will direct you to your room. I shall personally see that this dwarf gets the best care we have to offer." Within reason, of course. Grimuz stepped forward, flanked by his own lackeys, and Baduz retreated backwards, grasping Kili's chain in his clawed talons. "Get moving, scum." He snarled in Westron, making sure to speak low in Kili's ear. Kili swallowed, voice stuck in his throat. He cast one look back at Azog, guided away from him, shining in the firelight. There was fear, genuine fear at being separated from the pale orc. What was wrong with him? Kili held the bad arm in the good, biting his lip as he was jostled away from the throne, along a rickety bridge towards the glimmering hub of Goblin-town. At least with Azog, Kili knew where he stood for the most part. But these goblins, he didn't know their names. He didn't know what they wanted. All he knew was that they ached for his blood. He remembered the kicks and punches of that first rabble of goblins, the ones that caught him asleep, a lifetime ago. How they screamed and howled when they realised his true identity. This was the same violence and anger, multiplied beyond count. Kili couldn't stop shaking, couldn't force down a whimper as the wooden bridge pitched and swayed beneath him. He didn't know he was being taken to a healer. Kili envisoned some sort of prison, a holding cell in the darkness, to wait cold and alone while Azog dined in orcish opulence. He cast one final look backwards, but he couldn't see Azog amongst the crowd of writhing bodies and lanterns. Baduz thumped him on the arm, the broken arm, earning a scream from the dwarf. "I said move." He shoved his shoulder, Kili staggering as he tried to ride out the crackling flames of pain that licked at his arm. The goblin laughed beside him, his voice cold. Kili would find no kindness beneath this mountain. He screwed up his eyes and tried to stem the bubbling wave of panic that reared in his throat, as he was pushed along the tiny boardwalk, clinging to the sheer cliff face.

"Hold still."

Nazarg lifted the poultice from the grey limb stretched out before him, giving an exploratory prod. The little goblin on the edge of the stool gave a whimper at that, lamp-like eyes settling reproachfully on the orc healer. Nazarg ignored the stare, holding the boil closer to the his glass lantern, giving it a quick sniff. Not yet. Another day, and it would be ready to lance. He stood up, crossing the small cave to his lopsided little shelf. He didn't have much - the last few days were hellish, treating amputated limbs, stab wounds, slashed flesh. But he found a bit of fresh cloth big enough to bind the goblin's little arm. Those big eyes watched him carefully. "Have you been applying the Witch's Hazel?" He received a silent nod. "Good." He better, that was the last of Nazarg's supply. He wouldn't get more, unless they happened upon an unfortunate prisoner with a stash of medicines. "Off with you then. Come back tomorrow." The goblin jumped to the ground and ran off, screeching.

With a shake of his head, Nazarg crouched down before the little brazier in the corner, holding his hands up to the cheery warmth. He closed his eyes, warming his fingers. His head ached with tiredness. He'd barely slept in the past week. Astonishing, how thirteen dwarves (and one wizard) could cause so much damage. Although the worst of it was over, he no longer received flickering corpses, more dead than alive, he still had the aftermath. Bandages needed changing. Stumps of limbs checked, and sometimes re-sealed with red-hot iron. His wargs worked around the clock, lapping at broken skin. And they still had to be fed. And although he had a handful of half-witted goblins who carried out his orders, he couldn't trust them to follow precise instructions, so the heavy work fell largely to him. His own quarters were overflowing - he had to commandeer a nearby hall, connected with a bell on a long piece of string for emergencies. The last few hours, at least, had been quiet. But he would have to make a routine check soon.

"Nazarg!" With a short sigh, the orc healer opened his eyes. He turned to regard the rough voice that sounded from the mouth of his cave. Baduz, one of the dead king's close underlings, jostling about in the current vacuum of power. No doubt he simply came to throw his weight around, to poke at Nazarg's things and see if there were any good painkillers worth taking. Grimuz had tried before; Nazarg's opiates and potions were famous for inducing a hallucinogenic sleep, and he had to keep them well hidden. Even Nazarg was tempted, from time to time, to take a drug-induced respite. But Baduz was not here to paw through the healer's things. There were four orcs underneath his lopsided shanty-town doorway. Four and a dwarf. Nazarg froze. The little creature stood between two of Baduz's lackeys, the chain wound in an goblin hand. He wavered on his feet, looking down at the floor, holding his left arm very gingerly with his right. "We have a new charge for you." He clapped the dwarf on the shoulder, pushing him forward. Nazarg watched him take a single stumbling step, hair over his face. Why was there a dwarf in his cave? "Surely you have heard the return of Azog the Defiler."

"The streets were full of it." Baduz beckoned for the healer to come closer and Nazarg complied. "He came alone, I was told. His company was destroyed." Nobody said who - or what - had done it. But he heard rumours.

"Not alone." Baduz took the chain, pressing it into Nazarg's hand. Kili's eyes flickered at this latest exchange, the foreign words doing nothing to stem his fear. "He had this with him." He cast the dwarf a snarl. Nazarg looked at him, holding his arm. He shook violently, seemingly on the verge of a total collapse. "Fix him up. They ride tomorrow." His personal feelings aside, Baduz was a goblin of his word. And he swore that Azog's imprisoned dwarf would be cared for. He had little interest in this broken-down creature. There was no fight left in him, he would not make a good spectacle, with the fun already wrung out. Baduz had another condition, one that only worked if he seemed to have Azog's trust and respect. Respect earned by following his word.

"Tomorrow?"  The orc healer looked him up and down, sizing the dwarf up. Malnourished, obviously. Probably hadn't had a drop of water in days, either. Something was obviously very wrong with his arm, there was a nasty cut on his face, his feet were ruined, he looked sick, and the blood on his clothes were clearly not that of an orc. "Not tomorrow."

"Tomorrow Nazarg." His job done, Baduz turned away from the cave. He hated the idea of leaving Azog along with that stupid idiot Grimuz, and ached to return. Before collecting a certain piece of incriminating evidence that would quite cleanly twist Azog's arm, of course. "Or you can tell Azog himself." There was a growl in his voice at that.

"But - no - wait!" The chain slipped from Nazarg's fingers, he ran to catch up with the commander. Kili stood alone in the cave, heart pounding. But he didn't dare to move. "Who is he?" He gestured back to his cave. "Is he one of the thirteen?" He didn't dare utter Thorin Oakenshield's name aloud. It was enough to send the streets into a frenzy. The blood was still warm, their burning rage fresh.

"Tomorrow Nazarg!" He only got a repetitive shout. A growl of exhausted frustration sounding from his throat, Nazarg turned back to his cave. So long for sleep, he sighed as he returned to his dim little cave. The dwarf hadn't moved. Nazarg stood in the lopsided doorway for a long moment, shaking his head.

"You understand me?" He spoke in Westron, watching as the dwarf turned to look at him, nodding in silence. Kili's sick stomach loosened. This wasn't the cold, bitter anger the goblin who previously held him by the neck. This goblin was different. In fact, he didn't look like a proper, grey goblin of the Misty Mountains at all. He looked to be something different entirely. "Good." Nazarg crossed the room slowly, deep in thought. The orc healer raised his eyes to the row of precious salves and potions. He had barely anything left, and he would far sooner use it on one of his own race, rather than a dwarf prisoner. Even under the command of Azog. "Take a seat on the stool in the corner." He ran a long finger over the tiny collection, turning to see the dwarf staring up at him with glassy eyes. Kili was finally starting to cotton on to this. This was the dim quarters of a healer, not the dark prison he imagined. Kili let out a long breath, but refused to let his guard down, refused to allow himself to feel relief. He could never feet at ease, within these dark caves. The orc healer frowned at him. He needed a name. Nazarg hated dealing with blank faces. Even though it ended with death - especially in the last few days - he made it a point to always ask a name of his patients. "What do they call you?"

"Kili." Such a soft voice. It surprised Nazarg. He expected something a little stronger, coming from a dwarf. Normally, they were such hardy creatures. He looked over at Kili, watching him lower his dark gaze.

"So Kili, what's with the arm? Sprained? Dislocated?"

"Broken." Empty-handed, not wanting to spare his precious salves, Nazarg crouched down in front of him. He pressed his hand against the dwarf's forehead, wincing at the touch. He was burning hot. But first things first, Nazarg knew the arm would be giving him hell, and it needed some sort of fixing.

"Let me see." He took the arm carefully by the wrist, running his finger along the inside of the limb. He felt the little creature tense, biting back an audible cry of pain. "Move your fingers." He watched the slim digits curl and flex. That was something, at least. "How long ago was this?" He pressed down on the base of his pale wrist.

"T-Two days." Kili's voice was a high stutter, punctuated by a gasp.

"How did it happen?" Nazarg's fingers pressed down several inches from his wrist. He received a moan for that. His hand traveled northwards, feeling for the break in the bone. Kili remained silent, not looking at him. "Hey." He put a finger under the sharp little chin, covered with only a whisper of hair. A pair of very dark eyes were staring at him. His throat bobbed against the collar. "Kili, how did it happen?"

"I tried to kill him." He whimpered as Nazarg tested the bone, inching closer to the break. The orc paused, raising an eyebrow. "Azog. I-I tried to kill him." His voice was so weak. He was tentative, unsure of his own words. How long had it been since he held a conversation with somebody? How long had he been imprisoned? Nazarg had often dealt with prisoners before, especially in his old home of Isengard. Had watched the suffering give way to madness, as loneliness and pain smothered the life from their souls, leaving them hollow in the darkness. Nazarg looked back into Kili's eyes. If he was one of the dwarves who raided Goblin-town, he'd had a bad time indeed, for this damage to be done in little under a week. It was the broken gaze of someone whose hope had died. The despair would drive him to madness or suicide, in time, if he were allowed to live. And Nazarg suspected the latter, watching as the dark eyes lowered back down to his arm.

"And he saw fit to break your arm as a deterrent." He pressed two fingers down on the mid-point, and the cry couldn't be restrained. Nazarg felt the bone beneath the skin, biting his lip. "What did he do, twist it?"

"Y-Yes." He panted, in obvious pain. Nazarg gave a slow nod, giving his elbow just the slightest touch. "P-Please stop that." He burst out. Nazarg looked the dwarf in the face. His eyes were wet. "Please." Forced respect crept into that thin little voice, and something within Nazarg clenched. He wasn't completely heartless, not like most of his people. He had quite a reasonable degree of compassion, especially for an orc. As a healer, he supposed that he had to.

"I've got an idea of what's happened." Nazarg rose to his feet. "You're very lucky to have the use of your hand. The bone - it cracked along here." He indicated on his own arm. "Under pressure. He squeezed down on it until it broke, am I right?" The dwarf nodded. "Thought so. Then when he twisted it, the bone was dislodged." Just barely. But it was enough. "Did it make you pass out? The twisting I mean." Another nod. Nazarg turned to a warped chest leaning against the wall. The hinge creaked. It was very old, covered in the geometric designs of dwarvish tradition. "It will be some months before you have complete use of your arm." Both of them were silent for several moments. Neither knew if Kili had that long left to live. Nazarg pushed aside the dirty rags of old cloth and blankets, running his fingers over the smooth false bottom. "A cast will help immensely, if Azog can spare the cost of the iron." He pressed down into the tiny secret compartment, working by touch and feel in the dim light. He ran his fingers over the various jars, knowing them by shape. "Have you been throwing up?"

"Yes." Nazarg strained to hear his voice. He made a face. So the mushrooms would be a waste of time, then. He lifted one of the tiniest jars, giving it a shake. His poppy tears were reserved for the very worst cases, the ones where he had to amputate limbs and cut people open. It wasn't often he was forced to use it on setting a broken limb. But there was more than that. The dwarf looked very ill, and Nazarg had a nasty suspicion that there was more damage, yet to be discovered. So he pulled out the jar.

"Do you smoke?" He got a nod in reply. Nazarg took the jar to the table, getting his knife. "I'm going to give you some poppy tears. It's best if you smoke it, especially if you can't stomach anything at the moment. Have you had any before?" He looked over, watching Kili shake his head. "What about hashish?"

"Once." He admitted, looking down at his hands. It was Fili who managed to procure it, when they were in their thirties. They sneaked down to the lake and smoked it in the moonlight, spending the rest of the night watching the silver lake ebb and flow, unable to hold in their laughter. They came home at dawn reeking of the stuff, neither of them able to entirely escape blame, although Kil claimed responsibility. As he always did."It was... It was different." Nazarg smiled to himself. That it certainly was. He had to be careful then, only give him a small amount or else he would have a very drugged-out patient on his hands. Kili watched as Nazarg crouched down in front of him, holding out a very slender pipe of a sand-coloured wood.

"Be careful with this." Nazarg warned "It's from the East." Kili nodded, accepting it with his good hand. In any other situation, he would have turned away. But the sickness and pain left him desperate for an escape. Something. Anything. "Hold it in your lungs for as long as possible, and breathe out slowly."

"I know how to smoke." There was a twist in Kili's lips as he spoke, despite himself. Even if it was only mild tobacco. The orc only sighed.

"Not this stuff you don't." Nazarg muttered darkly as he struck a small flame with his tinder and flint. "Don't say I didn't warn you." Kili held the pipe to his lips, closing his eyes as he breathed in deeply. "You won't feel anything for a couple of minutes, easy," Kili was already taking another drag. "You won't feel anything right away, but you'll get it like a kick in the head before long." He watched as Kili took the pipe between his lips a third time. "All right, that's enough." Nazarg snatched it away, shaking his head as he snuffed out the smoking embers of sticky resin with a wet finger. Kili remained silent on the stool, watching as the orc returned to his table, cleaning out the exotic pipe with his tongue between his teeth. There wasn't enough worth saving - he only wasted a tiny amount on the injured dwarf, judging from his small size and relatively clean history that it would only take a tiny amount to knock him out. But it went into the fire all the same. It wasn't worth keeping around. The fewer who knew he carried poppy tears, the better. As Nazarg replaced the cleaned pipe into its space on the shelf, he heard a shuffling thump. The orc turned to see Kili lying on his back, face turned up to the ceiling.

"Told you." He sighed, replacing the blankets and rags, lowering the chest. Kili lay with his eyes open, watching the flickering shapes of firelight in the darkness. Sometimes they lost their heads and went very silly with laughter, cackling until the tears ran down their cheeks. But Kili was obviously one of the quiet ones, experiencing his hallucinations in silence, letting himself float away. He started whispering to himself in a language Nazarg didn't know, looking upwards at something invisible. Kili was disconnected, in a haze. But there were a pair of dark blue eyes looking down on him. Trailing golden braids. He longed to touch them. Please Fili where are you going don't leave me. Nazarg sat on his chest with arms crossed, watching as Kili reached upwards, trying to grab something that hovered only inches from his fingertips. Something only he could see. Or perhaps it was somebody. Somebody he was trying to talk to, in the language incomprehensible to Nazarg. He waited several more minutes, until Kili sank completely into his haze, before crouching down before the dwarf, black fingers working on the wide belt clasped around Kili's waist. He shook his head at the sight which befell him, the slow-healing burns that covered Kii's skin. Careful of the broken arm, Nazarg turned the dwarf onto his side, checking the back. He couldn't suppress the groan that rose up in his throat as he examined Kili's torn skin. It had been shredded, with what must have been a very nasty rawhide whip. He touched the deepest-looking mark, the one in the small of his back, wincing. It was obviously infected, and had been for some days. The source of his sickness identified, Nazarg let Kili roll onto his back, his pupils large holes in his eyes as he looked unseeingly up at the ceiling.

"What did you do." Nazarg murmured, looking deep in thought. There was little doubt in his mind that this dwarf was one of the thirteen which had partially destroyed Goblin-town, killing their leader. But what that had to do with Azog, Nazarg didn't know. He knew, like most orcs, of the blood feud between the pale orc and the line of Durin. Kili must have had something to do with it, somehow. But this was no dwarvish warrior, no great royal figure. This was a young scrap of a dwarrow, beardless and unbraided. He listened for some time to the loose murmuring in some dwarvish language, watching as Kili tried once more to reach out into the dim, flickering firelight.

Hang it. Pity got the better of Nazarg as he returned to his row of jars. Pity, and a pragmatic acceptance. Better to waste his dwindling supplies on a foreign prisoner and appease Azog, rather than save them and risk having the dwarf slip away.

After all, he could heal nobody if they killed him for disobedience.

Chapter Text

He couldn't stand being watched.

They tried to be nondescript, tried to keep their heads bowed in respect, but Azog could still see the goblins, on his periphery. The gleam of their narrowed eyes, the twitching of fingers. They were waiting for something. Their self-appointed leader possibly. At least, one of the two that had jostled for Azog's attention before the empty throne. Probably the one that took Kili away. A feast of roasted hog all to himself, a night wrapped in thick furs before a roaring fire, and Azog felt better than he had in weeks. It was an obvious ploy, to leave him feeling slow and fat and stupid from food and wine and sleep, but Azog felt sharp and fresh. His fingers dug into the side of cold ham, seizing a strip of the meat. He wondered what kind of night Kili had. Did they treat him to cooked meat and a bed of warm furs, or did he feast on gruel, sleeping on the naked ground? Azog couldn't find anybody to ask him. They avoided him, left him in the care of stupid underlings who catered to every whim of his, yet gave him only blank stares when he asked about Kili. He wanted to storm the halls and shout until they came forward with the dwarf, but Azog kept quiet, knowing a ruckus would only damage his cause. So he pretended to be drunk, slurring to himself as he downed wine, eating sloppily. He gave off the air that he was dull and foolish from their food and drink. Only then, would their leaders come forward and admit to what they had done.

His jaw tightened on the haunch of meat between his teeth, fingers falling lax. He was still in two minds about letting Kili be led away. Was he a fool to let the dwarf go? Should he have kept him close, accompanied him to the healer perhaps? Or demand that this great doctor be brought to the hall? He didn't like being separated from Kili. It didn't sit well with him, having the dwarf out of his sight. Azog had his own plans, for what he would do with him in time, and he would not have them ruined by bloodthirsty goblins out for their own revenge. He swallowed, reaching for the goblet of wine, thick and rich and sweet as blood. In fact he suspected it was blood, at least in part. Azog arched his neck, letting it flow sweet and heavy down his throat. Just a trickle, but he made loud, slurping sounds, reaching for the pitcher and pouring himself a fresh cup, making sure to slosh the red liquid over the table, before rising the goblet back to his lips.

But did he have much of a choice? Kili couldn't stay with him. Not without raising eyebrows. There was a place for prisoners within these halls. It was not at the side of the visiting king. It was locked away, beneath impenetrable stone, under the flickering light of dying lanterns. To have Kili sitting beside him at this stone table, even standing in the corner of the room, would arouse suspicion. They would assume Azog was showing favour, or worse, mercy. It would be an insult to the hospitality shown to him. Azog knew the customs. He knew it was odd enough that he appeared alone at the back door with a single dwarf, the rest of his company slaughtered. Why did he rescue the prisoner and not his own retinue? Why did he show such preference? He knew the questions hovered unanswered, knew the truth would doom Kili. The less they knew, the better. If they got a whiff of Kili's royal blood, even Azog would not be able to save him from the mob. They would wreak their bloody justice in defiance of Azog. A king for a king.

Or king's heir.

"I do hope our humble feast is pleasing to your Greatness." Azog glared at the goblin over the edge of his goblet. It was pure gold, stamped with the interlocking diamonds of dwarves. Such a pretty trinket, plundered from the depths of these halls. Azog himself hated using such things in his own home. He had it melted down, used plates and cups of bronze and tin, turning the gold and silver into decorative objects of wealth and luxury. Crudely hewn, yes, but precious nonetheless. Gold, Azog felt, was wasted as a simple goblet.

"Very much so." He set down the vessel, watching the almost imperceptible nod of Baduz's head. The rest began to file out of the hall. Azog's jaw was set, watching as he was soon left alone with the two goblins locked in battle over the throne, uniting for this shadowy confrontation. "What is it you want." He leaned forward and hissed, as soon as the three were left alone. All pretence dropped, Azog narrowed his eyes, watching the pair of goblins. They were taken aback, they didn't expect this. They thought they would be toying with a drunk. But Azog was as sharp as steel. "I've named by demands. Meet them."

"And I said they would only be met with certain conditions." Baduz gave his companion a sidelong look, his cool visage faltering. The table itself was set for one, facing crossways in the room with a single chair behind it. Grimuz began to push the plates away, making space in the middle of the stone table for their negotiations. Azog watched silently as the two goblins stood facing him. He remained seated, still the taller, leaning forward a little with a very ugly snarl fixed on his face. Baduz reached at his side, extracting from under his arm a thick book of soft brown leather. "This was left behind from the raid upon our home." It was roughly twice size of Azog's hand, held closed with a knotted cord. The leather covering was entirely plain, rare for a book. "One of the many things the dwarves abandoned." They'd taken their weapons only, forgetting their packs and bedding and precious possessions in favour of their lives. Azog watched as Baduz slipped the cord free. "We didn't think much of it at first, just a book. However, it was Grimuz here who got curious."

"Out with it." Azog growled, his patience wearing thin. He was growing with an uncomfortable certainty that something very unpleasant was about to be shown to him. "Hurry up."

"As you wish." His yellow eyes glittering, Baduz slid the book across the table for Azog to open. The orc king grabbed it with no pretence, tearing into the first page. He paused, smooth forehead knitting in a frown.

"Drawings." He looked down. Is this all Baduz wanted him to see? Was this supposed to be some sort of blackmail? They would have to do better than that, to make Azog give in to any sort of concession. "What of it?"

"Keep looking." Grimuz interjected, lip twitching. Azog raised his gaze to the goblin, watching his expression. He looked almost gleeful. His eyes lowered down to the thick yellow pages. He started leafing through them. Dwarves. He paused at the first drawing. It was a sketch of a greybeard, eyes bent down on a sock. Azog turned. Another, of one toasting a piece of sausage-meat. He flicked through several more, before coming across a sketch that widened his eyes.


He was cleaning his pipe, eyes down at his work. But the unbraided mop of tangled hair, the whisper of dark stubble, the hands, it was obviously him. Azog resumed his stoic, slightly annoyed expression, turning the page as though he had seen nothing unusual. But the other two goblins saw him pause. And they shared a malicious glance, knowing they had him. The next was of a blonde dwarf, polishing his sword. He passed through several more, inwardly noting one of Thorin Oakenshield, before coming across another Kili. He was testing his arrowheads, hair pushed back out of his face as he held the flakes of metal into the light. Another of a very fat dwarf with a bowl of soup. Kili again, this time toying with his knife. One half-finished, of a disembodied pair of hands, toying with a meticulously drawn mechanical bird. They were all in varying stages of completion, some rough sketches, others finished compositions, with shading and modelling. All of the drawings involved the dwarves at some sort of work. The culprit clearly had a fondness for drawing his subjects deep in their own thoughts and acts, not looking at him. At the fourth drawing of Kili, Azog curled his toes within his heavy boots, realising where this was going. Kili, Kili, Kili. He began to dominate the book. Every third drawing was of him, then every second. Azog froze, quite obviously, as he turned the page, revealing an almost complete drawing of Kili and the light-haired dwarf. The blonde sat cross-legged and barefoot, his tunic unbound down his chest, detailing a tiny circular pendant on a leather cord. Kili was on his knees behind him, similarly dressed, his hands in the blonde dwarf's hair. He was braiding it. Azog stared down at the drawing, quite aware of a tightening in his chest. Who was the blonde?

"As you can tell," Baduz's voice broke through Azog's thoughts. He looked up at the goblin pair, eyes smouldering. "One of the dwarf-scum is quite the artist." Azog stared at them, silent. "Clearly, he had a favourite subject." That was putting it lightly. The artist was obsessed. "One who happens to be resting in the care of our healer."

"So you have proof." Azog spoke slowly and evenly, leaning back in his chair. "As though your people aren't stupid enough to realise. Or do they assume it's normal for a dwarf to wander about their lands?"

"Come on Azog, we both know they can't tell dwarves apart. And if it's your word against ours, they'll listen to you first." It was true, his name held more sway than these two upstarts, the unknowns. It was either an appeal to his vanity, or practical realism. Or both. There was a very ugly expression on Azog's face. "But if we held this alongside your prisoner, they will see who you're really holding. You won't be able to save him."

"So you want to throw my prisoner to the wargs." His blood was boiling. Azog should have seen something like this coming, from a mile off. But he didn't think they would have any sort of concrete proof. What sort of idiot carried around such a large book of sketches? And who was the blonde having his hair braided by Kili?

"Not him." Grimuz began speaking. "That scrap? There's no fun in killing somebody who is already dead inside, Azog. You got there first." He didn't take the compliment. It wasn't there to be taken. "But he's not the only one, is he? Twelve more wander in the wild. And you're only interested in one of them." Two minutes ago, Azog would have agreed. But his gaze flicked down to the page, hand clenching. The blonde wore what looked like the exact same necklace as Kili, the one Azog had tucked away in his belt. They had the same nose. They were obviously very close. His stomach felt tight and uncomfortable, filling with the growing realisation that he'd been fooled.

"We will give you your army." Azog looked up to Baduz. "And your wargs, and your supplies too. Everything you wanted, and more."

"And in return?" Azog challenged. The two shared another sidelong look, between them. "Hurry up and name your price."

"The other eleven." Baduz stated. "We want them. Your claim is to Thorin Oakenshield alone. You take your prize, and give the rest over to us."

"I'm not a delivery service." The pale orc snarled, rising to his feet. "I want all of them. I want their blood to spatter the ground and run the rivers red. Nothing less." He received twin level stares in response. "If there is one thing Thorin Oakenshield cares for, aside from his dragon-gold, it is the company of dwarf-scum he keeps. I have seen it. They will all die before him, they will all suffer before him."

"You're being greedy." Grimuz snarled. "You are not the only one to seek vengeance Azog. Thousands of goblins cry beneath the stone for dwarf-blood. The death of their king goes unpunished, and they will not stand for it. Only once justice is served, can our people rise forth and reclaim their strength." He took the book, flicking to the next page. Kili lay sleeping, his face turned towards the viewer. His face was so plainly detailed, eyes closed and lips partly open. Azog's cheek twitched. "There's no mistake to be made here Azog. The dwarf-scum you keep is the same in this picture. Even a blind night-worm can see it. We get the other eleven, or we leave him to be torn apart by the masses, and you walk away with nothing."

"Don't try to negotiate with me, you fools." Azog's mace thumped down on the table. "You cannot begin to imagine the darkness and power you are toying with." He towered over them on his feet, the weapon inches from their hands on the tabletop. They shared a momentary glance between themselves, Azog filling with smug self-satisfaction. He knew that look. Unease. Faltering confusion. They didn't know what they were getting themselves into. "You have already secured your life against his, Baduz." The goblin in question swallowed. "Kill him, and I take my collateral."

"There will be no bloodshed in these caves." Grimuz spoke up now, stepping in for Baduz, who had lost his voice in a temporary fit of terror. Pathetic, weak creature. He spat at his comrade, in his mind. "You have no reason to wish for the death of all thirteen, Azog. Arrogant bloodlust is consuming you. We need blood payment for the crime committed against our ruler. Walk away from this, and you will have to travel either to Gundabad or Isengard before finding a horde fierce and numerous enough to defeat Thorin Oakensield. You don't have the time, and we both know it." His pale eyes were golden in the light of the dim lantern. "Once the dwarf-scum reaches Erebor, they will either die by Smaug's fire, or the defenses of the Mountain will shield them from any possible attack. We're offering a deal. One that benefits both of us. We receive the criminals who murdered our king, you Thorin Oakenshield. What say you?" They settled back, watching. Azog sank into his chair. He didn't look at either of them. His eyes were fixed on the sketchbook, the picture of Kili sleeping. Such care had been put into drawing the nose, the mouth and the closed eyes, the rumpled hair. It had been drawn with love.

"Bring him to me." Azog raised his stare, regarding the goblin pair. "Bring him to me, and you shall receive your response."

"Of course." They both bowed, sharing another secret glance as they backed out of the room, not daring to turn themselves away from the great orc who ate at their table. Azog waited until he was alone, before pulling the book back to him. He flicked backwards, until he came across the sketch of the blonde dwarf with his sword. He turned two more pages to the picture of Thorin, and then back to the blonde, comparing the likeness. It wasn't as obvious as Kili; the hair made it harder to tell. But the nose, the shape of his eyes, they were shared between the dwarf-king and the nameless blonde. The way they looked down at their hands. His heart thudded with anger. Because this dwarf was obviously older. His beard was thick, it was there, his hair was longer. His jaw was harder.

The paper crumpled in Azog's fist as a growl rumbled in his throat.

"Are we all ready?"

No. He could feel a silent chorus rising from behind him. The mouth of the secret track yawned before them, a dark cave. To half of them, this was the furthest east they had ever traveled. For all but two of them, this was the closest to the dark forest they had ever dared to step. Balin clenched the shoulder of his younger brother, just for a slight moment. Both had dark, bitter memories resting under the eaves of his wood.

Thorin turned to look at the twelve figures clustered before him. They all stared, waiting for Thorin to give the last command to plunge into the shadowy gloom. He hesitated, and they all let him. Only one turned away, staring at the road they had traveled, the Misty Mountains, the Wilderland, the plains and valleys they had crossed. Thorin waited in silence for his nephew, but Fili was looking backwards, resolute. If he kept his face hidden, he thought, perhaps no one would see his wet eyes. Thorin's eyes met Dwalin's, giving the dwarf a slight jerk of the head in Fili's direction.

"Come along laddie." Dwalin took the blonde by the elbow, pulling him gently away. "Time to move on." The others began to walk, breathing in their last lungful of fresh air feeling the last rays of golden sunshine on their face, before sinking into the black shadows of the cursed wood. Fili held his ground for some moments, shaking his head. "Fili, come now." Dwalin's arm snaked around Fili's waist, turning into an embrace.


"I know son, I know." His throat clenched at what had mistakenly slipped out of his throat, and he cast a glance towards his king, terrified Thorin had heard him. But he was already within the wood, as were the rest. They walked very slowly, waiting. Fili put a hand on Dwalin's chest, and for a moment he thought the younger dwarf was about to push him away. But Fili's gloved fingers wound in a thick handful of fur, as he buried his nose in Dwalin's broad shoulder, eyes burning. With a soft sigh, Dwalin wound his other arm about Fili's shoulders. "I know." He repeated, as though his words could do any good.

"We left him." Fili's voice sounded uncharacteristically high in the morning sunlight, muffled by Dwalin's furs. "Why did we leave him?"

"Don't start on this now, laddie." There was a hard edge to Dwalin's voice, but his embrace was soft and comforting. "Let's just head on." He felt painfully ineffectual. Years it had been, since Fili actively sought comfort in Dwalin's arms. He was a poor second to Thorin, the children only coming to them when their uncle was away, when they hid from him, when they were too ashamed or angry to talk to him. As the years wore on, and Thorin and Fili grew closer, more like brothers-in-arms than uncle and nephew, Dwalin began to see less of Fili and more of Kili, who would always find an excuse to see him in the forge or the training yard. He feigned interest in improving his skills, but the facade quickly dropped after he almost broke Dwalin's fingers when his hand slipped on a hammer. Then, they just talked, Dwalin laying down his tools and pouring a flagon of mead as Kili confessed his latest mistake to him. Countless long afternoons had been spent with Kili shadowing him as he went about his work, catching snatches of conversation between the clang of iron, sitting down frequently and holding Kili's hand when his voice grew too fast and high. Years stretched into decades, and still Kili came to him for their regular talks. The topics changed slowly to drink, battle, maidens, but Kili still had an occasional knock at his pride, a thoughtless comment from Thorin that left him near tears, an undeserved scolding that saw the young dwarf red-faced and smouldering.

But before this week, Fili hadn't needed him for years.

"Come now." Dwalin tried again, pulling at Fili's arm, guiding him away from the sunlight. This time, Fili complied, crossing the threshold into the darkness. They became separated in the wood, Fili's breath dying in his throat at the immediate change. It was darker than resting beneath the thickest forest. The air was warm, stuffy, and heavy. He blundered about a little in the gloom, crashing into Bifur as his eyes took some time to adjust to the darkness. They muttered amongst themselves, flapping their hands before their eyes, struggling to see.

"Perhaps we should light some torches." Oin suggested, reaching for his tinderbox. Bofur shook his head.

"In this thick forest? We'll smoke ourselves out."

"It's not a cave," Dori interjected. "The air is much fresher."

"How would you know? You've never set foot a mine, you-"

"We'll be fine!" Thorin bellowed out over the dwarves, sensing a fight. Already the forest had started to take some sort of hold on them. "We must wait for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. But for now, we'll have the young ones in front to lead the way. Fili and Kil-" Thorin's voice choked in his throat, sick horror rising.


It was such an old habit. He was so used to calling their names out together - it was second nature, the and Kili always followed so normally. That's who they were, Fili-and-Kili. It was what he always called out. Thorin pressed his lips together, screwing up his eyes for a heartbeat as grief rolled over him a long, painful wave. The others all fell very quiet, eyes downcast as they realised what Thorin had done. Fili couldn't look at him. And he couldn't look at Fili. Thorin couldn't look at anybody. He took a slow, deep breath, waiting for the heartsick agony to subside, for the tightness in his throat to fade. "Ori." He finally spoke, and his voice cracked. "F-Fili and Ori, lead the way." They all began to walk, a dark, sombre mood settling over the company. Thorin stood stock-still for some moments, the heartsick tightness increasing in pressure as a flash of gold rang out in the corner of his eye. But Fili passed him stony-faced. Their shoulders grazed, but his nephew made no other contact as he marched through the tight cluster of dwarves and hobbit, taking his designated place at the front, falling in step alongside someone who may as well have been a stranger. Thorin remained very still until the last dwarf walked past him, Dwalin giving him a reassuring clap on the back as he did so, leaving Thorin, as he knew his king wished, to suffer in lonely silence.

Thorin closed his eyes, breathing very hard through gritted teeth as his hands clenched into fists, the pain in his chest rising into a full-blown panic attack, as it hit him, it really hit him, for the first time, that there would be no more Fili-and-Kili. It was only Fili now. Just Fili. A single whimper escaped his clenched jaw, and he bowed his head, drowning as the wave of agonizing grief rose over him.

"Thorin." It was a soft, tentative voice that broke through the rushing in his ears. Thorin's eyes snapped open, looking down to see ten hairy toes peeping at the edge of his vision. He looked up to see Bilbo, clinging to his new-found walking stick. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, Bilbo." Thorin forced a smile, the muscles on his face stretching painfully. Embarrassment coloured his face. Showing grief to an outsider, a non-dwarf, it was a mark of weakness. An insult to the memory of the mourned one. Elegy was reserved only for their own people. "I'm fine. Come along, let's go." Bilbo flashed him his own smile, not false and stretched like Thorin's, but genuinely comforting. It was like a hand, reaching forward to pull him out of the waves. And Thorin followed the hobbit, walking briskly to catch up to his own people, leaving the dark waters behind as he forced down the pain in his chest, his stuck throat, and assuming his normal, stoic expression of mild interest and indifference on his bearded face.

But he glanced behind him as he walked, unable to shake a niggling unease. It was almost as though something was following him. Only his imagination, he knew. There was no sign of life in this forest, at least, nothing that could harm them. No birds, only the occasional black squirrel, some nasty-looking bugs crawling about in the roots. Nothing that could harm them. But Thorin still felt as though they were being followed. Watched.

It wasn't a sensation he could shake off, not easily.

Chapter Text

Kili dreamed he was flying.

He dreamed he had eagle's wings, huge and white, that beat seamlessly in the air. It was the most exhilarating, delicious feeling. The colours were richer, deeper, brighter than he could have ever envisaged. He dreamed of flying over the Misty Mountains, over Mirkwood and beyond, the journey of months turning into a few short minutes as he flew through the morning light. He dreamed of flying over Lake-town, the ruins of Dale, places he had seen only on maps, heard in whispered stories and snatches of tired lullabies. He dreamed of the Lonely Mountain, how it rose above him, and he flew higher and higher and higher, beyond the clouds, in search for the peak. He dreamed of rising above a carpet of soft white clouds, breaking his head through to the upper air as though through water, only to find a dragon curled around the mountain peak. In his dream, he screamed and tried to dark away as the dragon's mouth opened, the sky erupting in a terrible roar. Fire exploded around him, Kili covering his face with his arms as his wings beat fiercely against the flames. They were burning, and Kili started to fall, his feathers turning to ash and disappearing in the wind. And he cried out, struggling hold his fall with burned, broken winds. But down he fell, faster and faster, the clouds disappearing and ground rushing up to meet him, and nothing to wait for him, nothing to catch him at the bottom.

He opened his eyes a heartbeat before striking the ground.

Kili lay panting on his back, heart racing as he struggled to disentangle himself from the dream, the impassable joy of flying, the sound and smell of burning, the falling through the air. He stared up at the black rock, lying on what felt like the ground. He must have been close to the firelight; it was very bright, and Kili groaned, closing his eyes almost immediately. Someone was sponging at one of the slow-healing burns on his chest, a heavy fur of what smelled like warg draped over his stomach and legs. He remembered little - sitting on the stool in the little cave, being handed a pipe of strange golden wood, then a bright muddle, a golden warmth blossoming in his chest as he floated away. Feeling happier than he had in a very long time. He moved his left arm, a heavy metallic clink of iron against stone ringing in his ears. Kili found he couldn't sit up, so he held his left arm up to his eyes, cracking them open. It blocked out most of his vision. His arm had been bound in some sort of brace, of black iron. It reached almost to his elbow, fixed at the wrist with a fingerless glove of brown leather. The entire thing was bolted into place, the pressure tight but not uncomfortable. It was heavy - he had to let the arm fall with a groan, eyelids drifting downwards. His head was thick, muddled and fuzzy, both from sleep and the poppy tears the orc healer had given him. It was cold, despite the close proximity to the brazier. Kili groaned once more, reaching down to tug the warg fur closer over himself. His hands clenched around the skin, and he pulled. The sponging at his chest stopped rather suddenly, a growl sounding close in his ear. With a frown, Kili opened his eyes, breath hitching as a scream bubbled up in his throat.

It wasn't a sponge or cloth. It was a tongue.

The warg's ember-red eyes narrowed, huge paws on either side of Kili's chest as the beast stared down at him. Kili finally found his voice, crying out and trying to back away. But the warg had him pinned. Panic rose, it exploded within him, and he wildly lashed out, trying to weasel out of the creature's heavy embrace, blind with terror. Not a warg.

"Kili no!" There was another set of arms, pressing down on his shoulders. Kili screamed and struggled against him. "Dammit krum Maaz! Krum!" At Nazarg's command, the warg stepped back with a low growl. Huge, grey with age and drooping downwards from fostering countless litters of pups, she rested before the fire, laying down on her front paws. "Kili please calm down, you'll hurt yourself!" Nazarg bent low, trying to shout through Kili's desperate struggling. Kili cuffed him in the shoulder with his heavy iron cast. But the blow was more painful for the dwarf than the orc, and Kili's arm fell limp with a cry. Nazarg took the change, pinning his arms down with one hand, the other pressing carefully on his chest as Kili bucked and writhed beneath him, hyperventilating. "Kili stop this!" Not knowing what else to do, he hit him, making sure to avoid the injured side of his face.

Kili gasped in shock, but fell lax, staring wide-eyed up at the orc who pinned him to the floor. "Calm down." Nazarg repeated, stunned. He'd never expect such a desperate, violent reaction from him. "You're not in any danger. Maaz is one of my wargs." Kili was trembling, biting his lip as the exertion antagonised his tender skin. "She's very gentle. Wargs lick their wounds to help them heal - we use it too." It wasn't much good when wounds were already inflamed and oozing, but it was an excellent preventative cure. Especially when the last of his precious ointment was used on the small of Kili's back. "I'm out of salves Kili, I have nothing else and you've got a lot of wounds that need care." Kili was shaking his head, chest heaving from short, desperate gasps. "I know you don't like wargs, I can see the scar. But Maaz isn't going to hurt you. If you want to get better, you're going to need her." Kili still shook his head, but his breathing was deepening, slowly evening out. A cold sweat had broken out of his skin; he was coming down from his high, the lingering effects of the drug fading. And waking up with a warg in his face had completely broken Kili's fragile composure, leaving him shattered, nerves wracked. "I promise you, she's not going to bite." Slowly, Nazarg sat up, releasing his hold on the shaking dwarf. "Here," He helped Kili sit up, an arm under his shoulders. "You don't have to lie down if you don't want to." He checked Kili's back quickly, scanning the skin to see if anything had broken open in Kili's tussle. He ran a finger over freshly leaking blood, clicking his tongue. Two of them had burst open, staining the woven blanket beneath Kili black. "Maaz." He called to the grey warg. "Skaat." Come. She was smarter than most wargs - it came with her age - and knew almost a hundred words of Black Speech. Kili's breath hitched, but he remained still as the warg crouched down, lapping at his chest. "Just sit still and let her stay close." Kili screwed up his eyes, but nodded silently. "Good." Nazarg rose to his feet, approaching the brazier. "Your stomach should be strong enough to eat soon. Are you still feeling like you're going to throw up?"

"Yes." Kili spoke stiffly, unable to slow his racing heart. The grey fur tickled his nose and he turned aside, good hand clenching into a fist. The other sat in his lap, and Kili curled the fingers, feeling the leather clamp tightly on his hand. "This... thing. On my arm." Nazarg looked over to him. "How long until I can take it off?"

"Is it too tight?" Nazarg threw a handful of coal into the tiny fireplace. "Can you move your fingers?"

"It's not tight, just..." Kili looked down at it. "It's heavy. And hot. And it itches."

"If you want your arm to heal properly Kili, you need to wear it." There was a tiny pot suspended over the fire - Nazarg was boiling water. "You won't have it knocked out of place with it on, and the bone will reform much quicker."

"So how long then? You said months before." Kili swallowed, looking down at it. It felt like some form of torture device, strapped to his arm. It was the obvious crude black iron of orcs. Kili didn't like looking at it, but he couldn't close his eyes and pretend it wasn't there. It was too hot, too tight and heavy. He couldn't ignore it.

"Two, maybe three months, yes." Nazarg put a pinch of dried leaves into the water. There was an audible clunk as the iron fell to the stone. "Be careful with it, you're not indestructible."

"I'm not going to live for three months." Kili's voice wobbled. Nazarg looked over at him, turning away from the fire. The dwarf looked very small and lonely on the floor. He didn't respond as Maaz sniffed, walking around him to lick at the reopening wounds on his back. "You wasted your time."

"You think you're going to die?" Nazarg crouched down on the balls of his feet, looking quite oddly at Kili. "Why do you think that?"

"Because - Azog, he's only using me to - to get at Thorin." Was Kili making a mistake in opening up to this orc healer? Possibly. But Kili was desperate - it was the first person to look at him, to talk to him and treat him with kindness, in what felt like a lifetime. The concept of a friend amongst the orcs, or something close to it, was an embarrassingly warm thought to him. "I'm just a hostage." Nazarg was right. This dwarf was a member of the company. "But - But he ransomed me off, he waited on the Carrock, all night, and he never came. Thorin never came." It was a knife in his heart. "Fili never came." He whispered, shaking his head. Nazarg straightened a little at this new name. "It must be a mistake - I know it's a mistake because they would never leave me, th-they wouldn't leave me to die like this." A choked gasp, almost a sob, came out from Kili's mouth. "They wouldn't ever leave me." He repeated, hoping that the more he said those words, the truer they would become. Nazarg was watching him closely. Interesting indeed, that Azog would bother to keep a hostage after a failed ransom. Very interesting. There must have been something else going on, something Kili didn't know about, or something he wouldn't say.

"Nazarg!" The voice at the mouth of the cave broke the pair from their quiet conversation. Nazarg forced back a sigh, turning and rising to his feet to greet the intruders. "Azog wants the prisoner. Now."

"He's not ready now." They spoke in Westron, Kili listening to the conversation silently. "His arm is fixed but his back is-"

"Azog wants the prisoner now." Baduz repeated, eyes narrowing as he strode into the cave, Grimuz hot on his heels. But he knew his word was worthless to this healer from Isengard. He had no power over the orc from another realm, and even the mention of Azog did nothing to turn the exasperation on Nazarg's face into fear or respect.

"You asked for me to patch him up well enough to ride." Nazarg spoke shortly, crossing the cave to get into his chest. Kili looked up at the goblin pair, not liking the way they stared down at him. Something terrible was going to happen, the conviction swelled, cramping his stomach. "And he's not. So you will have to wait."

"Enough lip Nazarg. He's coming with us." Kili cried out, Nazarg turning on his heel as he was pulled to his feet by the heavy chain at his neck. Maaz growled, nipping at Grimuz's heels as her latest charge was pulled away.

"Baduz, what are you doing?" He grabbed the goblin by the elbow, but Baduz simply swatted him off. "I said no."

"It's not your word I listen to." Baduz sneered. Kili wavered on his feet, held between the pair by the elbows. Grimuz's hand was too tight on Kili's broken arm; Nazarg could see the dwarf's face contorting in pain. "Nice job on the arm. Waste of time, but nice job." Kili's heart sank at the words, head bowed. He was withdrawing, retreating inwards, becoming silent and limp. It was the only way he could deal with any of this.

"At least let me get a shirt." Nazarg rifled through the chest quickly, but the pair already started walking out into the shanty-town street. "Oh come on!" Nazarg followed, a sleeveless undershirt trailing from his hand. "Baduz just stop for two seconds and let me-"

"Your job is done Nazarg." Baduz stopped quite short in his walk, turning back to glare at the healer. "Return to your duties." His eyes gleamed yellow, challenging him. Nazarg swallowed, finding his grip on the shirt was trembling. They began to walk once more, Kili's head downwards, bare feet stumbling as they forced him into a pace that he could never keep up with.

With a curse, he threw the clothing over the side of the narrow boardwalk. The once-white shirt fluttered, suspended in mid-air for a moment before begin a graceful descent into the darkness below.

"Your Malevolence."

Azog looked up from the tabletop as the two goblins entered the room, Kili limping along between them. He set down the plate of cold ham, watching very carefully as the three approached the table. The young dwarf eyed the meat hungrily, biting down on his lip. So that answered the question on food. He was shirtless again, the marks on his skin clean but seemingly untreated. Although his arm, at least, was bound in thick iron. He looked gaunt, face pale and eyes dark and hollow. Azog leaned back in the chair, assuming a snarl on his face.

"I thought your healer was an expert." Azog's voice cut through the heavy silence of the small hall, Baduz and his comrade flinching at the sound. "He looks terrible." He eyed Kili up and down, making an obvious sound of dissonance in his throat. "Or is this what passes for aid in Goblin-town?" Grimuz shot the other goblin a filthy look, fingers curling even tighter in Kili's arm. The dwarf couldn't fight back a gasp at the deep throbbing in his elbow. Azog's head jerked at the sound, blood rising at the look of pain on Kili's face. How dare they. His good hand curled into a fist on the table, but he kept his face impassive, nails digging tighter into his palm as he watched Kili grit his teeth, trying to bear the grasp in silence. "Let him go." They both reluctantly released their tight hold, Kili pitching forward, grabbing the edge of the table to stop himself from falling. He straightened himself with a deep breath, broken arm hanging at his side. Azog watched as his head rose to meet him in the eye. His gaze was clouded with pain. Azog remembered the sketchbook, a fresh wave of anger surging through him. He was going to get to the bottom of this. Now.

"Kili." Azog rose to his feet, towering over the dwarf prince. He looked up at Azog in silence, waiting for the question in a language he could not answer. "You two." He pointed at the goblins. "Come here." They approached the table, one on either side of Kili, giving each other a silent, sidelong glance. "Translate for me."

"With pleasure, your Greatness." Grimuz inclined his head in a stiff bow.

"Tell Kili about this." Azog pushed the book across the table. Kili's eyes widened at the sketchbook, recognising the plain brown leather immediately. Ori's drawings. Nearly every night, the dwarf would lean against a rock or tree, pencil in hand, always sketching and drawing. He refused to show anybody, even Dori and Nori, what he drew, and when anybody tried to look, he would press he book against his chest, embarrassed. One night, Kili remembered, his brother (and his stomach went tight at the thought of him) playfully wrestled the book out of Ori's hands, demanding to see it. Whatever the sketch was, it clouded Fili's face. He went awfully quiet, and gave it back to Ori with downcast eyes, returning to his place at Kili's side. Ori went bright red, Kili remembered, he put the book aside and spent the rest of the evening with his eyes down at his hands, unable to look at anybody. The little exchange went unnoticed by everybody else, but it was still several days before Ori regained his normal demeanour. Kili asked quite a few times what was so bad, what his brother saw, but Fili only told him to shut up, or turned away silently, and Ori couldn't even look in his direction.

"The book." Baduz snarled in Westron, "was found in the remains of your company." Kili looked over at the goblin. "Anything you want to tell us about it?" He jerked his head down, motioning for Kili to turn the pages. Fingers trembling, Kili opened the sketchbook to the first page. It was Dori, darning a sock. Ori's sock, if Kili remembered correctly. It was good. Very good. Kili had never had the chance to actually see Ori's work before, and he was impressed. No wonder he spent so much time bent over the pages; he worked hard on his art. "Keep going." Kili turned the page. Bofur with a sausage over the fire. Kili's fingers lingered on the page, staring at the dwarf's smile. It felt like an age ago, when he sat with them, talking, drinking, laughing. When the only dangers that existed lay beyond the bright warmth of their campfire, when the darkness was nothing more than a distant threat. Kili turned the page, noticing Azog grow impatient. Oin fiddling with a loose screw on his ear-trumpet. Nori trying to get some burrs out of his beard. And -

Kili's eyes widened as he stared at his own image. He stared at his hands, his hair and eyes. He didn't think much of mirrors; he didn't like looking at himself. It was strange, yet familiar, seeing his own face on the page. He turned over the page after a few moments, heart pushing in his throat at the sight of Fili. He bit down on his lip, finding it hard to breathe as tears welled in his eyes. It was a horrible shock to him, it struck his heart and left him numb, to see his brother. He tried to keep his composure, but Azog watched the mask crack. Hand shaking uncontrollably now, Kili turned the page. Dwalin sharpening his knives. Thorin (and Kili's heart contracted at the sight) and Balin looking over a map. Another picture of Kili, working on his arrowheads. Were his fingers really that dirty? He looked down at his blackened hands. Bombur, another one of him, one of Bifur with his precious wind-up bird. Kili looked up at Azog, shaking his head, looking confused. He didn't know what he was supposed to be looking for. Did Azog know how much it would hurt, to see his friends and kin represented on the paper? Had he decided that it was now time to beat him up emotionally, to remind him of the world which he had lost?
Azog merely gave a single nod, pointing at the book. Keep going.

Kili turned the page, blinking as he realised it was another drawing of him. Was that the third, or fourth so far? Surely the others didn't have that many. Kili flicked through the pages, his turning growing faster as his cheeks slowly reddened. There were so many of him. It was eerie, to see his own image again and again, in different angles, shades, positions. He could never remember Ori looking at him this much. How did he manage to capture so many sketches of him? Kili swallowed, turning the pages as quickly as he could, unable to continue looking at himself. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be seeing." Kili murmured, shaking his head. They became almost a blur. Azog's hand struck out, quick as a snake, Kili starting as the orc slammed his hand down on the page. He gasped as Azog lifted his hand away, pushing the book half an inch closer to Kili.

"Who is he." Azog snarled in Black Speech, Kili's stomach growing sick as he stared down at the image. It was Fili and Kili. Together. A snapshot of the daily tradition, Of Kili braiding his brother's hair. When they would sit together in the cool morning air, Kili sifting his fingers through the blonde tangles, combing the hair into soft curls. He loved nothing more than to toy with Fili's golden mane. He used to be jealous as a child, used to ache for such striking hair. He'd never seen another blonde, didn't understand what Fili's hair was associated with. He just thought it was beautiful. He loved spending his time weaving the hair into such perfect, meticulous braids because he thought it deserved nothing less. His own hair, he didn't give a fig for. It was just a normal brown thatch, and Fili wasn't any good at braiding anyway. On the road, Kili would still take time out every single morning to braid Fili's hair into long ropes of gold. Even as the others stood around and muttered, Kili would hold his ground and refuse to leave until the last silver clasp was fixed in Fili's mane. It was an injustice, Kili thought, for Fili's name, and for that beautiful hair, to walk through the wilderness in a mess.

Who would braid it now? Kili's fingers brushed the Fili's hair through the paper, the sting in his eyes doubling. What would Fili do, without him? Would he try to braid it himself? He was terrible at it, he didn't know how to section the hair evenly and his tension was off. It would look awful, he knew, having been Fili's practice dummy for years. Perhaps Thorin or even Dwalin would step in and take Kili's place behind him. The thought made Kili's chest burn with jealousy. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair. Fili was his, their morning braiding a sacred, private ritual that allowed no intruders. After a week of torture, of hunger and sleeplessness and pain, Kili didn't feel as heartsick as he did at this moment, looking down at the almost-perfectly drawn picture of him and his brother, locked in their oldest, closest tradition, deaf and blind to the outside world. He couldn't stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks, breath a choked sob as he clutched at the image of Fili. He didn't care about what Azog wanted. He didn't think about any other ulterior motive. He couldn't think. This was Fili, the other half of Kili's heart and soul. His right hand, his guiding light. It wasn't the thought of his own imprisonment and impending death that made him cry. It was the sick realisation that Fili would go on without him. That someone else would braid his hair, would help him up if he fell over, would stay awake with him on his watch, would stay at his side when he got sick and accompany him on hunting trips. The thought that Fili would sleep alone at night, would whisper his stories to a dark, empty room. The thought that nobody else would be there to break Fili's fall. Kili's death would leave him with the unbearable burden, of utter loneliness.

"Hey. I said, who is he?" The uncomfortable shove on Kili's shoulder made him jerk upwards with a gasp. He looked up at Baduz with wet eyes, lip trembling. "Him. The blonde." The goblin prodded at the paper with a dirty finger. "Who is he? Y'know him?"

"Y-Yes." Kili wiped at his eyes, growing painfully aware of Azog's intense gaze on him. He looked up, staring into the pale orc's face. There was a very, very cold look there. From the moment Kili's eyes first landed on the page, when they welled up and his mouth trembled, a hot rage caught fire within him. Because he knew. He knew nobody else, other than a brother, could provoke such an emotional response to a simple picture. "It's - " He broke off, voice dying in his throat as his eyes widened in horror. No. Oh Mahal no.

"Is he kin?" Azog's voice was low, burning with a white-hot fire. Kili stared at him, mouth falling open as sick terror left his voice stuck. Baduz relayed the question to Kili, the dwarf's vision blurring as he shook his head. "Who is he?" Azog repeated, his voice rising, rising above them all, into the darkness of the cave ceiling. Kili was struck silent, tears pouring down his cheeks as he realised what he had done to Fili. How his reaction to the picture had killed him.

"No... No. Please." Kili moaned, filled with a raw, primal terror. He'd already admitted his connection to Thorin, betraying the exiled king - but to throw Fili to the wolves, to out him as Thorin's second nephew, to doom him, it left sobs tearing through his throat. Not Fili.

"Who is he?" Azog shouted, bringing the mace down on the table. Chips of stone flew into the air, Kili sobbing, shaking his head as he sank to his knees. "Kili!" He shouted the dwarf's name, as Kili collapsed face down into the book, clinging to the paper as his shoulders shook in a total breakdown. The thought of Fili, being forcefully reminded of him, it tore through his heart, crushing it flat. And then to betray him, to have such an obvious reaction to the drawing, to seal Fili's fate, it burned his soul alive. "KILI!" Azog lost control, reaching forward and seizing a handful of dark hair. The two goblins watched in shocked silence as Azog dragged him onto the table, Kili scrabbling madly through his tears, trying to back away as Azog threw his mace once onto stone. "WHO IS HE?" His voice was a roar. It was foreign, but Kili didn't need a translation. He knew exactly what Azog was saying. Plates of food crashed into the floor, blood-red wine spilling across the stone tabletop. Azog seized Kili's chain, dragging the dwarf to his knees, their noses very close. Kili grasped the thick white wrist, breath choked in his throat at the iron collar. He shook his head, unable to emotionally comprehend what he had done. How he had sealed Fili's fate.

"M-My brother." It was a high, broken whisper that tore from Kili's throat. His neck slumped forward, tears tricking down Azog's wrist as Kili sobbed in a complete breakdown. He heard Baduz repeat the term in Black Speech, Azog jerking hard on the chain, forcing Kili's neck up, to look at him. He was cold with fury, veins stopped with ice. This wasn't Thorin's heir. He slammed Kili backwards into the table, the dwarf's choked scream bouncing off the cave walls. It was the second-son. The younger. Nothing. Azog's own chest heaved as he looked up at the two goblins, who stood, watching the scene unfold before them in close silence.

"Ask him. Older or younger." But he already knew the answer to that. It was obvious, so obvious, that the blonde was older. His face and beard, the way he held himself, it was all so obvious. Kili shook his head as the question was put forward to him in Westron, terror and pain smothering his voice. "Kili." Azog's fingers curled around his neck, tightening around the bruised skin. Kili's good hand tore red lines along Azog's forearm, kicking out and writhing beneath the orc's hand. He'd given Azog another target, another nephew to break. He hadn't yet even thought about what it meant for him. 

"You're choking him." Baduz finally spoke up, looking a little sick. So much for their whispered rumors of favourtism; Azog obviously hated this dwarf. The way he tossed him about like a broken doll, it was easy to see how he'd broken him down so quickly. The pair still didn't realise exactly who he was. Grimuz had grown bored of the sketchbook before he reached the final few drawings. Azog's molten gaze flicked up, lip curling as he glared at the goblin. But his grip slackened, Kili coughing loudly as he gasped for air.

"O-O-Older." He finally choked out, arching his back against the stone, preparing himself for another blow. Azog glared down at him in total silence for some time, pinning him by the neck, watching as Kili clawed ineffectually at his wrist. When he spoke, it was low and even, the flat tone striking more fear into Kili's heart that his loudest roar.

"So you are not the heir of Thorin Oakenshield." Kili was pale at Thorin's name, although he knew none of the other words. Baduz let out an audible gasp, staring down at the dark-haired dwarf with a new realisation. That explained a lot. He never thought that either of the younger dwarves in the sketchbook had any familial connection to Thorin. "You are nothing." Azog's voice rose with the last word, anger clenching around his heart. The entire week was nothing but a wasteful exercise in futility. He didn't have Thorin's heir. He had another younger brother, like the one he slew at Azanulbizar. Who meant nothing while the elder was still alive.

"He says you're not Thorin's heir." Kili's eyes closed as Grimuz relayed the statement, shaking his head. "He says you're nothing." No. Kili mouthed the word, vision blurred. No he wasn't nothing. He wasn't worthless. Kili tried to blink the tears away, feeling his crushed heart contract at the sight of the face that loomed down on him with a very, very ugly snarl.

"I'm not nothing - please." Kili whispered. "Please don't hurt Fili - please Azog! Please don't hurt Fili!" The last sentence was dragged out of him in a howl, Kili breaking off in a sob as Azog released his hold, straightening. Kili rose to his knees, sobbing madly. "Please don't hurt Fili I beg of you!"

"Fili." Azog repeated the name on his lips. He didn't need a translation. He knew Kili was begging for his brother's life. "Fili and Kili." So convenient, how brothers shared their names in dwarven culture. It made them so much easier to identify. Hearing their names together made Kili's eyes burn with a new fire, he lunged forward, clutching Azog's wrist as he hopelessly begged.

"Whatever you want to do to him, do it to me please. Please don't hurt him, leave him alone." He bowed his head, sobs tearing through his throat. "Don't hurt Fili." He pleaded one last time. "You have me - isn't that enough?"

"You don't realise, do you?" The voice behind him made Kili turn back. Baduz was looking at him with a very unsettling smirk. "He's not interested in you anymore. He wants the heir. You mean nothing to him." Kili jerked his back, looking up at Azog as his mouth fell open in horror. No. No no no. He couldn't stop the terrible wheeling of the earth beneath his knees.

"No - I do - please." Kili's grip tightened. Azog snarled, jerking his wrist away. Kili fell forward onto his hands and knees, panting. Azog was speaking to him. He closed his eyes at the words, twisting the fingers of his good hand through his hair. No.

"He says it's no surprise now that Thorin left you." The iron of Kili's cast was cold against his cheek as he buried his head in his hands. "He says putting you up for ransom was a waste of time." No it wasn't it wasn't please Azog you can't do this I still mean everything to Thorin.

"No..." Kili whispered. "No -I do." He tried to control his ragged breathing, but panic and terror had seized his heart. His situation in the last few minutes had become very, very dire. "There must be something - I promise you Thorin wouldn't leave me he wouldn't-" Kili's head jerked up, and he scrabbled on the table for the sketchbook, tearing through the pages with violently shaking hands. There has to be something in here Ori drew everything Ori you must have drawn a moment when we were close you did Fili and I what about me and Thorin please. The shuffling of paper and Kili's gasping breath filled the otherwise silent room. Finally - finally - Kili's hands were still as he found something that could speak for him. "Look." He turned the book towards Azog, holding it up to the orc's eyes. "Look at us." He begged through his panting, the book wavering in front of Azog, held by such trembling hands. The orc snatched it away, giving Kili a sneer as he studied the drawing.

Thorin and Kili. Together. They were beneath a large tree, very close to the fire. Thorin leaned against the trunk, in his tunic and breeches, legs spread out before him. Kili was in his arms, his head resting against Thorin's chest. He looked asleep, or very close to it. The heavy fur cloak was draped over Kili, Thorin holding the garment close with an arm around his nephew's waist. His other hand was curled in the tangled locks of brown hair, his chin resting on Kili's head. His eyes were fixed towards the fire. It was one of the finished drawings, wrought with close detail, in the fingers, the way hair fell, the designs on clothing, something that couldn't be recalled from memory. The artist had obviously spent a very long time sitting and drawing the scene before him.

Azog lowered the book, staring at the dwarf with narrowed eyes. Kili pleaded with him silently, hands clasped together as he kneeled on the stone table, begging wordlessly for his life. For Fili's. The book fell closed to the table before him, Kili shaking his head, refusing to break his gaze. Please.

"I mean just as much to Thorin as Fili does. He always thinks of us together - he never separates us." Kili's heart sank at the silence. "Please, one of you tell him!" With a sigh, Baduz relayed the message to Azog, the orc's expression remaining stony and frozen. "Anything you do to Fili will hurt Thorin just as much as it would if you did it to me." He heard the phrase repeated in Black Speech, heart twisting as Azog opened his mouth, giving a short, clipped reply. Behind him, Grimuz chortled. "What? What did he say?"

"He said, 'what about you both?'" Kili's throat closed at the words, speech failing him as he stared at Azog. The orc returned the gaze with a cold, level hardness. Kili's bright eyes glistened with tears, fresh tracks shining on his face as he blinked. No. Not both of us. Please.

"No - I mean for you to spare Fili - take me please - spare him!" Kili's voice rose to a high panic as a smirk played on the corner of Azog's lip. He spoke again, the tone sending a shiver down Kili's spine.

"He's not going to do that." Grimuz sounded out behind the dwarf. "But he'll let you see them, one last time." Did that mean he accepted their offer? He tried to read Azog's face, but the orc wouldn't shift his gaze from Kili.

"No... No!" Kili's voice rose as he realised what Azog meant. "Not Fili!" He begged, hands still clasped. But Azog turned away from him, walking around the long stone table. Kili tumbled clumsily onto the floor beside the two goblins, desperate. "Please!"

"Ten." Azog stated his compromise. "I want Thorin and the two nephews. You get the other ten." Kili screamed on his knees, pleading at the top of his lungs, but his cries went unheeded by the orc king. "I get command of the forces. Forty or fifty shall be plenty." Kili tried to clutch at him, giving wordless, animal sounds. Azog kicked him away. Grimuz and Baduz nodded. That was a fair call, considering this latest revelation.

"It would be an honour to serve your Greatness." That familiar, oily tone crept back into Baduz's voice as he sank into a very low bow. Kili cradled his head in his shaking hands, losing himself completely. Not Fili no they cannot do this to him. "We shall have everything prepared by the morning."

"Good. Now where is your Warg-pit? I want to select one for myself." He cast a look down at Kili. "And your forge." There was much to prepare. "Take me to your forge first. I need something made."

"As your Malevolence wishes." Grimuz gave his partner a side-long look. Azog's lip curled as he kicked at Kili's side.

"Take him back to your healer and get him fixed properly. And get him some boots." Azog stared down at the young creature. He felt betrayed, infuriated at having been fooled - by himself, for thinking that this pathetic wretch could ever be the true heir. But he saw the picture, saw the obvious affection, one deeper than he ever could have realised. How he still cared for Kili like a child. Perhaps he thought the dwarf slow. His fierce protectiveness of Kili would be his undoing. Heir or not, watching his nephew die would destroy Thorin's soul in his final hours, making him beg for death. "Bring him to the forge in two hours." Azog clenched his good hand into a fist. He wasn't sure if it was worse or better for him now. There were two nephews, two heirs to slaughter, two iron hammers with which to crush Thorin Oakenshield's heart. But he had the wrong one. He had the useless, weaker younger brother. He should have seen it sooner, should have realised that he'd seen those wide brown eyes filling with tears before, heard those sobs begging for mercy, decades earlier. At Azanulbizar.

"Up with you." Kili cried out in protest as he was grabbed by the chain and pulled to his feet. Baduz marched quickly out of the room, Kili staggering along behind him. He turned back, casting one desperate look at the pale orc. Please tumbled out of his lips in one final broken cry, wet brown eyes wide as he silently begged. But Azog paid no heed to the dwarf. His mind ticked over slowly, picking apart his plan, putting the pieces back together. But this one had a new piece. One that shone with gold. He had a new victim to pursue, another heir of Durin to add to his growing collection of lives ended by his hand.

And despite his cold rage, his bitter fury at having made such a gross presumption, Azog couldn't hide the smile that stretched across his lips at the thought.

Chapter Text


The orc jerked upwards at the voice, letting out a low growl as he pulled the simmering pot from the fire, letting it sit on the floor as he crossed the cave. What can that fool possibly want now, I swear I'll-

"Kili." Nazarg murmured as Baduz stepped into his cave, dragging the young dwarf behind him. Kili pulled back on the chain, staggering, head bent and shoulders slumped. He walked like a broken puppet, pulled along with tangled strings. The chain slipped from the goblin's hands, Kili sinking to his knees in the middle of the room, head lowering to the cold comfort of his trembling hands. He looked utterly destroyed. "Baduz, what-"

"Finish fixing him up." He snarled, turning away without sparing the orc healer a second glance. "I'll be back in an hour."

"No - Baduz what happened?" Nazarg shouted into an empty room, balling his hands in hot frustration. Kili was shaking his head, dry wracking sobs seeping from behind a thick curtain of tangled hair. Nazarg stood before the dwarf, looking down at him in utter confusion. "Kili?" He spoke gently, not knowing if the dwarf had heard him. "Kili - what happened?" He crouched on the stone in front of Kili, a frown etched onto his face. Kili cried bitterly, in panic and frustration and crushing guilt and fear. "Kili." He grasped the dwarf's bare shoulder, but Kili paid no heed to him, unable to stem the terror that rose in his throat and exploded in sobbing gasps. Azog knew about Fili. Nobody was safe. Kili thought he had been protecting his brother by keeping quiet. But in the end, Kili would be his undoing. Kili and that stupid sketchbook. He wanted to hurt Ori. For the first time in his life, his thoughts toward the dwarf he'd grown up with were bent in anger and hatred. How could Ori have been so idiotic? How could nobody warn him that having such images could be used against them?

No, he couldn't blame Ori. It wasn't his fault, none of it was. Kili had nobody to blame for any of this, but himself. If he died, if Fili and Thorin and all the rest died, the guilt would fall squarely on Kili's shoulders. He was the one that broke apart from the group. He was the one that allowed himself to be caught, who cracked under torture and let slip that Thorin Oakenshield was his uncle. Who told Azog where the Company rested. Who identified Fili as his older brother. Everything was Kili's fault. And he sobbed hopelessly for his failures, the mistakes he could never fix. Sick with guilt, he turned away from the orc, sinking further within himself, curling over as terrified, self-loathing tears trickled down his cheeks.

