Chapter 11: Khahûl

Thorin woke in the early hours of the morning. The royal quarters of the palace were deep within the mountain, but that made no difference to one of Durin's folk; he knew the moment he opened his eyes that the sun was still well below the horizon. He also knew that it was useless to lie abed and wait for sleep to return, so with a small grunt he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. The muscles in his chest twinged.

The fire had burned down to ashes and glowing embers. His breath misted in the quiet air as he knelt by the hearth, adding dry wood piece by piece until the small flame was rekindled. It wasn't necessary, strictly speaking. Surrounded by hundreds of feet of stone and earth on all sides, his folk would never freeze as long as they kept safe in the mountain. But while the road from Mirkwood was passable, heat was one of the few luxuries they could afford to enjoy, and Bilbo often dropped by with absolutely no excuse besides wanting someplace cozy and quiet to spend the evening. Thorin kept his quarters just as warm as the hobbit liked.

His knees ached as he struggled back to his feet. Had Thrór spent so many evenings hunched over at his desk in dim candlelight, squinting at sheaves of parchment? There was too much to be done—too many plans to be made, too much of a king's work that he had forgotten or never learned. It was no small thing to blow the dust off of an entire kingdom and start anew. As a young dwarf he might have been equal to the task, but in the privacy of his own mind, Thorin would confess that he was teetering on the brink of old age.

Worn down before our time, Dís always said, the corners of her eyes crinkling, whenever Thorin grumbled about aching back or the splintering pains that shot through his hands. We'll be greybeards soon enough, doddering around Arda with our packs slung over our shoulders.

Fíli was still asleep, uncomfortably curled up in the chair closest to the fire. Kíli, wherever he had slipped off to, was no doubt awake and restless already.; he was leaving at midday to escort the supply caravan from the Iron Hills back to Erebor. Thorin had promised to send soldiers this time, and Kíli had volunteered to lead them. It would be hard, thankless work. The northeastern roads were ill-maintained, and if another caravan was lost to storms or goblins, then the folk of Dale would starve.

Thorin was loath to wake him, but soon Fíli stirred of his own accord. "Uncle? Is it time?"

"No," Thorin said. "It isn't yet dawn. Take a few more hours of rest."

But Fíli always took less than he was given. Soon he was up, too, pale and shivering in the quiet chill. His mother would scarcely recognize him. But he defied pity—only staggered a little, lightheaded, and smiled ruefully when he caught Thorin watching. "Perhaps Kíli stole my strength, like he used to steal my blankets," he said, steadying himself against the arm of the chair.

"I would not put it past him." And then, pardoning himself because he was a worried old uncle, after all, and a king besides, Thorin said: "But you have been looking after yourself?"

Fíli's small grin vanished. "Uncle, I swear. It was only when Kíli was so poorly. I haven't been—I haven't. Not for years."

"Ah. Well. You needn't explain." Thorin cleared his throat, not quite looking at Fíli. "It's just as well that you're awake. Glóin's been pestering me to talk over allocations. Come along. You should know something of our finances."

"I had hoped—"

"I know. But I want you with me today." Thorin might not entirely understand his eldest, but he remembered what it was like to be a worried older brother. Left on his own, Fíli would only fret away the hours until Kíli left; there was nothing better for him than keeping busy. When it was clear that he would not be swayed, Fíli abandoned his protests, and after a meager breakfast they made their way down to Glóin's new quarters.

Glóin and Óin stayed in rooms just above the great hall, close enough to the treasury that they could keep an eye on things. Glóin delighted in his new position. He had spent years in Ered Luin scrounging together the money to fund and outfit their journey east. Now, given the almost untouched wealth of Erebor, he could reckon enormous outlays of capital as mere pocket change. Still, the habits of a century didn't vanish in a few months, or even a few years; he was as jealous a guardian for the treasury as any dragon, and he kept careful track of every coin.

On this particular morning, he harangued Thorin fore more than an hour on the state of their imports and exports—"shoddy organization, useless records, receipts no better than chicken-scratch; makes balancing the books a damnable fussing affair—" in a voice booming with authority. Thorin sat and listened as patiently as he could. For a while, he amused himself by watching the shifting expressions on Fíli's face, from genuine concern to bafflement to polite disinterest, and at last to a wooden resignation that Thorin was all too familiar with. Thorin had been attending his grandfather's Council meetings when he was less than half Fíli's age; his strongest memories of those days were of stultifying boredom.

