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(This chapter is just slightly too long to post as one section and there's no good way to change the chapter breaks, so it's being posted in two parts.  But really it's all one chapter thematically.)

Title: Comes Wisdom in Defeat
Chapter III: Preface - Part 3A
Pairings: Unrequited Kíli/Bilbo & Bilbo/Thorin, Kíli/Tauriel
Warnings: angst, canon violence, injuries
Word Count: 11,206 (50,632 so far)
Summary: Kíli is the only Durin to survive the Battle of the Five Armies but when his world falls into darkness, the Valar grant him one chance to make things right.

Chapter I: Epilogue
Chapter II: Prologue - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Chapter III: Preface - Part 1, Part 2,


“Bilbo!”

The once-king was woken from his doze by Balin's exclamation, Kíli sitting up to look through the bars of his prison cell. Bilbo was standing there, holding a ring of keys and beaming proudly at his cleverness. It seemed the archer's failure to win over Tauriel would not mean the ruin of their chances, assuming that the other dwarves did not alert half of Mirkwood with their excited shouts.

“Ssh! There are guards nearby,” Bilbo hissed before the once-king could say that same thing himself. The hobbit unlocked Thorin's cell before moving to free the rest of his companions, the dwarves gathering together on the stairs.

I wish I remembered where Thranduil kept his weapons; I would feel much more comfortable with my sword and bow in hand.

But Kíli didn't remember and there wasn't time to search when dawn was nipping at their heels. To tell the truth, it didn't really matter since the strongest blade of steel would not bring the dragon down. That required Bard and his Black Arrow rather than swords or axes and once Smaug had been slain, Thorin's company would have access to the Lonely Mountain's armory.

Those vaults could arm every elf in Mirkwood without running empty and this time around, the once-king hoped to do just that. Thranduil, Bard, and Thorin must be allies before Bolg or Azog arrived on the battlefield – probably both with Kíli's luck – though the dwarf hadn't figured out how to make that happen yet.

Diplomacy alone was unlikely to be successful considering the tone of Thorin and Thranduil's earlier conversation and the men of Laketown had not been particularly rational before. So the once-king would have to make his uncle see the greater threat for only the approach of his ancient enemy would make him forgive his allies' greed. It was death and honor that had brought Thorin from the mountain and it would be naught but honor once again.

If only Kíli had a way to prove his knowledge, one that his companions would actually believe. One that spoke with the weight of true authority.

I need the ravens, the once-king realized with a sudden burst of clarity. After Smaug falls, the ravens will return to Erebor and surely one of Roäc's kindred could be convinced to scout out our enemies. Thorin should trust the raven's word where he would not trust his sister-son's and with three more days to prepare, the Battle of the Five Armies should go much differently.

Of course, all of this was moot if the dwarves could not escape from Thranduil's dungeon, but their burglar seemed to have the situation well in hand. For when Dwalin motioned Ori toward the stairs, Bilbo stopped him, leading his companions down instead.

The hobbit took them deeper into the earth, through a maze of halls and chambers that Kíli found deceptively familiar. For the passages that should lead toward the cellars instead ended in locked doorways and the paths that their burglar took were not ones he’d seen before. Indeed, the once-king could not be entirely sure that this Bilbo had the same idea as the last one and he had to admit that a different escape route would be rather nice.

Those barrels had not been the archer’s favorite form of travel and maybe this incarnation of Thranduil would at least have a raft that the dwarves could borrow for a time. But it seemed there was only one way to escape the elf king's dungeons because it wasn't long before Bilbo was leading his companions into the wine cellars just as he had before.

“This way,” the burglar said, waving the dwarves toward a very familiar stack of empty casks while Kíli covered his sigh with an exclamation of incredulity.

“I don't believe it; we're in the cellars,” the once-king groaned, his thoughts more along the lines of, Oh, come on, really? I don't want to do this part again. But a little bit of nausea was a small price to pay for freedom so when Bilbo told the dwarves to climb into the barrels, the archer moved forward without any more complaints.

Unfortunately, Kíli was about the only one who didn't protest, the rest of the dwarves milling around indecisively. Bilbo might have proved his courage but his companions weren't so sure about his cleverness, not when the hobbit's plan seemed illogical.

“We'll be trapped,” Nori muttered to Dori.

“Like fish in barrels,” Bofur agreed.

“I don't like small spaces,” Ori added, “Especially not ones that smell like that.”

'Sweet elvish wine. Terrible stuff.' Bifur signed even as Bombur eyed the casks speculatively, probably wondering whether there were any drops of alcohol inside.

The once-king could hardly get a word in edgewise and the dwarves might have stood there bickering forever if their leader hadn't intervened. Thorin must have realized that this served no purpose and indeed, the long that they argued the greater chance of being caught again. So the dwarf lord ordered his companions to do as Bilbo had requested, his command putting an end to the arguing quite effectively. For while the dwarves were happy to doubt their burglar, they would not disobey their king.

So Kíli climbed into one of Thranduil's empty wine casks with the others, trying to settle himself somewhat comfortably. The fit should be a little better once he was in the river and his barrels was pointing toward the sky instead of sideways, but there was only so much the once-king could do about his bony hips and knees. Kíli fully expected to be bruised all to hell by the time the company's river trip was finished – bruised and nauseous and very, very wet.

Yet it seemed that this portion of the journey would not be quite the same as he remembered and the archer could not decide whether the lack of lids upon the casks was an improvement or a flaw in Bilbo's plan. For while he appreciated the ability to breathe more freely, these open barrels would not hide the dwarves from their captors' eyes.

I guess we'll just have to leave before those fools wake up, Kíli thought, sparing a glance toward the drunken elves who should have been guarding Thranduil's wine more carefully. But their incompetence was the company's advantage, particularly since there didn't appear to be any barrel lids nearby.

Without those to hide them, the dwarves could not trick their captors into facilitating their escape upon the river and so the archer was really hoping that Bilbo was not just winging it.

Indeed, Kíli was as curious as his companions about the burglar's intentions, the once-king looking back at Bilbo when Bofur asked, “What do we do now?”

