Kili’s throat didn’t hurt, but he slept rather poorly. It was not the bandages that itched the back of his neck nor the slight pressure that threatened to inhibit his breathing which kept him awake. Instead, he tossed in the darkness worrying about the gossip that would inevitably find its way to Tauriel’s ears.
When Frar attacked his Amâd in her private chambers, Kili did not play the valiant hero. Instead, he was once again rescued by his brothers. What had never bothered him a whit before troubled him that night. For it seemed to him that a warrior like Tauriel would only be interested in someone of like ability. Not a fellow who constantly needed saving.
Dressing with particular care in the green tunic that Bilbo most approved of, Kili decided to give breakfast a miss. His stomach was too twisted up for food. Tucking the little gilded map into his pocket, he hoped against hope that she might still be willing to walk out with him. In his other pocket, he put a little silver archer’s ring, which he forged some time ago with slender elven fingers in mind. Then he went forth to seek Tauriel.
She was standing outside his door.
“Oh!” she cried while he was still clutching the doorknob. Stepping past his guards, she gently touched his bandaged neck. “They told me you were wounded.”
“Yes,” he said, because her face was so very close to his. “Terribly, gravely wounded. On my death bed. Can only be cured with an elvish kiss.”
At that, she smiled. “Legolas is of higher stock than I, no lowly sylvan elf. For your healing, I will fetch him and ask that he administer the cure.”
“I’m fine!” Kili tore the white cloth from his neck. “See? It was only a scratch.”
Elegant fingers traced the thin line, and the amusement in Tauriel’s smile shifted to relief. “A scratch,” she agreed, “but one that really ought to be bandaged. Come.” Taking his hand she led him back into his room.
Instantly, painfully aware that he had no kitchen to offer her so much as a fresh baked nibble, Kili was at a loss. “Shall I send for tea?”
Tauriel laughed. “Sit down.” Once he did so, she spread a gentle line of salve across his cut and rebandaged it with some elvish cloth she had about her person. It was the work of a moment, though Kili would gladly submit to such ministrations until the mountain crumbled around them. When she finished, she pressed a small, soft peck to his cheek.
Grinning at her seemed the best way to pass the next hour. Tauriel’s smile was sweet, then broad, and it soon turned into a laugh.
“Prince, they say you are,” Tauriel cried, “but I know the truth. You, Kili Baggins, are a jester and a clown. Never in my life have I laughed so much as I laugh with you.”
Unaccountably pleased, Kili took her hand in his. “Then let us go walking, as we planned, my lady. We shall see if there is anything to amuse us at Ravenhill.”
Just as they rose together, the door opened and Fili came rushing in.
“Really,” Kili said. “We are walking out just now. There is nothing improper for which we need a chaperone.”
“An army comes,” said Fili. “Marching from Gundabad, they have been murdering ravens with swarms of their foul Crebain so we would not learn of their approach. Roac escaped the slaughter to warn us, but they are only hours away now. Worse, there comes a Black Rider ahead of their army, doubtless to sue for surrender, given their numbers.”
“What are their numbers?” asked Tauriel.
“As the stones on the mountainside, according to Roac. At least a hundred thousand. If every dwarf in the mountain could hold an ax, still they would outnumber us ten to one. And every dwarf in the mountain cannot hold an ax. Dale will stand with us, but it will not be enough.”
“Then it is as well that my king took heed of the messenger we welcomed from Rivendell ere we received your uncle’s wedding invitation.”
“Whatever do you mean, my lady?”
“Such is for my king to say. But you would be wise to ask him to hear this herald with you.”
“That has already been done.” Fili bowed. “And I invite you as well, though I am sent only to fetch Kili.”
“I will come,” she said.
And so they went.
Once again, Kili realized that being a prince involved a great deal of standing around looking dignified while waiting for other people to do things. In this case, he was expected to stand on the battlements of Erebor wearing some very nice armor waiting for the Black Rider to cross the fields before the mountain. Dis and Fili were beside him, both wearing heavy plate mail which was much more elaborate than the chain Kili wore. Bilbo, of course, looked finer than the kings in his lovely mithril shirt. He might have been attending a dance instead of a battle, with his pearl belt and his little coronet. Sweetly, he was holding Thorin’s hand. Not so much for reassurance, it seemed to Kili, but because the hobbit was obstinately clinging to the idea that as newlyweds, the world should stop interrupting their time together.
While they watched the lone rider crossing the plain ahead of the approaching army, the royalty upon the battlements watched many others enter the gates of Erebor. All the people of Dale filed into the mountain carrying baskets and bags of precious things they did not want to be despoiled. Carts full of provisions came as well. Within the mountain, all would be safe, and they could last that way for a very long time.
Kili remembered how secure he’d felt fighting the goblins beneath the Misty Mountains.
Reaching out, he took his Amâd’s hand. He did not do so out of obstinance.
Unlike his brother, Kili had a friendly appreciation for horses. One had to, to be a blacksmith in a place like Hobbiton where farrier work constituted nearly half of the local need. Tall as the beasts were, Kili never felt overawed by them. Instead, he respected a well looked after animal, and was quite used to the muscles of a plow beast. Strange, then, that he should hate the Black Rider’s horse on sight.