"—told him a hundred times that he needs to send his requests to me first, and only to the quartermaster once I approve them, but the oaf only ever nods and says 'yes, of course, Glóin,' in that lunkish way he has, and then ambles off and forgets again— "

Fortunately, rescue came before Thorin lost his temper and mortally offended an old and loyal friend. "Sorry to interrupt," Bilbo said, sticking his head into the room. "Just needed to pop by and ask you something. I don't suppose you can spare a moment?" And then, as if he had only just noticed their presence, he looked over at Thorin and Fíli. "Oh, but you're meeting with the king. I beg your pardon."

"It's no trouble," Thorin said, magnanimously. "We were almost finished." He stood, and Fíli hastily followed suit. "If the matter is urgent, of course you may interrupt."

"Well, we do need to sort some things out straightaway," said Bilbo. "Wouldn't you say, Glóin?"

Glóin certainly wasn't willing to admit ignorance in front of Thorin, not after he had spent the last hour lambasting everyone from his assistants to Thorin himself for hopeless ignorance on all matters financial. He had no choice but to agree, and when he wasn't looking Bilbo shot Thorin a mischievous grin.

"You see, I've mucked up Varin's pet taxation scheme again, and it's only a detail but he's going to sulk like anything. You know how he is—"

Glóin muttered several unflattering things, none of which he would have repeated were Varin or Balin within earshot.

"Yes, precisely," Bilbo said. "And I was thinking, if we—" his voice faded as Thorin ushered Fíli out of the room and shut the heavy old door firmly behind him.

"Mahal," said Fíli with some vehemence after they made good their escape down the hall. "What does he expect you to do about any of that? It's Council business, or Treasury."

"It was the same in Ered Luin, the first few years. You remember." Dis had ruled Ered Luin when Thorin was still drifting across the towns and villages of Eregion, collecting as many of his scattered people as he could. She was the one who had the genius for organization, who could take the endless mess of peacetime and turn it into something that made sense.

"Well, yes. But this is Erebor," Fíli said. "I thought things would be different here." Then he paused, and added, "Which is absurd, isn't it? As if things would sort themselves out just because we're home at last."

"You and I are so alike," Thorin said. It gave him no small joy to hear Fíli speak so easily of Erebor as home. "Raised as you were, you could scarcely help it. But we will manage well enough until your mother arrives, and then she can sort us all out."

"And here I had thought you already well-sorted." Fíli cast a significant look back over his shoulder, where Bilbo was no doubt busily coaxing Glóin into a better humor.

"Don't be pert," Thorin said, but without much heat in his voice. "And don't dawdle. We've the duty rosters to go over before the patrol leaves, else Dwalin will thunder at me about royal inefficiency."

They managed the duty rosters and a dozen more petty tasks after that. The work kept Fíli so busy that he scarcely noticed the passing of time, and Thorin had to drag him out of the accounts at midday to see Kíli's patrol off. "All well?" Thorin said, when Fíli swayed to his feet, unsteady.

Fíli nodded. His face was tight and pained. "Only a headache."

"It's the close work. The strain on your eyes, no doubt. All this cursed scribbling." Thorin didn't know if he was trying to reassure Fíli or himself, but he slowed his usual brisk stride as they made their way down to the front gate, and they arrived as Dwalin and his soldiers were readying the last of the gear.

Thorin pulled Dwalin aside. "Watch yourself," he said, low. "We have lost too much on the roads already: more than the winter can account for. The goblins are not stealing our food. They are hunting us, even now."

"Have I ever let you down?" Dwalin slung a heavy pack over his back. It clattered against his armor and his battleaxe. "Don't fret. I'll bring those supplies safe home to you, and your lad as well."

Nearby, Fíli had pulled his brother out of the milling crowd of soldiers. "Look after youself," he said, hugging Kíli tight. "And keep that mithril shirt on, you hear?"

"I may be a cripple, but I can still dress myself." Kíli yanked himself out of the embrace.

Fíli let him go. Neither of them wanted a fight, but somehow they had forgotten how to speak without shouting. It does no good to press, Thorin had told him when they were children. Even back then, Kíli had a penchant for running off, and Fíli was forever chasing after him. You must learn to do without him. "If you come across any orcs," Fíli said aloud, "kill some of them for me, will you?"

