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A Terrible Mistake- Part III: Rancor

Title: A Terrible Mistake
Series: A Matter of Perspective
Pairings: Kíli/Bilbo
Warnings: racism and homophobia
Word Count: 6768 (17,829 total so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned the Hobbit no one would die
Summary: Fíli does not approve of his brother's new infatuation

Part I: Reverie
Part II: Ruin


Part III: Rancor

When I return to the fire the hobbit is already there, the only sign of what just occurred his red and haunted eyes.  I walk over to him where he sits apart from the rest of the company and lay my hand gently on his shoulder.

"Thank you," I whisper when he looks up, but Bilbo only shakes his head.

"Don't thank me, not for that.  Just...will you make sure that he's happy?"

"I will," I promise, and I mean this oath.  Now that Bilbo is out of the picture, Kíli must return to me and everything can return to the way it was.  I will help my brother find joy through the proper dwarven channels and put him back on the most honorable road.  Yet when he finally walks into camp an hour later, Kíli's eyes are dead and empty and he will not speak, just curls up alone by the fire.

That's when I realize that fulfilling my promise may take much longer than I thought.

---

The next morning our company wakes early and prepares to cross the haunted wood, a trip that will take us several weeks even if all goes well.  As we release Beorn's ponies to return to their master, I try to catch my brother's attention in order to begin our reconciliation, but he will not look at me; in fact, Kíli does not look at anyone, just gazes after Bilbo with sorrow in his eyes and when we are done with our task he finds himself an empty corner of the camp and hunches down to pack up with a sigh.

I stare after my brother in wonder and exasperation, Surely he has grieved enough already and there is no need for all this drama? How long can it possibly take for him to get over a hobbit? Yet despite Kíli's sulking I am still pleased with the changes I have wrought, at least until I turn away and see Thorin frowning at me, disapproval on his face.

As I meet his gaze I wince, for there is a question in his eyes and I know that he is wondering why I have failed to repair my relationship with Kíli as I promised, why things have only gotten worse.  If only he knew what I was dealing with, he would understand, I think in annoyance, but of course that cannot be.

Thankfully, Gandalf distracts uncle from his questions when the wizard announces that he must now leave us to our fate.  At this news, Thorin is enraged, demanding to know how Gandalf could abandon us just as we enter the domain of our people's greatest betrayer?  All of our company cries foul and rightly, for didn't the wizard promise to help us reach our goal, didn't he swear to take us to the mountain?

I too am filled with outrage and no small amount of fear at this ill news because Gandalf has already saved our lives many times on this journey and we could easily find ourselves in such a bind again.

However, despite the strength of our arguments and the validity of our protests, the wizard will not be swayed.  Instead he tells us that if we keep to the road we should be safe enough and find ourselves across the forest in less than two weeks' time.  This would allow us to reach the Lonely Mountain and find the secret door long before the last light of Durin's Day reveals its hidden lock.

Yet still it worries me and I can see my own doubt reflected in my uncle's eyes, for what if the wizard does not return and Smaug still lairs within our homeland?  Are we supposed to fight the dragon without his power? One hobbit and thirteen dwarves against the beast that wiped out the great cities of Dale and Erebor in less than a day.  Yet despite these fully justified fears our journey must go on because we have come too close to our goal to ever turn back now.

So Thorin puts on a brave face as he bids Gandalf farewell and leads our company into the oppressive gloom that is the Mirkwood.  And still I wonder, what terrible calamity could the world be facing for Smaug to seem the lesser danger?  What doom must stand upon our doorstep for the wizard to be called away on such short notice? All Gandalf would say to us was that he had wizard's business but that is a flimsy excuse at best and though he tried to hide it I could see the worry in his eyes as well.

I explain my thinking to Kíli as we walk deeper into the forest and the last bright ray of sunshine disappears into the dark.  Although my brother listens intently to my fears, when I finish speaking he does not respond but simply turns away without a word.  However, I am not discouraged by his actions for that alone is progress and I know that eventually I will wear him down.

Someday brother, you will thank me for this.

---

The days pass slowly as we travel through the trees and the suffocating atmosphere lowers everyone's spirits.  Our morale is only worsened by the fact that several nights into the woods Kíli still refuses to speak to anyone other than Bilbo, who has withdrawn from all our company and flees at my brother's approach.

