Chapter III: Preface - Part 1
Pairings: Unrequited Kíli/Bilbo, unrequited Bilbo/Thorin
Warnings: angst, lots of piningWord Count: 5088 (32,812 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned the hobbit it would be an even bigger tragedy
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
The climb down the Carrock was miserable, icy winds and rain clouds moving in as the morning passed. Yet while his companions looked to the sky with trepidation, Kíli found it rather fitting that the weather should match the gale storm in his spirit and he didn’t even bother to pull his cloak up when the rain began to fall.
In truth, the deluge felt almost cleansing, the water washing away some of the once-king’s bitterness even as it gave him something else to focus on. Because the steps of the Carrock had not been carved for dwarven statures and the company’s descent became ever more treacherous as the stone grew slick beneath their feet. Soon the stairs turned into a wild cascade of water that threatened to sweep them over the side with every step and despite his sorrow, Kíli found himself keeping a careful eye on Bilbo until the company reached safer ground.
He still loved their burglar even if the reverse could not be said and it would take far more than heartbreak to make Kíli wish him harm. If the once-king was going to wish harm on anyone, it would be his uncle since Thorin clearly had no idea what he had stolen from his sister-son or how much their hobbit cared.
Indeed, there was no more than friendship in the dwarf lord’s gaze when the company began climbing the next ridge and while the lack of scorn was a definite improvement, the longing in Bilbo’s eyes hurt Kíli as deeply as his grief. If the burglar had to fall for someone else, it should have been someone who made him happy and it was not fair that Thorin should squander the gift that he was given when his sister-son would have given anything for a fraction of that love.
However, if life were fair then the once-king would not be on his way to reclaim Erebor for a second time. He would have married Bilbo and lived a life of love, laughter, and adventure while his uncle became King Under the Mountain and his brother stood ready for the day that Thorin passed.
Truly, there was nothing but grief in wishing things were different and if Kíli could stop the world from falling into darkness, he knew that his own heart would be a small price to pay.
So until Mahal told him what he must do to save the future, the once-king would focus on reaching the Lonely Mountain with his company intact. The dwarf had had a great deal of practice at crushing down his sorrow beneath the weight of duty and he was determined not to fail the Valar’s task as he had failed his kin before.
Kíli would need to keep his wits about him now that reclaiming Erebor was no longer guaranteed and indeed, the differences that the archer had tried so hard not to notice were visible all around him now. Because the trek to Beorn's house had not been this struggle through rocky crags and muddy canyons, Azog’s pack catching up to the company much sooner than they’d hoped. Every time Thorin sent Bilbo to scout, the pale orc had gotten closer until the once-king began to fear that they might not reach the safety of Beorn's hall in time.
The skin-changer was one of the few things that might ward off Azog and yet, when his bear form appeared in the distance two days out from the Misty Mountains, Kíli learned that orcs were not the only danger that lived within these crags. For the wizard did not describe Beorn as the gruff but kind man whom Kíli had remembered fondly in the past.
“He will help us, or he will kill us,” Gandalf said plainly, his expression making it clear which outcome he thought more likely of the two. But the dwarves had no choice with Azog on their trail.
So the once-king raised no objections, not even when Beorn caught their scent and began to pursue them relentlessly. The skin-changer hunted Thorin’s company over hills and under trees and down onto the plain, his bear form seemingly even larger than it had been before.
But perhaps that was simply a matter of perspective – the difference between an ally and an enemy – and the archer truly believed that Beorn would kill anyone he caught. The skin-changer would rip the dwarves to shreds and while he might regret it when next he shifted, regrets brought no one back to life.
Thus, it was true terror giving speed to the once-king and his companions as they sprinted toward Beorn’s house, the giant bear close on their heels. They ran across the meadow and into the skin-changer’s garden before slamming into his door en masse. Those dwarves in front pounded on the wood in blind panic until Thorin managed to push his way through the chaos to unbar the door and their company tumbled into the hall.
