Work Header

Spring After Winter and Sun on the Leaves

Chapter Text


"So tell me, what is your favorite of all that you have seen since you came here to Imladris?" Legolas set down his slender crystal glass and fixed his eyes on the elegant redhead, once the captain of his father's guard, seated across the table from him.

Tauriel's eyes brightened with eagerness; clearly this question was an easy one for her. "The sunrise, on that first morning," she said, smiling at the memory. "I'm sure I shall never see anything like it."

"It is a wondrous sight," the Sindarin prince agreed. And one that might have brought her sadness mixed with the joy, had she not been permitted to share it with the one now sitting close at her elbow. "And you?" He nodded to the dark-haired dwarf, who watched Tauriel with an expression of soft adoration.

"I'm afraid I've had eyes for one fair sight alone since I left home," Kíli admitted and then glanced down momentarily, apparently aware that it might seem he boasted in his victory over a former rival. Meeting Legolas's look again, he went on, "But I have very much enjoyed this chance to live among elves for a season. I should like to again, some time, especially when—" He colored for certain then and said no more. Yet Legolas guessed: surely Tauriel would want her children to know both halves of their heritage.

He took another taste of the clear, herbal liquor in his glass, set it down again.

"I am sure Imladris would welcome you both back," Legolas said. "You've become quite renowned in these six months. Even the Dùnedain talk of the dwarf who shoots like an elf and of his flame-haired bride from the wilds." He laughed, still amused by how his ranger comrades had spoken of Rhovanion, that unknown realm on the far side of the mountains, as if it were a far more dangerous place than the unsettled wastes they patrolled here in Eriador. "The two of you are much more famous than a mere Sindarin prince could hope to be."

Now it was Tauriel's turn to laugh. "There is enough legendary blood under this one roof to quite humble a Silvan elf." She gestured upwards with her glass, clearly intending Legolas's private chambers to stand in for the greater house of which they were one small part. "Lord Elrond is the scion of the royal houses of both Doriath and Gondolin, and his sons are of Queen Galadriel's line. Kíli is Durin's heir, and you a Sindarin prince. I even heard it said that the young boy, Elrond's ward, is distantly connected to an ancient line of kings. I am quite outranked," she said playfully, flashing a laughing look over the rim of the crystal before drinking off the last of her liquor.

"Are you not a princess, too?" Legolas asked, grinning, as he refilled her drink from the glittering decanter.

"Yes, I do often remind her of that," Kíli added, apparently grateful for the reinforcement on this point.

Tauriel's flush spread over her delicate nose and high cheeks, quite to her hairline.

Kíli said, matter-of-fact, "When we return home, I shall make you a crown to wear, and then it will be impossible for you to forget."

"Oh heavens, Kíli!" she gasped, though Legolas felt sure she was not displeased.

"I should like to see that, Tauriel," her own former prince jested. "I would return to Rhovanion specially to congratulate you."

Her cheeks still burning, Tauriel seemed unable to speak as she twirled her glass awkwardly on the tabletop.

To spare his wife, Kíli put in then, "I wasn't sure of this, at first." He lifted his glass to peer at the bright liquid inside. "It's rather like drinking a bouquet of flowers chased down with a pine tree, but, you know, actually good." He took a meditative sip.

Legolas laughed. "You taste the juniper. There are over a hundred herbs in this, hand-blended by Lord Elrond himself, I'm told."

More or less recovered now, Tauriel put in, "Your father has imported it once or twice. The benefit," she added for Kíli, "of knowing a prince and a king's steward is that one does get exposed to the cream of the cellars."

"And here I thought your friendship with me was of purer motives," Legolas teased. "An affinity for a kindred soul."

Tauriel laughed. "I don't see how this discovery should diminish your sense of my true affection. You can't imagine that even a few casks of the finest spirit could have warmed me to you, had you been humorless and condescending."

This remark earned a wide-eyed glance from Kíli, who seemed to infer accurately that Tauriel alluded to Thranduil's own haughty manner.

Legolas gave a soft, silent laugh. "Thank you, meldis." He offered her the smile that had always been rather intimate passing between a prince and his captain. It was true that he had once hoped Tauriel's loyalty and regard might one day grow to a warmer emotion. Yet tonight, his look simply told her how grateful he still was for the friendship she had always truly and freely given.

After a moment, he said, "I hear your friend Mr. Baggins sets a rare table. You should bring him a bottle or two of this."

"Aye, we must!" Kíli agreed. "I still owe him an entire barrel of ale, from my last visit."

"So you go next to the Shire and thence?"

"I've begged Kíli to show me where he was born—"

"The Blue Mountains," the dwarf prince put in.

"—so we shall go there first, before the Shire. Then we shall make our way back home, crossing the Misty Mountains at the Redhorn so that we may see the Mirrormere, where Durin himself received his crown."

"You shall soon have traveled more extensively than I," Legolas observed. "I'm glad you finally have your wish."

She smiled, clearly grateful for his benediction.

Tauriel and Kíli were, Legolas observed as the evening drew on and the sparkling liquor in the decanter ebbed lower, a handsome couple. Despite the obvious physical difference between them, there was something very complementary in their looks: Kíli's broad dwarven strength and dark coloring against her slender elvish grace and fiery beauty. Yes, now that the pang of jealousy was past at seeing Tauriel favor another at a time when Legolas had so longed for her admiration himself, the elven prince could admit that Kíli was not at all ill-looking for a dwarf. Though how Tauriel put up with that scruffy half-grown beard, Legolas could not imagine. Kíli would surely be much handsomer clean-shaven, but it was charming of Tauriel not to complain.

The elven prince had never seen Tauriel as she was with Kíli now. She, who had always been bright and eager, was more of both and more easy and sure of herself, too. Perhaps she still could not think of herself as a princess, but she bore herself with the confident air of one who entirely knew her great worth. Such was Kíli's doing, he was sure, and Legolas was glad she had found this unusual dwarf to draw her free, free of herself and free of the forest that had once penned her in.

And so later, when they bid their goodnights, Legolas told her, "I'm very happy for you, you know."

Tauriel seemed to understand that he was telling her he was not hurt that she had chosen Kíli over him.

"Thank you," she said, and kissed his cheek.

 "You know," Kíli said when he and Tauriel were back in their own rooms, "I may even like your elvish prince."

Tauriel smiled, remembering the first real encounter between her beloved and her old friend. That morning on the lakeshore when Legolas had curtly interrupted the dwarf's heartfelt parting, Kíli's sharp look of jealous frustration had been far from friendly.

"I'm glad, meleth. Yet you should know, I have only one prince." She came over to the bench where Kíli sat taking off his boots and bent to kiss him. "Your highness," she murmured, her nose still caught against his.

"You're yet higher, my Thatrûna."

Tauriel smiled, not at all surprised by such a return. Overwhelming as Kíli's regard still often was, she no longer protested his lofty praise. His words, she understood fully now, were the true expression of her worth to him, and she treasured them.

She stood looking down at him as he continued to undress, unlacing his shirt, taking the embossed silver clasp from his hair. As he pulled the shirt up off his head, he met her eye.

"I don't mind if you stare at me, but you could get undressed, too."

"Yes, your highness." Tauriel laughed softly and turned away, the warm flutter of anticipation already settling in her stomach.

She unclasped her slim tooled leather belt, which she preferred to any more ornamental design of gold or silver, and then drew her hair forward over her shoulders. As she stood with her arms twisted back to the laces of her dress, Kíli came up behind her and she relaxed as the ties swished through their loops under his careful hands.

"I feel like I'm full of stars, from your elvish drink," he said. "And I've another star here in my arms." He slipped his arms about her waist, inside the loosened silk of her bodice, and kissed her below the curve of her shoulder blade, pressing his face against her so that she felt all the prickles of his beard scrape her skin. "And about him she cast her fiery hair, and her arms like moonlight glimmering," he sang against her, his deep lilt giving the tune a much wilder feel than when they'd heard it sung in the Hall of Music several nights past.

"Kíli, you are drunk," she observed, a smile tugging at her lips. She drew her arms free of sleeves and let the dress fall.

"Only a little," he corrected, hands sliding down over her hips. "Do you mean therefore to refuse me?"

"How could I ever possibly refuse you?" Tauriel laughed, entirely delighted by him. "Especially when you are full of stars?"

Kíli let go of her with a teasing caress, apparently inviting her to show just how much she did want him as well.

She turned and then, leaning over him near enough that she could feel the heat of his skin, though they never touched, she draped her hair over his shoulders. Then meeting his eyes with a very arch look, she stepped slowly back once, and again, so that all those loose, soft locks slid over him.

As her last curl fell from his neck, Kíli reached for her, but she was too nimble, skipping back out of his reach. He lunged, and she let him collide with her, tumbling them both atop the feather mattress.

"Are all elves such teases, or just you, I wonder?" Kíli gasped laughingly, shifting so that they were both more comfortably arranged.

"Are all dwarves so impatient?" she countered, fully aware, with him laid against her, of how very ready he was for her.

"I thought that's what you like about me."


He stopped her mouth with his and kissed her hard and full.

"Sun and stars, Kíli!" Tauriel gasped when he finally broke off; her lips tingled, though not unpleasantly.

He slid down against her, his skin dragging at the tips of her breasts in a way that was both delightful and entirely maddening. As her heart bounded faster and heavier, he settled between her knees.

Kíli began slowly, gently, as if knowing her passion had yet to match his. By now, he had learned how to draw her desire, how to render her quite eager and helpless, and Tauriel gave herself up, mind and body, to the enjoyment of him. The world contained nothing but Kíli: the alternate softness and roughness of his body beneath her hands, the throaty cadence of his sighs, the roll of his hips against her, the feathered touch of his hair, which fell down over his shoulders and brushed her skin as he moved.

Her pleasure crested and grew, like waves of light that filled her. Kíli had always made her feel so bright, from the first time he had loved her. Was this how such union was always experienced, or was it different with him? Did his mortal spirit, to which her own was joined, burn especially bright and bold, as if to make up for the brevity of its span? And was Kíli's, perhaps, more vibrant than the spirits of most dwarves?

His dwarvish name, by which she had wed him, suggested this last was true: "bright," his mother had called him in Khuzdul. And did not mothers' names afford a special insight?

And so, as Kíli drew her to the peak of delight, she clasped her arms about his neck and formed her inarticulate cries to that name: "Lakhad. Lakhad! Lakhad!"

He laughed at her, hearty and deep, and Tauriel felt then that she burned as incandescent as any star.

 "You know, that's the loveliest use my Khuzdul name has ever been put to," Kíli remarked as he smoothed Tauriel's hair down over her cheek.

She made a happy sound against his chest and curled closer to him as he sat up against the carven headboard.

"How can I possibly sign Lakhad on some dry old legal document now that you've sweetened the word so? Surely, t'would be a profanation."

Kíli felt her face twitch against him and he knew she smiled.

"I suppose henceforth, you must choose some other name. 'Kíli,' too, will surely no longer be permitted, after the number of times I've called on you by that name."

He chuckled. "And what shall I go by?"

"Bornîf. It means 'red-faced' and is quite hideous, so I shall be sure never to call you that in a tender moment by mistake."

"You're very clever, my love." He tucked his chin down to kiss her brow.

Lightly, he traced his fingers down her neck, over her shoulder and the lean, graceful muscles of her arm, his hand resting at last in the curve of her waist. By the Maker's sacred anvil, she was slim as a wand or one of those thin, flexible blades he saw the guard of Rivendell carry! If he hadn't known how strong she was from her performance on a battlefield (and from rather more intimate exercise in the bedroom) he would have feared her too delicate to chance bearing a sturdy babe of dwarven blood, or at any rate, half dwarven blood.

"Tauriel, tell me," he pondered, "When might we be able to hope for a child? Now would not be too soon to think of it, for a dwarven couple."

She shifted, stretching out those long legs beside his own and lying back to gaze up at him.

"Most elven pairs have a child within the first fifty years of their marriage," she said calmly.

"Fifty years?!" Why, he would be well into his second century by then!

She gave a soft breath of laughter. "Such would be accounted a short time by an elf."

"Yes, but Tauriel, isn't there anything..." He had only a vague idea of how these matters worked among his own kind, and no idea at all when it came to elves, but surely they need not wait so long for a first babe. And if they ever hoped to have a second—

Tauriel turned onto her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows to regard him. "But don't you see what else that means, Kíli," she said with a meaningful smile. "For an elf, it is several centuries at least before the first flame of love subsides."

"Oh." He had never considered this likelihood before. Every other elf he had seen was so cool and collected that, had he ever thought to imagine how they made love, it should not have been with the ardor he and Tauriel knew. More than once, he had half wondered if the spirit and passion she showed was unique to her, either because she was special or because she loved him, a reckless—yes, impatient—dwarf. And if the latter was so, who knew how long her desire might last, when he was a swiftly-changing mortal? But now that she spoke, he realized that it was more than likely he had never seen any elves who were recently matched. Perhaps they had all once loved as he and his Tauriel did now.

He ventured, "So, you mean we'll be this, well, interested in each other for the rest of my life?"

"I don't know. Yet perhaps. How is it for dwarves?"

"Most bear children between the ages of nine and thirteen decades, though some do continue after that, if their interests are not taken up by other tasks." Kíli certainly found it hard to imagine how his own desire could fade for a woman who would forever remain as fair and young and sweet as Tauriel would. "You know Bombur has fourteen children. He and his lady are still clearly very much in love with one another."

"Then it may be so for us. Truly, I do intend to make the very most of the time I have with you." She punctuated this statement by drawing her hand lingeringly along his thigh.

"And I will gladly let you. But still, Tauriel—" She glanced up, her lips still brushing his knee from having kissed him there, and Kíli's heart faltered at that sudden vibrant flash of green eyes. "I don't want us to wait fifty years for a babe."

"Nor I."

"So what do we, I mean, besides the obvious—"

Tauriel settled into the pillow beside him, her head at his side, and began drawing lazy patterns over his skin with her fingertips. "Besides, as you say, the obvious, I suppose what matters most is that we want a child. When it comes to conception, the desire, for an elf, is more important than age or season."

"You mean you just... decide to conceive?" Strange as the idea was, it would not have surprised him.

"Oh, no, it's not that immediate. Not so far as I have heard." She added this last phrase as a musing afterthought.

"Um...?" Did she truly mean she was as ignorant as he on the matter?

"Few elven children are born in these years. My knowledge of the subject is rather indirect, I'm afraid." Her fingers paused in their movement.

"Taur, if neither of us knows— Ow!"

She silenced him by tugging a tuft of hair on his chest.

"Silly, I do know that an elf's body follows her will," Tauriel went on, smoothing her fingers over him again. "So if I am willing to receive a child from you, my body's disposition will soon follow that desire."

"Soon, as in..."

"I do not know, but surely not fifty years."

Kíli sighed, relieved to know he need not expect to be halfway through his prime before he might first be a father.

"And Tauriel... Are you willing? I mean, now." He knew she wanted a child one day, but this conversation had made him once more aware that her idea of the passage of time and his might not be the same.

She lifted her head to look at him, and he thought her expression was mildly surprised.

"Yes, meleth, I am." She combed her fingers through the soft brown waves that lay tumbled along his neck. "I have always been eager for all that you might share with me. Second to marrying you, to bear your child has been my dearest wish for some time."

"I see."

She sighed happily and tucked her head under his chin. "So now, we must simply wait."

Kíli inhaled the woodsy, herbal scent of her hair as he folded his arms around her. He was glad to know that Tauriel shared his hope for a lifetime filled with all the joy and wonder and adventure that they could make together. This journey they took now, of course, already fulfilled many of their wishes. But since their marriage, a great part of Kíli's hopes had turned to the idea that he and Tauriel might share their love and delight with their children. The thought of those little beings, with all their newness and wonder, had quite captivated him. Not only would the world be fresh in their eyes, but they, too, would be creatures unlike the world had ever held. Both elf and dwarf, what talents and abilities and delights would they discover? And yet, elf and dwarf were two peoples so very different, perhaps even too different—

"I suppose it might be a while before we can be sure that what we want is truly possible," Kíli admitted softly.


Perfect as they were together, Kíli could not forget that Mahal had created his kind, the Allfather hers, and it might prove that he and Tauriel were simply not, well, made to conceive a child together. When he considered the possibility that they might not be able to bring forth new life of their own, he felt both impatience and dread in equal measure. If only there were some way to know now, before they'd cherished impossible hopes for too long!



"What if tomorrow, before we leave, we ask Lord Elrond what he thinks our chances are that we might have a child? Perhaps, with all he knows, he's heard something that could give us an answer."

Tauriel settled an arm around him, the movement pressing the soft swell of her bosom to him. "Yes, we should."

He brushed the lovely, pale half-moon of her breast. "All right. After breakfast, then."

Kíli slid down the headboard till they were lying down, and Tauriel slipped off him to the pillow at his side. Turning to her, Kíli met her eyes.

"I love you, Tauriel."

Her wide, graceful lips curved into a smile. "My Lakhad." She caught the back of his neck and pressed to him for a kiss. "Le melon."

He laughed softly, remembering his initial surprise that she would suddenly think of his true name even at the height of their coupling. He imagined no dwarf for millennia had used a Khuzdul name in such a context, and he'd certainly never supposed he would ever want a woman to call him by that unromantic legal moniker during a moment of passion. Yet somehow his strange, beautiful Tauriel had made the gesture a very intimate and endearing one.

"Amrâlimê," he murmured, kissed her again, and drew the coverlet up over them both.

 "We've questioned the orc prisoner, my lord. He'll tell us no more than we already knew. His raiding party is by now leagues away. We suspect they issued from Gundabad, though the miserable scum won't confirm it."

"I expected no better."

"Then we're to end the wretch's miserable existence."

"Yes— Hold! Gundabad, you say?"

"Aye. From the device branded on his stinking hide, he seems to have been from that fortress."

"Then like as not 'tis where he'll return."


"I suppose the remnant of Azog's army would be interested to know that they might be avenged upon one of the very sons of Thrór who slew their captain and dealt them such a humiliating defeat but three years back."

"You mean... The youngest prince, the one who married that damned elf and is away now, consorting with more of her kin?"

"It's said he went west of the Misty Mountains. Suppose the mountain orcs were watching for him when he crossed back."

"Filthy elf-lover as he is, he's still of Durin's line! Would it not be treason—nay, a sin—to raise a hand against him?"

"You blockhead! Don't you see this is our best chance to be rid of him without his blood on our own hands?"

"Aye... So it is."

"Besides, the young fool proves he's unworthy of such reverence by willingly debasing himself for an elf. You don't want to see him back here with a half-blood whelp sired on that fairy witch?"

"No! And there's more of our clansmen here think the same."

"Oh, of that, I'm well aware."

"So, I'm to release the prisoner with this intelligence?"

"Yes, Captain."

Chapter Text

Elrond was in his library when the elf and her dwarf came looking for him. The lord of Rivendell had expected they would; they had been most gracious guests, and today they were leaving, after a stay of half a year.

When the attendant who had shown them in left, the pair approached Elrond, where he stood reading at a lectern, and bowed. Despite the disparity in their heights, they made the motion in graceful unison.

"Thank you for your hospitality," the dwarf prince said. "We have been very happy here."

Elrond smiled; it had been a pleasure to see them so happy in each other. Their youth and eagerness had breathed a welcome air of newness into Rivendell's timeless sanctuary. "You are most welcome to return whenever you wish," he answered. "You shall be missed."

The red-haired Silvan elf ducked her head lightly in acknowledgement. "We have one last favor to ask of you," she added.

"I shall gladly give whatever is in my power."

Tauriel said no more, but looked to her husband to speak.

After a moment, Kíli explained, "We want your advice. We know we're a strange pairing, and we wondered if, in all your years, you had ever heard of a match like ours."

Elrond nodded; he had indeed cast his memory over this very question more than once since the pair's arrival. "Matches between the Eldar and mortals are rare, but not unknown." He felt his lips twitch into a smile at this mild jest at his own unusual parentage. "Though I have never heard of any between an elf and a dwarf."

"No, we supposed not." Kíli laughed, a little self-conscious. "But what of a dwarf and a human? That may have happened."

"If it has, word has not reached my ears. Your people are very secretive, Master Kíli."

Kíli flushed. "I know. It's just—" He swallowed, then tucked a stray lock of hair back behind one ear. "Well. We wonder if we are right to hope we might ever have a child together."

"I see," the half-elf returned calmly, as if he had not guessed from the young dwarf's embarrassment precisely what Kíli had been going to ask. "I confess this is a question I have not considered deeply, or indeed at all, before now."

Elrond gestured towards a grouping of seats in one of the windowed alcoves of the library. As he took a chair with a stately, practiced sweep of his robes, Tauriel and Kíli settled together on the love seat opposite him.

"You know that the Eldar and the Khazad were not made by the same hand," he began.

Tauriel met his eyes. "We know. It is the chief reason for our doubt."

"As the elves give the account, Aulë made the dwarves in imitation of the coming Children of Ilùvatar. It is said they are his attempt, imperfectly realized, to anticipate the All-father's crowning work. Aulë's impatience and the secrecy of his project account for all that is strange and, perhaps, seemingly unlovely about them." Elrond glanced towards the dwarf, whose dark eyes were unreadable. "Forgive me, young Kíli; I acknowledge that the elvish version of the tale is not without prejudice. The Khazad have their own story, and the elves should not try to speak for them. But I think the wise should dismiss neither account offhand."

Kíli said nothing, but he nodded, apparently understanding.

"What does this mean for us?" Tauriel asked.

"Because Aulë consulted no one when he made the dwarves, they are his singular creation, a reflection of the things he loves and limited by his own mind and talents. And so it may be likewise that they are limited to their own kind in procreation."

"I understand... But surely Kíli is proof that not every dwarf is limited in heart or mind. And does an exception not disprove the rule?" Her green eyes flashed as she voiced this last question.

"Indeed, it is a hopeful sign." Even Elrond himself had never expected to see these two very different peoples reconciled as closely as they were in this young pair. "Tell me, Master Kíli, even in your people's account of their beginnings, it was Mahal who shaped the Khazad and Ilùvatar who gave them true life, was it not?"

"That's right."

"It follows that the ability to bear new life of their own was part of Ilúvatar's gift. Mahal, loving as he was, could not grant it to them, when he could not give them life apart from his own thought."

"Then you think we might—" Kíli demanded eagerly.

"It is one reason that, despite your differences, I would not consider it impossible that you might conceive a child."

"So you do not think we are wrong to hope?" The Silvan elf's voice was soft, cautious with the very hope she spoke of.

Elrond smiled at her; something in her innocent sweetness reminded him of his own daughter. "My dear, I would never advise against hope. All the same, I caution you both to remember that all of what I have said is uncertain, merely my own first musings on the subject. I would be sorry to see you break your hearts with too much hope."

Tauriel said, "I know." After a moment, she added hesitantly, "I've one last question. Do you suppose, if we did conceive... Would our child be mortal?"

"Ah!" Elrond smiled kindly at her. "Now that, I would hardly dare to answer. It is true that my own half-elven line have been granted the choice of elven immortality, if we wish it. But such was the special boon of the Valar, granted my parents when they journeyed to the Farthest West. It is beyond my wisdom to guess what fate would be allotted to children of your union."

"Yes, I see." Tauriel caught Kíli's hand and pressed it. "In truth, the answer makes little difference to my desire."

Elrond nodded, wondering if she would feel the same when she held a babe in her arms and knew that, whether by fate or choice, she might not get to keep that dear one with her forever. But perhaps that was the realization of all parents, elven or mortal: the understanding that, much as they desired to protect a child, his or her fate was ultimately in other hands.

"There is one other in Imladris whom you may speak to, if you wish," Elrond added then. "Saruman, chief of the Istari—those known as wizards—arrived here last evening. He has wisdom beyond my own, and may be able to tell you what I cannot."

Kíli glanced to his wife, and finding assent in her face, said to Elrond, "Thank you; we would like to."

Elrond stood. "Come; I will introduce you."

Elf and dwarf likewise rose and stood waiting, but Elrond did not move yet. These two, who were at first glance so utterly unlike, had a rare kinship that was unmistakable when observed carefully. The lord of Rivendell knew less of the Khazad than he did of Tauriel's woodland people, yet he would have readily asserted that they were each more vibrantly alive than any other dwarf or Silvan.

"I truly have never met a pair like you, among elves or men," he said. "You are like twin flames, each feeding the other to burn ever brighter. Do not let your uncertainty over this matter dim that fire."

Tauriel blushed as at the mention of something deeply personal. "No, my lord."

If Saruman had been surprised to be disturbed by his host so early in the morning, he was doubly so to see the strange pair who followed Elrond into the wizard's personal chambers.

The first was an elf, a pretty young woman, if not so elegant as the Noldor of Elrond's own lineage. Her deep auburn hair and large, leaf-shaped ears proclaimed her to be from one of the Silvan clans, those untutored woodland tribes who had always played a less prominent role in the history of Middle-earth than their wiser kin.

Beside her stood a dwarf, a little tall for his kind, perhaps, though still stunted by comparison to an elf. He had the dark coloring and sharp features of Durin's royal line, and Saruman guessed him to be one of those dispossessed dwarves whom his colleague, Gandalf, had aided in that ill-conceived yet surprisingly successful quest a few years back. But if the young man were a prince, what was he doing here so far from his kingdom? Unless—the wizard's eye quickly spotted the matching gold bands on the fingers of elf and dwarf—he had been exiled for marrying outside his race. Yes, it was quite evident, now that Saruman had noticed this physical sign, that there was a spiritual bond between them. He had not recognized it at first, for it was unlike any such bond he had observed before.

Before the wizard could muse further on this surprising observation, Elrond spoke.

"My apologies for the early hour. My two friends wished to speak with you before their departure today."

Saruman bowed his head in acquiescence; he was now, at the least, intrigued.

"The wizard Saruman," Elrond said, gesturing to each figure in turn, "It is my honor to introduce Prince Kíli, nephew to King Thorin Oakenshield, and his bride, Tauriel of the Greenwood."

So the dwarf retained his title—he was not exiled, then?

"We, too, are honored to meet you," Kíli returned, and then he and his unusual wife bowed.

"Of course," the wizard said, flattered in spite of himself at the thought that they had surely never been in the presence of someone as imposing as he. Certainly Gandalf, Istar as he was, did not command much awe by his bearing. "And how may I be of service to you?"

Tauriel looked to Kíli, who seemed likewise lost for words before such an important figure.

Elrond spoke for them. "My two friends have asked my counsel on a subject beyond my knowledge. As the matter is of great personal importance to them both, I suggested they ask you, in the chance you might be able to supply what I cannot."

Saruman felt all the honor of this application. There were few matters past the understanding of Rivendell's lord, who had lived in Middle-earth nearly five millennia beyond the White Wizard himself. Masking his eagerness to discover what had perplexed the half-elf, he said, "And what is this matter?"

The young dwarf prince answered. "Do you believe it possible that a dwarf and an elf might conceive a child between them?" His face colored slightly at such a blunt and humble question, but his bold dark eyes never left the wizard's face.

Ah. Of course if they had been daring enough to wed, they would hope next even for a child.

"I confess I had believed the enmity between the Eldar and the Khazad prohibited such a pairing," Saruman mused. "Yet clearly there was no such obstacle in your case." And indeed, the wizard did wonder how these two had overcome the gulf that had existed between their races since the creation of both.

"It is a wonder even to us," the red-haired elf woman confessed. "Yet if we are like enough to love, might we also be like enough to..."

"Perhaps." But were they truly so alike? The bond between them felt charged with some tension, as if drawn between the mismatched poles of a lodestone. Such a link should have been characterized by harmony. And if their spirits were so at odds, was it not a sign that they were no more complementary in body?

"I can recall no precedent for a match like yours," Saruman began. It was best to deny them gently. Their youthful naïvety was charming, in its way, and yet pitiable, too, when it led them to long for the impossible. "While elves and men have produced children, they are nearer in kind, both having the same maker. But an elf and a dwarf— The physical difference alone is quite great." He frowned, perplexed that two such different creatures could find one another desirable mates. Even beasts without reason knew better than to pair outside their kind.

"You think too great?" the dwarf prompted, his look serious.

"Surely if Eru had meant Aulë's creation to pair with the other Children, He would have amended the dwarves to be more similar in body."

"You believe such mixed offspring impossible, then?" Elrond put in. "In my own opinion, the chance is uncertain, surely. But I would not say impossible."

The wizard shook his head, pondering. "No, perhaps not impossible. Yet unlikely and probably not... advisable."

Kíli's gaze sharpened. "What do you mean?"

Saruman sighed, knowing he was about to offer reasons that would be little to the liking of this eager young pair; but surely it was kinder to tell them than not or, worse, to leave them to discover such truths by their own painful trial.

"While I have never heard of a match between a dwarf and an elf,"—and the wizard was certain this ignorance was because such a match had never occurred before—"the nearest examples I can find do not augur well.

"You know that a donkey and a horse, while seemingly like enough, produce offspring that are themselves incapable of breeding. I fear that the child of a dwarf and an elf might even be the same."

The pretty young elf woman's countenance went pale, and Saruman felt genuinely sorry for her. How was it possible she had not considered this very likelihood when she took a dwarf for her mate? But of course, the Silvans were a sheltered, uneducated folk.

"And consider the risks of bearing such a child," he went on, knowing that now he had begun, it was best to deliver the worst of his pronouncement. "I fear you would endanger both the babe and the mother."

A little color flowed back into the elf's cheeks now. "I am not concerned for myself; I am strong."

Saruman smiled sadly. "I do not doubt that; but can strength perform that which nature and Eru never intended?" He sighed. "I do not speak merely from conjecture. I know of several cases which validate my concern.

"Forgive me; I know the comparison I am about to make is a distasteful one. I mention it now only because I do believe it has its relevance here."

The wood elf and her husband regarded the wizard with subdued, apprehensive attention.

He continued, "There have been rare instances of a half-orc begotten on some unfortunate human woman. Such offspring are not carried to full term or do not survive the birth."

The dwarf prince greeted this information with an apparently involuntary glare, quickly though imperfectly smothered. "I'm not—" he began, and then snapped his teeth shut with an effort.

Saruman said, "Again, you must forgive me. I mean no offense. I mentioned this because, in my opinion, the difference between an orc and a human is surely no less great than that between a dwarf and an elf. I am thinking merely in terms of generative compatibility. I meant to suggest no other likeness between the two cases."

Kíli glanced to his wife, whose face still bloomed red as she stared back at the wizard; though what thoughts were hidden behind her impassive elvish expression, Saruman could not guess.

Elrond interjected thoughtfully, "While such examples ought not be thoughtlessly dismissed, I do believe there is one crucial distinction between the cases you mention and what we consider today."

Both Kíli and Tauriel turned expectantly to him.

"We are not considering the possibility of a child gotten as the result of some savage abuse, but of one willingly conceived. This condition would, I believe, make a great difference even in a human woman's bearing, and much more so with an elf. Furthermore, the women you speak of were likely compromised in strength and spirit as a result of such misery."

"You are right," Saruman acknowledged with a shallow nod. "We should not disregard the circumstances. Yet if it is my opinion that you seek"—Saruman paused here to draw attention back to his own authority—"I believe that the dangers of an unsuitable pairing remain. Little as the conclusion satisfies us, we should do poorly to disregard the pronouncement of Eru Himself, when He declared strife between the children of His choice and those of His adoption. Do not His words confirm the fundamental incompatibility of these two races in every regard?"

He turned back to the particular elf and dwarf in question. "While your own love is noteworthy, it must be seen as the rare and individual exception, commendable but not a rule."

Tauriel's face had returned to a normal hue. "We understand. You must forgive any apparent disrespect. The subject is not indifferent for us, I am afraid."

"You need not apologize, child," the wizard returned, feeling a comfortable, sympathetic warmth. "I wish I had kinder advice to offer you; but as it is, I would not withhold the truth."

"We appreciate that," Kíli said then, his tone flat, but not disrespectful. "Thank you for your time."

Saruman bowed graciously. "I wish you well on your travels."

As he watched them go out after Elrond, the wizard mused on the significance of this peculiar meeting. An elf and a dwarf, in love and apparently legally wedded? He had never expected to encounter such an oddity. The world truly was changing. What he had seen today was one of the more inconsequential effects, certainly, and yet it was one more sign that the order of things need not remain as they were. And when greater changes came, he knew someone wise would be needed to direct them.

Kíli had great pleasure in showing Tauriel his boyhood home in Ered Luin. There had been times during the quest when he had wondered if he would ever see the place again, and to be here now with her, Kíli felt all the warmth of nostalgia joined to the excitement of the new life they were beginning together.

He'd begun by giving her a tour of Thorin's old dûm, those stately halls and dwellings that were rich even by the standard of comfort and wealth in Rivendell, paling only in comparison to Erebor itself. They were inhabited now by a new lord and his family, who had been astonished to see the Longbeard prince return with his elven bride, but nonetheless gracious in admitting them both. Kíli had shown Tauriel his and Fíli's old chambers, and the room where he and his brother had been born, the workshop where he'd first learned the jeweler's craft, and the forge where he'd watched his father and his uncle bring the glowing steel to life and shape it.

In the training yard where he had first learned to handle bow and sword, he and Tauriel had drawn quite a crowd to watch as they sparred, sword against daggers. Afterwards, Kíli had taken her swimming in the cold mountain stream where he and Fíli had played as lads. They'd stalked game together in the aspen woods where Kíli had taken his first solo hunt half a century ago, and Tauriel had laughed when he offered to carry both her and their doe back to the settlement on his shoulders.

They returned more than once to Thorin's forge; it was one of the places Kíli had missed the most. He was happy that a new family had taken it over; he'd have been sorry to find the furnace cold and the anvil quiet. And still it felt odd to see strangers' hands work the bellows or draw metal from the coals.

"One of my earliest memories is of my dad here in the forge," Kíli told Tauriel one day as they'd watched the smiths at work. "He was so strong; even the most unwieldy piece of iron seemed light in his hands."

Tauriel's eyes flicked from the workers to Kíli. "What did your father look like?" Her gaze was sharp, intent, as if seeking traces of that other dwarf in Kíli's own face.

"Like Fíli: gold hair, blue eyes, such broad shoulders. He used to take me up on them, let me ride about behind his neck. I loved that." He laughed. "I'll do so someday with our children, before they get too tall. They will be ridiculously tall, I'm sure of it."

"Yes, Kíli." From her slightly strained smile, he knew she was acutely conscious that he had mentioned the topic they had both carefully avoided in the six weeks since they had left Rivendell.

When Kíli glanced to her several minutes later and found that her brows remained tense, he caught her hand and drew her out the back door of the forge to where the little family bath house leaned up against the furnace chimney. Here, in the shade of the vine-grown cistern was still the stone bench and table where he and Fíli (and sometimes Thorin) had often come for a mid-day meal, away from the heat of the sunny training ground or the stuffy forge. There was always a good breeze here in the summer, and the place offered an unobstructed view of the wooded slopes at the far side of the mountain valley.

Kíli handed Tauriel to a seat atop the table—the bench was too low for her—and then climbed to her side. He caught her hand and caressed it.

"I suppose this is as good a time as any to talk about this. About our children."

He had meant to bring up the subject dozens of times before now—while they rode or hunted or shared a meal or loved—and still he had never quite been able to, afraid to discover that Tauriel had given up hope. From what she had explained regarding elven conception, he suspected that if she believed a child impossible for them, it would indeed prove so.

She squeezed his hand. "You are not yet disheartened by the counsel we were given?" Tauriel asked.

"Well, I can't pretend it has me brimming with joy, but I don't think it's so very bad as it seemed at first."

"No?" Kíli thought he detected a faint note of relief in her tone.

"For one thing, I'm not an orc. I might not be so pretty as an elf, but I'm not some misbegotten hell-spawn!" He spat in the grass. "You've slain them and seen their foul, black blood! Mine's as red as yours. It's the blood of kings!"

Tauriel drew his arm against her. "My poor Kíli! I was sorry to hear him say that; though no offense was meant, it pained me, too." She pressed her lips to his cheek for a long moment. "As for your not being as pretty as an elf, that may be so, but I have never seen an elf as handsome as you."

"Haven't you?" Kíli said, the remark more an affirmation than a question. He loved the way she made him feel that she was quite as lucky as he considered himself.

"Tauriel, what I mean is: of course we're not perfectly alike, but I'm not worried that a child of ours would not survive. Dwarves and elves are both hardy folk, and what's more, we're good folk. I'm not surprised orcs can't breed outside their own cursed kind. But I don't think the comparison holds for us."

His wife sighed and drew her fingers down his arm, over his hand. "I'm not afraid for myself, Kíli. I am immortal and surely strong enough to endure even a difficult birth. But if the babe is mortal..." Her hands tightened on his for a moment.

"Dwarves are sturdy as stone, and the babes are no different. I think our child would be in no more danger than you."

She tucked her chin against his shoulder for a moment. "I would like you to be right."

Kíli chuckled gently. "Taur, which of us is the dwarf? I should know what I'm talking about."

The mountain breeze lifted his hair off his face and tugged at her skirts.

"I believe you," Tauriel said.

"Good." He brushed her hand and played with the mithril ring on her finger. "But something else bothers you?"

She nodded against him, but did not speak for several minutes. Kíli watched the shadows of clouds drift over the trees in the valley opposite them and waited for her.

"I am grieved to think our children might never have children of their own," she said at last.


"Would it not be unkind for us to bring them forth to such a fate?" There was a faint hitch in her voice, and Kíli guessed she spoke from her own unhappiness at the possibility she and he might be denied a child.

Kíli shifted on the edge of the table so that he faced Tauriel more directly, and she turned to regard him. Her green eyes were very deep and serious. "Even if they couldn't make children... Just to be alive and loved—wouldn't they still have far more things to be happy about? I'm not saying it wouldn't matter if they weren't fertile, but—" He reached out to cup her cheek. "Tauriel, it would have been worse never to have lived to meet you than to find I can't give you children. Don't you think so?"

She smiled a little wistfully. "Until I met you, I did not want children."

"Amrâlimê, I think we can. We're, well, so good together." He brushed his thumb over her cheek, then set his hands on her knees. "And I don't just mean at making love, though surely our aptitude there is a favorable sign." He flashed her a teasing look, and finding the slit in her skirt, laid one palm against the warmth of her calf.

"That wizard," he continued. "I'm sure he knows a lot, but he's never seen us together. He couldn't think we were so incompatible if he knew how you'd gotten a dwarf to care about stars and trees and green things. And you," he tickled her behind the knee so that she smiled involuntarily, "drinking ale and wearing my gems and calling my name in Khuzdul because it's the best way to say you love me."

He drew his touch further up her thigh, because it was nearly summer and she wasn't wearing leggings and, oh, she felt lovely.

"And not just those things. Oh, Taur, with you, I know I'm more the dwarf I was made to be. I want to be him for you: more thoughtful, more strong. Honorable, kind, gentle." He leaned closer and kissed her. "Worthy."

She smiled fully then. "That you are, meleth nín."

"And so I think that if the question is simply whether we suit each other, body and soul, we very clearly do."

Tauriel leaned into him now, and he felt her fingers comb through his hair. "Oh, Kíli," she said, her brow against his. "You know that Lord Elrond cautioned us against too much hope."

"I know." He felt her tension ease as he stroked the top of her leg. "I'm not going to hold my breath, or put all my eggs in one basket, as Mr. Baggins would say. I'm going to go on loving you as wildly and fully as I ever have, so if we can have a child, it will be sure to happen. That's all." And he kissed her again, holding her lower lip between his teeth for a moment before pulling away.

Tauriel's cheeks were warm as she smoothed her skirt back into place. Then she stared at him, and Kíli could not guess what she was thinking.

"My love?" he prompted. "Could you be happy with such a resolution?"

"Yes, Kíli," she said tenderly.

"Tauriel?" he said, when she continued to watch him with a peculiar expression.

Her lips quirked up in mischief now. "I wonder if there is anywhere in your old home that you would like to sweeten with the memory of having made love there to an elf."

"Oh." He breathed a swift laugh. "Yes, I think I do know just the place." And catching her hand, he drew her away.

Chapter Text

This was a beautiful evening, there was absolutely no doubt in Bilbo's mind. Though the sun was down, the fragrance of warm grass and blossoms still drifted gently through the windows that opened out on the garden. Amidst the sound of cricket song, conversation punctuated by merry laughter carried up from the road below as two last walkers made their way home in the fading glow of the sunset. Bilbo smiled; he liked the sound of people enjoying themselves.

He was just preparing a pot of floral herb tea when he realized that the voices had come nearer, indeed, seemed to have stopped at his front door. He hadn't been expecting callers, though of course that sort of thing flustered him rather less than it once would have. As he was making his way down the entrance hall, whoever it was rapped on the door.

"I know he said not to knock, but I have to use what few manners I have," Bilbo heard someone say. He recognized that voice, though he had not heard it in several years. One of the young dwarf princes, Fíli, or was it Kíli? To his surprise, there came an answering murmur of female laughter. One of the Bracegirdle lasses from down the lane, taken by a likely stranger asking the way? For all of their dwarvish oddness, Bilbo imagined Thorin's nephews would have little trouble winning the interest of even some shy hobbit maid.

He opened the door, and the dark-haired prince—Kíli, it was—stood grinning at him, and beside the young dwarf was someone who surely was no hobbit lass: she stood head and shoulders over Kíli, and long, unbound red hair fell down about her slim, green-clad figure. Bilbo knew her for the elf who had fought beside Thorin and his nephews on Ravenhill. He had wondered back then if there was anything between her and Kíli, and was not surprised to find now that his inkling had been right.

"Bilbo!" Kíli cried, catching the hobbit to him in an enthusiastic, if somewhat ungentle, hug. "I suppose you never expected to see us again so soon."

As Kíli let him go, Bilbo noted that the lad had gained a new scar on his cheek and braids in his hair since their last meeting.

"No, I— That is—" He cleared his throat, remembering what was more important than whatever he had or hadn't been expecting. "Welcome! Do come in." Bilbo stepped back to make them room.

Kíli caught the elf woman's hand and drew her forward. "Tauriel, this is my friend Mr. Bilbo Boggins," he said with a wink to Bilbo.

Tauriel cast the dwarf a doubtful look. "You've told me it was Baggins all this while."

"It is," said Bilbo, chuckling at the memory of the first time this young dwarf had stood on his doorstep. "Really, you shouldn't believe everything he says."

"Oh, I know," she returned, flashing a mischievous look at the dwarf, and Bilbo knew then without a doubt that she was quite in love with Kíli. Then turning back to Bilbo, she swept a graceful bow. "Mae govannen."

"And well met to you," the hobbit returned. "Now, please come in. I was just making some tea."

Bilbo led them into the parlor and invited them to sit down, while he went for two more teacups and extra helpings of shortbread and fruit jellies. He knew firsthand about the appetites of both dwarves and elves—he remembered several very lavish feasts from his stay in Mirkwood, though he'd never been bold enough to take more than the easiest, peripheral offerings for his own burgled meals.

Once he'd poured tea and seen that his guests had helped themselves to the sweets, Bilbo said, "I needn't ask why you're here. It's plain you've eloped." Indeed, he felt rather clever for having noticed their wedding rings as he had handed them their tea. There would be no awkwardness about asking whether or not they needed separate rooms for the night, thank goodness.

Kíli laughed heartily, his head thrown back, and Bilbo was gladdened to see that the hardships of the quest and a war had not changed him from the bright-eyed, carefree young fellow who'd last sat in this room.

"We had a proper royal wedding before we left," the young dwarf explained.

Bilbo very nearly splashed his tea. "Oh, so Thorin, he—" He had believed the dwarf king had a good many years left; it was a shock to find he'd been wrong. But Kíli would never have been permitted such a wedding unless his brother were king. "I'm sorry, Kíli. Your uncle was my frie—" he began, his voice harsh with unfeigned grief, then stopped at Kíli's own confused look.

"Uncle is quite well," he said, brows knitted in confusion. "He sends you this." And he produced a letter from his coat and held it forth.

Yes, that was certainly Thorin's hand—Bilbo recognized it from his burglar's contract—as well as Thorin's seal.

"I'm sorry; I thought that, well." He felt his cheeks flush. "It's just that she's, ah, and your uncle didn't— Right." He nodded and stuffed a slice of shortbread in his mouth before he said anything else foolish.

Tauriel's mirth, which had been contained till now, burst out in bright peals of laughter. "You thought Thorin would be dead before he saw Kíli marry an elf."

"Yes," Bilbo admitted, mouth full of shortbread. He had seen the heated confrontation between Thorin and the Elvenking after their capture in Mirkwood and found it quite impossible to imagine the same dwarf would permit his nephew to celebrate a wedding to one of Thranduil's people.

"Thorin and I had quite a row when he found out about us, and I very nearly did elope with Tauriel: I packed my satchel and was gone most of a day before I realized running wouldn't solve anything. But Thorin came around in the end."

Bilbo chuckled. "Well, he did change his mind about me. What was it he said? I looked more like a grocer than a burglar."

Kíli smiled, evidently remembering. "You'll never guess who else was at the wedding."


The dwarf shook his head, grinning.

"Radagast." Didn't the odd fellow live under the eaves of Mirkwood?



"Well, yes, he was there with his family," Kíli admitted, "But that's hardly surprising after Tauriel saved his children from a bunch of orcs."

"Hmm... Elrond?" The lordly and ancient half-elf seemed just the sort one ought to have to a wedding.

"Not he," Tauriel returned, equally amused as her husband.

"What about the elf prince, the one who—" Bilbo caught himself just in time. He had been about to say, the one who the king said admired you, but then he would have been forced to an awkward confession of having eavesdropped on a private conversation while in the Elvenking's palace.

"Not Legolas, no. He was too far to come."

"Beorn, then." Bilbo had not supposed the solitary shapeshifter was one for large gatherings, but perhaps he had taken an interest in the lives of the dwarves he had aided more than once.

Kíli shook his head once more.

"Well, then who— Wait. Surely not Thranduil."

"He is my guardian." The elf smiled teasingly. "We couldn't forget him."

"Bless me!" Bilbo took a long, slow swallow of tea. "I think you had better tell the story from the beginning for me."

The young couple happily did so, taking turns and interrupting one another to add a detail or, just as often, to tease the other fondly for something said. They were an utterly charming pair, lively and artless with youth, and as their story drew on, Bilbo felt very grateful that they had overcome Thorin's prejudice and the demands of politics to be together. They were just the sort of people who made others happy with their presence, and separating them would have denied a blessing to those beyond themselves.

"I wish you could have come to the wedding," Kíli was saying now. "So many of our friends were there. And, oh, you should have seen her. She was like a dream, far too beautiful to belong in this world. I think I'm dreaming yet." He leaned close and kissed her cheek once.

Instead of being shocked by such an open display of affection, Bilbo merely smiled.

"And you've been married how long, now?"

"A year, come June ninth," Tauriel said.

"Aha! That's barely a fortnight away! We must have a feast for your anniversary."

"Thank you, Bilbo; we would like that."

"And now tell me, how are all our friends? Is Bifur still speaking Common again?"

And so they had finished the rest of the evening (and several more plates of sweets) as Kíli and Tauriel had told how the rest of Bilbo's companions had spent the years since the quest: how Fíli was marrying soon, and Bombur had a new daughter; of how Bofur and Bifur's toy business thrived as it never had in Ered Luin; of how Bard had become king of Dale, and Dwalin still terrorized Bain and Tilda (though Tauriel insisted the two acted more from humor than sincerity now).

At last, when everyone was comfortably tired, Bilbo rose. "You must stay with me," he said as Kíli and Tauriel stood, too. "I won't hear of anything else."

When they had gathered their things and followed Bilbo down his hall and into his finest guest room, Bilbo was forced to confront the one oversight in his offer as he stared at what had once been his own parents' marriage bed. Its handsomely turned wooden frame was quite comfortable by hobbit standards, yet hobbits were precisely what his guests were not.

"I suppose there is one minor inconvenience," he began apologetically. "Kíli, you aren't very much taller than a hobbit, but I'm afraid you" —he glanced to Tauriel—"are tall enough for two. You may be more comfortable in your own rooms. If you want, I can put one of you in the second-best room across the hall."

Kíli laughed. "Don't trouble about us. We don't need much space."

"I'm sure we can make ourselves quite comfortable here," Tauriel agreed.

Bilbo nodded; he ought not be surprised they did not wish to be separated. "If you need anything in the night, make yourselves at home, or better yet, ask."

Then he bid them goodnight and went to bed himself.

Kíli woke knowing something was wrong, though several moments passed before he understood quite what. The feather mattress and pillow felt luxurious after weeks on the road, but something else was uncomfortably out of place, like a root that he hadn't noticed when he'd lain down but that had now left a sore patch in the middle of his back.

He shifted and realized that he'd lost his blanket in the night; it was no wonder he felt cold and exposed. And then reaching blindly for the coverlet, he discovered the greater problem: where was Tauriel?

By now, he was used to waking with her beside him, or sometimes atop him, a soft, substantial warmth both comforting and sweet. But this morning, he was quite alone in bed; the sheets beside him were cold, and when he opened his eyes, he saw only a blank stretch of mattress.

Ah, but there was the corner of the quilt, caught on the edge of the bed. He lifted himself on an elbow to reach for it, then stopped: raised higher like this, he could see the floor below.

There, in a patch of sunlight, lay Tauriel, snuggled in a nest of blankets.

She slept peacefully, her rich, dark eyelashes dusting her cheeks and the graceful curves of her lips relaxed. The sunlight slanting down over her set a fire in the loose halo of her hair and glowed through the curl of her long, pretty ear.

Kíli lay back down on the edge of the mattress, perfectly content to watch her. It really was amazing that, changeless and immortal as she was, she continually astonished him with new beauties. How could he ever get his fill of her?

A loose piece of hair lay fallen over her cheek, and with light fingers, Kíli lifted it back from her face. Careful as he was, her quick senses registered even that feather touch. Her eyes drifted open, though the keen focus of her irises belied that lazy movement; he had no doubt she was entirely alert.

"You've abandoned me, my love," he said. "And you took every blanket."

She smiled, the look sweet and self-conscious.

"Kíli. There was not room enough for you and me and a pile of blankets."

He sighed. "It's no good up here alone."

"Then come down here, silly dwarf."

He did, nestling inside the cocoon of quilts with his back to her.

"Hadhodeg," she whispered against his ear and folded her arms around him.

"Apparently not little enough," he teased in reference to her use of the diminutive Elvish form, which roughly translated to "my little dwarf."

Tauriel's breath tickled his hair as she laughed. "Have you considered that I am the one who is too big?"

"That can't be. Last I checked, you were just right."

"Then we shall have to find another bed."

Kíli chuckled. "You mean sleep outside."

She nuzzled up under his hair and placed a kiss at the back of his neck. "The summer weather is very mild, and the country here so green. Wouldn't you rather sleep outside?"

"I would rather sleep wherever you do, amrâlimê."

"That's easily settled."

Tauriel tucked her hand inside his shirt and drew her fingers over him once before settling back into a light doze. Kíli lay still, simply enjoying the feel of each breath she took against him. He didn't need more than this to be happy.

After breakfast, Tauriel accompanied Bilbo into market on errands to the grocer and butcher. Not surprisingly, she found herself the object of many a curious stare, but while some glances might not have been entirely approving, no one was anything but polite to her and her host. Mr. Baggins, it seemed, might not be entirely respectable after his adventure, but he was wealthy and generous, two traits that made up for any eccentricities.

After ordering a roast, the two stopped at the baker's, where Tauriel chose a loaf studded with candied fruits for tea later that day. As the baker's wife wrapped the loaf in brown paper, Tauriel tried not to stare. The young woman's figure was rounded by more than hobbitish plumpness: she was with child, and well along, by all that Tauriel could tell from the full swell of her skirt. The elf had seen few pregnant women in her lifetime, and before, they had never roused more than a passing curiosity for her.

What is it like, she wanted to ask now, to carry a babe? Can you feel that little soul nestled close to your own? Does it fill you with joy?

Despite Tauriel's caution, her interest must still have shown, for the hobbit woman's full, freckled cheeks went red as she handed over the loaf.

"Forgive me; I do not mean to be rude," Tauriel said. "It's just that I do not often see new mothers among the elves."

"No new mothers?" the young woman echoed, her blue eyes round. Tauriel imagined she would have gotten much the same response had she asserted that elves did not eat or sleep.

"Not in these days. Still... I should very much like to become one."

The hobbit smiled then, as if this admission had transformed Tauriel from a foreigner and a stranger to a kindred female. "Becoming one's easy enough. I imagine it's being one that's more the challenge." She laughed at herself. "But then I'll find out soon enough! Oof, it's time this little one arrived. Carrying him round in front of me has me that tired by the end of the day."

"Is he your first?" Tauriel ventured, encouraged by the woman's friendliness.

"He is. And we're right proud, aren't we, Freddy?" She looked to her husband with a smile.

"So we are," the baker affirmed, glancing up from the elaborate cake he was icing to give Tauriel a curious, somewhat uncertain look.

Tauriel bowed her head lightly. "The Valar bless you," she murmured, and followed Bilbo out of the shop.

"I've never seen so many kinds of bread!" she remarked as she and her host crossed the busy market square, back towards the lane that would take them to Bag End. She did not, she realized, care to discuss her exchange with the baker's wife. "And that cake! I didn't know you could do so many fine things with a little sugar frosting."

Bilbo laughed softly. "That must have been the wedding cake for Daisy Greenburrow. She's marrying the Miller lad tomorrow." After a few more paces, the hobbit added, "Do you mean you didn't have a cake at your wedding?" From his tone, Tauriel guessed this oversight was hardly pardonable.

"No! Though we had plenty of other good things to eat and a wedding ale, which I understand is a very important dwarvish tradition."

"Ah, well in that case, we shall have to order a cake for your anniversary," Bilbo said, sounding quite pleased.

"I would be delighted!"

Coming down Bagshot Row to Bag End, Tauriel could hear the steady, rhythmic crack and thud that told her Kíli was still at work in Bilbo's back garden. Earlier that morning, her husband had offered to split some logs the hobbit had purchased for firewood.

As she and Bilbo reached the front gate, Bilbo gestured for her to hand over the parcel she carried. "I can manage from here. You'd best see if Kíli needs any help." With the faintest smile, he nodded to the garden gate, which was just visible round the last bend of the lane. Clustered there was a trio of hobbit lasses, apparently caught between curiosity and shyness as they peeped over the vine-covered fence.

"Oh!" Tauriel laughed, realizing that her husband, as a stranger and a dwarf, must be the object of their interest.

The young women did not notice Tauriel until she was a handful of yards away, when the tallest, a pretty lass with honey-colored ringlets, glanced up at Tauriel and gave a little gasp of surprise. The others turned then, their eyes going wide when they saw the elf. Then with a chorus of nervous giggles, they scampered off and disappeared into a neighboring garden.

Tauriel smiled to herself at the thought that she appeared such a strange and formidable figure, even in her simple elvish gown, with not a weapon on her person. Then, glancing over the gate to find what they had seen, she had to press a hand to her mouth to stifle her laugh.

Directly across from the gate, at the bottom of the garden, Kíli worked on undistracted, standing a cross-section of log on the block with one hand and then dividing it with a few easy, well-placed strokes of the axe. He had his hair pulled back and was stripped to the waist, and the movements of his work combined with the gleam of his body in the heat showed off his figure to uncommon advantage.

Tauriel stood still, pleased with this chance to admire him. She was hardly annoyed to suppose the neighbor girls had done the same, if they had not merely found him strange; surely they had been just as curious and astonished as she at her first sight of Kíli like this. Elves did not have such defined musculature, and neither, she believed, did hobbits. As for the dark hair that shaded his arms and chest—she would not venture to guess for halflings, but elves certainly did not sport such. Perhaps another elf would be displeased by such shaggy skin, but she enjoyed how rough and rugged he both looked and felt.

After a minute, she went in the gate. Kíli, intent as he was on his task, did not see her till he turned back from stacking his latest load of split wood to season with the rest and found her standing by the block.

"Hullo, love," he said, brushing crumbs of lichen and tree bark from his arms. "Did the errands go well?"

"Yes." She felt herself smirk. "Did you know you had an audience just now? A few lasses down at the gate."

Kíli shook his head. "Maybe they came back for the kiss I offered them last time I was in the Shire," he said, eyes crinkling in amusement.

"Kíli! You are hopeless."

He grinned. "It was just a tease. A few of them were watching Fíli and me loading our ponies outside the Green Dragon, so I said if they wanted a nearer look, I'd even let them kiss me. They ran away then."

"I'm not afraid to kiss you." And gracefully, she leaned forward to do so. His lips were soft and sweet, and she felt them quirk into a smile against hers.

"Not even begrimed and sweaty as I am?" He laughed, putting a hand to her waist as if preparatory to pulling her against him. "You are brave."

"Until you are washed, I shall not have the courage try anything else."

"Don't worry; I shan't dare anything more till I have." He let his hand slip off her hip.

"I like your hair this way," Tauriel said. Kíli had drawn it back, even the betrothal braids, into a tail high at the back of his head. She rearranged some of the loose pieces around his face. "It's quite becoming."

"I'll remember that." He brushed a finger down the back of her arm. "Now, if you go help Bilbo with luncheon, I'll finish this and then get washed up."

"Yes, my sweet," she said, and bent to kiss him once more before she left.

Grignar snarled and spat into the graveled floor of the mountain cleft. He was tired of watching the High Pass over the Misty Mountains day in and day out. The sun reflected off the barren stone path below burned his eyes and the cold, clear mountain air seared his lungs. He’d been here nearly two moons without finding either sign or scent of the dwarf prince, and his troop of raiders was growing restless. Soon he wouldn’t be able to restrain them from attacking the next trade party that used this road, and once they revealed themselves, they risked scaring off their true quarry. Not to mention the elves from the valley of Rivendell, just to the west, might decide to come clear the pass if they heard of orc bandits menacing travelers.

Besides, he began to suspect the dwarf wasn’t crossing back through this pass when he returned east. Grignar hated idling here, especially when he had a better idea of where to watch. Intelligence from Gundabad said that the prince traveled with an elf, and Grignar thought it likely the two made for Moria. The dwarves who had once lived there had been friendly with elves, it was said. Mayhap this prince hoped to retake the place with elven aid—and that was an alliance and a conquest that the orcs could little afford. Yet there was reason to think Durin’s folk would try for such a step: no doubt losing their ancient home still rankled, just as the defeat at Erebor stung every orc who’d fought at that cursed Mountain.

But now there was the chance to make the ones who were responsible pay for that defeat, he mused, clawed hand seeking the haft of his blade in anticipation. Grignar would be damned if he let someone else get to the prince before him. It wasn’t the bounty from Gundabad he wanted. It was revenge for having been forced to flee like rats before those smug, so-called “free peoples” who were so high and mighty as to claim Middle-earth belonged to them alone. He’d been there, leading one of the last battalions set to march on Ravenhill, before the dwarves and all their damn allies had converged and turned the ambush into a rout, and by the black abyss, he would not forget that shame.

The orcs would prove their right to rule soon enough. In the meantime, Grignar relished the thought of venting his rage on this pissant dwarvish princeling. The little maggot probably thought himself some kind of war hero, but there’d be no one—certainly not the elf bitch—able to save him from what Grignar had planned. The dwarf would regret he’d ever seen the Mountain; Grignar would be sure to make him admit that, before the end. Not that it would do the bastard any good. And then when they’d finished with him, they could send his head to Erebor. Grignar licked his lips, imagining this last gesture: it really was all too delicious.

That settled things. Tonight, once the sun was down, he would order his troop south.


Chapter Text

Dwarves, at least singly, made far better houseguests than Bilbo would have first supposed. Kíli was not too loud, and he remembered to clean his boots on the rug, not the furniture (though Tauriel, it seemed, soon convinced him to try going barefoot in the warm summer grass); he did not throw food at meals (of course, Bilbo could hardly imagine Tauriel trying to catch boiled eggs in her mouth as Bombur had); and when he helped with the washing up after meals, thankfully Tauriel did not let him toss the dishes, despite his offer to demonstrate this technique. Indeed, Kíli proved quite thoughtful and courteous, finding odd jobs around Bag End that Bilbo had been meaning to hire out and performing them cheerfully. He mended the latch on the cellar door and sharpened the garden shears and even dug a series of raised beds in the garden with alacrity and ease.

Bilbo had never had an elf in Bag End before, but Tauriel was a delight. She filled every corner of the place with fresh flowers each morning and made tea better than Bilbo himself (no small feat, as he did pride himself on having quite the touch when it came to brewing a perfect cup). He liked bringing her on walks, for she could name every tree and herb, in Elvish, if not Common. (Kíli, who had hitherto taken less interest in botany save for what was practical for the hunter, amused them both by inventing fantastical and very patently false Dwarvish names for the same trees and plants.) And at night when they all sat on the back patio, while Bilbo and Kíli smoked Longbottom leaf, Tauriel pointed out elvish constellations, often with Kíli's help, for the dwarf proved her apt pupil in the stars.

On the ninth of June, Kíli and Tauriel's wedding anniversary, Bilbo hosted a party for them in his garden. In the preceding weeks, most of the neighbors had heard of, if not seen, Mr. Baggins's odd guests, friends made on his Mad Adventure, and while they might not exactly have approved of his keeping such outlandish company, the lure of curiosity, good food, and ale was too great for even the most staid of hobbits to resist an invitation to "an Anniversary celebration in honor of the Dwarvish Prince of Erebor and his Silvan Lady."

Happily, well-fed hobbits were much more accepting of strangers and oddities than hungry ones were. After everyone had enjoyed a comfortable first round of refreshments, an air of general benevolence had settled over most of the guests, though Hamfast Gamgee had made a point of informing Bilbo that "no good never came of minglin' with the fey folk." Bilbo had merely nodded sagely, as if he quite agreed, and refilled his neighbor's ale.

The shyness of the younger lads and lasses was done away with almost instantly when instruments were produced and Kíli, begging a fiddle off someone, had proved he knew many a merry dancing tune. And when he did join the dancers himself, he had no trouble finding a lass for a partner, when Tauriel would spare him.

Bilbo danced with Kíli's pretty bride more than once, himself. Her smile was so bright, and she moved with such lightness and ease that Bilbo felt himself quite as young and spry as if he were still a lad in his tweens. But even better than dancing with her was watching Kíli do so.

Bilbo could sense the connection between the elf and the dwarf; and the pattern of the dance—the clasp of hands, the weaving of steps, the parting and joining of couples—so clearly revealed the way they drew each other. Thinking back on the story of the obstacles they had faced, Bilbo found it astonishing to imagine anyone, either Thorin or the representatives of the other six dwarvish kingdoms, had ever thought it possible to keep them apart. They seemed held by some deep, elemental attraction too strong to be denied.

When the last guests had murmured their congratulations to the couple, thanked their host, and strolled home in the twilight, Bilbo and Kíli and Tauriel sat together at one of the outdoor tables, enjoying the calm of the night. The air was full of cricket song, and a soft breeze drifted down the valley, bringing with it all the scents of warm earth and mown grass.

Tauriel was eating what was at least her second slice of wedding cake, and Kíli sat down the bench from her, one of her bare feet held in his lap. They said nothing, though they exchanged many a conspiratorial glance.

Bilbo took another sip of beer (an ale from the Green Dragon that Kíli had apparently taken a liking to the last time he'd been in the Shire) and then observed, "You both are so happy; I'm almost sorry I didn't try marrying, myself."

Tauriel drew her fork from her mouth. "Oh Bilbo, it cannot be too late for you!"

He laughed. "And who do you suppose would have me? I don't know how it is in Wilderland where you come from, but here in the Shire, burglars are not considered a respectable match; no, not at all. And once it gets out I've actually talked to dragons..."

"I'm sure the right elf maid would have you," Kíli said with a grin, before turning a meaningful glance to Tauriel. She giggled as he caressed her foot.

"You know," Bilbo mused, "it's said one of my ancestors—on the Took side, of course—had a fairy wife."

"Is that true?" Tauriel asked, her forkful of cake momentarily forgotten.

The hobbit shrugged. "I'm not quite sure what to believe, but it is true that the Tooks are not entirely hobbitish in all respects. Climbing trees and keeping strange friends and popping off into the blue for adventures—that sort of thing. So perhaps he did."

Tauriel looked down at her plate, studiously prodding a frosting rosette with her fork, though Bilbo did not think her mind was on buttercream.

He said gently, "When you've your first little one, bring him to the Shire and we'll compare him to me and see if I've any elvish blood after all." He knew she wanted a child; Tauriel's continuing fascination with the baker's pregnant wife, whom they often saw on their morning errands, was quite clear.

The elf looked up again, her smile lovely and vulnerable all at once, and Bilbo knew she let him in on her private hopes. "If we ever have a babe, I promise we shall introduce you."

Bilbo smiled. "Oh, I am sure you'll soon have children enough to keep you busy." Such really was an entirely natural consequence, given the way these two seemed unable to get enough of each other.

Tauriel said nothing, but she smiled ever so slightly before scooping up the frosting rosette with her fork. As she lifted it to her lips, Kíli reached out and very deliberately bumped her arm so that she ended up with pink frosting on her nose.


"Here, let me help you with that," he said, clambering over to her end of the bench. While she laughed, he licked frosting from her face.

"You foolish dwarf..." she continued helplessly as he went on to kiss her. Her feigned resistance lasted only moments, and then she was twining her arms around his shoulders.

Bilbo chuckled. "I don't suppose you want me here any longer. Congratulations and happy anniversary!" He rose from his seat.

Kíli looked up for a moment. "Thank you, for a perfect night. Hey!" This last was directed at Tauriel, who smiled innocently back at his frosting-covered face. "You should know it is a very serious insult to spoil a dwarf's beard."

"Then you'd best let me mend it."

With a laugh—really, you'd think they'd just been married today—Bilbo turned and went back into his house.

 The Shire was so peaceful at night. The dim hills and meadows were empty now that the day's work of gardening or farming was done, and the glow of lights behind round windows and doors told of folk comfortably at home. Yet even the darkness without was friendly: every copse, fence, hedgerow, and field had an air of gentle, inviting mystery, their shadows hiding nothing to be feared.

This time, Tauriel felt, was especially for her and Kíli.

They wandered for a while, as they usually did, making their way to the little birch grove where they had often slept after abandoning Bilbo's hobbit-sized guest bed. Nestled behind the brow of one of the wilder hills that was not cleared for farmland was a bower where none but the foxes and birds came. On a little flat place at the eastern verge of the trees, one could lie in the soft grass and see all the sky.

As they climbed the hill, a bird suddenly broke from a hazel thicket beside them. Kíli started and grasped Tauriel's arm, and then a moment later he laughed at himself.

She stopped and drew him to her, enjoying the startled pounding of his heart, its racing occasioned by something other than herself for once. Kíli nestled to her bosom and drew in a long breath.

"You grow lovelier all the time, Tauriel," he said from her breast. "In a few more years, you will be more beautiful than I can bear." He crushed her to him briefly and then stood back. "Now, I've a gift for you, to mark the year we've been wed."

She smiled; of course a dwarf could not let so momentous a day pass without commemorating it with some treasure.

Kíli sought in his pocket and then held forth his closed fist.

"I love you, amrâlimê. Thank you for making me the most blessed of dwarves."

He opened his hand, and there in the midst of his big palm lay a small loop of silver.

Tauriel lifted it between forefinger and thumb: it was an ear cuff, narrow as a blade of grass and set with three tiny emeralds.

She glanced back to Kíli and found him watching her expectantly. "It's perfect," she told him. It had never been her habit to wear the kind of elaborate jewelry most dwarves did, though she was growing more comfortable with the notion, thanks to Kíli's rich gifts. Yet this delicate ornament was something she would gladly have worn even when she had been only a Silvan guard captain, not the bride of a prince.

Kíli's face broke into a smile. "I could clothe you in stars if I wanted—indeed, I have done so—but I thought I would give you something you could wear every day. You won't even feel it."

"When did you have time to make it?" Tauriel did not think there was a jeweler's workshop in Hobbiton. But perhaps he had crafted the gift in Rivendell during their stay.

"I've carried it all the way from Erebor in the bottom of my tobacco pouch."

She knelt and handed the cuff to Kíli so that he might fit it on her. His fingers were gentle as he slipped the cuff down from the tip of her left ear to fit snuggly on its lower curve, a little above her earlobe.

"Must I be very careful not to lose it?" Tauriel asked, fingering it lightly. It felt secure enough, but she had never worn such an ornament before.

"No." Kíli leaned close and, drawing his nose along the edge of her ear, kissed her quite thoroughly, his tongue curling around her earlobe. "See? Still in place," he said when he was done.

"Kíli." She smiled, pleased and amused both. "On our wedding night, the first time you tried nipping my ears, you said you'd always wanted to. I remember very distinctly."

He laughed. "That was the most memorable thing I did that night?"

"Oh, I remember a few other things, as well. But tell me, how long had you known me before you wanted to kiss my ears?"

"Now, that's a hard question." He flashed her a laughing glance. "I wanted to kiss you since I first set eyes on you, and I should hardly have quibbled about where. Though your lips would have been especially nice." He took her by the chin and drew his thumb lightly over her mouth.

"And my ears?"

"Hmm... Let's see." Kíli assumed the thoughtful expression that Tauriel found so endearing, his brows quirked and his tongue flicking once between his lips. "You turned away from my cell to gaze up to where the stars would be, if they had been visible in the depths of the Elvenking's dungeon. I could only see the curve of your cheek and the pretty knife's edge of your ear wrapped back against that shining copper hair. I'd never thought much of a lass's ears before, but yours were no less beautiful than any other part of you. I remember thinking, 'Mahal, if she would let me press my lips there just once—' Of course, I wouldn't have dared to bite you then."

She laughed softly. "Till I met you, I had not imagined anyone could love with such utter cheek and pure reverence at one and the same time."

"I would very much like to reverence you now, amrâlimê," he said, tracing a light finger over her breast, below her collarbone. With his eyes lowered, she could clearly see the thick fringe of his lashes.

"And I am more than willing that you should. Look; these are our stars." She tipped his chin up, directing his gaze to the heavens that once more stood just as they had when she and Kíli had consummated their union. She had taken care to memorize the stars' positions then.

He smiled, and Tauriel pressed her lips to the hollow of his throat. "But first," she whispered, "I've something for you, as well. I should make a very poor bride for a dwarf if I did not remember your gift."

"Oh?" Kíli sounded intrigued, and with reason: she did not often offer him tokens of her love, for elvish customs relied less on such material gestures.

"Let down my hair," she instructed him.

He slid his fingers up her neck and through loose tresses till he found the soft knot into which the top half of her hair had been gathered.

"I remember," he said as he gently worked the clasp free, "a year ago, nearly losing my wits over the pins in your hair. There you were, naked and lovely in my arms, and I was trying to take down your hair, when in truth I could hardly spare a thought for anything but your pretty breast against my face. I was afraid, for a moment, I might be standing there all night looking for a pin, and then you would think me a tremendous fool."

She laughed, remembering. "You know I was nervous, too."

"Yes." His hands were much more sure tonight as he drew out the hidden clasp and let her hair fall around her shoulders.

"It's yours, my love," Tauriel told him, and he looked down at the clip in his hands.

It was of silver, in a similar size and shape to the one he usually wore. Its sculpted design of interlinking diamond shapes was modeled on Kíli's personal insignia, but in this piece, their forms were altered slightly to resemble the peaks of a mountain range, behind which little blue and white gems sparkled. Tauriel had commissioned the gift from a jeweler in Rivendell.

"You said that stars and stones never meet, but you forgot about the mountains," she told him, recalling the words he had spoken in his wonder at their first union.

He met her eyes, and she knew her gift and its meaning touched him.

"Thank you, Tauriel."

"You're welcome." She kissed him, and then catching his hand, drew Kíli on up the hill to their bower.

 Quite as strange as it was, Kíli thought he preferred making love to Tauriel with no bed but the grass and no roof save the sky. He had first loved her thus, and they had done the same often enough throughout their journeys since.

He loved seeing her like this above him, a graceful shape cut out against the silver stars, her back arched and slender shoulders thrown back. She moved against him with such fluid ease, effortlessly leading him so that Kíli could not distinguish her body's motion from his own. He pressed his hands up from her hips to her breasts, and she leaned into his touch with a sigh.

When she finally bent down over him again and he could add the caresses of lips to those of his hands, he was sure he could taste the sky against the goosebumps on her skin, as if she had bathed in the cold, celestial stream of the Milky Way and returned to share its sweetness with him.

It was a challenge now not to forget all but his own delirium, but Tauriel was so beautiful, utterly lost as she was in him, and so he drew himself back from that fiery place behind the stars where she often sent him and watched her.

Her expression was one of the prettiest concentration, her eyes closed and brows lightly furrowed; Kíli had seen the same intensity from her on the archery range or the battlefield, and he was both gratified and delighted to know that all her elvish keenness of body and spirit could be so centered on him now. She grasped his shoulders with a desperation he quite enjoyed and pressed herself against him as if she could not possibly be near enough.

In the midst of her passion, Tauriel paused, her brow touched to his, and met his gaze with a look so direct and intimate that he felt pierced to the soul.

"I love you," Kíli whispered, the words broken and breathless.

She smiled and her lips parted to speak, but whatever she had been going to say was lost in a sweet little moan as he vaulted her to the next delight with a practiced touch. Her nails pricked him and she seemed to forget how to breathe for several helpless moments. Surely he had her; in another instant, she would beg him in those lovely Elvish words whose meaning he had never asked her—

oh, Valar—

She had shifted her weight and now there she had him, entirely at her mercy. Tauriel gave one bright laugh: of course she knew exactly what she had done.

"Maker, Tauriel, please—" he panted. "I'm—"

"I know. I love you, Kíli." And then she went on to prove it.

 They stayed with Bilbo until Midsummer's Day, for such had seemed a fitting limit to their visit. But in the weeks that followed, Kíli often wished they had left even a day sooner, for things might have gone much differently if they had.

Kíli knew something was wrong when Tauriel and Bilbo returned from their morning errands on the last day of their visit. His wife's expression was still and withdrawn, and even the hobbit's manner seemed less bright than usual when he returned Kíli's greeting. Kíli might have thought they were both sorry at the prospect of today's parting, had the two of them not been in cheerful spirits when they had left Bag End earlier that morning. Something else must account for this change.

"What is it?" Kíli prompted, when neither of the others offered an explanation.

"We had some sad news in the village," Bilbo said, to Tauriel's evident relief. "Arabella—she's the bakerwoman—was brought abed with child yesterday. There was some trouble, and well... the poor little babe didn't make it."

Kíli was watching Tauriel's face through this recital, and as Bilbo finished, tears glimmered in her eyes. He knew she was sorry for the loss of the hobbit child, but even more, she must be considering the possibility that the same fate might befall their own children, should she and Kíli ever conceive.

"I'm sorry," Kíli returned, then after a pause, added slowly, "That sort of thing... It doesn't happen often, does it?" Of course, he knew there was always a possibility of harm to mother or child during a birth, but he had never personally heard of any such deaths in his own dûm. But then dwarves, among mortals, were especially hardy folk.

Bilbo shrugged, helpless. "It's not unheard of. But no; it's not a danger most need fear." He sighed. "It is, I'm afraid, a must unlucky chance." The hobbit looked sympathetically to Tauriel, whose eyes were still bright, though no tears had fallen. "Love, you mustn't take it so hard. It's a sorry thing, and your tender heart does you credit, but you should not imagine it has anything to do with you. You—and your own babes, when they come—will be all right." He patted her hand and then shuffled off into the kitchen with their parcels.

Kíli gazed after their friend, impressed that the hobbit had guessed the root of Tauriel's sorrow. Then he moved to her and took her hands.

"Dearest, I'm very sorry. But please don't be afraid. I have as much faith in you and our child as ever."

She blinked a few times, and then her eyes were dry.

"Thank you, Kíli," she whispered. She offered him a tentative smile, and then followed Bilbo to help prepare elevenses.

By the time the meal was ready, Tauriel had rallied, and the remainder of their visit was marred only by the inevitable sadness of goodbyes.

All three of them had stood in the garden, surreptitiously wiping tears while packs and gear were adjusted on back and shoulder.

Kneeling to embrace their host, Tauriel said, "Thank you so much for having us, Bilbo. I cannot imagine a better place to have celebrated the first year of our wedding than here with you." She kissed his cheek.

The hobbit beamed. "You're very welcome, my dear. Come back as often as you like. In the meantime, I suppose I shall have to resign myself to drinking my own tea again."

Next Kíli clapped him on the shoulder. "It's been good to see you, Bilbo. I'm glad you decided to come with us five years ago. I—well, all of us, really—have so much to thank you for." Glancing to Tauriel, he caught her hand.

"Of course. It has been an honor." Bilbo bowed.

And with a last few parting calls, Kíli and Tauriel went out from the garden of Bag End and down the road to the east.

Tauriel appeared cheerful to be journeying again beneath the sky, and their last days passing through the Shire were quite as lovely as Kíli could have wished. By day, they strolled at a leisurely pace over sunny green hills and under leaf-dappled shade, and at night, they lay shoulder to shoulder under the stars. Tauriel said no more of the unhappy news from their last morning in Hobbiton, and Kíli was relieved that she seemed to have forgotten it. Not until some days later did he discover how very wrong he was.

Chapter Text

Kíli had never been more happy than he was now traveling with Tauriel. He had always been excited to discover new places and sights, and so he had enjoyed the journeys of his youth, when he and Fíli and Thorin (and sometimes Dwalin) had hired out as protection for trading expeditions and the like. It wasn't that they had needed the income—Thorin's settlement was prosperous by then—but Thorin had insisted on his nephews' having experienced some of the world, to prepare them for the quest that was their destiny.

Of course, it had been great fun having Fíli to share observations, discoveries, and the (more than occasional) prank. Kíli wouldn't have traded those travels with his brother for anything. But journeying with Tauriel now was a different sort of pleasure. She noticed things neither he nor Fíli would have: the slant of sunlight through a leaf, the sky reflected in the raindrop that clung to a branch, the song of an unfamiliar bird in the dawn hours. In turn, he showed her the change in the stones that told they were nearing the mountains, or how to barter the best price in the market or know the origin of different travelers just from the way they spoke Common.

And then there was the fact of long days (and nights) spent solely in Tauriel's presence. Kíli knew that when they returned to Erebor, he would have to learn to divide his time from her once more, but for now he intended to enjoy having no-one but Tauriel to think of.

And perhaps the best thing about having no-one else to consider was that there was no-one to scold them if they spent the noon hours making love because they had found the perfect sunny clearing full of wildflowers or a shady glade beside a murmuring stream. While patiently waiting until a fitting opportunity certainly brought its own kind of relish to their union, there was something so very adventurous about being able to follow an amorous impulse just as it occurred. Of course, since leaving the Shire they'd had little opportunity for such spur of the moment indulgences. He and Tauriel had traveled the relatively busy East-West Road and then lodged a night in Bree before taking another road south. While they always left the highway at night, Kíli had not quite felt the sense of privacy he did when they were in the wilds together or on a hilltop in the Shire.

Thus, he had been pleased when, a few days after leaving Bree, they had struck east off the road to enter some wooded hills that interested Tauriel. Throughout the day, he was happy in the thought that these pleasant dales would surely afford a safe and sheltered grove where they might lie the night. And as the day drew on, Tauriel's every look and gesture gained in significance as he anticipated how he meant to cherish her, proving by his body's wordless devotion how much she meant to him. It had been entirely too long since he had last done so, and he imagined she must be eager as he for that pleasure.

Their day's travel brought them to just such a place as Kíli had hoped for. Guarded by a stony outcropping on one side and a stream on the other was an evergreen grove, the floor of which was covered by a soft, fragrant blanket of last year's needles.

After they had rested and eaten their evening meal, Tauriel brought out her silver comb (the very first courtship gift Kíli had ever given her) and began smoothing her hair. Kíli took great delight in watching her as he sat across the campsite, smoking his pipe. She was so very beautiful: the curve of her neck as she bent her head forward, the fall of her hair against her cheek, the graceful motion of her arm as she swept the comb through long, loose tresses. She had shed her leather bodice, and the pleated folds of her light summer underdress gave a softer, fuller shape to her figure. Her wrapped neckline, usually held modestly closed by her bodice, now fell much lower, revealing an expanse of pale skin dusted with freckles, and as she moved, the bare curve of her breast was now and again half visible.

Kíli knocked out his pipe and came to stand behind her as she sat on a downed tree trunk. Sweeping her hair aside, he pressed his lips to the base of her neck. "Tauriel, I've never seen anything so beautiful as you," he said. He slipped her dress off one shoulder and rubbed his cheek against her skin; he knew she liked that. She was warm and smelled sharp and sweet, like pine resin and wild berries.

"Kíli." She stopped her combing.

"Yes, love?" Something in her tone had suggested that his name had been more than simply an acknowledgement of his touch; she wanted to tell him something.

But when she said nothing more, he folded an arm around her to clasp her naked breast.

"Kíli, please," she repeated as he caressed her. "Not now." And grasping the shoulder of her dress, Tauriel pushed away his hand as she drew the garment back up into place.

