Sacred Duty, Bleeding Heart

Chapter 10

Taking to the road on foot or on the back of ponies was one thing, travelling from the Blue Mountains to Erebor with a trek of hundreds of people laden with their belongings and with carts, drawn by livestock or dragged by hand, was an entirely different kind of journey.

No matter how much the Durin brothers and their mother lashed their people on, and no matter how much these people wanted to move faster, there was always a wagon wheel broken, a pony lame, or a hundred other things, and it got exceedingly difficult to feed their people on the journey.
Due to the long, hard winter and the late snowmelt up in the mountains, Spring Equinox had been all too optimistic an estimate by Thorin; it was already early summer when they had finally left the High Pass behind and looked out over Mirkwood Forest.

As the tired dwarrow then headed north to round the woods, Dís was more than once reminded of the trek of sorrow-laden refugees fleeing from the mountain so many years ago; but this time, the faces of her people, as tired and hungry as they were, were lit with hope. No matter what hardships they had gone through and would yet face, they were going home.

No one but the children was complaining, and the children could certainly not be blamed for crying of tiredness and hunger and whining about aching feet and legs. Dís herself did what she could to comfort cranky young ones and Fili and Kili had long since dismounted and packed their ponies with as many dwarflings as the beasts could carry.

The only comfort was that at least now, after crossing the Misty Mountains, the ground was more level and the going easier on both beast and dwarf. Also, after the great battle, neither goblins nor orcs haunted the hills and northern plains. The dwarrow were faced with few attacks, and none of them claimed any lives but those of the attackers.

With the days growing longer and the nights becoming milder, they passed through the valleys between the Grey Mountains and Mirkwood until on one glorious day, the land opened before them and they could finally lay eyes on the northern plains of Rhovanion. In the east, the Iron Hills rose like a jagged, grey wall against the misty horizon. And before them, rising up from the plains, was the Lonely Mountain.

Cries of victory rang out and mingled with sobs of joy as the dwarrow finally laid eyes on their destination, new to most of them but their ancient, long lost home to those old enough to remember. It took a while to get their caravan going again.

Dís was standing still as a stone as the first carts and people began to pass her by and as Fili stopped beside her she squared her shoulders, fighting for composure. He laid a hand on her shoulder and she closed her own around it.
“It has been so long,” she whispered. “I had stopped believing I would see this day. Long ago I had given up hope to see my home again.”

Fili opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say anything they all heard hoof beats coming closer. Kili instantly dropped his reins and reached for his bow.
A rider appeared before them and waved. “Ered Luin!” he hollered. “Ered Luin!”
Fili and Kili exchanged a grin; it was Nori on that pony, unmistakable by his hairstyle. Yet before they could even wave back he had turned his mount and was galloping away as if the gates of Mordor were opening up behind him.
“I guess that was our welcoming committee,” Kili said drily.
Dís shook herself out of her reverie and took a deep breath. “It is not far now,” she said. “Not far at all.”

Only hours later they heard more hoof beats, but a lot of them this time. And when the group of riders, five in all, topped a rise and came into view, Dís stopped dead in her tracks when she realised who was leading them.
“Brother,” she breathed. “Thorin!”
Fili and Kili exchanged a grin of relief when Thorin, followed by Balin, Dwalin, Bifur and Bofur, headed for his sister in a straight gallop only to halt and dismount shortly before they would have collided. He jumped out of the saddle and the second his feet touched the ground, his sister had launched herself into his arms.

“Thorin,” she whispered into his shoulder as he held her as tightly as he could. “My brother. My king.”
“I am not king yet,” he muttered into her hair. “But I’m a good bit closer to it than I was last time we spoke.”
She looked up at him, her face wet with tears, and ran a hand down his cheek. Then she took a deep breath, turned her head and shouted at the top of her lungs so that even the ones in the very last ranks could hear her.


The cheering was deafening.

