Again, thanks to those who reviewed/favorited/followed- and read. I'm really grateful.

As in the last chapter, I borrow a couple lines from the book. This isn't worth putting a disclaimer for every chapter, so I'll say now that if there are lines from the book, they obviously aren't mine.

Double thanks to Shady [stick-at-nought shady] for beta-ing, since I forgot to give her credit last chapter.

A Reluctant Choice

Thorin was struck dumb for a moment. How could this crying, weakened child be Estel, the curious yet somber boy he had met in Rivendell among the Elves? It seemed impossible, and yet, it could very well be true. For Gandalf had said that Estel left Rivendell for the Misty Mountains, headed for the Lonely Mountain. He would have tried to find a path over, and he could have stumbled upon one of the perilous, goblin-ridden trails. There were quite a few ways in the Misty Mountains that led many an unknowing man to his death. Yes, this must have been Estel.

But what was he to do? He could not very well reveal the nature of his journey to the Great Goblin and allow himself and his Company to be captured, but he also could not sacrifice the quest just for this boy. Then it came to him, who could make this decision in his stead: Gandalf. Gandalf would surely find a way, some sort of way that involved his own aid, to save the Company and Estel from the perils of the Misty Mountains. However, Thorin could not bring himself to see why his Company, the Dwarves' last hope of regaining the Lonely Mountain, was anywhere near the worth of Estel. For they were his kindred, and he could not let them down.

He twisted his head around to face the Dwarf behind him, glimpsing the face of young Fili. "We must find a way out," he hissed, in the tongue of the Dwarves as to hide his words from the goblins. "We will have to leave the boy. Pass on the word; tell the others to look around for some type of tunnel or path." His sister-son stared at him dimly for a moment. Thorin glared. "Quickly! We must leave."

Word began passing down the line in whispers. Thorin watched out of the corner of his eyes, his gaze mainly trained on Estel and the Great Goblin. When the message came to Dori, who was second to last in the line, he hissed a quick "Follow me" to Bilbo in the Common Tongue. The hobbit nodded, a little nervously, giving a nervous glance to Estel.

"Well!" the Great Goblin barked, making several of the Dwarves flinch at the unexpected exclamation. "One of you must speak. I am sure now that you recognize each other, although you are certainly not Elf-friends like him!" He gestured to Estel, who was being partially supported by the guards with his head lolling backwards. Thorin felt his insides knot, and he averted his eyes. For a few minutes, all was silent save for the ominous crackle of the fire. Then the Great Goblin once again spoke. "None have spoken!" he called to his guards. "We must-"

Thorin, thankfully, never got an opportunity to know what the goblins would do. For at that moment, one of the goblins who had driven them through the dark stepped forward. "They have many stories to tell!" he said. "Some of our group were struck down by a sort of flash of lightning, on the Front Porch. Also, they have not explained this!" he said, his voice ending in a howl. "They have an Elven-blade, and not any common Elven-made sword either!"

Glinting in the light of the fire, Thorin saw the gleaming blade Orcrist, the sword that he had claimed from the Trolls' hoard. He knew it to be a very valuable blade, a mighty weapon of Gondolin from days long left behind. Gandalf had said that it had slain many a goblin; the creatures referred to it as Biter. The goblins reacted with menace: the chorus of stomping feet and growls and clanging weapons echoed throughout the chamber, but seemed to be muffled in the immense darkness beyond.

"Murderers!" the Great Goblin ululated in a wail. "Elf-friends! Seize them! Break their bones and grind them to dust! Splash their filthy blood on our floors! Let their screams of agony be heard throughout Goblin-town!" He stood up, massive body towering over his guards, and shook his fist. Then, just as the Dwarves were torn between attempting to run off and cowering in fear, he paused. "However," he said, a repulsive smile spreading across his face like a spring's water over stone, "however, there is the other Elf-friend. Perhaps he will tell us exactly how Thorin Oakenshield acquired this blade."

Thorin frowned. This- this goblin knew his name? Fortunately, the Great Goblin was preoccupied, turning towards his young captive. Thorin could hardly bear to lay eyes upon the boy. This was not primarily out of personal concern; it only made him wonder exactly what the goblins would do to the Dwarven wielder of 'Biter'. Estel looked to be close to unconsciousness, his hair sticking to his head with his own blood. He sank to his knees, burying his head in his hands and letting out a noise that was half bawl and half moan.

