"Kee, get down from that tree right now!"
"Aww, but Fee!"
"I'll fetch Uncle."
"I said that I would cover for you once, and I did, and now you need to get down and come to lessons."
"But history is so boring!"
"Yes it is, but a solid hour with Balin is something I hope never to do again so get down or I swear I'll fetch Thorin."
Precisely one and a half hours later, Balin's lesson had finally come to an end and the dwarflings made their way home together, their moods altogether dampened by the experience. It didn't help that it was early spring, which in the mountains meant drizzling rain on good days and heavy sleet on the bad ones. Not even the tiny green leaves beginning to grow on some of the bare trees could brighten the overarching dreariness of this time of year, when winter had gone on too long and summer still seemed too far away.
"I'll never be good at History," sighed Kili dejectedly, kicking a wet stone off the path with his boot and sending up a spray of water droplets.
"It's not a matter of being good, it's a matter of turning up for lessons and concentrating during them," replied Fili dully.
Kili sighed again. "I bet there were no history lessons in Erebor. That was history. We're not history."
"Yes there were," argued Fili, "Uncle Thorin had to do history lessons when he was our age. I heard him mention them to Mum once. They were laughing about their teacher, so I don't think they liked them either."
"But at least they were good at history. I'm not," said Kili stubbornly.
"How do you know they were good at history?" asked Fili, confused.
"Because!" exclaimed Kili, "Uncle Thorin is the good at everything! No one ever beats him, not even Dwalin, and he's scary."
"Mum beats him at arguments when he doesn't take his boots off at the front door," Fili pointed out.
"Yeah but she's his sister, that doesn't count," the younger dwarf explained.
"Then it doesn't count when you beat me at climbing trees and I'm really better at everything?" teased Fili, nudging his brother in an attempt to evoke a laugh.
Kili stumbled to a halt, a look of dawning revelation on his face. He turned slowly to Fili, who was watching him, bemused.
"Have you ever seen Uncle climb a tree?" the dark eyed dwarf asked, his brown eyebrows drawing together.
"No..." replied his golden haired brother hesitantly.
"Do you think... Do you think..." Kili bit his lip, deep in thought.
"Yes?" Fili prompted gently.
"Do you think I could beat him?"
The older one took a while to answer. When he did, it was slowly, and carefully thought out, but still a little unsure.
"I think he might have climbed trees once, but a very long time ago. He's a bit big now, though, isn't he? What if he got stuck? No one would be able to lift him down."
"Hmmm," came the reply, not convinced.
"Perhaps, though... Perhaps," Fili continued, "we could find out for certain."
Kili gasped. "You're not suggesting...?"
Fili nodded, a slow grin crossing his face. "We could do it if we worked it out together," he said confidently.
The answering grin was worthy of a Cheshire Cat.
"Do you know what they're up to?" Dís asked her brother as she darned a hole in one of Kili's socks. "They've been locked away in their room ever since they came back from lessons, and I haven't heard a sound."
"No idea," replied Thorin, "but it makes a nice change, doesn't it?"
The next morning, the leader of the dwarves of Ered Luin, Bifur the miner and Oin the apothecary stood outside the house of Gloin Oin's brother, discussing a leak in the roof and sighing at the dismal quality of men's buildings, when a small yellow whirlwind came flying down the hill towards them. It was going so fast that even as it neared them and attempted to slow down, the momentum carried it onwards and straight into the legs of the tallest dwarf at the gathering who also happened to be the whirlwind's uncle. The tall dwarf remained a solid pillar, and the whirlwind, which was now just Fili, righted itself and immediately began a frenzy of explanations.
"Uncle Thorin you've got to come quickly Kili's stuck in a tree and he's going to fall quick come and help you're the only one tall enough quick follow me!"
Fili paused then only because he was completely breathless, but grabbed Thorin's hand and began to haul him back up the hill.
Refraining from rolling his eyes, Thorin turned to his two adult companions.
"I will return when this has been sorted. I won't be long," he promised, then swung his nephew onto his shoulders eliciting a whoop of glee and began to pound hurriedly up the hill.
