/THE HEART OF EREBOR\
-The Willing Hearts-
The Road to Rivendell
With a creaking groan of straining wheels the foundered wagon lurched forward out of the snowbank with a suddenness that sent the men leaning against it sprawling in the deep drift. Kilarin, whose role as one of their forward scouts meant he was safely mounted atop his horse, burst out laughing at the antics of his fellow rangers, his amusement echoed in a more muted fashion by Luin and Ranlóm. Eldalil cast the unrepentant trio a dark glare as he found his feet again, but it was Urris who silenced them, his hard packed snowball aimed with as much accuracy as the spear he favoured in battle, so that Kilarin very nearly lost his seat in surprise. Alatair spared his men's antics only the briefest of glances before turning away with a shake of his head, guiding his sturdy mount into a position alongside Gandalf's.
"Sometimes I do not know whether I am leading a company of men or children," he reflected ruefully, splitting his attention between the wizard on his right and the dwarves riding in the cart on his left. "Though Halbaron tells me they are one and the same."
"They are simply happy to be leaving the moors behind them," Ana told him from her place beside Nárran on the wagon's deck. "You cannot blame them for being eager to return home."
It was not a sentiment, Kíli knew, shared by the rangers alone. Both his mother and uncle had seemed pleased by the decision to depart from Tol Ascarnen, even if their road from there was only decided so far as Rivendell. Inga, his mother's sole companion and guard, had proved herself as talkative as Kíli remembered by not uttering a single opinion aloud, but she had clambered up into the driver's seat readily enough when the time came to depart. Even Fíli, who was in for a rough journey no matter how carefully they picked their path, had brightened at the chance to leave the bleak surrounds of the ruined fort, and Kíli was left wondering what was wrong with him that he could not muster the same enthusiasm.
The dilapidated stronghold was not a home, not even to the men who had been using it as such when they chose to take three wounded dwarves into their care, but it was the first place Kíli had felt safe in so long that the thought of leaving it had been strangely unsettling. Isolated as they were here, well away from all other signs of civilization, it had been possible to forget the repercussions and consequences still awaiting them when they returned to the outer world. With every mile they covered that took them further from the ancient sanctuary, those consequences grew ever more present in the back of his mind.
Consequences like the men Northri had sacrificed for his sake. The people he had left in the care of others in Erebor. The companions he had abandoned without a thought after the council. The Company had not believed a word he said, it was true, but they had deserved more from him then an unannounced departure that had no doubt left them frantically combing the countryside for their missing prince. He could not have told them much, not without them trying to stop him, but even a lie would have served better than nothing at all, because nothing at all had driven his mother to tears and a reckless race across Middle Earth with only Inga at her side.
"Stop it." Fíli's elbow caught him in the side, wrenching him from his thoughts, and he turned to scowl at his pale-faced sibling. Fíli's expression was more a grimace than a grin, his teeth clenched just a little too tightly to be natural, but he still managed a reprimand. "You're brooding again."
There was no point denying the accusation, for that would only fuel his brother's mischief, so Kíli adopted a different method of deflection.
"I'm not the one who spent three hours staring out a window this morning."
It was meant in jest, mostly, save that he had found Fíli's intense expression somewhat disturbing at the time.
"What else was I supposed to do?" Fíli retorted, but there was too much of an edge to his voice even before he continued. "It's not like I would have been of any use."
Kíli hesitated, lips parted but words not forthcoming, and his brother turned away. "Fíli..."
The look his sibling affixed him with was almost challenging. "What? It's true."
And it was. It was absolutely true that Fíli would only have gotten in the way during the morning's preparations. Kíli's one good arm had meant he could help on the fringes, Fíli's injury had side-lined him completely, but that didn't mean...
"I expected you to be gloating," he tried, testing the waters. "Getting out of doing chores when Thorin is nearby is never easy..."
"Don't, Kíli," Fíli cut him off, and there was something very wrong about the set of his brother's chin, the rawness to every word. "Don't jest about... about this."
He didn't understand. Fíli had been fine before, cheerful even, pleased at the prospect of escaping their bleak surrounds. Even before Nárran had grudgingly given his permission for the eldest prince to travel Fíli had seemed to be in good spirits, the best out of all of them, and he had been smiling this morning right up until... Oh. Until Kilarin and Luin had between them carried Thorin's heir from the keep to the wagon, where Narran and Ana had mounted him on a throne of folded blankets to try and minimize what damage may result from any forthcoming jostling. Until reality had presented itself in all its glory, and Fíli had no longer been able to pretend.