"Elf-friend!" one of the guards snarled. "You are commanded to speak, or to suffer pain! Tell us of these Dwarves, and their purpose here, and why one carries Biter." Estel lifted his head and gazed directly at Thorin with wide eyes, the tears in them reflecting the light of the fire. Thorin tried to tear his eyes away, he truly did. But it was as if he was witnessing a particularly horrible death before his eyes: it was terrible, but he could not stop watching. Then there was a loud yelp as a guard struck Estel, but the boy refused to speak.

A collection of wicked, knowing grins was arrayed on the faces of the goblins as Estel wept. They will bring out their torture devices and use them on us all in turn! Thorin thought furiously. We cannot take him with us if we escape; and likely we will not escape, if he doesn't speak. This boy will be the death and failure of my Company! Damn him, damn him with Morgoth!

Before he had a chance to think of taking back the atrocious thought, the torches in the caves were suddenly extinguished. After a blink of astonishment, Thorin found the blaze of fire replaced with a cloud of silver-blue smoke that rose to the heights above, sending sparks at the goblins. The scene before his eyes became chaos: the goblins seemed to have gone positively berserk, kicking and fighting and howling, screeching as the sparks burned at them. Through the cacophonous tumult, Thorin could hear shrieking cries in a tongue that seemed to be Elvish. It was likely Estel, for he was still among the guard-goblins and vulnerable to the burning sparks from the fire and frantic tussles of the nearby creatures.

Suddenly, a sword flashed through the darkness like a ray of moonlight through a winter night of darkest skies. This blade was obviously not Orcrist; Thorin recognized it as the blade that Gandalf had taken, called Glamdring, or Foe-hammer. From a goblin's muffled shriek, he deduced that it was called Beater. It seemed a fitting name for a sword of such renown. That very sword now pierced straight through the Great Goblin, who fell down dead as the blade was drawn from his body once again. In the moment that followed, the guards and the goblin-drivers alike made a quick retreat, squealing and running off into the dark.

The sword was once again sheathed. "Follow me quick!" a voice commanded. Thorin started stumbling almost blindly after the owner of the voice, his Company staggering along behind. Then, quite suddenly, a wail started up from the opposite side of the room. The words were strangled with a choking sob, and in an Elven-tongue at that, but Thorin distinguished one word. Mithrandir: the Elves' name for Gandalf. The figure guiding them through the dark could very well be Gandalf. Yes, it must have been. However, at that moment, the wizard stopped upon hearing his Elvish name. He seemed to be contemplating something, and Thorin had a guess as to what it was.

"Gandalf!" Thorin said, his voice hushed. "We must leave the boy! He is not anywhere near the importance of our Company, and we cannot risk vulnerability because of him!"

His insisting words went unheeded. As Dori gave Bilbo a moment to climb onto his back -the hobbit was a much slower runner than the Dwarves were- Gandalf strode over to Estel. To Thorin's utter frustration, he stooped and gingerly lifted the crying child, who appeared to be bawling out something in Elvish. "No, Thorin!" Gandalf said firmly. "We swore to Lord Glorfindel that we would protect him- and he means much more than anyone thinks, including myself." The wizard handed Estel to Gloin, who tried to keep the boy on his back. "Now quickly! They will light the torches again, and we shall be pursued!" he called, leading them onward.

It seemed to Lord Elrond that the mood of Imladris was hollow. The merry singing with its 'tra-la-la-lally's and 'ha! ha!'s seemed to be an empty echo. Elrond himself had almost no intention of leaving his bedchambers. He felt that he had failed so many people: Mithrandir, Lady Gilraen, the Dunedain, himself, and Estel most of all. The line of Isildur could forever be ended, and the cause would be the curiosity of a young boy- and his own blindness. He should have foreseen an incident of this type, ever since Estel had started staying awake past the sun to traverse the valley. He seemed to have inherited a wandering spirit from his forefathers and his kin. Elrond had been attempting to keep a watchful eye over the boy, for it would prove perilous if he ventured outside of the valley. But he had evidently not been watching closely enough.

