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Courting Habbits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

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Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

 

Chapter One — Songs of Duty

 

 

Kíli could hardly remember a time when the smell of mineral and rock wasn’t surrounding him with every breath; or a day when some Big person wasn’t taking advantage of the destitute dwarves, and the shoulders of their elders weren't bowed with shame. Then a daft adventure had seen a kingdom reclaimed and a dragon die, and everything changed.

Now, he and Fíli were Princes in truth, instead of just heirs in exile living in a small mining kingdom. When they had begged their uncle to join him on his mad quest, all those years ago, they hadn’t had any concept of life after the adventure. There had been only two outcomes looming in their mind—failure or success, and to think beyond success seemed far too fanciful back then, when failure was almost certain. Even after six years of work, Erebor was still a shell of its former glory, but it was a Kingdom that felt like home, despite the fact that Kíli had been born in Erid Luin, half a world away. Pride and gratitude showed in every aspect of the restoration work being done, and Kíli found his days full and happy as their people prospered.

Fíli had finally appeased Master Loni, though Kíli privately thought the gift of Orcrist in place of Fíli's First Craft to be almost ludicrous in its generosity, and the old Master Weapons Smith had crankily agreed to oversee Fíli's journeyman work. Of course, being able to make time for it was another challenge altogether, and one Kíli did not envy his brother. Few rulers ever attained their Mastery of their Heart Craft before their second century, if at all, because of all the other demands on their time, including learning a basic amount in at least all the other major craft guilds, but the fire of his Heart Craft burned hot in his breast, and Fíli, of course, was determined to make it happen decades faster.

Kíli knew it was a foreign concept to the other races, even Uncle Bilbo had questioned it at first, but dwarrow were profoundly dualist at their core, and as far as he knew, Kíli's place in the monarchy was unique to every other race. To the outside world, Fíli would be King Under the Mountain, sole ruler and voice of Erebor. Dwarrow, however, knew that two would always be required for a balanced view, and so while Fíli might be first voice of the King to the outside world, Kíli’s voice would be second; and in many cases, more important, as he was the voice of the people. Fíli’s position would be that of Melhekhur-Bakhuz, the King’s Hammer; wielder of the king’s hand and crafter of the king’s will, and the face of the kingdom outside the Mountain. Kíli would be Dohyar-Melhekh, the Anvil of the King; the foundation of all the King wished to accomplish. It was a delicate position, one that required a great ability to listen, to take in all that was said and unsaid, and to know what was happening in all areas of the kingdom, so that he could bring the people’s concerns to the Throne. His would be the face of the King within the Mountain and in many ways, Kíli would be the voice of the people to the throne.

A position that could be difficult, and most days, Kíli felt as if he were being stretched thinner than thin, because of course, their duties as princes where the same, if on a slightly smaller scale.

Fíli was the accomplished one; he was golden in so many ways, and had already earned a reputation for even-handed justice in addition to courage and calmness under pressure. Their quest had earned him the name Fíli Courageheart, and the people had seen little reason to change it. Kíli was proud of him; prouder than he would have thought possible, and he loved his brother more than anything. He was deeply thankful that his Bakhuz was Fíli, for he could not imagine trying to rule with anyone else by his side.

And though Fíli was the golden one, Kíli knew that he himself was…not. People whispered sometimes, though not nearly as often as before; with the quest, he had finally started to earn his place, and he was confident he would eventually find his way into their hearts as he proved to be a good Dohyar; for Fíli, and Erebor. It didn’t help that at eighty-four, he still didn’t have a publicly declared Heart Craft, which gave his doubters plenty to whisper about. Elf-get, he’d been called, or Faithless, or unloved by the Maker. Uncle Thorin had always put a stop to it, as much as he could anyway, back in the Blue Mountains, but as Kíli and Fíli stepped more and more into their roles within the monarchy, Thorin was less able to protect them. He knew his uncle worried, but Kíli wished he wouldn’t; Kíli knew he would eventually earn his own place, and didn’t let the specifics bother him too much; impulsive, gut-driven behaviour had always served him well, after all.

Besides, this day was Fíli's, and he was content to let his brother have it.

“Nervous?” he asked sympathetically; Fíli hadn’t stopped pacing for the last quarter hour. In truth, he wasn't sure his brother had stopped pacing since the idea had first been proposed, months ago.

Fíli didn’t even have the energy to toss him more than a worried glance as he continued to pound out his track around the room.

Kíli wasn't even sure which side had first suggested the proposal, but in truth, everyone had always known that was where the treaty discussions would lead. He and Fíli had been raised with the knowledge that such an arrangement might be in their future, though neither of them had ever suspected it to be with a sternly capable child of Men. It was possible Fíli was panicking as much about that as he was about his impending courtship—both of them had seen what difficulties and misunderstandings had happened when Uncle had tried to court Bilbo, and they had already had the benefit of almost a year of travelling together first.

But a treaty with Dale had to be made, and in truth, Uncle felt that he owed Bard his support in taking back his family’s kingdom, even after everything Uncle had already done to atone for his deeds at the Gate. When the idea got broached in council last fall, Thorin had halted the discussions right there before either he or Fíli had even had a chance to do more than blink, insisting on speaking with his nephews about it privately before any decisions were made. He had come to their quarters well after the evening bell, crownless and without his royal regalia, as just their uncle—not King Under the Mountain. Some of the things they had talked about were things that Kíli would never forget—frank and honest conversations and shared wisdom that would always remain in his heart, no matter what the future held.

Some of it, admittedly, devolved into less-than-polite stories Bilbo would definitely not approve of.

They had stayed up late into the night, and by morning all three of them had hangovers the size of minecarts, but were in accord over how to proceed. It was for the best of both kingdoms, and Fíli thought he had a better than even chance of finding happiness, in time, with Bard's eldest daughter.

That had been more than five months ago, when the snows first started to lay as a dusting upon the ground. The discussions had been complicated and very, very cautious while both sides took their time with the notion, and once deep snows had finally blanketed the landscape, an agreement had been tentatively hammered out. All through the long northern winter, no further delegations were sent or received, and it was like the eye of a storm, or the deep breath before battle; and now that spring was a hint in the air, leaving behind tiny crocuses and hellebore poking through the thin layers of lingering snow, the dwarves were riding down from Erebor.