Kíli froze and then drew back, entirely astonished. Always she had been as eager and willing as he. Of course it was right to consider her wishes; he did not want her to make love to him if her heart was not in it. But because she had never before denied him, he had not truly considered the likelihood that she would, and now he was deeply, unexpectedly hurt.

Tauriel sighed, long and slow. "I'm sorry, Kíli, but I can't."

"What do you mean?" Had she finally grown tired of him? Was he too coarse or too eager or too needy? He felt unaccountably ashamed of himself, of how much he wanted her in this moment, as if it were an imposition on her.

"I don't think we should try for a child," she said dully, still gazing forward so that Kíli could only see the back of her head.

Oh. Well if that was her only concern... "I thought if you didn't want to conceive, you wouldn't," Kíli said.

"Yes, that's true."

"Then I don't understand—" If there was no worry of a child unintentionally conceived, why should she hold back from him?

Tauriel looked over her shoulder at Kíli now, a crease between her flawless brows. "I don't want to. Not— Not right now."

"Is it because I'm a dwarf? Do you think because I'm, well, mortal that you might conceive whether or not you wish it?"

"No, it's not that. I just— I can't bear to..." She gazed at him, clearly pleading for him to understand. Not knowing what to say, Kíli swallowed and nodded. Tauriel looked away again. After a minute, when Kíli supposed his disappointment must not show as keenly on his face, he came round to stand before her.

"It's because of the babe who died in Hobbiton," he said. "You're afraid that will happen to ours."

She looked up from her lap, where her comb lay idle upon her hair, and nodded.

"Tauriel, I don't think it will," he said, trying to temper the firmness of his conviction with a gentle tone. "I've never heard of a dwarf babe—or a mother, for that matter—lost during birth. And our child will be half elven! I'm sure he, or she, will be very strong."

"But Kíli, what if you're wrong!" she cried, her voice nearly breaking. "I can't bear the thought."

"Shouldn't we live by hope and not by fear?" He had first pursued her because he believed this was so, and he believed it no less strongly now.

"Can hope save our child?" Tauriel's voice was soft but no less intense for that.

"If we hope, there may yet be a babe for us. But if we cannot hope, we'll surely have no child at all," he reasoned gently. Surely she must see it this way; she could not give up on their wish. "Amrâlimê, I'm willing to take that risk." Kíli laid a hand over hers.

"To bear a child just to lose it—" Her eyes swelled with tears about to fall.

"Tauriel, it's not certain we would. Bilbo said it was unlikely, even for his kind."

"But Kíli, we are so different, you and I," Tauriel shook her head, causing loose hair to tumble into her face, half hiding her eyes. "Maybe our child could not grow right or... Perhaps I am not suited to bear a dwarven babe."

Kíli flinched, stung by the way she could just throw aside how well they had proven to complement one another.

"We're different, but isn't that why we're good together?" he demanded.

"Yes, in all ways but this."

"But why should this be any different?" Kíli could easily hear the stubbornness in his tone, but it was impossible to speak less strongly about something that he felt so deeply to be true.

Tauriel stared at him for several long breaths, and then her tears fell, tracing shining paths over her cheeks with their freckles he loved so well.

Mahal's sacred anvil, he had made her cry. He had never done so before, not by any word or deed that was truly of his own choosing.

"I'm sorry, Tauriel," he said brokenly, feeling the words were woefully inadequate to express how wretched he felt. He had never meant to push her to the point of breaking. "I— I'm sorry."

He very much wanted to hold her, to caress away her sorrow, but he was not sure such gestures would be welcome, if she was not willing for intimacy. After watching her awkwardly for a time, Kíli merely kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"I'm sorry, too, Kíli," she whispered.

"I'll go keep watch," he said after another moment or two, not because there was any particular need of such a precaution in this safe little corner of the woods, but because that way she would know that she could sleep alone, without him troubling her.

"If you think it's necessary," Tauriel returned softly, now sounding quite as hurt as Kíli felt.

"Only if you do." Was she asking him not to go?

She shook her head, so Kíli sat down and smoked another pipe, because he didn't know what else to do with himself, while Tauriel redid her braids.

When she lay down to sleep beneath the pines, Kíli spread his blanket near her, though he lay without touching her, still afraid to upset her by any unwanted gestures of affection. He still could not quite understand what she needed. He knew she was upset—far more so than he had previously realized—by the loss of the hobbit baby, and he could accept that, with her heart and mind so troubled, she did not have the spirit to express her love for him.

He understood that, yes, but he could not help feeling hurt, isolated, cut off from her. She was his Tauriel, his amrâlimê, and yet she had hidden her growing fears and sorrow from him for more than a sennight. That thought pained him more than her bodily refusal. Had he done something to make her feel she could not confide her anxiety to him? Had he been too overbearing in his own optimism for children, burdening her with hopes she could not share?

Yet he could still hardly understand how she could not share those hopes. She was too good, too beautiful, too brave, to let fear rule her actions. This wasn't the Tauriel he had always known and loved, was it? The Tauriel who had defied kings over what she knew was right, who had said she wanted what he offered when he declared he was not afraid to love her, who had dared to love him despite his mortality and made him believe she would never regret that choice.

Tears that Kíli had not even noticed suddenly pooled and fell from the outer corner of his eye, hitting the wool blanket with a faint pat. Slight as it was, Tauriel must have heard the sound even with her back to him, for she rolled over to face him.

Ashamed by his tears, which must appear so very selfish to her, Kíli remained staring up at the pine bows above him.

Tauriel laid an arm over his chest.

"Kíli, I love you," she murmured. "Nothing can change that."

Yes; of course she was still his Tauriel. And even when she was distant or strange, he would do his best to understand her. He loved her too well to do anything else.


"Yes, love, I know." And he closed his hand over hers.


Kíli said nothing about their misunderstanding the next day. He kissed Tauriel good morning, as he always did—perhaps a little less passionately than usual, but no less tenderly. They rose and ate and set out on their journey; and Tauriel, afraid lest she make Kíli think that she harbored any hurt or resentment, did not mention the previous night, either.

And so they travelled on, much as they had before.

They followed the Greenway south, keeping the road within sight, even if they did not always travel on it. Minhiriath, the country between the two rivers, was a strange land to Tauriel, used as she was to being held close by trees, mountains, or hills. Here, for larges stretches were open plains, where long-ago wars had laid waste the forests which had once covered this land. Tauriel (and Kíli, too) felt almost too open and exposed under so much unbroken sky. And yet Tauriel's blood thrilled at the adventure of facing such a wide world, small as she was, with only Kíli at her side.

Dear Kíli... As they days drew on, she knew she continued to disappoint him. After that night when she had first denied him, he had made no further direct overtures to intimacy, clearly waiting for her invitation to proceed, an invitation that she still found it impossible to offer.

She had initially refused him because her own disappointment at having to abandon her wish for a child had been too fresh to take any joy in the union that had always been so inextricably tied to that wish.

Speaking to the wizard in Rivendell had planted the first seeds of her doubt. Those seeds had grown slowly at first, countered by Kíli's steady optimism and hope. But then she had heard of the baby lost in birth, and almost overnight, her doubts had grown to a black and twisted tree, fearful and hideous like the deformed growth that plagued her old forest home.

The thought of a sweet little babe, kindled of her and Kíli's fire only to be snuffed out while yet in her womb or during her struggle to bring it into the world gave her great pain. And her sorrow was stronger knowing the cause might be her own lack of bodily suitability as a mate for a dwarf. Was it not terribly irresponsible and selfish to doom a child she knew she might not be fit to birth? Or what if a babe of mixed blood suffered some physical deformity? And there was the possibility that even a bodily sound half-blood might prove incapable of producing offspring in turn. How could she and Kíli bear any one of these dreadful fates for their child? No, it would be far better not to try to conceive, when the risks were so great.

Yet she had not been able to say any of this to Kíli before, knowing how earnestly he wished to be a father. And now, seeing how disappointed her choice had made him, how he still wanted a child as much as ever, Tauriel felt a further obstacle to their union.

Tauriel had never joined herself to Kíli in anything but perfect accord: with his passion, his delight, his eagerness for the moment and for all that might grow from it, should they be blessed with the children they both had desired.

But now, when they could not agree on this last point, she felt she could not meet Kíli—in body or in spirit—as she truly did long to do. Where was the joy, where was the true union in the act of coupling if she knew she withheld from Kíli the children he wanted? For her, making love had always been an utter bonding of body and soul, and she was afraid now, with this conflict between them, that it would not be possible to experience that same profound connection. Tauriel hated the thought that the union which had so delighted her might become, thanks to this disagreement over its outcome, a mere exercise in frustration for them both. And so she could not wish for bodily intimacy until their desires were more closely matched.

Tauriel wanted to tell Kíli what held her back. She knew he was sometimes tempted to think himself less than her for being a dwarf, and she did not wish him to imagine she was dissatisfied with him physically in any way. But when she tried to find words to tell him that his continuing eagerness to father a child was what currently estranged her from him, it was easier to stay silent. Surely he must soon let the subject rest when he saw how unhappy it made her, the fabled stubbornness of dwarves notwithstanding.

Yet so far, she saw little change in Kíli's optimism.

"What you said about our children. Are you sure you don't even want to try?" Kíli began again one day as they were picking their way through low gorse that had unexpectedly and completely impeded their way up one of the first low hills outlying the mountains.

Tauriel was silent for a moment, looking for a patch clear of thorns to place her foot. "Yes, Kíli. I've thought very carefully since leaving the Shire."

"I mean, can't we talk about it?" Kíli went on after a few minutes.

"What more is there to say?" She had already told him all her reasons for her decision.

Kíli halted and looked back at her, his expression troubled. "I just— I don't want you to be afraid, Tauriel."

"Afraid of losing our child?"

"Yes. Just think. We've already been through so much together. We could have died in the Battle of Five Armies, but we didn't. And after that, the Council of Seven Kingdoms might have kept us apart for good! But it didn't." Kíli's eyes held the earnest hope that had so often captivated and inspired her, though today, she felt pierced and guilty for being unwilling to share it. "We've said before, surely Mahal and— and Elbereth have looked out for us. They wouldn't forget us now after they've brought us together; I know it."

Tauriel drew a breath and let it out slowly. "Even so, it may not be the Valar's will that we have children."

"I know, Taur." Kíli's tone was very near pleading. "But after we've been given this chance, wouldn't it be foolish not to try at least? Even if... Of course we'd be heartbroken at first, but we'd still have each other. We could find comfort together."

You would not be here to comfort me forever, Tauriel thought, but held her tongue. She did not wish to bring Kíli's own mortality into this disagreement. Doing so would be unfair to him. She said, "I would rather we did not know such a hurt at all."

She lifted her skirts out of reach of the clinging gorse and pressed on. As she passed Kíli, he caught her hand.

"Please, just promise me you'll think about what I've said?" he said gently.

Tauriel hated to refuse him, when what he asked for—her continued hope—was a thing good and beautiful in itself. So she nodded, though with such despair in her heart, she felt more distant from him than ever before.

 As they drew nearer to Caradhras, the Redhorn, Kíli felt that the mountain's steadily looming peak mirrored the growing barrier between him and Tauriel. He had not wanted their disagreement to push them apart, and so he had done his best to remain tender and affectionate. Yet it was impossible to feel as he always had with Tauriel when she now received his gestures of love so coolly.

Oh, she never recoiled from him or otherwise suggested that his presence was in any way unpleasant, but she had once warmed and leaned into his touch, like a cat who welcomed a trusted hand. Now when he stroked her hair or kissed her neck, or gave her any of the dozen other daily caresses by which he was accustomed to express his devotion to her, Kíli was reminded of the fond forbearance with which his mother had sometimes received her youngest dwarfling's affectionate importuning when she'd been in the middle of some task that must be completed.

As for making love to Tauriel, that was entirely out of the question, it seemed. Kíli never went so far as to ask her, either by word or deed, for such intimacy—he did not wish to pressure her if she was not interested herself, nor did he want to repeat the disappointment of another refusal. But there were a hundred little openings that she might have taken to show him she wanted what he was so eager to offer her, openings that she resolutely ignored, as if she, not he, was the one born from stone.

Then he would feel so weak and foolish—so very mortal—to be tormented by his desire for her when she, apparently, was quite in control of her own passions. Lest she look down on him for his need, he finally refrained from even those little expressions of tenderness—the passing kiss or touch—that he had once offered as freely as breathing. Yet he only felt more miserable than before, left as he was without any tangible way to show her he loved her.

At last came a night when he could no longer take the torture of trying, in vain, to fall asleep beside Tauriel when all he wanted to do was wrap her in his arms and kiss her soft, fragrant skin. With the abruptness of one waking from a nightmare, he pushed himself up and went to sit some distance away where he would not be tempted to disturb her.

Here in the foothills of the Misty Mountains, all the stars were blotted out from the eastern sky, and as he stared at the dark place where they ought to have shone, he thought of how appropriate this setting was for his own personal trial. His lady of starlight was dimmed by the clouds of her doubt and fear, and despite his efforts to give her courage, it seemed he would simply have to wait for some benevolent wind to blow those clouds away, since they were too lofty for a dwarf to reach.

When Tauriel touched his shoulder, he jumped. She had risen too quietly for him to hear. "I'm sorry, meleth," she said softly. "I didn't mean to startle you." She sat beside him. "What is wrong, Kíli?"

He thought she sounded as troubled and bewildered as he. Probably, he realized with a little shock, she was more so, since he, even at eighty, was still too young to imagine he had experienced everything. But she, who was more than eight times his age, must be as many times more perplexed by this strange new situation in which they found themselves.

"Tauriel." He turned to look at her. With half the sky hidden, the starlight was dimmed, and Tauriel's skin likewise seemed to lack its usual radiance. Yet with his dwarvish eyes accustomed to lightless places under the earth, Kíli could still see her clearly.

"Tauriel, even if you don't want children right now, I still want to love you."

She nodded. After a silence, she said, "I don't know how, when we want such different things to come of our loving."

"All I want right now is you." He caught her hand and squeezed it. "I don't just mean in body. I—" He broke off, afraid to go on. "You're so far from me," he whispered.

"I'm sorry, Kíli." She lowered her lashes. In the darkness, her eyes looked mysterious, filled with every enchantment that the overzealous storyteller might have have imagined for a fairy sorceress. Yet Kíli was no small dwarfling who needed tales to frighten him away from the dangers of a dark wood; he knew the true charms of this elven enchantress, and he would gladly have been enthralled.

Tauriel moved closer to him and, to his complete surprise, settled herself astride his lap. Taking his face in her hands, she kissed him, and Kíli needed no time to know how to respond. He tugged her hips fully against him and drew one hand up her long, bare leg. He had to restrain himself from devouring those soft lips that moved gently against his own, for she was like the sweetest honey and he was one starving.

As she dragged his shirt off, Kíli pulled at the laces on her bodice, trying not to break them in his haste (she'd not thank him for that in the morning). Finally they were free, and he could set all his attention to kissing her breasts, which some kindly Vala had perfectly placed to meet Kíli's mouth when he and Tauriel came together like this.

As he paid his particular devotion to that breast beneath which her heart beat, Kíli realized that this moment was all wrong. Tauriel should have been arched into him, her breath coming in exulting gasps while her hands twined in his hair or her nails lightly raked his back. Instead, her body was rigid and still, and her breath came evenly against his ear, while her hands moved somewhat awkwardly over him as if she had somehow forgotten the shape of him.

With a long, unsteady sigh, Kíli drew away from her.

"It's all right," he said, not quite sure if she could even hear the words above the hammering of his own heart. "You don't have to if... if you don't..."

"Oh, Kíli..." She crumpled against him, and Kíli felt her tears drop onto his skin. "It's not that I don't love you."

"I know," he returned because he knew that was the right answer, even if he could not understand her hesitation.

Kíli wanted to let go of her, wanted to find the nearest stream (even if he had to walk half the night to get there) and take a cold plunge. But with Tauriel crying into his shoulder, her hands finally grasping him with the desperation she could not feign moments before, how could he do anything but hold her?

To ease his own discomfort, Kíli moved her off him, then drew her down onto the grass and tucked his arms round her. She nestled gratefully against him, and Kíli guessed that she had missed this basic bodily contact as much as he had.

But how she could take comfort in his arms now, yet not want to make love to him, Kíli could not fully comprehend. If she wanted him near her, wouldn't she want all of him? When Kíli thought of her, there was no distinction between body, heart, and soul. All three were wonderfully wrought together into one in her, and desire for her was desire for all that she was.

Thus in denying him her body, Tauriel likewise denied him her heart and soul, and even the realization that she did not mean her refusal that way could not stop Kíli's heart from aching as if she had rejected him.

Chapter Text

Several days later, they found the Doors of Durin.

Not even the sorrow of the growing distance between him and Tauriel could dim Kíli's excitement as he stood among the broken, grass-covered stones of the ancient road and stared up at the smooth cliff face that hid the western doors to the Longbeards' ancestral realm.

"I've dreamed of these doors since I was a lad," he breathed.

"I see no doors yet," Tauriel said lightly behind him, and it was a moment before Kíli realized she was teasing him. He would once have known instinctively, he thought with a flash of guilt, but now her words and gestures seemed so veiled to him.

But he smiled when he looked from the empty stone wall back to her. "Dwarvish doors are made to be invisible when shut," he said. "I think you will like how these reveal themselves, however."

"Ah?" She prompted him to go on.

"I'll show you, but first we must wait until the stars are out." He looked up to the bright, mid-afternoon sun. "That's six or seven hours from now at least. I think I'll go back down the valley to the place there the stream falls down that little cliff. I saw a stair down to the pool below, and I fancy a bath."

Tauriel readily agreed, and they followed the stream down from its spring near the doors. It flowed beside the ruined road until the point of the valley where the ground dropped off suddenly by some thirty feet. The road descended this cliff by several winding loops, but as Kíli had noted, there was a steep, direct stair that led down at the waterfall's edge. At the base was a wide pool perfect for bathing: deep at the center, but sloping gradually up to smooth, shallow margins.

Kíli undressed and was in immediately, though Tauriel lingered at the edge, content to sit on a boulder with only her feet in the water. At any other time, Kíli would have taken her slowness as an invitation to help her in by means of a teasing splash, or if she encouraged him, by gathering her in his arms and dumping her, clothing and all, into the deeps of the pool. And then before they were fully clean they'd have chased each other under the falls and made love once or twice, half suspended in the water, as if they'd been otters and not an elf and a dwarf. But today, Kíli supposed Tauriel wished to bathe without his interference and so he left her alone.

Indeed, as soon as Kíli was out and drying on the shore, Tauriel entered the pool. She was so beautiful: the arch of her lower back as she tugged her dress over her shoulders and her bright hair curling like flames upon the water as she slipped beneath the surface and her small, perfect breasts taut with goosebumps as she rose up gleaming and wet. Kíli sighed and looked away. There was no pleasure in admiring what he could not have. Closing his eyes, he lay back in the sun and tried to think of anything but the charms of his own wife.

He had been a quarter of an hour remembering long-ago lectures from Balin on the splendors and history of Khazad-dûm when Tauriel touched his arm. Opening his eyes, he found she was (mercifully) dressed once more.

"Your braids," she said, motioning with her comb. "They're coming undone. Let me mend them."

He nodded; they'd been in the Shire when Tauriel had last redone his betrothal braids, and the woven strands were looking rather frayed by now.

Leaning over him where he lay, Tauriel loosened the silver beads and combed everything smooth. She did not immediately restore the braids, but drew Kíli's head into her lap so that she could go on playing with his hair.

Kíli stared up at her for a few seconds, trying to guess whether she offered this attention from a sense of affection or of obligation. There was a faint smile on her lips, so he told himself it was the former and let his eyes drift shut again.

Valar, it felt like ages since she had last touched him. She moved her hands over him now with an easy, expert sense of what he enjoyed, her fingertips trailing through his hair or lingering softly against his temples or tracing the edge of his ear. He could almost pretend that nothing had changed between them, that he and Tauriel were as close as they had ever been except... Before, Tauriel would never have kept her touch so carefully confined above his shoulders. Her long, graceful fingers would have skimmed down over his chest, drawing the line of a muscle or catching against a rib. No, she was not really touching him as she had used to. But this must be enough for now, till she got past whatever was holding her back from him. If she could get past it...

After a while, Kíli sat up, and Tauriel redid the elvish plaits at his temples, fastening each strand with the elvish beads she had given him as a sign of their betrothal.

"Thank you, Taur," he said when he could feel she was done.

"Yes, Kíli." She pressed her lips behind his ear, and though the kiss drew out long enough to be more than merely perfunctory, with the way they were seated, it was impossible to turn and catch her mouth to go on.

When the sunset was fading from the western sky and the stars had begun to wink into light, the two of them returned to the doors.

"Right, Tauriel. Are you watching?" Kíli stood with his hands pressed flat against the stone.

"Yes," she returned expectantly from behind him.

Heart trembling, Kíli took a deep breath and murmured the words Balin had told him back before they'd left Erebor. Then he swept his fingertips outwards over the stone.

Nothing happened.

"Balin thought that was the spell," he muttered. "Perhaps I got the pronunciation wr—"

There! The tiniest little spider's threads of light were visible where his hands had rested. They spread outwards, following the path of his fingers: in the center, a star, and on either side, crescent moons.

Kíli heard Tauriel's intake of breath behind him.

The pattern grew further, like light flowing through invisible fissures in the stone. The moons became branches of trees, which curled back around twin pillars that held aloft an arch inscribed with Elvish letters. Beneath the arch hung Durin's seven stars, surmounting his crown and anvil, the sacred symbols of his reign.

"Tauriel! It— It worked!" Kíli gasped.

"Bain," she breathed behind him, and her hand clasped his shoulder. "I see why we had to wait for nightfall."

Kíli chuckled. "It wasn't only for dramatic effect. The doors are set with ithildin—I think that means moon-star in Elvish?—and so they only reflect such light."

"That's right," Tauriel said. "Yes, I've heard of this." She stepped forward and traced her finger over the silvery lines, which now glowed quite brightly.

"The elves made it from mithril," Kíli told her. "And here it is on a dwarvish door. You see, our peoples have been friends even before now."

"Indeed. The writing on your door proves it." Tauriel stepped back to gaze up at the inscription. "Speak, friend, and enter," she read.

"Like many of our doors, this one opened at a password," Kíli explained. "But not even Balin, who's studied the lore of Khazad-dûm for as long as I can remember, knows the word for this door. It's funny; you'd think someone would have written it down somewhere."

"Does it bother you to stand on the doorstep, unable to get in?" Tauriel asked seriously.

"Well... I suppose it's a little tragic, really, Durin's heir locked out of Durin's domain. But I wouldn't go in even if the door did open for me. Even after all our wars against the orcs, some must still lurk inside. And then there are the legends of Durin's Bane..."

"Durin's Bane?"

"A monster of flame that came from the roots of the mountain, in Durin VI's time. It slew him and drove all my people out of Khazad-dûm. Durin's Bane is the reason people started calling the place Moria, 'the black chasm.' It's a sorry name for our old home."

Tauriel laughed softly. "Not unlike Mirkwood."

He smiled at her. "See, you know what it's like. Anyway, my ancestral home or not, I wouldn't take you there. You're too precious to lose in a place that's already been lost." He shrugged away these gloomy thoughts. "Besides," he said cheerfully, "Erebor is my home now. It's where you and I and—" He stopped himself from saying our children. "Well, my family's there. So it's where I want to return."

Kíli caught her hand. "And look; I already have the only treasure I need from this place." He touched the diamond betrothal ring that she wore. "Khazad-dûm is where the mithril in your ring was mined."

Tauriel brushed her thumb lightly over his fingers. "I ask for no other treasures than I already hold in my hand," she said softly, and Kíli was saddened even as he was touched, for surely that meant she chose to be content without the only treasures he still longed for.

Kíli looked back up at the glowing symbols on the door, the emblems of his royal house. Seeing them here at the entrance to the kingdom established ages ago by the Blessed Durin himself, Kíli felt more keenly than ever before the sheer immensity, the importance, of what he was connected to by right of being Durin's heir. He was the bearer of that sacred bloodline, bound either to rule or to ensure that one of Durin's sons would yet live to wear the crown in the future.

But if Tauriel remained unwilling and estranged, as she was now, he would never have a chance to find out if he could continue Durin's legacy. He still didn't care if his half-elven children were ever accepted as kings, but he realized that it did matter very much that his proud and ancient family not be lost and forgotten, even as Khazad-dûm itself had begun to be. Of course he could never, ever regret having chosen Tauriel even if it did turn out that they were not meant to bear children together, but he would very much regret never even having tried for a babe.

As the stars and the crown wavered behind tears that gathered but did not fall, Kíli felt suddenly what a worthless heir he was, no more permitted to continue his own line than he was to open these doors. He only hoped his great patriarch could not see him now, for surely the Blessed Durin would have deemed this young son a failure.

"You promised we would come here together. Do you remember?"

Kíli looked from the blue waters of the Mirrormere, his Kheled-zâram, back to Tauriel's face. "Of course," he said.

"There was a time, while we were separated by the Council, when I thought I would have to visit this place alone, if I ever did." She stepped nearer to Kíli and linked her fingers in his. The movement felt a trifle cautious, as it had been the first time she had clasped his hand thus, but he seemed glad for the gesture, for he tightened his hold. "I'm glad I was wrong," she said.

"So am I." He sighed, then said more brightly, "Let's look for Durin's crown."

The surface of the lake was as smooth and clear as the mirror of its name. From afar, it reflected an unbroken image of the sky, though as they drew nearer and the perspective shifted, Tauriel could see through the limpid waters to the reddish stones beneath.

At the place on the lake's edge marked by Durin's Stone, Kíli knelt to gaze in, as his great forefather once had done. Tauriel watched him from a little further back, unwilling to intrude. As intimately bound as she was to Kíli, she was yet no dwarf, and felt instinctively that this moment was not for her.

Expectation, recognition, and awe flitted in succession over Kíli's face. Eventually, he looked back and gestured for her. "Taur, come see," he called softly.

She stepped behind him and looked down over his shoulder into the water. His face was mirrored there, youthful and bright and eager as she knew it to be, and the sky gleamed behind him. Nothing else.

So Durin would not vouchsafe this sight to one not his own. The thought did not surprise her, though her disappointment did, a little.

Kíli asked, "Can you see?"

She was about to say no, and then she did see.

Clustered round Kíli's head were seven points of light, just as Tauriel had often seen them in the sky when she had watched at night. There was no doubt they made a crown, and that crown, a king. Kíli's face, handsome still, looked now far older, wiser with both knowledge and experience, and strong and enduring as stone.

The vision made her heart falter for a moment, stunned as she was by this sudden proof of Kíli's regal birth. Oh, she had never forgotten that he was a prince, and a very high one at that, and yet seeing in him the image of the ancient dwarven king with the sacred stars on his brow made her more keenly aware than ever before how important Kíli was in the plan of the world. If his brother and his uncle had been lost, Kíli would have held Durin's throne. And even if he himself never did rule, then one day his sons might...

No, not his sons. He would have no sons with her, a common wood elf who was too uncertain and afraid to bear them for him. At this thought, she felt a new guilt in addition to the sorrow she already felt for denying Kíli's own ardent wish: she felt how unjust she was to take away Kíli's place in Durin's royal lineage. For if she gave him no sons, he became no more than a dead branch of the family line. And truly, he deserved the honor of passing on Durin's blood; he was so noble, so worthy, so handsome and good.

Tauriel gave a sharp, involuntary sigh, and Kíli glanced up at her.

"Amrâlimê? What is it?" It was only her Kíli's face, young and impetuous and a little perplexed, that she saw now.

"You look very kingly with stars in you hair," Tauriel managed.

"It's a little frightening to think I might have been a king, if the battle for Erebor had gone differently. I never wanted that honor. If I'd become king, it would've meant Fíli and Uncle— And you can't imagine anyone would ever have let a king marry an elf!"

Tauriel guessed her face must have shown some disquiet, for Kíli went on, "Tauriel? I didn't mean anything against you; you know that."

Forcibly collecting herself, Tauriel smiled. "Yes, I know. And you would have made a fine king."

"I believe you. Though I doubt being king would have made me happier."

Tauriel nearly asked him if he was happy now, but she was afraid of what his answer would be.

They went up from the lake to the rocky slopes below the eastern gates of Moria, the site of a dwarvish battle fought long before Kíli had been born. On reaching the place, Kíli stooped to touch his brow to the stone, murmuring a Khuzdul blessing. Dropping to her knee beside him, Tauriel offered her own Elvish words of remembrance for the fallen.

Kíli remained on his knees for some time afterwards, his gaze steady on the barren slope before them. At last, he said, "This is where my uncle Frerin died and Thorin won the name Oakenshield." He glanced to Tauriel then. "You know, they had the same age difference between them as Fí and I—five years. Frerin wasn't yet fifty, and Thorin only fifty three."

He laughed, though Tauriel thought it was not really for amusement.

"Mum would never have let us go into battle so young. I've told you how angry she was when Thorin proposed the quest, and Fíli and I had been full grown for years by then." He paused, his eyes troubled. "Poor Thorin. If I'd lost my brother in our battle for the mountain, I'd— Well, I don't know." His eyes flashed with some powerful emotion. "But I suppose I'd be a very different dwarf now."

Tauriel said gently, "You didn't, so there is no use thinking of it."

Kíli shook his head, tossing dark hair about his eyes. "You're right."

He stood and drew her after him.

"Six years that war lasted," he went on. "Azghu-rakhâs, we call it, the Orcish War. It started when my great grandfather Thrór was slain by Azog. His son Thráin gathered all of the Seven Kingdoms to avenge him. They went from Gundabad in the north to Azanûlbizar, where we stand now, driving the orcs from their lairs. This battlefield here was one of the few to lie under the sky; nearly all the rest were underground in the orcs' filthy tunnels or in the halls they had stolen from us dwarves."

"You said Gundabad was a sacred place for your people," Tauriel noted, remembering something Kíli had once said in passing.

"It's where Durin himself first awoke, in the dawn of the world. He was alone and so he left, looking for others like him. Later, the Longbeards made it a fortress and a place of councils. Though the orcs took it from us many, many years ago. And despite our Azghu-rakhâs, you've seen yourself that they hold it still, though I can't imagine we left many orcs to go limping back there after the Battle of Five. Some of Thorin's counselors have been arguing that we should reclaim the place, now that our enemy is weakened, but Thorin refuses to waste more lives when Gundabad no longer poses a threat."

"I think that a wise decision, don't you?"

He nodded. "I do. I'm still a warrior—I always will be; I was trained to it since I was a lad—but I've sense enough now not to go looking for a fight. There are more important things to live for."

Kíli met her eyes with a look of such tenderness and loyalty that she could not give him any less than he deserved: leaning down, she met his lips with hers. He responded cautiously, as shy as if this had been a first kiss, not a thousandth. Then, his lips becoming bolder, Kíli placed rough hands gently about her face, and Tauriel felt she would have gladly returned his eagerness, if only—

She froze, straightening a little, and Kíli's face went immediately cold and blank, a look that was sadly growing all too familiar to her.

"Kíli," she said, her voice low and urgent. "There are orcs near this valley. I scented them just now as the wind shifted. We should not linger here."

"Oh." He stared at her for another moment, and then understanding seemed to light in his eyes. "Yes. You're right." He dropped his hands from her face and reached back for his bow.

Tauriel watched him as he strung his weapon and loosened an arrow in its quiver. How could she tell him he had done nothing wrong, that she would have gladly gone on kissing him? But if she said that, he might think she invited more than she yet felt able to answer.

And so, hands on her daggers, she merely said, "If we follow the Silverlode down to the border of Lothlórien, we should be safe for the night. No orc would venture near that enchanted wood." Then she tapped Kíli's upper arm in the gesture of camaraderie that she had so often used with the elves of her guard, and moved past him, leading in the direction she had told.

Standing beneath the eaves of Lothlórien, Tauriel supposed she felt as thrilled as Kíli had to face the doors of Khazad-dûm. Few elves that Tauriel knew had ever set foot here, but all her life she had heard songs of the Golden Wood, a place more rich in beauty and memory and enchantment than any other where her people still dwelled in Middle-earth.

Twilight had fallen, and the trees were faded, indistinct shapes now, but even so they felt more fair, this forest more open and bright, than any Tauriel had ever visited outside her dreams.

"Have you ever seen such wonderful trees?" she breathed to Kíli.

He quirked a brow at her. "You know I can't tell one forest from the next. But these trees are especially tall." He laughed at her expression of mock disappointment. "And they smell very nice. Rather like elves."

"You're very perceptive for a dwarf," said a coolly amused voice from behind Tauriel.

Starting, she drew her daggers and whirled to face a pair of tall, fair-haired elven wardens clad in muted greens and greys. Here in their own forest, they had moved too silently even for her keen senses to register them. Or had there been some enchantment involved, too?

"Oh!" she gasped and hastily lowered her weapons. "Goheno nin."

"You've done no harm," the leader of the two strange elves said. "There have been orcs about the Dimrill Dale this past fortnight. You do well to be on your guard."

Tauriel sheathed her knives and then bowed her head respectfully. "I am Tauriel, of the Woodland Realm, and this is my husband, Kíli, prince and heir of Durin's house."

"Your majesties," the bright-haired elf returned, bowing at the waist. "Haldir of the wardens at your command." The second elf bowed as well.

Tauriel felt her face go red, so astonished was she by this address. When Kíli took her hand, she clasped it somewhat desperately.

"As you may guess, we've been watching for you," Haldir said once he stood straight. "Our Lady sent us. She has seen you from afar and wishes to meet such an extraordinary pair."

"Please, give her our thanks," Kíli said, and Tauriel could tell his voice was somewhat unsteady.

Haldir smiled softly. "You may thank her yourself; we're to take you to her directly."

"Ah," Tauriel sighed, feeling very overwhelmed by such a lofty invitation.

Truly, she had been awed to meet Elrond and the wizard Saruman, but neither of those figures, venerable as they were, compared to the Lady Galadriel, who had been born ages and ages ago, across the sea in Valinor at a time when Tauriel's own Silvan ancestors were still roaming the twilight woods of Middle-earth. Besides, from all Tauriel knew, Lothlórien was even more closed to outsiders than was her native woodland kingdom. That she and Kíli were allowed to pass these borders, much less as the invited guests of the elven queen herself, was more than Tauriel had ever dared imagine. Perhaps it was due to Kíli's own regal status? But even so, she had not expected these Lothlórien elves to grant so much respect to a dwarf, even a royal one.

"Thank you," she murmured finally. "We are most honored."

"Come." Haldir gestured and then turned. "Our talan is nearby, so you shall not have to sleep on the ground tonight. We've instructions to make you as comfortable as possible."

Tauriel watched the warden's retreating back for one astonished moment more, then moved after him. Glancing down at Kíli as he followed her, she saw his eyes wide with wonder. Then he gave her a foolish smirk and whispered, "Sleeping on the ground doesn't sound so very uncomfortable to me."

Tauriel thought she heard a very faint laugh from Haldir ahead, but the warden said no more.


Grignar looked up from the soft margin of the stream, where the spoor of both an elf and a dwarf were clearly imprinted, to glare at the dark forms of trees looming on the eastern horizon, smudging out the stars.

He had moved his troop too early and had thereby alerted his quarry to their danger. He'd been hoping to take the dwarf and his elven companion by surprise as they dawdled in the valley below Moria, too interested in the sights to spot a party of orcs sneaking down a fold of the dale behind them until it was too late.

Yet that elf bitch—curse her!—had a far keener nose, it seemed, than any stone-born dwarf. As soon as the wind had turned, she and the puny princeling had been off. Grignar had had to let them go; if he was to catch them later, he could not risk their realizing they were followed.

Tracking them now, after dark, it was clear they had made for the elven wood.

All the kings and lords of shit.

It was foolish to pursue them. Not only were there strong magics on that forest, but the elves who lived there were deadly and ruthless in defending their own.

With another foul curse, Grignar spat into the clear waters of the stream and then gestured for his band to follow as he turned back towards the mountains.

His one consolation was that their prey was a dwarf. For while other folk, friends of the elves, might not leave the magic wood after having once entered it, dwarves—like orcs—were creatures of mountains and stone and would not willingly remain forever among so many disgusting trees. The dwarf prince, at least, would be coming out of the elven wood soon enough. And when he did...

Grignar gave a harsh laugh. Well, things would finally get fun.

Chapter Text

As he climbed the winding stair that would lead them to the elf queen's audience chamber, Kíli felt grateful that his visit to Tauriel's woodland home last year had given him a chance to become, if not exactly comfortable up in trees, then at least not visibly uncomfortable. He would have felt very foolish indeed if all these poised and graceful elves watching them pass from the telain had seen him clinging to Tauriel's arm like a frightened dwarfling. Yet that was exactly how he had been the first time Tauriel had stood with him upon the high, swaying platform in her own treetop dwelling.

Thank Mahal, these trees—mellyrn, the elves called them—were far broader and sturdier than any others Kíli had ever seen. They hardly moved in the wind, or perhaps there was some enchantment here that made the wind and weather so mild. Truly, Kíli felt as if he had entered another place entirely here in the heart of the wood, as if this part of the forest were sheltered from the rest of the world. He knew the same sensation of being enfolded and protected whenever he was beneath the living stone of the mountains. But whereas the stone was familiar and comfortable as a mother's touch, whatever magic now held them close felt so foreign. Foreign, but still fair and good, like the soft sweetness of Tauriel's fingers brushing his own rough hands that first time.

Pacing gracefully beside him now, Tauriel seemed more otherworldly than ever before, as if the magic of this place had filled and transformed her into the radiant, heavenly creature he had glimpsed only once before, when she had invoked the grace of the Valar and drawn him back from the brink of death. How even the ancient elf queen could be more beautiful than his Tauriel, Kíli could not imagine. Yet he would soon know if such a thing were possible, for they had finally reached the top of this dizzying stair.

Coming up into the audience chamber, Kíli felt his breath catch. If Tauriel was like the starlight, the Lady of Lórien blazed like the sun. For a moment, Kíli's eyes were dazzled, as if he had gazed on some primal, vibrant light kindled at the dawn of the world. Then his vision cleared, and he saw only a slender elf woman, clad simply in white. Her hair was a gold richer than any in Erebor's vast treasure chambers, and it seemed to shine with some inner light. Her skin was radiant alabaster, and her eyes the clear, bright blue of the sky on a cloudless summer evening.

For the first time, Kíli could understand why Tauriel thought herself lowly among her kind, for surely she had not the stately, refined glory of this Noldorin queen. Yet stunningly beautiful as this lady was, Kíli found he could not, even for a moment, prefer her to the woman at his side, whose copper hair and freckled skin and leaf-green eyes were infinitely more lovely to him than the queen's crystalline perfection. Yes, there was a certain superiority in the clarity and radiance of a diamond, but he favored the moonstone's soft, misty glow.

Even as he thought this, the queen met his eyes and Kíli had the embarrassing sensation that she understood precisely what he was thinking and was amused by it.

"Do not doubt you have indeed found a most rare gem," she said, and then Kíli knew she had somehow seen his thoughts. His face burned.

"Your— your majesty." He swept a bow. "Kíli of Erebor at your service," he stammered, and then instantly felt stupid. What service could he possibly offer someone so lofty and powerful as she?

Yet she smiled kindly and bent her head. "Zai adshânzu ra barafzu."

Kíli could not stop a smile from breaking over his face at hearing her return his greeting in his own tongue, placing herself at the service of him and his family. Such was, of course, the traditional response.

The elf queen's gaze shifted to Tauriel, who dropped to her knee and murmured, "Bereth nîn."

"Le nathlam, Tauriel, Daughter of the Forest" Galadriel said.

"Yes, welcome, Kíli Durin's Son and Tauriel of the Greenwood," came a deeper voice, and for the first time, Kíli noticed the silver-haired elven lord at Galadriel's side. Celeborn, wasn't that what Tauriel had said was the name of this king? He looked far less conceited than Tauriel's own king Thranduil, Kíli thought before remembering, with a wave of horror, that his thoughts were no longer exactly private.

"We are greatly honored by your invitation," Tauriel was saying, and Kíli stared at her to avoid the queen's penetrating gaze. "I confess I feel hardly worth such notice, and I can only guess it is for my husband's sake that I am distinguished so. He is the highest of princes; I have looked in the Mirrormere and seen Durin's Crown upon his head."

The king's brows rose just a fraction. "Then you are the first elf to have been granted such a sight, just as you—" he looked to Kíli "—are the first dwarf granted entrance to this kingdom since the Dark Days."

The Dark Days, Kíli guessed, were the time of Durin's Bane. He knew that the devastation had extended beyond Moria, even to this elven kingdom.

"I can only second the words of my wife and wonder what I have done to merit such an honor," he said.

"You have answered your own question, Prince Kíli," Galadriel returned, smiling on him once more. "This Silvan woman is your wife. That one of the Khazad should be joined to an Elda as you are is a wonder I never dreamed to see. Truly, it is a most hopeful sign."

"Oh." Kíli stared at her with what he hoped was not a very stupid look. Of course he knew what fantastic good fortune—a divine gift, really—he possessed in Tauriel, but he had never regarded his situation as more than a private blessing. But this ancient elven queen spoke as if she derived some encouragement from him and his amrâlimê.

"You know that there has been strife between our two kindreds since Arda was made. Even the wise have thought it a rift too wide to be mended while this world endures. And here you have proven us wrong." Her eyes flashed with humor, and Kíli thought her almost as pretty as his own love in that moment. "Sometimes it is very good to be proven wrong."

Kíli did not know what to say, for her talk of a rift made him think of the distance that had lately been growing between him and Tauriel. Perhaps they had proven nothing yet, and the thought grieved him.

"If you two have come together now, it must be for some great purpose. Not, perhaps, great in the way that the world generally accounts such things, by fame or wealth or glory. Or perhaps so. Who can say?" Galadriel met the eyes of Kíli and his wife in turn. "Yet I believe together, you will accomplish something new and good. Let that thought be a hopeful one, for if the Valar have appointed some task for you, they will not abandon you to accomplish it alone."

As she spoke, Kíli had the feeling that she reassured him, that she had somehow seen the uncertainty that was in his heart, and that her words were spoken specifically to comfort and encourage. He did feel the weight lift from him somewhat, for though such hopes had sometimes occurred to him, it was easier to believe them when he heard them in this lady's voice.

"I have never seen a bond like the one between you," Galadriel continued earnestly. "It has an energy—a fire—far stronger than the connection marriage usually produces. Your spirits are not equally matched; that is, they have not the symmetry of an elf matched to an elf, or a dwarf to a dwarf. Yet that difference seems to be the cause of your unusual affinity. An affinity it surely is, for your two spirits shine with a passion and boldness unlike that native to either dwarf or elf."

"I even think—" Here she stepped towards Kíli and extending her arm, tipped his chin up with her finger. Her skin was cool and soft, like water or silk. As her eyes searched his, he felt as if she were taking his measure, though against what standard, he could not have said. "I think it likely that, as a result of your connection to Tauriel, you will be gifted by years beyond the usual span for a dwarf. How long, I could not say, but I sense that the light she has called forth in you will not soon be extinguished."

Kíli's heart leapt with pure astonishment. Could his union to Tauriel really change him that way? He didn't feel any different, but Galadriel seemed more knowing and wise than any person Kíli had ever spoken to. He instinctively felt he ought not doubt her.

"And you." The elven queen turned to Tauriel now and took the young Silvan's hand. "In these waning days of Middle-earth, the spirits of the Eldar, too, have waned, settling to a low, cool flame, like a fire that has already consumed the greater part of its fuel. But your spirit burns hot and bright, like that of an Elda new woken." She glanced to Kíli for an instant, and then added, apparently for his benefit, "The spirits of the elves are tied to Arda, even to the earth itself. We live as long as this world endures. Yet the earth changes and we cannot; those ties weaken and so we tire and fade. But, Tauriel, in taking for your mate this dwarf born from stone, you appear to have renewed your connection to the earth. While you are united to Kíli, I foresee you will live with an energy and intensity greater than that of the Eldar alone."

Still staggered from Galadriel's words to him, it took Kíli's mind several moments to catch up with what she had said to his beloved. Was she saying that he gave something rare and precious to Tauriel, just as she did to him? You make me feel alive, he had once said to her, and it seemed that he had been more right than he had known, for both of them. And if they brought out such life in one another, surely that meant that children were not such a foolish, wild hope after all...

Kíli glanced to Tauriel, hoping to find some answering look of gladness on her face. But Tauriel's eyes were fixed solemnly on Galadriel's own, as if she and the other elf woman shared some thought without words; and Kíli could not guess what his wife was thinking.

Celeborn spoke again. "Now you understand that we are quite honored to greet you as friends and guests." He bowed his head graciously to them. "You are welcome to remain here as long as your journey allows. I will appoint a host for you."

"My lord and lady, we are most truly grateful," Tauriel said.

Kíli, still too overwhelmed to say much, simply echoed, "Thank you."

Kíli had been somewhat giddy all day—Tauriel had sensed his high spirits—though he said nothing about the reason for his mood until he and Tauriel were both abed.

Despite their host's kindly offer, Kíli had staunchly refused to be lodged on the forest floor, and so they were now perched high in the branches of a mallorn in a nest of soft blankets and furs piled on the floor of the talan, as was the custom of the Lórien elves.

As Tauriel stretched out beside him, Kíli caught her and drew her back firmly against his chest. Despite his show of indifference, Tauriel knew he still felt precarious so far above the ground. He had spent their previous night in a tree snuggled close to her for safety, a response she found endearing, though she was sorry she could not do as much as she once had to take his mind off their seemingly dangerous position.

But now when he nuzzled his face against her and kissed the back of her neck, Tauriel realized that the risk of plummeting to their doom was not foremost in his mind.

"I can't stop thinking about what the Lady told us," he said. "I'll live longer, and you... You're already more bright and wonderful. My Thatrûna." He gave another lingering kiss. "Just think; we'll have more years together than we ever thought."

She raised one of his hands to her lips. "Yes, Kíli, it is truly wonderful." Though she knew she could be content with whatever time she had been given with Kíli, the promise of more was a most precious gift.

He caressed her arm. "And what she said about you, that you'll be—you are—more alive because of me. Don't you think that could mean—" He left the rest unspoken, but his tone was hopeful and she knew he thought once again of children.

Tauriel felt her stomach turn over at the suggestion of this difficult topic. "The Lady couldn't tell me that," she admitted at last.

"What do you mean?"

"In my mind, I felt— She knew what I would ask, but she could give me no answer." A pang shot through her heart as she remembered her own moment of fervent hope at Galadriel's pronouncement, followed by a return of crushing uncertainty.

"But she didn't say 'no,'" Kíli prompted.

"No, she did not," Tauriel returned. Oh, why must Kíli keep hoping? Her heart had broken once to learn even the Lady could give her no clear answer, and now it broke a second time to tell Kíli she still could not share his optimism.

Kíli was silent for a while, and Tauriel worried she had hurt him again.

"But Tauriel," he finally went on. "Think of all the good things she said. We're meant for something great; we're perfect together."

"Haven't we already found so much good in each other? Isn't that enough?" She could hear the unhappy edge in her own voice as she spoke.

Kíli's tone was subdued when he answered. "Yes. We have. It is— It's good." He shifted, snuggling as close to her as possible. "I love you, Tauriel."

His last words sounded desperate, almost as if he were pleading with her.

"Hadhodeg, le melon," she returned softly, though she felt how little right she had to say those words. How could she continue to deny his dearest wishes that they try for a child and then tell him she loved him? She was, she felt, quite cruel.

Long after Kíli had fallen asleep, Tauriel remained awake. Not even the peaceful singing that rose and fell through these trees like the sound of summer wind in the leaves could soothe the troubled working of her mind.

She tried, again and again, to reason herself into the hope that Kíli felt: the hope that they might conceive at all, the hope that she could bear a babe safely, that the Valar's many gifts to them were a sign that she could expect this further blessing of children. Yet every time she argued to herself that such things were likely, she would circle round again to the crushing fear of losing that precious life. Despite the many good things she and Kíli had learned today, Tauriel struggled to dismiss the doubts that had taken root in her heart like some insidious parasitic growth that clung to a tree and sapped it of all its vitality.

Yet Kíli, poor Kíli! He wanted a child so badly. Yes, and she had promised him that gift on the day she had become his wife. With this gold from within the stone I pledge to you my body: the work of my hands, the strength of my arm, the children of my womb. That had been her vow to accompany the ring she gave him, and she felt she betrayed it now.

Oh, she wanted to give Kíli all he longed for. Truly, she could think of nothing more beautiful than creating a new life with him. A child would be the living image of their love, half Kíli and half herself, and yet a new treasure for them both to cherish. And so, knowing how precious that sweet little creature would be, Tauriel could not bear the thought of losing their babe. No, it was not that she did not want what Kíli did; rather, she wanted it too much.

At last, because she could not lie in Kíli's arms pondering things she knew would make him unhappy, she rose from bed, moving carefully lest she wake him. Not knowing where the other stairs and ladders led in this treetop palace, she descended to the ground.

There, she wandered among the stately boles and spreading roots of these majestic trees, though she hardly saw any of what was before her, troubled as she was.

Tauriel had been gazing miserably into a fountain for some time when she suddenly glanced up to find Galadriel before her.

The elf queen looked less imposing now, her head bare and her hair in a loose, soft braid. Something in her kindly expression momentarily reminded Tauriel of her own mother, who had once so tenderly soothed a young daughter's troubles. Those long-ago, childish hurts seemed so small and insignificant now, compared to the one that now threatened to divide Tauriel from her husband, whom she loved and valued beyond any other living soul.

"My child, you are troubled," Galadriel said to her.

"Yes." It was a relief to admit it to someone older and stronger, who must surely know what to do.

Galadriel came forward and took Tauriel's hands. "Tell me," she said, and drew the young Silvan to a smooth seat fashioned from the bend of a great mallorn root.

Tauriel was silent for a while before she could find words to begin. At last, she said, "Kíli and I want a child. But it seems so impossible. And even should we conceive, I am afraid that— Well, mortal children may be lost during birth. I have seen it happen! And in body, I am nothing like a dwarf. What if I cannot bear Kíli's babe?"

She sighed, feeling tears about to fall as she gazed up into the elf queen's clear blue eyes. Their expression was understanding, and Tauriel found it easier to continue. "Kíli and I have grown so distant. I don't know what to do! I cannot lose him, yet I feel that I am."

Galadriel smiled gently then and stroked Tauriel's hair. "You need not fear that yet. He is fully devoted to you; I saw that clearly from the first."

"But if I disappoint him in this—"

"Do you not suppose he is just as afraid to lose you?"

"I—" Tauriel was so troubled now by how she was failing him, she had not considered Kíli's own fears. "Yes. He must be." His words on that miserable night, when she had tried and failed to overcome her reluctance to be intimate with him, echoed in her mind: You're so far from me. She had tried to bridge that space since then, but still she felt it between them.

"Think less of the babe that may or may not yet be, and more of Kíli," Galadriel instructed.

"What do you mean?" Tauriel had been thinking of Kíli and his desires all this time; that was why she felt so wretched now.

"Kíli does not need a child. He needs you."

Tauriel's tears dropped into her lap.

"I know. But I don't know how to give myself to him when we're so at odds. I'm not sure Kíli understands, but you must, as another Elda. How can I make love to him when he wants to conceive a child and I do not?" Tauriel looked away, embarrassed by this very private topic. She would not have dared mention such a thing to anyone else, but she still felt a childlike, instinctive trust for this wise and kind woman.

"Oh, love." The elder elf woman put an arm round Tauriel's shoulders and held her near. "He needs you more in heart and in mind. Have you told him what holds you back?"

"I have tried."

"It is worth trying again." The golden queen smiled, almost teasing now. "It is my experience that husbands do not always recognize the things we wish they would. And so we must be patient and tell them what we need them to know. Often more than once."

An involuntary smile flitted over Tauriel's own lips at the thought that even Galadriel of Lórien ever disagreed with her own venerable spouse. Compared to that ancient couple, she and Kíli had been together mere days!

"Remember," Galadriel went on, "As close as you both are in body, heart, and spirit, your minds are your own. You must work to meet each other there. "

Tauriel nodded. "Yes, I will try. Thank you."

Galadriel kissed the young redhead's brow. "I know you will do well. And if you understand one another, I do not think you can possibly lose one another."

Tauriel sighed, feeling a tension held for days go out of her at last. The worst of her worries—that Kíli might become forever estranged from her—seemed less pressing and fearful now.

"Tell me," Tauriel asked softly after a time. "Can you truly not foresee if Kíli and I may become parents?"

"I cannot predict what will be, no. Though I can offer you a glimpse of what may be, if you wish to look."

"A glimpse?"

"Surely even in the Greenwood you have heard of the elven sorceress with her magic mirror?" Galadriel prompted, a hint of amusement in her voice.

"Oh. Yes." On coming here, Tauriel had dismissed those rumors as mere invention, the tales of the superstitious and ignorant.

"I offer you the choice to look in my mirror."

"And will I see a future for Kíli and myself?"

"Perhaps. You may see what has been, or what is, or things that may be if you remain on the path you currently tread. You may even see what might have been, had you chosen a different path. The mirror will not give you an answer, Tauriel, but if you seek a new perspective, it can offer you that."

"I understand." She had been trapped by her own fears for so long. If she could see something different, something that might give her either the courage to hope for a child or the peace to accept she would have none, it might help her and Kíli find an answer together.

Tauriel raised her eyes once more to the elven queen's and said steadily, "Yes, I will look."

Chapter Text

Tauriel's stomach was tight with nervousness as she watched Galadriel gather water from the spring and fill the silver basin of the mirror. Even bearing in mind the mirror's limitations, Tauriel knew what she wished it could show her: a future in which she and Kíli were granted a child. Children, even. She understood that such a vision would not guarantee that future for them, but she was sure that seeing such a happy possibility with her own eyes could not fail to give her the hope Kíli felt even now.

When the water inside the basin was still, Galadriel leaned down and breathed lightly on its surface. Then glancing up to Tauriel, she beckoned the young woman to come forward.

Tauriel could not help shivering as she took the last steps towards the pedestal where the mirror stood. Most of what mortals would have called elvish magic was simply the result of the Eldar's greater attunement to the living world, to soil and leaf, to wind and sun and rain. But magic was the only word she knew for what Galadriel showed her now.

She settled her hands on either side of the basin to still their shaking against the solid stone pedestal. Looking down, she saw the mirror reflected only the stars. Long moments passed, marked only by the hammering of her heart. And then the stars went out and another image took their place...

This was somewhere indoors, lit by lamps and a brazier. Tauriel recognized the cut of the stone walls and roof—Erebor, wasn't this? Yes, there on the wall was a tapestry boasting Durin's royal emblem in blue and silver. This must be a room in the royal suite, though not one she had ever been in.

Below the tapestry was a bed, though Tauriel could not make out who lay there because of the small crowd of women—dwarves, all of them—who bustled around it, intent upon its unseen occupant. Was someone ill? Not Thorin or perhaps Fíli, she worried suddenly, recognizing one of the women as Dís with her dark braids. It could not be Kíli; this was not the bedchamber of his marriage suite, which she had seen though she had not yet slept there with him.

Finally, one of the women stepped away from the bed to fetch something, and Tauriel saw that it was another young dwarf woman who lay there. Her black hair was sweaty and disheveled, her face pale and contorted by pain, and so it was several moments before Tauriel recognized her: Audha, the young woman whom Kíli had been briefly promised to marry when the Council of Seven Kingdoms had forced him to give Tauriel up two years ago.

What had Audha to do with her and Kíli any longer? At the time of their wedding, the Blacklock maid was being courted by Fíli's future brother-in-law, Freyr; indeed she had quite likely formalized an engagement to him while Tauriel and Kíli had been away on their honeymoon.

Dís was now calling encouragement to the younger dwarf woman, who tossed her head unhappily and cried out. After a few panted breaths, she appeared to comply with what was asked, setting her face in a determined grimace of pain and effort.

Tauriel understood, then, what she saw; yet what was she meant to learn from watching Audha birth her child? Unless— Fear chilled Tauriel's heart. Did this poor dwarf woman lose her babe, too? Was that death what Tauriel was meant to see? Kíli had said fatal complications were unlikely for mother or child among a folk as hardy as his own, but if such a tragedy could befall a full-blood dwarven babe, Tauriel would know the danger too great for them to risk bearing a half-blood child.

The stone bit into Tauriel's hands as she gripped the edges of the pedestal, her attention focused on the laboring woman in the mirror. Audha was apparently bawling now, while the women clustered about her became more agitated. There were several miserably intense moments during which it was impossible to tell what was happening, and then things seemed to be over. Dís said something to Audha, and the young woman began to weep, though from grief or relief, Tauriel could not guess.

Sick with suspense, Tauriel stared into the mirror, hardly registering what she saw until at last Dís passed a naked little babe into Audha's arms. The mirror showed the child clearly. He was a boy, with black brows and a crown of thick dark hair like his mother's. Though the little one's features were rather red and scrunched, there was something about the shape of his eyes and the curve of his mouth that Tauriel recognized but could not place.

Audha gazed down wonderingly into that little face, seemingly both afraid and uncertain. Gradually, her expression softened into something tender and happy, and she kissed the downy head. Then she glanced up, as if at the arrival of someone else. That someone moved into the mirror's image and oh—

It was Kíli!

He said something. Audha smiled shyly at him and placed the babe in his arms.

Yes. The babe was his own; Tauriel knew it for a certainty. In the same instant, she knew she must be looking at an image of what might have been if Audha had not released Kíli so that he could be reunited with Tauriel. Audha would never be Kíli's wife now, not when her heart belonged to Freyr. And no matter what lay in store for Kíli and herself, Tauriel knew he would be just as incapable as she of ever choosing—let alone producing a child with—anyone else. For elves and dwarves alike, marriage was an indissoluble bond of body and soul.

What she saw in the mirror would never be. Yet somehow it must hold significance for her and Kíli even now.

She watched the image of Kíli gaze down at the little babe whose face resembled his own, but she could not guess what he was thinking, for his expression was reserved. Then he handed the child back to Audha. As an afterthought, he bent and kissed her brow. When he straightened, his eyes seemed to meet Tauriel's across the mirror's surface, their expression sad and empty and alone...

He faded from the water's surface, replaced again by the stars above.

Tauriel drew several long, trembling breaths before she could look up again.

When she did, Galadriel was watching her thoughtfully.

At first, Tauriel felt she would weep. This was not what she had wanted to see: Kíli's life as it might have been with a rival woman. She had wanted to see herself and him together, with or without children. What she had seen brought back all the anger, frustration, and hurt she had once known when Kíli had nearly been forced to take a dwarven bride.

"Tauriel?" Galadriel came forward and gently lifted the Silvan elf's hands from the stone pedestal. Looking down, Tauriel saw that her palms bore the imprint of the stone from the fierceness of her grip. "What you saw upsets you."

"I saw—" Tauriel took a deep breath. "I saw a future that never can be: Kíli and the dwarf who might have been his bride and their...their babe." She put a hand to her eye, instinctively trying to dash away tears that had not yet fallen. "Maybe that was the point," she went on, her voice steadier now. She must be strong; she had looked into the mirror to help herself and Kíli, and so she could not falter just because she had not liked the vision she had been given.

"That future—all of it—is impossible for us now. If Kíli was to have children, it must have been with her, with another dwarf." She smiled weakly at Galadriel. "But what you told me earlier is right. Fathering a child did not make Kíli happy."

The elf queen nodded. "You are wise to realize that. If you cannot both find happiness as you are, nothing you ever achieve together will make you so. Such is an important lesson, and one not easily learned."

In her mind, Tauriel again saw Kíli's miserable, lonely face as he had looked at her out of the mirror. Surely, that was an accurate image of how he had felt even during his brief betrothal to Audha. "I thank the Valar for giving Kíli back to me after I lost him once," she said. "They have granted us all we need to be happy, and I will not waste that gift now."

Galadriel smiled warmly. "I am glad. You and Kíli have a rare chance unlike what has been offered to anyone before you in all the ages of the world. I am eager to see what you make of it." She pressed Tauriel's hands, which she still held. "I offer one last word of advice. Do not be too swift to guess the mirror's meaning. Its visions confound even the wisest."

"Yes." Tauriel gazed up at this woman who, in this one night, had been more mother to her than anyone had for centuries. "Thank you for all you've given me. I begin to feel at peace again for the first time since..." Since she and Kíli had left Rivendell. "Well, since too long."

"You are welcome." Galadriel glanced to the stone stairway leading up from the dell where they stood. "Now, I think your husband may wish to reclaim you."

Kíli awoke to find Tauriel had gone. He sighed and rolled over, trying not to be hurt that she had left him. Perhaps there were elvish things she had wanted to see or do here in this treetop palace. Once, she would have wanted to share those things with him. Or maybe she had simply not wanted to lie here with him when he was so clearly desperate for her to feel the hope she could not.

He couldn't understand how she was still so doubtful after all the good things Galadriel had said to them today. No, it was not yet certain that they would be parents, but now didn't they have plenty of reasons to believe it was right that they at least try to conceive? But then, children no longer seemed Tauriel's wish as they had been before.

The loss of a dream once shared with Tauriel hurt Kíli almost more than the lost chance for children did. Tauriel and he had once seemed to understand each other so well. They had hoped for a life together back when it had seemed impossible for an elf and a dwarf to wed, let alone love. Then, after the cruel demands of politics had briefly torn them apart, Tauriel had known, by some miracle of kindred hearts, the moment he had been free and needed her back. And in that blissful first year of their marriage, Kíli had felt so attuned to Tauriel's thoughts and desires that it had seemed they were one in mind just as they were in body. But now, well... She seemed further away from him than she had ever been since he'd first dared set his eyes on her.

The lightly shifting leaves above Kíli's head were making him feel dizzy, so he sat up. But that didn't make things better, for now he had a clear view of the abrupt drop off the edge of the talan not two yards away from the bed. He swallowed. It was easier to feel comfortable up here with Tauriel beside him, but alone, all his instinctive fears of being thrown off by the movement of the tree in the wind—never mind that it was the softest breeze right now—came crowding into his head. Oh, how he wished for that solid, rooted feeling of earth and stone beneath his soles again!

He crawled to the edge of the bedding pile and reached for his boots. After those, he put on his belt and drew back his hair. If he met any elves, he didn't want them to think him entirely uncivilized, wandering about half dressed. Then he rose cautiously and, slowly and deliberately, made for the ladder that led down from their private talan.

If he focused only on the rungs of the ladder beneath his feet and the rails in his hands, it wasn't so very bad climbing down the twenty odd feet to the next platform. Even so, he had to halt at the bottom and catch his breath, his eyes closed while he still clung to the ladder rail.

After a few moments, he was able to cross the talan and reach the narrow walkway that led down, by a series of arching descents from platform to platform, to one of the main staircases that finally led to the ground. There were a number of twists and junctions along the way, but Kíli thought he remembered the right path.

Yet after ten more minutes of descending, Kíli found himself climbing again and into another tree entirely. Blast! Somewhere, he had taken a wrong turn. And to his surprise, there were no elves about—in sight, anyway; he could hear their singing all around him—to ask the way. He paused, hands tight on the flimsy ornamental railing along this particular walkway, and gazed longingly at the ground which was still a fatal plummet's distance away. What was he even doing here, a simple dwarf entirely out of his depth—or, more accurately, out of his height—here in a kingdom of tree-dwelling elves?

Just as he was about to turn back the way he had come, in hopes of finding where he had gone wrong, a sweet female voice said behind him, "Hir hadhod?"

Kíli turned and saw a tall elf maid regarding him curiously. Her hair was dark and rich, like shadows at twilight, though her eyes were the cool, clear grey of moonlight.

"May I help you?" she said again.

"Yes, in fact, you may," Kíli said with a relieved smile. "I would be most grateful if you could show me a way to the ground from here. I think I've taken a wrong turn. Well, several, actually."

"Of course!"

She extended her pretty white hand, and he took it. When she touched him, he felt instantly better, no longer acutely aware of the perilous distance between him and the earth.

The elf maid led him forward in the way he had been going, over several more arching spans of walkway, and then down a spiral stair that ended, wonderfully, in a little flagged patio among the roots of a tree.

"Thank you," Kíli said as he settled his feet against the comfortingly solid stone.

"You are welcome," the elf said, releasing his hand at last. "You must be Prince Kíli."

"Err, yes. Sorry; I should have introduced myself!" He swept her a bow. "At your service, my lady."

She smiled. "You may call me Arwen."

"Oh, you mean— You're Lord Elrond's daughter." She was a beautiful maid, with her pale skin and midnight hair, and Kíli realized with embarrassing certainty that if she'd been in Rivendell the first time he had visited, even the knowledge that she was his host's daughter would not have prevented him from flirting shamelessly with her.

She nodded. "And the lady Galadriel is my mother's mother."

"Ah." Kíli felt himself flush from his hairline to his collar. "Does that mean you can also... I mean; I'm sorry! I meant no offense. You're very pretty, even for an elf. That's all I was thinking."

Arwen laughed with easy delight. "No, Kíli, I cannot see your thoughts, if that is what you mean."


"And thank you for your admiration. I find you very charming, even for a dwarf," she returned lightly, though Kíli was sure she did not tease him.

The dark-haired elf moved across the patio to a little path that led away among the trees, and Kíli easily fell into step beside her.

"I don't suppose you have met my wife, Tauriel, yet," he went on.

"No, I have not, but I should like to, before you leave." She gazed at him intently for a moment, and Kíli thought she again seemed curious. "You met her during the war for your homeland?"

"Yes. Well, I met her across the bars of a prison cell, truth be told."

This remark produced another merry laugh. "Did you! And was it she or you who was the prisoner?"

"Oh, it was me, of course! You can't imagine I would ever have dared lock her in a cell!" He grinned, half teasing and half serious.

"And what had you done to deserve imprisonment?"

"Trespassing in King Thranduil's realm. Or it might have been something very cheeky that I said to his pretty guard captain."

"Yet you have been well rewarded since then," Arwen pronounced.

"I think so. Far more than I deserve." He had always thought this, but he realized that an elf must think him trebly blessed beyond all desert, if not in fact highly presumptuous to marry even a Silvan of lowly birth. "Tell me; what do the elves say about us, Tauriel and me?"

"What do the elves say, or what do I say?" she returned, one graceful brow barely raised.

"Very well; what do you say?"

"I say that if she has chosen you, it is for your own very great worth." She smiled at him. "You know I come from a line of elven women who wedded mortal men. I would be the last to doubt your value."

"Your granddams, do you think they made the right choice?" It had never before occurred to him to wonder what the offspring of such a match might think of her forebears' decision. Would she recognize sorrows that the young couple themselves had not foreseen?

"The right choice? That I cannot say." She shook her head gently, dark tresses floating against her pale shoulders. "Who knows what might have been had they chosen otherwise. But did they make a good choice? Yes, I believe they did. Much joy and hope has come into the world because of them."

The young elf woman stopped and caught Kíli's shoulder.

"Is that what troubles you?" she asked, meeting his eyes with her calm grey ones. "Do you fear you have not made a good choice?"

"Oh, no, never!" Kíli exclaimed, vehement. "Not for me, that is. I could never love anyone except her." No matter what became of them, he would never regret having married Tauriel. "But maybe we were very foolish to think an elf and a dwarf could ever really understand each other, even if we do love each other."

Arwen was silent for a moment, thinking in that unhurried way that was so uniquely elvish.

"Kíli, do you have siblings?" she asked.

"Yes, a brother."

"And I have two. You love your brother, do you not?"


"But I'm sure you do not always understand his way of thinking."

Kíli laughed. "Mahal! No." Sometimes it seemed there was no accounting for what Fíli thought about certain things.

"Yet you do not therefore think that he ought not be your brother," Arwen pointed out reasonably.

"No, not usually," Kíli said jokingly, though he saw the serious point she was making.

Arwen nodded as if it was entirely as she had expected."I am not married, but I think it must be the same way with spouses as it is with brothers: they are ours, we love them, and so we find a way to understand them."

"You mean elvish siblings don't just...get along instinctively?" Kíli ventured. Somehow, he could not see elves having either the outright rows or subtle disagreements that had punctuated even his very close relationship with his brother.

The elf snorted delicately, reminding Kíli very much of his Tauriel. "Heavens, no! But I wouldn't give mine up for any treasure."

"Nor I," Kíli said, meaning both Fíli and Tauriel.

Arwen clasped his hand once more.

"Kíli, you are a very brave dwarf, going against ages of tradition and prejudice to wed an elf. Do not be surprised to face challenges and do not be discouraged. You have chosen something very beautiful. You must not let it go."

"I won't," he promised.

The elf maid's warm gaze indicated her approval of his answer. She let go of Kíli's hand and they continued walking for some time in silence, till they came round a bend in the path and the trees opened up on a smooth sward with a fountain in its center. At the other side of the clearing, stone steps led downwards into a shallow dell. And coming up those steps, he saw Tauriel herself, her flame-colored hair unmistakable even in the dim, lamplit twilight of the forest.

He turned back to speak to Arwen, but she was gone, vanished he could not say where. Yet startlingly abrupt as her departure was, Kíli was not sorry to be alone now with his wife, whom he longed for as if it had been far more than a few hours since he had last seen her.

Coming up to him, Tauriel laid her arms around his shoulders. "Kíli," she murmured, drawing him to her breast.

"My love." Kíli settled comfortably into her embrace.

"I'm sorry I abandoned you," she said into his hair. "You must have been miserable up in that tree alone."

Kíli squeezed her against him. "I'm glad you're here."

Lifting her hands from his shoulders and catching his face, Tauriel tilted it up towards her own. "Meleth nín." She kissed him slowly and fully as she had not done in a very long time. "Let us go back to bed."

"Yes, Taur." He knew this was an invitation to sleep, nothing more—their personal talan was far too exposed to allow for anything else, had they wanted it. But even so, he was not as disappointed as he might have been. The pleasure of simply lying beside her and knowing her glad to be in his arms was one he had missed as much as any more intimate contact. Tonight, simply sleeping near her would be enough—well, almost enough—just as it once had been.

Before he let her go so that they both could walk, he pressed his lips to her breastbone. As he drew away, he made sure to draw his cheek ever so slightly against her skin. She did nothing to return this tease, yet he still felt amply rewarded when he noticed he had raised goosebumps to her skin.

"I hope you know the way back," Kíli remarked as she caught his hand. "I confess I'm quite lost."

"I do."

Chapter Text

As delightful as it had been to see the enchanted realm of her distant kin, Tauriel was glad their visit to Lothlórien lasted no more than a sennight. A longer stay could not have given her anything greater than what she had already gained, a renewed hope that she and Kíli could find a way past their troubles. Now that they were leaving, they would have the time and the privacy to reconnect as they so desperately needed.

Tauriel could sense that Kíli, too, was glad to journey homewards again. They had been away over a year, and she knew he missed his family by now. In truth, she also missed them, for she already loved them as her own kin. And dear, patient Fíli delayed his wedding till their return. It would not be fair to make him wait much longer to be united to his beloved Sif.

And so despite their recent farewells, Tauriel and Kíli had both set out with cheerful spirits from the eastern bank of the Anduin, where the Galadhrim had brought them by boat. From there, they would travel north, between the river and the western border of Mirkwood, until they came to the forest path, which would lead them east to the Elvenking's fortress and then on to Erebor.

Despite her longing to resolve their troubles, Tauriel did not gather the courage to speak to Kíli until they were three days out from Lothlórien.

That evening, they made camp for the night in a grove of trees close along the bank of the Anduin, and after their meal, they sat shoulder to shoulder and watched the sunset blaze along the horizon. It had been one long, lovely moment; they'd barely spoken, but Kíli had held her hand, slowly massaging her fingers in his firm, gentle grasp. Tauriel could almost imagine they were as they had always been, with no disappointments between them. But much as she would have liked to believe their troubles would disappear as easily as they had come, she knew such was a foolish hope. The peaceful gardens of Lothlórien had granted them a much needed reprieve from their anxiety, but she and her husband must still resolve their misunderstandings together.

Tauriel's own thoughts regarding the possibility of children had not changed after what Galadriel had revealed. Indeed, the mirror's vision had confirmed what Tauriel already felt was true: she and Kíli were not meant to become parents together. Yet she had found peace knowing that she could base her choice on more than her fear alone: whatever power was responsible for what the mirror showed, she trusted such visions were guided by a wisdom greater than her own. Most of all, she had taken comfort in the elf queen's reassurance that it was not unusual for a husband and wife to struggle to understand each other. Tauriel's despair that she was losing Kíli had been relieved, replaced by the hope that with patient communication they could regain the intimacy, both in mind and body, that they had enjoyed before. And so, as uncertain as she still felt regarding how to begin, she promised herself that tonight she would speak as soon as the last sunlight had faded from the sky.

The darkness came all too soon, and then Tauriel realized how unfortunate it was to broach such an important, intimate topic while unable to see Kíli's face, and he unable to see hers. Yet she knew she could not put this discussion off any longer; each day they waited was a day of understanding and happiness lost.

So she coaxed the last ashes of their cook-fire back into flame before returning to kneel at Kíli's side.

"I'm sorry I've felt so distant from you, Kíli," she began, her heart fluttering with nervousness. "I know it's been hard for you. It has been for me, too."

He nodded in acknowledgement, though his eyes were kind, not accusatory.

"I want us to be close again; I truly do. It's just— I haven't been able to make love to you because you want us to create a child and..." She hesitated, still sorry to say it. "...I do not."

"I told you," he returned gently. "I don't need it to be about children. I just want to show you I love you."

"I know." She placed her hand over his. "But still you do want a child."

"Well, yes," he admitted. "But I don't see why that matters." There was the hint of a confused frown between his brows.

Tauriel brushed her thumb across the back of his hand. How could she say this without hurting him? "Maybe it would not seem this way to you because you're a dwarf, but I'm afraid our coupling would not be as...good if we didn't agree on this."

"We love each other. Isn't that the most important thing?"

"Yes, it is important! But being with you is not just a bodily pleasure; it is the delight of being joined to you in spirit as well. If you and I were divided on this one thing, I think my joy in you would be halved."

"Tauriel, do you think I only want physical satisfaction from you?" Kíli asked, his tone disbelieving and more than a little hurt.

"Of course not," she swiftly reassured him. "I just thought maybe... We're different, that's all. So perhaps something that matters to me doesn't matter to you."

"It matters to me that you are wholeheartedly interested in me, as I am in you."

"It's not that I desire our union any less than I did before."

"Oh?" It was evident that there had been doubt in his mind over this.

"Ah, meleth, I do not find you lacking, not in the least!" Tauriel trailed her fingers up over his forearm, then laid her palm against him in an expressive caress. "You are my hadhodeg, my wonderful dwarf. It's just, well..." It was difficult for her to put into words something that she felt more by instinct than by reason. "I cannot feel that I am truly offering myself to you if I withhold something you want. If I cannot accept the children you want to give me. I'm sorry, Kíli. Intimacy under such circumstances would be a...a reproach, not a delight."

"So, does this mean you think you'll never be able to be intimate with me again?" he asked miserably.

"No, Kíli! I couldn't bear that. I want us to be able to love as we have before. But before we can, I—" She paused, knowing this was going to be very hard for him to hear. "I need you to accept that we are not meant to have a child."

"But we don't know that, Taur!" he burst out.

"We know enough to say it is dangerous and unlikely. All the warnings we've been given—I believe they're meant to show us we must let go of our wish for a babe."

"Since we've been in Lórien, we've only been told good things." He took her hand and squeezed it. "If you have so much energy, so much life in you, don't you think that must mean you may bear new life, too? Especially since our union is the reason you're different. Amrâlimê, you don't need to be afraid." Kíli gazed at her with tender encouragement, and Tauriel felt undeserving of the faith she was being forced to dash.

"What Galadriel told us is beautiful," she conceded. "And surely it does explain how we have been so happy in one another. But bearing children is the one matter in which our differences cannot make us stronger. Remember the risks Saruman warned us of!" After hearing of the babe's death in Hobbiton, Tauriel had known that those risks were far too real to be dismissed.

"Damn the wizard! He's neither an elf nor a dwarf himself, so what can he really know about whether we're suited to each other? I trust the Lady on this more than him." Kíli laughed sharply. "She didn't all but call me an orc, either." At this remembered insult, his eyes flashed in the firelight.

"Oh, my love, I am very sorry, but you must forget that," Tauriel soothed. "He could not have meant it as you took it. "

"Maybe not," Kíli grumbled. "At least with Gandalf, you feel the kindness under his harsh words."

"Kíli, I need to tell you one more thing, the last reason I am sure we will not produce a child." Tauriel paused, afraid he might be disappointed that she had kept this information from him. "During our stay in Lothlórien, the Lady Galadriel gave me the chance to look in her enchanted mirror. Its magic can show things of the past or the future."

"And what did you see?" Kíli's eyes widened, in eagerness or perhaps apprehension.

"A future that might have been, had you never come back to me. I saw you married to Audha. She gave birth to your son."

To her surprise, Kíli was neither disappointed nor jealous as she had expected; he seemed merely confused. "But what does that have to do with us, Tauriel?" he asked with a dismissive shake of his head. "I didn't marry her. What the vision showed you—it will never happen."

"Don't you see?" But of course he didn't, when the message was not one he wanted. "That is the life in which you might have had children. With a dwarf woman, but not with me."

Those last words were unexpectedly painful to speak, even though she had faced the idea for some time. She could still remember when she and Kíli had first spoken together of children in those golden days following their wedding; they had both been so happy and sure of that beautiful future, and now, relinquishing that dream hurt a very great deal.

"Kíli, I know this is not what we hoped for. But I have pondered very long on the vision's meaning and this is all I can make of it. Why else would the mirror show me that lost future, unless it is to teach us that what I saw—all of it—is truly impossible now?"

"I don't need a vision to tell me I could have made a child with Audha!" Kíli insisted, sounding somewhat annoyed. "Of course I could have. And, Tauriel, I would have, if I'd married her. We'd have been expected to produce heirs." He pressed his eyes closed briefly, as if blanking that unwelcome thought from his mind; then meeting Tauriel's gaze, he said earnestly, "The mirror hasn't shown us anything we didn't know, so why should it change what we want? Unless you don't want..."

"I do want your child!" Tauriel cried, pained that he could think otherwise. "But it may be impossible for us. And even if it is possible to conceive, I cannot will to create a child if it will die before it has even seen the world."

"We don't know it would die!" Kíli shot back. "And even given that chance— Everything dies. Tauriel, I'm going to die one day! If we had a child, at least you would have someone after me!"

"Kíli! How could you?" Tauriel drew back her hand from him, her whole body shaking with hurt and anger. "I have never held your mortality against you. But do you think I've forgotten? Do you think I don't know I'll lose you?"

She looked away, too furious to say anything more. Kíli was incredibly unfair to use his own eventual death in argument against her, and worse, he reminded her how she betrayed him by denying him the only means by which he might truly cheat that fate: his offspring.

"Tauriel, I'm sorry," Kíli blurted. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant death is the fate of all mortals. You couldn't spare our child that, no matter what." He put his hands on her shoulders. "Please, you must take the chance to live, for us and for any children we could have."

Tauriel shook off his touch. "Why cannot you let this go? Am I not enough for you?"

"Yes, Tauriel, but—"

Looking sharply to him again, she demanded, "Or am I a failure if I cannot give you a son, as even a loveless dwarven bride surely would have?"


"Maybe the mirror was wrong, and you really would have been happy with Audha and her babe!" Tauriel was half astonished to hear those words leave her mouth, but even so, she found she did not wish them back: they truly expressed her fears.

"That's not true," Kíli returned, his tone as heated as her own.

"Then you may prove it by never mentioning any of this again," Tauriel said vehemently.

She rose and stalked blindly away along the dark, tree-fringed riverbank, hot tears already streaming down her cheeks.

Kíli sprang up to go after her, then stopped himself. How could anything he said possibly get through to her? If she thought he wanted a life with Audha or any other woman rather than with her, she was clearly not seeing sense.

He gave a low, inarticulate growl. How could she believe such a thing of him? He had nearly been destroyed by a broken heart when he had been parted from her before; did she not believe him constant now? Didn't she know he loved her regardless of whether she could give him a child? He had pressed the matter because he knew she had wanted a child, too; and he could not bear to see her give up hope when there seemed more reason to hope than ever. But if she could deny hope and even deny his love—

Kíli did not know what to think. Something had gone far more wrong between them than he understood how to remedy.

Emotions he could not name flared hot in his chest, and Kíli felt he must move or burst. Snatching his shortsword from among the rest of his gear—Thorin had drilled him never to leave camp unarmed and the habit held even in the midst of his turmoil—he strode off in the direction opposite from the way Tauriel had gone.

It was dark beyond the ring of firelight, and more than once, Kíli nearly tripped over alder tree roots before his eyes fully adjusted to the change. He was moving downstream, the water to his right visible by the occasional glint of starlight on its surface. There was no moon tonight.