Seeing the Lady Gilraen weep had almost been more painful than discovering Estel's disappearance. The woman had lost her husband Arathorn and her people, and now her son was likely dead, also. She did not blame Lord Elrond for the tragedy, but the sadness in her eyes was enough to make anyone sorrowful at heart. This only had caused him to think of Estel, lost in the Misty Mountains, not knowing the perils of the paths he tread...

A soft knock at the door caused him to stand. "Enter," he said calmly, and Lord Glorfindel stepped into the room. His golden hair was windswept. "Why have you come? Do you have news of Estel?"

"Yes, my lord," Glorfindel said. "Several of us followed Estel's tracks from days ago, straight to the foot of the Misty Mountains." Elrond opened his mouth to speak, frowning, but Glorfindel raised a hand as a signal for silence. "He appeared to have been searching for a path, pacing. Then his tracks went up a small path, up into the mountains." Here Lord Glorfindel could not meet Elrond's eyes. "We dared not venture far up the path, for we have knowledge that it is infested with goblins further up."

Lord Elrond felt a sense of growing agitation. "Was there sign of a struggle?" he inquired. "Estel took a knife from me to arm himself, but..." He could not bring himself to finish the sentence. He is young and helpless to the world. The land outside of Imladris is cruel.

Glorfindel shook his head, smoothing his hair. "We did not see any signs of fight at the foot of the mountain," he said solemnly. "However, we have much reason to believe that Estel has been captured or killed by the goblins. For you see, we planned to go a short way up the mountain for some sign of him, but we had gone naught but a few steps when goblins appeared, four of them. We slew three, then interrogated the last, desperate for some news. He..." Glorfindel paused. "He gave word of someone he called the 'Elf-friend', and 'strange Dwarves on the Front Porch'. He said that they were being taken to their so-called 'Great Goblin'. He appeared to be a messenger, sent to alert others of Dwarves on the mountain. We have killed him."

Elrond kept his expression composed. "The Dwarves must be Thorin and his Company," he said, as if thinking aloud. "So they have been taken by the goblins. But I am sure that Mithrandir will get them out safely. He always seems to find a way. But the Elf-friend... they have taken Estel. I am certain, for he carried an Elven-made knife with him, so they would call him Elf-friend. He has likely been tortured to death." Voicing his darkest thoughts, he felt his heart sink.

"My lord Elrond," Glorfindel began, "there is still some chance that their paths have crossed. Mithrandir swore to me that they would protect Estel to the best of their abilities should they meet. Perhaps, if the Company crosses the Misty Mountains alive, they will have Estel with them. It is but a shadow of chance, but if Mithrandir persuaded them, I am sure that the Company would attempt to keep Estel safe. They are not bad folk, those Dwarves, despite their slight enmity with us."

With a nod, Elrond stood. "But with the exception of Mithrandir, they know nothing of Estel. They have no idea of his importance. They think him nothing but a child of Men." He met Glorfindel's eyes. "Thank you for your aid. But still I fear that from his own folly and from that of the Company, Estel will perish."

Through a haze, Estel could see a light burning in the dark. For a moment, he thought that there was another dreadful fire burning, and he tensed. Then he saw it illuminate the face of Mithrandir, and his heart lifted. The light came from his blade, a wonderful sword that appeared to rejoice at the Great Goblin's death. He tried to open his mouth to speak, to thank Mithrandir for saving him, but only a groan came out, and he buried his face deeper in the shoulder of the Dwarf that carried him. He smelled the musty reek of sweat and unwashed bodies, mingled with the tang of his own blood.

"Gandalf?" a Dwarf near the back of their stumbling line asked. "Why are we taking this boy? We cannot afford to be burdened." His tone sounded suspicious, and rightly so, but not angry. "And what will we do with such a young child when we pass the Misty Mountains: leave him to the Wargs and goblins?"

It registered fuzzily in Estel's mind that they were speaking of him. Before he could attempt to say anything -which was likely to fail- Mithrandir spoke. "There is no time for explanations at the moment!" he said, hurriedly going down the line and sawing off their chains with the still-glowing sword. When Mithrandir came to him, Estel raised his head slightly and tried to meet the wizard's eyes, but his head fell again as his bonds were cut away. He blinked away the splotchy afterimages of the blade's light.