It was time.

They had arrived in Laketown early that morning, and had been given the use of this room to discuss privately until Lord Bard and his councillors were ready to meet with them. The Treaty between Erebor and the Men of Esgaroth had been a long time in coming. Six years ago, they had faced each other through the gates of the Mountain as enemies, despite later joining forces against the orcs of Gundebad. Six years ago, neither side could forget the words and deeds at the gates, and so the ensuing truce was an uneasy one. Uncle Thorin, driven by guilt, had quietly diverted supplies to those among the Men that needed it most, despite having little extra for his own people. He would be deeply uneasy to have his involvement with the town’s affairs exposed, but Kíli suspected Lord Bard was at least peripherally aware of his actions during their rebuilding by now, but let the matter drop out of respect for the dwarf that had eventually saved his son in battle. Both settlements were now thriving and prosperous, and Lord Bard of Laketown would soon be King Bard of the Kingdom of Dale.

And that was the factor that changed everything: there was going to be a Kingdom of Men right on their doorstep again. Laketown was one thing, a fishing town almost a week’s travel by foot from Erebor, but Dale was set to be a thriving capitol, and it was half again as close to their front door. It was situated in a bend of the River Running, their main supply line in getting work in and out of their Mountain, and would become a major point on the road to Erebor, and points further east. Not to mention Laketown—and soon Dale, Kíli supposed—was their major supplier of foodstuffs. Of course, it wasn’t all one-sided. Erebor was the main draw that brought trade from far and wide; trade that Lord Bard was counting on to eventually make Dale a major merchant city again. Erebor stood along the Spice Route—the roads leading further east, from whence exotic spices and decorative items came from those few Easterling tribes friendly to trade, or even strange artifacts and goods from the snowmen of Forochel who came down from their wasteland homes to trade in Ered Luin far in the west from time to time. Erebor also stood as Dale’s best ally against orcs or for any of the wainriders raiding points west and north. Both sides needed this treaty, and discussions and negotiations had taken most of the year.

Though it had only been discussed informally before now, a notion carefully dissected between various councillors to the throne and not between Thorin and Bard themselves, Lord Bard was expecting today’s proposal—in fact, Kíli privately suspected that it was in part responsible for why they had been left to drum their heels for so long. The Men would agree, though—had already agreed, unofficially, and were only waiting the formal proposal to come from the Kingdom of Erebor to finalize the arrangement.

Thorin sat patiently in one of the chairs that Bard had obviously had modified for his shorter guests, murmuring with Balin and the few of his councillors who had been part of the preliminary negotiations. His eyes flicked away occasionally as he contemplated the industry of the town through the wide windows beside them, and a faint smile hovered on his lips to see it. A wheeled car, laden with refreshments, had been left by Thorin’s elbow, and sat thoroughly ignored as they spoke.

Fíli continued to pace, his ceremonial armour jingling as he went.

Kíli caught his brother’s eye and gave him a commiserating look, before settling further into his bench and closing his eyes, before Fíli's tight circuits made him dizzy.

He couldn’t help but wonder if Sigrid were pacing somewhere, as well.

.o.♔.o.

Sigrid was in fact not pacing, but was taking a seat in the Treaty room calmly, if rather mechanically, Kíli observed when they were finally lead in ten minutes later. Her younger sister on the other hand, trembled faintly as she sat, but he had no time to wonder at it.

The room, though generous in size, was barely large enough for both parties, and Kíli knew it was going to grow uncomfortably hot by mid-afternoon. A large oval table dominated the space, and the floor was laid with polished slate that shone almost emerald in the sunlight, and curving designs had been laid at the edges of the room with tiny iridescent tiles of what appeared to be shell. The walls, which of course had been built with mine-rubble patiently squared off, were largely hidden behind woven tapestries which Kíli suspected showcased skill of significance, some Master-Weaver’s work, perhaps; though he couldn't be sure.

Bard sat at the end facing them as they arrived, flanked on one side by Bain, and a Gondorian youth sent to apprentice with Dale's soon-to-be king, and on the other by both of Bard’s daughters. A few of his councillors, most of them young-faced and no more experienced than Bard, finished off the delegation of Men. Thorin took the time to acknowledge each of them with a nod before taking his seat at the dwarven end of the table, and the rest of his delegation followed. With a nod from Bard, the youth, Lord Denethor, took the floor, and the ponderous dance that was the negotiating process began.

It took most of the morning, but eventually the preliminaries of trade and defences were agreed upon, and Balin stood, staring serenely about the room. This was only a formality, after all, the real difficulties already surmounted in the months leading up to this day. This was the reward for all of Balin’s hard work, for today the blasted Treaty would be signed, and their two kingdoms set on the path to being joined. He paced three steps away from Thorin, so that he was on Lady Sigrid’s heart-side before speaking. Suddenly, Balin's insistence that Kíli sit to Thorin's right, with Fíli on the end, made sense, for he was now on Fíli's heart-side as well. The old romantic, Kíli thought fondly. It was a thoughtful touch.

Cousin Balin cleared his throat, and smiled kindly at the Lady Sigrid. “We would like to discuss the terms of courtship, and eventual marriage, between the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Erebor, and Future King under the Mountain, to the Lady of Laketown, soon to be Princess of Dale…”

Idly, Kíli settled in to listen with half an ear to the formal speech he knew his cousin had likely spent the better part of a week polishing. Instead, he let his eyes wander: to Fíli, pale and yet determined, sitting straight and true as he waited to pledge himself, and the throne of Erebor, to the house of Dale. To Bard, stern and unbending, but yet with an air of a man who has made peace with difficult decisions. To the youth Denethor, whose spirit, virtue and honour showed despite the arrogant mantle that stiffened his spine and lifted his chin. Each of the men in Bard's entourage was examined, carefully and subtly through the lens of Kíli's heightened senses, to report on privately to his kin later. Kíli sensed nothing out of the ordinary, which was as he expected: some small resentments, some fascination, and a surprising amount of acceptance.

