The next morning, not even Kili needed Fili to wake him when the sun rose. None of them had slept well that night, but rise and move on they must. The Hills of Evendim were grim and gray in the morning light and the sky was overcast. There was no sign of movement on the flat lands below, but Fili led them close to the hills and wound their path among the thick brush and broken outcroppings of stone. He kept them under as much cover as he could find.
They watched all morning, but saw no sign of light or movement of anything but the scavenging mice and birds that lived under the sparse brush of hill and plain. They saw no animal larger than that either and, though Kili kept his bow handy, even he was not desperate enough to shoot at grouse and sparrows yet.
The hills on their right were not as tall as they had been. North into the distance, they marched down and down toward the flat lands until they blended into them. Fili guessed that they would be only a mile or two from the end of the range by the time they made camp at nightfall. He was satisfied with that and hoped to take advantage of the shelter of the hills once more before entering the open lands. On the following day, he knew, they would turn east above Evendim and enter into the north of Arnor. The wind had already begun to pick up; once they left the shelter of the hills, it would be bitter and cold.
Looking back, Fili saw that Kili's pony had dropped behind again and he was riding alongside Betta. Fili knew that the woman suspected that they were in this adventure for more than treasure, and he wondered if Kili had told her the secret of Erebor. Would his brother be so foolish? For many years, Thorin had been brooding on the Lonely Mountain, but only a handful of trusted dwarves knew that he meant to attempt the retaking of it. It was not a thing that he would want to be well-known. You did not become the Great Thorin Oakenshield without making enemies.
Fili shook his head and smiled. No. Not even Kili would be so foolish as to broadcast their plans to a stranger. If he knew his brother at all, Kili was begging for songs and stories of the south. From the look of things, Betta was not happy to be asked.
Fili halted them before the end of the day, seeing a shallow valley at the mouth of a deep ravine that cut into the rocky cliffs of the northern Emyn Uial. A thick grove of birch and pine grew in the shelter of the valley and a thin stream of clear water ran along the bottom, run-off from the hills above. It was a quiet and peaceful place, full of more life than they had seen since crossing the river. They were glad to make their camp there and to rest in preparation for the more difficult lands that they would enter next.
Fili and Betta made camp, brushed down the ponies and prepared the fire for cooking while Kili explored farther up the ravine. The dense trees, however peaceful seeming, could easily hide wolves or other predators, and he took his weapons with him.
An hour passed, and Fili had begun to turn his eyes often to the trees with worry, but there was no need. When Kili returned, he was grinning proudly and carrying three well-fed squirrels, each shot through the neck and still hanging from the arrows. The rodents were plump with the fat that would have kept them warm while they slept away the winter in their holes. They would not need it now.
The dwarves cleaned, skinned and gutted the squirrels; they threw the bodies, bones and all, into the stew pot. That night, they ate a cheerful meal stopping only to pick the thin bones from their teeth. Betta and Fili forgot to fight each other, and all three of them forgot to be afraid of strange lights or wolves.
After the bowls had been put away, they sat around the fire, and Kili again asked Betta to tell them a tale of the wars of the southern lands of Men.
She pulled her hood over her head and stared into the fire. "I know no tales that you would wish to hear," she said, "nothing of brave heroes and great battles. I have forgotten them, and all that I know lies under the shadow of the Black Land, and that is a shadow of grief."
"Very grim, I'm sure," Fili muttered, shaking his head at her.
She frowned at him but did not reply.
Kili shook his head at them both and lit his pipe. "Then tell any tale you like," he said. "Or, if you wish to sulk tonight, my brother can give us a rounding chorus of song."
"I will not!"
Kili laughed and threw his pouch of tobacco over the fire to his brother.
"Well, will you save my brother from embarrassing himself?" he asked. "Although, I assure you Fili sings as well as any Elf."
"Only three squirrels and already you grow too tall for your beard," Fili told him.
"Indeed," Kili said, combing his fingers through his beard. He winked at Betta, but she was gazing thoughtfully into the fire.
They sat quietly for several minutes, and the only sound was the crackling of the burning wood and the chirping of night-insects. Once, deep in the grove behind them, an owl cried. Betta gave a start and looked up from her thoughts.
"I have a tale to tell you, if you still wish to hear it," she said.
"I do," Kili said, immediately, and even Fili sat up to listen.
She took a moment to find her place, and then she began, "The fair river Poros runs down from Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow, that guard the Black Land of Mordor. It pours green and laughing through the yellow grasslands of southern Ithilien. At least that is what I have been told, for I have never seen it. Long before my birth, the men of Harad attacked the crossing of the river and drove back the soldiers of Gondor. Many settlements were then razed and burned. There was much war and the land was turned from fair green fields to a battleground.
"Ten years before I was born, Ithilien was abandoned by all but a handful of scattered companies, Rangers for the most part, who remained there long to harry the invaders and prevent them from going farther north. They may wander there still, for all that I know, but I believe that even if Gondor should come to a final end, there will still be Rangers in Ithilien, like the memory of forgotten years.