Even lost in their own grim thoughts everyone cannot help but notice this change in the pair's relationship for the difference is stark and there is no privacy along the forest road.  Though they do not know the cause, each tries to help in his own way, working to bring my brother and our burglar out from behind the walls they've built, and their attempts help to ward off the chill dark beneath the trees.

Bifur carves them wooden statues, fine and detailed work, while Ori knits each of them a brand new scarf to warm them while we ride.  Bombur gives the hobbit extra portions when he can, Óin teaches Kíli about the herbs used for medicine and Bofur splits his time between them as we walk.  Dori takes to mothering each of them at night, while Balin tells his best and brightest stories about the days of old.  Sly Nori shows off his skill at sleight of hand, Glóin his tricks with juggling and Dwalin treats them as if nothing at all has changed.  While through it all uncle Thorin only watches, eyes seeing everything and I feel his questioning gaze on my back when I do not go to my brother's side.

I would like to and I am working on it, but it is nearly a week into our crossing before Kíli will even look at me for any length of time.  Perhaps I remind him too much of what he has lost and my brother must know that I am pleased by the separation between him and Bilbo, even though I do regret his pain.  So Kíli keeps his distance from me and his guarded demeanor makes it very difficult to bridge the chasm that divides us.

In the end it is Mirkwood itself that makes the greatest difference because against such foul malevolence even the bitterest enemies must find common ground.

---

Our reconciliation begins the day we discover that the road through the forest is blocked by a river, water foul and stagnant despite the speed at which it flows.  It looks as though there was once a bridge across but it stands no longer and no one is willing to risk swimming to the other side, not with the aura of pure enmity that emanates from the depths.

We search for another way to cross and it is Kíli's sharp eyes that spot our salvation in the form of a small wooden boat tied loosely to the other bank.  When he points it out to uncle and then meets my eyes, for a moment we find ourselves in sync again.  Without words I know what he is asking and without words I give him my consent.  So it is my rope that Kíli ties to his arrow, and my hands that help him pull the boat free and over to our shore.

As two of the lightest and nimblest, we paddle to the other side first and secure a rope around a tree across the river in order to turn our boat into a ferry.  This clears the way for the heavier ones among us and the initial crossings go well. Two to three members of our company are able to fit in the boat at a time and everyone moves themselves easily along the line, so before long nearly all of us have traveled onward.

Finally it is only Thorin and Bombur who remain, for uncle will not leave a companion stranded and Bombur's weight makes his trip the most dangerous of the lot.  So it is with our hearts in our throats that we watch them settle, Bombur hunkered down in the bottom while Thorin pulls them carefully along.  For a moment it seems that all will be well and they have nearly reached the bank, but then there is a deafening crack as the boat begins to break between their feet.

I shout to uncle to cut the line that's tied to the far shore and we begin hauling the rowboat in as fast as our arms can pull.  Yet just as it touches the bank and uncle leaps to safety, the wood splits completely and Bombur cannot find a place to stand.  He falls heavily into the river and we watch in horror as his eyes roll back into his head and he collapses in a heap.  Bombur starts to sink beneath the water and I fear that his life will be forfeit.

However, then Kíli is at my side again and between the two of us we soon have ropes looped around his limbs.  With the aid of our companions we drag the cook to shore, all of us careful to keep the cursed water far away from our own skin.

As we pull Bombur up onto the land and Óin rushes to his side, Kíli draws away from me and I feel our tenuous connection snap again.  Yet now I know it can be recovered, so my heart is lighter even as Óin cries out that Bombur will not wake.  He is still breathing steadily but some foul magic has hold of his mind and nothing that we try is any use.

All the company can do is create a litter with which to carry him and attempt to press onward to our goal.  However, our progress through Mirkwood slows to a crawl for it takes six of us to carry him and we tire very soon beneath his weight.  I can feel the delay tearing at the corners of my mind and in my darkest moments I wish that we could leave him, throw him to the wolves and run for our lives.  Yet we persist though our food stores empty and all of us begin to fear that we will never be free of this foul place because we cannot abandon a companion, even one that may drag us to our doom.