From Lady Sigrid herself, though? Almost nothing. She sat, apparently perfectly at ease with the proceedings. Not a single shadow crossed her brow, nor frown escape her as she sat, serene as marble at Lord Bard's side, eyes following Balin indifferently as he spoke. Though he could wish he sensed, well, more from Lady Sigrid, he supposed he should be grateful for his brother's sake that if not enthusiasm, she didn't feel to have any strong emotions against the match, either.

It was a heartening beginning, and Kíli settled back, content that everything was proceeding as they had hoped.

Little did Kíli know that not fifteen minutes later, he’d be leaning in, idly whispering to his kin, while frantically signalling Thorin in hurried Igleshmêk to stop the meeting—quickly!—before they had a problem they couldn’t solve. Uncle stared at him, hard, but hesitated for no more than a moment before smoothing his expression and pushing himself to his feet, effectively halting the proceedings. Lightheaded as relief flooded him, Kíli let out the breath he’d been holding. A warm glow ignited in his chest at Thorin’s apparent faith in him; of course, right on its heels was an equally terrified feeling of having that much of Thorin’s faith, and Kíli fought back the urge to close his eyes tightly and tried not to groan.

 

Balin broke off mid-sentence as Thorin’s chair scraped loudly across the floor behind him, and after a fleeting moment of consternation, tried to look as though this were expected and completely under control. Thorin inclined his head to Bard and his advisors stiffly, and made an absurd excuse with a perfectly straight face and just the right amount of apology, and while everyone around him was gawping and trying to catch up to what was going on, Thorin motioned to Balin with a jerk of his head, and the four of them left the room.

Kíli tried not to groan at the straight set of Balin's shoulders as he marched out just ahead of the three royals.

Months. He had spent months on this.

Cousin Balin was going to murder him.

Or worse yet, turn him over to Mister Dwalin for remedial training for a month or two.

 

.o.♔.o.

Two liveried Men, who had been stationed in the hall, showed them to a private chamber, just down from the meeting room, and Thorin dismissed Balin at the door with a meaningful look and a nonplussed expression. Kíli winced as the consigliere’s exit, though perfectly decorous, was punctuated by the unnecessarily loud click of the door closing behind him.

As soon as they were alone, Thorin turned to his nephew. “What is the problem?” he demanded. Fíli stopped in the centre of the room to stare at Kíli, too, frowning faintly in confusion as he waited for his younger brother to explain himself, one blond eyebrow raised.

Kíli was squirming under their combined scrutiny, aware that this hurried break from the meeting might be really, really awkward to smooth over with the Men, and knowing that Thorin knew it too, but had done it on the strength of his belief in Kíli's judgment and untrained Canting abilities. He still wasn’t sure if he was more pleased than terrified at that faith, and prayed he didn’t let Uncle down.

“I don’t know precisely,” he admitted, finally. “I just..." he paused, looking for better words; something less nebulous than a feeling, but found none. "I just uncovered a sense of tension that doesn’t bode well for the union.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow at him, but Kíli was relieved that his uncle was taking his vague impressions seriously, so he struggled to voice what he’d sensed. “The marriage is not welcome,” he said finally, with an apologetic glance at his brother.

“Not welcome?” Fíli shook his head, looking totally bewildered. “I thought the Men had already agreed it was the best solution?”

Kíli wished it wasn’t him opening this particular mineshaft, but he’d started this, so he had no choice but to push on with as much truth as he could divine. “I don't think it's Lord Bard, actually," he admitted, staring at the floor as he thought. "Or any of his advisors. I think it’s not welcome to either of the young Ladies.”

His words were met with total silence. Thorin frowned deeply while he considered this new information; Fíli just looked tired.

“No one is going to feel excitement for a political union,” Fíli pointed out, sounding discouraged, though obviously trying to hide it. “One can hope for feelings to grow, but for right now, the Lady Sigrid has little to recommend this union to herself, personally, beyond the benefit to her people." Fíli's normally warm expression twisted into something rueful. "I don’t imagine I’m projecting a great deal of excitement, either, for that matter.”

Kíli shook his head. “There is a definite difference between lack of excitement, and unwelcome,” Kíli frowned, still trying to sort through all of the impressions he’d gotten. “No, this is...something more than that. The Lady Sigrid, for all her seeming calm, sits tense enough to break stone; her heart is...frozen in her chest. From the younger sister,” he paused, uncomfortably, “nothing but sadness...and despair.”

“Despair?” Fíli asked, looking disturbed. “I had thought her sister and I had got on well enough, once.” Kíli wanted to comfort his older brother, who looked so torn and wistful as he thought of the girl he had once known. Fíli had indeed had high hopes that he and the Lady could eventually find happiness together; born partly from the ease of their previous interactions and the similarity of their temperaments, and partly on his willingness to serve the crown. Though he'd had no chance to form an attachment with Sigrid, his hopes had been high that they would prove good together. More faith than substance, but if anyone deserved it, it was Fíli with his kind and steadfast heart.

“But not well enough to open her heart,” Kíli pointed out, softly.

Fíli flushed, and stared at his toes. “I gave her a ruby, once,” he admitted. “It could be argued that I owe her a commitment.”

Kíli goggled at him. “When in the world did you have time to gift her with such a thing?” and then a truly horrible thought occurred to him. “Fee—is she your One?”

“Fíli—” Thorin rumbled, staring at him with pity.

Fíli looked up, wide-eyed and startled. “No!” he reassured them, and Kíli was relieved that the thought never seemed to have occurred to his brother.

Uncle crossed his arms, and stared at his heir sternly. “Then explain how it is that you came to give a daughter of the house of Dale a stone of passion,” he demanded.

Fair skin still flushed and rosy, Fíli almost tripped over himself to explain how it had come to pass that he’d presented the Lady Sigrid with a ruby shard from the hide of an exploded dragon.

Uncle finally uncrossed his arms near the end, when it became obvious that there had been no real intent behind the action, and Kíli realised that until then, he’d still harboured suspicions that Fíli's heart was already held by the girl.