"Kili," Nazarg tried one last time. Not seeing any other way, he grabbed on to his wrists, pulling his arms away from his face. Kili kept his head bowed, screwing up his eyes so he didn't have to look at Nazarg. "Kili what happened in there?" Kili moaned, keeping his eyes closed. The orc rested on his knees, biting his lip. "Come on, get up over here." He decided it better to let him be for the moment. Kili allowed himself to be pulled up to his feet, led by his good arm to the low stool by the fire. Nazarg set the pot back on the brazier, steam furling slowly from the blackened iron into the dull red air. The grey warg still rested beside the fire, her silvered fur gleaming with a sheen of gold from the flickering flames. She lifted her head as Kili was set down beside him, sitting up on her hindquarters. Kili dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to control his broken, wracked breathing. He knew he had to calm down, knew the panic would swallow him whole if he allowed himself to continue crying. That he would dry himself out, wither into a husk. And he couldn't afford to limp through his place a broken shadow. But he saw Fili's face, in his mind, burying his hands deeper into his eye sockets as a fresh sob welled up in his throat.

"Stay still." There was a hand on his back. "I need to get you all wrapped up." Kili endured the touch in silence, dipping his head as he felt the cloth wind about his chest, beginning at his abdomen. He lowered his hands from his eyes as the burning in his throat slowly passed, the last tears clinging to dark eyelashes. Maaz licked his cheek, Kili darting away at the spongy tongue pressing against his face. "She's smelled the salt on your face. Let her lick it up, it's good for her." Kili shot the orc a dark look, but kept still, curling his hands into shaking fists as the warg lapped at his drying tear tracks. "What happened?" Nazarg tried asking once more after a short period of silence. Kili sniffed, the smell of warg fur tickling his nose. "What did they want from you?"

"They found a book of drawings we left behind after the Great Goblin's death." Kili spoke in a flat, lifeless monotone. "We were all in them and - and there was a sketch, of me and my brother." Nazarg's hands stilled on Kili's back. "And Azog - he asked me who it was, he knew we were kin - and I had to tell him I - I couldn't keep quiet." He let out a long breath as his voice began to falter and tremble. "He's going to die. Fili is going to die." Kili murmured as tears pushed back at his eyes. "Azog is going to kill him."

"Why does he care so much about you?" The orc healer felt Kili's heart thud beneath his hands, as he realised he had no idea who the young dwarf really was. "Do you know where Thorin Oakenshield is? Is that it?"

"No, that's not it." Kili shook his head. Maaz gave his face one final lick before settling back down in front of the fire. "He's my uncle." The roll of cloth fumbled in Nazarg's hand, almost falling to the ground, eyes widening in understanding.

"So your brother..." He watched the mop of brown hair nod. "Are you the older?" Kili shook his head. "Ah." No wonder Kili was so upset. He didn't know how to broach the subject, how much Kili would be willing to say. So he tried a different tack after a short, strained silence. "Are you and your uncle close?"

"Yes." Kili raised his arms a little to let Nazarg wind the bandages about his chest. "My father died before I was born, so Thorin looked after us." He stared into the firelight of the burning brazier, sinking into memory. "He's more father than uncle to me."

"Azog must love that." Nazarg muttered as he wrapped the cloth over Kili's shoulder. "His head will be crawling with sick plans to make Thorin suffer." There was something dully matter-of-fact in the way that the orc healer spoke. He didn't sound pleased or disgusted, musing over what he thought Azog would do. It was a heavy acceptance, one that didn't suggest an opinion that swung either way. Kili was listening to him speak in silence, with his hands clasped together underneath his chin.

"There was another picture." Kili spoke up, eyes shining in the red light of the fire. "Of the time I almost drowned. My pony bolted and slipped into the river and I jumped in after it to save my baggage. Everything was swept away but we got Daisy out. But I got carried off in the current and passed out in the water. Fili told me I stopped breathing, Thorin was beside himself trying to wake me up." Nazarg's hands fell still as he listened to the story. Kili had quite forgotten his tiny audience - he had fallen into a warm remembrance of that night, the quiet stillness of it after the cold blinding terror, reaching his hands out of the water and closing only around air, being beaten by the roaring water into the riverbed, pinned by a raging current as the last gasps of air bubbled from his lungs. "I remember waking up and it was dark, all I was wearing were Fili's spare pants and Thorn had me wrapped up in his fur coat, holding me. He wouldn't let me go. His hands were shaking, his face was dead white. I remember laying down with my head on him and I could feel his heartbeat in my head. It was pounding madly, like someone was beating at the walls, trying to break free. I'd never seen him so afraid. We didn't say a word to each other, we just sat there for hours." Nazarg fastened the thick bandages wound around Kili's chest. "Ori had drawn it. He drew us together. Azog thought I meant nothing to Thorin - I had to show him the picture, show him how he was wrong." The orc healer stepped away from him, stirring at the bubbling pot. "I gave him fuel, didn't I?"

"No, you were smart." Nazarg brought the wooden spoon to his lips, giving it a taste. Could be worse. "Better to have a purpose, even as a hostage or bargaining chip, than to be completely useless in the company of orcs and goblins." He looked down at the pot. "We're always hungry." Kili shivered, something collapsed in his face and he wound his arms around his stomach, his growling stomach which had not touched wholesome food in a week.

"I know." And there was a pain, a heavy pain in those words, one that made Nazarg look up from his work at the fire, and over to the young dwarf. "I... I had to eat..." He couldn't continue, he broke off and tried to push the awful metallic taste from his mouth, heavy and thick with memory. "Things." He didn't specify. He didn't need to. They both knew exactly what he was talking about. Nazarg could imagine the sort of taboo it would have to be amongst the dwarves. It would be like him eating an elf - an act of shame and humiliation, a betrayal of the customs of his people that ran through to the bones. And they would know. Of course they would know. They would theorise that Kili would have eaten something during his imprisonment, and there was nothing to grind into bread within the cavernous mountains the goblins called home. They wouldn't ever speak of it. But they would know. And the sick shame of what he had done would stuck to Kili's soul, a mark that stained him.

"Well I promise you - this is only mountain-goat." Nazarg pressed the misshapen clay bowl into Kili's hands. The last thing he wanted to do, after being reminded of his greatest sin was eat. But the bones in his neck cast too deep a shadow in the firelight, his face too pale and eyes too black, cheeks too hollow for Nazarg to let him go yet another day without food. "Eat it. All of it." Kili raised the bowl of thin stew to his lips as steam furled against his face. It was bland and tasteless, made with the bad parts of goat, the fat and sinew, floating with bones. But it was still meat, it was hot, warming Kili's throat like liquid fire. The smell and taste of a familiar animal brought a new life within Kili. He awoke, his stomach came alive, tearing apart the scraps of food within him and calling out for more. He chewed through the sinewy lumps, swallowed the greasy fat and even sucked the marrow from the soft bones, licking his dripping fingers as the empty bowl rested on his knees.

"Here." Nazarg emptied his own bowl into Kili's crudely-shaped vessel, refilling his own from the dregs at the bottom of the blackened pot. At least he was eating. He thought Kili would pick at it until it went cold and force it down with a shudder. There was something brighter in his eyes as he dipped his head back into the bowl, his fingers seemed to grasp the clay with a new energy. The orc leaned against the wall as he ate slowly, thinking. This was a marked improvement on what he had seen the day before, the bloodied, sick dwarf who could barely stand, raw infected wounds leaking and eyes dull and clouded with illness. But Nazarg was no fool. He knew the line between sickness and health was the width of a hair, especially when injuries were concerned. Shallow or deep, exposed flesh in the dirt hardly ever ended well. He knew the care that would have to be provided to Kili, to keep him alive. It was no matter of simply bandaging him up and sending him away. What Nazarg did ran far beyond that - the wounded goblins within the nearby hall were a testament to his skill. Although most were on the mend, needing Nazarg only for routine checks while they slept and ate in a bandaged group, a few still caused the orc healer some trouble. One had a bloodied stump of a leg that gave off an awful smell. Another hovered between life and death with a collapsed lung that Nazarg struggled to fix. Two had very nasty head wounds, and Nazarg considered with complete seriousness delivering a hammer to the back of the neck. Such was his work. He consoled himself with the memory of the many goblins, dozens more, that lingered with healing axe-wounds and broken limbs, who had shirked the bandages entirely and returned to their caves. It was a net positive, in the end. He only ever promised a chance.

But as he watched Kili eat, he knew his complaint would fall on deaf ears. Azog wouldn't give a fig about having Kili's bandages boiled in water and changed, having salves rubbed into them daily or at the very least having a warg licking at them. That much was obvious, after leaving Kili's cuts and burns open for so long, forcing him to walk on torn feet. He would expect that Nazarg had already done enough, that Kili would move on from this and last - long enough at least, for his purposes. And perhaps he would. There was a small chance that the orc healer had done enough to secure Kili against further sickness. But there was a greater chance that Kili would wake up with a cut or burn aching particularly badly, without knowing why, and slowly grow sicker and weaker until he could walk no more, left to die at the side of the path, or taken care of quietly, like a lame warg.

Nazarg sighed, the noise passing by Kili unnoticed. Focused on his food, he was blind to the pair of eyes watching him. Perhaps the orc was just too compassionate for his own good. Perhaps he was growing soft beneath the Misty Mountains. But it was difficult not to feel some degree of pity towards the doomed creature, sitting on his stool before the fire.

Even if he was a dwarf.

"I'm tellin' you - Bombur, Bombur back me up here. You remember -"

"That can't be right. Let me take a look at it, you must have added it up wrong-"

"So I said to 'im-"

"I'm not saying that he was wrong exactly, I just thought that if he wanted me to-"

"Remember, it was in the winter? We had to take the cart down and-"

"Look, that's why it's not working out, you missed this bit here-"

"He came into our house - the cheek! After those insults, he had the gall-"

"I was only trying to help out but he completely bit my head off - crazy, the lot of 'em. Highly strung, don't do things by halves-"

Shut up shut up shut up SHUT UP!

Fili covered his ears with his hands, breathing heavily. The words were like nails, crashing through his skull, beating into his head, each one a fiery pinprick of agony. The escalating conversation broke into occasional shouts, as people called out at each other across the path. They were forgetting themselves. It was only a short break, a stop for lunch, to sit in little clusters and engage in idle banter. Fili sat alone, his voice silent and disused. He hadn't uttered a word to anybody. Not to Thorin, he avoided him. He gave Dwalin only silent nods or short grunts in response. And as they walked at the head of the pack, Fili and Ori passed the time wordlessly, still too anxious and awkward to look at one another, the embarrassment between them, from Fili seeing Ori's drawing of Kili all those weeks ago, heightened by the dwarf's untimely end. It would be a long time before Ori would pluck up the courage to even look in his direction, and Fili was content to wait.

So he leaned against the tree with his head in his hands as he tried to block out the noise of idle chatter, gurgling around him. He hated it. He couldn't stand it. How could they? How could they sit there, as though nothing had ever happened, break into something resembling normalcy, and laughing, laughing, as though there was no cause for sorrow? The hot sick anger rose within Fili, it turned him against them all. He despised them. He lowered his hands and clenched them into fists, the fingers over his ears doing nothing to muffle the high piercing voices that drove nails into his head and needles into his heart. It bubbled and burned over, his throat tangy and bitter from bile as he listened to the idle talk. He bit down on his lip, breathing in and out through his nose, bullishly, as his he struggled to keep his trembling fists at his side. He hated them. He hated them for doing what he could not, for banishing the thought of Kili from their minds, for forging onwards, for raising their voices in laughter and letting soft easy talk flow between them. For acting as though they had lost nothing.

It was a bitter, unfair hate, and Fili knew the folly in letting it burn within him. But he did, he stewed in his smouldering anger, letting the white-hot flames lick against his heart, his blackening, shrivelling heart, letting the flesh burn away. Let it burn away. If Kili was his heart, like Thorin had said, if Kili's last lingering existence in this earth was his heart, then surely, it was already dead. Surely it had died when he did, it was left to rot in fragments, scattered in pieces, consumed. Fili didn't realise that he had misinterpreted his uncle's analogy. He didn't realise that he had to keep his own heart whole and pure and good for Kili's sake, to comfort himself with his memory. It was supposed to give him warmth and light, like the latesummer afternoons Kili had loved so much. But instead, Fili let it curdle into a sour anger, let it burn away within him. And he burned alone. He ignored Thorin's gaze, turned away when Dwalin tried to talk to him or offered an arm, responding in monosyllabic grunts. And they could do nothing, they could only let him be. They could only wait as the anger that sparked that morning, when Fili confessed his deepest secret to find a conspiracy he'd been shut out of, burned through Fili. They could only wait for his anger to burn out, for Fili to shrivel up and collapse in on himself, or to explode in a white-hot rage. To stand, waiting to pick up the scorched pieces and put them back together. Neither of them wanted to do this. Neither of them could sleep, knowing Fili tossed and turned in a silent, building rage. They whispered to each other and gave Fili side-long looks, waiting for an explosion. Fili was stretched to the point of snapping, as he leaned against the tree, thirteen muddled voices curling and clambering around him. Unable to move, to speak, he remained motionless against the tree, head bent downwards as he listened in silence.

Kili. He would give his own life in a heartbeat, to have him at his side, just for five minutes. To see him, just once. Fili couldn't think of him, couldn't picture his face, without having his eyes sting and blur. He bit down harder on his lip, tasting blood as he tightly shut his eyes. No please. He needed a respite. He couldn't keep doing this. Fili couldn't go an hour without having his brother's face rush back into his mind. It lingered there, haunting him. Whispering in his ear. Why did you leave me. He shook his head but the words kept at him. Why did you leave me? It left him exhausted, the anger and grief. He stumbled on in a dream, food tasteless and sleep light and faltering, turned away from the Company. And without knowing what else to do, they let him. He was separate, apart in his lonely grief.

The beating of nails in his head increased. Fili opened dark blue eyes, watching as Nori roared his head back in laughter. It was a hammer, directly against his temple. He felt the blood pouring into his mouth and bit down harder, the stab of pain in his lip a momentary distraction from the white-hot rage that threatened to burst out of Fili in a scream. It coated his lips red; he raised a shaking hand to his mouth, looking at his bloodstained fingers, watching as a trickle of crimson slid down the underside of his index, pooling on the edge of his finger and falling to the forest floor in a single drop. He wasn't any calmer. If anything, the sight of his own blood made him feel worse. It was a painful memory to him and he wiped his fingers on his trousers, dragging a furred cuff across his bleeding mouth.

The red smear remained on his sleeve for some time, quite plainly in the gloom. Dwalin and Thorin both saw it, both exchanged a look, and Ori's were fixed on the stain for much of their silent walk. But Fili kept his head forward, ignoring their glances, the taste of iron in his mouth as he trudged forward in the forest. Turning his heart away from them.

And he burned in silence.

"Here - put 'em on."

Kili accepted the boots silently, thrusting his feet inside the stiff leather. He fumbled with the laces, still not used to the heavy cast on his arm that locked his wrist still, fingers stiff. They were sturdy, with good thick soles, and they managed to fit his feet quite well. He knew there was nothing worse than ill-fitting boots. They rose almost to his knees, tall enough for Kili to tuck the trousers into. He stood up and stamped around a little on the cave floor, Nazarg fighting back a smile as he watched him with crossed arms. It was like watching a child breaking in a new pair of shoes. Baduz grunted in low assent. Kili looked down at his feet, and up at the goblin who gave him the boots.

"They fit well." Kili spoke quietly, unsure of how to act towards the creature. "Thank you." With a roll of his eyes, Baduz grabbed Kili's chain. Nazarg straightened, arms unfolding.

"Where are you going now?"

"Forge." The goblin muttered. "Azog wants 'im there." Kili stared at him. What does he want with me there? Nazarg's brow was furrowed, the orc obviously considering the same thing.

"Then what?" Baduz gave a shrug, turning to leave the cave. He had his own theories, of course. He'd had a good enough look at Kili in the tiny banqueting hall, had seen that Azog was yet to mark Kili as his. Always a dangerous idea, amongst the company of orcs and goblins that were not under your dominion. He'd lost a prisoner that way before once, a scout of Glanduin he'd caught in the night. The scout escaped, and by the time Baduz found him, he'd already been killed by a clutch of orcs lingering beneath Moria. Sloppy of him, and he didn't do it again. Perhaps Azog was hesitant to mark him. Perhaps he simply didn't have the tools or the time. Either way, Baduz saw it as a gross oversight, a mistake he himself wouldn't make twice.

"Wait." Nazarg made a low sound, in the base of his throat. "Wait, I'm going." He fell into step beside Baduz, not knowing if or when he would have the opportunity to speak to Azog. He received a look of surprise. "What? I'm within my rights."

"Yes, I suppose you are." Baduz muttered darkly. Kili watched them both with wide, dark eyes. They walked on that awful, precarious boardwalk, the sloping wood angling down into the darkness. Kili kept his head down, listening to the pair talk. At least it was Westron, and he could understand them. "If it's about him, Azog isn't going to be interested in hearing about it."

"I'll make him interested." Nazarg spoke firmly. "Unless Azog wants him to fall over and die on the journey, he will listen to me." Nazarg saw the goblin turn to stare at him out of the corner of his eye. "I'm not speaking lightly Baduz."

"No, you never do." He spoke slowly, pondering every word. Nazarg exasperated him on the better days, but frequently the orc healer from Isengard left Baduz spitting with rage. He knew he was above the jurisdiction of Baduz, that he was here as a favour, a mercenary to Goblin-town, and Nazarg never let him forget it. He dropped the conversation, letting the walk continue in silence. And Mahal, it was a walk. Kili quickly  became very, very glad to have the protection of Baduz and Nazarg at his elbows as he was led downwards, deeper into the heart of the mountain, where the forges burned red-hot and iron was shaped into cruel shapes of pain and torture. They were given a wide berth, goblins darting out of the way to let the three pass. Baduz carried himself with a certain arrogant righteousness - they were right to step out of his path and they weren't to forget it. Head and shoulders taller than most of them, his skin a much darker shade of slate, Nazarg commanded a natural air of separation. He never pretended for a moment that he was one of the small brownish-grey creatures of Goblin-town, and they stepped back from him. But they looked at Kili. They darted around and crowed and squealed. It was exciting to have a dwarf amongst their city. Baduz carried his scimitar unsheathed, held out before him as the blade caught the light of countless fires and candles and lanterns. It wasn't a threat against Kili; it was a threat against anybody who dared to touch him.

The heat blasted in Kili's face instantly. There was something achingly familiar in the intense warmth, the clinking of hammer and tongs, the low hiss of red-hot iron thrust into pools of dark water. He closed his eyes, and for a moment, just a single, lingering moment, Kili was back in Ered Luin. He assigned the sounds to his own people, Fili and Thorin and Dwalin. But there was a tug on his neck, and it melted away, Kili opened his eyes to see himself within the bowels of Goblin-town, filled with fire and steam. It wasn't closed off, as the forges of his home were. This was high-ceilinged, open. Goblins worked in a huge writhing mass, pushing carts of coal, hunks of raw iron, thin muscles straining under heavy pans of water. Kili kept his eyes down, allowing himself to be led to the back of the maze-like cluster. Azog waited, leaning against the cave wall looking bored. His expression visibly changed as he saw Baduz approach the forge, with Kili in tow. He straightened up, a smile curling one side of his face.

"Excellent." Azog reached out, taking the chain in his hand. Kili kept silent through the exchange, eyes on the hearth. Something already rested within the red-hot coals. Azog spoke, black foreign words. An alien hand reached out, taking Kili by the neck. The dwarf yelped, pulled aside to the light of a hanging lantern. He caught sight a pair of glimmering eyes in a very twisted face, holding his shoulder still with one hand, the other taking a handful of hair, pulling Kili's head back as far as he could. The edge of iron dug painfully into his skin, Kili's eyes widening as he saw another approach him, two slim hooked tools in his hands. For a moment, blind panic seized Kili's heart, as he wondered what those sharp little hooks were going to do to him. But they weren't aimed at his neck or face. Instead they dug into the iron at Kili's neck, the tightness in his chest loosening as he realised with a sigh of relief what they were. Lockpicks. They were taking the collar off. Thank Mahal. Kili's shoulders sagged as the goblin worked, hands lax. It didn't take long; the iron fell to the floor with a heavy clunk in a few short minutes, Kili's hands immediately rising to his neck as the goblin released his hold on the dwarf's shoulder and hair. He rolled his shoulders, bending his neck forward and backwards, enjoying the deliciously free feeling of having an unbound neck. He didn't realise, until it was gone, just how stiff and painful the iron had been around his throat. How hard it had been for him to breathe. He breathed in now, deeply, swallowing without a choking press that closed his airway. It was so light, without it. Kili felt almost dizzy, not used to the weightlessness on his shoulders.

"Over here." Azog muttered, dragging Kili very close to the hearth. Kili stared into the red-hot coals, an uncomfortable trepidation beginning to rise in his stomach. What did he want now? Kili should have realised, that if Azog was willing to remove the iron collar from him, to let him wander about unbound, that he would have something else done to him, something to clearly state Azog's claim on him. "Baduz, you there, hold him." Nazarg stood behind Kili, watching the reflection of the hearth in Kili's dark eyes. He looked up at Azog eyes wide, filling with fear. "Both of you, now." Kili took a step backwards, but Nazarg and Baduz were already there. "Give me his right arm." Kili's breath died as he watched Azog expertly slide his hand into a glove with the help of his teeth. No what is he doing no no no. Nazarg's grip on him was tight but not cruel. Just doing his job. With one hand on his shoulder, the other wrapped around his fingers, Baduz exposed Kili's arm to the hearth, his pale skin flushing in the heat. Kili let out a moan, pulling away as he realised what was heating in the flames. A branding iron.

"No - please - I'll put the collar back on please don't do this!" Kili gasped as Azog reached into the fire. "No! Not there Azog you don't understand!" Nazarg's heart sank as Kili burst into desperate tears. "Azog no!" He kicked out, Baduz hooking one thick leg around Kili's, keeping him very close. "Anywhere else!" His hoarse screaming rose in the air, into the darkness above. No not there anywhere else. The wrist of the sword-hand was sacred. It was where Kili would one day wear the name of the dwarf-lass he took for a wife. "Not there!" Panic caught his tongue, stumbling over his words, making it hard to speak coherently. "The name I'll w-wear the name of my wife there Azog please!" Why did he bother screaming in Westron? The two who held him down, they remained silent. Azog watched him, one eyebrow raised, as though waiting for Kili to finish. 

"Azog it's where dwarves wear the names of their lovers." Nazarg spoke in a low rush, speaking up for Kili, whose desperate screams fell on unhearing ears. There was a smile on Azog's face as he red-hot iron rose into the air. He wasn't surprised to hear it. The orc healer felt his heart sink, just a little further. Azog knew. He already knew. Kili's struggling increased, he was twisting in their grasp and Nazarg had to hold him down very tightly, unable to do anything else. He knew his grasp was too tight on Kili's broken arm, knew he must be hurting him, but didn't dare to loosen his hold, and have Kili break free. He couldn't bear to face those consequences. 

"No!" Kili screamed, arching his neck as the iron pressed into the skin of his wrist. It wasn't the pain that pulled at his heart. It was just a small mark, he could handle it, after what he had been through in the last days. It was the action, of having his right arm marked, marked with a symbol of Azog's choosing, one that would recall the orc king, burned into the space where Kili would eventually have had tattooed the name of his wife, should he be so lucky. Azog thrust the iron back into the forge, shaking his hand free of the glove as Nazarg released his hold on Kili. He wrenched his arm free of Baduz, a flash of strength, holding his burned wrist up to his eyes. It was, slightly modified, the letter 'A' in the mother tongue of orcs, although Kili did not know it. His mouth trembled at the symbol, the line across his wrist marked with two arrows. And he closed his eyes, pressing his wrist to his mouth as he shook his head. How could he? Azog was speaking, indicating towards Nazarg. Kili sank to his knees, wrist still pressed against his shaking lips. It didn't matter if he explained it away. It was a mark that would never leave. His mother had hers burned off completely, but the heavy scarring still told a story, that somebody had once been there, somebody once laid claim to her. That was what Azog had done. He claimed Kili, he put his mark on him to show the world that Kili was his. Kili felt dazed, kneeling on the floor of the forge as the two orcs erupted in an argument around him. He didn't know what they were saying, he didn't care. It didn't matter. He ran his fingers over the mark, shaking his head with a moan. Even if he lived, even if he made it out of here, Kili would never, ever be the same. The other marks, they could have come from anywhere. He could have always put them down to battle. But this scar, this one on his wrist, was obvious, deliberate and unique. It was a mark of ownership. Azog put it there to show the world that Kili was his. Even if Kili ran away, even if he somehow found an escape, Azog would find him. Any orc or goblin who saw this would know in an instant that Kili was the property of Azog the Defiler. He was marked, for ever.

It was complete. Kili had lost everything, now. Everything he had with him, the morning he left Beorn's hall, everything was gone. He'd lost his clothes, his weapons and armour. He lost his pride. He lost his honour. He lost his necklace. And now, he'd lost his identity. He tried to tell himself that Thorin wouldn't mind, he would know that it was forced upon Kili, everything was forced upon him. But he had the overwhelmingly sick feeling that if Thorin ever laid eyes on him again, that he would look upon his nephew with shame, for what he had done. And the thought was unbearable. It left a lump of ice in his chest, Kili feeling cold, so cold at the thought. He wore the mark of an orc in the place where he should bear the name of his wife. And nothing could ever change that. Somebody grabbed at his elbow, pulling Kili to his feet. He followed on in silence. Let them. He had given up. The betrayal of his brother, and the imposition of an orcish name on the sacred skin of his wrist, it was too much for him. He didn't deserve to be called a son of Durin. He didn't deserve to be called a dwarf. His name, which had never meant much, was now truly worthless. There would be no tales of the bravery and heroism of Kili. The one who wore the name of an orc like a lover. He went very, very pale. That was what they would think. Those who didn't know him would see the symbol of an orc and think the worst. If there was a bigger affront to the name of Durin, Kili was yet to hear it. It didn't matter if it wasn't true. It was what they would think. 

Nothing could ever undo the damage that had been done against him.

Chapter Text

Dori knew something was wrong when his hand closed around the half-full mug of tea, the clay cold against his fingers. His younger brother had a particularly soft spot for Dori's chamomile tea, although of course he would never admit it. He pulled a face and sipped at it like medicine, knocking back long gulps when he thought nobody was looking, winding his fingers around the clay mug and breaking in deeply. But tonight it was left beside him, half-full. He looked down at the abandoned drink, raising it to his lips to check the taste. No, it was as soothing as ever, sweetened with a little honey, but stone cold. Beside him, Ori toyed with a loose piece of wool on his fingerless gloves, eyes reflecting the firelight. He looked exhausted, eyes half-lidded, head drooping downwards as he struggled to stay awake, sitting with crossed legs on his blanket.

"Ori." He touched his brother's shoulder, the young dwarf starting beneath the touch. He hadn't seen Dori. He looked over at him, looking strained, brittle. The little centre was otherwise abandoned - Bilbo was playing cards with Bofur, and Fili sat alone beneath a large tree, away from the group as he waited for the others to bunk down. He looked asleep himself, but Ori could see from his bed that Fili's hands were clenched into while-knuckled, trembling fists. "Ori, what's wrong? You always finish your tea."

"I'm fine." Ori whispered, sounding so obviously not fine that Dori's heart stung. His grip tightened on Ori's shoulder, a soundless offer for him to continue. "I'm just tired."

"Why don't you go to sleep then?" He used that soft, low voice, the one reserved for when Ori was ill. He had been using it a lot, recently. Ori shook his head. "Do you want to come and sit with Nori and I? Bofur can deal you into the next round if you like."

"No - I'm fine." Ori was so weakly insistent that he was okay. "I'm all right here." He hadn't looked over at Dori at all. Concerned, the elder dwarf leaned in, following Ori's eyeline. His gaze was fixated on Fili. Oh.

"Why don't you go sit with Fili? You've been walking with him recently." Dori didn't realise that it was only because Fili wanted to avoid Thorin, because he knew at least that if he walked with Ori he could be guaranteed silence. Ori's gaze broke, he looked over at his brother with those huge, wide eyes. "He's very lonely Ori. Nobody knows what to say to him. He won't listen to the words of an old fool like me, but you're around his age. Go sit with him."

"But Dori-"

"Hush. You don't have to talk about Kili. You don't have to say anything at all. Just sit with the lad for a few minutes." He stood up, taking Ori's hand, the other still clasped around the cold mug of tea.

"Dori no." Ori stood up, but he didn't move, toes curling in his socks. "Please - I haven't spoken to him in weeks. I wouldn't know what to say." Dori was frowning at him.

"Why? Did he say something?" Did Dori have to go and sort him out? Heir of Durin or not, Dori would contest Fili in a heartbeat, if he had any inkling that the blonde had hurt his younger brother. "I didn't know you had a falling-out."

"We didn't." Ori's eyes lowered to his fraying sleeves, his cheeks slowly turning red. "He-he knows, Dori." His voice faded to an embarrassed whisper. He couldn't look at the grey-haired dwarf, shoulders hunched over in some sort of anticipation for a blow. He knew Dori wouldn't smile through this.

"What?" He didn't. Dori grabbed his shoulder, very tightly, fingers biting into Ori's skin as he pulled him in, cold tea slopping over his sleeve as he scolded his brother under his breath. "How? I told you not to tell anybody Ori. Mahal, please tell me you didn't tell Kili."

"I didn't tell them." Ori whispered back. "I still haven't told anybody Dori. Only you." His face was redder than ever. "Fili saw one of my drawings..." He stumbled over his words, still staring resolutely down at his hands. "He went quiet and didn't talk to me again - and whenever Kili would talk to me, he'd find some reason to pull him away."  He didn't mention how Fili pulled him aside in the morning, after obviously stewing over the drawing all night, fiercely whispered in Ori's ear to stay away from Kili or he'll get a punch in the kidneys so hard he'd piss blood for a week. That if he ever saw another drawing of Kili, he'd break Ori's skinny little fingers. Ori remembered with a repressed shiver the flash in Fili's blue eyes, the scowl on his lips. He didn't look like himself that morning. He looked like some sort of animal.  "So - I think he figured it out."

Not that it helped at night. At night, Ori and Kili slept side by side, because Bilbo complained that Ori's particularly whistling snore kept him awake, when they were close. So it was Ori, Kili, Fili, and Bilbo, in a little row, close enough for Ori to reach out and touch Kili's outspread hair, a splayed hand, if he ever dared. Ori now wished bitterly, that just once, he had. Dori closed his eyes. How had he missed this? He gave Ori the sternest, firmest possible talking to before leaving their home. He couldn't stress enough how bad it would be if anybody ever knew. That Ori would be kicked out of Thorin's Company, of Ered Luin, faster than he could blink. That he had to keep his head down and promise not to act odd in front of Kili. And for so long, Dori thought his brother had been coping, that nobody was the wiser. Instead, Kili's own brother had a pretty clear picture of what was going on. Oh, poor Ori. He looked almost beside himself now, in remembrance."You fool Ori." There was a genuine anger in Dori's voice. "I told you to keep all of that down. You're lucky Fili hasn't told his uncle." He glanced over at Thorin. No, there was no way his king knew. He would have sent Ori away, the moment he heard even a whisper. He wouldn't tolerate it. Especially if his nephew was involved. "Where is the book now? Beneath the Misty Mountains, I suspect, with everything else." Ori nodded silently. "Mahal." He let out a long breath. "Ori - what am I going to do with you?"

"W-Well..." Dori's heart clenched, when he realised he'd driven his youngest brother to tears. "I-It doesn't matter anymore now, does it?" Ori wiped at his eyes with his unravelling sleeve, sniffling. The tight grip on his shoulder loosened. "I mean - he's not..." Ori swallowed, breaking off with a shrug.

"I said would end in heartbreak Ori. Didn't I?" But not like this. He never thought it would end like this. The hard edge had fallen completely from his lowered voice. Several of the others looked over at the pair, curious, but they all let the brothers be. They all knew when to keep their long noses out of other dwarves' business. Ori only nodded silently. "I'm sorry. That was unkind." The hand at Ori's shoulder shifted, rubbing his back slowly. "Sit down lad. I'll refresh this." Ori sat back down on his bed in silence, rubbing at his cheeks with his fingers, through the soft wool of his half-mittens. He watched as Dori rustled around in front of the fire, batting away a hand-sized moth that flapped about his head. None of them like dealing with the moths, with the eyes that stared out at them in the flickering shadows, but none of them were prepared to deal with a night of complete darkness, not yet.

But Fili came as Dori bent over the fire. Ori looked through his fingers with a pounding heart, barely daring to breathe as Fili shrugged himself out of his heavy coat, kicking off his boots. He watched as the blonde sat on his bed, facing Ori. But he didn't look at him. Fili's hands stretched out, onto the ground, curling into the forest floor as he bent his head. He looked at the empty space in his hands, the one that shrank, with every night, as the beds drew in closer, as the gap Fili kept in remembrance was pushed tighter and tighter, until it would disappear completely, and Fili and Ori would lie side by side in the night, as though nothing had ever been between them. Dori stood up from the fire, seeing Fili and Ori so close together, and he sat back down, pretending to sip at the fresh tea, listening intently. Ori lowered his hands slowly, clenching them into fists, watching his knuckles turn white.

"I'm sorry." Ori's voice surprised the both of them. Fili looked up, his eyes red, marked with shadows, the blue of his irises looking very, very dark in the shadows. "I'm so- I'm so sorry." Ori gasped, finding it hard to speak. Fili lowered his gaze back down to the ground, to the dirt that he pawed in. "Please - I - I never I-"

"Ori." Fili's voice was hoarse. Ori fell silent, watching as the dirt and leaves sprouted between Fili's fingers. "Stop." His head remained bowed. Every word from Ori's mouth, it was a fresh knife in his heart. He couldn't be near him, couldn't look at him, without cold memory. Without remembering with an awful jolt, seeing his brother's face sketched with such grace and care on the white page, so close, close enough to reach out and touch. The way Ori would smile at himself as he drew, would nibble on his lower lip, keeping the book very upright, turned away from his kin. How could he not realise sooner? "Just stop." Forever. Fili wanted to scream at him. Wanted to grab Ori's shoulders and shout at him to never let Kili's name cross his lips, to never let him besmirch the name of his brother. Wanted to call him the worst, most awful names and curses. Disgust boiled in his stomach, it made his fingers tremble and itch. He's contained himself, for weeks, knowing nothing would protest Kili's innocence better than absolute silence. He didn't keep quiet for Ori's sake. He did it for Kili - because he was terrified that if anybody ever heard about it, if they knew, they would say Kili asked for it. That he led Ori on, that he acted in such a way that invited such attention. Because he was so different, because he had no beard and he didn't braid his hair and he was so thin. Because he looked more like one of their maidens and, well, that spoke volumes, didn't it?

So he held his tongue, let those four words be his speech, his long monologue. There was nothing more to say. And he raised hands from the earth, shaking the dirt from his fingers, straightening. The tracks on his cheeks glistened in the amber firelight, and Ori held his tongue, humiliated. Crouched by the fire, Dori listened to see how his brother would respond. But there was nothing to listen to. Ori couldn't speak. He didn't dare to. Talk slowed and quietened, until eventually Thorin called for the fire to be put out, for the group to bunk down for the night. They were thick and weary, snoring and snuffling in the darkness. Fili was reminded of a nest of badgers, curled together beneath the ground, all fur and claws and glistening eyes. He pulled the blanket over himself, and his coat too, but he was still very cold. His limbs shook and he pulled the blanket over his nose, the cramping cold sending ice through his limbs. It was a long time before he could sleep.

But not as long as Ori. He lay on his back for hours in the pitch black, feeling the tears leaking out of his eyes and into his hair. Thinking of Kili. Of the dark-eyed archer who was the first to step forward in a fight, who once stuck up for Ori when a gang of thugs tried to steal his books in Bree. Who showed Ori how to ride in the saddle without getting a sore bum. Who could make anybody laugh.

Who Ori killed.

There was sweat on Nazarg's forehead - but it wasn't from the forge.

His hands curled into fists, watching as Kili sank to his knees after breaking free from Baduz, raise his wrist to his mouth, breathing in short, uneven gasps. He was shaking his head and moaning to himself, moaning something unintelligible. Baduz was laughing at him, prodding him in the side with his foot. Nazarg remained still and watchful, the nails of his grey fingers making thick ridges in his palms. And Azog had a look of cool, quiet satisfaction on him, one steeped in memory.  Nazarg wondered what he was thinking about. He didn't realise that this was not the first time that Azog had his name written upon a dwarf of Durin's line. Nor would it be the last, if Azog's plans came to their violent fruition.

"And you." Nazarg looked up as Azog turned to him. "The famed healer from Isengard." There was a very obvious sneer on the orc king's face. Nazarg allowed himself to feel insulted, replicated the cold, level stare that came in his direction. "This the best you can do?" He visibly bristled at the insult. How dare he. It was obvious to everybody that Kili had undergone a marked improvement from the broken, half-dead captive on the edge of starvation.

"Considering that state he was in, yes." Baduz shot the orc a look of cold fury, thinking Nazarg assumed an air of blinding arrogance. "You nearly killed him - and you will if you continue to treat him like a beast." He inwardly winced at his own words, his defense of Kili. It was shameful, sticking up like this for a dwarf. But he was only doing what was asked of him. He was merely following orders. Care without compassion, it was worthless. "He can't keep living like this." Azog's eyes were focused on him, staring very, very intently at Nazarg's mouth as he spoke, as though his lips carried some sort of secret. "I've never seen a dwarf so frail."

"I was not aware the fords of Isen had regular contact with dwarves." Azog snarled, his voice poisonous. "I recall no settlement to the south." Nazarg followed that cold, unbreaking stare. "I have personally dealt with hundreds of dwarves over the last century, orc-healer." Nazarg swallowed. "They are stronger than men and elves. They last longer without food and rest. They stand up better to pain."

"Not Kili." Something twitched in Azog's face at the mention of his name. "Don't be a fool Azog-"

"Watch yourself."

"I said, don't be a fool." Nazarg spoke over Baduz, unafraid. He had the name of Isengard behind him, the underground city lingering beneath a green forest, one that grew silently, veiled from the eyes of men. One destined to wreak havoc and destruction on the grand kingdoms of the south. "He's broken Azog. Look at him." They both cast a glance towards the young dwarf, kneeling on the stone with his face in his hands, shaking. "If you want him to live long enough to parade in front of Thorin, you need to stop torturing him at every possible opportunity." Did Azog completely lack a sense of compassion, an understanding of just what he was doing to Kili? Nazarg couldn't understand why he would treat the dwarf so badly, if he plainly had real use for him. He needed to make Azog understand that Kili could die if he was forced to go on as before - but it seemed empathy was completely beyond the orc king.

"Nazarg, I swear-" But Baduz fell silent as Azog raised his hand in a wordless gesture of quiet. Azog was staring at him, his startling blue eyes boring deep into Nazarg, trying to read him for any ulterior motive. Nazarg held up under the wordless interrogation, straight-backed, his hands still clenched into fists.

"So you are saying that he will die without care." They stared straight at each other, the king from Moria, and the healer from Isengard. Both who forged a name and reputation for themselves. One for blood, violence, death and pain, the other for skill, compassion, and intelligence.

"Yes. I am saying that." Nazarg spoke very clearly, as Azog narrowed his eyes, struggling to read the orc. Trying to understand why one of his people would have such an outward care for the well-being of a dwarf. He didn't understand that it was in Nazarg's nature to act with unwavering kindness the sick or injured was set down before him, regardless of race. Saving lives was his purpose, and he was good at it. Nazarg would think that Azog, of all orcs, would understand the value of a skilled healer, considering his own mutilation.

"Your place within my company will be greatly valued then." Nazarg's eyes widened, a smile twitching at Azog's mouth as he saw the expression. Baduz made a muted sound in his throat. That was not part of the deal. He couldn't lose the only soul beneath this mountain who could wrestle his goblins from the jaws of death. This was beyond arrogance. They would die without someone to care for them.

"No." Nazarg shook his head. "My place is here." He waved his arm about the forge. "Before I arrived, the Great Goblin left his sick and injured to die in the streets, to have their bodies picked over and left to rot. I'm not leaving them." Azog looked at him, cold and impassive. "I'm not leaving!"

"I didn't ask." Azog began to swing his mace idly, Nazarg suddenly reminded of just how tall the orc king was. He was head and shoulders above even him, dwarfing most of the slouching little goblins that scuttled about the forge. He squared his shoulders, taking in a breath.

"With all due respect Azog, I'm an orc of Isengard and I answer only to-"

"But you're not in Isengard. You're beneath the Misty Mountains. My mountains." Baduz visibly bristled, insulted at Azog's sweeping claim to the domain he currently fought for dominion over. "You may have these creatures eating out of your hand, but I won't be swayed by the threat of a faraway kingdom." Nazarg was very, very still. Kili had gone limp on his knees, fingers knotted in his hair. "I assume you will have your own warg, being an orc of such high standing from Isengard." There was something cool and sarcastic in Azog's voice with the last words, one that sent Nazarg's blood boiling. He opened his mouth, ready to burst out screaming, that Azog had no right to speak to him like this, to order him around like a common snaga, that he had earned respect and admiration after years of tireless work, and was not going to have it undone by abandoning his post on the whim of a despotic king. He was furious, he was beyond furious. A white-hot rage course through him, coming out in a low growl beneath his voice.

And for a single moment, the darkness of Isengard eclipsed Nazarg's normal mask of calm. His teeth were bared in a slate-grey face, black blood gathering on the ridges of his nails as his fists clenched to whiteness. He thought of Thrazarsh, with his missing leg, Durk's collapsed lung and Sorlug's crushed spine. They only lived while Nazarg was there to cauterize and stitch and bandage. And there would be others - there always was. Accidents at the forge, an outbreak of disease, in-fighting, a rogue warg gone mad - his broad services were exhausted at the best of times. He couldn't do this. But he his angry complaints would have fallen on deaf ears - because Azog was right. He wasn't in Isengard, not anymore. While Grimuz and Baduz sneered at Nazarg and looked at him with disdain, they still had a deep respect for what the healer had done for their town. But Azog had no such concerns. They were not his people; they were a pale shadow of his vast tribe of brutish orcs beneath Moria. He cared nothing for them. He had come to plunder Goblin-town of their best fighters, wargs, and supplies, and now that included Nazarg. And he was powerless against the mighty king of Moria. He could do nothing.

"Yes." It was a death knell to half a dozen goblins resting in his cave, and to countless others. Nazarg felt sick, thinking on them. He had failed in his basic duty. But he had no other choice. To disobey Azog meant death. And dead, he could not return to resume his work. They only ever had a chance. He reminded himself. It happens. But his stomach was uncomfortably tight, burning with shame and failure. "I do." His shoulders slumped, defeated. He received only a grunt and a smirk in response, Azog turning away from him and reaching out, seizing Kili by the elbow. He rose to his feet with the mechanical, separate stiffness of somebody very far away. His eyes were unfocused, face the colour of bone. Nazarg caught the mark on Kili's wrist, reminded once more of how he screamed, how he desperately sobbed that it was a place reserved for the sacred tattoo of his lover's name. Nobody, Nazarg knew, would want him now. Prince or not, he was tarnished. But he couldn't linger on it. Numerous faces jostled for attention in his mind's eye, images of the sick and dying, slinging desperately to the last threads of life, threads Nazarg kept spinning, watching as some thickened into sturdy ropes, while others dissolved into blackness. He had to go back, to spend his last hours beneath the stone in a frantic attempt to pass on orders, to teach everything he could to his underlings Klug and Zark, throw everything he could at them and hope that something would stick. To find that little goblin-child with the boil and get it lanced before infection ruined the arm. To crush the very last of his stolen herbs into something resembling a salve. Kili disappeared from Nazarg's mind completely as he turned away, boiling with inner rage, his clenched fists shaking in furious humiliation. He'd never had his work dismissed with such carelessness. It rocked him. Azog had no right to do this.

He caught the glance of Baduz as he walked away, their eyes meeting in a momentary, sidelong gaze. The goblin's mouth was fixed in a muted snarl, his anger visible, fouling the air around him. He too then, wrestled with a blinding fury that threatened to come out as an attack against Azog.

But Baduz too, was powerless against him.

Chapter Text

More darkness and fire. It flashed around Kili, dragged about like a broken doll, following Azog with a hitched gasp, struggling to keep up with the orc king's long, loping strides. The screeching. The jeers. He kept his head downwards, at his feet as his heart thrummed in his ears, a drum resounding through his head. A deep, low drum, that beat all too fast against the inside of his skull. Kili shook his head, but couldn't clear it. His wrist flashed outwards, the mark glancing at him, searing into his brain, and Kili had to stop, battling a wave of sick terror that rose in his chest. Azog pulled at him, snarling, but Kili couldn't move. His fingers brushed the branded skin, lips trembling. He still couldn't comprehend it. This changed everything for Kili. He knew now, there was no disguising from anybody where he had been, what he had done. Even a foreign tribe of dwarves who didn't know his name, they would see his wrist and they would know.

Kili cried out as Azog grabbed a handful of hair, at the top of his head where it hurt the most, jerking painfully. Forced to stumble on, to follow behind, Kili let his arm drop to the side, not wanting to see it. But he could feel it. It burned, it throbbed with his heartbeat, the one that boomed in his head. And he couldn't forget it. What would Fili say, when he saw it? For he would surely see it, if Kili lived long enough to see his brother, as Azog promised. Azog would hold his arm forward and show how he had spoiled the youngest sibling, had marked him. He would revel in the way Thorin cried out in anguish and Fili cursed and shouted. For wasn't it the entire point, to bring Kili out, to show off his meticulous work, how he had taken something so rash and carefree and bright, and burned and beaten and broken him down into the dried-out shell that allowed himself to be dragged by the hair, deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountain? He had no idea of just how depraved Azog's plan had become.

There was a horrible smell, of burning, rotting meat. It made his stomach heave and the sour taste of bile dance on his tongue. His head jerked up, against Azog's hand, as the pair stepped into yet another dark, narrow cave. Kili held his breath. He could hear the growling, yapping and snapping and fighting, coming out of the darkness. His heart clenched, his hand gripped the mace in Azog's arm out of pure instinct. Something to hold on to. He knew the sound that came from the darkness. Wargs. Azog looked down at him, the hands that clung to his weapon. Kili was shaking, shrinking away from the darkness with very wide eyes, staring blindly into the dark. Never seen a dwarf so frail. The words echoed in his head. Kili wasn't the most frail, not to Azog. That had to be the snivelling younger brother of Thorin Oakenshield, who grovelled at his feet, panting through an arrow wound, broken fingers scrabbling at the head of his grandfather, sobbing for his life. They had the same large brown eyes. The other children and grandchildren of Thror had piercing blue irises, so light and clear. But he remembered the shockingly dark gaze, turned upwards, dripping tears. And remembered his surprise, at seeing the crest of Durin in the hair, around the throat, of somebody who begged and cried so openly.

Not the most frail - but a close second.

"I've been expecting your Greatness." Kili gasped at the voice, coming from behind them. His grip on Azog's mace tightened. The orc turned to see Grimuz, his watery grey skin shining in the dim light. "I have alerted the keeper of the wargs of your arrival, and he has selected his finest specimens, if you would care to follow me." Azog snarled very openly at the tone, but followed. He released his hold on Kili's hair, the dwarf still clinging to the black metal in his arm. His fear of wargs was obvious. Azog remembered the sheer number he found on the plains of Bruinen outside Rivendell, straight through the throat, the heart. They were excellent shots, far better than any other he had seen from a dwarf. It was difficult to imagine this terrified child was the one who ended the lives of a good quarter or so of his original contingent - but his scout swore blind the archer had no beard. The sound of growling grew louder, Kili's thudding heart deafening. He could barely handle the greying warg that lapped at his face and back - it was only her supposed gentleness, Nazarg's firm insistence, that kept him still. He heard the horrible sound of a body thudding against iron, a snapping.

They descended even further. The keeper, a bellowing, long-limbed creature with rotting teeth and a drooping paunch by the name of Dalg, waited with a torch before the row of cells. They were originally designed for prisoners. Kili saw by the yellow light that the first cell had scratches marked into the walls, a tally. And runes. His stomach tightened. Khuzdul runes. Nyr. Third year of Nain I's reign. His people were imprisoned in this stone - hundreds of years before. These cells held dwarves. Kili found his throat had closed, voice completely lost as he stared at the runes. Another in the cell - Ginnar. Fiftieth year of Thorin I's reign. They invoked the name of his ancestors. His fingers fell lax on Azog's mace, he took a step forward, trying to read more of them in the torchlight. Regin. Eighty-seventh year of Durin VI's reign. His hands closed around the iron bars, breath lost in his throat as he scanned the shadowy cell, searching for any other sign of his lost people. His curiosity got the better of him - the horrible sounds that clashed against the stone had vanished from his mind. These were old markings - eight hundred years, it had been, since Durin VI sat on the throne of dwarves. Their children, their children's children, would be long dead. Ten generations had passed, since Durin VI, and Kili. Ten generations ago, a dwarf was trapped here, locked beneath the stone, destined to die. And in a desperate effort to ensure he would be remembered, he scratched his name, the name of his king, into the stone, deep marks, to withstand the ages. And then another followed. And another. Kili forgot himself completely, his nose poked through the bars. Azog was snarling at him, some warning in Black Speech, but Kili ignored him, looking at the stone, the names. He had to memorise them. He couldn't bear to ever forget them. Nyr, Ginnar, Regin, An, Nithi, Bruni. He repeated them in his mind, not paying any head to the low grow from within the cell. Nyr, Gunnar, Regin, An, Nithi-

A bark sounded from the darkness. The shadows heaved, with brown fur and eyes the colour of fire, as the warg within the cell rushed at the bars. Kili screamed, scampering backwards and tripping over in his haste to get away, falling heavily against Azog's legs, gasping for air in shock and terror. It was huge, foaming out the mouth, throwing itself against the bars in an effort to break free, finger-length fangs snapping in the flickering yellow light. The other three laughed at Kili, leaning against Azog's legs and hyperventilating. The warg's roar set the others off, and they all began to wrestle and strain against the cell bars, the sound filling the dank air. Come on you idiot. He cursed himself. Breathe. Just breathe. As the laughter faded, he raised his head slowly, struggling to hold the quivering air in his lungs, letting it escape in a long, slow breath. He curled his hands into fists and rose to his feet, squaring his shoulders. Seeing Kili rise, the warg threw himself against the bars once more and Kili visibly flinched, a fresh chuckle coming from the keeper at Kili's strained reaction.

"Not a fan of wargs, dwarf?" Dalg sneered at Kili, walking past him, slinging his iron club over his shoulder. "This 'ere is Dugh." He rapped at the bars, switching to Black Speech. "Hates dwarves. Hate's 'em. We keep 'im in the cells all th' time, so the smell keeps 'im rarked up. Don' it Dugh?" The warg threw himself headlong into the bars a fourth time, burning eyes fixed on Kili. Azog stood several paces from the cage, looking thoroughly unimpressed.

"Tell me, warg-keeper. Why would I choose to ride a beast with a blood-lust bent towards dwarves, when I am holding one prisoner?" Dalg faltered, watery eyes widening as he looked Kili up and down. Oops.

"You idiot Darg." Grimus groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. Kili's eyes were locked with the warg, who paced the cell, back and forth, keeping a low, continuous growl. "Please tell me you haven't bred the entire litter to hunt out the smell of dwarf-scum."

"Well - not all of 'em." The warg-keeper's eyes slid uneasily from Azog to Grimuz. "But - come on, we all love th' taste of dwarf-flesh, am I right?" Kili's eyes flickered up to Darg, noticing how hungrily the goblin stared at him. He stepped back with a shudder, drawing, although he didn't quite realise it, closer to Azog.

"My wargs were well trained enough to restrain themselves." Azog eyed the warg, watching as he rammed his head into the bars, foam flecked on the ground. Kili flinched, earning a snicker from Darg. "And my soldiers, too."

"Well - come down 'ere." Clearly annoyed, Darg turned away from the raging warg. "Shut it, Dugh." He rapped the club against the bars, Dugh shrinking back with a whine. "This 'ere is Talg. E's got a mean bite. C'mon Talg, open up them gnashers." He poked the club through the bars of the cell, the chestnut-coloured warg snapping at the iron weapon. "Tears right through skin, fur, armour, you name it." There was a swagger creeping into his voice. "And he's a biggun', too. Enough to carry your Malevolence across any vast distance." Azog stared through the bars of the cell at the creature, watching its hungry, yellow eyes. Kili couldn't look at any of them, he kept his eyes downward, struggling to keep himself calm, to breathe. Trying to tell himself that he was being irrational, that no harm would possibly come to him, not while Azog was about.

"I see." He sounded mildly impressed. Azog approached the bars, tilting his head to get a better look at Talg. "Tell me - do you have any female wargs?"

"Females?" Darg blinked. "Well - o' course, not in 'ere, but-"

"Females, warg-keeper, while as a rule not as large as their male counterparts, are undoubtedly more fierce and aggressive, particularly if they have pups." It was a mother's instinct, that sent their nerves aflame, left them teetering on a fit of rage, ready to give out at any moment. Nink had three litters of beautiful white-silver wargs, and after each pup was weaned, she grew harder, meaner and more violent. "Bring me to your best breeding females."

"O-O' course, your Greatness." Darg cast Grimuz a sidelong look as he turned, beckoning them all to follow down the dark passageway. Kili kept very close to Azog, the growling and whining and snapping setting his pulse on fire. They all smelled him, they yearned through the bars to tear him limb from limb, to feast on his flesh and bones.

"Skung! Look sharp!" The warg-keeper barked his orders as he stamped into a low, wide room. This, at least, was set with half-a-dozen torches, flickering in brackets against the damp cave walls. The makeshift pens came up to Kili's chest, made from petrified, ancient wood. The smell was horrendous. Eight mothers curled on their sides, each with four or six or ten pups, biting and yapping in the torchlight. The goblin at the far pen straightened at the sight of Azog, mouth falling open. He curled himself in a bow, a mutter of 'your Greatness' going unheard by the orc king as he cast a look inside the first pen. This one was far too small. He wrinkled his nose, shaking his head. Kili watched Azog inspect the next little pen, but that too was passed by with a sneer. Darg began to feel both affronted and a little nervous. He thought his wargs, while not as magnificent as those found in Isengard or Gundabad, were still excellent specimens, bred with care over the decades to be light, quick and strong. Kili followed Azog, breathing thickly through his mouth. But the smell of meat, of droppings and decay, it caked his tongue, the dwarf choking down a gag. Finally, Azog paused in front of the second-to-last pen in the row, leaning forward to examine the warg who caught his interest. She nursed three pups, mere days away from being weaned, her fur a thick grey, glistening with silver at the tips. Her left ear was forked, a nasty scar running down her cheek.

"Ah, that's our Grishuz." Azog's eyes flicked towards Darg for a moment. Grishuz meant bloody in Black Speech - a good sign. "This is her sixth litter. Not as big as some o' the others, but she's a fighter, all righ'. We used t' run 'er against the bears." Azog's lip curled - he never approved of using wargs for sport. They were noble creatures of battle, not the playthings of orcs. "She's as fast as she ever was." Kili peered over the edge of the pen, fingers curling around the wooden rim. He looked at the three pups, sleeping in a huddle. They were half the size of ordinary wolves, but already had the teeth, the claws, of fully-grown wargs. One of them could still bring him down, grab him by the leg and pounce. Kili was reminded just how small he was, even here, with half the goblins around his height. These beasts were bred for creatures much larger than he.

"Fûth." Grishuz lifted her head at the command. Awaken. Up. Azog held his hand out to her. "Skaat." Come. The pups shifted about as she rose to her feet, crossing the tiny pen. Azog nodded. She knew her basic words, at the least. Grishuz sniffed the outstretched hand for a moment, settling down on her hind legs. Azog pressed his hand against her nose, a sign of natural dominance. And she licked his hand, a sign that she accepted. Azog ran his finger over the thick scar, checking to see her vision wasn't spoiled. But her eyes were clear and bright, reflecting the golden torchlight. And he nodded, in satisfaction. "She will serve well." While the silver-grey warg was no Nink, he could see himself astride her, could see her fierce teeth and eyes tearing apart her prey, her large paws leaping lightly across grass and rock. If only she wasn't so small. Azog sighed, looking over to Kili. Because he wouldn't be riding alone. He would have a passenger - Azog wouldn't risk simply handing Kili over to somebody else.

"She's too small." Disappointment was evident in Darg's voice as he watched Azog stare at Kili. "T' carry both, she's too small."

"I want her." Azog growled, looking the warg up and down as she sat before him obediently. "This is the one I want."

"You'll have to ride alone." Grimuz spoke up. Azog snarled at him, eyes flashing. "She can't bear the both of you, you'll break her back." Kili listened to the exchange quietly, not knowing they were talking about him. "Unless you want the dwarf-scum to ride something else, you'll have to get a bigger warg." Azog narrowed his eyes, looking from Grishuz to Kili, and back again. And he had a thought. One that slotted in so perfectly with the plan that slowly grew in his mind. One he wished he'd thought of before.

"Tell me warg-keeper, do you have juvenile wargs? Not pups, but not fully-grown? Have you trained them?" Darg nodded, in surprise. "Trained them well?"

"O' course, your Malevolence."

"Trained them to resist dwarf-meat?" Darg looked up at Azog, head tilting as he finally realised what Azog was getting at. "One for him?" He jabbed Kili in the shoulder, the dwarf looking up at Azog, realising that all three were looking at him.

"What's going on - why are you looking at me?" Only Grimuz and Darg could decipher the Westron, but Azog read the confusion in his voice. Kili backed into the pen, feeling the petrified wood dig into his spine. Why were they looking at him?

"Y-Yeess." Darg looked deep in thought. "E's a runt, but pretty docile. T' be honest, 'es destined for the bear-trap. Skung! Get Nardur will you!" He hollered behind him, the goblin scampering away. Nardur. Small. Azog fought down a sneer. "Does 'e ride?"

"My soldiers found a number of ponies while searching for them in Bruinen." And delicious they were, too. Darg chuckled darkly.

"These aren't ponies." He had to allow a swagger to creep back into his voice. No, indeed. There was a clang, a whine, and Skun returned with a grey warg in tow. Two-thirds the size of the nursing mothers in the pen, Nardur sniffed the air cautiously, catching the unfamiliar smell with his nose. "E's too young to know what dwarf-smell is." Skung kicked the warg in the side, muttering at him to sit. "A bit thick, but e's got the basic commands righ'." Azog grabbed Kili by the arm. They both approached the warg, Kili shaking visibly in Azog's hold, turning away. Even a small warg like this, it sent his stomach cramping. He closed his eyes and couldn't look. Azog took his wrist, fingers brushing the fresh mark with a smirk, placing it on the nose of Nardur. Kili's eyes snapped open at the touch, throat closing as he found his hand on the warg, Azog holding him fast, unable to pull away. He gave Kili's wrist a tight squeeze, a wordless command to hold it in place, before lifting his hand away. Kili stood in silence, his quivering hand resting on the warg's nose. Nardur and Kili locked eyes. There were several tense, endless moments, where Kili thought he would pass out, where he bit his lip to keep from crying out in terror, so sure that his fingers were going to be bitten off, or the warg would rush at him, with a howl and a bark and tear at his throat.

Nardur licked his fingers.

Kili's breath tightened, he watched as the warg lapped at his palm, his wrist. He stood it for only a few moments before pulling his hand away, taking a step back from the creature with a heaving chest. Nardur cocked his head and looked at him. With his mouth closedtilted head, he looked so doglike. Their gaze was yet to break.

"Excellent." Azog's voice sounded behind him. "Have them both ready to go in the morning." Kili wiped the saliva from his hand onto the fabric of his rawhide trousers, shaking hsi head as he realised what was happening. How he'd repeated Azog's actions in holding his hand over the warg's nose. This creature - was it his? Kili watched as the beast was led away, fingers still tingling from where he'd been licked.

"I don't understand." He spoke up, hoping one of the two would answer him. "Is it - is it mine?"

"You should consider yourself lucky, dwarf." Grimuz sneered. "Very few souls outside our people have the pleasure to ride a warg." Kili turned, looking at the goblin. But he already had. Kili shook his head.

"I can't." He whispered. "I can't - there's no way, I-I can't..."

"It's a better alternative to walking on foot." Azog frowned, prodding Darg on the shoulder, asking him to translate. The Black Speech, already mangled in the warg-keeper's rusty accent, was made worse by the effort of translation, his voice slow and stumbling.

"I have the clothes - the weapons," for his new bow was still in Azog's pack, "I've eaten the food, I have this scar, I can't ride a warg too!" Kili's eyes shifted to Azog. "I'm a dwarf! Not an orc - a dwarf." He repeated the words, more to himself than to the three who stood around him. He didn't know who he was trying to convince. "I-If you give me a pony I can-"

"And where would you find a pony?" Grimuz sneered. "Stop complaining, you ingrate. Do you even realise how lucky you are, to be alive? That Azog has bothered to feed and clothe you? We have never shown such hospitality to dwarf-scum beneath this mountain." Kili remembered the runes scratched into the cell walls. Nyr, Regin, Ginnar, and - and - oh no I've forgotten the rest. Kili's heart sank, he listened to the goblin in silence, head bowed like a disobedient child. "If I were Azog, I'd give you a-"

"Enough Grimuz." Azog spoke over him, reaching out to take Kili's arm. Grimuz watched as Azog lead the dwarf away, shaking his head. It was blatant favourtism. He didn't understand what Azog was getting at. This wasn't how you treated prisoners. You made sure they knew their place, you kept them bound, subdued, in pain. You didn't try to heal the wounds you gave them, to give them new clothes and a weapon and a warg. He didn't understand that Azog had begun playing the long game. He had realised, wrapped up in his furs as he slept, thinking of Kili alone and in pain, thinking of how he slipped further and further, ebbing closer to death, that keeping him in a perpetual state of torture for the long time it would take to find Thorin Oakenshield and his company - for surely, they would be in Mirkwood by now - meant he would be showing to the exiled king a corpse. And he thought, long and hard, about another way he could get at Thorin through his captive nephew.

And it came to him. It came to him with a broad smile, a little light that went off in his head. He physically sat up, mind alive, as he ran over the controversial plan in his mind. It was brilliant. He'd already given him the clothes and weapons - that part was easy. Azog counted on his fingers, thinking through things. He would make sure Kili ate only the meat of two-legged creatures, whenever he could. He would teach him Black Speech. He would give him an orcish mark. Azog was convinced it would work. Kili had entirely given up all hope of rescue, he no longer struggled and fought against Azog. He had been completely dominated and broken. After his last fight, trying to strangle Azog in his sleep, and receiving such a horrific punishment in return, Kili had become compliant. And surrounded in the hostile darkness, pressed in by orcs who wanted him dead, Kili had begun to reach out for Azog. The orc king remembered clearly when Kili had been lead away on the platform before the throne. How he looked back at Azog, pleading wordlessly. Please don't leave me. It was written, all over his face.

He led Kili out of the reeking pens, Grimuz following. As they walked slowly past the cages of vicious, antagonized male wargs that howled and yammered in an effort to get at the dwarf-flesh that hung before them, Kili screwed up his eyes. He drew in, just half an inch, closer to Azog. He felt it. He felt Kili seeking refuge in him. And he knew, Azog knew that he had Kili in the palm of his hand. That he could crush him or set him free in a heartbeat, a fragile insect. He knew that after the horrors of the past week, after losing all hope, Kili would desperately turn to any solace, any comfort he could. Oh, he would promise to himself it was an act, it was all for show, that he was dwarf through and through, nothing would ever change that, he was a child of Durin, he would never forsake his people, certainly not for his own meagre survival. But Azog knew that his outward show of assimilation would slowly sink through his skin and into his bones. Oh, it wouldn't be Kili Azog would set before Thorin. Not at all. He smiled at himself, in the darkness. He would turn Kili against them, would plant seeds of doubt in his mind. They abandoned him. They left him to die. They didn't care about him. He would have Kili curse the name of Thorin Oakenshield through anguished tears. And he would piece together the broken dwarf himself, would girt him with black iron. He felt the small body close beside him in the darkness, the shallow breathing, the obvious fear at being trapped beneath the stone, surrounded by beasts which had mutilated him so terribly as a child.

Thorin Oakenshield would regret the day he ever attempted to cross Azog the Defiler. He would pay. But the price would not be in blood. Oh no.

The price would be a soul.

Chapter Text

The goblin hovered in the entrance way, watching the pair. Azog had pushed aside his finished plate, he leaned back in the chair beside the fire, stretching his bare feet out and sticking his toes almost in the flames. Kili ate very, very slowly. More than half of his meal remained, blood oozing on the stone plate as he chewed, looking extremely ill. Baduz had to wonder if Azog told the dwarf exactly what was for dinner, or if he had simply guessed that it could not have been the flesh of any beast. His fingers trembled, the knife clattering plainly against the plate as he went to slice another thin chunk of meat. He held a closed fist over his mouth, grimacing as he swallowed. Disgust and fear had battled within him, and fear obviously won, as Kili speared the tiny piece of very pink-looking meat. He forced himself to chew and swallow one last time before the knife slipped from his shaking hands, he pushed the plate away, shaking his head.

"I c-can't Azog please-" His stomach lurched, Kili's face white as he fought down the urge to retch. Azog returned his attention to the dwarf, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. He looked at Kili for a moment, before stretching his hand out, pushing the plate towards Kili, who let out a low moan, shaking his head. "No." Just because it was the third time he ate this - or something like it - it wasn't any easier. There was something chillingly sadistic in the way Azog watched him in cold silence, operating with a jerk of the head, a twitch of the fingers, a snarl. This was worse than the orc who held Kili down and forced his mouth open. This was calculated, playing Kili's fear of Azog against the corruption and horror of such an unspeakable taboo. Kili's head sank into his hands, he was fighting the literal urge to throw up, the awful metallic taste thick on his tongue. He would have waited, but with Azog's demand for haste ringing in his ears, Baduz broke the tension in the room with his entrance, raising his voice to make his presence known to the orc king.

"I have what you requested, your Greatness." Baduz bowed very low as he entered the warm, brightly-lit room. Azog had declined their offer of a generous parting feast, opting instead for a simple meal to be brought into his chamber. A simple meal of special taste. Grimuz was furious at Azog's request for dinner, saying if he had such a hankering, then why didn't he lop off the broken arm of the pathetic dwarf he kept around rather than break into their delicacies. But he muttered it only to himself, sending one of his scouts up to the cool-store packed with snow and ice fetched from the slopes of the mountains, and within a few hours a steak-sized slice was served on the stone table, Azog bending down and giving an exploratory sniff, before nodding assent and asking for a second plate.

They weren't expecting that. Grimuz was forced to swallow his sardonic mutterings of favourtism. If anything, he had a certain newfound respect for Azog as he set down the plate of polished silver, carved with runes (and oh, how more perfectly appropriate could it have been?) watching as the orc king carved off a third of the thick steak, slapping it onto the empty plate with a splattering of blood, pushing it towards the dwarf who sat opposite him on the table. It was a cruel mockery of a familial dinner, the pair sitting across from each other beside the cheerily crackling fire, Azog sprawled out in a chair a little too small for him, Kili looking like a child seated at a table which seemed far too big. Grimuz looked positively gleaming when he muttered to his comrade at just what Kili was forced to eat for dinner, Baduz letting out a guffaw in the dark passageway. It was just too good. Obviously they hadn't given Azog's depravity enough credit, for plumbing the depths of Kili's psyche, for exploiting the emotional weakness as well as the physical. Baduz would have to tell him about this, about how Kili was dry-heaving, head bowed below the table as he coughed and spluttered. But he held it all down, he held it all down as he lifted his grey face, eyes black in the light of the fire. And he looked across at Azog, shaking his head as his quivering lips begged silently for release. But Azog simply pushed the plate a little closer to Kili, raising the golden goblet to his lips, arching his back as he took a long gulp of bloody wine. Azog held his hand out silently for what he asked for, Baduz stepping into the warm room in silence. Kili's knife clattered against the silver, his breathing low and ragged, mingling with the crackle of the fire.

"It's almost entirely from the packs of the dwarf-scum that killed the Great Goblin." Baduz shot Kili a look of venom, a poisonous glance that went unnoticed by the young dwarf. He was fighting back sobs, his breath coming out in shudders that wracked his thin, bandaged frame. "There's a few spare pages in the back of the book, so we put that there too." Azog nodded in silent assent. "Is there anything else that your Greatness requires?"