Kíli nodded. "All of them for you," he said. And then Dwalin sounded a short blast on his horn, and the gates opened, and they were gone: out into the bright snow-covered world beyond the stone walls of the mountain, where Fíli couldn't follow.

The days dragged their heels after that, though the mountain stirred and clanked with activity. The soldiers on surveying duty were rediscovering entire little towns carved deep in the mountain, and the diggers were opening up roads and passageways that had been buried for more than half a century. Everywhere, they found the remains of families who had once lived there, and of soldiers who had died at their posts, or been trapped deep in the mountain until at last the dragon starved them out.

Whenever Thorin could spare a few hours from administration—"the glory of my kingdom," he said, "the heir of Durin, and Mister Baggins comes with another stack of paper for me to sign"—he indulged himself by dragging Fíli hither and yon around their homeland. "You could walk for weeks," Fíli said, wondering, on one of their rambles. (Thorin had dim memories of an amythest geode that he had once found, large enough that as a skinny young dwarven lad he could climb inside. He had taken it into his head that he and Fíli would rediscover it.)

"Months," Thorin said, walking ahead of him. "My grandmother once told me that when Erebor was still only a settlement, goblins came down from Ered Mithrim and raided the mountain. The dwarves had warning: they gathered what they needed and slipped down into the caverns. They led the raiding party on a merry hunt, deeper and deeper underground, until the goblins were half-mad with hunger and utterly lost. They saved the settlement with not a drop of dwarvish blood spilled."

Fíli shivered. He had a respectable share of stone-sense, and he never used to worry about losing himself in Ered Luin. But there was something unnerving about the cities beneath Erebor. They went on forever, still and lifeless, endless roads and empty houses. But for the two of them, there wasn't another living soul for miles.

Or none that they knew of, at least.

"It's so still," Fíli said. They were standing at the end of a row of abandoned houses, shadows leaping against the old stone walls. He traced the strong lines of some ancient family's name, the runes thick with dust. "But they will come back. Some of them, at least." He glanced back at Thorin, flashing him a quick smile. His skin was sallow under the torchlight, but if he was tired he did not complain. "We're a stubborn folk."

"By midsummer, the word will be all across Arda that the dragon is dead and Erebor reclaimed," Thorin said. His voice was quiet, even reverent, but in the utter silence of the caverns the words echoed against stone. "Our people will know that we kept our word. They will come home."

Whenever they emerged from the silent world beneath the mountain, even the meagre habitation of the main floors seemed bustling by comparison, and Thorin threw himself into his work with new vigor. Soon the Council had passed a provisional code of law, and approved the drawing of juries by lot. Military law gave way to a provisional civilian code. Varin continued to squabble over the taxes they levied on Dale, which Thorin quietly appreciated; listening to Bilbo argue his way through meetings was delightful. When he was particularly worked up, his cheeks reddened and his curls went every which way. He was so wickedly sharp-tongued that it took all of Thorin's iron will to keep from chuckling, even in the midst of serious debates. Fíli, who lacked his uncle's rigid self-restraint, sometimes had to excuse himself from the room.

"I am so glad to know that I entertain you," Bilbo said when Thorin tried to explain away his nephew's behavior after one such meeting. "You could occasionally back me during these things, you know."

"I could," Thorin agreed, not quite disguising his small smile. "But think how wounded Lord Varin would feel at such a show of royal disfavor."

"You've picked a fine time to rediscover your sense of humor," Bilbo said, and flounced off to what remained of the libraries to harass Ori about the classical roots of dwarven commerce laws.

In fact, Thorin suspected that Varin had long since ceased to cause trouble for the sake of it. More often than not, he let Bilbo have his way in the end, and it was impossible to believe that a clever old politician like Varin was being so regularly trounced by a gentlehobbit from the Shire. When Thorin asked Balin what mischief his cousin was plotting, Balin refused to answer.

"What sort of dwarf betrays his kinsman's secrets?" he said. "Ask Varin yourself, if you must know."

Thorin scowled, and Balin relented slightly. "Well, I will say this: our Mister Baggins is a quick learner, and he's not the only one. Did you know that Bombur and Glóin have been drafting a plan for training court scribes and making appointments?"