Kili swung lazily from the topmost branch of his favourite climbing tree, knees bent around the bough and hands swinging freely below him. The wind blew his dangling hair back and forth, and he closed his eyes in peace.
Just then, his rest was disturbed by a shout from lower down the hill.
"Don't worry Kee, we'll get you down! Uncle Thorin's here, he'll climb up and get you!"
Kili opened one eye, then tilted his head round to try and see his two approaching family members properly. He couldn't quite twist round far enough, so he reached up a hand and grabbed the thin branch while letting his legs drop off it. The world turned the right way up, and now he could fully see his uncle's worried face, which paled even more as Thorin watched his nephew almost "fall" from the topmost branch, to be left clinging on for dear life with just one hand while the whole tree swayed back and forth.
Thorin reached the bottom of the tree and paused only a moment to assess his options. From the look of things, there wasn't much time before Kili fell, which meant there was no time to fetch anyone else. He would not risk sending his other nephew up to fetch his errant brother, because no doubt Fili had already tried and failed, otherwise he wouldn't have come to fetch Thorin. There was no other choice but to go up himself.
Ascending the first few low branches was easy. Kili had always liked this tree because it got progressively harder as one climbed, but this time apparently he had just gone too far. The only problem that faced Thorin at the beginning was the close spacing of the thick lower branches which made for some twisting to get round them for those with more height. By the time he had reached one quarter of the way up, they were beginning to thin out so climbing was at once more comfortable and more dangerous. He had managed not to look either down or up, but now he glanced in Kili's direction to make sure the dwarfling was still holding on. Kili was hanging by one arm - but Thorin could have sworn it was the other arm to before. How had he managed to swap? Still, the dwarven leader did not let it bother him and continued in his climb.
Half way up the tree was a notoriously tricky part, at least for the boys. It was the bit that Kili had mastered long before Fili, and the older brother had taken some serious encouragement before he would even attempt it. The trunk here was thin enough for a half grown dwarf to reach their arms around, but there were no branches for a distance just over the height of a tall adult dwarf. Instead, there were knots and thin branches, little more than twigs and certainly not suitable as footholds. One had to grip the trunk as hard as possible and use their knees or feet to push themselves up until the branches recommenced. In this matter, Thorin was woefully inexperienced.
He stood still for a moment, assessing the obstacle. Then he looked up at Kili, who noticed and at that moment swung wildly and wobbled the branch he was hanging from, giving a yelp for effect.
"Hang on, Kili!" shouted Fili from the ground, having no problems sounding nervous because he was in fact terrified of the consequences if - when - Thorin discovered the plot.
Brows furrowed with resolve, Thorin grasped the trunk with both hands and began to haul himself up. Twigs snapped as his feet brushed past them, but he payed them no heed and gripped the tree with his knees, lifting his weight further. In only two efforts he was high enough to reach the next sufficient branch, and once he had one hand on that it should have been a simple matter to lift himself onto it. What he wasn't counting on was the branch snapping.
Fili cried out and dived out of the way as the long thin branch came crashing through the early spring foliage towards him. Thorin cursed before he could stop himself, having only just saved himself from a terrible fall, then praised Mahal for Fili's quick reactions. Kili used the moment to switch hands again, and hoped that Thorin would hurry up so that he could stop hanging from the same branch by his arms before his shoulders popped out.
Climbing using just the narrowing trunk was hard enough for Thorin without being constantly worried about his youngest nephew, but doing both at once was almost proving too much for him. He was only two thirds of the way up the tree, and already the branches were too thin for him to put his full weight on. Meanwhile, Kili clung on by his fingertips at the top. Suddenly he wondered whether he would even be able to get near the top without the trunk giving in to his weight. What would happen to Kili if he couldn't reach him?
Trying to force these worries out of his mind and concentrate on climbing, Thorin reached up for another grip on the trunk. Higher and higher he went, never looking down save once or twice to check on Fili, and those times he had to take a moment to master his fear before he could continue. Dwarves, he had concluded long ago, were simply not made for trees. What his nephews - particularly Kili - saw in them he really couldn't say but part of him hoped that at least this experience might teach them a lesson or at least lessen their enthusiasm.