So it is a bright day indeed when Bombur finally wakes, a spot of cheer within the aura of deepening depression and despair that surrounds us.  He seems no worse for wear despite his days under the enchantment and the joy with which his brother and cousin greet him warms my heart.  It is this joy that gives me the courage to sit down next to Kíli as he stands his watch that night, and perhaps it is this joy that makes him finally decide not to turn away.

Whatever the reason, this is my chance, so I place my hand on his arm and give him my apology, "I am sorry for your pain, brother.  But it is for the best."

He stiffens then and looks at me with haunted eyes.  "How?"  Kíli asks hopelessly.  "How is this for the best?"

I am caught off guard by the directness of his question, and I stammer as I look for the right words.  "Well, uh, because...Because you'll have your family and your people and someday you'll find love again and you'll grow old together.  I am sure of it."

Something about my words seems to catch Kíli by surprise and he frowns deeply as he considers them.  I watch in confusion as a look of horrified realization spreads across his face, and then a fire ignites in his eyes as he whispers, "It was you!"

Before I can collect my thoughts to respond, he grabs me by my coat and pulls me towards him, hissing furiously, "What did you tell him?  What did you do?!"  I cannot understand how Kíli figured out my part in Bilbo's rejection but at his anger I feel my own fury grow.  Can't he see that I did it for him?

"I did what I had to do to protect you from making a terrible mistake!  You were going to ruin your life."

"So you decided to ruin it for me?!"  He grips me tighter and I recoil from the sheer murder in his eyes.  "I will never forgive you for this.  You are no longer my brother, you are no longer my friend and when this quest is over you will not be my liege.  Take care of yourself Fíli for I will not watch your back."

I open my mouth to protest then because this has gone all wrong, but before I can do more than whisper, demons drop down from the trees.

They are spiders, foul, monstrous spiders and Kíli's eyes widen in pain as one bites deeply into his neck.  He has just enough time to shout a strangled warning and then the creature's poison takes him and he crumples at my feet.  I turn to look for the rest of our companions but while some of them roused at Kíli's shout, I can see that it is already far too late.  Most of the others have fallen beneath the creatures which are wrapping them in sticky, noxious webs and we who remain are too few to stand against the onslaught.

Even as I stab one creature's grasping claw, I see Dwalin go down fighting under a swarm of the beasts and others snare my uncle's blade with their gaping maws.  I try to work my way toward Thorin so that we may stand together but before I reach him my eye is caught by the halfing.

The spiders have ignored him so far, perhaps he is simply too small for their taste, and he appears to be searching desperately for something on the ground rather than pulling out his blade.  Yet as I watch, he shouts in triumph and then suddenly disappears, and I stare in shock until a sharp pain spreads like agony from my shoulder and the world goes dark.

---

I wake slowly, my head muzzy and my thoughts thick and when I try to open my eyes I find that I cannot.  Without sight, without movement, without sound, I start to panic, for surely I could I not have fallen to such an inglorious death?  But no, gradually feeling returns to my limbs and I can feel the bonds that surround me, the ties that keep me still.  My head begins to clear and suddenly there are voices, though the sound fades in and out with my consciousness.

"Kíli!  Kíli, wake up...all right?"  It sounds like the hobbit, worried and sharp; perhaps I had not been dreaming and he had escaped unscathed, now come to save our company once again.

"Bilbo, what...?"  My brother then, he lives as well as I, and something in me eases at this knowledge.

"Spiders.  Remember...need to...others."

"Wait!..."  Kíli's voice is frantic now, What could he be...? I start to twist frantically as I realize that my brother is trying to undo all my careful efforts, and if he can pierce through all my lies he will succeed.  But no matter how hard I struggle to move I remain trapped, helpless to stop it as all my plans unravel.

"Please...Fíli told...lied!"

"Lied?  He said...love once...forbidden...banished and alone...couldn't let that happen."

"...too late...my heart already...grieve for you either way and...if I am banished...not leave me alone...I promise...Fíli is trying...but he is wrong...I don't regret choosing you."

"...you sure?" The hobbit's voice is hopeful now, full of a tentative delight as he waits for my brother's response.

