Thorin felt the pain bloom behind the broken ribs, and he gulped air with an open mouth. Another blow was coming, and he twisted his body protecting the sore side. The whip swooshed in the air, but it landed somewhere else. He hoped it wasn't one of the younglings who'd yelped from the slashing.
"Get'em, lads! The King ain't fancy waiting!"
The nearest goblin shoved him ahead, making Thorin stumble. He quickly threw a look behind him. Kili and Fili were somewhere out of sight. He saw Nori snarl at his assailant. Thorin could hear Dwalin growl and curse somewhere ahead.
"What's the catch today, mate?" another fiend barked.
"Dwarves, blimey! Can ye believe it?" The leader of the band that was dragging them along some dirty low passage spat under his feet. "Caught them on the front porch, heh! What's yours?"
"Some merchants from the Big Ones! Skint they were, and not much to nosh on."
Thorin peeked. The second group of goblins joined them now, dragging a few prisoners of their own. A few Men, from the South judging by the clothes, were led, their hands shackled in front of them.
"Mostly some old geezers and a few bairns," the leader of the second gang said derisively. "No good for no work, or fun."
"Stew then?" the first one suggested.
The second goblin chief grumbled something under his breath, and jerked a chain he had in his claws. An old man on the other end of the chain fell forward, and gave out a pained scream. A whip landed on his back immediately.
"I have something for you, though, Shagrot. A gift," the second chief said and pulled at the chain harder.
The captive man had no choice but to crawl closer to the two goblins. By then all of the creatures and the prisoners had stopped in a dimly lit passage.
"What's in this dog for me?" the one called Shagrot scoffed.
"Not the slug," the other goblin answered. "This one's mine, for games, you know. One of them Big Ones was actually putting up some fight. We cut his throat," the goblin dismissed, "But he left us a present. Thought you might care to look."
Out of his dirty ugly clober he pulled a long sword, in an unadorned but well-made scabbard.
"Care a look?" the goblin drew out seductively.
The one called Shagrot feigned disinterest, but it was obvious he couldn't tear his eyes off the blade that the other goblin had pulled out of the sheath now.
"See? Made by the horsemen, so it won't burn and sting," the one holding the sword continued his bargaining. "What say you, Shagrot? Care for a deal?"
"You said you has a gift for me," Shagrot growled; but the other goblin only cackled.
"I say, we sit and have a small talk, heh, Shagrot?" The monster slowly swung the blade before Shagrot's face. "Come, come! Let's talk."
He hurried ahead, and Shagrot followed reluctantly. The goblin foot soldiers went after them, pushing and shouting, making their prisoners move ahead.
Thorin walked, his mind quickly going through possible escape routes. Now that the chiefs were preoccupied with their bargaining, the other goblins started immediately slacking. Less blows fell, and their procession stretched.
"Will you help us?"
Thorin heard a whisper and looked discreetly. The Rohirrim near him was grey-haired, half his face was covered in blood.
"We need to… to get out of here," the Man whispered. "We could do better if we join forces."
Thorin ignored the Man's words. He could see that the Men led by the goblins were no warriors. Clearly Shagrot and his men had killed the guards, and all who were left were merchants. There were three older men and a boy, perhaps an apprentice.
"Please, Master Dwarf, I beg you," the Man whispered frantically. "I can see by your weapons that—"
He didn't get to finish when a goblin closest to him slashed him under his knees.
"Shut yer hole, maggot!" the goblin barked.
They never got to the passage where Shagrot and his 'mate' were planning to stop and negotiate their dealings. A small hobbling goblin appeared from around the corner and shrieked at them that the King had been expecting them, and 'his malevolence didn't fancy the wait.' The sword was immediately forgotten; and whips flew and stung. Thorin and his men were herded like sheep; and he gritted his teeth. At some point the boy from the company of Men was near him, and stumbled, and fell into the dirt. Thorin glanced down and saw a pair of widened terrified eyes.
"Get up, lad," Balin muttered and jerked the boy up by his arm.
The boy said nothing but hurried ahead.
"What are we doing, laddie?" Balin asked Thorin in Khuzdul.
Thorin had no answer for him. Fighting their way out at the moment would be madness. There were too many of the detested creatures around. They needed a more favourable moment. A tad of help wouldn't harm either. Where was the cursed Wizard?!
The Wizard, as it turned out, wasn't far. As so was his sword. Even his cheap tricks served their purpose this time. And suddenly Thorin was running, following the lanky form ahead of him, praying to Mahal that those were indeed twelve pairs of Dwarven boots he could hear stomping behind him - and maybe even a pair of Hobbit feet.
The cursed beasts were everywhere! They jumped out of dark passages, from left and right, teeth bared and claws sharp. Their weapons, as crude and dull as they mostly were, still afflicted enough damage, and Thorin felt each inhale cut through his chest like a dozen daggers.
A small body smashed into him, from his right, from somewhere high, and he felt a blade land on the pauldron sewn into his brigandine. The goblin shrieked into his ear, and Thorin swirled trying to shake the filth off. The goblin gurgled, Fili's sword cutting in its neck; and Thorin pushed the corpse off himself.
And then a flicker of sunlight caught Thorin's gaze! Ahead of them, at the end of the narrow passage going up, there were tall gates, locked, with a dozen guards standing before - and Thorin shouted 'Baruk Khazâd!' His companions seemed to have realised that their chance to escape was close. The boots boomed on the floor, echo bounced between the wall - and they cut into the line of the guards.
When the loathsome Goblin King had met his demise at the hand of Gandalf the Grey, only three of the Men were close by, the fourth one lying dead in the throne hall. He had dared to speak up without being asked. When the gates flew open, only two of the Long Ones rushed out together with the Dwarves and the Wizard: the boy and the old man who'd been dragged on the end of Shagrot's chain.
Sunlight blinded them all. The fresh wind, smelling of the pines, seemed to knock the breath out of them; and some of them leaned against the tree trunk, some fell on the knees.
The old Man slid down along a tall pine with a groan. The boy rushed to him. Thorin noticed but immediately lost interest. He needed to make sure his company was safe.
The Wizard counted, and it turned out the Halfling was nowhere to be seen. The Wizard started his interrogation trying to find out who'd seen the Hobbit last when a desperate cry came from the Men.
"Master Dwarves, please help!"
The boy was kneeling in front of his companion, and Thorin saw a blood stain growing on the older man's doublet. Oin stepped to them.
"He's- Is he-"
The boy's voice broke; and Oin threw a quick look at Thorin and shook his head.
"Laddie, he needs some air," Oin said, and the boy took a few stumbling steps back.
Dori and Nori were arguing about who'd seen the Hobbit last in the goblin caves - and then a warg howl pierced the air.
"Maiar save us," the boy breathed out.
Only then Thorin noticed a sword in the lad's hand and blood dripping off the blade.
The Hobbit popped up from somewhere, but the Halfling's suddenly awaking burglar abilities were the least of Thorin's worries. The unmistakable howling of wargs was approaching, from the North East.
"Get up the tree!" Nori shouted and pushed the boy to the nearest pine.