Kili hardly even stepped on the twig. It was such a small twig. Barely the length of his boot, it was, and entirely disproportionate to the snapping sound that seemed to echo among the trees. For a moment, he thought he might get away with it. Then the bats attacked.
Swarming down from the treetops, they beat about his face and bit into his leathers with tiny teeth. Fortunately, they couldn’t do much damage to him through his dwarven armor. Unfortunately, the elves with him did not wear heavy armor. Sendir cursed as one of the flying rodents got him in the neck.
Naturally, Tauriel was unhurt. She whirled through the swarm like a dervish, a knife in each hand to slice the dark creatures to ribbons. Between her, the other elves, and Kili’s arrows, the bats were soon nothing but little bodies which smoked whenever the wind blew through the canopy, sending shafts of sunlight down to the ground.
Much as he enjoyed Tauriel’s homeland the first time through, Kili was enchanted by it now that the darkness was lifted. Light and air filled the beautiful, green woodland, and Kili adored wandering through it. Unfortunately, a second rush of bats came screaming from the treetops. These were the size of lambs in spring, and Kili suspected their long fangs could pierce even his armor.
“We should never have agreed to a dwarf in the scouting party,” Sendir grumbled, facing off against two bats with a knife in each hand. “He draws too much attention.”
“And why shouldn’t he?” Flipping backward through the air toward the lower boughs of a tree, Tauriel shot an arrow at the apex of her vault, sending one of the big bats to the ground before she herself landed. “Our job is to clear the way for the army, and to spot any danger.”
“Convenient, then,” Kili said, “that every danger in the forest wants to attack me.” He got one of the bats through the eye with an arrow, however, so he was doing his part.
“It’s not convenient,” Sendir said.
“No,” Tauriel agreed. Throwing herself into the air, she leapt onto the back of one bat, stabbing it through the neck. As it fell, she bounced onto the back of another, knifing it in turn. This procedure she repeated three times before ending high in another tree with a vicious grin. “It’s fun!”
“I am going to marry her,” Kili said, but only to himself. He had many concerns to manage before he could possibly consider romance. Not least, the yellow, dripping fangs of the bat diving toward his face. Dropping his bow, he spun his ax, cleaving the monster in twain.
Wind ruffled the canopy above, sunlight fell upon the bodies, and a black smoke rose. Through the trees ahead, Kili saw a different darkness rising. It was the Black Tower, called Dol Guldur when Thorin, Bard, and Thranduil mentioned it in their plans. The army had to pass it, but the kings were concerned about venturing too close.
“Should we head in?” Kili asked, nodding toward the tower.
“No,” said Tauriel. “It is time to go back. We have cleared the path this far, but we must report the camp beside the blue weed pond secure for an evening’s rest. Perhaps tomorrow we will be honored with an instruction to clear the tower.”
“At your command, my lady.” Kili bowed.
Tauriel didn’t blush. Instead, she shoved his shoulder which was much better. “I suggest you to get a move on, Kili Baggins. I do not command princes. I advise.”
“Then I am grateful for your advice.”
Kili was more grateful than he could express to be included in the scouting parties when other dwarves were not. Marching with the army was torturous. Not because of the pace, which was much easier than the rushing about which scouts had to do, or the songs, which were cheerful and a brilliant way of keeping time while walking, but because of Thorin. Thorin brooded. Constantly. He scowled at maps, sneered at scouts, and disapproved of everything, even perfectly good camping places.
Calling the glittering lake beside which the army camped Blue Weed Pond seemed a great injustice to Kili. True, the still water was nothing like the size of Long Lake, but it was much larger and deeper than any pond in the Shire. Lily pads dotted the surface, unlike any waterlily Kili could name. On the cusp of winter they had no flowers, yet they were no less strange and beautiful for being only leaves. They were a deep blue, like cornflowers in the height of June. The elves called them blue weeds, most unjustly. In elvish, the word was apparently luinuil, which sounded very musical and nice, but Tauriel assured him laughingly that it only meant blue weed.
All the elves laughed a great deal as they marched through their own land. The dark oppression which made a Mirkwood of the Greenwood was gone. If many evil creatures still clung to the land, marching an army through it would do much to scare them off. Even the slow progression they made toward Mordor did great good against the forces of darkness, reclaiming from that long night formerly conquered territories.
At least, that was what Balin said to try to poke Thorin out of his brooding. It rarely worked. The dwarven king would either be performative in his confidence or quietly scowling at everyone as though they offended him by not racing headlong toward the Black Tower.
“Dare we give this water to our soldiers?” Thorin asked Thranduil.
“Tauriel and I drank some three hours ago,” Kili said helpfully. “If it was poisonous, I’m sure I’d have stomach cramps by now.”
