"Do you mean to tell me that you had this one task, this one simple task of guarding my son's attackers, and you failed?"
Havaleth shivered and lowered his head in shame, tottering slightly as the lingering effects of the wine dulled his senses. Thranduil's gaze lingered on his son's pale visage. The fever had broken and Legolas finally slept, but it had been too close. Even for his skills, Legolas had almost faded before his eyes. The struggle had been no ordinary one, this Thranduil had known. An evil pervaded their kingdom: one he had not felt in centuries. Even in his delirium Legolas sensed it: fought against it. It pervaded his dreams, wrapping around his soul and delighting when the attempts of the healers failed to disperse its hold. It had been too agonized a struggle. Too aching to watch as his son strengthened and faltered according to the Shadow's whim.
The grim pallor had left Legolas' face the instant Havaleth had come with the news that the prisoner had vanished. To Thranduil that meant only one thing: the Dwarves carried the evil with them.
"Guards! Seal the gates and see to it that none of the prisoners escape alive!"
Water enveloped Fili, pouring into the barrel and sweeping over his head. He should have taken the opportunity: breathed deeply of the chilly waves: let oblivion sweep him gently to the welcoming arms of his brother.
He could not give in without a struggle.
Gasping for clean, delightful air, Fili clung to the barrel as he spun wildly, careening down the river as waves assaulted him from every side. He had no time to think, only to survive as he was flung mercilessly down the foaming torrent. The howls of dogs assailed his ears and he wanted to block out the sound, cursing the Elves for hunting them down so quickly.
A barbed arrow buried itself in the side of his barrel and Fili glanced up in time to see the snarling maw of a Warg as it snapped towards his face. Heart racing and head reeling with shock, he jerked back and nearly topped out of his barrel as the river swept him just beyond the monster's reach. Fili gasped and swerved to take in the mounted riders which had swiftly overtaken the waterladen barrels.
Orcs… but how?
"Fili, look out!"
He ducked in time and another arrow whizzed past his head. Water filled his vision and Fili coughed and spluttered when his barrel resurfaced. Through blurred eyes he saw Dwalin yank a sword from one Orc's grip and toss it back to Dis, before tearing another from the side of his barrel and swinging it around in time to lope off another Orc's head.
Whirling around, Fili caught Thorin's eye and instinctively threw up his arm as a metal club was flung towards him. It clapped in his hand and for a minute fire surged in his veins and he smashed it into the leg of an Orc that leapt into the tree limb above him.
Fight, Son of Durin… fight for that which is your own….
But there was nothing left to fight for. His Kili was gone.
Rend… Slay… Avenge… You are Khâzad. You are stronger than the pain.
Hatred for those who had killed his brother overwhelmed his senses, and it was with pleasure that Fili threw the club and cratered one Orc's skull. Satisfaction filled him and he shouted in victory. He wrenched the spear from another Orc, flipping it around and driving it into the back of the Orc that was about to cleave off Dis' head. Red haze filled his vision and there was nothing but blood and death and the need to kill and survive.
More arrows zipped through the air, white fletches felling Orcs sooner than the others could take their ranks. Helmets shimmered and lithe boots flitted from the tree limbs to the bank, white swords flashing in the light as the Elves of Mirkwood joined the fight. Callous soldiers slew without mercy, for none was deserved by the scum of Mordor which had invaded their borders.
Fili should have been grateful for their interference. Instead the grief washed over him anew, for he could only see golden helmets flickering in torchlight, and glinting swords raised high as his brother was sentenced to death. Rage flooded him and suddenly he was nothing but fire and agony and pulsing, burning hatred as Kili pleaded for him for the last time before his cries were cut off forever.
With a ragged yell Fili flung the spear in his hand, narrowly missing one of the tallest Elves. Shock rippled through the soldier's posture and for an instant he faltered, before spinning to finish off the Orc behind him who had taken the spear instead. Fili knew he was asking for war: to slay one of the Elves would be a price higher than even his conscience could accept. He was beyond anger: beyond wishing for death. The enemy had taken away his Kee, and he was never coming back. Fili had nothing left to fight for now, save for justice against Thranduil's cruelty.
One Elf near the front faltered. He was gangly and a little clumsier than the rest: more like Kili than Fili wanted to remember. Reddish-blond hair in half-woven braids fell beneath a too-small nose, and Fili remembered starkly the features of one of the guards who had dragged his brother away. This one was shorter and leaner, but the resemblance was there. A close relative, maybe even a brother: someone who would be mourned by Kili's murderer.
It only seemed right. It only seemed fair. It was too easy to wrench a spear from an Orc submerged in the river and take careful aim.
Mahal, he could still hear his brother's frightened voice echoing in his head.
Instantly the red mist dissipated and Fili gasped, letting out his breath in a sob as he realized what he had almost done. He saw a wretched slave curled up in a dark tunnel, begging for Fili not to kill him. He saw Kili's eyes open wide in terror as he clung to the branch of a high tree, crying and pleading that he would not be left for the Orcs to butcher. He saw Kili sobbing in despair, unable to give them a proper name and certain he would be punished for his ignorance.
Am I becoming everything he feared? A cold, ruthless killer who cares little about whom he hurts?
Had he really intended to kill one of the Elves who was saving their lives, solely for the sake of wounding the guard who had taken his brother?
What is happening to me?
An icy knot of betrayal and loss and emptiness throbbed with every beat of his heart until Fili thought he had to break from the pressure. A black arrow flew past his head and he did not notice, too broken and aching to comprehend anything else.
By Durin, Kili, I need you here.