Thorin sighed, ruefully. “Other races do not view such actions with the same eyes that a dwarf would,” he reminded them both, and Kíli had to hide a grin at what he was sure had been a hard-learned lesson for his Uncle. Thorin scrubbed his forehead with one hand, tiredly. “If the house of Dale demands recompense for the broken commitment, then we shall of course pay it, but I do not think it will come up, especially given that the child herself does not appear to wish it.”

“But that still doesn’t solve our problem of the union,” Fíli sighed, shaking his head as if he could clear away any impediments, and see a solution.

“It’s been six years since you gifted it to her, hasn’t it?” Kíli reminded him gently, and shrugged. “Men change much in that time, I think. She could be afraid, perhaps.”

Thorin’s expression turned thunderous, a mixture of shame and guilt shadowing his outrage, while Fíli simply looked sickened. “She would never come to any harm from us,” he choked.

“I know, and I doubt she would think so either,” Kíli admitted, “but she may simply not be a brave sort, when it comes to leaving behind everything she’s ever known.” Fíli looked sheepish at that reminder, and Thorin slightly less apoplectic. “Or it might not be that at all, but some other form of entanglement.”

“Her father spoke of no attachments,” Thorin rumbled, looking as if he might start bellowing for Balin to explain this oversight.

“Perhaps Bard doesn’t know?” Fíli pointed out.

“Or values the treaty enough to set aside the girl’s own wishes,” Kíli shrugged. “Who knows what goes through the minds of Men. We have seen it before, in other settlements we’ve passed through. Some Men seem to value their womenfolk very little, except in barter.”

"I do not think Lord Bard to be one of those." Fíli sighed, obviously uneasy. “We cannot afford to not have this union. Perhaps if I talk with her—”

Kíli threw himself onto one of the plush benches lining the room, feeling dejected for his brother’s sake. “I honestly don’t think she’d tell you anything, Fee,” he said with a sigh. He tipped his head back and covered his eyes with the crook of his arm as he thought. “I get the impression that she too knows how important this treaty is, and will willingly consign herself to it.”

When Kíli looked up, his brother’s smile was twisted and sardonic, and the look was alien on his face. “But with a heart unable to open for me.”

They were quiet for a long moment. Thorin scowled furiously as he paced the cramped room, while Fíli simply looked resigned. Kíli closed his eyes again, trying to ease the tension in his shoulders as he attempted to block out the frustrations of his kin, and think.

He heard Thorin’s pacing eventually stop, though when Kíli looked up, his uncle’s hands were flexing at his sides as if he could wrap them around the problem and physically subdue it. “We shall have to consult with Balin,” Thorin said heavily. “I will not have the girl married into our house under these auspices. I will not risk such misery for herself and Fíli. We will find another way.”

Fíli, of course, began protesting that he was willing to do his duty for Erebor, but Kíli was content their Uncle wouldn’t heed him, so instead he tried to sift through what he had gleaned from stone, and think. An alternative idea had already occurred to him the moment he’d felt Lady Tilda’s disquiet, though he had been reluctant to examine it.

Sigrid wouldn’t be the only Princess of Dale, after all…And although the world at large may not understand that he held rank equal to that of Fíli, his perceived place in the monarchy should still be sufficient for the Men of Dale, and the purpose of this treaty.

But the unbidden truth of the matter was, Tilda’s distress had caught his attention. In a room full of tense and focused people, her love for her sister had sliced through it all, somehow sliding directly into his senses so that the rest had become merely background. Her concern was what had directed his attention to Lady Sigrid, who’d been keeping herself so contained that he’d had to prod quite hard, eventually resorting to listening to the pretty agate stone she wore on her neck (and it had been pretty—not from the ground anywhere near here, nice banding) to get the true measure of her tension. Even then, he’d got no more than what he’d already shared; but it had been enough.

Fíli was a passionate dwarf, easy to love and be in love; but not for Sigrid. Fíli—and Sigrid—would be miserable if this went forward.

Kíli, on the other hand, had no attachments of his own; had never felt the pull of another on his soul. He’d always had more than enough to deal with, between being a prince and at first pushing away, and now trying to discretely manage his Calling; could he make room in his life for the care of another?

Did he have a choice?

“We will withdraw, for now,” his uncle was saying. "Some other way will have to be found, but it won’t be today,” and Kíli's mouth opened before he’d actually decided to speak.

“What if I were willing to form a union with Lady Tilda, instead?”

The words hung there, like a physical presence. It was so quiet, Kíli was almost afraid to breathe least he upset the balance one way or the other, and was even less sure why it mattered.

His uncle looked at him, his eyes fierce and steady as they regarded him, and Kíli tried to look resolute and calm under that stern gaze. He felt like a dwarfling again, when Thorin would hold his practice-workings in the forge up for judgment. Fíli looked at him with wide eyes, and reached out to grasp his arm, though whether in protest or support he wasn’t sure either of them knew yet. The moment was long and tense and Kíli just knew he was going to open his mouth in a moment to make some kind of joke before the tension suffocated him.

“You are sure, Sister-Son?” Thorin asked him finally, looking as grave and regal and serious as Kíli had ever seen him. “This will not be easy, for either of you.”

After a short pause, while Kíli searched his heart for any feeling that he should not do this, he nodded, once, meeting Thorin’s stare with his signature relaxed countenance; not reckless or thoughtless, but easy and at peace with his decision.

“So be it, then,” Thorin rumbled heavily, and turned to go find Balin, leaving Kíli alone with his brother. He felt lightheaded, and he was glad he was still sitting down, because he wasn’t entirely sure his knees wouldn’t have buckled.

“Are you really sure, Kee?” Fíli asked, looking torn and worn out as his eyes probed Kíli for any waver in his decision.

Kíli really wasn’t sure about anything, frankly. The idea that he was going to be expected to start a courtship in the very near future—with a human girl no less—seemed like a distant concept, one that was actually happening to someone else, maybe. “Sure. I mean, I’m as good as you in a marriage contract, right?” he told Fíli with an easy shrug. His voice was high and tight, despite his best efforts.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it," Fíli frowned. "I mean, you don’t have to do this.”