Even then their trials were not over for Beorn was not one to give up easily. He nearly forced the door open before the dwarves managed to slam it shut against him, the skin-changer’s jaws far too near his body for Kíli's peace of mind.
His unease was shared by the rest of his companions, several of the others glancing at the hall’s windows nervously, and when Gandalf revealed that the bear was Beorn, Dori looked ready to pass out. Indeed, the wizard seemed to be making a habit of inviting Thorin’s company into other people’s houses and while the dwarves hadn’t been too concerned about irritating Bilbo, the skin-changer was far more dangerous than their burglar. However, it was a little late to worry about their welcome when they were here already and the once-king knew well that his companions would find no other shelter in these parts.
We’ll deal with it in the morning, Kíli thought, putting his concerns to the back of his mind for now. Everything will seem clearer after a full night’s rest and hopefully Gandalf’s quick tongue will be enough to soothe Beorn’s ire toward his uninvited guests.
Thorin’s company needed the aid that Beorn could grant them after losing most of their supplies to the goblins and while the wizard had yet to announce his departure in this lifetime, he could not conjure ponies from thin air. Without mounts to carry the company to the edge of Mirkwood, Azog would be sure to catch them, and even if the orc were not dogging Thorin’s footsteps, speed was of the essence now.
At least, it should have been. However, when Kíli went over Kaminzabdûna's words again, the dwarf realized that he could not be so certain of his journey’s timetable anymore. Because if sending the once-king back to the past had altered life and death itself, why should it not have altered time as well?
So the archer nudged his brother’s shoulder once the company had settled down for the evening, the dwarves, wizard, and hobbit making themselves comfortable in the piles of hay that filled one corner of the hall.
“Fíli, what day is it? How much time remains before Durin’s Day arrives?”
“Did you forget how to read the seasons, little brother?” the other dwarf replied with a teasing smile. “But if you must know, we are still in the first days of 'Aftharn so we have some weeks yet before we must find our great-grandfather's secret door.”
While part of Kíli was pleased to know that Fíli still had the heart to tease him after their recent struggles, the once-king was too shocked by his brother’s words to respond. 'Aftharn? How could it be 'Aftharn? There should not have been a Moon of Dare this year. But that would explain why the weather has been so much worse than I remembered since Durin’s Day falls much later when our thirteenth month exists. I’ve been expecting summer when we are already in autumn and the Valar must truly have rocked the foundations of Middle Earth by sending me back here. Yet this means time is even shorter than I thought because our company will never reach Erebor before the start of 'Afdehar if we are trapped in Thranduil's dungeons for weeks on end again.
“Kí? You do know what month it is, don’t you? We celebrated Summerfest just before leaving the Blue Mountains; had you forgotten that?” His brother’s worried question brought the archer from his thoughts, Fíli reaching out to check the once-king for injuries. “Did you take a blow to the head when we were in the Misty Mountains? Or later on when Beorn was chasing us? I told you not to hide your wounds from me.”
Fíli seemed ready to wake Óin from his slumber this very instant in order to examine Kíli and the once-king could not have that. For if the healer began asking him questions about their current timeline, the archer would never be able to maintain the illusion that he was his younger self. His companions would think him either mad or concussed, neither of which would help him complete his Valar-given task. So Kíli needed to reassure his brother fast.
“Of course, I remember that, Fí,” the archer said, rolling his eyes as he shoved off his brother’s hand. Submitting to Fíli's protectiveness would be far more suspicious than protesting – he was the younger sibling after all. “I just lost track of the days while we were in the Misty Mountains and I wanted to make sure I'd reckoned right. I promise I did not receive anything worse than scrapes and bruises despite the dangers on our trail.”
“All right, if you're sure,” Fíli relented grudgingly. “I suppose you would have shown the signs before if you were truly wounded and speaking of danger, I think I owe you an apology. I should not have been so obstinate in dismissing your concerns about our journey; none of us were prepared for Azog, least of all our uncle, and I should have listened to your fears.”