What was wrong with Tauriel that she thought some image of Audha with a babe meant that she herself would be denied one? The two possibilities were absolutely unrelated! If she had seen Fíli with Audha instead—and there had been a time when the crown prince was expected to marry the Blacklock maid—would Tauriel have supposed that meant Fíli and Sif would never have a child once they were married? Such an interpretation was no more justified than the one Tauriel gave now.

Kíli stubbed his toe on a rock and snarled out a curse.

Was Tauriel's damned unreasonableness about this whole subject a female thing or an elvish thing, anyway? Oh, he could understand how she would be troubled by the thought of losing a babe that she had borne within her own body, but did she think that as a father, he wouldn't feel equally responsible, equally bound to the fate of their child? Of course he hated the thought of losing a babe, but to let that fear stop them from trying for children at all would be a far worse loss.

A branch slapped him in the face, but he kept pressing forward along the gloomy riverbank.

Or as an elf, did Tauriel find it impossible to face the idea of losing someone she loved? If so, she had been very foolish to marry him. And who knew, anyway, if their children—Mahal provide that they ever did have any!—might not be immortal, after all, like Elrond and his half-elven kin? It wasn't a certainty, by any means, but neither was the death of a babe in childbirth or the impossibility of conceiving at all! Yet Tauriel would accept the evil before the good.

A betrayal, yes, that's what this was: a wound that Kíli felt all the more deeply because she had first struck it to herself by abandoning her courage and her hope, by forgetting how much he loved her—

Kíli blundered down a small decline where a creek flowed into the river, and then he froze. There, drawn up along the pebbled banks were two crude rafts made of tree trunks. These had surely not been here when he and Tauriel passed this way earlier, looking for a place to camp. There were no human settlements for miles yet, and even if there had been, no men would be traveling at this time of night. Besides, those violently hewn trunks, with leaves and branches still attached in some places, could be the work of only one creature: orcs.

As if in response to Kíli's thought, two shadows emerged from behind the nearest raft, about five yards away. Hunched shapes straightened, resolving into tall, bandy figures in jagged armor, one carrying a crooked sword, the other a bearded battle axe.

Two, he could surely take two, but from the size of the rafts, there were likely a dozen more about here somewhere. How many had he passed, unseen, in the dark? Surely they'd been drawn to this spot by the campfire. Would any of them have made it further upriver yet, past the camp to where his wife had gone?

Raising his sword, Kíli charged forward, hoping to gain what little advantage he could by a swift offense. If he could dispatch these two quickly, he might have a chance to evade the rest and work his way back to Tauriel.

The first orc parried his blow with its sword and stumbled back—despite Kíli's shorter height, he was still the stronger of the two. Kíli's next few strikes were more easily blocked, but this was what he wanted: to engage the enemy closely, so that the second orc would be forced to give them some leeway and watch carefully for an opening lest his attack harm his comrade.

Kíli feinted low, drawing his opponent's sword down. When the orc returned with the expected upward cut, Kíli lunged under the orc's left side and then spun upwards, one knee against the ground, to drive his sword up into the unprotected armpit left open by the orc's two-handed swing.

The orc collapsed, almost bearing Kíli down with it. Hot blood flowed down Kíli's arm, and his fingers nearly slipped off the sword haft as he tried to pull the blade loose. For one heart-stopping moment, Kíli thought he would be trapped, disarmed, under a dying orc. Then the sword wrenched free, and he stumbled backwards.

The second orc advanced on him, battle axe held reversed so that the blunt knob behind the blade would strike him like a club.

Shit. This would be the more challenging of the two. All this orc had to do was hook Kíli's sword with the long, lower crescent of the axe blade and then flick the weapon right out of his grasp. And with the orc's superior reach, it could easily disarm Kíli before he'd even gotten in the first blow. If Kíli was to have a chance, he would have to end this quickly. Thankfully, being unarmored did give him the advantage of speed and agility.

Kíli gave back a few steps, drawing his opponent forward with a show of being afraid. As the bigger fighter strode forward, Kíli skipped nimbly to the side and then dived behind the orc's ankles, slicing behind its knee as he did so. It yelped in pain and stumbled. Rolling to his feet, Kíli gave one swift chop right between neck and shoulder, and the orc fell, senseless.

He stood still, chest heaving as he wiped blood from his eyes with his sleeve. What was happening? And where was Tauriel? He had to find her before any orcs did!

Just as he gathered himself to dash back towards camp, he heard the rattle of river stones behind him. Spinning around, he found himself face to face with three more orcs.

The central orc, who sported the ceremonial scars of a chieftain on face and upper body, gave a wicked smirk, and then with almost lazy deliberateness, aimed a heavy stroke of his longsword right at Kíli's chest. As Kíli blocked the blow, the outer two orcs lunged forward and each grasped an arm.

Kíli gasped in pain as his elbows were wrenched behind him, and his sword clattered to the ground.

The lead orc stared down at him triumphantly. "I've been waiting for you, dwarf prince," he sneered.

Bloody hell. If they knew who he was, they would know about Tauriel and would be looking for her! But now Kíli's only chance to aid her was to warn her.

He drew a deep breath and bellowed, "Tauriel! Tauriel! Or—"

The chieftain silenced him with a heavy blow to the gut, and Kíli sagged forward, choking for air.

Mahal, please, look after her, Kíli prayed silently as his vision swam. I love her.

"Your little elf bitch won't be a problem." The orc's tone was amused.

Kíli tried to growl in return, but breathless as he was, the sound came out as a pathetic groan, earning him a harsh laugh. He dragged his head up and glared at the big orc.

"It's been a while since I've killed an elf," the chieftain said with a predatory grimace. His teeth were sharp, like those of a wolf or a warg.

Kíli lashed out with his legs, just missing his antagonist. One of his captors gave his arm a particularly sharp twist, and he fell still with a whimper. If they broke his arm, he wouldn't be able to fight if he ever did find a chance to escape.

"That's right; save it and mebbe ye'll live longer," one of the orcs at his back hissed.

The other chuckled in Kíli's ear, an awful, rattling sound. "What makes ye think he'll want to?" it asked, drawing an answering laugh from its companion. "Then again, dwarves are so fuckin' stubborn, he'll prob'ly hang on just ta spite us. Think of the sport we'll have," it finished with a menacing drawl.

Kíli's stomach dropped. So this was revenge; they meant to make him pay for his part in the long wars between their two kinds. Oh, Valar, somehow he had to get out of this...

"I suppose you'd know all about how to live longer," Kíli rasped. "You ran away at the Battle of Five to save your skins."

It was only a guess, but a right one, it seemed.

"Why, you sodding little—"

"At least when I die, I'll be looking you in the face. Can't say I expect to recognize yours, though, 'cept maybe from behind," Kíli continued, his voice stronger now.

Snarling, the orc at his right swung round, presumably to offer Kíli the look he'd asked for. As his captor shifted, Kíli twisted his arm free. Lifting his foot, he drew the knife inside his boot—worn there at Fíli's insistence—and drove it up between the armored plates on the orc's chest. Freed on one side, he could now turn and aim a kick at the kneecap of the orc to his left.

It grunted and swayed slightly, its grip loosening for a split second. Yet before Kíli could take this opportunity, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his head, and then nothing.

Chapter Text

Tauriel was looking out over the river, arms clasped tightly around her sides, when she heard Kíli shout her name. For an instant, she thought he was still angry with her, and then, like an echo in her memory, she heard his voice, desperate and urgent, calling her name over the battlefield of Ravenhill. He was in danger again now; he was warning her. All the hot anger burning in her chest turned suddenly to ice. She must find him, before—

She drew her sleeve over her eyes, blotting her tears. Then she turned to slip cautiously through the trees, back towards their camp. Her daggers were already in her hands.

It must be orcs, but what were they doing so far from the mountains, and indeed, far from any human settlements they might regard as prey? She and Kíli had nearly crossed paths with orcs outside Moria, but would those same orcs have followed a lone elf and dwarf all this way, past an elven kingdom and across a river?

Ahead, she could see the campfire. Tauriel slowed, cautiously keeping in the shadows of the trees. It was risky to come back to camp, for surely their attackers would be drawn here first, but she needed her bow. She could not guess yet how many enemies she would face, but if she was outnumbered, a ranged weapon would make the difference between success and defeat. And if she did not get to the camp first, she had no doubt that orcs would take or destroy any weapons they found.

Just outside the firelight, she paused for an instant, listening intently with breath held. Yes, she could hear bodies moving in the long grasses somewhere beyond the far side of the camp. She would barely have time.

Crouching low and keeping the fire in line between her and the approaching figures, she slunk forward towards the small pile of their gear: rolled cloaks that doubled as bedding, Kíli's satchel, a water skin, and her own and Kíli's quivers.

She snatched Kíli's heavy quiver and threw it over her shoulder, noticing as she did so that his shortsword was missing. Thank the Valar, he was armed, then. As she caught her own bow and quiver, she heard the sharp snap of a branch just beyond the firelight. Her heart leapt sickeningly, but there was no cry yet to indicate she had been sighted. A little unbalanced by Kíli's sturdy dwarven gear, she scrambled back out of the firelight, and none too soon.

"So the she-elf has flown," a rough voice muttered. "But she was here. Look at the fire; only elves build 'em like that."

Tauriel briefly worked her way back in the direction from which she had just come. After a pause to attach her quiver to her belt and string her bow, she turned back downstream, veering wide around the camp area. There were more orcs below the campsite; she could hear the thud and swish of perhaps four more pairs of feet advancing towards her. She drew up behind a tree trunk to let them pass. Listening intently as she waited, she could still catch no sound of combat to tell her where Kíli was or if he was yet alive.

Elbereth, let me find him. Let him be safe.

It seemed the orcs took forever, blundering past in the dark—truly, even stealthy orcs were loud to elven senses—but finally they were beyond her and she pressed on cautiously, relying on touch and hearing to find a path through the darkness. The grasses were all one indistinct shadow; only the tree stems stood out black around her.

A little further on, and then she heard more movement: boots on loose stones. She remembered a pebbled stream bed just downriver; she must be a little above it now. The bright scent of blood filled the air here, and Tauriel's stomach dropped in terror. Was she too late? But no, she recognized the bitter undertone of orc—she did not think this was Kíli's blood she smelled.

"Bollocks, the little shit was quick," someone muttered. "Took out Gashna 'n' Gulm before we had 'im cornered. And then Durgash, too."

There was a muffled thump, followed by a groan that sounded like Kíli's.

"You keep your paws off my prisoner, or you can join them," a second voice growled.

Oh heavens, he was alive but captured?

Tauriel crept nearer, taking cover behind a shrubby tree. Peering round the dense border of leaves, she could see dark shapes against the pale river stones. The corpses of three orcs sprawled on the beach, their blood staining the ground. Three more orcs clustered around a smaller seventh figure who lay crumpled at their feet: it was Kíli, who seemed to have his arms bound behind him and his feet tied. Tauriel barely stifled a whimper.

As if somehow sensing her presence, Kíli stirred. "Tauriel? Where— Tauriel!" His voice, weak at first, grew more desperate, and he strained against his bonds.

"Shut it, ya little maggot, or we'll gag you, too," the first orc—the one who had kicked Kíli—hissed. "You think they'll find her?" it asked its companion sulkily.

"Doesn't matter," said the first orc. From its authoritative tone, Tauriel assumed it was in charge."The dwarf will be nought but scraps by the time she runs back and brings help from the tree elves. And maybe she has no wish to stick close and die for a dwarf. 'Twould serve him for taking an elvish bodyguard. But I hope we catch her. If the dwarf cares for her, we could hurt him first through her."

Anger surged hot through Tauriel's limbs. They knew nothing of her, thinking she could abandon Kíli! And truly, she had to act now if she was to save him. She must kill or cripple these three orcs before the others behind her heard the sounds of fighting and returned. Once Kíli's bonds were cut, he could fight beside her, and they would face the rest together.

With great care, she silently drew an arrow from her quiver and nocked it. Then she stood to give herself a clean shot, drew, and loosed.

The arrow sank up to the fletching in the first orc's throat. The creature staggered back a step, uttering a strangled cry. The other two shouted, and the leader pointed up the slope towards Tauriel's hiding place.

She loosed a second arrow, this time merely grazing the other orc underling as he twisted to draw a blade.


Tauriel shot again.

The arrow splintered off one of the sharp ridges on the underling's chest plate. Twice damn. It was an unlucky shot; just a hair higher or lower and her arrow would have pierced even the metal plate.

As the orc rushed up the slope towards her, she set a fourth arrow to the string. It struck the orc, biting deep just a little over from the heart. Her enemy snarled, but continued charging.

The monstrous warrior was too close for Tauriel to make another shot; tucking her bow over her shoulder, she drew her knives. At the last moment before the orc reached her, she spun out of the way, swinging back behind the beast to drive the curved point of her knife down into the base of its neck. The orc groaned and tumbled forward.

She whirled back towards the creek bed, looking for the third orc, the leader. At the same moment, something lashed the outside of her right upper arm.

The lead orc still stood over Kíli, a wicked recurve bow in its hand. Almost lazily, it drew another arrow from its quiver.

Tauriel dove behind a tree. So this had come to a test of marksmanship. She was confident she could prevail; after all, she had been wielding a bow for centuries before this wretched orc had even been spawned. Besides, her need was driven by love, not hatred.

She sheathed her knives and reached for an arrow, but even as she drew it from the quiver, her fingers slipped clumsily off the shaft. Clutching at it again, she noted that the sensation in her fingertips was dulled. Her arm, too, from wrist to shoulder, tingled slightly, and she could feel the effect spreading to her chest and back.

Blackest Angband. The arrow that grazed her had been envenomed.

Tauriel recognized the toxin; it was produced by the giant spiders of her home forest and she had experienced it once before. Though not fatal, it produced a paralysis of the muscles, rendering the victim motionless, crippled, while the spider wove a shroud around him. She did not know if she had received enough venom to be entirely incapacitated—the arrow had only skimmed her—but already she was affected enough to know that soon she would be incapable of defending herself. Her right arm was already all but useless. And if the toxin did continue to spread through her, soon all the orcs would have to do was scoop up her senseless body.

The only chance, for herself and for Kíli, was to hide.

She sprinted silently inland from the river—thank the Valar her legs were yet unaffected! After about twenty yards, she found a tall, branching willow tree. Tauriel hauled herself into it, one-armed. Her right was quite a dead weight by now. She climbed as high as she could and then lay back in a crook of the branches, wrapping her legs round the trunk as she had learned to do when sleeping in such a position.

Shouts echoed from the stream bed; footsteps clattered fast among the stones and then crashed through the grasses, approaching her tree.

"Must be here somewhere," an orc said. "She fled this way."

Tauriel stifled her ragged breathing and clutched her injured arm, praying that she had not left a trail of blood. As her pursuers thrashed about the undergrowth below her, she reflected on how disastrously tonight had gone. If only she had been more patient with Kíli! If she had not quarreled with him, they would not have split up. They would have been together when the orcs found them, and Kíli would not have fallen into the hands of his cruelest enemies. Oh, what miserable fate had she betrayed him to? And what if he perished, and the last words she would ever speak to him had been in anger? The thought was unbearable.

The orcs were still moving and shouting along the river bank, but their noise seemed to be coming from far away. Tauriel's senses were misted by the spider's toxin, and she could not say now whether the orcs truly were near or far. They had not found her yet, such chance the only favorable event of this entire night.

Her whole body felt enveloped in a soft cloud. Tauriel could still twitch her toes in her boots, and she was vaguely aware of the roughness of tree bark beneath her left fingertips. But her right arm might have been missing for all she could feel of it.

She hated herself for being so helpless, now when Kíli needed her so. Her whole life had been defined by one purpose: to protect the ones she loved. And here she had failed the one she loved the most. Oh, Kíli, Kíli, what had she done? She couldn't lose him; not like this. She would never forgive herself.

For the second time that night, tears streamed from her eyes, rolling down her cheeks and dripping off her chin.

At some point in the night, the orcs moved on. Tauriel could not remember when. The venom had disoriented her for a time, and after that, she had felt sick for several hours as her body cleansed itself of the toxin. The world was grey with dawn before Tauriel trusted herself to climb down from the tree.

As she swung awkwardly to the ground, she could see that the grass was trampled right up to the willow trunk. Elbereth. Surely the Vala had been watching over her, if she had so narrowly escaped detection.

Tauriel picked her way back to camp, her limbs moving stiffly after such an uncomfortable night. Her gear and Kíli's had been scattered around the ashes of the fire. Much of their things had been slashed or trampled, but she rescued a waterskin, most of a cloak, and one of Kíli's spare shirts. It could be used for bandages later, if need be. She also found Kíli's tobacco pouch and pipe. Tauriel tucked these last two into Kíli's quiver, the action a pledge that she would make sure he lived to use them again.

She washed her arm—the cut was not deep, and it had bled only a little—and dressed it with some of the herbal salve she always carried in the pouch on her belt. Then she returned to the small stream where she had last seen Kíli.

The rafts by which the orcs had crossed the river were gone, presumably hewn apart and cast adrift in the water. The dead orcs remained where they had fallen, blank eyes staring horribly from ghastly faces. Tauriel tried not to look at them.

The stones were sticky with black orcish blood, but Tauriel saw none that might have come from Kíli. His captors meant to keep him alive for now, at least. Last night, he had been bound as a prisoner. But orcs never sued for ransom; if they wanted Kíli, it was only to subject him to some later torment. Tauriel's stomach turned and she very nearly was sick; she had seen once what the orcs did to their victims.

I'll die before I let them do the same to Kíli, she vowed silently. Mandos, you must believe me. Take my life but don't let them touch him.

As she turned away to seek the orcs' trail, something glinting among the river stones caught her eye. Tauriel squatted and turned aside a rock. There was Kíli's hair clasp, the one she had given him to mark the first year of their marriage. It must have been knocked loose in the scuffle when Kíli had been taken.

Holding it in her hand now, she felt a soft stirring of hope at the thought that she had already been given back this small piece of Kíli. She brushed her thumb over the jeweled surface, wiping away river sand and dirt.

"Kíli, my love, I'm coming for you," she whispered and kissed the silver clasp before fastening it safely into her own hair.

Then she adjusted Kíli's bow and harness over her shoulders and sprinted up the creek bank.

Kíli had never been more miserable in his life.

He had spent the first part of the day slung over an orc's shoulder, rough armor continually jostling his bruised ribs while his head throbbed at every jolting step. Now, at the hottest part of the day, he lay wedged between two of his captors in a low, crude tent pitched amidst some scrubby brush. His head ached less, though he still felt somewhat sick—more from the close air and the stench of sweaty orc than from his concussion. The sinews of his elbows and shoulders fairly screamed with pain, pinned back as his arms still were.

But what troubled him more than any of these bodily discomforts was the knowledge of how last night had ended with Tauriel.

All morning, some indistinct sense of disaster had been nagging at the back of his mind, but he had been too disoriented by being upended over an orc while suffering a wracking headache to make sense of what was bothering him. Now his thoughts were finally clearing, and he remembered.

He and Tauriel had become angry and shouted at one another. She had cut him with her words. He had made her cry.

Oh, Maker. If Kíli never saw her again, the final memory they shared would be that painful argument. He would give anything to change what he had said then. He loved Tauriel and he should have shown that, should have listened, instead of overwhelming her with his own wants. Please, Mahal, don't let the last thing I'll ever do be to hurt my dearest amrâlimê. And if he died and left her alone, he would hurt her even more.

Tauriel, Tauriel, I'm sorry.

Tears pricked Kíli's eyes and fell.

He must not, he could not, die. He would do whatever necessary to stay alive till she found him. Tauriel would come after him; he had no doubt. It was what he would have done, if their situations had been reversed. Anything foolish she had said to hurt him in a heated moment would not matter. He would fight for her as long as there was life in his body.

But was Tauriel still alive? The time surrounding the moment he'd been hit on the head was still a blank. If Tauriel had arrived then, he could not remember. But he did recall hearing the stomp of armored boots and the hoarse cries that had echoed up and down the riverbank, now near, now far, as he had lain bound on the stones last night. The orcs had not found what they sought. At last, someone had barked orders, and the troop had destroyed the rafts, collected their prisoner, and begun their march.

Tauriel must yet live. Kíli breathed a sigh, and a little of the tension finally went out of him. She would be tracking them even now, and must find them soon. He would wait for her to arrive before attempting any escape. Even if he did break free now—and he had not yet arrived at a way to manage that—it would be next to impossible for him, alone and unarmed, to get far before being recaptured.

The orcs were taking him east, he knew, towards the southern reaches of Mirkwood. He thought a fortress had been mentioned, but he did not recognize its Orcish name. Did they mean Dol Guldur? That was the place Kíli's own grandsire, Thráin, had been held before he died. Kíli thought those dungeons had recently been emptied of their evil inhabitants by Gandalf and his allies from the White Council, but he had no desire to discover what the place was like now, four years later.

After perhaps three hours, the camp began to stir again. As the tent was taken down, Kíli drew grateful breaths of the clean, open air. Someone, apparently under orders, came over to him with a waterskin and roughly set it to Kíli's mouth so he could drink. As he greedily swallowed the clean, though warm, water, Kíli recalled another pair of hands cradling his head and holding a cup of water to his lips. He had still been half delirious from his poisoned arrow wound then, but he had been keenly aware of Tauriel's cool fingers against his heated skin and of the tender concern evident in her look, in her touch as she caressed his brow. Ah, Tauriel, how much he needed her once again...

Before Kíli had fully satisfied his thirst, another orc approached and the first one drew back.

"You're feeling stronger now, I expect," the newcomer said. Kíli recognized its sharp voice as the one that had been giving orders during the night. He shifted slightly so he could stare up at his captor.

The sight of a huge orc looming directly above him was nearly enough to kill all hope of escape. This creature was easily as tall and heavily built as Bolg, the orc captain Kíli and Tauriel had taken down together during the battle for Ravenhill. Kíli remembered, if vaguely, having confronted this orc the previous night. In the daylight, he could see even more distinctly how the skin of its face, arms, and chest—as much as was visible beneath jagged plate armor—was disfigured by heavy, intentional scarring to indicate high rank. Pray Mahal they didn't intend to try any similar procedure on him later, Kíli thought wildly, and his stomach gave a traitorous lurch. Maybe they would find it amusing to mark him as a prince before they killed him.

His dread must have shown momentarily on his face, for the big captain gave a smug grin. "Finally come to appreciate your place a little better, have you?" it said.

Kíli offered no further response, so at last the orc continued, "My boys are tired of carrying you like a sack of stones, so I'm going to unbind your legs. But lest you think of repeating your little trick from last night—" It squatted down, and Kíli saw that it carried a short length of heavy chain in its hands. At its nod, another orc yanked Kíli into a sitting position. Then the captain fitted the chain about Kíli's neck, careless of tugged hair and pinched skin.

"A good collar soon trains even the wildest dog," the scarred orc noted and drew tight on the chain. The collar constricted painfully for a moment, and Kíli found he could not breathe. Then the orc released the pressure, and watched, satisfied, as Kíli gasped and his eyes watered.

By now, the other orc had untied Kíli's feet. The captain tied the same rope to the chain collar and then handed the rope over to its subordinate. "Uglash has the first turn with your leash," it told Kíli. "Just remember, he's none too fond of dogs. Or dwarves."

As the captain left, Uglash favored Kíli with a wicked sneer. "On yer feet, maggot," it growled.

Kíli gathered his feet under him, but his legs, stiff and numb from hours of immobility, buckled, and he fell before he was halfway up.

Uglash snarled, exasperated, and grasping the back of the chain collar so that it would not constrict all the way, hoisted Kíli up by the neck.

If it had not required all of his concentration just to bring aching muscles under control, Kíli would have kicked Uglash, collar or no. His whole life he'd known he was a prince, and no one had ever dared treat him so meanly! But as he stood shifting his weight carefully upon feet that stung as if pricked by needles, he reflected that such indignation was ill-placed. If he was to survive till Tauriel found him, he must bear his capture meekly, much as it rankled his pride to submit to being collared like a beast. Any further resistance on his part might goad his captors into further abuse.

And so when Uglash whistled and drew on the rope, Kíli forced down his resentment and staggered after the foul creature.

Chapter Text

Hope continued to grow in Tauriel as she tracked Kíli and his captors eastward across the lightly sloping plains of the broad river valley. She knew she gained on them: she saw where the orcs had rested at midday, though she had barely halted since setting out that morning.

What was more, the orcs were headed towards Mirkwood, and once under its leaves, Tauriel would have the advantage of both speed and stealth. Though she was not personally familiar with the southern reaches of the forest, she was born and bred to such trees. Orcs were not. Surely, by the next morn, she would be at Kili's side once more.

Shortly after nightfall, she stepped between the first gnarled oak trunks. Almost immediately, she knew something was wrong. The whole wood seemed to vibrate with some sound just beyond her hearing, but which quivered in every leaf.


They must have been stirred up by the recent passage of the orc troop chopping their way through the woods. Tauriel proceeded along the trail more cautiously. She had no wish to become a spider's prey, or indeed, to relive this morning's encounter with their powerful venom.

After about an hour's slow progress, she found the first webs. She touched one lightly, careful not to disturb it and alert the spiders to her presence. Yes, it was fresh, two hours old at the most. Her quarry had been here so recently!

The branches above her quivered slightly, and she sprang back just as the livid, swollen body of a spider dropped on its thread before her.

She slashed a knife across its eyes, and as it constricted its legs in pain, plunged her second dagger into the center of its body. The corpulent shape convulsed, and then slithered down its thread to the forest floor, dead.

Already, Tauriel could see the webs ahead of her trembling. More spiders, alerted by their comrade, would soon be here. Judging by the extent of the webbing, there would be too many of the creatures for Tauriel to face alone.

Bitterly reluctant, she turned back. She would have to skirt the spiders' hunting ground; continuing forward through groves laced with webs and seething with angry spiders was foolhardy and suicidal. Yet every hour lost—every minute!—put Kíli further into danger.

The orcs, she knew by now, must be taking him to Dol Guldur. The fortress had once been the palace of Oropher, Thranduil's father, when the woodland elves had dwelt further abroad. Nearly two millennia ago, they had been driven north, and their old capitol had become the breeding ground for spiders and orcs and black magic. Though the Necromancer had now been driven out, orcs might still gather there. It was an evil place of imprisonment and torment, and few who were brought there ever left alive.

She slipped between overgrown and grasping branches, her movements instinctive and requiring little concentration, leaving all her thoughts to her fears.

Could Mandos truly be so cruel as to doom her to widowhood so soon after her marriage? The blow would be even more harsh in light of Galadriel's revelation that Kíli might enjoy an unusually long lifespan. Of course, it had been foolish to count it as a certainty that Kíli would live even the two and a half centuries that most dwarves did. Life, as Tauriel was learning most painfully, made no promises for tomorrow.

Her steps faltered and she clasped her hands to her mouth, stifling a sob. Kíli had wanted to give her, if not quite a promise, then a hope for her future: he had offered her the chance for a child.

How would it have felt to know that, whatever befell Kíli now, she carried part of him as a babe in her womb? Would that little life give her courage and comfort, even as her heart was breaking at the thought that she might never see Kíli's smile, never hold him, again? Or would she be doubly afraid knowing she must relive the pain of losing Kíli, should their child suffer any harm?

Tauriel trembled with the effort of holding back the tears she refused to shed; they would do no good. Whatever might have been, Kíli was all she had now, and she would spare nothing to save him, if the cost was the breath from her lungs and the blood from her veins. Forcing her hands down from her face, she clenched them round her daggers and pressed on through the dark wood.

Grignar's troop arrived at Dol Guldur two nights after capturing the dwarf prince. They had made good time, even with the spiders' attack, and overall Grignar was pleased. He would have preferred not to have lost two of his soldiers fending off the spiders, but such was the cost of revenge. What orc wouldn't give his life to buy the humiliation of his bitterest enemies? And the dwarves of Erebor, having waged a long and thorough war against the orcs, were bitter enemies, indeed.

The fortress was empty, as Grignar had hoped. Some scattered bones and trash suggested that others had passed through here in the years since the defeat at the Mountain, but there was no sign of any long-term occupation since the Necromancer had gone. Grignar felt no regret over the sorcerer's disappearance; while the dark powers of the world had traditionally allied themselves with the orcs, Grignar—like others of the Misty Mountain clans—believed the orcs were a power in their own right, deserving more than to be the mere pawns of some conspiracy hatched in the East. An orcish empire, ruled by orcs, was no less than the desert of his race.

While the outer areas of Dol Guldur were crumbling, the lower levels—which had seen the most use during the Necromancer's tenancy—were still very much intact. A secure cell was easily found for the dwarf. After a brief rest, Grignar searched the dungeons further and was rewarded with just what he sought: a chamber still furnished with all the tools and devices needed for filling his prisoner's last days among the living with a variety of torments.

As Grignar stood admiring the array of clever branding implements—burning the flesh was a particularly favored method with him—he had the sudden, unnerving sensation that he was no longer alone in the room, though he had heard no sound and seen no shadow in the feeble torchlight. His skin crawling with gooseflesh, he turned slowly so as not to betray the fear that thrilled through him.

In the center of the damp, stone-flagged room was a figure entirely enveloped in a black cloak. It was man-sized, though no features could be seen within its full hood, save perhaps the faint glint of eyes. Yet as unimposing as its appearance was, it emanated an aura of unmistakeable dread.

The Necromancer?

No, Grignar did not think this creature, whatever it was, could be that fabled sorcerer. The Necromancer would not have waited so long to reveal himself; he would have done so instantly to assert his authority. Whatever this thing was, it approached Grignar in the pose of equality, as if it were a potential ally. Yet the orc captain knew better than to let down his guard. If this creature was confident enough to face him alone, it must be powerful still.

Determined as he was to make the other speak first, Grignar found it increasingly difficult not to blurt out a challenge merely to alleviate the unsettling tension in the air.

After perhaps a minute, when the orc had begun trembling and sweating, the thing finally hissed, "The dwarf. You think he is someone special."

It was a test, and Grignar knew his answer would determine whether this encounter went smoothly or not. So, as loath as he was to reveal his prisoner's value, he grumbled, "It's the dwarf prince of Erebor. The younger one." He spat, annoyed.

There was a long pause that once more threw Grignar off balance. "And what is Oakenshield's heir doing here in the wild?"

Grignar shifted, despising himself for being unable to conceal how uncomfortable this interview made him. "Buggered if I know. He visited the tree elves, and he was traveling with one as his bodyguard, too. Not one of the high elf-witch's people, but a leaf-eared chit from Mirkwood."

There was a soft hiss as of indrawn breath, but the thing in the cloak did not move in the slightest, as any normal, breathing being would have. What in the pits of Mordor was this creature?

"And where is this she-elf now?"

"Fled. Disappeared. Though not, I think, dead." Grignar gave what was meant to be an unconcerned shrug, though the movement was a trifle stiff for ease. "Not a concern either way, though. If she comes after him alone, we'll take her. If she goes for help, she'll be too late."

The thing sniffed the air, and Grignar had the weird feeling it was somehow taking the gauge of his words. "You are from Gundabad," it said.

The orc grunted in affirmation.

"Yesss. Gundabad had word that Durin's heir was crossing the mountains. Your general placed a bounty on the dwarf." The black hood moved slightly in a nod, though the movement was somehow too smooth. "I had no cause to recall that order when last I visited your northern fortress, and I see no reason to counter it now," it mused aloud, presumably for the orc's benefit.

Of course. It was clear, now, who Grignar was dealing with: this was one of the Necromancer's former lieutenants. There were more than this one. Eight? Nine? It was rumored they were dispersed when the Necromancer was driven east, but Grignar had heard rumors, when he had still been stationed near Gundabad, that one of them had paid a visit to the fortress. Grignar had resented the idea of outsiders interfering with orcish affairs then, and he resented it now.

"The prisoner is mine," he said.

The slightest wheeze, like a laugh, escaped the creature. "And what do you intend for him?"

"He'll suffer, and then he'll die. His head will be sent to Erebor."

There was another long, preternatural silence. Even the soft sounds of the dungeon—dripping water, the distant whistling of the breeze far above—were muted. Grignar hated the way this thing, whatever it was, made him wait each time it spoke, as if he were a mere underling.

"We will permit it," the figure rasped at last. "Durin's line must be ground out."

Grignar bared his teeth in a grin. On this, at least, he could agree.

Kíli was in very, very deep shit.

He was alone, imprisoned, and waiting for a bunch of orcs to cut him to bits, beat him till he crumbled, disembowel him by inches, or whatever other horrid fate their twisted, hateful minds could devise.

He had hoped, and indeed prayed, that Tauriel would have reached him before now. His spirits had risen when they entered the forest, for surely, with her experience on the king's guard, she would be at the greatest advantage sneaking through the trees and picking off the orcs with her bow. And yet she had not come.

Please let it be that the spiders had cut her off from him, that she was only delayed. He could not bear the alternative: that she had taken some reckless risk for him and become the prey of the same monsters she had hunted victoriously for years before Kíli had ever been born. If he had been the cause of her death—

But then, he would very likely be dead in a few days' time, as well.

He shifted, seeking a more comfortable position as he lay on the rough stone floor of the cell. Everything ached. His arms, bound for nearly two days, still felt sore and weak now that they'd untied him at last. His ribs were bruised from the orcish boots, knees, elbows, and fists that had come in contact with him over the past few days—the captain, while ensuring no serious damage came to the prisoner, had not objected to general rough handling. Worst of all was that damned iron collar they'd put on him. It had pinched and scraped and bruised from his collarbones to his jaw, and his hair kept getting caught in it. Yet none of all these pains would be anything to what was in store for him.

Oh, Maker.

He almost wished he had tried a run for it, in the chaos when the spiders had attacked. He had stayed with his captors then because he knew that with dozens of hungry predators about, he was much more likely to be caught and eaten than he was to reach freedom. Better, he had decided, to bide his time and wait for Tauriel's arrival. But now, becoming a spider's dinner sounded far preferable to being tortured by orcs.

There was still time, he told himself, for Tauriel to rescue him. He had to hold out, for her sake, as long as he could. Mahal, give me courage.

He tried to fill his senses with the memory of her: her bright, slightly upturned green eyes against pale skin warmed slightly by her blush; the wonderful, woodsy spiced scent of her silken hair as it fell down over him; the smoothness of her skin against his fingertips, his lips. He might never experience such sweetness again in life, but even a painful death could not outweigh the good of having once been Tauriel's, and she his.

He groaned.

What a bloody fool he had been to waste the last months he had with her in a quarrel! Why couldn't he have simply enjoyed her love? Tauriel had never stopped caring for him; he realized that. But instead, he had pushed for the child he wanted, and in doing so, had pushed her away, too. Damn him! He had lost two months of the last happiness that could have been his, and for what? Not only had his stubbornness proved pointless, but now Tauriel's last memories of him would be ones of sorrow and regret.

"Forgive me, Taur," Kíli whispered, and he brushed his fingers against her braided hair that was set within the heavy silver cuff bracelet at his left wrist. He was grateful that the orcs had not stripped this token from him. Tauriel's first gift, it was now the last piece he had of her, and it was a comfort to think that she would be with him, in this small way, even when he died.

Kíli was roused out of these wretched thoughts by footsteps outside his cell. As the door clattered open and two orcs entered, he scrambled up and moved back against the wall. Yet though his fear and the desperate need to survive gave him a new, wild energy, he had barely scuffled with the first orc before the second grasped the iron collar and choked him into submission while they once more bound his hands, this time in front of him.

Still with a tight hold on the chain at his neck, they marched him from the cell and down several dark hallways towards a doorway through which a fire's fitful light shone.

Inside was a broad, high-ceilinged room. A few torches hung in brackets on the walls, but most of the light came from a brazier that burned at the far end. The floor of the room was open, but along the walls were a forbidding array of implements and apparatus that confirmed what Kíli already knew: he was here so that the orcs could finally have their cruel sport with him.

Kíli was terrified, more so than when he'd nearly been skinned and roasted by trolls; more than when the Goblin King had threatened Thorin's whole party with mangling; more even than when he had stepped out from behind the ramparts of Erebor into the battle and believed he went to meet his death. Then, there had been comrades at his side to rely on for a strong arm and a courageous heart. Now, he was alone.

Beside the brazier stood the scarred orc captain—Grignar, that was what the other orcs had called their leader—who grinned wickedly at Kíli as he was brought near. A welcome surge of anger rose in him. Whatever they did to him, Kíli would not let them see his fear. He refused to offer them that satisfaction. He must rely on his pride as a dwarf, as Durin's son, to be his one support in the face of pain and death.

And so he clenched his jaw and set his brow in a stone-faced, empty stare as his guards pushed his back to the stone wall and chained his arms up high above his head. They also chained his feet.

Once he was secured and the two underlings had stepped back, Grignar stood watching him.

I've killed orcs like you. Tauriel and Uncle and Fíli and I all have, Kíli thought.

Grignar had clearly been thinking along the same lines, for he said at last, "You and I were both at the Battle of Five Armies. Remind me; which of us is the victor and which the loser?"

Kíli tossed his head slightly to clear loose hair from his eyes but said nothing.

The big orc stepped nearer. "You're their champion and they must have honored you. Gold, feasting, and songs. Fame and a crown and females eager for your bed so that they can bear sons with the name of the famous orc-slayer: the sister-son of Oakenshield, son of Thráin son of Thrór, and all of them mighty heroes in the wars against the orcs." He laughed. "We may be enemies, but even I can see where honor is due. Let me show you how my people honor a dwarven hero."

"Honor?" Kíli said at last. "I didn't even know you orcs had a word for such a thing."

The orc sneered, the smug expression further marring his already scarred and distorted face. "It's an idea we've developed by dealing with the likes of you, dwarf. And I think you'll find we've quite perfected it by now."

Grignar whisked a knife from some hidden sheath and Kíli flinched involuntarily as the blade flicked past his face, a reaction that clearly amused the orc.

"Come, I expected our war hero to be braver than that," he said with a mocking shake of his head. Then with the aid of a few quick knife slashes, he stripped off Kíli's shirt, so that he was naked to the waist.

Grignar glanced down over Kíli, his eyes narrowing. "You've a pretty hide for a fighter," he said derisively, stroking a clawed hand over the dwarf's skin. Kíli shivered in disgust.

"Hardly a mark on you. But we'll mend that." With those last words, he pressed his claws into Kíli's flesh, deep enough to draw blood.

Kíli's breath caught, but he gave no answer save a glare.

The orc captain smiled back. "This will be more fun for both of us if you play along, you know. I work better with some encouragement. What shall we talk about to unseal that stubborn tongue of yours?" He turned back towards the brazier, where a number of long-handled implements had been stacked. They reminded Kíli of the tools he saw in a forge, but these were not, he knew, intended for the working of metal.

"Now, which of these would you like me to try first?" the orc mused, evil merriment in his tone. He lifted several tools in turn and offered them for Kíli's inspection. Kíli focused on a spot just above the orc's right shoulder and concentrated on keeping his face blank of the mounting panic he felt.

"Perhaps you'll have more of an opinion once we've tried one," Grignar continued. He selected a tool at random and held it towards the brazier.

Kíli swallowed. So it was to be branding. Mahal preserve him.

Yet before the orc set the iron in the coals, he turned back to Kíli.

"That she-elf bitch of yours, is she as delicious as she looks?" he said, experimentally prodding the iron against Kíli's chest.

It took all of Kíli's will not to shrink back at the thought of how the fully heated iron would feel.

"Like most elves, she's not got enough tits, but then that pretty white skin..." The iron skimmed down over Kíli's ribs, finally coming to rest against the soft pit of his belly. "Makes it easy to leave your mark on her. Must be fun to make her scream."

"Don't talk about my wife that way," Kíli growled. How dare this orc sully her even in his thoughts?

"Your wife?" Grignar barked, astonished. "That elf bitch is actually your wife?" With a long, rolling laugh, he turned back and thrust the iron into the coals at the base of the brazier. Then he looked to Kíli, his face still twisted with amusement. "Maybe when you're dead, she can be mine. You think she'll have me? She'll fuck a dwarf, she'll fuck an orc—"

"You tunnel-crawling, dirty-bellied son of a toad fucker! She'd kill you!" Kíli lurched against his bonds, but his arms were stretched too high for him to move more than a few inches.

"Would she? You're just afraid she'd like it."

"Orc filth, you're not worthy to look at her! Come here, and I'll kill you! You dare speak of one of the Firstborn with your tainted lips—" He arched away from the wall and kicked the chains on his feet so they rattled.

To Kíli's surprise, Grignar's face twisted into a snarl of genuine rage. He withdrew the glowing brand from the coals and advanced on Kíli, teeth bared. "I'll say what I like, dwarf bastard. I've as much right to an elf as you. Let me tell you what I'll do to her."

Too angry to care about his own peril, Kíli strained forward, snarling. "Leave her out of this, you slag-faced git—"

Grignar swung the iron close to Kíli. At the same moment, a cold, thin voice pierced the room.


Kíli stilled, as if ice had suddenly flashed through his veins, though he could feel the heat of the branding iron held very near his skin. Yet while Grignar still glared murderously at him, the big orc was likewise frozen.

"The dwarf must not be touched," that same voice said again.

Kíli dragged his eyes from the orc's face to look beyond.

A dark shape occupied the door to the room. At first, Kíli could not tell what he saw, for the blackness seemed so deep that it was like looking on nothing at all. After several seemingly eternal moments, he realized it was a hooded figure, but not an orc. A human, perhaps?

Grignar growled and lifted his arm. There was a low, nearly inaudible hum, and then the branding iron shattered. Kíli flinched as hot shards of metal skimmed him.

"The dwarf is mine," the orc bellowed, rounding on the newcomer.

The black figure swept forward into the room. Torches and brazier suddenly dimmed, as if swallowed up by some invisible cloud. Grignar fell back as the creature brushed past him, cowed despite his resentment.

Kíli could see no face within the hooded cloak, but still he felt the force of the thing's gaze. He felt sick.

"Kíli, son of Dís, daughter of Thráin," it said, its voice the sibilant whisper of wind over broken stones. "The wood elf is your wife?"

A deep terror rose in Kíli, and he nearly answered out of some desperate reflex. But no— he must not betray his Tauriel to this evil being, and so he clenched his jaw, so hard that a sharp cramp shot up the side of his face.

The figure raised an arm. No hand was visible at the end of the draping sleeve, only a knife, long and slender as an icicle, and radiating the same cold as it neared Kíli's face. Yet instead of cutting him, the creature lifted one of the braids at Kíli's temple.

"Your marriage braids answer for you," it said, a faint quiver that might have been laughter in its voice. "You wear elvish silver on an elvish braid."

Oh, Valar, what did it want with Tauriel? If it meant to hurt him, do so directly! Kíli would accept any torment rather than be the cause for Tauriel's suffering.

"Tell me one thing," the creature hissed, and Kíli felt its attention sharpen. "Does your bride yet carry your spawn?"

Despite the fear spreading its cold numbness through his limbs, resentment sparked hot and bright in Kíli's heart. They dared to plot harm against even his unborn child? Such malice disgusted him.

"No," he said through gritted teeth. "And I'm certain she never will." For the first time, he was grateful for this fact. If he died here, perhaps these villains would let Tauriel alone, since she would then claim no closer tie to him than having once been his wife.

The thing clearly laughed now, a sound like a death rattle. "She yet lives, dwarf. Are you glad?"

Kíli could still see no face before him, but he had the sickening impression that this monster smiled at him. And then a dullness and a darkness seemed to take his senses. Kíli felt as if he were drowning in some black pool of greasy water, like those that collected in abandoned mine shafts. His body went slack at last, and he fell back against the stone. For a while he was dimly aware, as if through a fitful, fevered sleep, of quarreling voices—one thin and sharp, the other deep and belligerent—and then he was alone again in the dark.

Chapter Text

A cold, steady rain began just as Tauriel reached the first rocky outcroppings below Dol Guldur.

Squeezing between the heavy, thorn-laden vines that ensnared the cliff face and fortress walls, Tauriel cursed silently. A quarter of an hour out in this weather, and she would be drenched to the bone. Not only would soaked clothing make stealth so much harder once she was in the fortress, but even her spare bowstring—tucked safely into a pocket sewn inside her bodice—would be useless. Yet with Kíli held prisoner somewhere within this foul dungeon, she could not spare the time to dry herself or her gear.

Oh, Valar, that postern door must be here somewhere. Please!

She stooped under another low vine, cautiously so as not to catch Kíli's large quiver. Lightning flashed. Startled, Tauriel stood too quickly, and the unfamiliar gear at her back overbalanced her. She stumbled forward, putting out her hands to catch herself against crumbling stonework.

Leaning against the wall as she regained her breath, she realized that it was rotting wood, not stone, under her hands. She had found what she sought: the secret lower entrance into the fortress.

She whispered her thanks to Elbereth and then shouldered the door open and stepped through. In the shadows, she could make out the shapes of stairs winding upwards, the passage narrow enough to be held by a single defender. Good: this was as she had expected. This fortress had been built by King Oropher, and the oldest, lower levels would have been constructed on a similar plan to the one used by his son for his own palace.

The stairway rose, without door or window, for perhaps a hundred feet before opening into a chamber that had probably once been a guardroom. The space was dark and deserted now, but through the doorway in the opposite wall, Tauriel could make out a dim light. The grumble of orcish voices echoed from the stone, and she held her breath to listen. Two, maybe three, she guessed, releasing a grateful sigh. She had not known whether to expect the fortress to house a full garrison of orcs. Yet so far, Dol Guldur's exterior gave no suggestion of being occupied. The unwatched postern entrance and empty guardroom were further reasons to expect she would have to face no more than the dozen orcs she had already been tracking for the past two days. Indeed, if she was lucky, the spiders had already reduced the orcs' numbers somewhat.

Hope and despair fluttered wildly inside her. So little now stood between her and Kíli! Yet if he were already lost, it would not matter if only a bare handful of orcs opposed her.

Would she have sensed it if he had died before now? Perhaps she would have felt a pain as his fae was torn from hers and his spirit departed this world. Or would he simply be gone, leaving no trace or sign of his passing? The world—no, she herself—would be empty and bereft. As she reached for her daggers, her hands passed briefly over her belly and she could not stop the twinge of regret she felt at the thought that, had things gone differently between her and Kíli, she might now have carried his child.

Drawing her blades, she moved forward, towards the light. More rooms—barracks, it seemed—opened off either side of the hallway, but all were dark save the furthest, whence came a fire's fitful gleams. As she crept nearer, the voices resolved into words.

"I've never seen the cap'n so mad. What's got him in such a tweak? I asked when we'd get our chance at the dwarf, an' he nearly took my head off," someone said.

"Seems the black one—that ghostly thing we saw skulking about earlier—is taking our prisoner," a second voice wheezed. Tauriel's heart lurched against her ribs. Did that mean Kíli still lived?

"Troll shite! I didn't drag my arse this far just to let somebody else have our fun."

Boots ground against stone, and then there was the sound of something clattering against the wall. The other orc returned, "It's worse than that." He sniffled, sneezed, and then finally went on. "Uglash says orders are for the prisoner to go free. Undamaged."

Blessed Valar! Tauriel froze just outside the lighted doorway, her heart pounding hard.

There was a laugh, and then the first orc said, "Don't believe him. I passed the cap'n on my way just now. He was tellin' Urzul that nobody was to be let down to the prisoner, least of all that black fellow. And then he went down 'imself. You want to tell me that he's just payin' the dwarf a social call?" It sniggered wickedly.

"Mebbe not. But I think Grignar's scared of that stranger, and if it asks for the dwarf, ol' Grig will roll over."

Tauriel's thoughts raced as fast as her heart. Kíli was alive. There was someone here in addition to these orcs, someone who wanted Kíli for himself. And she could not trust this orc captain, whatever he had been ordered regarding the prisoner. She must find Kíli, and swiftly! Yet she could not have these two orcs following after her. Besides, when she did find Kíli, he might be too hurt to move on his own, much less defend himself. Best to deal with these enemies now.

She stooped and picked up a broken piece of masonry, then threw it across the empty hall before ducking into the dark doorway just beside the orcs' own.

"What was that?" demanded the wheezing voice.

"My, you're jumpy."

"I'm just sayin', we don't know what else is here. Could be more than that black fellow."

"Well, go have a look. Or are you too scared?"

"I'm goin'."

Feet shuffled over to the entrance, then stopped, but still Tauriel saw no-one; the orc must be just inside the other doorway. She could hear its whistling breath.

"Well, go on, you lily-livered sod," the other orc prompted from inside. "What're you waiting for? Can't see anything from in here."

With an annoyed grunt, the orc at the door stepped into the hallway, though it still remained within the firelight. Tauriel drew back against the wall just inside the door to her room and then nudged another broken stone with her toe so that it skittered across the floor. After a few seconds, the orc came over to her door.

As it leaned cautiously into the room, Tauriel caught it from behind. Her left hand gripping its head, she drew her right dagger across its throat. It collapsed, sagging heavy in her arms, and she clutched at it so it would not fall to the floor in a clash of armor. After several moments intense struggle, she laid the orc as quietly as she could on the floor.

"Bug?" The other orc called. "What're you playin' at out there? Ya find anything?"

Tauriel wiped the bloody daggers, sheathed them, and grasped her bow. Then she moved deeper into the room to give herself a clear shot at the door.

"You bastard," the orc growled again, boots clattering on the stone as it came near. "I'll teach you to play your stupid tricks."

It paused in the silent hallway and sniffed once, probably smelling the blood already pooling on the floor. Then Tauriel heard the soft swish of a blade being drawn from a scabbard, and the orc moved a few cautious steps more. She could see it now, through the doorway. It looked in, then stiffened as it saw the lifeless body of its comrade. The orc glanced up swiftly, its feral eyes meeting Tauriel's just as she loosed the string.

Her arrow flew true, striking the center of the eye-socket. The orc gave a brief, sharp scream and then fell back, dead.

Swift as sight, Tauriel nocked another arrow and then waited, her breath caught, straining her ears for any sound that more orcs were on their way.


Tauriel retrieved her first arrow, then moved on down the hall. A quick glance into the lighted room showed it to be another of the empty barrack-rooms, a broken brazier flaming in the center.

She needed to find the way to the dungeons. The entrance must be near; like her home barracks, these would surely have been designed to allow the guard access to all parts of the fortress. This hall intersected with another that led off to left and right. She paused within the opening, wondering which way to turn. Both directions were equally dark and still. With no clue to guide her, she went right, simply because that was the direction that would have taken her to the dungeons, had she stood in Thranduil's fortress.

Hands once more on her daggers, Tauriel loped down the hallway. She passed a large room that must have been a mess hall, and another that might have been a larder. Yet to her dismay, her eager, wary senses detected no further occupants: no torchlight or rough voices. Had she chosen the wrong way?

The hall ended, at last, in a large storeroom still littered with overturned racks of crumbling armor and rusting weapons: the armory. Damn!

Tauriel sprinted back the way she had come, trying to ignore the images that sprang so easily to her mind, images of that big orc captain hurting her Kíli. If Grignar took her beloved from her, she would kill him, if it cost her own life to do so! Kíli, you must hold on. I'm coming!

She slowed a little as she passed the barracks once more and started down the unexplored stretch of hall. There! Ahead, round the curve of the wall, was the flicker of torchlight. She proceeded cautiously; judging from the conversation she had heard, there was at least one orc watching the way into the lower prison levels.

Pausing just out of sight round the bend of the wall, Tauriel listened. Yes, there was the sound of coarse breathing and then the subtle creak of leather as someone shifted slightly. Thank Eru, she heard only the one guard.

Knowing that her greatest advantage was simply in taking this creature by surprise, she sprang past the last turn of wall, her knives poised in an attack that might easily shift to defense, if needed.

An orc in stained leather armor lounged against a closed iron door ahead of her. He jumped slightly when he saw her, but a sword was already in his hand, and he lost no time raising the blade to counter Tauriel's first strike.

She stepped back to draw the guard away from the wall; she wanted to be able to maneuver behind her opponent.

"So you found us after all," the orc growled, his tone somewhere between annoyance and laughter. "At least the captain will be pleased." He strode toward her, blade raised defensively, and Tauriel recognized the sword as Kíli's own, apparently taken as a prize. The orc swung at her, but easily, as if intending her to dodge. He was, she realized, trying to drive her into the corner at the end of the hallway.

She feinted. The orc moved to block and then swung at her again with the same movement as before. This time, she anticipated the strike and darted in behind the attack, driving the point of her dagger at the orc's throat.

With a blow from his free hand, the orc knocked her wrist aside, hard enough that she lost grip of her dagger, and then he caught her arm in a harsh grip. To her surprise, he dropped his sword and twisted her dagger from her other hand, regardless of a slashed wrist

"Come here, lassie," he sneered. "I don't have to hurt you. You're a better prize alive." His hungry grin left Tauriel no doubt as to his meaning.

She struggled back, but the orc now had a grip on Kíli's gear, and she could not twist free. As the creature leaned down to press his foul face into hers, Tauriel let her knees buckle so that she dropped with all her weight against the orc's grip and pulled him forward, off balance. As he stumbled, she kicked his feet from under him.

Despite the fall, the orc kept his hold on her, tumbling head over heels to land on his back with her clasped atop him.

"Why, you little bitch!" he snarled, hands groping for her throat. Tauriel raked his eyes with her nails, and he recoiled, just enough for her to fight back from his deadly embrace. She cast her eyes about for her daggers, but both were out of reach now. Yet Kíli's sword lay almost near enough!

She drove her elbow into the orc's stomach, just below the breastbone. Then she flung herself towards the sword. Her fingertips clawed at stone, then caught the pommel.

As her assailant made another grasp at her throat, Tauriel reared back, clasped the sword with both hands, and drove it into the orc's chest.

With a horrible, gurgling groan, the orc convulsed briefly and then lay still. Giving a pained moan of her own, Tauriel sprang back as quickly as she could, away from this foul monster and his reeking blood.

She stood for a while, panting, her hands still tight on the the haft of the dripping sword. Elbereth! The fight had been far too close. It did not bearing thinking what might have been her fate, and Kíli's, had she been overpowered.

Kíli! She could not rest, weary as she was, until she found him.

Using the remnants of her tattered cloak, she wiped the blood from her hands and then from Kíli's sword. She tucked the weapon into the sheath on his quiver—it made his gear still heavier, but she must go on hoping there was still a chance he would be strong enough to wield a weapon when she found him.

Tauriel collected her daggers, and then tugged open the iron door the orc had been guarding and rushed down the stair to the dungeons.

She came for him at last, his Tauriel. Her bright hair was like a torch, scattering light in this dreary dungeon, and her face shone, bright as a longed-for glimpse of moonlight from a storm-darkened sky. Kíli's heart practically flew as she sprinted towards him.

"Tauriel. Tauriel!" he cried, straining against his chains.

She halted, just before she reached him, and then Kíli saw her tear-stained face, her blood-stained skirts.


"Oh, Kíli," she murmured. He saw she trembled from head to toe, from pain or grief or some mixture of the two.

"Tauriel?" He ached to hold her, but his bonds held him immobile. "Tauriel, what is it?"

"Kíli," she said again, her voice hoarse and nearly inaudible. "Kíli, they've stolen our child."

"No," he moaned. "Why? Tauriel, why?" Had it been to hurt him? If so, they had succeeded. No bodily torment could compare to the pain he felt at seeing his beloved wife broken like this, crushed like a trampled flower. And what would they do with her babe?

"Tauriel, we have to— We'll get him back!" he insisted. "Let me loose!"

She came to Kíli's side then. "No." She shook her head. Her eyes were empty and dull, their green muted like faded dead leaves. "It's over now."


"Hush, Kíli." She draped her arms around his neck and wept once more, her ice-cold tears falling on his face. Answering tears welled in Kíli's eyes as he felt his heart breaking. And yet...

Something was not right. How could she have brought forth a child? Even had she conceived, unbeknownst, before their physical estrangement, the babe in her womb could not be more than several months old. Whatever designs their enemies had for their child, there was no way the villains could have abducted the babe yet.

Kíli lifted his face to question Tauriel further. More icy tears splashed into his eyes. He blinked and then saw darkness and a distant stone roof, faintly glimmering with trickling water.

He was still alone. The heart-breaking vision of a bereft Tauriel had been merely a restless dream, brought on by his own fears.

Kíli shivered. As much as he longed for Tauriel to find and save him, he was miserable at the thought of her falling into the hands of the monsters who held him. He had no doubt regarding the treatment Grignar intended for her. What the black-cloaked creature had in mind was less clear, but no less disturbing. Oh, Tauriel, for the Valar's sake, be careful!

He must get free. Tauriel needed his protection, now more than ever.

Kíli tugged at the bonds on his hands, but the rope about his wrists was securely fastened to a chain above. He would have to wait for one of his captors to remove it, as well as the chain at his ankles. Would they move him? At first, he had been sure they meant to torture him to death, in which case he had not expected to leave this room again. But the black figure had seemed to want him alive; Kíli thought it had argued with Grignar over his fate after he had nearly blacked out earlier.

So there was still a hope that Kíli might make one last escape attempt when someone came back for him. It was a small hope, fragile as the sliver of a new moon, but it was all Kíli had. He would rather die trying to win his way back to Tauriel than to stand by while enemies plotted to harm her.

Kíli tried to ease himself into a less awkward position, something that was entirely impossible with his hands stretched up so high. Even if these orcs did no more to him, being left like this for hours on end was its own kind of torment. He should be thankful, he reminded himself, that they hadn't left him strung up on that table-like frame over to his left; he was fairly certain it was some form of rack.

He groaned and tossed his head in a vain attempt to shift loose hair out of his eyes. By some damned irony, the annoyance of hair tangled about his ears and face was just as troublesome as any of his other discomforts. If someone would only free his hands for a moment, just so he could tie his hair back, this would all be much more bearable, he told himself, and then he laughed for the first time in days, a desperate, sharp sound that wracked aching muscles. Alas; he had already lost the pretty hair clasp Tauriel had given him for their anniversary. Yet he would willingly have paid that precious treasure a hundred times over for the joy of living to see its giver once again.

After perhaps another quarter of an hour, during which time the water dropped more and more steadily onto Kíli's face, a light finally grew in the hallway. Then Grignar entered the room. The big orc set the torch he carried in a bracket on the wall, replacing a burnt out one, and then turned to his prisoner.

Kíli did not at all like the expression of spiteful malice on the orc's twisted face as Grignar approached him.

"I agreed to send you back home alive," Grignar said, drawing a knife from his belt. "I never promised to send all of you." His eyes narrowed angrily, and Kíli understood that Grignar not only struck at him, but at that cloaked figure, who had robbed the orc of the full revenge he had wanted. Yet Kíli had no time to ponder the significance of the fact that he was now meant to be released, for Grignar pressed the point of the blade under Kíli's chin so that he had to raise his head.

The orc went on, gloatingly now, "I'd meant to send your head back to Erebor, but maybe this is better. You'll go back a ruined dwarf, living proof of your people's failure. What good is an heir who can't make sons of his own?"

Bloody hell. Did this orc intend to geld him? Kíli recoiled, horrified.

Grignar sniggered. "Will they still call you their prince if you're not even a man? And what of your little wife? Will she even want you now, if you can't please her? Maybe she'll pick me after all." With a last wicked sneer, Grignar lowered his blade and dropped to a knee, his hands going to Kíli's belt.

Mahal and all the Valar, what could Kíli do? He couldn't fight, chained as he was, and this orc, who was clearly here against orders, would not stop his revenge for anything Kíli could say. Unless—

As the orc tugged at the belt buckle, Kíli said, in the most smug tone he could manage, "Are you kneeling to me, orc? That's where you belong."

Grignar squinted up at Kíli, clearly annoyed.

"I'll remember this day as the first that an orc bowed to a dwarf, just as you all soon will," Kíli went on, holding that yellow gaze with his own while desperately hoping that Grignar was still too afraid of the hooded figure to kill him outright. "No matter what you do to me, I've already proven my superiority. I've wed an elf." He laughed. "Did you really think one of the Firstborn would ever willingly choose an ugly, slimy-skinned monster like you?"

The orc gave an angry yank at Kíli's belt. "Shut it, you damned runt."

"And what does that make you, on your knees to a runt? You're still an abomination—"

Grignar's lips twisted in a snarl, and Kíli knew his taunts had hit home. Then the orc dropped Kíli's belt and stooped to the chains at his feet. Kíli made a point of struggling, though in reality he was deeply relieved that his gamble had succeeded and that Grignar wished to find a less demeaning position from which to inflict this last insult on his prisoner.

The orc let down Kíli's arms and then, hand on the chain collar, tugged him away from the wall. Kíli took a few steps, and when he was sure of his feet against the floor, he turned and swung his still-bound hands at the orc's face.

The heavy silver bracelet at his wrist struck Grignar's chin, and the orc staggered back, momentarily loosening his hold on his prisoner. Kíli lunged forward, reaching for a branding iron that lay abandoned against the empty brazier. As he grasped it, he felt the orc's arms clasp tightly around his body.

"You little shit!" Grignar snarled. The huge captain wrestled Kíli a few steps forward and then threw him down against the edge of the rack. Kíli felt the knife's point jab the soft place just under his jaw.

"Now," the orc ordered. "You're going to lie still until I've finished with you, unless you want to lose more than just your bollocks."

Before Kíli could respond, Tauriel's voice, cold and hard and sharp as steel, cut through the air.

"Don't you touch him."

Chapter Text

At the sound of Tauriel's voice, Grignar's hold relaxed just barely. Kíli drew his legs up and, bracing himself against the edge of the rack, kicked with all of his might against the big orc.

Grignar grunted and stumbled back, and Kíli was free. He spun around, just in time to see Tauriel engage their mutual enemy. Her twin blades targeted Grignar's exposed chest, but the orc blocked the strike with his arm, and her daggers skimmed off his heavy leather bracers. Tauriel leapt back a step, and her attacker followed.

"Elf bitch," he snarled. "I should have killed you before."

"Tauriel!" Kíli shouted as Grignar threw his knife at her, but she had already anticipated this move and skipped out of the way. As the orc reached for his sword, Kíli landed a blow across his back with the branding iron. Grignar spun round. Grasping the iron in his free hand, he wrenched at it. With wrists still bound, Kíli could not maintain his one-handed grip on the weapon, and it slipped from his grasp.

Grignar tossed the iron aside and drew back his longsword for a sweeping blow at his now weaponless opponent. Yet before he could strike, Tauriel's dagger came down, piercing his upper arm. The blade must have caught against the bone, for as the orc continued to move, the dagger was pulled from her grasp.

With a roar of pain, Grignar paused and fumbled at the weapon embedded in him. Kíli gave ground towards the brazier, hoping to grab another of the irons stacked there; he'd seen no other weapons in the room.

As he reached out, Tauriel called his name, and he looked up to see her holding his own dwarvish longsword. She flung it in a low arc so that it struck the floor and slid towards him. Kíli stopped it with his boot and then snatched it up, just in time to see Grignar draw Tauriel's elvish dagger from his arm. Kíli charged forward.

Wounded though he was, Grignar easily blocked Kíli's first few attacks, then returned to the offense, and Kíli had all he could do to parry and dodge. Grignar still held Tauriel's dagger, which, coupled to his longer reach, lent him a deadly second attack against his dwarven opponent. Kíli gave ground slowly, watching for an opening in the orc's guard. After blocking a few more blows he saw it: the way that Grignar's wounded arm limited his motion.

Kíli ducked aside and then slashed down with his blade, shearing off the outer clawed digit on the orc's hand. Grignar's sword slipped from his grasp. Kíli swayed, momentarily caught off balance as he dodged the falling longsword.

Grignar swung his wounded hand at the dwarf, and Kíli ducked back, but not quickly enough: Grignar's claws closed on the chain at Kíli's neck and dragged him near.

Kíli's hands and sword were trapped, useless, between the orc's bulk and himself. Grignar laughed darkly and raised Tauriel's blade, its point aimed at Kíli's throat. Kíli thrust his fists ineffectually at the orc's midsection—it was impossible to get the right leverage, with his hands tied. As he struggled, he felt the elvish blade rasp against the chain below his chin—

Tauriel screamed, fierce as one of the wild cats that hunted in Ered Luin, and then Grignar sagged forward slightly, groaning. The blade he held slipped aside from his captive's throat as he fell to his knees.

Kíli drew back his head and rammed it against the orc's. Then he jerked backwards, and the orc's bloody, wounded hand slid from the chain collar.

Kíli swung his sword up over his shoulder and, with a roar of his own, brought it down at the orc's neck.

He felt the blade sever bone.

Grignar gave one last choking snarl and slumped forward at Kíli's feet.

Beyond the lifeless orc stood Tauriel, her eyes deadly, a bloody dagger clenched in her hand. Kíli had never seen her look so fierce. Her gaze lifted from her enemy to him, and instantly her expression softened.

"Tauriel!" Kíli gasped.

"Hadhod nín."

"Tauriel, thank Mahal." He sank back on his heels, suddenly wearied through. "I thought I was—"

"No, Kíli, not today. Not while I'm here." She rushed to him, and he took her hand and let her pull him to his feet again.

"Oh, Taur, you've very good timing," he managed, still breathing hard as he steadied himself against her. "I mean, a bit earlier wouldn't have hurt—"

"Are you hurt?" she demanded, worry in her tone.

"Not much."

"Thank Eru!" she breathed. "Oh, meleth, I'm so sorry about all of this! If I'd never said— If I'd stayed with you!" The inner corners of Tauriel's eyes were tight, her tears barely held in check.

He raised his hands so he could brush her cheek with his thumb. "I'm sorry, too," Kíli said. "I've been such an ass these past months, not seeing that you needed me to understand and comfort you. Forgive me?"

"Yes, Kíli. If you forgive me."

"Already done." He cupped her chin between his palms and kissed her.

She smiled at him. "What I said that night— I know it isn't true."

"Thanks." Since then, he had understood that she must have spoken out of her pain and fear, rather than any true doubt of him, when she claimed he could have been happier with a dwarven wife. Yet it was still good to have her confirm this truth. "I love you, Taur."

"As I love you, Kíli." She kissed his fingers, then drew his hands down and severed the bonds on them with a clean slice of her dagger. Then she turned her attention to the chain at his neck.

"Those monsters," she hissed as she lifted the heavy links carefully, seeking for the fastening. Her features were drawn sharp with anger, and Kíli thought her very beautiful, especially since she showed such a flare of passion on his behalf. He laid his hands on her waist, letting the reassuring warmth of her body flow through his palms.

At last, the weight of the chain dropped from his shoulders, and Tauriel threw it aside with an Elvish curse. Lifting his chin gently, she gave a soft moan. "You are hurt," she said.

Kíli knew he was scraped and bruised from that cruel collar; indeed, his skin felt quite raw. Surely he looked even worse than he felt, and yet a few abrasions were the least of the injuries he might have borne by now.

"I'll mend," he returned easily. "Especially with my elven sorceress looking after me."

"Oh, Kíli," she sighed, happiness and relief finally apparent in her voice, and then she leaned in and kissed him. The contact, though brief, conveyed a tenderness and passion more intense than Tauriel had shown him in these past unlucky months, and Kíli momentarily wished they were at liberty to follow through on such feelings. But first they had to find their way out of this accursed dungeon. And afterwards— Well, if the Valar saw fit to give them an afterwards, Kíli would discover precisely what it was Tauriel wanted from him and see to it that he loved and made her happy under whatever terms she set.

As she drew back, Kíli gave her a teasing smile. "I feel better already. Now, pass me my quiver."

Once he had it settled over his shoulder, he said, "For Durin's sake, let's get out of here."

She gave a curt nod and went ahead of him to the door.

"How many have you dealt with so far?" he asked.

"Counting that one? Four."

Kíli sped after her down the hallway. "Then that should leave as many more." He paused as they reached a stairwell and Tauriel listened. "Anything?"

"No." She shook her head, then proceeded up the stairs quickly but quietly. He added in a whisper, "Then there's also that black...thing, whatever it is."

"I heard the others speak of a black-clad creature, as well," Tauriel returned breathlessly. "I couldn't guess what they meant."

"I've met it and I still can't— Tauriel?" She had gone rigid, just as they reached the top of the stair.

"Kíli," she whispered, her voice taught as a wire. "There is some great evil here. We must get out now." She grasped his hand and all but dragged him after her as she raced down the darkened hallway. Kíli hoped she knew where she was going.

They turned a corner and passed a room lit by a fire, though no one appeared to challenge their passage. Kíli could not sense the reason for their haste, though it was clear Tauriel was deeply distressed: her skin was cold and she gripped his hand as in a vise.

He lifted his feet as high as he could and dashed after her, through a big room towards a narrow door in the wall.

As they reached the door, Tauriel suddenly cried out and doubled over, as if in pain.

"Tauriel?" Kíli caught her shoulders and peered into her face, which was very pale. He could feel it now, too: the sickening, deadly, bone-deep terror that he had known when the black-cloaked creature had spoken to him. The air in the room felt suddenly colder. "Tauriel!"

With an effort, she straightened, then thrust him ahead of her, into the doorway. "Go, Kíli."

"Tauriel, I'm not leaving—" he protested wildly.

"I'm right behind you!" she gasped, then staggered to a stop again, hand clutching her middle.

Kíli turned back and grasped her arm. "Tauriel!" Was he losing her? The fearful thought pierced him like an icy blade. Was that monster, whatever it was, crushing her spirit and destroying her, just as it had in Kíli's restless dream?

She gave a small inarticulate cry, then flung her head back and cried, "Elbereth Gilthoniel, berio ven!"

On her last words, a shiver passed through her and then through him, and Kíli had the curious sensation as if a pressure had been taken off him. The feeling was not unlike the one he got when he rode one of the big freight elevators in the mines, and his ears would suddenly clear at the top. The sense of present, threatening evil was gone now.

Tauriel's skin felt warm once again, and she pushed him forward with a firm, though shaking hand. "Go on," she urged, and he did, pulling her after him as he scrambled down the spiral stairwell. He didn't quite know how they got to the bottom, but they did at last. Clutching her hand, Kíli shouldered through a broken door and then stumbled out into a cold, clean rain.

 "What happened back there?" Kíli asked once they were far enough away from the fortress that Tauriel permitted them to pause and catch their breath. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I am fine now," she said. Poor Kíli; when she had faltered earlier, his terrified face and desperate voice had told her very clearly that he had been afraid of losing her.

"What was that?" Kíli propped himself against a tree trunk, panting.

"Something very ancient and very evil. Just being near it gave me pain, both in body and spirit. But I assure you, it has done me no lasting harm." She could tell from his tense brows that he was worried such might have been the case.

"Good. It was interested in you—well, in both of us. It stopped that scarred orc from torturing me when it found out you were my wife. It wanted to know if—" He swallowed. "If you were carrying my child."

Tauriel stared at him. She could understand that their enemies wanted to be thorough in snuffing out Durin's lineage, but if they wanted to end Kíli's line, then why not kill him, too?

"I said you weren't. I hoped it would leave you alone then, after I— If I— Anyway. You aren't, are you?"

"No, Kíli." It was no longer painful to say so, when the chance had not been utterly stolen from her.

"I was just afraid maybe that was why it was able to hurt you when we got away," he said apologetically, apparently sorry for bringing up what had been a sensitive subject for them both. "That thing scares me, Taur. What does it want with us?"

"I heard those orcs say you were supposed to be set free. Do you know if that is true?"

"Seems like. Captain Scarface said he'd agreed to it, though he clearly wasn't happy with the plan. He wanted me dead, but if he couldn't have that, he'd make sure I was shamed. That's what he was about when you found me. I'm almost certain the gelding wasn't that black monster's idea."

"Merciful heavens!" The thought of how close her Kíli had come to being mutilated still deeply distressed her. Orcs could be unbelievably cruel.

Kíli looked up at her, a wry smile lifting his features. "That's past, love, and I'm still in one piece, thanks to you."

Tauriel found she laughed in spite of herself. "Does nothing dampen your spirits?"

"Oh, I'm very damp. Soaked, even." He swept clinging hair back from his face. "At least I'll be clean now. Have you got a spare bootlace on you?" He went on combing his fingers through his hair, gathering it up off his neck.

"I've better than that. Here, I rescued this for you." She slipped his silver hair clasp from her braids and offered it to him.

"Where did you find that?" he gasped. "I thought I'd lost it!"

"It was on the stones by the river, where you were taken."

"Thank you, Taur." He smiled sweetly at her as he fastened the clip in place.

"There's one of your shirts, in your quiver," she said.

As he wiped the last blood and grime on her cloak and then dressed, Tauriel gazed back through the gloomy woods, in the direction of the fortress. As yet, there had been no sign they were pursued, either by the remaining orcs or by the black creature. She would have known if it had been otherwise: such foul beings could not pass through the forest without sending ripples of disturbance ahead of them among the creatures who dwelt here.

"Kíli, I think we were allowed to escape," she said, turning back to look at him.

He quirked a brow in question as he snugged the laces on his shirt.

"Nothing moves behind us," she explained. "What I did earlier when I called on Elbereth to shield us was enough to break that thing's spell over us, for the moment. But not enough to prevent it from following us, if it wished. That creature was very powerful."

"I imagine you're right," Kíli returned. "Still, I don't like the idea of stopping till we're far away from here."

"Nor I." She put out her hand, and he clasped it in his warm, strong one. Together they pressed on beneath the dripping branches.

 They traveled hard for the next day, stopping only for a hurried meal of charred squirrel or to steal the bare minimum of rest, hidden among the roots of a tree. Still no one followed them, but Tauriel and Kíli were eager to put as many miles as possible between themselves and that hateful dungeon. At late morning on the following day, they finally emerged from the wood into the sunny meadows of the Anduin river basin, where they soon found a dell sheltered from the breeze. There they threw themselves down in a bed of clover and slept, tumbled together under a warm blanket of sunlight.

Tauriel woke to see the sun had begun its evening descent towards the horizon; all the world had a rich golden quality, as if the light were thick and sweet as honey. She drank from their water skin, then sat back, content to let Kíli wake in his own time. They were safe here: all the peaceful little sounds of the evening—the singing of crickets, the thrum of a swooping bird, even the gentle susurrus of wind through the grass—proved that no evil approached. The evening was balmy and lovely, and there was no reason to hurry this restful moment.

She knew Kíli was awake at last when he reached over and tickled her knee where it peeked out from her skirt.

"Good evening, meleth nín," she said.

"Is it evening? I've been so lost these past few days, I hardly know." He pushed himself up to sit beside her. "How many days has it been, anyhow?"

"Since we were separated? Tonight will be the fifth night since then."

"Mmm. It feels like a lifetime." He laid his hand over hers. "Don't ever let me argue with you again, all right? It's not worth it."

"I shan't." Tauriel turned so that she knelt facing him. "Now that we have the daylight, may I have a look at you?" Yesterday she had tended the scrapes on his neck, but she had not yet examined him further. He was not gravely hurt, she knew, but still she would feel better having seen for herself the extent of his other injuries.

Kíli dragged his shirt off.

At the sight of the green and purple bruises smudged over his torso, Tauriel loosed a sympathetic sigh.

"My poor Kíli," she murmured, laying her hands gently against his ribs. "Now, breathe deeply," she instructed, pressing more firmly against him.

He did as she asked.

"Did you feel any sharp pain?"


"Then you've not broken any bones."

Kíli grinned at her. "We dwarves are harder to break than that," he said. "We are made from stone, you know."

"And I'm very glad you are." She slid her fingers searchingly over him, and he flinched. Looking closer, Tauriel saw a raw pink mark traced across his stomach, just above his hip. It looked like a burn. "What happened here?"

Kíli held her eyes for a moment, apparently considering how she would respond. "Scarface wanted to brand me," he said.


"That black thing stopped him by casting a spell that shattered the hot iron. Some of the pieces fell on me."

"Heavens!" Rejecting the distressing images that sprang to her mind, she sought in her pouch for her healing salve. After she had applied it to the burn, she again tended the scrapes at Kíli's neck.

The chain collar had left deep bruises about his throat and jaw. Yet though his skin was scabbed in some places, she did not expect those wounds to scar, a fact for which she was very grateful. She would have hated to see Kíli bear those marks all the rest of his life. Indeed, she would have looked at them and felt grief and guilt in equal measure at their reminder of how she had failed to remain at his side.

His wounds dressed, she once more laid her hands on him, needing to reinforce her eyes' proof that he was whole and well. Tauriel pressed her touch up over his chest, her fingers combing through the soft hair that covered him. She traced the heavy shape of his shoulders with her palms and trailed her fingertips down his arms, gathered him about the waist and skimmed her hands up over the powerful muscles of his back. Careful not to press the worst of his bruises, she tucked her face into the curve of his neck and leaned against him.

Kíli sighed happily and clasped his arms around her. His hold was firm, his muscular frame solid against her, and it was difficult to imagine that her strong, sturdy dwarf had so recently been in any danger of destruction.

"Thank the Valar you're safe," she whispered against him and kissed him in the soft crook of his neck. Beneath the sharp, herbal scent of the healing salve, she could smell his skin, warm and bright and wonderful. Oh how she had missed this! And missed the feel of his skin on hers, the weight of him as he lay against her, and the elation of that moment when their bodies became one. He was her beloved Kíli, and she longed to be fully his once more. Knowing how close they had come to losing any chance to celebrate their love thus made her still more eager.

She had to fight him a moment to draw back, but at last he loosened his hold on her. When she saw his face, his expression was more clearly pained than when she had handled his aching injuries moments earlier.

"I'm hardly finished with you, Kíli," she corrected him tenderly as she unknotted the ties on her dress.

"What are you—?" he asked, his brow furrowed.

"I mean to make love to you, unless that's not what you want?" Her fingers stilled as she studied him, trying to understand his own mood. Perhaps he was yet too distressed by the dangers he had recently escaped to be ready for intimacy.

"Valar, Tauriel, of course I want to!" he blurted, his voice cracking slightly. His confused look melted into a sweet, vulnerable grin. "Are you sure? If you're not—" There was a flash of hunger in his eyes. "Maker, don't do this to me if you're—"

"My poor Kíli!" She laughed, not at him, but at herself, for shame at the torment she had put him through so long by refusing the attention he craved. "I'm very sure. If you don't love me now, I think I shall break."

Kíli released a giddy laugh. "I won't let you break, amrâlimê."

His hands flew to his belt as Tauriel tore free the final laces on her dress. She did not wait for him to finish undoing his trousers, but once her bodice was open and she was bared from throat to waist, she settled astride Kíli's knees and pulled him close. Kíli sighed, a deep sound that resonated in her chest. As he sat forward into her, his skin caught on her own or tickled, where he was covered in hair. Tauriel released an unsteady breath as she rocked slowly against him, savoring the shifting touch of their bodies.

He tipped his head back to reach her mouth and kissed her tenderly while he drew her dress down off her shoulders. Then his arms went round her again, his strong hands kneading her back.

Once her arms were free of her sleeves, Tauriel slid her palms down to Kíli's hips, working her hands between his skin and his small clothes. He shivered, groaning softly as her fingers tangled in the thick hair below his navel.

"Maker, Tauriel, do you mean to undress me or drive me mad?" he mumbled against her mouth.

With his trousers loosened, Tauriel pressed her touch further over his backside. If they had planned this better, they would both have been entirely naked by now; still, there was something terribly interesting about having to work to bare every additional bit of skin.

Kíli drew his hands forward around her ribs and then up to cup her breasts. As he traced her nipples with his thumbs, he pressed her lower lip between his teeth, and Tauriel gave a slight whimper. She felt she bloomed with stars under his touch: at her mouth against the sharp needles of his beard and on the sensitive tips of her breasts in his callused hands and even where the soft skin of her inner arms caught on his rough forearms.

"Sun and stars," she urged, leaning hard into Kíli so that he might understand her swiftly growing need. "And you asked me not to tease you."

He looked up at her with a spark of mischief in his eyes and dropped one hand from her breast so that he might replace it with his warm, wet mouth. Tauriel rewarded him with a long moan and then lay back against the grass with him held between her knees.

"I'm sorry, love," he said, propping himself on his elbows so he could see her face. "But I've a lot of lost time to make up for. I can't fit all that devotion into one quick tumble."

"You're sorry?" She brushed his hair back from his eyes. "I am sorry. I was so unfair to you, meleth nín. Ah, hadhodeg, hadhod nín, you deserve so much better from me."

"I forgive y—" He broke off in a sigh as she slid her hand down from his stomach to his groin to catch and hold him with a firm hand. Intoxicated with desire for him though she was, she could still appreciate the beauty of his dark lashes as they fluttered shut against his cheek. Then he laughed, and for several sweet, impatient moments they tangled gracelessly as he fought aside her skirts to settle himself against her hips.

"Kíli, don't tell me you've forgotten how—"


"Sun and stars—"

"Ah, Tauriel. Tauriel!"

And after that, it was all a heady rush of joy and love and delight. They were alive, they had been given back to each other, and every touch—each hungry kiss and eager thrust and trembling caress—was a celebration of that fact. Tauriel loved him and was glad, and so this moment was complete.

Chapter Text

"Ah, Tauriel, amrâlimê." Kíli's voice was rough, and his limbs trembled from both exertion and delight as he lifted himself above Tauriel so that he might look down into her face. "That was— You were—"


But he left the word unspoken. What if she did not feel the same this time?