Kíli blew out a breath, and blinked a few times, as if that could help the knowledge mean something; but nope, it still seemed like an abstract concept, like the knowledge that Dwalin once had hair. “Except one of us does,” he pointed out, “and the only reason we went with you was because at least you were friendly with Lady Sigrid at one point.”

“That’s not the only—” Fíli tried to argue, but Kíli interrupted him.

“Honestly," Kíli told him, trying to look like he'd thought this through when all he really had was the feelings in his gut, "I think it might be a worse mess, if you were to marry the younger one now.”

Fíli shut his mouth, chagrined, but laughed a moment later. He grasped Kíli's shoulders and pulled him close to rest his forehead against his brother’s. “Thank you,” he murmured, and Kíli could hear the gratitude in his heart.

The consequences of his impetuous offer began to sink in, and his mouth went dry. The Men had very little reason to refuse that he could see, and the despair of Lady Tilda spoke volumes that she herself would make sure it happened if it meant sparing her sister from whatever fate she obviously feared for her.

He was going to be joined. Partnered. But despite the haste of his decision, Kíli had searched his heart for any feeling that he should not do this, and found none; he was as at peace with this outcome as he could be, even as he tried not to be absolutely terrified. Did he and the Lady have any better chance of finding an accord? He could only pray his limited abilities were enough to sense his Maker's will, and that what seemed like a brilliant solution today would still hold up to the harsh light of tomorrow's logic.

And hope for the best, which is usually how Kíli regarded his decisions, so at least this queasy feeling in his stomach was familiar.

When, some minutes later they rejoined the meeting, Balin was fully briefed and all prepared to offer their new proposal, as if it was what they had had in mind all along. Mahal knew how they were going to explain it, but Balin was good, and Kíli didn’t really have any doubts that he would find a way to smooth it over.

The small tick in Balin’s eyebrow, however, didn’t bode well for Kíli's future.

Kíli swallowed hard, and prepared to be as easy and graceful under strain as he knew how. Getting through the next hour was all that mattered.

There would be plenty of time for panic later.

Briefly, he looked up, and caught the puzzled grey gaze of Lady Tilda.

Kíli wished he could warn her as to what was coming.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

 

Chapter Text

Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

Chapter Two

2

The Promise of Spring

 

 

Tilda could hardly remember a time when the smell of the lake hadn’t been in her nose, or a day when her father hadn’t gone out to fish it; but then that was before the dragon fell out of the sky, and everything changed.

Back then, Tilda couldn't remember a time when the people of Laketown didn’t live in squalor and fear; the shadow of the mountain cast a pall that even a child could sense, smothering and stifling and heavy—but then the Men had risen up against an army, and found that they were stronger than they thought.

Before those momentous events, Tilda had never really given much thought to her supposed royal blood. After all, disgraced ancestors who failed to shoot dragons didn't lessen her da's worries about putting food on the table, or reduce the amount of shimming and gap-filling their rickety home needed, or give Sigrid more hours in the day that weren't filled with the demands of keeping their small family neat and clean and clothed.

As near as little Tilda could tell, being Girion's however-many great-granddaughter did nothing useful except prick the Master's vanity whenever the townsfolk turned to her da for guidance or aid.

And if you were to ask her now, she would as likely as not tell you that it still wasn't much of a boon, thank you very much. It would depend on the day, of course, but still.

Things had been even harder after Smaug fell: the town was gone, the dead numbered nearly a third of the townsfolk, and winter was closing in fast on a huddled, supply-less band of survivors. Time wasn't on their side, and after the great, pitched battle that had stretched all the way from the Gates of Erebor to the streets of Dale, it had been decided to use the easier-to-work wooden wreckage of Laketown to build rude shelters, rather than try and utilise the decaying and dangerous stone structures of the old city. That first winter had been awful, and Tilda tried very hard to not remember it—the cries of small babies in the cold air, or the way that there never seemed to be enough food, despite the gold-price paid to them by the Mountain. Tensions amongst the people ran even higher, an almost a palpable presence in the muddy streets as matters between the Master and her da grew even worse when the Lakemen turned to Bard more and more in the wake of the Dragon's death. They were dark times that were best forgotten, though that fear still lingered in people’s memories, like a sore that wouldn’t heal.

It had taken six years, and much had changed, but now, through hard work and luck, their town was whole again, rebuilt with dwarven stone and labour, and the Men prospered from trade. Tilda had a fine dress to wear for celebrations, and serviceable ones for everyday, and none of them had holes she hadn’t put there herself with her own clumsiness.

 

 

Some days she watched the young children in her charge playing on the beach or in the shallows, and fervently hoped that this would be what they remembered.

She was ashamed to acknowledge the tiniest bit of envy accompanying that wish.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

Even at sixteen, she still had nightmares, sometimes. Dreams of flame and a midnight escape down a once-familiar waterway, turned frightening and twisted by the great wyrm crouched above them, hissing and spitting taunts in his sibilant, hate-filled voice. She always woke before dawn on those mornings, and would climb out of the window of her shared bedroom so that she could watch the sunrise and know, without a doubt, that a new day was coming, and she was alive to greet it.

Sigrid never said anything when she climbed back in in her dew-dampened nightclothes—clothes that Sigrid would air out for her without a single scold, but the look in her eyes when she would hold out a hand and help Tilda scramble back in was just as haunted.

And now, the girls were expected to be Ladies of Laketown—and it would soon be Princesses of Dale, though that was a far-off concept that belonged to another person. Tilda felt most days that it was hard enough to just be Tilda, without all the extra rules and fuss. She was far happier training with Bain than learning domestic management with her sister; though she found, to her great consternation, that what had once been encouraged with amusement by her da, when he would sometimes teach them things in the fields behind the town, was now grumbled about by Bain’s new Weapons Master, Lothar. The end result, of course, being that she ended up learning more about household linens and butteries than she cared to know, and not nearly enough about anything interesting. She now had a lady's maid and chaperone, Mette, whom she shared with her sister; though Mette, like the girls themselves, would often fill in at other chores around the house. Sometimes, Tilda would like to go back to their rickety little home, where it froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer, but at least they were just Sigrid and Bain and Tilda, and her da was just a bargeman, and no one had thought twice about anything they did.