When I hear it, "...just want to live with you..." followed by a joyful noise and what might be a kiss, I feel despair well up within me.  That's torn it.  Unless this is just an hallucination brought on by the spider's poison, this is the end of everything.  Kíli will hate me now and for nothing.

My brother's temper burns hot and fast and despite his earlier words he would have forgiven me soon enough.  But now that he has reconciled with Bilbo, Kíli will never take me back unless I accept his choice and that I simply cannot do.  I cannot watch my brother destroy his life, even if I must lose him over it and my best hope now is the hobbit suddenly dropping dead.

I am brought from my fantasies of accidental murder when something cuts through my bonds and I land heavily on the ground.  Someone begins pulling strands away from my face and soon I can see again, opening my eyes to Dwalin kneeling above me while he frees me from the spider's web.

As I sit up, I see my brother haunting the halfling's every step as though afraid to let him from his sight and I know that the words I heard were true.  So to distract myself from my failures I look around the clearing, checking on the remainder of our company.

Dori and Nori are helping their brother while Glóin, Bombur and Bifur straighten up each other's clothes.  There are two more lumps on the ground that turn out to be Óin and Bofur and I can see Dwalin conferring with Balin, my brother and the hobbit.  I count again for with myself that is only twelve dwarves and a burglar and I am filled with horror when I realize that Thorin is the one who is not there.

By this time the others of our company have reached the same conclusion and we huddle together to discuss what we can do.  There is a chaos for a moment as we all begin speaking but then Balin takes control and asks the hobbit to tell us what he knows of my uncle's fate.

"I saw him fall to the spiders and he was carried off with the rest of you, but I lost sight of the creatures for quite some time.  Thorin must have woken up somewhere along the way and escaped because only you twelve were here when I arrived."  Bilbo explains before continuing, "I know we must find him somehow but first we should leave this place and quickly, for though I killed many spiders there may be more of them hiding out there in the dark."

The hobbit waves his hand toward one side of the clearing and for the first time I notice the giant corpses there; our burglar was being modest because I count more than five of the fell creatures laying cold and dead upon the ground.

"You have quite a sting on you laddie," Balin says in admiration.  "But you are right and we should leave before more danger finds us.  Let us backtrack along the spiders' trail and perhaps we shall find a sign of Thorin there."

The plan is sound and we gather ourselves together and then retreat as fast as we are able.  We travel quickly for dwarves that were just poisoned but we find no trace of my uncle and soon we cannot find the trail at all.  The hobbit stares around us in bewilderment when we stop short, gazing at the endless and unbroken trees.

"I don't understand, it should be here.  It's as if the forest grew up just behind the spiders in order to cover up their path."

Perhaps it did, for now that we are deeper in the wood the sense of foul malevolence has only strengthened. truly it rises from the ground and seeps out from the trees and I am not particularly surprised when we turn to find that the way back to the spiders is gone as well.  But whatever the atmosphere, our company is exhausted from our ordeal and so we take this chance to rest and regroup.

No one is terribly injured considering the events of the last few hours, but there are wounds enough for Óin to clean and bind.  As the old dwarf tends to our injuries, most of the others sort through our gear to see what we managed to save during the attack and I am grateful that we at least still have our weapons.  However our food and water stores are dangerously low, especially now that we are irrevocably lost.

Balin, my brother, and the hobbit huddle around our map but even with Kíli's keen sense of direction and Bilbo's knowledge of the spiders' path I do not expect them to do much good.  There are no signs by which to find direction in the twilight gloom of the Mirkwood and even if we locate ourselves how are we supposed to find Thorin?  Addled by the venom, uncle could have traveled anywhere and he has never been known for taking the most direct route.

Yet we must try and our company eventually agrees to take the straightest path toward Erebor from where we think we are in the hope that Thorin would have tried to do the same.

Thus the thirteen of us set out as soon as we are able, weapons drawn and ready and twitching at every unfamiliar sound.  I offer to take point so that I can avoid looking my brother because now that he has regained his hobbit the change in Kíli is obvious, his brooding silence replaced by laughter and cheer once again.  While the rest of the company is glad of his high spirits to help counteract the weight of their own fears, I know the cause and it brings me no joy.  Indeed I cannot bear to look at them for I see the return of lingering touches and private smiles and the knowledge makes me sick.

