"I can't believe you lost her!" Kili shouted over the rushing wind. A blast of snow blew into his face, and he jumped back down into the shelter sputtering.
"I lost her!?" Fili said. "You were the nearest to her!" He threw a blanket over the ponies that huddled at the back of the half-room. There was no roof to keep the snow off their backs, though there were plenty of short, green saplings sheltered between the walls and they carried rods and fastenings in their baggage. He might have set Kili to work building them a ceiling, if they hadn't been arguing over the woman again.
Fili scowled. "She has been nothing but trouble on this journey! What good is she? And you! You're the one who's been riding with her, chatting so friendly. Why the devil couldn't you tie a rope around her or something!?"
"Why did you push us to ride so quickly when you know that she can barely keep her saddle in good weather?" Kili threw up his hands and would have paced the floor, but there was barely four feet of ground between the horses and the baggage. The quarters were far too close for two cold and angry dwarves.
"I knew those orcs were a bad omen," Fili muttered. "Why did I let you convince me otherwise? We should have turned home when we had the chance."
"It would have been safer for her if we had," Kili said.
Fili looked at his brother and felt the weight of his words. Betta, born on the warm southern coasts, she had not the sturdiness of a Dwarf and was the least able of them all to survive in the winter lands. She was also injured and, though he wouldn't admit it, at their starting-out Fili had given her the youngest and smallest pony. It had seemed fitting at the time since Betta was the smallest body among them, but it also meant that the animal was more likely to stray or to fall prey to foul weather.
Fili looked out into the blowing snow. Already the tracks that Kili had made only moments ago were filling in. He felt a new weight upon his shoulders and knew that he owed a duty to his brother and his uncle, but also to the woman who had agreed to follow his lead on their quest when she could – and would – have refused a dozen times to follow him.
"We cannot ride out to look for her," he said. "The ponies are worn out and not yet used to the cold; I would be surprised if you could force them out of the shelter at all now that they have found it. The wind still blows fierce so that we might walk past her and not see her. We will not help her by losing ourselves."
"So, your solution is to abandon her to the storm?"
Fili frowned. He had bandaged Betta's arm and knew better than his brother the wounds that she bore without complaint; the cut had been deep and would need more than a single tending. Also, Kili was fearless, and he did not understand the power that fear held over those who were not. Kili did not know that Betta had slept fitfully that night and this day would be tired and in pain, but Fili knew and should have remembered.
"We must abandon her to her own luck," he said finally.
Kili scowled and turned his back.
"Betta is no fool," Fili told his brother. He put his hand on his shoulder. "Once she realizes that we have been separated, she will look for shelter to wait out the worst of it and search for us in daylight. It would be better for us to do the same. We will not find her in this storm."
Kili did not argue. He shook off his brother's hand and went to crouch down against the wall near the ponies. Fili sighed and crouched down beside him. The dwarves pulled their cloaks tight around their shoulders and tried to stay warm. Kili shivered and put his head between his knees. He wished for sleep, but all he received were visions of Betta lost and alone. He knew that he should have stayed close to her, especially after the storm began, but he had ridden ahead with his brother. Of course Fili would not think to watch over the woman; he had not wanted to bring her with them in the first place.
Beside him, Kili could feel the tension in his brother's body. Fili was restless and moving, but it was not from the cold; Kili looked over and saw worry on his brother's face that he did not expect. It had been Fili's decision to wait out the storm, but it was Fili who seemed the most impatient to move on.
"Perhaps we should…"
"I tell you, she will have better luck than you or I," Fili said sharply. All of his choices had gone ill on this journey and the choice to leave Betta behind was a bitter one.
Kili did not know his brother's feelings and only heard his harsh words. "What does her luck matter to you?" he said. "You did not want her here in any case. What good is she, you ask! What good are we who abandon her? What good will we be to Thorin when the time comes?" Kili closed his eyes and drew his hood over his head.