The once-king was struck speechless for a moment since this was a concession he had not been expecting after their previous argument. Yet his brother was not one to say anything he did not mean and eventually Kíli managed to stutter out, “I - Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me.”
He knew that Thorin still held Fíli's loyalty but at least the other dwarf had finally realized that their uncle wasn’t indestructible. At least his brother was no longer following Thorin blindly to destruction and Fíli's apology prompted the once-king to make one of his own. “I am sorry too, brother. You were right to trust in our wizard and our burglar and while I don't think I can stop myself from worrying, together we might be able to keep our uncle’s reckless streak in check.”
“We'll do our best, Kí,” Fíli promised, pulling the once-king forward with one hand. He knocked their heads together gently as he had done when they were children before letting his brother go again. “Now come on, we should try to get some sleep before the dawn.”
Fíli had the right of it since this would be the company's last true respite before Laketown and Kíli feared that he might spill his secret if he spoke any more tonight. So the archer murmured his agreement, curling up in the hay with his back against his brother’s and allowing the slow rhythm of Fíli's breathing to lull him into dreams.
The sun was nearing mid-morning when the once-king finally opened his eyes, wisps of memory chasing him from sleep. Kíli would have called them nightmares except that he had lived them and the dwarf reached out a hand behind him to check that Fíli was still there.
However, his fingers met nothing but cloth and hay where living flesh should be, the once-king shooting upright with a panicked gasp. He had been dreaming of the battle which gave him kingship, visions of his brother's blood-stained face burning behind his eyes, and Kíli couldn’t relax until he spied Fíli pulling his boots on a few feet away.
“Kí? Are you okay?” his brother asked as the archer slumped back against the hay, rubbing one hand across his face wearily.
“I'm fine, Fíli. Still just half asleep I think,” Kíli said once he'd managed to get himself back together, the bright sun shining through Beorn's high windows helping to chase the ghosts away. This was still a place of peace and safety for orcs would never be allowed within a furlong of these walls.
So the once-king put his nightmares from his mind as best he could before looking around for his companions, the other dwarves scattered in small groups around the hall. Thorin was deep in discussion with Gandalf while Dwalin and Glóin were busy sharpening their weapons and everyone else seemed to be waiting until their leader and their wizard decided what to do.
Everyone but Bilbo since the hobbit was still sleeping, the once-king forced to avert his gaze when his heart throbbed painfully. Because Bilbo was curled up in his cloak with a soft smile on his face and that was the expression Kíli wanted to see on waking for the remainder of his life.
The dwarf had dreamed of lazy mornings filled with sunshine and kisses but those dreams could only cause him sorrow now. For everyone knew that love could not be changed once it was given and the hobbit truly loved his uncle, there was no doubt of that. The archer had seen this truth in Bilbo's eyes during the last few days of their journey; he had seen their burglar's heart and it was fixed on Thorin, whether his uncle deserved the gift or not.
And perhaps someday I shall manage to forget him, Kíli thought, although the dwarf did not hold out much hope for that. If one lifetime had not served to dull his heartache then another would probably only make his yearning sharper and the once-king was grateful for the distraction when Thorin called his dwarves to gather round.
The need to reintroduce their company to Beorn gave Kíli something other than the state of his star-crossed romance to focus on – chiefly the fear that his uncle would offend the skin-changer on accident. This incarnation of Thorin did not appear to be a particularly tactful person and he was bound to start an argument if Beorn objected to the sudden influx of dwarves into his home. An argument that could end very badly since the skin-changer was currently chopping firewood in his garden, the axe in his hands large enough to split Dwalin right in two.
Thankfully, the company’s wizard recognized the need for caution, asking the dwarves to come out in twos and threes so as not to overwhelm their host. This tactic proved successful for while Beorn’s eyes widened with each new arrival, he seemed more nonplussed than annoyed. Indeed, when thirteen dwarves finally stood before him, the skin-changer greeted them with only a hint of gruffness and Kíli could find no fault in his hospitality.