“Hold your breath,” the hobbit told him, his crooked grin laying the archer's doubts to rest.

“Hold my breath? What do you mean?” Bofur had barely finished his question before Bilbo pulled a nearby lever and the floor underneath the barrels tilted sharply down. Kíli held onto the rim of his barrel tightly as it began to roll toward the newly created exit, his stomach leaping into his throat when the cask hit open air.

A few seconds later, the once-king landed in the river, water drenching his shoulders before his barrel floated up again. Kíli was one of the first to surface, only Thorin further down the channel when he looked around. Thankfully, the current had pulled him forward enough that the rest of his companions didn't brain him when they landed, the dwarves dropping into the water one after another like links of chain.

A broken chain, the trapdoor through which they'd fallen closing without sign of their burglar.

“Sound off,” Thorin called back to his companions, the chorus of voices that answered confirming what Kíli's eyes had seen. Bilbo had not come through the trap door with them and the archer did not know if the mechanism could be opened from this side. But...

“We have to wait for Bilbo,” the once-king told his uncle, reaching out to grab the rough walls of the channel and stop his barrel's drift. “We can't leave without him.”

For a second, Kíli thought that Thorin was going to argue, a stranger looking back at him through the dwarf lord's eyes. But then the moment passed and his uncle was just his uncle once again.

“Of course we wait,” the other dwarf agreed, signaling the rest of their company to grab hold of the rocks as well. “We won't get very far without our burglar.”

Although that initial hesitation still worried Kíli, the once-king didn't have time to dwell on it for long. Indeed, Thorin's company hadn't been waiting for more than a minute before the trap door high above them tilted open one more time and Bilbo tumbled through. He plunged into the river and came up spluttering, grabbing hold of Nori's cask to keep his head above the surface even as the cavern echoed with angry elvish shouts. The wood elves had discovered their prisoners' escape much more quickly than Kíli had hoped but now that Bilbo had rejoined them, the dwarves were free to move.

So the once-king and his companions paddled forward until the river's current took their barrels and sent them shooting through the stone passage toward the glimmer of daylight. The water was swift and wild, carrying Thorin's company outside of Thranduil's hall in seconds and straight into a cascade of waterfalls.

“Hold on!” the dwarf lord shouted as they plunged into the rapids, their barrels spinning round and round uncontrollably. All Kíli could do – all any of the company could do – was follow Thorin's order, holding on tightly and trying to avoid the biggest rocks. The once-king was only half successful at this latter, every collision slamming him against the side of his cask painfully. By the time the dwarves reached slightly calmer waters, Kíli knew that he would indeed be bruised black and blue tomorrow and he was already as wet and nauseous as he remembered from doing this before.

However, even though the archer's head was spinning, he wasn't too discombobulated to notice when Legolas ran out of Thranduil's stronghold with a snarl on his face.

“Holo in-annon!” the elf prince shouted to the guard behind him, Kíli translating the words in his head even as the other elf raised his horn to blow a warning call.

Shut the gate? What gate? the once-king thought, his mind racing through the possibilities. But then the dwarves rounded the curve of the river and the answer to Kíli's question was suddenly all too clear.

For there was a guard post up ahead, stone arching across the river from bank to bank. On top of this bridge stood armored warriors, the elves snapping to attention at their prince's call. One ran to a lever positioned near the center of the archway and when he pulled it, a metal sluice gate clanged shut across the river down below. There was no way for Thorin's company to pry it open, not with their bare fingers, and the dwarves let out a curse as their barrels came to sudden stop. They were trapped, pinned beneath the stone bridge of the guard post with no way to flee.

Why does every change only seem to make our journey harder? Kíli wondered, cursing whatever twist of fate had made Thranduil build a sluice gate here. Surely something should have gotten better when the Valar rewrote history?

There was Tauriel, yes, but she was only one bright spark within a sea of darkness and her existence hadn't exactly freed the company. More enemies, more obstacles, and more hate between the races; the Valar could not have done a better job of ruining Thorin's chances if they'd tried.

But maybe this was necessary; maybe these struggles would somehow save the once-king's kindred when ease had cost their lives. Indeed, there was no way to know how the threads of fate had been rewoven and the dwarf could only trust that there was a greater purpose here. For Kíli's old life was gone and he had to stop thinking of his past as the true future before his expectations cost him everything. Perhaps there shouldn't have been a gate here but there was, and no amount of denial would somehow make it disappear.

However, the wood elves soon proved to be the least of Kíli's worries as one of Thranduil's warriors suddenly crumpled, a crude black arrow in his back.

“Watch out! There's orcs!” Bofur shouted, the monsters swarming over the guard post and falling upon the elves with naked steel. Caught off guard and seriously outnumbered, most of the elves died quickly, those that remained too busy fighting for their lives to worry about Thorin's company.

Not that the dwarves were faring any better as the orcs leaped into the river, their teeth bared in feral snarls as their blades flashed down. It was difficult to dodge with the casks pressed so close together, one orc nearly slicing off Kíli's head before he managed to shove the creature off. Next to him, Fíli and Bilbo together took out another orc while the rest of the dwarves fought their own private battles, those further from the sluice gate fending off their enemies with fists and fury while the others huddled beneath the guard post and tried to dodge the bodies as they fell.

A cowardly choice, maybe, but the best option that they had. For Bilbo was the only member of the company with a weapon and climbing onto the shore without one would be suicide.

Let Thranduil's warriors have the glory in this skirmish; the dwarves and their hobbit just needed to survive. Thorin's company just needed to wait until Legolas caught up to his prisoners and thinned out the orc pack – he was something of a one elf army after all – before taking advantage of the chaos to slip away without their pursuers noticing.

At least, that was the plan. Yet it seemed that Kíli did not have such time to spare.

For when the once-king looked back toward Thranduil's stronghold, he saw something that made his blood go cold. It was Bolg, spawn of Azog, and the bane of Durin's sons. The archer did not want to believe that the fates could be so cruel, but the orc looked just the same as he had on the day that Kíli killed him, identical down to the feral snarl and his one milky eye.