With a smile and the shine of moisture in his own eyes Thorin then lifted his sister into his saddle and mounted behind her. And with their strength seemingly magically restored upon the sight of their King and their home, the dwarrow of Ered Luin marched off again, no one complaining, no one slugging behind, and they reached the gates of Erebor shortly after midnight. No one would have taken a break and waited until daylight to continue their journey, not for all treasures in the world.

Too tired to celebrate their arrival, Kili and Fili had let themselves fall into a corner that night and had passed out almost instantly. When they awoke, in an awkward heap of limbs – they hadn’t fallen asleep like this since they had been children – they first untangled themselves, slightly embarrassed, and then groggily began the search for breakfast.

The people of Ered Luin had set up camp on the field below the entrance of Erebor, amidst now peacefully grazing livestock and happily playing children. Several cooking fires held the promise of sustenance; as it turned out the dwarves of Erebor had been hunting and foraging during the last weeks of autumn and winter, and they still had plenty to eat.

“There’s Bofur’s hat,” Kili pointed out.
Fili, even more bleary-eyed than his brother, simply nodded and followed him down the rise.

Bofur greeted them with the biggest smile he could have possibly managed.
“Morning, lads! Good to see you about, and welcome back!”
“Morning Bofur,” Fili replied, audibly stretching his stiff joints. “I see you have already eaten?”
“Oh, we have, but we’ve kept plenty for you. We knew you were bound to wake up at some point.”
The two brothers thankfully accepted the plates that were filled with strips of fried meat and the flat, cracker-like bread made not from flour but starchy roots.

“Get yourselves some eggs!”Someone from the fire called. “Sunny side up?”
His mouth full and his mind still addled with lingering tiredness, Kili held up his plate and a fried egg came sailing in an elegant trajectory, landing right on it. He started to mutter his thanks out of reflex when finally, his brain caught up with the events. “Thanks, Bomph...” He got the bread down the wrong way and coughed viciously while Fili put down his plate and slowly got onto his feet.

“Bombur?” He asked slowly as he stepped towards the fire. “But here I thought...”
The big dwarf turned away from his pan and wiggled a large spoon at him. Shrunken to almost half his formerly enormous size, and devoid of the middle part of his thick, long braid that obviously had been hacked off; but Bombur it was, and he was very much alive.
“Ah, well, sorry to have scared you all.” Bombur gave back with his usual, good-natured grin. “Seems like the elfish healers can’t tell one fat, red haired dwarf from the other. They got us mixed up.” He reached behind him and held out a large frying pan. “Eggs?”
“Mahal’s Balls, Bombur!” Fili felt an idiotic grin spread on his face upon seeing the big dwarf alive after all. “Put the kitchenware down and give us a hug, you bugbear!”

“Aw, come here, laddie!” Bombur slammed the pan onto his makeshift table and hurried around it to heed to Fili’s request. Kili, who had by now managed to dislodge the crumb in his windpipe, joined them and with hearty screams of joy Bombur clamped one arm around each Durin brother and, to the amusement of all the others around them, lifted them off the ground and swirled them around as if they were still little dwarflings not more than half his height.

Laughing and stumbling, the brothers caught their breath back and continued with their breakfast, listening to Bombur playing his flute.
“Should’ve thought something was amiss when that Bofur gave us a grin that would’ve split his head in half but for his hat,” Fili muttered, still grinning.
Kili chortled under his breath and finished his last piece of egg.

As it turned out they had pipe weed, too, and Bofur had proudly declared that this was one of the benefits of being a member of the Company.
Kili and Fili exchanged a puzzled glance. “The what?” Kili asked.
“The... Company,” Bofur repeated with a wink. “Didn’t take long for that to become a fixed expression.”
“A fixed expression for what?” Fili leaned back and puffed a little smoke.
“Us!” Bofur gestured around the fire. “Those of us what signed the contract, Thorin and Company!”
“And the way they say it... The Company,” Dori said with a chuckle. “So reverential.”
“Oh,” Nori said in a terrible falsetto, feigning awe. “There’s Nori, he’s one of ... The Company!”

