In the end, they needn't have worried. Despite Thranduil's words about the river being difficult, it was a straightforward passage. Yes, there were rocks and yes, it was a bit swift but it was nothing that a couple of dwarves with oar-skills couldn't manage. Though even Thorin had to admit that it was not something he could have done alone. While they all made it to Long Lake in the boats, they did all get a little wet.
Nearly worse than the rapids was when they hit the expanse of Long Lake and the current from the river faded. Then they were obligated to take up oars and row for the city on stilts they could see in the distance. Each dwarf too his turn at the oars, grumbling the whole while as he forced his tired body into motion. Bilbo offered timidly and his offer—thankfully, if he was being honest—was rejected. Thorin didn't even attempt to offer, he knew the task to be beyond him, and none of the others asked if he would try. Kíli also didn't offer.
In fact, since his discussion with his uncle, he hadn't said a word. He had done little more than move where he was told and tried to be the least of a burden on the company as he could. He'd already forced them from safety before they were whole enough to move safely. None of them would incur further risk on his account. He would see to it. As useless as he felt sitting in the middle of the boat with the gear, he couldn't help the dread and nausea that set into his gut as they neared the town. Ringing in his head was the concern that his fears would take him once more and they would be forced to move on again before they were ready. He only hoped that this time they wouldn't be bound. He knew he couldn't abide it and hated that someone might be injured or killed when he reacted poorly.
The people of Lake Town were more than a little surprised to see dwarves in boats that were clearly of Elvish make and the company was obliged to wait in said boats until someone from the town guard was able to come a scrutinize the letter Thranduil had given Thorin. As more of the city guard came to the docks, Kíli wasn't the only one shifting uncomfortably in trepidation of what may happen. Dwalin's fingers were drumming anxiously on the hilt of his hammer and even Bilbo was brushing a finger over his little letter-opener.
"It bears the seal of the Elf King," the man finally declared after turning the paper to and fro and inspecting it for forgery. By the time he was sure that the paper, and it's promise of payment by the woodland realm for the storage of the boats until they could be retrieved, was genuine the dwarves, wet and weary as they were, were growing impatient.
"Welcome to Esgaroth, Master Dwarves," the guard said with a dip of his head. "May I ask your business? I see no goods for trade and we currently have sent no request for smithwork. What brings you?"
Thorin stood to his full height, wishing he felt less water-logged and travel-worn. "I am Thorin the second, also known as Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thrór who was King under the Mountain. I currently claim the title of King of Durin's Folk in Exile, I come to claim what is rightfully mine, The Lonely Mountain and title of King Under the Mountain from the scourge. I seek shelter to rest and prepare my company for their assault on the mountain."
The men seemed shocked by his announcement. All of them knew the names of Thror, Thrain, and Thorin. Their grandparents had often spoken of the dwarves of the mountain and reminisced about the glory days of Dale and Erebor. To have someone claiming to be one of the kings of old standing before them—and looking more like a starved urchin than a king—now took a moment to process. Whether he spoke the truth or not, his words stirred something within them that they couldn't quite name. Too long had they lived in fear of the dragon. Half-drowned urchin or king, his promise held hope.
The company, too, were affected by his words. For too long their quest had seemed like a fight for survival rather than what it was, a quest for a home and the wealth of their people. Ever since they had left the Shire the quest had been one trial after another, one crisis giving way to the next with little respite. For most, a swell of pride that had long been absent filled their hearts but for a few, the words came with a sense of dread. All the difficulties so far had paled in comparison to what was to come. As terrible as the goblins, orcs and their own kin had become, they were far less deadly that Smaug the Destroyer. A potentially live dragon still awaited them.
Eventually, the guard composed himself and found his voice once more. "I am afraid that I can do nothing in the face of such claims," he said, swallowing hard. "I am not saying that I doubt you, merely that the decision to offer you shelter is not mine to make. We must see the Master of Lake Town. He will decide if you may stay."
"I understand," Thorin said with a slight nod. "Where might we find the Master?"
"I will lead you," the guard replied. "You may come up the ladder with my tentative welcome to Esgaroth." Thorin glanced at the ladder with trepidation, wondering if he could manage the climb and avoid admitting his weakness to yet another potential ally, or foe. He was about to attempt it, knowing it to be in vain when he was saved by Fíli.
"Is there a way that does not involve a ladder?" the young heir asked, his tone and expression apologetic. "You see, I . . . well, I have broken my hand and I fear that I will not be able to make the climb with a pack and would not burden my kin if it can be avoided." He held his wrapped arm aloft for proof.
"Aye," the guard nodded. "There is a stair. If you will permit it, I will come down and guide you to them."
"That would be much appreciated," Thorin said, moving to give the man room. "His is not our only injury that might have been exasperated by such a climb." The thought crossed the guard's mind that if a ladder could present such a challenge, was it wise to plan an assault on what could very well be a live dragon but he held his peace. It was their business, not his. Instead, he climbed into their boat, not failing to notice that their child—they had brought a child on a suicide mission! What kind of a people were dwarves?—moved away from him as though afraid he would bite. With a shake of his head, he took the rudder and led them to the steps.
As they climbed the steps to the town, Fíli fell back and allowed his uncle to make his way up them by himself so that he could speak with Dwalin. His cousin said nothing, continuing to stare ahead as though Fíli was not attempting to make conversation.
"Thank you," Fíli said softly, watching his uncle or brother for signs that they were listening and seeing none. "I know you and uncle have had a falling out but . . . I knew you would help if it came to it. There wasn't anyone else I felt I could ask."