He needed his brother's morose, pouting eyes and his fleeting grin, his stupid, floppy sleeves and his obsession with every moving creature he could hunt down and examine. He needed Kili's sullen mutters when he was forced to go to sleep and his grumpy shoves whenever someone shook him awake in the morning. He needed his brother's unquenchable curiosity and to see the way Kili tilted his head in question over every small action around the camp. He needed, Mahal, he needed Kili's tired, happy smile as he clung to his brother's arm and curled up after a long day of travel. He needed the trust in Kili's eyes when he knew he was safe and warm and loved and never would any Orc or Goblin or Warg harm him again!
Fili needed everything that made up Kili, and nothing could fill that void this time. He may as well have been dead already.
How am I expected to go on without you?
But he had to. He had to go on. For Mum, who was trying so hard to keep going after learning for the second time that her son was dead. For Thorin, who had no one to rely on but himself now that the company was disassembled. For Kili, who trusted him to be strong and courageous and to get his family to safety no matter what it cost.
For Kili… yes, for Kili, Fili would continue to hold strong.
"Not for anyone else but you, Brother," he whispered. "This battle is for your sake."
Boldness flooded him and it was with new resolve that Fili ducked the downward stroke of a pike and tore the weapon from its owner. The jagged point was buried in the neck of the Orc bearing down on the clumsy young Elf, and for a minute Fili pretended he could see Kili smile.
Then the doors of the water gates suddenly slammed shut, and Fili's smile evaporated in horror.
Orcs were closing in around them on either side, and they were trapped in the river.
The fearless tone had fled her voice and alarm sparked in Tauriel's eyes as she looked behind her. A Warg howled and a black fletched arrow zipped past her cheek, narrowly missing her skin. More Orcs in her Greenwood. More darkness, and she was alone. The Valar help them, she hoped Nethan had passed on her message to Legolas. A small Warg pack she could take on her own, but Tauriel knew not how many opponents hid in Mirkwood's borders.
Kili clung to the Devrath's mane, the only barrier between him and the rushing ground being Tauriel's grip around his waist. He was frozen in terror, scarcely breathing as he waited for death or freedom to release him of his paralysis. There was nothing he could do save to hold on tightly and try not to panic. The uselessness of his situation was a trap that stalled his mind and froze his hands, and he could not remember where he had put Dori's knife, let alone how he could use it in a skirmish against Orcs.
Tauriel twisted on Devrath's back, letting the horse guide itself as she whipped out her bow and took swift aim. An Orc fell screaming and its Warg veered off course, snapping at Devrath's legs and yelping when an arrow pierced its eye. There was no pause between shots. White fletched arrows swished through the leaves, imbedding themselves in the garish fiends in perfect marksmanship. Tauriel's hand was steady, her flinty, serene gaze picking off the enemy one by one.
But there were too many that followed behind them, and her quiver was almost empty.
Dread clutched her throat for but a moment, yet Tauriel knew she could leave the Dwarf in no better hands.
"Fly, Devrath!" she cried, lighting down from the horse and shooting one of her last arrows into the throat of the leading Orc.
"Tauriel!" Kili looked back and yanked on Devrath's mane, digging in his heels to force the stallion to stop. Unused to such rough treatment, the horse skidded to a halt and reared in protest. Kili screamed and clung to the steed's powerful neck, his feet kicking through air as the ground rushed and swam below him. "Tauriel!"
Hissing a curse, Tauriel darted forward and ran her hand along Devrath's nose, calming him with a word before pushing Kili back into position. "Hold on tightly and do not stop again!" she ordered. "Ride until you reach the lake – Devrath knows the way."
"You'll die here!" Valar save them all, he actually thought he could protect her from the Orcs. He was courageous for his timid outlook, Tauriel would give him that, but his bravery was outweighed by his foolishness.
She had no time to argue with him.
"Ride on until you reach Laketown!" Tauriel ducked an arrow, whipping out one of her last two to slay her attacker. "You will only get in my way!"
Without giving Kili time to respond she lightly slapped Devrath's withers, launching the horse into a full gallop. Kili called her name shrilly and looked wildly over his shoulder, and Tauriel thanked the stars that he did not stupidly jump off the horse to follow her again. A black arrow hissed past her cheek and brushed by Kili's leg, missing the ankle by only a hair's breadth. Tauriel glowered at the leading captain and spun her last arrow towards the white Orc, leaping out of the way as she cast aside her useless bow and pulled out her long knives instead.
Far from her sight, Kili winced slightly and lightly touched his ankle, stifling a gasp when pain flared up from the thin slice and blood smeared onto his fingers. It was only a small cut – hardly noticeable. He had hurt his feet worse on the sharp stones in the tunnels.
But by the gods, why did it burn so?
It's nothing, he told himself harshly. Only a tiny cut. You're just soft from being away from the whips for a long time.
Thin pinpricks of ice lanced through his ankle again and Kili hissed and slapped the offending cut, willing the pain away. If he made so much fuss over a graze, then Thorin would never want him to go back to the Company again! You're already in enough trouble, he thought grimly. One more little thing like this and he might make you go back to Beorn's!
And Kili was not about to let that happen. He would go to the lake as Tauriel ordered, and then he would not stop searching until he found Fili again. No Orcs or Goblins or Elves were going to keep him away from his family this time.
Adrenaline rushed through his limbs and the shadow of the "unremembered" fled a little further into the back of his mind, and Kili suddenly felt very brave.
He did not need his hiding place any longer. For the first time in his life Kili felt like he could take on anything.