Mithrandir gave a quick count of the Company, then urged them onward. On the Dwarves ran, at a very good pace that Estel would not be able to achieve even in health. His head thumped dully against a shoulder, and he felt his eyelids sinking down. I was such a fool! he thought, berating himself. I should have never set foot outside of Rivendell! I want nothing more than to go home, now that I have been outside. Biting determinedly at his lip to prevent his tears from returning, he shut his eyes and did all he could to block out all sound.

They had come for a long way, as it seemed, when the sounds of goblin feet and calls sounded through the paths. Estel fought at the fog that dulled his mind, trying to see what was going on. As they rounded a corner, Thorin and Mithrandir made their way to the back of the group. "About turn!" Mithrandir called loudly to the Dwarf, drawing his shining blade. "Draw your sword, Thorin!"

When Thorin's sword joined Mithrandir's, the goblins turned the corner and nearly collided with the wizard and the Dwarf. The first row discarded their torches -better to lose their light than their lives- and were soon slain with blurs of silver metal and dark blood. The others, seeing the plight of their fellows, scrambled back to flee, with terrified cries of "Biter!" and "Beater!". Estel watched with a sort of horrified fascination. The exchange was almost too quick for terror to register, for which he was most grateful.

Once all of their foes had fled back into the darkness, the Dwarves set off once again, Thorin and Mithrandir sheathing their mighty swords. Estel was passed to a different Dwarf, who was much stockier than the previous. Clinging on with the little strength left in his arms, he held tight to the broad shoulders and braced his legs against the large body. This small effort exhausted him; in this condition, he could barely keep himself conscious.

In the rhythmic thud of footfalls, Estel found a lullaby. The gentle bounce of his body against the back of the Dwarf carrying him reminded him of being a very small child, rocked in his mother's arms. There were still occasional nights when sleep would evade him, and he would stumble with bleary eyes into his mother's chambers, thinking that her embrace would bring comfort and rest. Lately, she would laugh and ruffle his dark hair. "Estel, you are growing up," she would say with a laugh, never complaining when he awakened her. "You are quite large for me to hold. Soon you will scarcely fit upon my lap!" But without protest, she would take him in her arms, sometimes shifting him back and forth slowly until his eyes closed and his breathing slowed: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...

I must not sleep, Estel thought desperately, for I am wounded, and there is a danger that I may not wake for some time. However, he could not prevent the sleepiness that overcame him in the end. He had no idea of how long he had spent unconscious, or in the cavern with the Great Goblin, but it had been long since his last true sleep.

When he woke again, after a time that seemed both short and long, Estel remembered little of his dreams. He could recall vague images of Imladris, sunlit and merry, and of his mother and father. Then, from what he could remember, the dream had inexplicably taken a turn to darkness, veering into lands of fire and goblins and pain. He gasped for breath, his head throbbing with agony. Thank the Valar that it was not unconsciousness, he thought.

Mithrandir appeared to be purposefully lagging behind. Jogging side by side with the Dwarf carrying Estel, his boots tramping across the floor, he peered closer. "Good: you have woken. It is good that Bombur held tight to you," he said, breathing hard as he ran. "I feared for you, as do your mother and father still." Estel shut his eyes for a moment at the word of his family. With a pang, he remembered that he had neglected to even bid goodbye to them. "But that is talk for another time," he added, seeing the pained look on Estel's face. "When we have passed out of the Misty Mountains, we must decide what will become of you."

Estel did not like the sound of that. However, he knew that he could not burden the Company. With monumental effort, he lifted his head. "Leave me. I- I beg of you to leave me," he mumbled, trying to sound as dignified as possible while holding back a rushing bout of nausea. "We can go past the mountains... and when I am healed, I can cross back over..."

With a shake of his head, Mithrandir gave a sort of sympathetic look to Estel. "You cannot," he said, gently as it seemed he could muster. "You are injured already and would have perished had I not come." He paused for breath. "I believe I know what must ultimately be done," he continued. "You desired to see the world outside Rivendell. You will receive what you hoped for, and much more, be it good or evil." Mithrandir once again ran to the front of the line, giving Thorin a brighter light to guide his Company by.