So after nearly two days of slogging through the dense and angry forest, finding myself hungry, tired and cold with no sign of my uncle and having to watch while Kíli and Bilbo play out their epic romance in loving stares before my eyes, being captured by elves is almost a relief.

---

Our group stumbles upon them abruptly; one minute we are alone in these foul woods and the next facing a wall of glinting steel.  We try to close ranks against them but our company is weary and weak and we can do little against a score of elvish archers.

So though I fight and struggle, I am soon stripped of my weapons and trussed like a turkey for the slaughter with the rest.  I burn with anger as our captors talk above our heads, laughing and discussing us in their lilting foreign tongue.  Though I am no master, Thorin taught me some of Thranduil's language in preparation for our quest and I catch enough to know that they find us short, ugly, and noisy, and they will take us to their king.

The journey that follows is a lesson in humiliation as the elves have no patience for our trips and stumbles, just prod us with their spears until we regain our feet.  They do not speak to us and rarely to each other, and the only response their captain gives to all our questions is a condescending smirk.  Our captors goad us onward as fast as we are able and it is only when Ori passes out with exhaustion that the elves finally allow us a moment to rest.

Attempts to speak are met with glares and naked steel, so as we huddle together the company slips into Iglishmêk instead.

'All safe, not hurt?' Dwalin signs to the group, using minimal gestures to hide his actions from the guard, and thankfully this question is answered with assent all around.  'Where hobbit?' He asks then, and as I look around I realize that he is right and the halfling is not there.  I had not seen him on our journey but I had been busy trying not to stumble and had assumed that he was simply out of view.

'Escaped.  Follows.' Kíli tells him and this news is met with happiness and relief.  Even I, who was secretly hoping that some terrible fate had befallen Bilbo, can recognize the value of having an ally free and clear.  Then there is no more time to talk because we are forced to stand again and just as the next day passes into night we find ourselves standing in front of the elf king's hall.

It is a monstrous thing, all twisted wood and rock and built into the living trees around it, and the sight makes me yearn for the solace of a proper mountain home.  We are met at the entrance by yet another group of emotionless elvish warriors, though by their dress this set is probably an honor guard.

Our captors hand our weapons over to the newcomers and most of the score walk off into the trees while the captain hangs around, throwing us another laughing smirk.  Then Balin signs one last warning, 'Say nothing!', before our company is led inside and forced to kneel before the High King of Mirkwood himself.

Thranduil! I think viciously, staring up at him in hate.  He looks just as I have always imagined from uncle's many stories: cold, aloof and oh, so proud.  Like all his race, his face is ageless and he would have appeared exactly the same on the day that he looked down upon the suffering of our people and declared us unworthy of his aid.  Yet as much as I see my feelings reflected in the faces of the other dwarves around me, we hold our tongues because we know that we do not have the power now to avenge our ancient wrongs.  But we will, someday we will.

The elf king sneers down upon us and then speaks to the captain in Westron, using the common tongue so that we can understand his scorn. "Tauriel, wherever did you find this ragged lot?"

His voice is soft and disdainful, as is hers when she answers, "Wandering the wood, my lord, lost and loud as thunder."  Glóin cannot help but grumble at the insult that she pays us and the elf king turns his piercing stare upon our group.  "And why exactly would a band of dwarves such as yourselves be wandering my wood?"

Balin steps forward slightly and through an act of great willpower manages to sound more or less polite when he replies.  "We are just a small company that has lost our homeland and is now trying to make our way in the world.  And we were not exactly wandering, we were attacked by spiders on the path and they caused us to lose our way...my lord."

"And what was your destination and your purpose that you would travel such a dangerous road?"

"I am sorry but our errand is our own...my lord."  Balin declines gently, but Thranduil's face pinches slightly in what on a dwarf would likely be a scowl.

"Really?  And if I told you that I had found one of your kinsmen, injured and alone, and granted him my hospitality, what would you tell me then?"  Uncle, he's alive!

"Then we would thank you for the rescue of our friend and ask to be reunited as soon as you permit.  We were separated from him by fell beasts in the dark...my lord."