Just over three quarters of the way up, Thorin came to another tricky part. It required one to swing round the trunk to reach for the next branch, which was on the other side, but as the dwarven leader did this he found it was higher than he had expected, and he missed, losing his balance and almost toppling. Luckily his hands clasped round the trunk and friction held, though he could feel the bark cutting into his palms as his feet dangled helplessly. It took him a moment to realise what a sticky situation he was in.
The next branch was inches above his fingertips, but to remove one hand at this point would be to fall to certain doom. The branch he had come from was round the other side of the tree and could only be reached by swinging round the trunk, which from this position Thorin was certain would also result in a fall. In fact moving at all seemed to be perilous and to lessen the grip of his hands on the trunk, which meant that there was nothing at all he could do except cling on until help came.
However long that took.
The irony was astounding. He had come up to rescue Kili from high up in a tree and now he needed rescuing himself. How anyone could rescue him, a tall adult dwarf, was beyond him, but right now it was all he was hoping for. Even his dignity and pride, which usually would prevent him accepting help in a situation like this, were redundant in favour of pure terror.
"Fi...li..." he choked out between tight breaths, the side of his face pressed against the rough bark.
Then he heard a clear voice only just above him, the cheeky grin audible in its tone.
"Hurry up Uncle, I'm hungry."
"Kili?" growled Thorin, disbelief and a hint of anger creeping into that one word as his suspicions grew.
"Don't worry about me, I'm not going to fall," replied Kili casually. "You look as if you're going to, though."
"You...wait...how...you little..." Thorin grunted, unable to piece a sentence together from his swirling thoughts.
"It was a trick to see who is better at climbing," explained the youngest Durin, "I win."
"You sneaky little...grrahhh!" Thorin bit back a curse with effort. "When we get home you are not leaving the house for a week, not even for lessons, and Balin will come over to teach you instead. And no tree-climbing ever again!"
Kili shrugged, having been warned of this by Fili. "You'll have to catch me first."
With that, he dropped down in front of Thorin's nose onto the branch on the other side of the tree and scrambled down to the bottom in less than a quarter of the time it had taken the adult to get up. Just as he dropped from the last bough onto the soft damp turf, Fili reappeared, Dis in tow. He had run home as fast as he could and fetched his mother, who had come immediately.
As soon as Dis saw her brother, her eyebrows travelled almost to her hairline.
"So it is true. When Fili told me I thought it was some sort of prank."
"Prank! It is a prank! They tricked me!" Thorin shouted down from his position high up in the tree.
"Well, that's a shame, isn't it," said Dis, "I'll just have to eat all the dinner myself tonight. None for the boys as punishment, and none for you because I doubt you'll get home in time for it." She smiled sweetly, though an almost undetectable hint of sorrow crossed her face for a split second as she said it.
"No, you will get me down from this tree right now," Thorin replied, though his voice was more subdued, as if something in his sister's words had affected something deep inside of him.
"You know I will, brother," sighed Dis. "It's not as if I haven't done it before."
The female dwarf swung herself up onto the bottom branch with an ease that both dwarflings on the ground recognised as coming from ages of practise, and they shared a bewildered glance. Neither of them had known this about their mother, nor indeed that tree climbing was such a nostalgic topic for the older dwarves.
In a time that even Kili had to consider good, Dis reached her royal brother whose hands had by now turned white. She gently grasped his belt and guided his feet round to the branch she was standing on, and didn't once wobble though she rested only one hand on the trunk. Once Thorin was safely standing again, leaning against the tree and breathing heavily, Dis leaned forward and embraced him and they stood there for a moment, heads on each other's shoulders. They exchanged a few quiet words then, but from the ground it was impossible to make out that they were even talking.
More slowly now, Thorin and Dis climbed down, the younger going first and finding the best route then relaying it to the older so that they both reached the ground in safety. Fili and Kili were waiting for them, looking slightly sheepish and fully expecting either one of their guardians - or both - to explode with rage any moment. Instead, Dis swept them into a hug while Thorin simply folded his arms across his broad chest and watched with a scowl.
