Vaguely, Kili was aware of fighting. He did not shoot, but he defended himself with his sword. Beside him, Fili and Dori did more. Kili should have been able to fend off goblins easily, but his hands felt numb. His body was weightless. His mind blank. Ahead, the tunnel opened up and he saw the sun, red and sinking over the horizon. Behind, the goblins shrieked and shrank back from the light. Soon enough, all would be darkness. They would come again. Kili did not care.
“Where is Bilbo?” Thorin’s voice was rough. Lost in his wrathful fighting, he had not noticed. Kili wanted to wail and blame him. To say that Thorin should have known. But that was not fair. Kili knew that was not fair. And he had not the energy to do it, anyway.
“He fell,” Fili said.
“I failed,” Dori said.
“Dead.” Kili’s own voice was as empty as his heart. “My brother is dead.”
Thorin strode forward to stand directly in front of Kili. With a hard face and a bare, bloody sword, he did not seem to be looking for shared grief or commiseration. “And we know whose fault that is.”
Kili’s eyes went dry as the sun set over Thorin’s shoulder. He could not mean that Kili caused his brother’s death!
In fact, the prince did not mean that. Which was made plain by his next words. “You would have brought him home after Rivendell. He only came to the mountains for me. But for me, he would yet live. I did this. I struck him down, as surely as if I put a sword to his flesh. So you must take your revenge.”
“No,” Kili whispered.
“I order you!” Thorin bellowed, rage and grief twisting his face into a terrible mask of pain.
“No,” Kili said again. Lunging forward, he pulled Thorin into a tight embrace.
Gandalf came to stand beside them. The slopes of the mountain were beautiful, dotted with pine trees and painted in orange light. Tears sprang once more to Kili’s eyes. He did not release his hold on Thorin. Orcrist fell to the gravel beneath their boots with a gentle clatter. Thorin’s arms crushed Kili to his chest.
“He was the best of hobbits,” Gandalf said quietly. “I knew it the moment we met. Barely more than an infant, and he already lived for others. Surrounded by everything that might interest a hobbit, he wanted only his sick brother to be well. For many generations, I have walked this world. I knew his mother, his grandfather, and his great-grandmother before, but never have I known a more charming fellow. Nor one who could take joy in a celebration only after being given a useful occupation to bring joy to others. Bilbo Baggins, I shall miss you.”
Kili wept freely, knowing he should say something, and wholly unable to speak. Only once Thorin’s repeated murmurings of, “I did this, I cursed him,” registered, did he find the words.
“I was so happy in the Shire. That was all Bilbo’s doing. After our parents passed, he was as much father as brother to me. Anything I wanted, anything I needed, anything that bothered me, he dealt with, and I was happy. With my smithy and my hunting and my brother at home, I was so very happy.” Drawing back from Thorin so that he could meet his uncle’s eyes, Kili said, “But he wasn’t.”
Thorin drew in a sharp breath.
“Bilbo wanted adventure. Always. He wanted love: a great, sweeping romance like the ones in his stories. But he also wanted dragons. Make no mistake, Thorin Oakenshield: he would have come into the wild just as readily for the promise of a dragon as he did for the promise of a prince. Though I rather suspect he would have left me at home in that case.” Kili laughed, and tears spilled down his cheeks. “He was always so worried about keeping me safe. He’d have found his adventures years ago without me to hold him back.”
Both of Thorin’s hands went to Kili’s shoulders. “He would not have traded you for all the world.”
“Well do I know it!” Kili smiled through his tears. “But I also know I never saw him happy—really, truly happy—until the world, and you, came to him. I think that is a trade he would gladly have made: all the years of his life for one winter with you.”
Then, it was Thorin’s turn to weep. Covering his mouth with one hand, the prince turned slightly away from Kili. Perhaps he could not bear to look at Bilbo’s brother. Perhaps he only wanted to hide the tears making swift tracks down his cheeks to the beard that lined his jaw. Suddenly, he reared back, turning his face to the sky and clenching both of his hands into fists.
“Can I not have one moment to grieve?” Thorin bellowed. Kili did not know what he meant by that, until the wolves howled once again in the distance.
Not wolves. Wargs.
“Run,” Gandalf said. “We cannot be here when the sun sets, or we will face more than just wargs.”
And so the dwarves ran.
All know of the great stamina dwarves were gifted by their maker. A hardy folk, they can work or walk for many days on end without tiring. Unfortunately, the dwarves had already been doing that. From climbing a terrible mountain in a storm to running and fighting in the goblin tunnels for an entire day, the dwarves had not eaten or slept in far too long. Moreover, the orcs and wargs chasing them down the mountainside were fresh, if hungry.
The dwarves could not outrun riders on foot. Especially not when they reached the edge of a sheer cliff. There was nowhere to go.
“Climb,” Thorin ordered.
At first, Kili thought he meant down the rocks, slow and impossible as that would be. Instead, the dwarves all scrambled up into the pine trees. The even spacing of pine branches makes such trees very easy to climb, and Kili was an old hand at doing so. All of the dwarves were up in the trees within seconds. However, that did not mean they were hidden. Dwarves are not hobbits to vanish quickly from view. The orcs saw them easily, and Kili saw the orcs.