"It's not a life sentence, you know." Knowing what was wrong with his brother did not help at all in fixing it. This wasn't a youthful endeavour gone wrong, or a lesson of Balin's that had been failed with chagrin for a lack of the studiousness suitable to an Heir of Durin following. This was… This was serious. This was life-changing and permanent and… and just more. "You won't need the crutches forever."
"I don't want to talk about it, Kíli." Fíli put a determined note of finality into that statement.
Kíli ignored it. "Maybe you should."
"No. That's not fair. You and Thorin can't force me to talk about what I went through and then pretend that nothing happened to either of you. I came halfway across the world to save you both. You are not going to shut me out now."
Fíli simply stared at him, and, after a moment beneath that piercing gaze, Kíli broke.
"Oh, nothing." His brother waved a hand airily. "I was just surprised, that's all. You've been cowering so much lately I'd forgotten how fierce you get when you're angry."
"I have not been cowering!" Indignation covered his hurt, which lasted only a second, recognition tripping on its heels. "And stop it yourself. If I'm not allowed to brood you're not allowed to... to do this either."
"I won't be able to spar again, Kíli." There was no sweetness in the victory that was his brother's response, nor could it be found in any of the words that followed. "Or ride, probably. Or run or even walk. Forget an army, I won't be able to defeat a set of stairs! I won't be able to ride the pulleys in the great shafts or make it to half the lower halls. What good will I be to Erebor, to our uncle, as a cripple? Thorin needs a strong heir, not a broken prince."
"And I'll never be able to shoot a bow again," he snapped back, determined to stop Fíli's thoughts in their tracks. "That doesn't make me useless."
"It…" Fíli began, denial on his lips, but then he stopped, his eyes growing wide. "Wait, what do you mean 'never use a bow again'? I thought your arm was getting better."
"It is." He could feel his fingers again now, could move them and awake only a slight tingling in the tips when he did so. Unfortunately, being able to move his hand was only half the battle, if that. He hadn't told anyone that yet, though, not even Thorin, though he knew it was likely his uncle had sought a verdict directly from Nárran as soon as he was able. This wasn't how he had wanted to tell Fíli, but it was the only thing he could think of to use as ammunition. "But Nárran doesn't think I'll ever regain enough strength to hold a bow steady with my right hand, let alone draw an arrow. It's my own fault, really. I was told not to use it. I was warned. I didn't listen."
"The arrow you fired at Bolg." Had it been up to Kíli, that part of the tale would have been carefully omitted. Alas, Bilbo had an eye for details, and had left very few out. "That's what did it, isn't it?"
"The arrow that saved your life," he emphasized. "And I'd do it again, given the choice, because the alternative was you being dead. Maybe I only have one good arm, maybe you'll be called 'hop' for the rest of your life, maybe we're both crippled princes and good for nothing, but we're alive, Fíli. We're alive, and that's all that matters right now."
"Now, maybe," his brother conceded grudgingly. "But what about later? What about when we return to Erebor? What happens when we have our home again? How am I supposed to defend my kingdom or my people when I'm like this, Kíli?"
"The battle has already been won." He felt obligated to point that out, even if it didn't always feel like the truth. "You won't need to fight."
"We still have enemies." Fíli shook his head. "We could still find ourselves fighting to defend our keep. Or you could. I'd be locked inside where I couldn't get in the way."
Kíli floundered a moment, helpless, because Fíli wasn't supposed to be like this. He didn't know what to say to this Fíli, who was bitter and hurting and maybe had been for some time without ever letting it show. Or... Or maybe he did know. He had sacrificed one of the things he held most dear to save his family, who were precious beyond the worth of any treasure or talent he could have hoarded in their place, but maybe there was another way he could use that skill. Not with his own hands, one of their number failing him now, with Fíli's.
"So learn to use a bow."
"What?" Fíli stared at him, uncomprehending.
"Learn to use a bow," he repeated. "Properly, I mean, so you can actually hit more than one target in ten. You can fire from the walls. You can defend Erebor without ever having to leave it. Though, honestly, Fi, if you think being a King has much at all to do with whether you limp or walk then Balin didn't do his job right. I spent a good portion of the journey here unconscious or close to the same. I succeeded, didn't I?"
"You had friends to help you," Fíli argued.
"And so will you," Kíli reminded him. "Not to mention an annoying little brother. Besides, you'll have years yet to find yourself a trustworthy court."
"Are you so sure?" Fíli's eyes darted briefly to where Thorin and Dís were seated at the wagon's other end. "Thorin doesn't want to go back."
"What?" This time it was his turn to stare in surprise. "Why?"
"He almost killed you, Kíli." For once, he did not flinch at the words or the memory that came with them, his eyes darting uneasily between brother and uncle as he tried to make sense of Fíli's words. "He's afraid, and so am I."