"Harad did not build lasting settlements, but vagabond men and thieves wandered freely there and slowly they grew bold. Often the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs could be seen beyond the coasts of Belfalas, but now it was the Southrons who would make shift to attack the western shores of Anduin and even to fair Lebennin, to the farms of my family, there came the rumor of fear.
"When I was young, not a child but not yet full grown…" Betta frowned as she counted out the years. "It is twenty years ago now," she said quietly. "It seems so short a time…" She lifted her hand as if to push the thought away and continued.
"When I was young, the Ruling Steward, Ecthelion II, gathered his army at the ruin of Osgiliath and they determined to march south through Ithilien and route out the weeds that had grown in the Garden of Gondor. The men of Lebennin sharpened their arrows and their axes, and they gathered in companies well-ordered but under lesser command than the great captains of the White Tower. They marched east to the coast to cross in secret over Anduin in boat and barge south of Pelargir and so they would join with the army of Ecthelion and give them aid from their western flank.
"My family dwelt then west of the river Sirith, north of Pelargir. I watched my uncles march with the men of northern Lebennin and they were proud and fierce, their black hair blowing in the wind. They sang as they went away.
"That was the last I saw of them. Not even their bodies returned home to us."
In sadness, Betta fell silent. The night was quiet all around them and Fili found himself thinking of his mother and how Dis had felt to watch her brothers ride out to battle with the orcs of Moria in Azanulbizar. The bodies of Frerin and his son had been burnt there with many others, they had not returned to be buried in honor and in tombs of stone.
"How did the battle go?" Kili asked.
"Ecthelion was delayed in the north by orcs that came in force out of the vale of Minas Morgul and the men of Lebennin were sorely pressed. Harad had more than brigands coming over the Poros.
"When Lebennin first crossed Anduin, they meant to come in secret, but whether by treachery or otherwise, the enemy had word of their coming and they were ambushed by a company of Haradrim, armed with long spears and sharp swords. My youngest uncle, Andur, fell in the front lines, defending the barges so that the remainder of the companies could cross over. For days, there were many small battles and our men fought valiantly though they were outnumbered nearly ten to one by an overwhelming force. Finally, Ecthelion came down from the north and they were met there, and the enemy was routed and driven back across Poros into South Gondor that is a land forever torn by war.
"In the last battle, the shores of Anduin were again hard pressed as the remaining men of Harad sought access to the boats that had carried the men of Lebennin across. There, my last two uncles fell, Arborn and Beregil. Their bodies were lost to the sea and Andur was never found. My mother often prayed that he, too, had been taken by Anduin, for the Haradrim are cruel and have no honor even for the bodies of their own people.
"The garden of Ithilien had been weeded, but never again will men dwell there in peace and though the danger had lessened, our coasts were still harried by the pirate ships of wild men. My father moved my family into the eastern lands of Lossarnach in the same year of the birth of Denethor, the son of Ecthelion, and not long after my brothers joined the guard on the wall of the Pelennor. They would soon ride out to the aid of the men of Osgiliath and would too soon be killed in battle there."
Betta fell silent again, her story was over. Kili would have asked her to tell them of the death of her brothers as well, but Fili caught his brother's eye and shook his head. That was a tale for another night. Instead, at his suggestion, the brothers sang a song of ancient Belegost and the many wonders made by Dwarven hands in the years before the drowning of Beleriand. Even though Fili had protested, and his brother had teased, he did not mind the singing.
This is only a small part of what they sang for there were many verses all much the same, describing gold and silver and the things wrought of them in ancient days.
Before the fall of Azaghal
When Telchar wrought far under stone
In Nogrod fair, the Mountain Hall
In Belegost, Gabilgathol
The Dwarf folk rose and walked alone
And songs they sung of rock and bone
Before the Wrath, before the Dread
The Dwarf folk carved their mansions grand
The pearl, they strung on silver thread
With jewels like stars, with rubies red
The dust of diamond lay like sand
Where gems were cut by dwarven hand
In ruins lie the Dwarven halls
Where once the forge burned fierce and bright
In fair Nogrod, in mountains tall
In Belegost, Gabilgathol
The fire is dead, and dead the light
Yet still burns fierce the Dwarven might
The song ended, and the final deep notes echoed up into the ravine behind them and down onto the flatlands.
After the notes had faded into silence, Kili laughed and said, "Brother, if you would only sing half so well when we return home, you will have a wife and crying babe in no time."
"That I will save for you, dear brother. I am not a brave enough dwarf to face that peril yet."
Soon after, they lay down for bed, and Betta offered to take the first watch and let the dwarves sleep. Kili did not argue; he was satisfied with the midnight watch, but Fili hesitated. They had watched in the same turns from the beginning of their journey and it felt strange to him to sleep first.
"You are certain?" he asked her.
"I am not in the mood for sleep just yet," she said. "I would like to see the stars come out, and it is quiet here among the trees."
He shook his head at her. The clouds were too thick for stars tonight. He lay down beside his brother with his blanket around him and his sword near at hand. In spite of his misgivings, he soon fell asleep and his dreams were of lost treasure found.