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Comes Wisdom in Defeat - Chapter IV: Part I

Title: Comes Wisdom in Defeat
Chapter IV: Preamble - Part 1
Pairings: Unrequited Kíli/Bilbo & Bilbo/Thorin, somewhat requited Kíli/Tauriel
Warnings: angst, canon violence, injuries, pining
Word Count: 7032 (57,664 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, Part 3A, Part 3B

When the once-king regained consciousness, he had been moved to the bowman's bed, his brother dozing fitfully at his side. Indeed, the archer had to wonder if he'd imagined Tauriel after all because the only hand that held his now belonged to Fíli, the other dwarf snapping to attention when his brother stirred.

“Kíli! You're awake,” Fíli exclaimed, reaching out to brush the hair away from the once-king's face. “How do you feel?”

“Like I just went three rounds with a cave troll,” Kíli croaked in reply, the relief in Fíli's eyes almost painful in its intensity. But when the archer tried to sit up in order to reassure his brother, he quickly decided that lying down was a much better plan. Even if the sickness was gone from his body, every muscle ached as though he'd been fighting orcs for hours and it would take some time for the dwarf to recover his full strength. Time that Kíli wasn't sure he had.

He and his brother might have been stuck in Laketown, but as long as the rest of their company had managed to find Erebor’s hidden door before the last light faded then Smaug was sure to attack this city soon. Because nine dwarves and a hobbit could not hope to stop the wyrm when he chose to claim vengeance against Laketown for their trespass and Kíli did not think that Bilbo would be able to find the Arkenstone without disturbing the dragon's rest.

That jewel had too much weight in history; too much blood and too many tears had been spilled for it to be claimed so easily. No, the dragon would wake and while Bilbo might delay him with wit and riddles, such distractions could not hope to keep Smaug interested for long.

Smaug would want blood and Laketown must be ready to answer; Bard must be ready to face down the wyrm for once and all.

But Kíli did not see the bowman when he looked around the room and it's not as though this house held much space to hide. Instead the dwarf saw only his companions – Óin and Bofur rushing over when Fíli helped him to sit up - and Bard's children, looking much too young for the trial they were about to face.

If it had been strange to see Legolas again, it was positively baffling to look at Bain now that Kíli's mind was clear, his former ally suddenly a boy instead of the king that he had been. In the dwarf's first lifetime, he had never met Bard's son as a child, only after the Battle of the Five Armies had turned that boy into a man. Yet the once-king recognized something of his old friend in this Bain's eyes. For the young man's gaze held courage if not experience, courage and a fierce determination to keep his sisters safe.

However, no amount of bravery would let Bain kill the dragon – heroic charges tended to be final ones when fire drakes were involved – and Laketown's current Master would not be able keep his people safe. From what Kíli had seen of him, he would not even try.

Thus if the Lakemen were to survive, they would need an archer and an arrow, and while Kíli was the former, he had yet to see the latter in this life. Hear of it, yes, but the dwarf did not know where Bard could be keeping such a weapon and even if the once-king had carried a Black Arrow in his quiver, he could not trust himself to strike Smaug true right now.

Not when his arms were still shaky and his vision blurry around the edges, the echoes of his nightmares running through his head. Kíli had been close to death before Kaminzabdûna saved him, his mind warping the very world he saw, and without the Vala's interference, he would have crossed that line.

The Vala's help and Tauriel's, the elfine just now ducking back through the bowman's door. Indeed, it seemed that the captain had not been another hallucination, for while she still looked out of place amidst the grime and grunge of Laketown, a burst of spring in green and fire, Kíli was recovered enough not to doubt his eyes again.

He did not know how the elfine had come to be here or what had allowed her to channel Kaminzabdûna's power, but the once-king was glad to see her all the same. If nothing else, the captain was a skilled archer and if Bard did not return in time to face the dragon, perhaps Tauriel could kill the beast instead. Surely an elvish arrow would be able to pierce Smaug's hide where those of men would fail them and those of dwarves were out of reach right now.