"No, that will be all." He muttered, sounding distracted. He shooed Baduz away, leafing through the scraps of parchment and vellum. There was pencils and ink, most importantly, and a lot of it. Azog would make do, he could use the underside of the animal skins that made up the bed if need be. Baduz bowed as he withdrew, leaving the pair in silence. Kili choking down the food with agonised resignation, Azog leafing through the paper, tapping his fingers against the stone, and thinking. It had been many, many years since he had taught somebody the nuance of Black Speech. And worse, he didn't have some sort of vernacular to communicate with Kili. He was flying blind into this. All he could use were gestures and crudely-drawn images to link words and concepts to the dwarf. Azog flicked back through the sketchbook, looking back over the images as he waited for Kili to finish his dinner. Kili watched Azog's turning, his lurching stomach growing sicker as the orc tapped his fingers against the page in obvious impatience. Kili bent his head and swallowed with his eyes screwed up tightly, shaking his head. There was still a third of it to go. He couldn't finish. He couldn't do it. He pushed the plate away, to the edge of the table, with a firm resoluteness. He couldn't do it. He couldn't handle anymore. Surely it was enough. Surely, Azog had now proved his point. He looked up at the orc with his black eyes, pleading with him. Azog met his gaze with a cold levelness. He watched as Kili's lip trembled and his eyes glistened, his face completely colourless. And with a sigh, he straightened up in his seat, closing the sketchbook. He pulled a sheet of vellum towards him, Kili's shoulders slumping as he let out a broken sob of relief. The first half was covered in runes, they looked like some sort of recipe or remedy. He found a stub of pencil, and began to draw, the grey lines shining in the light of the fire. Kili watched him with wide eyes, hands twisting and turning over each other. Azog looked up, turning the page and pushing it to the centre of the table. Azog had drawn four figures, one just over half the height of the others. The four races, he deduced, was as good a place to start as any. And he knew at least the Westron for them.

"Orc." He pointed at the first, which he had drawn with a scimitar, with huge, gnashing teeth. Kili looked exhausted in the light, but he hung on, staring at the page. "Uruk." Kili's brow creased in a frown, not understanding at first what exactly Azog meant. "Uruk. Orc." He prodded the page again, and Kili looked up at him.

"Uruk?" He repeated, the rising intonation showing his obvious confusion. He didn't understand. His head still spun, his stomach lurched, he was tired and in pain and didn't want to do this. He wanted to sleep, to sleep for weeks and then wake from this terrible nightmare. "Azog I don't understand."

"Uruk." Azog pointed at himself. Perhaps he really did need a translator for this. He didn't want to involve anybody else - the less people who saw this, the better, but obviously the stupid dwarf was too thick to realise he was receiving his first lesson in Black Speech. But he wanted this! He had tried, three times, to get Azog to teach him. His slowness was infuriating. "Uruk." He repeated, lips twisting in a scowl, miming a talking sound with his hand. His language. Kili stared at him blankly for another heartbeat, before his eyes brightened in understanding.

"Oh! Uruk." He pointed at the orc-figure. "You call yourselves Uruk in your tongue. I understand now." Azog shook his head, rolling his eyes. Kili swallowed. "Azog can we maybe do this tomorrow I just want to sleep and I feel sick and-"

"Ogh." The orc king cut over him, pointing at the second figure, with a sword and shield. "Man."

"Ogh." Kili repeated, feeling so very tired. Nothing surprised him, not anymore. He didn't understand Azog's change of heart, didn't try to untangle it. He sat there numbly, feeling his stomach twist and turn, the bile rise in his throat, his tongue stinging from the metallic taste of heavy meat, eyes itching with tiredness. "Ogh. Man. I get it."

"Golug." Azog snarled as he pointed at the third. He drew it with comically large ears and a bow and arrow. Kili's eyes raised to meet him. "Elf." He nodded silently, looking down at the page, too tired to argue.

"Golug." He murmured sleepily. "Elf." At least he was catching on. Azog looked at the inattentive dwarf, lip curling. He thumped his fist on the table, Kili starting awake, eyes wide and back straight. "Sorry. I'm awake." He looked at the fourth, shorter figure. "I'm guessing this is the dwarf."

"Akh." It was a sign of assent, although Kili didn't know it yet.

"Akh. Akh means dwarf, I get it." Azog growled shaking his head.

"Kau. Akh..." He nodded his head. "Kau." He shook his head again, willing Kili to silently understand yes and no. "Ghaamogh." He pointed at the dwarf drawing. "Ghaamogh." Azog pointed at Kili. "Dwarf." He clarified.

"Right - sorry." Kili nodded. "Ghaamogh is dwarf." Azog nodded. Kili's eyes lowered. He wanted to sleep. "Uruk is orc, ogh is elf, golug is man, and ghaamogh is dwarf." Azog shook his head.

"Kau." Azog already sounded angry at him. "Golug, elf. Ogh, man." Kili looked up at him. "Glob." Azog muttered under his breath. Fool. Kili sighed, trying again.

"Uruk is orc, ogh is man, golug is elf, and ghaamogh is dwarf." He repeated, rubbing at his aching eyes. Ugly, ugly names. They sounded thick and bitter on his tongue. But they were correct and Azog nodded at him. Kili was too slow and sleepy and stupid-feeling for this. It was like being back at Balin's lessons, learning Khuzdul again and staring at rows and rows of odd, scratchy-looking runes that meant almost nothing to him. "Azog please-" But Kili fell silent at the glare tossed in his direction. And he watched as Azog began to draw a new row of shapes, of figures in the light. The room was uncharacteristically bright and warm, it made Kili feel sleepy. He'd been wrung out, over the day. His fingers brushed the skin of his wrist. The raised skin sent a shiver along his fingertip and he shuddered, a fresh knife wound twisting in his heart.

And with a thudding heart and stinging eyes, tongue thick and slow, brain stupid and sleepy, Kili's lesson began.

"What do I do."

He whispered the words low in Dwalin's ear, leaning over beside the dwarf stiffly, one hand on his ribs. They pained him today. Perhaps it was because his heart beat so desperately against his chest, bursting to get out. Dwalin looked over his shoulder, watching as Thorin knelt on the dirt beside him, hair falling over his face. Thorin rested one hand on Dwalin's arm, fingers grasping desperately at his silent companionship. They both looked up for a moment. Fili sat against the tree with his knees drawn up to his chest. Mahal, he looked so small. So frail. Fili was pulling out his braids with trembling hands, the braids Thorin wove into his hair some days ago now, combing the golden tangles through his fingers. He didn't rebraid them. He let the silver clasps fall to the ground, scattered and abandoned at his feet as his hair hung loose. He ran his hand through them, pushing his hair back from his face. It fell back forward, into his eyes, the blonde locks unused to this newfound freedom. Dwalin and Thorin watched with short, flickering glances as Fili wove his arms around his legs, resting his chin on folded knees. Those who didn't know him would think him doused in a crippling sadness. But they saw the way his jaw clenched, his fingers dug so tightly into his trousers. He smouldered in bitter silence, staring at the ground.

"I've lost him Dwalin." And he sounded so agonised, so close to tears. Dwalin kept his face forward, knowing he wouldn't want to see the expression his king wore. Knowing it would push him too far over the edge. "He won't talk to me. I've lost him." The other dwarf sat in silence, listening to Thorin speak. "He hates me. I can feel it. He won't say it but he blames me for all of this." Thorin's hair flashed, as he shook his head. "I don't know what to do." Dwalin kept his mouth closed. Because he couldn't speak. Because he couldn't trust his voice. Because he knew if he tried to talk it would come out hoarse and trembling, and that would be too much for Thorin too, and they would both start blubbering, the strongest two of the company, and it was far too late for them to be caught crying. Thorin's sadness bled in compassion. His own grief at losing Kili had been pushed aside, left to join the tears he never shed for Thror, for Thrain and Frerin. The other three jostled aside to make room for Kili in Thorin's hardened heart, shutting the loss out of his mind, willing himself to go on in bare-faced silence. He couldn't protect Fili the way he protected himself; he would never expect Fili to carry on as he did. But Thorin's flimsy offerings at comfort and strength were pushed away, Fili shielding his grief with anger, shutting himself off from the only person within a hundred miles who could ever possibly understand the gravity of his pain, suffering in lonely, desolate silence.

Dwalin wordlessly took Thorin's wrist. The one that lay in the dirt, keeping his eyes forward and the gesture low, so nobody else would see. He squeezed the limb, wrapped in leather, trembling in his own hand, for several moments before letting go. He saw the head nod at the edge of his periphery, breathing coming out in a long, shaking sigh. Dwalin thought for a moment that Thorin would break, that he would have to stand up and cause some sort of loud distraction, get them moving from their short rest early, leaving his king alone in the grass to catch up. But Thorin cleared his throat and found his voice, eyes dry.

"We can't stay still for much longer." Thorin's voice was level and calm. That of a king. "We shouldn't have stopped at all." Stopping just reminded everybody just how hungry they were, trapped in their leafy prison. Bofur and Bombur rationed their supplies very, very carefully. If all went well, they had enough for six weeks. And if not - well. Some of the eyes that stared at them in the night would make their way into their cooking pots, wholesome or not. At least it rained occasionally, dripping through the eaves, and they could collect enough murky water to parch their drying lips. "We must move forward." Thorin's voice rose with him as heaved himself onto his feet. "We can make camp a mile ahead." He had to keep pushing them. They weren't moving fast enough. They were listless and tired, their clothing too loose, dirty and demoralised. They felt as though they had only inched across a map which spread out for miles before them. And it frightened Thorin, their limp tiredness. Because if this is how they were now, barely under the eaves of the wood, what would it be like in the coming weeks, as they ventured into the heart of the dark forest? How could they forge on, when this was all they could give?

He got mutters in response, a handful of dark glances cast his way. But they all rose to their feet, shouldering their packs and trudging on forwards with bowed heads. Thorin led the march onwards, plunging forward into the deep gloom. But Dwalin stood and waited, waited for Fili to rise to his feet and join the rest of the company, isolated and apart underneath his tree. Fili stood up, boots shuffling through the leaf litter. He left the little silver clasps on the ground, abandoned them, turning away from the tree and towards group. Dwalin looked out of the corner of his eye, wondering if Thorin saw. He had. The four little clasps were a present from Thorin for Fili's eightieth birthday, solid silver and crafted by Thorin's own hand. And now they lay on the ground, not even glistening, looking very small and pathetic in the grey shadows. Thorin looked stone-faced, watching as Fili walked past him without a word, his hair hanging entirely loose now, save for the single remaining clasp in the back, part of a matched set, the other half resting at his throat. The king remained motionless, mouth half-open. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't believe Fili would do such a thing. How could he.

Dwalin stepped forward, ready to grab Fili by the shoulders and shake some sense into the boy. Grieving or not, there was no excuse for such a rude, vile insult. Fili should have known better - he did know better. It was a cold, deliberate act, aimed straight at Thorin's heart. And Fili seemed remorseless. But Thorin rose his hand, just enough for Dwalin to see, shaking his head. No. Leave it alone. Dwalin curled his hands into fists, giving Thorin a silent glare. How could you put up with this? It was rude, it was beyond rude, what Fili had done. But Thorin only gave a small, sad smile. A half-shrug, across the forest path. He looked broken down, defeated. It was the sadness of somebody who didn't know what else who do. Who bore the attack against him with bowed silence, an acceptance of what he had done, all the while nursing his own crippling grief as the face of his youngest nephew haunted half-shaped, dark nightmares. He would not meet Fili's anger with a raised voice or clenched fists. Thorin was withered and exhausted.

So Dwalin stepped back. He watched as Ori walked past, the glint of silver, small and pathetic but still plain in the gloom, catching his eye at the foot of the gnarled tree. And he crouched down, sifting through the leaves that Fili's boots kicked up, the clasps clinking in his fingers. One, two, three, four. They lay on his gloved hand, looking very pale. Ori looked down at them, frowning. They were Fili's, he knew they were Fili's. He looked over, seeing the untamed mane of gold hanging so rumpled over Fili's shoulders, lowering his gaze to the carved silver clasps. And the frowned deepened, Dwalin watching as Ori approached his king, holding his palm out.

"Th-Thorin," And he stammered through his nerves, unsure of how to act, what to say. Thorin looked at the red-headed dwarf impassively. "Thorin I think these are Fili's.... D-Do you want them or should I..." He trailed off as Thorin shook his head. His blue eyes were dark with inexpressible pain.

"No, they're not mine." Dwalin's heart tightened in his armoured chest. "Keep them Ori. Fili doesn't want them anymore." Ori looked down at them, fingers closing around the silver.

"A-All right." Ori looked confused. He didn't understand the significance of what he held in his hands, didn't understand how much it destroyed Thorin, to see the coming of age gift he bequeathed to his nephew lying abandoned amongst the dirt and leaves. Didn't realise that Thorin couldn't look at them, couldn't hold them in his hand, for fear that it would unleash a tempest of emotions, an uncontrollable fit of sadness and pain that he could no longer withhold. "I'll hold on to them." Dwalin closed his eyes as Ori slipped the clasps into his pocket, turning away red-faced, scampering a little to catch up to the rest of the group, slouching tiredly along the dark path. Thorin's gaze met Dwalin's as his eyelids open, brown and blue fixing on one another in the dimness. Dwalin saw only hopelessness and despair, a loss which hamstrung Thorin's heart.

"We need to get on." Thorin's voice barely rose above a whisper. Dwalin fell into step beside his king, one of his oldest and closest friends. Who dove into battle first at Thorin's left hand, and then as Balin declared himself too old and frail to fight, his right.

"I can sort him out." Dwalin kept his own voice low in his throat, leaning over to breathe against Thorin's shoulder. "Tell him to pull his head in." But Thorin shook his head, passing a hand over his eyes. "He needs a kick up the backside Thorin, and no mistake."

"I cannot begrudge him for his grief." Thorin sounded so much older than his years. He'd taken on too much, too young. He had spend too many years being their king, for a dwarf yet to see his two hundredth year. "I will not drive him to further anger Dwalin. It's a frightening memory." They both knew who Thorin spoke of, the taboo of uttering his name hanging thick in the air. "They're so similar." He tiptoed on the edge of sacred tradition. "I'm frightened that if I push Fili, then he will come back." He looked over at Dwalin, sharing a momentary look of deep-seated fear, wrapped in thick, heavy memory. "I cannot bear that anger again Dwalin."

"Leaving him to steep in lonely grief will only summon further demons." Dwalin muttered in short response. But if Fili wouldn't talk to either of them, what else could they do? Dwalin was all for having it out, and now, before Fili sank deeper into himself lulled in a dark, brooding spell. To pull him aside and tell him to get a grip. That they all missed Kili, they all felt his loss, but there was no excuse for Fili to hurt Thorin like this. He saw the dark burning anger that consumed the young prince, and it frightened and confused him, and he wanted to manage it on his own terms, rather than face the violent, imminent reaction. But if Thorin wished to wait, then Dwalin had no choice but to follow his king. It was not his judgement, not his decision. He was not Fili's uncle. Nor, no matter how hard Dwalin hoped, how hard he tried to pretend, was he Fili's father.

He was an outsider, nobody, with no claim to him.

Chapter Text

Kili's eyes snapped open as a particularly loud snore rattled through the room.

The fire had burned down to embers, flickering weakly in the iron grate. His arms bound in the thick furs he'd wrapped around himself, Kili looked like a cocooned animal, a pair of eyes and a nose peering over the edge of a warg-skin. His eyes followed a piece of ash, rising from the fire, twisting lazily through the air and coming to rest beside Kili on the stone. He lay close to the fire, trying to get as much warmth as he could in the stone cave. He lay on the soft pelt of a huge brown bear, nose pressed against the brown hair, breathing in the wild smell of blood and dirt and sunshine. It had been some hours since Azog gave up on teaching Kili, throwing one of the heavy furs from the bed onto the ground beside the fire, jerking his head towards the bear-skin. He slept a little, a short but achingly deep sleep, waking from a nightmare of screaming and bright colours with a trickle of sweat rolling down his temple. He dozed in and out, unable to regain the soft, peaceful solitude of that sleep, jarred awake ever hour or so by real and imagined sounds. But he remained still. Lying on his side, face turned to the fading fire, wrapped so tightly in animal furs, Kili felt admittedly warmer, more comfortable than he had for a long time, surrounded by the smell of fur and animal hide. It was a faint echo of home.

But there was another snore, and Kili's fragile illusion shattered to pieces. He rolled over onto his back, sitting up and watching the rising and falling chest of the sleeping figure on the huge bed in the corner of the room. He caught a flash of very white skin, illuminated in the light of the dying embers, another snore. Kili drew the furs tighter around his shoulders, dislodged from the movement, toes turned towards the fire. He drew his legs loosely up towards his chest, resting his elbows on his knees with the fur draped over him. His dark eyes watched the soft breathing of coal-fragments and red-hot splinters of wood, the last remnants of the fire sinking the room into reddened shadows. Unable to maintain the pretense of sleep, Kili rose slowly to his feet, the furs falling from his shoulders as he approached the stone table. The papers were still scattered there, thrown into haphazard piles. One was thrown on the floor, after Azog lost patience. Kili touched the side of his face, where the orc had hit him after growing frustrated at repeating himself for a third time. He gathered up the papers and pencils and ink and the book too, kneeling before the fire and spreading it all out across the bear-skin, examining it by the dull red light of the dying embers.

He looked at the images Azog had drawn, sounding the words out in his mind, trying to boost his memory. Uruk, ogh, ghaamogh, olug. The four races. There were others, drawn as simple stick figures. Eat. Throk. Sleep. Dhûl. Attack. Diisum. Kill. Az. Words Azog thought Kili would need. Azog. Kili swallowed as he looked at the figures, piecing the name together in his mind. Man-killer. He'd drawn runes beneath them, simplified Westron, a rough representation of the sounds uttered in Black Speech, to jog his memory. After giving him forty or fifty basic words, Azog turned to the back page of the calf-skin sketchbook, and began to write for Kili a simple alphabet. It was a pale representation of the pure pictoral forms as expected by a fluent speaker of Sauron's language, but Azog would not in fifty years expect the stupid young dwarf to ever grasp it. So he replicated the simplified, corrupted scratchings used by lesser goblins, sounding them out slowly and watching as Kili roughly approximated the sound beneath in dwarvish runes. Kili looked at them now, holding it up to the light as he sounded the letters out in his mind. It was a different system of writing than the one he was used to, based on word-segments and syllables rather than individual sounds. There were over a hundred, they stretched across two pages, looking crude and sharp and angular, so unlike his familiar dwarvish runes that it made his heart sick.

He whispered them aloud to himself, brain stupid and slow. They were were dull, tangled memories, fuddled about in his head. Kili couldn't understand them. So he continued turning through the pages, flicking backwards, heart racing as his eyes fell on Ori's sketches, beginning to look very dirty and smudged in the blood-red light. He leafed through them slowly, unsure of when he would have the luxury again. Turning backwards, he ran his fingers over his own face, his mussed hair and thin nose. Was that really how he looked? Was his beard that sparse? Kili's cheeks burned, and he found he couldn't look at himself without a rush of humiliation rising in his chest. He tried to distract himself, looking at the drawings of his fellow dwarves. But all too often, he flicked past his face, Kili's stomach cramped and uncomfortable as he kept seeing himself, his stupid thin young face. Even his eyes weren't right. Thorin, Fili, Dis, they all had startling blue eyes, albeit of varying hue. But Kili's were dark and muddy. He was reminded of a dirty brown pond, in comparison to a clear spring. Kili didn't look right, not like them. He was like a foundling child, a cuckoo bird in a nest of swallows. The book fell from Kili's hands as he stood up, not noticing that the snores had vanished. He crossed fur, back to the stone table, reaching for the heavy silver plate. Azog lifted his head, watching in silence as Kili knelt down before the fire, unsure of what the young dwarf was about to do. Kili rubbed at the plate with the edge of a fur, trying to clean the blood and fat from the silver, polishing it to a sheen. Satisfied he'd done the best he could, Kili inched closer to the iron fireplace, trying to angle the plate, catching his reflection in the light of the embers. He wanted to see if the face on the paper was really his, if his nose was really that small, his eyes that dark and chin that narrow. Did his hair really fall into his eyes like that, so wild and shaggy? Kili tried to see his face in the plate, but it was misty, clouded and distorted. He frowned, attempting a different angle, trying to see himself.

"Kili." The dwarf gasped, the carved plate dropping from his hands and falling with an awful crash, a clang onto the stone ground. Kili jerked to see Azog sitting up in bed, staring at him. What was he doing? Kili knelt on the fur, mouth open. Azog took in the scene, the book open on a picture of Thorin Oakenshield, papers scattered about the now dented silver plate shining like copper in the emberlight. Azog made a low growl, a sound of annoyance, in the base of his throat. "Dhûl." He issued the short command, lip curling. Sleep. Kili remembered that one. He nodded silently, gathering up the papers with shaking fingers.

"Yes - I will." He murmured. Azog grunted, Kili looking up at him. The orc tilted his head just a fraction, expecting something else. Kili swallowed. "Akh." He murmured, very softly, giving the response in Black Speech. Kili set everything aside by the fire, winding the thick fur across his shoulders. But his hands stilled on the calf-skin book, looking back at Azog, who rolled over, ready to go back to sleep. Kili's eyes lowered to the page, thumbing through the paper. He didn't know if he could have his hands on this alone again. Kili flicked through the book, very quickly, turning to the sketch of him and his brother. There they were, Kili braiding Fili's hair, his eyes down on his work, mouth in a smile, while Fili laughed at some joke, leaning back on his hands, forearms and ankles naked in the morning light. Kili couldn't breathe. The lump in his throat hardened, refusing to dissolve. With the iron hand, he grabbed the spine of the book firmly, and with the other, began to tear down the page, holding his breath. He was terrified that he would rip it completely in two. The paper tore with a whisper, the page coming loose after several heart-pounding moments. The rest of the book lay abandoned as Kili examined the paper in his hand, pressing it very close to this chest. Mahal Fili where are you I need you here more than anything. He embraced the page as though it really were his brother, bowing his head. He would have the strength of a thousand armies with Fili at his side; but alone, he was weak and desolate. He couldn't do this, not alone. Panic rolled over him in a long, slow hot wave. No. He couldn't have yet another breakdown. Kili opened his eyes, looking down at his brother.

What would Fili say, if he were here? He would tell Kili to keep his head. To stay strong. To remain calm. That he would only get out of this by being smart and brave. And he could do that, he could, really. He was a son of Durin, and no one could ever tell him otherwise. Kili repeated them in his head, tried to imagine Fili's voice in his ear, whispering the words to him. Tried to imagine those dark blue eyes smiling at him, promising courage. Courage and hope. But he couldn't do it, the voice in his head wasn't Fili, it was a poor shadow that did nothing to convince him. Kili folded the page in half, and over once more, slipping it inside his shirt. He lay down in silence, pulling the thick fur over his limbs. But the warmth and comfort, it had truly vanished. The embers were almost entirely lifeless, only a thin rim of red remained, illuminating a dull throbbing glow over the plate, but the rest was deepening shadows. Kili closed his eyes, cheek pressed against the bearskin as he faced the dying fire, the furs tightening around his shoulders. Tried to tell himself to breathe, tried to banish his sickening fears. He shuffled in his makeshift bed, the paper crackling beneath the shirt. To lull himself to sleep, Kili tried recalling his new orcish words. Ogh, ghaamog, golug, uruk. Throk, dhûl, diisum, az. He counted them over in his soupy mind, feeling a soft ebb and flow in his ears, as he slowly drifted towards sleep.

He fell asleep with the words of Black Speech in his ears, not realising at the time that the precious dwarvish names he promised to remember, the ones scratched on the cave walls echoing a forgotten past of fallen kings, had vanished from his mind entirely.

It was a poor dinner that night.

A thin soup of wilting vegetables, a hunk of very hard bread. But they all ate without complaint, murmuring amongst themselves, drawn very tightly around their tiny fire, their shield against the night, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with the darkness of the forest at their backs, trying to ignore the eyes that stared out at them. Everybody except Fili set down an empty bowl, clasping mugs of hot water. There was little to brew into tea, but the warmth of a steaming mug between blackened fingers was enough to dissipate at least some of the cold shivers. Fili pushed a half-full bowl of soup across the ground, drawing his into his chest, staring into the fire. Hollows were beginning to show in his cheeks, his dark eyes very dull. He was wasting away. Heart twisted in futility, Thorin took it without a word, giving the untouched bread to Ori, the lukewarm soup to Bilbo, the pair's eyes meeting across the sputtering flames. They all murmured softly, pressed close together, not wanting to allow an inch of darkness in. The sound of an animal cry made them all jump. Bombur's hand jerked, he swore under his breath as his mug of hot water slopped all over his woollen glove and halfway up his sleeve.. They all drew in a little closer, looking about them in fright.

"It was a small creature." But even Thorin's voice shook. He looked at them all, their faces etched in heavy fear. "Nothing to be alarmed of."

"Probably being killed by something much bigger." Bofur remarked, earning a withering glare from Balin. "You all right there brother?" He snickered, watching as Bombur peeled the soaking glove from his hand, rolling up his wet sleeve as he held it up towards the fire, getting a short grunt in response. Bilbo watched silently behind his soup bowl, frowning as he noticed for the very first time the blue mark on Bombur's wrist.

"I didn't know you had a tattoo, Bombur." Anxious to distract himself from the beasts of the night, Bilbo leaned in a little to look at it. A rune, on the soft skin of the dwarf's wrist, tattooed over his veins. "What does it mean?"

"It's my Inga." There was a rare smile on Bombur's face. "One hundred and forty-five next winter, but she doesn't look a day over ninety." Bofur bit back a chortle. Her figure suggested otherwise.

"She's his wife." Balin explained, noticing Bilbo's confusion. "When we marry, we wear the names of our wives on our wrist. Have you never seen it before?"

"Maybe he thought we sprang out of the dirt." Bofur commented, earning a rare chuckle from several members of the group.

"No! I-I mean I know you must have some ladies," The hobbit stumbled over his words. "But - well - you always wear gloves." Bilbo looked around at the fire, noticing how almost everybody either wore soft wool around their hands, or heavy leather gauntlets. Those with exposed wrists had smooth, unmarked skin. "I've never seen it before." Which was a shame. It was such a lovely thought, carrying the name of a loved one so close, over the heart-lines of the arm. So much stronger, darker, more permanent, than a ring. "And well - nobody really speaks of their wives." He watched their eyes all lower to the campfire. "It's not really the place to think on such things, is it?"

"Nay, lad." Gloin's voice was very heavy. But he unbuckled the gauntlet on his right hand, rolling up his sleeve and showing Bilbo his wrist in the firelight. "This is my Oddleif. She waits at home with my son for our return." While the others may have kept down their thoughts of home, Gloin let their faces dance before his face every night. They kept him going. They were his strength. Gloin had one purpose for this quest, and it wasn't gold or jewels; he was determined that his Gimli would have his eightieth birthday, his coming of age feast, in the great Hall of Erebor. Bilbo found his throat had become oddly stuck, as he looked at the mark. There was a softness in Gloin's eyes, one he had not seen before.

"So who else is there then?" Bilbo set down his empty bowl and rubbed his hands together in the warmth of the fire. "Who has wives, I mean." He added quickly. "I can't believe I haven't asked earlier, terribly rude of me." He looked around at the twelve faces staring into the embers.


"No one else?" Bilbo breathed, not realising just how much he was putting his foot in it. "But there's twelve of you. Surely somebody else..." He trailed off, race reddening as he realised just how he had insulted ten members of the ragged company. "Sorry."

"S'all right, you're not to know Bilbo." Oin sounded very old in the stuffy night. "My Rúna passed five winters ago." He had married her in Erebor forty years before it fell, had sworn his life to her between the stone feet of Durin. The loss of her home hit Rúna achingly hard, and she was never the same, passing through Middle Earth as a pale shadow. So two years ago, when Thorin's eyes shone in the firelight, freshly-woven gold braids trailing over his fingers as his voice rose in the modest Hall of Ered Luin, Oin had vowed to return, to sit beneath the statue of his oldest ancestor, to recite his vows once more, and call her soul home.

"I'm so sorry." Bilbo murmured, eyes downcast, feeling hot and uncomfortable, realising now why the subject had never come up until now, until he dragged it out of the deep shadows.

"We males outnumber the lasses two to one, so only the best are lucky enough to snag a wife. I don't know if you've realised, Bilbo." And there was something so wry, so sarcastic in Dori's voice. "But we're not exactly the finest specimens of dwarves on Middle Earth. The lasses go for dwarves with skill and cunning, who prove themselves in battle."

"And money." Dwalin's voice was hard, cold and bitter. "They like money, too." Bilbo watched as Balin rested his hand on his brothers' shoulder, squeezing very tightly. Thorin couldn't look at him.

"Aye, and none of us have much o' that." Nori muttered, tightening his hands around his mug of water. "It's why were here, 'aint it?" Dori gave his brother a sidelong glance, but remained silent, reminding himself that at least a few members of the company had slightly more noble intentions.

"What about love then?" Bilbo looked down at his steaming mug. "If you haven't married... Surely you've been in love?" He looked around at them, eyes shining. "Even from afar, Love is still love."

"I courted a maiden for three years as a dwarrow." Bofur's lips were in a sad smile. "But she chose a Longbeard warrior, in the end. Said it was all well and good if I could make her laugh and was good with my hands, but it didn't put food on the table." The smile sank downwards, tugging at an old wound that refused to heal. "Last I heard, she had four sons and he was making a name for himself putting down goblin forces down South." If Bofur harboured any resentment towards either of them, Bilbo didn't see it. He just slumped his shoulders in sad acceptance. "Besides, we keep busy. More than enough dwarrows were made orphans at Erebor and Azanulbizar." While not strictly one of Durin's folk, Bofur had lived long enough in Ered Luin to get on well with the youngsters, and had a hand in raising them, making toys and reading them stories. His comforting warmth and laughter was strange to the young dwarrows, so used to cold and pain and hunger, of cold aloof warriors for fathers, now lost. They clamoured to hear his tales, to receive his legendary toys as name-day gifts. It was almost enough to make Bofur forget his painful longing for children of his own. Almost. "Someone has to look after 'em."

"What happens in death?" Bilbo couldn't resist asking. "We hobbits remarry if our husbands or wives pass and we're still young. You live for so long, surely..."

"Life is life." Thorin was firm in this. "For both halves, life is life. There is no remarriage. You cannot write a new name on your wrist."

"But you can burn it off." Fili's voice broke out of the silence. Thirteen pairs of eyes swivelled towards him. Dwalin's hands clenched into fists. Thorin opened his mouth, looking a little stunned.

"What do you mean?" Bilbo breathed. There was something else in Fili's face, something new to Bilbo. A deeper, more ancient pain than he ever could express. A shadowy memory of his mother, kneeling swollen over the fire with a red-hot dagger in her hand. Fili wrapped up in her cloak, half-asleep, watching through cracked eyes as she gritted her teeth and let out a single whimper of pain.

"Fili." Thorin uttered a short warning. But his nephew ignored him, turned to face Bilbo who sat two places along from him. The others watched in silence. Three of them knew the full story, five heard rumours, and the other four had no idea about what had ever happened to Fili's father.

"Exactly that." His voice was very calm. That was bad. It meant he was teetering on the edge. Dwalin braced himself against the ground, stomach boiling. "Ask my mother. It's only ink beneath the skin. You can burn past that, pretend that-"

"Enough out of you lad." Dwalin broke Fili's speech, grabbing the blonde roughly by the elbow. "With me. Now."

"No - Let me go!" Fili protested vocally, the other watching as Dwalin dragged him away from the light of the fire, out of earshot, stomping in the dirt with Fili struggling and protesting against him. "Hey!" Fili gasped as Dwalin shoved him roughly against a tree, a looming shadow in the distant firelight.

"Fili, hold your tongue for five seconds." The older dwarf sounded angry. Fili remained silent, trembling under Dwalin's tight grasp on his arms. "How dare you insult your mother in the company of eleven other dwarves!" His fingers dug into the leather on Fili's limbs, their noses very close. "How dare you suggest-"

"I'm not suggesting anything." Fili panted, in pain but refusing to show it. "I'm telling you it wasn't an accident. I've been trying to tell everybody for years and nobody will listen to me-"

"I said hold your tongue." Dwalin was shaking with rage. This had gone far enough. He could handle Fili acting like a spoiled brat, his sulky rage, his rudeness to Thorin. But insulting Dis crossed a line that ran across his heart. He would not for one moment accept it, even from one of her sons. Especially from her sons. "It is not your place Fili. Dis told Thorin, told me, that she was burned in an accident and it is not your place to argue against it."

"But you know I'm right." Fili snarled. "You know-"

"Durin help me Fili, I said be quiet." It was hard, so hard to keep his voice low, to keep from screaming out at Fili, to keep his hands on his arms and not to hit him. "You are being a child. I know you are in pain. I know you are suffering." Their foreheads were almost touching. Neither of them saw Thorin approaching in the darkness. "But this is not the time to bring up old memories. It is done. It is over." He sighed, heavily. "It's been years Fili, years since you brought any of this up. Why now?" Fili's eyes glistened in the shadows. "Did you do it to hurt Thorin? To hurt me?" He saw the eyes blink, felt Fili's arms loosen as he took in a short breath, as though he were about to dive into a turbulent ocean. "Why?"

"Because he's dead." Thorin's breath hitched in his throat, masked in the blackened night. Fili swallowed, bowing his head a little. Dwalin drew back from him, but his grasp on Fili remained as firm as ever. "He died years ago."

"What - how." Dwalin hissed. "How do you know? Tell me Fili." He shook him, Fili's neck lolling a little, a broken puppet. He met Dwalin's eyes, or where he thought they would be in the darkness. "How do you know?" He repeated, unable to fight the tremor in his voice.

"Gandalf told me." Thorin's hands clenched into fists. That meddling wizard. "It was in Dunland, he was living there and-"

"Enough Fili." The aged warrior whispered. "Say no more. Durin, when did he tell you this? How long have you been holding this in?" He saw, with a horrible stab in his chest, that the left side of his face glistened.

"The day we found Kili's... His things." Fili breathed. "When we travelled alone together." His lips were trembling. "So it doesn't matter now. He's dead. He's gone and we can-"

"No we can't." Dwalin cut over him. "It doesn't end in death. It ends with time, with existence. It ends when the last of those who knew his name stop breathing. Death is only half of his punishment Fili." Thorin watched the pair, how small Fili looked in his grand leathers and furs, how Dwalin, so tall, loomed over him. "You are going to go back. You are going to apologize. You are going to say that you never meant such an insult against your mother. And you are going to tell Thorin that you will never utter such things again." Fili's breath quickened.

"No Dwalin please you have to listen to me-"

"Never again Fili." Fili was shaking his head. "Never again." He repeated. Thorin felt heartsick, watching the shadows so close in the dark. The realisation sent the earth reeling beneath his feet, it made his head spin. He told himself for seventy-seven years that Fili was too young to know what had happened. Dis swore blue that Fili never saw a thing, that he was just a babe. She kept the secrets locked within herself, refusing to let a single word pass her lips. But he wasn't. He wasn't. Fili remembered his father. He closed his eyes, trying so very hard to keep his breathing slow and even, indeterminable in the darkness. Fili remembered the Ironfists. He remembered what they did to Dis. He remembered their violent, bloodthirsty culture. She had sworn that he had been shielded from the darkness, the terror and pain. She lied to him. Mahal, what had Fili kept silent from him?

"Dwalin." Fili had sagged, exasperated and sick with frustration. "Please. Thorin won't listen, Balin won't listen - nobody will listen to me." Thorin's eyes stung. Fili what did they do to you? Thorin was bent almost double, hands on his knees. "I can't keep quiet and pretend nothing ever happened it hurt and I can't-" Fili's voice broke off in a sob, one that carried into the night. Thorin sank onto the forest floor, biting on a knuckle to keep from crying out. He had his suspicions but Dis always swore that Fili was innocent to what she had seen. She lied to him.

"Fili," But there was a resignation in Dwalin's voice, and Fili read the conversation before it happened. That he was going to tell him to be quiet, that it was the past and he would solve nothing by dragging up old memories. He pulled himself away from the older dwarf, wrenching his arms free from that grasp with another sob, turning away from Dwalin. He walked abruptly back to the fireplace, Thorin holding his breath as Fili walked past him. But his boots, inches from Thorin's fingertips, kept on walking, not noticing his uncle on his knees on the forest path. Fili's raw open wound had been left to bleed out, he knelt back at his place in the fire, his hair shining like gold in the light, head bowed. Thorin knew that there would be no apology for what he had said and done. He didn't expect one. Dwalin stood in silence, hands at his side with an odd ringing in his ears. He had tried to defuse the situation - but all he had done was push Fili even closer to the edge. His heart ached. He couldn't allow Fili his confession. It was not his place, as a half-uncle, in name and not blood, to allow Fili to break such a sacred, ancient law. There was no father, there never was a father.  And that was all Dwalin could say.

And Thorin, kneeling in the grass, fought a very real urge to be sick. The pieces of Fili had cracked and fallen around him. He'd allowed himself to be taken in by a web of lies. Allowed himself to believe Dis' obvious falsehoods. For Fili's sake. Allowed himself to pretend that Fili was for all intents and purposes born in Ered Luin, in his arms, with nothing to remember from beforehand. With no father to call upon in his mind. Only now, he understood the threat, the danger of Fili's anger. Why he attached himself so closely to Thorin, why he threw himself headlong into his exhaustive preparation and grooming for the throne. Why he tried so very, very hard to prove himself as being the perfect heir of Durin. Why he was so viciously defensive of Kili. Why he allowed Kili to take the blame, leaving his own reputation untarnished. His strained relationship with Dis during his twenties and thirties. Unspeakable terrors lay within Fili's mind, dark memories of violence and depravity. Frantically, Thorin recalled every rumour, every shred of gossip he had ever heard about the wild Ironfist clan which lay on the eastern edge of the world. How much Fili would have seen with his half-formed eyes.

Mahal what have I done. Thorin looked through his fingers at the golden mane, unbraided and loose. Dwalin still leaned against the tree, his breath a long, heavy groan. He seemed incomparably old. Thorin couldn't breathe in the dark, muffled air beneath the trees. He felt crippled with agonizing guilt and pain. Mahal what have I done to you Fili. For he could blame no one else. For shielding his ears for decades, for telling his nephew to be quiet and not speak on his father, for turning away when Fili whined that he had a secret to tell, Thorin could blame nobody else for the corruption that blackened Fili's soul. It was a monster, fighting to escape from Fili's heart. And with the loss of Kili leaving Fili so raw and open, there was nothing to stop the monster from turning his nephew inside out. Secrecy and lies had hammered Fili into something deformed.

And Thorin could blame no one else.

Chapter Text

They stood on the edge of the sunset.

Kili was painfully aware of just how small, how young he was, as he stood before the crowd of goblins. Some sitting, some standing, fiddling with their packs and idly tending to their wargs, awaiting the orders of their new general. There were forty-two of them, and it seemed to Kili a vast army, as he thought of the exhausted, ragged cluster of twelve dwarves and a single hobbit. He knew they could never stand a chance. There was a lick at his hand. Kili looked down, eyes meeting the warg which was now supposedly his. The creature was already laden with a saddle close as they could get Kili's size, a small set of saddlebags lightly stuffed; Nardur was young, and Darg advised against too heavy a burden on such a runty creature. He was going to ride it. Kili rested his hand on top of Nardur's head, trying to get himself used to the sensation of the coarse grey fur beneath his hand, so unlike the thin soft hair of a pony. He was going to have to relearn everything he knew about riding, and quickly.

You can do this.

Kili knelt on the stone beside Nardur, running his fingers over the warg's face in gentle strokes, trying to be coaxing and kind. Perhaps if he showed friendliness to the beast, he wouldn't be so violent and bloodthirsty. A number of the other wargs growled at Kili, low in their throats, pawing at the ground, and had to be pulled back by their riders, kicked into whining submission. Kili rubbed the top of Nardur's head, receiving a lick on the cheek in response. Kili fought back a cry, very aware of the eyes that stared at him, muttering to each other in confusion. He knew they all wondered who he was. What he was doing here, dressed like an orc, with a warg of his own. Kili couldn't even answer that question. He didn't know what it was Azog was planning to do with him. Maybe he had seen some sort of sense. Kili didn't know what he was to Azog at this point - prisoner, pet, student, they'd all melded together. All he could do was keep his head down, his tongue still, going through the motions. He was raw iron, ready to be hammered into shape. He didn't care about maintaining his name. About his family honour. He wasn't even sure if he wanted to live. All he knew was that Azog was coming after his brother. After days of uncertainty, Kili knew there was nowhere else they could be going. Azog's threats were spoken in truth. They were going to hunt Thorin and Fili down. And Kili had to be there. He had to make it long enough to see them once more. He wouldn't die without seeing Fili, without holding him and breathing him in. Kili would do everything within his power to make it through. That was all he had to do. He just had to survive. Kili looked at the pack of vile creatures that stood around him, heart hammering in his throat. Mahal, it was not going to be easy. He knew what they all wanted to do with him. He could see it, written in their faces and replicated, again and again. They wanted to hurt him. There was only cold cruelty in their eyes.

Save one.

Nazarg sat cross-legged, leaning against the side of his Aanash, feeling the dwarf look at him. But he wouldn't meet Kili's gaze. He kept his gaze downwards, in a cold angry silence. He hated this. This powerlessness. Being forced. Having no way out. It was an entirely foreign sensation to the orc-healer, one that left him seething with fury. Having to pack up his precious things, giving his patients one last visit, it left him feeling sick. He had to end the lives of three of them with a hammer and chisel to the back of the neck, knowing there was no way they would survive without him. Their hope had run out. The others had a chance, and a slim one at that, but he could do nothing else. All he could do was obey whatever orders came in his direction. Azog valued his own vanity project over the lives of dozens of goblins, those supposedly under his domain. And he would not ever forget that.

Azog turned away from the face of the cave, regarding the figures that were sprawled out before him. At his movement, the cluster of goblins all fell silent, rising to their feet and standing to attention. He stared around at them all, lip twitching in the beginnings of a rare smile. They were the strongest, the swiftest of foot, the best with a blade, that the dilapidated down had to offer. They weren't a patch on his first contingent - but they would do. Yes, they would do very well, for his purpose. Kili was slow to stand, he kept his head down, his good hand fiddling with the iron cast.

"This evening, we ride." Azog's voice rang out, harsh and cold and clear in the cave. Fading sunlight filtered through a distant entrance, soft and warm as butter. Kili reached out for it, anxious beyond words to feel the sun on his face after what felt a lifetime below ground. "I am sure you are all very aware of who we hunt." Kili tried to follow Azog's speech, but could only understand one word in ten. "Thorin Oakenshield and his company travel east, towards Erebor. They intend to reclaim their homeland." He smirked. That would not happen, not if he had anything to do with it. He was determined that Thorin and his nephews would never see the Lonely Mountain. "And we are going to catch them." Kili understood catch. He looked up at Azog, fingers curling in Nardur's fur. "I want it made very clear that I do not put up with rabbles of mindless, idle fools." Azog's face clouded. "I expect a very high level of conduct amongst every creature under my command. You will keep your wargs in line. You will not fall behind. You will not speak the ugly languages of men and dwarves. You will not hit out against any of your comrades. You will obey every command I ask of you. And you shall be duly rewarded. I only want three members of Thorin Oakenshield's company." His eyes fell on Kili for a moment. "The other ten are yours, and you are free to do take them back to your caves and do with them whatever you wish." There was uplifted muttering, chuckles and jeers, at that. "And regarding Kili," He reached forward, taking the dwarf by the good arm, dragging him forward so everybody could see him. Kili swallowed at the forty pairs of eyes that focused so intently on him, feeling a trickle of sweat oozing down the back of his neck. "I want it very clear that you are to treat him as an equal." They all fell very silent. Nazarg unfolded his arm, brow creasing in a frown. "You will not abuse or taunt him. You will not try any wickedness with him. He is mine." Azog turned Kili's arm, the mark on his wrist very plain in the cave, lit with dozens of lanterns and the faintest glow of a dying sun. Kili closed his eyes, catching a momentary glimpse of the brand and feeling his stomach clench. "Am I understood?"

He was met with compliant silence. Silence he rightly took to mean yes. He released his hold on Kili, the dwarf lowering his gaze to the ground, wanting more than anything to have them all look at something, anything else. Anything but him. Their pale yellow gaze, it stung him. He could see their minds, laid open to him, contorted in anger and hate. To regard a dwarf as anything other than the scum of the earth was an affront to them. They bore it only under strict orders. Azog turned away from them all, signalling to the slender grey warg that he now called his own. She rose to her feet, waiting patiently beside the orc king, ready to bear her heavy load. Kili watched as the other all made to do the same, stumbling to his place beside Nardur, running his fingers over the worn leather of the saddle. It was trickly, but he managed to hoist himself up with his good hand, gripping tightly the horn at the apex of the leather. There were no reins; Kili would have to hold on and grip the creature very tightly with his legs. These were not beasts that could be muzzled with leather and iron. Kili grasped the horn with both hands, gripping very tightly, remembering the commands Azog had taught him the night before.

"Sûr." He tried to keep his voice firm, but he simply sounded weak and unsure. Kili cleared his throat. When Darg led the young warg to Kili, he warned the dwarf that he had to be firm and strict with Nardur, else he would never get any respect. He had to assert his own dominance. "Sûr." He made sure his voice was a little harder. Nardur began to walk, following the rest of the pack as they approached the mouth of the cave. Kili wasn't sure if it was his command which had spurred the action, or the warg's natural instinct to follow the pack. He would probably find out later. Kili swallowed as he stepped into the dying sunlight, feeling it on his face for the first time in days. The others drew back and hissed, but Kili arched his neck back, drawing in a long breath, feeling the wind in his hair, the last warm whispers of a latesummer day. It was a momentary escape for Kili. But all too soon, he had to lower his head and open his eyes, standing on the verge of the outside world in the beckoning twilight. And he felt very self-conscious. Not for what the goblins thought of him - he couldn't care less on that - but what Thorin would say if he could see him, right now. Not just Thorin, but Thrain and Thror too. All the great kings of dwarves he called his ancestors. Noble, proud rulers who lived by a code of honour and valour. What would they say if they saw Kili, son of Dis, daughter of Thrain, dressed in the vest and tunic of goblins, the name of Azog burned onto his wrist, an orcish bow slung across his back, feeding on the flesh of - of -. He couldn't even think it in his mind. It was too disgusting to entertain in his head, let alone on his lips. Kili felt as though he had swallowed a very heavy rock. He knew the insults that would be hurled at him. He knew the shame he committed to their memory. But what else could he do? Was it better to die, than to subject his families' name to this humiliation? Surely not. Surely Thorin would understand. He had to understand. He had to. Fili would. He must. Kili couldn't lose them, couldn't have them reject him for the sins he had committed against his people. He couldn't bear even the thought.

Without Thorin and Fili, Kili had no reason to go on.

Thorin knew as soon as he woke that Fili trod on the edge.

He opened his eyes, seeing his nephew already awake, sitting up with his legs crossed, looking as though he had not slept at all in the night. His face was uncharacteristically pale, his nails had been chewed almost completely off, his eyes ringed with shadows. The others were making their slow, stiff emergence into morning, Bofur blowing life back into the fire and getting food ready for breakfast, Ori rolling up his blankets and stuffing them into his pack, Dwalin re-fitting his knuckle-dusters. Fili sat in silence, gripping his ankles with his eyes fixed at the ground. He looked as though he hadn't moved in a very long time. Thorin slowly pulled on his furs, watching out of the corner of his eye for any sudden flashes of gold. He knelt at the fire between Balin and Dwalin, beckoning them both to lean in, very close.

"He's going to snap." Thorin breathed. "The both of you - this is very important - I need to know. You can tell me. Has Fili ever said anything about life before Ered Luin? Even a whisper, an offhand comment, I need to know."

"Is this about last night?" Dwalin spoke into Thorin's ear, casting a backwards look at the blonde who sat with fingers trembling around his ankles. Thorin nodded. "Mahal Thorin, how much did you hear?"

"Almost everything." He gave Dwalin a sidelong glance. "Enough to know that I've had it all wrong for a very long time. He remembers, Dwalin."

"He was a babe." Balin spoke calmly. "No older than four years old. He wouldn't remember much Thorin. Even if he did, he wouldn't make much sense of it." He could feel Thorin, so tense beside him, wanted desperately for him to remain calm.

"He remembers his father, Balin." Thorin ran a hand through his hair. "He's been trying to tell us for years and we never listened -" He broke off, shaking his head. "I've been a fool. Such a blind fool. Are you sure that he has told you nothing?"

"If I'd ever heard a whisper, I would have told you Thorin." Balin rested a hand on his king's shoulder for a moment. "I'm sorry, but I know nothing."

"You heard him last night." Dwalin murmured. "He tried to tell me but I couldn't - Thorin I'm not breaking those laws. It's not my place." Thorin bit hard on his lip, raising his eyes to the leafy canopy overhead.

"I need to talk to him." Thorin's voice tumbled out in an urgent rush. "Now." He got up on his knees. "I don't know how long it will take. Let the others finish breakfast and go on, we'll catch up la-"

Thorin was cut off by a high cry, just several feet away.

The three turned, there was a collective shout, the sound of scuffling. Thorin's blood went cold as he saw Ori hunched over, holding his nose. Blood slipped like rubies through his trembling fingers. Fili was shouting, shouting at Ori. Bifur and Bofur held his arms, trying to pull him back, the blonde straining against them. No. Thorin knelt on the ground in shock for a heartbeat, watching as Fili elbowed Bofur hard in the ribs, the dwarf letting go, swearing. Fili rounded on Bifur, who still grasped the other elbow, Thorin leaping into action. He caught Fili's fist before it connected with the silent miner, wrenching his nephew free and dragging him, kicking and screaming and swearing away from the group. Fili found his feet, Thorin's mouth filled with wild locks of golden hair. He disentangled himself from Fili, wanting to face him, to hold him still and calm him down. But Fili moved quicker. As he turned to face Thorin, the smouldering rage within him caught completely alight. With a growl, he curled his hand into a shaking fist.

"You!" It wasn't a shout. It was a sob. Thorin's eyes widened, a short cry spilling from his lips as Fili struck his collarbone, reeling back from the force of the blow. "How could you?" Fili was screaming brokenly in Thorin's ear, unable to think, to see, to breathe. He hit Thorin again, square in the stomach, his uncle sinking to his knees, winded as his chest flared up in pain. Fili lunged, knocking Thorin to the ground and raining heavily blows on any part of him he could reach. "How - could - you!" Thorin weakly tried to shield himself with his arms, the limbs knocked away to the ground. "You killed him!" Thorin let out a choked cry as Fili drove a particularly hard punch into his ribs, right into the slow-healing wound he sustained from Azog's warg. "You - bastard!" Fili's breath caught in his throat as a thick pair of arms wrapped around his torso, crushing his arms into his sides. "Let me go!" He looked down at the heavy forearms, the hands marked in blue ink. Dwalin. Fili snarled, kicked out at him as he was lifted from Thorin's trembling body, dumped unceremoniously on the ground. Fili leaped to his feet, Dwalin grabbing his wrists before he could land a blow on him.

"Easy." Dwalin tried to keep his voice calm, but he was shaking. The others watched in stunned silence. Thorin lay on his side, coughing, Balin kneeling at his shoulder, gently coaxing him up. He looked bad. Dwalin regretted the precious time it took to take the metal knuckle-dusters off his hands - but he couldn't run the risk of accidentally hurting Fili. Ori held a rag over his broken nose, eyes glistening with tears as he watched Fili struggle madly in Dwalin's hold. He was strong, but Dwalin was stronger. And he held Fili fast. "Fili calm down." He stared wide-eyed at the blonde, unable to believe what he had seen. Fili had gone completely mad. He growled, locking eyes with Dwalin. His irises were almost black. He bared his teeth, Dwalin's chest constricting in cold terror. This wasn't Fili. This was a beast in his skin. His knuckles were red and swollen, face slick with sweat and tears. Fili's vision was a hazy blur. All he could see was red, so much red, blood glittering, the choked pain in Thorin's bright blue eyes. He tried to wrench his arms free, yanking so hard he almost pulled the limbs from their sockets, but Dwalin's grip was as lasting and hard as stone. Fili's parted lips rumbled in a growl, thwarted in his attempt to get at Thorin, to hurt him, to make him suffer like he suffered, and he drew up his leg with all the strength he could muster, bringing the leather-clad kneecap right between Dwalin's legs.

The dwarf crumpled, breath knocked from his lungs as a flash of white seized his vision. His midsection flaring with agony, Dwalin's fingers slipped from Fili's wrists, and he sank to his knees, head bowed as he gasped and coughed for air. Eyes the colour of night, Fili returned to his prey. Thorin was on his knees, clutching his ribs, breaking in short, choked gasps. But he didn't stand alone before Fili. Gloin, Balin and Bifur stood in front of their king, a shield of bodies, ready to protect him against the animal that had claimed his nephew. Fili stood frozen, mouth half-open, panting for air as he regarded the four for a split second. Groaning, Dwalin rose back onto his feet, hands on his knees as he bent almost double.

"Fili," And Balin held his hands out, pleading with the young prince. "Fili calm down. Please." Fili was sobbing, breath hoarse and broken in his throat. Balin's attempt was futile. There was no one would could bring him down from this dizzying rage. Nobody who lived. "Fili." Fili backed away from Balin as the elderly dwarf took a step forward, shaking his head. His hands were throbbing. He looked at the dim scene, eyes widening with the horror of what he had done. Dwalin still bent over. Ori nursing a broken nose. Thorin wheezing for air. Mahal no. Fili's hands went to his hair, his unbraided hair, winding the tangled curls about his fingers, pulling hard on his scalp as the adrenaline faded, as the momentary stillness allowed Fili a moment of his senses. He looked at Thorin, shielded behind Gloin and Bifur's legs, catching a flash of bright blue, staring up at him. Staring up in him in fear. "It's all right." Balin was a poor substitute at this moment. He knew who Fili really wanted. He wanted a ghost. A body whose heart had stopped beating. Who no longer breathed. Fili couldn't speak. He called Thorin a bastard. He felt the rage swell up again in his chest, clenching his hands into well-practiced fists. But it wasn't anger at Thorin, or at Balin and Dwalin. Not this time. It was himself. What have I done? Hot tears spilled over on his cheeks, Fili shaking his head. No what have I done? He looked up at them all, twelve faces that stared at him in shock, anger. "Fili come here - Fili no!" For Fili did the only thing he thought he could do. Humiliated, enraged, he did the only thing that seemed possible at the time. He couldn't stand there, couldn't bear their judgement. Couldn't look at what he had done. Couldn't face up to his violence and bitter rage. So Fili did the only thing he could do.

And with his golden mane flying out behind him, Fili turned on his heel, leaving the company behind as he burst from the safety of the elf-path, plunging into the wild forest.

Chapter Text

Mahal no.

Thorin staggered to his feet, pushing past Balin and Gloin, ignoring them all as he pitched forward, unsteady on his trembling legs. Dwalin screamed at him, Bifur seized his sleeve, but Thorin shook the dwarf free, following Fili’s steps away from the path and into the wood. Terror seized him, smothered his senses and left his limbs weak. He coughed, lurching forward, his chest wracked with pain. Every breath brought another stab of agony into his lungs. His collarbone throbbed.  But Thorin paid no attention to his aching body, clambering over a fallen tree-log, breath a shallow gasp in his pounding chest.

“Fili!” The air tore from his lungs, the cries of his company muffled and distant. “Fili stop!” His hoarse voice was met with a distant crashing, as Fili pushed his way through a maze of ancient greenery. Thorin’s hands shook with panic. He couldn’t lose Fili too. All the warnings left by Gandalf to stay on the path had slipped from his mind. He couldn’t lose Fili. It was an impossible, terrifying thought. Please no. He moaned, stumbling, falling heavily to his knees. Thorin’s fingers curled in the dirt and leaves, coughing heavily. Blood was on his lips. Fighting down the urge to cry out, Thorin rose to his feet. He reached out, clutching the slim trunk of a sapling as he gasped for air. The pain had doubled in his chest from the exertion of pushing his broken body through the dense, wild forest, but Thorin couldn’t stop.

“Fili!” His voice was weak. Thorin staggered, trying to listen for a sound, any sound, through the pulsating hammer of blood in his ears. The crashing, the sound of scrabbling, had ceased. He didn’t know if he was heading in the right direction anymore. But he forced his way through, pushing aside branches, stumbling over gnarled tree-roots and battling the tendrils of ferns and vines that attempted to choke him in a leafy embrace. It was so dark. It was like wandering through night. The shadows left everything almost black, shades of slate and iron looming about him. Thorin kept his head bent, watching as he negotiated the hostile terrain. A twisted ankle would finish him, and Fili would be lost. He was slow, too slow, he knew. Fili was getting away from him. The sounds had already faded and Fili would fade too. Thorin groaned and shook his head, willing his legs to move faster, for the air to push through his lungs. Please. He lurched forward, trying to cling to a tree-trunk. Wet green moss came away on his hands, rich and sticky. No please. He forced his battered body onward, farther and farther away from the relative safety of his company. And farther away from Fili. He knew he wasn’t catching up. He knew Fili had slipped through his fingers. He wasn’t quick enough.

Thorin stumbled, taking his eyes from the ground for just a moment to stare about himself in the heavy gloom. It was enough and he tripped, foot caught in a twisting tree-root. He fell hard, throwing his arms out to catch himself and receiving only broken pieces of leaves. Thorin landed heavily on his ribs, winded as an explosion of white-hot pain coursed through his chest. The ground flecked with blood as he coughed and gasped for air, convulsing. He couldn’t move, couldn’t rise to his feet. Was the forest growing darker or was it his own fading vision? Thorin turned onto his side, curling over as the blood spilled from his mouth. He clutched at his weak, frail chest, as though he could reach inside himself and pull the pain out. The earth pitched and moved beneath him.

Unable to move, unable to shake the bloodied coughs that wracked his frame, Thorin stared at the ground with half-open eyes, refusing to surrender to a looming darkness.

Nazarg was right.

He sighed as he stared at Kili’s back, tracing his fingers over the wounds. They had reopened from the ride, blood oozing from the split skin and staining the bandages. Kili bore the touch without flinching, leaning his chin on his knees. He was listening, listening for words familiar to him which peppered the languid, ugly mutters of the goblins that moved around them. Frequently he asked Nazarg what a word or phrase would mean, repeating it on his tongue and trying out the sounds with his own mouth. Nazarg whispered a translation in Westron, the language now forbidden in Azog’s camp, eyes bent towards his work.

He was furious, but couldn’t rebuke Kili for something beyond his control. So Nazarg kept his tongue still, remaining quiet about the three lives he had ended for the dwarf’s sake. And his own, he reminded himself. He had his own fortunes to concern himself with. The swelling rage at his own powerlessness licked at him, and he had to keep his teeth gritted, his utterances short, edged with iron. Kili could hear the orc’s subtle anger in his voice, keeping his questions to a minimum as he felt the fingers against his back. This wasn’t like the warm little cave with the burning brazier. They were here under different terms and both were keenly aware of the dramatic shift in power.

“Should be enough.” The orc’s voice was a low mutter. Kili nodded at the voice in his ear, looking up from his hands and turning his neck. Nazarg was already shoving his things in his pack, standing up. He didn’t want to remain here. He didn’t know what he would say to the young dwarf. The lack of language between them was the least of it. Kili threaded his arms through the sleeve of his vest, fiddling with the belt at his waist. He was about to stand up when his view was blocked by a very tall shadow. Nazarg paused and watched as Azog thrust something into Kili’s face, wrapped in a small twist of stained brown cloth. His nose twitched, eyes widening. He could not be smelling that. It was impossible. He waited until Azog had stomped away before crouching down in front of Kili.

“Do you know what that is?” He whispered urgently, on one knee as his eyes darted around him. Kili looked up at the voice, mouth full of cold meat, frozen at the expression on Nazarg’s face. The orc looked at him in horror, stomach lurching as he stared into Kili’s eyes. They looked dead. He had an idea, all right.

“Of course I do.” Kili stared down at his shaking hands, and his voice cracked. “Don’t – don’t tell me.” He bowed his head and curled inwards so nobody could see his expression as he ate. “Just go – please.” The orc crouched on the floor, shaking his head in slow disbelief. His gaze flicked up to Azog, who lounged beside the fire with a smirk, and he felt his blood boil. Nobody, at least nobody in Isengard, had inflicted such raw, mental cruelty on one of their prisoners. How far was Azog going to go in breaking Kili down?  “I’m sure you have something better to do.” Kili spoke around a mouthful of food and the sound sent another lurch rolling through Nazarg’s stomach. He stood up wordlessly and turned away from the young dwarf, shouldering his pack as he crossed the low dark cave, their home during the fierce noon-day sun.

He had a lot to do, Kili was right. He found a bush of horsetail growing in the shadows near dawn; he ripped the whole thing out and had a thick handful of bugs, roots, and weeds to pull the useful parts out of. The goblins sneered at him, watching as he gathered the best bits and started splitting the stems with his knife, but Nazarg held his tongue and kept an eye on his work. They wouldn’t be sneering later on, when they needed his compresses for a bite-mark or a sword-cut or whatever other nasty wound they would eventually get on this stupid journey.

He did look up though, from time to time, when he saw the great white orc-king making his way to the little dwarf who sat hunched over by the fire. Azog sat down opposite Kili, with a stack of papers and a brown leather book. He was teaching him, the healer realised, the knife lowering in his hands. He was teaching Kili how to speak and read their language.

Azog what are you doing. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head, knowing that he was cooking up something devious and cruel, and Kili was in the centre at it. But try as he might, his quick mind could not unravel Azog’s complicated plan.

“We have to-”

“Dwalin no!” Balin caught his brother by the edge of his furs before he crashed into the forest. “Don’t take another step.” He pulled Dwalin back, dragging him from the darkness and gloom of the tangled forest. “Mahal – nobody move!” He held up his hands, breathing heavily. The eleven knelt, stood, sat, whispering to each other. “Nobody make a sound.” Balin held his breath. The only noise came from Ori, fighting back tears from his broken nose. The first rag was already cast to the ground, saturated, and Dori had torn a corner of his shirt, pressing it against his brother’s swollen nose. Oin turned his battered ear-trumpet towards the wild forest. They all heard the sound of crashing, a hoarse, broken cry. Thorin.

“Enough of this-” Dwalin shouldered his axe. He didn’t stop to hear Balin’s cries of protest, plunging head-on into the wood. Almost immediately he brought his axe into the gnarled back of the tree, pulling out a chip of wood the size of a dinner plate. The honey-coloured heart of the tree glimmered plainly in a gloom of green and grey. He took half a dozen steps before swinging the iron weapon again, making a clear sign in the trunk. He wasn’t afraid of losing himself in these woods – he had always had a clear sense of direction, after a century and a half of mines, tunnels, and caves. Let the cursed forest do its best to trap him – Dwalin would not be led astray.

“Thorin!” Dwalin called out into the thick air, bringing another slice of wood out of an ancient tree. He heard a crash, a cry of pain and his heart seized. He knew Thorin wouldn’t have made it far – he saw the way his king had staggered forward and clutched his chest. There was no way he could keep his feet for this long. Dwalin stopped and held his air in his lungs, tuning his ears into any whisper of life. A breath of wind, an insect. But the dark forest refused to beckon at his call. It was desolate and dead and Dwalin could hear nothing.

He swore in Khuzdul, crashing his axe against wood before resuming his steps, crashing through the undergrowth. He was furious with himself, with his closed refusal to speak to Fili. How much of this could have been avoided if he’d just grown a spine and sat the lad down, if he had just asked him to spill his heart and be done with seventy-five years of anger, hatred, lies and downcast tears? Hang his place. Hang everything. They had already lost Kili – was that not enough? Was it not enough for Thorin to let go of his pride, his illusions, his stupid stupid refusal to listen to his own damn heart? Dwalin stopped once more to mark a fresh tree, and this time he paused, leaning his forehead against the knotted wood, breathing heavily. Was it not enough for Dwalin to fight his own way into Fili’s heart and drag his little prince out before he completely hardened to stone?

Apparently not.

Dwalin froze at the sound of a low moan, on the barest edge of his hearing. He turned, taking a half-step in one direction and then the other. Where was it coming from?

“Thorin?” He called out, arching his neck towards the gloomy canopy. “Thorin, is that you?” Dwalin listened with close, keen ears but not even the leaves whispered a reply. “Fili?” He tried, knuckles white around his axe.

There it was again, from his left. Dwalin took off, making sure to pause at every fourth three and take another great swing at the dim wood. Thorin hadn’t made it far at all, before collapsing to the earth. Dwalin stilled, heart in his throat as he saw the slumped figure of his king, curled over in the dirt. Thorin’s face was bone-white, lips bloodied and a bruise already darkening his cheekbone.

“Thorin.” Dwalin sighed, slinging his axe across his back, sinking on his knees in the earth. “You fool.” He shook his head, one arm beneath his king’s shoulders, forcing him to sit up. “Come on – get up.” Thorin groaned, head slumping against Dwalin’s chest.

“Mahal.” He pressed two fingers into the base of Thorin’s neck. A sturdy pulse throbbed against his skin. That at least was a relief.  “Come on then.”

“No.” Thorin mumbled, shaking his head. “Fili... Dwalin w-we have to...”

“We’ll get Fili.” Dwalin’s jaw was tight as he rose to his feet, hefting the heavy figure in his arms. “He won’t go far. There’s thirteen of us. We’ll find him. We won’t lose him.” Not like we lost Kili. Dwalin hated himself, for allowing the thought to flash through his mind. But how could it not? How could he forget for a single moment, when every step he took, every gasp of air that filled his lungs, brought a fresh memory? All he had to do was turn his head and see Fili sitting, standing, walking beside him. Alone. He listened to the shallow breathing of the figure in his arms. It was like a wind, shaking through a tree-branch. All whispers and clatters and an emptiness. The eerie wind shook in Dwalin’s arms, he followed his own cut trail through the maze of trees and vines and moss, squinting in the dark. His marks were pale but they stood out in the deep gloom, and he never lost his way.

But Dwalin still breathed a long sigh of relief as he stepped back to the sturdy, familiar elf-path, feeling the well-trampled dirt beneath his feet. He ignored Balin’s glare, pushing past the others and kneeling down beside the relit fire. He spread Thorin out gently, as though he were a child, Oin was already on his knees beside the wounded king, pulling aside Thorin’s clothes and muttering to himself. Both felt their hearts sink at the bruises blossoming on Thorin’s skin. His ribs were already black.

“I can’t do much.” Oin shook his head, shrugging with an unusual, defeated hopelessness. “They’re just bruises – bad ones, aye, but all I can do is give ‘im something for the pain.”

“Save it.” Thorin’s voice made them both start. “Dwalin – Fili, please-”

“We’re going to get him.” He looked up at his elder brother, Balin obviously deep in thought. He gestured silently at the dense maze of trees, eyes gleaming at him. “Now.” Dwalin crossed the path, muttering into Balin’s ear. “What are we to do – stay put in the hopes that he stumbles back onto the path? Pack up and leave, without him?” He pointed at Fili’s place beside the fire. “He’s left behind his sword, cloak and boots. Balin he’s going to get cold and he can’t defend himself. We need to go now.” Dwalin paused, and his throat tightened. “We can’t lose Fili too.”

“I never said for a moment we weren’t going.” Balin looked across at the fire, at Dori who held Ori’s nose, muttering underneath his breath. At Thorin, weakly trying to sit up as Oin crouched over him anxiously. Mahal, who saw this coming? Balin never expected such a violent outburst from Fili. He had never seen it lurking in the shadows. Not like this. “We need to go in pairs.” His voice rose, he looked at the remainder of their ragged company. “Take all your clothes and weapons – we don’t know what’s in there, and frankly, I don’t want to. Make sure you have something to mark the trees with – and mark them frequently.” He cast a look to his brother. “How dark is it in there?”

“Dark.” Dwalin muttered, crossing his arms. “We’ll need torches, else we won’t see a thing.” The others looked at Balin silently. It was an unspoken rule – with Thorin down, they listened to Balin, the second-in-command and right hand to the king. But they were tense. Dwalin noticed Nori and Gloin looking down at the earth. He started kicking around at the ground, looking for dry tree-limbs to set alight. They wouldn’t be much good without oil, but it was far better than stumbling about in that awful grey darkness.

Hold on. He threw an armload of thick branches beside the fire, crouching down and stripping the twigs with his hands. Bifur helped; the rest pulled on their cloaks, stepping into boots, readying themselves for yet another perilous search.

Fili couldn’t stop running.

His left foot was bleeding from a particularly sharp splinter of wood that tore across the skin, his breath was a short gasp, side in agony from a stitch, eyes blurred and raw, but he could not stop. He had no sense of direction, of where he was, how far he had come and what direction he ran in. He didn’t care. There was only one burning thought in his mind – putting as much distance as he could between himself, and the awful, awful thing he had just done.