The Durin brothers exchanged another look and grinned.

“But I guess, well you’ve had that all your lives, being treated like that,” Nori said. “What with being princes and all.”
Fili took the pipe out of his mouth. “I don’t remember being treated very princely after having been caught... back when you’d managed to talk us into stealing the tanner’s apples.”
“Well, if your backside hurt as much as mine did, then you surely haven’t!” Nori gave back with laughter into which the others quickly joined.

It had been a quiet day, the sky clear and the sun mild, and with a spring in his steps and a smile on his face Fili took leave of his brother in the late afternoon to talk to Thorin.

The future king was inside the city in the room he had declared his study and was reading letters when Fili entered.
“Welcome back, nephew!” Thorin discarded his correspondence and met Fili halfway to embrace him heartily. “It is so very good to see you!”
“It’s good to see you too.” Fili cleared his throat. “I come with a request, uncle.”
Thorin raised his eyebrows. “And that would be?”
“I would like to honour the promise I gave last autumn and fetch... the herb woman. I’m sure we could use someone as skilled as her.”

“I believe that as well, but...” Thorin laid a hand on Fili’s arm. “Not now, I’m afraid. Dís and I have been planning the coronation ceremony and decided it shall be at Midsummer’s Eve. We have a lot of invitations to deliver, a lot of things to plan and organize. I’m afraid I can’t let you go running off into the countryside just now, Fili. After the coronation, go with my blessing. But not before, I have need of you.”
Fili inclined his head, arranging his face into a careful, mask to hide his frustration. “As you see fit, of course. May I ask for permission to send her at least a messenger?”

Thorin slowly narrowed his eyes. “I’d rather you think about your priorities, my prince.” The last two words had been spoken in a very clipped, harsh voice. “We are talking about the coronation, mine and yours, too. You are the marked prince, Fili, and this will be the final act of reclaiming our homeland. Think about all the blood that has been spilled to make this possible and not a... a woman you have taken a fancy to!”
Fili swallowed and nodded. “My apologies.” Then he bowed somewhat stiffly and left again, his steps markedly slower and heavier than when he had come in.
Thorin sat down and slowly shook his head as he watched his nephew leave before focussing on his documents again.

Kili found his brother sitting on the lower flank of the mountain, his knees drawn up and his arms slung around them, watching the sun set behind the forest. He silently sat down beside him and after looking at his brother’s unmoving face for a while, Kili emitted a frustrated sigh.
“He won’t let you go.”
It wasn’t a question, and Fili didn’t answer.
“Do you think I could go, even if just to tell her you’re all right and haven’t forgotten her?”
“I asked that as well,” Fili replied. “He chastised me for having the wrong priorities. I should focus on the coronation, he said. He won’t let anyone go on that errand.”

Kili plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between his fingers. “I’m sure she’s fine,” he said after a while. “I mean, orcs and goblins have been wiped out, here and in the hills surrounding. She shouldn’t be in any danger.”
Fili exhaled slowly. “But is he right? Do I have the wrong priorities?”
“How am I to know that?” Kili cast the blade of grass away.
“He told me I should think of all the blood that has been spilled to make that day possible and not a woman I’ve taken a fancy to.”
Kili looked at his brother again. “And... have you?”
“Have I what?”
“Taken a fancy to her?”

Fili dropped his head forward and emitted a mirthless little chuckle. “I wouldn’t call it that.”
“Did anything... you know... happen?”
At that, Fili lifted his head again to look at his brother. “Everything happened, brother. And now...” He stared ahead again into the sinking sun. “I never thought I’d say that, but... I miss her,” he whispered.

Kili moved a little closer and put an arm around his brother’s shoulders. They sat in silence until the sun had vanished and left them in darkness.

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