“There is no sign of your father, children. I do not know where he has gone,” the elf told Bain softly, grabbing the young man's arm when he started toward the door. “It is not safe for younglings now. I am sure that your father will return when he is able and until then you must see to your sisters in his stead.”

Although he did not look happy about Tauriel's words, the boy could not deny the truth she spoke. So Bain nodded shortly, squaring his shoulders and walking over to Sigrid and Tilda to offer the little comfort that he could. The girls were huddled on the dwelling's other bed since there wasn't anywhere else to sit right now. For while Kíli's companions had clearly tried to put the bowman's house back in some semblance of order while the archer was unconscious, Bard's benches had been reduced to kindling when the orcs attacked. That, at least, had not been part of Kíli's fevered visions given the holes in the roof and the sword marks on the walls and the once-king was thankful that no one appeared to have been injured in that fight.

He meant to ask Tauriel about Smaug then and whether her sharp eyes had seen the fire drake flying toward them as the archer feared. But before Kíli could speak, the elfine met his eyes and the spark in her gaze drove the dragon from his mind.

For she would surely have told them if they needed to flee this instant and Kíli had to deal with Tauriel right now. Indeed, the matter appeared to be quite urgent judging by her expression, though the once-king had never before known an elf whose every emotion could be read so clearly in her eyes.

“Give us a minute,” he muttered, nudging his brother with his elbow until Fíli got the hint. He grabbed Óin and Bofur by the arm, leading them away to discuss their current options even as Tauriel stepped forward to take their place at Kíli's side.

“Master dwarf, you are looking much better now,” the elfine said, settling lightly on the edge of the bed. “I am glad to see you well.”

“I believe I owe you my life, my lady; I am in your debt,” Kíli replied, bowing his head in thanks as best he could. Although his gratitude was sincere, the words were also meant to buy him time to think. For his attempt to win Tauriel over in Mirkwood had clearly been more successful than he'd realized and now the once-king had to face the consequences of offering his heart. Kíli needed to tell the elfine that he could not be her future before the light in her eyes grew any stronger and his own hopeless longing was spread to someone else as well.

However, before Kíli could decide how to approach that conversation, Tauriel spoke again, “I have been thinking about the words that you said earlier, when you spoke of love and starlight and the unlikeliest of dreams.”

She smiled then, soft and pale and achingly sweet in her innocence and she must be truly young amongst her people to show her heart like this. The once-king was used to elves being cold and silent, their expressions as much armor as that they wore upon their skin, and yet Tauriel’s openness only made this whole thing worse.

Oh, shit. Blast and thunder, but I never meant for this. I only meant to play on her attraction, maybe earn some sympathy. What could I have said to make her look at me like this? the dwarf thought with a flash of panic as he wracked his memory. The last few hours were little more than a blur of pain and delirium, but Kíli thought that he might have been rambling about love and loss before Kaminzabdûna came to him.

“I'm afraid I do not remember much before you healed me,” the once-king said, hoping he still had a chance to salvage this. Surely she could not love him already, not when the two of them had only had one true conversation, and yet, Kíli knew exactly how fickle hearts could be.

“Shall I tell you then, young Kíli? You were quite poetic near the end.” Tauriel's tone was amused, but her gaze was far too fond for only friendship, even if the elfine didn't seem to notice what her eyes were telling him. Kíli knew – he knew pining as well as anyone – and that knowledge was enough to make him wonder if he should bite his tongue instead of speaking as he'd meant to do.

What point is there in telling her? Love cannot be swayed once it is given and I would only hurt her with the truth. What good is there in revealing that my heart longs for another when Bilbo is lost to me, the hobbit that I love walking Middle Earth no more?

It's not as though telling the elfine would make Bilbo remember feelings from another lifetime, feelings that Kíli would then be forced to deny. Because Kaminzabdûna had confirmed the dearest wish of the once-king's heart even as she broke it – his hobbit had loved him and that love had been wrong.

Somehow that love had caused the future which still haunted Kíli, the death and blood and grief that had overwhelmed their world, and the dwarf would pay the price demanded not to see those days again. He would protect Bilbo; he would ensure that the hobbit was safe and expect nothing in return.

