"Well done, lad!"
"A true heir of Durin."
"Look who's a big boy now!"
The Dwarves around him were cheering and clapping him on the shoulders. Thorin had just announced that Fíli had finally managed to catch up with his younger brother and destroyed his first enemy. Fíli smiled, even though he was weary from the fight. He should probably be proud, but he did not really feel anything. He just felt kind of empty. A hip flask was pushed into his hand and he took a sip of strong liquor. His mother would not approve, but then again, she had not approved of him accompanying his uncle on this trip at all. He could see why now. But really, what did she expect? This was what he had been trained to do. He was a warrior. This was his job. She should just be happy he had done it so well. It had been swift and clean and necessary. Yes, definitely necessary. Kill or be killed. Classic scenario, really. He had been trained for this sort of thing.
"Dwalin, get a few men together to bury these filthy robbers. We don't want to attract any more animals. The rest of you, see to the ponies. We camp down by the river tonight. Make sure you wash your wounds," Thorin instructed.
The merchants they were escorting chatted animatedly among themselves as they led their ponies down to the water and checked on the state of their precious cargo. Fíli paused for a moment, unsure of what to do, and then he wandered off into the woods where Dwalin had just picked up one of the corpses. The young Man with the ginger hair lay next to a birch tree. Or rather his body lay there. Fíli had seen to it that it was just his body now. He looked a little like Ori, with his red hair and freckles. Fíli wondered how old the man was. He had no beard, but Men never really did. He was tall and lanky, just like all the others. It was difficult to tell with Men, but somehow Fíli felt that this one was quite young. Had been quite young, he corrected himself. Maybe there was a little brother waiting for him somewhere. Or a mother who would cry over the loss of her firstborn. Fíli stared at the hazel eyes, but it was difficult to see the life this Man had led. Something had broken in his eyes when he died. There was nothing left now, but a little earlier those eyes had been full of… of a past and a future. And full of fear. Fíli shuddered as he remembered it. Full of fear. Just like he had been.
"You alright, lad?" Dwalin was suddenly next to him.
"Aye… fine…" Fíli mumbled as he tore his gaze from the dead man's face and turned away. "They attacked us… they had no right…"
As he walked away, he could hear Dwalin say something, but paid him no heed. Let the warrior do Thorin's dirty work just like he always did. There was no need for him to linger here.
The dead man's eyes stayed with him though. They followed him as he went about his usual tasks around the camp and all through their evening meal. Óin had insisted on checking him for wounds, but had found nothing but minor scrapes and bruises. He could defend himself just fine. And the others as well. He was a proper warrior now. He should probably feel excited about that. It was high time after all. Kíli had had his first kill the previous summer. He had bragged about it for weeks. He would be excited for Fíli. At least that meant one of them was excited. Fíli himself could not get rid of those eyes. So bright and so afraid. Those eyes haunted him. He drew his cloak around his shoulders as he sat on his bedroll and stared into the fire. There was the usual din of conversation around him and he could hear Dwalin call out to Thorin. A moment later, his uncle's hand was on his shoulder.
"A word, please, Fíli."
He stood and followed Thorin to the bank of the river where his uncle sat down on a large rock and motioned for Fíli to join him. They sat in silence for a while.
"You fought well today."
"I have been well trained."
"You were very brave."
"Thank you, uncle."
Only the water could be heard and the rustling of the wind in the leaves of the trees behind them. Then Thorin made another attempt at conversation.
"Does it trouble you?"
Fíli made no answer. Thorin did not speak again, but he did not move away from him either. They just sat and stared out into the darkness. There were so many images swirling around in Fíli's head. The young man who looked so much like Ori. The feel of the flesh as his sword sliced through it. The blood. And the eyes, his thoughts always returned to those hazel eyes. Finally, Fíli could not take it any longer.
"I killed him," he blurted out. He quickly shut his mouth again and bit his lips.
"You eliminated an enemy," his uncle said. Fíli gnawed at his lower lip.
"He was afraid," he said, and then added reluctantly. "And so was I."