Which meant that Thorin's company could not stay here any longer, not when Bolg had nearly wiped out the line of Durin singlehandedly in a far more equal fight.

So Kíli planted his foot on Dwalin's barrel and leaped for the riverbank, landing at the base of the guard post's stairs. He would reach the lever to the sluice gate no matter what the cost. But he had barely gained his feet before an orc was upon him, the archer ducking his enemy's wild sword strike and then slamming the orc's head against the rocks.

“Kíli! Here!” The once-king turned at his name, catching the blade that Dwalin tossed him before spinning to bury it inside his enemy. Then another orc was upon him, this one falling quickly now that Kíli had a blade in hand.

Indeed, two slashes and a kick sent that foe tumbling into the river, leaving the way clear for the archer to sprint up the guard post's stairs. Kíli met two more orcs at the top of the bridge, his blade catching against that of one enemy even as the other came up on him from behind. The once-king twisted, trying to turn and block the blow that was surely falling toward his neck. Yet before his enemy's spear could reach its target, the orc suddenly fell back with a dagger in his chest. This left Kíli free to face his other foe without further interruption, the archer slicing off the creature's head with one clean strike.

Thank you, Fíli, the once-king thought, sparing a quick glance toward his fallen enemy. A dagger throw such as that could only have been his brother and it was good to know that Fíli still had the archer's back.

With these orcs dead, Kíli's path to his goal was finally clear. So he ran forward, pausing only to take out another orc as it leaped over the parapet. Indeed, the dwarf had nearly reached the sluice lever when something slammed into his leg and the world disappeared in white-hot agony. Kíli tried to grab the lever as he fell but his body would not answer, the once-king crumpling to the stone with a shout.

He heard his brother scream his name but it was distant, Fíli's voice muffled by the ringing in his ears. Because there was only pain, the archer groaning on the ground like a wounded animal.

However, while Kíli's body was untempered, his mind had faced far worse than this and he slowly clawed his way back to awareness once again. He shoved the pain down deep where it could not control him, opening his eyes to see another orc charging toward him before the monster toppled with an arrow in its neck. The archer traced the missile's path back to its source, a bolt of surprise shooting through him when he spied Tauriel.

The elfine seemed to be making a habit of saving Kíli in this lifetime, though whether this was due to the Valar's interference or her own sense of honor, the once-king could not say. Whatever the reason, the dwarf was glad to have Tauriel's assistance against such enemies as these.

For the captain was even more impressive now than she had been against the spiders, her blade flying swift and sure to strike her enemies. At her back came Legolas and another band of warriors, their arrows killing a half dozen orcs before their foes could blink.

In an instant, the orc pack turned its attention from Thorin's company to these new arrivals, charging toward the wood elves with a roar. So Kíli seized the opening that Tauriel and the others had created, dragging himself back to his feet again. For the once-king had a task to complete – his friends and kin were counting on him – and no orcish arrow would keep the former Lord of Silver Fountains on his knees.

The archer staggered forward and threw his weight upon the lever, the gate creaking open underneath Kíli's feet before the dwarf's strength failed him and he fell back to the stone again. But his kin would be waiting for him – Fíli would be waiting for him – so the once-king could not rest just yet.

Instead he dragged himself to the edge of the bridge and looked down to see his empty barrel floating there even as his brother shouted his name in relief. Kíli took a second to aim and then shoved himself off the edge, landing back in his cask once again. That hurt nearly as much as being shot in the first place, the shaft of the arrow snapping off on the edge of his barrel and jamming the arrowhead hard into his thigh.

However, the once-king couldn't do anything about that at the moment; he could do nothing but hold onto his barrel for dear life. Because the rest of Thorin's company had pushed off as soon as Kíli joined them, and now they were hurtling down the river, every bend bringing another set of rapids or a rushing waterfall.

Every ripple seemed to jostle the archer's injury, the broken shaft of the arrow catching on the wood of his barrel and nearly making him pass out. Only the knowledge that passing out would probably kill him kept the once-king conscious, his jaw aching as he clenched his teeth against the pain. Because Kíli had no intention of drowning in this cursed river; no orc was going to kill him a few scant miles from his goal.

His wound might be serious, but it should not be lethal and the archer was so very close to Erebor. Kíli just had to last a little longer; he just had to survive until the Valar finally told him how to bring about a better future and thus save his people's lives.

Although, saving anyone was currently beyond the once-king's power, the fate of Thorin's company resting in other hands. For elves and orcs waged battle as the dwarves hurtled down the river, the wood elves dancing along the tree branches while the orcs ran along the banks. These monsters attacked Kíli and the others whenever the dwarves' barrels neared the shore, Thorin's company forced to fend off their enemies with whatever they could reach. Fists and rocks and stolen weapons; the dwarves throwing their few blades back and forth.

Kíli's companions acquitted themselves well considering the circumstances but the true heroes of the hour were Legolas and Tauriel. The dwarves probably would not have survived without their assistance, Legolas in particular proving himself quite the acrobat. His arrows struck true no matter what his footing and the once-king could not deny a twinge of jealousy at the other's skill. The archer had managed to defeat Bard a time or two but never Legolas, some things beyond a mortal's span of years.

Indeed, the elf probably could have recaptured Thorin's company singlehandedly if the land itself had not worked against him, Legolas caught upon a cliff top while the river ran on swiftly down below. Soon the dwarves had left their pursuers far behind, orcs and elves alike disappearing out of sight.

Now that the company was out of danger for the moment, Kíli finally let himself relax, slumping down in his barrel with a groan. He needed to get the arrow out of his leg as soon as possible, but first he would need to slow the bleeding so he didn’t pass out partway through. So the dwarf pressed one hand to his wound and waited until the flow of blood finally began to ease before ripping a piece of cloth from his tunic and setting to his task.

The once-king tore his trousers open further, widening the hole left by the arrow until his fingers fit inside. There was enough of the shaft still sticking out for Kíli to grab onto but the wood was slick with blood and it took several tries before he managed to grip it properly. Then the once-king began to pull, thanking the Valar that this particularly arrowhead was not barbed as so many orcish weapons were. Indeed, the arrow came out smoothly, Kíli tossing it into the river as a fresh gush of blood poured from the gash it left behind.