He ran until his legs gave out. Until the air refused to fill his lungs and he sank to the damp earth, fingers digging into his side as he struggled to breathe. His mind whirled; he closed his eyes and tried to stop the ground rocking beneath him. The roaring in his ears was deafening as his blood raced. Fili could smell rotting leaves, thick and damp in his face, the rasp of wood against his legs. He rose to his elbows, rubbing at the dirt clinging to his lashes. He still gasped for air, a knife in his ribs. Fili looked down at his red, swollen knuckles streaked with dirt. He sat up slowly, raising his shaking hands to his eyes. There was blood on them. The air was stolen from his lungs in a broken moan, unbound hair falling across his face as his head sank into his hands.

What have I done? Disgust and horror sickened him. His bare toes curled into the black leaves. Half-lying against the mossy roots of a huge oak, Fili sobbed alone in the dim forest air, heavy and stale. He called Thorin a bastard. He had hit him – not just one or twice, he beat him into the ground, he attacked him. Like a beast. He had smashed his fist into Ori’s nose and felt the bone break beneath his hand. He lashed out at Dwalin, Bofur, leaving them gasping and swearing in pain. He grabbed handfuls of his golden hair, matted with dirt and leaves, pulling down hard. Fire raced across his scalp. He gritted his teeth and willed the tears to stop, but they refused. They burst stubbornly from his eyes and dripped into his soft beard, lingering without a breath of wind to brush them away. He attacked Thorin. Fili groaned as the physical urge to vomit leaped in his stomach. His uncle. His king. He had lashed out like a drunkard, a monster. He remembered those blue eyes, startlingly bright, glistening upwards at him through Gloin’s legs, looking at him in sick fear and pain. Fili lurched forward, forehead pressed into the dirt as he battled his nausea. He curled his fingers in the decaying leaf litter, pushing the black earth under his nails, writhing in sick pain and horror. What have I done?

A monster roared within his head. He screamed into the dead leaves, trying to drown out the deep rushing with his own faltering voice.  The sound was muffled in the earth, his cry neglected in the ancient, blackening forest. Mirkwood was cold and unforgiving. No bird or insect broke the deafening silence that pressed down on Fili, crushing him into the earth. He was completely and utterly alone. Alone and lost.

Fili lifted his head, smothered in black fragments of dead plants. He had been alone and lost for weeks now. He was alone and lost when he awoke in Beorn’s hall, when he flung out his arm to find the bed beside him cold and empty. Kili. A high whimper spilled from his lips, the sound of a dying animal. He wasn’t supposed to be alone. He couldn’t be alone. He couldn’t walk this earth without him. He couldn’t take another step. He had driven away his uncle, had beaten back those closest to him, had drawn blood from one of his people. How could Fili do this alone?

Anger and shame had bound his heart tight, had squeezed all the life out of it. Fili sat up, heaving with the last of his strength from his exhausted arms, pressing his dirty face to the moss-green of the oaken tree-root. He leaned heavily against the slimy bark, the roots twisting around him in a frozen, lifeless embrace. How could he face them? How could he look Thorin in the eye and apologise for what he had done? He insulted his uncle, he beat his fists against him; there was no forgiveness to expect. How could he expect grace and mercy for breaking Ori’s nose, in a seemingly unprovoked, random attack? Fili’s chest was paralysed with terror, his heart struggled to beat. His blood felt slow and cold. He had been violent towards Thorin. The sheer magnitude of what he had done began to clench at his stomach and he pressed his face deeper into the unforgiving wood, fingers curling around the gnarled root as a roar of panic exploded from his throat. No. There was no exoneration for this. No show of penitence could excuse what Fili had done.

He couldn’t go back. Fili gripped the slimy tree-roots, drawing his knees close to him, curling inwards. He couldn’t go back to them and face their accusations, their hatred. It didn’t matter if Fili was Thorin’s nephew – no prince was above punishment and there was no pardon for what he had done. Why are you still crying. Stop. He pushed his hands into his eye sockets, rubbing dirt into his eyes and making them sting. He wasn’t Fili for those few moments. He was a monster. He had sunken into a violent, depraved past, one that he’d spent nearly eighty years trying to forget. But he couldn’t forget, he could never forget, and without Kili, the memories bubbled at the surface, they burst, and Fili couldn’t close his eyes without having a very dark pair of twilight-blue irises staring back at him, without memories of screaming and fire and blood oozing across the dust.

He’d broken everything. A lifetime of faultlessness, of being the heir that Thorin wanted, the prince Erebor waited for. He’d worked, so hard, to prove to everybody that was a true child of Durin. At a terrible cost, he became somebody his people could be proud of. And in a fit of violence, he’d lost it all. Seventy-five years of courage and strength lay scattered and broken at his feet, and there was nowhere to shift the guilt.

It would be so easy to say this wasn’t his fault. But he didn’t. He wasn’t going to blame his father for this. He couldn’t – he would be weak and heartless to do it. In his stomach, Fili was so sure that his failures were entirely his own. His inability to control himself, his faltering will; they were faults that lay in him. Fili’s breakdown was a product of his own unstable temper. He was a beast, allowing the rage to consume him.

And you almost had them all fooled.  Fili opened his eyes, looking down at his shaking hands, the bloodied, swollen knuckles streaked with dirt. You almost convinced everybody that you were perfect. He had been months, mere months, from taking his rightful place beside Thorin beneath the Lonely Mountain. He couldn’t muffle a pained moan. You almost made everyone forget who you really are. They would never forget now. Even if he somehow retraced his steps, if he fell to his knees before Thorin and begged for forgiveness, if Thorin found it in his heart to excuse his last living nephew, they would never forget what Fili had done. They would walk beside him in doubt and fear. Wondering when he would next explode. Waiting for the next fit of violent rage. And when what if he were king? Fili shivered. They would think him a king of bloodshed, not of honour and valour. The truth stared at Fili, it screamed in his face, loud and ugly and he could not block his ears and turn away from it.

His forehead pressed into his knees, Fili wrapped his arms around himself, curled in the winding roots of the oak, bowed in weight and age. It held him close to the earth, a cold embrace of dirt and moss.

“You – dwarf-scum.”

Kili looked up at the voice. He sat crossed-legged before the fire, working on an arrow in the light. There were fourteen in the quiver he took, and they were horrible, poorly-forged things, with uneven fletching and notched wood. The sinew that bound arrowhead to crooked shaft was brittle. He wouldn’t bring down a thing with these mediocre arrows, and Kili was resolved to devote few hours of free time to making a new set. They were bodkin points, lighter and cheaper to make than his favoured broadhead’s, but without a forge, he had to make do. The black iron was still better than combing the ground for a chance fragment of obsidian or flint. The goblin crouched before him, eyeing the arrow.

“My name is Kili.” He watched the creature reel back in surprise; Kili had answered him in Black Speech. Inwardly, the dwarf cringed at the horrible sounds on his tongue, but he kept his face still. He tried to deaden himself against whatever horrors threatened to come his way. He couldn’t show fear or rage or sadness. They would see his weakness, seize upon it, and crush him in their blackened fingers. “What do you want?” He tried so hard to keep a quaver out of his voice. He was going to remain steadfast and firm. Kili was resolute. He was not going to let these goblins get the best of him. All I have to do is survive. If I have to learn this awful language – It’s not a high price to pay. It was a pittance, to see Fili once more.

“Gulg.” He gestured to himself, a clumsy greeting. “Your warg.” Kili had obviously thrown him off. The goblin intended to strike fear into Kili’s heart with quiet snarls and threats of cruelty; low mutterings that went unheard by Azog. But the dwarf, the wide-eyed, thin little dwarf, he looked up at him with a lifted, clenched jaw. He was standing his ground. “Come.” He jerked his head towards the back of the cave. Kili eyed him cautiously, laying the pieces of his arrow down on the stone. He set aside the bow and quiver, following Gulg to the back of the cave. Four others already waited, leaning forward with torches in their hands.

There was a high whining from the stone. There was a sharp drop at the back of the cave, a very narrow crevice that seemed to stretch down forever. Twelve feet below, there was a flash of grey, a whining creature bracing himself against the stone walls, scrabbling desperately. Kili’s breath hitched in his throat. Nardur whined and howled. He stuck but not entirely trapped – if he twisted or curled, then the warg would slip into the crack of darkness.

“Get him out!” His voice was high, the last word breaking into Westron. The creature at his side smirked. Kili swallowed, curling his hands into fists. He would have said please – but if there was a word for it in the goblin’s language, he was yet to learn it. “Now.”

“Oh, we are.”

Kili cried out as two pairs of hands grabbed at his arms. The rope was crossed around his torso, fastened at the waist. He kicked out but there were too many, they bound the rope close around him, pulling tight to ensure the knots held fast.

“What – no!” Kili’s voice rose against the stone, the harsh ugly words a short gasp. “No!”

“Your warg.” They pushed Kili to the very edge, winding another rope around his wrist. They spoke in short, simple sentences using basic words that Kili would know. “You go.”

“No!” Kili looked over the edge, head spinning with vertigo. “No – I can’t.” He reached out, trying to back away, clawing at something else to hold onto. Nardur scrabbled at the smooth stone, whining as he saw the dark-haired figure looking at him.

“Go or he dies.” There was a shove. Kili gasped, pitching forward clumsily and almost falling. Someone sighed and grabbed him by the wrist, reeling him in. Kili turned, looking at the four goblins. “Your warg.” Gulg repeated. “You go.” Kili looked down at the warg, listening to him whine and scrabble against the rock. Mahal. He couldn’t leave the creature there. He couldn’t leave him to fall and die and he couldn’t leave himself without an animal to ride. He couldn’t back away and show them how afraid he was. They would never let Kili forget how he left his warg to die in a moment of cowardice. Fear was a weakness that could kill him if he didn’t learn how to mask it.

Wordlessly, Kili snatched the torch out of Gulg’s hand, shooting the goblin a dark look as he approached the ledge. He crouched down, one foot searching for a hold on the surface. As a rule, Kili normally wasn’t overly concerned with heights– he had always been a climber, although he preferred trees to cliff-faces, but the yawning abyss below Kili sent his heart racing. He was certain this was some sort of trick. What were they going to do, pretend that the rope slipped? Make it fray and break against the rock? Kili held the torch in his iron arm, negotiating his slow way down the endless twelve feet to Nardur. He braced himself against the stone, climbing like a spider into the darkness. He didn’t look down, but he heard the poor creature bark and scrabble at the stone in an effort to get to him.

Kau Nardur,” He breathed. No. But the warg paid no heed to his command – he writhed and struggled, barking up at Kili, his voice rising into the cave. Kili shuffled down at a snail’s pace, trying very hard to brace himself with only one arm. His boot slipped halfway down; Kili cried out and threw out his broken arm to hold himself against the stone, the torch clattering into the darkness. Nardur yelped as the fire narrowly missed a tuft of grey fur. Kili screwed up his face in pain as the broken bone was jolted but didn’t scream, regaining his footing after several agonising minutes and holding the broken arm closer to himself. He opened his eyes and saw it was very, very dark. He saw only a pale looming shape beneath him. The light of the goblin-torches didn’t reach him down here. Kili looked up, seeing four black silhouettes peering down at him. “Nothing wrong!” He called out from the dark. Not that they asked. Kili swallowed, turning his attention towards the poor trapped warg. He was five feet from Nardur – it could have been a mile.

“What’s going on!” Azog’s voice boomed into the darkness, and Kili froze. “What are you doing!”

“Your Malevolence – there’s been an accident, that stupid warg you gave the dwarf-scum sniffed too close to the ledge, and-”

“Kili!” Down in the crevice, Kili froze. He arched his neck, seeing a very familiar shape bearing down on him. Azog snarled with rage. “What are you doing you fools! Get him up – now.”

“No!” Kili understood only half the sentence, but it was enough. He knew up and now and figured what Azog was demanding of Gulg. He pulled on the rope with his broken arm, biting back a cry of pain. He could see Azog’s face reflected in the firelight, twisted in a scowl as he glared down at him. “No!” He shouted out of the darkness. “I need – I need to-” He filed through his crude vocabulary, but Kili realised he didn’t know any orcish words for rescue or save. Azog obviously figured Kili wouldn’t need to know them. “He’s my warg!” Kili tried again, Nardur whining from below; he was starting to weaken with the effort of holding himself up. Kili didn’t have long. He returned his gaze downwards, pushing himself down with a stronger sense of urgency. He took bigger steps, pushing back the pain and using his bad arm to move faster, covering the last few feet in a third of the time.

“Your Greatness?” Gulg held the rope in his hands with two others, looking at his new leader for orders. Azog peered over the edge, watching as Kili descended further downwards with a new sense of urgency. There was a cold snarl on his face. Kili was disobeying him. He flouted a direct command.

“Why did you make him do it?” Azog rounded on the nasty little goblin. The wretched creature reeled back at his rage. “Did you think it would be funny?” He stared, open-mouthed. “Do you want him to fall?”

“It’s his stupid beast.” But the cry was pale and defensive, a whine against the rock. “I’m not going down. He’s from a race of miners. Dwarf-scum can climb just as well as us goblins, they’re used to the stone-”

“Kili is not like most dwarves.” Down in the stone, Kili could hear them. He heard Kili and not  and dwarf. His stomach clenched, and he bowed his head, face reddening with humiliation. Not a dwarf. He was a foot away from the warg, Nardur clambering upwards but unable to heave himself any further out of the stone, the strength sapped from his limbs. “Reel him up.”

“No!” Kili shouted up. “I-I have him!” He braced his feet, legs starting to tremble with the effort, reaching down to loop the rope from his wrist around Nardur’s chest. “Wait!” The warg lapped frantically at Kili’s arm as he crossed it around the heaving muscles, knotting it three times at his back. “Get us up!” There was a heave, Nardur yelped as he was pulled free from the stone, scrabbling for the smooth surface. Kili watched as his grey beast was slowly dragged out of the cave, Kili breathing a sigh of relief at the tension on his waist. He let his limbs fall free, one arm trailing against the stone as the firelight grew closer. Within moments, he was grasping the ledge, heaving his exhausted frame out of the darkness and onto the unyielding stone floor of the cave. Kili sat with his legs before him, shaking fingers fiddling with the knots on his stomach. Not a dwarf. The words still hammered away in his mind in that ugly speech, making his heart thud. He knew Azog never thought much of him – but to tell them all that he wasn’t a proper dwarf, not really, it made his face burn with humiliation, and he couldn’t look at any of them.

But he had to look up when Azog stepped in front of him. The hands stilled on the tight cords at his waist, Kili’s throat tightening as he saw the face twisted in undeniable rage. He was going to get in trouble for this. For his recklessness. He couldn’t even argue that it wasn’t his fault. He could have been pulled back up – and he told them to stay their hand. Why did he do that? Kili couldn’t break his gaze with Azog; the orc-king took a step towards him, Kili scrabbling back on his hands. He managed to rise to his knees before a blow to the side knocked the breath from his lungs. Stunned, Kili thought at first he had been struck – but there was a rasping tongue licking at his face, his nose filled with the undeniable smell of warg-fur.

Azog snarled as the beast crashed into Kili, pinning him to the ground as he licked at the dwarf’s face. Kili sputtered, trying to pull himself free, but Nardur was determined to show his gratitude. Azog wasn’t going to get any contrition out of the dwarf, he could tell. He wanted to hurl his boot into Kili’s side, hear him cry out and feel bones crack beneath his foot. He clenched his hand into a tight fist, but his feet remained unmoving on the stone. Kili managed to pull himself into a sitting position, his hands on the warg’s face. There was no fear in his chest as he looked his creature in the eye. He couldn’t see any darkness or hatred there. Just a warm gratitude, and Kili couldn’t fight back the smile as the warg licked his nose. He was like the wolves he had seen adopted by men, snatched from their mothers as sightless pups and raised in boxes lined with old blankets beside the fire. He was trying to yank him off, trying to disentangle his exhausted limbs from a clutch of grey fur and sharp claws but Nardur held him fast, wetting Kili’s face and hair with long, stringy gobs of saliva.

Kili laughed.

The goblins all paused in their muttering, Azog feeling his cheek twitch. Kili was laughing as he tried to pull himself away from Nardur, the warg thinking it was some kind of a game and holding him tight. Whether it was tiredness or relief or he had simply sunken into madness, Kili was laughing, ducking his head as he playfully fought against Nardur’s affectionate embrace. Kili wasn’t sure what it was. But the warg’s tongue on his cheek sent a laugh bubbling in Kili’s throat, and he let it break free. He realised, with his fingers curled in the thick grey fur, that he had been genuinely afraid that he would watch the warg fall into the darkness. He never expected Nardur to try and play with him, to show affection. The warg was genuinely grateful, he knew what Kili had done for him.

Kili!” Azog’s voice brought the entire cave to a stand-still. Kili’s voice died in his throat and even Nardur slunk back, a low whine sounding in his throat. The dwarf sat, looking up at Azog with all trace of humour snuffed out, a candle-flame in water. “Go.” Azog pointed wordlessly at the fire, burning with obvious rage. The sound of Kili’s laughter set him ablaze. Henever wanted to hurt Kili as much as he did at that moment. He had never seen a smile, a warm emotion cross Kili’s face. He had been in pain and misery and Azog was proud of what he had done. To see him laughing, it made his chest surge in fury and he struggled to contain it. He turned away from Kili, knowing he couldn’t hit out at him. He couldn’t beat him into remorse, as he had done before.

Kili kept his head low as he returned to his place beside the fire, where the arrows lay waiting for him. He heard the thud of heavy feet following, and as he knelt down in the stone, the warg curled up beside him, resting his head on his paws with his nose turned towards the flames. Kili looked down at him, but that little glimmer of joy had been well and truly smothered, and he kept his eyes on his work in silence until Azog declared the outside world dark enough for them to venture into the night.

Chapter Text

The sunrise was red.

Blood has been spilled. Kili remembered the old proverb, repeated it silently on his lips as he arched his neck to look up at the sky. The others hurried on their beasts, rushing across the meadow. Their scout had found a small cave ahead – barely more than a crack in the earth, but it was shelter enough from the heat of the sun, as they ventured further from the slopes of the Misty Mountains and the heavy shade of the fir trees, Azog grew more desperate for darkness. These goblins couldn’t march through sunlight quite like his old forces could; they cowered and whined and complained that it was too bright to see, and Azog couldn’t do a thing with them. The orc king himself admitted that the light, especially from an early autumn sun, was too bright, too harsh and hot, to march beneath unless absolutely necessary. But caves were rare – this was the first they had found in two days, and the ground only grew flatter and softer. Azog wasn’t sure quite how they would cover the ground to Mirkwood without the dark little creatures poisoning themselves in the sunlight.

Kili slid to the grass as he approached the mouth of the cave, the very last of the pack to enter. He turned back, watching as the very first ray of sunlight pierced through the clouds, a single thread of gold amongst the red. It looked as though the sky was burning. It was a heavy, rich morning, where his skin was flushed pink, and even the grass was cast in a deep reddish tint. Everything looked as though it had been washed in blood. Kili closed his eyes and turned towards the darkness of the cave, realising how much it pained him to look at it. It was dark and bloody and it left him cold. A sunrise wasn’t supposed to look so dim and red. He had to duck to enter the cave – it was small indeed, Azog chasing out the wargs with a snarl. There wasn’t room enough for the entire contingent and their beasts. Kili pressed himself against the stone as forty wargs dashed past him, chased outside by their masters, biting and snapping and growling at each other, a tangle of fur and teeth and burning yellow eyes. Kili closed his eyes and let out a long breath as they left, trying to still the pounding of his heart.

A fire was already being prepared, three goblins bent over a lame deer they had found and killed in the night. Kili watched, wondering idly if they would let him have the sinews to restring his arrows, if he were to ask. He stepped forward, trying to remember the right words, but before he could open his mouth, a voice from the back of the little cave made him stop short.

“Kili!” It wasn’t Azog. It wasn’t Nazarg or Gulg either. Kili turned to see a goblin who had never spoken to him before. So he was on name-terms with these creatures, then. The dwarf swallowed. Evidently his little rescue of Nardur had gained him a certain level of respect. “Come ‘ere.”

“What is it?” Four goblins stood in front of a smooth slab of stone. Although not a miner, Kili could instantly tell it had been cut from a different sort of rock – it was paler, the grain finer than the dark granite that surrounded them. Someone had put it there. “What have you fou-” One of the goblins was jostled aside, Kili catching a glimpse of Khuzdul runes.

What in Mahal’s name, Kili rushed across the cave, stepping on several pairs of hands and not caring. He was half a head shorter than the goblins, but he pushed two of them aside without a second thought to get a close look at the stone. Although he could now speak the language of his ancestors with ease (Fili, Thorin and Dís all refused to speak to him in Westron for six months when he was seventy, until he finally picked up their mother tongue), his written Khuzdul was still sloppy. He could still read the runes if he sounded them aloud in his head. But he didn’t need to read these slowly. He didn’t need to read most of them at all. He saw the name carved in the stone marker, the symbol beneath it, and Kili knew in an instant who the tomb was for. Sick horror crashed down on him. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear. His eyes closed but the runes still danced before them, an agonized cry tearing through his throat and filling the heavy air of the small cave.

Kili, son of Dís, daughter of Thráin, son of Thrór King under the Mountain

The entire contingent fell silent at the horrible sound. Nazarg started, and Azog rose to his feet turning towards its source, the dark-haired figure clutching at the smooth slab of stone and sinking to his knees.

No!” Kili pressed his forehead against the carvings, beating his fists against the stone. “No – no no no NO!” Azog approached the dwarf; they all parted to make way for the orc-king, watching in shocked silence as Kili dug his fingers into the runes. “No...” Kili’s hoarse voice broke. “I’m not – I’m not – Please – I’m not dead.” He repeated it, a mantra, his heart and mind bound in shock and agony. “I’m not – I’m not dead! I’m not dead!” He shouted in Khuzdul, the sacred language alien to the cluster of dark creatures. Azog watched as Kili clawed at the stone, gasping for air. “How – How can you – I’m not – I’m not –” Kili shook his head, hyperventilating in terror as he pressed his hands against the stone.

“It’s a tomb.” Azog looked down at the voice beside him. The goblin sneered at Kili. “Who d’ya think’s buried there?”

“Family?” Another piped up behind Azog. “I can’t read them dwarf-scum scratchings. Looks new. Why would a tomb be out here?”

“It’s not family.” Azog’s mouth stretched in a wide smile as realisation struck. Kili was not mourning the loss of one of his kin. The murmuring goblins beside him fell silent. “It’s his.” Of course Thorin Oakenshield, upon presuming his nephew dead, would have erected something in his honour. Of coursehe would have built a marker, probably filled it with whatever leftover possessions they had, leaving them to rust and rot beneath the stone. He watched as Kili’s head sank further downwards, he collapsed slowly, deflating. Azog could not have dreamed of finding something so cruelly devastating to Kili. His tomb, his own stone, showing that his kin had released their hold on him and considered him dead in this world, it stood before Kili, plain and ugly and unmistakeable, a dark affirmation that they had given up on him. Thorin had turned his nephew against him, by having this humble marker carved into the stone. Azog would use it to break any loyalty, any love that Kili had for his uncle. He had proof that Thorin left Kili to die.

“Back to work, you lot!” Realising that Kili had attracted the attention of the entire contingent with his screaming, Azog barked out his order. “Ignore the dwarf and go about your business.” The silent tension in the cave broke; he watched the bustle of activity, of readying the fire and skinning the beast, of settling down with weapons to sharpen. The goblins all turned away from the pair, giving Azog and Kili the illusion that they were being unwatched. Kili still pressed his fingers against the runes, cheek cold as he buried his face into the stone. He moaned against the stone, his words indecipherable to Azog. But he didn’t need to speak Kili’s language to know he was heartbroken, betrayed and utterly devastated to see the empty tomb erected in this tiny little cave. He knew exactly what Kili was thinking. He was wondering how they could have left him for dead. Azog stood behind him, silent, unnoticed by Kili, as he crouched down slowly. He stretched out his hand, fingers brushing Kili’s hair as he clasped the dwarf’s trembling shoulder.

Kili gasped. He broke away from his one-sided embrace with his own tomb, shrinking back against the stone as he saw Azog crouching down before him. He struggled to breathe, wiping at his eyes as he stared down at his knees, shaking his head. Azog remained close to the ground, watching, waiting as Kili slowly regained his composure, swallowing back the sobs that left his throat raw and cheeks wet. This couldn’t be true. Kili closed his eyes, as though that would stop the rushing in his ears. It couldn’t be true. Thorin and Fili wouldn’t do this, they would never leave him, they would never give up. How could they have given up on him? How could they make such a terrible mistake? They had nothing, no proof of his death. They had a ransom, they had a night to come. But they didn’t, they never came, something held them back, and now Kili saw they had constructed a simple memorial for him. He had been hoping, wishing, that perhaps they were biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to strike. That perhaps they had somehow lost Kili in the wilderland, the way he had lost himself, but they still looked, still held out hope, still tried to find him. Kili now saw that he had been terribly, terribly wrong. There had always been a fear that they really had left him, but Kili had tried to ignore it, tried to rationalise that they must have had a very good reason. He never for one moment believed that they would abandon him entirely. Although his hopes of rescue grew dimmer and dimmer as the days stretched into weeks, Kili always carried his hope within him, a burning ember that refused to die out. He’d kept it alive for nothing.

They had left him for dead. They abandoned him. The awful realisation crushed him, searing through his chest and leaving him gasping. They left him to die as Azog’s prisoner. He wanted, so much to believe it wasn’t true, but the cold truth stared Kili in the face. They never came. Thorin never attempted to bargain with Azog, never took the ransom offer. It had been a long time since Kili had left Beorn’s Hall. He didn’t count the days but he saw the waning moon, vanishing in the night sky to a silver thread. Two weeks, perhaps two and a half, had passed since Kili’s imprisonment, too long to still expect a rescue. But he had. He had stupidly, foolishly, naively hoped that something would happen. He’d tried to harden himself against the darkness and terror, tried to mask his fear and act as though he were strong enough to face whatever came at him, but that strength lay in the memory of Fili and Thorin. All he had to do was hold out long enough to be delivered into their hands. But with the painful revelation that Thorin and Fili had given up on him came a crushing defeat in his heart, a hurt that would linger until his last breath. They abandoned him.

Kili looked up to see that Azog held out his hand. He crouched with the limb outstretched and jerked his head towards the fire, silently. Kili sat frozen, looking from Azog to the burning scraps of kindling. He was so cold. Cold and tired. He tried to picture Fili’s face in his mind, but it made him feel sick. He imagined those dark blue eyes before him, and his pulse throbbed, dull and heavy in his temples. It hurt him to think on it. He couldn’t imagine his brother without an agonizing, crushing pain tearing through his chest. Kili couldn’t come to terms with the revelation that he had been abandoned. It didn’t make sense to him. How could they do this?

He was so cold.

Kili pressed his hand into Azog’s palm. The orc fought back a smile, closing his fingers around the trembling little hand, so small and frail in his. He rose to his feet and faced the fire. Kili followed him obediently, turning away from the tomb erected in his honour, unable to think about his Fili without tears of anguish burning in his eyes. He lifted his head and looked towards the cluster of goblins gathered around the fire, absorbed, or pretending to be, in whatever menial task had been set for them.

“Thorin, are you... are you asleep?”

Hand clamped over his nose, Ori looked cautiously over the bloodied scrap of fabric, biting on his lip. The injured king lay beside him, still and silent on the thick layer of blankets and furs, his nose pointing towards the sky and face pale. Flecks of blood clung to his lips like tiny rubies. Ori sat with his legs crossed, staring wordlessly into the fire, lowering his handkerchief every few minutes to check the sluggish bloodflow. He touched his throbbing nose, and winced. Ori was sure, beneath all the swelling and discolouration, that his now-unrecognisable nose was crooked.

“Mhmm...” The young dwarf started at the limp figure. Thorin’s eyes flickered but remained closed. He fought against unconsciousness, knowing how bad it could be for him, if he were to give in to the darkness. “Still up.”

“G-Good.” Ori remembered Oin’s warning not to let Thorin sleep. “I need to check your heart.” Face reddening, Ori reached across, resting his bloodied fingertips on the juncture of Thorin’s neck, counting slowly. Oin had taught him to test for a pulse, had warned Ori to check every few minutes. It was only a precaution. There was very little chance of Thorin worsening, and Oin could in reality do very little for his king, this far out in the wild. He was better of joining the rest of the company in searching for Fili. They paired off, five groups of two, taking their own routes into the forest and leaving Ori alone with an injured Thorin, hovering between sleep and waking. Ori insisted to his brother that he was all right, he didn’t need his nose to walk and he wanted to help, but it was Balin who stepped in and said that somebody had to stay behind and look after Thorin, and Ori was the most sensible option, given his current situation.

It was humiliating. Current situation. Hah. Everyone could read between the lines. Ori was the weakest. His face flushed with embarrassment, he drew back as the others readied themselves for their trek through the ancient wood. He remained behind, waiting, growing bored and tired and feeling steadily light-headed as his nose leaked yet more blood. Fili’s blow had been hard, it almost knocked Ori out and left him fighting back tears as the broken bone throbbed in agony for a good hour before slowly subsiding.

“Does it still hurt?” Ori’s voice was so very small in the gloomy forest. Thorin grunted, giving a half-shrug, his eyes still closed. Moving sent spasms of pain through Thorin’s chest. He was so tired. He wanted to sleep, to let his mind drift and sink. Ori watched as Thorin’s head started lollng to the side, neck slack. “Thorin.” Ori shook his shoulder. “Thorin you need to stay awake.” He pressed his fingers back against Thorin’s throat, counting for a few brief moments. All was well with his heartbeat, but Ori wasn’t going to dare breaking Oin’s command. He got only a low groan in response. “Thorin.” Ori repeated, giving him another shake. “Stay awake. Please.”

“Mmm.” Thorin groaned, head now entirely to one side. “I’m all...” He trailed off, Ori’s hand on his shoulder. He shook Thorin once more. “All right Ori...” Thorin sighed at the touch, vision fading in and out. Ori swallowed, toying with the edge of his sleeve nervously.

“No, you’re not.” Ori shuffled closer to his king, reaching out and finding Thorin’s hand. He wrapped his thin artists’ fingers around Thorin’s callused palm, squeezing tight. “Do you want to try and sit up? It might help you stay awake.”

“No.” Thorin mumbled. “Hurts.” His hand tightened around Ori’s tentative little grasp. “Just keep talking.” He cracked his eyes open, looking up at the young dwarf who sat closely at his side. Ori held one hand over his nose, the other wrapped firmly around Thorin’s. Ori’s eyes widened.

“Talking?” He lowered his hand, sighing with relief. Finally the bleeding had slowed enough only to require an occasional dab. “Wh-what about?”

“Anything.” He couldn’t see through his bleary gaze, couldn’t see just how Ori’s face had reddened. “Tell me about yourself.” Thorin blinked, trying to keep his eyes open, trying to concentrate on the dwarf who held his hand. He realised that he couldn’t really say anything much about Ori. All he could say with certainty is that he was a bookish little dwarf who kept his head buried in his drawings. “Your brothers. Whatever you like.” It hurt to talk, to force the air through his lungs. He fell silent, breathing lightly through his nose. “Listening... Listening keeps me awake.” He winced at the effort of stringing such a sentence together.

“Well... All right.” Ori paused to take Thorin’s pulse, dabbing at his nose. He stared into space, thinking about what he could say that Thorin would find interesting. “I didn’t really do much of anything in Ered Luin. It’s my hands.” He tightened his grip around Thorin. “They wouldn’t hold up in the forge or the mines. Balin said I was the best student he ever had, but our people don’t have much use for books and pictures now.” He looked down, his flush deepening. “Certainly not enough to make a living... I know Dori tried but he wasn’t a rich merchant. He just couldn’t hold on to money. That was why Nori had to... Well.” He cleared his throat.

“Steal.” Thorin mumbled. He’d heard rumours about it. He never took from his own people, of course, but Nori had a habit of taking off, and coming back days, weeks, months later with his pockets bulging. It was no mystery to anyone how he obtained his wealth.

“Y-Yes. Steal.” Ori stumbled over his words, nervous of broaching the subject with Thorin. “He’s here for the gold. I think he might be the only one who’s really here for the gold. Everybody else seems to have some sort of noble purpose.” He hoped Thorin didn’t notice how red his face had flushed.

“Ori...” Thorin sighed. “More than you... you think are here for it.” He swallowed, breathless. Ori wiped at his nose, watching. “Trust me.” Thorin’s eyes flicked up to him, dazed and foggy. “But you... What about you?” Ori blinked. “Why are you here? Gold? Adventure?” It was something that had genuinely puzzled Thorin. Ori wasn’t old enough to remember Erebor – he had no emotional connection to the homeland of his fathers. And he never struck Thorin as the kind of wild-hearted dwarf to drop everything and risk his life on a distant quest.

“Well...” Ori’s heart hammered. He could never tell the complete truth. “I s’pose I just... I just wanted to see more and do more and be more. I’ve read all these stories about battles and quests and grand journeys, and I want to write my own. I-If that makes sense.” He ducked his head. It was true, Ori did want to break out of Ered Luin, out of that makeshift home where he wandered as a useless shadow. But that was still only half the reason, and Ori would die before admitting to Thorin that it was his nephew that sealed Ori’s decision to shoulder his few precious possessions and leave behind the only home he knew.

“Makes perfect sense.” Thorin mumbled. His hand tightened in Ori’s grasp. “I’m glad you’re here.” Ori’s throat had closed. “We need more like you Ori.” The young dwarf moved his lips wordlessly; his voice had left him. He couldn’t speak. “More with... your heart.”

“Thank you.” Ori found his voice, his fingers shaking in Thorin’s hand. He watched those bright blue eyes, hazy with pain and exhaustion, flicker towards the heavy green canopy. They were glimmering. Ori realised with a heartsick blow to the chest that Thorin was thinking on his nephews. “I’m... I’m so sorry Thorin.” He mumbled quietly, unsure at first if his king had really heard him. Thorin’s eyes lowered from the trees to Ori’s face, the younger finding the grip on his hand tighter than ever for a moment, a short squeeze before loosening. 

“Ori, I do not blame you.” Thorin’s voice was low, the effort of talking physically painful for him now. “Kili...” He screwed up his eyes, taking a shallow breath. “He did... did a very foolish thing.” Ori watched him silently. “It was not your job to... to tell him what was right.” No. That was his. Thorin’s jaw hardened, clenched with the tight effort to counteract the trembling of his lower lip. Ori tested Thorin’s pulse, finding his heartbeat quickening. Mahal, Fili was right. It would never stop hurting. Thorin wasn’t sure he could ever imagine that sharp little face without a crippling agony rushing through his heart. “I’m sorry Fili... Fili hurt you.” Ori dabbed at his nose.

“Oh, just a broken nose. People get them in fights all the time.” Thorin allowed a smile to grace his lips for a heartbeat. “But... Thank you Thorin.” Ori swallowed. “I’ve been lying awake a lot, thinking about what would have happened otherwise. If I’d just...” He trailed off, feeling his heart clench. There were so many ‘what-if’s, they spun around Ori and made his head hurt. Sometimes he felt all he could do was dwell on a lost past. “Don’t worry about it.” Ori forced a smile, realising how much it hurt Thorin to think on his nephews. Both of them. His pulse was thudding too fast, he was obviously holding back his emotions in an effort to save face. Ori couldn’t watch this painful attempt to maintain a steady expression. He had to distract Thorin from the thought of his nephews, rather than reminding him of them. “I-I think I was telling you about Dori.”

“Yes.” Thorin murmured. “Dori.” The elder brother who had a knack for spending money quicker than he could ever make it. Ori wiped at his drying nose, taking a long breath. “He clearly... loves you very much.”

“He does.” Ori smiled. “It’s not his fault. Nobody planned for me, least of all our mother. He didn’t know what to do with me when she died. I think he wanted to settle down and have his own children but I sort of got in the way.” Perhaps that was best. Ori didn’t see how someone like Dori could provide for a family with a steady income. Not with the way gold slipped through his fingers. “Anyway - did you ever hear about the time he ran into trouble with some traders from Mithlond and Nori had ask Dwalin for help?”

“I heard rumours.” Thorin mumbled. “But tell me again.” Ori pressed his fingers against Thorin’s neck, feeling a steady pulse. The beat had slowed; Thorin’s brush with an emotional fit had passed. He looked up at Ori, blue eyes slowly clearing. And with a smile, Ori began his story, feeling Thorin’s hand clenched tightly around his.



Fili’s eyes snapped open. The voices were vague and directionless. He couldn’t tell where they came from. Heart hammering, he rose slowly to his feet, joints cold and stiff.


Behind him. Fili whirled around, breath low and shallow in his throat. No no no no. Not his people. He could hear crashing. They were coming for him. He took a step, knee buckling as pain flooded through his foot. He looked down at the long cut, biting his lip. Running from them would be out of the question. No please. He couldn’t bear to face them. Any of them.


He held his hands over his ears, shaking his head. No. He couldn’t face their cold judgement, couldn’t look at what he had done. He looked down at his dirty, swollen knuckles and swallowed. He couldn’t run away from what he had done.


His eyes swivelled back to the tree, the one he had been crouching under, cold and frightened and alone. The huge twisting roots rising from the earth and the bowed trunk. Fili dove onto his knees, forcing himself through a gap on the slimy green roots. There was a tiny space in the darkness, enough for Fili to curl up in with his knees to his chest. He was virtually invisible; they would find him only if they stared very hard at the tree-roots and noticed a flash of gold in the shadowy darkness.


The blonde pressed himself as far back as he could into the damp earth. Something slimy crawled over his toe. It was cold, very cold in here. He folded his arms and legs close and kept his breath very low.

“We’re more likely to attract wild animals than Fili if we keep this shouting up.”

Fili gasped as the voices drew closer. Dori and Nori. He tried to burrow into the earth, his heart seized with horror. Not them. He heard their footsteps. They were close to him now, less than fifty feet from his hidden burrow beneath the tree.

“I’m surprised you’re even here. You looked for a moment like telling Balin to shove off.”

“I was tempted.”

Fili listened to the two brothers, their heavy boots drawing nearer. He rested his chin on his knees, arms wrapped tightly around his legs. He shivered, not knowing if it was the cold or fear that made his limbs tremble.

“But I figured if we’re the ones to find Fili, I could maybe wring his neck without Thorin and Dwalin finding out.”

There was no humour in Nori’s voice. It was hard, an edge of genuine anger. He wanted to punish for Fili for what he had done to his younger brother. Fili held his breath as he heard them on the other side of the tree. His heart pounded, Fili convinced that the pair could hear it thudding in his chest.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to break his nose.”

“Exactly. I’m surprised Balin let us go together. He can’t expect us to find him.”

They were passing the tree. Fili tried to still his quaking limbs, biting down hard on his lip. He watched Dori turn to his brother, shaking his head with a chuckle.

“You couldn’t take him a fight brother. Not alone.”

Fili watched him pause, drawing his knife against a nearby tree-trunk. Dori was carving his familiar rune into the bark. After making the mark, Dori stepped back, clapping a hand on Nori’s shoulder, and gesturing him onwards.  They were side-on, less than ten feet from where Fili crouched in darkness, hidden in the tangle of mossy tree-roots. He still couldn’t breathe. Fili clutched at his side. He always kept himself armed. Always. He slept with a small dagger thrust inside the waistband of his pants. Even when he laid his swords aside for sleep, he kept the tiny blade close to him. It was an old knife, one Thorin had given him when he was young. He would never use it against these two, but it was a small seed of comfort to feel the firm steel in his hand.

“I’d damn sure try though.”

Fili felt his heart sink at the dark mutter, struggling to remain silent. It was plainly obvious to him now. Nori hated Fili. He hated him for his violent outburst against poor Ori and the thief wanted to show Fili just what he thought of him. He held his breath until the pair moved on, waiting until the sound of their voices, their footsteps grew distant.


He let out a moan as he heard the call, leaning his forehead against the roots, curling his fingers around the twisted wood, staring outwards. It felt to him like a cell, keeping him locked close to the earth. Fili had to get out. He fought and twisted and struggled until he was finally free from the cold, mossy prison, sinking to his hands and knees in the leaf litter, filling his lungs with deep gasps of air. After a long time, he looked upwards, the huge grey tree-trunks, bowed and crooked, leaning over in their age. This was an old, old forest. He sat with his legs before him, looking down at his bloodied and dirty hands. What was he going to do?

He couldn’t go back to them. He couldn’t bear to think about it. He knew it would never be the same. Dwalin, Balin and Thorin, they surely thought of him as an animal. One they couldn’t control. Dori and Nori wanted to hurt him and he was sure Bofur would too, after his heavy blow to the ribs. Ori would have been more afraid of him than ever. He closed his eyes and remembered the way they all looked at him, that shock and horror, their faced distorted and eyes wide. 

No. He couldn’t go back. Fili looked down at his bare feet. He couldn’t go back and he couldn’t run from them, couldn’t hide in these woods. They would keep searching for him, searching until they found him. Until they dragged him back, kicking and screaming to his uncle, ready to face judgement for what he had done. Until they found Fili, or until the dark creatures of the wood found them. There was only one thing he could do. Only one way out of this.

Fili reached inside his trousers. The knife looked pale in this heavy dull light. His fingers shook and his vision blurred and he was gasping for air as he looked at it in his hand. He was sick with fear and horror at what he had done. What he was going to do to himself. Oh Kili I need you more than ever. Fili took in a deep breath, he steeled himself and tried to stop his eyes from stinging. He was going to do this with his head held high. Although it was a condemnable act of humiliation, he was not going to cry while he did it. Oh Mahal how did it come to this?

But there was only one thing he could do. Fili shook his head. He could not run from them and he could not reunite with them. There was only one way out.

Chapter Text

Fili ran the blade slowly over the skin of his upper lip. It was difficult, he could not stop his hands from trembling and he came very close to cutting himself twice. But in a minute, his hand was filled with braided hair, the skin beneath his nose covered only in short golden stubble. Fili let the hair fall to the ground, fingering freshly-shaved skin. It felt so cold. So cold and so light, without that familiar tug at his lips. Fili closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, fighting back a sob. That was the worst of it, the only bits of hair that remained in braids. In reality, he wasn’t physically losing much. Fili had always kept his beard short, out of respect and loyalty to his uncle. A symbol of mourning for a lost kingdom that he had never seen, for murdered ancestors that never looked upon his face. It would take only a year or so for the hair to completely regrow. He wasn’t shaving a magnificent beard that trailed to his waist; Fili had never been old enough or worthy of that.

He lifted his bowed head, placing the knife against the curve of the jaw. He didn’t shave the beard completely – the risk of cutting his own skin was too great, the knife wasn’t sharp enough for that sort of work and there was no soap and water. But it was enough, the bristles of hair catching on his tunic and falling to the ground without a breeze to carry them off. Fili pulled the skin tight with his shaking hand, the rasp of the knife cold against his skin. He couldn’t do it with dry eyes. He had to stop to wipe at them with his sleeve, taking a long breath as he pressed the edge of his blade against his forehead.

But finally it was gone. The knife slipped from his fingers to the ground, Fili running his fingers slowly over his new face. There was still a faint edge of stubble, coarse and bristly against his hands. They poked his palms, hundreds of blunt little needles and he lowered his hands, jaw set and firm. After what felt an age, he slowly opened his dark blue eyes, looking down at the hair which scattered the ground before him. The silver clasps glistened up at him through the dirt and leaves, ornately carved with love by Thorin’s own hand. It hurt Fili terribly to look at them; he covered them with a handful of blackened leaves, burying them beneath a rotted carpet. 

Something slowly settled over Fili, something strange and surprising. Calm. There was an old calmness to the deathly silence around him, one that hardened his resolve, slowed his pounding heart. It was done. He had the shaved beard of an ashamed exile. There was another half to the agonising process, but as he ran his hands through his tangled mess of golden curls, Fili knew that he could never do it. He couldn’t touch his hair. It was too soft, too precious and close to him. He had too many memories, of lying in bed with Kili while his deft little hands stroked his golden mane, worked it into braids, murmuring with light-hearted jealousy. He couldn’t ever cut it off.

He picked up the knife, wiping the last of the bristly hairs away on his sleeve and tucking it back into the leather sheath hidden in his waistband. His face felt so cold. Fili sat in the dirt for a long time, thinking. He had a half-formed plan in his head, vague and tenuous. He would find his way back. If Dori had marked this tree, then there would be others. A trail, back to the path. He would find it and make his way back to the campfire. He only hoped that there would be nobody there to meet him. He hoped that they were all out in the woods, searching for him. Everything hinged on that hope. He would return to the lonely camp, would take his clothes and weapons, a little food. He would leave a note for his uncle. And he would retrace his footsteps along the gloomy track, westwards, back to the wilderland.

After that however, Fili did not know. He licked his lips and looked up at Dori’s rune, the trail it cut for him. His heart started to pound again, his palms were sweaty. It was a rash, passionate decision, one that anybody else would have condemned as nonsense. But Fili was turbulent and distorted when he ran the blade over his face. He had the violent desperation of somebody bound by mistakes that could never be undone. He was punishing himself, with a severity that Thorin would never equal, but a severity he was so sure that he deserved. Fili rose to his feet, giving his bare face one last rub with his palm, feeling the sandpaper-scrape along his hand. He approached the tree, tracing the rune with a trembling finger. He smeared dirt over the mark, stepping backwards and turning to his right. The direction Dori and his brother came from.

Fili began to walk slowly, limping from the cut on his foot. It became hard to move his fingers; they were stiff and cold. He still shivered, freezing from kneeling barefoot and lightly-clothed in the dirt, trapped in a gloomy world where sunlight had never pierced through the thick leaves.


The dwarf didn’t raise his head as he watched Azog sit down before him. He remained cross-legged on the stone, head bowed and hands clasped in his lap. There were no more tears to come from him, his breathing had slowed and his hands had stopped shaking, but Azog knew that Kili was still suffering inwardly. He fought with himself, trying to comprehend how his uncle and brother could have left him to die in Azog’s grasp. Kili had told Azog that he meant everything to Thorin, and Azog could plainly see that the young dwarf was starting to doubt his own words.

“Kili. Look at me.” Azog watched as Kili slowly lifted his head. He didn’t look at Azog, he kept his eyes lowered but he straightened his back and held up his head. He looked ragged and hollow. His soft brown eyes were so very dark in his pale face. Azog had to tread so carefully. He realised how precarious this situation was. Although physically better than he had been in weeks, Kili was more emotionally vulnerable than ever before. He was beaten down. The last light of hope had died within him. His will was completely gone. It was almost frightening to see how hollow and cold Kili had become in just a few short hours. “Look at me.” Azog repeated, watching as Kili slowly raised his gaze, meeting Azog’s eyes. Azog could either draw Kili in, offer consolation or comfort, open himself up, allow Kili to trust him. Or he could break his heart completely. Two weeks ago he would have done the latter without a moment’s thought. He would have snarled that it showed how worthless he was to Thorin. That his brother was a coward for abandoning him to this awful fate. He would have made crushed Kili’s heart in his hands and left him entirely broken.

But he looked at Kili now, and he saw this as an opportunity. Not to break Kili further, not to leave him sobbing cold and lonely into the stone floor. No, it was an opportunity for Azog to get inside Kili’s head. To touch his heart and leave a black stain upon it. To withdraw and let the poison take root, to spread and leave Kili rotting away. The seeds of doubt had been planted in Kili days before, but now they grew, they tangled in Kili’s head. He didn’t know what to believe in. Azog could see Kili had spend the last hour sitting alone, rethinking everything he knew about his family, his people, struggling to comprehend what had happened through a thick haze of grief and torment.

“Do you want anything?” Kili blinked at the words. “Are you cold? Hungry? Thirsty?” Azog met Kili’s stare, his eyes impossibly wide. He thought at first he got the words wrong. It didn’t make sense. Why would Azog offer him food? He opened his mouth to speak, finding the words completely stuck in his throat. He shook his head and swallowed, clearing his throat.

“I want...” His voice was a rasp, a low whisper. Kili lowered his gaze, staring down at his hands. He didn’t want anything, especially if Azog offered it to him. He wanted to be left alone, left to wrestle with his head in silence. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be home, lying in bed and listening to the sound of his mother making breakfast. He wanted to lie in the grass and listen to the insects chirp and smell the earth. He wanted to listen to the sound of laughter, wanted to hear music and song. The broken pieces of his old life were falling through his fingers, he scrabbled about, but couldn’t grab on to any of them. He wanted innocence and warmth and sunlight. The last at least, he could have. “I want to go outside. I want to feel the sun.” Azog drew his head back, looking at him in surprise. “Not for long.” Kili added. He still didn’t know how to say please. Azog grunted, and for a moment it looked as though he was going to say something incredibly spiteful to the dwarf. But he stood up after his quick thought, crouching down and taking Kili by the wrist.

Both the orc and the dwarf blinked as they stepped into the bright sunlight. It was close to noon, the sun was already hot and the cicadas were out. Azog stepped back into the shade, lingering at the cave entrance and watching. Kili bent down, fingers on the fastenings of his boots. He kicked them aside and walked across the soft grass in bare feet, taking maybe ten steps before sinking to the ground with his legs splayed out before him. The daisies and dandelions wavered softly in a gentle breeze, their faces thrust proudly towards the sky. A bee floated past. Kili closed his eyes and lifted his face, feeling the warmth of the sun and the cool breath of air rustling through his tangled brown locks.

But it wasn’t the same. Kili opened his eyes and realised that he still felt cold inside. He reached for a dandelion, lifting the flower to his nose and inhaling deeply. But it didn’t smell quite the same. The magic was gone. He let it slip through his lax fingers, bowing his head away from the sun, letting it sink into his hands. Something had changed. This didn’t feel right, this sunny meadow. Kili didn’t understand – why was it so different? How was this so unlike the pastures he crossed through this time last year, watching and listening with a childlike wonder?

It wasn’t the meadow which had changed. It wasn’t the sunshine or the flowers. It was him. Kili had changed. He curled his toes in the grass. It felt too bright, too garish and loud. The cicadas and birds deafened him. The yellow flowers hurt his eyes. Bitter with disappointment, Kili drew his legs close, winding his arms about his knees. He rested his chin on his trousers, looking out with a half-hearted mild interest as a butterfly rested on a flower, less than a foot from him. A month ago, he would have tried to catch it. But now, he just watched as it flew away, in broad, lazy circles in the sunlight. Kili squeezed his eyes tightly closed, trying to push down the panic that welled up in his chest.

They left him to die. It still throbbed within Kili, a bitter revelation that clawed at his soul. He would never forget it. He couldn’t. He was abandoned by the two people he thought loved him more than anybody else in the world. It still hurt badly to think on his brother and uncle, but Kili could not stop. He didn’t understand. He would never have given up in his search for Fili. He would have done everything he could. He would never have simply given him up for dead, and left a memorial hidden beneath the stone. How could Fili do this to him? Where was their proof? How did they know he was dead? They didn’t have a body. They didn’t even have the pieces of a body. There was no way they could have known for sure. All they knew was that Azog had him, Azog had offered him up to be collected for a price.

A price that Kili now saw must have been too great. Thorin must have decided that Kili wasn’t worth his own life, wasn’t worth the life of any member in his company. Thorin must have accepted his loss and moved on. The betrayal cut through Kili’s heart. He would have died for Thorin. He would have died for him without a moment’s thought. Thorin and Fili too. He would give his life for them with no thought of the consequence.

They did not feel the same way. Kili felt sick at the thought. He wasn’t worth them risking their own lives. He was nothing. The spare. The younger. The screw-up. He gritted his teeth and shook his head. Why would Thorin ever risk his own life, or the life of his heir, for a failure like Kili? If he had to choose between Fili and Kili, he would have always chosen Fili. He always did. Thorin tried to have a place for the younger sibling, tried to have his own private moments with Kili. They were some of his most precious memories, the ones he carried closest to his heart. When he received Thorin’s knife. When he had a nightmare and Fili wouldn’t wake, and he asked for Thorin to read him a story. When Thorin came to watch him practice his archery. When he gave him private training with his sword. When Kili almost drowned and Thorin held on to him all night. There were times when Thorin would look at Kili and smile, and Kili would feel as though he was the most important person in the world. They were there, they existed.

But they seemed pale and hollow when Kili thought about how Thorin looked at Fili. When Fili came back from the Iron Hills with his new golden braids and Thorin declared he looked a fine prince. When Fili showed them all his new swords. When Fili disarmed Dwalin in practise for the first time. When Fili turned eighty and he and Thorin stood like equals in the front of the feast-hall. There was something in his blue eyes that gleamed, something Kili never saw directed towards him. Pride. Pride and love, they were not the same thing. Thorin was protective of Kili. He loved him. But he was proud of Fili. He looked on him as the hope of his line. There was no comparison between the two.

Kili had tried not to be jealous of Fili. He knew, better than anybody, that Fili earned his honour and glory. He saw how desperately Fili fought to be considered a true prince. It consumed him. Only Kili had seen the rage and anguish that flooded his brother when he thought he failed. When he would drop his swords in practice or when he got into trouble with Thorin for breaking something in the smithy, for a rude comment or for sneaking out at night. He would withdraw, bitter and silent, and only when he thought he was alone, Fili would cry and swear at himself, distorted in self-loathing. When he was thirty-two, he punched a stone wall and almost broke his hand and Kili knew he had to do something. Kili didn’t know why his brother took his duties as a king-in-waiting with such a passionate fierceness. He didn’t understand why Fili was so afraid of failure. But he realised that it sickened him, Fili’s heart became dark and he couldn’t cope. It was why Kili started taking the blame for Fili’s indiscretions; because he could bounce back. He could hold his head high after a scolding and remind himself that Thorin still loved him, that he and Fili knew the truth and that was all that mattered. And as Fili whispered his gratitude to Kili in the morning as he carefully braided his brother’s hair, Kili would smile and know that he would always be there to break Fili’s fall.

Would things be different if Thorin knew the truth? If he knew just how much his image of Fili and Kili were fabrications, lies the both of them slowly built up to protect Fili from his terrible fears? If Thorin knew that Kili claimed responsibility for all of Fili’s failures as well as his own, would he have been so quick to abandon him to Azog? If he knew how much of Fili’s confidence and bravery and perfection was a hollow facade, covering an angry,  scared and insecure little boy, would he be so proud of his eldest nephew then? They were dark, angry thoughts. They frightened Kili – he shook his head and opened his eyes and refused to dwell on them. It was not about that at all. Thorin and Fili loved him very much, but they would not risk their own lives for him. They would not be expected to. He should not expect them to. It was selfishness, pure arrogance, to think for a moment that the king and his heir would risk their lives for one who was never going to sit upon the throne.

He laid these sane, reasonable thoughts out in his mind. But they seemed so false, so shallow and rehearsed and he could not believe them. Kili ran his fingers through the grass, realising that he had been sitting for a long time and his knees were starting to grow stiff. He squinted through the bright, garish sun. He felt so very tired. The shock of finding his own tomb had left him completely wrung out and drained. Kili just wanted to sleep. He had tried to sift through his terror and shock and grief, had tried to rationalise their abandonment, but Kili realised that he was a long way off making sense of what Thorin and Fili had done to him.

“Kili!” He lifted his head, turning around at the voice. Azog stood at the very threshold of the cave, as close as to the dwarf as he could without touching the sunlight. His lips were curled, he jerked his head to his side. “Come.” His order was quick and sharp. Kili lowered his head and looked down at the grass, tracing the shape of the flowers with his fingers. “Kili!” But Kili ignored him, locked in his own head. His limbs were tired and weak. He thought of returning back to that awful dark cave, with the chilling reminder of his own fate, and his stomach turned. He didn’t want to look on his own tomb. He couldn’t think of anything more awful.

With a low growl in his throat, Azog stepped from the mouth of the cave, and into the hot sunlight. He snarled and drew back almost immediately, the sun blinding, searing into his skin. Azog wasted no time, stuffing the boots under his arm and approaching the dwarf, sitting in the grass with his head bowed. Azog crouched down and snaked his arm around Kili’s chest, under his shoulder, to try and coax him into rising. But as he began to stand, Kili slumped, knees buckling as he pitched forward on his unsteady legs. Azog caught him, the boots thudding to the ground as he threw his amputated arm around Kili’s middle, the other across his shoulders, pinning him close to his chest. Azog was holding him, holding him close, with his arms around him. Kili was trembling. Azog looked down, feeling the little dwarf shake in his hold.

Kili didn’t fight or struggle in the accidental embrace. His hands came up and gripped Azog’s good arm, his mace, but he didn’t try to push himself away. He held on, limply, clinging to Azog as he leaned on him, wavering on unsteady feet. He was so tired. There was no ember of hope burning in Kili’s chest; it had gone cold and nothing, it seemed, could blow the life back into it. He’d been pulled and pushed and stretched too far and he could not go on. He was lost, abandoned and utterly alone, left to die by those he had suffered so deeply for. It was a heartbreaking rejection that rocked him to the bottom of his soul.

“Kili.” It wasn’t a growl. It wasn’t a coaxing murmur, but it was no angry snarl either. Azog softened his voice, as much as he dared, still speaking with an edge of iron. “Come inside.” He thought of the times when he had seen Kili at his most defeated. When he was strung up before the fire, bleeding and beaten, waiting for death. When he lay sick in the grass, clutching his broken arm and begging for help. When he held his branded wrist and sank to his knees. This limp quietness was something very, very different. It was a pain that Azog could not physically inflict on him. He could not flay Kili’s heart, or put a brand upon his soul.

He looked down into his arms and saw how Kili held onto him. And he realised that he had won. Kili was his. He had given up on his brother and his uncle. And while Azog was sure that Kili still hated him, he did not fight back or beat himself free. He merely held on.

“Inside.” Azog commanded. He pulled Kili free, cupping a hand under his chin and looking the dwarf in the eye. He looked dazed. Perhaps he would realise who he really was, would scream and fight back. But for now, Azog had him. Kili was soft and malleable, and Azog could shape him any way he pleased. “Come.” He bent down to pick up the boots, holding them out to Kili. He took them in silence, holding them by the laces as Azog urged him forward with a hand on his back.

The orc king let out a sigh of relief as he stepped into the shadow. It was such a welcome respite, so cool and dark after the harsh sunlight. Azog peered through the gloom but even his sharp eyes struggled to distinguish shapes in the dim cave. Kili was almost entirely blind. Azog stepped forward, his eyes adjusting after a few moments, but Kili still stumbled, groping about unseeing. He had to hold on to Azog’s elbow, pressing close to him to avoid crashing into the walls of the narrow passage. He seemed to cope better when they entered the firelight of the small chamber. Kili released his hold and rubbed at his face, wavering a little, his eyes and ears still filled with the sunlight, the sounds of birds which had been replaced with low muttering in Black Speech, the crackling of a fire. The alien smell of dirt and nectar was gone; the cave was acrid and smoky, from burning off the fat to cure the animal hide, boiling down the bones to make a hearty broth.

Kili didn’t need further direction. His pack had been cast down in the stone, a little way back from the fire, and this is where he sank to the ground. There were many things he could have busied his hands with, but Kili simply sat in silence and Azog let him, turning away from the dwarf and towards the goblins diving up the rest of the deer, snapping at each other and quarrelling for the choice bits. He cast a final look over at Kili before berating the little cluster of foul, odious creatures.

He sat with his head in his hands, shoulders slumped and hair falling over his arms. He was tired of trying to understand why they would do this. He was tired of trying to rationalise their abandonment. He was tired of trying to figure out what could have prevented them from coming at all. He was tired of making excuses for them. This was not something that anybody could simply explain their way out of. This was a life or death situation. Kili’s life had been on the line, it still was on the line, and Thorin and Fili had failed to save him. They let him down when he needed them most of all.

And it would be a long, long time before Kili could even begin to forgive them for that.

Chapter Text

Ori sat alone before the fire.

Fili remained crouched behind the low bush, unsure if it was a blessing or a curse to see the young dwarf, sitting before the fire with his head bowed. He couldn’t see that Ori was holding the hand of somebody, was speaking softly to him in his low, timid voice. He swallowed, voice sticking in his throat. He told himself that it was best option really; Ori was never going to stand up to Fili, not after what he had done to him. Guilt flooded his insides, it cramped his stomach and left him tight with pain. At least now, he would have the opportunity to apologise to Ori face-to-face. He looked at Ori’s broken nose, wincing. Even he knew he had gone much too far.

Fili took in a deep breath. He ran his hand over the raspy stubble on his face, he closed his eyes for a moment and tried to gather his remaining strength. He wasn’t going to scream and shout. He was going to be calm and level-headed as he told Ori that he was leaving them all forever. Even if it felt like he was breaking apart inside, even though all he wanted to do was kneel in the dirt and scream, Fili was going to try to do what he had done for years. He didn’t know if he could do it, without the mask cracking, without his heart leaking through for Ori to see, black and twisted and throbbing with anger. But he had to try.

Fili jumped over the bush and into the path, biting back a cry of pain as he landed on his bloodied foot. Ori looked up at the sound, gasping as his grip on Thorin’s hand tightened painfully. Fili took a single step towards Ori before he noticed the prone figure, lying stretched out across the ground.

Mahal no.

Fili uttered a choked cry, heart seizing in his chest. Thorin was half-conscious, eyes cracked open and glazed in the firelight. His breathing was slow and laboured, in obvious pain. Fili clapped his hands over his mouth, shaking his head as his vision blurred. No no no Thorin what have I done to you. He didn’t realise he was so violent. He didn’t know he had hurt his uncle so badly. Ori got up on his knees, Fili taking a step back from the awful sight.

“Fili.” Ori breathed. Thorin’s bleary eyes snapped wide open at the voice. His breathing quickened, he slowly hoisted himself up on his elbow, groaning in pain. Fili took another step backwards, all pretence of composure utterly broken. “Fili – no!” Ori jumped to his feet as he realised what the blonde was going to do. Fili turned and ran, he ran along the path, where he thought he would be fast enough to get away. But he limped on his bare feet, his breath tearing out of his throat in a gasp. Ori didn’t know what he was doing. He couldn’t take Fili in a fight. He didn’t have any sort of weapon, nothing to restrain him with. The heavy running bumped and jolted his broken nose, and it hurt badly. But he ploughed on, he was on Fili’s heels, and before he could let the blonde get away, he leaped forward, wrapping his arms around the blonde’s waist and tackling him to the ground. Ori coughed, winded as he fell heavily. Fili writhed and struggled beneath him, trying to wriggle out of Ori’s hold, but his thin little hands clutched the blonde tightly, refusing to let go.  “Stop – Fili please –”

“Let me go!” His elbows dug into Ori’s ribs. Fili was twisting in his hold, a wet snake, but he couldn’t loosen the tight hold around him. “Ori!” He got onto his knees, but Ori wound his fingers in the fabric of Fili’s tunic, and would not loosen his grasp. He could hear the dwarf breathe heavily in his ear, too afraid, it seemed, to speak. Fili couldn’t get out; Ori had latched on too tightly, determined to keep Fili pinned closely to the earth.

“Fili!” Thorin had pulled himself into a sitting position. He leaned forward heavily on his hands, face grey with the effort of speaking. “Fili calm down!” He called across the dirt, but his words were ineffective. Thorin could tell that it only hurt Fili more, to hear his strained, breaking voice. He curled his fingers into the earth, shoulders slumping as he struggled to remain upright. “Fili.” It was a whisper, one that didn’t carry across the dirt.

“S-Stop it Fili!” Ori spat out a mouthful of golden hair, biting back a cry as Fili’s shoulder came into contact with his nose. He gritted his teeth but did not release his hold, screwing up his eyes as white stars flashed before him. “I’m not letting you go!” His fingers twisted deep within Fili’s tunic, Ori tried to kick his feet out from beneath him and force Fili to lie prone in the dirt. But Fili was broader and stronger than Ori, and he would not go down. “Not you too!” He had already let Kili walk away from him, never to return. He was not making the same mistake twice. The realisation seemed to have hit Fili. He sank forward into the ground, hands and knees in the dirt as he breathed heavily, head bowed. Dirty blonde curls fell over his face as he shook his head slowly.

Ori knelt on the earth beside Fili, his arms still around him. He was so cold. Ori slowly unwound his fingers from Fili’s clothing, resting a hand on his forearm. It was icy to the touch. Fili jerked his arm away, pulling back from Ori. He ran his fingers through his hair, tugging the wild mane back from his face. Ori remained silent beside him, a hand rising to his mouth as his eyes landed on Fili’s beardless jaw. The blonde kept his eyes lowered, not looking at him. Ori forgot himself, reaching out with a tentative shaking hand, daring to believe what he saw. Fili looked thirty years younger. Almost entirely different. Ori’s fingertips brushed Fili’s face, the blonde starting at the touch, not seeing Ori’s hands with his lowered gaze. His dark blue eyes snapped up. He grabbed Ori’s hands, fingers circling tightly around thin bony wrists. A short cry broke from Ori’s mouth, heart skipping a beat. Why did he do that? Why in Mahal’s name did he touch Fili, when the blonde knew about him? He knew plainly how it would have looked to him. To Thorin.

“Don’t touch me.” Fili’s chest heaved for air. A roaring pulse deafened him. Ori’s eyes locked with Fili, wide in fear. He tried to pull himself free as a crease wrinkled Fili’s brow. Fili looked at the broken nose, guilt swelling in his chest. But it was smothered a burning fit of rage, instigated by Ori’s shaking hands on his face. A gesture that only had one possible meaning for Fili, one that made his insides wither in disgust. His face hot in anger, he gritted his teeth. “How dare you.” Ori closed his eyes and flinched away, tugging uselessly, arms bound by Fili’s fingers. “Is my brother not enough for you Ori?” Ori was hyperventilating, mouth half-open.

“No- n-no I didn’t mean-”

“Now he’s dead you thought you would try somebody else?” Ori shook his head, feeling his eyes sting as Fili’s fingers dug into the tendons and veins of his wrists. “Who else then? Who else have you had your sick eyes on?”

“Fili!” Thorin was on his knees. “Let him go!” He lurched forward, trying to stand up on his weak legs. His chest throbbing in pain, Thorin managed to take several shaky steps across the dirt before falling to the ground. He bowed his head, clutching at his lungs. “Fili!” He shouted into the earth, the effort of screaming terribly hard on his lungs. His head as heavy as stone, Thorin slowly lifted his neck. Ori was fighting to break free, face turned away from Fili. The blonde spoke, low words that Thorin could not hear. He could not see Fili’s face from this angle, just a curtain of blonde tangles. Ori was shaking his head. Thorin’s heart sank when he saw the young dwarf was crying. “Fili!” Something flared up in Thorin’s chest at the sight of Ori’s tears, a rushing anger that drowned out the pain that crackled with every breath. He forced himself to his feet, staggering towards the kneeling pair.

“How dare you try to drag anyone down with your – your depravity.” Fili spat, his face very close to Ori. It was such an awful, awful shock to feel that hand on his face. It jolted his heart and the horrible jarring in his chest sent Fili into anger. The last, wounded howl of a monster that was dying inside of him. He could see the tears very plainly, shining in the firelight as they trailed into his fluffy scrap of a beard. Ori’s shoulders slumped, he knelt before Fili with his head bowed, shaking his head slowly.

“No!” Thorin collapsed on the ground at Fili’s knees, knocking Ori out of his hands, pushing down on Fili and pinning him to the earth, gasping in pain. Ori scuttled backwards, drying his eyes with the fraying wool of his mittens. “Fili what are you doing?” He hissed. Fili’s hair was a tangled mess across his face, turned to the side. “Look at me!” Fili didn’t fight beneath Thorin’s hold. He was cold and limp. Thorin pulled aside the curtain of hair himself, face contorted in anger as he took in a breath, ready to give Fili the scolding of his life.

His breath died in his throat when he saw Fili’s naked face. He withdrew, trying to stop the awful rolling of the earth, shaking his head slowly, eyes fixed on Fili’s childlike jaw. The blonde kept his face turned away, cheeks reddening with humiliation as the anger started to turn cold inside of him. Thorin’s hands loosened on Fili, his mouth unable to form words. Now he knew why Fili wanted to run away. Why he didn’t look at Thorin. He could feel his throat clench tightly around a swelling lump. Oh Fili why would you do this to yourself. Horror clawed at his soul. He had no idea that Fili was so overcome with guilt for what he had done. He had mutilated himself.