Something was very wrong with it. Not the way it galloped across the plain, for its stride was very like any other horse, but the way it moved, twitching and stamping when still. Its eyes were red, and seemed to be aflame. Beneath a barbed bit, the horse’s mouth foamed like a mad dog. Kili knew—just by looking—that to try to shoe such a horse was to be bitten. A kick from it would be deadly to a hobbit, perhaps even to Kili himself, for it was nearly twice the size of any other horse he’d seen in all his travels.
Upon its back, the rider wore black robes and dark armor. Tall as a man or elf, Kili could not tell anything more about him than that, for he seemed faceless within an empty helm. He did notice that Gandalf drew in a sharp breath when the rider approached, and that the elven king put a hand upon the hilt of his sword despite the great height of the battlements and the impossibility of direct conflict with the rider.
“Is the Black Land so weak that no herald could be found?” Gandalf called out. “Do generals now ride courier there?”
The rider laughed. It was an awful scraping sound like flint over chalk. “I lead my army from the front, old man. What is there for me to fear within this mountain? I shall crack the husk and find my prize soon enough.” His voice was like wind blowing across the open mouth of a tomb.
“By what right do you make war upon our mountain?” Thrain demanded. “Who are you?”
“I am an eternal king, little dwarf, and a servant of the Great Eye. Prepared as I am to make war, that may yet be avoided. Lord Sauron has no desire to obliterate the helpful, and Mordor has ever been friendly toward the obliging. For a tribute of gold and steel, along with a few other trifling incidentals to be named upon your surrender, our two kingdoms may enjoy a long and prosperous friendship.”
“The dwarves of Erebor do not bend our necks for the iron collars of orcs,” said Thrain. “Return to your own land, and we will let you go in peace. That shall be the whole of our mercy, and if you do not leave now, you shall not have even that.”
“The dwarves of Erebor are rats scrambling over a dung heap, and I extend no mercy to them now. King Thranduil, however, and his entourage may leave. Our business is with dwarves, and no elves of the Greenwood need suffer today.”
“Sooner would I trust a scorpion not to sting,” said Thranduil mildly, “than the safe passage of Mordor.”
“So be it.” The rider had no face, but Kili felt its eyes scanning the royalty on the battlement, as though looking for someone in particular. “Let the king of Mirkwood die with the kings of Dale and Erebor. All the North shall fall. I say to you, King Under the Mountain: try to stand against me and your mountain shall be rubble. Dwarves may think themselves stone, but stone can be ground into gravel. So will it be. None in this place could hope to face the Great Eye. None in this place could brave the Black Tower. Crushed before the might of Mordor, all will perish.”
“We are not afraid of you!” cried Bilbo. “So you can jolly well stop this nonsense at once!”
Once again, the Black Rider laughed his terrible scraping laugh. “There he is! Don’t you look fine in your crown and armor, Bilbo Baggins. Married to a handsome prince, I hear, and certainly dressed the part. What a dowry you must have given him.”
“Thank you for your congratulations,” the hobbit said coldly.
Kili wished he could stop his ears against the rider’s laugh. Each time, it carved into his ears and turned his skin to goose-flesh.
“I hope you have been very happy. After today, you will never be so again. You alone will survive the destruction of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins, once the slaughter of each and every living thing within the mountain begins. A promise was made to you in Dol Guldur. That promise will be kept. You will not die, Bilbo Baggins. You will never die. Throughout all the ages of the world, from now until the end of time, you will beg for the release of death. It will never, ever be granted.”
“A dark threat, indeed,” cried Thorin, “had you the steel to carry it out! Erebor stands against you, foul creature. You will not have him!”
“You must be the husband.” This time, Kili did cover his ears against the terrible laughter. He was not alone, and so many folk then realized that nothing could stop the rider’s voice when it wanted to be heard. “Thorin, called Oakenshield, prince of Erebor, slayer of Smaug, and hero to Durin’s Folk, is that not so?”
“It is so,” said Thorin. “And before the day is out, I will add another deed to my name.”
“You will try.” The rider did not laugh, but looked up at Thorin in what seemed to be a thoughtful manner. “Yes, let us start with that. Your death will precede the slaughter of the rest, so dear Bilbo Baggins is not too numb to feel the force of it. Face me now in single combat.”
“If you kill me, my army will depart,” the rider promised. Kili did not believe the promise for a moment, and he saw that no one else upon the battlements did either.
Even so, Thorin said, “Agreed. Yet I need time to prepare for such a battle. I will face you at noon.”
This time, the rider’s laugh went on for so long that Kili felt his head cracking open beneath the assault. “That precaution will not save you, Thorin Oakenshield. My master grows in strength, and so do I. Nor will your own power be at its zenith beneath the noonday sun, dwarf, whatever you believe. But I agree to your terms. A few hours will only whet my appetite.”
So saying, the nasty rider withdrew, trotting back toward the approaching army.
“He is the Witch-king of Angmar,” Gandalf said. “No man can defeat him in combat.”
“Thorin is a dwarf,” Bilbo said sharply, “and we do not need your naysaying here.”
“It buys time for further evacuation.” Thorin glanced at King Thranduil. “Treachery may be expected, but he seems the type to toy with us as a cat may do with a spider. Yet he will find our flavor poisonous indeed.”
“Indeed he will,” said Thrain. “The might of Erebor musters, and witch, king, or wraith, he shall choke upon it.”
Kili looked out from the battlements toward the army swarming over the plain. They covered the ground like ants, seeming more numerous than pebbles on a riverbank, and a grave uncertainty filled his heart.