Giving a "hup," Kili snapped the reins. The ram gathered his legs underneath him and threw himself bodily from the wall. The bottom of Tauriel's stomach dropped out as they went airborne—catching up to it when the ram made contact with the ground, where he exhibited a marvelous lightness of hoof. Tauriel took a handful of Kili's tunic in her fist and took his advice: she clung to him like an Elvish fungus as the ram negotiated the treacherous crossing with little direction at all. It was born and bred to such a task, leaping nimbly from one rock to jagged rock and calmly sidestepping pitfalls that would have defeated any lesser creature in good weather.
Snow stung at their faces as they raced towards cloud-capped Ravenhill. Climbing higher, the fog-shroud parted, unveiling figures in the milky haze. The wings were tall and oaken-broad, rising from the fragmented tower overhead, and the hulking shapes of Orcs could be seen about the base. Tauriel clamped her legs as hard as she could around the ram and eased her grip on Kili so she could reach for the quiver at her hip and snag an arrow. She strung it to the bow, arms complaining quietly about the heavier gauge—but it did not compromise her aim. An Orc toppled from the tower with her arrow in its neck. It crashed like driftwood on the rocks beside them: a narrow miss.
Then the ram was on the stairs, and it was not alone. The other dwarves had beaten them there, already dismounted from their own steeds and working their way further up the tower. Not ones who fancied being left behind, Tauriel and Kili jumped down in unison before their ram even came to a stop. The elleth's longer legs helped her swiftly overtake the others, leaving Kili to catch up.
Fili saw her first. "You," he said, with vinegar. "What are you doing here?"
Tauriel shot an Orc that was about to fall in on Thorin, who was leading at the head of the pack. "Try not to sound so pleased to see me."
Thorin glanced back at her, his glower a twin of his nephew's. Clearly it ran in the family…but had skipped at least one of Durin's sons. Kili came abreast as the others plowed ahead. "Don't let them get to you," he said to her, untroubled by the lukewarm reception. "They'll be as glad of you as I am, before all this is over." Then, belatedly: "Well, maybe not as glad. But gladder, anyway."
"That remains to be seen," the Elf said under her breath. She let Kili go ahead of her while she brought up the rear, where she assumed she was preferred. She paused, perched lightly on the steps, and peered up through a hole in the ceiling above. She could see past the dwarves to the Orcs on the upper levels, the huge pale beasts of Gundabad, scrambling to mount their defense against the unexpected visitors. She pointed the eye of her arrow up at the gap and fired it through the narrow height, like the threading of a needle. It sped straight up and bedded itself in the skull of an unsuspecting Orc. Two more victims followed in the same fashion. Kili looked back down and caught her gaze.
"Keep that up and there won't be any left for us!"
"Would you like to lodge a formal complaint?"
"Not in a million years." He grinned. She smiled back and ran up after him.
The Orcs came down to meet them, evidently hoping to overwhelm their diminutive enemy with sheer volume—but the dwarves were less in stature only, not in skill or in the justice of their cause. Their blades left nothing to the imagination, tearing chests and stomachs wide, flaying skin from bone, littering the ground with Orcish limbs. Tauriel's kills were comparatively cleaner, made with arrows to the eye or throat in Elvish archer style. With so many dwarves ahead of her, she never got the chance to draw her daggers.
As they climbed, their collective energy seemed to build. They all knew what they were working towards, that the real target waited at the top. Every Orc they slew was a victory, yes, but they were anxious for the victory that really mattered. The victory that could decide the battle.
The stairs ran out without warning; they had reached the top. Tauriel nearly tripped over Kili as the dwarves screeched to a halt, piling up when they realized there was nowhere left to go. Pack mentality kicked in as they formed a circle around the post that mounted the wings, backs in, shoulders joined—or elbows, as in the case of Tauriel. Hardly a minute had passed before the remaining Orcs were dead. The tower was empty save the five of them, standing in silence under the snow.
For a moment they said nothing but breathed heavily, looking around. After their eventful ascent, this conclusion felt more than a little anticlimactic, and all of them knew why. Azog did not number in the corpses that lay about them. The devilish wings swayed over them, casting uneven shadows on the ridge—masterless, abandoned.