For Beorn lay aside his axe and ill-temper to offer Thorin’s company a feast, his table laden with delicacies such as his visitors had not seen in weeks. Not only honey cakes and salted cheese, but fresh milk and bread and late-season fruits plucked from the trees outside.
The company sat down eagerly with such a fine spread before them, their friendly bickering finally waking Bilbo – or perhaps that was just a hobbit’s sense of when good food was near. Either way Bilbo was quick to sit when Balin made space at the table, reaching for a handful of honey cakes with a happy sigh.
In truth, Thorin was the only one who did not seem impressed by Beorn’s breakfast, the dwarf lord leaning against a wooden pillar behind Fíli while his companions chattered on. The once-king’s uncle had apparently decided that he could survive on brooding and sheer majesticness for Kíli did not see him eat more than a handful of fruit – his time spent smoking and glowering at their host instead. Honestly, the archer was beginning to wonder how his uncle had survived this long without dying in some dramatic showdown and he was quickly losing what little patience he had left for Thorin’s stubbornness.
I can’t believe I lost Bilbo to someone who doesn’t even have the sense to eat breakfast when it’s offered, let alone the sense to wait for backup before charging giant wargs, the once-king thought to himself, his already foul mood growing worse.
Winning their burglar’s love might not be an option for Kíli any longer, but resigning himself to loneliness would be easier if Thorin stopped acting like such an idiot. However, before the archer could decide whether to call out his uncle – or at least offer him a bread roll – Beorn spoke up first.
“So you are the one they call Thorin Oakenshield. Tell me, why is Azog the Defiler hunting you?” the skin-changer asked, pinning the dwarf lord with an amber stare. Although Beorn spoke slowly, his words were deliberate and the once-king knew that underestimating his intelligence would be a grave mistake.
“You know of Azog? How?”
“My people were the first to live in these mountains before the orcs came down from the north. The Defiler killed most of my family,” the skin-changer explained, his voice echoing with an endless sorrow that spoke to Kíli's heart. The archer knew such pain as well as Beorn did and when he saw the remains of shackles around the other’s wrists, his meal turned to ashes in his mouth.
“Some he enslaved,” Beorn continued, seemingly unaffected by the horror in his guests' eyes. “Not for work, you understand, but for sport. Caging skin-changers and torturing them seemed to amuse him.”
“There were others like you?” Bilbo asked and if the once-king had ever thought their burglar tactful, he did not think it now. Indeed, Kíli was sorely tempted to slap a hand across the hobbit’s mouth and beg forgiveness for the question, but Bilbo was too far away to reach.
“Once there were many.”
“Now there is only one,” Beorn answered, a wealth of grief behind the words. Even Bilbo finally noticed that he was poking at a wound still bleeding, the hobbit falling into a mortified silence at his own discourtesy. However, the skin-changer chose not to claim the offense that was his due, turning away from the company's burglar instead.
“You need to reach the mountain before the last days of autumn?” he asked Gandalf, his expression firmly moving the subject away from his past grief.
Yet Kíli could not forget that sorrow even as Beorn and the wizard began to discuss the best path through Mirkwood, not when he knew the other’s pain was his fault. Azog would not have been alive to torture Beorn’s family if the Valar had not sent the once-king back through time to save their future and such magic would not have been necessary if he had not failed Durin’s Folk.
There was so much that his return had broken, this world far darker than the one that bore him, and the dwarf did not know how he was supposed to turn such darkness into light. Yet this was the task he had been given and the once-king knew that he was fighting for more than his own people now. Kíli was fighting for Beorn and anyone else whose life had been twisted by the Valar’s magic because he could not let their happiness be sacrificed in vain.
Whatever it takes, the archer reaffirmed. I will see our future safe.
With this promise in mind, Kíli turned back to Beorn, the once-king needing to learn as much as he could about the new dangers that lay before them now. And it was good he did for the skin-changer spoke a name that the archer did not recognize, warning Gandalf of an alliance between the orcs of Moria and a Necromancer in Dol Guldur. The dwarf had not known of this Necromancer in the past that was his present and if their enemies had gained further allies, it would be ill news indeed.