Thorin hadn't, but he certainly approved. "The library keeps Ori busy these days, and since they cannot do the work themselves—"

"They decided that inventing a civil service was the best way to go about it."

When Balin put it that way, Thorin realized exactly how extraordinary such a thing was, and he felt an unexpected burst of pride for his dwarves—and for Varin, who in his own contrary way was bullying them all into competence. There was nothing like a good fight for bringing dwarves together, after all.

One of Dwalin's mittens was unraveling. Whenever he sat still he worried at the fraying yarn, twisting it around his fingers and tugging at it absently. Then he would curse and get back to his feet, pacing the edges of the campsite. Kíli, for lack of anything better to do, had been watching the slow demise of the unfortunate mitten ever since they left Erebor.

When Dwalin felt restless it usually meant that someone was about to get killed, but if there were goblins lurking nearby they were lying low, at least for now.

In fact, in the five days since Kíli and Dwalin had led their soldiers north, they had seen absolutely nothing of interest. They were stuck on a barren and miserable patch of ground, waiting to meet a well-guarded supply caravan from the Iron Hills and escort it back to Erebor. But neither their supplies nor the dwarves had made an appearance, and now they were three days overdue.

The ragged edges of Ered Mithrin were as inhospitable as the Desolation, and far colder. The uneven ground was dotted with thin naked trees, leafless and shivering in the wind. In the distance, a broken wall of mountains stabbed up above the horizon, stone and sky both colorless. Weathered piles of stones, the remains of the ancient fortification that had once guarded the old road north, were their only shelter. Even the dwarves were strangely faded, huddled between the boulders to shelter themselves from the wind. Their faces, red and chafed, were the only spots of color to be seen. For a man, the cold would have been almost unendurable. For the dwarves it meant stiff fingers and a constant string of complaints.

No goblins, no caravan, and nothing to do except to watch Dwalin stomp around, ruining Ori's knitting. Kíli, sitting on the other side of the camp, watched as Dwalin stood up and ambled over to warm his hands by the embers of the fire. A few other soldiers shifted to make room for him.

"That's a fine scarf you have there," one of them said. She was recognizable by her gravelly voice, and the raised, knotted line of scar tissue that cut across her neck. "And matching mittens, too. I never took you for a soft touch."

She reached out to tug at the frayed, dirty edge of the scarf. Dwalin slapped her hand away. "Shut it, Isda."

"No, I mean it. You could retire." She glanced sideways at Kíli, the corners of her eyes crinkling. Her teeth were bared in a friendly grin. "Take up nursemaiding."

"Mind your tongue," Dwalin growled, but she only laughed.

Kíli flushed with anger and humiliation, but did his best to pretend he hadn't heard the exchange. It seemed he was always angry of late. At Thorin, at Fíli—at everyone. He couldn't help it. One wrong word, one glance at his ruined arm, and he was hot with rage. It roiled in his stomach every time he reached out for something only to realize that he had no hand to grasp with, no fingers to draw a bow. What good was an archer who couldn't shoot; a blacksmith who couldn't use hammer and tongs? Thorin had only let him go out on patrol because Dwalin would be there to protect him. But Kíli did not want to be indulged. He wanted real work. He wanted to fight. It was the only thing he had ever been good for. Thorin was a king and Fíli was his heir. They were precious; irreplaceable. It fell to Kíli, more than anyone else—even Dwalin—to make sure that Durin's folk never had to without them.

When Kíli was a child, he had fought dozens of losing battles against the men who insulted his family. A dwarven blacksmith could find his tools in the hands of the thief who stole them, but if he complained he was trying to steal from his betters, and if he fought the man he would be whipped for stirring up trouble. The first time Kíli had seen his uncle tied to a post in a town square, his back torn and bloody, something had shifted inside him. Rage was a broken bone pressing through flesh; rage was a little boy who watched one man hold his brother down while another hit him over and over. It was seeing his mother spat on in the streets. It was smiling up at the men who threw coins at him when he begged for food, and keeping silent when they asked how his mother had tricked an unlucky man into her bed—for surely, slim and beardless as he was, he must be a bastard and a whoreson.