"Mahal take that filth," said Thorin. "He will meet his proper end."
"We'll have to find him first," said Dwalin. He broke the circle and crossed to the edge of the tower opposite from Dale. The others followed, looking out into the winter white. Through the murk they could see below them frozen water, and across it, the knobby vertebrae of buildings, a ruined spine whose architecture matched the tower. Their gutted walls were dark and soundless, but Tauriel could sense what she suspected had disturbed the dwarves as well—a waiting threat, a menace lying dormant.
"He's over there," said Fili quietly. All of them could feel it. "He wants to draw us out."
"Of course he does," said Thorin. "That's all he's ever wanted."
"But is it going to work?" Tauriel muttered. Thorin awarded her his special glare reserved for Elves he badly wished to hate, but to whom he owed a debt—and hated that he owed that debt.
Nevertheless, he answered her. "Not in the way he's hoping for." He turned to face them as a commander to his men. "We need to split up. Fili, Kili, you cross first, and scout the building from the lower levels up. Dwalin and I will follow on a delay and take those outer stairs—" he indicated a skinny vine of steps crawling up the side of the ruin "—straight to the top. I'm sure that's where Azog will be waiting."
Or else that is what he wants you to believe, Tauriel thought but did not say. There was only so much she could get away with with these dwarves, and she did not want to test her limits—more than she already had, that is.
Fili and Kili took their orders gracefully, at once moving to carry them out. Thorin stopped them with a touch to Fili's arm. "Go slowly," he advised his heir. "And go wisely."
Kili went first, eschewing the stairs in favor of the more direct route down the side of the tower. He was just lowering himself down from the window onto a pile of rubble when they heard a skittering nearby.
And then goblins were spilling down over the roof, dropping like roaches into the tower. There were dozens at least, and more were coming.
Kili started to pull himself back up. "Go!" Thorin said. "We'll take care of these."
For barely half a second Tauriel held Kili's gaze—and then he dropped from view, obeying his uncle less gracefully this time, but obeying him all the same.
Her choice was made for her simply by virtue of location—the goblins were upon them. Tauriel's arrow sprang easily to her bow, and then another and another. She was using them too fast; there were far too many goblins for her to keep this up. She slung her bow across her back and felt her daggers fly into her hands without having to ask for them. Her body moved seemingly without any command from her mind, her muscle memory knowing what to do with a snatch of goblins better—and faster—than her thoughts did.
It proved to be more than a snatch, however. The goblins were small, and easily dispatched, but they were many, and apparently would see no end. Their insectlike bodies piled high around Tauriel and the two inimitable dwarves, but still more came.
They might have been through half a hundred of the creatures before Tauriel had a chance to glance out the window to see how Kili and Fili were faring. The ice was empty, though; there was no sight of them. They must have already made it across.
Tauriel cut down a goblin without looking at it, gaze skimming over the ice to the building that crumbled beyond. It looked as empty as it had before the goblin attack, sinister and hollow. The holes and windows in its facade resembled gaping, gouged-out eyes. Dark with hunger, dark with appetite. A horror came upon her. It was the horror that whatever went into those eyes would not come out again alive.
There was nothing for it. She left Thorin and Dwalin to finish the fight, safe in the knowledge that they were more than capable of a few dozen more goblin mercenaries, and flung herself from the tower, channeling the ram. She landed lightly in a crouch below, boots slipping only slightly as they met the ice. She was no stranger to the cold—though snow rarely made it to the forest floor in Mirkwood, the same could not be said for ice. She and Legolas had braved more than a few frozen days and nights in their centuries together. The prince was particularly adept at gliding down the icy trunks of trees while still managing to keep his balance. Tauriel, on the other hand, had needed to perfect the art of careful falling before she could follow him wherever he went.
And perfect it she had. So when she stood and began to pick her way across the river, fast as she could manage, the elleth did not falter. Her eyes stayed straight ahead, focused on the sockets of the ruin. She would not be out-stared by a building. She would not be out-stared by fear.
She was more than halfway there when thunder sounded in her ears. She looked up at the sky, momentarily bewildered. Thunder in the middle of a blizzard? Could this truly be the hand of nature?