Tears pricked at Thorin’s eyes. It was such a rare sensation; one he had only felt perhaps a dozen times over his life, half of those in the last few weeks. Thorin blinked, his vision starting to blur as he stared at his nephew. His little lion-cub. He looked almost like a dwarrow, but his nose was bigger, his jaw harder. It was sharp and distorted and it agonised Thorin to look Fili. With the last ounce of strength in his fading limbs, Thorin grabbed the front of Fili’s tunic. He crushed that cold body close to him, fingers tangled in Fili’s hair, their cheeks touching. The pinpricks of stubble scraped Thorin’s jaw, piercing through the soft hair of his own beard. Thorin put Ori out of his mind; he would pull it out of Fili later, when he had straightened all the tangled pieces his nephew and laid them out.

“You fool.” Thorin finally found his voice, a broken rasp cracking through the lump in his throat. “You – you fool – Oh Fili.” He could feel Fili’s broad frame stiff and tense beneath his hold, and it broke his heart. Please Fili, he screamed inwardly. Let me in. Open your heart to me. He was terrified now, that he really had lost his nephew forever.  He never dreamed that Fili would nurse such a crippling guilt. He never, ever ever would have thought for a single moment of punishing Fili by casting him away. The penance Fili committed reached beyond anything Thorin thought possible. “Fili,” Thorin repeated, his lips brushing the curve of Fili’s ear. “It’s all right.” He whispered soothingly, as he would to a child. “It’s going to be all right.” He held Fili as tightly as he physically could, desperate to break the cracking walls Fili had built around his heart. Oh Fili please. He wanted a scream. A sob. Something.

Fili felt the hot cheek pressed closely to his own, Thorin’s pulse thudding in his temple, against his, throbbing deep within his head. His arms were at his sides, hands clenched into fists. Fili couldn’t stop the violent whirling in his head. Ori’s shaking hand on his face. Those wide dark eyes staring at him in shock and pain and fear. Thorin’s teeth bared in a snarl of anger. The images ran together, bright flashes and Fili couldn’t disentangle them. But he could feel the thick beard against his jaw, the deep voice in his ear and the fur-lined cloak brushing against his chin and he knew he was in Thorin’s arms. Thorin was holding him. His face was wet, but Fili wasn’t crying. He pulled back, struggling to look at Thorin’s face in the gloom. His blue eyes shone, a single tear rolling down his cheek. His lips were quivering. How was this happening. Fili didn’t deserve this. Not after what he had done. He deserved to be spat on and cursed. He blinked, a film covering his eyes, Thorin wobbling before him. Fili gasped as his uncle cupped his face, pressing their foreheads together.

“It’s all right.” Thorin repeated, his voice barely above a whisper. He beat his fists and screamed against Fili’s stone heart, but the walls would not break. “Fili I am here – please.” His thumbs brushed Fili’s cheeks, willing the moisture to appear on his skin, for the tears that glimmered in Fili’s eyes to fall. “Kili is gone but I will never leave you.” It was cruel, so cruel of him to invoke the name of Fili’s dead brother. But Thorin didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t have anything else to break Fili down.

But it worked.

The body, so stiff and tight and rigid against him as it had been for weeks, fell lax with a moan. Fili slumped against Thorin. His head was slack in Thorin’s hands and he let the blonde curls fall to his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Fili, fingers combing through a maze of tangles. Fili collapsed in his uncle’s embrace, overwhelmed by pain, grief, humiliation. He grabbed handfuls of the thick furs draped over Thorin’s exhausted body, clinging to his uncle as the moisture leaked from his eyes, the sobs that strained and heaved in his mouth gave out, spilling from trembling lips crushed against Thorin’s heart.

“You’ll be all right.” Thorin mumbled against Fili’s hair, one arm rubbing wide circles across Fili’s back as he cried. He blinked swallowing down the embers in his own throat, reassuming his unshakeable bearing. He started rocking gently, side to side as though Fili was a restless infant. He gently placed his chin on Fili’s head. Mahal, he was in pain. His eyes drooped, he wanted nothing more than to lie down and close his eyes. But he remained sitting. Even though it was agony to have Fili crushed against him so tightly, even though the effort of sitting up left him grey-faced and breathless, Thorin would never let Fili go and sink to the earth.

“Kili... Kili wake up.” Nazarg kept his head bent low, shaking the dwarf urgently, keeping one eye on the great white orc. For whatever reasons; mistrust of Kili, of the goblins, or both, Azog always slept with the dwarf close to him now. Close enough to almost reach out with a long pale arm and touch his hair. “Kili.” Nazarg whispered into his hair. “C’mon.” He listened to the thin figure shuffle and groan. The orc gentle clapped a hand over Kili’s mouth, raising the other to his lips. Kili’s eyes snapped open, staring wide awake at Nazarg in the firelight, shushing him, and he gave a single nod to show that he understood. “Good.” Nazarg breathed, gesturing silently as he withdrew from the bed, eyeing the huge sleeping figure stretched out on the ground.

 Kili sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes. He was disorientated for a moment, sitting on the ground with his head bowed as he blinked away the last remnants of sleep. He didn’t feel refreshed or well-rested from his few hours of rest; he felt the tiredness in his bones and he knew it had nothing to do with how much he had slept. It was the exhaustion of someone who had lost his hope. Kili rolled his aching shoulders, feeling the paper crackle beneath the thick hide of his vest, folded close to his skin. He placed his hand over the drawing, unable to feel it through his clothing. But it lay over his beating heart, an image of a sacred memory. Kili gritted his teeth, shaking his head as the increasingly familiar anguish of betrayal rose freshly in his chest.


The tangled mop of brown hair jerked at the sound, and Kili rose slowly to his feet. He picked his way through a maze of goblin-limbs, the creatures strewn across the ground and snoring loudly in their sleep. Kili sank to his knees beside the fire, stretching his hands towards the beckoning flames, fearing the heat sear his fingertips. He stared into it, watching the orange and yellow dance over red-hot embers until a hand on his shoulder jerked him out of his torpor. Nazarg was holding out a bowl of food. Kili’s dirty fingers closed around the misshapen earthenware, eyes meeting the orc.

“It’s just some of the soup.” Nazarg whispered. “Hurry up and eat it, the others will rise soon.” Kili raised the bowl to his lips, closing his eyes as the thin broth poured down his throat. Venison was one of his favourite meats, if caught and killed and cleaned properly. This deer was a little too gamey for Kili’s taste, there was a bitter edge to it that made the dwarf think it could be tainted with something else. But it was food that he knew, it was familiar, and he couldn’t drink it down quickly enough.

“Thank you.” Nazarg nodded silently at the reply. Kili set the empty bowl on the stone, wiping at his mouth. “Is... Is there a word in your tongue for ‘thank you’? Azog hasn’t taught it to me yet.” The orc gave Kili a sidelong glance, smirking.

“Not with the same meaning as Westron.” He poked at the fire with a stick, watching the embers roll about. “Narnûlubat is probably the closest. It means "I will not hurt you'.” His fingers tightened over the stick. “You use it to people above your station, not below. Anyone below you, you don’t thank them. They’re not deserving of it.”

“Thank you.” Kili nodded, watching Nazarg poke at the fire. “Or should I say, narnûlubat." He heard an intake of breath beside him, as though Nazarg were about to say something. But the orc remained silent, poking rather morosely at the fire.

“Don’t use it with the goblins.” Nazarg advised after a few thoughtful moments. He looked at the young dwarf and he knew that he had to say something. He didn’t know when he would have another opportunity for this complete silence. He thought that perhaps Kili would be all right, that he would pull through, but his breakdown at the base of his own tomb had filed away the edges of his iron will and he was worn smooth and thin. He knew that Kili wouldn’t survive if he continued on the way that he did. The goblins wouldn’t let him. Azog wouldn’t let him, in the end. And so he set aside his anger, his frustration at his powerlessness and he turned his head to look at Kili. “Don’t let them assert their dominance over you. You’re Azog’s favourite and he is our leader here.”

“I’m not one of them.” Kili muttered, crossing his legs as his feet started to tingle. “I’m beneath them by default.” At his side, the orc snorted.

Them? Kili, you’re a prince.” Kili ducked his head. It was not often the word was cast in his direction. “Don’t listen to them. Insult them. Give them orders. They’re pliable. They need to be dominated.” Kili was shaking his head.

“I can’t.” He brushed his hair back from his shoulders. “I can’t be that sort of person. I’ve never been angry at any of my own people, let alone to – to them.” Kili’s lips tightened, he stared into the firelight, feeling the heat of it wash over his tired limbs. “I don’t want to play any power games. I... I just want to go home.” His voice was thin and pathetic. “I can’t do this. I wasn’t made to stand up to all of this – this pain and darkness.”

“Well, you’re here now.” Nazarg’s voice was harder than he liked, but he refused to let Kili feel as though he were a creature to be pitied. “And if you – Kili, don’t you dare cry,” he warned, watching as Kili rubbed at his eyes. “No more crying. They will only laugh at you if they see you cry. Listen to me. That stunt they pulled with Nardur, do you think that was an accident? The poor creature’s thick as anything, but he is not that stupid. They pushed him. They wanted to scare you, and you let them.” Kili’s head was bowed. “And they’ll keep doing it. You have to show you’re not going to be bullied. Not by them.”

“I’m so tired.” Kili whispered. “I just – just want to sleep.” His eyes were half-lidded. He struggled to listen. He knew the orc was trying to have a rousing effect on him, but Kili was too broken-down and exhausted to pay heed to his words. Nazarg closed his eyes and let out a long sigh, the sound plain in Kili’s ears. “I’m sorry.”

“No.” Nazarg set down the blackened stick. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry for anyone or anything here, especially yourself. I know you’re hurting. They told me what’s written on that tomb. So – you’re dead to them. So you have no hope of rescue.” He turned towards Kili, taking his arm and drawing Kili’s gaze away from the firelight. “What are you going to do?” The wide brown eyes looked up at him, shining in a thin face. “Are you going to give up?”

“I’m tired of fighting.” Kili’s gaze fell to the ground, shoulders slumped. “I’ve fought – for weeks and all I have are scars and broken bones.” He drew the iron cast close to his chest, cradling it against himself. “I can’t – I can’t keep doing this.” He breathed. “The beating – I can’t.”

“I’m not telling you to fight. I’m not telling you to rebel.” Nazarg kept his voice very low, growing painfully aware of time passing. “Kili, I have seen many prisoners in my time, elves and men and dwarves. Even other orcs. Listen to me. When your hope dies, you die. When you roll over and wait for whatever cruel fate to take you, that is when your body gives in. I’m not telling you to disobey Azog. Please, never do something that stupid. I am telling you to remain strong.” Kili’s gaze slowly lifted from the ground. “Don’t let the goblins push you around. Stop crying. Keep your mouth shut and head down and do whatever it is Azog tells you to do. You’re going to have to become something you hate but you need to do it. This is the last time I’m going to talk to you in Westron. You need to pick up the language faster. You need to learn how to curse them in their own tongue. You need to pack your heart away and forget that it exists. You need to be cruel, like them.” Kili was shaking his head. “Yes.” Nazarg cast his eye over to Azog. He was still sleeping soundly. They all were; he hoped. “They only respond to hatred and anger and darkness. Deaden yourself inside. Stop thinking about your brother and uncle. It will only hurt you.” His voice was a rushed whisper, tumbling from his lips. Kili placed a hand over his heart, feeling the paper crackle.

“I...” Kili was shaking his head. “Nazarg I can’t just forget everything I know and wear another creature’s skin.” His hand tightened over his chest. “I... You said so yourself – I’m a prince. I can’t walk and talk and act and eat like an orc. If Thror was alive-”

“But he’s not.”  Nazarg cut over them. He wasn’t going to hear any excuses about Kili’s line or ancestry or sense of honour. “Nobody is here Kili. Nobody is going to come for you. They left you to die.” It was a knife in Kili’s heart, and Nazarg hated sticking it into him, but he had to make Kili understand. “And you will if you don’t change. You’re not healing fast enough. I shouldn’t need to re-bandage you daily, not after this long. You’re wasting away, I can see it. And I know that’s because you’re not eating enough. So sneak some. I’ll give you a spare plate when I’m on watch but that won’t happen often.” Kili was watching him, his hands still holding onto the picture beneath his shirt. “Do you understand me?”

“I – yes.” Kili let out a long breath. “I... I do.” But his eyes were dull. He was dazed and Nazarg knew that he was struggling to take in everything that he had said. He was tired. “I don’t want to die.” He spoke simply. “I know I should favour death before dishonour but –” Kili shook his head. “I don’t want to die.”

“Nobody wants to die.” Nazarg muttered grimly. “Are the morals of your people really so set in stone, so black-and-white, that they wouldn’t forgive this?” He heard a murmur across the cave – someone was starting to stir. “Kili you have to go back to your bed. Pretend to be asleep. Act hungry if Azog offers you food.” Kili nodded silently, getting up onto his knees. He made to stand, but paused, biting his lip as he reached inside his shirt. “What? Hurry up.”

“Take this for me.” Kili extracted the drawing, pressing it into Nazarg’s hand. “Keep it safe for me. I-I can’t keep looking at it but please keep it safe.” Nazarg’s fingers clenched the parchment as Kili rose to his feet. “Please –” He turned and picked his way across the cave as quickly as he dared. Nazarg’s eyes lowered to the cream-coloured sheet in his hand, unfolding it slowly. He let out a sigh when he saw it, the image of Kili braiding his brother’s hair. It must have been his brother. He refolded the page, reaching for his pack.

Kili closed his eyes and tried to regulate his breathing. But his fingers shook and a heavy pulse thudded in his ears and he was convinced that he couldn’t feign sleep. He remained still, already feeling the heavy loss of his picture. The orc’s words turned over and over in his head and he couldn’t disentangle them. It was an impossible task. Kili could never forsake his own people. He could not turn his back on his heart. His heart was what defined him. He pressed his face into the ground and fought back a rush of panic. How could he even think to commit something to awful? Not only was it shameful and dishonourable, not only would it stain his soul, but Kili knew he physically could not do it. He could bring himself to wear the grey skin of an orc and he knew that he would crumble and fall.

He listened to the snores, the sighs and mutterings of the bodies around him beginning to wake. Kili heard someone curse loudly. They had slept on a sharp stone and it left a red mark in their side. He breathed into the stone and felt his heart beat against it, growing louder and faster as Kili realised that Nazarg was right. Are the morals of your people really so set in stone? Kili swallowed as he remembered the words uttered in his ear just a few moments before. They came back to him, echoes in a cave, but they grew in volume, louder and louder.

Mahal, I hope not.

Chapter Text


He pretended not to hear Azog’s voice behind him. Kili stood in front of the tomb, rereading the inscription for what had to be the sixth or seventh time. But it wasn’t the names which interested him, the hasty lineage stretching back to the kingdom which had slipped away from their people. He traced a dirty finger over the last line carved into the stone.

Earthly belongings laid to rest on the seventeenth day of the month of Motsognír

It wasn’t adding up.

Kili counted on his fingers, shaking his head. It wasn’t making sense. He must have had the dates wrong. It was the only explanation. He knew he wasn’t misreading the rune for seven; the tomb claimed he died at seventy-seven. Perhaps the days slipped through his fingers – now he was entirely nocturnal, Kili must have lost his grasp on time.

Because he left on the morning of the fifteenth. And if he left on the fifteenth then Thorin had only waited two days before erecting the stone and declaring his nephew dead. After two days, he gave up. After two days he took whatever leftover pieces of clothing they had, sealing it beneath the stone. Kili ran his fingers along the edge of the smooth marker, knowing he could never tear it apart. The pale stone met the dark granite of the cave wall almost seamlessly – there was no crack he could prise open, no crooked lip of stone to wedge the marker free. It was closed, and Kili knew he did not have the strength to break the thick stone.

Two days. Two days was not long enough. It was nowhere near long enough. They would not have searched more than a tiny corner of the wilderland. Kili felt the hot, sick anger rise within him, beating at his throat. They wouldn’t have even tried looking for him, after receiving the ransom note. They would have gotten it on the night of the sixteenth and then set out in the morning to lay this stone, less than five miles south of Beorn’s Hall. Kili pressed his forehead against the stone and tried not to cry.

They gave him up so quickly. It took Kili a lot of nerve to approach the stone once more, to read over the writing as the retinue of goblins readied themselves for the night ahead. He knew he would never see it again and he would regret not memorising it. He wanted to see what Thorin said about him. But it was plain and simple. It bore his name, his age, his lineage, and when and how he died. Nothing more. No ancient proverb, no blessing for the dead.

Was his death really so meaningless for Thorin? Kili dug his fingers into the carved markings, gritting his teeth. It was so cold, so plain and hard. There was nothing there that suggested Kili meant anything to them. He felt cheated. Kili didn’t expect a grand monument – but surely he deserved more than this.

“Kili.” The voice behind him was very cold. Kili tensed, his breath hitching. “Get up. Now.”

“Not yet.” Kili muttered in response. The realisation that Thorin gave up so quickly had sickened him. He was too tired and angry, and he didn’t really understand just what he’d said until a low growl sounded at his ear, Azog grabbing a fistful of Kili’s hair and dragging him away from the stone.

What?” Kili’s eyes widened, realising he had just made a terrible, terrible mistake. He kicked out and struggled, but Azog held firm. “What did you say?”

“No – I didn’t –” Kili cried out as Azog took the front of his vest. What have I done? His heart seized with fear, the sick terror flooding his chest. “No Azog –” His pleading turned into a scream as Azog slammed his trembling frame into the rough, jagged walls of the cave. Hard.

Nazarg started at the sound, along with half of the goblins. Kili’s feet hung a foot from the ground, panting for air, eyes clouded with pain. His hands curled around Azog’s wrist, his grasp loose and weak. There was a very ugly snarl on Azog’s scarred lips.

Never disobey me Kili.” Azog spat the words out, leaning in very closely to the dwarf. Kili fought down tears of pain, the very familiar sensation of blood oozing from his torn back. Just as they were beginning to finally heal. “Understand?”

“Y-Yes.” Kili gasped. Azog still pressed him into the cave wall, dragging him slowly upwards, purposefully prolonging his pain. “Yes I understand – stop –” He gritted his teeth but couldn’t fight back another cry. While it stopped the rocks from cutting into his skin, the leather vest did nothing to shield his battered body from the force of Azog’s crushing blow against the stone. A smirk twitched on the orc’s face as he watched Kili swallow down his tears of agony.

“Good.” He let Kili fall, stepping back and watching as the dwarf sank onto his knees, trying to breathe, balling his hands into fists and screwing up his face as his back throbbed. “Get up.” He repeated.

“Yes.” Kili dug his hands into his eyes, trying to claw the salty water out as he rose to his feet. He tried to smooth his features, tried to act as though he wasn’t in pain as he walked away from his tombstone. Azog smirked, slapping Kili in the back, between the shoulder-blades. To anybody else it would have been a loose gesture of camaraderie, but to Kili it was a deliberate threat. Don’t dare try that again. Kili returned to the place where he slept, knowing Azog still had an eye on him. He slung the quiver across his back, and shouldered his pack with an impassive face, and dull, dark eyes.

“Kili, what did you-”

“I’m fine.” Kili pulled himself free of slate-grey hand on his arm. “I’m fine Nazarg. Don’t give him the satisfaction.” The dwarf wouldn’t look at him.

“It would have hurt like nothing else – let me look at it and I’ll-”

“We have to go.” Kili kept his face turned away from Nazarg. “Leave it alone.” He wasn’t going to let Azog have the satisfaction of seeing his back, and he wasn’t getting Nazarg in trouble for his sake. He only hoped the bandages on his back would stop the blood from seeping through onto the leather vest.


“I said, leave me alone.” Kili snapped. His eyes met Nazarg for a moment, the orc closing his mouth when he saw the wide brown eyes glistening. He took a step back, raising his hands in a gesture of peace.

“All right.” He relented. “If you need me-”

“I don’t.” Kili turned away from him, very abruptly, making his way to the mouth of the cave. He pushed past the others, elbowing one sharply in the ribs and receiving a punch in the shoulder for that, but didn’t stop. He didn’t feel it. He felt hot and angry and humiliated. Angry at Thorin and Azog. Humiliated at himself. Kili refused to let another tear fall, he blinked and hardened his jaw, pushing down the familiar rising tightness in his throat.

He didn’t mean anything to anybody. Kili couldn’t even feel sad about it anymore. It wasn’t sadness or misery that made his heart throb so painfully inside of him. Kili was done with feeling sad. His last attempt at a private moment of grief had earned him a horrible crushing blow. Azog wasn’t going to give an inch; his word was law. He wasn’t going to sit back and sigh and roll his eyes impatiently. Not now. Nazarg was wrong; Kili wasn’t a favourite. He was a prisoner, a piece of property. Thorin had released his claim on Kili when he erected this simple, insulting tombstone. He was worthless. He lived only to torment his uncle with an agonizing, humiliating death. He existed in pieces, carried about to be shown with glee to the one who dropped him. Why did Azog even bother?

He didn’t know of Azog’s sick plans to take those pieces and rebuild them into something mutilated, corrupted and terrifying. Kili still thought that he was being paraded about as something spoiled and broken. Nobody, except Azog himself, knew what was in store for the dwarf.

And as Azog watched Kili turn away from the only sympathy and compassion he was ever going to get from this black retinue, curdled with anger and pain, he knew it was only a matter of days before he would be taking that small figure in his arms and listening to bitter curses against the name of Thorin Oakenshield. Curses the dwarf king put on Kili’s lips himself, when he built that modest tomb.

“Let me help you.”

Fili’s head lifted at the soft voice. Ori knelt in the dirt beside Thorin, taking the king’s arm and draping it across his shoulders. He had watched Fili try and fail to lift his uncle under his own steam, after spending a very long time in Thorin’s arms, growing softer and quieter until the pair were entirely silent. They didn’t say anything; nothing needed to be said. Not yet. They simply sat in the ground, Thorin weak and in pain, Fili trembling from the cold. It was when Thorin went lax, when he rested his head on Fili’s shoulder that the blonde remembered with a heartsick rush that his uncle was so very unwell.

Ori didn’t look at Fili. He didn’t look at Thorin, either. He kept his eyes firmly downcast, waiting for Fili to adjust the weight on his shoulders before rising to his feet. He fought down the physical urge to be sick; after what happened, after what Fili had said to him, there was no way that Thorin could not know exactly what it was that ignited such a fire within his nephew. Ori knew what happened to dwarves like him. There weren’t many cases – they were hushed up, old and dusty and fading from memory, but his brother remembered them. Dori had warned him months ago, when Ori first confessed, mumbling underneath the ragged wool of his scarf, that he should wish for death, expect exile, anticipate gruesome punishment. And Dori would be unable to save him.

Fili sighed heavily as they set Thorin down at his spot before the fire. The dark head of hair slumped; he struggled to sit up by himself but he couldn’t lie down. Ori kept his eyes down, face white, refusing to look in Fili’s direction. After some scuffling, he found a hollow tree-log, wide enough for two people to lean against. He rolled it towards his uncle, carefully helping him to lean against the damp wood. Ori withdrew, pulling his scarf over his mouth to mask the trembling, hands hidden in his mittens.

“Is there anything else you need?” The shadow of a smile crossed Thorin’s lips as he listened to his nephew fuss over him. “I-I can make you some tea or if you want something to eat-”

“I’m fine Fili.” Thorin sat with his eyes closed, breathing long and slow. “Sit.” He listened to the rasp of shifting clothing as Fili pulled on his furs before sitting on the ground beside him. He felt a broad arm wrap around his shoulders, Fili’s bare hand tightening on his arm as he coaxed Thorin to lean into him. He took the offer of warmth and comfort willingly. It had been an achingly long time since Thorin rested against the warm body of another soul. He opened his eyes as Fili wrapped his other arm around him, feeling for a moment that strange, alien skin, smooth yet marked with needlepoint stubble, scrape his forehead. “Not too tight.” He winced in Fili’s crushing embrace. His nephew mumbled a soft apology, arms loosening.

“I’m so sorry.” Fili’s voice was very small in his ear. “For everything – I can’t even begin-”

“Hush Fili.” Thorin breathed, silencing the blonde with hand on his leg. “It is I who should be sorry.” He paused, taking a breath. “I’ve failed you.” He spoke softly, Fili straining to hear him. “I saw this coming a week ago and...” His hand clenched the cold limb. “I did nothing. I let you suffer.” Thorin bit his lip. “I let you suffer for years.”


“No Fili. Let me finish.” He cut over the young prince, his grip painfully tight. “I tried to pretend that you were ours, completely.” Thorin paused for air. “I tried to forget where you were born. I ignored your anger, your cries for help, for decades. I thought you were too young, you had no memories of your father’s people – Mahal I was so wrong.” Fili had gone very still and quiet, his arms stiff around his uncle. “As you got older – I saw more and more of him and I became scared. “ He gritted his teeth, stopping for a moment as his breath hitched, pain crackling through his lungs.

“He never released his hold on you.” Fili couldn’t breathe. Thorin had never spoken of his father to him. “I thought it was too late to bring those memories to the surface. I thought – I thought I could stamp that darkness and anger out of you but – I treated you like a prince, when –” Thorin’s voice cracked at the last syllable. “When I should have treated you like a son.” Fili looked up at the sky, hidden in a canopy of dark, spreading tree-branches. He looked up at the sky so the tears would fall into the hair at his temples, and Thorin wouldn’t feel them on his face. “The both of you – I failed terribly. I let Kili – I let Kili fall by the wayside. I let you draw your strength from darkness.” Thorin shook his head. “I was deaf and blind to your pain and I can never undo that.” Fili kept his mouth closed, afraid to part his lips and let a sound give him away. He wasn’t expecting this. He assumed years ago the subject was closed, that Fili would never have his chance to speak. He thought that the silence meant that he was supposed to bear the darkness and anger and bitter memories on his own. “I didn’t know Fili – please, you have to understand that I didn’t know.” Thorin struggled a little, straightening himself, turning to look at Fili. “I’m not asking for forgiveness. I don’t deserve it. But – I’m here now, I will listen to anything you say. I’ll take any blow, any insult, any curse from you Fili. But please, in Durin’s name I am begging you – never shut me out.” He rested his hand on Fili’s shoulder, feeling the sharp angular collarbone beneath his trembling hand. Fili stared at his uncle, wide-eyed, his chest rising and falling in quick gasps. Blonde curls fell over his face as he shook his head. “Anything Fili. Anything at all.”

“I...” Fili’s arms were tight around Thorin. Too tight, although his uncle held his tongue this time. “Thorin – I...” He shook his head once more, as he realised the words were utterly beyond him. There was no way he could simply open his mouth, and let eighty years of darkness and anger pour out. What was Thorin expecting? How could he ask this of Fili, after a lifetime of respect and restraint? How could he expect Fili to simply open the darkest parts of his soul to Thorin? The hinges had rusted closed, decades before. “I’ve never told anyone.” He whispered, voice shaking. “N-Not even Kili.” Thorin pressed his forehead against Fili’s curls as his nephew sought refuge in the thick collar of his furs. “I can’t.” He whimpered plaintively, voice muffled in the grand cloak. “Not now – I can’t.”

“All right.” Thorin was bitterly, bitterly disappointed. But he quickly tightened his sagging features, fingers gently stroking through Fili’s long tangles of golden hair. “Whenever you feel ready – I’m always listening. I promise you. No matter how small, you can tell me.”

No I can’t. Fili started to panic at the thought. He forced the air out of his lungs in long, slow breaths, trying to steady his racing heart. He couldn’t tell Thorin everything. Because if he did, if he was truly honest about just how much he had covered up, Fili knew that he wouldn’t ever be trusted as an heir to the throne. How could they expect him to lead a race of people, when he was unable to control himself? He wanted to let Thorin in, to tell him everything. He wanted to be honest about why he let Kili take the blame. He wanted to tell him about how he used to physically hurt himself in violent fits of rage. He wanted tell him about the horrible nightmares that still plagued his sleep. He wanted to admit that he was insecure, that he was jealous of Thorin’s ability to hold his head high and remain so unshakeable, that he never thought he could be so strong. But Mahal, would Thorin ever look at him the same way again, if he did?

They looked even worse in the moonlight. The silver glistening of their fur, their gleaming eyes and teeth shining white, it made the wargs look worse than ever. The shadows brought out a darkness in the beasts. Even now, after five nights of riding, Kili couldn’t dissolve the tight knot that cramped his stomach.

Perhaps it was because he received his warg-bite at night.

The association in his mind, his dreams, was of a vast creature that moved through the darkness, catching soft glints of moonlight, a pair of glowing eyes and a looming shadow that struck with no warning, crunching bones and tearing through skin and cloth and splattering blood on the grass.

“But you wouldn’t do that, would you?” Kili murmured down at his warg, scratching between the pricked-up ears. He rode patiently; the wargs had been nosing about for hours, trying to catch a lingering trace of dwarf-scent from a trail which was rapidly growing cold. Kili lingered behind on instruction, told that his own smell was too distracting for the wargs to get a nose on his kin. He was not alone in the rear. Azog also waited behind, infuriated; he realised very early on that Kili’s scent was all over him, his warg rendered useless for tracking while he rode her, confusing her nose with his tainted skin.

They rode in silence, keeping to their own thoughts. His back still throbbing, jolted with every footfall upon the ground, Kili tried desperately to distract himself, tried to keep the thoughts of his uncle and brother out of his head. But what else was he to think on? There were no happy thoughts, no memories of warmth and light that he could conjure up, that didn’t involve his kin. They were always there for him. Always. And to be torn away from them, to be left abandoned by them – Kili couldn’t see how he could go on, alone. The only memories he had without his family, his people, were the ones that began when slipped out of Beorn’s Hall, on that cool summer night. And Kili could not think on them without feeling sick and hot. The image of his tomb stared at him, mocking him.

Maybe Nazarg is right. Kili looked down at his hands clinging to the horn of the battered leather saddle. His stomach twisted as he remembered how rude he had been, in his anger and pain, how he’d turned away from the closest thing he had to a friend. He regretted it now, feeling the bandages sticky and cold, bound close to his skin with congealed blood but he knew he couldn’t grovel to the orc for forgiveness, not now. It would be seen as weak. He realised how right Nazarg was as he rode across the moonlight. Kili really did need to harden up. He did need to grow tough and mean and cruel, like them. Kili saw the jeers and scowls and snarls cast in his direction, he knew how little they thought of him. And he tried not to care, on a personal level, what a pack of dirty goblins thought; Kili had developed a very thick skin after a lifetime of teasing, of bullying and sidelong glances and pranks and whispered gossip. He learned a long time ago to accept who he was and simply try to make his family proud in his own way, rather than to pretend to be somebody he so obviously wasn’t. Nothing the wretched creatures said could hurt him - it was only Azog’s remark that he was not a dwarf which left him red with embarrassment.

Whenever he was mocked or bullied as a young dwarrow, Kili had a shoulder to cry on, someone to fight back for him and send his tormentors howling with black eyes and bloodied noses. But Fili wasn’t here. He didn’t have his older brother here to fight his battles. Kili had to stick up for himself. He had nobody else to depend on. Was that why it seemed so hard for him? Kili tried to remember a time when he’d ever hit back. He only had a few scattered memories, where his blows were weak an ineffectual, and they only ever laughed at brushed aside his pathetic attempts to defend himself. But that was years ago. He was bigger and stronger. He was one of the best fighters in the company. He knew how to throw a punch.

So why in Durin’s name don’t you stick up for yourself? Kili swallowed, looking out at the moonlit pasture, the smattering of wargs spread out across the gentle, sloping grass. Why did he let the stupid beasts make snide comments about him? Why did he let them push his warg over the side of a cliff? His gaze lowered and Kili felt uncomfortable. Was it a question of honour? There was no concept of honour when it came to orcs and goblins. Battles between them and his people were vicious and bloody, making monsters of both sides. Nobody, least of all his uncle, would think less of him for showing brutality towards them. It wasn’t being cruel and violent that scared him (at least, that was what he tried to think), it was the concept of adopting traits and habits of the tribe that imprisoned him, of shirking his identity as a dwarf and becoming like them. The price of survival was set and Kili didn’t know if he could pay it.

Because you made such a heroic name for yourself as a dwarf. The nasty idea wormed into his head. Kili’s head snapped up, feeling cold. You were a joke. You couldn’t do anything right. What of your skill with an axe? Could you temper a blade? Ever been down a mine? How is the beard coming along? Kili gritted his teeth, knuckles white on the horn of his saddle. He refused to let his own bitterness get to him. He was angry at Thorin and Fili, and their abandonment of him. He was hurt at how they appeared to care so little. That was all. His thoughts were meaningless and he refused to listen to them. Kili could fight. He had more kills to his name than any other on the quest (except maybe Thorin), thanks to his bow. He was smart. He was fast. He couldn’t work with raw metal but he was skilled with leather, designing and carving vambraces for himself and his kin. The only people who really mattered to him, his closest friends and his family, they refused to accept Kili as a failure.

If they loved you so much, then why did they leave you to die?

“Shut up.” Kili whispered aloud. Azog turned his head at the sound, watching how tightly Kili grasped his saddle, his tense, strained face and tight lips. And he smiled, the expression going unnoticed. Kili was suffering. He still felt helpless and abandoned. He was growing sick and bitter and angry under the weight of his grief.

Azog’s head lifted at the sound of the horn, coming from the east. He squinted at the silvered grass in the distance, seeing one of the wretched goblins waving his arms and shouting. He bit back a growl – did the stupid creatures realise just how close they were to Beorn’s domain? Did they want to become scattered limbs and entrails in the dirt?

“They have a scent.” Azog’s voice sliced through Kili’s brain, making him wince. He nodded silently, not raising his head. He let Nardur follow the orc king, his grip lax on the saddle as the warg picked up pace. He didn’t feel the way he ought to at the revelation that he grew closer to his uncle. It wasn’t excitement or anticipation. It was a throbbing dread. Dread at his own looming death, at standing before Thorin and Fili and watching their overwhelming guilt and horror. He wasn’t going to take any joy from watching them suffer. He was dark and angry but his soul had not soured in hatred against them.

Not yet.

Chapter Text

“You lost! Hand it over Grush.”

“No. You cheated. I saw – you slimy bastard.”

flâgît hau!”

“What did you call me?”

Kili didn’t raise his eyes as the goblins descended into fighting. He kept his head down, focused intently on his work. He was crafting an arrow-shaft, and it had to be perfectly straight. The goblins all sat in clusters, pressed tightly for space beneath the shade of the spreading tree-branches, sheltering from the morning sun. Kili tried to sit by himself, but he was on the edge of a tight ring of goblins engaged in a game involving a bone die.

“Grush! Dhaka! Both of you stop!” Kili listened, the notched blade of his new knife gently scraping the thin shaft of wood. “Maukûrz idiots.” The leader, the maugrat, Kili reminded himself, stepped in, he heard the distant knock of fists against skulls. “Grush give him your flask. You lost.”

“I’m not giving him a thing.”

“You darûk!”

“Dhaka! Hold your tongue and sit down! Dalgum, both of you!” They were curses and insults obviously, and Kili did not know them. He didn’t need to – he could imagine their meaning. The bitter goblin sat down with a snarl, throwing his half-empty flask to the winner of the game. Kili’s glance flickered upwards; for just a moment, he caught the eye of Grush and he rapidly dropped his star, looking down at his hands with an obvious intent, desperate to be ignored. The goblin smirked.

“Kili.” The dwarf kept his mouth closed and eyes lowered. “Kili. Lobûrz dikum.” There was a snort beside him.

“He called you womanly.” A goblin muttered at Kili’s elbow in Westron. That got his attention. Kili’s eyes snapped up, teeth gritted, fingers tightening around his blade.

“What.” Kili spoke shortly. He didn’t want to sink down to their level but the insult stung him. “What do you want.”

“Azog was talking about you.” Grush leaned back on his hands. The game was forgotten; they all looked at Kili, watching as his knuckles whitened around the handle of his small knife. “Shruk was nosy, he asked him how long it took before you lag.”

“Before I what?” Kili set down the arrow-shaft but his hold on the knife did not loosen.

“Before you broke.” Somebody muttered beside him. Kili swallowed, the pulse in his throat quickening. What did Azog say about that?

“And?” Kili tried to sound as though he didn’t care, but his voice was tense. They all heard it.

“He said you broke in mere moments.” Kili slowly felt his face grow hot as several goblins snickered around him. “He barely had to touch you.” The dwarf could feel something sticking in his throat. “The only time you kept quiet was when they asked about your krank.

“My what?” Kili tried to keep himself calm and hands still. He wasn’t going to rise to their bait. They were teasing him, he knew it and he knew he would be playing right into their hands if he got angry.

“Your father.” Dhaka chimed in. Kili knew his face was reddening with embarrassment. He clung to the knife and imagined sticking it between Grush’s ribs and letting the blood flow black and sticky all over his hands, staining his clothes.

“And y’know why he kept quiet?” Oh no. No no no. Kili’s hand shook around the knife. Azog didn’t tell them. He couldn’t. That cruel, sadistic beast. Their eyes were locked together and Kili bit down on his lip to mask the trembling. Why would he tell them? “Because Kili doesn’t know.”

“You’re a bastard?” One of the foul creatures crowed. Kili stiffened, feeling his heart thud in his ears.

“I am not a bastard.” Kili’s voice shook and Grush smirked, knowing he had managed to get to him. “I’m a prince.” But it was a weak, plaintive response. It wasn’t assertive, it was trembling and pathetic.

“Only bastards don’t know their fathers.” Kili made a noise in the base of his throat, furious. “The line of Durin must be in tatters, to have a kruflûk prince.”

“A what?” Kili’s breath started coming out in a shallow gasp. Grush was smirking at him. It took every ounce of will and restraint for Kili to stay kneeling in the dirt, for the knife to remain at his side.

“A whore’s son.” Grush didn’t let anybody else translate for him. Kili let out a cry, as though he had been physically hit with the goblin’s accusation. The insult drove him out of the ground; he leaped up and in a heartbeat, Kili was on Grush, the knife flashing.

“You – how dare you!” Kili vision went red as he landed on the goblin, knocking him into the dirt. The others leaped up, but they weren’t fast enough. Kili sank the knife into the bundle of arteries and tendons just above the collarbone, the handle ripped from his shaking fingers as several pairs of hands seized him, pulling him back as Grush sank backwards, the blood flowing in black rivulets as he coughed and gurgled, writhing in the dirt. “Let me go!” The commotion had caught everybody’s attention; they all rose to their feet, Azog pushing his way through the crowd at the sound of Kili’s screams.

“You little thrug.” Orug, a goblin holding his arm, spat in his ear. Kili’s arms were twisted painfully behind him, the dwarf forced on his knees. Kili lashed out and struggled and tried to bite the hands that grasped him so tightly, but the goblins held fast.

“What is this?” Azog stood before the dying goblin. Nazarg was already on his knees beside the twitching figure, pulling out the knife and holding the wound apart with long bony fingers. He couldn’t restitch severed arteries. The kindest thing he could do was help the dying creature bleed out faster. “Kili – what did you do?” The orc king kicked at the goblin, face etched in a deep snarl. He stepped over Grush’s body, seizing a handful of Kili’s hair and pulling hard, forcing the dwarf to look up at him. Kili’s frantic struggling stilled, he looked up at Azog with dark eyes, flecks of black blood on his cheeks.

“He asked for it.” Kili’s voice was low and rough, issuing through clenched teeth. His heart still pounded madly, a violent rushing in his ears. “He – he called my mother a whore.” There was no fear in his eyes as Azog looked down on him. “No one insults Amad. And no one insults me!” Azog stepped back from the dark creature, dragging his fingers free from the tangled locks of brown hair.

“You killed him over a fîgû.” Azog snarled at him. He was furious. He wanted Kili to be angry and violent. He wanted to nurture the darkness within him. Grush was an annoying little worm and he was not sad to watch him bleed to death in the dirt – but this was not how his retinue behaved. He detested in-fighting and he exacted brutal punishment for disobedience. Nazarg wiped the blood from his hands onto the dead goblin’s trousers. He stood up slowly, watching Azog with a growing unease written in his eyes. “You had no right!”

“I’m not a bastard!” Kili shouted in response. “And you – you told them!” He let out a shaking breath, Azog watching as a new emotion shone in his eyes. He felt betrayed and humiliated for what Azog had done. “Why did you-” A sharp blow across the face cut Kili off, the dwarf biting down on his tongue as his temple throbbed with pain.

“Shut. Up.” Azog snarled. He stood in silence before Kili for a moment, wondering what to do. This could not escape punishment. Grush’s kinsmen would seek their own retribution, if Azog did not make Kili suffer for what he had done. “I’ve killed my soldiers for less.” His stare with Kili was cold and level. Kili’s eyes were almost black, his face pale. A snarl flickered across the orc’s face as he slowly shook his head.

“I’m not going to apologize.” Kili’s voice shook. His hands were cold and clammy and sweat was gathering on his brow. He had never killed outside the battlefield. The blind anger that drove his hand, the fury at Grush’s insult against his mother, it was an alien sensation to him and as his heart slowed and his vision cleared and he saw the body on the ground, it left him feeling scared. Horror rose within him, at what he had done. But he kept his chin tilted upwards, eyes fixed on Azog. Kili knew contrition would completely undo him. “I won’t.” He watched the muscles twitch in Azog’s face. The cold in his hands spread up his limbs and Kili could feel a cold trickle of sweat ooze down his temple.

“You will.” His teeth bared, Azog leaned in to Kili. Venom dripped from his voice. “I do not tolerate this behaviour. From anybody.” He straightened, turning away from the dwarf. “Perhaps a thup will change his mind.” Azog watched the goblins break into snickers and jeers. Kili swallowed. He didn’t know what the word meant, but as he watched Nazarg step forward, wide-eyed, his stomach began to tighten.

“Azog you can’t-”

“Don’t.” The orc’s eyes flashed, instantly shutting Nazarg down. “It’s a light punishment, for his crime.” Azog turned his head, giving Kili a glance. “Perhaps he won’t be so unapologetic.”

“Kili, just say sorry.” Nazarg tried to take another step, but Azog grabbed his arm, pulling him back. “Just apolgize.” Azog opened his mouth to speak, but as he caught Kili’s face, the orc kept his lips closed. Kili’s chin was still tilted upwards, eyes dark and defiant. There was no need for Azog to deny Nazarg his attempt to spare Kili. Not when the dwarf was going to do it for him.

“No.” The single, level word issued quietly from Kili’s tight lips. He knew now that he could never say sorry for what he had done. “I’m not apologising.” Kili made sure his voice didn’t tremble. He kept his composure. The stupid goblin deserved what he got. He deserved it and Kili had no choice but to attack him. He could never let an insult against his mother rest. He had to draw a line; he had to show them all that he was not going to be pushed around anymore. Even though he felt sick with what he had done, even though the smell of goblin blood made his hands shake and stomach heave, even though his ears were still filled with that awful gurgling sound, Kili knew that he could not bow his head and apologize for what he had done. But it put him in defiance of Azog. And he couldn’t ignore the crushing horror behind that thought. He looked into Azog’s eyes and knew that he had sinned against him and he was going to suffer.

But if he apologized, if he admitted that he had done wrong in killing Grush, that made him indeterminably weak. The goblins would think Kili at their mercy. They would insult him, his mother, his kin, knowing he would do nothing to defend himself. Nazarg said their respect lay in blood. It had a twofold meaning, Kili realised, on his knees in the grass. Their blood if he spilled it. And his own if he bled for refusing to succumb to contrition. They wouldn’t laugh at him again, for crumbling so quickly.

Nazarg’s shoulders slumped, he shook his head and looked absolutely miserable. Kili obviously didn’t know what a thup was. Perhaps, if he had, he would have been quicker to apologize for his crime. 

Dori’s heart seized when he saw the golden-haired figure leaning against his uncle. Fili sat with his nose in Thorin’s shoulder, the tangles brushed back from his face and smoothed down by Thorin’s hand. His eyes were dull and lowered and his beardless face shone plainly in the light. Ori crouched before the fire, warming his hands. He looked apart from the pair, cold and lonely and Dori ached simply to hold him. Behind him, Nori crashed into the forest path, muttering under his breath and swearing. His brother’s clumsy entrance made the three look up, Ori breaking into a smile when he saw his siblings approaching the firelight. Fili’s eyes widened, he pulled away from Thorin and fumbled nervously with his cloak.

“Dori.” Ori picked his way across the haphazard camp, winding his arms about his brother. He was careful about pressing his nose into Dori’s shoulder, his embrace soft and tentative. “You’re not lost.”

“’Course we’re not lost.” Nori clapped Ori on the shoulder as he pulled back, giving him a rare affectionate squeeze. “Who found him?” He jerked his head in Fili’s direction. “Looks like we’re the first back.”

“He came back himself.” Thorin sat up against the log, straightening the furs across his shoulders.

“I found your marks.” Fili licked his lips, Nori’s previous words echoing in his head. He’d made an enemy of both brothers, after what he had done to Ori and he didn’t know what to say that would earn grace with him. He never would have accepted an apology if Nori had broken Kili’s nose – not for a long, long time. “Dori, Nori – I’m sorry.” But he had to try. “I really am – I just got angry and I lost my head.”

“That is no excuse.” Nori spoke flatly. He didn’t understand what Ori had done to provoke Fili. He had no idea of his brother’s secret. “How would you like it if-”

“Hush, brother.” Dori tugged on his arm, and all three siblings sat across from Thorin and Fili, staring at the pair over the little fire. “He said he’s sorry.” His eyes met Fili’s and Dori inclined his head in a tiny nod. Fili’s throat tightened. He knew. Dori knew about Ori and he knew that Fili was in on it. He didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved. It was like a conspiracy, a disgusting conspiracy against his brother and it made his blood boil.

“I don’t want animosity.” It was not Thorin’s place to get involved in the petty squabbles of the other dwarves – and there had been a fair few already, on the first leg of their journey – and he was a firm believer in keeping the peace and leaving them to hash it out themselves. But this was different. This involved his nephew. And whatever happened between Fili and Ori, it went beyond a filched slice of bread or a missing sock. Ori’s nose was broken, Fili had threatened him in his fit of anger and made him cry. He played the role of mediator, refusing to take sides. “Fili has apologised and it cannot go any further.” Thorin hoped that Ori’s brothers had the grace to accept it.

“Of course.” Dori found Ori’s hand, squeezing the thin fingers tightly. At his side, Ori nodded in silence. “It’s all right Fili.” He forced a smile, an outward show of forgiveness even though his stomach churned, seeing Ori’s nose out of the corner of his eye. But really, what else would he expect? What would he have done, if he knew someone felt something so dark and unnatural towards Ori? He’d knock them down in a heartbeat. Even though he considered fighting beneath him, Dori wouldn’t hesitate to raise his fists against anyone. Not when Ori was involved.

“You’ve got to be joking.” Nori’s voice was rough and it made Fili tense. “He says sorry and we’re supposed to forget about it?” Ori stared at his brother, wide-eyed. “He never even explained why and you want me to accept some half-hearted apology?”

“Nori it’s fine.” Ori’s voice was very small and Thorin had to strain his ears to hear it. “I don’t want to make a fuss – he’s said he’s sorry and I believe him.” He mumbled his words, not looking at anybody as his face went red. He saw Nori in his periphery, trying to pick him apart and decipher his nervousness. He felt Dori’s hand tighten around his own and it made him feel worse. He knew they were all staring at him and he felt hot and tight under their collective gaze. The terror that he would be exposed began to rise inside of him.

“Look me in the eye and say that.” Dori tried to silence his brother with side-long glances but Nori ignored him. Ori pulled his scarf over his mouth, eyes firmly downcast. “What did you say to him? Look at him, he’s shaking.” His gaze snapped up to Thorin and Fili. “Before, when you were alone. What did you say?”

“Nothing I swear.” Fili realised why Ori was so nervous; it was the agonising prospect of having his dark secret revealed which terrified him. Something that would turn them all against him, would cast him out. He touched the naked skin on his jaw and Fili realised that he carried a lot of the same fears. “We didn’t talk about it I – I’m sorry Nori I don’t know what to say. Ori’s just being quiet, he’s always quiet.” Ori had buried himself up to the nose in his scarf.

“Fili didn’t say anything.” Thorin stepped in to defend his nephew. But his own interest was piqued at Nori’s observation. He hadn’t forgotten the second confrontation between Ori and Fili, the one Ori’s brothers didn’t know about. He hadn’t forgotten the way his nephew gripped Ori by the wrists and growled in his face, voice low and deadly. Something was very wrong between the pair. “Ori – you don’t need to be nervous.” Thorin forced a smile. He could see it now, the way Ori acted, so removed and quiet and unobtrusive. The little light Thorin saw in him, when he told stories to him of his brothers, it was gone. Ori was too afraid to come near him, with Fili at his side. He could tell there was something there, something lurking within, trying not to come out. Something that involved Fili.

“Then why did you do it.” Nori was like a dog with a bone and it exasperated Dori. But he didn’t blame him for it. If he didn’t know what it was that made Ori so nervous, if he didn’t know what drove Fili to attack him, he too would have been demanding answers. He wouldn’t rest until he had the full story. And nothing would arouse Thorin’s suspicions more than Dori pulling his brother away and whispering into his ear. “Tell me why you did it Fili, and I’ll drop it.”

 “It was nothing. I was just so tired and angry at everything – I overreacted.” Fili kept a quiver out of his voice. “Ori just – he made a stupid joke.” Their eyes met. Ori watched the blonde speak, biting on his scarf. “About Kili. And I just – I got defensive. I could never stand anybody speaking ill about him.” Fili gave Nori an apologetic shrug. “I lost my head.”

“Over a joke? You broke his nose over a joke?” Nori was incensed.

Nadad please-”

“Leave off Dori.” The thief snatched his arm away. “How could you – over nothing?” Fili was growing anxious under Nori’s glare. Thorin watched his nephew very carefully. “Durin’s beard, what’s wrong with you?”

“Nori you have no right to say that-”

“I’ll say what I damn well please! He’s been a brat and I’m not going to-”

“Stop it!” Ori’s voice rose over his brothers. He was on his knees, the scarf pulled down below his chin. His lips trembled and his eyes were very bright. “There’s nothing wrong with Fili.” Thorin stared at him with a furrowed brow. Nori sat frozen, mouth half-open and Dori was reaching for his hand, trying to pull him back down. “It’s me.” He crumbled, sick with himself, bruised and battered from a vile self-loathing that beat at his insides and roared in his skull. Ori’s head sank into his hands with a low moan, trembling fingers twisting through his tousled auburn hair.

Fili looked at the hunched figure across the tiny fire and he ached with pity. Even though his insides had curled with disgust when he thought about how unnatural the young dwarf was, as Fili looked at Ori now, his heart ached for him. Ori fought his own monster, deep within himself. One that would never, ever go away, would never die, only sleep, lying in wait, coiled and ready to strike. Like him. Fili knew. He felt the same beast, within his own heart.

“Stop this.” There was an edge of iron to Dori’s voice, his fear very obvious. “Nori, no more. Leave it alone. Look at what you’ve done.” He put his hand on Ori’s shoulder, but the young dwarf shrugged his brother away. “Please Thorin, he’s tired and in pain.”

“Ori.” And he looked up at Thorin’s voice, wiping at his wet cheeks. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Everything.” His voice was a trembling murmur. Ori felt wrung out and exhausted. He looked up at Thorin and couldn’t fight his blurring vision. “Everything is wrong with me.” Ori was sick of the frustration, the grief and self-loathing and crippling loneliness. Why did he have to be so different? He felt so lost and desolate and solitary. He reached out for just a chance at understanding and acceptance. Even a chance was better than this secrecy, the lies and downward glances and tears at night. Dori’s warnings had left his ears; Ori had stopped listening to him and he pulled away from him now, when he tried to embrace him and get him to shut up. “Fili – he hit me because-”

“Ori no-”

“Thorin, I love your nephew.” There. It was said. It was out. Ori was panting, his head swam and his mouth was dry. He didn’t look at Fili or his brothers. He looked only at Thorin, with his eyes wet and hands shaking. He was out. Ori watched as Thorin slowly tried to comprehend his words. His frown deepened, bright blue eyes lowering to the ground as his jaw tightened into stone.

“Thorin please don’t listen to Ori, he’s just upset he’s never said or done anything I swear-

“Quiet.” Thorin’s voice was very low but it made Dori shut up in an instant. He knelt on the dirt, winding an arm around Ori. And this time, Ori let him, shuffling closer to his brother. Thorin still stared at the ground, obviously trying to get his head around what Ori had said. After several endless moments, a handful of seconds that stretched into eternity for Ori, kneeling in the earth beside the fire as Thorin judged his fate silently, the exiled king lifted his eyes. They were very, very dark. His mouth was a thin, hard line.

“You have unnatural feelings for Fili.” He refused to say the word love. Ori’s heart sank, he shook his head rapidly and Fili’s head darted towards his uncle, in obvious distress at the misunderstanding.

“Not me.” He cut in before Ori could speak, voice rushed. “Not me uncle. Kili.” Thorin’s head turned to stare at him, mouth falling half-open as his eyes glimmered with shock and confusion. Thorin shook his head slowly and Ori knew in an instant that he was doomed.

“Did you...” Thorin couldn’t finish his sentence. He couldn’t look at Ori. He felt sick with horror. It was utterly alien. He had heard rumours of unnatural dwarves in other tribes, whispered in secrecy, but Thorin had never had one of his own people admit to it. And to have that first dwarf Ori, to have the affection towards his dead nephew; it left him reeling, bile rising in his throat.

“Never.” Ori’s voice trembled. He shrank in Dori’s embrace, shying away from Thorin as though expecting a blow across the fire. Perhaps he would. “I-I never said or did anything. He never knew, I promise you Thorin. He never knew a thing.” Surely they could not punish him for thinking. Surely Thorin would show discretion towards him.

“You slept beside him.” Thorin stared at the young dwarf, hands clenched into fists to mask the trembling. “For weeks.” Ori nodded silently. “Did he ever give – give an indication?” He spat the words out, as though they disgusted him. Ori shook his head.

“Never.” He murmured, realising that Thorin had paused to allow him time to speak. “I-I know he wasn’t like – wasn’t like me.” It was still so very hard to talk about Kili in the past tense. It broke his heart. No one was like Ori. “Nothing ever happened – it won’t – it can’t.” He couldn’t stand Thorin’s awful, level stare. “A-And it never will so – I haven’t done anything.” His last words were high and pitiful and Fili’s heart twisted to hear them.

“I cannot imagine a bigger insult to Kili’s memory.” Thorin couldn’t mask the trembling in his voice. “I could not imagine a bigger insult to anybody in this company, to have their names entangled in such a vile scandal.” Ori burst into tears, tears that he had been holding back and forcing down. They came now, Ori’s heart in pieces at Thorin’s damning words. His confession was met with anger and hatred and prejudice, just as Dori said it would. He was going to be sent away, he was going to be cast out and shamed and exiled from his people. His king thought him a monster. He was not vile. Dori held on to him very tightly, Ori stemming his tears with the unravelling wool of his mittens. “Who knows of this. Outside of this circle, who knows?”

“Nobody.” Dori spoke up for his crying brother, giving Nori a sidelong look. The thief gaped at him, still in shock. Dori wanted to hit him. How could he not know? Was he really so dense, so distant from his younger brother, that he didn’t see this? Dori had known for years, he knew before Ori even did, that he wasn’t normal. “Not a soul Thorin. Not here or in Ered Luin. Ori – he never felt... that way for anybody else. It was only ever Ki-”

“All right.” Thorin silenced him with a lifted hand. He was not going to hear the end of that phrase, was not going to have his nephews name uttered in the same sentence as such an act. He didn't want to hear about it any longer - he couldn't. In Thorin's eyes, there was only one thing that he could do. He looked at Ori, crying helplessly in his brother's arms. He looked at Fili, staring at the ground with his hands clenched into fists. Mahal. He knew what Dori expected. He saw him ready to accept losing his brother. Ori too, had completely given up hope. Thorin closed his eyes, letting out a long, slow breath, that left his chest crackling in pain. He thought of the brave little dwarf that held his hand, who he had to pull back on the slopes near the Bruinen waters. So bright and naive and eager to please. And Thorin knew what would happen to him, to be sent away, alone, in the wild. It was a death sentence. And he knew the rumours. Without Kili to protest his own innocence, there was no defence against the claim that well, surely he must have done something to provoke it. It felt like an eternity before Thorin finally opened his eyes, looking at the tear-stained face beneath a tousled mop of poorly-cut auburn hair. He knew what was expected of him. But Thorin couldn't do it. It didn't make sense to him. Those rules, they couldn't work out here. This wasn't Ered Luin. And this wasn't Erebor either. It would cause a massive rift, if he passed judgement fit for a king. It would break the company apart and he knew it would kill Ori.

“As I said – the shame of having one’s name associated with – with that...” Thorin pursed his lips. “Is unbearable.” Dori looked at Thorin, daring for a single moment to hope.

“You’re not sending him away.” Ori’s head lifted at his brother’s words, he wiped at his eyes, pleading silently with his king for grace and mercy. Dori watched Thorin shake his head, relief coursing through his veins.

“This goes no further.” Thorin was still obviously upset. “Am I clear?” He stared at his nephew, at the three siblings, in turn. They all nodded at him, silent. “This is never mentioned again. This is your only chance Ori.” His cheek twitched as he locked eyes with the young dwarf. “If I hear a whisper that you have said or done or thought anything I will not be so merciful.” Ori nodded, sniffling. Thorin felt cold. He didn't know if he was doing the right thing or not. “Our people do not tolerate your... unnaturalness. If it is found out that I let you go unpunished for this, I would be humiliated. Do you understand?”

“Yes Thorin.” Ori whispered with an inclination of the head. “I understand.” He pulled the scarf back over his mouth as Dori ruffled his hear, whispering a thankful prayer, eyes cast upwards. Ori didn’t feel relieved. He didn’t feel like celebrating. He felt like he was going to be sick. This wasn’t what he wanted. This was worse. He still had the secrets and lies, the red-faced embarrassment when others talked about lasses (the others didn’t like talking about their own few wives, finding it too personal and painful, but that didn’t restrain conversation on the opposite sex), the horrible awkwardness when they bathed. They wouldn’t go away. And Thorin was disgusted with him. He remembered their quiet morning together, with Ori looking after him, keeping him awake and entertained with stories. He remembered how Thorin smiled at him and said he wished that there were more dwarves like Ori in his company.

He looked at his king now, at the cold shock and anger and disgust, and he knew that Thorin would never smile in his direction again.  

Chapter Text

Krimp him to that tree over there.” Azog pointed. “Arms kurn, hon-drû.Kili was silent as the goblins pulled him to his feet, snickering. Nazarg watched in silence. Powerless.

“You’re in it now, Kili.” Orug hissed in his ear as they marched him across the grass. Kili kept his face impassive, but his heart began to race. “Azog’s going to make you suffer.”

“I don’t know what he said.” Kili whispered. His voice was shaking once more. The goblin laughed, fingers digging tightly into Kili’s arm.

“You will.” They stopped, Orug unbuckling the belt at Kili’s waist. Kili winced as they dragged the vest from his back, casting it onto the grass. He remained silent as they took his arms, he didn’t fight as they wound them about the tree and bound his wrists together with the belt. His cheek was pressed close to the bark of the tree, rasping against his skin. Kili could feel a gentle breeze against the bandages on his back, sticky from his congealed blood. He had an idea now, with his back turned outwards and arms fixed so tightly, what Azog was going to do. Horror exploded in Kili’s chest, he bit down hard on his lip and hoped to Mahal that no one could see how his jaw shook.

“Azog.” There was serious desperation in Nazarg’s voice as the orc king rifled through his things. “You’ll take the skin from his back. After what you did yesterday – he won’t be able to handle it.” Azog found what he was looking for, his long rawhide whip, letting it hang loose from his hand and trail down to the grass. It was a common punishment, one he had given out to several creatures already on this quest – albeit for smaller crimes. “Don’t give him the full forty. Show a little mercy and-”

“Mercy?” The sun had disappeared behind a cloud, the morning turning grey and pale. Azog paused, turning back towards the orc healer, face twisted in scorn. “Shall I show Kili the same mercy he gave to the gobin he killed?” Nazarg stood very still. “I have given Kili mercy constantly since I laid eyes on him. I spared his life after I wrung my answers from his lips. I let him off with a warning after he attempted to kill me. I carried him up the side of the Misty Mountains when he was too sick and injured to walk. He disobeys me Nazarg. He tries to rebel and he must be punished for it.” Azog glared at the other. “I own him. He is mine. I am in complete control and I will not tolerate an ounce of defiance.” He received only a silent, level stare in response. “Kili is nothing, nothing without me.” Azog turned his face away from him, beginning to take long, loping strides across the grass.

You arrogant bastard. He didn’t say it. He didn’t dare. Nazarg spoke the damning words only in his mind, watching the orc king make his way through the grass, to the three where Kili stood, bound. Waiting for him.

Kili couldn’t see, with his face turned away from the pack and pressed so tightly against the bark, but he heard the heavy footfalls across the grass, and knew it could be no one else. Azog’s breath was slow and even as he approached the dwarf, utterly silent. Kili tried to turn his head, just a little more, but there was no give in the belt, he was pinned to the tree and he could not move his arms or neck. The skin on his back was stretched painfully tight, the open wounds throbbing with his heart. This was going to hurt him. Kili bit back a gasp as he felt Azog’s fingers brush the bloodied bandages on his back, plastered to his skin. The orc king grabbed a corner of the thin cloth, and with the strength of his massive weight behind him, pulled.

A small grunt made its way from behind Kili’s gritted teeth, but the dwarf allowed no other sound to escape. It was agony, to have the cloth torn from his skin, fused in place from the drying blood. His eyes already stung. The bandages were thin, coarse things, made from a flimsy material that tore easily in Azog’s hand. He let the bloodied fragments of cloth fall to the ground, Kili breathing very heavily through his iron jaw. He bit down hard on his lip, curling his fingers into the bark as he tried to steady himself. Azog’s hand was on his shoulder. Kili’s eyes flew open, breath dying in his throat. Azog grabbed Kili’s hair, trailing six or seven inches down his back, tangled and unbound and desperately in need of a comb. He swept it aside, tucking the handful of hair inside Kili’s neck, pressed so closely to the tree. He didn’t do it roughly. There was an odd gentleness to it, one Kili thought he may have even been imagining. Azog missed a lock. It hung on his shoulder, too short to reach across his neck and he combed it into place with his fingers, brushing Kili’s back to sweep aside any remaining stray hairs. Kili choked back a cry. What was he doing? It was precise and deliberate. He was taking his time, it almost seemed. Was he stalling?

Did Azog not want to do this? Kili’s hands tightened on the bark and he pressed his cheek against the tree, breathing in the wild scent of moss and wood and tree-gum. This was different. This was a calculated, measured punishment for a crime. This wasn’t an interrogation, a threat, a spontaneous act of violent retribution. Azog hadn’t hurt Kili like this before and he seemed almost reluctant to do it. But his hand vanished, Azog withdrew, and Kili heard the rasp of leather and skin as the orc king pulled the long whip from his belt. He had to remain calm. Think on something else. Oh Mahal what if I said sorry now? He screwed up his eyes and tried not to think about who would be watching as the first blow landed on his back.

A sharp intake of breath, a tensing of the shoulders. But no more. Azog saw and heard it. Kili was going to act as though this didn’t hurt. He wasn’t going to scream and cry, as he did before. And it angered him. Azog raised his arm, nose wrinkling in a snarl. Another jerk, almost imperceptible. And another. After the fifth blow, Azog stepped back, the cruel whip lowering to his side, watching. Kili was trembling.

It can’t be over. Not yet. Kili refused to believe it. He clung to the tree, knees weak as he drew blood from his bitten lip. He had forgotten in the last two weeks just how much it hurt to have the skin break beneath the touch of leather. He had forgotten why it was such a favoured punishment. It was already very difficult to keep his voice silent and dead in his throat, to keep his limbs still, to restrain himself and maintain his composure. It was a mask that was cracking and he was terrified that he was going to scream and cry out and beg for mercy. He would never live it down, if that happened. They would see him as a weak child and they would never stop hounding him, insulting him and hurting him. I can’t let that happen. He kept his eyes closed against the pale morning light, clouded and grey. He tasted blood in his mouth and could smell it in the air, heavy and metallic. Kili braced himself, keeping every muscle in his body tense, waiting for the punishment to continue.

A single, low sound escaped from Kili’s lips at the sixth strike. Deeper than a whimper, but not quite a moan. His fingers shook, entwined in the bark. Sweat poured down the side of his face as he bit back the screams of agony, rising in his lungs and beating at his throat. Kili curled his toes in his boots and kept his voice absolutely dead at the seventh, the eighth, the ninth. But his breath came out in short gasps, in time with the sound of leather on skin and he knew Azog could hear them. There was no counteracting the pain of the tenth strike, Kili could not bite down harder, could not grip the tree with more force. Azog didn’t want to hit the same place twice. He didn’t want to dig any further into Kili’s skin. He preferred shallow marks that would heal quicker, that hurt more at that moment. Kili’s legs had stopped supporting himself; he hung by his arms, bound tightly to the tree.

The sound of footfalls on grass made Kili open his eyes. Azog walked around the tree, to see him. To look him in the eye. Kili made a tiny noise in his throat as the orc thrust the handle of the whip under his chin, forcing his gaze upwards.

“Do you know why this is happening?” He spoke very quietly. Nobody else could hear the exchange between the pair. The dwarf remained silent, still biting down on his lip and feeling the blood flow across his tongue. “Kili.” Azog’s voice was hard and bitter. “Your little act isn’t fooling me. You can pretend to be tough and cruel but we both know the truth. You’re scared. I can see it. I can smell your fear.” Kili couldn’t breathe. How was Azog able to get inside his head? “You didn’t kill him to prove a point. You did it in a fit of rage.” Kili felt his heart pound madly in his head, his bleeding back throbbing with his pulse. “You can’t pretend. Not with me.” Kili’s eyes had grown very wide and he couldn’t utter a word. “Go on, Kili.” He leaned in, very closely to him. “Go on and cry. Your face is turned away from them – they’ll never see it.” Kili’s bitten lip trembled. “That’s what you always do, isn’t it?” Kili was enraged at Azog, at his cruel, cunning ability to worm his way into Kili’s head and antagonise his deepest fears. He was left white-faced and shaking after what the pale orc had said. He had torn aside Kili’s facade, holding the pieces in his hands and holding them up to Kili, laughing at him.

Kili didn’t say anything. He closed his eyes and lowered his head as much as he could, pressed against the bark of the tree. He was slumped into the wood, lips parted as he gasped for air, blood dripping onto the ground, completely and utterly defeated. His pale attempt at fighting back against Azog had flickered and died. Kili had given up and they both knew it. Azog let the whip in his hand fall to the ground and released the belt around Kili’s wrists. There was a cool breeze in the air as Azog stepped back and turned away from Kili, abandoning him as he slowly sank forward against the tree. Kili dig his fingers into the bark and struggled to remain standing, his legs failing him and arms weak. The fire along his back rose with every breath he took, stretching the broken and bleeding skin. He sank slowly onto his knees, forehead scraping the rough bark as his fingers slipped. Kili sucked the blood from his bitten lip, trying desperately to just breathe, in and out. He was shaking violently, and to his intense shame and humiliation, his eyes stung.

He was brought back to the daylight by a nose in his ear. Kili lowered his hands and lifted his head, closing his eyes to let Nardur lick the moisture from his cheeks. He curled his fingers into the thick grey fur and pressed his forehead against the warg’s neck, breathing in the animal scent growing increasingly familiar to him.

“You are such a flâgît.” Kili’s head jerked at the sound. “Don’t move. Sit still.” Kili swallowed as Nazarg grabbed his hair, roughly throwing it over his shoulders.

“A what?”

“An idiot.” The orc growled, wringing the soft cloth in his hands. “This is going to sting.” He felt Kili jump beneath his hands as he pressed the wet fabric against his back, sponging gently at the blood. “At least you saw sense and said sorry.”

“No I didn’t.” Kili’s voice shook. Nazarg’s tone was dark and angry and it frightened him. Why was he so angry? What did he expect Kili to do?

“You didn’t?” The hand paused on his back and Nazarg frowned. He counted – it was only ten. It was supposed to be forty. But Azog had stopped, stopped to lean in and whisper in Kili’s ear before pulling away, leaving him alone at the tree with no ceremony. Nazarg assumed he had pulled an apology from those bleeding lips. “Then why did he stop?”

“I don’t know.” Kili sounded exhausted, his voice muffled in the warg’s fur. “Maybe he thought he’d done enough.” Nazarg shook his head silently, letting the cloth float in the water for a moment before wringing it out. Perhaps. But he wasn’t going to bet on it.