Thorin shot him a look, but continued to give Thranduil the main portion of his attention.
“Sunlight breaks foul enchantment more certainly than any elven art,” Thranduil said with great composure. “The center of this pond is not even shaded by trees. So close to Dol Guldur, it was, of course, once cursed. This was the home of a great serpent when all the forest was plagued by shadow. My scouts checked the depths, however, and the black serpent is gone.”
Kili, who had thought some of the elves simply liked to dive into ponds and swim around when scouting, was surprised to learn they’d been looking for a giant monster. “Where’s it gone to?” he asked.
Thorin’s mouth twitched into a smile. Thranduil’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. Bard looked on impassively.
“Likely, Dol Guldur,” said the elven king. “By all reports the wyrm was large enough to eat an elf with a single snap of its jaws. Arrows could not pierce its hide. I doubt sunlight dispelled it.”
Bard drew in a quick breath, as though this monster would be somehow worse than the other dark creatures faced and fought by the scouts all day.
“Fire breather?” Thorin asked sharply.
“No. Nor could it fly. I would not suffer a dragon in my own lands.” Thranduil’s casual posture became straight and haughty.
Thorin inclined his head in apology. “If it is gone from this place, then we can rest peacefully.”
Bard nodded in agreement.
Thranduil relaxed a little. “Our last reports of it were a century ago. It may have withdrawn alongside the Necromancer’s other forces.”
Looking up to where Dol Guldur loomed above the trees in the fading light, Thorin said, “We cannot assume that tower is empty.”
“No,” Bard agreed, looking in the same direction, “but we can hope.”
So camp was set. The elves, dwarves, and men who made up the alliance all had very different ways of marching and camping. The elves moved like water, flowing around the trees, and when they camped it was with white silk pavilions with harps and sweet wine. The dwarves marched in strict lines, and could not have gone through the forest at all without the material assistance of the elven king and his paths. The heavy siege engines pulled by massive boars and mountain goats would be of great use against the walls of Mordor, but they slowed the marching army. Dwarven tents were sturdy oilcloth and as warm as houses within. To further ward off the chill of night, they shared flasks of strong liquor and bawdy tales. Like a happy mix between the two, the men of Dale had no siege engines, but big supply wagons drawn by horses which were glad of the same wide paths. Their tents were plain canvas, and they took their rest with mugs of brown ale. They also took their rest sooner and longer than dwarves or elves, making little music and telling few stories before all falling asleep.
It was Kili’s habit to visit various tents and fires indiscriminately, bringing Tauriel along, of course, in search of the best entertainment. At first, everyone welcomed him because he was a prince. Wanting to secure that welcome, however, he happily took a turn with his fiddle whenever the opportunity presented itself. Soon enough, he knew which songs best pleased which audiences, and even received some very gratifying requests.
Beside Blue Weed Pond, however, he did not have to pick and choose. Many elves and dwarves were gathered together at the water side with one big bonfire. A scouting party less plagued by monsters had apparently bagged several deer, and there were great roasting racks of venison for all to share. Some of the best musicians, all of whom Kili knew well by name, arranged themselves into a little band, which Kili was happy to join.
“Play that frog song.” Sendir waved a goblet of wine at Kili with a drunken air of command. “You owe me after the day we had.”
“He owes you nothing for doing your duty,” Tauriel said hotly, but Kili didn’t mind at all. He nodded to the other musicians to see if they were up for a Shire tune, and then launched into the sprightly song.
Behind the bonfire, a bright moon outlined Dol Guldur, even in the dark of night. Kili saw a dark figure rise up from the top of the tower. Dismissing it as a cloud or a trick of the light, he continued to play. Then, he saw that the dark shape was moving against the wind. Growing larger, it seemed to be approaching the camp. He stopped playing. Sendir called out rudely. Kili lowered the fiddle from his chin to his side.
“What is that?” he asked, even as the great winged snake took form between the moonlight and the firelight. Black as pitch and as big as a house, it seemed to wind through the air like a bit of ribbon. As it dove low over the pond, Kili saw glowing yellow eyes.
Dodging to one side, he pulled Tauriel out of the monster’s path, looking back at the enormous thing. It sprayed some sort of yellow acid from its mouth, causing all those gathered to scream and flee. One unlucky dwarf was snatched up in mighty jaws, swallowed in a single gulp. Even so, the dwarves of Erebor were valiant. Kili noted a dagger stuck in the dragon’s tongue for its trouble.
It was a dragon. It could only be a dragon. Perhaps it was not exactly like Smaug the Terrible, seeming smaller and more snake-like, but it had to be a dragon.