She soon saw that it was not. In the upper levels of the ruined building, firelight flickered—the gleam of evil growing brighter in its eyes. The sound she heard was not the roll of thunder but the beat of Orcish drums, war-drums, drums that foretold doom. Against the walls Tauriel could see shadows moving, and soon the drums were joined by footsteps, the dreadful march of many Orcs. She had just enough time to dive forward, slide the rest of the way across the river on her stomach, and hide herself beneath the outcrop of the roof above before the party of Orcs revealed itself. She rolled to one side, the vibrations of the drums humming in her bones, and looked out over the ice to the tower, where Thorin and Dwalin stood, gaping in anger and anguish at whatever stood above her head.
Then Azog spoke. His voice could have turned the snow to soot. It charred the inside of her ears, Black Speech falling to ashes like the cruelest curse. Tauriel was almost grateful that she could not understand his words—but the meaning of them scrawled itself on Thorin's face. Her Elvish hearing reached across the river and took in Thorin's whisper like a breath.
The name shivered through her. Hidden as she was she could not see him for herself, but Thorin's pain was clear enough: Azog had captured Fili. They had played directly into his hands.
Guilt would haunt her for it later, but her first thought was not to be denied. Does he have Kili too?
There was no time to wonder. A movement caught her eye, and Tauriel looked up. Fili's feet dangled over the edge of the roof as Azog held him out, his prize, his vicious taunt.
"No!" Thorin screamed. Never had she heard him sound like that. Stricken.
Something whizzed across the sky. Tauriel heard it whistle overhead, heard a fleshy thwunk, then heard Azog's roar. She did not get the chance to understand what had happened. Instinct took over the instant she saw Fili slip from Azog's grip. She dove, somersaulted, and came up in a crouch—perfectly positioned to catch him in her arms before he hit the ice. A couple hundred pounds of dwarf and armor slammed into her; her skeleton shuddered. She fell back onto her tailbone, grimacing in triumph.
Tauriel looked at Fili. Fili looked at Tauriel. For a moment she could not tell whether the outrage in his eyes stemmed from his capture by Azog or the embrace of his dashing rescuer. In other circumstances she might have laughed at the way he wriggled out of her arms, a little bloodied up around the face, but altogether alive.
"Damned Elves," Fili muttered, glaring at something over her shoulder. She turned, following his line of sight, and spotted Legolas on a high promontory just beside the tower. His bow was empty in his hands. Tauriel's face broke into a smile.
"Those damned Elves just saved your life two ways," she said. "And the day is not finished yet."
"Fili!" Kili came hurtling out of the darkness behind them, sliding onto his knees before his brother. Tauriel melted a little in relief. "Mahal save us—I thought you were dead for sure. I never would have forgiven myself—"
"I'm not dead," Fili said firmly. "And we've got more important business to attend to."
He was right. The whole ruin was coming alive with fire and drums and the heavy cascade of armor as the Orcs flooded the lower passageways. The three of them got to their feet—Fili with a little boost from his brother—and drew their weapons.
"Behind the columns, quick," Kili said. Fili and Tauriel obeyed, catching on to his plan and ducking out of sight just seconds before the Orcs came pouring forth.
Legolas's marksmanship won the first few hits. Three orcs, six Orcs crashed upon the ice with arrows in their skulls before Tauriel and the dwarves leapt from their hiding place and attacked. And truly, they were a force to be reckoned with. Tauriel's knives were the savage beaks of crows that wanted carrion. Kili's sword swept stormlike through the onslaught, and Fili was an endless font of daggers. As soon as he had lost one in the heart of an Orc, another had appeared in his hand. Meanwhile, Legolas picked off any enemy that attempted to sneak past.
Then Dwalin joined the fray, a stocky, unstoppable battering ram. He was ax and fist, headbutt and elbow to the throat. His ruthlessness was just what they needed for the Orcs, despite their massive numbers, to finally fear the threat they posed to them.
One threat, though, was missing. Tauriel searched the fracas, looked back over at the tower, scanned the nearby ice, and still she could not find him. Where was Thorin?
...and, a year later, an update. Lol. I have no excuses. I mean, I do, but I won't bother you with them. I do honestly intend to finish this fic! Thanks for your neverending patience.
Love, Quill :)