"Yes, hadhodeg, that was...?" Tauriel returned breathlessly, her smile shy and hopeful.

"I was going to say... I mean, if it wasn't for you—"

"Wasn't what?"

"Err, well... I know you said that maybe if we couldn't agree about wanting children, you wouldn't feel as good making love to me," he admitted, hoping he was already too flushed for her to notice his embarrassment. He didn't want to fail at offering her the same pleasure she gave him.

Tauriel laughed lightly and trailed her hand up the back of his thigh. "I was wrong, Kíli."

"You mean—"

"There was surely nothing lacking in our union just now."


"Not at all."

"Good. Perfect. You're perfect, love." He leaned down to press his lips to the base of her throat.

Tauriel's fingers trailed over his hip and across the small of his back. "You were right," she told him. "You said our coupling could simply be about showing that we love each other. Just now, I wasn't thinking about whether we could make a child. I only thought about how glad I am to be yours. You are quite joy enough for me, Kíli."

"And you are enough for me." He lay down against her, caught her in his arms, and turned over on the grass so that she was now atop him. "Tauriel." He gathered the loose curtain of her hair and swept it back behind her shoulder. "You get to decide when we speak again about having a child. Until you are ready to consider the question, I'll say no more. And, amrâlimê—" He caressed her. "—even if we never can have children, if it's just you and I, that's all I need to be happy. I realized that while I was loitering in a dungeon."

"Thank you, Kíli." Smiling, she cupped his cheek and ran her thumbnail across the stiff bristles of his beard. "Now, by my authority as your personal elven physician, I believe I can pronounce that your injuries are all minor indeed, if you can make love to me like that."

Kíli snorted. "Yes, but you, I'm afraid, are soon to look a pair with me." He drew a finger over her throat and collarbone, trailing the rosy evidence of where his own lips and teeth had recently been.

She laughed. "When we return to Erebor, you must use your influence as a prince to make sure high collars come into fashion."

"Or I could be more careful about where and how I kiss you," he suggested teasingly.

"Oh no! And cease to be my reckless lover? You would forfeit a great part of your charm." Tauriel leaned down and nipped his earlobe.

"Far be it from me to disappoint my beautiful wife. I am, after all, entirely at her service." Kíli caught her gently about the face, and bringing her lips back to his own, returned her enthusiastic kiss.

"I can't wait to be home again," Kíli said as they turned northwards the next morning.

Tauriel smiled, warmed by the longing in Kíli's face. Erebor—not the halls of Ered Luin—was his true home now, and she part of it. She said, "Yes, I feel the same."

He laughed. "You know that means no more sleeping under the sky."

"I've come to appreciate the idea of falling asleep safe within stone walls again."

"And in a feather bed," Kíli added dreamily. "I hope you don't think any less of my dwarvish fortitude if, after a few nights sleeping on dungeon floors and under damp tree roots, I want to be spoiled."

"Oh no, my love, you deserve that luxury and more. But Kíli—" She stepped closer and caught his hand as they walked. "How can you so easily shrug off what happened to you just days ago? I do not want to see you troubled by past dangers, but I am surprised by how cheerful you can be after what nearly befell you." She had been afraid he would be more subdued at first, for though his physical hurts had been minor, surely he had suffered in spirit during his captivity.

Kíli turned to walk backwards, facing her. "How can I be gloomy, when I'm alive and here with you? You make me very happy, amrâlimê." His sunny smile lifted his whole face. "Besides, I think we dwarves are as tough in spirit as we are in body. It's not like us to crumble."

"So I see! You quite amaze me, hadhodeg. And you make me feel stronger, too." She squeezed his hand. "I have no doubt what the Lady Galadriel said about us is right. I feel different—more alive—when I am with you."

His look, while remaining happy, turned thoughtful, but he said nothing before falling back to walk at her side.

In the days that followed, they made swift progress northwards up the river valley, encountering no further dangers. In barely under a fortnight, they reached the forest path that Kíli and his companions had traveled the first time he had passed Mirkwood. Another eight days' travel brought them to Thranduil's fortress.

As she waited for a pot of tea to brew, Morwen leafed through the stack of papers on her desk. It was her job, as steward of Thranduil's household, to compile all the bills, receipts, and inventories of the most recent shipment of imported goods to the palace. She had intended to have this batch finished today, and yet there had been one interruption after another all afternoon.

First the cook had dragged her down to the kitchens to complain about the quality of the latest shipment of flour, and then the wine steward had asked her opinion on a selection of sample casks sent from a new vineyard which hoped to become a regular supplier of His Majesty's cellars. The latter task had not been unpleasant, but the wine steward was a voluble talker, especially on the subject (and under the influence) of a fine wine, and it had been nearly two hours before Morwen could pry herself away. And after that, she had been called to oversee the preparation of the royal guest suite upon the arrival of Prince Kíli and his wife.

This duty had been entirely a pleasure; Tauriel was one of Morwen's dearest friends. The dark-haired young steward had been glad to welcome the couple and personally ensure that their rooms were comfortable and their needs met. It had been obvious to her that Tauriel and Kíli were as enamored of each other as they had been on the day of their wedding last summer. There was such a warmth and a sweetness between the two of them that Morwen felt herself curious, as she had not been in a long time, to know for herself what it was to be in love. Was there anyone she knew for whom she could feel that way?

Her tea finished, she poured herself a cup and was just sitting down to her desk when there was a sharp knock at her open door. Glancing up, she saw that Kíli stood in the entrance to her office.

"Hullo, Miss Morwen," he began.

"Kíli! Is there anything lacking in your rooms?"

"Oh, no!" He shook his head briskly, tossing dark waves of hair. Morwen could see better, now, why Tauriel thought he was handsome. "Everything is very comfortable, thank you. I was wondering if you would help me do something for Tauriel."

"Yes, anything. Would you like some tea?"

"No, but perhaps one of those." He pointed to the small blackberry tarts on the tea tray. Morwen pushed the plate towards him.

Kíli took a bite of tart and hummed appreciatively. "Very good, this. Anyway, I was wondering if I might be able to get some flowers for Tauriel."

"Of course. What kind do you want?"

"Oh, I don't know." He laughed at himself. "But something fancy. Maybe... Do you have any roses? There were some very pretty ones in the Shire that she admired."

"Yes, our gardener cultivates those. How many?"

"Could we fill the whole room with them?"

Morwen laughed. "That is a very kingly gift, from the king's gardens no less!"

"Send me a bill and I'll pay you fairly for them," Kíli protested around a mouthful of tart.

She shook her head. "No, no. Let this be my honeymoon gift."

"Thank you." He smiled. Yes, Kíli was entirely charming, no matter that he was a dwarf. "We're to dine with the king shortly, so if you could send the flowers while we're out, I would be most grateful."

"Of course, Kíli. Is there anything else you wish?"

"No, I think that's all. Thank you very much!" He made a polished bow.

"Perhaps tomorrow or the day after, you and your wife will dine with me? I'd love to hear of your adventures since the wedding."

"We will! Now, I must hurry back. Tauriel thinks I'm in the bath." He took another tart from the plate that Morwen held out to him, winked, and rushed out.

Morwen had only made it through two pages of receipts when light footsteps told her that someone else had entered her room.

"Tauriel," she cried, seeing her friend this time. "What can I do for you, meldis?" It took a small effort to hide her amusement; Tauriel did not seem to know she had barely missed meeting Kíli here.

"Well, I am in need of a dress," the red-haired warrior explained.

"Ah, the ones in the wardrobe did not suit you?" Or did not fit you? But no, a careful glance over Tauriel's figure proved her as slim as ever. If she was with child, she was not far enough along yet to show.

"They're all lovely, thank you. You know my taste as well as ever." Her cheeks warmed very slightly then. "I should like a dress to wear just for Kíli."

"Ah, yes." She should have guessed; Tauriel had likely worn her practical huntress's attire for much of their travels. She (and her husband) would surely appreciate a change for something more alluring. "I saw a few things that would serve in the palace wardrobe."

"Thank you!"

Morwen pushed up from the table and looped her arm in Tauriel's to lead her out the door.

"Now, my first question is what color would you prefer?"

Barely over a year had passed since Thranduil had last seen his former ward, yet even in that brief time she had grown radiant as no mere Silvan elf that the Elvenking had ever encountered. Had she shone like this four years previous, Thranduil supposed he would hardly have dared question Legolas's choice of her. Yet the dwarf prince himself seemed to be responsible for this change—strange as it was, there was no denying that Kíli, too, shared the same vibrancy of spirit that filled the red-haired elleth.

As Kíli caught his wife's eye over a glass of wine, the king smiled to himself, remembering another lovely young woman who had once drawn his own gaze so. Her memory tugged at his heart, as it always did, though today that pain was softened by the knowledge that he had played a small part in giving this young couple a chance to experience the same happiness for themselves.

When the last servant had cleared away the remains of dessert and left them in privacy, Tauriel turned to the king, her expression surprising him with its seriousness.

"My lord, we've something to ask you," she began. "Something that you must keep to yourself, for Kíli's sake and mine."

"Yes?" Of course they were the representatives of an allied kingdom, and they deserved such a boon for that reason alone. Yet Thranduil would have granted it solely out of kindness to this worthy young woman, even if Kíli had not been the dwarf prince.

"We've told no one else yet, but... We were at Dol Guldur," she said.

Thranduil did not attempt to hide the shock he felt at this news. Surely Kíli was not so reckless as to drag Tauriel to such a place out of mere adventurous curiosity?

"We were overtaken by orcs, several days' journey outside Lothlórien. Kíli and I were separated, and he was captured."

"Valar, child, you must be cautious!" Thranduil exclaimed, unwelcome memories of a similar tragedy making his voice unintentionally harsh. As guilt sparked in Tauriel's eyes, he added gently, "Forgive me, Tauriel. I know you are no fool. I spoke because I would not wish such a loss on you."

The young elleth nodded and glanced tenderly to the dwarf before continuing. "We thought they only wished for revenge—you know that the dwarves and orcs have waged a long and bitter war—but we encountered something far worse than any orc in that accursed fortress. We were hoping you might know something about what that creature was."

"Go on."

Kíli spoke now. "All I saw was a figure in a black hooded cloak." His eyes were dark, focused on some remembered image. "It was well hidden; I couldn't even make out a face. It had an awful, hissing voice and when it came near, it felt cold. But worst of all..." He shivered. "Just being in the same room was terrifying. It was like— Like it cut through my thoughts, right to the bone, with an overwhelming fear I couldn't explain."

Thranduil leaned forward and fixed his keen gaze on Tauriel. "And did you also meet this being?"

"Yes, just as we were fleeing the dungeon." She closed her eyes and swallowed. "I felt its approach. It was ancient and very powerful and more evil than anything I have ever known. I was nearly crippled with dread and pain." Her lashes flicked up, revealing eyes bright with concern. "My prayer to Elbereth broke its hold over us so that we could escape, but I cannot believe I defeated it, even with the Lady's protection."

Thranduil remained silent for a while before speaking. "I think I know what it was you saw. You are both very fortunate to have faced such a thing and lived. Indeed, I would guess that you live only because it wished you to. Skilled warriors though you both are, neither elf nor mortal is a match for such a foe."

"That was our own conclusion," Tauriel said.

"What was it?" Kíli prompted, sitting forward in his chair.

The Elvenking began slowly, dragging up more memories that he would have preferred not to revisit."In my youth, I fought in the Last Great Alliance that defeated him whom we do not name. He had his lieutenants—orcs, trolls, other foul monsters, men whom he had corrupted to his service—yet none were so terrible as the Nine, to whom he had granted a share of his power. Nazgûl, they were called then, Ringwraiths. We had hoped they were destroyed with him."

Twin expressions of distress troubled his young companion's faces, and beneath the table, Tauriel reached for Kíli's hand.

"You've no idea why it let you live?" Thranduil asked.

"I think it wants our child," Kíli said, a rough, more aggressive note in his voice. "It stopped the orcs from hurting me when it found out Tauriel was my wife. And it asked if we had any children."

The dwarf's protectiveness did him credit, but surely it was unnecessary. What could a Ringwraith hope to gain from such a child? And were offspring even possible for an elf and a dwarf? Tauriel, as yet, carried no babe; her spirit was bright, but with the radiance of a single fae only. As a Sinda, Thranduil saw clearly enough to discern that much.

"I believe any children you may bear are no less safe than they ever were," Thranduil said. "These creatures, the Ringwraiths, wield fear as their greatest weapon. This one likely wishes to announce his presence at Dol Guldur and dismay all those who hope to rebuild lives and kingdoms in the wake of the recent war. Kíli, you make an ideal messenger: as a prince, your influence extends to neighboring kingdoms, even my own. And you may safely be allowed to live. Your elvish bride has not borne you offspring, and so the wraith must imagine you, at least, will not continue Durin's line. Your brother, as the next to inherit the throne, has more to fear from its malice than you, I guess."

"What should we do?" Kíli asked, his tone and expression earnest. Thranduil realized he respected this dwarf for having the humility to ask the advice of another, and of an elf, no less.

"You defend your wife and your kingdom," the Elvenking said, smiling faintly. "Not an astonishing answer, I grant. The truth is that we know what we always have known: one victory, or two, is not enough to rid the world of evil. Yet I think in this, you two hardly need my counsel. Despite your youth (or perhaps because of it), your actions as warriors have proven wise. You have never been content to let others fight your own battles, and your courage lends its strength to others."

He put his hand to his wine glass and swirled it meditatively.

"Yet let me offer you an observation, as one somewhat your elder. Do not put off living because the world is uncertain, or you will lose the chance to enjoy the blessings you have been given amidst the trials." He had learned that lesson only too well: while attempting to safeguard his kingdom, and his own heart, from loss, he had failed to embrace his son as he should have.

Tauriel smiled softly now. "I understand, and I shall not forget." She turned to Kíli, a look of sweetness and desire in her face that made Thranduil feel he did not belong in this moment shared between these young lovers.

He drained his wine and stood. "I pray you excuse me. The evening draws on, and I see you need no further advice to spend this time wisely."

Both Tauriel and Kíli blushed.

"I bid you good night."

Upon reaching their suite after supper, Kíli stepped aside to let Tauriel enter first.

"Mmm, it smells lovely," she noted as she moved through the door. "Oh... Kíli." She laughed joyfully as she took a few light, running steps into the center of the room.

Following her, Kíli saw that Morwen had done as good as he had wished: every table, chair, and shelf held roses in bowls, pitchers, vases. The flowers themselves were of all colors, red and pink and white, peach, lavender, gold, and even some of a rich, velvety black hue.

Tauriel spun back to face Kíli.

"Meleth, no-one has ever done such a thing for me!" she said, breathless. Her eyes sparkled with delight.

He smiled back at her. "I tried to think of the most elvish gift I could," he said.

"It's perfect, Kíli." She kissed him and then skipped away again to press her face into a fragrant bouquet of deep fuchsia roses. "Ah, we must try to grow these in Erebor in that garden you promised me." She drew one of the flowers from the cluster and held it out to him. "Isn't that the most wonderful scent?"

Kíli set the flower to his nose and inhaled. "Yes, it is lovely."

"Ah, now I know you must have had Morwen's help." Tauriel lifted something from the table, and Kíli saw it was a bottle with gilded elvish lettering on it. "She knows how much I fancy this sparkling mead! It's quite rare, made from nectar harvested solely during the moon of high summer."

"How do they teach the bees to do that?"

Tauriel laughed. "I hardly know! You will have to ask the beekeeper of Imladris next time we visit. It's made there." She handed him the bottle.

"Are there glasses? I'll open this."

"Yes, here." She gestured to the table. "Pour me a glass; I shall be back in a moment." Tauriel swept up the short staircase that led to the other half of the suite. "Oh, heavens!" Kíli heard her exclaim after she was out of sight. "Even our bedchamber is covered in roses!"

Kíli smiled as he poured the effervescent mead. He would be sure to send Morwen something fine for Yuletide.

He had just cleared the sofa of the last basin of roses when, looking up, he saw Tauriel at the head of the stair.

"Maker's sacred anvil," Kíli breathed.

This was surely not the dress she had worn to dinner. Pleated folds of mossy green crepe draped softly from her shoulders, creating a revealing neckline that plunged to her waist. The skirt fell in one sleek sweep, and as she came down the stairs, the slit high up one side revealed her long, graceful leg.

Kíli felt his stomach flip over several times as she crossed the floor to him.

"My love, you look beautiful," he said. With her near, he could appreciate how the weave of the dress was just airy enough that the color of her skin shone through. His hands, as they closed about the small of her back, met more naked skin.

"Thank you." She tilted his head up and kissed him slowly, while Kíli found the opening in her skirt and slipped his hand around her thigh to clasp her bottom.

Tauriel laughed against his mouth.

"Is it too soon for that?" Kíli asked, meeting her gaze with a mischievous grin.

"I am ready if you wish. Though perhaps that glass of mead...?"

"Yes, that first. You're far too pretty to undress just yet, anyway. I'll limit myself to enjoying what's currently on display." He brought his hand back to her waist and pressed against her, letting his nose and lips trail across her skin before settling a kiss against the bare inner curve of her breast.

Then he drew back, handed her a glass of mead and took another for himself before settling beside her where she sat, feet drawn up onto the sofa cushions.

The mead, he found, was dry and floral, and the bubbles tickled his mouth. "Mmm, this is excellent. You have very good taste, amrâlimê."

Tauriel smiled meaningfully. "I think I do," she said, tucking her foot over his lap. At the movement, her high-cut skirt fell away, leaving her leg bare from ankle to hip.

Kíli chuckled and placed his hand on her calf. "That reminds me, I need to consult your taste on something."

Her eyes flashed playfully as she sipped her drink. "If it is whether I would prefer to begin tonight atop or beneath you, I think you should surprise me."

"Blessed Durin, I hadn't thought that far ahead yet." He grinned at her, imagining the various possibilities that would not yet necessitate their leaving the sofa. "We could try—" He leaned forward to reach for her, but Tauriel stopped him by placing her foot lightly against his chest.

"Not yet; I want to hear what you have to ask," she teased.

"Then stop distracting me, Taur." He grasped her foot and pressed his thumb over her toes, making her shiver.

"So," he said, "when we return home, Fíli's wedding will be your first official appearance as my royal consort. I'll need to make your crown. So I was wondering what stones you want me to use. I can use any color you want, really, but I thought maybe sapphire or emerald would be best. My crown has sapphires, but the emeralds would match your eyes."

"I suppose I must have a crown," she sighed, but not unhappily.

"Yes, you'll be my Tauriel Uzbadnâtha."

"Uzbadnâtha," she repeated, slowly fitting together the unfamiliar syllables. "And what does that mean?"


She laughed. "I love your dwarven words; they are always three times as long as they need to be."

Kíli shrugged over a swallow of mead. "If you want, you could pretend it means 'queen of my heart and fire of my loins.'"

Tauriel snorted. "Do you wish me to blush every time my title is used?"

"You will anyway." He smiled fondly. "At least this way you'll be thinking of me."

"You are incorrigible." Tauriel shoved her foot gently against his ribs. "Now, you asked which stones I wanted. I think..." She brushed her toes along his forearm. "I would like it to match yours. You are the reason I wear my crown, so I want it to proclaim my connection to you."

"As you wish, my love." He leaned down and kissed her ankle; before he sat back, he set down his glass, trading it for a rose. "These flowers are like you," he mused, turning the white and pink bloom in his fingers. "They're beautiful and soft, but not fragile: they have thorns.

"Tauriel, I love how strong you are. You don't stop fighting, even when things look the worst. You are fierce and lovely, my warrior and my lady at once."

"Thank you, Kíli," she whispered.

"I'll never forget the way you looked when you found me in that dungeon. I think I fell in love with you all over again: you were so fearsome."

Tauriel tilted her head questioningly, a half smile on her lips.

"You were only in such a rage because you love me," he explained.

"Yes. Though there are better ways to show I love you than by killing orcs," she said, her voice low and suggestive.

Kíli moved to her end of the sofa. Seated like this, there was less difference in height between them, and he could lean in to kiss her without reaching up. Not that he minded doing so, of course, but the variety was pleasing.

"Kíli, wait," she murmured against his lips. He drew back slightly, and she downed the last of her drink and set the empty glass aside. Kíli pressed into her again, and she leaned back, letting the arm of the sofa support them. As he kissed her, she took his face in her hands, her fingertips skimming over his ears and into his hair.

"Mmm, Taur, that's perfect," he sighed.

He laid his own fingertips at her throat and trailed them slowly downwards over the skin bared by her deep neckline. As he skimmed her navel, she shivered.

"Every time, Kíli," she murmured between kisses. "Don't you care that I'm ticklish?"

"Very much." He brushed her stomach again, earning another shiver and a small squeak. Then slipping his fingers beneath her dress, he pressed upwards over her breast.

Tauriel moaned in encouragement, and he obeyed, letting his touch linger over her as she closed her fists in his shirt.

At last he tugged the pleated folds off her shoulder and kissed her: on the freckled corner of her shoulder and in the little hollow below her collarbone and just above the pink tip of her breast.

He paused, his head against her bosom, enjoying the flutter of her pulse against his cheek. Tauriel wrapped her legs about his middle and tugged him closer.

"Ah, hadhodeg, meleth nín, le melon," she murmured.

"My uzbadnâtha." He closed his teeth on the edge of the gown still covering the other half of her body and drew it aside, then nuzzled his rough cheek against her breast.


As she grasped his hips and dragged him against her, Kíli found it no longer possible to ignore just how inconveniently clothed he still was.

"There's just— just one slight problem," he gasped. "You're nearly undressed but I still—"

Tauriel arched against him. "Hurry up."

"Yes, love." Kíli reached behind himself and unlooped her legs from around his body, shifting her so that she lay gathered in his arms. Then he stood up. "Let's find that feather bed."

Chapter Text

Sunlight slanted in from high windows, glinting on empty wine glasses at the bedside table. On the floor, Tauriel's dress lay tumbled with Kíli's shirt and trousers; one of his boots was half visible among a bank of sun-gilded roses beyond, and Mahal only knew where the other was. Not that it mattered, Kíli mused as he shifted lazily against the soft feather mattress. He didn't intend to go anywhere today where boots were required...

He yawned and rolled onto his other side.

Tauriel lay watching him, head pillowed on her arm and a tender half smile on her face.

"You look happy," Kíli observed.

"I am." She reached over and twirled her fingers in a lock of hair beside his ear, before trailing them down his neck and onto his back. As her nails skimmed him, Kíli hummed in pleasure.

"Turn over," Tauriel said, so he rolled onto his stomach. She sat up and continued her caresses, tracing her fingernails over the base of his neck and along his shoulders.

After a time, she said, "I've been thinking about what I saw in the mirror." Pressing harder, she drew her hands down along his spine and worked her thumbs into the muscles just above his hips.

"Mmm?" he sighed, half in response to her words, half to her touch.

"What if all the vision meant was that I should be glad I am the one who got to marry you and have the chance to bear your children?" she mused.

Wait—did that mean she no longer thought the mirror was telling them they were not meant to have a child? It was a minute before she spoke again, but Kíli could not be impatient with her hands moving over him.

"Seeing Audha with your babe did remind me how hurt—how jealous!—I was when we were separated and I thought some other woman would be your wife." He felt her nails again, skimming over the muscles she had rubbed loose. "I wish I had been more eager to help you make a different future than the one I saw. But I was looking for an answer to a question and so I forgot what I already knew: how blessed I am to be with you. Our time together is a wonderful gift, and we ought to make everything we can of it, not hold back for fear. We cannot guess the future—I certainly had no thought that I might lose you so soon as I almost did!—but let us not waste the present. Oh, Kíli, I have been such a great fool!"

Kíli looked at her over his shoulder.

"No more than I have been!" he insisted. "I must be the stupidest husband in the world. I should have been enjoying what we had, not pushing you for more. Sharing my life with you is already so very, very good, Tauriel."

She smiled. "I'm not upset with you, meleth. Your hopeful spirit is one of the things I have always loved about you. Your dwarvish stubbornness may frustrate me sometimes, but I could never fault your hope."

He interrupted her with a happy moan as her touch wandered down under his ribs. For a while, Tauriel concentrated on scratching his chest and stomach, what she could reach as he lay.

"After all," she added eventually, "Have I not proven that elves can be equally stubborn as dwarves?"

"And I said your thorns are something I love about you, my elvish rose."

Tauriel laughed. "Remember you said that, the next time I drive you mad."

"I will."

She slid her hands from his hips and over his buttocks. Kíli felt her hair brush him and then her lips. For a moment, her tongue swirled against the small of his back. Then she lay down beside him again.

"Kíli," she murmured, tracing her fingertip along his right cheekbone, following the line of the scar there. He knew she was thinking of how he had got that mark on the day that the politics of a dwarven counsel had forced him to let her go. Since then she had told him she considered the scar a reminder of how blessed they were to be reunited.

"Last night..." Her expression turned sweet and shy. "We made a child."

"What?!" He pushed himself up to stare at her. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I— I know we did."

"Tauriel, amrâlimê!" Kili scooped her into his arms and kissed her. "I knew you could! Oh, darling, you're wonderful!" He felt wet drops fall from his cheeks onto her own. This news was more than he had allowed himself to hope for so soon after releasing the matter to her judgment. And yet he had never stopped wanting a babe as dearly as ever.

He stopped himself mid-caress and drew back to meet her eyes. "Tauriel, is this what you want?" Perhaps, despite what she had believed regarding the importance of elvish volition, this conception had not been intentional on her part.

"Yes, it is. Oh, Kíli, yes!" Her full smile as she pulled him back for another kiss left him in no doubt that she spoke the truth.

Kíli crushed her against him again. "Heavens, Tauriel, you— Ah, it's too much for me. How do I even deserve you?"

"I could say the same, my dearest dwarf."

They tumbled together in happy caresses, all words lost for the moment.

Some time later, Kíli said, "I didn't know you had changed your mind." Squeezing an arm under her as she lay beside him, he tugged her closer.

Tauriel trailed several more kisses over his chest before she replied. "I'm not sure I knew quite what I had decided, myself."

"Well, how..."

"While I was tracking you, I knew I might not reach you in time. I knew I could be facing a world from which you had gone without a trace. That was when I understood how much it would matter if I could have a little son or daughter to remind me of you. Oh, Kíli, we almost lost that chance! If you had been slain or mutilated..."

Her eyes glimmered and Kíli brushed at the crease between her eyebrows until it disappeared in her smile. "I think this choice was made in my heart as I was seeking you," she finished, "though since then, I have been too full of relief and joy to understand all that had changed for me."

"My lovely, brave Thatrûna," he whispered, using her Khuzdul name. He had made his wedding vows to her as such, and to him, the name especially designated her his wife.

"My Lakhad," she said, returning his own dwarvish true name. She brushed his hair back, settling it behind his ear. "I hope our babe has your eyes."

"There's nothing wrong with yours."

"Or your hair..."

"I insist upon your ears," Kíli said.

"You don't think a pair of little round ears, like yours, would be very sweet?"

Kíli chuckled. "Amrâlimê, whatever our babe looks like, I'm sure she will be perfect."

"You want a girl?"

"Oh, Taur, I really don't care! A lass or a lad, either will be brilliant." He brushed her cheeks with his thumbs. "Can you believe? I'm a father."

Tears fell down Tauriel's face, wetting his fingers.

"I'm glad, Kíli," she murmured. "I love you."

"And I love you. Not only for this."

"I know."

Tauriel's fingers twined in his, guiding his hand over her belly. "I feel as though I've a light kindled in me," she said. "You always make me feel that way when you love me, yet this time, that sensation did not fade, as it usually does."

"That's how you know we've a child?"

"That, and other things that are more difficult to describe. As an elf, I am aware of my body in ways that I think a mortal is not. But there is no doubt: we've made a new life between us."

The shape of her body felt no different beneath Kíli's palm yet. "How long will it be till we can see how the babe grows?" He was quite giddy at the thought of one day soon being able to touch, even indirectly, his little son or daughter.

"Hmm, six months, I imagine. I will carry her—or him!—for a year."

"A year!" He sighed, suddenly troubled by something that had not occurred to him till this very moment. "That's a very long time, Tauriel. But I'll do my best to be patient."

She released a soft laugh. "Kíli, I can hardly rush things. Our babe will come when it is ready. Till then, you may still love our child by loving me."

"Oh. It's not that I'm impatient; I mean, I'm happy just knowing your carry our child. But I suppose we'll have to stop making love until—"

"Is that your dwarvish practice?" Her green eyes went wide. "Then how is a father to maintain a strong bond to mother and child?" From her tone, he could tell she was truly concerned.

"Err...? I was just thinking... I don't want to hurt you or our babe."

Tauriel's face cleared and she laughed brightly. "You won't. There may be a few things we must omit once I am too ungainly, but surely it is more important than ever that we remain close in both body and spirit. And however are we supposed to, without...?"

"I see." He smiled even as he colored, embarrassed by his ignorance. "I'm sorry; you must think me very stupid."

"Not at all, meleth. There is still a great deal I know nothing about, when it comes to bearing a child. Before we return home, I shall have to speak to a midwife."

"Not today, though," Kíli said, tightening his arms about her.

Tauriel sighed contentedly, shifting so that her body fit more easily against his. "No. Today, I've no attention for anyone but the father of my babe."

"Miss, you're fidgeting again."

Sif sighed and tried to settle back in her chair as her maid continued with her braids. "Sorry, Inga."

The other woman laughed. "I can't say I blame you, love. I'd be getting impatient, too, if I were waiting on a marriage to as fine a young dwarf as your crown prince."

"I'm not impatient," Sif protested softly, though she knew she was.

She and Fíli had formalized their betrothal a year ago in the spring, before Kíli's wedding. September had just begun, and summer was now drawing on to fall. While a betrothal period of even two years would not be counted unusually long, it was especially difficult to be patient knowing that all she and Fíli waited on was Kíli's return from his honeymoon. Kíli had never set a return date, and so he might be back tomorrow or in three months. If they could have just set a date for the wedding, she could have waited perfectly calmly, she told herself, but all this suspense made her particularly, well, antsy.

"Bead," Inga prompted, and Sif handed back a hair bead for her maid to finish off the braid.

As her attendant began on another plait, Sif's eye went to the little dish of golden beads waiting, yet unworn, at the other side of her dressing table. She picked one up, studying once again the familiar design worked into the metal: her own Ironsides family sigil combined with Fíli's royal one. It was the same insignia Fíli had used on the sword he had given her when he had asked her to marry him.

These beads were also from him, a gift meant to be worn on her wedding day. Accented by tawny topaz gems, they matched the jewels and gold of the knotwork necklace she wore to signify their betrothal. Sif held the bead up against her hair and stared at herself in the mirror, trying to imagine how her flaxen braids would look all bound in Fíli's gold.

"Another bead."

Without thinking, Sif handed back the golden bead in her hand.

Inga laughed softly. "Now, Miss Sif, you know you must wait to wear these." She handed the bead back to her mistress and caught up one of Sif's own gold and silver ones, slipped it on the braid.

Inga was weaving the final plait when someone knocked at the door. "Please hold this," Inga said, pressing the hair into Sif's hand. As her maid spoke to the servant outside, Sif tied off the hair herself and finished it with the golden bead. No-one would notice just one.

"His Highness is here now," Inga said from the door.

"Tell him I'll be right down," Sif called back, looping braids up at the back of her head and securing them with a pin. She ran a comb over the downy fringe of her beard and slipped her favorite earrings on, dabbed her throat with a little perfume. Then she stood back to survey herself in the mirror as she smoothed her hands over teal taffeta skirts.

This was, she felt, a decided improvement over the disheveled sight she had presented an hour ago when she had returned from the forge. Fíli said she was pretty even in her work clothes—and really, she did believe him—still, she felt an extra bit of confidence knowing she was tidy and clean.

"You do look fine enough to be a princess," Inga said beside her.

Sif pressed a kiss to her companion's cheek and then dashed, as elegantly as she could manage, out the door.

The golden-haired prince was waiting for her in the parlor. As he turned to her, Sif's heart gave a familiar little skip: would it ever be possible to get used to the way his handsome face brightened especially for her? There had been a time when she had not believed he would even notice her. "Fíli!"

"Good evening, Sif." His grin was as broad as her own, though his bow seemed a trifle shallow and awkward. "You look lovely tonight."

"Thank you, Fí," she said. She leaned against him, tipping her head up to kiss him.

Before their lips met, "Ouch!" Fíli said, and stiffened, pulling away from her.

"What?" Sif studied him, perplexed, as he mouthed several more silent expressions of discomfort.

"Just a moment," he hissed, squirming slightly. Then he reached inside his coat and drew out a furry grey object that had attached itself to his shirt by four sets of claws. The little creature gave a high meow and wriggled energetically.

"Oh, Fíli!" Sif squeaked. "A kitten!"

"Yes, and she's yours, if she'll just let go of me."

"Here, let me." She slipped her hands around the kitten and unhooked its claws from Fíli's clothes. As if relieved to get away from him, the kitten stopped struggling and relaxed in her hands, purring. It turned its head to regard her with curious green eyes.

"She's darling! Where did you get her?"

Fíli tugged his shirt smooth again. "Bombur's children have a litter of kittens that need homes," he said, able to smile now that he wasn't being scratched. "I thought you would like one, as you haven't had a cat since Ered Luin."

"Oh, yes," Sif returned. As she rubbed the kitten under the chin, its eyes pressed closed in delight and its purring, if possible, grew louder. "She's a friendly little thing, isn't she?"

Fíli chuckled. "Yes, if you don't try to keep her in your coat." He reached out to pet the kitten, and it turned and hissed softly at him. He drew back his hand.

"Fíli," Sif laughed. "You will have to make up with her! She'll be your cat, too, soon enough."

"That reminds me, I've some very good news."

The kitten leapt to the ground, but Sif turned to look at Fíli; his tone had indicated his news was not simply trivial gossip.

"There was a raven from Kíli this morning. He and Tauriel are at the Elvenking's palace now. They'll be home before the sennight is out." He clasped Sif's hand. "We can set a day for our wedding."

"Oh, Fíli!" She caught him around the waist and pressed her head to his chest. He smelled of musk and woodsmoke. "That's wonderful."

"Yes." He kissed her once. "My brother yet again proves to have the enviable talent of doing just as he likes while still managing to make everyone pleased with him. If he'd been gone any longer, we'd be cross with him for making us wait. As it is, we'll be delighted to receive him back."

Sif giggled. "Don't you think he's cutting it a little close, though?"

"Don't tell me you're getting impatient?"

"Mmm, maybe just the very smallest bit."

"So I see," Fíli returned, a smirk of amusement on his face. He touched one of her braids, and she knew he had found the gold wedding bead. "Well, you're not the only one." He ducked his head down for another kiss. At the same moment, a loud clatter sounded at the far side of the room.

Drawing back, Sif saw the grey kitten staring innocently at her. Beside it on the floor was a crumpled table runner and a pile of overturned pewter tumblers.

"Kitten, you can't do that!" she scolded gently, hurrying over to scoop the little animal up. "We shall have to teach you some manners." As she cuddled it, Fíli came up behind her and set runner and tumblers back on the table.

"My love," he teased, "I see I should have thought more carefully about the kitten. Already I'm being supplanted."

"Oh, Fíli! I still love you more." She smiled fondly at him. "What should we call her? Or does she have a name already?"

"I was instructed to tell you her name is Her Catliness, Silverpaw of the Shining Whiskers and Adamantine Claws."

Sif giggled. "I think Silverpaw will serve for everyday use, don't you?"

"Indeed." Fíli cautiously extended a hand towards the kitten, who eyed him condescendingly, but finally let him brush its ears.

"See? You'll be friends in no time."

"Oh, I do hope we can be," Fíli addressed the kitten, "since I wish to remain in your mistress's good favor."

"I suppose your brother's message didn't say anything more than that he's coming home?" Sif asked while Silverpaw climbed the shoulder of her gown.

"No, why?" Fíli eyed her curiously for a moment, before breaking into an understanding grin. "Oh. No, he didn't say he's bringing back an heir."

She sighed lightly. "Ah, well, I suppose that's hardly the sort of news one lets a bird deliver for you. They'll want to tell us in person, I expect."

Fíli laughed. "You're as adventurous as Kíli. I would have thought no woman, not even an elf, would want to bear her child away from home."

"Don't you imagine that's why they're returning now? I guess she's pregnant and they're coming back here to have their babe. In which case—" Sif poked him playfully in the ribs. "You should be glad, never mind your lost wager, because it means we get our wedding sooner rather than later. Oh!" She started as Silverpaw flexed its claws to keep from slipping from her shoulder.

Fíli lifted the kitten free and set it on the floor, where it scampered away.

"Are you sure you wouldn't simply be amused to see me lose the bet to Uncle?"

She gave him a saucy look. "Well, yes. But more than that, I want Tauriel and Kíli to be happy. Can't you see them with a sweet little dwarfling?"

"Certainly, but give them a year or two more—"

"Ah, but it would be an elfling...I mean, a dwarf-elfling, a dwelfling?" She laughed at the delightful nonsense of it all. "He's so handsome, and she's so beautiful: just think how pretty their children will be. And I'll get to be an aunt!"

Fíli gave a soft, rumbling chuckle. "Between you and Kíli, Tauriel won't stand a chance."

When Tauriel and Kíli returned to Erebor several days later, Fíli came riding out to meet them. He steered his pony beside Kíli's and caught his brother in a hearty embrace.

"Kíli! Welcome home! Mahal, I've missed you. And Tauriel!" Fíli wheeled close to her mount and caught her hand. "I'm glad you're back." He kissed her, and she laughed at the way his beaded mustache skimmed over her knuckles.

"Thank you, Fíli," she said. "It's very good to be home."

Entirely apart from the safety Erebor represented (and which was so welcome after the dangers she and Kíli had recently faced), it was the place where she had found unexpected love and acceptance from all of her husband's family. She had greatly enjoyed her travels with Kíli, but it felt very good to return to the place she belonged. Especially now that she and Kíli prepared to welcome another into their lives...

The two brothers chatted eagerly on the ride to the gate.

"Audha and Freyr were betrothed last winter."

"Bilbo sends you his especial greetings and says you must come, too, next time."

"Would you believe Mum has a commission from Mirkwood to make a set of dishes for the king's table? Tauriel, I think your friend Morwen must have had something to do with it."

"Fíli, I saw Durin's crown in Kheled-zâram! It was magnificent!"

"You should see how we've improved the causeways in the sixth level."

"You'll be glad; our old forge was as busy as ever."

In the grand entrance hall, Thorin, Dís, Sif, and many of the original Company awaited them. Tauriel was reminded of another homecoming two falls previous, when Kíli had brought her to Erebor as his betrothed. That welcome had been heartfelt, if a little formal. This was all hearty dwarvish affection: sturdy handclasps and solid thumps on the back, clambering hugs and knocked foreheads. To her delight, Tauriel found she was treated no differently than if she were a dwarf: Bofur swung her in his arms, Nori kissed her, Dwalin seemed only to forgo a head-butt because she was too tall, and even Thorin had clasped her about the waist.

And then everyone had asked her and Kíli questions at once.

"Did the incantation reveal Durin's Doors as I said, laddie?"

"I hope you got the recipe for those fantastic biscuits the hobbit had at our party last time."

"Are the elves still talkin' about us in Rivendell? Bet they haven't seen anything like us since!"

"Could you convince Lófi he needs to quit stalling and move his brewery here? I haven't had an oatmeal stout as good as his east of the Misty Mountains."

"Did you come back north on the east or the west side of the river? I want to update the maps."

Laughing, Kíli waved them all silent. "I have answers for all of you, I do! But I'm hungry as the goblin with the hollow leg. And I imagine my wife would like to wash up before we eat. I'll meet you in the dining hall in half an hour!" And looping an arm about Tauriel's waist, he towed her away in the direction of the royal wing.

Once they were in their own suite and the door was shut behind them, Kíli turned to her. "Welcome home, amrâlimê," he said, tucking his head against her breast and drawing her tightly against him.

"Yes, home," she sighed happily and kissed the top of Kíli's head. Though she had visited these rooms before the wedding, now was the first time she had been here as his wife. "Oh, Kíli, I can hardly find the words to tell you how happy I am to start a life here with you and our babe."

He looked up from her breast, eyes sparkling merrily. "Use something better than words."

Tauriel tipped his head back and kissed him, her mouth drawing slowly at him as she savored sharp beard and soft lips.

"Mmm, Taur, you're wonderful," he said, his words half lost against her mouth. "But I did tell them half an hour..."

"Of course!" She laughed and tugged away. "I want a bath."

Venturing further into the suite, she entered the private sitting room, where a fire already burned in the hearth. Its light threw into dramatic relief the two trees carved into the marble wall above it.

"You were right," she said to Kíli, who came close behind her. "The deep relief looks splendid in the firelight. Ah, these are new!" She gestured to the sofa and set of cushioned chairs arranged in front of the fireplace. "They're of elvish make, and every bit as fine as the dining set Thranduil gave us as a wedding gift," she remarked, stroking a hand over the polished wooden frame of the sofa. "You don't suppose he sent these after we'd gone?"

Kíli lifted a brow. "Your guess is as good as mine. I've no idea who they're from."

Tauriel continued into the bedroom, and, curiosity mounting, approached the washroom door. She had not yet been permitted to see what Kíli had prepared beyond.

"Go ahead," Kíli prompted as she paused.

Tauriel pushed open the door and stepped through into a room that gleamed with white marble on floor and walls. Along one side was a full mirror and two wash basins. At the other was a large copper bathtub, its sides intricately beaten into a raised design of ivy vines and leaves.

"How lovely," Tauriel cried. "And where does that door lead?" She pointed to a wooden one in the far wall.

"You'd better look."

She smelled the cedar even before she pushed open the entrance to the steam room, with its spacious wooden benches and clever furnace.

"I've wanted a hotroom like this since I discovered the one in my guest suite the first time I stayed in Thranduil's palace," Kíli said.

"It's beautifully done. I can't wait to use it." Tauriel moved back to the bathtub and turned the tap. In a few moments, the water that poured forth was steaming. She looked at Kíli, a giddy smile on her face.

"I have never had heated water right in my room before," she said. "I think I shall enjoy being royalty if it means a hot bath whenever I wish it."

"If you want, there's also a prince to go with that bath," he said, already shedding his shirt.

She laughed at him. "What a shame we have but half an hour."

Kíli gave her a teasing glance as he kicked off his trousers. "This won't be your last chance. I live here, you know."

"So do I." Tauriel beamed at him for a moment, delighted by all of this—her home and family, their new rooms—then she stooped to untie her boots.

Chapter Text

"A hit! Kíli, three points!"

Fíli batted away his brother's sword and skipped back across the sand of the arena.

"I'm glad to see marriage hasn't turned you soft!" he called.

"You wish!" Kíli panted, grinning as he pulled off mask and helmet. He wiped an arm across his damp forehead, settled the helmet back in place, and then called, "Ready!" to the referee.

Fíli signaled his own readiness with a nod.

"Last round with Kíli at twenty, Fíli nineteen. Fight!"

Fíli circled his brother warily, keeping well out of reach of Kíli's first few lunging attacks. Then as Kíli assumed a more conservative stance, Fíli closed the space between them and engaged with a series of quick slashes and parries.

By this round of the match, Fíli knew the opening he was looking for, and he slowly guided Kíli towards it. His brother, it seemed, was used to sparring with a taller, elven opponent, and so he had gotten out of the habit of looking for the sort of low attacks a fellow dwarf could deliver.


Kíli once again favored the higher defensive position. Fíli stepped aside and stabbed at Kíli's unguarded hip. This hit, Fíli thought with a flash of triumph, would give him the necessary two points to win the match.

Yet just as he landed the firm, yet controlled hit on Kíli's midsection, he felt the blunted edge of Kíli's blade slide over the top of his shoulder.

"Double hit! No point," shouted the referee. "End match. The victory goes to Kíli."

"You bastard," Fíli laughed as he tore his helmet off. "I was sure I had you."

Kíli flashed a satisfied smile. "You know I'm never going to grant you undisputed claim to being the better swordsman. Just keeping you humble, brother."

"Good match, lads," the referee said, thumping them both on the shoulder.

"Thanks." Fíli turned back to his brother, who was refastening the tie that held his hair up from his neck. "Thank Mahal you married Tauriel, or there'd be no-one to keep you humble. Skilled as you are, you must concede she's a better archer, just by superior experience alone."

"Give me another few centuries!" Kíli's laughing expression sobered slightly. "With Tauriel I really am both humbled and grateful. The truth is, I owe her my life once again."

"Oh?" Fíli didn't know if his brother was speaking literally or metaphorically.

Kíli didn't answer until they reached the arming room, where they could speak alone. Then he said, "I was going to tell everyone later, but you may as well hear now: on our way back home, I got taken prisoner by orcs from Moria."

"Kíli! What if you'd—" No, how things would have gone, had Kíli never returned from his honeymoon, did not bear consideration. "Thank Mahal you're safe. What would I do without you, little brother?"

Fíli pulled Kíli into a firm hug. "When I'm king, my first decree will be that Tauriel never leave your side, as it seems the only way of keeping you alive."

Kíli laughed, though it was a sound more of irony than of mirth.

"We should've brought you along to remind us." He thumped Fíli's shoulders, then drew back. "Taur and I had an argument, and she stormed off into the woods one way while I went the other. So when the orcs found us, we were separated." Kíli paused, and a wretched expression flickered momentarily over his face. "That was the worst of it, Fí: thinking I would die and never get a chance to tell her I was sorry. Those were the most awful two days of my life."

Kíli went on to tell how he had been overwhelmed by orcs and carried off to Dol Guldur, where Tauriel had finally rejoined him and helped him escape.

When he was finished, Fíli asked, "You and Tauriel aren't still...?"

"Oh, we've made up," Kíli said, his expression brightening once more. There could be no doubt he was very happy about how things now were between himself and his wife.

"Good. I love you, Kí." Fíli punched him affectionately in the arm.


After hanging up their armor and splashing sweaty faces in the fountain outside, they made their way back towards the royal quarters.

"I need to know something," Fíli said as they walked.


"Now, this is very important Kíli. There's money riding on this, so 'fess up."

Kíli stared at his brother, curiosity plain on his face.

"Is Tauriel with child?" Fíli asked.

Kíli said nothing, but his happy grin left no doubt about the answer.

Fíli gave an amused groan. "Oh, brother, you've cost me a pretty penny." He laughed and slapped Kíli on the back. "Anyway, congratulations!"

"You bet against me? Fíli, I'm crushed!"

"I was betting on Tauriel," Fíli explained. "I thought she'd want you to bring her home first."

"All right. Put that way, maybe I'll forgive you."

"I should hope so! Especially since I've just bought that lovely sofa and chairs for your sitting room."

"Aha! We wondered who those were from. So who did you bet against?"

"Uncle. Who else?"

"Thorin!" Kili's eyes crinkled with merriment. "Do you remember the row he and I had when he found out about Tauriel and me? I would never have believed, then, that he'd ever want to hear I'd made her pregnant."

Fíli snorted. "Oh, you'd have been banished for certain if you'd done that four years ago!"

"And deserved it, too!" Kíli dismissed that scandalous thought with a shake of his head. "You know, if I have a son— Well, you'd better catch up."

"And just whose fault is it I'm not even married yet?" Fíli returned teasingly.

"I know, I know. But hey!" Kíli's face lit up as if at some lucky idea. "Tauriel says elvish babes take a year, so there's still time to beat me, if you really want."

"Kíli, this isn't a race."

"It could be!"

Fíli looped an arm over his brother's shoulders as they walked. "Shut up, Kí, it's not." He knocked his head against Kíli's. "I'm happy for you and Tauriel. And I hope you enjoy your new furniture. I was expecting Uncle would have to pay, so I made sure it was very nice."

Kíli caught his brother's teasing tone. "We will; we will. Have you set a day for your wedding?"

"A month from last Tuesday. I left plenty of time for you to get a fresh suit of clothes made if you'd gone fat."

"Hey! I'm sure my own wedding clothes still fit me just fine. What'd you think I'd been doing all this time? Sitting around drinking wine and reciting poetry? We trekked all the way to Ered Luin and back, you know."

Fíli laughed at Kíli's mildly offended expression. "I remember the credit you did to Bilbo's dinners," he explained. "And Elrond's, for that matter, once they brought out the real food."

"Oh, Fíli, the elves do know how to cook!" Kíli's eyes took on an expression of dreamy reflection. "You could tell what season it was, just from what was on the table. And every meal was different, too—like each day had seasons of its own. Did you know blackberries don't taste the same at morning as they do at noon?" He smiled, acknowledging Fíli's accuracy about the food. "I suppose I did eat a lot. But Tauriel and I kept pretty busy."

Fíli cocked an eyebrow.

"I didn't mean it like that, you idiot." He gave Fíli a light shove and continued, "We hunted a lot, and sometimes rode with the patrol. I even did some smithing. I learned some very interesting new techniques for working silver. That reminds me, what I really need to finish before the wedding is Tauriel's crown."

Having reached the door of Kíli's home, they stopped.

"That's right," Fíli reflected. "This will be the first time the rest of Erebor sees her as their princess. Well, don't dawdle. I'm marrying my princess whether yours is suitably crowned or not."

Kíli chuckled as he opened his door. "Oh, I know I've made you wait long enough. Though I confess, it would be rather interesting to see you being the impatient one, for once..."

"Shut up and go kiss your wife good morning," Fíli said dryly and pushed Kíli through the door.

Kíli found Tauriel in the bedroom, finishing a last braid. She looked up, smiling, as he entered.

"Good morning, my love," she said. "Did your exercise go well?"

"Yes, great. I found out who the sofa and chairs are from."

"Who?" She held him with curious eyes.

"Fíli. Although it would have been Thorin if you weren't pregnant."

"Oh!" Kíli wasn't sure if her blank expression indicated amusement or offense. Then her lips twitched up slightly. "Your family has been discussing us."

"So it seems." He moved the last few steps towards her, where she sat at the dressing table, and kissed her cheek. "You don't mind?"

"I don't mind." She nuzzled her face against him, asking for another kiss which he gladly gave. "And so your brother is the first to know."

"I couldn't keep it from him; he knew before I'd said anything," Kíli admitted.

Tauriel smiled at him. "You are no good at keeping secrets, my love. Not when you're so happy."

"Oh, I'm very happy." He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and let his fingers trail down the line of her jaw and under her chin. Then he turned away in the direction of the washroom, peeling off his damp shirt.

Tauriel followed after him. "Kíli. I suppose we ought to tell your mother today. She'll be disappointed if she hears it from your brother first."

"So she will be. But didn't I tell you? She's having a family dinner for us tonight. We can tell her then." He turned on the bath tap and finished undressing.

"Very good." Her eyes flicked over him in knowing appreciation.

Kíli offered her a teasing look. "Care to join me?"

"I've bathed," she said, but as he stepped into the tub, she took up a copper pitcher from the washstand. Kíli lowered himself into the water and a few moments later felt her push his hair forward over his shoulders. Then she poured hot water down his back. He smiled to himself and reached for the soap.

"I do think Mum invited my cousins Dwalin and Balin," he said presently. "Should we tell them, too?"

"Yes, I'd like them to know."

"Good. I also want to tell them about what happened at Dol Guldur. I still can't get it out of my head that that thing, that Ringwraith, is interested in our babe."

"Are you worried for my safety?" Tauriel reached around him and took the soap.

"A little. I mean, I think you both are well-guarded inside Erebor, but we can't stay under the mountain forever." He fell silent for a moment or two as her soapy hands passed over his back and up around his ribs. "I'd just feel better knowing someone else is watching out for us."

"I think that wise." She dipped up another pitcher of water and rinsed him.

As Kíli stood and took the linen towel from her, he saw her eyes were clouded.

"Tauriel?" he asked. "I'm not trying to frighten you. I just don't want that nightmare of mine, the one I had back there in the dungeon, to come true."

Her face lightened then. "I was thinking how glad I am that our child may have what you and I did not: both a mother's and a father's love. So I am glad you are willing to be cautious. Just remember to have a care for yourself, as well as for me."

"Of course, my darling."

She gathered him in her arms, towel and all. "I love you, Kíli."

"Amrâlimê," he murmured, then settled a full, soft kiss on her mouth before drawing away to get dressed.

Now that Kíli was home, family gatherings were complete once more, Thorin observed contentedly as he pushed away his empty dessert dish. Here were his two cousins, Balin and Dwalin; his sister, tonight's hostess; his nephews and their brides.

Thorin smiled as he watched Tauriel scold her husband away from her second helping of apple tart. It was surprising that Kíli had found a match for his lively temper in an elf, but match him she did.

"You said you'd share," Kíli protested laughingly as he dodged a stab of her fork.

"I said you could have a bite or two. You've had five now! Get your own." Her eyes flashed, their expression both teasing and fierce.

"I will. I will!"

Kíli got a fresh piece, but just as he was raising the first bite to his mouth, Tauriel glanced at him with eyes sparkling and said, in a tone pitched so that all in the room heard her clearly, "Don't you have something to tell everyone?"

All other conversations stilled as the rest of the family looked expectantly to Kíli, making it impossible for him not to respond. His eyes flicked to Tauriel in amused capitulation, and he set down his still loaded fork.

"Tauriel and I have some very happy news to share with you all," he said, sweeping his glance round the table before settling a tender smile on his wife. "We're expecting a child."

Thorin pounded the table, Fíli and Dwalin and Sif cheered, and everyone clapped.

As the noise subsided, Sif poked Fíli in the ribs and exclaimed, "I told you so!"

Thorin's face split in a smile. "I'll not say I'm surprised, but I am happy for you."

"I know already about your wager!" Kíli returned. "I'm glad at least some of you here believed in us."

Fíli merely tipped his head back and laughed.

"That's a start towards your dozen," said Dwalin. "Dinnae forget you promised as many at yer wedding feast."

Tauriel smiled back at him, her cheeks flushing but her smile merry. "One at a time, Master Dwalin."

Dís came behind her son and daughter and pressed them both in a hug. "My dears, I'm glad for you. And when will it be?"

"Almost a twelvemonth," Tauriel said.

The dwarf woman smiled warmly. "I'm doubly glad you're back, so that you can be settled before the babe arrives."

Tauriel nodded. "So are we."

"Mahal bless you, laddie." Balin gazed at his young cousin, his eyes a-twinkle. "It seems you were a wee bairn yourself not many years ago."

As soon as the words were said, the white-bearded dwarf glanced to Tauriel, an unaccustomed look of mild distress on his face. Thorin had to hold back a soft laugh as he realized that Balin was afraid Tauriel might resent this reminder that her husband himself was little older than a child by her people's reckoning of ages. It was easy to forget how much she was Kíli's senior, since in looks she appeared quite as young as he. Yet judging by her soft smile, she did not seem to mind the old dwarf's comment.

Someone slapped the table, and Thorin turned to see Fíli raise his glass. "A toast to Tauriel and my brother!" he cried. "My hearty congratulations to you both. May your child be no less adorable and no less of a rascal than Kíli was as a dwarfling."

"Fíli, that's more nigh a curse than a blessing," Dwalin observed, banging his glass down after draining it. "Let's hope the bairn inherits a few improving traits from its mother."

Thorin laughed heartily. "It would be no more than Kíli deserves." Oh, he could well remember the trouble that boy used to find. Yet who could be irritated with the lad when he flashed that sweet smile?

Tauriel gave Fíli a mischievous look. "I think that if he is at all like Kíli, our child shall be a particular tease to his uncle."

"Yes, Fí, you should have thought more carefully before proposing your toast," Kíli agreed.

Fíli's response was a bemused grin. "I can't decide which is more incredible; that I'm an uncle or that my little brother is a father."

"Thank you, all of you, for your love and kind wishes," Tauriel said, sweeping eyes that were not quite dry over the assembled dwarves. "You know I have no remaining kin of my own. And so I am more grateful than I can say to have a family here with you and Kíli. I am especially glad to know that our child will have so many to love and protect it."

Thorin felt himself smile, touched as he was by the emotion Tauriel displayed. "You are my sister's daughter and my heir's wife," he said. "My love and protection is most willingly given."

Kíli said, somewhat cautiously, "We may have need of your protection soon enough."

"How so?"

The dark-haired prince glanced round the room, apparently confirming that he had undivided attention once more. "Tauriel and I ran into some danger on our way home, and I'm not sure we're entirely out of it yet."

He was answered by murmurs and exclamations of surprise.

Kíli went on, "This isn't something I want made public: I can't see what good it would do. I don't want the whole kingdom worried over something that, as yet, only involves me. And it might be Tauriel and I are safer if this remains unknown. But you all should hear."

Everyone else had now gone silent.

"When we came down from the East Gate of Khazad-Dûm, an orc band trailed us. We believed we had lost them at Lothlórien, but they must have watched for us to leave because three days after we'd left the forest, they caught up with us. Tauriel and I were separated, and I was taken prisoner. They took me to Dol Guldur; that's where Tauriel came for me."

"Durin's beard," Thorin cried. "You should not have gone near Moria."

Kíli's dark, intense eyes met his uncle's "I know I made a mistake, but I will not forget—" he protested, but Thorin cut him off.

"I don't blame you, Kíli. We all should have advised you to stay away." The dwarf king sighed deeply, troubled by how nearly he had lost his beloved nephew. "I would hate to see you harmed, either of you."

"You took no serious hurt?" Dís asked softly, her hand moving to Kíli's shoulder.

Kíli smiled reassuringly to her. "No, Mum. I'm fine."

"What did they want with you, taking you all the way to Dol Guldur?" Thorin asked after a moment.

"Their captain—Scarface, I keep calling him—was at the Battle of Five Armies. Seems he recognized me and wanted his revenge. I think Dol Guldur was merely a convenient place for it. I'm almost certain he wasn't expecting to meet who we did when we got there."

Sif gave a little whimper and snuggled closer to Fíli's side, her arm tight in his. The elder prince's brows were lowered, but he did not look astonished by his brother's revelation; Kíli must have told him this story earlier.

"Have any of you heard of the Ringwraiths?" Tauriel asked.

"Ancient legends, from before even your time, I should imagine," Balin ventured.

"You've heard of them," the elf repeated.

"Yes. They carried great rings, like the one your father—" the old dwarf looked to Thorin "—once had. They accepted the Dark One as their master, and became very terrible and powerful indeed." He paused, clearly troubled. "You're not saying you met one? No-one has spoken of them in centuries."

Kíli said, "We asked Thranduil. He says he fought against these Ringwraiths once, in the Last Alliance, and he's sure that's what we saw."

"Blessed Durin," Thorin breathed.

"Bloody hell, Kí, you didn't say—"

Dwalin asked sharply, "How in the Maker's name did you get away from one of those?"

"That's what bothers me: it must have let us escape."

"What?!" As Thorin spoke, the same word sprang from several other mouths.

"It knew you were Thorin's heir—Durin's line!—and just let you walk out?" Fíli demanded, voicing what they surely were all thinking.

Kíli's mouth twitched up in a brief smile. "Well, more like we ran out, but—" His expression fell serious again. "Yes."

"Why?" Fíli returned.

"That's what we've been trying to guess." Kíli met his wife's eyes for a moment. "Thranduil thinks it just wants everyone in Rhovanion to know it's there, to make us afraid of leaving our walls and to prevent our kingdoms from growing strong and great. As a prince with access to Dale and the Greenwood, I'm the perfect messenger."

"Could it still be looking for Thrór's ring?" Balin mused.

Thorin shook his head. "But how could Kíli help find it? Did it question you?"

"Only on one thing: it wanted to know if Tauriel was my wife, and if I had any children by her."

After a brief silence, during which no one seemed to move, Balin said, "I suppose it didn't want an heir of yours to live, if it sent you back. The royal line only survives in you if you've a child."

"That's exactly what Thranduil said," Kíli confirmed.

"But you think differently?" Thorin asked.

Kíli dipped his chin slightly in affirmation. "The thing is, the Ringwraith must have been watching the whole time I was in Dol Guldur. I'm sure it wasn't in league with the orcs, but even Scarface was afraid of it. It didn't care if they killed me. It only stepped in at the last moment—I mean the very last—after I'd said something about Tauriel being my wife."

"What did you say?"

"Oh, Scarface was abusing her in terms I won't repeat, and I demanded he stop talking about my wife."

"That's all?"

"That's all. The orc was set to burn a hole in me with an iron when the Wraith cut in and demanded I was not to be harmed. Then it asked me if I really was married to Tauriel. I didn't answer because I was too afraid of what it would do to her, but it saw her elvish braids in my hair and it knew what they meant."

Kíli sighed and tucked one of those same braids back from his face. "So why should it make a difference that she—an elf—is my wife unless— Unless that Wraith wants our child?"

"You mean as a hostage?" Thorin asked.

"Maybe. Or maybe for something worse." Kíli stared at his uncle as if wondering how to explain. Finally he said, "The elf queen, Galadriel, told us that she's never seen anything like Tauriel and me. Our bond makes us different from an ordinary elf and dwarf. She says our spirits are stronger, that we have more energy for life than we would normally."

The young dwarf glanced to Tauriel, and his serious expression softened. "I guess elves, even young ones like Tauriel, kind of fade because their people have been in Middle-earth for so long. But Galadriel says Tauriel looks as bright as an elf from a long time ago, when the world was younger. And me..." His look turned self conscious, awkward. "She thinks I'll live longer than most dwarves, because I'm bound to Tauriel."

Fíli gasped. "Maker! You mean like Durin the Deathless?"

"No, I don't think I'll live that long," Kíli protested, reddening. "Well, actually I don't know. She didn't say."

"With a gift like that, what a leader you'd be," Balin mused. "If we were to take back Khazad-dûm..."

Dwalin said, "D'you suppose you'll be stronger in battle, too?"

Dís's hand went once more to her son's arm. "What fate has the Maker planned for you?" she murmured.

"Who can say?" Tauriel answered for her husband, who looked too embarrassed to speak. "But I am sure it is a good one. We thought, for a while, that it might not be possible for us to bear a child, but see how the Valar have blessed us already."

Apparently grateful for a chance to turn the discussion away from himself, Kíli continued then, "I think it's possible our offspring will be more special than either of us. What if the Wraith sees our child as a power to be corrupted for some evil purpose?"

Thorin saw his sister fix a wondering look on Tauriel. "It's true," Dís said. "Who knows what might result from a union between an immortal elf and one from our sacred bloodline?"

"Was Tauriel with child when you were a prisoner?" Thorin asked after a moment.

"No. I said so. I hoped the Wraith would forget about her then." Kíli's voice was sharp as he spoke of his past fears. "But I told the truth."

"Hmm." Thorin might once have dismissed Galadriel's words, but Kíli would not believe the queen unless Tauriel trusted her judgment, as well. And Tauriel was the one elf Thorin did not doubt. "Did the elf queen say your child would have the same gifts she sensed in you?"

"No. That's just my guess. But if the Wraith is as powerful as Tauriel sensed and Thranduil said it was, couldn't it see the same thing in us that Galadriel did? And it could come to the same conclusion I did," Kíli reasoned.

Thorin recognized that such a scheme was not entirely implausible, but he doubted it was as likely as Kíli supposed. "It is not certain your child would be in any way useful to the Wraith, even if it does inherit the gifts you two possess. Would our enemy permit the continuation of Durin's legacy on such a rare and unforeseen chance of a unique child? You know as well as I do the pains our adversaries have taken to break our line."

"So you agree with Thranduil?" Kíli asked, though without any accusation in his tone. "You think it just wanted to make sure I was a dead branch on the family tree because an elf couldn't have my children?"

Thorin smiled slightly. "Much as it pains me to admit it, yes, I must confess I find the Elvenking has offered the most probable explanation."

"But how do you explain why the Wraith only took an interest in me after it found out my connection to Tauriel?" Kíli said pointedly.

"You said it intervened at the last moment. Waiting till the orcs were about to hurt you was likely part of its own sport."

"I suppose," Kíli conceded, but his brows remained set in a firm line. It was an expression that Thorin remembered from Kíli's earliest youth; despite his lively and cheerful disposition, he had always been capable of that surprisingly serious stare.

Thinking of that brooding little dwarfling, Thorin suddenly recognized what must be at the heart of Kíli's present concern. This young man had only lately assumed the responsibilities of a father. No doubt his loyalty and devotion to his new family had made him fear a lasting threat after what truly had been a disturbing encounter with a powerful enemy.

Balin added then, "Aye, Kíli, your uncle is right. And consider: if your son indeed proves so powerful, he could become a formidable adversary if the Wraith fails to claim him. Do you suppose it would take the risk of letting Erebor become stronger? No, if that Wraith had wanted anything more from you or Tauriel, it would not have let you go.

"You said earlier it wished to control us by fear. That must have been its intent with you. Don't let it succeed, lad. It has no armies to command, and nothing short of a dragon has ever breached Erebor's defenses. You are safe here."

"You truly think so?" Kíli asked, his look relaxing into relief. Tauriel, too, eased from her motionless poise, her fingers combing the loose ends of Kíli's hair in a soothing gesture.

"Yes, lad. I think you've more to be happy about than to fear."

"I agree," Thorin said. "Your care for your family is worthy, and I do not mean to dismiss it. But you shouldn't let prudence become fear. That said, I give my word that everything you and Tauriel feel necessary to protect your family shall be done."

Beside him, Dwalin spoke up. "Aye, lad; my lady." He nodded at Kíli and Tauriel in turn. "No harm'll come to your family while we've got a say in the matter."

Kíli smiled. "Thank you. We knew we could rely on you."

"I suppose you're not quite ready to share your good news with the rest of Erebor?" Balin asked, tactfully turning the conversation in a more cheerful direction.

"We'll make an official announcement soon," Kíli returned. "But I thought I'd wait till after the wedding so I don't steal Fíli's thunder. I'll tell the rest of the Company, though."

"A wise choice," Balin returned, chuckling. "I think they'd be sorry to be left in the dark."

"Are you going to eat that?" Tauriel asked sweetly, pointing to the forgotten apple tart on Kíli's plate. "If you're not—" She reached for her own fork.

"Heavens, love, yes, I am!" Kíli stuffed a bite in his mouth. "It's too early for you to be eating for two, isn't it?" he said around apple tart.

"Probably." She tucked an arm around his waist. "But I don't think we should take any chances, especially with dessert."

Chapter Text

Kíli had taken great pride in announcing his and Tauriel's good news to the remaining members of the Company, and they, in turn, had proved just as happy as he had wished them to be. Bombur offered to share the recipes that were most favored by his wife whenever she had a babe on the way, and Ori had submitted a few skeins of his softest yarns for Tauriel's approval. Bofur and Bifur eagerly set themselves the puzzle of discovering what sort of toy would be most suited to please a babe who was half elf and half dwarf.

Nori declared this the best scheme Kíli had ever had, though Kíli was not sure whether his lighthearted friend was referring to the accomplishment of having sired such a unique child, or the simple fact that Kíli—who, as the youngest member of their Company, had easily fallen into the role of the impetuous youth—had himself become a father. Indeed, Glóin, after offering Kíli his hearty congratulations, drew the young dwarf aside and imparted a great deal of advice regarding childrearing. Kíli tried his best to listen earnestly, though he suspected it was still rather premature to worry about how to discipline a child who would not leave his mother's womb for another twelve months.

Kindly Dori urged Tauriel to look after herself and not to hesitate to consult a physician should she feel in any way out of sorts, while Óin had meekly insisted that though he was always at her service, he had no experience in elvish pregnancies and instead hoped to be educated by observing her.

And so the remaining month until Fíli's wedding passed in something of a warm glow for Kíli, as he settled into the idea of having a household and a family of his own. He resumed his service as a captain in Erebor's guard, this time stationed within the mountain itself rather than on Ravenhill, where he had served his first post.

Tauriel was somewhat disoriented by the fact that, for the first time in centuries, she would not be serving as a guardswoman herself, but she had not resisted Kíli's request that she avoid placing herself into danger while she carried their child. Her skills could still be of use, he said, on the training ground, and would she please limit herself to the archery field, at least once the babe was far enough along to alter her shape?

She had smiled and said yes as if to please him, but he suspected Tauriel was somewhat grateful to have him ask what she wanted herself. She was still so used to self-sufficiency and it was hard for her to tell herself there was something she could not do. Kíli saw it was easier for her to make a concession because he asked it of her, and the thought filled him with warmth.

On the morn of his brother's wedding, Kíli smiled to himself as he did up the fastenings on his dress coat. As he had predicted, the blue velvet and burgundy leather still fit him just as well as it had on the day of his own wedding a year and a half ago. That Fíli could have expected otherwise was quite preposterous. Kíli had married a warrior, not a cook; and if he had a large appetite, well, it stood to reason that he had earned it.

Where was his wife, anyway? Kíli had not expected to dress for this wedding as he had done for his own, by himself. Yet she had disappeared after her bath, claiming she had to fetch her gown. That had been over an hour ago. Did it take so long to pick something up from the seamstress? Well, if she wasn't here to help him, he would have to fix his braids himself, he thought resignedly.

He had just laid out his hair beads and was taking up the comb when the approaching tap of footsteps and swish of a skirt outside the bedchamber door announced her return.

"There you are, Tauriel," he called over his shoulder. "I'd begun to think you'll fallen off the causeway or—" He stopped as he caught sight of her. Tauriel was already dressed, though in a gown quite unlike the slim elvish ones she normally wore.

"Do you like it?" she asked, twirling so that the full skirt flounced about her ankles, showing off quite a few layers of embroidered underskirt.

"I like it very much." Kíli stood, but did not move any closer. He could admire her better from across the room.

The dress's deep wine color—which matched his own clothes—suited her surprisingly well, setting off the pale cream of her skin and drawing out the deeper fires of her hair. It was styled in the dwarvish fashion with full, layered skirts and a boned bodice that played up every curve of her figure. Rubies dripped over her bosom, and lavish golden embroidery trimmed the neckline and waist, the fitted cuffs on the full sleeves and even the hem of the skirt.

"My love, you look beautiful in dwarvish clothes," Kíli said. Indeed, that off-the-shoulder neckline flattered her more than it would have any dwarf woman, for Tauriel's shoulders were so slender and graceful.

"And you look quite as handsome as the day we married," she said, coming to him. "Though your hair, I think, could use some tending." Kíli caught the amused spark in her eye and knew that she knew he wanted her to perform that service for him.

Kíli sat down again, and she set to work. It gave him pleasure to watch her movements in the mirror: the gentle rise and fall of her white shoulders as she drew the comb over his hair, the flash of her fingers as she worked a braid, the sway of her shimmering, silk-clad waist as she shifted lightly around him.

When the final braid was tied off, she placed his circlet on his brow, arranging it carefully so that it did not catch the shorter hair that framed his face. She twitched a last strand into place and stood back. "You're ready, Your Highness."

He bounded up from the seat. "I am, but you're not." He fetched a velvet bag from the wardrobe and handed it to her. "For my Uzbadnâtha."

Smiling—of course she knew what this was—she reached inside and drew out a gleaming silver circlet for her own.

"Mmm, Kíli, this is even lovelier than the design sketches you showed me," she murmured, turning it to admire the airy weave of interlinking silver diamonds. The pattern was punctuated with sapphire gems of varying sizes and hues, from deepest blue to a translucent white.

"Will you?" She handed the crown back and dropped into the seat before him.

Kíli settled the circlet into place among all the intricate loops of the dwarvish braids that adorned her hair, making a special point of tickling the tips of her ears before he was done. When he drew back, Tauriel's cheeks were pink.

"I think there's still something in the bag," he prompted.

"Ah! So there is." Tauriel reached inside and drew out a smaller pouch. Untying the drawstring, she tipped the contents into her hand.

"How pretty," she said, holding up one of a pair of earrings. From the elegant earwire hung a large sapphire of rich, clear blue that was framed by woven silver shaped in an elongated version of the diamond motif on the crown.

She threaded one to her ear, then looked to the mirror. "I've never had earrings this big before!" she admitted with a laugh. The lower tips of the silver diamonds nearly skimmed her shoulders. "I like them."

"Good." Kíli watched happily as she donned the second earring. No dwarf had ever been as lucky as he, to see the work of his hands beautified by such a fair creature. "Come here," he said. "I've never kissed a woman who wore a crown before."

"Not even your mother?" Tauriel asked.

"She doesn't count." He laid his hands on Tauriel's slender shoulders and she tipped her chin up to meet his lips. As Kíli kissed her, he traced the lines of her neck with his fingertips, the long sweep of her pretty throat and the angle of her collarbone. As he brushed the high swell of her breast, she giggled softly.

"That's false appearances, love," she murmured.


"What you see is a little of bosom and a lot of dress. The wonders of corsetry, to give an elf a figure somewhat approximating dwarvish curves."

He snickered. "You know I've never found you in any way lacking." Kíli pressed a hand down the stiffly boned waist of her dress. "Taur, you're sure you're not flattening our babe inside this?" he asked, only half serious.

"Oh, no." She laughed. "Our dear one is still so small, she doesn't even notice."

Kíli smiled. He liked it when Tauriel spoke of their babe as a he or a she—which she used alternated, depending on her mood. Sensitive as Tauriel already was to their child's wellbeing, she could not say whether she carried a son or a daughter.

"Good," he returned. "I shouldn't want you to be delivered of a griddlecake instead of a dwelfling." It seemed Sif and Bofur had independently coined this term for their mixed-blood child, and to Kíli's amusement and delight, the name had somehow stuck.

Tauriel snorted in mirth. "I assure you there is no griddlecake in my ancestry. And on your side, I believe the only taint is a weak strain of bear."

Kíli laughed heartily. She did call him her little bear sometimes, in reference to his stocky build and hairy chest. "That's just pure-blood dwarf," he said.

Sif brushed her sweating palms against her skirt and gazed over the crowded ceremonial hall. This was undoubtedly the largest group of people she had ever stood in front of. Here was all the nobility of Erebor, as well as quite a few of the major families from the Iron Hills, and even a handful from Ered Luin. Imagining this moment, she had considered only the happiness of becoming Fíli's wife, but now looking at all these wedding guests, she felt the sudden weight of a kingdom's expectations. She was about to become the consort of the crown prince, the future queen. What did everyone want from her? And what if she couldn't provide it?

She knew she looked the part of royalty: this gown, with its cream colored silk weighted by gold and pearls, was the richest clothing she had ever worn. Surveying herself in the mirror this morning, she had found it difficult to imagine herself dressing in more finery when she became queen one day. Fíli's golden beads gleamed in her hair, and diamonds flashed at her ears and wrist. She had insisted on wearing nothing at her throat but the elegant golden knot with its tawny topaz stones that Fíli had given her as a betrothal gift, but the raised neckline of the gown had framed the simple necklace perfectly so that it did not look out of place amongst her other, more lavish ornaments. Oh, no-one could fault her appearance today. But acting as a princess was an entirely different thing from looking one.

As she made another nervous pass over her skirt, her father caught her hand. "You'll do well. I'm proud of you, love," he said.

Sif turned to smile at him. Beside them were her mother and her brother, Freyr, and then those who, after today would be her family as well: Thorin and Dís and Tauriel. What had begun as a nervous smile deepened to one of true pleasure. Today sealed far more than a political alliance; it united all those people who mattered most to her.

At that moment, the doors at the far end of the hall opened, admitting the two who were yet missing from this happy group. The crowd parted, and Sif turned a beaming face to the groom, who approached on his brother's arm.

Oh, but Fíli was handsome. The Golden Prince—that was what the girls of Ered Luin had always called him, in reference to his fair good looks. He truly deserved the title now, in his blue coat shining with gold embroidery and with a crown of true gold on those rich locks.

Sif could still remember the last time she had seen Fíli in Ered Luin, as he stood in her father's hall wearing traveler's boots and a fur-trimmed coat. He was so young and noble, and what if he never came home? She had loved him, but never told him, and the idea that she might not see him again had broken her heart. And so she had (foolishly, perhaps) stammered her good wishes for the Quest, and then fled, trying in vain to hide her tears.

She found she was crying even now. It was strange; the Fíli she had grown to love was not quite the Fíli she thought she had loved then. Oh, he was better! And today he was hers. Maker, she had not known it was possible to be so happy.

The smile in Fíli's eyes, as he and Kíli halted before her, told that he felt as much as she.

"Sif, will you have my brother as your mate and companion?" Kíli asked.

She reached for Fíli's hand, which Kíli held out to her. "I will."

When the ceremony proceeded, there might have been only the four of them present—Fíli and herself, and their two witnesses, Kíli and her father—for all that Sif was aware of anyone else. Giving her vows and trading rings, it was Fíli alone that she looked to.

Only when Kíli had declared them united, and the room rumbled with the assent of every other dwarf assembled did Sif remember that she stood in front of a crowd. And yet when Fíli scooped her to him in a joyous kiss, she found that she hardly would have cared if every dwarf in Arda had been watching.

"Ah, there's nothing like a wedding for bringin' happy folk together. There's not a sour face here," boomed a voice with a familiar, gruff brogue. Reidhr looked up from his beer to see his in-law, the Lord of the Iron Hills, sinking into a seat opposite him. Daín went on, "And seeing two princes married in as many years— That's a fruitful new start fer the kingdom, don't you think?"

"I wasn't here for Kíli's wedding," Reidhr said. He had made his excuses for remaining in the Iron Hills at the time, but the truth was he'd refused to witness such degradation: a dwarf pledging himself to an elf and in front of all manner of outsiders. It disgusted him even now to look to the king's table and see the younger prince—the still vexingly alive younger prince—with his arm around the elf woman and smiling as if he were proud of how he had lowered himself. And by what right did she, an enemy and an outsider, think she could dress as if she were one of the Khazad? The red-haired hussy was as shameless as her husband.

"That's right, so you weren't," said Daín, recalling Reidhr from his internal tirade. "Last you were here was that damned Council three years ago, was it not? Now that was a disaster, if ever I've seen one. Thank Mahal the succession controversy came to naught. To have the heirs of his own blood discredited was the last thing my cousin needed at the outset of his reign."

Reidhr still found it a wonder Daín could be grateful for such an outcome; had the controversy been decided the other way, Daín himself, or at any rate, his son—who also happened to be Reidhr's son-in-law—would have been the next king of Erebor. Yet even his own interest in being connected to the crown aside, Reidhr had felt injured on behalf of every Longbeard dwarf. It had not been in the clan's best interest to let the crown remain within a family that had shown weakness, first in dragon sickness and then by diluting their bloodline by marriage to an outsider. Fíli, it could be hoped, would still do justice to his lineage, but his younger brother was no credit to their race or their clan.

"You're not worried about seeing an elf on the throne?" Reidhr asked, his tone neutral. There was no overt ill will in the question. Indeed, it was a topic that had interested many of the other guests today. He'd heard more than one dwarf express relief—which was no less genuine for being jestingly put—that soon they could expect an heir to place ahead of Kíli's claim.

"That ain't the point!" Daín burst out, still as vehement in his view as he had been at that past Council. "The crown belongs to Thrór and his descendants by right. Dís is his granddaughter, and Fíli and Kíli her sons. Twould be robbery to take it from them, and I—" He chuckled. "—am no robber." He took a long draft of beer and then twitched the froth from his red mustache with a forefinger. "Just pray Mahal bless Fíli and his bride with a flourishin' batch of heirs so there'll be no need to worry about the younger prince's unconventional taste."

Reidhr glanced inadvertently to Kíli and his wife again. The elf did not appear to be pregnant yet, and that was one fact to be glad for. But something would have to be done soon, before she became so. It was regrettable that nothing had come from alerting their orcish enemies of the prince's recent travels, but Reidhr was willing to dirty his own hands if it finally came to that. No matter how many sons Fíli might produce, no child born of an elf could be permitted to stand in line for the throne.

Daín followed his companion's look. "I've always thought her a poor choice, politically," he admitted. "But for good or ill, Tauriel was the price of Prince Kíli's happiness. And, while I was reluctant enough to concede the point at first, I grant Thorin is right: what king remains strong if he destroys his closest supports?"

And yet the weak supports ought to be removed before they gave way and betrayed one when needed most, Reidhr thought. Yet he nodded as if he agreed before hiding a grimace in his ale mug.

"Congratulations!" Tauriel said and dropped the jeweled ring Kíli had just pressed into her hand into the treasure-laden marriage cup before the bride and groom.

"Yes, Maker bless you both," Kíli echoed her.

Smiling his appreciation, Fíli took Sif's face in his hands and kissed her, as the custom of the marriage cup dictated they must for every blessing received.

Watching them, Tauriel thought of the many kisses she and Kíli had exchanged over this same tradition at their own wedding. She could still remember, as if it were yesterday, the flutter of nervous anticipation that had stirred in her stomach at each touch of his lips. Indeed, by her elvish sense of time, it still felt quite right to say she had been married to him yesterday: not only did her memory hold every feeling fresh and undimmed, but a year and a half was far too brief a time to have altered the passion of early love kindled by their union.

"Now, Sif, if you'll permit me," Kíli said, "I must have a dance with the most beautiful dwarf in the room."

She rose and gave him her hand, laughing. "You didn't say the most beautiful lady," she teased. "But you have your own wife, so I excuse you."