When they settled in the Blue Mountains, everything changed. Folk looked up to Dís, and spoke Thorin's name with reverence. The dwarves of Ered Luin had food aplenty, and never wanted for shelter or honest work. They were their own masters. But Kíli had never quite forgotten the ugly hatred of his childhood. Ever since Gandalf woke him after the battle, it seemed he could not escape it.

In the first weeks since the battle, he'd found ways to cope. Sparring helped. Arguing with Fíli helped, or at least it gave him something different to be miserable about. Most of all, though, his letters helped. He'd brought Tauriel's letters along on patrol, but he only dared to look at them when the fires were burning low and most of the other soldiers were abed. Her handwriting was unmistakably elvish; he would be the gossip of the camp if they caught him pouring over her words, tracing the sweeping lines of script. His own missives were barely legible. Writing with his left hand ached; his fingers refused to obey him.

The first blizzards of winter closed the roads and made their communication sporadic at best, but he treasured everything she sent. And she had been wounded, too, soon after her return to Mirkwood: when he wrote that some days he wanted to tear off his own skin, she replied, yes, and how damnable that there are such prisons! It is only a little consolation, when we are all of us locked in our own rooms, that we can talk to each other through the walls.

Dwalin had left his place near the campfire and was squinting at the featureless grey hills in this distance. "Heads up," he said, scattering the unhappy fog of Kíli's thoughts. The soldiers broke off their conversations, and the low murmur of the camp immediately stilled to silence.

"I see it," Kíli said, as he clambered onto the old wall to gain a little height. There was a flurry of snow amid the hills. It might have been a gust of wind, but from his vantage point Kíli could see the glint of metal against the snow. "They're armed," he said. "Thirty, maybe more, and—" he stared hard. The strange gray light was sharp and painful in his eyes. "Wagons. It's the caravan."

"Took their own sweet time about it," Isda said, amid the general murmur of relief. "A few orcs at their heels might've done them good."

Soon all the soldiers were on their feet, brushing snow and ice off their boots and clothes, clearing out the campsite, and shouldering their packs. Their spirits had lifted. A rush of conversation made the air lighter, the low sky less oppressive. "I say we get a ride back in the wagons," one of them joked. "Put our feet up."

"We'll knock some notion of speed into them, lazy sluggards," said another. "And I thought ordinary patrols were dull!"

"Not one curst goblin since we left Erebor. Might as well've stayed at home."

"Keep quiet," said Kíli, sharply. He was scanning the surround, trusting that there were already plenty of eyes fixed on the caravan. He could see nothing out of place, hear nothing that raised his hackles. But that didn't matter. Not when Dwalin, with his nose for danger, had been restless all morning.

They were within shouting distance of Dain's soldiers when he saw the raiding party: goblins, loping down the snowy heights of the northern hills. Isda spotted them at almost the same time, and she didn't bother waiting for orders.

"Weapons out, and mind your heads!" Horns echoed against the cliffs. The caravan had seen them, too.

The goblins had been waiting for the caravan just like the dwarves, Kíli realized: hiding on the other side of the hills, in the impassible stone gulleys and caves that ringed the heath. If they had any archers, they would have fired from the safety of the heights. Instead they were streaming down from the cliffs in ragged lines, circling around and cutting behind the caravan's wagons. They would reach it before Kíli's soldiers did, and his own archers were useless; they couldn't shoot lest they hit their allies by mistake.

"The caravan'll keep moving, if they have any sense," Dwalin said to Kíli. "Looks as if they've no rear guard. Useless sods."

Kíli thought fast. How many times had he played this game as a child? You're leading a score of hardened veterans, he told himself. The voice in his head was Thorin's. A caravan to protect, heavily-laden over broken terrain. Goblins coming up behind—how many? You don't know. No archers, and you can't use yours. Think quickly, nephew—they'll be on you soon.

Shrieks and howls cut through the air. The enemy was closing the gap, and quickly. The caravan was picking up speed, the horses more terrified than their masters. The wagons were heavily laden. If they went too fast they risked overturning or losing a wheel, and then they would be done for.

"We split up," Kíli said, before he had a chance to second-guess himself. "Archers to the rear, behind whatever cover you can find. If the goblins get beyond us, keep them bottled up. This is the only ground flat enough for the caravan. They'll have to come past us. Dwalin, take eight and keep to one side, behind the old stone walls. Isda, you and the rest and stay with me."