"It was never just Thorin, Ki." His brother reminded him subduedly. "We all had a part to play. Maybe the danger is over now. Maybe it's safe. But... the thought that it could all happen again..."
"It won't." It couldn't. Not now.
"You can't promise that." Fíli sighed. "None of us can."
"But, I thought... The Arkenstone?"
"It's only a part of the treasure. A large part, yes, but still only part. I don't think I'm going to go mad for treasure again, Kíli, and I certainly don't want to, but I can't know for sure until we go back. Who knows? You may even be glad I only have one leg. It'll make it easier to stop me if you need to."
Fíli was being far too practical about all this in Kíli's mind. He didn't want to think about leashing his brother when he had just started to believe that part of his ordeal was over and done with. When that fear was finally abating. He did not want to, and so he didn't, discarding the very possibility from his mind.
"We're not going to Erebor yet, anyway," he said aloud, trying to change the subject.
"Oh, yes, Rivendell." Fíli shot their uncle a sidelong glance, then turned back to Kíli with a smile. "That should be fun."
~The Heart of Erebor~
It was a two day journey from Tol Ascarnen to the edge of the Valley of Imladris on horseback, though, with the laden wagon to slow them down, this particular trip was likely to take closer to three. They made camp as night fell in a small copse of trees near the Ettenmoors' southern border, far enough from the fells and the mountains to offer some measure of safety, but near enough still that Alatair denied his men the comfort of a warm fire. They had seen nothing but small, scurrying animals on their way down, no reason to fear, but Thorin agreed with the ranger captain's choice regardless. They had encountered trouble readily enough as it was without inviting the damned thing in and, despite every precaution taken by their guides, there was still a palpable sense of agitation hanging over their small company that first night.
Or perhaps Thorin was wrong, and it was not their party as a whole that was the cause of the unease lingering in the air. He was not entirely settled himself, after all, and Dís was anxious. Though she had made no move to join them throughout the day his sister's eyes had never strayed far from her children, a troubled frown on her face more often than not. Kíli's reaction to the Arkenstone had frightened her, he knew, and though she had yet to speak her concerns aloud that did not mean he was unaware they existed. It was one thing to hear what he had done in words, but he imagined seeing the full consequences first-hand had been a little more than his sister was prepared for.
But Dís would talk to him when she was ready, and not a moment sooner, so Thorin let his attention drift instead towards his nephews. Something had shifted between them again after the Arkenstone's appearance, and there were no words to express his relief at the new absence of fear in his younger sister-son's eyes whenever he drew near. Kíli was still not wholly comfortable in his presence, but it was progress, and more than he could have hoped for. No, Kíli's state of mind did not worry him at present, leaving his concern to point itself solely at Fíli.
He had thought at first that the eldest prince was coping better with what had occurred than either of his kin. Fíli had a level head on his shoulders, and he had, it seemed, come at what had happened with nothing less than a pragmatic mind-set. At least, what had happened to others, because Thorin was beginning to realize Fíli had dealt with his own ordeal by not dealing with it at all.
It was surely much easier to face his brother's fear and his uncle's doubt, to address the rifts in his family, than to think on what hurdles he alone must overcome. So Fíli had focused first on the welfare of those around him, a commendable course of action, save that its purpose had been twofold. The troubles of his kin had been a distraction, a welcome one Thorin was certain, but that distraction was gone now, and the cracks were starting to show. Kíli seemed to have it in hand at the moment, so Thorin had not intervened beyond making a note to keep an eye on the elder brother, wondering, even as he did so, if his own resolve was as much a diversion for his thoughts as Fíli's had been.
It was never far from his mind, though what the name represented had changed greatly from what it had meant to him at the quest' beginning. The mountain had been an ideal, then, his memories of what it could be embellished by the length of time that had passed since he last set foot within its walls. He was not a fanciful person, he had not conjured a lie, an image that would be dispelled the moment Erebor was reclaimed, but he had thought... He had wanted the mountain to be something more than it proved to be. He had wanted it to be a solution, a way to rise above the suffering and hardship, and instead he had allowed it to become a part of the problem.
Perhaps it had been foolish to believe Erebor would cure what ailed Durin's Folk, but their troubles had begun when the kingdom was lost, and reclaiming it had seemed the most promising means of breaking the streak of ill fortune that had tailed them ever since, and yet now? Erebor was reclaimed, the kingdom would be restored with time, and his people would at last have a home worthy of their lineage. His self-appointed task was done, his goal achieved, and now he was at a loss, faced with another choice that would impact far more than just himself.