The archer's leg would need to be bound before too long or risk him hemorrhaging, but he did not have enough room to manage that right now. Instead, the dwarf pressed the torn piece of his tunic over the wound, bracing his arm against the side of his barrel so that the pressure remained steady even as the company drifted on.

Kíli stayed in this position until the river slowed, the current easing from the wild rush that it had been before. The dwarves had finally reached calmer waters, which meant that Esgaroth should be close now, and yet there were no men waiting for their barrels up ahead.

There were no men, nor huts, nor rafts to carry Thorin's company to Laketown, just an empty stone pier some yards further down the bank, and the once-king didn't know how they were supposed to reach that city now. The dwarves could hardly swim across the Long Lake and he doubted that they could outrun an orc pack half-drowned and injured as they were. Indeed, the only thing Kíli was sure of was that Thranduil's barrels would only slow them down. So the archer struck out for the riverbank even as his uncle ordered the rest of the company to make for shore as well.

They would have to run for it and hope that Laketown was closer than the once-king remembered or that the orcs had fallen far enough behind. But when Kíli climbed onto the rocks, he barely made it ten steps before his leg buckled underneath him, the dwarf letting out a groan of frustrated agony.

He could not run like this and yet he also could not be the reason for Thorin's failure; he would simply have to find the strength somehow.

So Kíli forced the grimace from his face when he noticed Bofur watching, refusing to show any weakness that might slow his company.

“I'm fine. It's nothing,” he growled at the miner, pouring his frustration into his voice as though that might make his statement true. But Bofur just ignored his outburst for the reality of Kíli's wound was all too visible.

Indeed, Fíli dropped down next to his brother moments later, pulling the fabric of the archer’s trousers aside to look at his injury. The wound was only seeping now rather than gushing but even that much was troubling considering the amount of pressure that the once-king had applied. So Kíli couldn’t fault his brother for the worry in his expression and he offered no further protest when the other dwarf began to wrap his leg.

However, Fíli had barely started before Thorin ordered his companions to his feet, the dwarf lord either oblivious or indifferent to his sister-son’s injury.

“Kíli's wounded. His leg needs binding,” Fíli protested, his protective streak warring with his loyalty. Indeed, it seemed that the former was stronger where Kíli was concerned because the dwarf did not wait for permission before returning to his task even as Balin and Dwalin chimed in with protests of their own.

The sons of Fundin had always been the most practical of Thorin's companions and their words echoed the once-king's earlier thoughts. If anything, the other two dwarves were even more pessimistic than the archer had been, Dwalin certain that the orc pack would run them down before nightfall. Yet a slim chance of success was better than none at all and when the argument ended, it was Thorin who had the final say.

“Bind his leg, quickly. You have two minutes,” the dwarf lord told his sister-son, Fíli nodding in agreement as though he weren't already half-finished with the task.

Indeed, the other dwarf would likely complete his work with time to spare, only a few layers of the bandage left to tie. However, even if Thorin would not have the chance to grow impatient, Kíli was already chafing at the delay his injury had caused, the archer all too aware that their time was running out.

Whichever of my ancestors built that secret door into the mountain is getting punched if I ever make to the Halls of Mandos, the once-king promised himself fervently. What use is a door that can only be opened from the outside once a year?

Seriously, that was just bad planning and both of Kíli's lives would have been much easier if that ancient king had had some sense instead. As it was, the dwarves only had a few days left to reach the mountain and if they failed, the once-king might as well just slit his own throat now. For if Smaug was not slain before Azog and his spawn came for Thorin, the Defiler's army would crush his foes against the walls of Erebor.

Two days left. Two days and then the New Year. If you were ever planning on granting us a miracle, now would be the time, the once-king prayed, gripping Kaminzabdûna's Runestone tightly in one hand.

And the Vala answered him with a flash of movement in the corner of his eye.

Kíli turned to see a man, his face shrouded in darkness against the brightness of the sky and his hands holding a great longbow at the ready. So the dwarf leaped to his feet, scooping up a rock in lieu of any other weapon even as Dwalin grabbed a piece of wood nearby. But the stranger drew and fired as fast as lightning, stopping Dwalin's charge with one well-paced arrow and then shooting the rock from Kíli's hand.

“Do it again and you're dead,” the man warned as he nocked another arrow, pinning the dwarves with a suspicious glare.

He was treating them like strangers and yet he wasn't one, the sound of his voice so familiar in the once-king's ears. For this was Bard the Bowman, appearing somewhat earlier in the company's journey than he had before.

However, Kíli was beyond worrying about every tiny change in the timeline and right now Bard was one of the best things that he'd ever seen. Sure the bowman was rather more bedraggled and a great deal more suspicious than the king the dwarf remembered, but that was understandable given the general bleakness of this new reality.

Indeed, a grim-faced Bard was nothing compared to Azog or the other changes that Mahal and his Lady had wrought within the world. Kíli was just glad to know that the bowman was still breathing since they would need Girion’s heir in order to end the dragon’s reign.

Although, Bard seemed more likely to shoot Thorin than Smaug at the moment, his hands twitching whenever the dwarf lord moved. But his display of skill aside, he hadn’t actually hurt anyone so Thorin’s company just needed to convince him that they weren’t dangerous, something that shouldn’t be too difficult considering the way they looked right now.

However, before the once-king could try to talk the bowman down, his leg suddenly twinged again. The sharp burst of pain nearly drove Kíli to his knees, his voice stolen before he could speak. Instead it was Balin who stepped forward to negotiate, his calm demeanor gradually making Bard relax as well.

“That barge over there, it wouldn't be available for hire by any chance?” the old dwarf asked, nodding toward the wooden vessel that was now tied to the pier. Kíli didn't know how the company had failed to notice the barge earlier but perhaps their arguing had covered the sound of Bard's approach. The man certainly moved quietly as he slung his bow across his back and began to roll the empty wine barrels toward the dock, loading them onto his boat one by one.

“What makes you think I will help you?” Bard asked the dwarves once he had finished, the company having gathered on the pier while he worked.