Indeed, Kíli had already realized that he must let their burglar go; he had realized this in a pain-filled haze on Esgaroth and so Mahal's Lady had only confirmed what he had known. And yet, Kaminzabdûna had also hinted that his tale need not end in heartbreak so perhaps Tauriel was his chance for happiness. After all, if the Valar had reshaped the world, raising those who had been dead and naming those forgotten, why should the dwarf not be remade as well? No dwarrow had ever loved more than once in a lifetime, but Kíli had died many weeks ago.

Thus the once-king decided to consign his past love to the silence, to bury those feelings with the secrets that he knew he'd never speak. This was Kíli's second chance at everything and he was determined not waste it by making the same mistakes again.

If the dwarf had love then he would speak it, if he had dreams then he would chase them, and once Thorin was crowned king of Erebor, he wanted to walk down roads untraveled instead of those he knew. The once-king wanted to visit the parts of Middle Earth that held no memories of pain and heartbreak; he wanted to see the rolling plains of Rohan, the grand halls of Dáin's people and the white stones of Gondor that had been shaped by dwarven hands. Kíli wanted to walk under the ancient trees of Lothlórien with someone who could understand their language and he wanted to teach someone about the music that the mountains sang.

So the dwarf did not turn Tauriel away as he had originally intended, instead reaching out to take the elfine's hand once more. “Whatever I said, I am sure that I meant it. You inspire verse in me.”

Indeed, this was true enough and if Kíli's heart could not yet match his words, the archer would convince the contrary organ to do his bidding soon enough. Because Tauriel was beautiful: strong and lithe and so very deadly and if the dwarf could not find it in himself to love her at least a little, then he might as well be stone instead of flesh.

Though it seemed that it was the elfine's turn to be uncertain, for while she did not refuse the archer's gesture, she quickly turned their conversation toward more practical concerns than love and poetry. Tauriel told the once-king of everything that he had missed while he was injured: Bard's unexplained absence, the ambush by an orc pack, and the ever increasing rumbling from the slopes of Erebor.

“It worries me,” Tauriel admitted, speaking softly so that the bowman's children could not hear. “I fear your friends may have wakened Smaug the Terrible and while I do not doubt their bravery, it will take more than bravery to kill that beast.”

“Then we must be ready,” Kíli answered. “We are not without courage of our own and surely one of your arrows must be able to pierce the dragon's hide?”

But the captain squashed this hope with a small shake of her head, “The skills of my kin lie in wood and cloth, not metal, and while my arrows are sharp enough for spiders or orcs, they cannot bring down a fire drake. Perhaps the great elven smiths of the First Age could have forged the sort of weapon that we require, but their treasures are long scattered and I have never earned the right to carry those few in Thranduil's hall. No, Master Kíli, if Smaug comes then we must flee with all the rest.”

The dwarf was not heartened by this answer, for if Tauriel would not try and he was not able then their future must rely on Bard again. Bard who still had not returned and Kíli could not believe that the bowman would abandon his children if he had any other choice.

However, if the once-king could not change Laketown's future then he would have to have faith instead; faith that Bard would rise to the challenge as he had in the past. This must be the bowman's trial, the task that would prove Girion's heir had a right to kingship in his people's eyes. Dale would need a strong king to survive.

So the dwarf did not try to convince Tauriel any further. Instead, he nodded his head in reluctant agreement before imploring, “Just Kíli, please, my lady. I may be a prince of Erebor but I am not the master of anything.”

He did not like being named as master, sir or any such title, not when all he could remember was how deeply he had failed his people after Sauron's hammer fell. He might have been a king, but a true king should have found a way to save them and so Kíli could not believe that he was worthy of the name. Even now, saving his people would not erase the weight of his past failures, not as long as those memories still lived behind his eyes.

But he could not have explained any of this to Tauriel without sounding crazy so he was thankful when she did not question him. She simply smiled again, that same amused half-smile with which she had met all of his flirting, and replied, “If you wish it, Kíli. But you must then call me Tauriel; for if you are no master then I am no lady as elves would title me.”