"I am afraid that he resides in my dungeons because he refused to tell me the location of his journey's end, and you will join him shortly if you do not reveal your quest." At these words a growl rises from our company and I feel the same fury building in my chest.  Had I my weapons I would leap for Thranduil's throat and damn the consequences and when Balin speaks, he speaks for all.

"Our business is ours and ours alone.  Our mouths are sealed against your threats and we will gladly accept the hospitality of your cells for we have the strength to keep our oaths."

Thranduil's face darkens when he hears this and his voice is filled with malice.  "If you will not speak then you are liars, fools, or thieves and whichever it may be, you deserve your fate...Take them to the dungeons and let them rot there until they change their minds."  At his command, the guards drag us off and search us to the skin before separating our company and despite all my struggles I soon find myself imprisoned and alone.

---

Days pass in this bare captivity as I discover that there is truly nothing to be done: the door is impregnable, the walls without cracks, and when I'm fed and watered there are too many guards to jump.  So I have nothing but time on my hands and this soon becomes a torture.  For while the necessity of survival and my deep hatred of the elves had driven it temporarily from my mind, now my brother's trespass weighs heavily on my thoughts once more.

I replay the past weeks of our journey over and over in my head, remembering all the signs that I had missed at the time and I cannot help but feel that I should have been able to stop his folly.  Perhaps if I had just recognized the problem earlier, I could have hammered out the fault before it went this far.  Kíli was mine to protect and I have failed in my duty; I have let him fall into dishonor and disgrace.

Yet even as I know that there is nothing more left to try, because Kíli will not forgive me for lying to his hobbit and the hobbit will not trust a word I say, my failure still eats at my peace of mind.

All I can do now is protect my family's honor and make sure that no one else discovers my brother's transgression, that no one else finds out what brought Durin's youngest low.  I will keep my brother's secret until our quest is over and hope that Mahal has granted me a miracle by then.  Maybe if Smaug eats the halfling, Kíli will finally come to his senses and rediscover honor in his grief.

It is in this fugue of boredom and despair that the burglar finds me, knocking softly at the bars that cross my cell.  I discover that I am glad to see a familiar face, even one that I still hate, and I am twice as glad for the news he brings.  There is a message from my uncle that all of us are well and we are to hold fast to our silence until the hobbit finds a way to break us out.  While I am somewhat doubtful of Bilbo's skill, he has made it this far and it is good to have even such a small ray of hope to break the gloom.

The hobbit does not stay long, just says his piece and moves on quickly, for it seems that I am also the last person that he wants to talk to.  Though near the door he pauses briefly as if he wants to add something, but then he turns and scuttles away.  Probably going to stare longingly at Kíli through his bars, I think in disgust, left to silence and solitude again.

This pattern repeats over the next couple of days:  Bilbo arrives, speaks his message, pauses and leaves, until finally the burglar finds his nerve.  Just before he exits the hobbit pauses as usual, but this time he turns back and visibly steels himself before asking quietly, "I have to know, why did you lie?"

"What?"

"Why did you lie to me so that I would break your brother's heart?"

"Because I had to.  It was the only way."  I tell him bitterly, hoping he will stop poking at the wound.

"The only way to do what?"  Yet the hobbit will not give up, and as he sounds genuinely curious to know I find myself telling him the truth even as my annoyance grows.  "To keep Kíli from throwing everything away for some besotted dream. To keep him from destroying his future."

"But he doesn't want that future.  Doesn't Kíli get to have a choice?"

"Not when his choice is wrong!  He's supposed to be a Prince of Erebor, not a goddamned hobbit-fucker!"  I roar as my control snaps.  How dare you question that I know what's best for my brother? Before the hobbit can respond we hear elvish voices in the distance and Bilbo quickly slips away, but he comes back the very next morning to bother me again.

I glare at him through the bars because his earlier questioning has left me in a foul mood, but he just shrugs off my anger and asks calmly, "So what exactly is wrong with being a hobbit-fucker?"

I look up at him in shock and am answering before I think.  "It's a disgrace, a perversion of nature.  Bad enough that my brother has taken up with a male but you're not even a dwarf!"

"Aren't there very few dwarf women, so few that most dwarves never marry?  If that is true then what difference does it make?"