Shutting his eyes once more, Estel mulled over Mithrandir's cryptic words. What he had hoped for only days ago had been to roam outside Rivendell, but now he hoped only to wake up in his warm bed: uninjured, happy, and with his mother and father. This was a confusing topic for his weary mind, so he instead concentrated solely on staying awake. Half of him seemed to be pleading for another good rest, and the other half just wanted him to collapse to the floor and give in to the queasiness that seemed to originate in his pounding head.

All of a sudden, a Dwarf at the rear of their line let out a shout, and there was the thump! of a body on the stone floor. Estel turned his head and saw, to his horror, a group of goblins. They had been sneaking along behind them, fleet-footed and silent, and none had taken notice. Snarling and drawing their cruel weapons, they advanced on the shocked group. Mithrandir and Thorin drew their blades and moved swiftly towards the goblins, for the other Dwarves were not as well armed.

As Bombur, the Dwarf who was carrying Estel, tried to flee down the path, Estel slid from his shoulders and flew through the air for a stomach-tossing moment. When his hands and knees hit the ground, his arms buckled under the weight of his fall, and his upper body smacked hard on the rock. A jarring pain beat in his head like the tolling of some hideous bell that caused pain with every ring. Forcing his body up, he knelt and tried to hold still as to calm his stomach. It was useless, and amid the clash of swords and yells of battle, he retched miserably, vomit slopping down his chest.

Around him, the Dwarves were fighting as best they could. Estel could not regain his footing, and he would not have been able to walk far either way. The bodies of goblins littered the floor like bright autumn leaves after a strong wind-gust. Mithrandir's sword flashed through the air with Thorin's, slaying goblins forward and backward, left and right.

Then Estel's eyes were suddenly dazzled with a bright flare. He squinted, and, seeing the goblins flee, saw Mithrandir. "Follow me, everybody!" he said, leading the Dwarves quickly down the passage. Leaving their swords unsheathed, he and Thorin hastened through the dark, with Mithrandir lighting the way. The others followed frantically, eager to be rid of Goblin-town and to leave the Misty Mountains behind.

Estel, however, could not bring himself to walk. Unsteadily, he stood, wavering and stumbling forward. "Do not leave me!" he cried. A few of the Dwarves acknowledged his cry, while the others hurried on unheeding. "Please! I cannot run by myself."

Unfortunately, it seemed that he would have to. The Company was far ahead now, and Estel was almost driven to tears. Mithrandir had spared him, had taken him along! The thought was painful: being left behind, after such measures had been taken to preserve his life. He had nearly given up hope when he was suddenly hefted onto a Dwarf's back. "Gandalf wishes for you to remain safe," the Dwarf said, as an explanation.

He nodded weakly. "Thank you," he mumbled into his hair as they ran. He then heard the noises of goblins, and squeezed his eyes shut tight. But it seemed that there was no danger, and when his eyes once again opened, they were met with sunlight. Oh, glorious sunlight! He would have given anything for a light that was not fire in the last few days.

Things appeared to blur before his eyes, and before he knew it, he found himself seated in a small dell, filled with bushes. The Dwarves were out of breath, and Thorin and Mithrandir finally sheathed their blades. When everyone had regained their breath, one spoke up. "Gandalf?" he asked, giving a strange look to Estel. "I mean no offense, but..." His voice trailed off for a moment. "As others have said, our Company cannot be burdened with this child."

Estel glanced back at the ominous forms of the Misty Mountains, towering above them just to the west. He had every intention of going back to Imladris: for now he had gotten his fair share of adventures, and found them to be enough for the time being. But not only was the way back a difficult one, the sunlight and the mountains sparked a recognition within him, a sort of desire to see mountains even higher, to ford rivers shimmering and wide, to roam forests where the trees reached for the clouds like desperate hands.

He knew at that moment that he could not bear to be forsaken here. Either he would die crossing the mountains again, or he would return to Rivendell, heartsick for the land outside. Even the latter was unlikely, since death would be simple to stumble upon in these lands. He made his decision. "I would not burden you," he spoke up, the words sounding fragile to his own ears. "But, please, let me go with you."