“You are a lady to me, Tauriel, and I thank you for the honor you bestow,” the once-king replied with a smile of his own. However, before he could say anything further, their conversation was interrupted by the ringing clamor of Laketown's warning bells.

In an instant, the elfine was gone from his side, stepping back out onto the streets of the city to discover what the commotion was about. Though there was only one thing in these lands which could roar like that and indeed, Tauriel’s face was grim when she returned.

“We have no time; we must leave,” the captain said, the fear in her eyes spurring the dwarves into a flurry of motion as they rushed to pack.

“Get him up,” Bofur said, moving to help Kíli to his feet while Óin gathered what remained of their supplies. They would leave behind the Master's borrowed armor and take only the best of their weapons for man-crafted steel would not protect them from the flames. It would only weigh them down and they must travel with speed if they were to escape.

“Come on brother,” Fíli urged, grabbing hold of the archer's arm as though he were still a dwarrowling. Sweet yes, but also damn annoying, for while standing made his leg twinge with the echo of agony, the once-king did not need to be fussed over with such intensity. He could take care of himself and his brother needed to look to his own safety when Smaug attacked. Kíli would not see him injured due to carelessness.

However, a growled, “I'm fine; I can walk,” made Fíli back off slightly, the other dwarf falling in at the archer's shoulder instead of trying to lead him by the hand. That was better – that was more like equals – and the once-king could face anything with his brother at his side.

“We're not leaving, not without our father,” Bain protested when Tauriel urged his sisters to be faster in their packing, the boy's loyalty to his sire to be commended under any other circumstance.

But they could not linger when to stay risked dragon fire and Tauriel put a stop to Bain's hesitation with a pointed, “If you stay here, your sisters will die. Is that what your father would want?”

The young man could hardly answer the captain's question with assent so their small group was soon making its way to the dock beneath Bard's house, carefully climbing into the family's boat and casting off. Tauriel took the pole since the elfine was far more comfortable on the water than any of the dwarrows and Bain was not strong enough to push such an overloaded boat. Though it was the boy's knowledge of these waters that would guide their group to safety amidst the chaos of the night.

He directed Tauriel toward the larger channels that were less likely to be blocked by wood and fire, the city igniting like dry tinder as Smaug attacked. Kíli could see the flames rising higher with the dragon's every roar; men, women, and children running to and fro in terror.

While the dwarf could hardly blame the Lakemen for their panic, only those who managed to keep their heads would have a chance of surviving now. They needed a strong leader to quell their panic but the Master of Laketown had always cared more about his own life than any other and it would not surprise Kíli if that man had abandoned his post at the first clang of the bell.

Indeed, the dwarf was soon proved correct when their boat collided with the Master's on one of Laketown's main canals. The man was cursing indiscriminately, ordering his guards to row faster even as what looked like half Laketown's treasury spilled from his grand barge.

The sight made Kíli's blood boil, the archer baring his teeth in a growl as the Master wept more for his gold than the city at his back. The dwarf wanted to punish this man for his cowardice, for leaving his people to be slaughtered by the dragon without the slightest hint of regret. However, before the once-king could act on such violent impulse, the Master's guards managed to push their boats apart. So Kíli could only watch as Laketown's erstwhile leader disappeared into the smoke upon the water, hoping that the man would receive justice for his crimes.

Although, in truth, the dwarves were no better than the Master in this moment, their boat never stopping to offer aid or help. Not that their group could have done much with the boat already over laden, but Kíli found it difficult to turn away from the need before his eyes.

Smaug’s attack might have been a distant tragedy in his former lifetime, but the once-king lived it now and every scream was a dagger to his heart. Every plea, every shout made his eyes sting with sorrow and yet the screams were nothing compared to the scent of roasting flesh when the dragon breathed destruction on this town. It coated Kíli's lungs, smoke and soot threatening to choke him as fiercely as his own impotent rage.

Because nothing burned like dragon fire; there was nothing either so hot nor so vicious and Laketown had been doomed as soon as the first house went up. This was simple fact and no amount of wishing would make it otherwise. Indeed, Bard might be destined to slay the dragon, but his city was lost to fire and those few who lived to see the dawn would surely be knocking at Thorin's door soon enough.