"Commoners maybe, but Kíli is a Son of Durin and he must carry on the line.  I suppose as long as he married he could have lovers on the side and it would be acceptable enough.  But to pledge his heart to a hobbit is unthinkable; no woman would touch him and he would become the laughingstock of our people.  It would mean the ultimate shame upon our house."

"It seems rather more dishonorable to force him to marry and then let him cheat on his wife.  At least in the Shire we mean our vows when we make them."  The hobbit retorts testily.

His words resonate inside my mind and make my voice turn sharp.  "Do not talk to me of vows when Kíli is forsaking his family, his oaths, and his duty for you."

"Kíli's not..."  But then the guards return again and the hobbit is gone.  When he returns some days later I am far more subdued for our conversations have reminded me of what this quest has already cost.  My dear, sweet baby brother, full of innocence and curiosity has gone where I simply cannot follow.  And perhaps Bilbo senses my grief for he tries a different tack.

"He still loves you, you know."  The burglar says quietly, sitting outside of my cell.  "You are his older brother and he loves you."

I laugh bitterly.  "Right.  He loves me so much that he's rejecting me and everything that he should hold dear."

"He doesn't want to reject you, he just has different dreams.  You're the one who's making him choose."

"And he's the one that's choosing you!  It doesn't matter if Kíli loves me, it doesn't matter if he's happy, not with the price he is willing to pay in order to achieve his twisted dream.  I will never grant you my blessing, not for this."

"Then I suppose there is nothing more to say.  I hope that someday you will find it in yourself to compromise."  Bilbo leaves then and as I watch him go I wonder if I should have told him that all his hope will come to naught.  There is a reason they speak of the stubbornness of dwarves and my stance will never bend as long as there remains the slightest possibility that Kíli can be saved.  So I will wait, I will protect his reputation, and I will wait for opportunity to knock.

---

When I next see the hobbit there are no more conversations because Bilbo holds the keys to my captivity dangling in his hands.  He releases me from my prison and I follow him down into the cellars where I find the rest of our company waiting by the water.

The burglar explains that Thranduil's court and guard are distracted by a celebration, making this our best chance to flee the elf king's grasp.  We will escape upon the river, riding barrels to our freedom and though the thought is terrifying, the thought of staying here is worse.  So the hobbit leaves to see what weapons he can find while we dwarves start packing each other away into the casks, which thankfully are large enough that even Bombur fits.

Bilbo returns shortly and the haul is disappointing, though he apologizes profusely for the lack.  It seems that most of our weapons are locked away and Thranduil has Orcrist hanging by his side, though the burglar did at least manage to find a dagger for each of us and retrieve my brother's bow.

When Bilbo hands back the latter, Kíli strokes his cheek gently and confirms again that he is standing by the choice that he has made.  I turn away from the sight to enter my own barrel, as I remind myself forcibly that nothing has really changed; I knew all this already even if I hadn't seen the proof, I've known it since my brother cursed me before the spiders in the dark.

The trip that follows is a nightmare as the inside of the barrel would be claustrophobic even for one used to living underground.  It is cold, dank, and dark as I tumble about upon the river, and every time we hit a rapid the water splashes through the cracks and soaks me to the skin.

By the time the casks come to rest against the riverbank, I have lost all sense of time and of direction and when Bilbo finally pries the lid off of my barrel, for a moment all I can do is lean on the edge and gasp.

Thus it is a worn and waterlogged company that staggers out of the river and collapses thankfully on solid ground, but despite all of my discomfort is is good to see the others again after the long weeks alone in the elf king's jail.  Once we have recovered enough to stand we look to the east and a short distance away we can see the river flowing into Esgaroth, the Long Lake, which stands on Mirkwood's eastern edge.

Upon the surface of the water float the tall wooden buildings that make up the island city of Laketown, the lone settlement of those men still brave enough to live in the shadow of the dragon, and then I look past it and see the tall solitary peak of the Lonely Mountain, of my uncle's kingdom, rising into the sky beyond.  Seeing it so close, my heart fills to breaking and I know that the other dwarves must feel the same, especially those that lived to see our people scattered.

Now after so many long years in exile, after a generation that was born with nothing to their names, the dwarves of Erebor are coming home at last.

Part IV: Rift