“Maybe.” Nazarg muttered. Kili lifted his head, eyes half-lidded. “Kili – I said you had to be like them. I didn’t say you had to be worse.” Kili’s throat closed, he couldn’t speak. Don’t say that. That was not how it was at all. He wasn’t being worse than them. It was a mistake. It was a terrible mistake, Kili lost his head and he cracked. He regretted it now, after the agony of the punishment, the sick horror of his deeds rushing inside of him. He wished he could go back and undo it.

“Will it shut them up?” Nazarg looked down at Kili’s back, carefully wiping the blood without antagonising the open flesh. “Will they call Amad a – a whore again?”

“I think you made your point,” And that was a tiny victory for Kili. Even if it was false and hollow, Kili still took it. Even if he didn’t believe it himself, Kili could carry on with the lie. He was well-practiced in perpetrating lies. “If you set out to keep them quiet... Well you have done that.”

“Good.” Nazarg looked at the thatch of brown hair, shaking his head slowly. He didn’t want this to happen. He told Kili to stick up for himself but he didn’t expect he would become so hard and cruel. He never, ever thought the dwarf capable of murder. And he couldn’t shake the growing conviction that he had been responsible, with that fireside speech while the rest of the retinue slept.

The night was heavy and still. There was a quietness across the camp, one that nobody could shake. Thorin leaned against his fallen-tree trunk in brooding silence and not even Dwalin could drag a word from him. Ori was absolutely morose; he refused food, a game of mohil with Bofur, even his regular chamomile tea. He sat alone on his bedroll, refusing to talk to anybody. Most thought he was still sore from being hit by Fili and wanted to lick his wounds in private.

“Perhaps we should call it a night.” Balin’s voice broke through a repressive shroud that settled on the company. They looked up from their half-hearted games and whittling and darning, soft whispers and mutters falling silent. “It’s getting on – we’ll have to leave early to make up for lost time.”

“Nay, we can’t.” Dwalin shook his head. He could hear Thorin breathing beside him, the air in his lungs punctuated and strained. “We’ll need another day, at least, before Thorin is up to the march.” At Thorin’s right, Fili lowered his head, shame reddening his cheeks. He couldn’t look at anybody and he knew Dwalin was giving him a very pointed look.

“I’ll be fine.” Thorin pressed a hand to his ribs, taking in a long breath. “Just need to sleep it off.” His right hand found Fili’s wrist, squeezing tightly. It’s all right. “Balin is right. It’s been a long day and we need to get some rest.”

It had been a long afternoon. His company filtered back to him in pairs, awkwardly noticing Fili’s shaved beard, the way Thorin held him, most saying nothing but giving looks, either to Thorin or to each other. He read their hearts through their eyes. Dwalin was ready to scold Fili, but his face had completely fallen when he saw Fili’s naked jawline. He knew the blonde did it himself and his self-mutilation left Dwalin breathless. Balin clucked his tongue, looking more mother-hen than aged warrior as he asked if Fili wanted a cup of tea. Bilbo was completely bewildered; Bofur had to take him aside and explain in his ear, Thorin watching the little hobbit’s face sink downwards, soft lines deepening in pity. Bofur himself simply looked sad. Oin and Gloin muttered something about the rash, compulsive nature of youth, thinking Thorin couldn’t hear them. Bifur looked completely unperturbed, vague and distant as ever. Bombur had the sense to keep quiet but he nevertheless shot his brother a very dark look.

Thorin accepted the help of both Dwalin and Fili, allowing the pair to pull him to his feet. He leaned on them, his face strained as he slowly made his way to the blanket stretched on the outer edge of the camp. Fili gently peeled the furs from Thorin’s shoulders, reaching for his uncle’s vambraces. Thorin pushed his hands away, unbuckling the leather himself. He wasn’t an invalid and he didn’t need taking care of. It was humiliating enough, needing help to walk half a dozen steps, and he wasn’t going to let them pair undress him too.

“I can do this.” He didn’t usually remove so much clothing, but Thorin rationalised that in his state, he would be useless for any fighting, and it was better to sleep in comfort. “Fili,” He licked his lips. “Go and get your things.” Crouched at his side, Fili’s head snapped up.


“Your blanket and pack. Bring them over here.” Thorin’s lips twitched in a rare smile. Fili’s breath died in his throat.

“U-Uncle...” Fili’s voice trembled, at the ramifications of Thorin’s words. It was only the veterans, the true warriors of the company, who slept on the outside. Fili wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” Thorin shook his arm free of the leather, working on the other brace. He jerked his head towards the beds in the middle of the camp, a silent order. Fili rose to his feet, head whirling as he made his way to his place on the ground. Ori sat on his bed with his arms around his knees, not looking at anybody and as Fili bent down to take his things, his heart seized in his chest.

Ori. Fili felt sick. Thorin wasn’t putting him on the outside because he thought he deserved it. He was taking Fili away from Ori. He didn’t want his nephew lying beside a troubled soul. Ori lifted his head when he saw the rustling of movement from the periphery of his vision. Their eyes met for a moment. And Ori knew too, looking into Fili’s eyes, why the blonde was being dragged away. Fili couldn’t speak, crouched on the earth with the half-rolled blanket in his hands. His lips quivered in shame and pity. The dazzling flash of euphoria died as quick as it came, leaving Fili cold. Thorin was doing this for all the wrong reasons. But Fili could never turn him down. Ori’s eyes glimmered and he gritted his teeth, looking very determinedly down at the ground.

“I’m sorry Ori.” Fili breathed, haphazardly crumpling the blanket in his hands. A corner trailed between his fingers, brushing the dirt. “Thorin just wants to look after me – it’s not-”

“Just go.” Ori murmured bitterly. He hunched further into himself, and Fili heard him sniffle. “Go and be a warrior Fili.” The blonde bit back a hurtful retort and he felt his heart sting at Ori’s words. He made Fili sound like a petulant child, trying to keep up with his elders in an embarrassing play-act. And there was an element of truth in that. The auburn-haired dwarf saw straight through Thorin’s gesture, like Fili did. He knelt in the dirt, feeling his heart clench at the pitiful sight before him. Ori had tried to be a friend to him, a friend and nothing more, and Fili repeatedly spurned his attempts at forging a bond, fraught with anger and disgust. He threatened Ori, he hurt him and hit him and Ori never lifted a finger in retaliation.

Fili rose to his feet in silence, teeth gritted. He turned away from Ori, his pack in one hand and the half-rolled blanket in the other. He picked his way across the campfire, his grip loose on his things as he tried to force Ori’s words out of his head. He didn’t understand, he would never understand because he would never again be thought of as honourable or noble in Thorin’s eyes. He was tarnished and taking his anger out on Fili. But Fili couldn’t entirely believe even his own rationale.

“Fili.” The blonde stopped at the sound of Bilbo’s voice. “You uh... I think this dropped.” Fili turned to see Bilbo holding out a tiny wind-up horse. “Is this...”

“Yes.” He snatched the little horse out of Bilbo’s hand, snatching it roughly in his pocket before he thought anybody saw. But he wasn’t fast enough. From his cross-legged spot on the ground beside Fili, Bofur’s grin stretched from ear to ear.

“Fili – is that my horse?” Fili swallowed, fingers curling into the blanket. “You kept it?”

“Yes.” The blonde muttered stiffly, knowing Thorin and Dwalin probably several others were looking at him. He felt humiliated, being caught with a toy. “So what?”

“I just can’t believe it.” Fili looked Bofur in the eye and realised that the dwarf wasn’t making fun of him at all. He looked genuinely pleased to see that Fili held on to his lopsided little gift. “I didn’t realise it was anything special.” He held out his hand. “Can I see it? Does it still work?” Fili paused. He wanted to throw the stupid thing in Bofur’s face and tell him to shove off, to say it was an ugly broken toy and he didn’t know why he bothered keeping it. But he looked at the joy in Bofur’s face, illuminated by the weak little fire, and his throat closed. Fili hadn’t seen him look so happy in a long time.

“It still works.” Fili relented, dropping his things and sinking to his knees before him. He pulled the little horse out of his pocket, feeling his hands close around the familiar metal shape. He turned the tiny key, both watching as the toy took three wonky, lopsided steps before falling over. “Well – as good as it ever did.” He watched as Bofur took the horse, raising it to his eyes to see better in the firelight.

“Why did you keep it?” Bofur turned the key once more, watching the horse stagger and fall. “It’s not much good – I’ve made far better since. You and Kili always got the best toys. Why did you keep this little broken one?”

“Because...” Fili took it in his hand. He settled down, cross-legged, his previous humiliation forgotten. There was nobody else at the moment. No Ori or Thorin or Dwalin. Just Fili, Bofur, and the little toy bound up in memories. “It was the first toy I ever had.” He ran his finger over the carved mane. “Ever.”

Thorin held his breath. Bofur shot his king a sidelong glance, Thorin making frantic motions with shaking hands. Talk. He signed in Iglishmêk, knowing Bofur, a former miner, would understand. Bofur gave the slightest inclination of the head, eyes turning back to Fili.

“You didn’t have toys in your first home?” Bofur watched Fili’s eyes, dark in the firelight, trained down on the horse. “In the Orocani Mountains, I mean.” Fili’s hands tensed around the toy, and he saw the mop of blonde curls shake.

Amad tried to make some.” Thorin strained to hear Fili’s low voice. “With some wood and a knife... She made a lion and a bear and a dwarf for me.” He swallowed. “When... When he saw them, he threw them on the fire.” Thorin instinctively gripped Dwalin’s wrist. “He said Ironfist princes didn’t play with toys.” Fili’s face was hidden by a curtain of hair. Thorin longed to approach his nephew and brush it back. “He gave me a wooden sword instead.” Vile hatred blossomed in Thorin’s heart, for a soul long dead.

“So... yes Bofur, this was the first.” After a long silence, Fili continued talking, he wound up the horse and let it walk, one last time, before taking the toy and shoving it into his pocket. “Anyway.” He spoke roughly, standing up, trying to cover himself with a familiar, hard veneer. “Nothing wrong with keeping little broken things.” He murmured the last words, too quiet for anybody else except Bofur to hear. He met Bofur’s eyes for a moment, the dwarf’s face creasing in a small, sad smile.

“Aye.” He jerked his head towards Thorin. “Go to sleep lad.” Fili nodded silently, taking his blanket and pack. He didn’t feel victorious as he spread out the blanket and readied himself for sleep. He looked across the camp, over the shuffling mounds of bodies, to where Ori lay. The little heart of the company, the core that they protected, was shrinking. Now only two bodies lay in the middle, with a gap between them because Bilbo couldn’t sleep through Ori’s snores.

And now he was here. Fili pressed his face into the blanket and he could not breathe. It was what he always wanted, right? To be thought of one of those strong and brave and old enough to rest on the outside, to be the shield, rather than the soft, defenceless heart. But this wasn’t a victory for Fili. He didn’t feel happy about it. He felt undeserving of the honour. He was an angry, violent child. That was who he was. Thorin wasn’t treating him like a warrior here. He was overcompensating for his previous hardness and ignorance and he was treating Fili as though he was a baby. It was painful and embarrassing. He did this to keep Fili beside him. He did this to keep Fili away from Ori. He clenched his teeth and screwed his eyes tightly shut.

And he knew, with the toy in his pocket and his shaved beard, with the anger rushing in his hears and tears of hatred and rage pushing at his eyes, that Fili would never be truly deserving of the place where he now slept.

It was mid-afternoon when Kili accepted that sleep was not coming to him, not that day. He sat up slowly, curled on his side, splayed hands pressed into the earth as he looked around him. Everybody seemed asleep, save for the watch, sitting on the edge of the tree-shade with his back to Kili. Somewhere, far away, a bird tweeted.

It was a struggle to stand up and pick his way through the huddled mass of bodies without treading on limbs or kicking against ribs, but Kili made it in the end. He shuffled quietly, thinking his movement went unnoticed by all. He left his pack and his weapons, left his warg sleeping, crossing the grass beneath a heavy grey sky scowling with the promise of rain. He wasn’t running away. He knew he wouldn’t make it far before being caught, either by Azog and his company or by some other band or goblins infesting the wilderland, catching the mark on his wrist and delivering him straight back into the orc king’s hands.

That was a lie. An utter lie. He didn’t remain because he couldn’t run away. He remained because he had nowhere else to go. He couldn’t go back to his family. If Thorin saw him now, if he saw what had become of his nephew, living alongside a pack of orcs, speaking and eating as though he was one of them, he would never, ever live down the shame. Kili insulted his family name more and more with each passing day, just by surviving.

And it made Kili’s stomach flare up with a white-hot pain, to think on it. He walked for a few minutes, until he found a little clearing, one that looked at least a little sheltered, sinking to his knees in the grass and digging his fingers into his eyes, gritting his teeth as he tried to ride out the anxiety. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He was no great foe to Azog or the goblins, he couldn’t fight them and win. Perhaps he should have sought an honourable death earlier, before he got sick, before he had his arm broken, when it became clear to him that he was on his own.

How could that be the option? Kili threaded his fingers through his hair, tugging down hard. Needles of pain dug into his scalp. Surely Thorin wouldn’t have ever wanted him to die. He cared so much for Kili. Even as a poor second to Fili, Thorin still cared.

Why did you do this.

Kili didn’t know how or why, but having the goblin die by his hand, having his fingers stained with black and listening to him gasp for air, feeling the chest quiver and limbs jerk beneath him, having the heartsick rush of adrenaline in his chest explode, and ebb away, drenched in cold fear, enduring the pain of Azog’s beating in silence as he bit on his lip until the blood flowed, listening to his taunts, rebuffing the attentions of the only orc who seemed to give a fig for him, it brought all of this anxiety and fear about Thorin back, screaming in his face. He realised that afternoon, lying on his side and biting back whimpers of pain, how he had already changed, without realising it. He was a murderer. An unrepentant murderer.

He was sick with self-loathing. He didn’t want to do this. He could feel himself slipping away and he couldn’t hold on. Kili was infected already, a black sickness that rotted him from the inside out. He felt cold and helpless and he knew he couldn’t save himself. He couldn’t be saved.

“Damn you Thorin!” Kili clenched his hands into fists and fought back sobs. He bowed his head, heart pounding in his throat and making him nauseous. “I hate you!” He couldn’t stop the words from coming out of his mouth and as soon as they broke through his lips he tried to regret them. He tried and failed. Because he meant it, there and then, in the pain and the horror of what he had done that day, as he looked inside himself and realised that he was beyond any ounce of help or salvation. He looked beyond the bitterness and anger and as he imagined Thorin’s face in his mind and his chest constricted in a white-hot pain that ran stronger and deeper than anything he felt before, he knew that he hated Thorin.

“I hate you.” Kili whispered. He clasped his hands in his lap. “I hate you.” It was a cool wet cloth on a searing burn. He felt the boiling rage within him start to dim. How strange, that the acceptance of this hatred somehow managed to quell his anger. “I hate you.” He spat the words out, his voice rising in anger. How could he feel loyalty towards somebody who left him to die, at the hands of such a monster? How could Kili be expected to carry on his kinship and devotion towards those who had doomed him?

He couldn’t.

It was a terrible thought but at the same time, it poured more cold water on his raging inner fire. It was soothing because he was no longer dashing his brains out on a stone wall. It wasn’t futile ideals that simply got him hurt – it was fighting back. It was a way out for him.

They have given up on me. And I need to give up on them.

Kili rested his forehead on clasped hands. Thorin obviously thought Kili’s life worthless – but Kili would be damned if he ever thought the same. He was worth more than this. He was. He had fought his entire life to prove his strength and honour and he had always fallen short. So why should he value his blood and identity above survival? Why should he try to preserve his humanity at the risk of his own life? How could he be expected to retain his honour, when he lived amongst those who had none?

Why should he hold on, when they had already let go?

Chapter Text

Kili dreamed that he was on a ship.

Which was strange, because he had never been on a ship before in his life. But here he was in this dream, standing on the deck of a magnificent ship straight from the pages of Ori’s books. It pitched beneath his feet and the waves heaved and Kili fell onto his knees. There was a horrible howling in the air, the sound of an animal, and he couldn’t stand up at all. The ship was sinking, tilting downwards and Kili felt himself starting to slide along the wood. He couldn’t see anybody else. He was alone, on a ghost ship, and though he screamed and scrabbled about, nobody could hear him. The water rushed, the ship sank and he couldn’t grab a hold of anything. His fingers slid on the damp wood, refusing to yield to his hand. Kili screamed, his voice hoarse in his throat, screaming for help as the water rushed at his feet. The deck tilted even further, he slipped into the rushing water, cold as ice and pitch-black.

As Kili’s head dipped below the surface, he was jerked awake by a hand on his shoulder.

“C’mon. Up.” The goblin bent down to mutter in his ear, before shaking the creature next to Kili awake. “You too.” Kili groaned, rubbing his eyes as he slowly sat up. He blinked against the dim light, trying to shake the dream from his head. It was so strange. He tried not to think on it however, as he accepted a bowl of broth pushed into his chest. He’d given up on deciphering his dreams. Kili angled the bowl to his lips, not bothering with a spoon as he tilted his head and let the hot liquid pour down his throat. It was nasty, thin stuff, but it made his stomach burn with a new fire, the rush of heat beading his forehead with sweat. Kili lay back down for some minutes, as though he could reclaim his sleep, but eventually he gave up and rose to his feet.

The camp was filled with life as Kili made his way to the fire. Forty goblins (and their wargs) required a lot of looking after, and it was always a flurry of activity as they readied themselves for the days’ march. Everybody had to be fed, things had to be packed away, weapons tested and sharpened.

“Dhaka.” Kili held out his empty bowl to the goblin beside the fire. “It tasted like piss.” Dhaka glared up at him, snatching the bowl from Kili’s hand with a snarl.

“I’ll season it with your fingers next time, thrug.” He spat on the dirt. Kili grabbed the front of shirt, crouching in the leaves as he clenched his good hand into a fist.

“Or your teeth.” His own were bared in a low growl, looking very white in a face streaked with dirt. Dhaka was silent for a long moment, his yellow eyes burning into Kili as he sneered at him. It was several moments before the snarl broke and Kili shook his head, releasing his hold on Dhaka with a low chuckle. “It is vile though.”

“Oh, I know.” Dhaka snorted. “Seconds?” He held out a half-full bowl to the dwarf. Something pale and greasy and possibly half-rotten floated on the surface.

“Beats nothing.” Kili inclined his head in a short nod, taking the bowl and downing it in a single gulp. “Ugh.” He shuddered. “I take that back. It tastes worse.”

“Ah, shut it and help me pack this up.” Dhaka gestured at the scattered remnants of breakfast, abandoned by the band of goblins as they readied themselves for the march.

“Are we riding today or is it a walk?” Kili stacked the empty bowls, thrown in a haphazard pile beside the little fire.

“The wargs didn’t eat today so it’s a walk. Stay away from Snaagbûrz, he tried to take a chunk out of my leg this morning.” He pointed at the dark grey warg, curled in the leaf litter and licking at his front paw. “He’s getting hungry.” Dhaka poked at Kili’s side with a smirk, feeling the ribs beneath his skin. “Not that you’re much of a meal.”

Glob.” Kili muttered as he threw the empty bowls into a large sack. “There.” He tied it closed, leaving it on the ground for the goblin.

Narnûlubat.” Dhaka stamped out the remains of the fire scattering the embers across the damp earth and kicking the dirt over them. Kili helped, watching the dull red fade to black as the life was snuffed out. He arched his back in a long yawn, still sleepy. “Bûth tonight?”

“Sure.” Kili nodded before returning to his crude bed. He knelt in the ground, rolling his sleeping furs and tying them to the side of his pack. His bow and quiver, filled with newly-shaped arrows, he slung over his back. There was no sting as they thudded on his back, not now. The wounds were healing quickly.

Mirkwood was darker than Kili envisaged. He’d grown up in forests more than caves, spending his childhood climbing and hiding and playing. But this was so different. There wasn’t that green warmth, that life , that the forests held in his homeland. These were dark, impossibly tall, and completely dead. He heard no birdsong, no chirping insects. No bees. The tree-roots on the edge of the path were clustered with pale fungi and slimy, eyeless slugs. A few goblins tried the unfortunate creatures and declared it was better than starving. There were also the eyes, eyes that stared out at them in the darkness. Eyes that he ignored, marching on boldly, because he knew no creature of Mirkwood could be more fearsome than the orc king he travelled with.

But worse than the dead air or the cobwebs that grew over the path or the eyes was the darkness. It was dim, very dim, and Kili’s eyes took hours to adjust to the looming shadows. The light had been choked out from the spreading branches, entwining overhead and trapping them in. There was no sun, not an inch of it. There was no air to blow on Kili’s face. There was no moon to gauge the time and he lost count of the days. All he knew was walking, walking until they could walk no further, and collapsing into the dirt and leaves, aching with hunger, gambling away the hours and falling into a fitful sleep that brought dark, shadowy dreams.

Kili didn’t realise just how true Nazarg’s words were, until he knelt beneath the tree, his back freshly dressed and the blood staining his fingers like ink, and he heard one of them whisper that the ‘dwarf-scum’ was tougher than he looked. That was one glimmer of hope. Kili wasn’t the lowly snaga to be kicked and snarled at and teased. It had changed entirely, the day he killed the goblin who insulted his mother, and took his punishment without screaming. He had been the last to be served his meal, but Kili noticed it was a bigger portion than before. They shared that awful amber liquid with him, thick as oil and rancid, and he had to drink it. It made his stomach glow and limbs tingle and his cheeks redden beneath the streaks of mud. Two days after his beating, Kili brought down a magnificent hart and his hind in the twilight with his best arrows, leaving the fawn to scamper into the growing darkness. After that, he was served his meals with a group of archers and reckoned he was about thirtieth in the line. His share was larger, the fresh-killed venison a nice slice from the rump. Kili learned quickly that it was an important hierarchy, and to get the best and most food, he had to muscle his way in to the front of the line.

They brought him in on their games of bûth, involving bone dice, a wooden cup, and a lot of luck. It was half chance, half skill, and Kili picked it up quickly. Games of chance were forbidden in Ered Luin; dwarves earned their gold through labour and skill, rather than the luck of a card or a die, and their inherent lust for treasure meant most games with monetary stakes ended in bloodshed. But there were illegal rings all the time, usually set up by Nori, and Kili had learned how to gamble. He played first with the other four archers, his arrows being the only thing worth gambling, and he lost six of them before learning the nuances of the game, winning them back with a few other little treasures besides.

Kili beat Dhaka the cook after a week, and found himself fifteenth in line and the owner of a very nice little knife with a bone handle.

Nazarg was different. He had been different, ever since he knelt in the earth beside Kili and tended to his back and received only cold mutters in response. Kili didn’t want or need a shoulder to cry on, or a protector. He needed people to push around, to dominate and to outwit. Nazarg was none of those things and Kili didn’t know what to say to him when he sat hunched over, feeling Nazarg’s hands on his broken skin. The orc himself had gone quiet; he had a natural affinity towards those who were desperate and broken and ill. Kili had plastered over his weaknesses, wearing a cold, coarse mask of dominance, and Nazarg knew he would never break it.

Kili’s air of cruelty fooled everybody except Azog. The dwarf looked into Azog’s eyes and he saw the lip curl in a smirk, and he knew that Azog still thought him as a weak, pliable creature that was bent entirely towards his will. It infuriated Kili, because he knew he was still under Azog’s thumb. He never drew special attention to himself, he never disobeyed orders and he jumped to attention whenever Azog uttered his name. Kili was desperate to avoid punishment and he was doing a good job of it. Most goblins were the same position; jostling for respect and power amongst themselves, while firmly in Azog’s command. Kili looked the goblins in the eye and spat curses at them when he lost a hand of bûth, he threatened them and allowed his fingers to drift towards the knife tucked into his waistband, and they shrank away from him.

Only at night, when the darkness pressed in on them and Kili couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face, when the camp died down and the goblin at his side had started snoring, the dwarf would sit up, drawing his knees to his chest and wrapping the furs over his shoulders to counteract the cold. He would sit up and he would think, in that deep quietness, on his kin, wandering beneath the same forest some eighty miles north, on the elf-path Azog didn’t dare to take.

Kili hoped that as the days wore on and he slowly came to terms with his surroundings that his hatred against Thorin would fade. But it didn’t – it grew, as Kili grew blacker and more corrupted, as he learned more of the Black Speech and how to play bûth and tail, a game of carved sticks and a rough grid drawn in the dirt. He grew dirtier and thinner and the marks began to fade into scars, he stopped whispering a blessing to Mahal before his meals. He grew harsher towards Nardur, kicking at him and snarling when the warg didn’t listen. 

It just seemed so easy. It couldn’t be that simple, surely, to drop everything he knew and put on this new skin. To abandon his mother tongue and learn a new language, to hold unspeakable meat in his stomach, to curse and insult, to kill without remorse, to have the dwarvish prayers on his lips fall silent. Kili first thought that it would be completely impossible. That he would rather die than forsake his people. That his identity was shod with iron and would never, ever break.

But it wasn’t.

He sat awake in the darkness and realised that his ties to his people were fading. He tried to whisper to himself in Khuzdul and he was already forgetting the words. He was losing himself, he was becoming less of a dwarf with each passing day, and there was nothing he could do about it if he wanted to survive. He wasn’t going to die, he wasn’t going to become a broken, empty husk. He was going to live and he was going to be strong, he was going to endure. And he was enduring. Kili was rough and hard and mean – but he was alive and nothing was more important than that.

That was what he told himself as he set off on the dim forest path, an orc-knife in his belt and a warg at his side.

“Do you think it’s dawn yet?”

“Ugh, maybe. There’s been a tree-root in my back. Didn’t get a wink of sleep, you know.”

“Let’s just get up. We can get a start on breakfast.”

“Tch. What little there is of it.”

Fili kept his eyes closed as he heard the dwarves mutter around him, feigning sleep. At his side, Thorin rose to his feet and pulled on his cloak. He heard Dwalin fiddling with the iron on his hands. His hands clenched into fists underneath his blanket, and he pulled the fabric half an inch over his nose. The air was thick and damp and there was a chill to it, in the early morning.

“Fili – you awake?”

“Let the lad sleep Dwalin.” Fili’s jaw clenched. “He didn’t sleep well last night.”

“He hasn’t slept well any night.” The dwarf rustled around in his pack, looking for his flint. The fire had completely died in the night and the embers were cooling. “Do you hear him shuffling around?”

“Of course I do.” Fili bit on the edge of the blanket at his uncle’s voice. He didn’t realise that his uncle had noticed his trouble sleeping. It was regular now – Fili had gone almost a month without Kili and he couldn’t remember sleeping through a single night. Whether nightmares or insomnia, something had always disturbed his sleep and he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t know if he could even do anything. “He’s restless, we all are.”

“Not me, I’m exhausted.” Dwalin heaved a long sigh as he knelt before the dead remains of the fire. “I didn’t realise he had so many nightmares.”

“I didn’t either.” Thorin’s voice was a very low murmur. “I asked Ori last night – he swears he never noticed anything when they – they slept together, but he couldn’t look me in the eye. I think Fili told him to keep quiet.”

“Pretending it’s not going to happen won’t help.” Fili heard Dwalin blow on the fire. “You make any of it out?”

“Yes.” And his voice was so strained, so tense and quiet. “Most of it’s a mumble of ‘no’ and ‘please’ and ‘stop’.” Fili swallowed very hard. He didn’t remember most of his dreams, but those that lingered on the edge of his memory were dark and violent and he wasn’t surprised to hear that he murmured aloud. “He keeps asking for his Adad.”

“Mahal, no.” Fili’s chest tightened. No I don’t why would I do that. “He hasn’t used – well, he hasn’t used his name, has he?” Fili tried to stifle the violent thudding of his heart.

“Not that I’ve heard.” Fili’s lip was trembling. “I’d wake him if he did.” Dwalin made an odd noise in his throat, almost a sigh, as he built up the tiny fire to at least heat up a little water to warm their aching stomachs. “I don’t know if I should say anything to him. He could be embarrassed by it.”

“It’s been a week and I don’t think he’s had a solid nights’ sleep since you put him close to us.” Fili was biting on his tongue now, feeling his face grow very hot. “Letting things go unsaid hasn’t worked before and it won’t work again.”

“I asked him Dwalin. I said to him that he could come to me for anything. He could tell me anything, and I wouldn’t think any less of him for it. And he hasn’t said a word.”

“Are you surprised?” There was a sigh, one that didn’t come from Thorin. “He’s trying to be like you.” Their voices were very low now, and Fili struggled to hear them over the thudding heartbeat in his ears. “You can tell him it’s okay to blubber about his past and his fears but until you do the same, he’s going to think you’ll consider him weak for doing it.”

“I didn’t say-”

“I know you didn’t.” It was very rude of him to cut over his king, but Dwalin didn’t care. “Tell him about Frerin or Thror. You went to pieces over them.”

“Nobody else knows that Dwalin.” Thorin’s voice was a whisper. “Only you and Balin. Not even Dís. I had dried my eyes by the time we returned to Dunland.”

“Fili should.” The blonde held his breath. “He’s embarrassed about how he reacted to Kili’s death. If he knew you cried for days-”

Enough Dwalin.” Thorin’s voice deepened into a growl. “That was different. Very, very different. I killed Frerin, you can’t begin to-”

“Thorin, you didn’t kill him-”

“I did.” And there was a cold finality in his voice. Fili kept his ears tuned very sharply, not wanting to miss a word. He had never heard Thorin speak a single word about his brother. Dís had a few stories, but it hurt her too much to tell them more than once, and whenever Fili or Kili asked about the uncle who had died so long before, Thorin would turn white and look away. Several moments of silence stretched between them, stiff and painful, until Fili heard his uncle’s chest heave in a long, deep sigh. “How’s the water coming along?”

“Getting there.” Balin checked the dented little kettle. “Thorin, I-”

“I have a little black tea left in my pack somewhere.” Thorin’s brusque voice rose a little in the dim grey light. “There should be enough for us all to have one last brew.” Fili knew that there wasn’t going to be anything else passing Thorin’s lips that morning. He waited a few minutes until a few other bodies started moving before he rolled over on to his back, shuffling a little in his blanket as he pretended to slowly and sleepily wake up.

“Morning.” He flashed Dwalin a tentative smile as he scratched at the rasp of stubble on his face, coarse as sandpaper beneath his hand. “I smell something good.”

“Just tea.” Thorin sat beside him, cross-legged, staring into the fire and beyond it, steeped in memories of blood and flashing steel and screams of pain. “Give it a mo’ and we can wash down our breakfast with it.”

“It’ll be a poor breakfast.” Bombur warned, snuffling through his pack. “We’re starting to get low on food. I expected we’d get through this forest faster.”

“So did I.” Balin murmured thoughtfully, combing his fingers through his beard. “If only the dratted elves thought to mark the trees, we could know how far through we are.”

“We must be at the enchanted river soon.” Dwalin muttered, poking at the fire. “How many miles after that? Thirty? Forty?”

“Beorn didn’t say.” Balin’s voice was heavy with regret. “And I didn’t think to ask.” Fili listened to the exchange silently, accepting a half-filled mug of weak tea pushed into his hands. “It’s not more than two hundred miles across, the forest. We must be at least half way.”

“We’re far more than halfway through the food.” Bofur murmured darkly, shooting his brother a look. “If only we could hunt something down. Even those little black squirrels are starting to look tasty.”

“There’s enough of these moths flapping about.” Dwalin swiped at one of the last lingering creatures attracted to their fire in the slowly rising light. “We’ll get through fine, lads. Come on Thorin, drink up.” He pressed the dented little cup into Thorin’s hands. The king closed his hands around it, but maintained his quiet stare with the fire. There was very little that could rouse him from the funk brought on by the memory of his brother.

Fili took a gentle sip of his tea as he watched Thorin brood, his cramped stomach warming. He remembered Thorin’s single outburst, the night they brought back Kili’s clothes, the screaming and the tears. How he had fallen silent so quickly, and now there was only a tensing of the jaw, a downward look, when Kili’s name was mentioned. Fili still had to turn his face away and grit his teeth and fight back a rising pressure in his throat. The weeks had done very little to dull the pain of losing his brother. Fili didn’t think there would ever be enough time. He knew there wouldn’t, as he watched Thorin now, staring into the fire with glimmering eyes. He would carry the pain until his dying breath.

It was a slow, poor breakfast, and nobody seemed eager to finish it. They mumbled and poked at the scraps and crumbs, trying to snatch a few more minutes before continuing on the dark and dreary path cut through the wood. Eventually however, Thorin snapped out of his funk, he barked at the company to put on their boots and shovel the last crumbs into their mouths else they would waste what little light they had. His words were met with groans and sighs – not at their king, but at their desolate predicament. Nobody thought of Erebor that morning, least of all Thorin Oakenshield.

“Thorin.” Fili grabbed his uncle by the elbow before he could rise to his feet. He crouched beside him the firelight, his hair looking very golden and eyes very dark. Thorin turned to him, and Fili could see, plainly, that his soul still ached. He had to say something. Fili wasn’t going to be a coward. He had to admit that he heard at least some of their conversation. He had to let Thorin know that he wanted in. And Fili knew that simply asking if he was all right would do nothing. He would only be met with a low mutter of ‘fine’ before Thorin turned away. It was exactly what Fili would have done, were he in the same situation. “I heard you and Dwalin this morning.” He swallowed. “Talking.”

“What?” There was a deep frown etched in his forehead. “About what?” He watched Fili’s eyes lower, too stiff and awkward to look him in the eye.

“About Frerin.” He murmured, on the edge of his breath. He felt and heard Thorin tense, rather than seeing it. A sharp intake of breath issued from the figure beside him. “Thorin – you can’t expect me to talk about Kili if you don’t... If you don’t talk to me.” He slowly raised his gaze, their eyes meeting. “It’s not fair.” This was a bond that fell outside of uncle and nephew, of king and heir. Fili was reaching out to him as a kindred soul, one that suffered from an identical pain.

“Fili.” Thorin was slowly shaking his head. “It’s different-”

“It’s not.” Fili hissed, leaning in so nobody else could hear them. “Thorin, you – I – we did this to him. We killed him and it is exactly the same.”

“It is not the same.” Thorin was so firm in this, he was as hard as stone and Fili didn’t know why, he was desperate to understand how things could have been so different to Thorin. All Fili knew was that Frerin was killed by Azog in the battlefield. Nothing more. And short of pushing Frerin in front of the orc king, Fili didn’t know how it could possibly be Thorin’s fault. “It will never be the same.” But he found Fili’s hand and squeezed it. “Not now – I just told everybody that we have to go.” He rose to his feet, turning away from his nephew. They both knew that Fili wasn’t going to let it lie. He was tough and stubborn. Thorin had raised him well – at least in that regard.

“When then?” Fili stood up beside Thorin, wishing desperately that he was just an inch or two taller. “Tonight? Tomorrow? Tuesday? A week from now? You have to tell me  – If Dwalin knows then I have every right.”

“Tonight.” Thorin murmured very softly. At least that gave him the day to think things over. “Tonight Fili, I will tell you everything. And you will understand why it’s so very different. You won’t like me when I’m finished. But you will understand.” Fili was frowning at him.

“I wouldn’t dislike you Thorin.” He argued. “Not ever.”

“I did a terrible thing.” Thorin glanced at Dwalin out of the corner of his eye, aware that everybody else was now ready for the march, and waiting for Thorin and Fili to finish their private conversation. “I just – tonight. I will tell you all tonight.” He broke away from Fili and he wouldn’t look at his nephew again as he stuffed the blanket into his painfully light pack. His hands were shaking and his throat burned with bile. Mahal he didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to admit his guilt to Fili. He saw already, what would happen. Fili would call him a monster. He wouldn’t understand how Thorin could have done it. Thorin didn’t understand why, either. Not now, as he lingered in black, rotting memory. He had the day to consider how to word it, to shift the guilt from himself. But Thorin knew that there was no absolution from Fili, or anyone, over what he had done.

He had killed his little brother. And Fili would be the last one to forgive him for it.

Chapter Text

 “The... The battle was waged in... little-sun? Is that right?”

“Yes. Early in the day.” Azog prodded the dirt with his bone-white finger. “Keep going.”

“Early in the day.” Kili squinted in the dull gloomy light. “Upon the... the slopes of the... mountain?”

“Yes.” Azog watched Kili trace his fingers along the scratching in the dirt. Kili was doing well. He leaned back as little, only half-listening to Kili slowly recite the simple story he had scratched into the dirt, a short exercise in the written form. It was a dull little retelling of some old battle. Azog wasn’t a particularly creative story-teller, and the most gruesome and bloody tales he knew all involved Kili’s family in some way; he knew where to draw the line.

Azog didn’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted with the relative ease Kii seemed to adopt the ways of his people. He thought at first that he could never do it, that it would take weeks to break Kili down to the point where he would give up completely. He thought that he might not even do it, with the time allowed to him. But it had happened, and it almost seemed to happen with very little encouragement from Azog. He had a very, very strong suspicion that somebody else had a hand in it. But when he threatened Nazarg some days ago about Kili’s sudden change in behaviour, the orc pleaded ignorance. Kili didn’t even talk to him anymore, he didn’t know anything. All he did was make sure everybody was fit and healthy enough to ride and march across the wildlands. He didn’t involve himself in orcish politics. He kept to himself. Azog was no fool, he could smell a lie ten leagues off, but Nazarg was one of those crafty orcs who knew how to save his own skin. He wouldn’t admit to anything, and he wouldn’t break under pressure.

It was the death of that vile little goblin that brought this on. Something had snapped inside Kili, and Azog didn’t know what it was. He tried to pick the dwarf apart, but Kili was holding up to him. He met Azog’s gaze firmly, ignored his jeers and asides, pretending at times he didn’t know what the orc king meant. Kili knew Azog was trying to see into his heart and he was doing his best to conceal it. He saw plainly that Kili was still weak and afraid, he knew that the dwarf was his, completely. There was no attempt on Kili’s part to break free from Azog – but he had obviously realised – or been told – that he could be as cruel and cold as he liked to the goblins of their retinue.

And he let it happen. Azog let it happen because it worked so perfectly.  He knew he could take Kili’s heart and blacken it, he knew he could turn Kili into a creature of darkness – but he never thought Kili would earn their respect, especially in such a violent, bloody manner. Sometimes, when he watched Kili argue a game or hash out a bad bet, he found it almost impossible to believe that it was the same creature he saw several weeks ago, shaking with terror on the floor of his cave. Kili was almost unrecognisable, both inside and out. And if Azog had noticed the stark change, what would Thorin Oakenshield think of his nephew, when he saw him now? When he saw his little Kili, thin and dirty and scarred, dressed in untreated animal skins with a warg at his side, cursing him in Black Speech?

“And the dead were... left, to the ca-carrion birds.” Kili raised his dark eyes, looking up at Azog for some sort of approval. “Did I get it right?”

“Yes, you were sriz.” Kili tilted his head to one side. “You weren’t bad.” The orc clarified, realising he had never used the word good in front of him before. “No mistakes.” Something glinted in those wide brown eyes. Kili looked almost happy. The beginnings of a smile twitched at his lips and Azog knew that encouraging the dwarf would draw him in closer than ever before. Along with his identity and pride and honour, Kili had lost his uncle, his mentor, his father-figure. There was no Thorin to guide him; there was a hole in his heart and Azog could see so very plainly, in the way Kili looked at him for approval, the way his eyes shone when Azog complimented him, that he could possibly fill it. “You’re not as stupid as I thought.”

“Oh. Narnûlubat.” Kili swallowed, watching Azog’s lips twist in a smile. “Did you want anything else?” He sat with his legs crossed, arms loose and relaxed, resting his broken arm resting on his knee. Azog was drawing circles in the dirt with his sharp little stick, thinking for several moments. “Azog?”

“Your father.” Kili sat very still, eyes fixated on Azog as he let the stick fall to the earth, looking up. “You really don’t know anything about him?”

“I – What does that have to do with anything?” Kili sounded sharp. Defensive. His shoulders tensed and Azog watched his eyes flick to the side, looking out for eavesdroppers. But they were alone, out of earshot, and nobody looked their way in the dim light.

“So you don’t.” Azog gave him a measured, level stare. “Your brother doesn’t look much like you.” Kili’s face had gone very pale beneath the dirt.

“I’m not a bastard.” Kili’s voice was low and trembling “I know you’re trying to say I am – I’m not.” Azog watched his knuckles whiten, clenched on the fabric of his tattered pants. “Amad was married, he... just died before I was born.”

“What was his name?” Something flinched in Kili’s face, he looked away and bit down very hard on his lip. “It should be on her naakh.”

“There was an accident.” He muttered stiffly, eyes fixed on his hands. “It’s gone.”

“An accident.” Azog repeated flatly, not believing it for a single moment. “And no one will give you his name.” He shook his head, slowly. Azog watched Kili’s throat tighten as he swallowed. He wanted to drag Kili’s insecurities out of him, wanted to make the dwarf feel bitter and angry after a lifetime of lies and secrets. “What about your brother. Does he know the truth?”

“He won’t tell me anything.” Azog watched the dwarf lift his gaze, pushing a handful of ratty, tangled hair out of his dark eyes. The thought of his brother soured Kili. Fili knew so much more than he ever let on. Kili had sat up at night and listened to the nightmares, had held his older brother down in bed as he kicked and lashed out and screamed as a child, biting and tearing at his hair in violent dream-memories that he never seemed to remember when he awoke in the dawn.  The night terrors faded with age, dying away into soft murmurs and the twitching of closed eyelids but Kili still slept with his head on his brother’s shoulder. Kili’s presence seemed to keep the nightmares at bay. “No one will.” Kili’s face was drawn and tight, shoulders hunched over as he leaned ever so slightly forward. Curling in on himself. The secrets and memories were bound tightly, locked away hidden from view and Kili would never see them. “But I’m not a bastard.” Kili closed his mind to the possibility. He was never treated as an illegitimate child. He had all the rights Fili had – at least, he thought he did. 

“And who swears this? The ones who lied to you and left you to die?” Kili’s head snapped up, eyes wide. “Surely you can’t trust a single word that comes from their lips. Not now. Not after-”

Stop it.” Kili shook his head, fingers tangled in his hair. “Stop – trying to make me hate them.” Azog watched the dwarf, still and very silent. Kili’s teeth were gritted, voice low and trembling. “I won’t – I can’t – not ever.” The words came out in a broken jumble. But they were weak and false and there wasn’t an ounce of conviction in them. Kili’s eyes glistened. He was cold and helpless.

“You’re very loyal.” Azog sneered, leaning in. “Most would have given up hope by now. They’re never coming for you Kili. Your brother isn’t going to save you. Thorin isn’t going to burst through the trees and rescue you. You’re completely alone. Why do you waste your breath defending them, after what they have done to you?”

“I said stop!” Kili’s good arm flew through the air, but Azog caught it easily, his bone-white fingers closing tightly around Kili’s skinny wrist. The breath died in his throat, terror freezing his chest as Kili slowly realised what he had done. What he tried to do to him. He tried to prise Azog’s hand away with the trembling fingers of his broken arm. “Let me go.” Kili hissed, humiliated. He was humiliated because he already gave up on them. He hated Thorin, he had for a long time now, as they ventured deeper and deeper into the dark wood. His heart grew cold towards Fili. The one who let go of him. He didn’t think on his brother with any degree of warmth and light – not now. And he couldn’t let Azog know that.

But he did know. Kili looked up at Azog, watching his lips twitch, not in a scowl of anger, but in a smirk of amusement. The colour drained from Kili’s face and he swallowed back a cry as he realised that Azog read Kili’s bleeding heart like an open book. Azog was baiting him, with his sneers and jibes and insinuations. He was trying to get inside Kili’s head and Kili had thrown the door and invited him inside. Azog knew how to control him. His head slumped forward, his forehead pressed against Azog’s fingers as his hands shook.

“You know I hate them.” Kili’s voice was muffled and Azog knew the dwarf was crying. Azog’s hand, binding Kili’s wrist so tightly, began to grow slack. “You know I’ve given up.” A trail of salt water began to make its way down Azog’s forearm, leaking into the crook of his elbow. “Why – why do you make me pretend-” Kili struggled to speak. The hand bound in black iron began to slip, the hammered metal cold against Azog’s skin as Kili’s arm sank to the ground. “What do you want from me?” He whispered, clinging to the orc-king with his good hand.

Azog didn’t speak at first. He disentangled his hand slowly from Kili’s trembling grasp, the dwarf’s fingers slick from his own tears. This index finger lingered on Kili’s wrist for a moment, feeling the raised bump of scarred skin quiver at his touch. Kili screwed up his face, expecting some sort of blow, for speaking out of line, for addressing Azog so rudely. But his eyes opened in surprise as Azog took his bony jaw in his monstrous hand, easily grasping his dirty cheeks between thumb and forefinger. His wide eyes reflected a glimmer of distant firelight, tear-tracks shining through the smears of earth. Kili never had a chance.

“What would you do?” Kili’s breath was ragged and shallow, through parted lips. “If I let you walk free, right now, what would you do?” Azog watched as Kili’s chest began to heave and he knew Kili would never lie to him, would never hide his heart. Not from Azog. His grip around Kili’s heart was as cold and unyielding as stone. “Would you go back to them?” He watched Kili’s eyes welled up; he blinked and the silver tracks down his face brightened.

“I can never go back.” The words were a whisper, punctuated with keening gasps for air. Kili’s words were his own condemnation. They tore at his heart, they left him dizzy and sick and he couldn’t stop the earth spinning beneath him. It was true. Kili knew he was beyond any redemption, any salvation that his kin could offer him. He was too blackened, too dark and corrupt, to be saved. He had murdered. He had eaten of his own people. He had learned the black tongue. “I can’t – I can’t ever see them.” Kili would exile himself before showing Thorin and Fili what had become of him. He would rather they kept a pure memory of their nephew and broher. He couldn’t tarnish it with this new black, poisonous picture. But that wasn’t what Azog had in mind. He kept him alive for a reason and with each passing day, as they grew closer and closer to the edge of the forest, as they covered more ground on their monstrous beasts while Thorin’s company would have stumbled on their weary feet, as Kili curdled like a cup of old milk, as the goblin’s grew hungrier and more desperate, Azog’s lust after his prize grew. He would have Thorin’s heart and he would crush it in his hand.

“Surely they deserve to see what they have done?” Their faces were so close. Kili closed his eyes as the stale breath washed over his face, stomach turning within him. “Don’t you want them to suffer, Kili?” His hand tightened on the dwarf’s angular jaw; Kili was forced to open his eyes and look on the one who held him so tightly. Azog’s face was blank and controlled, refusing to crack in either a smile or a leer. Azog watched Kili’s own expression tighten, watched him slowly digest Azog’s cruel proposition. He was tired, cold, hungry, and so very angry. Kili blinked again, leaking bitter tears that oozed along the healing scar on his cheek. Because he did. He wanted them to suffer. He wanted to see Thorin’s face contort in anguish, he wanted to hear Fili screaming in pain and it made him sick, to hunger after something so dark and violent. Because for a fleeting moment, he thought it was worth it to destroy his name and his memory, to see the pain that Kili had endured reflected in his brother’s eyes.

“Yes.” Kili was limp. Azog was holding him up by the jaw and as he let him go, Kili slumped forward, the orc-king resting a hand on his collarbone to support him. His fingers closed over Kili’s shoulder, squeezing in a tight mock-embrace. He kept the smile hidden as Kili held onto his arm and refused to let go. He clung to the bond Azog had fostered between them, terrified of loneliness.

“You don’t have to share their fate.” He felt the dwarf tense, heard the breath hitch in Kili’s throat and saw him slowly lift his head. “You’re a good shot Kili. You get along with the others. You have a place here.” Because that was what it was all about, wasn’t it? It was instinct which had driven him so far along. The will to survive, to endure everything that befell him, it had battled with his integrity and pride and it won. Kili fought to return to the love and kinship of his kind. But now, there was nothing left. The ropes were severed, only fraying threads remained, that tied Kili to his people. Azog knew him, inside and out. And he knew that what Kili craved above all else, above any sense of honour, was to truly belong somewhere. The skinny beardless archer who had no father, who was so obviously unlike any other dwarf Azog had the displeasure to come across, battled a life-long fear of being alone. And if Azog was going to take his family away from him, was going to have Kili declare blood against his uncle, then he had to offer him something else.  

“I don’t –” Kili fell silent as he looked Azog in the eye. He expected a cold, mocking stare, but he looked completely serious. He refused to nurture the hope. He had been living under a death sentence for so long. His impending doom, it lingered in the back of his mind, dark and rotten, cramping his heart with fear. He was never anything more than a puppet, a toy. Something for Azog to play with and manipulate. He couldn’t mean it.

Could he?

Kili scoured his blank white face, searching for a crack in the smooth marble. Distrust coiled inside of him and he didn’t dare to believe it. His hand around Azog’s wrist was tighter than ever. It had to be a lie. It couldn’t be true.

“I thought for a long time you were weak and stupid.” Kili watched him speak, the words almost drowned out by the thrum of his heart beating in his head. “I thought you were dead weight.” Azog’s lip curled, upwards. “But it was only fear and pain holding you back.” He was lying he had to be lying. Kili wanted so desperately to believe it. “You’re smarter than most of those brutes and you’re certainly the best with a bow. Nobody doubts you have guts Kili. You’ve scared the rest into respecting you.” Kili swallowed hard, trying to fight the nausea in his chest. Azog wasn’t saying this he wasn’t. “You don’t have to die alongside those who abandoned you. You can stay Kili. With us.” Kili screwed up his eyes and gritted his teeth, feeling as though he was going to be sick. It was so cruel of Azog, to force such an awful, awful decision upon him, to sit back and watch him wrestle with his soul, to expect an answer beneath the trees. Evening was coming on, the air darkened slowly and Azog started to fade before Kili, a white ghost in the gloom, who sat in silence, not trusting himself to speak. And Azog waited patiently, not letting go of his shoulder.

“What choice do I have?” They both knew what Kili would do. They always knew. As soon as Azog mentioned that he didn’t have to die, they both knew that Kili would choose them. He had fought for too long, had endured too much, to simply give up on his life, tattered and dirty and corrupted as it was. Kili tried to believe Azog. He wanted to.

And for a moment there, in the dying, grey light, with the orc-king holding on to him as a smile twitched at his lip, Kili believed every word of it.

“Hear that?”

Ori was at the back of the pack, with Bilbo and Bofur. They walked a little ways behind the rest – Ori had fallen behind, isolating himself from his kin, and Bilbo, thinking the young dwarf tired, fell into step beside him. Bofur could tell his misery from a mile away, doing his best to bring the shadow of a smile to Ori’s slack lips. But while the other two kept up a low, forced chatter between themselves, Ori remained glum and silent. He didn’t have anything to say to anybody, hungry and tired and humiliated. It had been a week and Nori was yet to say a word to him.

“Hm?” Bofur broke off mid-sentence, noticing that Ori had stopped short in his stumbling walk, head cocked. “Ori? What is it?” The back half of the company paused at Bofur’s tone.

“Water.” Ori was frowning. The others hadn’t heard it over their soft patter of speech, but Ori did, in his silence. Thorin stopped. Ori held his breath and screwed up his eyes, listening for the sound of gushing water. It was the faintest whisper, and he wasn’t surprised the older dwarves couldn’t hear it, slowly deafening from age, and decades in the mines and forges. “The stream!” Fili ran on ahead, jogging lightly through the gloom. The others saw the golden mop of hair, looking very dark in the gloom, grow smaller and fainter until it almost disappeared altogether, and only Bilbo could make out his figure.

“It’s here!” Fili cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, but he wasn’t sure if anybody could even hear him. He crouched at the edge of the stream, and waited. It was narrow, but very, very fast-moving. The water looked black and there was no bridge, only rotting posts. Fili leaned over and tried to make out the dim shadow on the other side.

“What do you see?” Coming up to his side, Thorin squinted, but could make nothing out in this light. “Of course there’s no bridge. More’s the pity.”

“Bilbo, come here.” Fili grasped the edge of the bank tightly, leaning dangerously far over the water. “Your eyes are sharper than ours. See that?” He pointed, tilting forward, and Thorin grabbed the back of his cloak, reeling him in.

“Ye-es.” Bilbo leaned forward, hands on his knees as he screwed up his eyes. “It’s a boat!” He brightened, turning to the others with a smile. “What luck.”

“It would be luckier if it were on this side.” Thorin muttered. “How are we going to get it back? We can’t swim across and none of us are long-limbed enough to jump those posts.”

“How is attached to the side?” Ori peered through the gloom, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Perhaps we could fish it out.”

“Actually,” Bilbo peered at the dim shape, wondering. “That could work. We just need something to fashion into a hook.”

“I know what will work.” Bofur threw his pack on the ground, fiddling with the strap. It was fixed together with a large iron hook. “Give me a bit of rope.” He bound the rope to the hook from his pack, handing it over to Thorin. “Should hold fine. It’s good rope that Beorn gave us.”

“Fili, you’ve got the best sight next to Bilbo.” Thorin handed his nephew the hook. “I can’t even see this blasted boat. You try.”

“All right.” Fili crouched on the edge of the bank, gauging the direction and distance. “How far do you think Bilbo? Twenty yards?”

“More like twelve.” Bilbo knelt on the dirt beside him. “Don’t throw it too far – yes! Pull slowly and hopefully it will catch.” The iron hook caught on the edge of the boat, and Fili pulled. The boat moved slowly across the water, impeded by the heavy current, but soon Fili dragged the damp wood out of the stream, the dwarves crowding around the tiny boat and knocking on the planks, testing its strength.

“Looks like it’s made for two or three elves, but four of us should fit in a pinch.” Thorin didn’t want to linger at the enchanted stream; the black waters rushed below him, cold and threatening. “We need a guide rope to get across – Fili, throw that hook into the trees.” The blonde obeyed, pulling on the rope with all the strength he could muster.

“It’s tight.” He panted. “Must have caught on a branch.”

“Good.” Thorin fished another rope from his pack, tying it around an iron ring on the prow of the tiny craft. “This will do nicely. Fili, you go with Bilbo and Balin and Dwalin. Then Oin, Gloin, Bifur and Bofur, then Dori Nori and Ori, then I’ll come across with Bombur.”

“Are you sure you want to go last?” Dwalin asked. “I can go, or Balin.”

“No.” Thorin shook his head. “You all need to get across first.” In the same way he had been the last to disappear into the caves in Bruinen, Thorin was going to be the last in the boat, to see his company cross the river safely.

It was a shaky little craft, bobbing dangerously low in the water under the weight of four dwarves and their packs, thin and light though they were. But eventually the entire company, save Bombur and Thorin, made their slow way across the stream. Bombur grumbled as he clambered into the boat about always being the last, Thorin shouldering his pack and grasping the edge of the little boat very, very tightly. He took the rope, pulling slowly, hand over hand, as he made his way across the stream. He was almost to the other side when the worst happened.

The rope gave out. Whether the knot was not properly tied, or the branch bearing the hook snapped, it was never known. But the taut rope in Thorin’s hands suddenly went slack, he pitched forward under the sudden lack of pressure, the boat bobbing up and down in the strong current. The others shouted and threw a rope towards them, Bombur grasping the rope and heaving the boat to a standstill. It lurched horribly, and while Bombur was secure enough in the boat under his immense weight, the unsteady pitching of the boat threw Thorin off his feet, and into the rushing waters.

No!” Fili almost threw himself into the stream, Dwalin and Dori having to pull him back and receiving a good number of bites and scratches for their efforts. “Thorin no!” With the rope around his wrist, Bombur reached out and managed to snag the edge of Thorin’s pack. A dark head bobbed in the water, and as Bombur hauled Thorin half into the boat one-handed while the company pulled, they could all see their king still and unmoving. Fili was fighting against Dori and Dwalin, screaming, but they didn’t let him go as the boat was dragged to shore, Balin and Bofur swarming the little craft, carrying Thorin up the bank while Bombur clung to dry land, shaking with panic. The pair finally released their hold when Balin stretched Thorin out on the dirt, peeling a wet curtain of hair from his face.

No!” Fili threw himself at the ground beside his uncle, pressing his hand to Thorin’s cheek. “No please-”

“He’s gone.” Balin’s voice trembled. Thorin’s face was still, chest rising and falling in long, slow breaths. Fili was shaking Thorin’s shoulder desperately, calling into his face as though he could rouse the dwarf from his enchanted sleep. “Leave off lad.” He took Fili’s elbow, pulling him gently back. “You’re not going to wake him.”

“No...” Fili whispered. “Thorin no you can’t leave me.” His breath was a panicked gasp. Dwalin crouched beside him, grasping his shoulders.

“He’s not dead Fili. He’ll wake up soon enough.” But he shot his older brother a dark look. None knew how long the enchantment would last. Balin only gave an almost imperceptible shrug of his shoulders, a small, sad smile that Fili didn’t see. “Come now, we’ll get a litter lashed together.” Dwalin’s mouth was a thin, hard line and his tone very grim. Of all the people to fall into the river, to be lost to an enchanted sleep – to have it their king, it left a very bitter taste in Dwalin’s mouth and he inwardly cursed their horrible luck. “We can take turns carrying him, two at a time, and share the packs.” Fili pulled free from both of them, kneeling beside his uncle in the earth, winding his shaking fingers into Thorin’s hair.

“He will wake.” Balin was peeling off Thorin’s soaking clothes, leaving him in his tunic. He took off his own brown robe, pulling the weather-stained cloth up to his king’s chin. “It’s not going to last forever.” At his side, Dwalin wrung out Thorin’s sopping furs while Fili clung to his uncle, dumb in shock and unable to mask the trembling of his mouth. “We’ll manage without him for a little while.”

“No I can’t.” Fili whispered, pulling on Thorin’s hair, as though he could wake him. “Uncle please–”

“Easy, Fili.” Balin took the blonde’s hands, carefully disentangling them from Thorin’s soaked tangles. It’s not it’s not – how could they say that to him? Fili gritted his teeth and closed his eyes as the familiar sting welled within him. This was as far from all right as they could possibly be. But the blonde held his tongue as Balin look his hands, fingers closing around his palms. Fili’s gaze slowly rose, from that slumbering face on the grass on the grass, to Balin’s faded blue eyes, slowly crinkling in a smile. “Deep breaths, lad.” Balin instructed, squeezing Fili’s hands, trying to comfort him. But it wasn’t working. Fili couldn’t breathe, the sick panic and fear was rising and he was going to scream at them all, in a moment. This was not all right.  He lost Kili, he lost Kili and he completely fell apart and now he had lost Thorin too. He was alone and Mahal he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t be alone.

“Thorin said he would never leave me.” It was the lowest possible whisper, almost silent from his trembling lips. Fili bit down hard and shook his head. Balin watched in silence, gaze flickering to his brother, crouched behind Fili. Dwalin shrugged at him. He looked helpless.

“Fili.” The only way to do this, the only way to have Fili respond to him, was to be firm. Balin ached to do it but leaving it alone, leaving Fili to withdraw inwards and sicken himself, it would only lead to bitter darkness and hate, another fight, another exhausting search that nobody had the energy for. “Look at me.” Their eyes met and Balin wasn’t smiling anymore. His voice was very low. “Hold yourself together. You can do this.”


“With the king unable to act, it falls to the prince to lead us out of this cursed forest.” Balin cut over him. Fili’s eyes widened in slow realisation, the blood draining from his face.  “Yes Fili.”

“No.” The words stumbled over his quivering lips. “Balin you’re the second in command – it’s your job-”

“It is my job to advise.” Beside them, Dwalin slowly lifted the still form onto a litter of branches and knotted rags. “It is yours to lead.” Fili turned quickly, gold hair flying as he grabbed Dwalin’s elbow.

“It’s not – Dwalin he’s being ridiculous. Tell him that he’s second I can’t-”

“Keep your voice down, Fili.” Dwalin shot his brother a dark look, carefully tucking the cloak under Thorin’s still limbs. Fili withdrew, trying to clear his head. This wasn’t making sense. How could anybody think him fit to lead, after what he had done? He had proven, so obviously and painfully, that he wasn’t ready for this. He had proven that he was too young, too angry and violent and dependent on his brother. He had torn off the paper-thin facade of courage and pride and strength, had shown to them all the frightened child that lingered beneath. But Balin and Dwalin, they both looked at him with blank, even expressions. They had pulled themselves together so quickly, had absorbed the shock of Thorin’s enchantment in seconds, while Fili’s eyes were still wet and his hands would not stop shaking. How could they for one moment think that Fili was a better fit?

“You’ve talked about this.” Fili whispered, feeling oddly dull as the revelation slowly crept up on him. “You’ve talked about what would happen if – if Thorin goes.

“Of course we have.” Balin took Thorin’s damp clothes, idly wondering how he could spread them out to dry. It would have to wait until tonight, by the warmth of their little fire. He emptied out his own pack, not wanting to wet his own things, and began stuffing it with Thorin’s damp robes and furs. “We’ll look out for you Fili, but we’re not going to fill your shoes.”

“But what has he said since... since we lost Kili?” Fili’s eyes were pulled downwards, to his shaking hands. “Look at what’s happened – I went to pieces.”

“He hasn’t said a word about succession since Bag End.” Dwalin said shortly, clapping Fili on the shoulder. “Which means nothing has changed.” That’s not true. Fili’s stomach clenched. Everything had changed. Thorin had stopped seeing him a warrior and an heir. He was treating Fili like a child, a roaring fire contained in a film of glass. His overbearing attempts to father Fili and make up for decades of that poor contact, they bordered on condescending. “Stand up Fili. We’re all waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” But Fili rose to his feet, he turned and with a start saw the rest of the company before them, some sitting or kneeling in the dirt, but most standing, shouldering their packs and waiting with little shuffles of the feet. Looking at him. Fili couldn’t breathe, he felt himself drying out and withering beneath the collective stare of his friends – no, his subjects – waiting for him to speak, to break that awful tense silence with an order or command. And with the blood roaring in his ears, Fili clenched his hands into fists to hide the shaking he cleared his throat and opened his mouth and felt his heart sink further with each word dragged from his reluctant, quivering lips.

“Let’s go then.”

Chapter Text

“Any life left in the fire?”

Dhaka looked up, shaking his head as Kili sank to his knees beside the dead ashes. Breakfast this morning was cold leftovers; there was no need to relight the dead embers and bring those blasted moths back, flapping wildly about their heads.

Urk, I’m freezing.” Kili muttered, drawing his arms around folded legs as he poked at the ashes, staining his finger grey. The sleeping-skins were draped over his shoulders, but the skinny limbs that poked out beneath were shivering.

“What are you doing up so early?” For the goblin-cook had taken the last watch that night, the last few hours as absolute darkness finally waned into a grey dawn. It was the vague ending of night, when shadows loomed at them out of the black gloom and it was worse to him, than the empty nothingness that pressed down on his eyes in the middle of the night. Although he wasn’t scared of darkness and the black creatures it hid, after a lifetime of scurrying about in the deep places of earth where light had never touched the stone, these beasts were foreign to him. The goblin took comfort in the fact that the trees had lightened into beeches several days before, and a marker carved into a gnarled old tree suggested there were only thirty miles left.

“Can’t sleep.” Kili pressed his hand into the ashes. It was still warm, doing some good to his ice-cold fingers. “How can it be so cold beneath all of these trees? I don’t understand it.”

“It’s not cold.” Dhaka protested, laying a hand on Kili’s arm. The skin was freezing beneath his hand. “Znag, Kili. Here.” He handed the dwarf his own tattered blanket, draped loosely over his lap. “I don’t need it.” Kili nodded a silent thanks, wrapping the poorly-woven fabric over his limbs. “We missed you last night. Where did you go? You missed a good round. Moz bet his blade and got twos; he tried to win it back and he lost everything, even the shirt on his back. Shatûl let him have it all back if Moz promised to marry his skessa sister when we return home.” The goblin snickered in remembrance. “Moz said he’d need more than his own things to marry that troll, but he’d have her for a night in return for his clothes. There was almost a fight.”

“When you return home...” Kili murmured, resting his chin on his knees. Dhaka’s quiet laughter fell silent, and he looked over at the dark-haired figure shivering beside him.

Ishi I forgot.” The goblin made a face. “You’re not going home.” He didn’t apologise. There was no word for sorry in his mother tongue. But it hung unsaid between them and Kili knew he meant it.

“No.” Kili was staring at the dead remains of the fire. “Do you think he’ll really kill me?” He shifted his gaze slowly, staring out at the dark face in the gloom. “If he’s only using me, if all I am is a tool to get at my uncle, then when he’s won, and he doesn’t need me anymore, what would stop him?”

“I don’t know Kili. Znag don’t ask me that.” There was a hard edge to Dhaka’s voice. “I don’t know. This is weird. We haven’t had a dwarf-prisoner run amongst us before. Not like this. I know some of the distant tribes in the Orocani’s used to form alliances with the dwarves to fight the wildmen but that was centuries ago.” He gave a shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t know how he thinks. You’re the one that talks to him the most.”

“I guess I am.” Kili curled in tighter on himself, feeling very, very small. “But – Dhaka if your life was in danger, what would you do to save yourself?”

“In danger how?” He could see Kili a little more clearly as the light slowly grew, the dawn creeping up on them. “Like you?” The dwarf nodded. Dhaka sucked in a breath of air, deep in thought. “Well... I guess I’d do anything. You only get one life and it’s not long enough.”

“Anything is a lot.” Kili couldn’t keep the cold cramp out of his bones, but he had the feeling it wasn’t the chilly morning air that left him shivering. “Azog said he would spare me.” He felt the gobin shift quite suddenly at his side. “That I can stay with him, when everything is over.”

“Well – what are you worried about then?” And Dhaka’s tone was so much lighter. Kili slowly raised his head.

“Do you think he was telling the truth?” Kili watched him pause, mulling the question over before turning to look Kili in the eye.

“Kili – you’re more useful to us alive than dead and nobody would say differently. You’re the only one that can bring down the squirrels. They taste like crap but it certainly beats starving. You wouldn’t be much good to us dead.” He poked at Kili’s side, his sharp little nail digging into the hollow of his ribs. “I couldn’t make a meal fit for more than maybe three or four people with what’s left of you. Besides,” Dhaka shrugged. “He likes you. You’re his brogbûrzum.” Kili tilted his head, not understanding. “His favourite.” The goblin clarified.

“I’m not. He only likes me because it amuses him to see how far I’ve fallen.” Kili muttered, the bridge of his nose wrinkling. “Because he’s so damn proud of how he’s managed to turn a son of Durin into... into this.” It was light enough now, to see the scar on his wrist. He turned his arm inward, as though he could hide it. “What happens when he gets bored of me? The...” Kili paused, trying to construct the word. “The new-feeling will wear off and then what will happen to me?”

“If you’re worried about boring him, then keep him interested.” Dhaka suggested. “He’s bored of us. We’re not as big and strong as his tribe. We piss him off. As long as he’s with us, you’re fine. He might get bored when he has his own orcs to boss around but so what? Come with us to Goblin-town when it’s all over.”

“I’ve seen what they do to dwarves there, Dhaka.” Kili spoke softly, eyes turned back towards the warm ashes.

“There’s not much dwarf left.” Dhaka said bluntly. “The only thing that’s still the same is the smell.” He groaned, beginning to stand. It was light enough now to start rousing the rest of the retinue from their uneasy sleep. “In my pack, there’s some bughnrakh-mûz. Have some.”

“I’ll wait.” A smile stretched across Kili’s lips at the obvious effort to placate him. He wanted desperately to say thank you and it pained him that he couldn’t. Dhaka grunted and turned away from him, approaching the rows of sleeping goblins. Kili sighed and closed his eyes, feeling so very tired. Azog’s words had kept him awake all night, he tossed and turned as he picked them apart, weighed and judged them and tried to distinguish truth from lies. Did he really mean it?  Was it possible that he really thought there was a place for Kili, when everything was over?

Did he want to go on, after his brother had died?

He’s living without you. Kili reminded himself. He had packed up and moved on, had abandoned Kili and accepted his loss. Why should Kili be any different?

He was different. He was so different and he knew that he would never be able to sever the cords that bound Fili to his heart. Even though it hurt, it hurt so much, to remember how Fili had abandoned him, Kili knew he could never, ever hate him. He could only grow cold and numb with the thought of his brother. But that was different to hate. That was different to the boiling rage that welled within him as he pictured Thorin’s face. He thought about Fili and he only felt sick and so very cold.

There’s not much dwarf left. Kili recalled the goblin’s words, pulling the fur and fabric tighter around his skinny frame. There wasn’t much of anything left. He’d never been this thin before. The bones stuck out of his wrists like the knots of branches. The pale skin of his neck was stretched over gaping sinew and tendons, his collarbone sharp and protruding as a blade. He was so hungry, so tired and cold. Desperation was pushing him to the brink and he knew that if there was a choice, he would live on as one of them before ending his life. There was no grace to be had in his death, not now. The time had well and truly passed, for Kili to protect his honour.