Assuming, of course, that the dwarf lord and his companions had not been killed by Smaug already and would be waiting in the mountain when the other dwarves arrived. However, while Kíli wasn't sure what they would find when they reached Erebor – if they reached it – he could not believe that everyone had died.

Kaminzabdûna had promised that his kin might still be saved and the Vala would not have said that if they'd breathed no more. So the rest of Thorin's company must be alive and well within the Lonely Mountain and once they were reunited, Kíli should have several days to turn their future toward the light.

But first he must survive Smaug's vengeance – first the drake must die – and the once-king was beginning to wonder if his faith in Bard had been misplaced when he saw the man at last. The bowman was standing upon the city's high watch tower with his longbow in his hand and Kíli was sure that Girion's descendant would soon fulfill his destiny. Though Bard looked tiny compared to the fire drake and if the archer had ever doubted his ally’s courage, he did not doubt it now.

Nor could he doubt Bard's skill with his chosen weapon as the bowman's arrow flew straight and true toward its target and yet Smaug refused to fall. Where is his Black Arrow? the once-king wondered, watching Bard's missile bounce and shatter against the dragon's hide. In truth, Smaug hardly seemed to notice the man's attempt to slay him as he flew over Laketown, the wyrm spreading death and fire in his wake.

So while Kíli had believed that Bard's victory was destined, perhaps the Valar could only give the man his chance. Perhaps Smaug would not be slain in Laketown and the once-king would have to find another way to bring the dragon down. Some alternative that he hadn't thought of before now.

However, the archer had barely begun to consider this new problem before the ringing of Laketown's bell suddenly cut off and his eyes were drawn to Bard again. Indeed, Kíli was not the only one who had noticed the sudden lack of clamor and looked upward, the bowman's children finally realizing just where their father was.

Bain and his sisters shouted for the bowman, though their screams were not loud enough for Bard to hear. Kíli heard them and the pain in their voices was a sharp reminder that Bard's failure would mean more than trouble for the once-king – it would mean grief and sorrow and the loss of family – and if the bowman's children must watch as they were orphaned, they deserved some acknowledgment of their father's courage to help them carry on.

So when Bard's next arrow struck Smaug's chest, the archer shouted, “He hit it! He hit the dragon!” loud enough for everyone to hear. Tilda even smiled slightly, the bowman's youngest comforted more easily than her siblings since the child still believed that heroes always won.

But even as Kíli spoke, Tauriel shook her head in denial of the hope that he had raised. “No-”

“He did! He hit his mark, I saw!” the once-king interrupted, trying to signal her to silence before she made Bard's children give into despair.

However, the captain ignored his pleas or did not understand them, elves apparently unwilling to speak a soothing lie. Instead Tauriel replied with the truth that Kíli had been trying not to notice, the once-king slumping back down in the boat as she announced, “His arrows cannot pierce its hide; I fear that nothing will.”

Yet perhaps the captain's words were not meant for Kíli because Bain suddenly sat up as though he'd been bitten and leaped out of the boat before anyone could react. The dwarves shouted to him and if the archer had been in better health then he would have tried to follow, but as it was, the boy disappeared into the smoke too quickly and Tauriel would not turn back.

They could not turn back; she was right in this as well, but it still ached to think that Bain might never take the crown. Kíli had liked Bain, the man had wisdom where his father had sometimes leaned toward pigheaded stubbornness, and the once-king did not wish to see the reign of Girion's line die out.

So the dwarf watched Bard's struggle and prayed for a miracle until the burning city blocked the bowman from his sight. The man would need a miracle without the Black Arrow in his quiver, but even if he did not find it, Kíli must still do his best to survive. He concentrated on keeping the boat steady through increasingly rough waters, ducking flaming debris and helping Fíli push driftwood from their path.

The once-king's hands were not the only thing kept busy, his mind cataloging all his options should the bowman fail. For their boat would soon reach more open water and Kíli was torn between racing to Erebor to warn his uncle and trying to reach Thranduil since he doubted that Smaug would give him time enough for both.