Things were better now, of course. She enjoyed having enough to eat all the time, and a bath whenever it pleased her, and her sister didn’t have the same grim look as she struggled to make the small family’s resources stretch farther; Sigrid smiled more now, and laughed and had pretty things to wear, and men were taking notice of her.

Tilda would lose her soon, she knew, and she tried really hard not to resent it. Bain, too, had changed, becoming less of a playmate and more of a grown man every day, with a ruler’s cares as he tried to learn even as their father was learning. Sometimes, listening to him speak, it was like there was no trace of the boy she had grown up with; it was all spring planting rotations and city sanitation, tariffs and trade.

She knew that wasn’t really true, most of the time—it only seemed that way on days when she was restless with the confinement of her new duties and wished for that simple life again, but if wishes could fill your hand as fast as muck, well then maybe she would have something to hold. She was fairly certain that wasn’t how the expression was supposed to go, but had never quite worked out what the men by the dock meant when they said it. She was fairly certain it was supposed to be naughty.

For the most part, Tilda was proud to be her father’s daughter, and a Lady of Laketown, and tried to do it well—she really did try. She just…always seemed to get distracted, and would end up chasing a child’s kite for them and come back with her hem all trod in the mud, or trying to learn to bake as she ought, only to be called on by one of the children or staff or elders in the middle, so she would mix up the proportions and end up with something not at all what it should have been. Her stitches were nowhere near as fine as Sigrid’s, though her medicinals were as good—when she didn’t forget about them and let something steep too long or boil away altogether.

Tutoring had been fun—none of them had ever had formal lessons before, learning some basics with some other children from lessons held by one of their neighbours, too infirm to go out with the other women and weave nets or repair line and rope, and Tilda had never realised how much there was to know, back then. Of course, her lessons were largely a disappointment, but Bain’s had proven to be far more interesting, with battles and history and mathematics, and he was kind enough to share his lesson books with her, at night, when she was supposed to be sleeping.

Numbers had been especially interesting; the way one could tally them in one’s head and how the relationships between them was almost a language in and of itself. It made her feel small in comparison to those vast ideas that she didn’t have the words to explain when she tried to talk to Bain or Sigrid about it, but she could sense them, as if the numbers could whisper to her, just her, and tell her secrets of bigger things. The problem was, she couldn’t hold that many numbers in her head all at once, and paper was still too valuable to be used for her silly scribblings, which were too complicated for a sand-table, so she had to be satisfied that it was out there, just waiting for her to know it, too. It made her feel restless, like her mind had feet that it just couldn’t stop tapping, and made it even harder to focus on the here-and-now tasks of daily living.

Sigrid would huff when Tilda insisted on burning candles far into the night, but it was more fondness than exasperation in her tone; she just pulled the blankets up over her eyes so that at least she might sleep. Sigrid still didn’t have the energy to spare to stay up in the evenings—by the time the two girls fell into bed each night, Tilda knew that Sigrid was already cataloguing the next day’s tasks; unending rotations of duties that would keep them both, and anyone else who Sigrid caught with idle hands, busy until the late-afternoon bell. Despite how Tilda would spend her mornings yawning in her face over breakfast, Sigrid never made her stop her illicit studies—though she did make Tilda spend an entire day in the laundering rooms getting wax out of their sheets the one time she was careless enough to drip. Once was more than enough, and Tilda was much more careful now.

Sigrid had managed Da’s house, back when it was just them, looking out for Tilda, and even Bain, though he had been a year her elder. She’d organized their efforts and made sure the things that needed doing got done; washing and mending, salting and smoking fish for winter’s storage, making soap and poultices and dozens of other things that all fell under her purview. Today, she was still managing Da’s house, only it now included a whole town, and Sigrid was always there, dispensing advice and lending her organizational skills, and ensuring that people got what they needed, and were heard when they ought, so that Da and Bain could focus on more of the big things.

Other than helping with the energetic children of the village, one of Tilda’s favourite jobs was to keep inventories of the various storehouses around the town, and the sight of all that surplus still made her want to pinch herself sometimes, to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. The rebuilt Laketown was nothing like the ugly, weathered and hungry town she had grown up in. The walkways had proper railings, the houses were made of more than just storm-scoured boards and people had fabrics with colour in them again; the more costly dyes one of the first things the Master had forbade as part of his Sumptuary laws. The town still smelled of fish and algae, she supposed, but they were comforting smells that Tilda only noticed for their absence anymore.

She sometimes wondered if Dale could ever feel like home, being so far from the Long Lake; but at least it was still nestled in a bend of the River Running, so there would be plenty of water, even if it wasn’t the same as the lake-water she was used to. Strange anxieties for a King’s daughter to be having, but she had been Tilda-of-nothing-in-particular for far longer than she had been Tilda-of-some-consequence, so she didn’t think she’d be thinking in any particularly royal way any time soon.

In the intervening years, when the town had finally been rebuilt, it was with the help of dwarven stone rubble from Ereborian mines, and much of the tension leftover from the meeting at the mountain’s gate had been undone. Laketown was prospering under her father’s care, but now there was great preparation, for he had secured enough townspeople willing to relocate, and even more from distant places like Rohan and Gondor, to reclaim the city of Dale. And, of course, fosterlings from other noble houses.

Like the one that was expected to arrive today...

“Pay attention, Til, you’re woolgathering again,” Sigrid chastised, in the resigned tone of one who is giving an oft-repeated rebuke, to no effect. They were in the washing room today, what Tilda privately thought of as the dungeons; a hot, damp room under the house used for all the household laundry. The room had been an innovation built by the dwarves when they had helped rebuild their town; the machinery that allowed them to do washing right in the home, instead of down at the river or in big tubs outside was beyond anything Tilda had ever even read about before, but it was a fact that it made the tedious job much more pleasant in the cold months – but stiffing on unseasonably warm fall days. They still didn’t really have near enough staff to run a great big place like this, and Sigrid and Tilda were not so above themselves that they didn’t pitch in just about everywhere in the house. Mette, who often helped their laundress, was across town today, seeing to her father who had broken his leg on the last fishing trip. Tilda hated days like today, where her hands ached for days after from the harsh soaps and heavy fabrics.