Sendir looked at Kili, screaming as the acid melted through his body, dissolving him into a yellow puddle beside the dark pond.
Tauriel had her bow out, already firing arrows into the dragon’s hide. She was not alone. Many of the elves sent arrows into the air in such numbers that they blotted out the moon. Even so, Kili could see them bouncing off the dragon, splashing harmlessly into the pond below. They seemed to annoy the creature, but the missiles did not hurt it. Kili’s only weapon was a small ax on his belt. The only bow he had was the one for his fiddle. Much as it galled him to leave Tauriel in danger, she could handle herself well enough. Turning from the fight, he raced toward the central tents belonging to the kings. In particular, toward the one he shared with Thorin; his uncle needed to be told.
Thorin was already on his feet, fully armored, with Orcrist in one hand and the Oakenshield in the other. Thranduil was beside him, dressed and alert but not armed or armored. Bard at his other side seemed to be half asleep. This discrepancy was naturally explained by the fact that Thorin insisted upon sleeping in his armor even though Kili told him frequently that Bilbo would not in the least approve of such unnecessary discomfort.
“Dragon!” Kili cried.
“Yes,” Thranduil said coolly. “We do have eyes, little prince.”
“We cannot afford losses here,” Thorin growled.
Thranduil’s voice went from cool to icy. “What do you suggest we do, Dragonslayer?”
Snarling at him, Thorin shoved his oak shield at Kili. “Stay safe,” he ordered. Then, turning the Thranduil, he pointed at Kili. “Keep him safe.”
Thranduil raised an eyebrow. “Is that an order, King Under the Mountain?”
There was no way to know if Thorin heard him. Already racing away, Thorin clambered onto one of the great siege catapults of the dwarves, unchaining the safeguards which kept the things from bouncing around while on the march.
“He’ll never hit it,” Bard said. “We need a windlance. Something that shoots faster than a catapult.”
“What do you suggest,” Thranduil asked, “as we have no windlance?”
“Thorin!” Kili cried, but it was too late. Thorin Oakenshield was already sailing through the air, having placed himself in the basket of the catapult as the most appropriate munition.
Kili’s mouth was dry, and he had no eyes for anything except the dark figure disappearing into the dark sky.
“He won’t hit,” Bard whispered.
“The beast dodges.” Thranduil’s voice was no longer cold. Kili could not possibly name the emotion which filled it. Thorin was going to fall to his death. For nothing. Without even striking the dragon once.
A length of chain shot out from the little dark dot that was Thorin, wrapping around the dragon’s tail. Kili gasped as the dragon jerked in the air, circling back toward its own tail. The Thorin-dot moved up the chain inch by inch, but yellow acid sprayed across the sky. The dragon screamed in pain, apparently scalding its own tail. Unfortunately, it seemed somewhat immune against its own venom, and the acid did not seem to dissolve it in any way. Worse yet, as the beast twisted and snapped through the air, something happened to the dangling chain.
Thranduil gasped. He, of course, could see much better than Kili at such a distance. Kili could only see Thorin free falling through the air once more.
What made him pull his eyes from his imperiled kin, Kili could never afterwards say. Only that something made him look down to see four shadowy figures lurking only a few feet away from the watch-fire shared between the tents of the three kings by their closest guards. Robed in black and clad with dark armor, they looked not unlike the Witch-king, though they wore no crowns. Ringwraiths, Kili thought.
“Oi!” he cried, alerting Bard and Thranduil. That was all he had time to say before one of the wraiths was upon him. Blocking the sword blow with the oak shield was easy. Stopping the terror that filled his heart as the wraith leaned close and seemed to sniff him was impossible.
“Where is Thorin Oakenshield?” the wraith hissed into Kili’s ear.
Wordlessly, Kili pointed a trembling hand up at the dragon. Somehow, Thorin had avoided falling. His chain was now around one of the dragon’s claws. The dwarf swayed dangerously through the air like an impossible pendulum, but every so often, he managed to stick Orcrist into some part of the dragon’s flesh deep enough to make it roar.
The ringwraiths did not have faces. Nor were they capable of expressions. Nevertheless, as all four looked up at the dragon, Kili was tempted to say they looked nonplussed. Slowly, the one pressing a sword against the oak shield backed away.
“Oh no you don’t,” cried Bard. Seizing a torch from nearby, he lit it in the fire and flung it at the nearest wraith. With an unearthly screech, the monster burned away.
Thranduil drew a sword from somewhere and traded a flurry of blows with another. Snatching up a log from the fire, Kili tried to copy Bard, but to no avail. The two remaining wraiths vanished into the night, even as Thranduil cleverly severed the hand of the one he was fighting. Unlike the one which burned, it did not scream. Instead, it vanished in a puff of black smoke, disintegrating down to a small gold band with a red jewel.