He kneeled forward, his hand drifting back towards the ashes. Only the smell. He remembered something his archery instructor had said, so many, many years ago, when he was a bare-faced dwarrow of forty and had gone with the long-limbed Aldin on a hunting trip in the woods. It was his first time with a moving target. They had taken off their clothes and dragged them through the ashes, had taken handfuls of the soft grey powder and smeared it over their arms and legs and faces. Ashes masked smell, Aldin said. They could get close to the deer, close enough for the novice Kili to get a good shot, and they wouldn’t be sniffed out. 

The blanket and skins fell into the dirt as Kili took a handful of ash, smearing it into his arm above the iron cast. It crushed against his skin, leaving the limb very grey. With his bad arm, Kili coated the good, from fingertip to shoulder, his motions slow and methodical. He did it silently, with an odd breaking in his chest. His heart was beating very fast and he didn’t know quite why.

“Kili?” He looked up to see Nazarg crouching before him. The dwarf paused, swallowed. “Kili what are you doing?”

“Ashes mask smell.” His voice was low and dead and Nazarg winced to hear it. “I used to do it sometimes to hunt deer.” He held out his arm towards the orc, the bony limb coated entirely in ash and crushed charcoal. “Smell it. Do I still reek of dwarf?”

What.” Nazarg pushed his hand away, eyes very wide in his head. “How - where is this coming from?”

“It’s the only thing left.” Kili rubbed a handful of ash against his neck. “Everything else is gone but the smell – I can’t get rid of the smell but if I cover it up then maybe it will help.” He closed his eyes as he smeared ashen fingers across his face.

“This has gone too far.” He tried to lay his hand on Kili’s arm, but the dwarf jerked away. “What, are you going to roll around in the fire every morning?” Nazarg was sick with regret. “I shouldn’t have ever said those things to you. I never – I didn’t think it would come to this.”

“You were right.” Kili crushed another handful of ash against his face, spitting out the grey dust. “If I want to live then I have to – I have to show him how much I mean it.” He lifted his head, opening his eyes. Nazarg’s gaze met his in the dull light. Clumps ash clung to Kili’s eyelashes. His eyes seemed darker than ever, ringed in grey, soot-smeared skin. They were dark and dead. His brown hair was streaked with white. The sparse stubble of his beard was almost lost. Kili didn’t look proud or content as he looked at the orc. He was tormented, desperate. He scrabbled about, reaching desperately for help and no one was there to take his hand.


“You didn’t answer me.” Ash was strewn about the ground. His arms and face and neck were grey, as grey as stone and his expression was blank. Nazarg stared at him, utterly lost for words. “Does it help with the smell?” The orc’s mouth hung open, and it was several moments before he could bring himself to speak.

“Yes... Yes it does help.”

“Eat lad.”

Fili blinked as Dwalin wrapped his hands around a lump of something. He had already eaten a very scrappy dinner followed by a few mouthfuls of warm, stale water. He parted his fingers, finding half an oatcake in his palm. His blue eyes started upwards, widening.

“Are you – Dwalin aren’t you hungry?”

“I’ll be all right.” Dwalin waved him off. “You look haunted Fili. Eat.” The blonde nibbled, very tentatively at the stale bit of biscuit, eyes down at the dirt. Fili sat on his bed at the outside of the little fire, rejecting the warmth and light that the rest basked in. Thorin lay with his head in his lap, his raven-black hair spread over Fili’s legs. He had been combing his fingers through it absentmindedly, trying to work out the tangles. Fili was steeped in thick, heavy memory and he could feel his own warmth leaking out of his heart. He was so scared that Thorin would never wake. “You did well today.” Dwalin spoke up after a few minutes of soft, chewing silence.

“No I didn’t.” Fili muttered. “Dwalin – I collapsed. I fell to pieces. I cried. Leaders are supposed to pull together – and I can’t do that.” He swallowed the last mouthful of crumbled oats. “You don’t understand – you can’t understand.” He screwed up his eyes and with a sinking heart Dwalin realised that he was fighting back tears. “I want Kili.” Fili wrapped his arms about his middle, as though he was holding himself together, a cracked porcelain figure that was about to shatter.

“I know Fili.” Dwalin shuffled a little closer to him, jerking his head towards his older brother. “I know you miss him.”

“I don’t just miss him.” Fili hung his head so Dwalin wouldn’t see his glistening eyes. “Dwalin I can’t live without him. I’ve been trying but – it’s not getting easier and now with this I just-” His voice broke and he struggled to breathe evenly. “I open my eyes in the morning and look over and he’s not there and it just comes rushing back – he’s gone and I don’t know what to do with myself.” He let out a shuddering gasp of air. “And I feel so guilty, I can’t stop myself from wondering if there was any way, any possible way, that we could have saved him – if – if I’d gotten there early, if Thorin had just let me leave, let me go and look for him, I could have found him. And I blamed Thorin,– because I had to be angry at someone and I didn’t know what else to do.” Balin sank down beside his brother, the rustling of the leaves causing Fili to look up. He started at the intrusion, but continued speaking. “And – it all came out, all that hurt and grief, at him, and I’m... I’m humiliated because it shouldn’t have come out like that. I blew apart and I’m still in these pieces and... How can I be a leader, when I’m such a mess?” Dwalin and Balin looked at each other. “Thorin wouldn’t – he wouldn’t be like this. He wasn’t like this.” Fili looked down at the sleeping figure. “And I can’t – Mahal I’m just so angry.” He wound a black curl, streaked with white, around his finger. “I’m still angry. I’m always angry. I’ve always been angry.” Fili swallowed. “Runs in the family.” He muttered darkly.

“He was going to tell you, wasn’t he?” Dwalin spoke lowly. “Thorin was fretting about it to me in the morning.” Fili swallowed, nodding silently. “He... He carries a lot of guilt from Frerin.”


“He needs to know.” Fili watched the pair. “He has every right. Durin’s beard Balin, listen to him. He doesn’t think he’s good enough because all he has no idea.” Balin shot his brother a sidelong glare. “Enough of these damn secrets.” Dwalin’s fist thudded into the earth. “Fili.” He looked at the blonde. “You’re not weak. You’re not failing. You’re acting exactly how Thorin did, when he lost Frerin.”

“I-I am?”

“Yes, lad.” Balin sighed heavily. Hang it all. He had nothing else to lose. “We lost Thrain and of course Thorin was upset over Thror, but it was Frerin he completely went to pieces over. He refused to speak to anybody for days. We were on the enemy’s doorstep, knee-deep in the bodies of our kin, without a king to call upon, and Thorin wasn’t there. I know you like to think that he picked himself up, swallowed his tears, and became king overnight, but it wasn’t like that at all.”

“But you said-”

“I lied, Fili.” Balin said flatly. “Thorin’s been lying for years; he’s gotten quite good at it, really. He pretends that none of it hurt him but he completely broke down. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep. He remained beside his brother’s body – nobody could move him. By the time we had buried the rest of the dead, poor Frerin was... Not good.” Balin cringed at the memory. “We had to pull Thorin’s hands free of Frerin’s hair – it came out in handfuls.” Fili looked down at his own hands, the fingers curled in Thorin’s black tangles, revulsion exploding in his stomach. They fell still. “I’ll never forget it. Thorin just knelt in the earth, with his brother’s hair in his hands, while they wrapped up Frerin’s corpse and took him away.”

“Nobody blamed him.” Dwalin took over in the quiet story. “But he blamed himself. He saw Frerin’s death as his fault. Before he beheaded Thror, Azog came across Frerin. He wore the royal crest on his helmet, he never had a chance. He broke Frerin’s fingers first. Snapped them like twigs. You could hear the screaming from half a mile off, I swear.” Dwalin shook his head. “Azog was not merciful to Thrain’s youngest son. He killed him slowly, very slowly.”

“I saw it all.” Balin sounded in pain. “It was horrible. Nobody could do anything. Any who tried to come close were cut down. Thror screamed for an archer but there were none. Halfway through he had enough, he rushed at Azog himself. The foul monster had his head in seconds and – he didn’t stop, what he was doing to Frerin. He let the head fall to the ground and he kept taking Frerin apart. He never delivered the final blow.” Balin pressed a hand over his eyes and let out a choked gasp of air. “I did. I held what was left of his hand while I did it but he didn’t know it was me. His eyes – Azog gouged them out, before leaving him to die.” Fili’s hands were over his mouth. “It was horrific Fili. You must thank Mahal that Kili met his end at the hands of mere goblins. Such brutality... It was beyond comprehension.”

“Where was Thorin?” Fili breathed. “Where was he when this happened? Who held him back?”

“Nobody, save himself.” Dwalin spoke after a short, strained silence. “He didn’t do anything to stop it. Azog left Frerin aside, to bleed to death, when he noticed another young warrior with Durin’s device on his armour and turned towards him. Only then did Thorin move. The rest you know.” Fili’s eyes were locked onto Thorin’s face, the lines around his eyes, the grey streaks in his hair.

“He said I wouldn’t like him.” Fili whispered. “Is that why? Because he thought he left Frerin to die?”

“Not just that.” Balin looked at his brother. “Frerin was... He was special.”

“Special how?” Fili looked up. “Special like Kili?”

“Special just like Kili.” Dwalin muttered. “Frerin was always mucking about and slacking off when there was work to do. He spent all of his time with Dís, while the rest of us were in the mines and forges.”

“Not that he had a choice.” Balin cut in. “He was quite frail and after he broke his wrist, Thror didn’t let him near tools and pick. He had very delicate hands. He used to draw a lot, come up with these cunning little sketches and designs for new inventions. None of them ever saw the light of the day but he would spend hours making them up. Then he always got bored halfway through and turned towards something else. His room was filled with these half-finished ideas. He... he flitted about. Like a thrush, from branch to branch, never settling down.”

“That sounds exactly like Kili.” Fili blinked. “I had no idea.”

“But Kili had you.”

“And Frerin had Thorin.” Fili frowned.

“Ah. Well.” Dwalin shook his head. “He didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“He means that Thorin and Frerin didn’t get along.” Balin explained. “Thror and Thrain didn’t think much of Frerin either. Too flighty and tremulous. He wasn’t the way a prince should be at all.” Fili listened, very quiet. “Their mother – she babied him, really. Thorin used to pick on Frerin. He’d tease him a lot and make fun of his bony little hands. Frerin would run off and cry and eventually he just avoided Thorin and spent his time with his mother. So of course when she fell ill and died, he broke down. Thorin was embarrassed by him. Thror and Thrain thought Frerin lacked discipline and he was disgraced.”

“The teasing turned to bullying when they got older.” Dwalin interjected. “Thorin and I would go around together and whenever we came across Frerin, no matter what he was doing, Thorin would hit him and tell him to go away. He hit him a lot actually. You couldn’t call it fighting. Even when Frerin tried to hit back, he was useless. He could barely raise his fists. Dís got between them a lot. She told me Frerin was always coming to visit her in tears. He grew too scared to sleep alone and he stopped eating with everybody else.”


“Dwalin’s saying this as though we were innocent.” Balin’s tone was heavy with regret. “We never said anything to Frerin’s face, of course, he was still a prince.” He sighed. “But tongues wagged and ears burned. He knew nobody thought much of him.”

“Exactly. It wasn’t just Thorin. Thrain and Thror were cruel to him, too. Everybody was.” They both looked sick with themselves. “The poor lad never had a friend in the world, except for Dís.”

“I don’t understand – why did Frerin let that happen?” Fili was stricken. “Why didn’t he ever speak out?”

“And who would listen? Thror didn’t pay heed to him at all. He had a son and a grandson, he didn’t need a third heir. Thrain thought he was an embarrassment. Thorin – he was disappointed that Frerin was his brother. He told me once, that he wished Dís was a boy and Frerin a girl, then everybody would finally be happy.” Dwalin shrugged. “It got better when he was older. He tried hard to please everybody and of course it failed, but he tried. He worked hard, nobody could begrudge him for that. He was still far too flighty and nervous and flimsy, but after Smaug desecrated our home, dealing with Frerin was the last thing on anybody’s mind.”

“It probably would have been all right if it wasn’t for the War.” Balin murmured. “He would have grown up and become just another crazy old tinkerer. We’ve plenty, nobody would have given him a spare thought.” His mouth twisted downwards, wrinkled and sad. “But he was called up, of course. A prince must fight alongside his king. Even if that prince can’t hold a sword in his frail little hands.”

“You can’t be serious.” Fili breathed. “If they knew he couldn’t fight – how could they do that to him?” His heart stung. Balin’s words had cut into him and he bled.

“Because a prince must fight alongside his king, Fili.” Balin slowly shook his head. “I told you.” Disgust was on Fili’s face. “Thror – he was traditional. If Frerin couldn’t act the way a prince should, then he didn’t have time for him.”

“But – you said at the end, he rushed at Azog, he tried to save Frerin...”

“We all realise our mistakes after they have been made.” Dwalin muttered. “Thror snapped when Azog hamstrung Frerin.” Fili winced and gripped his own thigh. Azog had also stepped back and watched as Frerin sank to the earth, crippled, screaming in pain and trying to crawl with broken fingers and lame legs, but Fili didn’t need to know that. “Thorin was crying out for Frerin too, but after Thror lost his life, he knew he couldn’t do anything to protect him. He’d had his chance but it was too late for him then.”

“I can’t believe it.” Fili whispered. “I knew Frerin died with Thror but I never had any idea...”

“Thorin knows he made a terrible mistake.” Balin’s voice was low and grave.  “Then when Kili came along, when he was so thin and sickly and restless, we all knew we had another Frerin. Thank Mahal we didn’t really, Kili had more backbone and spirit than Frerin ever did, but Thorin knew he had to protect Kili. So he let Kili run free. It drove Dain mad.”


“He thought Thorin was babying Kili.” Dwalin explained. “He said Kili had no morals, no honour or dignity. It was the only thing they seriously fought over. Surely he said something to you while you lived in the Iron Hills.”

“He said some things.” Fili whispered. “But I ignored them. Lots of people there said bad things about Kili but I ignored all of them.”

“Wise.” Balin murmured. “Thorin should have been so prudent. He was driven to delivering many tersely-worded ravens and not all of them to Dain. Quite a few saw fit to involve themselves in Thorin’s familial affairs. I suppose it wouldn’t have been so bad if Kili wasn’t half Ironfist. They set everybody on edge.” Fili knew that better than all of them. He knew the violence and brutality they were capable of. It flowed through his veins. “He got quite heated in the end, he said Kili was his nephew and no one had the right to question the king of Durin’s Folk.”

“But he can’t undo the past.” Fili breathed. His hands were back in Thorin’s hair. “But he tried – with Kili – to be the protector he never was to Frerin.” Everything made perfect sense now.

“Hindsight’s funny, Fili.” Balin clapped him on the shoulder. “If I knew how it would end, back then, I would have done it all differently. But I didn’t.”

“When I said he killed Kili – Mahal I must have destroyed him.” Fili breathed. “Oh Thorin I’m so sorry.” He leaned in, pressing his face into Thorin’s chest. “What did I do?”

“You didn’t know Fili.” Dwalin murmured. “You weren’t to know. But – Thorin cannot ask you, and we cannot ask you, to lead honestly, without  knowing the truth. You are just as brave and as wise and worthy as Thorin was, when he had the crown thrust reluctantly in his hands. You have to see that now.”

“I-I don’t know about worthy.” Fili’s voice was partly muffled as he slowly straightened. “But brave and – I understand that.” He forced a tiny smile. “My flaws are real, they’re nothing to be ashamed of, and I shouldn’t hold myself up to a false image.” He said what he knew Balin and Dwalin wanted to hear, even if he didn’t entirely believe them. He didn’t know if he should be relieved or furious.

“And that’s something Thorin never understood.” Balin’s voice trembled. “I don’t think he ever will understand it.” His eyes met Fili’s. “You don’t dislike him, do you?”

“I’ll never hate him.” Fili declared. “I want to say I can’t believe he lied to me, for so long – but if I ever had a son, and I told him about the time we ventured across the wildlands, in search of our home, I would leave so much out. So much.” He exhaled deeply. He still felt sick with horror, at what he had heard. Poor Frerin. He could never imagine the agony of witnessing his brother’s death, his slow brutal death, played out grotesquely before him. He knew he would never recover if he had been forced to watch Kili taken apart, piece by piece. “I just want to know – did he really feel nothing for Frerin, when he was a child? Was he not guilty, when they fought? There must have been love. There had to be love there, somewhere. They were brothers.”

“We can tell you almost everything Fili, but we cannot open up Thorin’s heart. It was closed, a long time ago.” Dwalin arched his back in a stretch. “You can ask him yourself, when he wakes.”

“When he wakes.” Fili looked down at the head resting in his lap. He pulled gently at the dark curls, fingering a streak of grey hair. Everything he had known about Thorin, his entire ideal of his perfect, wise, brave uncle had been broken into pieces. He was just as fearful, just as bitter and tearstained as Fili. And Fili was so angry that he had been lied to. But he couldn’t begrudge Thorin’s actions, in the face of such unspeakable grief. Because he tried to imagine his childhood, his life, without Kili’s love, and he couldn’t. Kili was his life.

And he understood now, with Thorin asleep in his lap, how his uncle had choked up so badly in Beorn’s Hall, when Fili had asked if Thorin could think on Frerin without pain. He realised that Thorin would never, ever be able to think on his brother with warmth, because there wasn’t a happy memory to draw from. And that thought, that knowledge that Thorin had wasted the purest he would ever have in his life – the unwavering, unconditional love of a younger brother, it was sadder to Fili than anything he could possibly imagine. But Thorin had recovered. He had recovered from a hurt than ran deeper than Fili could ever know, because he had the added regret of a wasted lifetime of pain and lost love to the grief of a dead baby brother. It was a light in Fili’s chest. It swelled within him, a growing flame. He lifted his head and his eyes were dry and the sons of Fundin could see a definite change in their young prince.

Because if Thorin could rise up from the grief of losing the brother he never knew, a loss that cut so deep that he let the corpse rot in his arms because he was too afraid to let go, if he could overcome that, and become the king that their people so desperately needed while his heart bled, so raw and open...

Then Fili could do anything.

Chapter Text

“The worst part about all of this,” Bilbo sounded very glum as he walked alongside Fili beneath the grey spread of branches, “Is that I’ll have to turn around and do it all again.”

“You wouldn’t have to.” Fili turned his head to the side, giving the hobbit a small smile. The stubble was growing; it was still bristly to the touch but he no longer looked so shockingly young. “Thorin likes you Bilbo. You can always stay in Erebor, when we take it back.” He received a raised eyebrow, a little curl of the lip in return. “I’m sure there’ll be cosy little holes and fireplaces and books and pantries filled with cheese.” The blonde offered. “It’ll be just like home.”

“With respect Fili, it won’t be like home at all.” Bilbo spoke quite flatly. He utterly refused, even for a moment, to consider abandoning Bag End and taking up residence within the ancient dwarven stronghold. “It’s not just the books and food and my mother’s glory box.” Fili listened to him in silence. “It’s the people. It’s my neighbours and Bill the grocer and the all cousins and second-cousins and Gertie Proudfoot’s apricot turnovers.” The words came out in a babble, and poor Bilbo wasn’t sure if he was quite explaining himself.

“I know exactly what you mean.” Fili was staring ahead, at the tunnel-like elf path, swallowed up in the darkness of the heavy forest. “It’s the people in it who make it home.”


“That’s what I used to tell myself.” Fili confessed, looking quickly to see who was in earshot. Nobody of consequence. “I was scared of leaving home. Ered Luin – it’s all I’ve ever really known. When I was trained in the Iron Hills, I just spent the whole time feeling homesick, surrounded by this wealth and luxury that I’d never known. I missed my mother. I missed Thorin. I missed Kili.” His mouth drooped downwards, the train of thought broken as his brother’s name fell from his lips. “Oh, Kili – he was so excited to come. Nobody could tell him no. He wanted to fight a dragon and show everyone what a hero he could be. He wasn’t even excited about settling in Erebor – not really. He was just interested in the quest.” He stared down at the ground now, and Bilbo couldn’t help but feel so very sad for him. “I know you think he was brave – he wasn’t brave Bilbo.” His voice was strained, fading to a whisper.

“He was stupid. He didn’t understand how his actions had consequences. He thought he was invincible.” Fili swallowed, shaking his head. “He thought that even if something did happen to him, Thorin or I would just fish him out and it would all be fine.” The breath trembled in his throat. “And – that’s what gets me most of all.” Fili gave him a little sidelong look. “He would have died alone. He would have given up – he would have died thinking we abandoned him and I can’t ever undo that.” He ran a hand through his matted hair, pushing it back from his face. “He must have been so scared – so frightened and alone, at the end.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Bilbo tried to be comforting. He realised now why Fili had been so quiet and angry, that he was masking such a huge guilt and now Bilbo didn’t really know what to do with himself. His words seemed weak and meaningless. “You didn’t have the chance to save him. You would have, if you could.”

“I would have done anything.” Fili whispered. “Anything.” He repeated the word, as though it were some sort of enchantment that could resurrect the dead and bring Kili back to his side. His eyes lowered, he fell silent, and Bilbo let him, knowing there was nothing that he could say that could even begin to help. He remained quiet, letting his mind drift as he struggled through the dense forest.

In fact, it was almost a full hour before Bilbo realised that Fili had admitted he was just as scared of this journey as he was.

If nothing else, Kili was enterprising.

Azog stood, leaning against the tall beech tree with his hand on his hip as he watched the dwarf bent over his work. He fashioned a small glove for his good hand, made from the tanned hides of four squirrels that he had shot and treated himself and stitched together with the dried sinews of the hart he had killed, Nardur curled into his side. Kili squinted very hard through the gloom, piercing the bone needle through the black skin and drawing the thread taut.

“You should be pleased, really.” He spoke with a smile playing on his lips. He didn’t speak to Kili or to himself, but to the orc who sat in the dirt, legs crossed, framed by grey tree-roots entwining through the hard earth. “He’s done very well.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Oh, but he did. Nazarg’s voice was tense and strained at it made the smile grow on Azog’s face. He looked down at the figure on the ground, but Nazarg kept staring resolutely forward, eyes fixed on Kili. His face was blank and tight, giving nothing away.

“Well he certainly didn’t get the idea from me.” Kili was picking at a knot with his teeth, the bridge of his grey nose wrinkling in a frown. “I must thank you, really.” Nazarg bowed his head, fingers curling into the fabric of his trousers. “For what you’ve done.”

“Don’t thank me.” The orc spat in disgust. Disgust at himself, rather than at Azog, standing above him. “You have nothing to thank me for.”

“Did you think he would take so well to this?” One of the archers, Krûklak, approached Kili, asking to look at his new glove. They both watched in short silence as the dwarf showed Krûklak the heavy covering on the first two finger and thumb, the clipped leather of the rest, the tie at the wrist, securing it closely to the skin. “You would almost think for a moment that he enjoys it.”

“Maybe he does.” Nazard spoke dully, slowly resting his chin on a folded knee. If he knew, for a single moment, that Kili would have come this far, would have completely scoured out his soul and doused it in an inky blackness, he never would have let a word pass his lips. He thought Kili would assume nothing more than an exterior, a cold mask, and let the bright heart pulse beneath it. But he couldn’t even hold on to that.

“I have a theory.” Nazarg didn’t look up at him. He didn’t shift his gaze from Kili, who had started measuring Krûklak’s fingers with a length of sinew. Obviously the goblin had asked for his own glove. “He wasn’t much among his own people. He doesn’t look like a dwarf should, we all know that. Even as a prince I think he spent a very long time trying to prove himself, and always failed.”

“That’s cruel.” Nazarg said flatly. “You don’t know that.” Even so, a thread of discomfort began to wind about his stomach because he knew Azog was most probably right.

“He’s most likely a bastard child.” And that did make Nazarg look up. “He doesn’t know his father. You’re aware of the customs amongst the dwarf people, with the name on the wrist.”

“I am now.” The orc muttered darkly, remembering the screaming, the heat of the forge.

“There’s nothing on his mother’s. Burned away.” He glanced down at Nazarg. “A bastard prince – I don’t have to tell you how exceptional that is.”

“So that was your plan.” Nazarg’s teeth were gritted. “Make him feel like he’s worth something here and hope that he was just so lonely and desperate that he would fall for it.” The edges of his sharp nails dug into his palms.

“It worked, didn’t it?” Azog was smirking as he watched Kili hold Krûklak’s hand against one of the squirrel-hides, gently scoring the leather with a knife. “He’s not pretending anymore. I could tell when he pretended.”

“Of course you could.” Nazarg whispered, low, so he knew Azog couldn’t hear him. Nothing was safe. Kili couldn’t hide his heart from Azog, couldn’t keep it secret and whole within himself. He had to let it go. “You tortured and broke a dwarf barely out of childhood. How proud you must be.” But Azog heard the second half, a growl rumbling in his throat and making Nazarg’s heart race.

“He’s seventy-seven. Older than you think.” Nazarg heard a low rustling, and a brown leather book was dropped unceremoniously at his side. “Look at this.” Tattered, dog-eared and water-stained, the book looked very drab and limp in the dirt. It had been dropped open on a specific page. Kili in his uncle’s lap, waterlogged and exhausted, wrapped in Thorin’s grand furs. Thorin holding on to him very tightly, refusing to let go. Tangled locks of dark hair sprouted between his fingers, his chin resting on Kili’s head. “He is still a child in Thorin’s eyes. He never needed to grow up.” Nazarg took the book slowly, spreading the page out over his lap. “That’s what he wants. Someone to stop him from drowning.”

You bastard. The curse burned on Nazarg’s tongue. He offered his hand to Kili and at the same time, held him under. You cruel, manipulative bastard. Something broke inside him; he snapped beneath the intense pressure in his chest, the disquieting rage and anger and he knew there was noway Azog could be right. He had to be wrong – Nazarg had to prove him wrong.

He stood up very suddenly, grasping the book in one hand and making his way across the little clearing. Azog straightened, eyes narrowed and lip curling in a slow snarl as he realised what the orc was going to try and do. He was going to try and get Kili back. He opened his mouth to shout at Nazarg, to call him back and order him to remain at his side, but when he took in a breath, Azog realised that didn’t want to interfere. It was a test. What would Kili do, when confronted with the images of his brother, his uncle, the safety and comfort and love that he had been torn away from? How would he react to the memories being pushed into his face? He remained silent, and in that silence he was confident that Kili wouldn’t fail him. His heart had already been won over, and his soul belonged to Azog. It was there, stained on his wrist, hidden beneath his new black glove.

“Kili.” He was bent over, alone now as he cut the treated squirrel-skin with his little bone knife. Kili looked up, his eyes met Nazarg’s, looking oddly wide in his new grey face. His gaze lowered to the book in Nazarg’s hand, and his eyes dulled. His mouth wavered for a few moments, Kili closed his eyes and he took in a breath. When he opened them again, his lips were in a hard line, his jaw tight. But his eyes were low and dark and he couldn’t mask the pain that lurked beneath the surface.

“What do you want.” Kili’s hands lowered to the leather, and looked at the book out of the corner of his eye, not wanting his gaze caught. He looked at it like a low-slung weapon dangling idly from Nazarg’s hand. Nardur lifted his head at Kili’s tense voice, yellow eyes staring very hard at the orc-healer through the shrouded light. “I’m busy.”

“It can wait.” Kili’s hands remained in their work. Nazarg set down the book, his hands closing over the dwarf’s. Long, bony fingers pressed down over Kili’s, his own hands looking so small and clumsy in comparison. With a sick rushing in his chest, Nazarg realised that their hands were almost exactly the same stone-grey shade. Kili didn’t look up at him, didn’t look at the book. He kept his gaze fixed on his trapped hands, the little bone knife still clasped in his trembling fingers. “Kili, I-”

“I know what you’re going to do.” Kili’s voice was very hard. He didn’t look up at all, he simply kept his gaze pulled down to his hands as he spoke. “You’re going to try and convince me that I’ve gone too far. You’re going to pull out that stupid book and tell me that I need to remember how much they all love me.” He took in a breath, a short, shuddering gasp that rocked his chest. “You’re going to say that I should hold on to people who left me to die.”


“No.” He tore his hands free, still grasping the knife very tightly. “I don’t want to listen to it.” He spat the words out, Nazarg reeling back at the venom in Kili’s voice. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” He leaned forward, a cold whisper washing over the orc’s face. “Isn’t this how you wanted me to be?”

“No.” He shook his head slowly, horror sickening his stomach. He neverwanted this. “Kili don’t you realise you’re playing straight into his hands? You’re doing exactly what he wants. Azog is manipulating you and you’re letting him do it.”

“Shut up.” Kili snatched the book, rising to his feet. Azog clenched his hand into a fist, watching very carefully as Kili turned away. “You want to know what I think of them?” His voice rose, Nazarg kneeling in the dirt, watching as the dwarf approached their tiny little fire. Nardur was on his feet, a growl in the base of his throat. Kili’s loud voice attracted attention; the little clumps of goblins near them looked up from their tools and games, the low thrum of speech fading away.

“Kili...” Nazarg shook his head, feeling utterly helpless. Kili’s face was tight, contorted in anger as he held the book with his broken arm, the soft leather loose in his trembling fingers. “Kili – no!” He started, jerking forward as Kili let the book fall, let it slip through his fingers and tumble onto the fire.

Kili didn’t look down as the flames licked at Ori’s sketchbook. He couldn’t trust himself to remain dry-eyed if he did. He kept his eyes facing forward, fixed on Nazarg, expression as stiff and grey as stone. Even his eyes seemed dull and colourless in his shadowy face. The firelight was reflected in the orc’s eyes; he watched it swell, bursting into life as the flames caught the edge of the ragged parchment, blackening, withering into ashes.

“They can rot in the ground, for all I care.” The words burned like acid; Kili’s eyes flashed and his teeth were bared and everybody could see that he was not pretending to hate the figures drawn in the book. “I don’t have an uncle. I have nothing!” Azog smiled beneath his tree. “They mean nothing to me!” Kili’s chest heaved with gasps of air, lungs crippled beneath a crushing, heartsick pain. That wasn’t true. He thought of Fili’s dark blue eyes and the agony doubled inside of him. This would be so much easier if the cold ache in his chest just dissolved into hatred. He hated Thorin. He hated all of them, for what they had done, for leaving him to die, for treating him as though he was worthless. All – save one. Why couldn’t he hate Fili?  


“Don’t talk to me.” Kili’s voice cracked in the last word; he swallowed, breathing inward. It was hard to speak through the swelling anger and rage and the horrible breaking pain. He looked out of the corner of his eye and he could see Azog nodding his head in approval. The growling in Nardur’s throat increased.

Nazarg couldn’t speak. There were no words he could say that could placate Kili; he was wild and desperate. He was reminded of a cornered dog, a half-starved, beaten animal in a cage, mad with some disease. He looked at Kili and realised that he could never win. The damage had already been done – it was irreperable. Kili was going to hate them, he already hated them. He’d been played, so well, he had been completely manipulated into believing that this was somehow better than the love he had. He was brainwashed, completely brainwashed and he wouldn’t listen to anybody now, but Azog.

He withdrew, cold and powerless and defeated.

“Damn damn damn.” Fili picked at the busted seam along his trousers, wrinkling his nose. It had happened two days ago, he’d snagged it somewhere and popped the stitching, and as he crouched down in the evening, the seam split completely along his left thigh; six inches long, it was far too big for him to ignore. Kicking off his boots, Fili unbuckled the thick belt at his waist, pawing beneath the heavy layers of clothing for the fastenings of his trousers.

“Busted seam?” Dwalin sat down beside him rolling his shoulders. “Hate that. Is the thread still in one piece?”

“Think so.” Fili wiggled his hips and pulled the trousers down his legs. “I can’t sew. Amad would fix them. And Kili... He used to do it too. He had the hands for it.” He looked down at his own fingers as he pulled the fabric over his ankles, looking very stubby and thick and clumsy.

“Ori’s probably the best here.” Dwalin scratched at his beard, not noticing how Fili’s jaw tensed and he looked away. “Ori! C’mere for a mo.” He waved the young dwarf over. Fili’s wrists felt too tight in his sleeves, his face reddened and he couldn’t look Ori in the eye as he curiously approached the pair.

“You ca...” Ori’s voice died in his throat when he saw Fili’s trousers spread out over his legs. “What?”

“Busted seam.” Fili grunted uncomfortably, balling up his trousers and tucking his legs beneath him. “Wouldn’t take more than a few minutes... If you could...” He held them out, still not looking Ori in the eye.

“O-Of course.” Something faltered in Ori’s face as he took the clothing, his fingers brushed Fili’s, the blonde starting at the motion. He jerked his hand away, pulling the edge of his cloak further over his folded legs. “I’ll just um, I’ll just go and do them then.” Red-faced and stumbling, Ori began to withdrew, feeling hot, blood rushing in humiliation. Fili wouldn’t even look in his direction. Their fingertips touched for a bare moment, and Fili jumped back as though he had caught some sort of disease. Ori wasn’t some sort of contagious beast.

“Ori – wait.” Fili made a face. Ori stopped still, he turned on his heel, twisting the dirty hem of the trousers around his finger. “Thank you.” His eyes lifted; he looked Ori in the eye and he smiled. It was tiny and Ori knew it was forced, but it was a smile. It was more than he had from anybody, trapped in this nightmarish forest. Fili looked at him very closely, reminded quite suddenly just how small and flighty Ori looked to him, nervously clinging to his trousers. He was so pale and withdrawn and Fili felt a little sick, remembering how horrible he had been to the poor dwarf in his violent rage, and the rush of guilt that came after. But what could he do? Fili couldn’t force back the bitter disgust that still swelled in his chest when he looked at Ori, when he remembered just how Ori felt towards his brother. Fili didn’t know how to deal with it; it was so much easier, just to turn away. But Ori deserved a ‘thank you’ – and more. He deserved so much more but Fili opened his mouth to speak, he found his voice was stuck in his throat.

But Ori smiled back and ducked his head, retreating to fix the broken trousers. Fili watched him walk away through the gloom, feeling as though a very heavy weight was settling in his chest. Ori was miserable, completely miserable, and he didn’t know what is could do to help him.

“Why are you still odd with him?” Dwalin’s voice at his side dragged Fili blinking from his uncomfortable thoughts. “It was a good two weeks ago since you... well.”

“Since I beat him up.” Fili muttered dully, toying with the hem of his cloak. “Since I broke his nose.” Dwalin looked over at his prince. Fili was weighted down with some dark guilt and he had an inkling of what had caused it all. “I can’t... Trust me Dwalin, you don’t want to know what’s going on.” Dwalin rolled his eyes, shaking his head as he let out a groan. The sound caused Fili to look over at the aged warrior, brows knitting in confusion.

“If you’re talking about how he’s unnatural,” And his voice lowered with the word. Fili froze. “I know.”

“Wh- how who told you?”

“Nobody told me.” Mahal, Fili was dense. “I would guess half the company knows, or at least suspects.” Fili couldn’t breathe. He grabbed Dwalin’s elbow, fingers digging in, very tightly.


“He followed Kili around like a lovesick puppy.” Dwalin snorted. “Always trying to sit next to him, or ride beside him, or trying to help him. And he stared, all the time, at you two.” Fili dipped his head, gasping for breath. “Fili calm down. It’s all right, no harm done-”

“No harm?” Fili hissed. “Don’t you understand? Don’t you get it Dwalin? Oh Mahal – they’ll think Kili led him on, that he was encouraging it.” He shook his head, battling the very real urge to be sick. No no no this was exactly what he didn’t want.

“Nobody in their right mind would think that, lad.” Dwalin slowly prised Fili’s shaking hands away from his arm. “Kili had no idea. He was completely blind to all of it. He just thought Ori was being friendly. You know what he’s – what he was like.” He swallowed back a lump in his throat. “He was bright towards everybody.” Fili’s head sank into his hands. “Fili – Balin and I, we don’t care. There are bigger crimes in this world. I think Bofur knew and of course he wouldn’t give a fig. The way Bifur smiled at Ori sometimes I think he caught on but you can never be sure with him. Dori knew of course and it always kept him on edge. He always used to pull Ori aside and hiss in his ear if Ori started getting too friendly.” He clapped Fili on the back, trying so hard to keep the mood light. “The rest wouldn’t be thrilled but they didn’t know then, and they’ll never know now.” They both looked over at Ori, bent over Fili’s trousers with a needle in his hand. “I suspect you’ve known for a long time.”

“Kili was still alive.” Fili whispered. “I threatened him – I said I’d break his fingers if he came near my brother again.” His cheeks flushed red with shame. “I was just trying to protect Kili.”

“Because Ori is such a threat.” Dwalin muttered in disgust. “You don’t remember finding Kili’s clothes, do you?” He looked over at Fili, watching the blonde curls shake from side to side. Dwalin wasn’t surprised to hear that Fili had completely blacked out the memory. “Ori was completely beside himself when he ran into the ruined camp. He grabbed Kili’s clothes and he screamed that it couldn’t be true. He demanded that we keep looking for him, he tried to run off himself. He wouldn’t take the evidence we had. Even though I tried to tell him that Kili was – that the scum who caught him would have had their fill, right down to the bones, Ori refused to believe it. I think a small part of him still doesn’t want to believe it.” Dwalin sighed. “I had to hold the poor lad down and wait until he cried himself out. I didn’t realise until then just how much he loved Kili.”

“Thorin knows.” Fili’s voice was very small. “He wouldn’t leave it alone – he kept picking and picking and Ori collapsed. He told Thorin everything, that day I ran off.” He stared down at his sleeve.

“I knew something had changed.” Dwalin muttered. “The moment I got back. Thorin liked Ori a lot. He used to say he had guts and heart and he’d take that over strength of body any day but after that he wouldn’t go near him.” Fili watched him toy with the knuckle dusters on his hands. “He hates it but wants to keep the peace. Am I right?” Fili nodded, silently. “And what about you? What do you think about Ori now?”

“Honestly?” Fili couldn’t lift his gaze from his sleeve. He was too ashamed. “I feel terrible. I know he doesn’t want it. I know he’s scared and angry and I know it hurts because – because I am too.” He swallowed. “I’m just as scared and angry as he is and I know how powerless and sick it makes you feel.” Fili’s eyes darted to the side a little. “I’ve made him feel worse and I want to say sorry but every time I opened my mouth...” He gave a small, helpless shrug. “I lose the words.” He said plainly.

“Shame.” Dwalin muttered. “He’s such a brave little lad, better than the grief he gets.” He sighed. “Damn shame.”

“He’s not the first.” Fili’s eyes widened in slow realisation. “You’ve met others... others like him.” Dwalin only nodded silently, not looking in his direction. “Do... I know them?”

“I’m not speaking a word of it Fili.” Dwalin was very firm in this. “It’s not my place. The best thing you can do for Ori is to pretend none of it ever happened. Treat him just like you would anybody else. Stop shunning him and start being his friend. Time will wear on and you’ll want more of his sort close to you. Balin and I, we won’t be around forever.”

“But Thorin...” He looked over to where his uncle slept, nose turned towards the treetops. “He’s trying to keep me apart from him. He made me sleep by him so Ori couldn’t get too close to me.” Dwalin watched his growing frustration. “I can’t disobey him.”

“Thorin’s not always right.” Dwalin said flatly. “Look – Fili he’s my king and I love him to bits. I do. I’ll follow him anywhere. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had. But nobody is ever above fault. He’s made mistakes. So have I. Being a king doesn’t make you infallible.” He took Fili’s shoulder, squeezing it. “You’ll never be perfect, Fili.”

“I used to be.” Fili gripped Dwalin’s fingers. “I used to be perfect. Everybody – they all thought I was everything a prince should be. And – it wasn’t true. It was this shameful, hollow lie that I lived. I hated myself, I was never happy, I was always on edge, terrified that I would wreck everything. And when I did – when I broke and hit Thorin and ran away...” Fili breathed out. “I felt calm. For the first time in my life that tension inside of me had fallen slack. And I think...” He teetered on the edge of a horrible confession that ripped and tore at his heart. “I think it’s because I knew I couldn’t ever be king and that made me happy.” His fingernails but into Dwalin’s skin. “I didn’t want to be king.” Dwalin shifted, his other hand coming around and gripping Fili’s left shoulder. He held the young prince tightly, feeling his bones shake beneath his hands.

“You’re going to be fine.” Fili’s head was down; he didn’t see Ori’s hands falling idly into his lap, staring at Fili across the dirt with a frown. But Dwalin did. “Fili – don’t try to be Thorin. Even Thorin can’t hold up to his own ideas of himself. You know what makes a good king. You’ve spend eighty years learning.” Fili’s hands were clasped together. “But... It’s not just Thorin that’s eating at you – is it?”

“You have to promise not to tell, Dwalin.” Fili looked up, turning his head. Dark blue eyes flashed in the gloom. “I’ve been trying to think about how to tell Thorin – I was almost ready before he fell into the river.”

“I promise.” Dwalin held his breath, watching as Fili brushed a lock of wild blonde hair back from his face.

“You know the nightmares? The ones I say I don’t remember?” Dwalin nodded, slowly. “I remember some of them. Just some. And one that keeps coming up – it’s getting worse. I dream that I’m... I’m back in the Mountains. Not the Blue Mountains. The other ones.” Dwalin’s hold tightened around Fili. “And... Dwalin they had this ring. They would do all their punishments there.” Fili spoke with his eyes closed now. “They weren’t nice. You could get whipped or have your hand cut off or your tongue torn out. And that’s if they let you live. If you were just sentenced to death, they would put your body on this huge stake, right through the chest. And it took such a long time for them to die. Their cries would just get weaker and weaker as the blood oozed across the dust.” Dwalin knew Fili was reliving it, behind closed eyes. He couldn’t breathe.

You were four.”

“I had my own chair.” Fili whispered. “Beside my grandfather. And... He was on the other side. And Amad sat next to him. I couldn’t see her. I had to look straight ahead and I wasn’t allowed to cry or move about.” His hands were trembling, clasped in his lap. “There were lots of kids there. Everybody went.” Fili drew in a quick, short breath. “That’s what happened. But – in my dream, I’m not in my little chair. I’m on the throne. And there’s a heavy crown, made of stone on my head. And my hair isn’t braided, it’s in dreadlocks and I’m watching these people bleed all over the ground.” Fili’s words came out in a tumbled rush, as though he wanted to fling them away, let them scatter in a wind that was not there.

“You’re not like him Fili.”

“Are you sure?” Fili’s voice rose, just a little. “When I get angry – it always gets so violent and I can’t control anything and I’m scared that I will be like him, in the end.” He bit down very hard on his lip, his eyes looked up at the treetops and Dwalin saw they were glistening. “I’m not just a Longbeard, Dwalin. I’m not like you.”

“You’re not like him.” Dwalin was confident in this. He’d only met the wild prince twice, but he was already so confident that Fili would be nothing like his father. “You’re not like him and you’re not like Thorin. You’re Fili.” Fili nodded silently, not feeling particularly soothed by Dwalin’s words. It wasn’t as easy as all of that. Dwalin didn’t know what it was like, to have two halves competing so bitterly. To have a constant reminder that he wasn’t like them at all, he wasn’t a pure-blooded son of Durin’s Folk. His blonde hair, the hair Kili thought was so beautiful, hung around his face, whispering constantly to him that this wasn’t the only life he had known. A shadow lurked in the background, beckoning him closer and he had to always keep his eyes closed to it.

Not his father. Not Thorin. He was Fili. He sounded the words aloud in his head with Thorin’s voice, but they didn’t seem any more real, coming from his uncle’s lips. Who was Fili? Who was he really? A little bit of both, something mixed up and shaken about, like milk and oil, that came into contact and became thick and murky and unpleasant. Two things that shouldn’t ever be put together.  And yet here he was. All put together. Mixed up, he corrected himself. Mixed up because he was so desperate and turbulent. He couldn’t simply split his soul in half, take part of it out and leave it to wither and die. It was too late for that; everything was too shaken, it couldn’t become separate.

He looked up and realised that Ori had already finished darning his trousers. He sat waiting, hands wound in the fabric, waiting for Fili to pull himself together, afraid to intrude on something so private and delicate.

He steeled himself. As Dwalin retreated, pulling his hands away, Fili straightened his shoulders. Yes, he was mixed up. But that was what made him so different. He saw Ori, with his hunched shoulders, looking so lost and alone, remembering what Thorin had said to him, how he had been exiled in all but name. And Fili knew it was wrong, he knew Thorin had done the wrong thing and he didn’t want to continue doing it. He realised in that moment that he didn’t have to answer to anybody. Nobody had a claim over him. Not a ghost, not an enchanted sleeper. He had grown up, and was neither one nor the other.

“Ori.” He lifted his voice, allowed it to carry across the camp. Fili smiled, not a stupid, false smile that was so obviously pretended, but a real smile, a warm one that offered the first tentative beginnings of friendship. “Have you finished yet?”

And nothing could dim the light that shined in Ori’s wide eyes.

Chapter Text

“How much food is left?”

Fili crouched behind Bombur, careful to whisper close, making sure his soft words weren’t caught by prying ears.

“Practically nothing.” Bombur muttered in response. “Enough for two days – three, if we eat lean.” Fili closed his eyes, shoulders slumping. “Bofur and I – we tried nibbling at the weeds but it’s all nasty, bitter stuff. We could try boiling it but we’re more likely just to poison ourselves.” His voice was low and helpless. “Fili – I’m sorry but there’s nothing else we can do. We’ve been rationing it all this time and we took as much as we could carry but...” he trailed off with a defeated shrug. “It wasn’t enough.”

“None of this is your fault.” Fili breathed as he pulled away. “Make it last – as long as you can.” He watched Bombur’s gingery head decline in a respectful nod. “Thank you.” Fili withdrew, running through a mental checklist as he stood up. Thorin was wrapped up safely in the middle of the huddle. Gloin was striking up his tinderbox on a paltry little pile of kindling. Bilbo looked as comfortable as could be expected, crouched beside Thorin. Bofur pawed through what little food they had left, frowning. Everything that he could do, everything that he had power over, it was done. He could relax.

Only, he couldn’t. Fili sat down with his legs crossed before the tremulous beginnings of a fire, hands clasped together and head bowed. His stomach ached with hunger, his mouth dry as sand, and feet screaming in pain. He felt as though he was falling apart at the seams, he was being slowly picked apart and any moment now he would unravel and fall to the ground in pieces. He didn’t know how Thorin could have ever done this. He struggled to take care of twelve others, trapped within the heart of the forest, scavenging about on crumbs of food, tired and lonely and walking slower and slower with their destination still hundreds of miles before them. He couldn’t imagine taking care of thousands of refugees, wandering through the wilderness with nowhere to go, no destination in mind. It brought out a new respect for Thorin – not as a king or a leader but as a strong, resolute person. Fili was reminded through his own trials how much Thorin had suffered and overcome, and it filled him with a new strength, as his own resolution slowly leaked out of him. He could do this. Surely it wasn’t much longer now, until they would find the end of the forest, until they could smell the sweet, fresh air and feel the sun on their faces and taste stream-water and eat hot, wholesome food. Surely they had walked most of their two-hundred mile journey through this cursed wood. How much more was left to bear?

There was little joy to accompany their paltry dinner. Only a handful of uncomfortable murmurings, bleary-eyed glances before they all lay down, clutching their rumbling stomachs and pulling the blankets close. Ori took the first watch, kneeling before the fire with his eyes downcast, ears listening. On his side, turned towards the cheerless warmth, Fili watched him, the dips and hollows in his face, deepened by the shadows. The swelling in his nose had gone down, but it angled slightly to the left, crookedly, and there was no denying it had been broken. Ori’s hands were folded in his lap, idle. There was no paper to draw on, no wool to knit or crotchet, and it left him at somewhat of a loose end. His fingers twitched occasionally, as though he drew an imaginary picture in the shadowy air. As the soft whispers and uncomfortable snufflings died away, Fili remained awake, too hungry, his mind too frantic and desperate, to sleep.

Their eyes met after a long stretch of silence. Fili lying on his side, head pillowed by his hands as he stared into the little fire, Ori sitting up, hands clasped, his own gaze following the same line. Ori’s eyes widened in that moment, his fingers clenched on the edge of his tunic and he lowered his gaze, as though he was caught. There were black marks beneath his eyes, and they weren’t cast by the dancing firelight.

“Do you want to sleep?” Fili’s crumpled hair shuffled as he sat up, a waterfall of gold spilling over his shoulders and gleaming in the yellow light. “I’m not tired; you look shattered Ori. I can take your watch.”

“I’m fine.” Ori swallowed. He lifted his head, their eyes meeting once more across the fire. “I don’t think I could sleep either.” He kept his voice to a very low whisper, one Fili struggled to hear across the fire. It was a blatant lie – he was absolutely exhausted, but he wasn’t going to give away his responsibility. It wasn’t often he was shouldered with any real duties, and when they came Ori threw himself into them with a fierce determination, desperate to prove his worth. He wasn’t going to give up his watch to his breaking prince, just because he was tired.

“I can’t hear you.” Fili whispered. “Shuffle over.” With his blanket over his shoulders, Fili carefully made his way around the fire, careful not to step on any fingers or braids. Ori squeezed over in his little space, pushing aside Bofur’s outstretched arm. The dwarf didn’t break his snore, hat pulled down firmly over his eyes. It was a tight fit but the both of them managed to sit beside each other, arms touching beneath the blankets. For a long time, neither of them spoke. They sat staring into the fire, quite unsure of what to say, if there was anything that could be said. The silence became awkward; Fili cleared his throat softly, unable to bear the tense quietness, he opened his mouth to say the only thing he thought he could say.

“Ori, I-I’m-”

“If you say sorry again, I’ll hit you.” Fili turned his head and saw Ori’s lips twitching in that little smile of his. “You’ve said it enough.” Fili nodded silently, turning back to the fire. “You don’t have to always be talking Fili. Silence is nice sometimes.” 

“All right.” Fili whispered. He looked down, seeing Ori’s knee pressed against his. The point of contact was flooded with warmth, beneath all the blankets and trousers. He was certain he could feel a pulse, beating softly against his skin. Ori’s hands still twitched restlessly in his lap, desperate for something to do. A sock to darn, anything. Ori devoted his life to labours of craft and finesse, Fili remembered. The long hours of idleness would have been driving him mad.

Fili fed the fire. Both watched as a flurry of sparks rose into the air, sending the moths scattering in fright. Ori took off his mittens and stretched his hands out before the flames and Fili found himself looking down at those thin, bony fingers. He was reminded, painfully, of somebody else. He thought for a long time about Thorin’s darkest secrets, the concealed scars he wore on his heart. The anger, the violence and hatred towards his younger brother, the long years of growing distance, ending in blood and death. And he wondered.

“I have something of yours.” Ori’s voice sounded weak and disused and Fili knew he was struggling to stay awake at this point. He heard the soft rustle of clothing, and looked to see Ori’s palm held out before him, four silver hair clasps lying on his skin. They gleamed in the paltry firelight, shining, they seemed to Fili, with the light of diamonds. He couldn’t breathe. An odd little noise escaped from his throat, he clapped a hand over his mouth and his eyes started to sting. He’d left them. He’d left them to be buried in the dirt and leaves, to lie forgotten in the dark forest. He’d left them to hurt Thorin, to express a pain and anger that he could not articulate. But here they were, they lay in Ori’s hand, they were being offered up to him. Fili’s hands shook, they curled into fists and he couldn’t unclench them and show Ori just how badly he trembled. Ori carefully took his wrist, pulling his arm out. He gripped Fili’s fingers, unwinding them. The blonde allowed his tight grip to slacken, he slowly unfurled his fist to let Ori press the silver into the palm of his hand. The clasps were warm against his skin; Fili curled his hand closed and pressed it against his forehead, overcome with the most bitter and painful urge to cry.

“Thank you.” His voice was a choked sob and he knew he couldn’t hide his trembling. Fili’s head was bent downwards, he felt the biting edge of the silver on his hands and his heart thudded madly within him. The deep throb of his pulse beat in his skull and he blinked as the vision of the fire wavered before him. “Ori – I...” His breath quickened. “Thank you.” He whispered. He wanted to say so much more. That he never deserved this, he was horrible to him, to everybody, he would never speak a word against him again. But all of that, it was lost in his throat. He lowered his hand and looked over at Ori and realised that he didn’t need to say any of it. Ori was looking at him with that familiar, quiet look, his wide eyes looking into Fili, and past him, bearing down into his soul. He read everything with his gaze, with the attention to detail, the silent observation of the artist.

Fili looked down as he opened his hand. The four little clasps from Thorin. Around his neck he wore the larger one. It clinked against Kili’s when he ran, the pair dancing against his collarbone.

“I s’pose it doesn’t do for a prince to walk around like I do.” Fili grabbed a fistful of wild golden hair. “Even on the road.” That was what Kili always said. He always braided Fili’s hair with just as much care and precision as if they prepared for a grand feast. He dragged his fingers through a lock, catching innumerable snarls and tangles. “Ori – do you have a comb?”

“Ye-es...” Ori murmured in thought. He bent over his pack, searching. “Somewhere... Beorn said I could take it. Don’t you have one?”

“Kili did.” Dark blue eyes lowered to his hand. “He kept one in his pocket but...” He trailed off. No need to finish that sentence. It was gone now, buried beneath the stone alongside his clothes. Fili was offered the comb by Thorin, but refused to take it, even though it was only ever used on his hair. It wasn’t his to take.

“Of course.” Ori’s voice was very small. “Here.” Fili accepted the wide-tooth comb, resting the clasps on the ground as he started to drag the piece of iron through handful-sized tangles, the sound of tearing rasping in the air. “No-” Ori’s bony fingers snatched the comb away. “What are you doing?”

“Combing.” Fili looked to his side, saw Ori staring at him as though he had tried to pick his nose with it.

“You’ll rip the hair from your scalp like that.” Ori huffed. “Start at the bottom and work your way up. Don’t you know how to do it?”

“Well – I never did.” Fili scowled. He didn’t like being told off by anybody, let alone Ori. “Kili used to spend ages doing it – I didn’t look at what he was doing.”

“Don’t take whole handfuls like that. Mahal – no wonder your hair’s a mess. It’s almost dreadlocks in part-” At that, Fili seized the comb in panic, tearing it down his wild hair. “Fili!” Ori hissed, grabbing his wrist, not understanding. He caught Fili’s gaze, the eyes wide and almost black, seized in momentary terror at his words.

“You do it then.” Fili panted. He touched the back of his hair with his free hand and realised with an awful jolt that Ori was right. The locks at the back were matted and ragged. How did he let it get so bad? Fili had never cared for his hair – it had always been Kili who took care of it for him.

“All right.” Ori took the comb from Fili’s hair, pulling on his shoulders in a silent command for Fili to turn around. “It’s going to hurt a bit.” He warned. “And pay attention who what I’m doing.” He knew Fili had his hair braided by his brother but he never realised that Fili relied so heavily on Kili, how much the younger dwarf took care of him. “I’m not going to comb it every night for you.” He would never dream of stepping into a memory. He wasn’t going to replace Kili for him.

Fili endured the comb in silence. Ori muttered under his breath, stopping to pick out leaves and twigs snarled in the blonde hair, one hand wound tightly around a lock while he gently teased out the ends, working higher and higher until the teeth of the comb bit into Fili’s scalp and ran freely down his hair.

It took so long. Ori’s eyes drooped in exhaustion but he didn’t feel tired as he forced the comb through Fili’s wild hair. His hands were busy in their gentle labour, forcing out the seemingly unforgivable tangles and matted knots without tugging on Fili’s scalp and hurting him. He lost himself completely, staring at the molten waterfall of gold that trailed down Fili’s back. The blanket fell from his shoulders as he got up onto his knees, but he didn’t feel cold, pressed in on three sides with the sleeping bodies of dwarves, the fire flickering almost cheerfully on the fourth.

Fili closed his eyes as he felt the thin hands in his hair. It was the most overwhelming sensation. If he kept his eyes shut, he could almost, almost pretend that it was not Ori who was gently combing his hair. He could almost believe, just for a moment, that the hands belonged to somebody else.

And in that moment, he realised with an awful tearing in his chest that it bring relief. It didn’t feel good to pretend, the way he did. It seemed so false and hollow to imagine that it wasn’t Ori, that somebody else was engaged in their ancient, private ritual. It felt like another betrayal, at that moment, as he had before with Thorin’s attempt to fix his hair. He had betrayed Kili’s memory again by letting somebody else in. By replacing him, by trying to reimagine those hands. But he hadn’t, he hadn’t because he was gone, he was gone and nothing was ever going to replace him. No amount of imagining could ever bring his brother back.

He realised in that moment that he’d let Kili go.

An odd little gasp tore from his throat. Ori’s hands stilled, almost finished in Fili’s hair. Tears gushed from Fili’s eyes, pouring into his thin stubble and dripping from his chin. They came like blood from a severed artery, flooding down his cheeks as he sobbed silently, his chest and shoulder wracked in soundless cries.


“I’m fine.” Fili gasped, in a voice that was weak and tremulous and broken. It was a low, hoarse cry, that sent something rocking in the pit of Ori’s chest. “Keep going.” He couldn’t speak any more, he pressed his lips together in an effort to muffle the sobs that erupted in his dry throat. Ori ran the comb over his scalp, the soft stands of hair falling through his fingers as though spun from silk. Ori settled back on his lap, finally finished, watching as Fili wiped at his eyes before turning back to look at him. “C-Can you braid it?” He fumbled in the dirt for his clasps, holding them out to Ori in a dirty, shaking hand. “Do you r-remember how?”

“Of course.” Ori realised that Fili didn’t want him to make a fuss. He wanted the auburn-haired scribe to ignore his tears, to go on as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. And Ori was happy to do that. He took the clasps, and as Fili turned back, brushed the hair across his neck, dividing the locks with a tooth of the comb. “Pay attention.” He instructed quietly as he ran the comb through a blonde curl. “You can braid your hair yourself if you try.” Fili nodded in silence as Ori began to twist his hair into braids. “See what I’m doing here?” He took Fili’s hand, pressing the fingers against the base of the braid. “See how tight I’m keeping it? You have to have the same tension when you start. Too loose and it falls out. Too tight and it’ll pull on your neck all day.”

“All right.” Fili’s voice sounded distant, apart. His hand fell lax, he closed his eyes and nodded whenever Ori gave him more hints and instructions, allowing the artist to take his hand and brush his fingertips over his work. But within himself, he felt so very hollow. Kili wasn’t going to come back. He was alone and he couldn’t wish his brother at his side. He had to do these things by himself. He was going to have to comb and braid his hair, on top of everything else. He knew Ori couldn’t do it for him; he didn’t want to do it. But this thought sent something breaking inside of him. He ate, he slept and walked and fought and ruled alone now – yet the idea of weaving his own braids, something he had forced out of his mind for weeks until the locks grew so matted and tangled that Ori insinuated he was one of them, it was the most devastating of all.

Fili ran his fingertips along the finished braids. They really were perfect. Ori was just as good as Kili, when it came to plaiting his hair. There was something so achingly familiar about the soft little tug at his temples, the familiar weight on his shoulders. He fished out the larger clasp, handing it to Ori. The scribe grabbed the fistful of hair and fastened it securely at the back of his head, brushing aside rogue strands of gold before settling back and admiring his handiwork.

“It’s done.” His voice was soft and tentative but Fili caught a note of pride. He wiped at his eyes one last time before turning back. Ori’s face broke into another smile when he saw Fili’s dry eyes framed in those familiar braids. “There’s Fili.” He whispered, watching as the prince refolded his legs beneath him, unable to keep his hands out of his hair.

“Thank you.” Fili whispered in return, combing his hair through the soft curls. It felt so right. As though something had been restored to him. He wasn’t wild anymore. “I’ll learn to do it myself.” He promised. Ori’s heavily shadowed eyes gleamed in the fire as he nodded. “I do owe you, Ori.” The smile on Ori’s face dissolved, it slackened and his eyes went dark as he shook his head. It was as though a light inside of him had been snuffed out and Fili didn’t understand what he could have possibly done.

“No, you don’t.” Ori was deadly quiet. He drew his knees up, pressed them against his chest and wound his arms around his legs. “You don’t Fili.” He whispered, looking away from him, into the fire. “I owe you.” He screwed up his eyes. “I owe you everything.” Because this was still all his fault. This would always be his fault, until the world fell and the days grew dark, Ori would know that he was to blame for Kili’s death.


“I should have woken you up.” Ori cut over Fili before he could speak, could try to absolve his guilt with meaningless lies. “The moment Kili walked out that door – I knew it was dangerous and I knew that he could get hurt. I just knew it. I should have woken you up.” Fili opened his mouth, but he found he had no words to utter. They gathered in his throat, sticking like glue, refusing to come out. “And I can braid your hair and pretend to be him all I like but I can’t ever undo what I’ve done.” Ori’s voice wavered and he refused to look anywhere in Fili’s direction. He saw a shift of gold, in the corner of his eye. “I killed your brother Fili and I can’t ever make up for that.”

Fili took in a breath. He wanted to deny it. He wanted to say that Ori was wrong, that there was no blame towards him, there was no cause for guilt. He knew Thorin had said it all before, more than once, and he knew he had too. And he knew then, crouched beside the fire, that there was no meaning in it. They were only ever said to spare Ori’s feelings, to alleviate the shame and remorse. Because Ori was right, he was completely right. He should never have let Kili walk out that door and vanish into the night. Anybody else would have woken Thorin or Fili in a heartbeat. But Ori had remained silent. He remained silent, Fili knew, because he wanted to be recognised in Kili’s eyes. He wanted to appear as though he could be dependable, a secret-keeper. He tried to gain Kili’s trust by keeping his secret and he killed him.

Fili’s silence spoke volumes in agreement and Ori was glad for that. He felt like his own weight had shifted inside of him, as that burning, bitter guilt that he nursed for so long, the one that had been ignored or swept aside, was finally acknowledged by the one who was closer to Kili than anybody. It didn’t go away – it never would, but it withdrew. It didn’t beat at the walls of his heart and scream in his ear. It deflated, shrinking. It didn’t dominate him. Fili couldn’t speak, but he groped out with his hand, he found Ori’s wrist and he squeezed him very tightly. Tears of relief pushed at Ori’s eyes. It was what he wanted – he wanted someone to admit to him that he had done wrong, and he wanted forgiveness for it.

And he had that. Ori knew he had that as he looked down at his hand and saw Fili’s fingers gripped so tightly around his wrist. He knew Fili forgave him for what he had done, for loving Kili, and for killing him. And he wasn’t afraid anymore. He wasn’t afraid of Thorin, of Nori. He wasn’t afraid of orcs or darkness or elves or Smaug himself. He closed his eyes for a moment in the blackness, feeling its weight on his eyelids. He felt strangely untouchable, as though he had walked through fire and felt red-hot coals beneath his feet, and emerged from the other end, burned and blackened but alive, with the air still tearing through his lungs, his heart beating in his chest. He didn’t care that they were still trapped within the forest, that their food and water were running out and everybody was exhausted and Durin’s Day was beckoning and they still had so very, very far to go.

Let it come. He opened his eyes as Fili’s grip slackened. He looked to his side and saw the blonde staring into the fire, chin propped up on his hands. Ori lowered his legs, stretching out from his cramped, nervous position.

“We’ll be all right.” He announced in the sleepy camp, his voice still very low. “We’ve come through so much Fili – we’ll be all right.”

“We will be.” Fili murmured a soft agreement, huddled close to the fire, cold and hungry and so very tired. But despite all of that, he felt as though there was a suit of mithril beneath his skin, it was sturdy and impenetrable and would never ever break. He reached up, touching his new braids as they fell over his shoulders.

“We’re going to be fine.”

Chapter Text

“So the rumours are true indeed.” There was a nasty snarl on Azog’s face, it twisted his features and left a bitter, uncomfortable taste in Kili’s mouth. Nobody else dared to approach him; it was only the orc-king and the grey-limbed dwarf, standing side by side on the edge of the path with the rest clustered behind.

The marshes stretched out before them, perhaps two hundred feet across, before dissolving into the River Running itself. It was late in the afternoon – the sun was watery and pale at their backs, and there was a slight chill in the air. Autumn had passed its midpoint.

“Marshland.” Kili kept his voice low. “How deep does it go?” He looked up at Azog, watching him grind his teeth and curl his hand into a fist.

“Too deep to walk.” His voice was low and it crackled with fury. “We cannot go around.” For the path gave way to the marsh at the edge of the wood, and to go around would put them miles and miles out of the way, if they were to find a clear way at all. The reeds were green and straw-golden, the water still and smooth as emerald glass. It almost looked pretty in that soft yellow light. But Azog saw no beauty in the land before him – only a cruel, tedious hindrance. “We must go across.”

“What about the reeds.” On his knees, Kili leaned over, seizing a handful of the dry stalks. “Can we make some sort of boat out of them?” Kili sliced through the reeds with his knife, wavering a little as he crouched on the edge of the bank. Azog looked down as Kili blew through one of them, eyes widening in surprise. “They’re hollow.” He muttered. “Do you think we could make a boat?”

Azog stopped. He looked down at Kili, holding up the hollow reed with a little twist in his mouth, a look of deep thought. The orc-king looked across, at the hundreds and hundreds of clumps gathered along the shore, as far as they could see in both directions.

Khatûrz.” Azog muttered the word, turning away from Kili, kneeling on the bank. Kili bit down hard on his tongue, his heart skipping a beat in his chest. Azog just called him clever. Azog looked back for a moment, he saw Kili’s face break into a smile, saw his dark eyes brighten. Kili saw him looking, and he cast his eyes down, forcing his lips to fall slack and act as though he didn’t care about what Azog had said to him.

But the smile on Kili’s face, the bright look in his eyes, it stuck in Azog’s mind for a long time, refusing to go away.

The water was black as tar in the darkness. Kili leaned over the edge, trailing his fingers into the water and watching the gentle ripples shudder across the surface. The marsh-water came away clouded and brown on his hand as he pulled back, smelling of rot and mud and decay. Kili’s nose wrinkled, he ducked back inside his shaky little craft of reeds, pressing his nose against Nardur’s neck to comfort him. The warg curled up to him, whimpering and moaning like a dog, tail curled between his legs and face buried in his chest. Kili absentmindedly scratched Nardur’s fur, watching the bobbing of the makeshift raft bob dangerously low in the water.

Azog pushed the craft through the water with a long thick branch, staring beyond Kili, across the marsh-water and down the ribbon of greenish-black, cutting through the thinning forest. It had taken hours, wading through the mud, cutting down the reeds and lashing them together, testing the weight of their little rafts. Night fell and they lit torches, climbing aboard and launching across the shallow marshland, scooting through the water in the dark. They negotiated the marshes, then after dragging the reeds over a reeking plateau of mud, floated the boats into the River Running itself, wide and slow-moving through the forest. Kili hummed to himself, eyes drifting closed as he leaned back in the little boat, his legs stretched out, one foot touching Azog’s knee. Curled in his lap and crushing him, Nardur covered Kili almost completely, only his eyes and nose peeking over the edge of his thick grey fur.  Pressed close together in the tiny little craft, bowed heavily under the weight of warg, dwarf, and orc, Azog gripped the side with a free hand. He hated water. Kili looked almost at home in the boat; Azog realised that it was his offhand comment before, his remark that Kili was clever for thinking to use the reeds. Kili could pretend that such a little comment was meaningless, but Azog saw the way he smiled and he knew that it had meant a lot to him.

“Look ahead.” Kili’s eyes snapped open at Azog’s rough voice. He was leaning forward, eyes narrowing as he squinted ahead in the darkness. Twisting beneath the weight of the warg, rocking the little boat dangerously, Kili managed to arch his neck enough to look behind him. There was a very, very distant twinkling, looking like a candleflame, suspended in the blackness.

“Who is it?” Kili found he was whispering, watching Azog’s face in the light of their torch. “You said there were no woodmen on the eastern edge of the forest.”

“There isn’t.” Azog hissed. “Golug.” His voice rose along the water. Elves. “Douse your torches and head for the banks.” Kili wriggled out from under Nardur, taking the torch thrust into the reeds between them and throwing it into the water. Azog pushed the boat across to the eastern bank, the three wavering as the reeds shuddered against the mud. Nardur threw himself onto solid land, clambering to the grass and waiting patiently for his master. Azog jumped easily to the bank, but Kili grasped about in the blackness, blind. The few hours of sunlight had absolutely ruined his slow-growing ability to see in the dark, after the long weeks of constant gloom beneath the forest.