If Bard does not have a Black Arrow then there might be something in the vaults of Erebor that would serve as a replacement and Tauriel should be able to make the shot even if I cannot trust myself. But if the vaults are empty, fifty elven archers would be far more useful and surely Thranduil might be convinced to help now that Smaug is literally at his kingdom's door?

It was a difficult decision, the once-king weighing two uncertain fates. But thankfully Kíli had not yet been forced to choose between them when Bard found the miracle that he had been praying for.

A deafening shriek sounded in the night, the once-king looking back toward the watch tower just as Smaug leaped into the air. At first Kíli feared that Bard had been defeated, but it was not the bowman who had been wounded mortally. For the wyrm's ascent was awkward compared to the sleek grace that he had shown in his attack, Smaug's fire dimming even as he climbed.

Soon the harsh pull of gravity was too much for the drake's failing strength and he plummeted back to earth with a thunderous crash. The impact of Smaug's body destroyed what little of Laketown his rampage had left standing and the resulting wave pushed the dwarves' boat most of the way to shore.

By now the first touch of dawn was visible on the horizon, the sun sweeping over Esgaroth as though to wash the water clean. But there was no cleaning this, no way to erase what had happened; one could only try to move forward through the pain.

So the men and women of Laketown slowly struggled to the bank, the survivors dragging supplies and bodies from the water even as they mourned the ones they'd lost. The dwarves helped as best they could while Tauriel looked after Sigrid and Tilda but Kíli knew they could not stay here long.

They could not stay when the Lakemen would need someone on whom to lay their sorrow and the remaining members of Thorin's company would the easiest to blame. The once-king remembered well how Bard and his allies had looked upon the dwarves with hate when they'd besieged the mountain, grief and greed intermingled in their eyes. The fishermen might not have skill or weapons, but they had numbers, and Kíli's small party was far too vulnerable.

Thus the archer did not protest when Fíli, Óin and Bofur began to push their boat back into the water, though his heart ached with guilt to leave. For Kíli had watched over the men of Dale as fiercely as he had watched over his own people by the time his story ended and it did not feel right to abandon them.

They must take care of each other for the moment, the once-king thought, reminding himself that his company and its burglar were the priority for now. For all his faults, Bard always treated his subjects fairly and he will not leave them out in the cold if he survived. No, they will be all right without me for the moment and speaking with my uncle is more important now. I must warn him of the army that is coming so that he looks more kindly on our allies and remind him of his promise so that the Lakemen might find safety within the walls of Erebor.

However, if Kíli must leave then he would not do it without a word to the elfine with whom he hoped to build a future once this whole mess was done. She was standing on the shore with Bard's daughters, the sorrow in her eyes growing deeper with every dead man found, and the dwarf was certain that her bleeding heart would be what won his over in the end.

“Tauriel,” Kíli called softly, the elf turning at the sound of her name.

When she saw the archer she walked to the shore to meet him, though her smile was far more reserved than it had been in the privacy of Bard's home. Perhaps she was having second thoughts now that reality had burst upon them and indeed the dwarf could almost feel her pulling away. But while it might be selfish of him, the once-king would not let her go that easily, not when he had seen the truth of her feelings in her eyes.

So Kíli ignored his brother's calls and kept his gaze on Tauriel until she ducked her head, “They are your people; you must go.”

She was going to let him leave without even trying, bowing to the hatred between their kindred and what their kings believed. However, the dwarf had lost everyone whom he loved once already; he had lived and died and lived again and he had no more patience for propriety.

“Come with me,” Kíli asked, stopping the elfine before she could walk away. “I know how I feel and I am not afraid. You make me feel alive.”

Every word was true even though such a declaration would have seemed like madness even a few short days ago. But while the once-king would never forget his Bilbo – could not forgot him – Tauriel had found her way inside his walls somehow. She made him think of the future instead of the past; she made him think that he could love her and Mahal knew that Kíli could use such hope right now.

Yet even though she was clearly distressed at their parting, the elfine shook her head and murmured, “I cannot.”