“I’m sorry,” she said, contrite, because she was supposed to be keeping her end of the bedclothes from trailing on the floor, and needing to go through the whole sorry process again, but she kept getting distracted. “It’s just…what do you think he’ll be like?”

A few strands had come loose from Sigrid’s braids. Her arms were full of the duvet they were fluffing, so she huffed at them as they drifted down to tickle her nose. “Lord Denethor, you mean?”

Lord Denethor was the Steward’s son, from Gondor far to the south and west of them. Laketown was prosperous again, and other kingdoms had taken note of Da’s plans to rebuild Dale and reclaim their ancestral Kingdom, especially now that it looked certain that he would succeed. Their small town had been host to dignitaries and emissaries from all the major settlements of Men west of them, especially when Da was prepared to help ease their burdens of protection and expansion by taking small contingents of settlers off their hands. The Steward of Gondor, Lord Ecthelion, saw further opportunity, and was sending his son to aid their father in the rebuilding of Dale, getting some experience and training for the boy in the process.

“Dunno; normal enough, I expect, though I don’t see how it will signify. He’s likely to be too busy for it to matter.” Sigrid was frowning at the sodden blanket where it kept trying to slip from the line, and began trying to secure it again. Tilda wasn’t entirely sure her arms were going to manage if she had to hold up her end any longer.

“Well yes, but Gondor is the White City—I mean, he’s likely very refined and intelligent, and just imagine all that he has seen!” Tilda couldn't help the tiny touch of excitement in her voice; Gondor seemed worlds away, with its ancient and noble history—a place where important things happened and far beyond the small town that, up until recently, has been her whole world. Finally, Sigrid had managed to secure her ends to the line, taking some of the weight off Tilda’s arms, and she sighed in relief.

“He can’t know everything, Til, or he wouldn’t be sent here to foster with Da,” Sigrid pointed out absently as she twitched wrinkles out of the hanging fabric.

“Well yes, but I thought he was here to help da, too?” Tilda wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about that bit; the idea that her da might need the help of someone no older than herself to learn the ropes of running a kingdom. She supposed she did understood, intellectually, even if her heart wanted to insist that Bard the Dragon Slayer could do whatever he put his mind to, without the help of the refined lords of the south.

“Da will need all the spare hands he can get, if we are to succeed, and Lord Denethor will get valuable experience before returning to his own people. Besides,” Sigrid added with a wisp of a smile as they both paused to catch their breath. “I imagine an extra buffer at the table, when Da and King Thorin finally have to negotiate their treaty, will be good for all of us.”

Tilda couldn't help but laugh at the idea that the young Lord may be in over his head, and glad that what once had been a deadly serious enmity between her father and the dwarf king was now something they could joke about. Still, a small kernel of excitement burned in her breast at the thought of meeting the mysterious Lord Denethor, and she privately wondered if he would be tall and wise, like the ancient Númenorian founders of his city, or if faint light might shine beneath his brow or fingers, the way it had in Tauriel when she’d healed the dwarven prince in their kitchen, years ago.

In the end, Tilda would have been better to remember that Denethor was still a young man, just sixteen years old. It probably would have made her disappointment at his sheer ordinariness less: and eased her embarrassment when it became painfully obvious that most days, the stewardling found her to be nothing short of a disaster.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

Fall eventually waned, and the joys of the Harvest Celebrations gave way to winter’s ice-flecked harbours and storms that kept folk indoors, and idle hands busy with weaving and what crafting projects had been put off while everyone anxiously waited for the weather to clear again. Skiing became the main mode of transportation to check trap-lines and gather what bounty could still be found in the snow-covered countryside, and the children often held races to see who could complete set courses fastest, while laughing adults watched, ready to reward the winners and soothe the loosers with warm mugs of mulled cider and small dried fruits.

Spring brought the snowy edelweiss blossoms and tiny crocuses in sheltered spots around town; and this year, it also brought the dwarven delegation from the mountain...

Negotiations with Erebor had begun shortly after Denethor’s arrival, and went on for months, back and forth with informal discussions that tested the waters for both sides. Though Tilda hadn’t been present, of course, the servants gossiped freely and seemed to know everything, and both her Da and Bain were always forthcoming with titbits, if asked, so she and Sigrid managed to stay abreast of it regardless; talks of alliances in times of war, and trade and travel and millions of other details that could make one’s head spin.

Today’s meeting, however, promised to be a grand one, as King Thorin and both his nephews were present; all previous meetings had included only one at a time, usually one of the princes. Of course, this was to be the official discussion of terms and a culmination after months of debate, and enough unofficial talk had occurred that both sides knew and accepted the basic structure of the Treaty.

Tilda wasn't one hundred percent sure the idea originated with the dwarves, when their father finally summoned them to his study; she rather suspected Lord Denethor of suggesting it, and was content to direct all her ire at the stiff-necked interloper in her father's house. Tilda had wanted to shake the young Lord as he and her father presented the idea of state marriage—especially when Denethor’s approving look at Sigrid made it obvious which Lady he felt would make a better trade had made Tilda’s cheeks burn with humiliation. Angry though she may be, Tilda wasn’t a fool, and though Denethor may have first voiced the idea, she knew, with a sick feeling in her heart, that it had been inevitable anyway. It was the only solution that made sense, when both sides depended on the treaty’s outcome; and she and Sigrid had allowed themselves to be wilfully, horribly, ignorant of that basic fact all winter.

But oh, how she hated to see Sigrid’s hopes for a love-match dashed.

It had been a year of quiet meetings and soft glances with the young lord of Dol Amroth, and an earnest promise that Sigrid had held to her breast all winter; and as cognisant of her people’s needs as her sister was, she would never say a word to gainsay the arrangement that was about to become an official proposal from a Dwarven Prince. One word to their father would have been enough, but of course Sigrid kept silent, and Da never knew.