"Let's go home and have lunch now, shall we?" Dis said to her children.
"I should return to Gloin's house," said Thorin gruffly, then turned and marched away down the hill.
That evening, after the boys had gone to bed early, Dis and Thorin sat by the fire; the one was patching a hole in a pair of Kili's trousers, and the other was staring into the flames, brooding deeply. At length, Thorin spoke up.
"Why was it me?"
Dis turned and looked at him, never pausing in her work, but said nothing.
Presently, Thorin continued.
"He would have been so much better at this. He would have been their friend, not just their uncle. I don't matter to them, except as a guardian. He would have been so better suited to this life."
"But Frerin isn't here," replied Dis. "You're the only uncle they have, and the only father Kili has every known."
"But is that enough? Am I good enough?" Thorin asked her, and his eyes pleaded for an honest answer.
"That's not the right question to ask," said Dis, shaking her head. "There is no 'enough'. Had things gone differently, they might have had two uncles, a father and a grandfather - or they might have had none." She paused, looking meaningfully at Thorin, who was staring at the fire again. "We both must do our best, and forget about our childhood and what they might have had. You have made this life good for us, so we must be happy and ask for no more. If not for you, we would all be begging on the streets - or more likely passed on long ago."
"You know that is not what I meant," the leader muttered.
"But it is what you must remember," answered his sister. "As for what you are asking, I will admit honestly that you are not fun and lighthearted like Frerin was; you have a burden on your shoulders that you cannot and will never shrug, and perhaps that means that you sometimes feel distanced from the boys like you wouldn't be otherwise, but I will say this: you love them, and would do anything, give anything, for them, no matter what the cost to yourself; and that is the most important thing of all, and as they grow they will learn and see that."
Thorin bowed his head. "Thank you, sister. I needed to hear that, though it lightens my heart only a little. Today... I saw them, and..."
"And they reminded you so much of you and Frerin when you were that age that you wish you could feel again what it was like to be so carefree?" put in Dis. "I see it every day. I almost feel that Frerin has come again in Kili."
Thorin nodded. "Just a week ago I nearly called him by that name because he was stroking a stray cat."
Dis rolled her eyes and even smiled at this. "I remember, Frerin and that cat he called Amber. They were inseparable until father stepped in and had it sent away to Esgaroth, then it turned out Amber had an actual owner there."
The ghost of a smile crossed Thorin's face, but he closed his eyes and looked pained. Dis stood up and went to put her hand on his shoulder.
"What you forget is that Frerin never grew up," she said gently.
"I cannot forget, Dis. I remember it every day," replied Thorin.
"That was not what I meant. I meant that if Frerin were here now, he would be just as old and boring as us," Dis explained.
"No he wouldn't," said Thorin.
"No, he wouldn't," agreed Dis, "but neither would he be the child that we knew. Look at me. Am I the same little girl that sat on grandfather's knee and listened to stories of dragons and gold?"
"No," Thorin conceded.
"And do you feel like the valiant dwarfling who boasted daily to his sister of his deadly battles with imaginary beasts?
Thorin's face darkened. "No."
"Then naturally Frerin would have changed just as we have. No one stays the same person all their life, no matter how much we like to imagine we do," said Dis.
"But what use is that knowledge, when we will never see him again?" said Thorin in despair.
"It reminds us that we are not children, so of course we cannot be the playmates of children like you are suggesting," answered Dis, "but it also means that we must rely on the actual children to lure us into trees and leave us there so the ever helpful little sister has to fetch us down and get us home in time for tea."
"We weren't in time for tea that time," said Thorin.
"Well you can't expect me to do everything," replied Dis, rolling her eyes. "After falling for the same trick twice, you're lucky I didn't make you forfeit dinner this time as well. You know, I don't think having Frerin around would make it any easier for you."
Thorin frowned. "Why not?"
"Because two trainee tricksters are enough without them learning from a master."
This time, Thorin actually smiled.