As Kíli drew the bride off towards the dancers already assembled, Fíli extended a hand to Tauriel. "Will you join me?"

"With pleasure." As they walked to the floor, Tauriel said, "Do you remember? You were the first to teach me the steps of a dwarvish dance."

"Of course, at New Year's your second winter here. You learned very quickly. Though I think I'm more indebted to you for dragging me off that bench where I was drinking alone!"

"And when Kíli claimed me, you found an even better partner," Tauriel recalled.

Fíli glanced to where Sif spun in Kíli's arms. "So I did." His face brightened in an unconscious, joyful smile, and Tauriel noted how much he resembled his brother in that moment.

He and Tauriel danced till the end of one song and into the next. Then Kíli returned Sif to his brother and whisked Tauriel herself off. They performed an energetic jig and then a reel before finally tumbling onto a bench to enjoy the refreshment of cool drinks. By the time they finished their beer and cider, Fíli and Sif were about to complete the last element of the wedding cup, throwing the stones that were meant to predict the number of children they would have.

"Remember, twelve is the number to beat!" Kíli called as he and Tauriel found seats among the circle of watching dwarves.

Sif returned an amused, half embarrassed look before taking care to weigh the smooth stone that Fíli placed in her hand.

At last she threw, and the stone landed safely on the piled jewels within the broad crystal chalice. Her second throw flew just as cleanly. On the third, she struck the rim of the vessel, which shattered.

Sif blushed, and Fíli swung her in his arms while all those watching cheered.

"You know, three isn't bad at all for someone who doesn't have your insanely good elvish aim," Kíli told his wife.

Tauriel laughed. "Three is also a more reasonable number of babes to produce, don't you think?"

"I'll defer to you." Kíli pressed near her and placed a kiss on the side of her neck. "We'll have no more children than you deem perfectly reasonable."

"Why, thank you Kíli," she murmured as he continued to nuzzle her shoulder. "Yet why do I suspect I shall not be content until you are?"

Fíli relaxed against the newly bolted door as the sound of the merry revelers faded down the hallway outside. Despite his best attempt to leave the feast hall unobserved Kíli—or was it his sharp-eyed elvish wife?—had seen him and Sif trying to sneak out the servants' entry leading past the kitchens and had instantly rounded up a group of well-wishers to escort bride and groom to their rooms. Of course, Fíli had no right to complain: he'd meant to perform the same embarrassing service for his brother last year. But elves, it seemed, were good at disappearing, even from crowded feast halls.

Sif stood gazing up at him now, smiling and red-cheeked, and he thought of how happy she had looked when he had come into the ceremonial hall and her eyes had met his. In that moment, Fíli had known he had never before done anything about which he felt more sure and right.

"You are beautiful," he said. "My darling wife." It was a pleasure to call her that, to finally give her a title that reflected the deep and exclusive devotion he had long felt for her.

"Oh, Fíli!" She flung herself to him. "I love you, so much more than I ever thought I could." Her hands framed his face, and then a moment later her fingers slid through his hair and she drew him down to kiss her. It was a simple gesture, yet also very intimate and sure.

"I love you, Sif." Fíli pulled her against him, as he had done often enough before, yet this was not at all like those other times. Before, the sense that she was not fully his yet had been a check to his desire. Tonight, he was free to lose himself in her warmth and loveliness. Yet that freedom was itself somewhat terrifying. How was he supposed to proceed, exactly?

Sif continued kissing him without hesitation, her fingers winding in his braids and tugging him nearer as she leaned against him. Clearly, she was as eager as he, and the realization began to melt his nervousness. It seemed he only needed to respond to her, and he would do all right. And so he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her boldly, fully.

Eventually they had to break apart to catch their breath.

"Do that again, and I'll faint dead away," Sif managed shakily. "I can't breathe in this wretched corset."

"I can help with that."

"I hope so!"

Fíli scooped her up into his arms and started towards the private half of the suite, where their bedchamber was.

"Fíli!" Sif pretended to struggle, even as she laughed. "I said I can't breathe, not I can't walk!"

He squeezed her tighter. "It's just in case you faint on the way," he explained.

"Ha!" she said, but she wrapped her arms round his neck then and kissed him.

Once they were in the bedroom, he set her carefully on her feet, pressed his lips to her brow once, and then came round behind her. "Now how does this go..." He felt along her back, looking for the fastening to her gown.

"There's a lace— It ends at the top—" Sif reached back and her hand met his just as he found the tie himself. The knot was something of a challenge, but at last it came free and Fíli could draw the dress back from her pretty white shoulders and set a lingering kiss at the base of her neck.

Once he had tugged the last fastenings loose at Sif's waist, he turned his attention to her corset. "Goodness, love, this dress is as complicated as any suit of armor," he said. Of course, he had helped with the donning and removing of armor plenty of times, but not even after a battle had his hands felt as clumsy as they did now.

When he finally pushed the corset off her waist, Sif stepped back against him and he instinctively closed his arms around her. She still wore an embroidered chemise, but through the fine linen, he could feel the warmth of her skin. As he traced her shape with a slow caress, Sif relaxed against him with a sigh, though Fíli could sense her heart bounding fast.

"You're ahead of me," he said, tucking his nose behind her ear. "I'm still fully dressed."

"So you are." Sif turned in his arms and felt for the first buckle on his surcoat. Her hands, he noted with admiration, did not shake, and she had all the clasps undone and the coat pushed off his shoulders in very little time at all.

She did not bother with the buttons on his shirt, but, slipping her hands under the hem, pressed her warm palms up his body. Despite—or more likely because of—the boldness of her touch, her face had gone quite crimson. Laughing weakly, Fíli fought loose a few buttons and finally pulled the shirt over his head.

"Better," Sif pronounced before he captured her mouth in a kiss.

When he let her go, she regarded him for a moment, a radiant smile on her face. Then reaching up to his brow, she lifted off his crown. "Tonight, I don't want a prince. Just my Fíli."

He took the circlet of gold and ruby from her hand and tossed it aside with the rest of their discarded things. "So I am," he said. "Entirely yours.

She whispered, "I can still hardly believe it."

"I can prove it, if you wish."

"Please do."

And so he gently grasped her arm and drew her onto their bed.

Chapter Text

"Well, I think we embarrassed them sufficiently," Kíli remarked as he followed the group of merrymakers back towards the gate which separated the royal living quarters from the rest of the noble housing district.

"Is that the purpose for the tradition of seeing the bride and groom off to bed?" Tauriel asked jestingly beside him.

"More or less. Offer them a blessing, encourage them to get on with things." He smirked up at her as he passed a hand over her backside. "Though from my experience, I doubt they need much encouragement."

His wife laughed. "Nor do you now."

Catching him by the coat front, she tugged him away from the departing crowd of dwarves and into a sheltered nook behind a pillar. Then she leaned down against him and kissed him. Her mouth was quick and eager against his, her fingers teasing as they skimmed his face, his neck, and inside his collar.

Kíli clasped her to him. She was much more of an armful in this full-skirted dwarvish dress, and he smiled to himself, anticipating the pleasure of freeing her slim, elvish figure from all these layers.

Gradually, her kisses slowed, deepened. She plucked at his shirt, and then it was half undone and her smooth, soft hands were pressed against him.

"Mmm, Taur," he sighed. "Remember we've a room. A whole suite, actually—" His breath caught as her teeth closed against his throat. "I'll gladly make love to you in any chamber you please."

"Any chamber?" She nuzzled his shoulder and then nipped him again.

"Yes, any chamber, any where…" He hummed under her caress. "On the sofa; the floor; against the wall, if you like."

"But not here? Everyone's gone now. The guards will let no one else by."

Kíli knew she was teasing, but the suggestion still made him go rather weak behind the knees.

"My mother comes through this passage on her way home," he protested.

"I suppose you are right." Tauriel kissed him once more on the chin, then drew away.

They went back down the hallway in the direction they had recently come from Fíli's room, but just as they were turning down the side hall towards their own suite, Kíli stopped.

The other wedding guests who had come to bid Fíli and Sif good night had already returned to the feast, yet someone hid in a shadowed alcove along the far side of the hallway: a young woman Kíli did not recognize.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

The woman blushed and pushed a braid back from her face. "I'm here to meet someone," she said, a nervous tremble in her voice. "This is where Ragnar said— At least, I thought it was."

Kíli did not recognize the dwarf she named, but her soft brogue suggested she was from the Iron Hills.

"Whoever you're looking for, you won't find him here. These are the royal quarters," Kíli explained, struggling to keep the annoyance from his voice. He wanted to be back in his chambers with his own wife, not dealing with someone else's ill-planned tryst.

"Oh! Your Highness!" The dwarf maid looked stricken, and she dipped a curtsey.

Kíli heaved a sigh. "Come with me; I'll show you out." He pressed Tauriel's hand. "I'll be a few minutes, love."

She nodded, her expression blank, though Kíli thought it was not frustration at the delay but distress from knowing that this maid planned to offer herself to someone who was not her spouse. Such arrangements were unheard of among elves.

After seeing the young woman past the gates, Kíli and one of the guards made a pass through the royal quarters to check for any other errant party-goers, yet all was quiet once more.

In their own chambers, he found Tauriel sitting at the dressing table and combing the braids from her hair.

"It's strange," she said as he came in, "I wonder if I shall ever get used to finding others have been in my rooms while I was away."

"What? Was anything amiss?" Kíli demanded, suddenly concerned that the maid he had just seen off had had some other purpose than meeting a lover. The confusion of the wedding festivities would make a good cover for thievery, or worse.

"Oh, no. Just a delivery of some things I had ordered from Dale. Some leather gloves and that herb tea Sif was asking me about. The new canister is for her, so you mustn't touch it."

"I won't." For a moment he watched her. As his amrâlimê who carried his child, she represented his two dearest treasures closely bound in one form. "Tauriel, if anything ever does seem out of place to you, tell me, no matter how silly it seems. I want to keep you safe." Secure as Erebor was, he could not forget the lesson he had so recently and painfully learned, that enemies might appear when least expected.

"Yes, meleth, I know. I will."

He came behind her and pressed a kiss to the curve of her neck. "Now where were we?" Kíli smoothed his hands over her bare shoulders. "You were going to name the room in which you'd like to have me, since I so unreasonably refuse to make love to you in a common hallway."

Tauriel leaned against him. "I like our bedroom," she said. "A very charming dwarf made me a ceiling full of stars."

"Mm-hm," Kíli assented as he buried his face in her hair. "But first I have to find the elf hidden somewhere inside this dress."

Tauriel leaned forward into the gallop as her steed raced Kíli's across the plain. As the wind of her speed tugged at her hair and chilled her ears, she couldn't keep a smile of pure exhilaration from her lips.

She dearly loved to ride, but had had so few chances for it when she had been a guard under Thranduil's charge. It was impossible for a horse to navigate the dense forest whose borders she had so seldom left. But since their return to Erebor, she and Kíli rode together at least twice a sennight.

Tauriel had thought at first he was anxious that she not feel penned up beneath the mountain, but in truth, he seemed to look forward to these excursions as much as she. He was, she remembered, perhaps somewhat unusual among dwarves in that he enjoyed the freedom of the open air no less than he did the security of a mountain hall.

Kíli's pleasure in the outdoors showed in that he was an experienced rider, comfortable atop his shaggy pony in a way that many dwarves would not have been. He even, she had found, possessed some skill shooting from horseback. Sometimes they practiced mounted archery together, but today's ride was simply for pleasure.

When she sensed her horse tiring, Tauriel reined it down to a trot. A moment later, Kíli flew past her with a whoop, and she had to restrain her horse from speeding after him. Kíli's enthusiasm, it seemed, was truly infectious. Apparently satisfied with having outrun her longer-legged mount at last, Kíli finally slowed and let her pace him as they walked their mounts cool after their run.

"Let's stop here," Tauriel said as they crested a small rise of ground that gave them a view of Esgaroth to the south.

"Right." Kíli leapt down from his pony, and though an elf would have done so with more grace perhaps, there was an energy to his movement that Tauriel found very appealing. He turned to smile at her. The color was high in his face, and his dark hair was windblown. Oh, he was beautiful.

"Yes, love?" he prompted as she slipped down beside him. "What is that look for?"

"Tis for you, hadhodeg. You please me."

His grin broadened, and he eyed her merrily for a moment. Then he turned back to his pony and took down the saddlebags with their lunch while Tauriel slipped the bridle from her mount.

"Today is perfect," Kíli said happily as he was laying out cold meat pie, cheese, and apples. "Do you think we'll get many more days like this before autumn is out?"

Tauriel took a seat beside him on the grass, then leaned back on her hands and inhaled, considering each note on the air—the musk of dead leaves, the aquatic tang of the lake, the sharpness of distant wood fires. "I think the storms will hold off for a few more weeks. But I expect that when November arrives, we'll have had our first snow."

"Snow." Kíli grinned. "The first really grand snowfall we get, I want to teach you to ski. I'm sure you'll be a natural, with your elvish poise. That is— Well." He laughed at himself. "If you're up to it. We can always wait till next year."

Tauriel swallowed her bite of meat pie and brushed pastry crumbs from her cheek before answering. "Kíli," she said, smiling gently. "It will be spring before the babe poses any restrictions on my exercise. I should think the activity would do us both good. If I stay indoors and hibernate all winter, your child may turn out to be a little bear cub after all."

"Dwarf cub," Kíli corrected through a mouthful of apple.

"Time will tell. Best not take chances."

"Taur..." Kíli went on, and she saw the flick of his tongue that meant he was thinking of how to phrase whatever he wanted to say next. "You were worried, before, about whether you could safely carry our child. You don't seem troubled now... Are you?" His glance had fallen to her middle, but as he finished, he looked back to her face, gentle concern in his brown eyes.

"No. It's different, now that there truly is a babe. Oh, Kíli! I wish you could sense our child as I do. I feel how content and secure he is, and I no longer fear that this new life is as fragile as a candle's flame that may flicker out at the least breeze. It is more like a hot bright coal, growing stronger with every day."

"Ah, Tauriel, I am glad." Kíli shifted nearer and laid his palm to her belly, sliding his hand beneath the stiff edge of her leather bodice. "I love you," he murmured, and Tauriel knew that, this once the words were not addressed to her, yet she was more warmed than if they had been.

"I'm sure he knows," Tauriel said. "I carry our child's body, but in spirit, he takes support from us both."

"Truly? Here I thought I'd done my part and left nine tenths of the work to you," Kíli protested, amused.

"Oh no, Kíli, you still give very much to our babe just by your presence. We elves believe that the period between conception and birth shapes a child, body and spirit, for all the rest of his life. It is accounted a great sorrow if mother and father are separated during that time, for then the child is deprived of half his parentage."

Kíli set his hand above her knee and gave her leg an affectionate squeeze. "I'm not going anywhere," he told her. "You both can rely on me."

"I know." Tauriel tucked an errant strand of hair back from his face. "That is another reason I am sure our babe will remain strong: he draws energy from your own spirit. And you, my Lakhad, are very bright and very strong."

Kíli's mouth twitched once as if he had been about to speak and then thought better of it.

"Yes, my love, once again you were entirely right from the beginning: our little dwelfling is a sturdy creature," she said, sure that's what he was thinking.

"I told you so," he said, smirking at last. "Do you mind if I make the official announcement about our child now?"

"You may." She felt no reason to fear losing the babe in her womb, and so they need not delay the news. Kíli, she knew, was eager to make his happiness public.

"You know what will happen when we tell everyone," Kíli said.

"What?" Was there some dwarvish tradition she was not yet aware of?

His grin was mischievous. "Everyone will be after Fíli to father an heir as soon as possible. What if ours is a son?" Though she had spoken of their child as a boy just now, Kíli knew her words were a speculation, not a prediction.

She laughed. "Let us be glad your brother is so happily matched, or you and I would feel guilty for placing him in such a position." Thankfully, they could tease about it now, but there had been a time when Kíli's unconventional love match had nearly forced Fíli into making a purely political union.

"True. As it is, I don't think he and Sif require much sympathy. Except—" He gave her a knowing smile. "Perhaps for having to spend their honeymoon surrounded by all of us."

Sif turned another page in the ledger and dipped her quill.

Materials purchased, she wrote at the head of a column. Payments received.

She had always enjoyed the steady, even march of neat Cirth letters following her pen across the blank page. Indeed, it was her clean hand that had earned her this task of bookkeeper for her family's smithing business back when she'd been a lass of just forty. Transactions ran more smoothly if you didn't have to waste time trying to decipher Adad's wildly inconsistent abbreviations or Freyr's untidy scrawl.

Despite her recent marriage to the crown prince, she still kept her place in the family business. Fíli's own private forge had been built adjoining that of the Ironsides, so that even when Fíli's royal duties kept him from working, Sif could have the assistance and companionship of her family. And though she and her husband marked their work with their shared royal sigil, they sold through the Ironsides' company. A prince had too many other concerns to bother with running an independent business. The Ironsides forge, however, was well-established, and their connection to the crown now brought them increased custom.

Sif dipped her pen again and brought it back to the paper—

"I should make you court scribe."

She jumped, scattering black droplets across the creamy page. Looking up, she saw Fíli leaning against the doorframe to her father's study, watching her.

"You're prettier than cousin Ori," he went on. "I think meetings would go faster if I could look at you."

Sif scrunched her nose at him. "No, they'd take twice as long. You'd have to make everyone repeat themselves because you weren't paying attention."

"On the contrary, I'd be paying a great deal of attention." He came around the desk and scooped her up for a kiss. "How has your day been so far?"

"Mmm, slow." She nuzzled her face against his chest. "But I'm almost caught up with accounts now. See that huge stack on the desk? That's everything I've copied in since this morning."

"My, you have been busy. Must you finish today?"

She drew in a long breath, enjoying the scent of him. "No, I'm done for now."

"Good." Fíli said against her hairline. Sif tilted her head back, and he kissed her again, then lifted her onto the edge of the writing desk so that she was more of a level with him.

"I've no more plans for the afternoon," he said as he leaned into her. He pressed his lips to her cheek and the side of her nose before settling them on hers in what was almost more bite than kiss.

She laughed against him. "I think you do." Sif shifted so that her knees clasped his waist while she tucked her hands inside his coat and around his back. He was so warm, and she could feel his heat spreading through her limbs, leaving her quite giddy and weak.

Fíli continued teasing at her lips while he caught her ankle and tucked his hand under the hem of her skirt. Sif felt his palm slide up her leg, past her knee and the top of her stocking so that he could finally skim bare skin with his fingertips.

"You rogue," she murmured, though she allowed her own hands to wander over his backside.

Fíli drew back slightly to meet her look with merry eyes. "Rogue? I'm your husband."

"I know; so you may be all the more rogue with me." She gave him a saucy smile.

"Indeed." He dipped a hand inside her neckline.

Sif gave an approving sigh and pressed against him.

At the same moment, footsteps clattered in the hall outside the study. She started, knocking her forehead against Fíli's. He pulled her down from the desk, and she just had time to tug up her bodice and smooth out her skirts before her brother, Freyr, flew into the room.

"Hullo, sis," he said, moving past her to the bookshelf holding the packets which organized upcoming orders.

"I thought you were going to be working in the forge all day with Adad," she stammered, feeling her cheeks blazing. She dared not look at Fíli.

"Oh, we finished the stock going to Ered Luin already, so I came back to get the designs for those ceremonial axes Lord Ásbjorn commissioned." Freyr glanced up, packet in hand, and then seemed to register the couple's consternation for the first time, for he grinned.

"I see I'm not the only one who wants to get back to work. I've got all I need, you two, so carry on," he said and went out, closing the door behind him.

Sif laughed weakly and rubbed her sore forehead. "Let's go home," she said.

"Good plan."

She hastily tidied the desk, and then taking Fíli's hand, all but dragged him from the study.

They were crossing her parents' entrance hall towards the door, and Sif was congratulating herself on having escaped the notice of any other members of her family when she was hailed by a familiar voice from the sitting room.

"Sif, my dear, don't go! I've that dress pattern you asked for."

She turned back to see her aunt coming after her, waving a few papers.

"Your Highness." The elegant dwarven lady curtseyed to the prince. "It will only take a moment, I promise."

It took quite a few moments, in fact, to deliver the instructions for this latest dress design. Both intelligent and thorough, Sif's aunt was only satisfied by repeating three times over the special instructions for joining the collar to the bodice. Sif did her best to listen patiently, fighting the urge to skip impatiently from foot to foot like a lass a quarter of her true age. Fíli came behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders, and then she lost what her aunt was saying as she concentrated on the soft brush of Fíli's thumb against her nape.

The older woman seemed at last to notice that her niece was not attending.

"Ah, well, if you have any trouble with the pattern, come see me and I'll help you sort it out," she finished at last. "I'd apologize for keeping you, but perhaps I've done you a favor. Your husband appears more eager than ever to have you to himself." And with a knowing, good humored smile, she turned from them.

"I think Kíli had the right idea by running away for his honeymoon," Sif remarked once they were outside on the main thoroughfare that led through the nobles' residential area and towards the royal quarters.

Fíli chuckled. "Bear in mind, my brother's idea of a lovers' hideaway is an open sky and a shrubbery. As far as discomforts go, I'll take your relatives."

"You have a point."

Safely in their own quarters, they made together for the bedroom.

"Well, it's not the damp pile of leaves in a cave that we could have if we followed Kíli's example, but it will have to do for us," Fíli said, nodding to their bed, with its inviting covering of plush blankets. He took off his coat and threw it over the back of a chair.

Sif sputtered, amused. "Fíli! I don't want to think of Kíli with Tauriel in a pile of leaves— or anywhere, really."

"Then don't." He reached for her. "Come here, my darling."

As he stepped backwards in the direction of the bed, there was an unhappy feline yowl, and Fíli stumbled and fell back onto the floor as Silverpaw streaked from the room in a grey blur.

Sif began to laugh helplessly till she doubled over and collapsed beside Fíli. "It may not be a cave, but we did find a wild beast," she gasped. "Poor Silverpaw!"

"Poor Silverpaw?" Fíli repeated plaintively.

"And my poor Fíli." Another fit of giggles overtook her. "Oh, but you were too funny! Your face when you tripped—" She laid a hand on him. "Are you all right?"

"I'll be perfect if you'll just come here."

She crawled closer over the rough woolen carpet. "I love you, Fí," she said, sinking down against his warm, broad chest.

"My sweetness, I think we're alone now." His rough chin scuffed her cheek as he spoke.

"Mm-hmm." She nuzzled him under the corner of his jaw, and what began as a kiss slowly turned to a teasing nibble.

Fíli shifted under her, his legs tangling in hers. He clasped her thighs, then drew his hands up over her hips and waist till his caress was impeded by her bodice. Sif sat back to give him access to the front ties.

"Damnation, why do dresses have so many laces?" He plucked impatiently at the ties on the front of her gown. "It's terribly inconvenient."

"Would you rather I wear my work shirt and trousers every day?" Sif teased.

"That would be simpler in certain respects," he admitted as he drew the tie through the first of many eyelets.

"I'm wearing a knife," Sif suggested. "You almost found it earlier."


She bent forward and he slipped a hand in her bodice to find (after he had pinched her) the blade she wore there: it was his first courtship gift.

"I always knew this would prove handy," he said, flicking off the sheath. Then he set the blade to the laces on her bodice, and with a few quick slashes, cut the garment loose.

"Was that what you meant it for when you gave it to me?" Sif teased as she slipped out of heavy patterned silk.

"More or less." Fíli loosed the ribbon on her chemise so that the neckline slid low over her shoulders.

"You are a terrible rogue," she scolded fondly.

He laughed. "I gave it in the hopes of marrying you, and so I have." He caught her fingers and brought them to his lips. Sif smiled, liking the sight of their two hands adorned by the matching wedding rings. His ring was slightly heavier than hers, but both had the same design of small diamonds set at intervals along a plain gold band.

"I'm very glad." Sif shrugged, causing the chemise to fall entirely free of her shoulders, and then she leaned down to kiss her husband again.

Chapter Text


"You didn't tell me Prince Kíli has a child on the way," Lady Ironsides remarked several days after the official announcement had been made.

Sif looked up from the leather she was cutting out for a scabbard. "I would have, Amad, but I couldn't spoil the surprise for him." When her mother nodded in understanding, Sif went on, "Isn't it lovely? They're both so excited. And so am I. Oh, think of what an adorable nephew or niece I'm getting!"

Her mother smiled softly and turned her eyes back to the sword-belt she was stitching. "You and Fíli could have an adorable little dwarfling of your own, you know," she said.

"Amad, we've only been married a month and a half." There was no doubt she wanted children with Fíli, but surely now was a bit soon?

"I know, love. But you and Fíli may wish to conceive a child at the earliest opportunity."

"I understand these things happen quite naturally on their own," Sif returned. It was slightly embarrassing to be discussing such a topic, even with her own mother.

"Indeed, but given the position you are in, with Kíli's half-elven heir to be born, should you really leave Fíli's first heir to chance?"

"Chance?" Sif blurted, amused. "Oh yes, it will be completely by chance if my husband and I should ever do anything that could result in a babe."

"Laugh at me if you will, but people talk, my dear. Maybe not to you, but to me. Quite a lot of folks would be easier if Kíli were not Fíli's immediate heir."

Sif sighed. "I know." She could not really blame people for being uncomfortable about Kíli's unprecedented marriage. If he had been any other dwarf, she would likely have shared their misgivings. But from the first, she had been sure that as Fíli's brother, Kíli was honorable and the woman he loved must also be worthy. "Fíli and I are married now. That ought to be promise enough that a new heir will come."

"For many people, I grant you. But I think not for all." There was a brief silence as Lady Ironsides tied off and snipped a thread. "Of course you and your husband must do as you think best. I only meant to suggest that you may find yourself under less scrutiny once you've produced a first heir."

"I suppose so," Sif conceded. While the more rational part of her could acknowledge that it might be good politics to produce a son as soon as they could, she did not like the idea of planning a babe with the same cool calculation as if one were drafting a trade compact or a treaty. She wanted her first child with Fíli to be the spontaneous outcome of their love. "Though really, I can't see any reason to rush things. Fíli isn't going anywhere, now that the kingdom is reclaimed. Erebor will get its heir when we're ready."

"I don't doubt it," Lady Ironsides said, clearly teasing now.

Sif dropped her knife on the work table and rose. "Now before I forget, I need to remind Freyr of something about the order he started on this morning," she said, only half looking for an excuse to escape this conversation. "I'll be back later."

She thought she heard her mother laughing gently behind her as she left the room.


On a morning in early spring, Kíli was still in the training arena when Tauriel and her archers took the field for practice. Usually he was away after the morning drill, leading a guard shift at the Great Gate or, after a bath and a change of clothes, tending to some of the more administrative tasks of Erebor's security, but today one of his lieutenants had stopped him to discuss the two junior members of the guard.

Kíli wasn't sorry for the delay, as it meant he could watch Tauriel work. And if he spent that time admiring her graceful movements and lithe figure (which appeared particularly to advantage today thanks to her short tunic and trim leggings), well, no-one could say he wasn't, in fact, appraising her methods as archery instructor, could they?

"Reynir has made good progress in both drills and sparring; in another fortnight I was thinking of recommending him for active duty," the other dwarf, a warrior who was nearly twice Kíli's age, was saying. "Your thoughts?"

Kíli began, "He's got a strong arm and a good head under pressure. You've worked with him more than I have, so if you think—"

Tauriel was drawing her arrows from the target, and with her body angled to the side like that, the tailored cut of her tunic easily betrayed a new, soft swell to her abdomen.

"Um," Kíli mumbled, having entirely forgotten what he was saying. Stone and stars, he could finally see the babe she carried!

"Kíli?" his interlocutor prompted after a few moments. "Captain, about young Reynir—"

Kíli dragged his gaze from his wife and back to his lieutenant. "Yes, sorry. I meant to say that if you're satisfied with his skills, I trust your judgment. Now, if you'll pardon me."

The other dwarf bowed respectfully. Kili gave a curt nod, and then strode off, as quickly as he could while still maintaining a professional decorum.

Tauriel saw him approaching, and stood back from the dwarf she had been instructing to meet him.

"Lieutenant," he said, only with difficulty restraining a wild grin from his face. "May I speak with you? Alone."

"Yes, Captain." She fell into step beside him as he walked off the field towards the arming rooms. Once they were inside, away from curious observers, he turned to her.

"Are you not happy with my archers' performance?" she asked, her voice cool and official, though there was a glint of affection in her eye that belied her formal manner.

"I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are," Kíli said, allowing a smile to break over his mouth at last.

"Ah." Her upright bearing softened, and her eyes warmed further.

"Oh, Taur, I can see our babe!" He laid his palms against Tauriel, molding the firm, gentle curve that finally revealed the new life that she carried. "She's showing now."

"He," Tauriel returned softly.


"It's a feeling I've had for a little while now." She smiled down at him, her expression gently amused, and Kíli wondered how his own face looked. He felt entirely awestruck.

He whispered, "Tauriel," and then "Tauriel!" he cried, encircling her waist with his arms and drawing her close. "I've a son! Oh, you're the very cleverest of women."

She leaned down to press her brow against his, and in the next moment Kíli would have placed his mouth fully to hers—

"Ah, I didn't—" someone stammered.

Kíli pulled back from Tauriel to see a very uncomfortable-looking guardsman staring at him.

"I beg your pardon, Captain!" With a deferential duck of the head, the other dwarf hurried back out the door.

Kíli laughed, still startled. "And I was trying to preserve the appearance that we were talking strictly business," he said weakly.

"Appearances be damned," Tauriel said softly. Kíli caught a flash of mischief in her eyes. "I've just told you you have a son."

"Indeed you have." He caught the back of her head and, straining close, crushed his lips to hers.

After several delicious, abandoned moments they parted. "I should let you get back to your pupils before they wonder what I've done with you," Kíli murmured reluctantly.

Tauriel snickered and her cheeks shaded ever so slightly. "Oh, there's no chance they won't know what we've been up to in here. Your lips are red."

"Ah, well in that case…"

Kíli kissed her again.


"What are you reading? It's something amusing," Fíli remarked one evening upon finding Sif in his office, studying a stack of papers with a look of barely contained mirth on her face.

"These—" Sif waved the papers aloft. "—are Lady Stonehelm's 'expedients' for conceiving a child. She swears they are responsible for her and Lord Stonehelm's first son."

Fíli snorted. "What? Well, that's forward of her."

"Oh, it wasn't just her. Ladies Frostbeard and Brightedge were also part of her delegation."

"Delegation? They came today to ask you to hurry up with the royal heir?" Fíli shook his head, still somewhat perplexed—despite the hints he himself had faced on the same topic—that Erebor could not wait even five months for the child that would surely come now that he and Sif were wed.

"More or less." She came to Fíli and put her arms around his waist. "They were all very encouraging and sweet, and told me not to worry; that sometimes these things need a little helping along."

Fíli leaned down and nuzzled her cheek. "Helping along? Do they imagine I neglect you?"

Sif giggled. "I did say I would try to look over the papers they left, so long as you didn't keep me too busy tonight." Her look turned to guilty amusement. "I almost couldn't believe I'd said it, really."

He laughed. "My dear, I'm going to give you a seat on the council if you keep saying things like that. I need advisors who can speak their minds so readily."

"Oh no, Fíli, don't you—"

He stopped her with a kiss, and Sif melted against him, a sweet, soft weight in his arms.

Fíli asked, "Do any of these 'expedients' sound fun, at least?"

"It's mostly foods and herbs I'm supposed to eat; things like that." She sputtered with amusement. "Though it does recommend that I stand on my head for a quarter of an hour, afterwards."

He laughed and shook his head, accidentally flicking her cheek with a braid. "I positively forbid it. You're the future queen of Erebor, not a street-corner acrobat."

"Yes, Your Majesty," she answered with a flirtatious smile. "But Fíli…" Her look became more serious. "Maybe we should make more of an effort to have a babe. I mean, we could be more careful about when we—"

"What do you want?" Fíli broke in gently.

"Well…" She flushed softly. "I would rather let it happen when it will. Having a child shouldn't be like commissioning a new axe: you go down to the smith and tell him what you want and when. It should be the delight and surprise of uncovering a gem amidst rough stone or… or finding a new leaf sprung up in the garden." She gave a dismissive toss of her head. "Maybe I've spent too much time with Tauriel. But I like the way she talks of her babe as something that just grew out of her and Kíli's love, the way flowers come up in the spring, without quite trying."

"I like the way you talk of it," Fíli told her.

She smiled tenderly, clearly touched. "But you're the crown prince, and I know that makes things different." He thought she sounded disappointed.

"I'd say the chief difference is that it's the whole kingdom, not just our mothers, asking after a babe." He chucked her under the chin, and she grinned at him again. "Though to be fair, Mum has only mentioned it to me once, I think."

"Not my mother! She asks me at least once a month," Sif admitted with a humorously long-suffering air.

"Well now, it's inevitable we will have a babe one day, is it not?"

"I don't plan to start locking you out of our bedroom, if that's what you mean," she said with a meaningful smirk.

"Then I can put up with the questions if you can," Fíli returned.

"So they are asking you, too?" There was a note of relief in her voice, and Fíli guessed she had felt the weight of responsibility for bearing an heir was hers alone.

"Oh, yes," he assured her. "It's 'When are you going to make the happy announcement?' and 'You're not going to let your baby brother outdo you!' But let's face it, with Kíli married to Tauriel, we would have needed to have a babe the day of their wedding to make some people happy."

"I suppose." She sighed. "You're sure it's all right if we just wait?" A faint wrinkle creased her forehead.

"Of course. I don't see any reason to be impatient just yet. I still like having you all to myself, anyway." He knew this honeymoon period of their lives would be followed by others equally good, yet he was in no hurry for it to end.

The crease in his wife's forehead relaxed into a smile. "Thank you, Fí. I love you."

"And I love you." He kissed her brow. "I think that fact is expedient enough, don't you?"


Today when his guard shift ended, Kíli shed his mail shirt (though not his sword) and left Erebor by the Great Gate, whither Tauriel had gone several hours before. Now that summer had fully arrived, she went outside every day, and Kíli accompanied her as often as he could.

He would never have found her, had she been alone out here, for she could disappear easily on the mountain side. But it was simple enough to spot the trio of dwarven guards standing at half attention midway up the slope at the far side of the valley. Though his fears regarding the Nazgul's designs for Tauriel and their child were mostly allayed, he still thought it unwise for his pregnant wife to leave the mountain without a bodyguard. Thankfully, Tauriel had agreed with him.

As Kíli passed the guards, they saluted him silently: to their credit, they did their best to act as if they were not present so as not to intrude on their elven princess's reverie.

A little beyond them, on a level spot lightly shaded by a small tree, Tauriel lay in the grass. In her green dress among the tall clover stems, she was nearly invisible until Kíli was almost standing over her. Her eyes were closed but he saw her lips lift into a soft smile, and he knew she had recognized his footsteps.

Taking off his sword, Kíli sat down beside her. Still she did not move from her tranquil pose.

"Are you feeling well today, amrâlimê?" Kíli asked. It was unusual for her to sleep during the day. If she did nap, it was merely to keep him company while he slumbered.

Tauriel's eyes opened then. "I am very well," she said, reaching for him. "It is pleasant to lie here and feel the grass growing under me just as our child grows within me." She passed a hand over the heavy swell of her belly. "He enjoys it too, especially the warmth of the sun."

"You're not tired?" Kíli repeated. As she was now over nine months into her pregnancy, he supposed it could be normal for even an elf to feel her energy flag occasionally.

"Oh, no. I feel quite humming with life. Even so, it is good to be still sometimes." Tauriel caught his shoulder and drew him down to lie beside her.

The earth was warm under him, and the clover's sweet, herbal scent filled Kíli's nose as he nestled against Tauriel's shoulder and looped an arm over her. The air was still, broken only by the occasional hum of a passing bee, and soon the steady rhythm of Tauriel's breathing had lulled Kíli into a half doze.

He was roused a few minutes later when Tauriel exclaimed sharply, "Oh!" Then she laughed.

As Kíli pushed himself up at her side, she explained, "Our son thinks we have rested long enough."

Laying a hand against her, he felt the flutter and then the firm jab of a little hand or foot.

"Are elvish babes always this rambunctious?" he asked. "Or is it more of a dwarvish thing?"

"I'm told all babes move as much." Tauriel gave a sweet little grimace of surprise as the child punctuated this remark with another kick. "It's a sign the little one is happy and well."

Kíli rose and then drew Tauriel up behind him. After fastening his sword to his belt once more, he settled an arm about her hips and fell into step as she strolled along the hillside. She leaned against him, though Kíli knew it was not weariness but pleasure in the contact that drew her to him: despite his wife's increasing girth, her steps were as light as ever. Behind them, the guards followed at a greater distance now that Kíli was present.

"Tauriel," Kíli said eventually. "I've been invited to sit on a military council between Thorin's and Daín's allied forces in a few months. It's an honor, as I'm young compared to most who'll be there. And after being away for a year and a half, it's good that I show an interest in the affairs of the kingdom. Especially since, well—" He found it distasteful even to repeat the rumors.

"Since your loyalties are now apparently divided between your kingdom and your half-elven heir," she finished for him. "Yes, I've heard the talk."

Kíli nodded sharply. It frustrated him that some dwarves still believed Tauriel merely used him to gain influence over the dwarven throne. And so although she had not sounded upset, Kíli still said, "I'm sorry."

"I'm not." Tauriel linked her fingers in his. "I am not sorry to be part of your life. Nor am I sorry you are a dwarven prince. And I am certainly not sorry to bear your children." She sighed lightly. "In time, I think your people must see the truth about us. But regardless of what they say, we still have more than enough to make us happy, have we not, hadhodeg?" She ducked her head and set a light kiss to his cheek.

"Thank you, Tauriel." He squeezed her about the waist.

They walked in silence for another minute before Kíli resumed, "The council meeting is set for early August, in the Iron Hills. I don't want to leave you so near the end of your term, but it's important that I attend. Will you and our little dwarf cub be all right if I'm gone for a short while? I'll be away no more than two weeks; I'll make sure of it." She had told him before that the wellbeing of their unborn child depended no less on Kili's presence than it did on Tauriel's own health and happiness.

"Yes, my love, you may go. A few days' absence will make little difference, since otherwise you have not left my side during my pregnancy." She pressed his hand. "But you must return by the end of the month. Our babe will be born September third."

"Oh, I promise I will be back well before then." And there would be no risk of missing an early birth; Tauriel had explained that labor was a voluntary process for elven females, a fact which explained why most elven children were born precisely a year from the date of conception.

"Good," Tauriel said. "At birth, a mother bestows much strength and energy of spirit on her child. You must be here then, Kíli." Her gaze was intent, and Kíli understood that this condition mattered greatly to her. "I will have less to offer our son if I must bear him into the world alone, for my spirit takes strength from yours."

"I'll be here," he said again. "The two of you matter more to me than anything else." Kíli turned to embrace her, a gesture that was becoming increasingly awkward thanks to Tauriel's fuller shape. He could still just lean his head against her bosom, but soon such a motion would be impossible. Yet today he could still reach, and so he drew his cheek across her breast and kissed her there.

Tauriel laughed softly. "My dear Kíli, I am so glad we can do this together: becoming parents, a family." She set her chin upon his head. "We've had more than a few adventures since we met, you and I. But I think this will be the best."

"Mmm, so do I." At that moment, he felt a nudge from her belly where it was pressed against him. He chuckled. "I think our son agrees."


"All right, where is this dress you want to alter?"

"Wait here, Amad," Sif answered. "I'll fetch it." Leaving her mother in the sitting room of her chambers, she made for her bedroom.

Of course, she might have taken the dress in question to the royal seamstress to have the neckline changed, but she preferred to do it herself. She enjoyed figuring out how something went together, whether it was a sword or a gown. But because this particular dress was one of her favorites, she knew it was better to ask her mother—who had considerably more sewing experience—before she did something silly and ruined it.

As she neared the bedroom, she could hear the chatter of her personal chambermaid, Inga, and one of the royal housekeepers, but with her mind busy over her sewing plans, she did not register what the women were saying until she was just outside the door.

"I agree; tis a shame," came Inga's voice. "And with them so in love these nine months. I tell you, there's no natural reason—"

"So you blame her," the other woman returned. Sif halted, her entire attention brought back to her surroundings.

"Now, Dalla, you mustn't say that!" Inga scolded.

"But you admit it makes sense. If her child really is a son as she claims it is, she must be thinking of how to see him on the throne."

In the short pause that followed, Sif's heart pounded loud in her ears. What was this nonsense?

"I don't like to think poorly of one of my lady's friends…"

"But you see, she is a sorceress; we know she is. Didn't she heal Prince Kíli from a mortal wound before the Reclamation? I imagine this was her plan all along, to get him under her power. And don't forget how he was just wasting away without her when she left a few years ago; oh, he's under her spell all right. So it should be easy enough for her to use her magic to keep Lady Sif from bearing a child."

"It's true that Tauriel and my lady are always visiting," Inga conceded, apparently reluctant. "If she wished to put a spell on Mistress, she's had plenty of opportunities."

This suspicion from her own chamber maid finally jolted Sif from the shocked stupor that had held her for the past few moments. The woman they believed capable of such trickery was her friend! Anger flaring in her like a forge under the bellows, she stepped into the doorway.

"Inga!" she cried. "You know better than to encourage such false rumors!"

Both women froze, the blanket they were folding stretched between them.

"My lady! I beg your pardon!" Inga's face blanched, her expression somewhere between guilt and horror.

Sif said, her voice nearly shaking, "Tauriel is faithful to Kíli and all his family. I do not want to hear you speak such things of her again."

"Yes, my lady. I'm sorry my lady." She lowered her eyes, which were already wet with tears.

"And you, Dalla." Sif turned to the other woman. "Remember that Tauriel is royalty, just as I am. An offense against her is an offense against my whole family and will not be tolerated." Even as she spoke, she felt her threat was idle: she could hardly have half of Erebor charged for treasonous talk. And surely half of Erebor was repeating these rumors if even her maids knew.

"Yes, understood, your highness," Dalla murmured weakly.

"You've done enough work here for one day; you may go," Sif told them.

"But my lady, the bed—"

"I can make it."

The two serving women curtseyed and fled the room.

Sif stood gasping for a moment or two. Then snatching up the dress from her wardrobe, she stalked back out to the sitting room.

"The servants left in quite a rush; is everything all right?" her mother said as she entered.

"Oh, Amad, what is wrong with everyone?"

"Love, what happened?"

Sif threw the dress down on a chair, though she remained standing. "They all think there's something wrong with me because I'm not pregnant yet. They say Tauriel put some kind of spell on me." Tears of anger pressed from her eyes.

Her mother sighed. "Oh, darling, people will say foolish things."

"You knew?"

The elder dwarf woman nodded. "I've heard similar talk."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"I didn't see the good in troubling you with gossip. I'm sorry, Sif dear. I should have said."

Sif turned and paced away down the room. "You know it's all lies, yes? I don't even think elvish magic works like that. Even if it did, Tauriel wouldn't ever do anything to hurt Kíli and the people he loves." She stopped, still facing away from her mother.

"She might believe she is doing this for him," Lady Ironsides said.

Sif wheeled to stare at her mother. "You don't seriously believe it?" she blurted.

"It is a bit surprising that in nine months you have not yet conceived a child."

"Tauriel wouldn't do that!" Sif cried. "She couldn't! She— She loves Kíli." What was there to trust in, if not such love as Kili and Tauriel clearly shared? Tauriel was faithful and good, she had to be, or Kíli could not be so devoted to her. But if love could be so easily mistaken or betrayed, how sure could Sif be of her own bond to Fíli, of his bond to her?

Lady Ironsides came and put an arm around her daughter. "Hush, love. No, I don't believe it yet. But perhaps it is good to be cautious."

Sif sniffed and wiped at her wet cheeks. "And why is everyone so convinced there's something wrong with me? I know lots of couples would have a babe coming by now. But some don't! My cousin Ása didn't for two years and now she has two dwarflings and a third on the way. Why must everyone be so—so stupid!" It was not the word she had wanted, but it was the only one that would come.

Lady Ironsides rubbed Sif's shoulder. "It seems this is the first weight you must bear as future queen. I wish I could change this for you."

"I know," Sif breathed. She felt sorry she could not accept this pressure with more grace; she wanted to be a worthy queen to Fíli.

"Now come sit down. I'll make some tea and then we can look at your dress."

Sif let her mother draw her back to a chair and then watched as Lady Ironsides set the kettle on the hob. As she reached for a canister of black tea leaves to fill the teapot, Sif directed her, "Not that one. I don't need any more stimulation right now. There's an herb tea in that silver and green can."

As she fished her handkerchief from a pocket, Sif wondered if Fíli knew the rumors about her and Tauriel. Surely he would have told her if he did. And did Kíli know? Did Tauriel?

When she had finished blowing her nose, she looked up to find her mother staring at her, an unreadable expression on her face.

"What?" Sif giggled. "Not very ladylike, am I?"

"Sif, this tea has rustleaf in it."


"You know what that is?" The elder woman's gaze was piercing.

"No, I don't." Should she?

Her mother held up a flat, russet leaf. "It's an herb that, among other uses, quite effectively prevents conception."

"Oh." Sif felt her stomach lurch. Was she a complete fool? Were the rumors—aside from the bit about elvish sorcery—right after all? Oh, Maker, please no.

"Where did you get this tea?"

Sif swallowed, then whispered, "Tauriel."

Chapter Text

"Tauriel gave me the tea," Sif repeated miserably.

"When?" Lady Ironsides asked.

"Um…a few days after the wedding, I think." Yes, Sif remembered Tauriel trying to shush Kíli from teasing about the honeymoon. So her friend—her sister by marriage—had been conspiring against her from the very first?

Sif slumped against the table, feeling suddenly ill.

"Darling. Sif, I'm so sorry." Her mother came round the table and laid her hands on Sif's shoulders. "I wish it wasn't so."

New tears welled in Sif's eyes, then fell—pat, pat—to the tabletop. How could Tauriel have done this? Tauriel had seemed so grateful to be welcomed into Kíli's family and so happy to have begun a new family with him. Yet she could so readily turn round and betray that same family? It was unbelievable, and yet here was the evidence right before her in this drugged tea.

"Oh, Amad," she choked. "I trusted her."

"I know, love."

"I thought I knew her…" And yet, what did Sif really know about about Kíli's foreign wife? She knew Tauriel would take any risk for Kíli; the elf had endangered herself numerous times on his behalf, both before and after Sif had first met her. Tauriel might see this deed as yet another risk taken to advance Kíli's honor and standing. After all, with his extended lifespan, he would surely outlive his brother; this way he himself might become a king. Oh, thank heavens the gossips hadn't yet learned that family secret yet!

Lady Ironsides rubbed soothing hands over her daughter's back. "Don't blame yourself. How were you to guess? You had no reason to believe she was not as kind as she seemed."

No reason. The words struck Sif with a force her mother had not intended. No, there had been no reason, before now, to believe Tauriel capable of such a betrayal. And if it wasn't for the tea, Sif would not have hesitated to defend her friend against any charges now. Tauriel was good; she was honorable—Sif had always felt so instinctively. The love Tauriel gave Kíli and all his family was not the sort of thing one could counterfeit.

"Tauriel didn't do this, Amad. I know she didn't," Sif declared, sitting up straight and brushing damp hair from her cheeks. "She's not that kind of person."

"I know it's difficult to believe, but the tea—"

"It could have been planted by someone else. Maybe someone wanted to make me her enemy; that's not hard to believe, is it?" Sif demanded bitterly. "Or maybe rustleaf doesn't affect elves in the same way."

"I hadn't thought of that, but it is possible," Lady Ironsides admitted.

"Anyway, Tauriel deserves a chance to speak for herself before anyone accuses her."

"You're right, dear."

Sif drew a deep, unsteady breath. "But if someone wants to hurt us—me or Tauriel or anyone else in our family—I'm going to find out who. And by Mahal, they'll be sorry."

Coming into her sister-in-law's chambers, Tauriel found Sif staring into the fire, her hands clenched in her skirt.

"Sif? What is wrong?" Tauriel asked. She had supposed this was a merely social invitation, but the furrow in her friend's brow suggested something was amiss.

"Oh, Tauriel! Thank you for coming." The dwarf woman's face brightened somewhat as she looked up to greet her guest. "Please, sit down."

Tauriel smiled briefly. Everyone seemed to be asking her to rest these days, and yet the truth was that now she was so great with child, she preferred to stand and move as much as she could; inactivity left her feeling weighed down, confined. Yet she took the seat so that she would not have to look down at her friend as they talked.

Sif paced over to the table and picked up a canister of tea; Tauriel recognized the tin as the one she herself had given the dwarf princess. After turning the canister restlessly in her hands for a few moments, Sif said, "I know you didn't do anything wrong. I don't blame you for anything! But I need to know—" She paused, her expression miserable.

"You may ask me anything," Tauriel prompted. Was this about the rumors that she would use her child to steal Kíli's loyalty from his family and direct him towards more elvish interests? She didn't think Sif would believe any of that foolish talk.

Sif opened the tea canister, reached inside and then held forth a pinch of the dried herbs. "Did you know this was in the tea you gave me?"

Tauriel received the leaves in her palm, studied them. "This is not meant to be part of the blend," she returned, frowning. "I do not recognize it. Has it done you some harm?" She felt a flash of concern; it must be harmful or they would not be speaking now.

"Not exactly." Sif colored. "Well, it prevents conception, I'm afraid. I didn't know that, but my mother recognized the herb."

"Oh, Sif!" Tauriel gasped, shocked. She had expected to hear it was a poison, but a contraceptive? And oh Valar, it must appear she had planned this! "I would never—"

"I know you didn't."

"Thank you." Tauriel leaned back on her chair, hands clasped instinctively over her middle. Oh, how angry she would be if someone had plotted to prevent her son from coming into being! And she was angry now, for Sif's sake. "Who would do such a thing to you?" she demanded.

Sif shrugged. "That's what I want to find out."

Tauriel snatched up the tea canister and inspected it, but the green enamel decorated with silver elvish letters could tell her nothing she did not already know. "I've been drinking this tea for centuries," she mused. "The proportions of the herbs may vary a bit, depending on the season or the herbalist, but the ingredients have never changed. This"— she indicated the offensive herbs—"is not the herbalist's mistake."

"I was afraid not," Sif concurred.

"The can was still sealed when I gave it to you," Tauriel recalled.

"Yes, I remember breaking the wax." Sif paced away down the room. "Whoever did this must want me to blame you. I mean, it's the only thing that makes sense. All of Erebor is in a tizzy because I'm not pregnant yet, so why would anyone interfere unless they wanted to discredit you?"

"You've no rivals who would wish this on you?" Tauriel ventured, more to be thorough than because she doubted Sif's logic.

"No, of course not! Who would want—" Sif spun round to look at her guest. "Oh, Tauriel; I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say 'Obviously only you would have enemies like this.' Hammer and tongs, I sound like such an ass." The young dwarf looked as if she was about to cry.

"No, no. I didn't take it that way," Tauriel hurried to reassure her friend. "It is a logical conclusion. I know I am not entirely trusted yet. Sif, it's all right."

"Really?" Sif still looked distraught.

Tauriel went to Sif and put an arm round her.

"I'm sorry, Tauri. I've had such a wretched morning," Sif murmured, leaning close. "My maids treated me to the latest gossip about us. Have you heard? People are saying you've put a spell on me so I won't bear a child."

Tauriel could not stop herself from laughing. Was this what these dwarves thought she could do? She had never heard anything so silly. Elvish "magic," if one wished to call it such, was simply a close connection to the natural world, but even that attunement did not grant arbitrary power over nature and others.

Sif was staring at her with wide eyes, so Tauriel fought to regain control of herself. "I'm sorry," she managed eventually. "It's just— How am I supposed to be able to do that, even with magic?"

"The idea sounds very stupid to you?" Sif asked, smiling faintly at last.

"Well, yes," Tauriel admitted.

"I thought it was, too." Sif's teeth flashed in a momentary grin before her expression sobered again."Oh, no. Doesn't it make sense, though? Whoever planted the tea must have started those rumors to make sure that everyone in Erebor already suspects you."

"Yes, I see," Tauriel said, all the laughter gone from her voice now. She sighed and stepped back to lean against the table's edge, which was a more convenient height than the dwarf-sized chair. Suddenly, she was more weary than she had felt in a very long time.

"Are you all right?" Sif asked.

Tauriel nodded. "It's just— Why can't anyone believe that Kíli's love is enough for me? Why do they all think I want something more?" She clenched the edge of the table till her fingers ached. "What do I have to do to prove myself? When I met Kíli, I nearly gave up everything—my home, my people—just to save his life. What else do they want from me?" Unbidden tears fell from her eyes.

"Ugh, I know; it's awful," Sif said, clasping her friend's hands. "I wish I could fix it."

The elf nodded again, not able to speak for a few seconds more. "Please don't say any of this to Kíli. I would not have him think me unhappy. I'm not. Oh, I'm not. But Sif, sometimes I wonder—" She bit her lip, afraid to say aloud what had nagged at her thoughts for months now. "If Erebor cannot trust me, will they trust my son? Or will they hate him? I could not bear that!" She laid her hands protectively over her belly.

"Oh, they will love him! We'll make sure of it!" Sif cried. "Tauriel, you must remember something. Your Kíli is a bit quicker than most dwarves for changing his mind and trusting new friends. You mustn't judge the rest of us by his standard. Most of Erebor should come around eventually, but give them time. Dwarves are slow to make friends, but when we do, we hold them fast for life."

"Thank you, Sif. You're right, I do forget how unusual Kíli is." She shook her head in amusement at herself. "Well, not quite. But knowing him so well, I forget I still have much to learn about his people."

Sif smiled and then leaned her brow against Tauriel's middle. "I love you, little nephew," she said. "I can hardly wait to meet you."

Tauriel laughed softly. Kíli talked to their son in just that same way.

There was the sound of the outer chamber door opening and closing, and soon afterwards Fíli entered the room.

"Well, I'm quite the lucky dwarf, coming home to the two most beautiful women in Erebor," he said.

"Fíli!" Sif sprang up and across the room to embrace him. "Oh, Fíli, we've had such a day."

He kissed her. "Is everything all right?" Fíli asked, glancing from his wife to the elf.

"No, it's not." And Sif told him about the tea.

"What? Who would dare plot against you?" the prince demanded. "You're Erebor's future queen! I'm not going to let this go."

"It's an attack on Tauriel, too," Sif said, glancing back at her sister-in-law. "Whoever did this wanted her to take the blame, I'm almost sure. The rustleaf was in the tea she gave me."

"You think that was deliberate?"

"It had to be. Who in Erebor would want to stop us from having a child? I can only imagine someone would do this to make us doubt her. Did you know, there's even a tale going round that Tauriel's put a spell on me so we can't conceive?"

Fíli groaned and put a hand over his eyes.

"I'm sorry," Tauriel put in then.

He looked back to her, blue eyes wide with surprise. "It's not your fault. You know we wouldn't blame you."

"Thank you," Tauriel said around the sudden lump in her throat. "Your trust means a great deal to me. But I know you would not be facing this problem if I were not here."

"Maybe not. But Tauriel, there's no-one else I'd rather see married to my brother." Fíli crossed the room to her and took her hand. "We'll make this right, I promise you. Both of you," he finished, turning back to his wife. "Now, who told you this rumor about Tauriel?"

"I overheard Inga and Dalla talking, but they didn't know I was there. Fíli, you can't suspect Inga. She's been with my family for as long as I can remember. I'm sure she wouldn't do anything to hurt me."

"I hope not," Fíli returned, frowning. "But I've got to start looking somewhere, and the servants have unquestioned access to our chambers."

Sif sighed unhappily. "I know. Just promise you won't be too hard on Inga. She'll take it personally."

Fíli's expression softened. "All right, love. For your sake, I will sheath my claws." He kissed her brow. "But I make no promises for when I find the villain behind this plot." He turned and snatched up the tea canister from the table. "I'll tell Kíli. As guard captain, he has every right to help investigate a breach of palace security." And with a curt nod, he strode out the door.

"Oh, heavens," Tauriel murmured, suddenly grateful that Fíli would be the one telling her husband about this mess.

"Has it ever been your duty to restock the teas for my wife?" Fíli was saying, for what must be the dozenth time today. He and Kíli had been in one of the guardrooms questioning palace servants ever since noon.

"Sometimes," the serving woman—Inga, it was—returned tentatively. "When my lady asked me to. Sometimes she bought them herself."

Kíli shifted and recrossed his arms, and Inga glanced nervously to him. He was, judging by the reactions of most of the servants they had questioned today, the more imposing figure of the two. He supposed it was his taller stature and the fact that he still wore his mail from working a guard shift earlier. The scowl etched on his face surely didn't hurt, either.

"Have you handled this before?" Fíli asked, recalling Inga's attention to himself.

She looked at the green and silver tea canister in his hands.

"That's my lady's," she said. "I've made tea from it, yes."

"And have you ever noticed anything amiss with it?"

The woman blinked at Fíli. "Amiss?"

"Was there ever anything wrong with the tea?" Kíli cut in sharply. They'd been asking these same questions all afternoon, and he was tired of getting the same halting, confused answers. One of these servants had to know something; after all, the tea had undoubtedly been tampered with since it had arrived in Sif's chambers.

She looked to Kíli. "Wrong? No." Her hands fidgeted in her lap. "I mean, it had a lot of flowers and things in it, which I've always thought a bit much, but I suppose that's all right for elves. I mean—begging your pardon. I'm sure—" Her face went red and she snapped her mouth shut.

"But nothing wrong besides the flowers?" Fíli asked. His voice was still admirably calm, though Kíli could detect a tired note.

Inga shook her head, her eyes glinting.

"And no one ever approached you about adding something to the tea?"

"No," the servant woman returned unhappily. "Has someone tried to poison my lady?"

"In a manner, yes," Fíli admitted.

"Oh, Your Highness! You cannot think I would ever do ought to hurt her!" Tears spilled from her eyes. "I've been looking after her ladyship since she was just a lass. I do love her almost as if she were my own kin. You must believe me." She cast a beseeching look at Fíli before burying her face in her hands.

Fíli stared awkwardly at his brother over the weeping woman's head. "Hush," he said. "Sif said you wouldn't. I don't blame you." He put a hand to her shoulder. "You must think, though. Do you know anyone who could have tampered with this tea?"

"What?" Inga sniffed loudly and looked up. "I suppose it's possible. I'm not the only one who serves my lady."

"Have you seen anyone—servants, or anyone else—handle the tea?"

The dwarf woman wiped her face with her sleeve. "Um… No."

"Damnation!" Kíli blurted. Inga jumped. "Someone has to know something. The rustleaf didn't just grow there by itself."

"No, I'm sure I've seen no-one else touch the tea," Inga wailed before hiding her face again.

Kíli sighed. "Look, you're not in trouble. It's just, this is important. Someone is trying to hurt Sif and my brother." And Tauriel. "I just wish there was one person in this whole bloody mountain who could tell me what's going on!" He spun aside and kicked a chair, which skidded a few feet and then fell with a crash. Behind him, Inga began sobbing.

He looked back at her, annoyed with himself. He didn't mean to take his frustration out on this woman who was so clearly innocent. His duty was to protect his people, not intimidate them, and yet today it seemed he was failing on both counts.

"Inga, I'm sorry," he muttered. "This isn't your fault."

Fíli was gazing at him, a weary, exasperated look on his face. I'm sorry, Kíli mouthed again and then turned and stalked from the room.

He held his temper in check till he had softly closed the door of his own office. Then, "Bloody hell," he growled and struck the door with his palms.

Today had been a complete disaster. His family had been attacked, and he hadn't been able to protect them. He hadn't seen it coming. Now he couldn't even find those who were responsible. What right did he have to call himself a guardsman, much less captain?

"Kíli," said a deep voice behind him.

He jumped, then turned to see his uncle sitting at his desk.

"Thorin," Kíli stammered. "Have you heard—"

The dwarf king nodded. "Sigthorn told me about the contaminated tea."

"We've been questioning servants all day, and I still don't know anything." Kíli fell back against the door, and his mail clattered on the stone. "Bollocks. What am I doing?"

Thorin stood and came round the table to his nephew. "Kíli," he said, laying his hands on the young man's shoulders. "You're doing all that I could expect. This can't be mended in an instant."

"This isn't just about Fíli and Sif," Kíli returned. "Whoever did this wants to drag Tauriel into it, too. I can't let this go."

"Oh, we won't let it go." The sharp note in Thorin's voice proved he felt this offense as deeply as Kíli did. "A traitor to Durin's house is a traitor to the kingdom. No dwarf in Erebor may take this offense lightly."

Kíli raised his chin defiantly. "I'll find who did this, if I have to investigate every dwarf in the Mountain myself. Sif can tell me who has been in her chambers, besides palace servants. I can start there."

"Kíli." Thorin's tight expression eased slightly in a smile. "That won't be necessary yet. I've a number of loyal eyes and ears about the mountain. Let's see what they can turn up first. For tonight, you should go home to your wife. I think she may need you." He pressed Kíli's shoulders, let him go.

"It's my duty to look after this," Kíli protested. Emotionally weary as he was, he felt wrong about leaving his post while this threat to family and kingdom was yet unresolved.

"And as your king, I relieve you of that responsibility for tonight."

"Yes, Uncle."

Tauriel came running to meet Kíli as he entered their quarters. Despite her size, she was still astonishingly spry.

"Kíli! I'm glad you're home," she said, drawing him into the sideways hug that was necessary these days.

"Ah, Tauriel." He leaned against her, grateful to feel her warm and safe in his arms. "I'm sorry this has happened."

"So am I. Poor Sif, to be the victim of such a cruel plot!"

Kíli squeezed her tighter as a pair of tears pressed from his eyes and slid down his cheeks. "I've failed you, all of you," he said.

"What? Kíli, that's not true." Tauriel lifted his face so that he had to meet her eyes.

"What if it had been something more deadly than rustleaf in Sif's tea? What if someone had tried to poison you?" He drew his hands over Tauriel's middle, indicating the other life tied to her own. "We might not have known, until it was too late!"

"Ah, meleth nín, you mustn't think that way," Tauriel sighed. Kíli closed his eyes as her fingertips gently skimmed his hair back from his face.

"What if someone wished to hurt Fíli or Thorin? Or Mum?" he asked. "It's my responsibility as guard captain to protect you all, but it seems I can't."

"Kíli, look at me."

He opened his eyes; Tauriel's own gaze was sharp, hard.

"It is your duty to protect others from threats that are known and some that you can foresee. But, love, you cannot foresee all. Not even the Valar can. Only Ilúvatar sees that clearly." Her look softened. "You must not expect so much from yourself. Let this go, or you will destroy yourself, and then who can you protect?"

This was a lesson, Kíli supposed, that she had had to learn herself during her own time spent as the captain of a king's guard, a post she had held for more years than he had been alive. He chuckled involuntarily. "You've been doing this a little longer than I have," he said.

She smiled in return. "A little bit, hadhodeg."

"I'll try to follow your advice, since you are so much older and wiser."

"Good." Her hands drifted down from his face, over his shoulders, to his chest and the fastenings on his mail coat. He had forgotten to remove it before leaving the guardrooms. Tauriel soon had it undone and off his shoulders. As the heavy steel lifted from him, Kíli felt a similar weight eased from his heart thanks to the kindness of her words, her touch.

She glanced about the room, looking for somewhere to deposit the coat, but clearly their fine elven furniture would not do. The mail rings would mar the varnish.

"Just leave it there," Kíli nodded to the rug. "I'll get it later."

The armor fell with a jingle, and then Tauriel took his hand. "Come sit down, love. I've had dinner brought in."

"I'm not hungry right now. But maybe if there's some wine…"

"Oh yes, there is plenty of that," she said with a laugh. "Wait here."

Kíli sank down on the sofa, and kicked off his boots; then Tauriel was back with the wine. She handed him his glass and then took a seat beside him. He saw she had a glass for herself, the herb-infused water that took the place of wine now that she carried their child.

He took a long draft, letting the rich, red liquid swirl over his tongue. "Mmm, good choice."

She smiled at him, lips pursed over a mouthful of her drink.

Once the vintage had begun spreading its warmth through him, Kíli said, "Are you all right?"

Tauriel took another sip before answering. "I was angry, for Sif's sake. And because some people find it so easy to blame me." She shook her head gently. "I still am."

Kíli caught her hand and squeezed it.

"But the love I've received from your family means more to me than the prejudice of others. Sif and your brother—they didn't doubt or ask me to explain myself. I do love them for that almost as much as I love you." She lifted his hand to her lips.

"I'm glad they believed in you. I mean, I knew they would." After a while, he went on, "Tauriel, I won't let the rest of Erebor blame you for this. We'll find the culprit, I swear."

"Thank you, meleth." She set down her glass and then drew his head onto her shoulder and began combing her fingers through his hair.

"I love you, Taur," he murmured. "You've given me everything."

"I owe you just as much." She bent her head to kiss him.

Kíli turned and tried to move closer, but found all his attempts to slide nearer on the sofa were impeded by his pregnant wife's waistline. From the spark in her eyes, he knew she was trying not to laugh at him. "Dammit, Tauriel," he scolded, though laughter threatened his own voice. "It's not funny. How did you get to be wider around than Bombur? I want to kiss you, but I can barely reach."

"I suppose you will have to wait till after our son is born next month," Tauriel told him, matter of fact.

"Tauriel…" He collapsed against the cushions and fixed her with a pleading look. Between the wine and her nearness, all his frustration and anxiety had melted into the simple need to show her that he loved her. "Taur, that's hardly fair."

"I know," she said tenderly, apparently recognizing that he no longer wished to be teased. "Our bed is much bigger than this sofa."

He laughed. "Yes, thank Mahal, so it is."

Chapter Text

"So your spies turned up nothing that could point us towards a culprit?" Kíli demanded of his uncle."Damn. I was hoping—"

"Not yet," Thorin said. "We're hardly done investigating."

This evening was only a day after the tea had been discovered, and Thorin had gathered his nephews and cousin Balin to discuss what was known so far. Kíli realized it was unreasonable to expect more answers so soon, yet even that knowledge could not quell his impatience.

"Anyway, have your spies look at this list of names; see if any stand out as suspicious." Kíli flicked a piece of paper across the table. "It's everyone who's bought rustleaf in the past year."

Fíli picked up the paper. "Short list," he said, glancing over the dozen names. "I don't see anyone my wife knows. But I'll ask her anyway."

"Turns out there's only one herbalist who sells rustleaf here in Erebor," Kíli went on. "It's grown up in the East, and the one trader from Orocarni who imports it has an exclusive contract to provide foreign medicinals to Éldi's shop. If someone bought the rustleaf in Erebor, they bought it from him."

"Lady Audha is from Orocarni," Balin noted then.

"You can't imagine she would do this?" Kíli returned. "It was her choice that we broke off our courtship. I mean, I know there was a time when she hoped to become a princess, but she can't hold a grudge against Fíli or me. You know how happy she is to be Freyr's wife now."

"I'm not suggesting she'd do any intentional harm," the white-bearded dwarf answered placatingly. "But if she had any of the herb, she might have unknowingly given it to someone who did mean ill. Audha might be able to help you now; that's all I meant, lad."

"Right. Sorry. We'll ask her."

"Kíli," Thorin said, "Eliminating possibilities is still progress. We can't find the answer in a single day."

"I know," Kíli admitted. "Oh, and I do have one more trail to follow, if these clues get us nowhere. Éldi's family has another shop in the Iron Hills. If the rustleaf didn't come from Erebor, it was probably purchased there. I can inquire at the shop when I travel to the Iron Hills for the meeting next week."

His upcoming journey for a military council had been the last thing on his mind since the discovery of the tea. Kíli had already considered cancelling the visit in light of this newly discovered plot against his family, but now with the chance to expand their investigation, he was more eager than ever to go. His first priority was keeping his family safe, and that meant catching whoever was responsible for this attack.

"Good." Fíli clapped his brother on the back. "I think you're getting us somewhere, Kí."

Gossip traveled fast, as Tauriel found when she visited the market a mere two days after the first servants had been questioned about the contaminated tea. Conversations stilled as she approached and then as quickly resumed in hushed undertones. She could not stop herself from coloring; did these dwarves not realize that her keen elvish ears could still pick up nearly all that was said?

"Did you hear: she tried to drug the princess."

"Is anyone really surprised?"

"—interrogating half the palace staff when it's obvious who's responsible—"

"Of course, her husband won't believe it yet."

"—always said she had her eye on the throne—"

"What'll she do now that we're on to her?"

"I say we send her back to the Mirkwood…"

Lifting her chin, she strode on among the crowded market street, grateful for the single guard escorting her. She wasn't afraid of any bodily harm from these merchants and shoppers, but having Sigthorn, in his royal guard's uniform, pacing at her side was a reminder that she belonged here, no matter what the gossips said. If only he could protect her from the sting of unkind words.

"My lady." Sigthorn slowed, gesturing to the herbalist's shop they were about to walk past. "You wanted to stop here, I thought."

"Yes; thank you." In her focus on the need to ignore those watching her, she had forgotten where she was.

Tauriel entered the shop and ordered the oils she needed for making a new batch of her favorite healing salve. Since Kíli had shared some with an injured comrade, it had become quite popular among the guard for everything from sore muscles to cuts and bruises. She only hoped these latest rumors would not make everyone distrust a medicine prepared at her hands.

The shop was very quiet as the young apprentice filled the order. Tauriel kept her gaze focused on the neat rows of tins and bottles on the shelf before her, carefully not returning the looks of the other few customers who had stopped their shopping to stare at her.

After she had paid, and the apprentice was wrapping her purchase, someone whispered to the shop owner behind her.

"You didn't sell her the herbs she used against the princess, I hope?"

"Maker, no! I don't stock anything of that sort. Of course, I'd come forward if I had. I'd shield no traitors against the crown."

Tauriel turned to the two dwarves who had spoken and settled on them a look of cold hauteur that she supposed would have given even her own former king pause. "I am no traitor," she said. "I urge you to think carefully before suggesting that I or Prince Kíli would ever betray the king and his heir. Such words sound a great deal like treason themselves."

The shop owner blanched and began a nervous bow, but before he could straighten, Tauriel had turned and swept out of the shop. As she pushed through the crowded street, she could not see clearly where she went; faces and shopfronts all blurred together from the tears in her eyes.

It had been embarrassingly difficult these past few sennights to maintain her usual control over her feelings; it seemed even the smallest things could set off emotions that unexpectedly overwhelmed her. Was this normal for an elleth at this stage of pregnancy, or was it the influence of the half-mortal babe she carried? Kíli's own feelings were often volatile and fiery, and Tauriel supposed his son would share that trait.

She could hear Sigthorn trotting to catch up with her when someone else clasped her hand.


She blinked and then looked aside to see Ori peering up at her.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"No," she whispered, brushing at her wet cheeks.

"Here." He handed her the tail of the knitted scarf he wore.

Tauriel smiled, warmed by the artless kindness of the gesture, and blotted at her tears with the soft wool.

"People are idiots, you know," Ori said, turning a general glare at the crowd behind them before looking back to her. "You shouldn't listen to them."

"I try not to," she said. "But your dwarvish voices carry so well."

"What? Oh." Understanding dawned on his face. "Oi!" he shouted, again addressing the crowd. "She's got much better ears than you all, so shut up! She can hear everything you say."

Tauriel laughed as the street fell silent. "Thank you."

The young dwarf blushed. "It's nothing. But you know, it's a good thing I ran into you. I've just finished knitting a last present for your little dwelfling. Would you like to come and see?"

"Yes, I would love that, Ori," she said.

"Good." He flashed her a sweet, shy smile and then caught her hand again and towed her away down the street.

The past four days had been exhausting for Sif. First there had been the shock of discovering the rustleaf itself. That was followed by all the stress of the investigation: the interrogation of the servants, the questions for herself regarding all who had been in her chambers. It was terrible to have been forced to doubt nearly everyone, even those people Sif cared for the most.

But worst of all was the fact that by now, everyone under the Mountain was talking about what had happened, or at least what they thought had happened. Sif knew Kíli and everyone else involved were being as discreet as they could, but there really wasn't any way to seek answers and keep secrets at the same time. The palace servants had been the first to talk, and every day simply added to the rumors.

Sif was so tired of being the subject of gossip, and over something very personal, too. Oh, she'd done her best to put up with it at first. It was only to be expected that people should care about Fíli's heir. But now she'd been tricked and drugged! She felt hurt, angry, violated, and even a little ashamed about what had happened to her. And the fact that apparently everyone in Erebor knew—and what was more, was ready to blame her beloved sister-in-law—made all these injuries even worse.

She had spent today with her mother, who had fended off most of her sympathetic (and curious) visitors. After tea, she came home, locked herself in her room, and had a good cry. Then she drew a bath, and between the hot water and her tired nerves, she dozed off as she lay back in the tub.

After a time, she became aware of a muffled, yet persistent pounding. She sighed and then sat up. The water was cooler now, but still pleasant. She couldn't have been asleep for long: a quarter of an hour, perhaps? She rubbed her hands over her face and yawned.

Someone was shouting from several rooms away, though she couldn't hear the words. Blessed stone, what had gone wrong now?

She got out of the bath and was drying herself when she remembered: she had locked the bedroom door. And that must be Fíli, worried because she did not answer!

Sif snatched up her dressing gown and belted it on as she ran.

As she reached the door, she could hear Fíli clearly now.

"Sif! If you're in there, open—"

She threw back the bolt and yanked the door open. There stood her husband, his brow creased and eyes wild.

He tugged her against him. "Sif, my darling," he murmured. "Thank Mahal, you're all right."

"I'm fine, Fíli." She tried to get her arms free to return his embrace, but he still held her so tightly it was impossible to move. "I was in the bath, and I fell asleep."

His hold on her relaxed. "I knocked and knocked, and you didn't answer the door," he said. "I was afraid something had happened to you."

Sif put her hands about his face, and there was a tear on his cheek. "Oh, my dearest, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to frighten you. I just didn't hear." Her poor Fíli. With all that had happened lately, she could understand why he had feared the worst.

"It's all right. I love you." He pressed his lips to her cheek.

"How are you?" Sif asked.

"Mmm, tired. Strained. But not nearly as tired and strained as Kíli is."

"Poor Kíli! He's taking this so much to heart."

Fíli shook his head gently. "He's like that. He gives all or nothing; there's no middle ground. At least he has Tauriel to look after him." Fíli brushed Sif's face. "How are you?"

"Oh, miserable and mad at everybody." She shrugged, smiling slightly. "I feel a little better after a cry and a bath."

"Good." He followed her into the room, and she sat on the bed while he took off his surcoat and boots. Then he flopped down on the mattress next to her.

"I'm sorry I can't stop the gossip," he said. "I'd throw everyone saying foolish things into prison, but I'm afraid there'd be no-one left but you and me and Tauriel."

"What about Kíli?"

"Oh, he's said enough foolish things to deserve being locked up for life, trust me."

Sif giggled. "I think we could let him out if Tauriel promises to keep an eye on him. After all, she's been his jailor before."

"Ha! All right, my princess, if that's what you wish, I'll spare him."

"Thank you, your highness." She lay down beside him and snuggled close.

They were still for a while as Fíli stroked her hair. Silverpaw jumped up onto the bed beside them and curled up, purring, against her mistress.

"I'm so sorry this happened to you," Fíli said eventually. "I don't want you to feel bad about it. None of it is your fault."

"Thank you, Fíli." She knew these things, but it was still a comfort to hear him say them. "I just feel, well…violated. I mean, not permanently tainted. But, you know, sort of invaded and betrayed."

"I'm sorry." He rubbed her arm through her plush dressing gown. "I wish I could reverse this whole mess."

She sighed. "Just find the bastard who's behind this. I want to kick him in the face. It would make me feel better."

"I think that could be arranged." Fíli tucked a curl of hair behind her ear, then trailed his fingers down her neck and over her breastbone.

"Are you any closer to catching him?"

"We've followed up on everyone who bought rustleaf from the herbalist here in Erebor. I think they're all innocent. But that's good, since it means the culprit must have bought the herb in the Iron Hills. Kíli will find him when he's at the council next week. And then we'll bring him back here for you to kick."

"Good." Sif combed her fingers through his hair, then caught a braid and tickled his face with it.

He smiled. "The herbalist says it should take a month or two for the rustleaf's effects to wear off, but after that, you'll be fine."

"Mm, good." She nestled closer to him, and he pressed his hand further inside the opening of her dressing gown to trace the curve of her breast. She said, "I don't want the rest of Erebor to think I can't have your babe."

"I still don't care what the rest of Erebor thinks."

"I want to have your babe."

He kissed her. "Jealous of Kíli and Tauriel, are you?"

"Maybe a little bit."

"Ah, well, in that case, let's catch up to them, by all means." He shifted so that she was gathered beneath him and kissed her again.

"Kíli," Tauriel said after the fifth time he had rolled over in bed, "Please, be still."

"Sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean to bother you."

She turned over to face him, and Kíli shifted to make room for her. "Tis a challenge to sleep with our son pressing my vitals and you tossing at my back," she explained, though not unkindly.

"You're impatient for him to come?" Kíli asked.

"I confess I should like to see my toes again."

He chuckled and brushed her foot with his.

"And I miss sleeping with you snuggled against my heart," Tauriel added.

"So do I."

Kíli lay still for another few minutes. Then the sheets rustled and the mattress jostled as he turned again. "Oh, sorry," he said an instant later, sinking back into his pillow with a little moan. "I just can't stop thinking: what are we still missing in all this mess? There has to be some other clue—"

"Shh, love." Tauriel laid her hand on him. "Let it go for now. We're safe here tonight, and tomorrow there is time enough to worry over this puzzle."

He sighed, sounding more frustrated than weary to Tauriel's ears.

She stroked her hand over his back, smoothing out the wrinkles in his linen nightshirt. Then she caught the hem and tugged it up so that she could trail her fingertips over his skin.

"Kíli, I've been wondering: is it common for women to take those herbs to prevent pregnancy? I thought children were welcomed as treasures among your people, as they are among mine."

"They are."

"Then why would someone wish to prevent conception? Especially with dwarven numbers declining."

"I'm the wrong one to ask. Taur, before I married you, I never thought about this kind of thing. But, you know, sometimes it's not the right time for a babe?" he ventured. "If a couple is traveling—"

Tauriel snickered. "That didn't stop us."

"—or if they're not married," Kíli added.

Her fingers paused in their caress. Marriage and bodily union were a single concept to her, and she still struggled to understand how mortals could distinguish between the two.

"I thought you said it was dishonorable for an unmarried couple to be intimate," she returned.

"It is. If you're caught." He shrugged. "Still happens, though. Course, the worse scandal is getting an unwed girl with child."

Tauriel pressed her fingers over his back again. "Then why not marry and avoid these troubles? You said that in their lifetimes, most dwarves love only once."

"Courtship and betrothal is a long and expensive process. Some find it too long to wait. Or sometimes feuds make it impossible for a pair to be married as they wish. You know the trouble politics can cause. I'm afraid dwarves can hold grudges for a very long time." He turned over and cupped her cheek in his palm. "I understand feeling that you would do anything to be with the one you love."

Tauriel remembered the heartbroken dwarf she had left behind on Ravenhill that night when she and Kíli had met for what both had believed to be the last time. Yes, if there had been any way to take him for her own in secret, she would have wanted it, too, and considered it no shame if they could be wed in the eyes of the Valar. Yet because Kíli would have afterwards been forced into the unthinkable situation of taking a second bride while still bound to his first, not even that option had been left to them.

"Le melon, hadhodeg," she told him.

"My Thatrûna."

She smiled as he let go of her with a caress.

"Do you remember the woman who lost her way outside our quarters going to meet her lover on the day of Fíli's wedding? I wonder what was the obstacle to their marriage," Tauriel said, remembering the one time she had encountered someone taking such a desperate measure. She had been merely distressed by the idea at the time, though now she felt some sympathy for the young woman's plight.

"Huh?" Kíli yawned. "She was from the Iron Hills, wasn't she? Probably an Ironhelm in love with a Coppercrest. There's been bad blood between those families for centuries, I hear."

"Worse than between elves and dwarves?" Tauriel said as Kíli closed his eyes and nestled down into his pillow. "The poor lass."

His eyes flicked open. "Wait— That's it! She's the one!"


He caught Tauriel's hand and squeezed it. "She wasn't here to meet a lover," he insisted, his voice low but trembling with urgency. "She came here to leave the herbs in your tea."

"Are you sure?" She cast her mind back, remembering the details of that night.

"She was from the Iron Hills; I remember her accent. And we know that's where the rustleaf must have came from. It wasn't purchased here in Erebor. And the tea was here in our rooms that night. You remarked on it when I came back after showing the woman out. I remember because you said someone had been in our rooms when we were gone, and I was worried till you said it was only a delivery of some things you'd ordered."

"Yes, that's right," Tauriel confirmed. "But our door was locked; I'm sure it was."

"She could have picked it."

"And what of the seal on the tea? I checked that the wax was unbroken before I gave it to Sif. She remembers opening it."