“Brilliant,” Kili said, snatching up the ring. In his hand it burned like ice.
“No,” Thranduil cried, but Kili ignored him.
Racing down to the water side, Kili found one of the yellow pools. He was sure it was the one that had been Sendir. There could be no justice for such a gruesome death. There might, however, be some small revenge. He tossed the ring into the puddle. With a high pitched hiss—like the whistle of a tea kettle boiling out—the ring disintegrated. He looked up at Thranduil.
“Sorry. Did you have a different idea?”
Thranduil blinked at him. “No,” he said slowly. “That was clever.”
“Thanks!” Kili’s joy at the praise was short lived when the dragon roared overhead. In the moonlight, Kili could see Thorin dancing about on the beast’s neck. The long chain still dangled from its claws. If Thorin fell now, he had no way to catch himself. Orcrist flashed high above his head in the moonlight, then vanished behind the dragon’s ear. All was still. The dragon did not roar again.
Plummeting from the sky, the beast dropped soundlessly.
“Thorin!” Kili shouted, not knowing how the king planned to survive the fall.
As it happened, Thorin had no plan. Trajectory sent the beast into the pond, and a great wave splashed up, soaking Kili thoroughly along with everyone else at the water side. Kili searched the waters frantically, but Thorin did not rise from the depths triumphantly.
After a few seconds, Thranduil’s voice sounded like a hunting horn. “Get him!”
Dozens of elves dove into the pond, disappearing beneath the surface for minutes that stretched like hours. Tauriel was the first to rise up from the dark water. Her long red hair splayed about her like a strange new lily pad, and upon her shoulder lay Thorin’s head. He was very still. She moved through the water like a frog, in jerking darts rather than her usual smooth elegance, but she brought him to the shore before anyone else surfaced to assist. Once in the shallows, Balin and Dwalin caught him up, setting him on dry land and rolling him onto his side. Water streamed from his mouth and his skin was terribly pale in the moonlight. Only a bleeding cut on his forehead gave Kili any hope. The dead did not bleed.
Suddenly, Thorin coughed, rolling onto his belly and hacking water into the dirt. A curtain of dark, wet hair shielded his expression from view. When he levered himself into an awkward sitting position, his eyes were dazed and dizzy. They found Kili very quickly, however.
“Injured?” he rasped between coughs so forceful they rattled his strangely melted armor.
“I should say you are,” Kili cried. “You’ve a head wound at the very least, and you must have swallowed half the lake! It is a lake, whatever anyone says. I cannot believe you went in like that with your armor and everything. Was that your plan all along? I don’t think it was very clever, Thorin. You might have drowned!”
Indeed, Thorin’s armor was all over burned with acid, though he seemed to have fortunately avoided getting any of it on his skin. Nevertheless, if the cuts on his face were any indication, Kili expected he was terribly bruised beneath everything. Thorin tried to make some objection, only to fall into another fit of coughing.
“Kili isn’t injured,” Balin said soothingly. Apparently this was what the king wanted to hear, for his rattling and hacking subsided slightly.
“Losses?” he managed to ask after another minute.
“We haven’t had time to make an accounting,” Balin murmured. “Not many. Let’s get you to your tent and see Oin.”
Thorin’s eyes were fever-bright in the firelight as he gripped Balin’s arm forcefully. “Numbers,” he demanded.
“Nine elves, fourteen dwarves, and one man,” Thranduil said clearly. “All lost in the initial assault. Our force remains sufficient to at least challenge the Black Land. Your quick action forestalled further attack, and did more good than you know.”
Thorin coughed again, but it was a smaller, less forceful noise than his earlier expectoration, and he looked up at Thranduil with slightly clearer eyes.
“While you fought, a sneak attack came behind our lines, in a clear attempt to steal that which gives you the right to rule our alliance.” Since Thranduil clearly believed their alliance had no single ruler, unless it was, of course, himself, Kili figured he was still worried about spies. Even in his current state, Thorin was easily able to decipher this code. He pressed his hand to his breast where he wore a plain gold ring upon a chain as a decoy.
“Four came,” Bard said, “but we were able to destroy two.”
“One,” Thranduil corrected gently. “Burning hurts them, but I believe that wraith managed to transport away before true death took hold. Your nephew, however, dissolved one of the Nine in draconic acid. It was very neatly done.”
Smiling up at Kili, Thorin’s voice was gravelly but clear when he said, “He is a Baggins. They are a notably clever family.”
Which made Kili preen enough that he entirely forgot to be annoyed with Thorin for risking his life so recklessly.