Even Kíli had limped over with his brother's assistance, sitting down heavily on one of the pylons while Balin did his work. The old dwarf had always had a silver tongue and the once-king was sure that his negotiations would be successful if he were granted enough time.

So Kíli did not pay much attention to the details of the conversation, the archer more concerned with ensuring that the men of Laketown did not become their enemies. Last time Thorin had won the Master and his people over with the assumption of future riches, but that had been slim comfort to the men once their home had burned. The company needed to do more this time around and if a share of the treasure would stop the battle before it started, the once-king would give up his own portion happily.

If the dwarves and men had a standing agreement in place then there would be no need for demands on the part of Laketown because the King Under the Mountain must always keep his word.

Admittedly, it had been Bard not the Master who had brought his army to the gates of Erebor, but the bowman had not been above the lure of treasure and any treaty negotiated would apply to him as well. Thus the once-king would try to convince his uncle to make a deal with the Master and if such a treaty failed, this earlier meeting with the bowman might be the stroke of luck that saved Thorin's company.

For both Bard and Thorin should be more willing to negotiate if the man could be turned into a friend before the company left Laketown and even a small change in the tone of Bard’s demands might be enough for peace. Because Thorin had not lacked sympathy for the plight of Laketown's people and he might bow to an entreaty where would not bow to threats.

Of course, the bowman was just as stubborn in his own way and the company’s negotiations took a sharp turn when Dwalin grew annoyed with his brother’s strategy. He had never been the most patient dwarrow and his patience was not increased by the orc pack on their trail.

“Oh come on, come on. Enough with the niceties,” the warrior growled, interrupting Balin in the middle of a word.

But if Dwalin was hoping that brusqueness would make Bard move faster, he was doomed to be disappointed. Indeed, the bowman actually seemed less inclined to help them, staring down at the dwarf suspiciously as he asked, ““What's your hurry?”

“What's it to you?”

“I would like to know who you are and what you are doing in these lands.”

It seemed a reasonable question and the perfect opening for Thorin to tell Bard of their quest. Once the man knew their purpose, he would have no reason to refuse them passage, not when the Master of Laketown should be overjoyed to hear this news.

However, instead of telling Bard the truth, Balin claimed that he and his companions were merchants from the Blue Mountains on their way to the Iron Hills, the old dwarf making no mention of Thorin's rightful place in Erebor. It seemed overly cautious, needlessly so when silence might actually harm their cause.

Particularly since the bowman didn't look like he believed them, Bard raising one eyebrow skeptically. “Simple merchants, you say?”

No. Not merchants. The King Under the Mountain come to claim his throne again, Kíli thought in frustration, but before he could say any of that, his leg burned again. Indeed, every time the archer tried to interject, something would interrupt him – either his wound or Fíli or another member of their company. So the negotiations went on without the once-king, lies and gruffness replacing the truth he wished to speak.

“We'll need food, supplies, weapons. Can you help us?” Thorin asked bluntly, apparently deciding that he agreed with Dwalin about the niceties.

“I know where these barrels came from,” Bard replied, running his hands over the gashes that the company's foes had left upon the wood.

“What of it?”

“I don't know what business you had with the elves, but I don't think it ended well,” the bowman answered. “No one enters Laketown but by leave of the Master. All his wealth comes from trade with the Woodland Realm. He will see you in irons before risking the wrath of King Thranduil.”

Which is why we're going to promise him a fucking heap of treasure, Kíli tried to shout. Tried and failed once more.

Instead he had to watch as Balin negotiated their hidden passage into Laketown, Bard giving in when the old dwarf offered double for his help. He still wasn't particularly gracious about it but at least he finally allowed Thorin's company to climb aboard his barge.

So the once-king settled on the deck next to Bilbo and his brother, stretching his leg out in a futile attempt to ease the pain. When everyone was on board, Bard pushed off into the river, poling his barge forward with an easy competence. This wasn't how Kíli had wanted to enter Laketown, but he could figure out how to force a meeting between Thorin and the Master later on. For despite Bard's warning about the Master's temper, the archer was sure that this would be the best hope for their future, as sure as he was that his time was running out.

Laketown. Treaty. Erebor. Dragon. These were the tasks that lay before him, the last obstacles before the battle that would decide everything. Although, in truth, the treaty was the only one that mattered to him now.

For Thorin's company was sure to find the door if Laketown could be convinced to offer passage, their time short but not run out just yet. They would enter Erebor and while Kíli would have preferred to stop the lake from burning, Smaug must be prodded from his fortress before he could be slain. After all, Bard would need a clean shot in order to kill the dragon, though the once-king did not doubt who would win the day. Indeed, the bowman had shown his skill already and his arrow would fly true once he knew where the wyrm's weak point lay. His Black Arrow, the last gift of Girion to his descendant and the kingdoms of the East.

Some things must hold true between the once-king's lifetimes. Some things must be locked within the framework of the Valar's weaving even though the weft had changed and after Smaug had fallen, Kíli should be able to rest until Azog's armies came.

He needed rest. He needed rest desperately to ease the fire in his blood. Indeed, the once-king was having trouble thinking, his grand plans for diplomacy lost to fragments beneath the pounding of his head. So instead of planning, the dwarf huddled in the bottom of the barge with his companions, pain burning through him in sharp waves that made his vision blur.

The once-king could only endure, fighting to stay awake and praying to the Valar that he would manage to see his journey through. Kíli might not fear death – by Kaminzabdûna's grace, it would almost be a mercy – but he did not want to die for nothing now.

He did not want to die a failure and be barred from the Halls of Mandos for eternity.

Thus the archer must find the strength to continue until his wound began to mend; the Sons of Durin were blessed with rapid healing to balance out their stubbornness. Indeed, Kíli's stubborn will was all that kept him conscious while Bard poled his barge toward Laketown, that and the worried looks of the hobbit at his side.