"Oh, that could have been resealed. Nori was telling me that when he worked in imports for a while, he once swapped a whole shipment of fine brandy for inferior stuff by opening the bottles and then reheating the wax on the stoppers so that they looked untouched. If you do it right, you won't ruin the impression of the distillers signet on the wax, either."

"I see." She laughed momentarily at this reminder of their friend's less than sterling past. "But you know what that means."

"Yes," he said, his voice tight. "The rustleaf was meant for you. It makes more sense, doesn't it, to prevent us from producing an heir." He sat up, and Tauriel knew, even without watching his silhouette in the dark, that he had reached for the blade that he kept tucked just inside the bed frame. "Damn them!" he gasped. "This is the highest treason: attempted assassination upon the king's line."

"What?" She caught at his arm.

"If you'd drunk that tea early enough in your pregnancy, you could have lost our child," he growled. "I asked the herbalist all about rustleaf."

Tauriel shivered. "I think I would have known if I consumed something that would hurt me or the babe," she said. Still, it was a terrible possibility. "I don't suppose whoever did this knew I was pregnant yet. We hadn't announced it."

"It doesn't matter," Kíli said sharply.

"No," she agreed unhappily, and then without meaning to, she began to cry: tears spilled down her cheeks and silent sobs shook her.

Kíli was curled round her in a moment, his strong arms folded about her shoulders.

"Tauriel, Tauriel, amrâlimê, my Tauriel," he murmured.

"Oh, Kíli," she gasped. "How could they? Who hates us so?"

"It's all right. I won't let anyone hurt you. I'll do whatever it takes to keep you safe!"

"Can you teach them to love your son? To remember he is Durin's heir, not some abomination to be exterminated as if he were no better than an orc? Oh, I cannot bear it." And she wept harder, clenching her fists in Kili's shirt.

"Shh, Tauriel," he whispered, smoothing her hair back from her face. "No-one is going to hurt our son, I promise. I'll take you back to the Greenwood, if I have to. Or Rivendell. Or— Or I'll build you a palace on the moon."

She laughed amidst her tears. "The moon?"

"You know I would." He kissed her. "Things will get better; I'm sure they will. Our little dwarf cub will have all the love he could ever need. He'll be so happy. And we will be, too."

Tauriel relaxed as Kíli's fingers worked through her hair. Gradually her tears ceased.

"I love you both," he went on. "So much. I'll do everything to give you a good home."

"Yes, Kíli," she said, grateful to rely on his optimism since she felt so little of her own at the moment. "You've always been right." He had believed they could have a life together, have a child together…

He chuckled. "Now that is something I expect few husbands get to hear. You'll spoil me."

"Perhaps. But I want you to be right."

"And I want you to be happy."

"I know, love. Annon allen."

She turned over and Kíli took his cue to press himself close against her back and wrap his arms around her.

Being held by him was such a deep, visceral comfort. Tauriel had always felt it to be so. At first, she had supposed it was merely a result of her love and the bodily attraction she felt for him as her mate. But for some time she had begun to wonder if it had something to do with the affinity Galadriel had seen in them. If Kíli was the living embodiment of the earth which she, as an elf, had been created to love, then it made sense that his touch could draw and ground her like nothing and no-one else could.

Tauriel wove her fingers through his as Kíli settled his face into the curve of her neck. His whiskers pricked her for a moment, and his breath fluttered a curl of hair against her skin.

Oh, what she had done to deserve him, she did not know. But she was meant to be with him—how could she deny it when he gave her so much?—and so somehow, this all must turn out well. She would let him hold on to that hope, and she would simply hold on to him.

She sighed and her eyes slipped shut as her breathing slowed to match Kíli's. Soon after, lulled by the rise and fall of his chest against her, Tauriel fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Coming into the palace dining hall the next morning, Kíli made directly for his uncle. Hungry as he was, food could wait a few minutes while he shared his important discovery.

"I know where the tea came from," the young prince said.

Thorin looked up from his plate, mouth full, though his look invited Kíli to continue.

"What? How?" Fíli demanded from the opposite end of the table, where he was seated beside his wife.

"Tauriel reminded me." And Kíli told of the woman trespassing on the night of Fíli's wedding. "I'm sure it was her. She was from the Iron Hills. And she seemed awfully nervous when I led her out of the royal quarters. At the time, I just thought she was embarrassed."

Thorin said, "That is a promising lead."

"So you mean I was never the target?" Sif asked.

Kíli shook his head. "Tauriel was."

"Oh." She sighed. "Poor Tauri."

"Thorin, that's the other thing," Kíli went on. "When the culprit is found, I want him or her charged with attempted assassination. That herb could have killed my son."

Thorin nodded, his expression dark. "I will see that those responsible are justly punished."

Fíli added, "No matter what was intended, they must pay for what they've done—or might have done." He looked to his wife, who had been the unintended victim of this traitor's plot. Kíli wondered how much grief and frustration his brother and sister-in-law had endured as they hoped and failed to conceive a child. It was ironic; he'd never imagined the two of them would have any struggles regarding children, not like he and Tauriel had.

Fíli turned back to his brother and asked, "You'll look for the girl when you're at the council?"

"Yes," Kíli said. "I'll check here, of course, but I expect she returned to the Iron Hills after the wedding. I think she was a visitor—she didn't recognize me, I'm almost certain."

Thorin gave a thoughtful hum and set down his tea mug. "Likely a servant, then, if she wasn't at the ceremony."

"Right. Anyway, I'll start by looking at anyone connected to the wedding guests."

"Kíli." Thorin reached across the table and clasped his young nephew's arm. "I'm sorry about all of this. It doesn't change what I think of Tauriel; she's a beloved kinswoman."

Kíli smiled, still delighted by how much his uncle's feelings for the Silvan elf had changed since Tauriel had first entered the mountain as a guest four winters ago. "Thanks."

Watching Kíli lay out clothing for his upcoming trip, Tauriel was reminded of another departure, her own from Dale three years ago, when she thought she had been forever divided from Kíli. And though she told herself she was being foolish, some of the gloom of that earlier parting fell over her heart now. Oh, of course she wasn't worried she would never see him again—he would be safe, escorted by a company of his own guard. The similarity was that she very much did not want to be parted from him.

It was not concern for the babe's wellbeing—she would not have hesitated to speak if she believed Kíli's absence endangered their son in any way. No, it was simply her own emotional need. She did not like the thought of being left alone here while Erebor was temporarily so suspicious and hostile to her. She knew she was safe, but having Kíli at her side was her strength and comfort against this trouble.

"The blue coat or the black one?" Kíli asked, standing before the open wardrobe.

"The blue. I like it better, and you ought to be wearing your royal colors if you're to denounce a traitor to the king's family."

"Just so." Kíli came and laid the coat on the bed beside his other things. He looked at her for a moment. "Are you all right? You've been quiet tonight."

"I will miss you; that's all." Tauriel put an arm round him and drew him to her side. "This will be the first time, aside from your misadventure last year, that we've been parted since we wed."

"I'm glad you haven't grown sick of me in a mere two years," he teased.


He tipped his head against her shoulder. "I'm sorry to leave you now with the babe coming so soon and all Erebor in an uproar. But this is important. Not just for me, but for you and our little one, too. I have to show that the king will not tolerate any plots against our family."

"I know. And I am grateful." Yet she still did not want him to go.

Kíli clasped her about the middle and laid his cheek to her belly. "Your adad will be away for a little while but he will come home again very soon."

"And if you cannot find the girl?" Tauriel asked. She knew Kíli expected the servant who had planted the rustleaf to be in the Iron Hills, since she could not be located in Erebor.

"I promise I'll be back before your time comes." He looked up at her, devotion in his eyes. "I wouldn't miss our son's birth for anything."

Tauriel ruffled Kíli's bangs through her fingers.

Smiling, he nuzzled against her once more. "I want to be the first to hold you when you come out into the world," he said, addressing their babe. He pressed a kiss to Tauriel's stomach, and then moved away to the wardrobe.

Tauriel had to restrain herself from catching him and drawing him back. Moon and stars, she had not felt so needy of him since the earliest days of their love, before she had quite learned to control such heady new emotions. She was embarrassed that she was failing to control them now, and so she could not admit those feelings to Kíli.

She merely sat on the edge of the bed and watched him gather socks and underthings. Once he had surveyed the clothes and satisfied himself that everything was there, Kíli began transferring everything to his traveling chest.

"Tauriel, if you'd like, my mum could stay here with you." His expression brightened at a better thought. "Or I'll send for Morwen. If I send out a raven first thing tomorrow, she could be here the day after I leave. You'll have only one night by yourself."

One night.

She imagined lying in this chamber, alone in the dark. No soft, slow breathing or rustled bedclothes beside her. No warm body when she stretched out a hand or moved a foot. Just these silent, cold walls of stone, and beyond them, all the dwarves who did not want her or her little son.

Tauriel slipped her hand inside her pocket and clasped Kíli's runestone in her palm, her thumb tracing slowly over the letters carved into its smooth surface. She did not usually carry it now, but today she needed the extra comfort of that first unbroken promise. Kíli would be coming home again, and very soon. What were two weeks, especially to an elf? Still, for some perverse reason, the thought of being left alone made those two weeks seem an age.

The desolation she had felt when last separated from Kíli came flooding back to her. The desperation, the grief, the fear she had known when he had been captured oppressed her once more, and she wanted to clasp him to her so that he could not go.

What would she do without him? She felt she would be trapped here, like an animal in a cave. No mate to defend her, and no escape from the eyes and mouths that encircled her, to devour with their judging looks and heartless whispers. She could almost sense the walls closing on her now, shutting out the air, the light. She had to get out before she was buried here!

Tauriel sucked in a breath, yet her lungs would not fill. Sweat pricked her forehead, and she felt alarmingly lightheaded. The room dimmed before her eyes, as if even the lamps could not pierce the gloom here at the roots of the mountain.

"Tauriel? What's wrong?" She felt Kíli's hands on her.

"I— I can't breathe," she gasped. "I have to get out under the sky!" She blinked hard, and there was Kíli's face, peering anxiously at her.

"It's all right, love. Take a deep breath," he told her.

She tried, but her chest felt constricted, as if she were deep underwater and filling her lungs would mean her death. Her pulse sounded loud as rushing waves in her ears.

"I can't," she said. "I have to get out." She gazed wildly about her, desperate for a glimpse of sunlight to show the way out of this cavern.

Kíli's arm went around her, supporting her. "This way. Let's go up to the terrace. Just lean on me."

Tauriel did, letting him lead her she hardly knew where. She had no thought for her surroundings or for his words as he kept up a stream of encouragement. She focused only on the deep, comforting lilt of his voice. She wasn't alone. Kíli was here.

Eventually they came out into the open air. A breeze, carrying the scent of green leaves, brushed Tauriel's face, and the vibrant gold of a summer sunset met her eyes.

Ah, Valar. She felt the tension in her body ease, as if a great weight had been lifted from her. Tauriel took one slow breath, then another. As her pounding heart steadied and her shadowed vision cleared, she found they stood on one of the open terraces on the mountainside. Below and somewhat to her left was the river, the sunset caught in its waters as it wound away from the entrance to the mountain.

"Better now?" Kíli asked. He still had one arm about her; with his other hand, he rubbed her own arm.

"Yes." She breathed deeply for a few more moments, grateful for the fresh air filling her lungs. "Ah!" Her hand went instinctively to her belly as her son kicked. He seemed to be growing increasingly impatient of his cramped quarters lately, much as she imagined Kíli himself would be if confined to a single room for too long.

"What's wrong?" Kíli asked, his tone and look worried.

Tauriel shook her head. "He's just restless. Or perhaps trying to be comforting." Nothing had felt unusual about the babe's movement just now.

"I could call the midwife, just to be sure," he said.

"I don't think that's necessary. We're both well." Frightening as the attack had been, she felt no lingering effects.

Kili stroked her arm again, still watching her with serious eyes.

"It was just a bit of nerves, but it's past now," she reassured him.

"You almost stopped breathing."

Tauriel admitted, "I don't know what came over me." She had never been so overwhelmed with distress before, and over such a small thing. Being with child was worse than being in love for producing wild, uncontrollable emotions, it seemed.

"You don't want me to leave, do you," Kíli supplied.

Tauriel pressed her eyes shut, but still a tear escaped over her cheek. She didn't want to admit she was so weak and foolish that she could not even do without him for a few days, while he saw to important business that was at least half in her own interest.

"It's all right, Taur," he reassured her gently. "If you need me, I'll stay."

She opened her eyes. He was gazing at her, brows quirked upwards in expectation. "Kíli…" I'll be fine. You must go. She couldn't get the words out.

"Tell me you need me?" he said. The corner of his mouth lifted in the barest smile, as if he were asking her for a favor, not the other way around.

Oh, her strong, wonderful Kíli. She must let him save her sometimes, when it was what he wanted. And what she wanted, too. "Yes, Kíli, I need you." She draped her arms over his shoulders and held him tight, as she had wanted to do all evening. "I don't want to be alone, not right now, when everyone—"

"Shh. I'll stay."

"Your duties, the council," she protested.

"I think Fíli will go. He wants to find the traitor as badly as I do."

"But you were the one who saw the girl."

"I don't actually remember her face." He laughed softly. "My thoughts were full of an entirely different woman at the time." Kíli gave Tauriel a roguish look and pinched her bottom.


"She wore a silver brooch, though. I remember because I thought the design was interesting. I'll sketch it for Fíli, and then he'll know as much as I do."

"You're sure it's permissible for you to stay? I don't want to be a distraction to you."

"Tauriel." He stood back from her and set his hands on her shoulders. "You're my wife. You carry my child. Someone has threatened you both, and I'm entirely justified in doing whatever is necessary to look after you." He reached up to brush the tears from her lashes, letting his hand linger against her cheek. "I can't leave you behind if it means you go distracted. What if you fainted next time? You and the babe could be hurt in a fall. And you know how many stairwells and bottomless drops there are here in Erebor. What kind of father would I be if I left you both in danger? Besides, I don't want you to be miserable."

She sighed in relief. It was not in her power to deny him when he asked to be a loving and dutiful husband. Should a princess be better at denying her own needs? But Kíli was more than just a prince himself; he was her beloved mate.

"Thank you, meleth. You're very good to me and my little galadion."


"Oh, it's what I call him to myself. It means 'son of brightness.'"

Kíli smiled, obviously recognizing that she referred to his own Khuzdul name, Lakhad, which also meant "bright." He said, "It's a good name."

"You think so?" She smiled. "It will do for an Elvish name, though he should have two proper Dwarvish names as well. And you must help me with those."

"I will." He strained up onto his toes to kiss her. "I'm sorry if I've ignored you these past few days."

"I forgive you. I know you've been busy."

He glanced over the broad stone terrace. "What if I had a bed brought up here for us tonight? It's been a long time since we slept under the sky." Not since their anniversary in June, two months ago.

"I would like that very much." She enjoyed their cozy, underground home—so long as she was not feeling anxious and abandoned—but she had grown so fond of sleeping outdoors during their long honeymoon travels.

"Good. Then why don't we go have dinner, and I'll ask Fíli if he'll take my place. That is, if you don't mind going in for a bit." He watched her anxiously. "I could have dinner brought here, too, if you prefer."

"I don't mind, hadhodeg, if you're with me." She took his hand and squeezed it, then followed him back inside the mountain.

"I have a favor to ask," Kíli said as he slid into a taproom booth, two mugs of ale in his hands.

Fíli reached across the table for his drink. "I'm listening," he said and took a swallow.

Kíli wiped the foam from his own beer off his lip. "Tauriel's taken all the rumors and suspicion very hard, and now knowing the plot was against her all along… I've never seen her so upset." He sighed, fingering the betrothal braid at his temple. "I can't leave her alone like this, not when her babe comes in little more than three weeks. Today, she had a nervous spell. She couldn't breathe, and I thought she was going to swoon!"

Fíli raised his brows in surprise. The thought of Tauriel, poised warrior that she was, having a fainting fit was entirely uncharacteristic.

"It's not like her, is it?" Kíli affirmed. He took a long pull of beer. "I'm worried about leaving her alone. What if something goes wrong with the babe and I'm not here? Or because I'm not here." His look darkened into that brooding expression that meant he was truly troubled. "She thinks there's no need to worry, but you know how Tauriel is—so strong and independent. Of course, I love that about her, but it's hard for her to ask for help, even when she really needs it. When our child's safety is at stake, I don't want to take a chance that—"

"Relax, Kí." Fíli put up a hand to stem the flow of his little brother's words. "I'll go."

"Truly? Thank you!" Kíli grasped Fíli's hand.

"Look after Tauriel and your little dwelfling," Fíli instructed. "They need you. Besides, soon you may get to return the favor."

"Sif isn't—?"

Fíli shook his head, smiling. "Not yet. But now that she's stopped taking the rustleaf, naturally we hope our own babe will come."

Kíli grinned. "Ours will need a playmate, you know."

Fíli laughed into his ale mug. "I would remind you that the world does not, in fact, run by the principle of suiting our every whim. Except in your case, I'm sometimes tempted to think it does. People may say I'm the favored one, but I think it's really younger brothers who are the darlings of fate."

Kíli reddened. "It's only because I've got a brother like you to spoil me," he said.

"Perhaps! I'll certainly do what I can to provide a cousin for your little cub."

His brother smirked. "How very good of you." Kíli took another swallow of ale. "Anyway, come by my office tomorrow, and I'll tell you all I remember about the girl."

"Gladly." Of course, Fíli would have granted this favor solely to save Kili's anxiety over his pregnant wife. But the thought of personally bringing justice to those who had injured his own beloved Sif had its own, very strong appeal. "We'll see how these traitors feel about making an enemy of their future king."

Kíli's face sobered knowingly. "I don't envy them at all."

"Thank you for staying with me."

Kíli's fingers paused, still caught in the copper braids he was drawing loose from Tauriel's hair. "You're welcome." He leaned forward, pressing his brow to her shoulder as she sat facing away from him in the center of their open air bed. "You didn't really think I could do otherwise, did you? Once I knew you were unhappy?"

"No. That's why—" She shivered as he resumed combing through her hair. Kíli trailed his fingers along her scalp, selected another braid, and began gently tugging it free. "Mmm. That's why I didn't want you to know," she confessed.

"Tauriel," he scolded tenderly. "You shouldn't—" He didn't finish, not wanting to make her feel at fault. He really didn't blame her when she'd been trying to do the right thing for him as well as for herself.

"I know, it was foolish of me," Tauriel said, her tone lightly amused. Reaching back for his hand, she drew it up to her lips. "I'm not sorry to need you, you know." She brushed a series of light kisses across his knuckles. "It's good to need you, meleth nín. I just want to do well as your uzbadnâtha."

Kíli smiled at her use of her Dwarvish title. "You are. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." He swept the curtain of her loose hair over her shoulder and laid his cheek against the bare skin at the base of her neck. "I want to be my best for you. But I can't be a good prince if I'm not first a good husband, can I?"

"No, I suppose not."

Kíli kissed her, then drew back and rubbed her shoulders, unfastening the top few buttons down the back of her nightdress.

"You needn't stop there," she said after a while, so he pulled the rest of the garment loose and slowly massaged down her spine, lingering over her hips and the small of her back. She sometimes complained of tightness there.

She sighed happily and leaned back against him so that he had to put his arms around her. Kíli tucked his chin over her shoulder and laid a string of kisses along her neck.

"You spoil me, love," Tauriel said fondly.

"Well, everyone's been spoiling me since the day I was born, so I know how it's done."

"I shan't complain." She laid a hand on his thigh and squeezed him lightly. "Our son will be very spoiled, I suppose."


"Then we must have another, so Galadion learns to share our attention."

"I believe younger children are spoiled even worse than elder ones are."

"Is that so? Surely the harm will be lessened if we have several children to rival each other."

"You mean a dozen?"

"Kíli, a dozen is not several," she corrected, laughter in her tone.

"Yes, my love."

Holding her against him, he lay back on the bed. Aside from a few thin lines of cloud, the sky above them was clear. The stars shone bright.

Kíli said, "You asked about Dwarvish names. What if we chose Zêkhajam for a Khuzdul name? It means 'first gift.' He'll be our firstborn and the first of his kind, half Khazad and half Elda. Besides, Khajmel—'gift above all gifts'—was my father's true name, and I was hoping that for our son's common name, we could name him Víli after my father."

"I would like that," Tauriel said.

They were silent for a while, and oh, it was good just to lie here with her. Kíli enjoyed the weight of her body against him and the steady thump of her heart beneath the arm he had clasped over her. He had forgone a nightshirt, since the summer air was so warm, and he could feel the bare skin of her back on his own skin. His Thatrûna might be a creature of starlight, but she was also wonderfully flesh and blood, able to love him, able to bear his child.

Tauriel stroked her fingers over his hand. "What do you believe your father would think of your elven wife and your half-elven son?"

"He'd love you, I'm sure! My parents were very happy together. They chose each other for love, not politics. If Dad could see I share the same happiness with you, he wouldn't care who you are. Besides, he was very fond of children. He would always stop his work to play with me and Fíli and even the other dwarflings in our dûm. He'd never be able to resist his grandson."

Tauriel pressed his hand. "I'm sure you're very much like him. And you will be an equally good father."

"I'm glad you think so." He turned his head to kiss her ear, and she laughed softly.

"Kíli, if I had no ears, would you love me nearly so much?" she teased.

She was right; his lips always seemed to find their way to her pretty elven ears. Of course, she always proved a gratified recipient of his amorous nips and nibbles.

"If you had no ears, my love for you would be halved, it's true," he returned, catching the tip of her ear with his nose as he spoke. "But as my love is boundless, I think you'd find it would make no material difference."

"Boundless? That's very good, as I fear I am growing out of all bounds lately." Her hand still in his, she spanned her middle. "Oh, Kíli, I'm quite a mountain!"

He laughed, jostling her as she lay against him.

"You're not a mountain. Though even if you were, I wouldn't mind. I am a dwarf, you know."

"I know you are."

Tauriel turned over and kissed him, her manner slow and tender. Gradually, her lips strayed down his neck as she pressed her hands over him. Her unfastened dress had fallen loosely over her shoulders, but Kili waited to tug it further off till her fingers inched beneath the waist of his trousers and he was sure of all that she invited. This had been a difficult day, and so it was for her to show him what she wanted now.

She undressed him slowly, then, her eyes meeting his, laid her hands on his hips and kneaded her thumbs into the sensitive place inside his hipbones. Ah, she knew how to undo him, with her touch and her look that spoke directly from her heart to his. He opened his lips, but could only breathe her name once, and again…

She slid her hands up his body, nails skimming his skin, and climbed astride him. Her hair spilled down over him, and she leaned down to kiss him once more, drawing his lip lightly between her teeth. Then she sat back, and Durin's starry crown! he was ready to have her.

Lowering herself over him, she smiled, and then her smile twitched into a slight frown and she froze. "Stars, he's kicking me," she gasped. "I can't— Just a moment—" She leaned forward over Kíli again, less gracefully this time, and then began to laugh.

Kíli chuckled, too, and put his hands up to support her hips. "He's greedy for your attention already," he observed.

"Indeed." Tauriel took another unsteady, laughing breath and then covered him. Kíli sighed and clasped her thighs and let himself be utterly lost.

It was a different, though still rewarding, experience making love to her now that she was so great with child. He had relinquished to her most of the control over what they did, so that she would suffer no discomfort. Though it meant sometimes his own gratification was delayed, Kíli found recompense in the pleasure of feeling that he and Tauriel and their child were so closely linked.

He had thought at first it would be odd, admitting a third person, in the form of their unborn babe, into their lovemaking. Wouldn't it be an intrusion on the intimacy he wished to share solely with his wife? But in truth it had felt quite natural and right that their babe be part of these moments when they celebrated the love out of which that little life had grown.

Kíli sat up and thrust a little more firmly against Tauriel, earning a cry of pleasure from her. He laughed, happy with this proof that he had learned again what satisfied her, now that her wants had changed somewhat. As he repeated the motion, her body shuddered against him, and he fell back with a groan, having—somewhat to his surprise—achieved the height of pleasure at the same moment as she.

Afterward, they held each other for a time, panting. Kíli knew he was grinning like a fool. Her own smile was more demure, though her cheeks were ruddy. Then Tauriel clambered off him to lie at his side.

"I love you, Kíli," she murmured, flicking a bit of hair off his cheek.

"As I love you and our Zêkhajam Víli Galadion."

She snorted delicately. "His name is bigger than he is."

"He'll grow into it."

"Yes." She settled back into the pillows and gazed heavenwards. "Thank you for bringing me up here tonight."

"Of course." He squeezed her hand. "Your elvish habits have rubbed off on me, you know. I like lying under the sky with you."

"Hadhodeg, my sweet dwarf." Tauriel took his arm and drew him closer, till his head was nestled against hers.

And some time later, still arranged thus, they fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Fíli found it thrilling to be traveling beyond the shadow of the Mountain again. It was nearly five years since he had come to Erebor, and in that time, the farthest away he had yet been was Laketown. But Fíli had grown up traveling often with his uncle and brother, and he had missed this: the breeze smelling of new and distant places, the road winding away before him, the sky opening wide above. Later, after this conspiracy was laid to rest and Tauriel had had her babe, he and Kíli would have to plan a hunting trip, perhaps north to the Grey Mountains. There was plenty yet to discover in this part of the world, and Fíli liked exploring with his brother best of all.

Of course, this was hardly a journey for mere pleasure; Fíli's task was to serve on a council, and more importantly, to discover who had threatened his family and bring them the king's justice. It was a serious undertaking—the most politically sensitive Fíli had handled since that fateful Council of Seven Kingdoms three summers ago. Yet he was eager to see it through. He had been trained all of his life to defend his king and kin, and knowing he had another battle to fight energized him in a way he had not been since the retaking of Erebor.

And it would feel very good to prove to these traitors how foolish they had been to plot against any of Thorin's family. Fíli did not wear his emotions as openly as his younger brother did, but he had been just as angered as Kíli by the way that Sif and Tauriel had been pitted against each other, injured, and humiliated in front of all Erebor. Whoever had done this would not get off lightly.

Their party of twenty-six made good time, and by the third night, they were halfway across the rolling plains that separated Erebor from the Iron Hills. The late summer weather was still warm, and Fíli had chosen not to set up his tent. It was pleasant to feel the breeze on his face while he stared up at the sky. Perhaps Kíli was not so mad for choosing an outdoor honeymoon; certainly the only thing Fíli could imagine that would make tonight more pleasant would be having Sif snuggled beside him.

For a moment, he almost envied what Kíli had found in Tauriel: a companion to share his travels and his battles. Sif, he thought, would never feel that thirst for adventure that he and his brother and the Silvan guard captain all felt. But of course Fíli would never have changed Sif. She had the quiet, grounded love for good and familiar things; she gave him a home he would always wish to return to.

He smiled, thinking of how contented Sif was at the center of their household. Right now, there was only himself and Silverpaw to look after, but it was likely that soon they would have their own little dwarfling, too, and then theirs really would be a family. Sif was so excited about becoming an aunt to Kíli and Tauriel's babe; how much happier she would be with a child of her own. While one perhaps never felt entirely qualified to accept all the responsibilities of a parent, with Sif at his side, Fíli felt brave enough to take on this new challenge. He tried to imagine how it would feel to see her with their babe in her arms, and so it was amidst pleasant musings that Fíli eventually slid into sleep.

He awoke again several hours after midnight to the sound of shouts. Fíli did not catch what was said at first, but years of training took hold and he rolled out of his blankets and to his feet, sword already in hand. Around him, the rest of the camp was stirring, though he could not yet see what had been the cause of alarm.

"What is it?" Fíli called to the watch as he caught up his mail.

"Enemies, sir, at both ends of the vale!"

He pulled on his armor as he trotted to the edge of the camp. Yes, there he could see, at the western end of the valley below the ridge on which they were camped, a dark mass—clearly visible on this moonlit night—approaching with some speed. They could not be more than two hundred yards away. The undulating land here must have hidden their approach till now. Glancing to the east, he saw a similar group bearing down on them.

"Raiders?" Fíli muttered. "But Daín has reported these lands clear for two summers now." With the reestablishment of trade between Erebor and the Iron Hills, Daín's forces had taken care to keep the route safe from both orcs and the occasional raiding bands of Northmen.

"They'll find we're no band of fat and helpless merchants," Dwalin growled at his shoulder.

"No." Fíli squinted at the approaching enemy. They were near enough that he could make out individual figures now. There were perhaps a score of upright shapes, certainly too tall to be dwarves, but of a size for humans or a bigger breed of orcs. And before them ranged several large black shapes, running low and close to the ground. The way the shapes moved was somehow familiar, but Fíli could not place what he saw until he caught the sound of deep, savage growling.

"Wargs!" Fíli called back over his shoulder. "They've warg outriders!"

Dwalin bellowed, "Shield wall!"

Fíli turned back to fetch his own shield, but Dwalin caught his shoulder. "Stay off the front line," the older dwarf said.

"But we need every man defending," Fíli protested. A quick look down the valley in the opposite direction assured him that the second party, too, was preceded by wargs. All together, there must be around forty men and at least four wargs to twenty-six dwarves. "Angband's black furnace—"

"Fíli." Dwalin's grip tightened. "Yer the most important dwarf here. Our first duty is to defend ye; yers is to stay alive."

"I'll try," Fíli said through clenched jaw. He didn't like being treated as if his own life mattered more than the lives of his companions. His indispensability as Durin's heir was one of the facts of being a prince which he had—so far as battles were concerned—avoided thus far. No-one had expected him to hang back at the Battle of Five Armies.

Dwalin gave Fíli a grim smile, apparently understanding what a difficult thing he was asking; then he let Fíli go.

The young prince scooped up his shield and pulled his helmet on. Really, if everyone was so set on his outliving them at any cost, they shouldn't have given him a helm set with a crown to proclaim his rank so obviously to all who might want him dead. Then he turned back to the lines of defending warriors. They were arranged in a tight V, and as Fíli approached, they closed the open end to make an elongated ring of shields. There were ten warriors on either side, while Fíli and five others stood in the center.

"Hold fast," someone shouted. "Don't let them through!"

There was the rumbling snarling of wargs at both sides of them, and then a crash as the first flung itself against the shield wall. The dwarves ahead of Fíli planted their feet and pressed forward to keep the wall intact against the force of the massive creature. The warg pressed its large snout over the top of the wall, only to receive a slash across the muzzle. It drew back then, but at the same moment, two more slammed the shield wall.

The dwarven warriors struggled, but it seemed the wall would hold. Then one of the monstrous wolf-like creatures scrambled up the back of its companion and was halfway over the wall. Fíli lunged forward, shield raised, but another dwarf was there first. The warg shied away from the axe-stroke, but did not give back: it fell to the side and its hindquarters cleared the wall. As the dwarf with the axe hacked at it again, Fíli stepped aside, and brought his shield down on the warg's face. It gave a harsh whimper, momentarily stunned, and lashed out blindly with its back paws. Fíli took the chance to bring his sword down on the creature's neck. There was a horrible crunch and a gurgle, and the monster lay still.

Fíli gave a cry of triumph, but when he glanced up, he found the shield wall broken: when the warg had kicked, its back claws must have caught one of the defending dwarves and weakened his stance so that he was more easily pushed aside by the other wargs still pressing against the wall. The warriors were already scrambling to close the gap, but one warg and then the other had thrust their heads through the opening.

Fíli and two other dwarves of those inside the wall set their shields together and pressed back in an attempt to close the gap. They might have succeeded in repairing the defensive line if the rest of their attackers had not engaged at that very moment. There was a whistle of arrows, and the dwarf at Fíli's shoulder staggered to the side, pierced through the neck by an unlucky shaft that had struck him from behind. Fíli tried to move into the space left open by his doomed comrade, but it was too late. He heard the rattle and thud of weapons against shields; the wargs burst forward and through the line of defense; and all descended into chaos.

With the wargs past the line and harrying the warriors from behind, the rest of the shield wall soon dissolved, and what had begun as an orderly defense swiftly became every dwarf fighting for himself. Their attackers had closed on them from both sides, and with enemy fighters slipping between the dwarvish ranks, it was nearly impossible to draw up a solid defensive position.

Despite their use of wargs, these were no orcs, Fíli noted as he blocked an axe blow and then slashed at his attacker's knees. These were humans, most likely the sort who dwelt along the eaves of Mirkwood, to the north and west of Erebor. The men of Dale and Laketown were faithful allies to Thorin and likewise Daín.

His opponent hooked the bearded edge of his axe over the rim of Fíli's shield, drawing it down so he could stab over it with the sword in his other hand. Fíli dodged out of the way, but still the blade hissed against his mail. Fíli swung back for another blow, but it was Dwalin's axe that cut down his adversary.

"What did I tell ye?" Dwalin grunted. Fíli nodded his thanks.

"To me! To Fíli," Dwalin bellowed over the battlefield, and two or three more dwarves moved closer to them. Yet to Fíli's dismay, he saw that most of his company was spread too far to regroup. One more of the wargs was down, but two still ranged the field: the third who had been part of the initial attack, plus one more that must have arrived with the Northmen and which bore one of them on its back. The remaining wargs circled the field, and as Fíli watched, one of them closed its jaws on a dwarven warrior's shoulder and, with one quick shake of its head, snapped the dwarf's neck. Oh, Maker, this did not look to end well.

Fíli's attention was recalled to himself by a shout from Dwalin, and the prince stepped closer to his kinsman to fend off the attack of a trio of men bearing down on them.

A lifetime of training with his war veteran cousin had given Fíli an instinct for where Dwalin's blows would fall, and the two of them steadily drove back their attackers, killing one of them. As the remaining two gave ground, apparently waiting for a more strategic opening, Fíli once more scanned the field. More dwarves had fallen—were there truly only a dozen others remaining now? Most were scattered, kept apart by the roaming wargs, but there to the left were three dwarves, standing back to back against more than twice as many men.

Fíli touched Dwalin's shoulder and pointed. Dwalin nodded and shouted an order to the other pair of dwarves still standing at their backs. As a group, they moved slowly, for those behind Fíli and Dwalin were yet engaged with another pair of men, and the dwarves could advance but one cautious step at a time towards their comrades.

When perhaps two yards separated Fíli's own group from the other dwarves, a warg dashed between them, striking one of the dwarves in the far group so that his shield was knocked from his arm as he stumbled back, stunned. One of the Northmen stepped forward, raising his spear for the killing blow. Fíli lunged forward the final distance, his sword aimed at the unprotected bit of arm between the Northman's mail and his bracer.

Before his blow connected, something slammed against him, and he was swept off his feet. Fíli tried to strike back but his entire upper body and part of his sword arm was enclosed in the viselike grip of a warg's jaw, and he was soon thoroughly disoriented by the animal's bounding movements as he was half dragged, half carried across the field.

Luckily the shield had slipped from his left hand when he had been snatched up, or the weight of it might have broken his arm. He struck at the warg's face with his free hand, and to his great astonishment, it dropped him, but before he could recover to do anything more, a huge paw pressed down on his chest, keeping him immobile. Fíli tried to raise his sword, but someone Fíli could not see blocked the blow and soon wrenched the sword from his grasp. The warg lowered its snout and growled at him, but made no more motion to attack, and Fíli guessed it was acting under command.

His head spinning, Fíli choked for breath under the weight on his chest. His whole upper body ached from the grip of those powerful jaws, but as far as Fíli could tell, none of the warg's teeth had penetrated his armor. Eventually, he was aware that someone leaned down over him.

"You there, dwarf," said a man, whose plumed helmet proclaimed him the Northmen's captain. "You're the prince of Erebor?" And he called Fíli by name.

So they knew him? "I am," he gasped out. There was no point in lying; his crowned helm and gold mail would give him away, and besides, these men had killed enough of his comrades already that he would be no less safe if they knew who he was. "Yes, I'm the prince," he managed a little louder this time.

The man drew off Fili's helmet, studied it for a moment in the light of the moon. Satisfied, he grunted at someone.

The warg lifted its paw, but before Fíli could move, several sets of strong arms had dragged him to his feet. His own arms were pinned, and though he tried to struggle, he was held fast by a pair of human warriors who were twice his size. Quickly another two bound his arms, his feet.

The man who had spoken to him turned away. "We have the prince," he called across the battlefield. "Finish the rest!"

At his words, the warg that had caught Fíli bounded back towards the field, snarling wickedly as the warrior on its back hefted a long spear.

"You have me! Let them go!" Fíli shouted. He strained forward, but he was held too securely to do more than pull his captors briefly off balance.

The lead Northman looked back at him, an ironic half-smile on his face. "Now, your highness, you should be grateful. I was hired to kill you, too."

"Hired? By whom?" Fíli demanded. Was this some further treasonous plot, aimed at his brother? Mahal, they should have seen this coming, with Kíli planned to leave Erebor! How could they have been so blind? "It was dwarves, wasn't it? In the Iron Hills?"

The man smiled, flashing a bright set of teeth, but said nothing.

"Well, listen to me," Fíli persisted. He could hear the sounds of battle behind him, but did not wish to turn and look as his loyal kinsmen were slaughtered. "I'm the wrong prince. You were meant to take my brother. Your lives won't be worth much when it's known you caught me instead. Spare my comrades, and I'll see you're treated with clemency. But abduct me, and the vengeance of dwarves will follow you for the rest of your life."

"Kíli," the Northman said, an approving note in his voice. "You're clever. I'll grant you that."

"Dammit, I'm Fíli! His brother!" the dwarf prince cried, though he knew it was useless.

"You answered to Kíli before."

"I thought you'd said my name."

"Maybe," the man said with a dismissive shake of his head. "Gag him," he added to one of the warriors at Fíli's side. "I don't want to listen to this all night."

That done, Fíli stood still, head bowed, as he listened to the clash of battle draw out and dwindle behind him. The brief, pained whines of a warg told him that his dwarven warriors had taken down one more of the foul beasts, and momentarily he was glad to know that his kinsmen fought fiercely to the end.

But at last the sounds of fighting ceased, and Fíli knew, with sickening certainty, that he was the last dwarf breathing on this field.

In truth, Sif had been a little sorry to send Fíli to the council in his brother's place. His presence made her feel better about this whole mess with the rustleaf. But she could see that Tauriel's need was greater than her own, so she had let Fíli go with a kiss (or several) and a promise that he return as speedily as ever he could.

After he was gone, it was not so bad as Sif had thought it might be. It was certainly nothing like their last real parting five years ago, when he had left on the Quest, and she had been anxious that every day brought new dangers that might overcome him.

She resolved to spend her relatively free time in the forge, for the pleasant distraction of a new husband had left her with less time for her craft lately. And so the first few days of Fíli's absence had passed quickly and even happily, immersed as she was in her work. Tauriel had called on her each day, the visits proving the elf woman's gratitude and her desire to compensate Sif for her sacrifice.

The fourth day, Sif visited Tauriel, and the two women spent the afternoon rearranging the nursery for little Víli Galadion. Then she stayed for a private family supper, and watching Kíli doting on Tauriel, she had felt very pleased with herself for sending Fíli away, since it meant these expectant young parents-to-be need not be separated.

Sif had just gathered the dessert plates, and was putting them away on the serving trolly when there was a bang at the outer door of Kíli and Tauriel's chambers, and then the footsteps of someone entering in haste.

"Kíli!" Thorin threw open the dining chamber door and made for his nephew. "We've had a raven, not a quarter of an hour ago. Your brother—" He stopped, catching sight of Sif. His face was pale, though with anger or worry, Sif could not say.

"Yes?" Kíli had stood and was already crossing the room. "What is it? Fíli doesn't arrive till tomorrow, so what—"

Thorin came to Sif and set his hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry, my dear. There's no good way to say this." He swallowed, clearly uncomfortable. "He's been captured."

"What?!" shouted Kíli.

Sif gave a weak gasp and stared at Thorin, totally unable to think, to react.

"Captured by whom?" Kíli demanded loudly, close behind her now. "What do they want? Who sent the message? Thorin!"

The king withdrew his sympathetic, pained glance from Sif and looked to Kíli at last. "Human raiders—forty with wargs—fell on them in the night. They took Fíli, and left the rest for dead. Dwalin sent the raven; he and two others have followed the raiders north. That's all I know."

"A— And everyone else?" Kíli stammered.

Thorin's face was grim. "Dead. The bird confirmed it."

Kíli growled an oath, and Sif burst into tears. Oh, Maker! what was happening? It was all too terrible!

The next moment, Tauriel drew the young dwarf woman into her arms. "If they took Fíli, they must wish to keep him alive," the elf said.

Thorin returned,"Yes, it seems so."

"We'll find him, Sif. He'll come home," Kíli said, laying his hands on her shoulders.

"You—you must!" she gasped, unable to lift her head from Tauriel's breast.

"I promise." He pressed her shoulders for a moment.

"Aye, my niece, we'll find him," Thorin added. "I'm sorry, but I cannot stay. I must speak to general Ulfarr about getting a company off by dawn. Kíli?"

"Coming!" The young dwarf glanced to his wife. "Can you do without me for the moment?"

"Yes, Kíli."

And then Kíli and his uncle hurried out.

"Come," Tauriel said softly, and Sif let herself be guided across the room to the sofa, where she sat down stiffly, still too shocked to control her body.

"My dear sister," Tauriel breathed. "I am so sorry."

Sif pressed her sleeve to her eyes. "Oh, Tauri! Fíli! What will I—?" She sobbed, and a fresh wave of tears flooded her eyes. What if she never saw her beloved Fíli again? She had never thought that their recent goodbye could be the last. And if he did not come home again, Sif could not imagine how her life was supposed to go on without him: if he was forever lost, her future looked entirely blank.

"Shh, my love, you mustn't despair. It is not yet so bad as that." Tauriel pressed a handkerchief into Sif's hands. "If they did not harm him when they took him, they will not do so now. Men are not so cruel as orcs. He will still be alive when our warriors find him. Sif, he will be. You will see him again." Tauriel brushed the hair back from Sif's face, her fingers feeling so cool and dry against Sif's flushed, damp skin.

"You think so?" Sif managed, her voice squeaking with tears and emotion.

"I do." The elf took Sif's hand and pressed it. "Kíli will bring him back."

Sif leaned against Tauriel's shoulder, comforted as much by that contact as by any of Tauriel's words. "I hope so," she choked. "Oh, I hope so."

Kíli did not come back to his rooms till after midnight, but he found Tauriel still up, pacing the bedroom floor in her nightgown. She turned towards him as he entered, and in the dimmed lamplight, her white gown glowed softly. With her full, rounded shape, she might have been the moon, descended from the glittering, star-filled dome he had built above this room just for her.

"Kíli!" she cried and ran to him, with a frantic energy that the real moon, in its real sky, had never matched. "Is everything ready?"

He slipped around behind her so he could draw her fully to him. "It is. Two hundred of us will be away before morning light. We're taking no chances." He nestled his face against the loose fall of her hair, inhaling the spicy, herbal scent he knew so well. "Oh, Taur, why didn't we send more before? But the guard should have been enough. The road from here to Daín's dûm is the most travelled, the safest in Longbeard lands!"

Tauriel folded her arms over his and leaned lightly against him.

After a while, he said, "I keep thinking: it was supposed to be me leading the envoy. Do you think those raiders—whoever they are—were looking for me?"

His wife sighed, then shifted in his arms to face him. "The thought occurred to me, as well. Be careful out there, hadhod nín." She brushed at his hair. "Someone wants to hurt us."

Kíli clenched his teeth and growled softly. "Maybe they've not touched me yet, but they've managed to hurt everyone else whom I care about. Tauriel—" He could not put into words the anger he felt towards whoever had conspired against his wife, his child, his sister-in-law, and now even his brother. "Tauriel, when I find who did this, I'll kill them."

"Hush, Kíli." She stroked his hair again.

"They killed twenty-two of our best warriors! Don't tell me they don't deserve it!"

"I know they do." She began unfastening his jerkin.

He sighed, all the fire of his rage quenched under her troubled gaze. "You don't like to hear the father of your babe vowing himself to vengeful slaughter?"

She smiled gently and eased the jerkin off his shoulders. "No." She set to work on the ties of his shirt. "Though in truth, I want what you do. Vengeance or justice…both may come to the same thing, here."

He nodded, then helped her remove his shirt. Tauriel took his discarded things, folded them, and put them away as he watched her, feeling a little lost now with nothing to do, after the rush and worry of planning tomorrow's rescue expedition. He felt his heart still bounding, his limbs still tingling to be moving and away. How he was supposed to lie still and actually sleep for a few hours, he didn't know. He wanted to go after Fíli now.

As Tauriel turned back from the wardrobe, his nightshirt in hand, Kíli noticed that there was a new sway in her step. So Galadion had finally grown enough to impede the usual ease of her movements. Maker, she was so big! It seemed to him that the babe must come any day now—if Tauriel waited three more weeks, surely his once-slim elleth would burst like a soap bubble!

"Oh, amrâlimê, I am sorry," he sighed as she came back to him. "I don't want to leave you now. I know you need me, and what if our babe is ready to come earlier than you expect? You look as though you could not wait much longer for him."

Tauriel shook her head lightly. "He will be born September third; not before. There is time for you to find your brother and return. And even a few days' delay will do our Galadion no harm. To bear him in your absence would be the greater misfortune, for then he would lose the love and strength only you can offer by your presence. Don't worry; we shall wait for you."

Kíli put his hands on her, caressing the tight curve of her belly. "I didn't ever want anything or anyone to come between you and me and our son. I wanted to be a good husband, a good father, but I feel like I've—"

"Fíli is your brother," Tauriel cut in gently. "I could never ask you to stay behind when he is in danger. I know you need to protect him. I only wish I could come with you." Here she gave a little impatient jerk of her head, and Kíli knew she must feel as torn as he by the separation forced upon them.

He smiled a little, in spite of himself. "I wish you could, too." Kíli stared at the shirt he held now, but did not put it on. "Tauriel, Fíli has always been there for me. Even in Laketown… He wasn't going to leave me to die alone. If I lost him, I— I don't know what—" He felt tears swell and fall.

"This time, it will be you looking out for him." Tauriel laid her hands on his shoulders, drew them down his arms to grasp his hands. "My strong, loyal, brave dwarf; you can do this for him."

Kíli's throat was too tight to answer, but he squeezed her hands.

Once they were in bed, Kíli asked, "How is Sif?"

"You saw, she was distraught at first. By the time her mother came for her, she was a little better. I promised her you would bring Fíli back."

"Mm-hm." Yes, he would spare nothing to find his brother. "I've left instructions for a message to be sent to the Greenwood in the morning. I'm asking Morwen to come and to bring the elven midwife with her."

"Thank you, Kíli."

"Would you please have Morwen stay with you—in this room—while I'm gone? And maybe before she arrives, my mother could come? I'll worry if you're left alone."

"Yes, I should like the companionship."

Kíli sighed deeply and stared up at the the starry ceiling, which still glimmered faintly under the dimmed night lamps. He didn't want to be lying here in his comfortable bed and the quiet of his rooms. He should be in the armory, belting on his mail and sword. Oh, he could tell himself that waiting till daylight was a more efficient use of time and energy, but that loyal, brotherly part of him that had little to do with reason or sense could not bear this delay.

He twitched and tossed, and then without thinking, he reached for the knife hidden between mattress and bed frame. Yet Tauriel's hand closed on his arm before his own hand met the dagger haft.

"Kíli," she murmured against his ear. "Try to sleep. You will need your strength tomorrow."

"I know. I just can't…" He turned to meet her gaze. There was a slight, unaccustomed tightness about her eyes that had not been there even when she had been upset over all the recent rumors and the affair of the rustleaf. "Are you all right, my love?"

"I am not troubled for myself," she said. "But I am grieved for Fíli, and for you and Sif. I have known what you are feeling now."

"Yes." Tauriel had suffered through the same fear and uncertainty when Kíli had been taken a year ago. Why must his family endure this misfortune again? Kíli's deepest need in life had always been to serve and protect the people he cared for, and so it was discouraging indeed to feel that he had not done enough for them. "Will you be all right while I am away? Tell me truly."

"I believe so. I have no choice. And sometimes I think it is easier to be strong when there is no alternative."

"Maybe." Kíli recalled the terror he had felt when that big orc, Grignar, had been about to torture him. He had had no alternative then, but his helplessness had not made him feel any stronger.

"Kíli?" Tauriel's voice held a note of concern, and Kíli supposed the pain of that memory must have showed on his face. "What is it?" she asked.

"I was just remembering…when I…" He shut his eyes for a moment, opened them quickly again because the image of her face was the best eraser of those dark hours. "Never mind." He was not often troubled by such memories—his resilient dwarven spirit and happy temperament ensured that they did not weigh heavily on him—but now, when Fíli was in a similar danger, Kíli could not bear them.

Tauriel's eyes softened. "Ah, hadhodeg, meleth nín. Do not fear." She propped herself up to kiss his brow, and as he tried to smile at her, she went on speaking in Elvish. He did not know what she said, but it seemed like a poem or perhaps a prayer. There was a soft, lilting cadence to the words that soothed as surely as the sound of running water or the flutter of leaves, and soon Kíli felt he was floating on some starry tide that would bear him off into dreams.

He reached out and closed his fingers in a handful of her hair in order to moor himself to her before he was utterly adrift. And then he fell asleep.

Tauriel awoke several hours later when Kíli climbed out of bed. She dressed, too, and followed him to the door of their suite, though she hovered there without going through. Although she wanted to see him armed to leave, she did not wish to distract or embarrass him by following him to the armory.

Yet when Kíli glanced expectantly back at her, she fell into step beside him.

"I thought perhaps it would not be my place today, as I am not going with you," she said, lest he think she did not want to share in his preparations.

"Nonsense," he returned. "You may be my pregnant wife, but you are still a warrior and have every right to enter the military quarter, with me or without."

And so she had helped him don his mail, buckle bracers and greaves. At her urging, Kíli ate something in the mess hall. Then he had gone to join the rest of the company of two-hundred warriors who were assembled outside the gate of Erebor.

Torchlight gleamed off chainmail, sword, and spear. A few last stars shone above, but dawn had not yet touched the clouds, and the crickets still chirped a subdued song.

Come to see the rescuers off were Dís and Thorin and some of the noblemen of his council. Also here was Sif. Her father and brother were among the warriors, and she bid them each farewell with a tearful embrace. Next she hugged Kíli.

"We'll bring Fíli home, little sister," he told her. "Don't cry." And he smiled briefly; his spirits, Tauriel saw, were improved now that he was going into action.

"Thank you, Kíli," Sif returned. She kissed his cheek and then his lips. "For Fíli," she explained.

"I'll deliver it."

Thorin approached him then. "Kíli, you have my authority to take any and all means necessary to regain your brother, short of formally declaring war on another dwarven clan. If it comes to that, I will see it done personally," he said. So Thorin, too, suspected that traitors might be behind this attack.

"I won't forget," Kíli said.

"I would have you take this," Thorin went on, and held forth his elven longsword, Orcrist. "I know it is not your accustomed weapon, but it is worth carrying if only for the enchantment on the blade. I am not losing you to another orc ambush."

"Thank you." Kíli clasped his uncle's arm and pressed his brow to Thorin's.

He fastened the sword over his shoulder; then he turned to receive his mother's embrace. "My darling," she said, kissing him. "I need you and your brother back again."

"Yes, Mum. I've always come back, haven't I?"

"You have."

He smiled and touched her cheek.

Last of all, Kíli looked to Tauriel. "Take care, my dearest. I love you," he said. Then he lifted his chin and she bent forward to kiss him. Though many looked on, still they lingered.

"And you must be careful, too," Tauriel told him. Oh, how she wished she could be going with him to be an aid in his search and a blade at his back! She had never before been physically unfit for a duty she wished to fulfill, and though she could never resent her babe as the reason she must stay behind, still it pained her to be unable to accompany her husband. If only Galadion were not quite so far along!

Reaching into her pocket, she produced the runestone. "Return to us," she said and pressed it into Kíli's hand.

"I will. September third! I'll be here." He drew a last loving caress over their child.

"Yes, meleth."

Kíli kissed her hand and then pocketed the stone. Stepping back and addressing all of them, he said, "I'll send word as soon as I have any."

"Maker speed you on your way," said Thorin.

"Elbereth aen tiritho chen," Tauriel echoed.

Kíli struck his fist over his heart and nodded in salute. Then he turned on his heel and strode to the head of the column of foot soldiers. Sif's kinsmen, Freyr and Lord Ironsides, fell into step behind him. Once he was in his place, the prince shouted an order, and immediately the company sprang into a march step.

Tauriel and the other dwarves watched in silence as the warriors moved away down the road that would take them past Dale and then onto the plains beyond the valley's mouth. A few yellow wisps of cloud in the sky above now promised the dawn was not far away.

When the stomp of dwarven boots on stone was fading, Dís put a hand on the elf's arm. "Oh, Tauriel, we women ought to pray for daughters, for there's no keeping the sons out of danger."

Tauriel sighed and closed her hands over her own unborn son, wondering what perils he might one day face. If he was at all like Kíli and herself, he would be a warrior, too, eager to protect home and kin. The thought of her sweet babe someday leaving her to go into battle nearly brought a tear to her eye—but no, she must not trouble herself over such things yet!

Her Galadion was still safe within her embrace, and she would hold him until Kíli himself was returned to her. Oh, it was good to have this little one to love while her mate was away. She would not miss or worry for Kíli any less, but he had left behind a living part of himself, which was better than any talisman of carven stone.

But poor Sif! She had no such comfort now. Tauriel's heart ached for her sister as she remembered how miserable she herself had been when it had seemed Kíli would be lost and with him, all chance for a child. She put an arm around Sif's shoulders, and the dwarf woman glanced up, gratitude evident in her eyes.

The little farewell party remained outside the mountain until Kíli's company had gone out of sight behind the dark shoulder of the valley. Then Dís took both of her daughters by the hand. "Come, my loves," she said. "We have plenty to do today."

Chapter Text

When she received Kíli's summons, Morwen had been worried about how she would find her friend. The message was brief, scribbled in hurried, uneven Cirth runes.

Dear Morwen,

May I beg a favor of you? I have to leave Erebor—wasn't expecting to, not like this—but Fíli is in great danger. Would you please come look after Tauriel, as soon as you possibly can? I don't think it's safe to leave her alone. Also please bring the midwife.

Forever at your service,


Morwen stared at the slip of paper, which was still curled from being wound and tied to the raven's leg. What had happened to Kíli's brother? And was Tauriel unwell in some way? Kíli's hasty note was not going to provide any answers, so Morwen handed off her keys to one of the palace under-stewards and ran back to her rooms to throw together her things.

Yet when Morwen and her small elven traveling party were welcomed into the entrance hall of Erebor, she found Tauriel looking as healthy and full of energy as ever. "Thank the Valar, you're well," Morwen exclaimed as she hugged her friend.

"Should I not be?" the red-haired elleth returned, a brow raised.

"How was I to know what to think?" Morwen showed Kíli's note.

"I see. Poor Kíli; he was very anxious when he wrote this. It is no wonder he is hardly coherent." Tauriel closed her hands over the note, as if it could somehow convey her tenderness back to its author. "And it's true, I had given him reason to worry. Last sennight, I was so distressed at the thought of him leaving me that I nearly fainted."

"Oh, Tauriel! And what of Fíli? Is he yet in danger?"

"He is, Valar preserve him! Come, let me show you to your chambers, and then I will tell you all."

Once the other elves were settled in the guest chambers and Morwen's things were moved into Tauriel's own rooms, Tauriel told of Fíli's recent abduction by a band of human raiders and then of her own brief panic which had originally prompted Fíli to go to the Iron Hills in Kíli's place.

"Sacred stars," Morwen breathed when this story was done. "After what you and Kíli endured last year, for such a thing to happen again! Tis an unkind fate."

"I know." Tauriel, who had been pacing the room as she spoke, now sank down onto the sofa beside Morwen. "Dear Fíli does not deserve this, and I am very sorry to imagine him miserable and alone. And it is my fault! Fíli only went because I needed Kíli to stay home with me."

"You could not know this would happen, so you must not blame yourself," Morwen said, giving a light shake of her head.

"But Morwen, if I had been stronger, Fíli would still be at home and safe! And still I feel so guilty for being grateful it is not my Kíli who was taken this time. It is hard enough not being able to help him seek for Fíli, but if Kíli were the one in danger, I think I should go out of my mind waiting here at home with nothing to do! And then I think of poor Sif, who must endure what I have escaped, and I feel what a selfish creature I am."

"Shh, Tauriel." Morwen took the other young woman's hand. "You have never wished Fíli harm. It is enough this time that you have sent Kíli. There is nothing you could do that he will not. Is there?" Morwen wondered suddenly if that was it: that Tauriel unconsciously doubted Kíli's ability, since so often he had relied on her for salvation.

"I know. But it goes against everything in me to sit still and do nothing when those I love are in trouble!" Tauriel lamented. "All my life, I've acted when people needed me. I don't know how to do otherwise. Not even the king's orders could stop me." She turned a wry, confessional glance to Morwen. "Is it any wonder I found myself banished? In truth, I am as reckless and restless as Kíli."

Morwen was about to answer, but before she could speak, Tauriel suddenly began to laugh.

"Tauriel?" Morwen stared at her friend in concern. "What is—"

"I'm afraid Kíli and I have made a son just as wild as ourselves. I swear Galadion senses whenever his mother is fretting, for then he is more active, too." Catching Morwen's hand, Tauriel pressed it to her belly so Morwen could feel the strong, steady motion of the babe.

When Morwen smiled, Tauriel said, "We are in for such trouble once he is grown enough to know what he wants!"

"I am sure you are." Morwen met her friend's gaze. "So you have named him after Kíli. 'Bright one'—is not that the meaning of Kíli's secret name?" She remembered this much from the wedding, the one time she had ever used that name.

"It is."

"And which of you do you think he will take after in looks?"

"Oh, after Kíli, I hope! Would not a small version of my Kíli be very sweet?"

"Indeed." Morwen smiled. "Well, as Kíli himself is not here to look after his little ember, I am authorized to pester you in his place. I'm going to send for Ídhel so she may examine you before supper." And not waiting for Tauriel's answer, she stepped outside the door and instructed one of the guards there to fetch the elven midwife.

"Surely tomorrow would do just as well?" Tauriel said when Morwen returned.

"Tomorrow may be too late! Have you seen yourself, Tauri? You're swelled up round as a pumpkin!"

"And you think it's high time I was a pie?" Tauriel's eyes flashed with amusement.

"Well, something like that!"

Ídhel soon arrived and looked to her patient, asking questions about Tauriel's appetite, her sleep, the babe's movements while she measured Tauriel's shape with gentle hands.

"Well, love," she pronounced when she was finished. "He is bigger than many elflings at this stage, but certainly not unusually large. There is no reason yet to expect his size should present any difficulty during birth."

Morwen sighed, and Tauriel cast her a sidelong smile. "Bersa—she is my dwarven midwife—tells me much the same."

Ídhel said, "We will keep an eye on him. If he does get much bigger, I may advise you to bear him a week early. I understand dwarves only carry for ten months? I am sure it would do him no harm to come a little soon. Indeed, I imagine he could be born safely even today."

Tauriel's face went grave. "Oh, no! I couldn't, not with Kíli gone."

Ídhel smiled, understanding. "I wasn't suggesting it. Of course Kíli must be here, if at all possible. Right now, I still believe you may plan on bearing Galadion on the date of conception. Simply keep in mind that if he grows very fast, it may be safer for you and for him that he come sooner. Of course, I have no past experience with dwarven babes, so we will have to rely on what Galadion shows us he needs."

"Yes." Tauriel smoothed her skirts, then said, "Ídhel, there is something that has been troubling—or, well, perplexing me lately. Is it normal to experience strong, sudden emotions while carrying a child? My mother-in-law says it is, but then she cannot speak for an elf." And she told how upset she had been over Kíli's planned departure.

The midwife nodded thoughtfully. "Not every elleth experiences such, but it is not unheard of, especially for those already prone to strong emotions. I have heard some women claim the effect varies with the temperament of the child."

"There is no mystery here then," Morwen put in with a laugh. "This babe has a double inheritance of passion and stubbornness."

"Then it is not only because Galadion is half mortal?" Tauriel added, her tone relieved.

"No, I think not." Ídhel took the young mother's hands in her own and smiled warmly. "My dear, both you and the babe are as strong as I could wish. If I did not know Galadion had a dwarf as his sire, I would find nothing now to suggest he is anything but a healthy elfling."

Tauriel smiled. "Good. Though if Kíli were here, he would not be satisfied till we agreed the babe is clearly his sturdy little dwarf cub."

When she and Morwen returned after dinner, Tauriel found a large bundled object—nearly the size of Kíli's pony—in her drawing room. Before she could ask Morwen about this surprise, her friend said, "It is Galadion's birthday gift, from Legolas and me."

"Oh! Thank you!" Tauriel stepped closer and laid a hand on the canvas covering whatever this was. "Am I to open it now?"

"Yes, certainly."

Tauriel untied the cord around the bundle, then drew back the canvas. As she did so, the thing beneath swayed. "I think perhaps I can guess—" she began. "Oh, a little boat! Morwen, how charming!"

She pushed the last fold of canvas off what was, as she had guessed, a cradle. It was fashioned in the shape of a small boat with curling prow and stern, and suspended by either end from a sturdy frame carved like bending tree boughs. All was wrought of fine dark wood, polished and expertly fitted so that not a seam showed.

Tauriel gave the boat an experimental push, and it swung smoothly from side to side.

"It's beautiful; thank you," she exclaimed.

Morwen smiled broadly, clearly pleased with the effect of her gift. "Legolas ordered it in Rivendell. The design was my idea."

"It's perfect." Tauriel laughed. "Though I doubt any dwarven mother would feel right laying her babe to sleep in a boat. Dwarves feel safest with stone under their feet."

"All the more reason to teach Galadion early."

Tauriel put out a hand to still the cradle so that she might look inside the bed. There, she found a quilt and several matching blankets, all sewn with a motif of stars and waves. Among the blankets was also a small paper packet.

Unwrapping this revealed a flat ring of silver, not much larger than Tauriel's palm. It had been sculpted in soft relief to depict two figures, a dwarf and an elf, facing one another from opposite sides of the ring. Their bodies from the waist up formed the upper half of the circle, and their joined hands completed the lower half; together they held a small sprout in a mound of soft earth. Tauriel understood at once the symbolism of this image: it represented herself and Kíli, and the life they had created between them.

"Did you also…" Tauriel began softly.

"No, that is not from me," Morwen said.

"Then Legolas?" But this did not seem the sort of thing he would send, either. Tauriel picked up the paper and turned it over. Yes, there was a note.

Now you have found your answer. I am gladdened to hear how the Valar have blessed you. Elrond

"It is from the lord of Imladris himself," Tauriel said, and tears sprang to her eyes. "He was very kind to me and Kíli when we asked if he thought we could have a child. Elrond did not know, but he encouraged us to hope."

"How thoughtful." Morwen took the silver ring and inspected it. "Galadion shall not be able to wear it for some time, though."

Tauriel laughed. "I think it is a teething ring. For when Galadion gets his first teeth."

"Oh!" Morwen giggled. "I thought it was an odd shape for a bracelet! That shows you how much I know of babes. Although—" She gave Tauriel a mischievous look. "I do believe I deserve a third of the credit for yours. Was he not conceived the first night you spent in the king's hall?"

Tauriel laughed, remembering the mead, the dress, the roses. After their long physical and emotional estrangement, she and Kíli had been basking in the rekindled flames of desire, and Morwen's gifts had made the evening something of a second wedding night. "Did I tell you: after we arrived home, I found that dress folded up neatly in the bottom of Kíli's satchel?"

"Hmm, well, I'm glad it was appreciated."

"It was." Tauriel felt her cheeks warm slightly. "Yes, we do owe you some credit for our little dwelf. If our babe were a lass, we could name her after you, but as that is not possible, I'm afraid the best I can offer you is a third share of changing duties."

"Done!" Morwen grinned broadly. "Tauriel, I don't mind what you need me to do; I want a turn looking after him. I've seen so few babes, and this one will be yours! I'm so eager to meet your Galadion."

"I think perhaps you need a babe of your own," Tauriel teased. "I could find you a husband while you are here. Can I not convince you of the virtues of a dwarven spouse?"

"Ah, but you've already taken the most handsome dwarf in the mountain," Morwen protested.

"An elf, then. He must be good-looking and of noble birth… What of Legolas? He needs a mate, lest he disappear into the wilds completely."

The dark-haired elleth spluttered with laughter. "Stars, Tauriel. You know the king would never allow it." She, too, was Silvan.

"No? In my experience, princes tend to do as they like."

"Tauriel, hush! Would I marry him in the pantry? I'm his steward."

"You could marry him in our pantry, if you prefer. I'm sure Kíli could arrange it."

"I don't doubt it. Your dwarf is as mad as you are." Morwen's laughter stilled as she caught her friend's sober look. "Tauriel? What is it? You know I was only jesting about Kíli."

"Oh, it's not that." Tauriel released a sigh, her thoughts suddenly heavy indeed. "Morwen, I doubt Fíli would be in danger now if Kíli had not married me. Surely this plot was laid against my husband. How will I forgive myself if I cost Kíli his brother?"

She blinked away tears before they fell. Not even a dozen sons could make up the loss of a beloved brother. And Fíli was more than a brother; he was a son, a husband, too. "Fíli is my family now. I would be very grieved to lose him. But Kíli— I am sure he would not be the same after such a blow."

"Tauriel!" Morwen put a hand to her friend's shoulder. "You told me earlier there is a strong chance that no serious harm will fall to Fíli before he is found. Do you not believe it?"

"I do. But still, it is hard not to lie awake at night and think of the worst that might come. If Fíli falls, Kíli is heir to the title of crown prince! Can you imagine how people will react? Kíli does not want to be king. I do not want him to be king!" Of course, she did not doubt his ability, but ruling would place many new pressures and demands on Kíli.

"You mustn't think that way," Morwen said. "None of those things has happened yet."

"I know. You are right." She tried a half-hearted smile. "Poor Kíli; he must have the same worries."

"And he is worried about you, I think. Fortunately, we can make sure those fears come to nothing. He is going to return home to find you just as well as when he left. Now, you must go put on your nightgown, and I will make us both some tea."

Tauriel felt a true smile cross her lips. Morwen might be no warrior, but her work marshaling Thranduil's household had made her as comfortable issuing orders as the guard captain. "I know Kíli could not fault the care I am receiving. Thank you, meldis, for coming. And for your beautiful gift." She gestured to the cradle.

"You are welcome! I remember not long ago, you were crying on my shoulder because some other woman would bear Kíli's children. And now look at you! How could I miss such a happy moment as the arrival of your first babe?"

Tauriel nodded, remembering the conversation Morwen alluded to. Yes, this was a happy time for her and Kíli, despite the other troubles in their lives. She must not let her worries overshadow how good it was to have her husband and their healthy son. There had been a time when such blessings had seemed utterly beyond her reach.

"I am glad you are here," she said, and then turned away to follow Morwen's orders.

For Kíli, the journey after his brother was a severe exercise in patience. Such was not a virtue he possessed in abundance even at the best of times, but now— It was hard for him to call off the march when the daylight was gone, and even harder to fall asleep in his bedroll, tired as he was from the day's exertions.

Fíli was alive, of course he would be alive when they found him. It was in Kíli's hopeful nature to believe this, but still, the sooner they found him, the sooner they could prove it was true. The alternative, of course, did not bear thinking on.

Dwalin had continued to send ravens relaying his whereabouts, so it had been easy to make straight for him, marching north into the rough foothills outlying the Grey Mountains. Kíli's company met up with him and the other two surviving guards on the third morning after setting out.

The veteran warrior waited for the little army from Erebor to approach, propped in the shade of a shelf of stone, but when Kíli was near, Dwalin stood up and ran the last ten yards to his kinsman.

"Bless the Maker, yer a sight fer sore eyes," Dwalin cried, clapping a hand in Kíli's and tugging the younger dwarf into a hug. "We could've used ye four nights ago."

"I'm glad you're alive," Kíli said. He slapped his cousin on the back. "You're not hurt?" He looked from Dwalin to the other two with him. Narvi seemed uninjured; Sigthorn had a bandaged arm, but looked untroubled by it.

"Aye. We've plenty o' bruises between us, and Sigthorn got clipped above the elbow, but we're all still in fightin' form. Mahal was good to us, which is more'n can be said for anyone else who was there."

"Damn them! Who would do this?" Kíli spat; just speaking of such barbarity left a foul taste in his mouth. "Who wants me gone badly enough to spill so much dwarven blood?"

"So you think they were after you?" Sigthorn asked. "Twas our guess, too."

"For all anyone outside Erebor knew, it was I leading that envoy," Kíli returned. "Fíli's still alive?"

"He's alive and unharmed, so far as the raven could tell this mornin'," Dwalin said. "Bird didn't want to get too close, what with that warg guarding him."

Kíli winced. "We're getting him back. How far ahead of us are they?"

"Half a day's march." Dwalin pointed away to the west, along the unbroken line of jumbled foothills.

"We'll move through the night, then. Catch them at dawn. We'll be no worse for only taking a few hours rest, and I don't want them to lead us on any more of a chase. I won't trust them with my brother any longer than I must."

Dwalin nodded, evidently agreeing. "Lead on, Kíli. We're rested enough."

Kíli shouted an order to resume the march. "How is it you three survived?" he asked as Dwalin fell into step beside him.

The elder dwarf barked a laugh. "By hidin' underneath a dead warg. When it was clear those vandals were gonna leave no dwarf alive, I dragged these two—" he gestured to Sigthorn and Narvi "—and we crawled under that monster as far as we could go, just like we were a bunch of suckling pups. The thing smelled worse than a week-dead troll, but it saved our skins. They combed the field with the last remaining warg, and woulda found us, otherwise. Meant to cover their tracks well. Anybody happening on that camp now would think it was the work of marauding orcs. I reckon that's what you were meant to believe, when ye found it."

Kíli said, "We sent word to Daín, so that he may bury the dead." He sighed deeply. "I wish we'd sent more men, so that this couldn't have happened!"

"So do I, lad."

Several minutes passed, marked by the stomp of dwarven boots on stone, the creak and clink of armor. Then Kíli asked, "These men, who were they?"

"Hard to say. Not our allies, so that leaves all those folk from the settlements up and down the borders of Mirkwood. Certainly mercenaries, though. There'd be nothing to gain by the attack, otherwise. Those seeking to benefit from Erebor would be far wiser staying our friends."

Kíli laughed, his voice harsh. "Maybe you'd better explain that to our kin. It's clear there's a traitor in Daín's halls. First they try to poison Tauriel, then to ambush me—" He paused for the space of a few steps. "But here's the thing that doesn't make sense. Why carry Fíli off? If it's me they're after, surely the traitors would prefer me dead. That's the only sure way to keep me off the throne. Did the raiders discover their mistake and decide to hold Fíli for ransom? They can't mean to turn him over to any of our folk; there's not an occupied dûm between here and Gundabad."

Even in his full armor, Dwalin shrugged. "We've been askin' ourselves the same questions all day. We'll just have to see tomorrow."

"Right," Kíli said grimly. He was going to get to the bottom of this, by whatever means necessary. His wife and child might yet be targeted, and so he could not be easy until they—and everyone else he loved—were safe.

"Can I do anything else for you tonight, my lady?"

Sif glanced back over her shoulder to where her maid, Inga, stood in the bedroom doorway.

"No, thank you, Inga," Sif returned, toying with the comb she held in her lap.

"I can help you off with your gown," Inga suggested. It was an offer she hadn't made since Sif had married. Now when Sif needed help with a fastening, there was always Fíli to lend a hand.

"No, I—" Sif blinked so that the tears could not gather. "Well, yes. If you could just get the ties."

"Of course, love." Inga crossed to where her mistress sat at her dressing table, and with deft hands, loosened the laces down the back of Sif's bodice. Then she patted Sif's shoulders. "You need anything else, dear, you just send for me."

"Thank you."

Inga hovered a few more moments, obviously wishing she had more to offer the distressed young princess. The elder dwarf woman finally settled for a last kindly touch and left.

Sif waited till the door had closed behind her longtime servant and companion before she laid her head on the dressing table atop her folded arms.

Oh, Fíli. Fíli! Where are you? I need you!

All the grief that she had held back so bravely in front of the rest of Erebor—the other nobles of the court, her girlhood friends, even her mother—flooded over her now. Her shoulders shook with sobs and tears flooded over her hands.

She had only felt so desolate once before in her life, that day after Fíli had told her both that he loved her and that he would be forced to marry someone else. But at least then, despite their heartbreak, there had been no danger to his life. This time, just as when he had left the Blue Mountains with Thorin on the Quest, there was no promise that she would ever see him again.

It was almost humorous to think of how distraught she had been over him then. She had hardly really known him; they had rarely spoken. But she had cried to watch him go, and every night she had said a little prayer as she lay in the dark.

"Blessed Mahal," she whispered now, repeating those words that she still had by heart. "Please look after my Fíli." The my had been unspoken then, but she had meant it all the same. "I need to see him again because I love him."

There was a soft mew and a thump as Silverpaw leapt up onto the dressing table. Sif felt a light nudge against her head. Sitting up, she scooped the cat into her arms, and Silverpaw, apparently sensing her mistress was in need of comfort, submitted to being held quite snug.

"Silver, you miss our Fíli too, don't you?" Sif kissed Silverpaw, then got up and placed the cat on the bed. As Silverpaw settled down atop the blankets, Sif couldn't help a small smile as she thought of how Fíli sometimes complained about having to share the bed with her pet. Usually this was in response to waking in the morning to a cat in his face. Sif knew he didn't really mean it; after all, it was he who had found Silverpaw for his wife.

Sif pushed off her overdress, leaving it on the floor. Then she put out the light on the dressing table and climbed into bed. She lay in the middle, because this was better than lying next to an obviously empty space, and clasped Fíli's pillow to her. It still smelled of him. She tried to imagine she was nestled in his arms, and after a while, she found she had tears in her eyes again.

If only she could be like Tauriel, a trained and experienced warrior able to fight for the ones she loved! Then she could be doing something for Fíli, instead of waiting at home, helpless and useless. Of course, Tauriel couldn't fight now, either, although Sif knew the elven warrior wanted to. But Tauriel had an equally important responsibility in nurturing her child. Sif was doubly jealous of Tauriel for her motherhood—though not in a mean way that wished to take anything good from her friend. But oh, how Sif wished that she, too, could have what Tauriel did. Especially now.

If these traitors had prevented her from conceiving a child and then murdered her husband with their treasonous plot, they would have succeeded in robbing her of Fíli entirely. It was a sickening thought. If only there was some chance that she might be with child from one of those final nights with Fíli! She had not taken any of the rustleaf tea for about a week then, so perhaps it was possible. Sif wasn't entirely sure how the herb worked. But even if she had conceived, she wouldn't even be able to guess so for another fortnight at least. By then, surely they would know if Fíli was safe or if he was never coming home.

So for now, there seemed little to comfort her besides an empty bed and a very loudly purring cat.

My comrades are dead because of me. Twenty-five good dwarves—my friends—are dead.

The thoughts ran over in Fili's mind, again and again, that first day as the Northmen marched him west towards the skirts of the Grey Mountains. His kinsmen's fate troubled him almost more than his own. He was still alive, and from the treatment he received, it was apparent he was intended to remain so for the immediate future. But those dwarves who had fallen were lost for good. And they were lost because of him.

Fíli had never born such a burden before.

The dwarves who had died in the Battle of Five Armies had not been fighting solely for king and for prince. Erebor was the heritage of every Longbeard, and so every dwarf on that field, whether of Thorin's company or Daín's army, had been there for his own individual honor as much as for allegiance to any leader.

Fifteen of the raiders had died, as well, but the only real pleasure Fíli took from this fact was in the way that it delayed their journey somewhat as the Northmen carried their dead for that first day, building them a cairn only once they were far enough from the ambushed dwarvish camp that it would not be easily found by anyone who came to investigate the missing prince. Much as he hated these men for what they had done, Fíli had found he was too sick from the slaughter of his kinsmen to rejoice in more death.

And he was sorry to think his own noble comrades would have no proper burial, not for days yet. At least the ravens would have the courtesy not to touch dead dwarves. One of the birds might even carry word back to Erebor before he was missed, Fíli realized with a sudden flash of hope. Though how long before anyone knew the crown prince was not among the slain? Maybe no-one in Erebor would know he was alive until these Northmen sent a ransom request. If they even meant to ransom him…

That night, as he sat up with two watchful guards, still too agitated for sleep, he finally began to grasp the danger he was in. No one knew of his plight; and if no raven brought word, he would not be missed by Daín or anyone else in the Iron Hills for three or four days. He wasn't the prince the raiders had been paid to find, and if they eventually had reason to believe he was who he said, who knew what they would do? Hopefully they would still find the crown prince more valuable alive than dead, but in the worst case, they might panic and kill him, rather than keep the evidence of their mistake. Yes, his situation was somewhat better than his brother's had been last summer, when Kíli had known he was certainly meant to be tortured and murdered by orcs, but still, it was far from good.

This was, he supposed, Kíli's fault, in a way. By marrying an elf, Fíli's little brother had evidently offended some one or more of their clansmen in the Iron Hills. But even now, Fili couldn't be angry at Kíli or Tauriel for what had happened. They had chosen something good, and if others had responded with hatred, well, such deeds were not of his brother and sister-in-law's doing. Besides, Fíli had given his approval to the match, knowing that as future king, it would be as much his responsibility as Kíli's to defend Tauriel's marriage into their royal line. He'd just never expected that the consequences of their match would ever prove life-threatening, to any of them and certainly not to himself!

If only this could have been some awful dream, and he could wake to find himself home, safely in his own bed, with his wife sleeping peacefully beside him, and his cousin Dwalin and all those other good men still alive! But what a blow to Sif, to his mother and uncle and brother, to discover Fíli was gone, and Dwalin dead—good, dependable Dwalin, who'd been there with Fíli's family through all the best and the worst. What would they do without Dwalin? And what would Sif, his sweetest Sif, do if he, Fíli, never came home? Please, Maker, he couldn't leave her a widow. Thinking of all that those back home would suffer because of what had happened, he was doubly miserable and so it was a long time indeed before he could lie down and sleep.

As the next few days passed, Fíli watched his captors carefully, but it was hard to guess what they intended for him, since the men who guarded him did not speak to him beyond what was necessary. Their leader, too, was close-lipped about where they headed. Fíli did make one interesting observation, however. While he was sure the man who had spoken to him on the night of his capture was the Northmen's leader, it was apparent that the raider captain consulted the man who controlled, and sometimes rode, the one remaining warg. And this warg master, in turn, did not seem to be a fully-accepted member of the raider band; the other men kept apart from him somewhat, and Fíli thought it was not merely because of the former's savage, oversized wolf steed.

Fíli had only ever heard of orcs training—if that was the right word to use on a monster who could never truly be tamed—wargs, and so he could not help but wonder if this outsider had some connection to fouler enemies than merely traitorous dwarves. Was the band wanting to sell Kíli—for that was who they still thought he was—into orcish hands? Perhaps there were still a few orcs who remembered how Kíli had escaped their revenge in Dol Guldur, and they had placed a bounty on his head. As Fíli considered this possibility, his fears finally began to mount. If he was sold into orcish hands, he couldn't count on being miraculously spared, as Kíli had been. Especially not if the orcs knew which prince they really had this time.

He needed to escape from this band before they reached their destination, in case it was not a human steading but an orc hold they took him to. Fíli had one remaining knife that the Northmen had not found, tucked secretly into the lining of his boot. Yet even with a weapon, he must await the right chance, a time when he was only lightly guarded and there was a place to hide when he did get away. And so far, neither had occurred. He was always watched by three or four men, and these open, rocky foothills afforded little in the way of hiding places. To the north, perhaps ten miles distant, were the first tumbled slopes of the mountains, full of cave and crevice, and the same distance away to the south were the dense, heavy trees of Mirkwood. If only the band would move nearer either mountains or forest! Yet a change in course towards either seemed unlikely.

On the fifth day since Fíli's capture, the raider band—now down to about twenty-five men—had been paused for a rest and a meal at midday when Fíli became aware that the Northman captain and another raider were carrying on a serious and agitated discussion, just beyond the edge of the group. Both periodically stared back at something on the horizon in the direction from which the band had come.

Fili's heart leapt. What could they see? Slowly, he shifted where he sat on the ground, doing his best to make it seem he merely stretched tired legs. There! Was that a cloud of dust hanging in the sky above the distant foothills? He thought so, hoped so. He lifted bound hands, pushing hair back from his face and momentarily shading his eyes from the sun's glare. Yes. That was most definitely dust, dust that he prayed was raised by an approaching army that must, oh it must be from Erebor. Who else could be coming from that way? Orcs would descend from the mountains or cross from Gundabad in the west. Thank Mahal, so somehow the word had reached home, and his uncle, or Kíli, or maybe his cousin Daín was already come for him!