Dwalin moved first, stacking the tumbledown stones on top of each other to make for better cover. "Those were orders," he growled, and suddenly everyone was scrambling to obey.

It was agony to watch and do nothing as the goblins drew nearer and nearer to their prey. Kíli kept low to the ground, sword drawn. His breath came high and ragged in his lungs. What if he'd made the wrong decision? What if the caravan was overtaken before it reached them? A handful of goblins had leap onto the rearmost wagon. He itched to put an arrow to the string. This close, he could have sent one tumbling to the dirt with a bolt through its eye.

Isda nudged him with her elbow. "It's only goblins, lad. The scrawny underfed sort. And here I was, thinking you were the boy who faced down Azog."

Kíli gritted his teeth and said nothing. Cold ground a body in the dirt crawling toward Thorin uncle you're not dead the pain oh Mahal please make it stop Thorin breathe breathe breathe you're not dead—

Closer, closer. The road compressed like a spring beneath unendurable strain. The caravan was closing the distance, but the goblins were already upon them.

Then they were through, a dozen wagons ratting by in a cacophony of iron and straining wood, horses flecked with sweat. The goblins shrieked. Some were clinging to the wagons, and at least a score more were crowded behind, like a pack of wolves harrying and snapping at their prey.

"Now!" Dwalin shouted.

His soldiers broke cover. Kíli lunged over the low wall at one of the goblins. By the time it realized what was happening, its intestines were spilling onto the ground, and Kíli was halfway across the battered road.

Sudden movement out of the corner of his eye, and he raised his sword just in time to meet his enemy's. The force of the blow jarred him. He shifted his grip, automatically reaching up to take his sword hilt in both hands, and cursed when he realized what he had done. It was enough to throw him off balance. The goblin drove him back, first one step and then another, so close that its breath was hot on his face. He was being pushed into the bottleneck, where the fighting was thickest. In the heavy press of bodies, all scrambling and straining, someone—friend or enemy, Kíli didn't know—dealt him an accidental blow. The blade scraped across his hipbone and bit deep into his thigh, just beneath his mithril mail.

He reeled, hitting the ground as his leg gave out. The goblin fell too landing heavily on top of him. Kíli's head slammed into the frozen ground, and blinding pain flowered behind his eyes. He gasped for breath.

But his opponent was equally distracted. The goblin's sword clattered to the ground as it clawed at its own chest. Kíli's thoughts were sluggish, his sight fragmented. But he saw now that there was something lashed to the goblin's side, weighing it down. A sack, barely more than a handful of dirty rags stitched together, and Kíli realized with dawning horror that something inside was wriggling.

Whatever the little creature was, it was struggling mightily in protest, clawing and snapping. One of its blows caught flesh. The goblin shrieked in pain.

Kíli's blood was softening the dirt beneath him, turning the ground to mud. Darkness crawled up the edges of his vision. But he forced air into his lungs and ordered his arms to move, and suddenly he had all the strength he needed. He lunged in and drove his sword up into the goblin's weak side, blade slipping just beneath the jutting ribcage.

The goblin gasped, a high ratting sound. Then it slumped forward, dead. Whatever was in the bundle began to howl.

By the time Kíli had pulled his sword free and wriggled out from under the weight of the corpse, most of the surviving goblins had already turned and run, unwilling to face such bloody opposition with their prize already lost. Kíli dragged himself to his feet, but there was little for him to do. One of Isda's comrades had just killed the last of the goblins in the bottleneck, and the archers were picking off those that had fled.

The caravan, less than a hundred feet up the road, had come to a halt: the lead wagon was hopelessly askew, rear axle broken. The ground between Kíli's soldiers and the caravan was littered with corpses. Some were dwarven, but now many.

"You all right, lad?" Dwalin was leaning heavily on the broken handle of his axe, but he was only winded, not hurt.

"Yes," Kíli managed, but when he tried to put weight on his injured leg he fell to the ground again. "Its nothing!" he said, when not one but a handful of his soldiers rushed to help. "Just let me—"

"You stay put," Dwalin said, harshly.

Kíli had been raised to obey without question when Dwalin used that particular tone of voice. He stilled, and didn't protest as Dwalin checked his injuries. "How many dead?"

"Four," Isda reported. One of Dain's guards was leaning heavily on her shoulder, and there was enough resemblance that Kíli suspected they were family. "A handful wounded. Not bad."