She was not willing to take that leap, not yet ready to follow where her heart's madness led. Maybe she sensed the tear in Kíli's spirit but he could not believe that his love was less sincere for being split across two lives. Besides, the archer had always been reckless and while ruling Erebor had taught him to consider the consequences of his actions, he would never be that sort of dwarf at heart.

“Tauriel, amrâlimê,” Kíli said as he stepped closer, wanting her to know where he stood in case this all went wrong. She deserved better than to wonder as he had done about his Bilbo, even if she chose to follow her duty in the end.

Tauriel's brows rose when he spoke, joy and disbelief warring in those lovely emerald eyes. Indeed, her whispered, “I don't know what that means,” was belied by the way she leaned toward the archer as though she could not help herself.

“I think you do,” the dwarf murmured in answer, reaching out to take the elfine's hand. She was so close, so close that he would barely have to tilt his head to kiss her and there was nothing that he wanted more right now.

But before he could press their lips together, Tauriel stiffened suddenly. She pulled away from him, a mask of formality dropping down across her features, and the once-king hadn't known that losing her smile would bother him so much. However, the reason behind the change became clear when Tauriel spoke a greeting and the dwarf spied Mirkwood's prince watching them from further up the bank.

You always did have awful timing, Legolas, Kíli thought with a sigh, knowing that his chance was gone. The captain would never do anything improper in front of her prince and the dwarf could not blame her when the weight of duty lay so heavy on his back.

So the once-king turned to go before Tauriel could leave him, that apologetic smile sending him on his way as quickly as any true farewell.

Yet the dwarf had only taken a few steps before he stopped again. He could not let this be their last memory of each other in case the coming battle went even worse this time. Instead Kíli turned back, walking up to the elfine and taking her by the hand.

“Keep it. As a promise,” the archer murmured, placing Kaminzabdûna's Runestone in the captain's palm. 'Return to me,' it said; 'Return to me,' it ordered, and he would do his best to fulfill that blessed command. For surely he could complete his Lady's task without destroying his own chance at happiness, and even if that hope proved futile, the once-king had to try.

Token given, Kíli finally surrendered to his brother's shouting, climbing on board the boat and taking the paddle that Fíli handed him. Though the dwarf could not leave without one glance back at Tauriel, fixing the sight of the elfine in his mind to keep him strong.

He would need strength and conviction to persuade his uncle and his own was wearing thin. Indeed, Kíli could not help a shudder when their company finally reached the mountain and he looked upon the gates of Erebor for the first time since he had died. Seeing the destruction that Smaug had caused with his exit was like seeing a friend who had fallen on hard times, the halls that he had spent so long rebuilding now cracked and broken once again. The work of a lifetime and it suddenly meant nothing, the once-king's only legacy erased. But Erebor could be restored as long as Durin's Folk survived and the mountain would be happier with her rightful ruler crowned.

So Kíli banished his ghosts to memory and followed the other dwarves as they ran into the mountain, Bofur calling out for his kindred desperately. The miner's voice echoed strangely, the halls giving only silence and the sound of footsteps in the dust.

However, when the dwarves started down the stairs toward the lower levels, they finally heard someone shouting back. It was Bilbo, the hobbit's voice like music to the once-king's ears. Kíli was pleased to know that their burglar had escaped the dragon without damage – he would have been pleased even if Kaminzabdûna had not made the hobbit's safety his first priority.

But as Bilbo drew closer, the archer realized that his voice held no joy at their reunion and he offered no welcome here. Indeed, there was only worry etched across the burglar's features when he met them in the corridor, a sick feeling growing in Kíli's chest as Bilbo panted, “You need to leave. We all need to leave.”

“We only just got here,” Bofur replied, his confusion mirrored in his companions' eyes. All but Kíli, who did not need to hear their burglar's explanation to know exactly what was wrong. It was Thorin, of course it was Thorin, and his uncle must be in a fine temper to make Bilbo look like that.

Indeed, the hobbit sounded both frustrated and uneasy when he started to explain, “I've tried talking to him, but he won't listen.”