The captain now called over the warg master. They spoke for a few minutes, and this time Fíli saw them glancing to him as often as to the horizon. There clearly was some debate over what was to be done. Fíli saw sharp looks and quick gestures, though he could not catch words over the crunching and snapping of the warg crouched near him as it gnawed at the thighbone of what had once been one of its companions. (Fíli had been disgusted when he first realized the creature did not hesitate to devour its own kind. Real wolves, he was sure, did not have so little respect for one of their own.)

But finally the rider strode back towards Fíli.

"Well, Your Highness. Finished your meal?" he said with a light smirk.

Fíli nodded, stomach sinking. He could guess where this was going.

"Then you and me are going to take a little ride," the man said. "On your feet."

Fíli stood. What choice did he have, after all? Here in the camp, there were too many Northmen for him to think of fighting back. Besides, if the warg master wanted, he could order his beast to cart Fíli the entire way in its maw.

The rider whistled to his beast. The warg finished the bone with a loud crack and a gulp, then padded over to its master. Fíli had to fight the urge to step back from it; though it had once released him unharmed from its jaws, Fíli did not trust that any training could fully override this predator's instinct.

"Well, get you on," the man said, gesturing to the simple leather harness on the warg's back.

Fíli stared at the monstrous mount, both incredulous and annoyed. He could barely reach, for this thing was as tall as a horse, and he didn't relish the idea of annoying it by scrambling up its hairy side.

The man laughed. "Come on, Crusher won't bite you unless I say to." He moved forward, caught Fili's belt and had him half hoisted to the harness before Fíli caught at a strap and dragged himself the rest of the way up. Then the man vaulted on behind him. The warg took a few long steps, and Fíli felt himself sway precariously. Thankfully, the animal paused a moment as its rider looked down into the face of the captain. Fíli took the opportunity to tuck his legs in the leather straps and secure his grip on a ring in the harness.

"Steal my share of the bounty, and you'll have no place with me when I claim my rightful earldom. I'll have you hunted out of Wilderland," the Northmen's leader said.

The man at Fíli's back chuckled. "And if the Longbeards kill you, you'll have no earldom. Is this how you thank me for saving your skin?"

The captain said something in reply, but Fíli didn't catch it as the warg bounded into a trot. Fíli clung to the harness, mentally cursing the man, his horrid warg, and the ill fate that was taking Fíli even farther from rescue.

Chapter Text

By marching through the night, it had been simple enough for Kíli's army to overtake the band of Northmen as they slept. Shortly after dawn, the army closed around the camp, one half cutting off any escape to the north while the other drew up from the south. The raiders had made a brief attempt to flee, but soon seeing themselves so vastly outnumbered—nearly ten dwarves to a man—they had drawn up together, weapons out but lowered.

As he approached them, Kíli scanned the group, seeking for a broad dwarvish figure among the tall Northmen. Where was Fíli? Surely these raiders meant to produce him as a hostage for their safety. The men fidgeted, hands twitching on weapon hafts and eyes flicking nervously from the surrounding dwarves to their own leader, but their captain—a tall, bright-haired man in finely ornamented mail—made no move.

"Where's Fí?" Kíli muttered to Dwalin beside him. He didn't want to endanger his brother by charging in too fast.

"Where's their warg?" Dwalin redirected the question. The raiders might have hidden a dwarf among them, but there was no way to conceal the presence of that overgrown beast.

"Damn." Kíli felt as if his insides had turned to stone. "They've sent him away."

"Must've seen we were comin'. The warg was with them yesterday mornin', Roc said."

"Maker curse him, where is that bird when we need him?" Kíli burst out. They'd seen nothing of their avian scout for nearly a day. "If we'd known—" They could already be following Fíli, not wasting precious time by chasing in the wrong direction.

Once the Northmen were surrounded, Kíli gave orders that they be disarmed and held at point of sword and axe. The men complied begrudgingly; they had no choice.

As the captain handed over his sword, he caught Kíli's eye with a haughty glance.

"And to what do we owe this courtesy?" he demanded.

"You know well enough," Kíli growled as he strode forward, his own sword in hand. He stopped a few paces away so that he could still glare at the man without tipping his head back. "Where is my brother?"

"What should I know of your brother?" The man stared, as if surprised.

"Don't lie to me! I know he was with you." Kíli's gaze flicked to the two dwarves flanking the man.

"There was a band of orcs that attacked us but three days ago. If your brother is missing, surely your business is with them, not u—" The captain broke off as the two dwarven warriors pushed him to his knees.

"Careful, Northman." Kíli flicked a dagger from his belt and stepped closer to rest the blade's point against the base of the man's throat. His voice low, Kíli went on, "Patience is not a virtue often attributed to us dwarves. And I have less of it than most."

"And you'd make that your excuse for murder?" the man returned, undaunted.

Kíli snorted in disgust. "Not for murder. But for vengeance, you've given me the excuse yourself. You slaughtered my kinsmen. You abducted the crown prince."

"The crown prince?" The man's eyes widened and a little of the stiffness went out of his posture. "Then I concede your need for vengeance. But I swear we know nothing, your highness."

"You lying bastard!" Dwalin broke in. "I was there when you and your filthy wargs fell on us in the night! We three were." He gestured towards Sigthorn and Narvi, the only other surviving guards from Fíli's envoy.

The captain of the Northmen did not even glance to the other dwarf. His eyes still on Kíli's, he asked, "And you will simply believe this, on no other evidence than their word? If your prince is missing, it is little wonder your men must find someone to take the blame. But you would have better luck chasing orcs. Two nights ago, a band of them swept down on us from the north. I lost fifteen of my men—"

"Save your lies," Kíli said, steel in his voice. Anger welled molten inside him, and he stepped back because if he didn't move out of reach, he was going to bury his blade in this treacherous murderer. "Your life is already forfeit, but the lives of your men…" He scowled, indicating just how dissatisfactory the idea was. "I would spare them, if you tell me what I want."

"Not that they deserve it," Sigthorn interjected.

Kíli continued, "And if not, I'll have them executed one by one, till I find someone who does want to talk. So how would you like to be remembered, captain? As a man of honor—to your own, at least—or as a traitor and a coward?"

The captain stared back at Kíli, though it was evident his show of fearlessness took an effort. "And what of your honor, dwarf prince? What will your men think, to see you kill a man on such slim evidence? Can you trust their loyalty afterwards, when they're thinking you could do the same to them?"

Kíli laughed. "My honor? Don't you see: they'll question my honor if I let you free. Shall I have them think I reward you for making sure no-one stands between me and the throne?"

Even as Kíli turned aside to nod to Dwalin, he caught the Northman's stricken expression as he realized his false step. Dwalin moved towards the nearest of the captured men. The dwarves holding him forced the Northman to his knees. Dwalin hefted his axe high.

"Hold!" shouted the captain. Kíli turned round to fix him with a hard stare.

"The dwarf prince was with us, till yesterday noon," the captain said, his jaw tight.

"And then?"

"I sent him away—"

"With the one on the warg?" Dwalin demanded.

The man nodded. "They're cutting through Mirkwood, on a trail leading west. To Gundabad."

"What?!" cried Kíli. The possibility that these men would sell his brother to orcs had never crossed his mind, though perhaps it should have, after all that had happened to Kíli himself last summer.

The man gave a grimacing smile, apparently taking a perverse delight in surprising the dwarf who was going to see him killed. "There's a ransom on his head. Or perhaps your head. You are Kíli, are you not?"


The man laughed, though now he seemed merely chagrined. "I didn't believe your brother when he said he was not you."

"Then you were hired to sell me to the orcs?" Kíli snapped, disgusted by this extra step of treachery on the part of his dwarven enemies.

"I was hired to kill you," the man returned, his glare clearly saying that he would gladly have performed the service now, if he could. "But then I found there was more reward in it to take you, alive, to Gundabad."

"Why? Who wants me? Orcs or…" No, he wouldn't name the Ringwraith.

"That I couldn't tell you."

Kíli lunged forward and grasped the man by the collar.

"It was Scatha," the man choked. Kíli loosened his hold, slightly. "The one with your brother now. Scatha told me Gundabad had offered a generous price for Kíli, Oakenshield's younger heir. He came on us a fortnight ago. Must've been told where we'd be; he's not a man of my band, though I knew him. He's an exile, like many of us, and our paths've crossed before. He came riding up on one of those wargs. Scatha offered us his help, plus four more beasts, for a share of the bounty. He even said, given time, he could outfit a few more of us with wargs once we'd turned you in. I've no great love for the man, but I couldn't turn him down. I've an earldom to claim; I needed an army. Or gold to buy one."

"You've no idea what Gundabad wants with me?"

The man shook his head, smiling a little at Kíli's obvious discomfiture. "Why should they tell me? Scatha showed an earnest of the payment, so I knew the gold was real enough. I didn't need to know more."

The orcs of Gundabad could have a put the bounty on him simply because he was Thorin's heir and they wanted revenge for the Battle of Five Armies. But after his far too easy escape from the Ringwraith at Dol Guldur, Kíli distrusted the simple explanation now. He had the unsettling feeling that this bounty was somehow connected to that earlier encounter, though how, he couldn't yet be sure. Had the Wraith heard how he and Tauriel had produced a child after all, and did it wish to use Kíli either as a lure or a bargaining piece to gain his son?

While Kíli scowled at the prisoner, mind racing, Dwalin said, "Who first approached you to kill the prince?"

"There's a man who trades with me, at one of the Redwater steadings. He sent a dwarf my way this summer. I agreed to make certain you and your men never reached the Iron Hills, and he agreed to pay me, a third then, and the rest when the deed was done. I was to collect it from the trader."

"And this dwarf," Dwalin said. "Where was he from?"

The Northman's face creased in a spiteful grin. "That I can tell you: the Iron Hills, I'm almost certain."

"Ha!" Kíli looked sharply to Dwalin. "Didn't I say so?"

The Northman said, "He was careful to hide who he was—dressed all in a dark cloak, with nothing on to set him apart—but your Iron Hills folk have a way of talking that's hard to miss. Oh, he tried to hide it, but I know the sound. Back when I still lived in my father's hall—before I was cast out for being a bastard and a traitor besides—" The man's eyes flashed in anger at that remembered insult. "There was a smith from the Iron Hills who served the earl, my father."

Kíli nodded distractedly, his thoughts already jumping ahead to the next stage of their search. "This path through Mirkwood: where does it enter the forest?"

The man almost smiled. "I can show you. What is it worth to you?"

Kíli grunted. "I think that falls under 'telling me what I want to know,'" he said drily. "I'll release your men when you've showed me the way into the wood."

The captain stared willfully back, but before Kíli could say more, Dwalin said, "We may not need his help. Look!"

At the same moment there was a clap of wings. Kíli instinctively put out his left hand and a moment later, the raven Roc alighted on his bracer.

I followed the prince, it croaked in the language of its kind. The warg and the man took Fíli into the woods. They follow a trail that leads towards sunset.

Good hunting, my friend, Kíli clucked back at it. He'd never been more glad in his life for all those lessons in raven's speech that he had been made to take as a young prince. Can you show us where?

The bird bobbed its head and smoothed its beak over its shoulder in a self-satisfied gesture. Yes, yes. I know where.

Kíli glanced back to the Northman watching with wide eyes. "Roc will guide us," the young dwarf said.

"The bird?"

"He helped us find you," Kíli explained.

The man cursed and spat, but when he looked back at Kíli, he wore an ironic grin. "The clever hunter deserves to find his prey," he said.

"You'd have been more clever to keep from crossing Durin's heir," Dwalin noted.

"Maybe," the captain conceded. "But the hunter who takes no risk wins no prize."

Kíli ground his teeth, hating that this man could talk as if this were a game and all those innocent dwarvish lives had been worth no more thought or regret than a lost taproom wager. "Is there anything else you want to ask?" he said to Dwalin.

The older warrior shook his head. "Let's find yer brother."

Kíli looked back to the captain. "What is your name, Northman?"

"I am Aedwulf, son of Athelric."

"Well, Aedwulf son of Athelric: I, Prince Kíli of Erebor and sister-son of Thorin Oakenshield, pronounce upon you the sentence of death for conspiracy against Fíli, Crown Prince of Erebor, and for the savage and unprovoked slaughter of a peaceful envoy crossing neutral lands. My honor and that of my kindred demands this. But your body will be returned to your people. My honor demands this, too."

Aedwulf nodded, a proud fire once more in his eye. "I accept my fate."

"May the All-father guide you to the halls of your fathers," Kíli said. His stomach twisted unexpectedly: this was the first time he had ever ordered a life taken like this, in the calm outside of battle. He had slain orcs and goblins before, and once even a man when defending a trade caravan from raiders in his youth, but he was keenly aware that this death was his responsibility in a way none of those other kills in battle had been. But this power over life and death was the duty he had willingly accepted as his service to the throne and to his family, and so he did not wish even this burden away.

Kíli squared his shoulders and nodded once more at Dwalin to ready his axe.

The warg carried Fíli and the Northman south to the looming, shadowed edge of Mirkwood. They skirted the border for perhaps five miles, and then plunged into the dense trees.

Fíli first thought the man meant to force his way through the trackless wilderness, but soon enough they came on what seemed to be a trail. Its entrance, Fíli guessed, had been blocked by the swiftly-growing underbrush at the forest's margin, though further in, the track was still clear enough to follow despite the grasping roots and branches that had begun encroaching here. Who had made the trail, Fíli didn't know, but he had the uneasy feeling it was not usually used by men or elves.

They rested the night beside the trail, and with the warg on watch, there seemed little need to fear any attack from spiders, orcs, or anything else that might dwell in the forest. All night, Fíli's mind was on the blade in his boot, but he dared not use it now. If he attacked the Northman right before his warg's nose, the beast was sure to turn on Fíli and kill him. Better to choose a moment when both man and warg were distracted.

In the morning, as the Northman took a piss before they mounted up, Fíli found the chance to transfer the knife to his sleeve. He could feel it now, pressed against his forearm as he gripped the warg's harness. The creature still loped easily along the trail, though trail, perhaps, was a generous term now: for minutes at a time, Fíli could not recognize any sort of path. But the warg moved steadily forwards, following some sense of its own as it leaped over stones and ducked under great, winding tree roots.

Carefully, so as not to draw the attention of the man at his back, Fíli eased the knife into his hand and began slicing at the cords that bound his wrists. Once he nearly dropped the knife as the warg made an unexpected dodge to the side in order to miss a spider's web that stretched suddenly across their path.

And then finally his hands were free. Fíli drew in a relieved gasp and flexed his arm lightly. The muscles were stiff, but his grip still felt strong and sure. He twisted his left hand more securely into the warg's harness and settled the knife solidly in his right fist, blade held underhand. Then he reached up and back and jabbed the knife beneath the man's throat.

The man choked softly, and Fíli felt warm blood spill down his neck and back. The Northman's body bounced roughly against Fíli for the next few strides, and then it tumbled from the warg's flank.

Sensing the change in weight, the warg skidded to a halt, then spun back towards the fallen Northman. As he closed both hands on the harness, Fíli could feel the warg's coat bristle in excitement. It nosed the body, a murderous growl rising in its throat. Then it gripped the man in its teeth and shook him, crunching, snapping, rending the body with teeth and claws.

Fíli held fast to the harness, sure that in another moment, the warg would turn back on him. Still, it was safer here on the thing's back than on the forest floor. If he could just reach the animal's throat with his blade—

In a few moments more, the dead Northman was torn to pieces. Raising its bloody muzzle, the warg gave an exulting howl. Fíli strained forward, reaching with his knife, but before he could strike, the warg bounded forward, and Fíli nearly lost his seat.

Its sides heaved in rough, snarling breaths as the warg tore through the woods in a wild gallop, leaping yards of stone and moss and dead vegetation with every bound. They no longer seemed to be following any trail.

Fíli gritted his teeth and clung to the harness as they sailed through tangled roots and branches, so close that he felt them whistle by. Trailing moss whipped his face, and they tore through a spiderweb. In its blood frenzy, the warg seemed oblivious to all obstacles.

They flew on like this for at least a mile till, without warning, the ground fell away beneath them. Unable to stop its career, the warg pitched forward and tumbled, tail over snout, down a sheer decline. With no time to think, Fíli simply held tight.

The world spun around him. Something tore at his shoulder. Then everything slammed still.

Fíli lay gasping, aware of nothing but a sharp pain in his arm.

The warg beside him did not move. Was it dead? Fíli struggled to get away from it, but his left leg was pinned beneath it and his arm on the same side did not seem to work. He kicked with his other leg, trying in vain to get some leverage on the warg's back.

Suddenly, the warg shifted and Fíli was able to scramble away. It did not move again, but lay still, panting heavily.

Dammit, where was his knife? He had lost it in the fall. He glanced frantically about, but it was impossible to see anything so small as a knife in the shadows at the bottom of this chasm. Fíli fought back the urge to run and crouched down, patting the ground with his good right hand. His blade had to be here; he had to find it. There was no way he could face this warg empty handed, even wounded as the creature now must be. And if he was to have a hope of surviving in this deadly forest—

Fíli inched closer to the animal, fingers sifting dirt and leaf mould as he went. Even a large stone would be a welcome weapon, but all he felt was damp muck. He worked his way towards the beast's hind end, reasoning that he would rather deal with claws than teeth.

His straining fingers brushed the warg's tail and the creature growled. Fíli froze. The warg huffed and then heaved itself upright. As it moved, its hind claws raked the ground and something hard flicked against Fíli's ankle. He groped in the leafy debris, and then his hand closed on the familiar, smooth horn of his knife haft.

The warg rounded on him, a cruel snarl rising in its throat.

Knowing that he stood no chance against the deadly precision of this predator's charge, Fíli did the only thing he could: attack first. He leaped forward, knife slashing at the warg's face.

It was an insane gamble, and a move that, at a cooler moment, he would never have advised himself to make. Even if he succeeded in surprising the warg, he would simply have placed himself closer to its jaws, jaws that could break him with a single snap. But there was no time to think, only to act.

Fíli felt the knife blade make contact and slide along the beast's heavy skull. Then the blade snagged, jarring in Fíli's grip so that he almost lost hold of it. The warp gave a high yelp and convulsed. Fíli gripped the blade harder, thrusting it up through the warg's eye-socket and into the brain.

The beast lashed at him, heavy paw catching him across the chest and sending him crashing against the solid wall of the ravine. Fíli lay immobile, the breath knocked from him.

So this is it. He fought for air, wondering if he would be dead before he could even draw a last breath.

But no snarling jaws closed on him.

Fíli sucked air into his chest: one precious breath, and then another. His heart seemed to be trying to hammer its way past his ribs. But above the clamor of his own heart and lungs, there was no other sound in the dark ravine. The warg, thank Mahal, must be dead.

Utterly relieved as he was, it was impossible to lie still for long. As soon as he had regained his breath, the pain in his shoulder reasserted itself with a vengeance. The whole joint hurt as if something had been ripped free.

Fíli pushed himself upright and felt gingerly at his left arm. His clothes were torn and wet with blood, but it might be the Northman's, not his own. He did not think his skin was deeply cut. But beneath the skin, his shoulder joint felt wrong, sunken and loose. So that was it: he had dislocated it. Well, that was something he could correct, much more easily than a head that had been torn from his body, for instance. He gave a brief, pained laugh that was not really one of mirth.

Now how was it that you put the shoulder back in joint? He remembered having watched Óin perform the procedure once, on a dwarf back in Ered Luin who had fallen from some scaffolding. He slipped his mail coat off, then lifted his injured arm slowly and bent the hand back behind his head. Damnation, that hurt! He grasped his left hand with his right and pulled slowly.

After some maneuvering, he felt the joint slip back into place. He cried out and fell back against the ground, panting. Durin's beard, he hoped he never had to do that again.

He got up, refastened his mail, and went back to the warg to retrieve his knife. As he wiped it clean, he sent a wordless prayer of thanks to Mahal for that lucky hit. Had his blade struck an inch higher or lower, he would likely be dead by now, slashed to bits like the Northman.

For a moment, Fíli thought he might be sick, remembering the savagery with which this monster had destroyed a man it had once obeyed. Surely it was impossible to tame a creature so feral and twisted by evil. You had to be mad or evil yourself to think otherwise. Or perhaps the evil man didn't care if he used a servant that could so easily turn upon himself…

After salvaging part of the harness leather to serve as a sling for his injured arm, Fíli turned his back on the dead monster and moved away along the floor of the ravine. The place where they had fallen was narrow and deeply carved by rains, though now at the end of summer, there was little trace of the water that must flow here in winter and spring. The walls were steep, in some places jutting out past vertical, and they blocked all but the barest glimpse of the tree canopy—it was impossible to see the sky here in the depths of the forest, no matter where you stood.

After about twenty yards, the ravine widened enough that Fíli could see the top as a dark outline looming against the softer twilight gloom that was all the daylight to filter through the leaves. There was no way up: the ravine sides were sixty feet high and sheered of any root or stone that might have offered a handhold. Even with two good arms, he could not have scaled them.

Fíli eased his aching shoulder against the sling and trudged on.

Chapter Text

When the raven from Kíli arrived, Dís was the first to reach the rampart following the guard's summons.

"The message," she breathlessly demanded of the bird who sat preening its feathers on the wall that overlooked the entrance to Erebor.

Both princes alive, it croaked, emphasizing these words with a little hop and a flutter of wings.

"Thank Mahal," she breathed. Though her sons had been in danger many times before, the suspense never became easier to bear. Dís asked, Fíli has been found?

No. But Kíli is hunting. He caught the bad men, killed their leader. But Fíli was already gone, run away into Mirkwood with the man on a warg. Kíli says they won't hurt Fíli; need him alive. The raven bobbed its head in reassurance.

The patter of soft-soled boots announced Tauriel's arrival. Dís glanced aside to her daughter-in-law, whose flushed cheeks betrayed her recent exertion, though her breathing remained deceptively calm. "Is it good news?" the elf demanded.

Dís said, "Good enough. They haven't found Fíli, but he's still alive."

At this, Tauriel's anxious face softened.

The dwarven princess turned back to the bird. They know where Fíli is?

In Mirkwood, it said. On a trail leading to sundown. Roc saw where; he's showing Kíli.

Dís relayed this information to Tauriel.

"Where in Mirkwood?" the elf said. "The northern reaches? I know of no roads there, but that part of the wood is beyond our patrols."

As Dís enquired more specifically about Fíli's location, more footsteps clattered along the wall. Tauriel's friend Morwen appeared with Thorin close behind her. Running up last of all was Sif, still in her work apron, her hands and face smudged with soot from the forge. Her expression was rigid, blank, as if she waited to hear the worst.

"He lives," Tauriel assured her.

"Oh, Maker," Sif gasped. Tears glimmered at her eyes and she stumbled slightly before Thorin caught her arm.

Dís repeated the raven's message to them all. "It's both better and worse than I hoped," she finished, her hands fisted in her skirt.

Thorin addressed the raven. Is there more to the message?

It took a step sideways along the wall, feathers ruffling; such a large audience seemed to embarrass it. Yes, it croaked. Know where Fíli is going. The man with the warg rides to the fortress in the mountains. Gundabad, you call it. Orcs still there, though not so many as before.

Dís felt her stomach give a lurch, and she saw Thorin's face go white.

"What is it?" Sif asked weakly.

"They're taking him to Gundabad," Dís explained.

Tauriel cursed, speaking the first ugly words of Sindarin Dís had ever heard.

Do you know why? Thorin demanded.

The bird gave a harsh screech in the negative. But Kíli will stop them. Dwarves will travel faster outside the forest, catch the man when he comes out the other side. Kíli sent some ahead to wait while some will follow trail. Find Fíli; you'll see.

Are the Iron Hills dwarves in league with the orcs? Thorin asked again.

The raven made a series of noncommittal chirps, tipping its head thoughtfully to one side, then the other.

Did Kíli say who wanted Fíli sent to Gundabad? Thorin rephrased the question.

The bird squawked in understanding. Bad men were taking him. But they knew Kíli was hunting, so they sent Fíli ahead with one on a warg. The raven, it seemed, either did not know more than this, or else the complexities of Fíli's capture were somewhat beyond its understanding. Despite their cleverness, ravens were still beasts—they did not see the world as men or elves or dwarves did—something that must be borne in mind when interpreting their messages.

When did you leave Kíli? Thorin said.

Two evenings ago, was the answer.

"Then they may have already found him?" Sif ventured softly.

Thorin pressed her arm. "Let us hope so."

He thanked the bird, while Dís unpinned a jewel from her dress and held it forth. Ravens had an eye for things that glittered. The bird squawked its gratitude, but did not yet claim its prize. Instead, it remained on the wall, peering thoughtfully first at Tauriel, then Morwen, then back again.

Message for the elf, Kíli's mate, it said at last.

She, Dís said, gesturing to Tauriel.

The bird swooped to Tauriel's shoulder, and to her credit, the elf did not startle at this unexpected movement. Dís explained, "Kíli sent a message to you."

"Oh?" Tauriel's eyes brightened.

The bird stared at her for a moment, as if considering what it had to impart. Then it butted her cheek with its head, nipped her ear, and hopped away to snatch up the jewel from Dís before sailing over the rampart's edge.

Dís smiled momentarily, wondering how exactly her son had tried to explain a kiss to a bird. Thorin and Tauriel both began talking at once, considering this latest news, but Dís did not listen.

"Are you all right, love?" she said, gathering Sif's hands in her own. The young woman's face was pale beneath the streaked soot.

"Yes, thank you," Sif returned softly. "I was so afraid—"

"I know; so was I." Dís kissed her daughter-in-law and drew her close. "But this is hopeful news." In response, Sif only tightened her embrace.

A moment later, Tauriel dashed away along the wall, moving somewhat less gracefully now than she had even a few weeks ago. Morwen trailed helplessly after her, all pleas that Tauriel slow down unheeded. Dís nodded to herself; yes, as she learned more of Tauriel, it became increasingly apparent that the impetuous young elf shared certain traits with her husband.

"Where has she gone?" Dís asked her brother.

"She's writing a message to Thranduil, to have him send some rangers to aid in the search. They might still be needed," he said.

"Ah. Very good." She looked back to Sif and was relieved to find the color had finally returned to the poor lass's face. The sweet girl was far too young to know the grief of a husband's loss, and Dís prayed that Sif would be spared the pain Dís herself had already known.

"Won't you dine with me before you go back to the forge?" Dís said. "I've had a meal sent to my rooms." She knew her daughter-in-law had barely ventured outside her workshop for the past few days, a tactic that was probably as much a means of avoiding the curious and sympathetic as it was a distraction for herself.

"I could perhaps eat a little," Sif said.

"Come." Dís tucked her arm in Sif's and led the way back in from the rampart. "It will be just you and I, and we shall be very cozy."

After leaving the Northmen to look to their dead captain, Kíli had sent the majority of his company, one hundred twenty dwarves, west along the border of Mirkwood with the aim of reaching the valley that led up to Gundabad before the warg rider did. Kíli hoped it was not a fool's errand; wouldn't the rider have chosen the swiftest route to Gundabad for himself? Unless he had chosen the forest trail, not for speed, but to avoid watching eyes.

Another fifty dwarves Kíli had ordered to patrol along the forest border in case the trail led back out of the wood east of the Forest River. The remaining thirty, Kíli led into the wood, along the trail that Roc the raven showed him.

The way was easy to follow at first. While only wide enough for three dwarves to march abreast, the path was free of debris and undergrowth. (Who passed here, that the way was so clear? Once this whole treasonous plot was laid to rest, that question would be worth investigating.) Occasionally, where the ground was soft, the impression of huge, wolfish paws could still be seen.

Kíli pressed his party on, moving as fast as they could. He knew there was little chance that they could overtake the warg from behind, so long as nothing opposed its flight. But if Fíli had found an opening to fight his captors, he might yet be here in the wood, quite likely injured. Kíli did not like to calculate his brother's odds of single-handedly defeating a vicious war-beast and its master. Yet he also remembered the knife always in Fíli's boot and remembered too, from his own experience as a captive, the desperation that made any chance of escape worth seizing. Yes, Fíli would fight if he possibly could.

Eventually the trail grew more difficult to follow. It wasn't that the path was obstructed, for they had come deep enough into the forest that no underbrush could flourish away from the sun. But the smooth, well-packed earth walkway that had been so easy to see before now disappeared for meters at a time, and Kíli and his men had to slow and fan out, seeking till they found the next clear section of the path.

If only Tauriel were here! Surely, with her centuries of woodcraft and her sharp eyes, she would be able to track this warg far more easily than Kíli and his band of mountain-bred dwarves could. And it would have bolstered his spirits just to have her beside him. How could he and Tauriel fail when they aided one another? Kíli had not known it to happen yet.

The company was forced to halt when it grew too dark to see. But they were awake and ready to move again by first light—though light came later here, under the trees, Kíli discovered to his great frustration.

It was not long after they had begun their march that they found a first sign of their quarry. The little company had spread out once more, seeking the lost path, when Lord Ironsides gave a shout.

Kíli whipped round, and hearing his name called again, jogged towards Sif's father. As Kíli reached him, the elder dwarf put out a hand to Kíli's chest. His face was haggard, pale. "Easy, it's—"

Kíli brushed past the other warrior, unable to wait for whatever Lord Ironsides wanted to say. He had to see, be it good or bad.

"Oh, Maker." Kili's gorge rose and he clapped a hand over his mouth. He stared down at the mangled, fly-swarmed corpse, his stomach clenching in revulsion. This had to be the warg's work, for the body was heavily torn: limbs sprawled unnaturally, some entirely severed. The face was twisted out of sight, but Kíli saw golden braids flung wild upon the bloodstained ground.

He choked and stumbled to his knees. Valar, no! Fíli! His vision swam as he tried not to be sick.

Lord Ironsides pressed Kíli's shoulder. "It's not your brother."

Kíli coughed, then wiped at his eyes and forced himself to look up at the corpse again. No, he could see now that was not Fíli's armor, nor his boots. "Mahal be praised." He scrambled to his feet. "We've found the rider," he called to the men around him. "Search carefully for any sign of Fíli!"

But though they combed the surrounding woods for nearly an hour, nothing more could be found of the warg or the missing dwarf prince.

"Warg must've bolted with 'im," Dwalin said once the company had convened again. "They could be anywhere in this wood." The party had found the next segment of trail, but no tracks to indicate the warg had followed it.

"Agreed." Kíli swept his gaze over the trees marching away into the shadowy distance in every direction. "Dammit!" He spat. "We'll have to spread out. Ten follow the path, the rest of us search to north and south."

"If we spread too thin, how will we find each other again?" Lord Ironsides asked.

"Roc will help us." Kíli glanced to where the raven sat watching them from the branches above. "He can relay messages and track our positions."

"Ye'll owe that bird a king's ransom by the time yer done," Dwalin observed drily.

Kíli nodded, distracted. Oh, to have Tauriel and a handful of her elvish guardsmen! Experienced woodmen could make all the difference in this search. Kíli regarded his men again. "Has anyone got paper and a pen? I'm sending to our allies for help."

Fíli walked the ravine floor for several hours before he found a place to climb out. But at last a small side ravine had opened off to the left, and by following that for a short way, he came to a place where the walls were less steep. A tree grew along the slope, and by seeking for foot and hand holds among its roots, Fíli was able to scramble up through the slippery leaf litter to the higher ground above.

At the top, he paused, panting, to nurse his sore arm. As he touched his shoulder, he found his hand wet with fresh blood. A more careful inspection revealed he had indeed been cut there, most likely when the warg had tumbled them both into that Mahal-forsaken ravine. Not surprisingly, he had missed the wound earlier in the terror and exhilaration of his escape. Tearing a strip off his tunic, he bound his arm as best he could, though it was a challenge to tie the bandage with one hand, the other end of the strip held in his teeth.

That done, he tried to get his bearings. After that frenzied ride on the warg, and then a long walk at the bottom of the ravine, it was difficult to know where he was in relation to the trail the warg had originally been following. But as Fíli envisioned his movements since this morning, he had the increasingly distressing suspicion that the main ravine (and its offshoot which he had scaled) now lay between him and the trail.

He would have to work his way backwards along the top of the ravine, Fíli decided. It would eventually guide him nearer to the trail—and Fíli knew he had to head for the trail if he was to have a prayer of ever making it out of this wood. Even if, as he hoped, Kíli had led a company in search of him, how were they to find one dwarf in the depths of this trackless forest? But they would surely search near the trail, and so Fíli must find his way back there.

Once he was rested, he began to walk along the smaller side ravine. It was still too wide to be crossed, so he would have to work his way around it to get back to the main ravine. Fíli did not reach the end of the smaller branch until nightfall, when the already deep shadows deepened further, and the air grew chill. As the light died, Fíli found a space beneath a fallen tree where he could spend the night.

He slept poorly. His left shoulder throbbed, and he was hungry—he'd had nothing to eat since a frugal meal that morning. Worst of all, he was very thirsty; despite the fact that water surely ran down the ravines during part of the year, there was only thick, leaf-strewn mud now, and he had no water-skin. At least he was not very cold, burrowed as he was in a mound of musty, decomposing leaves. Yet even that small comfort was not enough to keep his nerves from startling at every sound in the darkness. What else might be creeping in the forest, unseen, besides the spiders?

As soon as it was light enough to see, he crawled out of his nest of leaves and began walking again, keeping the smaller ravine in sight to his left. All morning, he picked his way forward, feeling sure that he must soon come upon the main ravine again.

Yet every time he rounded another boulder or scrambled under another fallen tree, the ground continued on beyond, uneven at times, but unbroken by the deep slash of the crevasse that had arrested the warg's flight yesterday. Had he missed the juncture in the gloom, and now already was following the main ravine? But no—he was certain that the direction he walked now should have brought him to a wedge of high ground lying in the acute angle between the two. He could hardly have missed that, even in the dark.

Then why had he not come on the main ravine? Surely he had now walked twice the length of this side branch. He couldn't have got turned around somehow and gone back the wrong way? The thought made him a little sick, for he remembered how readily disoriented everyone had become when the Company, on that first journey through Mirkwood, had strayed off the safe path.

About this time, he also became aware of something, or things, moving in the trees beyond him. At first, he thought it must be a deer, or perhaps even a squirrel, stirring up fallen leaves. He prayed it was not spiders, and he gripped his knife. But he met no animals, and the sound seemed always just past him, as if it matched his own movements. Sometimes it was a rustling, as of leaves, and at others it was the creak and whine of tree trunks grating together in the wind. Yet the air here was thick and still.

Fíli had still found no water, and his throat felt rough and hot. His head, too, was beginning to ache, and the pain in his shoulder, from the bruised joint and from the cut, was sharper. Surely he must come across a stream or a pond somewhere here. Where did the trees find water?

He strayed further from the ravine edge now, looking for any sign of a place where water might collect: on a shelf of stone or a hollow in the earth, in the crumbled bowl of an ancient tree stump. Often he forgot to check that the ravine was still in sight on his left hand. Once he thought he had lost that landmark entirely; his pulse rose to a panicked hammering as he moved back in the direction he thought was right, and saw nothing but trees and trees for many minutes. And then, thank Mahal! there was the plunging edge of the ravine wall, and knew he was not lost.

He squatted back on his heels, panting, till his heartbeat slowed at last. And then in the silence, he heard a blessed sound: the soft trickle of running water.

Fíli stood and followed, heedless now of all else. After a few minutes, he came upon a clear rivulet that ran down a face of rock before disappearing under a fold of earth. Fíli fell to his knees, thrust his cupped hands into the stream, and swallowed a deep, full draught. The chill of the water momentarily pierced his tongue, his skull; then the icy cold ebbed and with it the ache in his head seemed to flow away, too. He filled his hands again and again. For a moment, the thought flicked through his mind that the waters in this wood might not be safe—hadn't Bombur fallen under an enchantment after tumbling into a river? But he was too thirsty to care.

Having taken his fill, he sat back against the stone. The pain in his shoulder was already lessening, and his hunger, too was temporarily abated. His eyes slipped shut, and he dozed for a time.

When Fíli awoke, he could not guess how long he had been asleep. His pains had all but gone, and he only remembered his injured shoulder when he accidentally moved it. He drank some more water, and then pushed himself to his feet. There was something he needed to find, and he had to be on his way. He checked that his knife was securely stowed in his boot, and then strode on through the trees. Only some time later did Fíli realize he could not quite remember what he was looking for.

It was important, Fíli knew it was. Had he lost something? Or…no. He was trying to get somewhere. That was right: they had to make it out of the forest and to the Mountain before Durin's day, or they'd miss their chance and the Quest would be in vain…

He plunged ahead, moving more swiftly now. Once more he was aware of the strange sounds echoing through the wood, and Fíli found himself imagining the very trees moving, shifting in the earth to weave new mazes and patterns all around him.

Part of him was frightened to think of the wood closing on him like a trap. But the greater part of his mind was beyond fear. His thoughts seemed to be going misty about the edges, all his former urgency and concern softly clearing away just as his pain and his hunger had already done. All he felt now was simply very, very tired. Surely it was time again to rest?

Fíli stumbled on, seeking now for a place where he might lie safe for a while. If he could just find another sheltered nook, somewhere with a warm drift of last year's leaves…

Then he spotted it: a dark opening between two twisting roots. Coming closer, he saw it was the entrance to a small cave. A crest of limestone was thrust up here through the soil, and some long-ago flow of water must have hollowed out this space. Now the trees had grown over the hole, their roots draped protectively over the entrance. This was just the place he sought.

He crawled in between the roots. Beyond the entrance, the space opened up enough that he could easily lie down. Thankfully, the earth here was dry, comfortable. Fíli pillowed his head on his good arm, and oh, it was such a relief to finally lie still: his limbs felt so heavy, and it had been such a strain to keep awake till now!

Fíli yawned, and his eyes drifted half shut. Through hazy vision, he could still see the entrance to the cave as a dusky shape within the darker shade of tree and stone. Almost, he could yet hear the soft creak and shift of trees outside, but it seemed a comforting sound, reminding him that the forest was alive and watching, guarding while he rested here.

As he reached the border of sleep, Fíli thought he saw the roots framing the entrance swell and slide over stone. Then the light was shut out at last, and Fíli closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

The elven scouts arrived on the fourth morning after Kíli had sent his message. Kíli looked up from the forest floor—still devoid of any sign of the warg's passage—and there they stood, five elves dressed in mossy greens and browns, and armed with bow and knife.

Kíli hailed the elf he knew. "Conor! Thank Mahal, you came."

Conor nodded. "Thank your wife, as well. It was her message that reached us first."

"Bless her." Oh, she was a treasure, even when she was far away.

Kíli explained how they had lost his brother's trail. "We've searched the area surrounding the dead Northman, but found nothing. Nothing for four days! Surely you can find something we've missed?"

"I'm afraid your feet have obscured any tracks," Conor began. At Kíli's look of dismay, the elf added, "But take heart. Footprints are not the only signs we may read. The living things of the forest—leaf and water and beast—still speak to us."

Yet despite this hopeful speech, the elves were unable to turn up any new evidence by nightfall. "The passage of thirty dwarves is disturbance enough to account for the unrest in this part of the wood. We should be on our guard. On our way to you, we passed several spiders' nests. Your movements may draw them out."

As it proved, Conor's warning came none too soon, for the next morning as they were taking a light breakfast, one of the elves on lookout raised a shout. "Yngyl! Spiders!"

Kíli dropped his traveler's bread and reached for his sword. He had a few moments to be grateful that no magical light danced on Orcrist's blade—at least there were no orcs—before the first spiders dropped down from the trees, unnervingly swift and silent on their silken threads.

They fought off this first wave of spiders easily enough, but these, it soon became clear, had been only the first exploratory foray of a much larger troop. As the day drew on, Kíli's company was harassed and harried. Forced to stay close together for safety, they could do little searching between the intermittent but unrelenting attacks.

As evening fell, Kíli's spirits, like his arrows, were running low. One of his men had been slain, and two more bitten. Thankfully the elves had been able to treat the spider venom, so the latter dwarves would live, but for now they were too sick to fight.

"Won't they give up in favor of easier prey?" Kíli grumbled to the elf standing at his shoulder. He had lost track of how many spiders he had killed somewhere around fifteen.

"It's not merely about finding an easy kill," the elf, Gladwen, said. "For these creatures, hunting is about sport. A game." She looked down at Kíli, her expression wry. "We are not easy prey, but we are interesting."

He sighed. "How many more do you think are out there?"

"I suspect our numbers are about evenly matched now. And what is more, the storm will break soon."

"Storm?" Kíli had been too preoccupied with avoiding becoming a spider's meal to think of what the weather was doing up in the world beyond the tree canopy. Indeed, sheltered here beneath the dense leaves, it was easy to imagine the outside world, with its sun and rain and wind, never touched this dark enchanted place.

"Yes, Prince Kíli," Gladwen said, and he recognized the light amused note that he had first learned to distinguish in Tauriel's voice. "Haven't you smelled the clouds gathering all day? Spiders do not like the rain, and it should drive them off, if we do not."

Gladwen was right; in another half hour, the rain fell, and after one last halfhearted attack, the spiders skittered off among the trees.

Yet welcome as the rain was at first, it too delayed their search. It continued steadily and almost constantly for the next two days. Everyone was wretched and wet, and they made little progress at all.

Kíli was the most disheartened he had been since leaving Erebor. He had believed—hoped— that they would find Fíli before now. It was a sennight since they had found the dead warg rider. If Fíli had been badly injured in a fight, or taken by spiders, could he still be alive? But it went against everything in Kíli to give up the search, when they had found no proof of his brother's fate, one way or the other. He would not abandon Fíli, not when there was a scrap of hope left.

But what of Tauriel? Kíli had counted every day since he had left, and he knew that their son was due to be born in just six days. But six days was not enough time to return to Erebor, even supposing they found Fíli immediately. Tauriel had said she would delay the birth for Kíli, if need be, but even so, surely she could not safely wait more than a few days. He had so eagerly looked forward to being a father, and his heart nearly broke at the thought that he would miss those first important moments of Galadion's life and leave Tauriel without his support when she needed him most.

Yet on the next day, the rain ceased and they had their first moment of luck: they found the carcass of the warg. A steep ravine had barred their way, and at its bottom lay the warg amidst the wreckage of the recent rains. With the aid of a rope, Kíli scrambled down to examine it. The creature was sodden and muddy, but even so, it had clearly been dead some time before the rains had taken it. Of Fíli, there was no sign.

Over the course of three more days, they pressed deeper and deeper into the heart of Mirkwood, following the ravine. Though Kíli knew little of forests, even he could sense that this part of the wood was older and darker and somehow more alive, though in some strange and unsettling way that had little to do with the normal woodland animals and plants.

"Beware of the water here," Conor told them. "The songs tell of an enchanted spring among these old trees. Its waters bespell those who drink of it. Do not drink or touch any stream till I have seen it."

"I crossed the Enchanted River with Thorin's company, when we came through Mirkwood on the Quest. One of my companions fell in and was enchanted. Is this the same water?" Kíli said.

"Not the same river, but its power grows from the same source. There are ancient spirits still awake in the forest, older than all others who dwell here, save perhaps some of the trees."

"The trees." Kíli suppressed a shiver. "I swear they're moving when I'm not looking." It was a deeply unsettling sensation, and he touched his water skin, wondering if he had perhaps unknowingly tasted the enchanted spring. "And all the time, I feel they're watching me."

"And so, perhaps, they are," Conor said. "I suggest you keep your axes stowed." Though the elf spoke lightly, Kíli did not think his instructions were merely a jest.

Kíli chose his steps carefully, moving as quietly as he could and trying not to imagine what trees must think of dwarves. After a while, he said, "If the trees are watching, do you think they can see my brother?"

"Maybe! Let us see what I may hear." Conor stepped close to one of the great tree trunks and laid his palms upon it. The elf remained with his eyes closed, unmoving, for nearly a quarter of an hour, and Kíli began to wonder if Conor had fallen under some kind of spell. Kíli was about to come shake him when Conor looked up again.

"I can sense the thoughts of the spirit moving in the trees. It does not speak—not with the words of elves or men—but I am aware sometimes of images, sensations, though they are difficult to interpret."

"And Fíli?" Kíli asked.

"I am not sure yet. But the spirit is ancient and strong, and watches over much of the wood. I think it must know. So I will keep trying."

The day before Kíli's son was to be born, Gladwen found one of Fíli's hair beads. Kíli's heart nearly leaped out of his chest when he saw the bit of silver gleaming in her palm.

"Yes, that's his," Kíli confirmed, breathless. "Oh, you're brilliant." He took it and then kissed her hand for sheer joy. "Dwalin! Conor, over here!"

Kíli's kinsman came barreling over, closely followed by the elf. Kíli held up the bead. "We found this! Fíli is here; it's certain!"

"Blessed Durin!" Dwalin cried.

Conor nodded, his face relieved. "This may help me, too," he said. "The wood-spirit may know your brother from his token." Up till now, the spirit had shown Conor nothing that seemed connected to the missing dwarf. And accepting the bead from Kíli, the elf pressed his hands to the tree near which the token had been found.

This time, Conor was still for so long that even Gladwen grew troubled. She laid her hands over his and had to address him several times before he returned from his listening trance.

He blinked, finally focusing on Kíli. "Yes, I saw your brother. Or heard of him; I cannot quite describe the experience. But the trees remember a dwarf, weary and wounded, looking for a place to hide."

"Wounded? How?" Kíli demanded.

"I don't know. He is sleeping somewhere near, hidden by the trees."

"Oh, Maker! Where?" Kíli was trembling, head to toe. He had been anxious for so long, and now to know that Fíli was nearby and alive was an overwhelming relief.

Conor closed his eyes, and his brow constricted for a moment. "Under the earth…"

"Well, my dear, he has settled down into your hips just as he should," the elven midwife pronounced after concluding today's examination of her patient. "He's in perfect position for birth tomorrow."

"Ídhel," Tauriel asked, "How long can I wait? I want to give Kíli all possible time to return to us." Kíli's latest raven, arrived two mornings past, had told they found the warg, but the search must go on.

The other elf pursed her lips, thinking. "I have known babes to move into position up to a fortnight before birth." She glanced over to Bersa, the dwarven midwife whom Tauriel had also summoned to this consultation. "How is it for dwarves?"

Bersa nodded. "I've seen the same, though usually they only drop so early with a first birth. Second babes come into position later, closer to labor."

"So you think I could wait as long as a fortnight," Tauriel said.

"I think you can wait, for now."

Tauriel looked to Bersa.

The dwarf woman smiled. "In my experience, babes come when they are ready, no consulting us. How fine to have your elvish skill of birthing them when they're wanted. It would save a lot of inconvenience!" She laughed, then added more seriously, "I've delivered babes two sennights after they were expected, with no ill effects. But surely you would rather have him now? That's two sennights relief and an easier birth if you do."

"I do not think of my own comfort. So long as Galadion will not be hurt, I can be patient." She laid her hands tenderly on him as she spoke.

Ídhel said, "My only concern is that if you wait very long, you will enter involuntary labor. Your body will know when it can no longer carry him. Truly, I cannot even promise that you will have the two sennights."

"My lady." Bersa laid a warm hand on Tauriel's arm. "If there is a chance you still will not be able to wait till Kíli returns, would it not be better to bear your son as planned? Birthing is work enough, without making it harder on yourself by letting the babe grow bigger than he needs."

Tauriel smiled, amused by Bersa's warm dwarven practicality. "It is better that I suffer a little than that my son lose half of his birth blessing," she said. "Kíli must be here."

Bersa shook her head, clearly perplexed by her patient's own insistence on this spiritual necessity. "No dwarf has ever come to any harm by being birthed without his father present. Indeed, I've seen many a woman glad to send her husband out—and he glad to go!—when the real labor starts. Your little one is half dwarf, love; he already possesses his father's strong spirit."

"I am sure he does," Tauriel agreed. Dwarves were more earthy, material, than even a Silvan elf like herself, and so it stood to reason that in the act of conception, Kíli had already bestowed the greater part of his spiritual blessing to their son. "Yet I am still an elf. My blessing is granted at birth, and it is Kíli who feeds my soul's flame."

Bersa looked to Ídhel, clearly wondering if the elven midwife supported such a course.

"I believe I should choose the same for myself," Ídhel said.

The dwarven woman nodded, still bemused. "You must know best."

Tauriel sighed and turned over in bed, seeking a more comfortable position. It seemed that no matter how she lay, Galadion pressed against her somewhere. There; that was a little better.

She smoothed the blankets and settled back into her pillow, but before she could close her eyes, her little son kicked her once, and then again.

"Hush, my love," she whispered, passing her hand over her stomach. Galadion had been especially restless this afternoon, though whether it was because of her own worry for Kíli or because Galadion somehow knew that tomorrow should be his birthday, Tauriel could not guess.

"You must be still and wait for your adar to come. He's coming, my Galadion. I promise he is. He loves you." As she spoke, Tauriel was aware that she reassured herself, as well. Given the way that her son responded to her own feelings, she guessed that if she could not be patient for Kíli's return, Galadion hardly would be. Her body's instincts would be more likely to precipitate an unintended labor if both mother and child remained agitated.

And so it was no good lying here and counting the days it would take Kíli to return from the depths of Mirkwood. (Surely he was over seven days from Thranduil's palace, and then there was a two-day journey on horseback to Erebor. And still they had not found Fíli! Two sennight's delay of the birth would be nothing, if they did not find the missing prince soon!) No. She had to relax.

She took a long, slow breath and another. This was one thing to be thankful for: with Galadion settled lower in her body, he no longer lay against her lungs, and she could breathe more deeply again. Above her, Kíli's gemstone stars flickered in the dimmed night lamps. Tauriel imagined his hands setting each one into the constellations of a summer sky; these were the June stars that had shone on them at their first union.

Their son had been conceived under different stars, on that September night a year ago, when she and Kíli had stayed in Thranduil's palace on their way home from their honeymoon travels; Morwen had gifted them a room filled with roses, a rare honey-wine, and an alluring gown for Tauriel, and the evening had been perfect. Not for the first time, Tauriel wondered at what moment Galadion had come into being. There had been an instant when that spark had kindled between her and Kíli, but she had not noticed at the time; she had been far too absorbed in Kíli's own brightness.

She smiled now at how thoughtful and attentive Kíli had been. Even had their loving not resulted in their son, still she would have treasured those moments. And tonight those memories proved a special blessing, for as she recalled the happiness she and Kíli had shared, her mood felt lighter than it had for days, and Galadion, too, soon ceased his fidgeting…

Tauriel remembered lying curled above Kíli, her heart thudding fast as they both fought to regain their breath after a first spirited coupling. The heat between their bodies seemed one with the light that danced in her, from the crown of her head to her fingertips, her toes—the residual flame of those brief, sweet moments when her fae had blazed in unison with Kíli's own.

As Tauriel basked in Kíli, body and soul, his rough breath gradually slowed against her ear. "That—" he murmured. "I could—do that again." He drew his fingers up her sweat-sleeked back. "When you're ready for me, Thatrûna."

She giggled, her mouth still pressed against his shoulder. "When I'm ready? You can't be, not yet." She pressed a hand down between them, her touch confirming her claim.

"For you, I could rally in a flash." He gave a single throaty laugh. "You know how we dwarves are: you can't keep us down for long."

Tauriel snorted at this bawdy pun, then lifted herself off him, enjoying the touch of cool air against her heated skin. "Is that what is meant by the fabled stamina of your folk?"

"Of course."

She smiled, teasing. "Well, you know what they say of us elves: we do not rush the best things."

"Oh, I could go very slowly."

"I'll let you. When I'm ready." She raked her fingertips over him, lifting the hair from his damp skin. "You're like a furnace, meleth nín. I must be allowed to temper before I return to that fire."

Kíli grinned. "Or what? You'll melt? You forget I'm very skilled at handling what's molten." He slid his hands up from her hips and over her breasts in demonstration.

"Ahh… I did not forget."

She leaned down for a kiss, then climbed off him and lay back. Lifting her arms above her head, she arched back in a stretch, then relaxed again, eyes closed. Her limbs felt deliciously slack—from desire fulfilled, from the mead they had drunk earlier—and she was not yet ready to exert them again.

The bedclothes rustled, and Tauriel guessed Kíli had sat up; she knew he loved to admire her at moments like this. She felt something cool and soft settle on her skin: first on her breast, then again on her stomach, on her throat. It was the softest touch, like falling feathers, or snow.

She opened her eyes to see Kíli plucking another petal from one of the many dozens of roses which filled their room. Tauriel smiled sweetly at him as he went on decking her in blossoms, petals scattered on her brow and cheeks, her shoulders, her bosom, her hips and thighs and feet. As he loosed a last handful, she caught his fingers and kissed them, her lips skimming over calluses from bowstring and sword. How was it that no poet had ever praised a lover's battle-roughened hands? Oh, were there not songs in his touch, his hands hard and strong enough to wield a blade but gentling just for her! Tauriel placed another kiss at his wrist, and his thumb brushed her cheek.

"Do you remember, we had roses on our wedding night?" Kíli said.

"Yes." The flowers had been scattered over the grass surrounding their outdoor marriage bed. "The connection was not lost on me."

He pressed a finger to one of the petals, releasing its scent against her skin. "You look just as lovely in these flowers as you did in your wedding jewels." From his slight smile, Tauriel guessed he was remembering how those gems had been the very last article of clothing she had shed that night.

"When we're home, I'll wear those gems again for you," she said. As he leaned down to kiss her, she whispered, "And nothing else."

Tauriel felt him smile against her mouth. "Perfect," he said. "Now, where shall I begin this time? Head or toe?"

She gave him a teasing smirk. "Toe."

"As you wish."

Kíli lifted her toes to his lips, kissed them lightly. His chin scraped along her arch as he settled a next kiss at her heel.

"Mmm, Kíli…" Her foot looped beneath his jaw. "I have no wish to envision making love to anyone but you, yet I confess I do sometimes wonder: how can a lover possibly make it half so interesting if he has not a dwarvish beard?"

He dragged his cheek along her skin, from ankle to knee. "I'm glad you appreciate me, love."

"I adore you."

Kíli tucked his nose behind her knee, and then she felt the warm wash of his tongue. Hooking her leg over his shoulder, Tauriel drew him closer. He nuzzled into the taught pit of her belly, his breath hot against her skin. As he nibbled his way from her navel to her hip, she dragged her fingers through his hair.

He had to disentangle their limbs before he could continue trailing kisses over her ribs to her breasts. She could feel his body's readiness against her, but for the moment, he seemed to have no attention for anything but her left nipple, her collarbone, the peak of her chin…

One of his hands roved up her inner thigh, his knowing touch finding just where she most ached to have him. "Maker; Valar; Kíli!" she sighed then, not really sure what she said.

His mouth pressed hers; his tongue thrust past her lips; their noses caught together. Tauriel's hands sought the hollow between his shoulder blades, and her nails pricked his skin.

Kíli drew back then, panting softly. "See," he said, "It takes the endurance of a dwarf not to rush."

She laughed, her voice unsteady. "What a fortunate elleth I am. My Lakhad—" His name was nearly lost in her gasp as he joined their bodies, effortlessly as breathing. She tensed her legs about him, urging him to move with her. Kíli rolled his hips against her, slowly, the motion drawing a groan from them both.

When he was laid fully atop her, she pressed her mouth to his neck, her tongue laving the hollow of his collarbone, the apple of his throat. He had stubble even here, and his skin was salted with sweat. She nuzzled against the rough edge of his jaw—sacred stars, what an inspiration was a dwarven beard!

Kíli answered her with patient restraint, his every motion calculated to coax and tease and draw her gradually, excruciatingly, wonderfully to the completion of delight. At the last, he rocked backwards, lifting Tauriel with him so that they sat upright as she straddled his knees. She clung to him: a leg tucked around his waist, one hand buried in his hair and the other clasping his backside to steady herself into every lift of his hips.

After her last needy cries had faded, they remained folded about one another, his face tucked against her bosom and her chin resting atop his head.

Tauriel said, "You are very good at that."

His breath tickled her skin. "You inspire me."

Tauriel laughed and lifted Kíli's face between her hands. "It's true: an elf and a dwarf are perfectly matched," she said. He answered her with a kiss.

Chapter Text

The search for Fíli continued through the night. Knowing his brother was finally near, Kíli could not even entertain a thought of resting, and thankfully Conor had understood. Their progress was maddeningly slow and meandering, with the elf pausing frequently to listen for the trees to reveal Fíli's hiding place. But finally, at dawn—or what passed for it in this gloomy part of the forest—Conor had directed them to a stony outcropping heavily draped with thick, ancient tree roots.

He listened once more, hands on the roots, then looked to Kíli, his gaze sharp despite his weariness. "Fíli is here. Behind the stone."

Kili nodded; he had been conducting his own investigation of the rock face. "It's limestone," he said, his voice shaking with mingled impatience and relief. "There must be a cave opening somewhere."

A first search revealed no entrance, but on a second, more careful look, Sigthorn discovered a place where the stone had been hollowed by water, though any opening in it was blocked now by several enormous roots.

"The tree looks like it has been growing in this spot since before I was born." Kíli's brow furrowed. "So how did Fíli get into the cave?"

"The real question is how do we get 'im out," Dwalin said. "But that's no puzzle." He slung an axe free from its harness and stepped towards the root-choked opening, swung the weapon back for a first blow—

Kíli and Conor both cried out at once.

Dwalin paused, mid stroke, and turned disbelieving eyes to his prince.

"I don't think we should hurt the tree," Kíli stammered. "It's just a feeling I have."

"Kíli is right," Conor said, his voice strained.

"We'll go through the stone," Kíli said, already shedding weapons and armor. "Sigthorn, your mattock…"

Kíli landed a blow safely beyond the tree roots, and the soft limestone readily chipped away in great flakes. They would make quick work of this, at least. He swung again, and then again. On his fourth strike, something shoved his foot and his blow swung wide as he tripped. He scrambled back just in time to escape the iron grip of a tree root encircling his ankle.

"Hell," he gasped. "What was—?"

Conor tugged the mattock from Kíli's nerveless hands. "The tree must be trying to protect your brother," the elf said.

More thick roots flowed down over the rock face like water, lacing together over the stone surrounding the cave entrance. Kíli flung himself forward and grasped at roots but they pulled through his grip, and at last he had to tug his hands back before he, too, became entangled.

"Fíli!" he screamed, as the trees completely blocked the cliff. "No!" He turned to Conor, only dimly registering the elf's wide-eyed look. "Tell it to let my brother go!"

Conor blinked and slowly shook his head in amazement. "I've never seen trees so alive, in all my years," he breathed. He glanced to Kíli. "I will try."

Yet after half an hour, Conor had still produced no change.


The dwarf prince halted in his agitated pacing and turned on his heel to face the elf.

"I can hear nothing. The spirit has shut me out," Conor said.

"Then what am I supposed to do?" Kíli said. "I can't just leave my brother sealed up because some tree thinks that's good for him!"

"We could try fire," Dwalin said, glowering at both elf and tree, though he remained propped against his long-hafted axe. "I don't mean burn it down," he growled in response to Conor's frown. "But bring some flames to those roots, and they should go slitherin' back where they came from."

"I thought of that," Kíli said. "But what if it tries to move Fíli and hurts him somehow?" After seeing how swiftly the tree had acted to seal off the wall, Kíli was ready to believe it might take other drastic actions to protect the dwarf that it had claimed.

"I hope that won't be necessary," Conor said. "I think you should try speaking to the spirit, Kíli. It may listen to you, if you can show it you want Fíli's good. I do think it means only to protect a creature that came to it hurt and defenseless."

"I— I'll try anything," Kíli said. "But how do I…?"

Conor gestured Kíli over and directed him to remove his gloves and lay his hands on the tree roots. To Kíli, it felt like any other tree.

"Now, think of your brother and how much you need to find him."

Kíli nodded. He had been thinking of nothing else since he had left Erebor, so if this spirit in the trees could sense his thoughts, surely it would see he meant Fíli no harm. He let his mind run over the fears and hopes that had fought in him since the first horrible news that his brother had been captured. He'd never known a time without Fíli, and it had been almost impossible and yet truly awful to think of facing life without the brother who had shared in nearly everything with him. He would do everything, give anything, to bring Fíli home…

He waited for what seemed a very long time, but felt nothing unusual. He might have been standing with palms pressed to any ordinary tree, in any ordinary—and less eerie—forest. Perhaps this spirit resented him for considering burning its tree; or maybe it simply viewed him with a more general grudge against his dwarvish kindred, who had unthinkingly felled many a tree to fuel their forges.

Indeed, under any other circumstances, he might have laughed at the absurdity of himself trying to speak to a tree. He supposed he would never have seriously considered even trying, had his love for Tauriel not already opened him to an interest and admiration of green, growing things beyond what was usual for a dwarf. Healing him from a poisoned wound was perhaps the least of the things the Silvan woman had done when she entered his life.

His thoughts strayed to that last nightmarish day in Laketown, before Tauriel had found him. By then, he had slipped into fever and was aware of little beyond the pain of his wound and a coldness that nonetheless burned as it slowly spread through his body. He had known he was dying, but the thought hadn't frightened him as much as it might have, because at least his brother was there, and so Kíli would not have to face the end alone.

How was Fíli now? Was he as afraid and lonely as Kíli might have been in Laketown, without a brother's comfort? Fí, I'm here now! I'm so close. I've got you, brother. Just hold on!

The roots under Kíli's hands moved, and he jumped back, startled. But the tree did not try to ensnare him. The roots eased away, slowly withdrawing from the rock face. Goosebumps chased over Kíli's scalp and down the backs of his arms; trees just shouldn't move like that.

When the dark cave opening at last came into view, Kíli flung himself down on hands and knees before it.

"Fíli! Fí!" He touched dwarvish mail, and then a warm bare hand. He pressed it, but his brother did not stir. "Fíli!" His own hands trembling now, he reached further over Fíli's armored chest to his face. He felt a slow breath and then another against his fingers.

"How is he?" Dwalin called from behind him.

"Alive," Kíli said. "Just…unconscious." His hands brushed over Fíli once more. Finding no outward sign of injury, Kíli cradled his brother as gently as he could with one arm and crawled backwards out of the cave. Then Dwalin had Fíli's feet, and together they laid him down on the soft earth outside.

"Is he hurt?" Dwalin asked.

"Not that I can tell." Kíli was already easing his brother's armor off. "Here; there's a cut on his arm."

"Let me see." Gladwen's pretty elven hands gently pushed Kíli's aside.

As she examined the wound, Kíli brushed dirty braids back from Fíli's face. His brother's expression was untroubled; he did not seem to be in pain. Indeed, he seemed entirely insensible of everything: not so much as an eyelash stirred when Gladwen peeled back the old bandage on his shoulder.

"Is he under a spell?" Kíli asked. Bombur had been like this after falling in the Enchanted River.

"Yes," Gladwen said. "But perhaps that has been a blessing for him. To go sennights without proper food, and with a wound untreated, he would have suffered. But the enchanted sleep has slowed his body. See? This wound looks fresh, as if it had been received only a few days ago."

"His shoulder will be all right?"

"I think so." She bathed away dried blood with hot water that Conor had produced from somewhere—the elves had apparently been preparing for any eventualities whilst Kíli had been distracted with freeing his brother. "He is swollen and bruised, but not from infection." Her fingers moved over the shoulder again. "Ah. The joint was dislocated recently." She offered Kíli a warm smile. "Your brother will mend. I am told you hadhodrim are very sturdy. Given a little time, he will be right as rain."

"Thank Mahal!" Kili felt the strain that he had carried tight in his chest for days finally release. "Can you wake him?"

She shook her head. "I have not that skill. But King Thranduil can."

"Oh Maker," Kíli sighed again. His brother would be well. They could go home.

He held Fíli's face, which was rough with untrimmed beard, and kissed his brow.

As tears of relief slipped from Kili's eyes, he remembered: today was September third, the day that should have been Galadion's birthday.

Tauriel was sitting in the bath and tipping a pitcher of water over her hair when she heard a commotion of excited female voices in the outer chambers of her home. No words were clear yet—the thick stone walls heavy with tapestries effectively muffled sounds—but the speakers seemed to be approaching. She slicked the water from her hair and was reaching for a towel when the door to her bathing chamber opened and Morwen stepped in.

"We've had news," Morwen said, her face glowing. "They've found him."



Tauriel caught a flash of pale hair at Morwen's elbow. "Sif?" she called. "You may come in; I don't mind."

The dwarven princess all but skipped into sight. "He's alive," Sif gasped. "Tauriel, he's alive and safe!" Tears sparkled on her cheeks.

"Annon Elbereth," Tauriel breathed. "What blessed news!" She stood from the bath and wrapped a towel around herself. "You must tell me all."

Sif laughed, flushing slightly at Tauriel's lack of bashfulness. "You won't believe it. According to the raven, they found him inside a tree!"


Morwen said, "They had tracked him to the deepest parts of the eryn iaurwain."

"Indeed." Tauriel had heard the tales of the ancient powers that haunted the oldest parts of the forest. When Kíli returned, he must give her a first-hand account of such wonders! "He was not hurt?" Sif's high spirits suggested not.

"Not badly." A little frown creased Sif's brow. "But he's still asleep. I mean, under a spell! Tauriel, will he be all right? What if he doesn't wake up?"

Tauriel smiled. "I am sure he will. Only those very weak, in body or in spirit, have ever permanently succumbed to such enchantments, so I have heard. And you dwarves are neither—I know so for a fact."

The last clouds lifted from Sif's face. "Oh, Tauri! He's coming home; they both are! Kíli will be here in time for Galadion's birthday."

"I do hope so," Tauriel said. "Galadion and I are doing our best to wait." Yet today was only the fourth day since the babe was meant to come, and Kíli must still have a sennight's travel between him and Erebor. "They will be stopping at Tauroth—the Woodland Hall—on their way home?" If Fíli was bespelled, Tauriel knew the Elvenking could wake him.

"Yes, if Fíli does not wake on his own before then," Morwen said.

"Oh," Sif said, "and Kíli sends his love to you. He wanted to know if the babe had come yet. We're sending a fresh raven back to tell him that you and Galadion are still waiting for him to arrive, and that he had better get here as fast as he can."

"Thank you! I do expect Kíli to prove how tireless dwarves can be by his swift return."

"If only you could go to the Woodland Hall and meet Kíli there," Sif said.

Tauriel moaned softly. "I once thought nothing of the distance, but now…" She clasped her hands under Galadion's weight. "I believe you speak of one in my condition as being 'heavy with child.' I assure you, it is not simply a figure of speech!"

"I believe you! Besides, you both will be safest here at home. Until Kíli finds who is behind this whole plot, I don't think you and Galadion should leave the mountain."

"Yes," Tauriel agreed. She turned her back before shedding her towel and pulling on a robe; when she looked again, Sif's eyes were wet.

"Maker, I am glad Fíli is found!" The dwarf woman ran to Tauriel and put an arm around her, though she carefully avoided pressing Galadion. "I'm so relieved, I don't know what to do. I thought I might never—"

Tauriel rubbed her sister-in-law's shoulder. "I know how it is, love."

With the elves' guidance, Kíli led his company from the forest on the fourth day after finding Fíli. There they reunited with the remaining warriors who had not followed Kíli into the woods and then turned home, skirting the northeastern borders of Mirkwood.

Fíli did not wake, and his wounds healed only slowly, though Gladwen and Conor assured Kíli that once he awoke, his body would resume mending at its normal pace. Kíli remained near his brother's side, sometimes talking as he marched beside the litter on which Fíli was carried. At night, Kíli spread his bedroll next to Fíli's, as they had always used to do on their travels. Fíli did not show any outward sign that he recognized his brother's presence, but Kíli hoped he sensed it nonetheless.

With every day that passed, Kíli felt more sure that Tauriel must have delivered Galadion by now. It was five, and then six, and then seven days after the birth was due. It couldn't be safe to wait that long; the babe would be impatient, and Tauriel would not endanger him or herself. Poor Tauriel! He felt miserable when he imagined her experiencing all the worry and confusion and pain of a first birth without him there to comfort her. And she believed that without him, she would have less strength to offer their son…

When they were a day out from Thranduil's palace, Kíli's eyes, turned to the sky as they had so often been since leaving the forest, finally caught the dark shape of a raven from Erebor.

My son, Kíli said before the bird had even folded its wings. Has my son been born? Literally, he had asked if the egg had hatched, for by speaking to his previous raven messenger, he had learned—after a bit of confusion—that was how a bird understood the concept.

The raven clucked to itself thoughtfully, then said, They told me you have a hatchling.

Hatchling? Then he had missed it. Kíli's heart fell; it seemed a part of him had still desperately hoped he might still be in time. Are you sure they said hatchling? he said. Not egg?

Hatchling. I am sure. The bird bobbed its head.

I see. When did he hatch?

The raven considered this, head on one side. Didn't hatch on day expected; came later. Now hatchling is well and mother is well, the raven chirped, as if trying to cheer him. They are both waiting for you to return. Come home as soon as you can.

Sighing unhappily, Kíli gazed to the eastward horizon, where Erebor's peak would soon be in sight. He could be home in three days if he turned that way now. Oh, how he wanted to go home and meet his son! Yet as much as he chafed under the thought of delay, Kíli supposed that since he had already missed that important moment of his son's arrival, a few more days would not make a material difference.

Fíli was not yet awake, and from what Conor had told him, it would be good that Kíli was present when the spell was released. Such enchantment often clouded the victim's recent memories—Kíli knew Bombur remembered almost nothing of the time between entering Mirkwood and waking in the Elvenking's dungeons. Fíli would surely be disoriented at first, and Kíli hated the thought of leaving his brother alone after all that Fíli had already suffered. Nor could Kíli imagine summoning the Elvenking to Erebor to wait on his brother, as if Thranduil were a mere healer.

Kíli clenched his fists. His wife and son, his brother, were the three people Kíli loved most, and it hurt to be forced to choose between them.

He looked back to the raven. Tell my mate I am very sorry I missed the hatching, Kíli said. I must take Fíli to the Elvenking. In a few more days when he is awake, I will come home. Tell her… He couldn't find words for how disappointed he felt. Tell her I am sorry.

Once Kíli and his brother were settled into one of the guest rooms in the Elvenking's palace, Thranduil himself called on them. In tunic and leggings, he was dressed much less formally than Kíli had ever seen.

After greeting Kíli, Thranduil moved to the bed where Fíli lay. "I understand he has been asleep for over a fortnight," he said.

"That's right. Will it be difficult to wake him?"

"Not difficult." Thranduil shook his sleek silver head. "Though it may take some time. He has wandered long in his dreams."

"Good," Kíli said, relieved. Despite Gladwen's assurances, he had still worried.

Thranduil nodded to the healer who had entered with him, and the other elf brought forward a basin of hot water and a bundle of fresh herbs. As the king crushed the herbs and dropped them in the water, the leaves released a sharp, clean scent that seemed to clear Kíli's mind as he breathed it in. Wetting a cloth in the water, Thranduil bathed Fíli's face and hands. Then he laid his hands on either side of Fili's face, his fingers lightly against Fíli's temples.

Kíli could not say how long Thranduil remained thus. It seemed an hour or more, though perhaps Kíli only felt so because the herbs—whose scent by now filled the room—made him feel so awake and alive and impatient for something, anything, to happen. He wanted to move, to act. Yet the Elvenking sat beside the bed with eyes closed and his face calm. If Kíli had not known better, he might have thought the elf slept: his expression—indeed, his whole body—was so unmoving and untroubled.

At last, because he had to do something or he would start pacing the room, Kíli took his brother's hand. At the touch, Fíli's lashes fluttered.

"Fíli!" Kíli increased the pressure of his hand. "Fí, I'm here."

Fíli drew a deep breath, then opened his eyes. His gaze was distant, unfocused at first, and he did not appear to notice the Elvenking as Thranduil drew away to let Kili nearer to his brother.

As Kíli bent over him, recognition sparked in Fíli's eyes. "Uncle?" he murmured. "Did we miss— I'm sorry, Uncle. I was…" He tried to sit up, but Kíli stopped him with hands on his shoulders.

"It's me. It's Kíli."

"Kíli." Fíli relaxed slightly. "Kí, tell Thorin I didn't mean to get lost. Have we missed it? Durin's Day, and the door…" He pushed upright, and Kíli let him sit up. "We have to hurry!"

"We haven't missed anything," Kíli said gently. "You're safe now."

Fíli's eyes flicked over the chamber. "Where—" He noticed Thranduil and the healer at the far side of the room. "Not these bloody elves again," he growled. "They can't keep us from our birthright!" His hand flashed to his boot, came away with a short knife which he brandished—much to Kíli's horror—in the direction of the Elvenking.

"Fíli, stop!" Kíli flung himself at his brother, knocking Fíli back onto the bed. Fíli tried to push him away.

"Get off me, you—argh." Fíli made a sound of pain and lay still for a moment, gasping. "Bloody hell, my shoulder."

"You dislocated it, Fí, so you probably shouldn't move it."


"Give me your knife, and I'll get off you."

Once Fíli had complied and they had both sat up, Kíli said, "The elves are helping us."

"Oh?" Fíli darted another suspicious glance in their direction. "Is that because of the one you—" He turned red and closed his mouth.

"Because they're our friends," Kíli said patiently. Did his brother really not remember anything since the Quest? He looked to Thranduil, who was still watching impassively. "I'm sorry about the knife, Your Majesty. I should have searched him first." Maker, that could have soured relations between their kingdoms, had the prince of Erebor attacked the Elvenking!

Thranduil's mouth lifted slightly. "It is good to see Fíli's energy return so quickly. I expect he will be himself soon. We will leave you for now, but when you are ready, a healer will come tend his shoulder again." He inclined his head politely, then went out.

When they were gone, Fíli said, "What's going on?"

"What do you remember?" Please, don't let Fíli have forgotten everything of the past four years!

Fíli knitted his brow. "I was lost in the forest… I think I wandered for days, or was that a dream? I think I dreamed the trees were moving."

Kíli explained how they had found Fíli in the cave. "Do you remember anything before that?"

"I— Maybe." Fíli gripped Kíli's arm. "But first tell me: Did Thorin make it to the mountain in time? I didn't cost him the Quest?"

Kíli nodded. "He made it. The mountain is ours now." He decided to try a different subject. "Sif has been terribly worried about you. I'll send her a raven later, to let her know you're awake. You should write her a note."

"Sif? Yes, I—" His face was stricken now. "Maker, how long have I been gone? It feels like forever."

"It's been over a month," Kíli said cautiously.

"Sacred stone, my poor Sif!"

Kíli smiled, glad his brother at least recalled he had a wife. "I've already told her you're alive, but she'll want to know you're awake."

"Yes." He paused, thinking. "If it's been a month, Tauriel will have had your babe now."

"She has."

"You weren't there?" Fíli said, though it was clear from his tone that he had already read the answer in Kíli's face. "I'm so sorry, Kíli. I made you miss it."

Kíli shook his head. "It's not your fault," he said. "You're safe now, and Tauriel and Galadion are well, and that's what matters." And he tugged Fíli close in a hug.

Kíli is sorry he missed the hatching? Dís snapped, staring at the raven who shuffled awkwardly on the parapet under the dwarven princess's stern gaze. The little chick is still inside its mother! What exactly did you tell Kíli?

What I was told, the raven squawked defensively. Dwarf king said to tell Kíli that mother and hatchling are well. Hatchling—The bird emphasized the word with a flutter of wings—is a chick already laid and hatched. Not an egg. It tipped its head and fixed her sternly with one beady eye.

"Thorin," she muttered, though she knew she really shouldn't blame him for bungling the translation. Raven vocabulary was extensive and nuanced, and to further complicate matters, not just words but ideas had to be translated into a form that a bird would understand.

My apologies, she said. Please forgive my sharp words. I see it was not your fault. Accept my gratitude for your faithful service to Durin's flock.

She selected the most sparkling of her rings and offered it to the raven, who bowed graciously. After it had admired the present, it said, May I deliver a corrected message for you?

Yes, I would be most grateful, Dís said. Though I would be obliged if you could carry a written message this time. Not that I doubt your ability to deliver my words, but sometimes men can't be trusted to understand what you're telling them.

At this the raven—which Dís had already guessed to be female—gave a long, appreciative cackle.

After the bird had flown off with a note tied securely to its leg, Dís went to find Tauriel. The elf was in her rooms, attended by the two midwives.

"My love, are you feeling unwell?" Dís asked, noting Tauriel's tight, anxious expression.

Tauriel shook her head, dismissive. "I have had strong spasms, off and on, since this morning. But Bersa assures me they are not regular enough for labor. I hope she is right." She smiled weakly.

Dís clasped her daughter's hand. "I had practice labor spasms for sennights before Kíli was born," she said. "You needn't be anxious yet. Take a walk; that always helped for me."

As she stroked Tauriel's arm, Dís considered whether she ought to tell of Kíli's latest message; news of her husband's misunderstanding might merely increase Tauriel's distress. Yet Dís guessed Tauriel would probably be more upset if she discovered, later, that such information had been kept from her.

Dís said, "I just received another raven from Kíli."

"He is returning?" Tauriel's eyes brightened.

"He will when he gets my note. I'm afraid there was a mistake with our last message to him. Kíli thinks the babe has already been born."

"What?" The elleth's mouth dropped open.

"Apparently Thorin spoke of your babe as a hatchling, already birthed from his egg. An understandable error."

"I see." The skin about Tauriel's eyes had gone tight again. "Kíli has gone to Tauroth with Fíli?"

"Yes. I wrote him a message—no room for mistaking this time—and told him he must come home immediately if he wishes to make the birth."

"Good. Thank you." Tauriel winced slightly and pressed a hand to her belly. "I do not think we can wait much longer."

Chapter Text

Kíli was in the washroom of the Elvenking's guest suite subduing three sennights' growth of unruly beard with a razor when Fíli burst through the door.

"Message for you, from Mum," he said, waving something pinched between finger and thumb of his good right hand; his left arm still had to remain immobilized in a sling.

Kíli threw down razor and comb and snatched at the tiny roll of paper, unrolled it so fast he nearly tore it.

Kíli, (it read) Your son is not born yet (translation error to blame). Tauriel still delays the birth, but cannot wait much longer. For Durin's sake, come home immediately or you will miss it. Mum (T. is still well, but hurry!!!)

Heart thudding fast, he looked up at Fíli. "She hasn't had the babe yet," he stammered. "A mistake. I might still make it!" He ran out of the washroom, through bedroom and parlor, to the entrance of the suite where a pair of his own dwarven guards waited outside.

"I've got to leave," he said to Sigthorn. "Tauriel's still—" He didn't finish, but dashed down the hall to catch the arm of a passing elf.

"Please, will you carry a message to the stables for me?" he said.

The elf regarded him with a mixture of alarm and astonishment on his face, and Kíli suddenly worried that he had perhaps offended a nobleman by addressing him no differently than a servant.

"It's my wife—Tauriel," Kíli rushed on, too impatient to trouble with social graces; surely the elf would understand. "She's ready to give birth. I have to go home. Ask them to prepare a mount for me. I'll be forever in your debt."

An amused smile softened the elf's proud features then. "Yes, Your Highness," he said. "I expect your steed will be ready by the time you have finished dressing." His eyes flicked deliberately down, then back to Kíli's face.

The dwarf prince felt his cheeks redden: he was, he suddenly remembered, wearing nothing but his small clothes, and his face was still smudged with lather.

There was a splutter of laughter behind him, and Kíli spun round to see Fíli slumped against the open chamber door. Sigthorn, too, seemed to be quaking from some internal struggle.

"Err, sorry, I—" Kíli said, but when he turned back again, the elf was already gone on his errand.

"Well, don't just stand there snickering like a pair of half-wit goblins," Kíli shouted at his companions as he ran back into the suite. "Help me get ready!"

In a quarter of an hour, Kíli was dressed and fitted with most of his gear; he would gather his weapons in the armory, on his way to the stables. Before he stepped out the door, Fíli caught him in a firm, one-armed hug.

"Maker's speed," Fíli said. "I hope you're in time. But no matter what, you'll be a good father."

"Thanks, Fí." He clasped his brother's arm, knocked foreheads, and hurried out.

In the stables, he found not one, but five mounts, plus four elven guards waiting for him.

"We're Tauriel's friends," one of them, a female with chestnut hair, told him. "We'd have come with you for her sake, even if our king and your Master Dwalin had not asked it of us."

"Thank you." Kíli glanced at their steeds, four horses and a pony for himself. "Have you a horse I could ride?" he asked, turning to the chestnut elleth. "We would go faster that way."

"Take mine," another guard said. "She's docile, and you'll travel faster with just four."

Kíli nodded his thanks.

"Have you ridden a horse before?" the elleth asked as Kíli approached the animal and let it smell him.

"No. But I'm a good rider; as long as you can get me into the saddle, I'll be fine."

She laughed. "I think I see why Tauriel likes you."

It will be today, Tauriel knew as she awakened. She could feel all the muscles at her midsection coiling tight, readying for their upcoming task. We cannot wait any longer.

She dressed in her most comfortable gown and sat down to breakfast, determined to say nothing yet. She understood there was little for the midwives to do until the labor had progressed somewhat further. Besides, to admit she was on the brink of labor was to admit Kíli had nearly run out of time, and Tauriel could not bear to face that thought before it was absolutely unavoidable.