"He was attacking an innocent trade caravan for his own personal gain. You were defending your own life and the lives of your kin."
Fíli thought about that. He had been defending himself, hadn't he? He had been sure that that ginger man was about to kill him. But did he have to take his life? He could have just… maybe he did not have to. Maybe there had been other options. Maybe if he had just maimed him, maybe then this young man would still have a future. But he had just… he did not even know how it had happened.
"I didn't want to," the words just burst out of him. "I didn't even want to kill him. My brain said not to. But then I… somehow I just…" He mimed a cutting motion with his right hand and fell silent again.
"That's what we train you for. That's all your hard work paying off," Thorin said.
"You trained me to do something I did not want to do?" Fíli asked.
"We trained you to have the best chances of survival, to not have to think about what to do in a fight."
Fíli stared at the dark outline of his uncle incredulously. "You turned me into a mindless puppet?"
Thorin slowly turned to face him.
"No," he said slowly. "We made sure you had already thought about your reaction before you got into a real fight. You already knew what you had to do and you did it. You disposed of your enemy because deep down you knew it was the right thing to do, even though your emotions took over and told you not to do it. All your training gave you that advantage. Even though your mind was afraid, your body instinctively performed the right motions."
"I would still like to be in control of my actions!"
"Sometimes your brain is just not fast enough," Thorin explained. "If you grab a hot iron in the forge, you don't think about how it will burn your skin and that it's really going to hurt soon. You just let go. The moment that it would take you to think about that would be too long to avoid serious harm. It's the same in battle. Your body is trained to do what it needs to do. It does so much quicker than your brain could ever determine the right course of action. You did the right thing."
"Then why does it feel so wrong?" Fíli almost shouted, eliciting a "shhh" from his uncle. "All my life, I have been taught that it is wrong to hurt others. Don't pull the cat's tail. Don't hit your brother. And now you are telling me it's right to kill? What sort of logic is that?"
He was pulling on one of his braids now, twisting it around his fingers.
"It's wrong. Balin made me read the Khuzdul scrolls with our laws. It says so. You shall not kill. That's what it says!"
"Not quite up to your usual standard, Fíli. That is an incorrect translation. 'Ma zatâmradimênu' is what the cirth actually say. Not 'Ma zatamardimênu'. 'You shall not murder' not 'You shall not kill'. There is a difference. Murder is wrong. Mahal condemns it. We condemn it. But killing does not have to be wrong. If you look at the old legends, Mahal himself supported many wars and warriors. If you are fighting for a just cause, in a good war, you kill, but you don't murder. Mahal is on your side!"
Fíli did not have an answer to that although secretly he thought that it was a cheap excuse, a way to twist the words to make them fit the circumstances. 'Ma zatâmradimênu' he repeated in his mind. He knew the word zatâmrad, but it was not commonly used. To murder or to kill, it seemed to be such a small difference. Was this how generations of dwarves had justified their deeds? Thorin's words seemed hollow to him. But maybe that was just him. Everybody else seemed to just get on with it. Thorin himself had killed another one of their attackers, Dwalin at least two. They were not making such a fuss about it. And Kíli had been beaming after his first kill. He had recounted his shot in great detail to anyone who would listen and had certainly not been curling up in a corner, all miserable and pitiful. Even his baby brother could stomach a good kill. He might as well relinquish his position as Thorin's heir right now. Not like he would make much of a leader if a bit of blood on his hands after a little skirmish spooked him like that. He stared at his hands. There was nothing to be seen in the dark and in any case, he had washed them before supper. But still his hands seemed to be dirty. He thought he could still feel the sticky red blood. He flexed his fingers. His hands were different now. Killer hands. Thorin put a hand on his forearm.
"I would be more worried if it did not affect you at all," he said.
Fíli snorted. "Kíli was all right!"
"He is an archer," Thorin stated as if that explained everything.
"What has that got to do with anything?"
"It's different from a distance," Thorin explained. "Up close our brains don't want us to eliminate another person. But if you are further apart from your enemy that changes. It's the same with animals. If you run away from a dog, it will chase you and it might destroy you. From a distance we don't see the features. There is nothing to remind us of ourselves. We don't hear an enemy's breath; we don't see their blood. They are just a shape. Everybody can get rid of a shape."