Although, if he were being honest, the once-king had never learned the names of any foe beyond Bolg and Smaug the Terrible so perhaps the evil that Beorn spoke of was nothing new to Middle Earth. Beorn's description of Mirkwood was certainly much like Kíli remembered, that forest dark and foul and teeming with creatures from a dwarrowling's nightmares.
In truth, the dwarves' host did not seem to think much of their chances, Gandalf's plan to follow the Elven Road receiving nothing but a scoffed: “Safe? The wood elves of Mirkwood are not like their kin. They’re less wise and more dangerous. But it matters not.”
“What do you mean?” Thorin asked, his frown deepening.
“These lands are crawling with orcs. Their numbers are growing and you are on foot. You will never reach the forest alive,” Beorn told the dwarf lord, pronouncing the company's death sentence in the same deliberate tone that he had spoken everything. He might as well have been describing the weather and Kíli honestly could not say whether the skin-changer would choose to help them now. The once-king could only hope that some piece of the old Beorn still lived within the bitter soul who stood before them, that some shred of kindness would stop their host from watching as they marched unaided to their doom.
“I don’t like dwarves. They’re greedy and blind. Blind to the lives of those they deem lesser than their own,” the skin-changer continued, staring down at his guests in distaste. “But orcs I hate more. What do you need?”
At this the dwarves burst into action, the remains of their breakfast quickly cleaned off the table so that Beorn could lay out his supplies. He offered them food and waterskins to replace those they'd lost to the goblins as well as mounts to outpace Azog's beasts. Ponies for the dwarves and Bilbo, a horse for Gandalf, and the tack to see them properly astride.
With everyone working together, Thorin's company was ready to leave within the hour, their weapons sharp and their packs full once more. So they mounted their ponies and turned them eastward, Beorn standing by his door to see them off. “Go now while you have the light. Your hunters are not far behind.”
The skin-changer had promised to shadow the company's path until they reached Mirkwood – probably as much to ensure proper treatment of his ponies as from any true concern for their safety – and Beorn's presence should help to keep their enemies at bay.
Indeed, Kíli saw no sign of Azog or his wargs during that first day of travel, the miles eaten up rapidly beneath their ponies' hooves. The skin-changer's animals were tireless, able to trot for hours at the same steady pace, and their gait was smooth enough that the group ate astride rather than stopping for their meals.
At this rate, Thorin’s company should reach Mirkwood the following afternoon and if the once-king was quieter than usual during this part of their journey, he was hardly the only one who had been shaken by Azog's sudden reappearance in the world. Even Fíli had stopped questioning the younger dwarf's silences, their conversation within Beorn's hall the night before justifying Kíli's distraction in his older brother's mind.
A small mercy given the task that lay before him but at least the archer no longer needed to slap a stupid smile on his face whenever one of the others looked his way. Instead Kíli sat on his pony pensively, turning Kaminzabdûna's gift over in his hands as he thought on the road ahead.
Because the once-king did not doubt his brother's reckoning of the seasons and with the start of 'Aftharn several morns behind them, the company did not have a month to waste in Mirkwood anymore. They did not even have weeks and yet Kíli could see no sure way to keep their path from Thranduil's hall. Perhaps Gandalf's presence would allow them to pass through the forest unmolested since the wizard showed no signs of leaving, but the once-king did not want to trust their safety to the wizard's silver tongue and while remaining in Thranduil's keeping might be safer, the Valar's words had implied that Erebor must be reclaimed now or not at all.
Thus, the dwarves would either have to avoid being captured or escape the elf king's dungeons far more quickly and Kíli had no guarantee of that. He would do his best but Mirkwood had been treacherous in his last lifetime and there was no telling what new dangers might exist within its dank reaches now.