"Cloth and clean water," Dwalin said, sitting back. Kíli's trousers were a lost cause; Dwalin had simply cut through them, pulling back the bloodstained cloth to reveal an ugly wound, the skin gaping open. Kíli could see dirt and flecks of rust in the gash. But blood was only welling up, not spurting, and some of the urgency had faded from Dwalin's voice when he said: "And at least your head is still attached. Your uncle won't go executing me just yet. Nothing cracked or broken?"

Kíli shook his head, then winced at his mistake. "No," he said. "I don't think so."

It wasn't a satisfactory answer, but Kíli would tolerate only so much fussing. There was still plenty of work to be done, and his burst of sudden strength had not yet left him. He rattled off orders while Dwalin bandaged his thigh, thinking only of what Thorin would have done, were he the one in command.

"You've fine timing, prince," said the dwarf in charge of the caravan, who had hastened back down the road to meet them. Some of his soldiers were looking after their wounded fellows. Others were busy repairing the wagons, or soothing the panicked horses. "And our thanks." He nudged a goblin corpse with the toe of his heavy boot. "There's another little gang of them, up closer to the Heath—harried us for days, had us turning back twice. No sooner did they slink back to their holes than this lot appeared."

"How did your people fare?" Kíli asked as Dwalin helped him back to his feet. He gingerly tested his wounded leg. "If you need anything—"

"It's we who ought to be offering," the captain said, and glanced back at the wagons. "We've been dragging your property halfway across the north, bought and paid for. I'll be grateful to see it safe in Erebor and put to good use."

Kíli thought of his brother, and of Bilbo saying a polite "no thank you" when Bombur offered him another bowl of gruel, though his cheeks were hollow and his tattered waistcoat hung loose when he wore it. He thought of Dale, and the children that Glóin felt so responsible for, and the hunger that drove good men to steal from their fellows.

"It will be," he said.

The captain looked as if he understood.

He left Isda to help sort out the wagons, and told Dwalin to see that they were ready to break camp and leave as soon as the caravan got moving. That dealt with, he limped back down the road to the body of the goblin he had slain, ignoring Dwalin's order to "keep off that leg, you stupid boy, else you want a limp like Ori's."

Yes, that's what I need, Kíli thought, bitterly, as he walked. A useless leg to match his missing hand. Thorin had been right. He should never have gone out on patrol. How was he supposed to defend Erebor, to keep Fíli and Thorin safe, if he couldn't even keep himself in one piece during a skirmish?

At last he found what he was looking for. His curiosity had been nagging him since the battle: what, in Mahal's name, had that goblin been carrying in that sack? Kneeling down was no easy feat, but he managed it nevertheless. He pushed the corpse aside and cut the lashings that the goblin had used to hold the mysterious bundle of rags. Whatever kind of creature was inside, it had fallen still and silent, but Kíli was still wary, his movements quick.

"Ah," he said, when he had cautiously unwrapped the rags. The bundle of matted fur curled inside flinched back from his hand. "You were to be someone's dinner, is that it?"

The pup whined and cringed. Kíli had seen enough of wolves and wargs to know the difference, and this poor little fellow was a wolf: half-starved, surely not more than three months old. "Oh, my uncle will hate you," he told the pup, keeping his voice low and gentle. He had kept dogs in Ered Luin, and missed them dreadfully on the quest. "And you're no village cur that I can tame and keep. Your mother is already dead, I suppose. Your brothers and sisters too. I ought to kill you now, and spare you the trouble of freezing or starving or being eaten."

It was senseless to hate the dead goblin for what it had done to an animal, but Kíli's jaw was tight with anger as he scooped up his new charge and slowly, awkwardly, got to his feet. He half-expected the sting of claws and teeth; instead, the pup whimpered and buried its damp little nose in the crook of Kíli's elbow. Some of Kíli's anger faded.

"My uncle will hate you," Kíli said again as they headed for the caravan. "No doubt you'll be dead in a week, so it's no good giving you a name. You must be plain old khahûl."

He wouldn't grow too fond of the creature, Kíli told himself. But Erebor was large enough that such a small pup would be no trouble at all. If it survived the first few days, then—well, he would think about that when the time came.

It might be nice, he thought, having something to look after.