"Aye, lad," Dwalin replied, sparing the lad a small, sad smile. "Thorin and I have been friends for many years. No matter what he or anyone else thinks of me, I wouldn't let him drown." Fíli nodded, his face still troubled as thoughts that his uncle would have been able to swim were it not for him assaulted his mind.
"I won't tell him you asked me to help," Dwalin added, trying to ease burden he believed troubled the young heir's mind. "I won't create more problems between you than there are. I'll keep your secret." Fíli shook his head.
"I'm not worried about that," he muttered, his body and expression screaming the opposite. "Uncle would understand. It's not like I could pull him out. Not right now. Neither could Kili. We needed help" Dwalin said nothing. It was clear to him that despite the time they had spent together lately Fíli still didn't understand Thorin if he believed that. Thorin didn't forgive or forget betrayal, and that's how he would see this—Dwalin knew his old friend well—Fíli had told someone he saw as an enemy, or at least an antagonist, a weakness of his, even though it was obvious to any with eyes that Thorin was less than at his best. And, though none of them but the Elf had said so, that this far out from his initial injury such limitations were likely permanent.
The meeting with the Master went well. He, too, remembered the names of Thorin's forbearers as well as the name of Thorin himself. The greed in his eyes and the way his fingers moved the rings of his other hand as Thorin spoke worried Balin and Gloin but Thorin seemed to preen under the attention. Travel-worn and weakened thought he was, he took on a more regal stance before the Master than they had seen since Goblin Town, seeming to look down his nose at a man more than a foot taller than himself.
The cousins exchanged worried glances behind his back as Thorin nodded regally to the Master's flamboyant bow and statement of "Welcome to Esgaroth, King Thorin, and Company."
Their king's generally level public face had been shaken since Goblin Town, they worried how he would take the scrutiny of Men who were now acknowledging him as king. He and his nephews, whom he had introduced as the princes they were. Their people would never recover their reputation if Thorin or one of the lads had a meltdown, no matter what excuse was offered. They could only hope that their stay in Esgaroth was a brief one. None of them trusted the lads, or Thorin, to hold it together for an extended stay. Especially when the Master insisted on a welcome feast for the "heroes of Esgaroth and the erstwhile Desolation of Smaug."
Even so, they were powerless to refuse and had less power to suggest to Thorin that it was a bad plan than the hobbit. Had they have voiced their concerns, they wouldn't have put it past him to suggest more feast days to the Master just to spite them. They could only hope that they were wrong and cooler heads would prevail.
As evening fell and preparations for the feast began in earnest, Kíli felt the now familiar anxiety begin to settle in his gut making him nauseous. The clamor, the dimness, the torches. While he knew that this was nothing like Goblin Town or even their "welcome" to the Elf King's realm, he couldn't change how he felt. He couldn't stop his heart pounding in his chest, nor the cold-sweat that broke out across his skin. He finished arranging his uncle's hair, as he was in no condition to do it and there was no one else who could, before he stepped back, bowing his head.
"I-I'm not going," he whispered, refusing to look at Thorin as he did. "I can't do it, Uncle. So may Men. So tall. So loud. I c-can't."
"Kíli," Fíli sighed, reaching for his brother's hand. Whatever else he was going to say was lost in Thorin's next words.
"You have no choice, lad," Thorin replied, his voice soft but with a steel core that Kíli knew he would never change. As dissimilar as the situations were, it was Goblin Town anew. Once more, his uncle would force him into something more than he could bear. He felt resentment bubble within him as he realized that public image was more important than his needs.
"I can't," Kíli muttered, looking up at his uncle through his own unbound hair. "There's too many of them. Too much noise. Too many shadows. Please don't make me. I don't know that I can . . . that I won't . . . don't make me go."
"I have no choice," the king sighed, gripping Kíli's forearm in solidarity. "You have already been introduced as a prince of the realm; my sister-son. That title comes with responsibility, lad. You must attend this feast in our honor. Anything else would be seen as offensive. We need the men of lake town, little one. Perhaps not someday once we are re-established, but now we need their aid to reach the mountain and their trade to sustain her once she is ours. We cannot slight them for our own comfort."
What of their safety?Kíli wondered. Still, he said nothing, but he also didn't argue further. It would do no more good here than it ever had before. His uncle's mind was made up. He would just have to do the best he could.
"We'll be there, brother," Fíli said, squeezing his hand to get his attention. It hurt Fíli to see the resignation in Kíli's eyes but he knew that this time their uncle was right. There was no other way.
"You're not alone. It'll be fine," Fíli muttered, pressing his forehead to his brothers. "I'll be there. Nothing will happen."
Kíli wanted to yell, to tell him that they had both been there the first time and things hadn't been fine. To remind Fili that he had done nearly as much harm to Kili as the goblins had. To say that it hadn't helped in Mirkwood. Their presence had done nothing to help him. It had done nothing to stop him from growing paranoid and ruining their safe haven. Why would this time be different? But he said nothing, merely scoffing before brushing off his brother's hands and walking off.
"Does he have to come?" Fili asked softly, hoping his question would be well received but needing to ask all the same. "We could say he's ill." Thorin thought about it a moment before he shook his head.
"He has to make an appearance," the king finally sighed. "He doesn't have to stay. Once we've introduced him to the people I will make his excuses and he can come back. But he has to go. Can you make him understand that?"
"I'll try," Fíli said, looking at the door his brother had retreated through with apprehension. So far things hadn't gone well when he and Kíli had been alone under such circumstances. He only hoped this time would be different.