That somehow made sense to Fíli. "So it's less… personal," he said.
"Exactly," confirmed Thorin. "Doing it with a sword or an axe is very intimate. It stays with you much more than a hit with an arrow. Often the ones who dispatch of the largest number of enemies are the least affected by it. I have met dwarves who lit a fire at the mouth of a cave to suffocate hundreds within, and they never lost any sleep over it. For them the ones they disposed of had no faces, no history, and no emotions."
Fíli thought about that for a while, thinking about how his brother would have never seen the fear in the eyes of the one he had killed. He was glad that there were no eyes to haunt Kíli. But he himself still saw the hazel eyes staring at him.
"But I'm not very good with a bow," he mused.
"You are excellent with sword and axe," his uncle reassured him. "Those are good and honourable weapons. As you grow, it will become easier to bear the responsibility that comes with your skill."
For a long time only the repetitive patter of the water filled the silence. The chatter around the campfire seemed to have died down by now. Fíli stared into the darkness.
"I have never felt this bad before," he said.
"You have seen others die," Thorin sounded surprised. "Other dwarves, your comrades, those who were dear to you. Was that not worse?"
"That was bad," Fíli agreed. "Particularly when father died. I thought I would never be happy again. Like the pain would never fade. I felt like there was nothing good left in the world. But now it's different… now I feel like there is nothing good left in me. Somehow that is worse."
"Oh Fíli," Thorin sighed. "Of course there is good left in you! You are still who you were before."
"I'm not though, am I? I'm a killer now," Fíli said flatly.
"You are still exactly who you have always been. When you do something, experience something new, that does not take anything away from what you have already done, from who you are. You did not cease to be Fíli when I named you my heir. You just added something else to who you are. You are not just a fighter, or a smith or a brother or a son. You are so many things!"
Right now, Fíli actually did not feel like he was anything at all. He felt like he had lost himself somehow in the few hours that had passed since the attack. Like he had somehow been buried in the forest and only his physical form was sitting here now. But he guessed Thorin was right. He could not deny that he was still the son of Dís, brother of Kíli. He was that, even though his evil act cast a shadow over him. When he did not reply, Thorin continued.
"It is just one deed. It does not define you."
"How many until it does?" Fíli looked his uncle in the eye now, even though he could barely discern his features in the dark. "You say it's only one deed. But how long is it going to stay that way? How long until I do it again? This is what you have raised me to do. This is my job now! How many do I have to kill until it becomes all there is to me? How many have you killed, Thorin? How about Dwalin? How many does it take to cross the line?"
Thorin breathed in and out deeply a couple of times. He seemed shaken at his nephew's outburst. Good. About time somebody made him break out of his stoic rockface. Always so cold and collected, his uncle. Even his well-known temper was predictable, as there were only a few people and a few topics that could arouse his anger. This was new. Fíli was sure that nobody had ever accused Thorin of killing people. Praised him for it, certainly, but never accused him of it. Nevertheless, his uncle's voice was surprisingly calm when he replied.
"You do not want to believe me, Fíli, but there is a difference between the act of killing somebody and murder. I have only ever disposed of enemies in a righteous war and when I was fighting on the side of justice. I have done many things, but I have never murdered anyone. I too am many things, but being a murderer is not one of them. In that respect, I'm just the same as you are."
"You are not," said Fíli. "It's different for me!"
"Is it really? Do not fool yourself. You are neither the first nor the last one to experience these feelings. You are not unique in that respect, or somehow marked, or odd. Many warriors share this with you. It is quite normal."
"It is never like that in the stories."
"Oh Fíli," Thorin seemed to actually suppress a laugh now. "You are old enough to realise that the stories do not tell the whole truth. In the stories, nobody ever has to head to the outhouse in the middle of the night, either. Stories do not tell you everything. I certainly hope that when people tell stories about me, they miss out the bit about my little nephews attempting to braid my hair while I was asleep."