Although, when the company crested one last rise and the forest became visible on the horizon, it looked much like the once-king remembered: a seemingly endless expanse of twisted trees and branches that made him shift uncomfortably. Kíli had never quite recovered from the trek through that foul expanse, his nerves singing with alarm whenever he had been forced to treat with Thranduil in the elf king's halls.
Yet the archer was not the only one who was unsettled by the sight of Mirkwood, the other dwarves grumbling amongst themselves even as Bilbo looked up at those gnarled trunks with apprehension in his eyes.
“This forest feels sick. As if a disease lies upon it. Is there no way around?” the hobbit asked, his people's affinity for green and growing things allowing him to sense what most other folk could not. Yet there truly was no other path if Thorin's company was to reach the Lonely Mountain before Durin's Day arrived.
Indeed, Gandalf told Bilbo exactly that, patting the hobbit on the shoulder and then walking beneath the archway of branches that marked the Elven Road. While their wizard scouted the way forward, the dwarves began unloading their supplies from Beorn's ponies, each turning west toward home as its burden was removed. The skin-changer would not allow any harm to find them and Mirkwood was no place for horses of any kind.
However, the company had barely finished with their ponies when Gandalf ran out of the forest as though Durin’s Bane itself were on his heels.
“Not my horse; I need it!” the wizard shouted, his expression more unsettled than Kíli had ever seen before, and the once-king knew then that his companion’s path had not been altered as greatly as he’d hoped. This new timeline might have delayed Gandalf's departure but it seemed that some things truly were set in stone and fate had caught up to Thorin's Company.
No matter how the dwarves protested this sudden abandonment – and by Mahal’s beard they did not take it lightly – the wizard refused to change his mind. Even their hobbit could not make Gandalf rethink his course of action despite the wizard's fondness for him and Bilbo looked almost gutted when Gandalf walked away.
His expression sparked a twinge of jealousy inside the once-king’s heart since the hobbit had never looked at him with that much feeling and he was getting rather tired of being second best in Bilbo's eyes. Gandalf should not be higher in their burglar's esteem than Kíli, he just shouldn't, and so perhaps it was for the best that the wizard was leaving now.
Indeed, the hobbit had only come into his own once Gandalf was no longer there to perform last minute rescues and he would need that newfound confidence to face the trials that lay ahead. If the wizard’s departure also meant that Kíli might become a shoulder to Bilbo in his stead, there was nothing wrong with offering support to a friend. The once-king could live with friendship; he had to, after all.
So Kíli kept his silence when he might have tried to persuade Gandalf not to leave them with a few hints of the future whispered in his ear. The dwarf would not reveal his secret; not to the wizard who had abandoned Thorin’s company in every lifetime and left nothing but false promises behind.
Because he would not be waiting for his companions on the slopes of Erebor; he had not met them in the last timeline and Kíli had no reason to believe that this would change. The wizard’s path led north and while the once-king did not know what Gandalf would find there, he was sure that their journeys would not meet again until an army stood at the Lonely Mountain's door.
The wizard would be late – too late to save those he claimed to champion if Kíli failed his task – and yet there was wisdom in his words nonetheless. There was wisdom when he warned the dwarves to be careful in Mirkwood, to guard their minds against illusions and hold tight to the path.
The Elven Road would be their lifeline beneath that dark canopy and the company could not afford to lose it, not this time. For even if the dwarves had had months to spare in travel, there were far worse things than wood elves living in those trees and Kíli knew that they had been extremely lucky to reach Laketown once before. He had been lucky to escape this forest with no more than nightmares as his burden and a saner dwarf would have already turned to flee.
Only for his family and the Valar would Kíli step into that darkness one more time and his uncle would never know what it cost his sister-son to walk forward steadily. None of Thorin's company would ever know because the once-king would not tell them; his courage held fast by duty though he was quaking deep inside.
The dwarf followed his uncle into Mirkwood because he must and when the last ray of unbroken sunlight disappeared behind them, Kíli made one heartfelt prayer. Please, Mahal. Please guide us out again.
Chapter III: Preface - Part 2