Both Fíli and Bilbo kept glancing over when they thought he wasn't looking, their hands twitching at his every wince, and he would not make them worry more by revealing his true pain. Not when his brother and his hobbit were exactly what Kíli was fighting for. His people, his family, his beloved and his future; Fíli and Bilbo at the top of every list. For even if this Bilbo was not his Bilbo any longer, the once-king owed the hobbit a debt he could not pay. The once-king owed their burglar everything and he would fight Sauron himself to stop his lifeblood from watering the battlefield again.

Kíli would protect the hobbit this time. He would protect everyone this time and once the dust had settled, Kíli would let the hobbit go.

The dwarf would finish what he had started back in Mirkwood. He would snuff the tiny spark of hope and accept the pain of heartbreak without allowing it to rule him as it had done before. Kíli would live and he would be content with the knowledge that everyone he loved still lived as well.

That was the only future – the only truth – that the once-king believed in any longer and it must begin in Laketown with the Master's avarice.

So the archer focused on breathing. He focused on the future to clear his face of pain and trap his cries behind his teeth. Kíli stayed silent even as Bard ordered Thorin's company back into the elf king's barrels, his leg protesting the move with a fresh wave of agony. He stayed silent when the bowman drowned the dwarves in fish in order to smuggle them into Laketown, the cold touch and smell of death threatening to make the once-king sick. But throwing up would only make things worse and so Kíli forced his gorge down somehow, the whispers of his companions and the shouts of men around them turned to gibberish by the rushing in his ears.

By the time Bard had brought them into Laketown safely, the archer was dizzy with pain and nausea and he nearly lost it when his barrel was dumped out again. Indeed, standing took all of the once-king's focus, Laketown nothing but a blur of wood and water as the bowman led Thorin's company through the city's twisting streets.

The shakiness of Kíli's footing was not helped by Laketown's ramshackle architecture and the dwarf breathed a sigh of relief when they finally reached Bard's house. Sneaking into the building via the man's water closet wasn't exactly pleasant but the dunking helped to clear the archer's head and once Thorin's company was safely settled, Kíli was finally able to take the weight off of his injury.

Indeed, the dwarf sat down on a bench with a sigh, accepting a blanket and hot mug from one of Bard's daughters with a nod of thanks. To tell the truth, Kíli had not been expecting daughters since Bain had been an only child in the once-king's memory. But perhaps they were like Tauriel and if the archer's return had to change something within Laketown, at least it had created beauty as well as hunger here. Bard would certainly fight all the harder with such treasures to protect.

Soon every member of Thorin's company was taken care of, their soaked clothes laid out to dry by the fireplace. Given how wet the dwarves had been, they would be waiting for at least an hour and the once-king was not very pleased with the delay.

But a treaty was always better made from strength than desperation, though the latter would do if there was no other choice, and Thorin should feel much more secure when armed and dry again. Secure and hopefully more open to the thought of sharing since Durin's Folk were not exactly known for their magnanimity.

This delay was necessary and the time spent waiting need not be wasted when Bard and Thorin might still find common ground. So the archer pulled himself to his feet and walked over to his uncle where he stood with Balin, Kíli waiting on the edges of their conversation for an opening.

However, the once-king soon found himself listening with more interest when he realized exactly what the other two dwarves were discussing, their words centered on Black Arrows and Girion's last stand. Just Balin's account of Azanulbizar, this tale differed from Kíli's remembered history, but there was only one detail that the once-king cared about: Black Arrows still existed in this world and Smaug the Terrible would dance straight on to hell.

Of course, this conversation also proved that Thorin and Bard had no intention of becoming bosom buddies, their tongues barely civil as they discussed the tale. Disappointing, yes, but not entirely unexpected and something that Kíli could still work around. Instead it was Bain who nearly made the once-king break his cover and join the conversation, the boy interrupting his elders with a wild claim.

“Then you would know that Girion hit the dragon,” Bain said, Thorin's ill-concealed contempt for Girion raising the young man's anger in defense of Dale's last king. “He loosened a scale under the left wing. One more shot and he would have killed the beast.”

This tale seemed fanciful, a fairy story as Dwalin called it, and yet there was a ring of truth about the claim. It seemed fitting that Girion would lay the foundation for his descendant's triumph, Bard's victory redeeming Dale's defeat, and Kíli would have liked to question Bain for more details of the tale.

However, the archer's clarity was beginning to fade as the pain in his leg grew stronger, the edge of his focus fraying bit by bit. He would have to trust in his former ally – trust that Bard truly did know the dragon's weak point and would strike him down again, the existence of Black Arrows one less worry off his mind.

Only one because Kíli was growing increasingly certain that his injury had taken with blood fever, though the dwarf had never heard of a wound turning foul so fast. Usually a cut must be left to fester before the poison came but the archer would not put it past Bolg to lace his arrowheads. The orc had poisoned him, killed the once-king in this timeline as sure as he had murdered Thorin and Fíli in the past – the full complement of Durins cut down by his hand.

Where the dwarf had hoped for days, he might only have a few hours before Bolg's poison claimed him and Óin had nothing with which to heal or ease this sort of injury. The healer's herb pouches had been taken by the elf king when Thorin's company was imprisoned and with them, Thranduil had stolen any chance that Kíli might have had.

Which meant that the once-king had to set Thorin on the best path that he was able before his time ran out, hoping against hope that this would be enough to change their people's destiny. He would pray that Mahal had been mistaken about the entire company needing to reach the Lonely Mountain even as he did his best to hold on just in case. Kíli would crawl to Erebor if he had to; he would drag himself across the threshold with the last breath in his body if that would see his family safe.

But that task would become more difficult as his strength began to fail him and so the once-king tried to urge Thorin to haste instead of patience now. He reminded his uncle that they must reach Erebor before Durin's Day had ended or all of their struggles would be pointless, two lifetimes wasted if the company was late.

Kíli could not afford to wait, not when every heartbeat was spreading poison through his veins. He needed a deal with Laketown's Master and he needed it to happen now.

However, before the once-king could suggest a meeting, Bard interrupted the dwarves' conversation, the bowman laying a wrapped bundle on his kitchen table with a thunk. Balin had bartered for weapons and Bard had brought them the best that he was able, though these arms were barely fit for the merchants that the dwarves had claimed to be.