Fili looked at his brother in alarm. It was not like Kili to despair.
"Forgive my sharp words, little brother. Kili, I am sorry," he said. "If Thorin were here, he would say the same as I, that the risk is too great. Indeed, I think that he would be more sure than I am in this."
"But if it were you or I lost, he would risk the search," Kili said.
"And if it were Thorin lost, he would not want you or I to risk a search for him when he can look after himself," Fili said. "Betta is not our uncle, but she is stubborn. Think! Do you really believe that your woman, who has come so far over the wild hills, would let a bit of snow destroy her? After killing an orc with her own knife? The foul creature never knew what it was in for. She might have taken its head off with that small blade of hers." Fili forced himself to laugh, trying to cheer his brother.
Kili could not help but smile, although he knew that it was the fall that had killed the orc and not Betta. "I wish that I had known how fierce she was when we spoke at Ered Luin," Kili said. "I told her that I did not think her dangerous and was not afraid to be alone in the wild with her."
"Would you change your answer now?" Fili asked.
"No, but I may not have laughed at her when I said it."
Fili thought back to his own words at Ered Luin when they had first met Betta. He had been certain that she wouldn't make it more than two days in the wild before she begged to be sent home. She might have lasted longer than all of them, if Fili had not forced her to change her ways. He had often heard her muttering over their choice of food, of beasts, of riding on in bad weather with little thought to what lay ahead.
True, she was no warrior, but she had survived an orc attack alone; and, for all the hurt that she had taken in the fight, she had not complained. It was more than the whisper of his honor that told Fili that he would not rest if he did not at least attempt the search for her. She had done nothing to earn the scorn that he had heaped upon her, and they might have been stuck with far worse than Betta on their first adventure… perhaps a grumpy wizard or a soft-bellied hobbit.
Fili's mind was decided, and he stood up. "The storm is lessening," he said, though there was no sign of it. If anything, the wind blew stronger. "Stay and watch the ponies. I will go out and look for her. Will that satisfy you?"
"If anyone should look, it should be me," Kili insisted.
"If anyone should stay with the ponies, it should be you," Fili told him. "I am the better tracker."
"But I have the keener sight."
"And what do you hope to see in all this blowing snow?"
"What do you hope to track with the wind covering any sign of your path?"
Fili frowned. He did not hope to find any tracks at all, but he refused to sit warm in a shelter while his brother wandered blind in the storm.
"I suppose that you have taught me to be hopeful," he said. "I doubted you when you believed that we would find her alive after the orcs attacked, and yet we did. Now you say that she will die if we do not look for her. Do you blame me if I accept your word this time? You know her better than I do, Kili, but it is I who will fetch her for you. Perhaps then you will be able to sit quietly, and I shall get some rest."
Kili opened his mouth to protest, but Fili interrupted him. "I am stronger and quicker than you, little brother, and if that is not enough, then I am older and hardier on a hunt. If either of us has a chance at finding our lost guide, it will be me."
"If you would ever do as you are told, do it now!" Fili ordered. "Stay and watch the ponies. Do not search for her or for me until daylight or the storm breaks, whichever comes latest. If you do not find us then, you will return to Thorin. If our company should fail, he will blame me in any case, and I would sooner be blamed for losing myself than for losing you."
Kili looked up and his eyes were wide, but Fili smiled and gripped his brother's arm. "I certainly have not come all this way to be defeated by a little snow," he said. "Undoubtedly, I will find your woman camped out under shelter with a warm fire crackling, and she will be delighted to tell me that I have been a great fool for having gone after her."
With that, Kili argued no more, and Fili wrapped himself up in every cloak and scarf that he had. He carried spare food and a water skin under his clothes.
"Light a fire and do not let the ponies wander," he said. "I will not go far. The ground was rocky half a mile from here. If there is any hill to shelter under that is where she will be." He tightened his belt and put up his hood. He gave his brother one last, long look, and then set off into the wind.