Dís was right in her assessment of what may well happen should he refuse his throne. Thror's sickness and Thráin descent into grief stricken madness had cast a shadow over all he did even before he had made his own mistakes. He had been judged on the flaws of his bloodline, and it had been an uphill battle to win some small margin of respect from the Seven. It had not troubled him too deeply, as a King in Exile he had little need to deal with his better-situated peers, but it would be different for the King of Erebor. There were different expectations, a ridiculous number of past fouls and slights, perceived or otherwise, and a wealth of ambition.
After all Thror had done to alienate their allies and all the respect the eldest Line of Durin had lost after the mountain's fall, finding loyal, trustworthy friends would be difficult. If he bowed out now he knew what legacy he would leave behind, and it would not be a kind inheritance for his nephews. One of them would sit upon that throne, he was determined, for Dain had not earned that honour, no matter what acts of contrition he might have performed, but putting either one there now, with the long shadow his actions had cast? He would have likened it to dropping them in a warg pit, had that comparison not struck too close to home still. And yet, his presence did not guarantee a better outcome. Should he choose to return he might well serve as nothing more than a reminder of how far the Line of Durin had fallen.
A rustle of clothing beside him startled him from his thoughts, and he cast a wary glance at the wizard now seated on his left.
Gandalf answered his look with an amicable smile. "Mind if I join you?" he said, and Thorin shook his head as the words were overlaid by the memory of the last time they had been uttered.
"It has not escaped my notice that you seat yourself before you ask that question," he retorted. "Why is that, I wonder?"
Gandalf did not deign to answer what had not truly been a question in the first place, puffing contentedly on his pipe as he stared into the distance. Or... No, Thorin narrowed his eyes as he followed the path of the wizard's gaze over to where his two nephews were gathered together. Fíli looked to be asleep, smothered in blankets and cloaks that served as the same, but Kíli was in the middle of an animated conversation with Ranlóm and Bilbo. It was another sign the young archer was recovering, his willingness to interact with those around him in more than a dutiful sense, and Thorin was glad to see it.
The wizard's obvious interest in the pair, however, he could have done without. He'd had enough of Gandalf's schemes to last him a lifetime. They all had.
"They are remarkably resilient, those two." As if reading his thoughts, Gandalf broke his silence. "A fine example of the valour and honour to be found in Durin's Folk. Fine lads indeed, though I daresay those who raised them had a part to play in that."
"Their mother raised them," Thorin replied, aware his companion was driving at something, but not yet sure what.
"Of course." Gandalf's gaze was piercing. "And you, of course, had no part to play."
"What are you trying to say?" He was too tired and too troubled to try and unravel a wizard's riddles right now.
"Kíli." Gandalf gestured with the hand holding his pipe towards Thorin's younger nephew. "Believed you were alive even when no one else would. Made certain his people were cared for before he left them. Asked nothing more of any of those who aided us than they were willing to give. Loyalty, duty, and honour. Admirable traits, all of them, but they had to be learnt from someone."
Thorin did not answer, simply frowning, and after a moment Gandalf spoke again.
"It is an unfortunate truth that others will more readily judge a man – or a dwarf, as the case may be – by the mistakes he makes than those of his deeds that are truly worth remembering. You judge yourself by the same standards, my friend, and so you forget the good things you have done, despite the fact two of them are sitting right in front of you."
He could not stop his gaze from flitting to his sister-sons again, though it returned to the wizard with a scowl soon enough. "If you think that changes what happened..."
"Of course it doesn't," Gandalf scoffed. "You made a grievous error, for which you should clearly be punished for the rest of your life."
"Are you mocking me?"
"Mocking?" The wizard gave him guileless look. "I was simply wondering if you will judge your friends so harshly when you are King."
It irked him that the wizard had said 'when' and not 'if', but he allowed him that victory. "And what would I be judging them for?"
"The gold sickness, of course," said Gandalf matter-of-factly. "You did tell Dís you were not the only one to suffer beneath its effects, did you not?"
Curse his sister and her meddling. He would have thought she would have at least left Gandalf out of whatever scheme she was conducting to drag him back to the mountain whether he wished to return or not.
"What of it?" he retorted, with the same harsh intonation he had utilized when addressing the same question to Elrond and Bard.
"Well, with such dire consequences being heaped upon your own shoulders, surely some of the others should be brought to account as well? What counsel did Balin offer, I wonder, when the curse took a hold? He was your advisor, will you not take him to task for failing in his duties? And what of Fíli?" That had him snapping his head up, eyes searching, as though the words themselves were a threat to his heir. "He failed to resist just as surely as you did. Is he to be disinherited? Banished from a home he had a part in reclaiming?"
How was he to answer that? How could he, without falling into the trap the wizard had so cleverly laid for him? He hesitated, at a loss for words, and Gandalf rose with a sly smile.
"Ah," he said knowingly. "That's what I thought."