In truth, Kíli hadn't seen such makeshift steel for decades, not since his family's days guarding caravans, and he reached out to lift one of the hammers out of curiosity. This crowbill as Bard called it was far too heavy for real speed, heavy enough that the archer's leg twinged beneath the weight.

So the once-king laid the hammer back on the table while the rest of the company made their displeasure known to the bowman, Kíli finding another bit of wood to lean on until the argument was done. The rest of Thorin's companions were taking these weapons as an insult, though the once-king wasn't sure why anyone had thought that fishermen would have fine axes on hand to give away.

But then again, no dwarf would be caught dead without at least one proper blade and for all the years that Durin's Folk had spent amongst the men of the Westlands, Kíli's people had always been strangely blind to certain differences in thought.

Not that the archer had been any better in his youth and he sometimes wondered how he had survived his first year of kingship without causing a blood feud on accident. Some combination of luck and skill and desperation had seen the once-king safely through and those hard-won lessons served him now. Because he could read his uncle as he had read his allies and he could see the plan forming in Thorin's eyes when Bard said that the only iron-forged blades in Laketown were locked away in the city's armory.

Thorin meant to steal the weapons that the bowman could not give them and Kíli must turn this plan to his own ends before the dwarf lord doomed them all.

For even if the Master of Laketown was still a rotten bastard, stealing was no way for the company to gain allies and there would be enough bad blood between their kingdoms without adding treachery. Thorin's company couldn't afford to have Laketown's steel in their scabbards when Bard came to bargain, not when the man already didn't like them very much.

Indeed, the bowman seemed almost desperate to leave the dwarf lord's presence, telling his guests that they must stay indoors until dark and then doing the exact opposite. To tell the truth, Kíli had no idea what made Bard run off as though a warg were on his heels, but he didn't have the strength to worry about the bowman's motives now. It was difficult enough to speak with his uncle, the once-king losing the thread of his argument whenever his leg throbbed and he couldn't be too surprised when his pleading failed to turn the dwarf lord's plan aside. Thorin would never stoop to begging when he might steal instead, not when Erebor was so loomed so large within his mind,

However, if Kíli could not cajole a meeting between Thorin and the Master, then he would simply have to force one, something that was all too easy with his injury. The archer simply waited until the company had broken into Laketown's armory before allowing his leg to crumple as it wished, the resulting clatter bringing down the Master's guards before anyone could blink.

This wasn't the once-king's most brilliant plan, but Kíli could only work with what he had and while he doubted many things about his uncle, he did not doubt Thorin's ability to appeal to Laketown's greed.

So the archer worked on his uncle as the dwarves were dragged through the streets of Laketown, the crowd growing rapidly in their wake. It was a crowd of desperate, hungry faces, and the once-king knew that this city's troubles could serve the company now.

“Tell them the truth and they will help us,” Kíli whispered urgently to Thorin, fearing that he might pass out before he could make the dwarf lord understand. “Tell them that Thorin, son of Thráin, has come to make trade and wealth flow from Erebor again. These men are clearly hungry, this town impoverished – promise them the slimmest chance at a better future and they will side with us against the Master so that we may walk free. He will have to help us or risk losing everything.”

The dwarf lord looked surprised by his sister-son's words and rightfully so, but the archer didn't have time to worry about keeping his mask up anymore. The once-king would probably be dead by the time Thorin thought to question his sudden knowledge of politics and making his uncle listen was the only thing that mattered now.

And for once in his life, Thorin Oakenshield actually did listen, though that might have been because other options were rather slim upon the ground.

“Hold your tongue. You do not know to whom you speak,” Dwalin interrupted the Master's posturing when Thorin signaled him. “This is no common criminal; this is Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór!”

The dwarf lord took over from there, greed and desperation swaying Laketown's people just as the once-king had known they would. Kíli actually drifted off a bit when Thorin started talking, the archer's panic the only thing that had been keeping him upright. But Fíli offered his brother a shoulder before he could ask for assistance, the two of them watching as their uncle wooed the crowd. Thorin had always been an inspiring speaker when he wished to be and even Bard's sudden reappearance couldn't throw him off his stride.

Bard came with dire warnings of death and dragon fire – warnings that were more accurate than anyone but Kíli knew. But the bowman's opposition only made Thorin fiercer and when the argument had finished, the Master of Laketown had sided with the dwarves of Erebor.

Better new allies than old enemies after all, particularly when those allies made such pretty promises. For Thorin gave his word just as the once-king wanted and in return, Laketown's Master offered the company his assistance in reaching Erebor. This aid would be far more useful than a few stolen weapons and maybe now their story had a chance of ending peacefully. Between men and dwarves at least since nothing but blood would turn Azog's hate aside.

The Master proceeded to call for a celebration, the sort of grand ostentatious gesture that Kíli had always hated sitting through. This time the once-king couldn't even eat to dull his boredom since the smell of food nearly had him puking and eventually he just found himself a quiet corner where he could pass out until the dawn.

---

Kíli woke slowly, dragged up from sleep by Fíli's hand on his shoulder and an insistent voice in his ears. He felt rough and sluggish, rest having done nothing to heal his injury, and yet the dwarf was mostly just grateful to have woken up at all.

So the archer staggered to his feet and dressed with the rest of his companions, the weight of Kíli's borrowed armor threatening to make his leg crumple one more time. However, the dwarf thought that he had managed to hide his growing weakness from the others despite the pounding in his head and indeed, his steps were almost steady when Thorin's company made its way to the docks.

There was a barge waiting for them, its deck stocked with supplies for the last part of their journey while the docks were packed with Lakemen waiting to see them off. However, when Kíli tried to follow his companions onto the boat, Thorin stopped him with an arm across his chest.

“Not you,” the dwarf lord said firmly, pushing his sister-son back onto the dock. “We must travel with speed and you will slow us down.”

“What are you talking about?” Kíli replied, unable to comprehend such a sharp turn in his path. Kíli had to reach Erebor in order to fulfill the Valar's order; he had to reach the Lonely Mountain or die trying and his death would be here fast. “I'm coming with you.”

“No.”