“What do you mean, laddie?”

“Thorin! Thorin. Thorin,” Bilbo muttered frantically. “He's been down there for days; he doesn't sleep, he barely eats. He's not been himself, not at all. It's this- It's this place. I think a sickness lies on it.”

“Sickness? What kind of sickness?” the archer asked, looking over at their hobbit in concern. The only ailments that should be troubling Thorin now were the sins of pride and avarice, the dwarf lord’s stubbornness making him refuse to bargain even though outnumbered and outmatched.

But even as he asked the question, Kíli remembered a discussion he'd had with Balin earlier in their journey, one that had not made much sense at the time. The once-king had been curious about the changes in his people's history after hearing of Azanulbizar and his old Runemaster had been the best dwarf to ask.

Indeed, Balin had been happy to talk, telling the archer everything that he knew about Erebor’s glory days. The old dwarf had spoken much of Thrór, the beginning of his reign and the darker days before Smaug's attack, and he had mentioned a strange gold-madness that lay upon the dwarf king's mind. At the time Kíli had assumed this dragon-sickness was simply a poetic turn for his great-grandfather's fierce love of gold and treasure, but perhaps Balin had been describing something far more serious.

Perhaps Thorin was mad in truth, a sickness of the mind to blame for the suspicion and hatred that Kíli had observed in this new timeline. Although, in all honestly, some kind of dragon-madness might go a long way toward explaining Thorin's actions in the once-king's first life as well.

Such a sickness was plausible but worrying since madness did not often bend to reason and the archer's plan depended on his uncle's sanity.

However, before Kíli could confirm that Bilbo was truly describing some fell lunacy, his brother suddenly darted down the stairs. The prince ignored their burglar's warning and his brother's cries to wait, the others having no choice but to follow him instead. Fíli led them deeper and deeper into the mountain until he rounded a corner and stopped short, looking down from the stairs onto a sea of shining gold.

There seemed to be more of it than the once-king remembered and in the middle of this treasure stood his uncle, Thorin's eyes shining all the brighter for the shadows on his face. He did indeed look ill, the greed and possessiveness that Kíli remembered enhanced ten-fold in his expression, and the archer didn’t know if he would be able to make his uncle see reason now.

But dragon-sickness or not, Kíli still had to try to broker peace as he had planned. If Thorin agreed to give Bard and Thranduil a portion of his treasure then there would be no need for Bilbo to steal the Arkenstone and be banished from Erebor. He could remain safe within the mountain until the Battle of the Five Armies had ended and he was free to go back to Hobbiton as Kaminzabdûna asked. The deal with Laketown should be covered by his uncle's promise – Kíli might have been half-dead with fever, but he remembered Thorin's vow – and while Thranduil deserved nothing, it's not as though the Lonely Mountain did not have gold to spare.

Given what the once-king was seeing here, Erebor still held far more treasure than any hundred dwarves could spend. Kíli certainly hadn't managed to empty the vaults during the decades his reign and Durin knew he'd made mistakes along the way. There was gold enough here to paint the mountain if Thorin so desired and yet the archer had a sinking feeling that the size of Erebor's treasury did not matter now.

Because a dragon's hoard was never finished and if Thorin's need was ownership, then the only choice was more. Indeed, the dwarf lord's expression showed no satisfaction, only hunger, and when he spoke, his voice echoed in dark whispers off the walls.

“Gold. Gold beyond measure, beyond sorrow and grief,” Thorin said almost to himself before looking up at his companions and spreading his arms wide. “Behold the great treasure hoard of Thrór.”

Kíli's uncle smiled then, a fey possessive smile that made the once-king flinch back a step. But Thorin didn't seem to notice the unease of his kindred, the dwarf lord throwing a shining object into the air to land in Fíli's hands. It was a gemstone, a ruby as red as the blood that would be spilled for this treasure, and the archer couldn't deny that there was something fitting in his uncle's choice. Something fitting and disturbing, Kíli's skin crawling when Thorin spoke once more, “Welcome my sister-sons to the kingdom of Erebor.”

Chapter IV: Preamble - Part 2