“I can’t see.” Kili whispered. “Azog – am I close?” He leaned over, trying to feel for land. “Where are you?”

“Here.” Azog rolled his eyes in the darkness as he watched the figure groping about quite pathetically in the little boat. Mud swelled over his ankles as he got his arm around Kili, lifting him out and setting him down on a bank of loose earth. “Hold on to me until your sight adjusts.” He commanded. The last thing he wanted was Kili blundering about in the dark, getting lost or worse, crashing into something and causing a ruckus. “And keep quiet.”  With Kili grabbing onto his belt, their wargs following behind, and the retinue of goblins remaining a close shadow, Azog made his slow, careful way along the bank.

The lights grew. What was one became half-a-dozen, and more. There was a bend in the river; they followed along the bank and Azog realised that it wasn’t within the trees at all, like he thought. They came from the river itself. Azog crouched down behind a thick tree, peering outwards, with Kili kneeling beside him.

“Can you see better?” Azog leaned in to whisper in Kili’s ear. He felt the ragged mop of dark hair nod, tangled strands brushing his cheek. “Stay here.” He instructed, taking Kili’s hand and placing it against the tree trunk. Even though he was big, Azog was quick, sneaky, and very quiet. He had an innate ability to glide effortlessly over the fallen logs and sharp rocks without making a sound. The darkness settled comfortably around him as he edged closer and closer to the noises upon the water. It was a little boat, made for perhaps a dozen sailors and a fine amount of trade, pulled up close to the bank. Azog studied it carefully in the lantern-light, listening for the snippets of language, the voices, the shape of the figures inside. Perhaps he had been too quick, to call this the work of elves. With a snarl, he made his quiet way back, tapping Kili on the shoulder in a wordless command for the dwarf to follow him. He waved his arm, gathering the goblins in close as he knelt on the ground. Kili squinted through the darkness, making out perhaps a dozen vague shapes in the blackness, a white smudge at his side.

“It’s a boat.” Azog spoke very, very low. “Most likely a trading boat, heading towards Lake-Town.” The eyes around him glistened in the darkness. The aching desire of valuables, of rich food and drink, it intoxicated them. “It’s not of elvish make and the figures inside look like men. There can’t be more than a dozen on board, and they will all be merchants and sailors, not soldiers.” There was a smile on his face, one Kili couldn’t see. “It will furnish us well, with food and supplies.” There was a hushed undercurrent, a whisper. They were all in agreement. Kili listened silently, a growing, uncomfortable tightness in his stomach at what Azog was suggesting. A fleeting raid in the night, with slit throats and stabbed bellies, coming and going as quick as a whisper.

This was exactly what he was afraid of. Kili listened to Azog’s whispered plan, the knot in his stomach constricting, hurting him, infecting his chest. I can’t do this. He felt a twig dig into his knee through the sturdy leather of his trousers, a spider across his finger in the dirt. He became painfully aware of the air in his lungs, the heavy throbbing of his pulse with an odd rushing in his ears. Kili closed his eyes and dug his fingers into the earth, as though he clung to the side of a cliff, and any moment now he would fall into the black abyss below.

“Kili.” Azog prodded the dwarf on the shoulder. With a low gasp, Kili’s eyes snapped open, hands loosening in the dirt, letting go. “I said – you’ll look-out on the right side, by the furgh with Krûklak. The moment I give the signal, start shooting.”

“Yes.” Kili’s voice rattled in his throat and he felt very cold. They were going to ambush an innocent party of sailors and merchants. They weren’t soldiers, they weren’t here to fight. He knew in his heart that this was so very wrong. He knew he couldn’t end any of the men upon that ship. But what could he do? Miss? Azog knew he was a better shot than that, even in the dark. They would be lit by their lanterns, it would be enough for him to land a killing strike. He was backed into a corner. Kili looked to his side, at the pale monster beside him, and he knew he couldn’t for a single moment consider disobeying him. He had come too far, had lost, had suffered too much to give up now, to be exposed.

As he rose to his feet, groping out and grabbing Azog by the hand, Kili felt a part of himself falling away. It remained there, on the ground and he left it as he stepped through the darkness, retracing the steps of the orc-king. He felt numb and hollow, a puppet made of wood. As they crept closer and he began to make out slender, black outlines against the hovering baubles of yellow light, Kili felt his empty insides harden. The thrumming pulse in his head died away and he let out a long, steady breath. He broke away from Azog, his footsteps feather-light in the dark. Kili followed Krûklak, eyes on the slender goblin’s back as he crept slowly through the low bushes, a low rustling in their wake.

When they found enough room to crouch, satisfied they could get a clear shot while remaining relatively sheltered, Krûklak stopped. Kili sank low, on the balls of his feet, an arrow on the string. And they both waited. Kili breathed in and out, keeping his hands steady and pushing back the roar of his mind. They were already dead. They were dead the moment nightfall struck and they decided to continue through Mirkwood, rather than pulling up on the plains and waiting for dawn to break. There was nothing Kili could do spare them, even if he wanted to. He looked at the flitting shadows, heard the sound of laughter and merriment against his ears. He thought for a moment that it was a foreign language that met them in the darkness; it took a shockingly long time for Kili to realise that they were speaking Westron in an accent that was thick, unlike anything else that he had heard. The long-lost words pulled at his heart and Kili found his lip was trembling. A cluster milled about on the upper deck; they wore long, loose trousers beneath baggy tunics, in dark colours of purple and blue and red. One played a fiddle while the others sang, voices raising in the night, an old pub-song that Kili didn’t know. They were drunk.

“Where are they from?” Kili breathed in the goblin’s ear, keeping the bowstring taut. At his side, Krûklak shrugged.

“Don’t know.” His voice was low, it grated on Kili’s ears in the night. “They’ve sure had their fill though, the flâgîtu.” He talked about the wine, not realising how little Dorwinion wine it took to arouse such merriment. Half a flagon, and they danced with reckless abandon. “This won’t take long.” Kili opened his mouth to respond, eyes still fixed on the deck, when a new figure appeared from the cabins, making his heart sink and a choked gasp spill from his lips.

It was a child.

A boy, thin and gangly and no older than fifteen, crossed the deck with a piece of paper in his hand. He approached the fiddler, brown eyes shining in the light. Kili couldn’t breathe, the rushing came back full force in his ears and his hand loosened on the bowstring. He couldn’t look away from the boy, holding the paper so it could be read in the light, the fiddler leaning back a little to examine it while his fingers flew across the strings.

No no no no no. Kili’s eyes stung. He blinked and his vision wobbled, and he refused to look away. He wanted to stand up, to scream that they couldn’t do this, that he was just a boy and there was no need for this, for any of this, they could just leave them on the side of the bank and sail away into the night with the cargo.

But he couldn’t. Kili knew the goblins wanted the men as much as any other food they would have stored below deck. He knew what was going to happen, to all of them, and it made his stomach twist in a fresh sick horror. Horror because he knew he was going to have to eat it too, there was nothing he could do to protect them. Or himself. He watched the boy say something in the fiddler’s ear, the man roaring in laughter, tilting his head back.

There was no mercy in letting the boy live. Kili looked at himself, feeling so separate and apart, thought about everything he had done, everything he had suffered through. The torture, the breaking and the burning. He had endured, had come through the other side, clinging to the ragged scraps of life and sanity while letting everything else go. Broken down, rusted pieces of something that didn’t quite work the same, that couldn’t ever be put back together. And he couldn’t imagine a worse fate than his – to be imprisoned, a small, useless thing to be blackened and twisted into something ugly.

Death was better.

Kili pulled the bowstring taut, waiting for Azog’s low growl through the night. He kept the arrow firmly pointed forward, kept his hands tense and still and unshakeable. He blinked, forcing back the tears, the bitter, burning bile in his throat, the roaring in his ears.

It came with a low roar. At his side, Krûklak went for the tallest, the strongest-looking of the drunken dancers on deck. Kili didn’t. He watched the joy, abruptly snuffed out, the music dying and the singing turning to screams as goblins swarmed the deck. It was a low little craft and the creatures were light and nimble. The wargs followed, leaping easily on their huge hindquarters. All of this he saw in his split second of hesitation, feeling as though the world had slowed down while he knelt in the darkness with the arrow fitted against the string. But his faltering lasted only a for a single, deafening heartbeat; Kili knew he only had a few moments before the boy disappeared from his line of sight, before he was stuck like a pig or torn to pieces by the ravenous wargs.

A sob broke from his throat as he let the arrow fly. Kili watched the boy crumple to the wood; the fiddler screamed, a horrible sound in the night that rose above the growl of the wargs and the cries of the men, hurrying below deck as though they could escape the gruesome, bloody onslaught. One that remained, hanging in the air, reverberating in Kili’s skull long after the man had died.

“Good shot.” Krûklak muttered in Kili’s ear, rising to his feet. “Right through the eye.” Another arrow flew through the air, Kili watching as the goblin struck the fiddler in the chest. Kili drew another arrow from the quiver, his fingers shaking madly, but it was already over for him. The rest had fallen below deck; he heard only screams, the sick thudof bodies falling on wood, the growling and snapping of the wargs.

Kili was too short to climb on the deck like the others; he had to wait for a rope to be thrown over, had to haul himself up, hand over hand, with his broken arm hurting terribly and his thin muscles trembling underneath the strain. He bit back a sob as his feet finally touched the sloping boards, eyes drawn to the thin body in a twisted huddle, unmoving. Kili’s heart was beating outside of his body; he didn’t feel it as he crossed the deck. He felt nothing. He stopped a foot away from the boy, hands still and lax at his side as he stared down at the child he had killed. He wore loose blue clothing, the tunic too big for him. Brown, weather-beaten hands sprouted through the cuffs of the sleeves, the rough limbs of a labourer. The arrow had gone straight through the eye; at this close range, it would have been an instant kill. He wouldn’t have suffered, wouldn’t have felt any pain. Kili had shown him true mercy, in that fleeting, painless death.

A flash of white caught Kili’s vision. He glanced up to see Azog emerging from the low cabin below deck. Blood flecked his skin, his eyes gleaming. The awful screaming had all died down; the boat was silent now, bobbing in the night with only the sounds of wargs and goblins rising in the blackness. Kili’s eyes met the orc-king, standing over the body, and Azog knew in that second that Kili had let fly that arrow, had killed the boy in a moment with a single, merciful shot. He smiled. Kili’s eyes lowered, his hands tightened into fists at his side, the urge to scream at him, at all of them, rising in his throat. But he held his tongue, as he always did. He remained silent as he knelt down, hand on the boy’s face as he grasped the shaft of his sturdy arrow. And with his eyes shut, he pulled.

While Azog barked out his orders, Kili remained on his knees beside the child’s body, silent and unmoving. The arrow was in his hand, the mess on the iron head wiped away. At some point, Nardur trotted over to Kili, curling up beside him and resting his head in the dwarf’s lap. Kili laid his hands on the grey fur but didn’t pet him, as he usually did. Blood was all around Nardur’s muzzle. Kili knew he was supposed to congratulate the warg on his kill, but Kili’s voice was dead in his throat. He couldn’t speak a word.

They dragged the body away after some time. Kili looked up, jaw clenching with horror when he saw the bodies in a line along the deck. He stood up, backing away from the sight until his back struck the wooden railing. He turned towards the darkness, the glassy black water, the light and horror at his back. The arrow was still in his hand. Kili looked down at it in the dark. He’d crafted every aspect of it himself. No. Almost every aspect. The black iron, shaped into a bodkin point, that wasn’t his. But everything else he’d made from his own hands, made to be stronger and swifter than the cheap goblin-arrows. And with the arrow, with the skill of his hands, he killed a child.

I can never undo this. He looked down at his grey hands, turning the arrow over and over in his fingers. The blood of the innocent was on his soul and nothing could bring absolution. It was done. Murder had been committed in that still Autumn night. He felt nothing that he thought he should, inside of himself. Shame and guilt, they clung at the edges of his soul, clawing desperately but struggling to get a hold. He didn't feel them. Kili raised his eyes to the night, the bare twinkling of stars scattered across the blackness. He felt so cold and apart, walking through a world that held nothing for him, anymore. He didn't feel anything. He couldn't feel anything. The horror of what he had done touched Kili, leaving a fresh black stain on his smudged, dirty soul. But he felt nothing in his chest, only a steady heartbeat, as resolute and regular as a pair of feet, marching towards a battle that threatened to tear the earth in two, transcending any mortal preoccupation with life and death.

The arrow dropped silently into the water, with only a ripple, barely noticeable in the waves from the shifting boat, to suggest that it had ever existed.

Chapter Text

There was a quietness to the night as Kili walked about on the deck. He let the lantern dangle from his hand, throwing shadows across the wooden boards. They were like long, dark fingers that reached out for him. Kili closed his eyes and let out a long breath, trying to stem the fear rising in his chest.

There was blood on the boards. Kili wrinkled his nose and looked away at the stains, trying so hard not to remember what had happened just a few hours before. He turned his eyes up to the sky, as though the stars strewn in the velvety blackness could offer up any sort of comfort to him. Kili groaned, his neck stiff, and with a low growl of frustration, threw himself onto the deck, with his legs splayed out before him. Following behind, Nardur licked at his face before settling down to sleep, curled on his side away from Kili.

It had to be perhaps three or four hours before dawn, at this point. The camp had settled down to sleep; a feast had raged long into the night, and while Azog forbade his retinue to touch any of the potent wine, they had eaten themselves sick on the cured meats, the rich cheeses and of course, the crew members themselves. Kili picked at a side of salted pork, too nervous and overwhelmed to eat, even though he was so achingly hungry.

They divided the booty up amongst themselves and played games, gambling it around. Kili didn’t take anything, didn’t play. He was listless and empty and nothing could rouse him from his depressive funk. He feigned exhaustion, disappeared below deck into a little bunk allocated to him, and waited for sleep to claim him. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. Whenever he closed his eyes, Kili heard that horrible, anguished screaming of the fiddler as his son – Kili knew it was his son, knew there was no other cause for such pain – was pierced by Kili’s arrow and killed. He saw the remaining eye, wide and dark and glassy, staring up at him. The look of terror on that sun-browned face. He waited until the tiny cabin filled and when it did, slipped out in the darkness, followed by his warg, resigning himself to pacing the deck, in the deep silence of night, waiting for the dawn with only the memories in his head to whisper to him.

Kili looked to the side, frowning at the curve of wood lit by his lantern, darker than the bloodstained wood of the deck. He reached out, fingers closing around the neck of the fiddle. Groping in the darkness, Kili found the bow, holding both on the lantern-light. They had been left where they fell and kicked aside; goblins didn’t have any use for fiddles, didn’t know how they worked. Their instruments consisted of crude drums, animal skins stretched over wooden frames, sounding their heartbeat tones in the deepest cracks of rock.

It had been a long time since Kili played the fiddle. His archer’s hands, so quick and light, were naturally very good on the string; he played better than Fili ever did, with a natural fluidity and nuance his brother couldn’t ever replicate. He was very good when he was younger, and he would sit beside the fire with his mother, playing softly while she sang. But that was years ago, they faded into hazy memory and had no place for him here, in this life.

Kili rested the bout against his collarbone, tucking it under his chin. He drew the bow across the string, bringing a low, mournful note into the night air. It hovered around him, a wail of grief and pain. He swallowed and tried a higher note. That was better. It was almost cheerful, the lilting sing-song of a child’s rhyme-game on a summer afternoon. Kili struck another note, and another. And he almost forgot the screaming in his head, as he started to play a soft little tune, squeaky and stilted at first as he struggled to remember how to hold the bow, where to place his fingers and angle the neck. He felt himself sinking further and further into memory, replaying the old songs from his childhood. His heart grew tighter and his eyes stung and he knew it was hurting. But Kili couldn’t stop, he couldn’t ever stop. At least it drowned out the screaming.

The song broke Azog from an uneasy sleep.

He jerked up in his bed, a low bunk too small for him in a boxy cabin meant to house just two cramped souls. With a groan, Azog gripped the edge of the bed, hauling himself up to his feet. He walked with slumped shoulders beneath the low boards, bowing his head as he followed the narrow passageway. The sound of the fiddle grew as he approached the deck, a slow, mournful sound that scraped on the air. It sounded like a song for the dead and there was only one hand here, that could play it.

Kili sat cross-legged on the middle of the deck, lit only by a single lantern before him. Nardur lay stretched on his side at Kili’s right, snoring lightly. In the doorway, Azog was unnoticed, Kili’s head bent as he ran the bow along the string. It had been a long time since he last played, and the skill had leaked out of his fingers. The occasional squeak and flat note grated against Azog’s ears as he stood invisible, watching the dwarf play for several minutes. It was an ancient lullaby, one his mother used to sing to him, when he was fussy and restless and would not sleep.

He broke off rather unexpectedly with a sob. Azog paused, watching with a frown as the bow slipped from Kili’s fingers and clattered to the deck. His broken arm fell with a wince, the fiddle falling with a low thud. A rough, ugly gasp tore from Kili’s throat; his head sank into his hands and Azog realised very quickly that the dwarf was crying. It was obviously the music that had done it, stirring some blurry memory from the darkened tangle of what he used to be. Kili drew his knees in close, resting his forehead on his legs and wrapping his arms very tightly around himself. His sobs were broken and jagged and hopeless. Nardur awoke, trying to bury his nose into the crook of Kili’s neck and he flung his arms around the warg, grabbing handfuls of the thick grey fur, stemming the flow of his tears against it. Azog watched the entire exchange silently, tapping one finger against the low doorframe, unsure if he should intrude on Kili, exploit that moment of raw open weakness, or walk away and leave him to his solitary grief.

The deck creaked as he made his way across the sloped boards. Kili’s head jerked up with a gasp, wet eyes widening as he saw the orc-king approaching him through the darkness. Kili wiped at his face quickly, smearing the ash on his face, streaks of white showing in the dull light of the lantern. The dwarf pushed Nardur away with a mutter, straightening his clothes and trying to resemble his last scrappy remains of composure.

“I thought everyone was asleep.” Kili’s voice was thin and stretched and utterly pathetic. He was obviously embarrassed; he looked down at his hands, keeping his shoulders slumped. Azog made a low noise in his throat, an obvious sound of discontent.

“I was.” He kicked at the fiddle, sending it skidding into the darkness. Kili flinched, his face strained.

“I’m sorry.” Kili whispered. He wouldn’t look up; Azog’s feet stepped into his field of vision, the orc-king leaning down a little. “I couldn’t sleep.” He explained, humiliated that he had been caught crying. “It’s an old song and I thought if I heard it-” His voice broke off and Kili gritted his teeth as the tightness rose in his throat. He was going to cry again. “I’m sorry.” He added lamely, feeling Azog’s eyes fixed on him. Kili fell silent, waiting for the orc-king to respond, waiting to be mocked or beaten or shouted at. Kili didn’t know how to react anymore, how to please Azog. One moment he thought he had it all figured out, he knew just who Azog wanted him to be, and the next he was being hit and called useless and insubordinate. Kili didn’t know how to win. He didn’t know if he could.

“Why are you crying.” It was phrased like a statement. Azog’s voice was flat and almost disinterested, as he stared down at the dwarf. Kili’s head jerked up, his mouth half-open as his eyes glistened with fresh tears.

“What – why do you think?” Kili gasped. “Azog – I killed someone today.” He threaded his fingers through dirty, tangled hair, shaking his head. “I can’t ever – I can’t-”

“It’s hardly the first life you’ve taken.” Azog’s voice was so cool and calm and even. “You shot down half of my tribe near Bruinen.” Kili watched Azog, mouth still open. “You killed that nasty little goblin, in cold blood. How is that boy any different?” Kili stared at him with his open mouth, speech completely lost. “Is his life worth more than others you have ended, just because of his white skin?” He looked very pointedly at the ash smeared on Kili’s face. “Because he’s young? Isn’t that lucky, dying young, escaping all that pain and suffering?” Kili couldn’t utter a single word in response. His voice failed him, completely. “Don’t you think it is better that he never got to lose his innocence?” Kili’s eyes lowered down to his hands, his bloody, killer hands. “Would you have someone suffer your fate?”

“No.” Azog strained to hear Kili’s low, deadened voice. The dwarf swallowed, taking in a shuddering breath as he fought back more tears. “I wouldn’t.” But it wasn’t justification enough for his fractured soul. Kili was in pieces, scattered all about on the deck and he couldn’t reach down and pick them all up. Kili wrapped his arms around himself, screwing up his eyes and biting down hard on his lip as the urge to cry passed him like a fit, a panic attack. He wished he’d never touched the fiddle now. He wished he had never given into his urge and ran the bow across the string, had never tried to relive those childish memories that had slipped through his fingers, irrevocably lost. It only hurt now, to hear that song. It was a blow on his heart, it crippled him and left him raw and anguished, longing for something would never get back. “It’s better to be dead.” Kili’s lifeless voice struck a chord deep within Azog. He frowned as he focused his stare on Kili, resting a hand on his hip.

“Do you wish you were dead?” A note of curiosity crept into his voice, one that made Kili start, and look back up at him with his wide brown eyes. They were so heavy with shadows, his face so pale and tight, turned up towards the orc-king. And in a moment, all of it changed. Azog’s hand clenched, he watched as that raw, broken look hardened, the sadness dissolved and Kili’s lip curled and he reached for the his belt. Azog thought he was Kili was going to lunge for him, he stepped back, raising the mace through his arm and assuming a snarl. But Kili didn’t reach for him at all. Azog froze, eyes widening a hairs-breadth as Kili pressed the little bone-handled knife against the base of his throat.

He had hardened into iron with Azog’s cruel words – he had been so close to breaking down, to giving in to him, and in that moment, when he lingered so close to total defeat, Kili realised how impossible it would be to give up. He had committed the highest crime any could ask of him – he had spilled the blood of the innocent and in that sin he had completely severed any remaining threads of goodness and purity. He wasn’t an unwilling hostage anymore. He was twisted and dark, as dark as any of them and no amount of guilt, guilt he struggled to even feel, could wash his soul clean. There was no golden heart, no core of warmth that he nursed and nurtured and kept safe in the hope of rescue. Only more shadows and pain, only a rotting blackness. There was nothing to protect. And in that moment of realisation, when Azog asked if Kili would rather be dead, it was like that last thin golden thread snapped. The full force of what he had done, his contemptible, vile crime that could never be undone, it unfurled. Kili realised, in a moment of clarity, that his own vestigial traces of innocence, his remaining pretences at goodness, they had died with the child, in the darkness and confusion and pain.

“I could kill myself right now.” His voice was hoarse in the dim light. Kili was anguished, humiliated that he had been caught crying, determined to claw back just an ounce of self-respect, feeling sick at the mere thought of ending his own life. “I could slash my throat and bleed out in moments.” Azog slowly lifted his good hand. “There is nothing to stop me Azog. Not you, not Nardur, not anybody. I could end everything right now and there is nothing you could do.” Kili’s face was contorted – he growled out the words in his rough voice, fingers curled like claws around the bone handle. Azog was looking at him and he looked worried. Kili’s dark eyes glaring at him, they narrowed in satisfaction, in the knowledge that at least for that single moment, Kili held all the power, held everything in his hand, while he had the knife pressed against his throat. “And everything you’ve done to me, everything you’ve planned, it would be for nothing. Months of work will mean nothing, all in seconds.” Kili fought to keep a tremor out of his voice. He knew looking weak or afraid at this moment would spoil everything, would tear down the delicate facade that he struggled to hold up with trembling, broken hands.

A low groan issued from Azog’s throat as Kili slammed the knife into the grimy boards of the deck, eyes wider than Kili had ever seen them. Kili panted, head bowed as he relaxed his hold on the knife, leaving it stuck in the wood. He looked up slowly, his narrow, angry eyes framed in a wild tangle of dark hair.

“But I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.” Kili spat. Azog remained very quiet and still, looking down at him for a long time. Kili never broke his gaze, he kept his chin lifted while Azog looked down at him, the orc-king so obviously rattled at what Kili had done.

Nobody had stood up to him like that before, had obliquely challenged his ultimate power. Azog weighed it all up in his head, eyes fixed on Kili’s face, his tight jaw, the trickle of sweat that oozed down his temple. He took it all in, the silence stretching out longer and longer as Kili kept that fixed, iron expression on his face, refusing to move a single muscle.

Azog knelt down slowly, after what seemed an age of that tense, still silence. Kili didn’t change his expression, but his heart raced inside of himself, beating faster and faster as Azog crouched down and leaned forward, so they were eye-to-eye, the same height. Azog grabbed the knife, the bone handle so thin and small in his monstrous hand. He pulled it free of the boards, maintaining his even stare with Kili every single moment. Kili didn’t flinch when the blade gleamed in the golden lantern-light, didn’t look down as Azog  pressed the blade very firmly against his throat, in the very same place where Kili had put it a few minutes before.

“Do it.” Kili whispered. He refused even to blink, staring at Azog, down at his eye-level. He was done with all of this. He could play this game of nerves, with the knife at his throat until dawn and he wouldn’t ever flinch. He stared at Azog with a low, cold resolve and Azog stared back at him, the knife biting into his ash-grey skin, threatening to draw blood and spill all over the both of them. “Slice me open Azog.” Kili breathed the words, little more than a trembling vibration in his throat. Azog looked at him with that angry, violent scowl on his face.

He wanted to hurt Kili. He wanted to drag the knife across his face as he had all those weeks before. He wanted so sink the blade into Kili’s heart, wanted to hear him scream in pain. He wanted to put Kili’s eyes out, wanted to mutilate him and leave him scattered on the ground in pieces. Azog snarled, the blade biting into Kili’s neck. He knew he couldn’t do it. He knew he couldn’t hurt Kili, not just then, because then it meant Kili would have won. For the first time, ever, Kili had held the pieces in his hand, had laid them out, had waited for Azog to make his move. He was playing with Azog. He played with Azog in the wake of his awful act of murder, had staked his own life in this game, just to prove a point, had pushed Azog and refused to bend to him, had shown that even though his goodness and innocence had completely gone, he was never going to break his will.

And in that moment Azog knew that Kili was never going to be saved from him.

He relaxed his grip, the knife at Kili’s throat was lifted away, he held the bone handle out to Kili. And there was a smile in his face when he did it.

“I underestimated you.” Kili took the blade silently, not breaking the gaze even now, even though Azog’s anger had dissolved. Kili had won this round – but it was just one battle, one wordless game of wits at the end of a long and bloody war, and Azog had crushed him, without question. “I won’t do that again, Kili.”

“Good.” Kili thrust the knife into the sheath at his belt. “No more games Azog.” He lay out the single condition, letting it drop between them into the darkness. His heart was beating, beating madly in his chest and Kili was sure Azog could hear it, leaning in so close to him with their eyes meeting. The smile widened, just a little, on Azog’s face. He dipped his head for a moment in a single nod.

“No more games.” And he withdrew. Azog straightened and extended his hand out to Kili. Kili pressed his hand into Azog’s palm without a word, allowing himself to be hauled up to his feet. He felt cold, very cold; he’d been sweating, he realised, and now the cool night air chilled his damp skin. Kili’s heart was still striking madly in his chest; he forced it down and kept his chin erect as he followed Azog across the deck, Nardur trotting faithfully behind.

Everything had changed, and Kili knew it. He knew Azog wouldn’t look at him with scorn or contempt. Kili had seen that unsettling concern and worry in Azog’s eyes, and he knew that he left an impression on the orc-king, even if he wasn’t sure of the exact shape of it. Kili knew that he meant something now. He had shown that Azog had misjudged him all along, had pushed him almost to the edge but never quite over, for weeks. And his implied suggestion that Kili end his own life, that he kill himself and undo everything, render all that suffering and pain completely worthless, it had tipped him over, had uncovered something very dark within Kili, something that wasn’t cowed by fear or pain.

Was this better? Kili looked at the pale shape of Azog’s back, bent almost double in the low, narrow passageway below deck. Having gained that fleeting moment of dominance over Azog, over the one who had completely torn him apart and ripped out his soul, at the cost of his last traces of purity and innocence – was it worth the cost? To know that he wouldn’t be toyed with, that he would be regarded as something worth more – was it a fair price to pay?

Yes. This was better.

Chapter Text

Kili read the papers slowly, angling the dirty pages into the light of the porthole. The spelling was atrocious; Kili was a pretty bad reader at the best of times, but it took longer than he would ever admit to sound the letters aloud in his head, untangling the meanings of word-fragments from a near-foreign tongue. They were desperately boring – inventories mostly, an uneventful log, a few scraps of messages and there were grey smudges over all of them from Kili’s fingers. He needed to read only a few of them, to get an idea of the crew they had desecrated in the night. The ship hailed from the Dorwinion provinces to the East, a land filled with vineyards and farms, famed for a very delicious and potent wine. The hold was loaded with barrels and barrels of the stuff, bound for Lake-Town and the Halls of the elven-king. Kili’s eyes looked up from the paper, to the figure stretched out on the bed with his arm folded behind his head.

“Nothing interesting.” Kili sat on the edge of the wooden table, feet resting on the rather lopsided little chair. He set the page down and leaned against the bowed side of the ship, feeling the boards shudder beneath his back. “Just trade-jargon.” Azog grunted in response, staring up at the ceiling of the low bunk. “How long will we be staying on this ship?” Kili drew a leg up, slouching. Azog looked over at him briefly, noticing Kili swinging one leg idly over the edge of the table, tapping his fingers against the other in obvious boredom.

“Just another few days.” Azog muttered. “Until we’re out of the forest. Then we’ll ride again. The wargs will be well-fed, and we can hunt along the plains.”

“And then what?” Kili was staring at his knee, picking at a hole in his trousers. He looked quite purposefully away from Azog, almost as though he were afraid of what the orc-king would say. Azog heaved himself out of the low bunk, grumbling as he approached the low table. Kili’s leg fell still, he watched, motionless, as Azog rifled through the loose pieces of paper and fished out a worn old map.

“We’re here.” Azog pointed, his huge white finger covering a distance of roughly ten miles. “The river comes north.” He traced its path. “There’s a distance of forty or fifty miles along the plain between the River Running and the Elf-kingdom.” Kili looked down at the map, finding his mouth dry. “We’ll get a scent by then, and we will know if Thorin has managed to leave the forest or not. If he has, we’ll catch him in the wastelands. If not, we’ll have to negotiate a path through Mirkwood.” There was a deep scowl on his face at the thought. “And avoid the elves, at all costs.”

“And then?” Kili looked up at Azog, watching the scowl deepen, his eyes grow darker. Azog kept his eyes trained down towards the paper, the wheels slowly turning inside his head.

“I take what I want and leave the rest to them.” He jerked his head towards the door, to the goblins beyond who worked on the oars below deck, and carefully gathered the captured supplies and tried to figure out how long it would all last. “They can do as they please; I won’t need them anymore.”

“And then what?” Kili breathed, finding his heart was pounding terribly in his head. He realised with a churning of his stomach that he was leaning in a little, as though he anticipated Azog’s words. Kili drew back, humiliation reddening his cheeks beneath the smears of ash, invisible to Azog but very warm and obvious to him.

“Then we return home.” Kili’s hands instinctively clenched at the we. “Through the Grey

Mountains before winter sets in.”

“We.” Kili whispered. Azog looked up from the page, seeing Kili’s fingers dig into his trousers. “You really mean it.”

“I never say something I don’t mean.” Kili tried to read the orc-king’s face, but it was as blank and impassive as ever. “You’re smarter than most, Kili. You’re getting a thicker skin. And you’re not afraid to bite back.” Kili looked at him, his throat clenching as he swallowed. “You’re got grit.”

“Grit.” Kili repeated, chewing on his lower lip. What did that mean, really? A willingness to push on forward through repeated failure? A dogged determination to hold on when all hope that been lost? Or was it his weakness, in letting everything he had slip through his fingers, forsaking everything he had known and succumbing to the darkness. “They wouldn’t see that.” A burning ember lodged itself in his throat, refusing to burn out. “They would think it better to die with honour.”

“They can have their honour.” Azog stood up, as much as he could in the low cabin. His shoulders stooped and he bent his neck to look down on the dwarf. “It won’t save them. It wouldn’t have saved you. Honour is a death sentence, Kili. It never saved anybody.” He briefly touched Kili’s shoulder, his fingers closing around the thin bone for a heartbeat, squeezing, before letting go. Ash clung to Azog’s fingers. The dwarf’s eyes were wide, staring up at him, biting very hard on his lip. Azog turned away without another word, clumping out of the cabin, bent over in his heavy boots.

Kili looked down at his trousers and found that he no longer wanted to cry. He felt-dried out as he looked down at the map, at the land he had managed to cross. Ered Luin stretched along the western edge, looking very tiny and distant across the foot of yellowed parchment. Kili traced his finger slowly along his journey, across the Lune, through the White Downs, the Shire, along the East-West Road and through Rivendell, beneath the Misty Mountains and across the Wilderland, through Mirkwood to the River Running. Kili spread the map out, rising to his feet and unfurling it across the table. It was huge, bigger than any map Kili had seen before. It was the map of merchant travellers who were so very far from home.

The Lonely Mountain was a tiny peak, an upwards arrow small and insignificant. The Iron Hills lay to the east, mere inches between them. Kili’s journey was only a tiny corner on the magnificent atlas of the world. He had seen so little – a mere few hundred miles. He felt younger and smaller than ever before as he looked at Mordor, the homeland of his new tongue, the vast deserts beneath, vague and unexplored with only ‘Harad’ scrawled across a blank space that stretched to the edges of the map and beyond. The Orocani Mountains, three times longer than the magnificent Misty Mountains, stretched along the east, with four dwarven strongholds marked down in black ink. He knew nothing more than the names – Blacklocks, Stonefoots, Stiffbeards, and Ironfists – initialled on the parchment. They were strangers to him.

There was something so very comforting about looking at this map, at the huge, unexplored distances, the foreign lands filled with people he had never met. Kili found something warm filling his chest, tugging at his heart. It was a big world, bigger than he had ever realised. No map he had seen ever reached this far.

If I ran away, Kili thought as he examined the paper, the rivers and mountains and towns filled with strangers, nobody could ever find me in this big world.

They left the ship, stripped bare and the sails torn down, the rudder smashed, a hole in the hull,  to drift in the fading sunset. Kili heard the groaning of wood, the rushing of water as the river claimed the crippled wood. He looked back for a moment, seeing only a hulking shape in the twilight, drifting lopsidedly towards the mouth of the forest.

“Should o’ burned the thing.” Kili gave the goblin beside him a sidelong look. “Someone’ll see that.”

“Burning it would send smoke into the air, Rukul.” Kili murmured, his voice flat and dead. It sounded almost like a rehearsed speech. “The elves will see it, and the men from Lake-Town too. There’s nothing downstream for a good three hundred miles.” The map was folded and stowed away in one of Kili’s bags, slung over Nardur’s side. “Only small villages, filled with men.”

He had spent longer than he would ever admit looking at the map, and again turned it over in his mind, curled up in his little bunk with Azog snoring below. It hung on his mind for three long days while Kili floated about on the ship, with almost nothing else to fill his time. After a few hours of rowing, Kili was free to do as he pleased. He spent a lot of time resting, taking the bed above Azog after their new understanding. Kili asked about Azog’s home, about what sort of people he led, what yield of minerals his mountain bore, filling out a dark sketch in his mind. Kili managed to last through the entirety of the second day, and the night too, without thinking even once about his brother and uncle.

And not once did he feel guilty about it, afterwards.

“They’ll know what happened.” Rukul muttered, still uneasy with the prospect. “They’ll see the blood on the deck and they’ll know.”

“It’s the wildlands.” Kili’s voice was very low in the deepening light. “They knew the dangers when they left home. These things happen, when you’re out on your own.”

They lay awake through the night. Fili heard the shuffling, the sighing and the low whispers. The grumbling of their stomachs. He heard all of it, lying with his furs pulled close around him, Thorin’s sleeping body with his steady, inexorable breath in his ear.

They were all so hungry. Two days had passed since the last of their food ran out, and they had barely moved since. The poor dwarves could only stagger for perhaps a quarter of a mile before flopping down into the earth, proclaiming they were too weak to take another step, their limbs trembling under the weight of Thorin’s body. Fili watched the life leaking out of them, draining from their faces, pulling their lips down and paling their cheeks.

He was failing them. He was failing them as their leader and protector. The bitter helplessness clawed at him in the dark and he could not sleep. He remained awake, staring at the impenetrable canopy of leaves, unable to imagine the stars above him because he didn’t know their names or what they looked like, his shame and failure resounding in his head with every thudding heartbeat. Morale was at its lowest. Nobody blamed Fili for anything, but he could sense their discontent and anger. Most of them were angry at themselves, for agreeing to such a foolish quest. Fili’s newly-forged confidence could only go so far and it was already eroding as he grew thinner and hungrier with no end in sight. Nobody had dreams of Erebor now, least of all Fili. All he wanted was for them to escape from this leafy prison, to have food in their stomachs and water on their lips. This wasn’t worth dying for. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. This wasn’t how heroes fell.

And as he laid down in the darkness, listening to the rustling around him, the soft whispers, listening to Ori fight back tears because he was so painfully hungry and couldn’t sleep, something inside of Fili snapped. His hands curled into fists and scowl clenched his lip and he knew that he could not take this any longer. This wasn’t worth dying for, not over a century of animosity that Fili had no part in. He wasn’t going to sit and wait for them to starve to death in the gloom, to wait for some sort of beast to carry him off. He wasn’t going to let them down.

They would hate him for it. They would call him a coward and a fool and they would never ever respect him again. But they would live. And Fili would rather be a dishonourable coward, hated by twelve former subjects, than a starving king of corpses. He looked over to Thorin, thinking about what his uncle would do. He would scream at Fili for even having these ideas. They were insubordinate and foolish and spineless.  He would say Fili was insulting the will of dwarves, the honour of his name, in what he was doing. But Thorin wasn’t here. Fili was. And as he laid in the dirt, shivering with cold and sick with hunger, with no one to call upon, Fili realised that the choice lay with him and him alone, and he had already made it. This wasn’t worth dying for.

He waited for the light to grow enough for him to see his uncle’s face beside him, before sitting up.

“Enough of this.” His voice shook in the dimness, hair looking pale and grey. On his side, Ori opened his eyes. “There has to be something – look, I’m not having us all blunder on and waste what strength we have left.” Fili fumbled about for his boots. Everybody sat up, or propped themselves on their elbows, or got on their knees. “I’m going to go on ahead and find something.” There was a very tight expression on Fili’s face, his jaw shaking. “I’m not going to let us lie down and die in here.”

“Fili,” Dwalin tried to still the blonde with a hand on his shoulder, but Fili jerked away. “Lad – you’re not dashing ahead and getting yourself killed.”

“I’m not going to get myself killed.” Fili said bluntly. “I’m not Kil – I’m not doing this recklessly.” He caught himself, pausing to take in a long breath. “How long could we go before someone drops? Half a mile? Maybe a little more?” He dipped his head, fingers plainly trembling around the fastenings on his boots. “Look – I’m young, I’m strong, I can go on for days.” Fili looked at the pale faces slowly emerging as the light inched forward in the sky, veiled by a shroud of heavy beech trees. “We – We ran out of food, on the way to Bag End.” Fili admitted slowly, recalling the journey with his brother across the western lands. The food ran low, they didn’t have any money and wouldn’t stoop to stealing. “I went four or five days without eating a thing, and I was fine.” Dwalin frowned at him, and Fili averted his gaze. That explained why Fili was so lifeless and pale, that night. He had given Kili all of his food, had kept his brother comfortable and happy while he suffered. Dwalin wasn’t surprised to hear it, and he knew in a heartbeat that Fili had been doing the same again, now. He saw the food he slipped to Bilbo and Ori, and saw his cheeks begin to hollow, very plain in his beardless face. “I’ll go on alone and try to find something.” His eyes lowered to his boots and he wouldn’t look up from them.

“Not alone, you’re not.” Dwalin spoke firmly. “It’s a madcap idea, but if you’re insisting on going, I’m coming with you.” Fili’s head darted up, jaw tense. He knew there was no deterring Dwalin. He wasn’t going to leave Fili alone, not for a moment. He would be implicated, in this. “You think I can’t handle it, Fili?”

“No. No no, not at all.” Fili’s mouth was dry. “I-I’m sure you can.” He faltered, his eyes slipped back downwards and an uncomfortable feeling grew in Dwalin’s stomach. Why was Fili so keen to go ahead on his own?

“I’m coming too.” Fili closed his eyes at Ori’s voice, weak with hunger, but firm, resolute. He shook his head, a groan sounding in his throat.

“Ori, there’s no point if-”

“What was your argument? That you’re young?” Ori kept his chin high, his gaze straight and unwavering at Fili. “So am I. I can keep going. I’m all right.”

No, you can’t. Fili bit back the retort. Ori’s hunger reduced him to tears – he wasn’t strong enough to march on for another three or four, or ten or twenty, miles. But when he looked into Ori’s eyes, black stones staring into him through the grim light, he found all of those words remaining behind his lips, clinging unsaid to his tongue. Ori wanted to go with him. He didn’t want to be left alone here, alone amongst people who hated him, who thought him a monster and a freak. He held on to the comfort and safety of a friend.

“All right.” Fili’s hands clenched into fists. “Dwalin, Ori and I – we’ll go.” He murmured the last words, lips barely moving. “The closer we get to the edge of the forest, the higher the chances of wholesome food.” Fili tried to sound convincing. “We’ll catch something, between us and bring it back.” His eyes fell to Thorin’s sleeping body. “We’ll come back with food.” He reached for his cloak, threading his arms through the brown leather. “We won’t be long.” Fili’s eyes met Balin’s, looking so dull and hollow in his wrinkled face. “We won’t.” Fili repeated, keeping his shoulders square and straight.

“Aye, I know.” Balin crinkled in a smile, stiff and fragile and transparent as glass, looking as though it could break any moment. “We’ll hold tight here. Nothing can harm us from the path.” He gave the dark forest a sidelong look. The thick trees criss-crossed endlessly in both directions. At least beneath the beech trees, there was nothing that could loom up on them in the darkness. Still, none would dare to leave the path, especially at night.

“I’ll take an empty pack.” Dwalin hefted it in his hand. “Not much else to take.” He sniffed, wrinkling his nose. “I’ve got a flintstone – anything else we need?”

“Nothing else to take.” Fili murmured. “Blankets, maybe.” He wasn’t sure if they would need them. Surely they would get it all done by nightfall. He looked over at Bilbo, looking so ragged and pale. They needed to. Dwalin stuffed it with their blankets, eyes down at the ground. The discomfort didn’t ease in his stomach – it grew, as Fili grew more tense and anxious.

“All right.” Dori struggled to his feet. He had been silent through the exchange; he knew nothing could deter Ori, nothing Dori said or did would convince his younger brother to remain here with the rest. He didn’t know if it was a foolhardy effort to prove himself, intense dedication, or the need to protect Fili, but Ori was resolute, and Dori knew in a heartbeat that he couldn’t be stopped. “Ori – take care of yourself, Mahal.” He engulfed the young scribe in a bone-crushing hug, burying his nose in Ori’s shoulder. “Stick to Dwalin. He’ll make sure you’re all right.” Dori pulled away reluctantly, chest tight and sick with a rising horror at the prospect that he might not see his little Ori again, not quite as he stood before him now.

“I will.” Ori’s eyes lowered briefly, they darkened with some unknown shadow. He lifted them and they weren’t quite as bright as before. “I’ll be fine Dori.” His eyes shifted to his second brother, sitting on his blanket with his legs crossed, eyes fixed on the ground. Ori’s mouth opened, he longed to speak, to sink to his knees and beg for Nori to say something, anything, just one word to him after these days and days of silence. His lips made the words, shapeless and silent, voice utterly dead.

“Oh – Mahal, Nori.” Dori muttered, seizing the thief by the wrist as he crouched down. “Say something you fool.” He waited for Nori to speak, waited for the apologies or the curses to tumble from his mouth but his brother remained motionless, lips closed. “Nori put your feelings away for one damn second.” Fili, in the midst of whispering to Balin, froze, watching the pathetic sight. Ori was biting very hard on his trembling lip, wringing his fingers inside the unravelling mittens.

“Come Ori.” Dwalin shot Nori an absolutely filthy look, taking the scribe gently by the elbow, guiding him away. “Let’s get a move on while the morning’s young.” Ori followed, silently and obediently, looking back over his shoulder for a moment. Dori turned away from Nori in disgust. He didn’t see Nori wipe at his eyes with a shaking hand. But Ori did. His heart jumped into his throat, nails instinctively biting into his palms through the wool. He cared – Nori cared and Ori thought his heart would burst right out of his mouth.

“We’ll be all right.” Fili stood in front of the ragged collection of fractured, starving souls. He looked into their eyes, all of them in turn. They wouldn’t wear this expression to him, not again. There would be only anger and hatred in them, when they saw him once more. He packed them all inside his memory, holding the memories in his chest like eighteen precious jewels. His gaze settled on Thorin, heart tightening in his chest. I don’t need to feel guilty or afraid. I am doing the right thing. “Balin will make sure everything will be fine.”

“We’re not going anywhere.” Balin promised. “Come back Fili. And soon.” Fili inclined his head in a nod. He turned away from them after several agonising moments, turning his face towards the path ahead, dark and unknown and stretching out into eternity, it seemed, through the forest with no end. Dwalin and Ori fell into step alongside him. Dwalin looking ahead with a stony expression on his face, Ori’s eyes darting as he tried to decipher the meaning behind his brother’s wet eyes, putting the words in Nori’s mouth, the words he couldn’t say, and trying to understand what held them back.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Dwalin muttered darkly. Fili looked to his side, but Dwalin still stared straight ahead, fixed only on the road before them, and nothing else. He knew. Fili licked his parched, dry lips. He knew but he wouldn’t ever say it. He would claim he didn’t know, it was never said, it was a surprise to him.

“I hope so too.” Fili gripped the fur-lined hem of his sleeves, feeling the soft shuffle beneath his fingers. Panic was rushing in, panic that he was going about this all wrong, it was going to blow up in his face and he would be seen as a coward and a fool and a rogue and he would tarnish his name for nothing. He remembered the muted sobs in the night, the muttering and the incomparable pain in his stomach, the weakness of his limbs and dizziness that wracked his head. It steeled his resolve, an iron edge to his splintering will.

This isn’t worth dying for. Fili reminded himself. This isn’t how heroes fall.

Chapter Text

Ishi, I’d kill for a fire right now.” Beneath his furs, Kili smiled, watching the goblin pace, stamping his feet in the cold. “It’s freezing – Anud! Hurry up!” Dhaka shouted into the forest.

Quiet.” Azog’s voice cut across the cluster of bodies in the little clearing. Dhaka fell silent, shooting a dark look at the shadowy gap in the trees. “Be patient.”

“I need to go.” Dhaka almost whined, rubbing his bare arms. “How long does a damn bag take.”

“With the food you cook? He’ll be gone for hours.”

Shut it Rukul don’t make me-”

“I said quiet!” Azog spat into the dim light. Kili buried his nose under the furs, biting his lip to hide the smile on his face. “Just go.” He waved his hand towards the gap in the trees. Dhaka picked his way across the little clearing, muttering under his breath.

“If you’re sitting around with your pants at your ankles Anud, I’ll kill you.” The goblin’s voice lingered in the clearing as he left, and Kili let out a tiny snort, the muted sound of someone trying hard not to laugh. Azog glared at the figure beside him.

“It’s not funny.” He snarled, watching Kili’s nose and mouth emerge from beneath the blanket, flickering with the effort to stay sombre. “Grow up Kili.”

Fikdumizub, Azog.” But he wasn’t sorry really, and both of them knew it. Kili reached out, gently stroking the head of warg curled into his side. “Sriz Nardur.” He clicked his tongue. “Ooh, you’re cold.” Goosebumps rose along Kili’s arm as he curled it around the beast’s neck, getting a lick on the hand in return. “Why is it so cold?”

“Winter is close.” Azog didn’t seem to feel much of it, not needing a blanket or a cloak. He leaned against a tree, good arm draped over one knee as he stared thoughtfully into the gloom. “We’re getting slowly higher up, the further we head east.” Kili pressed his nose into the top of Nardur’s head, silent. “It’s only going to get colder, wherever we go.”

“We won’t need to go east.” Kili lifted his head after a few moments of silence. “You said Tho- the dwarves were still on the elf-path, or at least, close.” It was surprising at all that Azog paused in his relentless pursuit along the eaves of the wood, withdrawing into the shadows of the trees for a few hours rest in the dark, grey hour before dawn. Only a glimmer of sunshine, a single watery beam, managed to pierce the colourless forest. Azog wasn’t going to venture into the true depths of the forest, where the light couldn’t touch the ground. He kept close enough to the edge for scouts to see the occasional glimpse of the grass outside; he wasn’t going to get lost in this wood. “So we just need to stick north, and wait for them to pass through.”

“We’re certainly not cutting a path through untamed forest.” Azog remarked. “We can’t lie outside the elves’ settlement in wait, and we can’t hang about in the plains.” His scowl deepened.

“What about scouts?” Kili suggested. “They can’t go far – They’ll stick to the river if they have sense. It wouldn’t be hard to follow them unseen with just one or two scouts.”

“I’ve been thinking about that.” Azog was impressed they both had similar ideas, although he would never say it. “I don’t know who to send.”

“Archers have the best eyes.” Kili curled his fingers tightly into Nardur’s fur. “If you want those who can see the farthest, then-”

“No – it’s not sight which an issue.” Azog cut over him, shaking his head. “I don’t know what’s along the river. There could be settlements of elves and men.” Realisation dawned on Kili’s face. “They’ll see two scouts and know more could be about.”

“And they would ask questions.” Kili murmured, very softly. Of course they would. It was what had happened to him in that cave, so many weeks ago. “You want someone who wouldn’t break under torture.” He whispered, shifting his back slightly against the tree-trunk.

“I’m not being found out by a couple of scouts who can’t keep their mouths shut.” Azog growled. “I’m not breaking this secrecy.”

“You won’t find someone.” Kili drew the fur closer around himself, feeling even colder than before as the memories licked at him. “You can’t. Everybody breaks Azog.” Some faster than others. Humiliation rose in Kili’s chest and he kept his gaze firmly downward.

“Oh, I know.” Azog’s lip curled, upwards. “Nazarg.” Kili frowned as Azog called the healer close. “Come here for a moment. Bring your things.” Kili allowed his stare to lift only a little as Nazarg made his slow way towards the pair, heaving a sigh. He sat down with crossed legs in front of Azog, not looking at Kili. The dwarf kept clinging to Nardur, remembering the last time they spoke, when Kili burned Ori’s book and told Nazarg to leave him alone. He was bitter and violent. He was everything he was told to be but Nazarg was somehow unhappy with him. Fresh anger rose in Kili as he recalled it. What else was he supposed to be, if not this?

“What is it.” Nazarg teetered on the edge of rudeness, and it made Azog’s blood boil. “What do you need.”

“Poisons.” Kili’s head jerked up, staring at the orc-king with wide eyes. “What poisons do you have.” The demand had made Nazarg just as confused, the orc staring at Azog, mouth half-open. “Don’t give me that look, I know you carry potions to kill. All good healers do.”

“Why.” Nazarg’s eyes flicked down to Kili for a moment, blood rushing in his chest. He clenched his hands tightly, holding his woven bag close to him. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m not asking for them now,” But Azog held his hand out all the same. “I just want to see them.” Nazarg gave him a scorching look, before opening his bag, and rustling around inside. He kept them in the false bottom of a little wooden box, filled with what remained of his salves. Keeping his hands inside the bag so they couldn’t quite see how he did it, the orc-healer lifted the false bottom. Three tiny vials of clear liquid lay wrapped in a soft rag, corks sealed with wax. He extracted two of them, holding them out on his palm.

Nink matûrz-baga.” He murmured, watching Azog take one vial, holding close to his eye. “Don’t open it. A single drop will kill you.”

“What does that mean?” Kili asked, his voice very soft in the light. He realised what Azog planned to do with them. He wasn’t horrified or outraged at the thought; he just felt dull and hollow. Death by poison would be better than any fate the goblins suffered at the hands of elves and men. It was mercy.

“White arsenic.” Nazarg explained in quiet Westron. “Starts with a headache and a sore stomach. Then you throw up and a lot of blood comes out, everywhere. You suffer fits and lose consciousness. You’re dead, anywhere from hours to days.”

“What if you take all of it, at once?” Azog looked over the vial at him. “Undiluted.” Nazarg’s eyes widened, a muscle twitching in his throat. “How long would it take?”

“I haven’t seen that before.” He held out his hand, wordlessly demanding the orc-king to return the poison. “If I had to guess... It wouldn’t take any more than an hour. The fits would come in minutes.” The vial was pressed into his palm; Nazarg closed his hand around it, returning to his pack. “I didn’t think poison was your style Azog. It’s too... subtle, for your tastes.”

“It’s not any of my enemies.” Kili looked down at Nazarg’s pack. He saw a corner of faded, ragged parchment, folded into a haphazard lump. He stopped breathing. “It’s a precaution.”

“If you want to kill yourself, there are faster ways to go about it.” Nazarg said shortly, hands trembling as he replaced the false bottom on his little box. “If that’s what you’re planning to do... A slit throat will kill you in a third of the time.” And hurt a lot less, too.

“It’s easier to ask someone to swallow a mouthful of poison, than to run a knife through their neck.” Azog replied with the same cool tone. “Keep it safe – I’ll need it soon.”

“For who?”

“You don’t need to know.” Kili ignored the both of them, eyes fixed on the folded picture of him and his brother, half-hidden from sight. He wanted to take the parchment and tear it into tiny pieces. He felt the awful shuddering of a sick heart beating within him, the pulse rearing in his throat. Violent anger blossomed inside of him, and his fingers were pulling hard on Nardur, at the roots. The warg yelped, and it broke the spell. Kili jerked back with an odd little gasp, one that made both orcs stop in their slowly rising debate and look at him.

“Sorry.” Kili combed the thick grey fur beneath his fingers, looking past the both of them, knowing the glances they cast in his direction. Confusion, exasperation. He read it in his periphery. Kili stared at the huddled group of goblins and wargs, sleepily bunking down and wrapping themselves tight against the cold. His eyes fell on an empty space, a frown creasing his forehead, knitting his brows together.

“Hey bukra,” Kili rose his voice, loud enough for the entire clearing to hear. Azog was staring very hard at him. “Has anyone seen Anud and Dhaka..?”

Dwalin sighed, toying with the hilt of his dagger as he waited for dawn to break. Fili and Ori slept wrapped in the blankets, bound closely together to in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the cold. A bitter chill came in the night, biting Dwalin’s skin and settling in his bones. They creaked, he winced and felt so very old when he tried to move the stiff joints in his legs. He lit a small fire but let it die out as soon as the youngsters were asleep, painfully aware of the thin plume of smoke rising in the air. His own cloak was draped over Fili and Ori, while he shivered in his furs.

There was a gasp sounding beside him, a choked sob. Jerking out of his stupor, Dwalin tightened the hold on his dagger, thinking at first it was some sort of animal. The noise came again, by his leg, Dwalin’s shoulders sagging as he realised where the noise came from, in the darkness. He reached out, fingers brushing soft blonde curls. It was difficult in the darkness to figure out where Fili ended and Ori began. They had started sleeping back-to-back, but both had shifted around in the night, Dwalin’s hand lightly grazing unidentifiable limbs and cloth. He tucked the blanket back underneath someone’s – Fili’s – leg, drawing a little closer to the pair.

Mahal, Dwalin felt old and tired, leaning against the tree, with his joints aching and hunger crippling his stomach, eyes stinging with exhaustion. He’d been walking down a very, very long road, and for the first time he thought he caught glimpses of the end, finally emerging from the horizon. Not after this winter, he remembered laughing to Thorin the season before, I’m getting too old for this. He hadn’t felt old at all, as he fought trolls and orcs and wargs, clambered over mountains and through forests. He felt younger than he had in years, more vibrant and alive than he could remember. But he was wearing down. Hunger attacked him, an iron file on stone. Hunger and helplessness, the claustrophobic suffocation of the days and weeks of constant wandering beneath a forest that let in no air or light, they wore him down. He was an aged warrior, past his prime and slower to bounce back from sickness and pain. Childless, love-lost, and without a home.

He felt quite miserable, beneath the huge beech tree, forced to remember what he lost, what he never really had. A dwarrowdam bound to someone who never existed. Two fatherless children who didn’t know quite what to call him – what were they, really? He fought now for the only thing he could take back. Home. Everything else, fate had taken away from him, so cruelly. Dwalin’s hand, which had fallen back down onto the soft curls, began to sift slowly through Fili’s hair, almost unconsciously, his memories filled with somebody else. A little tousle of dark hair who followed him like a shadow and looked at him with nothing but love and devotion. A willing participant in his little play-acting at family.

“Dwalin?” The elder dwarf froze, squinting through the dark as he heard the sleepy voice. He didn’t mean to wake anybody up. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, Fili.” Dwalin kept his voice very low. “Go back to sleep.”

“How long have I been asleep?” Fili mumbled, trying to shake away the sleepiness that still enfolded him. “What’s the time?”

“Still early.” Dwalin lied. “Go back to sleep. Your watch isn’t for a while.” He had no intention of rousing Fili for his watch, at any point in the night. He knew how badly the young prince needed sleep, bowed down under the weight of responsibility, the wellbeing of the company resting squarely on his shoulders, keeping him awake.

“Y’sure?” Fili mumbled. Ori’s arm was thrown across his chest, his auburn head resting on Fili’s shoulder. Fili realised with a little shock, a jump in his chest, how close they were. His first instinct was to pull back, to turn away from Ori and tug the blankets around him. Calm down. He inwardly berated himself. They were sleeping together for warmth – nothing more. Nobody could see them, not even Dwalin, in this black night. Ori slept deeply, a whistling little snore issuing from his nose. Ori didn’t want him; he wanted someone sweeter and warmer than Fili could ever be. It was no different to when he and Kili would sleep underneath the same blankets as children, when the harsh winters left the stone walls cold as ice and the breath fogged before them. The last thing Fili should care for was a platonic embrace that nobody else could see. He pulled the blankets higher around them both, his right arm stuck beneath Ori’s sleeping form.

“Course.” Dwalin murmured. “You don’t have to look out for me you know. I look out for you. It’s my job.” He found Fili’s shoulder beneath the curls, squeezing tightly. “Always has been.”

“I know.” Fili yawned, jaw creaking in the darkness. “Kili used to call you Adad, before Thorin told him not to. Do you remember?”

“Yes Fili.” Dwalin whispered, finding it hard to breathe. He screwed up his eyes, relieved that Fili couldn’t see him. “I remember.”

“He got confused – he thought you really were our father.” Fili chuckled. “It made sense in his mind, I guess – you were always there for us.” He buried his nose under the blankets. Ori slept soundly, pressed into his side. “I wish you were.” It was a soft voice, barely above a whisper, that came out from under the blanket.

“Oh, Fili.” Dwalin sighed. “Get back to sleep.” His tongue felt too thick and clumsy in his mouth to speak any more. He couldn’t trust his mouth to form words without his voice breaking.

“I’m not sorry.” Fili shifted a little, feeling Ori’s heavy breathing against his neck. “I mean it – if I could choose anybody...” He trailed off, closing his eyes. “But we don’t choose.” He murmured, feeling oddly sadder than he had in quite a long time.

“It doesn’t matter Fili. Not in the end.” Dwalin tried to keep his voice light. “You’ve done well. Dís will be proud of you, when she hears what you’ve done.”

“Even this?” A tremor crept into Fili’s voice. Dwalin looked down, seeing only a shapeless blur before him in the darkness. He sighed, and found a small, sad smile stretching across his lips.

“She will be proud of this.” Dwalin spoke with real conviction, an aching sorrow swelling in his heart. “I wouldn’t doubt it for a moment.”

“Kili and Durbûrz, come with me.” Azog rose to his feet quickly, taking the forked cleaver in his good hand. “No wargs. Take every weapon you can carry. Kili, extra arrows.” The dwarf cast aside the furs, hissing as the cold air licked his skin. Krûklak grimly stuffed his arrows in Kili’s quiver, while Durbûrz, a tall goblin-warrior with broad shoulders and possibly the strongest in the tribe next to Azog, slung two extra scimitars at his waist.

“They probably just got lost.” Kili tried to reason. “You can’t see much of the dawn light in here, it’s...” But he trailed off when Azog looked back at him, a cold, hard look that came with a little shake of the head. Flanked by his best swordsman and his sharpest archer, Azog plunged beyond the relative safety of the little clearing, and into the forest. He headed right, to the bagronk they had dug before bunking down with a heavy scowl on his face.

Flâgîtu.” The orc-king hissed into the grey light. “Anud! Dhaka!” He barely rose his voice above a hoarse whisper, there was no chance that he could ever be heard. Kili watched him with slowly widening eyes. Why was Azog so desperate to keep quiet? It wasn’t elves, they were too far away to be touched by them, surely. Something else kept Azog on edge, almost afraid, on the fringe of Mirkwood’s dark secrets.

“Something took them.” Kili whispered as Azog plunged on past the smelly little pit, the snarl growing. They could still see occasional glimpses of the outside world, a single finger of light. “What was it?” They weren’t too far gone, yet.

Takhborku.” Azog growled, his knuckles very tight around the sharp weapon. Kili frowned.


“Spiders.” Durbûrz whispered, bending down into Kili’s ear. “Big ones.” The breath hitching in his throat, Kili found his hand creeping towards the quiver slung across his back. He remembered the spiderwebs, clumped around the edge of the path with filaments thicker than string.

“They’re gone.” Azog stopped. Kili found his mouth was dry, a groan coming out from his throat. No. Azog looked down at the dwarf, looking down at the ground with the bow and arrow lax in his hand. “They’ll be dead by now Kili.” Kili nodded silently, not trusting himself to speak. He felt the little bone knife against his hip, holding his breath as a rising wave, sour and painful, began to crash at his chest. “We need to get back, quickly.”

“Wait.” Durbûrz sniffed the air, holding up a finger. “Azog – smell that.” He drew the second scimitar from his belt. “Skai!” Kili gasped, fitting an arrow on the string and blinking away the stinging in his eyes. He caught a writhing black shape in the darkness beyond the nearest trees, steeling himself. “Stand our ground or run?”

“Run.” Azog growled, breaking away and charging through the forest. The two followed, Kili having to scramble over a fallen tree-log that came almost to his waist. The shadows writhed around them. “Bukra!” He roared, voice carrying thin and vague to the clearing near the eaves of Mirkwood. “Takhborku! Irz! Irz!”

The spiders lunged from the darkness, going for Durbûrz first. Kili stopped short, the goblin fifteen feet before him. A dozen spiders clambered around the thick tree-trunks, along the branches, lurching from the darkness. They were huge, much bigger than him, with legs thicker than tree-branches and six-inch pincers. Kili let an arrow fly, piercing one in the thorax and killing it with an awful screeching cry in the muffled air. Durbûrz was on the ground, weapons knocked from his hand. Four spiders lunged, Kili gritting his teeth at the screams, the goblin bitten again and again, spider-venom filling his veins. The rest rounded on him. Kili’s arrows wouldn’t be enough at close range, he couldn’t run away further into the trees, and he couldn’t rely on his knife. His eyes fell to the abandoned scimitar on the ground and he slung the bow across his back.

Kili threw himself beneath the legs of the spider that leaped towards him. His fingers closed around the hilt, Kili rolling over onto his back and slashing at the first creature who tried to come for him. The scimitar was longer than any of their pincers, and for a moment the spiders drew back, regrouping.

Help!” Kili screamed, backing away, realising the spiders were trying to corner him. “Azog help me!” He licked his lips, but heard only the low hissing of the spiders, the clicking of their pincers. Kili cried out as the tree-trunk crushed against his spine, trapped. “Help!” Kili couldn’t breathe. Where were they? Why was nobody coming for him?

Nobody was ever going to come for him.

He held the scimitar out before him, lip curling in a snarl at the realisation. Nobody was risking their lives to save him. Not Thorin or Azog or anybody. The crippling fear that seized his heart and made it hard to breathe was burned up in a hot, crackling flare of anger. Nobody was ever going to help him. And he burst forward.

The spiders weren’t expecting such a violent attack. They thought they had already won. Kili cut two down in a single stroke and rounded on a third before creatures had even realised that their prey had sprung from his defensive crouch. Kili ran the scimitar through the abdomen of another, the spider squealing as it curled up on the ground and shuddered, falling still. He kept moving, refusing to allow the creatures more than a fleeting glimpse of his back. They were fast, but he was even faster, using his smaller size to his advantage as he ducked beneath the spiders, cutting through their hairy abdomens or slicing the bowed legs out from under them. They tried to weave their spider-webs around them, but Kili was quick and his scimitar was sharp and they couldn’t bind the dwarf and drag him to the earth.

Bodies littered the ground as Kili rounded on what he thought was the last spider. It had been less than a minute since he’d screamed for help; it was a fast, vicious attack from Kili, who didn’t stop for a moment. He knew that the slightest pause was a death sentence, that if he faltered he would be on the ground, lifeless like Durbûrz. Kili struck as the spider lifted its hairy black forelegs, reaching out to him with clicking pincers. He leaped forward, thrusting the scimitar through the thorax of the beast, blood oozing thick and black along his forearm. Kili’s shoulders slumped as the spider flopped to the ground, eyes lowering as the breath returned to his aching lungs.

The blow in his back stunned Kili; the air was knocked out of him as he fell heavily to the ground, the scimitar tumbling out of his grasp across the dirt. Eight hairy legs closed around Kili, trapping him. He tried to get on his hands and knees and crawl away, but before he could move, the spider bit him, horrible pincers closing around his left shoulder.

The scream left his throat raw and voice hoarse. The spider-venom sent a wave of agony through the bite at his shoulder, unfurling outwards as it slowly spread. Kili managed to roll onto his back, gasping with pain and unable to move his left arm. The spider made to bite him again, Kili’s heart pounding as he reached for the knife at his side with shaking fingers. He had only a moment. As the spider leaned down, Kili thrust his own little stinger, straight into the spider’s mouth. A horrible screech filled his ears, like rusted nails on beaten iron and Kili ducked away, still clinging to the knife as the huge spider withdrew. He was on his knees, leaning over with his forehead touching the ground, nose filled with the horrible stench of death, black insect-blood, and venom. He panted, cradling his bitten arm close to his chest, the knife loose in his fingers.

Kili!” Someone had their arm around him, holding him, helping him to sit up. Jamming the knife into his belt, he tried to grab the wrist of whoever held him and his hands closed around cold iron. “Kili – say something.” Through half-lidded eyes, Kili caught a glimpse of white. He held tightly onto his arm, biting back the incessant waves of pain that rocked his shaking limb. “Kili!”  Red blood was all over Azog’s fingers as he probed at the wound.

“I’m fine.” Kili groaned the words out through gritted teeth, Azog’s breathing so quick and heavy against him. “I – where were you?” Betrayal stung on his voice, and Kili was unable to fight back a moan as the pain wracked his broken, bitten arm.

“I thought you were behind me.” Azog pullied the vest aside to look at the spider’s bite in his shoulder. “I didn’t realise until you screamed.” Kili bit down on his lip, groaning again as he struggled against the growing agony. “How many times were you bitten?”

“Just once.” Kili gasped. He felt dizzy and sick, his vision wavering before him. He saw white and red, all mixed together as Azog’s bloodied fingers hovered close to his face, not knowing what to do, edged with a blackness at the edge of his vision, threatening to overtake everything and collapse completely. His hands found Azog’s wrist and he clung to him, refusing to let go. He blinked, keeping his eyes open, but they were hazy and dull. “O-Only once...” He groaned, head bowing forward as Azog helped him to sit up, the bad arm across Kili’s back, hand on his good shoulder.

“It won’t kill you.” Azog sighed with relief. “One bite won’t kill you. Come on, up.” He masked his subsiding panic with a growl in his voice. “I said run, didn’t I Kili?”

“Durbûrz was attacked in front of me.” Kili’s voice was thin and weak. “They got him so quickly...” He ducked his head, remembering the screams. “He couldn’t do a thing.” Azog gripped Kili’s good arm, hauling the dwarf to his feet. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the spiders returned, enraged at the loss of their kin and frenzied with bloodlust.

You killed them all?” Azog faltered, looking down at Kili, splattered with blood, panting for air as his forehead began to grow slick with sweat. He’d only lost Kili for a moment before hearing the scream. And it had taken him less than a minute to retrace his steps through the wood and come to Kili, kneeling on the ground, surrounded by the beasts. Beasts he had slain alone, while Azog’s best swordsman lay dying in the earth.

“You... You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you Kili?” Azog breathed, heaving the trembling, poisoned body