One orc in particular stood out from the rest. A leader of sorts. He sat astride a white warg, larger than the rest, with fur like a blizzard and teeth like swords instead of knives. The orc himself was pale as well, white like the belly of a dead fish. There was a jagged scar across his face and a sword where his left arm should be, attached just above the elbow.
Kili knew him.
That was the face which haunted his nightmares. That was the orc who put blood in Adâd’s yellow beard. Azog the Defiler.
“Here!” Gandalf handed Kili a flaming pine cone. Kili bounced it between his palms, trying not to catch fire himself. Then he threw it hard at one of the wargs circling the base of the tree. Upon striking the beast’s fur, the pine cone exploded, burning both the creature and the orc riding it.
Howling in pain, the warg threw its rider, trampling the burning, screeching orc. The carpet of pine needles around them sparked and snapped, bursting into flames. Flames which did not discourage the orcs and wargs filling the clearing beneath the pines. Growling and snapping, the wargs circled the trees. Hooting and laughing, the orcs wrapped chains around the base of the pine.
Fili dropped one of his knives straight through the skull of the orc tying off the chain. Knocking him off his warg, the knife pinned him to the dirt, dead. But another orc took up the chain. At the very edge of the clearing, Azog shouted orders in some dark language Kili did not speak.
Gandalf passed another pine cone to Ori, who used his sling to fling it. A warg very near Azog caught fire, but before it could panic and set the bushes near him alight, Azog beheaded it callously.
With pine cone after pine cone, the dwarves set the bracken and loose kindling beneath the trees ablaze. Wargs feared fire, as all things twisted in the darkness do. Some reared, threw their riders, and ran. The orcs, however, feared their pale master more.
Fire slowed the orcs, but it could not keep them at bay. Soon enough they had the iron chain in place. Then, they pulled. The tree beneath Kili cracked and crashed into another. He leapt from one branch to the next, but that tree fell as well. All he could do was hold tight. There was nowhere else to go. He hung from a pine branch over the edge of a vast cliff, and he knew he would fall. Just as his brother had. At the hands of Azog, just like his Adâd.
Thorin rose. Striding down the trunk of the pine tree as it dangled all the other dwarves over the edge of the cliff, the prince stood between his people and danger. Kili’s heart leapt. Surely the prince who killed the dragon could save them.
Roaring in anger, Thorin raised his sword high and charged. Lowering his warg into a crouch, Azog pounced. At the base of the tree, ringed by fire, the two clashed. Eager to see the whole confrontation, Kili pulled himself up at last. The view was not what he hoped. Thorin fell, and lay unmoving as Azog’s warg padded away.
Azog said something. It did not sound triumphant. It sounded dismissive. As though Thorin Oakenshield, the prince who killed the dragon, the dwarf who would have married Bilbo Baggins, was nothing at all.
One of the largest orcs dismounted from his warg. Going over to Thorin’s body, he raised a wicked, curved sword high. Kili put an arrow through his throat.
Azog snarled. Turning to face Kili, the big orc bared his jagged teeth.
“No more,” Kili said, and put an arrow through his eye.
When Azog fell, the other orcs went mad. Swarming the base of the pine, they ignored the fire. Kili had no time to draw a third arrow. Instead, he raised his ax.
At his side, Fili stood with two short swords. Kili did not need to see the dwarf to sense where he would be. After their winter training together against Dwalin, the two knew how to move in tandem. And so they did. When Kili struck high, Fili parried low. If Fili spun out, Kili dodged close. Kili hacked. Fili slashed. Kili blocked. Fili stabbed. Together, they barred the way. Not one orc or warg made it past them to the tree.
“No more,” Kili said, and he meant it.
Falling into the rhythm of a fight was easy, but the orcs were innumerable. Orc blades and warg claws kept up a relentless assault. Fili and Kili could hold the line forever, but they could not drive back the attackers. They could not end the fight.
Then, the eagles came. Out of the stars above, Kili heard a piercing cry. Instead of fear, it gave him courage. Somehow, he knew that these predators meant no harm to the innocent or the good. So it proved.
Giant birds with golden feathers plucked the dangling dwarves from the tree. Others shrieked and dove, slaughtering orcs by the dozen with their razor sharp beaks. One lifted Thorin’s body from the ground, and Kili saw the oaken shield drop from his lifeless arm. Wanting to grab it for him, Kili barely managed two steps before being plucked up by his shirt collar and tossed onto the back of a swooping bird. Feathers were soft beneath his hands. The eagle felt solid and strong. It did not listen when he said they had to go back.
Circling up and up, the eagles soared high above the fallen pines. The blaze below shrank into a single point of light on the side of the great mountain. It was so much smaller than the silver moon to which they flew.
As the eagle rose, the pink light of dawn began to color the sky. Shadows in the darkness resolved into other eagles. Finally, Kili could see his friends. Fili was nearby, as was Gandalf, but it took Kili a long time to spot Thorin. The prince was still unmoving in the claws of a giant eagle. Kili wondered if he would rise again.