Yet as she was stirring her untasted tea for the dozenth time, the honey long-since dissolved, Morwen said, "Are you feeling well? You haven't touched a thing."

"I am fine." Tauriel raised the cup to her lips, but her hand trembled visibly.

"No, you're not." Morwen set down her half-eaten scone and came near. "Is it the babe? Is it his time?"

Tauriel was about to answer in the negative, when a cramp in her lower back drew a little gasp of surprise from her lips.


"This isn't how I wanted it!" She set down her teacup, scattering a few droplets of tea across the tablecloth, and closed her hands over her belly, as if her hold could stop Galadion from leaving her womb. She could feel the tears hovering on her lashes. "Kíli should be here! This birth should be my choice, not something that just happens to me. Morwen, I'm frightened. I don't know if I can do this when there is part of me that does not want it yet."

"Shh, meldis." Morwen took her friend's hand and rubbed it. "I know you can. You are one of the bravest that I know. And we will all be here beside you."

Tauriel drew in a long, shaking breath.

"How long have the spasms been coming?" Morwen asked, her long experience as steward allowing her to remain calm and practical under this domestic crisis.

"This was the first."

"Then you still have some hours yet. I will fetch the midwives after breakfast. Now you should eat something. Ídhel said it is permitted. You will need the energy." She placed a pastry on Tauriel's empty plate.

Tauriel lifted her fork and poked at the pastry, scattering buttery crumbs. This was Kíli's favorite breakfast treat, flaky dough folded around apple filling and drizzled with white icing. For all the Valar's sake, Kíli, where are you?

She forced down the pastry along with a bit of cold roast; then she rose from the table. "Send Ídhel and Bersa to me atop the Great Gate. I'm going to watch for him."

Morwen did not argue.

Outside the mountain, it was a fair fall day, the bright sun keeping the chill from the winds that gusted now and again, rippling the golden grasses of the valley below. Tauriel inhaled, drawing comfort from the familiar toasted scents of harvest time and fallen leaves. She was glad at least that her child might come into the world on such a beautiful day. It would have been worse, she felt, to birth him into a storm, alone as she was. Though if Kíli had been here, she knew she would not have cared a nut for the weather. With him beside her she would have felt safe as a she-bear in her den, no matter how the elements might have raged above the mountain.

Both midwives, satisfied that the labor was progressing normally, had consented to their patient's remaining upon the rampart watch, for now. Tauriel settled into a rhythm: pace from north end of the wall to south, then back to north, pausing above the center of the gate to study the road where it first rose into view at the end of the valley. Then pace again to the south end…

She trusted that Kíli was flying to her even now. The raven, bearing Dís's corrected message, must have reached Tauroth yesterday evening. Riding at a comfortable pace, it was a full two day's journey from there to Erebor, but with haste, Kíli might shorten that time. Even so, his dwarven pony could only carry him so fast. He might make it home today and yet be too late.

The spasms, which had been light and short at first, soon grew more intense. After several attacks so strong that she had to stand still and grip the wall till the stone bit into her fingers, she visited the midwives in the nearby guard chamber that they had appropriated as their private consulting room.

"Should my spasms be coming so hard yet?" she asked. It had been only two hours since she had felt that initial tensing of birth muscles. "Already they are—" Another spasm hit her, and she let out a soft whimper. It felt as if she were being crushed from the inside, as if some great hand had fixed itself on Galadion to wrench him forcibly from her.

After examining her, Bersa clucked thoughtfully. "Your womb is hardly open, love. You shouldn't have such pains yet." She shook her head gently, and Tauriel gathered that she was more than a little concerned. "I believe you should take a tincture of—"

Tauriel did not hear what remedy Bersa prescribed. Every muscle of her frame seemed to clench, hot pain flaring out from her center, along her back and sides, through her hips and down even to her knees. She heard a strangled groan, and realized only afterwards that it had been her own.


She opened her eyes to see Morwen's distressed face above her where she lay on the mattress someone had brought in here from the barracks.

"Tauriel, what is it?"

The laboring elleth gasped for breath. "I feel like an overdrawn bow, about to snap," she said. "My muscles are pulled so tight."

Ídhel stepped near and laid a warm hand on her patient. "You must let your womb relax," she said. "Right now, you are fighting against your own body, and so you feel such pains. You must will that Galadion be born. If you cannot, you will suffer without need, and then tire yourself before the true work begins, putting yourself and the babe at risk."

Her tone grew tender, sympathetic. "Though it is not of your choosing, this is the day Pânadar has decreed for Galadion's birth. I grieve with you that Kíli is not here, but we must trust that there is still good in this. And Kíli may still make it. It will be some hours yet before the babe truly arrives."

Tauriel pushed herself up to sit on the edge of the mattress. Her muscles were relaxing from their last spasm, and she focused on that sensation of release as she breathed slow and deep. It had been so frightening to feel her body acting without her will, as though it had turned enemy on her, to tear her apart.

"Now, when the next spasm comes, do not resist it," Ídhel said. "Ride with it, as with a river's current. This part will all be instinct, if you allow it. Think only of how happy you will be when Galadion is safely in your arms."

Tauriel nodded. Could Galadion sense his mother's reluctance? She did not wish him to feel unwelcome. Since that morning when she had first recognized his light within her, she had looked forward to this moment, when he should finally arrive in the world, as a joyful one. She must not let her gladness be taken from her.

"Galadion, meldeg." She stroked her hands over him. "Darthon an chín ah gûr bara. My sweet, I wait for you with an eager heart."

When she returned to the wall, Tauriel let Morwen bring a stool for her, so that she might sit rather than pace like a caged beast. When the labor spasms came, she gave herself over to them and for a long while they were gentler, bearable again. She felt muscles strain, as when she tried to lift something nearly too heavy for her, but she did not feel she would break apart under the pressure.

Though her gaze still roved to the road's end, she tried to set her eyes more often on nearer sights, which she found herself describing to her son, sometimes in Sindarin, sometimes in Common.

"…and there you can see the river, running out from the mountain's gate. The water rises up so very cold, like secrets whispered in the dark, but here in the sun it flashes like fire, like the gold of your father's mail coat. And there above us on banners of blue is more gold, stitched into the crown and stars of your royal house. You are a prince, you know…"

"How are you, dear?"

Tauriel looked round at her mother-in-law. "I am well enough," she said. "There were some bad moments earlier, but now that I know what I am to do, I feel much better."

Dís nodded, knowing sympathy in her eyes. "It's a strange new experience, birthing a babe. Nothing can prepare you for it. But you will do well, I'm sure."

"I do long to meet Galadion," Tauriel said. "It is thirteen days since I should have held him in my arms." She sighed. "I promised Kíli he should be the first to hold our son."

"I am sorry." Dís came near and looked Tauriel directly in the eye. Seated like this, Tauriel was not so very much above the dwarf woman's height. "If Kíli is too late, forgive him," Dís said gently. "He will not easily forgive himself."

"Yes, I know how he is. I am frustrated by the fate that has divided us now, but I do not blame Kíli. His loyalty to his family—all of you—is something I love in him."

The dwarf princess smiled, and Tauriel felt that she could appreciate, better than ever before, Dís's maternal concern for her son's well-being.

Dís said, "You know, when Fíli was born, Víli was beside me the whole while. I think he was more nervous than I was myself, truth be told, though he did his best to act brave for me.

"But when Kíli came, Víli was away on business to a neighboring dûm when my labor started. I sent for Víli, of course, but Kíli came so fast that he was already born when his father arrived—you see, that boy has been impatient from the very first!

"I actually think Víli was relieved he missed the most anxious part of the birth. Oh, but he was so happy to have a new son. I still remember the joy in his face as he held Kíli for the first time."

"You were not disappointed that he missed the birth?" Tauriel asked after a moment.

"No. We had shared that experience once, and Kíli's birth went well just as it was. Tauriel, if Kíli cannot be here this time, you will have a chance to share a child's birth again one day. Don't be discouraged, my dear." Her look turned mischievous, an expression Tauriel recognized well. "We can agree my Kíli turned out all right even without having his father there, and his son will be just the same."

Tauriel laughed for the first time today. "You must be right," she said. She could take some relief in the knowledge that Kíli's bright spirit had lost nothing, though his parents had been divided at his birth.

Still, every time she allowed herself to gaze down the empty road, she prayed, Please, send him home. Help him keep his promise to me, to us. Till now, he had always come when she needed him most.

Yet as the sun dropped down from noon and shadows stretched longer and longer down the valley, Tauriel knew her time was running out.

"My lady." Bersa put a hand to Tauriel's elbow. "I think you had better come back to your rooms. You're nearing the final stage of labor."

Tauriel shook her head even as she bit back a moan; these last few spasms had become truly painful again. When she could trust herself to speak, she said, "No. I will stay here for as long as I can."

"If you wait much longer, you may not be able to walk back," Bersa said, looking vainly for support first to Ídhel and then to Dís.

"Then I will carry her," said Morwen.

"That won't be necessary."

The five women turned to one of the guards stationed on the wall; he had so far seemed a mere observer to this ongoing drama, though Tauriel knew him from the training ground.

He nodded courteously. "Even with the wee babe as an added passenger, she'll be an easy armful. I am at your service, uzbadnâtha."

"You don't understand." Bersa's voice was tinged with desperation. "The babe could come before you can return."

"Then she shall have it here," Ídhel put in at last. "Morwen, have the things brought to the guardroom."

"But my lady, would you not rather give birth in the comfort and privacy of—"

"Quiet, all of you!' Tauriel cried, her voice sharp.

There, in the silence as they all stared at her, she heard it again: the distant drumming of hooves.

Tauriel flung herself to the rampart edge, eyes on the road. Yes, that was the shape of a horseman! For a moment, her excitement faltered; Kíli would be atop a pony, not a long-striding elven horse as this clearly was. But then she saw how the rider sat short in the stirrups, even as she recognized the dark banner of his hair streaming behind him.

"He's come," she breathed.

As his horse galloped down the last stretch of road, Kíli saw the wicket-door within the Great Gate open and then several figures emerge. Tauriel did not appear to be among them, and for a moment he did not know what to feel— relief, excitement, and worry had been fighting in his chest since he had read his mother's note yesterday evening.

He reined up right before the gate and leaped down from his towering mount, whirled towards the door—

His Tauriel was there now: flushed, leaning on Morwen's arm, and still very great with child.

"Taur!" he cried. "I haven't missed— You waited! I'm so sorry. Tauri—" He had to stop and pant for breath, but he caught her hand.

"Kíli," she said, sounding just as breathless if she, too, had been racing down the valley on horseback. "I knew you would come."

"Tauriel, how are—"

Before he could finish the question, she gave a cry and bent forward. Kíli put up his arms, and she let him take her weight.

"Her labor began this morning," Morwen explained. "You're barely in time. We should get her back to your rooms."

Kíli scooped an arm beneath Tauriel's legs, cradling her to his chest, and marched inside the gate. They were the center of a small entourage: along with Morwen, both the midwives were there, as was Kíli's mother; and three or four guardsmen escorted them. Yet Kíli had attention only for his wife, as she shifted slightly in his arms, nestling her face against his neck and looping an arm over his shoulders.

"You smell of sweaty horse," she said, her tone light despite the hitch in her voice.

"The poor animal deserves a long holiday, after the way I raced all the way from Mirkwood," he said. "I left my escort behind in Dale; their mounts were already tired."

"Our elven horses are bred to be resilient. As are you dwarves, meleth nin."

He turned his head to kiss her cheek. "I missed you, Taur."

"Yes," she said and clenched her hand in his shirt front. Kíli urged his legs faster.


He looked up to see his brother's wife hurrying along beside him.

"How is Fili?" Sif asked. "I got his note, but I wanted to hear from you, too—"

"He's very good; wants to be home as soon as he can. Probably leaving today. He sends you love. He says—" Kíli considered the exact wording; the past day had been such a blur. "He says he's not leaving your side till you two are caught up with me and Tauriel."

"Kíli, you're making that up."

"I'm not! He really said it."

Kíli thought Tauriel laughed softly against him.

"Oh! Well." Sif was blushing. "I'll let you go, but— Tauri, good luck! I can't wait to see my nephew!"

The path to their rooms was a long one, over causeways and down several long flights of stairs, but Kíli did not falter or slow. His amrâlimê needed him; he was here; he would not fail her.

Back in their suite at last, Kíli set Tauriel down on the bed. All the fine blankets and furs had been removed and fresh towels laid out in their place.

"Help me," she said, tugging at the ties of her gown. He gathered up her skirts and drew them off her, leaving only her light shift. She was breathing more heavily now, and as Kíli took her hand, he felt her tremble.

"Are you afraid?" he asked softly.

"Not any more." Her eyes, as they met his, seemed greener and deeper than ever before, full of some wild enchantment strong enough to swallow him up. "You're with me. And I want to meet our son."

Tauriel looked to Ídhel and said something in Elvish; her words seemed to end in a question. Ídhel answered in the same language, and Tauriel nodded, seemingly reassured.

In response to Kíli's anxious glance, Morwen translated, "She asked if it is time to push."

Kíli did not need to ask what the answer had been, for Tauriel's body tensed and she pressed his hand.

"My wonderful Tauriel." He clasped his other hand over hers. "I know you can do this."

She glanced up at him and nodded, apparently too focused now to speak. There was an intentness, an intensity about her that Kíli had never seen before, not in the heat of battle nor in the throes of passion. Though perhaps when she had healed him— He had the same sense now that she was reaching beyond herself, not only in body, but somehow in soul. If he were able to see with more than just bodily sight, as he had once on the edge of death, would she be radiant with that same inner fire? He knew she was now pouring out her soul's flame in blessing on their child.

While he sensed that she expended much energy of mind and spirit on their son, he could see that her physical exertion was no less. Her skin was soon flushed and damp, her breathing heavy, as from a rigorous sparring match in the arena. She never cried out, but Kíli knew from her knitted brow that she was hurting. It was no wonder, Kíli thought, that they called this process labor.

He wished there were something he could do to help. How unjust that nature left this worst part of the work to a mother alone, when a father had an equal share of responsibility for his babe! At least Tauriel appeared to take comfort from the sound of Kíli's voice, so he kept on with praise and encouragement. He was not sure what all that he said, but then he doubted Tauriel heard his exact words, either; her clouded gaze proved her deep in concentration on her single task.

Yet for all Tauriel's effort, nothing much seemed to be happening.

"Does this part normally last so long?" Kíli finally asked. "She's been at this for at least half an hour."

Bersa gave him a sympathetic smile. "First babes are usually a bit slow."

"How long…?"

"I've attended births that took up to two hours, though I'm not predicting that will be the case today. Your wife is very strong and determined."

"Two hours?" Kíli moaned. It didn't seem fair for this pain and struggle to last so long, especially not if Tauriel were so ready as she seemed to him. He looked to Ídhel. "Is it the same for elves?"

"Ellith have more control of their bodies than mortal women," the elven midwife said. "As a consequence, birth is generally a swifter process. Most ellith I have attended birth in a quarter to half an hour. But remember that your babe is a fortnight late. He has grown in that time, not so much to be a danger—I would not have allowed that—but enough that his arrival will be a little more difficult than otherwise."

"Of course." Kíli instantly felt sick. His Tauriel was suffering more than she ought to because he had not been here when he should.

Tauriel tugged on his hand. "Kíli, it is not your fault," she said. "I chose this. I could have birthed him three sennights ago if I had truly wanted to spare myself. But I wanted you here."

"Amrâlimê." He brushed sweaty hair back from her face, then took up a hair clasp from the bedside table and pinned up her braids so they were off her neck. "Is there anything else I can do?"

"You are already giving what I need," Tauriel said as she once again reached for his hand.

Another half hour passed in much the same manner, and then, mercifully, the babe came.

Kíli feared at first that something had gone wrong, for Tauriel suddenly wailed in agony.

Bersa seized her patient's other hand. "That's good, love. He's almost out now."

Tauriel was crushing Kíli's hand with a stronger grip than he had known she possessed, and Kíli had to bite his tongue to keep from releasing his own scream to answer the anguished cries of his wife. If this was what it cost her to bring a child into the world, he couldn't ask her to suffer it again.

"Kíli. Kíli!" He realized Ídhel was shaking his shoulder. "It is time, if you wish to be the first." He stared at her dazedly for a moment before he realized what she meant.

He pressed Tauriel's hand once—thankfully, she was quiet again—and let Ídhel direct him to receive his babe.

Maker! There was Galadion's little head, with a dark fringe of hair and tiny, but very distinctly pointed ears. Tauriel pushed once more, and then Kíli put out his hands for his son.

He found he was trembling, for relief and joy and pride. Here was this tiny, perfect being whom he and Tauriel had made, whom his brave and beautiful Tauriel had just given from her body. He did not deserve such a gift, and yet this babe was his own in a way no-one and nothing had ever been to him.

Galadion stirred and opened his eyes—hazel eyes, Kíli realized, just like his own. Kíli gave a small, undignified sob of wonder, but surely no one heard it for at that moment his son, as if equally astonished by the sight of his sire, released a determined wail.

"Kíli, bring him here," Tauriel said.

He came and laid the babe at her breast.

A moment before, Kíli had felt there could be nothing more wonderful than that first sight of his son. Yet watching Tauriel's eyes spark as her reverent hands cradled their child was more precious still. Tears dropped down her cheeks, and Kíli realized his own eyes were likewise wet.

"Oh, Kíli, he's beautiful," she whispered, her eyes never leaving that little face. "I think I—" She did not finish, clearly lost for words.

Kíli settled onto the edge of the mattress beside her and wrapped an arm about her shoulders. "My Tauriel, I love you," he said, and kissed her. "You are beyond wonderful."

Chapter Text

"We did it," Tauriel murmured, brushing her fingertips over Galadion's downy head. He had finished nursing and now lay asleep at her breast.

"You did it," Kíli corrected. "I merely watched."

Tauriel looked up to smile at him. "That is not true. I felt your spirit linked to mine; you gave me your strength."

"Ah, well." He broke into his own broad smile of pure happiness. "I'll accept as much credit for this little treasure as you wish to give me." He reached out and gently stroked their babe's foot.

"You deserve much of the credit, my love. See how much he looks like you? He has your eyes, your hair. Even your complexion, I think." The newborn redness was finally fading from Galadion's skin, but still it was a shade darker than Tauriel's pale bosom.

"It's a good thing your mother thinks I'm handsome," Kíli said, tickling Galadion's toes.

"Oh yes, very handsome." She lifted her chin, and Kíli took her invitation to press his lips to hers.

"Remember how uncertain we were that we could ever have a child?" Tauriel said. "And here he is, so perfect, as if elves and dwarves were the most natural mates in the world."

Kíli clasped her hand. "Aren't we?" He snorted softly. "I'm going to send that wizard Saruman a long letter to set him right about us. Should've known better than to compare me to an orc."

"We must write to Elrond, too," Tauriel said. "He sent us a very kind gift."

"The cradle?" Kíli glanced over to where it stood.

"No, that is a present from Morwen and Legolas. Look inside, on the pillow."

Kili did, to find the silver teething ring. "This is us," he said as he studied the elf and dwarf sculpted into the ring. "I'm impressed Elrond remembered." He chuckled. "Our son will cut his teeth on the image of my nose."

"Better that than the nose on your face!"

"Ha! True." Kíli went to the dresser, opened a drawer, then returned to Tauriel. "For you, my love. A small token to remind you of how happy you have made me today." He held up a hand; suspended between his fingers was a slender chain of gold strung with a single faceted emerald. The stone was a teardrop shape with the chain threaded through the tip, and it was framed by two small beads of hammered gold.

Tauriel beamed up at him, touched. Were such gifts customary for new mothers or was this rather the expression of Kíli's own particular adoration? She suspected it was the latter. "Thank you, Kíli." She leaned forward from her pillows so that he could clasp the chain behind her neck. The stone rested just below her collarbone.

"May I hold him again?"

She nodded. How sweet Kíli was as he took the babe from her hands, carefully lest Galadion waken. Till now, Kíli's gentlest touch had been reserved for Tauriel alone, and it warmed her to see him so tender now with their child.

Kíli gazed down at Galadion as if all the treasures in Arda were somehow comprehended in this one sweet creature. Tauriel understood the feeling. She had once thought nothing could surpass the love she gave to Kíli, but this maternal love she felt now— She was sure she did not love her son more than her husband, yet somehow her great love for Kíli was only one small part of what she felt for the babe who was at once a part of Kíli and a wholly separate person.

A few minutes later, there was a soft knock on the door, and Morwen looked through. "Dís and Sif are here. May we come in to meet the babe?" Morwen had, in fact, been there throughout the last of Tauriel's labor, but once Galadion had safely arrived, she and the midwives had retreated to give the new parents time alone with their child.

"You may."

They all came in, clustering around Kíli who held forth his son while a proud smile lit his face.

"Oh, he is handsome," Dís said softly. "My darling son, I am so happy for you." She rose up on her toes and kissed Kíli's cheek. Then she came and kissed Tauriel, too. "And for you, my love. I knew you would do well today."

At that moment, Galadion gave a soft snuffle and a squeak and came out of his doze.

"Look at his eyes!" Sif gasped. "They're brown. Is that an elvish thing?

"Yes, all elvish babes have their true eye color at birth," Morwen said.

"Kíli, he looks just like you!" Sif continued. "Although his chin and mouth—that's, you Tauriel. And of course those peaked ears! Doesn't he have the sweetest ears?"

Tauriel laughed. "Kíli and I argued very long over whose ears he should get."

"I won, as you see," Kíli said with a grin, for he had insisted on elven ears from the first.

"He's such a pretty babe," Sif pronounced dreamily. "I knew he would be."

"Would you like to hold him?"

"Hello, Galadion," Sif cooed as she took the babe from his father's arms. "I'm your Auntie Sif."

Morwen leaned over the dwarf woman's shoulder to study the babe. "She is right; I see you both in Galadion's face," she said. "He is very sweet."

"Thank you," said Tauriel. Her heart quite overflowed at being able to share her love and gladness with her friends, her dwarvish family.

There was the deep sound of a throat being cleared, and Tauriel looked up to the doorway to see Thorin standing there, apparently afraid to intrude. She gestured for him to enter.

"Come meet your grand-nephew," she said.

As Sif held the babe out for him, Tauriel thought she had never seen Thorin's expression so gentle and wondering as it was now. He stroked Galadion's head, and for a moment, the babe seemed gratified by the caress. Then the infant's eyes scrunched up, and he began to cry.

Thorin's face creased into a grin. "The first time I held Kíli, he cried, too."

His nephew chuckled. "I just thought it was fair to let you know I didn't mean to make your life easy."

Thorin clapped a hand on Kíli's shoulder. "You were worth it, lad." He watched Sif trying to soothe the wailing babe. "It seems he knows it's my fault his father nearly missed his arrival," Thorin said with a light smile.

"Oh, you made the mistake?" said Kíli. "I thought it was Mum."


"Well, the last message was from you, that's all."

Thorin said, "I'm sorry, Kíli, Tauriel. I should have known."

Tauriel caught his look. "I don't blame you," she said. "I do not suppose you've ever had to translate such a message before."

Thorin nodded graciously, before turning his attention back to his grand-nephew. Galadion was mewling softly, but no longer seemed distressed. "He looks much like Kíli as a babe, don't you think?" he said to his sister. "The shape of his eyes, under such black brows."

Dís nodded. "So he does."

"His full name," Tauriel said, "is Zêkhajam Víli Galadion."

Dís smiled, her eyes suddenly wet. Clearly she recognized that the Khuzdul name, meaning "first gift," was a variant on her late husband's own true name. "An honor," she whispered. "My dear Víli; how he would have loved his grandson."

"Here, you should hold him," Sif said, carefully passing Galadion to his grandmother.

Tauriel felt her own eyes go damp. How she would have liked her mother to be here now, to see in her face a reflection of the maternal joy she had felt over her own child! Tauriel recognized such happiness in Dís's face.

"You are darling, aren't you?" Dís murmured over the babe. "And just as beautiful as your amad."

Galadion fidgeted, and then let out an impatient cry. Instinctively, Tauriel put out her arms for her son. Though she knew he was in no real trouble, his calling tugged at her so that she needed to hold him.

Dís smiled, understanding, and transferred the babe to his mother's arms. Tauriel felt him relax somewhat as she drew him against her breast, though his crying still had an urgent quality.

"We'll go now, so you can feed him again," her mother-in-law said.

Tauriel nodded. Yes, Galadion must be hungry. Did he find it a disorienting sensation? Before today, he had never needed to eat.

"Thank you all for coming," she said as they filed out. "Your love for us is a precious gift."

"I want a bath," Tauriel said once Galadion had been fed and laid asleep in his cradle.

Kíli nodded; after all the sweaty, bloody, painful work of birthing a babe, surely a bath would feel most welcome. "I'll ask Ídhel to sit with Galadion, and then I'll draw one for you."

As the tub was filling, Kíli came to Tauriel's side and helped her take off her robe. Oh, he knew she was hardly helpless, even weary as she must be now, but he was touched that she let him serve her.

When she was undressed, Tauriel stared at herself in the mirror on the washroom wall. "I hardly recognize myself," she said, sounding amused. "I was twice this size this morning."

"Hmm." Kíli squinted at her. "Aren't you that slim elf lass I married?"

She smiled and cupped his face, drawing her thumb over his rough cheek.

The tub full, Kíli turned off the tap and handed Tauriel in. She sat back in the water with a happy sigh and closed her eyes.

"Tired?" he asked, not because he doubted it but just for something to say. It had been five sennights since he had last seen his wife, and so it was good just to dwell in these simple, quiet moments together.

"Mm-hm. I've never been tired like this before." She let her arms go slack to float in the water. Her eyes remained shut. "It isn't bad. I feel as though so much fire, so much life, has flowed through me. I am still warm from it."

"I'm so proud of you, Tauriel."

She smiled.

The steam off the bath smelled bright and soothing from the pouch of healing herbs infusing in the water. Kíli wet a sponge and smoothed it slowly over Tauriel's arms, along her shoulders and neck. Then he leaned near and set his lips lightly on hers. Tauriel came to life then, reaching for him as she pressed up into his kiss. Her mouth drew hungrily at his, and her hands closed in his hair, twisted in his shirt collar.

"Missed me?" he said, and she swallowed the words almost before they left his tongue. Maker, he had missed her. His hands framed her face, palms shaping her high cheekbones, thumbs brushing her soft brows, fingers skimming the delicate whorls of her ears.

She drew back, laughter trembling on her breath. "You stink of horse." She dragged Kíli's shirt over his head, and then grabbing the sponge, squeezed it over his face and neck and chest as he leaned over the tub.

"There, that's a start," she said, giving him a last wet kiss. "I'm getting out, and then it's your turn." She rose, and Kíli wrapped her in a towel.

Coming into their bedroom after he had washed, Kíli found Tauriel beside the cradle, gazing down at their son. He pulled on shirt and trousers, then came to her side. Galadion was still asleep, though as Kíli watched, he smacked his lips once and his eyes flicked open and closed again.

"I love him so," Tauriel whispered. "More than I thought I could."

Kíli took her hand and squeezed it before slipping the runestone—another promise fulfilled—into her palm. Tauriel smiled softly as she linked her fingers through his, though her eyes never left Galadion.

After a few moments, Kíli said, "Are you hungry?"

She looked to him at last. "Starving."

"Well then, let me see what there is for dinner."

He went out into the dining room, found the trolley with their meal, and steered it back into their bedroom. Tauriel moved to help him, but he shooed her off. "Go to bed; I've got this."

With a smile of pleasure, she obeyed, settling back in the mound of pillows at the head of their bed. Kíli heaped up two bowls of chicken pie and followed her.

"You know, usually when we're eating in bed, at least one of us is naked," he said.

"You're clean now; I won't object if you undress," she said calmly between mouthfuls.

Kíli laughed, almost splashing gravy. Oh, he had missed her dry humor. "I would, but it's so nice to be in my own clean nightclothes again," he said. They smelled lightly of lavender, Tauriel's doing. On the road, he had slept in his gear.

They ate in silence for a while, both too focused for conversation. Kíli didn't know when Tauriel had last eaten, but he had not had anything since a hasty breakfast of cheese and bread around dawn. He was grateful for hearty dwarvish cooking again: he had lived on traveler's rations and sparsely seasoned game for over a month. Of course, Thranduil had fed them well, but sometimes what you wanted wasn't a carefully balanced array of delicate flavors but simple, good, comforting fare, with lots of butter. Elves didn't always seem to understand how much butter should be in things, such as in this rich, fluffy crust.

He shoved a thick wedge of mushroom to the side of his bowl for Tauriel—he didn't like them; she did—and instantly it was scooped up. Glancing over to her, he saw that her own bowl was already empty.

Kíli smiled at her, impressed. "I've only seen you eat so fast once before, that first time you dined with us." Then, he had invited her into the mountain after she'd spent sennights fending for herself in the wintery wilderness.

"I was too nervous to eat much at breakfast," she confessed.

"My poor Tauriel." He scrambled up to refill her bowl.

Once they had both eaten their fill, Kíli moved closer to Tauriel and put an arm around her. She leaned into his shoulder, her soft hair brushing his nose. Kíli inhaled spicy notes of oakmoss and pine.

"It's too long since I've smelled you," he said, nestling his face into the curve of her neck.

She gave a breathy laugh.

"Maybe you think I'm just being peculiar, but it's true! You smell so good, Taur." He brushed a tendril of hair back from her neck with his fingertips and pressed his lips to her skin. "I've always wondered, do you elves notice that about each other? Or is it just so normal you don't even think of it?"

"Each of us has an individual scent. How else do you think we can tell each other apart in the forest gloom?"

"You're teasing me!"

"No, I'm not. You have your own scent, too."

"Of what, beer and pipesmoke?" He laughed.

"Yes, when you've been spending the evening with your brother."

"And the rest of the time?" He was genuinely curious about how she perceived him.

She sighed, thoughtful. "Your scent is more of a warm, animal musk," she said after a moment. "Elves smell of trees and herbs, the growing things that we are close to. But you dwarves smell most of yourselves, of warm skin and hard work. It is very appealing."

"Huh," Kíli murmured, surprised. He'd never imagined she could find him equally attractive in this respect; he knew he hardly smelled of flowers.

He swept a finger down the edge of her ear, fiddled with her earring. "Where did you find these?" he asked. He recognized the plain silver loops she wore, though he hadn't given them to her.

"After you left, I was tidying some of your things and saw them in your jewelry box. I put them on because I missed you."

"I wore those all through my sixties," Kíli said. He laughed. "Back when I still thought I could look like Mr. Dwalin."

She shifted so she could turn her smile on him. "Yes, you told me you once wished to imitate Dwalin."

"I had a long beard for a few years, too." He rubbed his chin. "Mum was always begging me to tidy it up. Used to ask if I needed her to check it for nesting squirrels."

Tauriel snorted. "You haven't always clipped it short?"

"Mostly I did. But you know, a young dwarf at sixty wants to show he's rough and manly as any fully grown warrior. Plus there are the girls to think of."

Her lip curled up, but she said nothing.

"Dwalin is considered a good-looking dwarf, you know."

"So are you, hadhodeg, though I doubt you will ever look much like him."

He grinned. "I accepted it eventually. The beard was a bloody nuisance, anyway. It made me change the way I drew my bow. And the sad truth was, it made girls harder to kiss, too."

"You mean they couldn't find your lips? Or weren't willing?" She smirked at him.


"Mm-hm." She removed an earring and held it out to him. "I want to see."

Kíli fastened it on his left earlobe, and the second just above it. Amazingly, after more than ten years the piercings were still open. But then, he had worn these silver rings for nearly a decade, too.

Tauriel nudged the earrings with her finger. "I think they look handsome. You should leave them."

"You will just have to imagine the beard, though."

"Oh, I can imagine."

She nestled against his shoulder and soon fell into a doze. Kíli let his own eyes drift shut as he tipped his head back into the pillows stacked against the headboard. It felt so good to be home. Home. Yes, more than ever this really was a home now that he and his wife had a son. With happiness like this, he was the richest dwarf in Erebor.

And not even his babe's sudden crying nor Tauriel's jostling as she rose from bed made Kíli think otherwise.

After meeting the new babe, Sif did not see Kíli again till late the next afternoon. She was finishing a second cup of tea in the royal family dining hall and trying to decide whether it would be inconsiderate to call on him in his private chambers when Kíli himself strode in. He was dressed for going outside, in leather jerkin and the same dusty boots he came home in yesterday.

"Kíli!" she cried, though he already seemed to be coming towards her. "I heard some of the guard are riding out to escort Fíli home."

"Yes. Want to come?"

"I was about to beg you to take me." She laughed.

He glanced over her, taking in her own traveling garb of boots, trousers, and jacket. "I see you're ready. Let's go!" He took her hand.

Sif rose up on her toes and kissed his cheek. "Love you, Kíli. You're the best brother."

He smiled at her. "I always did think I'd like a little sister."

"How are Tauri and the babe?" Sif asked as they walked. "Did you sleep at all last night?"

"I think Galadion slept for two whole hours once," Kíli said, amused. "He's a hungry little fellow. Wants to nurse all the time, it seems. Luckily, Tauriel has that elvish talent for sleeping with her eyes open somehow; I think she's more rested than I. Not—" Here he grinned. "—that I'm complaining, of course. Tauriel deserves it; she worked so hard yesterday."

When Kíli led Sif to the stables, she said, "I thought you were marching out."

"The rest are, but a pony will be faster. Do you ride?"

"A little."

"Perfect." He smiled, encouraging. "Arrow can carry two. Can't you, boy?" He scratched the forehead of the blue roan pony that was already saddled and waiting in the hand of a groom. "Did you miss me, hmm?" He pulled a biscuit from his pocket, and Arrow readily snatched it up from his palm.

"I remember we used to watch you and Fíli with your ponies in the Long Meadow," Sif said.

"We?" He cocked a brow.

"We girls. Don't pretend you didn't notice. I'm sure you showed off for us."

Kíli grinned. "Maybe."

"We'd argue over who was the better rider. I always said Fíli."

He nodded, unsurprised. "You should go riding with him now. He'd like that."

"Maybe I will."

Kíli gave the pony's neck a last scratch, then moved to the saddle. After checking the girth, he helped Sif mount.

"Durin's beard, you're just a wee slip," he said as she vaulted up from his linked hands. "Arrow won't even notice you."

Sif made a playful face. "You're used to girls twice my size, that's all."

Kíli climbed up behind her. "Just tell me if we go too fast," he said as they rode out from the stable to wait for the rest of the soldiers to assemble.

Sif clasped the saddle bow securely. "I don't think you could, today."

Once their division of forty guardsmen was ready, they headed up the valley. Sif couldn't help recalling her own arrival to Erebor four years ago. She had been giddy with excitement, though only half at discovering the mountain that would be her new home. The other half of her had been thrilled at the chance to see Fíli again. After spending most of a year wondering if he would survive the Quest, she felt she had been given a second chance to know him, a chance she swore she would not waste. She felt much the same way now.

They were midway to Dale when the returning dwarven army came into sight on a curve of road beyond the city.

Kíli wrapped an arm about Sif's waist. "Hold on," he said, and kicked Arrow into a gallop.

As they flew down the valley, tears scattered from Sif's eyes, though whether they were caused by the wind or her joy, she could hardly say. She could see Fíli now, his golden hair gleaming in the dusk. As they drew near, he broke from the company and ran towards her.

Kíli drew up just before his brother, and Arrow was still prancing to a halt as Sif scrambled to get out of the saddle. It was more difficult to dismount with Kíli still seated behind her, and she nearly tumbled off the pony when strong arms caught her.

"Fíli. Fíli!" she cried, and buried her face against his neck.

"My sweetness." Fíli held her so tightly, she could scarcely breathe. "My Sif." He released her only to catch her face and tip it up for a kiss. "Maker! I love you."

"Fí, you're home," she gasped. "Oh, I could die!"

He stroked her cheek. "Please don't."

"No." She shook her head. "I thought you were dead. I've never been so wretched."

"I'm sorry, darling." Fíli kissed her once more. "I won't leave you like that again."

"You'd better not!"

Behind her, Kíli said, "I won't let him."

Sif spun round. "Thank you for bringing him back." She flung her arms around Kíli's neck and kissed him, too.

"Oi, he had help, you know."

Sif pulled away from Kíli to see her own brother, Freyr, grinning at her.

"I know." She hugged Freyr and then her father, who had also joined them. "I'm so glad you all are safe."

"Did you make it in time?" Fíli asked his brother.

"Yes, just barely! Poor Tauriel nearly gave birth on top of the rampart when she was watching for me. But I got her back to our rooms before Galadion arrived."

"They're both well?"


"And which of you does he most look like?"

"Me," Kíli said, his expression proud. "Though he has Tauriel's ears."

"He is the sweetest thing," Sif said. "You must see him!"

"I want to." Fíli slipped an arm around her waist. "Let's go home."

Chapter Text

All of Erebor—at least, all who could find standing space in the entrance hall—had turned out for Fíli's return, it seemed. Their cheers rose to a deafening roar as he stepped through the gate, and for a moment, Fíli supposed this must be how it felt to be king. Then his mother flung her arms around him, and Thorin was thumping him on the back.

"You came home. Thank Mahal, you came home," Dís murmured.

Fíli kissed her cheek. "Thank Kíli, too. He never gave up."

Dís released her eldest so that Sif could resume her place at his side and then tugged Kíli into her embrace. "My boys, I love you so."

They made slow progress into the mountain, for all the public thoroughfares were lined with subjects eager to see their prince safely home, and Fíli had to stop often to acknowledge their cheers. Kíli, too, stopped and saluted, for his name was chanted nearly as often as Fíli's own. Yet finally they escaped from the crowds into the privacy of the royal quarter.

"May I meet my nephew?" Fíli said, as soon as it was quiet enough for him to be heard.

Kíli nodded, as proud a smile as Fíli had ever seen on his face, and ushered his brother and sister into his rooms.

They found Tauriel in the parlor, the babe cradled in her arms as she slowly swayed in her rocking chair. She looked up when they entered.

"Fíli! I'm so glad you're home safe."

He nodded his thanks. "And who have we got here?"

As he approached, Tauriel held Galadion out to him. Oh, he was such a little thing, easily supported by Fíli's one good arm. Fíli remembered meeting his newborn brother; back then, he'd needed both arms to hold Kíli. Wonderful, to think that his baby brother now had a babe of his own.

"I love him already," Fíli said. "You know, I feel as though I'm getting a little brother all over again."

Galadion stared up at his uncle, hazel eyes serious.

"He looks so much like you already, Kí. See that little frown?"

"Yes, that is you, meleth," Tauriel agreed.

"But he'll be laughing soon, too," Fíli said. "I used to sit Kí up and make faces at him for hours, because he would laugh and laugh."

"Tauriel says most elvish babes can speak by the end of the first year, so Galadion's first laugh can't be far off," said Kíli.

Fíli turned to Sif with a teasing smile. "We've no time to waste, then, if he's to have a playmate his own age."

She laughed. "I suppose not."

"An elf would grow faster at first, but I think after a few years, you would see little difference between an elfling and a dwarfling," Tauriel added. "There is no hurry."

"No hurry, little Galad?" Fíli gently bounced his nephew. "You won't grow up too fast?" He made a funny noise with his lips, and the babe regarded him with sudden interest. Fíli grinned in delight; he had loved amusing his own little brother like this.

Sif giggled. "There might be a hurry, if you don't want Fíli to steal Galadion away! Look at him; doesn't he seem smitten with the dear little fellow?"

"Would I steal you?" Fili asked the babe. "Nah. Not till you're past the most troublesome age, at least. And your adad has quite a bit of trouble coming his way, if there's any fairness in the world."

"Fí," Sif said, "I'm sure he could make even more trouble for Kíli if he had an accomplice."

"Oh, undoubtedly," Kíli put in. "I know that from personal experience."

Fíli looked up from the babe to his wife. "My love, if we are not expecting a babe of our own before the month is out, it shall not be for want of trying." And he leaned down to kiss her.

No one stopped them when Sif and Fíli left the family dining hall soon after dinner. Sif ran laughing all the way to their rooms, not caring what the royal guardsmen thought; Fíli, who chased her, did not seem to care, either.

Their union had no tender prologue tonight; Sif simply threw herself into Fíli's arms, and he had been ready, as eager and desperate as she. It was all breathlessness and trembling; rough, needy kisses and hands clenched in hair.

There was tenderness afterwards: thoughtful, slow lovemaking before dozing still wrapped in each other. And this quiet closeness was just as good as any of the wildness preceding it.

Eventually, however, the warm spell over them was broken by the increasingly lonely and agitated meows of Silverpaw, who had been shut outside the bedroom door.

"I'm sorry, love," Sif murmured against Fíli's back. "I've been letting her sleep with me every night. I'll move her out to the parlor so she can't annoy us." She unclasped him and rose from the bed.

"S'all right," Fíli said. "Let her in. I missed her, too."

Sif belted on a robe and then opened the door. Silverpaw ran through and immediately jumped up on the bed to nuzzle Fíli affectionately. He rubbed the cat's ears and murmured nonsense until it finally curled up between his feet. Then Sif snuggled back into his arms.

"Tell me everything that happened since you left home," she said once she was comfortable again.


"Yes, if you don't mind."

He rubbed her shoulder, kissed her cheek. "I don't mind."

So Fíli told of traveling the road to the Iron Hills, of the ambush in the night when he watched (as he thought) each of his companions slain. He told of the Northmen burying their dead, and of marching west till Kíli's army had nearly caught up to them so that Fíli was forced to ride away on the warg.

"I remember riding into the trees with the man and the warg and then—" He shrugged against her. "It's as if I had a dream about being back in Mirkwood, on the Quest. I woke up in Thranduil's palace with Kíli sitting on top of me."

"You don't remember any of it?"

"Just hazy bits and pieces. Wandering lost. And trees whispering, moving." He squeezed her. "Sif, if I never have to go back through Mirkwood, I will die a happy dwarf."

"When we rode out to meet you today, Kíli told me you drank from the magic stream, and that he got you back from a tree. You don't remember that?"


"And how do you think you got away from the warg?"

"I wish I knew! Mahal had his eye on me, I know that much. Kíli found the warg's body at bottom of a ravine. Must've stumbled in and broken its neck."

"Mm." Sif brushed a hand over his chest. "I believe my brave warrior prince must have killed it."

Fíli chuckled. "The only weapon I had when they found me was my boot knife."

"Well, that just makes it a better story," Sif said. "But why was Kíli sitting on you when you woke?"

"I'd just been brandishing the knife at King Thranduil."

"What?! Oh Fíli!" She pushed up on her elbow to stare at him. "You could have started a war!"

His eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Don't worry; I've formally apologized and all is forgiven."

"But why were you brandishing the knife?" she asked, still astonished.

"My love, I had no idea what I was doing there in a strange room made by elves. The only other time I've been in Tauroth, I was a prisoner. For a moment, all I could remember was the Quest." He laughed. "I thought maybe it was Kíli's fault we were mixed up with elves again, because I knew he fancied the pretty guardswoman."

"You didn't remember that he married Tauriel?"

"Not at first."

"You forgot me, too!" she wailed playfully and hid her face against his chest.

Fíli ruffled her hair. "I did not. As soon as Kíli said your name, I remembered everything."

"I should hope so!"

"You don't seriously believe I could forget the best thing that has ever happened to me."

She looked up to smile warmly at him. "No."

"Good." He hugged her close. "I love you. It's so good to be home."

Sif kissed him. "It's so very good to have you."

The next morning, Tauriel awakened at Galadion's first tentative whimper, but it was not until their son started calling in earnest that Kíli finally stirred and released her from his arms. She slipped out of bed then and went to the cradle.

"Hush, my love; I'm here."

Already, she could tell Galadion knew her voice, for his attention flicked to her and some of the neediness went out of his crying even before she took him into her arms.

"What is it, my sweet? Were you lonely? You mustn't be lonely," Tauriel said and kissed him. "I'm right here, and I love you."

In truth, it still felt a little odd not to be connected to her babe as she had been before. She no longer sensed him as a flame burning against her own fae, and she wondered if Galadion, too, felt this new separation from his mother. It was not a bad thing; Tauriel knew that in letting him go from herself, she gave him the space to grow into his own being, distinct from herself and from Kíli.

She rocked Galadion in her arms, and he soothed. Yet soon he made it known that he wanted to be fed, so Tauriel settled into her chair to nurse him. Thankfully, her little one favored the elven half of his parentage with the way that he took readily and easily to feeding. Mortal babes, Bersa had told her, sometimes struggled with the process at the beginning. Yet Galadion had suckled perfectly from the first, and the dwarven midwife had been impressed.

"Do you know, my sweet," Tauriel murmured over him as he fed, "you have been in the world for a full day now without seeing the sky. And that will never do, will it? Wouldn't you like to see the rest of the world beyond our own cozy den? Today we shall have to go outside, so that you may know of trees and sun and grass. Your father may be a dwarf, but even he likes to come out from under the mountain, so I know you will like it, too."

"You're talking about me," said Kíli.

"So I am." She had been speaking in Sindarin, but of course Kíli knew adar and hadhod. Looking up to him, Tauriel smiled to see him still lying in bed, his hair tangled against the pillow. She really had missed waking up to him, even—or perhaps especially—when he was rumpled and sleepy. No-one but her ever got to see him like this.

"I was telling him that you are a very sensible dwarf who appreciates the world under the sun as much as the inside of his mountain," she explained.

Kíli sat up and dragged bangs from his face. "You're going to have to teach me more Elvish so I can keep up with you and Galadion." He had been learning a few words and phrases here and there, though as yet he knew enough to make only meager conversation. "And if I'm very careful, I might even learn to make sense of what you say to me in bed." He gave her a teasing smirk.

She laughed. "Perhaps." It was something of an ongoing jest between them that Kíli did not understand the Elvish words she sometimes spoke when they made love. Yet for all that he teased her, he had never actually asked her to explain, and she had gathered by now that he preferred the mystery.

With a yawn and a stretch, Kíli stood and came over to her. "How is our little cub this morning? Hungry as ever, I see." He stroked Galadion's head, then leaned in with a kiss for Tauriel.

"Are you ready to learn about leaves and sunshine today? I'm sure your nana wants to teach you," he said to the babe.

"See, you understand my Elvish already," said Tauriel.

"I just understand how you think, amrâlimê."

"Even better."

After she and Kíli had both eaten breakfast, Tauriel wrapped Galadion warmly, and the three of them—escorted by a small party of Kíli's most trusted guards—made their way up to the mountain gates. Tauriel was keenly aware of all the eyes on her as she passed through the common areas. Of course people would be curious about the new prince in their midst, but she could not help wondering how many looked on her son as an oddity or even a threat.

Her fears that Galadion would not be accepted were pricking to life when suddenly a pair of young noble ladies, who had stepped aside to let the royal entourage pass, dropped together into a bow.

"His royal highness," one of them murmured, and Tauriel recognized the armory master's daughter, Frig. Kíli had grown up with her in Ered Luin.

Tauriel paused, stunned. "I— Thank you," she stammered.

Frig and the maiden beside her responded with a pair of smiles.

"You know, the 'royal highness' bit wasn't for me," Kíli said when the women were behind them.

"I know."

More of the dwarves they passed followed the young ladies' example, and as Tauriel acknowledged their tribute with a gracious nod, she felt unexpectedly warmed and relieved at this proof that many in Erebor honored their infant prince for Kíli's sake. Given the rumors flying so recently claiming that Tauriel had plotted against Sif, it had been easy to forget that Kíli's cheerful charisma and his reputation as a war hero had given him a popularity that even his scandalous choice of a bride could not entirely overshadow. And if Erebor could love him, they could love his son, Tauriel told herself.

Outside, the day was cloudless and bright, so Tauriel kept Galadion sheltered in his blanket and let the sun warm him in her arms. For a long moment, she stood still, drinking in the sight of stone and sky surrounding her. This mountain valley which she knew so well looked changed now, because she was changed since she had last stood here: she was more full of strength and life and love.

Eventually they found shade in a little grove of young oaks which still retained their dry, bronzed leaves. Tauriel eased the blanket back from Galadion's face.

"Look, my love," she said. "What a pretty world it is!"

He blinked, and at first seemed only to watch her face, but then a wind shook the trees, creating a dance of light and shadow, and Galadion focused his attention beyond her. Tauriel smiled. She was not sure how much he could yet see clearly, but she had wanted the living world to fill his eyes from the first.

"Yes, it is almost as pretty as Nana," Kíli commented, stepping near and putting an arm around her.

"Adad says very pretty things, doesn't he? That is why I love him."

Kíli slipped away to investigate one of the low tree branches beside them; when he returned to her, Tauriel saw he held a last green oak leaf.

He stroked it lightly along his son's cheek before tucking it into Galadion's tiny hand. "A first tree for my little cub," he said as Galadion closed his fingers over the leaf.

"I doubt a dwarf has ever given his newborn son such a gift," Tauriel said, deeply touched by the gesture.

"I'm proud of my little dwelfling."

"So am I." She chucked Kíli under the chin. "Just as I am proud of the dwarf his father."

Kíli smiled and reached up to receive Galadion from her arms.

As they continued to stroll together, Tauriel said, "Thorin tells me he has nearly tracked down those who planted the rustleaf. He cross-checked purchases of the herb with households that visited here for Fíli's wedding. Two families bought rustleaf before they came."

"Aha! That's good. I suppose they can't have found the servant girl who planted it; besides me, only Fíli knew what to look for. I gave the sketch of her brooch to him."

Tauriel stopped walking and put a hand on Kíli's arm. "You should go to the Iron Hills. I think you could find her."

He looked up at her, and Tauriel recognized the flare of protective anger in his eyes. "I want to go," he said. "I know I just got back, but Tauriel! they meant to poison you. And they could have killed our son! I can't just let them get away with this.

"But… Are you sure you and Galadion will be all right without me?" Kíli sighed, clearly torn between competing duties. "This is all such a mess. I should have been with you before the birth. I should be with you now! I don't want to miss any part of our son's life. But I can't just sit here while those bastards are still in the Iron Hills, plotting who knows what new evil schemes against you two."

Tauriel stroked his arm. "There is no need to worry about leaving us. Morwen and your mother have been taking very good care of us; we shall not lack for love or companionship. Don't think I do not want you here—meleth, I do!—but I know this is important. You and I are alike, Kíli: we both need to guard the ones we love. Besides, I think you truly have the best chance of discovering your enemies. They will struggle to conceal their true feelings when you are right among them. Watch carefully, and you will find them out."

"I hadn't thought of that, but you're right." He looked up at her, his troubled expression lighter, though there was still a mild crease between his brows.

"Kíli, remember what you once told me: you said you could not be a good prince if you were not first a good husband. Well, this time, you are being a good husband—a good father—by attending to your duties as a prince."

Kíli smiled at her then. "You make me sound so wise."

"Sometimes you are, hadhodeg." She combed her fingers through his hair. "Thank you for protecting us."

He hugged her with the arm that wasn't cradling Galadion. "Oh, I'll miss you!"

"Just be on your guard, for they may yet try to kill you."

"I promise, I will. And I won't be alone."

"I know."

Galadion began to whimper.

"Will you miss me, too?" Kíli rocked his son. "Ada's not leaving just yet. I'll spend this sennight with you. I've got to make sure you know me, so you'll remember me when I come back! And I can't leave your nana till she has recovered. She worked so hard bringing you into the world."

As Kíli spoke, Galadion settled again and his little eyes drifted shut.

"I'm sure he knows you already," Tauriel said. "Elven babes are quick to learn, and you have been speaking to him since he was conceived."

"That's good. I love you both, more than all the treasure in the world." Kíli kissed Galadion's head, and then caught Tauriel's neck and kissed her, too, his stubble scratching her face.

"I hope Galadion has your whiskers when he is older," Tauriel said.

"I think he will."

Later in the afternoon, Kíli met with his uncle and brother, and Dwalin and Balin, to share what he had learned of Fíli's abduction. He paced the rug in Thorin's parlor as he talked, too worked up to sit calmly like his uncle and Balin did. Fíli and Dwalin stood on either side of Thorin, framing him like mismatched versions of the stone warriors that flanked the gates of Erebor.

When Kíli told how the mercenaries had been hired by dwarves from the Iron Hills, Thorin's look went stormy.

"I suspected as much," he said. "After the attempt with the tea, this attack did not seem a coincidence. Daín agrees. These mercenaries made it past the road patrols; someone must have known they were coming."

"You don't suspect Daín himself?" Fíli asked, crossing his arms and stepping back to lean against a pillar. "His son is heir after me and Kíli."

Balin shook his head. "At that blasted Council of the Seven Kingdoms, Daín voted to preserve your claim. Whatever his followers may be, he is a faithful kinsman."

"But that's not all," Kíli added grimly. "Gundabad has a price on my head." And he explained how the Northmen had planned to sell him to the orcs stationed at that old fortress.

"A bounty on Durin's line is nothing new," Thorin grumbled. "There was a price on my head when we set out on the Quest. Probably still is."

"They wanted me alive," Kíli said. That unsettling detail had seemed significant.

"You know how these orcs are about revenge, Kí," Fíli said. "It wouldn't be enough to let someone else kill you."

Kíli shivered involuntarily. "I'm sure you're right, but…" He fingered the betrothal braid at his temple, remembering how that black-hooded creature had instantly understood this woven symbol. "What if the Ringwraith has heard Tauriel and I have a son now, and it wants to get at Galadion through me?"

"How?" Balin said gently. "It can't believe we would trade one prince for another. Besides, I've never known orcs to take hostages."

"It's possible they wanted to draw the rest of us out in battle after ye," Dwalin put in. "But that's givin' them more credit fer strategy than they deserve. Besides, their forces are still recovering since their defeat here four years ago."

Kíli nodded. He wanted to believe them. "No, it doesn't make sense when you put it like that," he said. "It's just hard for me to forget how that thing stared right into me, like it wanted to strip me to the bone, when it asked if I had a child. It was…bad," he finished lamely. He didn't have words for such sickening terror.

Thorin said, "No need to apologize. Whatever the threat, I'm not about to stand aside and let this family be attacked, by orcs or traitors."

"Tauriel says you've almost found out where the tea came from," Kíli said. "Send me to finish the investigation."

Balin started forward in his seat. "Kíli, someone in the Iron Hills wants you dead."

"And that's why I should go. When my enemies see me, alive in their halls, they'll be angry enough to make a mistake and give themselves away, just by their faces, if by nothing else. I'll catch them and end this."

Thorin frowned, considering. "Balin is right; they may try to kill you."

"But I'll be expecting an attack. They won't surprise me this time." He stopped in a round of pacing to stare at Thorin. "Uncle, I want to stop these traitors as soon as I can, before they try to hurt Tauriel and Galadion again."

"True, it's best to end this quickly, both for your family's safety and to show the kingdom that I will not tolerate treason," Thorin agreed.

"And I can't let them think I make you fight my battles for me; I married an elf, and I'll protect her. I'm not afraid of them."

"Kíli, of course you may go. You've done well in this investigation so far, and you need no further authorization from me to seek these traitors out. You're fully Erebor's prince."

Kíli nodded. He had known he was not overstepping his duty, but still he wanted Thorin's approval since he went to apprehend traitors to the crown.

"Just be cautious," Thorin said more warmly, and it was clear he spoke as an uncle, not a king. "No matter what, we will find them in the end."

"He won't be alone," Fíli said, pushing off from the pillar and stepping to Kíli's side. "I stand by my brother."

Thorin smiled ironically. "So be it. I know better than to try to separate you."

Kíli flicked a grateful look to Fíli. Other than Tauriel, there was no-one else he could instinctively rely on as much as his brother. He and Fíli knew how the other would think, would react.

"This is my problem, too," Fíli said, meeting Kíli's eye. "And not just because Sif and I got involved. No one hurts you and gets away with it."

Kíli smiled, remembering how as a dwarfling, Fíli had once given a sound beating to another dwarfling who had made Kíli cry. The other lad had been twice Fíli's size, and Kíli's pride in his brother had outweighed all sense of the wrong done to himself.

"Find the guilty parties and return them to Erebor," Thorin instructed. "Their offense against my heirs is an offense against me, and I will sentence them."

"Aye." Kíli thumped his chest in salute. "It shall be done."

That night, Sif nearly cried when Fíli told her he was soon traveling for the Iron Hills.

"But you just got home!" she said, blinking back tears.

"I know, love. I'm sorry." He hated leaving her alone again; he knew she had been miserable during his absence."But Kíli is always there for me. It's my turn to back him up now."

"I know. It's just… I missed you so much. I don't want you to go yet."

Fíli moved close, and she stepped instinctively into his arms. Her hair was loosened from its braids into soft waves that brushed his face, and he could still smell hints of her warm amber perfume. By all the Valar, he was grateful to hold her again. Too many of his brave guardsmen had never returned to their own sweethearts, wives, daughters!

"I wish I could stay here longer, just for you." He drew back a little and kissed her brow. "But I think of those twenty-two dwarves who died to protect me. It's my duty to find justice for them. I owe that to them and their families."

"You're right." Sif squeezed her arms tightly about him for a moment, then looked up to his face. "And I am glad you're looking after Kíli. He's a good brother, and I do love him. Tauriel needs him to come back soon." Her brows tightened slightly. "Will she be all right with Kíli gone?"

"I understand it was her idea that Kíli should go. She makes a good point: if Kíli has enemies in the Iron Hills, they won't look happy to see him."

"Sacred stone! Be careful."

"We will. And when we find the villains behind this, we're bringing them back to Erebor especially for you to kick."

She snorted, clearly remembering that she had once expressed a desire to do so.

"Now, cheer up, my love. We're not leaving for another sennight, and I intend to spend as much of that time as I can with you."


Fíli moved to one of their big parlor chairs and drew her into his lap. As she tucked up her feet and settled into his arms, he brushed the hair back from her face and kissed her brow, her cheek, her chin, her lips. Sif smiled at last and leaned into him for a series of long, slow kisses.

"I had something nice to tell you," she said after a while, "But now I don't think you deserve it, since you're abandoning me." There was a light note in her voice, so he knew she teased him.

"I'm sure I don't." He kissed her again. "Yet I hope you'll tell me anyway."

"Well…" Sif brushed his hair back from his collar and fiddled for a moment with the toggle on his shirt. There was a soft glow of pink over her cheeks. "I went to the herbalist today because I've been feeling poorly lately. Before she made me a tincture, she asked if I could be— And, that is—" She caressed his cheek. "I've been with child since you left."

"Have you truly? Maker, I never thought— Sif, my sweetness." He drew her to him so eagerly that they cracked foreheads, but Sif only laughed. "That's wonderful! The babe will arrive…when exactly?" Fíli began some mental calculation.


"Perfect. You know, the only thing more wild than the idea of my little brother being a father is the idea of being one myself." He felt a grin break across his face. "It's a good idea, though. Very, very good. And how about you, my love: are you happy?"

She beamed. "Ridiculously. Fíli, I hoped—I prayed!—it would be so. If you'd never come back—" She shifted to sit astride his knees facing him. "Anyway, I feel so silly. I should have guessed at least a fortnight ago, but I was so upset, I didn't really think about whether I'd missed my cycle. To tell the truth, I hardly remembered to eat, some days. I sort of lived in the forge. Working was the only way to keep myself from imagining all sorts of terrible things."

"My poor Sif!" Fíli put his hands on her waist. "I noticed you had gotten slimmer."

"Have I?" Sif frowned. "Kíli did say something yesterday, but I thought he was just used to Tauriel, who was so big with child." She glanced down over herself. "Is it that obvious?"

"Only to your husband—" He kissed her throat, just above her gold and topaz necklace. "—when you're naked."

"Oh," she breathed, almost laughing. "That's not good."

"What? You're still every bit as radiant. Besides, as soon as we tell your mother the happy news, I'm sure she'll have you plump again in no time."

She made a wry face. "Once the morning illness passes."

"Did the herbalist give you anything for that?"

Sif nodded. "She gave me a tonic."

"Good." He pressed his hands up her body, molding his palms to every sweet curve. "Now, if it would help you to believe me, I can prove how irresistible you are."

She smiled, an inviting spark in her eye. "I'm sure it would."

Chapter Text

Being a father was every bit as wonderful as Kíli had hoped. Oh, he didn't feel any different from the dwarf he had been before: giving life to a son surely hadn't made him any less youthful, impulsive (and yes, maybe reckless) himself. But simply having this little babe to hold and to love made him deeply happy. To think that the Valar had entrusted this precious treasure to him—well, it was astonishing, really. Occasionally it was frightening, for he wanted so badly to ensure the best of life and happiness for his son. Yet most of all, he felt pleasure and pride that Galadion would rely on him and Tauriel for warmth and care and love. Kíli had been simply bursting with love, since the first moment he had held Galadion.

And so, although caring for a newborn was proving quite a lot of work, Kíli performed his share gladly. He had been longing for a babe the two years since he had married Tauriel, and a few days' worth of losing sleep and changing diapers was hardly enough to dim his excitement.

He spent the first days after the birth begging to hold Galadion at every opportunity, and soon Tauriel had learned to hand him the babe when he came near. Then Kíli would cuddle his son while Tauriel dressed or ate or napped; he finally returned Galadion to Tauriel when the babe wanted feeding. Sometimes even then, Kíli would sit close beside Tauriel, still cradling Galadion while the little dwelf nursed. He knew Tauriel enjoyed these moments, too, for she nestled against Kíli, her chin tucked to his hair.

Kíli soon found that his very favorite thing was to take off his shirt and snuggle little Galadion skin to skin. There was something deeply comforting about this simple act. Till now, Kíli's contact with Galadion had been indirect, through Tauriel. But nothing divided him from Galadion now, and Kíli loved basking in such warm, immediate contact with the sweet little being that he and Tauriel had made between them. Sometimes he caught Tauriel watching them both, and then she would smile at him in perfect contentment.

He and Tauriel didn't follow anything like their usual daily routine. Galadion didn't yet distinguish night from day; for him, life was a continual cycle of sleeping, waking, feeding, sleeping, around which his parents had to fit their own needs. Kíli was impressed by how well Tauriel took this new pattern of life. She got less sleep than he did, but while he felt even his dwarven resilience beginning to erode, Tauriel seemed to draw on some reserve of calm, quiet energy.

"I don't know how you do it," he mumbled to her once as she rose from bed for a third night feeding. "If I were you, I'd be lying in the crib next to him and crying, too."

Tauriel gave him a soft smile. "It's said that before our warriors adopted the practice, our elven skill of waking sleep was first used by nursing mothers."

"You sure you can't teach it to me?"

"Perhaps! But for now, I think my medlig ought to do what he is best at and hibernate a bit longer. I'll wake you when I need you."

They tended to sleep in shifts, but luckily Kíli still got a few hours each night when Tauriel shared the bed with him. Of course they were both too tired then to do more than simply sleep, but perhaps that was something of a mercy. He had spent five sennights away from his amrâlimê, and he was about to leave her for at least another fortnight, almost surely more. Part of him was growing desperate for her love, but of course he knew that, even had her physical condition permitted it, he wouldn't feel right asking yet another thing of her right now when Galadion already consumed most of her energy. So it was probably better that simply crawling beneath the covers and wrapping his arms about her before plummeting into slumber was all he could manage anyway.

After Fíli, Sif had told the news about the babe first to her mother. Lady Ironsides had been as delighted as expected, and in addition to the happiness of a blessing shared, Sif had felt a sense of completion. Her mother had been the one to discover the tea, and now with a child on the way, Sif could put that unpleasant episode behind her.

Of course, Tauriel had been involved in that plot, too, and so she would want to know this happy sequel. As soon as she left her mother, Sif went straight to her sister-in-law.

Tauriel met her, Galadion balanced on one arm and a comb in her other hand.

"I'm afraid you've caught me half dressed," the elf said apologetically.

Sif shook her head; as far as she could tell, other than her tousled hair, Tauriel looked as polished as she always did. How did elves manage it? "Tauri, I hope I look half as graceful as you when I've a newborn. Here, let me."

With a grateful nod, Tauriel conceded Galadion to his aunt.

"Where's your ada?" Sif cooed. "Shouldn't he be helping so Ama can fix her hair?"

"Ada is in there," Tauriel whispered, pausing in her combing to point into the room beyond the main parlor.

"Oh?" Sif crept to the door, from whence she could see Kíli where he sat propped in an armchair, a burp cloth still draped over one shoulder. His chin was tucked down against his chest, and he was snoring softly. "Aha! Tired him out, did you?" she said to the babe.

"So we did," Tauriel agreed fondly.

"That's all right. Auntie's got you now and we'll give both Ama and Ada a rest. Yes, let's give them a rest." As she talked, Galadion watched her with interest. What a bright little thing he was! She could half imagine he understood her, though of course he must yet be too young for that.

"I have some very good news," Sif said when Tauriel had finished her braids. She smiled broadly. "Fíli and I have our own dwarfling on the way."

"Indeed? Moon and stars, how wonderful! And so soon after Fíli has returned."

Sif giggled. "No! I've been with child since August when he left. But I only just now realized it."

"Ah, right." Tauriel looked almost embarrassed at her misunderstanding.

"It's all right, Tauri. But tell me, could you really feel the moment Galadion was conceived?"

"Not the exact moment." She smiled a little. "I may have been a bit distracted. But soon afterwards, yes, I realized."

"How interesting! You elves really are amazing."

Galadion cried lightly, as if aware that he was no longer the center of Sif's attention.

"Yes, it's true," she said to him again. "You're getting a cousin next summer. You two will be such good friends, I know it."

Tauriel asked, "When will the babe arrive?"

"June. Maybe in time for your anniversary."

"Summer babes are thought to be especially blessed among my folk, you know."

"Are they?" She gazed down at Galadion, imagining another little face that would soon watch her thus. "I'm just so glad he's coming at all! A little part of me always felt it was my fault that I wasn't yet with child, even after we found the rustleaf. I couldn't help thinking maybe there was something wrong with me."

"I understand; 'tis an awful feeling."

Sif glanced up to her sister, surprised.

"I've never told anyone else this, but there was a time that Kíli and I were afraid we were too different to bear a child together." Tauriel shook her head, her smile rueful. "Well, Kíli was hopeful but I would not take the risk. We quarreled, and I felt I disappointed him in so many ways."

"Oh, Tauriel, I'm sorry!" Sif cried. Tauriel and Kíli had always seemed so perfect for each other that Sif had assumed that bearing children would prove yet another of the things they did so well together. But of course, when it came to having offspring, an elf and a dwarf must be very different. "I never even imagined— But of course I should have!"

Her friend laughed softly. "It might have been very simple for us, if we had let it," she admitted. "But we are both young enough to be rather foolish at times."

"Everything turned out right in the end with this little treasure."

"So it did! And I am grateful that you, too, have received a child. I know the plot with the tea was not my doing, but it was still indirectly my fault."

"I knew you'd say that. But Tauriel, everything is so much better now, and it's truly not your fault or mine, so let us agree not to mention that mess again."

Tauriel smiled warmly. "Oh yes. Agreed."

"Hullo! It's my two favorite princesses," said Kíli from the door behind them. He yawned and passed a hand over his face. "Hmm…how long was I asleep?"

"Perhaps half an hour," Tauriel said.

"Ah. How are you, little sister?"

"Kíli, I came to tell you: you're going to be an uncle!"

His face instantly brightened. "Really? That's brilliant! Congratulations." He came to clasp her shoulders and kiss her cheek. Then he said to the babe in her arms, "Did you hear that, Galad? You're getting a cousin. Just like I said you would."

Sif laughed. "I've told him the news already."

"Have you? Where's Fí? This calls for a drink."

"He's at the arena. But Kíli, it's only two in the afternoon," Sif said.

"Is it?" He chuckled. "Well, if Galad has taught me anything these past few days, it's that clocks don't matter when it comes to a drink. Fíli's a father. This is important!" And he kissed Sif, and then Tauriel, who barely had time to snatch the burp cloth off his shoulder before he ran out the door.

Fíli eyed the training dummy midway across the arena, mentally calculating distance, throwing speed. Then smoothly and swiftly, he drew the knife concealed in his left bracer, threw it, followed by the knife in his right. He slipped into a crouch, caught the dagger in his boot, threw.

One, two, three; right, left, right.

It was a combination he had practiced since he was a lad, and the tight grouping of knives in the center of the dummy's chest gave ample proof of just how many hours he'd spent on the technique. He'd never used that exact combination in a real fight, but it was a good drill to hone timing and reflexes. Plus it had always impressed the girls, back when that was something he had thought about.

At the sound of clapping behind him, he turned to see Kíli crossing the sand to him.

"If I'd known you were practicing this old trick, I'd have brought Sif along," his brother said, evidently recollecting the same youthful exhibitions. "I know you do best with an appreciative audience."

Fíli chuckled. "You should talk, Mister 'My shirt gets in the way of archery practice.' Does Tauriel know that's your training secret?"

"She very much approves."

Fíli shook his head and went to retrieve his knives.

"You done here?" Kíli asked.

"Could be. Why?"

"Because—" Kíli flopped an arm over Fíli's shoulders. "Today calls for a drink. Or two." His bright smiled clearly pronounced him in possession of Fíli's recent happy news.

"Sif told you?"

"Mm-hm. Fí, I'm very proud."

Fíli laughed. His younger brother spoke with the proprietary tone of superior age and experience, only one of which he truly had in this case. "Maker's hammer, if becoming a father is going to make you this insufferable, it's good I caught up to you," Fíli teased.

"I have to treasure my advantages when I get them, you know."

"Shut it, Kíli." Fíli snorted with amusement. "We both know younger brothers get all the advantages. You never had to wait for anything I was given, too."

"You got your beard two whole years before mine came in."

"Yes, and you know that means yours grew in three years younger. And you're taller. You've got nothing to complain about."

Kíli gave a full, deep laugh. "I don't, not really. I feel the happiest I've ever been in my life, because of Tauriel and Galadion. And I'm really, truly glad you and Sif can have the same thing."

"Thanks, Kí." Fíli clasped his brother's shoulder. "Now, for the Dragon's Lair, and two pints of their finest."

Thankfully, by the end of the sennight, Galadion was already sleeping for regular stretches of several hours at a time. Elven babes, it seemed, adjusted more quickly to their new surroundings than mortals usually did. With Galadion doing well and Morwen lending her support to Tauriel, Kíli did not argue much when Tauriel suggested he steal some time to himself on the training ground, as was his usual habit. So he spent a half hour practicing archery one afternoon and attended drill with his guardsmen the next morning. He came home sweaty and pleasantly sore, and finding Tauriel nursing Galadion, he slipped off to the steam room for a few minutes.

Before leaving for drill Kíli had started the furnace, so by now the stones were good and hot. He splashed more water on them and then sat on the lowest of the tiered cedar benches. The damp air was heavy in his throat, on his skin. Already he sensed tense muscles releasing. He tied his hair up off his neck, leaned back, and closed his eyes.

He couldn't have said how much time had gone by when his sleepy trance was broken by a wash of cool air as the door opened. Kíli opened his eyes to see Tauriel, a towel about her waist and a bottle of bath oil in her hand. He sat up.

"Do you need me to look after Galadion?"

A strand of up-drawn copper hair slipped from behind Tauriel's ear as she shook her head. "I just put him to sleep," she said. "He won't need anything for at least an hour. Stay here with me."

Kíli leaned back again, his gaze now drifting over Tauriel in admiration. He had grown so accustomed to her previous full, pregnant figure that it was a fresh delight to see her so willow-slender again. She still had all the summer's freckles dusting her shoulders and drifting down over her back and arms and breasts. How he'd like to trace those starry patterns with his lips! The thought sent a rush of warmth through him that had nothing to do with the steam bath.

Tauriel sat on the step above him, one knee touching his shoulder.

"I missed this," she sighed happily. She had been careful to limit her use of the steam room while she carried Galadion.

"I missed sharing it with you," he said, turning aside to kiss her knee. "What's the point of being naked and sweaty if you're not here to appreciate me?"

Tauriel snorted and nudged his shoulder.

After a few minutes, she shifted to sit directly behind him. Kíli heard her uncap the bottle and then she pressed oiled hands down his neck and over his shoulders. He sighed and leaned forward to offer her better access to his back.

"I should be the one spoiling you," he said.

"Oh, I shall let you. But how can I send you off to be my champion without first giving you my love?" She whispered these last words against the nape of his neck, and then pressed her lips to his hairline.

He closed his eyes as her hands skimmed over him. Her grip was strong and her fingers deft as she worked loose each of the muscles in his shoulders, neck, arms.

"You're good at that," he murmured approvingly as she pinpointed a tense place below his collarbone.

"I learned a few things from Ídhel while you were away."

"Hmm. I know that's not the only clever thing you can do with your hands."

"No?" Her fingers caressed his ear, briefly tangling in silver earrings. Leaning forward against him, she draped her arms over his body, then drew her hands slowly back up to his shoulders, making a special point of grazing his nipples. The steam and the sweat made their skin cling delightfully, though her hands were still slick with oil.

Kíli leaned back against the bench and tilted his head up to look at her. "So you mean to kill me with your teasing," he said, a smile creeping over his face. Durin's crown, it seemed ages since they had last been intimate.

Tauriel's nails skimmed up his throat. "Oh no, hadhodeg, it's not teasing if I fulfill everything I promise." She leaned down to kiss him, her mouth hard against his, and her hands slipped down from his shoulders, finding nipples again. Kíli released a soft moan of satisfaction as the warm, familiar flame of desire licked through him.

"Your champion," he murmured. "I like the sound of that."

"I do, too. I've never had one before." She drew back a little so that her rich green eyes could look directly into his. "Not before you."

He reached up to her neck and drew her back down to kiss him.

When Tauriel finally pulled back, her hair came loose in Kili's hands, showering down over him like scented silk. She rose, moving to kneel in front of him. Leaning close between his knees, she set her lips to his neck, and Kíli stretched back against the bench behind his shoulders, gladly exposing his throat to her fierce, hungry kisses.

"I was prepared to wait a lot longer for this," he said, somewhat unsteadily. Her touch, her desire, were as intoxicating as a first draught of strong liquor after a long fast.

Her mouth paused at the corner of his jaw. "Meleth nín, I am not that cruel." She resumed again with teeth and tongue as her fingers crept beneath his towel, working slowly up his thigh from his knee. "I know how you are," she continued between nips. "You crave the touch of those you love. You've spent the past nights—what there was of them—wrapped as close around me as a vine to a tree."

"I missed you."

"Mm-hm." She sucked at his earlobe. "I used to think this was because you are a dwarf. But I believe now that it is simply who you are, my warm, affectionate Kíli." She punctuated these last few words with kisses.

"Mum did always say I was her snuggler," he managed. The slow motion of Tauriel's fingertips on his inner thigh was making him dizzy.

She smiled sweetly. "I like that about you. And I think, because you are a dwarf—my dwarf—the living, breathing stone of Arda that it is my elven nature to love, I crave your touch even as greatly." At these words, she reached still higher.

Kíli's breath caught, his hands stilled in her hair.

Tauriel's smile deepened, and she caressed him again. "I'm still ashamed that I neglected you once. It shall not happen again, beloved."

He felt himself go firm beneath her hand. Tauriel leaned in to kiss his mouth, the slow, tender motion of her lips mimicking her touch on that other part of him. Kíli returned her kisses languidly, savoring the pleasure she offered.

Hers was an expert touch, honed by practice and his own input. She led him gradually, letting him linger on the aching verge of fulfillment until his breath grew ragged and his heart sped.

"Ah, Tauriel!" he gasped against her neck, her ear. "Star of my sky, queen of my heart…"

Her now ample bosom was pressed so sweetly against him, and only the concern that she might be tender from nursing prevented him from filling his hands with her. But she rocked against him, drawing her breasts over his skin, and he gathered that the motion was pleasing to her. He slid his hands up between their bodies. As his fingers brushed her taut nipples, she moaned.

"Not good?" Kíli pulled back.

"No," Tauriel gasped. "Very good." She bit his lip, almost enough to hurt, and he resumed his caresses.

Her hands on him grew more insistent, deliberate, as if spurred by her own growing need. Kíli had been prepared to accept that she might not be as invested as he in their lovemaking so soon after the birth, but very clearly that was not true. Was this another elvish thing? Maker's anvil—

Kíli slipped his hands around her waist, dislodging her towel as he clasped her firm, lovely bottom and pulled her closer to him. Tauriel breathed his name and a host of elvish endearments against his skin. His hips bucked against her, and he gasped and lay back in the sweetness of release.

When he registered that the bench was digging rather uncomfortably into his shoulders, Kíli sat up again. Tauriel smiled archly at him as she pressed a hand against the hammering of his heart.

"That was a very flattering response for an elleth who has only her hands to work with," she said.

Kíli chuckled as he caught her about the shoulders and scooped her to him, her back to his chest. "Flattery had nothing to do with it," he murmured against her. "Gold doesn't melt to flatter the jeweler. It merely responds to her expert handling." He slid a hand down over her abdomen and between her legs. "I'm not finished with you."

"I should hope not," she returned breathlessly.

He kissed her behind the ear. "Tell me if I do anything that hurts." With the hand that wasn't already occupied, he cupped her breast.

"I will. Kíli, just—ah!—don't stop…"

In truth, Kíli enjoyed making love to her like this, one at a time, nearly as much as he enjoyed the union of coupling. Without his own delirium distracting him, he could fully appreciate every little hitch in Tauriel's breath, each flutter of her lashes. He knew her every sigh, every soft groan in connection with just what had evoked it. The mounting crescendo of her pulse spurred him on as much as his own pleasure could; indeed, he had learned to read the responses of her own body almost as if it was his own, fitting his touch to her wishes.

Today, he was careful to keep his caresses from aggravating her where she was still healing from the birth, yet even with that limitation, he seemed to be doing plenty of good. Tauriel stretched back against him, reaching up behind her shoulder to clasp his neck, her nails skimming his scalp. Her other hand was grasped tight about his thigh, apparently steadying herself against the urge to aid his touch with her own body's motion.

When his name rose to her lips, he slipped to the floor behind her, pulling her flush to his body and letting the movement of his own hips direct her. He smiled to feel her relax her weight against him, knowing she trusted him to bring her to completion.

She reached the highest delight soundlessly, on a soft intake of breath that shook her from crown to toes. Kíli lifted his hips again, and she cried out in wordless bliss. He held her tight for those few precious moments of ecstasy, drawing them out as best he could. When her last shiver had passed, he released her, and she tipped forward from his arms, panting for breath on hands and knees.

Her hair, damp from steam and sweat, clung in messy ringlets down her back, and her dewy shoulders and cheeks glowed under the lamplight. Kíli reached out to trace the curve of her backbone. "You're beautiful, my Thatrûna."

She looked back at him, a satisfied smile on her lips. "Whatever you may say, I find it very flattering to be handled with your expert touch."

He smirked, pleased.

Tauriel stood up, her long hair teasing her form delightfully as she moved. Kíli knew he ought not be disappointed that their time alone was ending so soon—of course he was grateful that Tauriel had found even these few minutes to spare for him—yet even so, he could not help feeling sorry. But, after putting more water on the furnace, she came back to him.

His momentary disappointment must have shown on his face, for Tauriel gave him a sultry look. "We still have the better part of an hour, so I'm going nowhere yet, my love. As you said, you are sweaty and naked, and I mean to appreciate that."

All too quickly, his sennight home was over, Kíli found. Indeed, it might have been far too easy to find excuses never to leave, had not his growing love for his son spurred him to eliminate the threat to his family. He would do anything, everything, to guard his two dearest treasures.

Still, he would miss them immensely while he was away. He told Tauriel as much, wistfully, upon coming back to their rooms after a last council meeting on the night before his departure. "You two are my moon and stars," he said. "The sky isn't the same without you."

"I'll miss you just as much." Tauriel rose from her chair and came to hug him. "Oof! You're more solid than usual."

He grinned at her and tugged open his collar. There, beneath his coat, was a layer of steel rings, light and finely woven.

"Dragon's skin, it's called," he said. "Not as efficient as mithril, but still very good protection against a knife. I'm not taking any chances."

"Good." She caught his collar and pulled him closer for a kiss. "You had a beer on your way home. Mmm… oatmeal stout, I think."

"Right you are. But Fí and I had the meeting in the taproom. Speaking of efficient."

Tauriel straightened. "Please be careful, my love." She brushed her thumbs over his cheeks.

"I will." Kíli kissed her palm.

"I know. I trust you; you mustn't think I don't. But I have to say it because I love you."

"Yes." He slid his arms around her waist and held her tight for a few moments. "I'm going to put an end to this conspiracy once and for all, and then I'm coming home to be a father to my little cub."

"And a husband to your amrâlimê? She needs you, too."

"Oh, that's absolutely implied. A good father looks after Amad." He returned her meaningful look.

"Kíli, when you return I will be fully healed from the birth."

"So you will be. That's a good thought to get me through the cold, lonely nights without you."

"My poor hadhodeg." She kissed his brow. "You need not be cold nor lonely for one more night, at least. Come lie down with me, and we may be warm and comfortable a while before Galadion decides he needs me again."

"All right. Let me just shed this mail. Dragons aren't known for being snuggly."