“I'm going to be there when that door is opened; when we first look upon the halls of our father, Thorin,” the once-king pleaded, growing more desperate with every word he spoke.

However, his uncle would not be swayed, damning Kíli with a gentle smile and a hand on his shoulder as one might pat a stubborn dog. “Kíli, stay here. Rest. Join us when you're healed.”

This was a betrayal that the once-king had not expected; despite the trials that the Valar placed before him, family had still been sacrosanct within his mind. Even in the depths of his anger, Thorin had never turned against his blood and the fact that Kíli's uncle was rejecting him with a smile only made this moment worse.

Yet the dwarf could not think of anything to say, his thoughts barely coherent and his heart betrayed. He couldn't speak, not even when Óin climbed out of the barge to join him and Fíli broke the silence in his place.

“Uncle, we grew up on tales of the mountain,” his brother protested. “Tales you told us. You can't take that away from him!”

“Fíli...”

“I will carry him if I must!”

“One day you will be king and you will understand. I cannot risk the fate of this quest for the sake of one dwarf, not even my own kin.”

Kíli flinched then; he simply couldn't help it. He flinched because Thorin was right, because a king must make those hard choices and the fate of Middle Earth was not worth his wounded pride. So the dwarf could not expect his brother to keep arguing – he could not expect any of the company to argue when the most sensible choice was to leave him here – and he tried to tell Fíli that it was all right when the other dwarf met his eyes.

Only the once-king couldn't get the words out, not when Mahal's warning and his own screaming thoughts were ringing in his ears. He didn't want to die here, not alone, not with strangers, his throat strangled with a need to beg for comfort that he would not release.

But it seemed that Kíli did not have to, the archer as shocked as his uncle when Fíli stepped back onto the dock again.

“Fíli, don't be a fool. You belong with the company,” Thorin said, grabbing his sister-son by the arm.

“I belong with my brother.”

The words were spoken with a finality that did not allow for second-guessing and the once-king's heart swelled near to bursting in his chest. For while Kíli had always known that his brother loved him and would die for him, this was a greater sacrifice. Fíli clearly knew that his course of action might destroy their family's last chance at glory and yet he had chosen his brother anyway.

Indeed, Fíli had barely hesitated before refusing Thorin's order and Kíli could not help but wonder if this might be change enough. Maybe the Lonely Mountain would not so enrapture Thorin if his sister-sons never graced those hallowed halls, maybe that was the secret to the Valar's better path. After all, the once-king could have misinterpreted the Smith given the state of exhaustion in which Mahal had found him and surely the sight of Erebor meant he was close enough? Kíli prayed it would be as his strength finally failed him, the dwarf dropping like a puppet whose strings had all been cut.

The once-king drifted in and out of consciousness, nightmares blurring into brief waking moments that slipped through the tatters of his mind. Óin looking worried and Fíli's constant presence, half a dozen tight-lipped refusals while a door shut in his face. There were monsters in the shadows, monsters that sneered at Kíli with the Master's face.

Until he blinked and they sneered with Bard's instead, the dwarves suddenly standing on the bowman's porch. Four of them now for Bofur had appeared while Kíli was buried in the darkness, the archer not entirely sure whether the other dwarf was real.

However, Bard seemed to see him so perhaps the once-king was not hallucinating and while Bard was not pleased to see the dwarves, he did not turn them away like all the rest. Instead he brought them inside and allowed Kíli to lay down, the change in position easing some of the archer's pain. Yet this did not stop the walls from twisting in the once-king's vision, warping into jagged shadows before his panicked eyes. They were moving; he was moving, memories bleeding through the dwarf's denials until he could not say whether he was then or now.

Bard looked as he remembered – tall and strong and with a great bow on his back – but he could not place these women – not women, daughters; in which life dead and gone? But Kíli was not right; his body was not right, and Fíli's hair had never been that shade of blond. Or perhaps it had and Kíli was simply mad in truth because everyone knew that time could not be spun backward no matter how much you might wish it desperately.

Surely the dwarf was mad for the walls were whispering their secrets and his companions seemed to vanish before his eyes as the room shook frightfully. First Bofur then Bard disappeared from his vision while the bed beneath him rumbled like a living creature and Kíli's own breath came fitfully.

The dwarf was awake but he was dreaming, dreaming of a red tide across his fingers until Bard's girls began to scream. They screamed as though they could see inside the once-king's visions; as though they could see the orcs that had slaughtered Kíli's kindred and indeed, his nightmares had grown flesh with which to rend. For a band of orcs burst through the roof without warning, their feral gaze peering from the shadows as though the dark were given eyes to see.

These foes could not be real since Laketown was supposed to be a safe haven and elves never ventured this far from Mirkwood without cause. But there were elves, their spirits shining like starlight in Kíli's fractured vision, just as there were orcs as well.

Because the dwarf could feel them; he could feel the fingers – clawed fingers – digging deep into his leg. It felt as though someone had jabbed him with a fire poker, the pain shocking him back into his body long enough to scream. Kíli flailed wildly, all skill lost to panic as he kicked at the monster in desperate fear and agony.

But then someone was pulling the orc away, a flash of fire red driving the archer forward to stab his enemy. He did not know where the blade had come from, just that it felt right in his fingers when he shoved the point in deep. Deeper and deeper and twisting and why was he screaming? Why was his own leg burning as though he'd stabbed himself? Kíli was on the floor and an elf was kneeling above him worriedly. No. Not an elf. It was Tauriel, though she should not be here outside the forest bounds.

However, the archer did not have the strength to wonder before the dark stole his vision, only two bright glowing spirits holding back the tide. Just one spirits, burning like a bonfire until Kíli had to avert his eyes. But he had no eyes here in the darkness; no breath, no warmth, no heat.

Just his brother's voice tangled with some stranger hoarse from moaning, Fíli muttering that everything would be all right. Only, he didn't sound like he believed it. He sounded desperately unhappy and Kíli needed to open his eyes again. He needed to open his eyes for Fíli, but when he did agony slammed through him. Pain and hurt and sorrow arcing through his body until Tauriel laid her hands upon his leg and the world went still.


Part 3B