Fíli did not smile. An icy silence stretched between them until Thorin continued in a more sombre tone.
"Stories are told for a reason. Usually to remind the listener of the value of courage, hard work and good craftsmanship. We do not often tell stories about the challenges we cannot attack with hammer, axe or sword. You have heard stories about the great deeds that Dwalin has done in battle. He has been very valuable to me and to my father before me. Some even call him a hero. But I bet you have not heard a story about how Dwalin still has trouble sleeping when we make camp in a small cave. One of the greatest dwarven warriors I know does not like to be underground."
"Really?" Fíli asked quietly. "But why is Dwalin afraid of something silly like caves?"
"He was very young in the war against the Orcs and Balin made sure to keep him away from the fighting. Mostly, he just assisted his uncle Gróin with the wounded. But still, something happened during those years we spent in the caves and tunnels underneath the Misty Mountains… something that added a new element to the Dwalin I knew before. But he is still the same Dwarf. He is still my good friend, and he is still a great warrior. You see, we all are many things. Not all of them are mentioned in the stories."
This actually made sense to Fíli. He felt that Thorin had told him the truth in this. It was strange, he had never really thought about Dwalin all that much. He was just always there and had been for as long as he could remember. There were indeed many stories about the great Orcs he had defeated, how a Warg had chewed off his ear, and even a tale about him taking on a troll all on his own. Some of the other children had been terribly afraid of Dwalin, but for Fíli he had just been the one who always did exactly what his uncle wanted him to do without any hesitation or questions. So even somebody like that, who looked and felt and sounded like the perfect warrior, was not free of all blemishes. That was good to know.
"Thank you, uncle," he finally said.
"It's not just me or Dwalin. Everybody is the same. If you ever want to talk to anybody… do it. Bad memories are something that we all share."
"I was not even in a war though. I'm just weak."
"Or you are just sharper than most and don't take as long to realise when something is not right. I can see no weakness in that."
Fíli felt like a heavy sledgehammer had just been lifted from his heart. It did not sound like Thorin thought ill of him or his capabilities as his heir despite the conversation they had just had. Maybe he really was going to get through this with his dignity intact. He felt a little better now. He was not alone. Through all of his doubts and fears, Thorin had remained calm and reassuring. He felt ready to return to their camp now. He might even be ready to sleep for a while, although he was still afraid that the hazel eyes were going to haunt him. Just as he was ready to end their conversation, Thorin spoke again.
"At least it was just a Man!"
Fíli felt suddenly slightly nauseous at his uncle's light tone. He knew he did not have a high opinion of Men, holding them responsible for not destroying Smaug and generally not thinking much of their loyalty and their ability in craft or in battle. But still, there was no good reason for this remark.
"What difference does it make? He breathed and walked and talked just like us," Fíli asked, probably more sharply than he should have done.
"He would not have done so for much longer. The lifespan of Men is short. None of them even reach one hundred. It did not make much of a difference."
"It did," Fíli argued. "He too had a family who is going to miss him. At the very least he had a mother."
"Ah, but their women are fertile like rabbits. They have so many children, they might as well grow them in the fields."
Fíli involuntarily smiled at the old children's tale. "Aye, right. And Dwarves just sprout out of rocks."
"Which makes them much more precious," Thorin replied and Fíli could tell by his tone that he was teasing him now. He did not quite believe it. No matter how many sons the man's mother had had, he was sure that every single one of them was precious to her. He wanted to say as much to his uncle, but their conversation seemed to be at an end and they both rose from the rock they had been sitting on for so long. As they stood, Fíli mastered his courage and spoke up once more.
"Uncle Thorin, I disagree. Every life is precious. There should be no distinction between the free people."
He was afraid he had spoken out of turn when his elder remained silent for a long while. Eventually, Thorin turned to face his nephew and put a hand on his shoulder before he spoke, suddenly serious again.
"You are right. Sometimes killing is necessary, and it is justified. But we should all remember that there is always somebody mourning, that nobody's death is without consequences. I wonder what the world would be like if more of us thought like you, Fíli."