Tilda was the only one aware of just how much her sister had hoped, and it made her want to cry. Sigrid was just so good, she deserved to finally have some happiness that was all hers, and not in service of someone else.

The Treaty Room, as it had come to be called amongst the staff after months of dwarven visits, was the grandest room in the house. The walls were covered in woven wool tapestries, some rescued and restored, many of them new, showing pieces of their people’s history, or the heraldic symbols of old. Her Da had firmly put his foot down when one of the best weavers had wanted to hang one of The Dragonslayer, shooting down Smaug over the shoulder of his Brave Heir. He’d flushed for a week after, any time the subject had been brought up. Tilda rather suspected the tapestry to exist, in someone’s attic or workshop, just waiting for the right opportunity to present it, though.

The windows had fine glazed glass in them, with heavy drapes to block any drafts, and the table was from oak felled in the heart of the Greenwood, traded from King Thranduil and carved by joiners in Laketown. Each of the high-backed chairs that sat around it boasted a colourfully-dyed, wool-stuffed cushion, and the sight of them made Tilda’s heart swell every time she saw them because they were joy and thanks and hope and too many other complicated things that she couldn’t express, but represented people who had pride again.

Today, it was hot and stuffy with this many people in it, but Tilda wouldn’t have traded her place in it for anything—she would at least be here for Sigrid, as the only one who knew what her sister was giving up. Representatives from both sides were crammed around the oval table, and Bard had made sure that Sigrid and Tilda were included in that number.

“Surely, my lord, this is a discussion for the men of your council, not young ladies unversed in the issues at hand,” Denethor had objected.

“Unversed?” Bard had looked up from his notes with a quizzical frown. “I can think of no one more suited to offer an opinion on her own marriage than the lady in question. Who else would I look to for consent, but Sigrid?” Bard went back to his review, adding almost absently one further rebuke, “It is her right, has been their right since the time of our forefathers.” Denethor’s disapproving gaze had lingered longest on Tilda’s somewhat rumpled appearance, though he hadn’t been fool enough to voice anything more, especially under Bain’s unimpressed stare.

And so they filed in with everyone else, and none of the dwarves seemed at all surprised by the girls’ presence, which made Tilda feel somewhat better that Gondorian attitudes on decorum and women were obviously a southern thing, or perhaps merely a young-man-trying-to-appear-older-than-he-was thing, and not as far-reaching as she had feared.

Most of the discussions had centred on defence, and assurances, and other political complications that would come with the rebuilding of Dale just outside Erebor’s doorstep, but they were old discussions already resolved and only repeated today as part of the official record. A secretary for her da was taking down everything said that would be included in the official agreement, while a dwarven scribe did the same for King Thorin. Later, those two would have the job of hammering out something final for both sides, and Tilda was glad she wouldn’t have any part of that task. She was on edge enough, knowing what was coming and dreading it. She wanted to reach out for Sigrid’s hand under the table, whether for her own comfort or Sigrid's she wasn't entirely sure; but feared one of the dwarves would see it, and knew Sigrid would never forgive her if they did.

Sigrid herself sat to her right, looking serene and calm as ever, and it was only because Tilda knew her so well that she could spot the tiny signs of tension in her rigid frame and the tightness around her eyes. She tried not to remember the sound of Sigrid’s quiet weeping last night, when she thought Tilda was safely asleep.

At last, Denethor and the dwarven councillor, Lord Svín, relinquished the floor, and another dwarf of Thorin’s company, Balin, stepped up, though his familiar face and the friendly twinkle in his eyes did little to dispel her unease. Despite her distraction, Tilda noticed and appreciated the way he made sure to be on Thorin’s right, facing them directly, so that he was speaking as much to Sigrid as he was to the room at large, a gesture that Tilda felt conveyed a great deal of respect.

He looked casually about the cramped room as he shuffled the papers in front of him, utterly at ease.

Tilda wanted to scream; to stop this before the words could leave old Balin's mouth.

“We would like to propose terms of courtship, and eventual marriage, between the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Erebor, and Future King under the Mountain, to the Lady of Laketown, soon to be Princess of Dale,” he announced pleasantly, as if he were suggesting they share recipes, or dance steps, instead of completely derailing Sigrid’s future.

All Tilda could see was Lord Adrahil—who would be Prince of Dol Amroth after his father—who smiled so softly whenever he looked at her sister, and Sigrid’s equally shy and delighted flush whenever she caught him looking. Three times he’d come with his father, and twice more he’d found excuses to come on his own, each time bringing a little gift just for Sigrid. The last time he had brought a pretty necklace of banded stone, and Tilda had watched through a knothole in the boathouse down by the shore as he’d given it to Sigrid, and kissed her hand by the lake in a slow, intimate gesture before promising to come back in the spring when the larkspur bloomed again, to speak with their father, who would by then be King Bard. Tilda held joy in her breast remembering Sigrid’s soft look as he had done so…and her secret happiness all winter, blissfully ignorant of what was on the horizon, that left her sister smiling whenever Sigrid's mind wandered and her fingers strayed to a little necklace she never took off, and a promise of a Lord who would follow the guiding North Star back to her.

Tilda had been so thrilled for her, keeping her sister’s secret as jealously as she would keep her own, and with the first breath of spring, both of them had eagerly awaited Adrahil’s white ship on the horizon, even if Tilda’s own excitement was tainted with the knowledge that she would miss her sister greatly when Dol Amroth was so very far away. And now the risk of winter storms was past and travel through the difficult passes would soon be possible, and there would be no joyous reunion for Sigrid and Lord Adrahil.

Not Sigrid, her heart wailed. Please, don't let it happen this way.

The meeting went on around her, and she was peripherally aware of it as she stared around the chamber dumbly, without any heed to what was being said; looking for help, or solutions, from those who couldn’t give it. Tilda found herself staring at the youngest dwarf, Prince Kíli, the dark-haired one who had been so gravely wounded when they met so long ago. He seemed relaxed enough about his brother's impending engagement, though she couldn't claim to know if it was true. He looked over at her, and for a moment their eyes met, and though she would swear that there was nothing in her expression or countenance to betray her, she saw his eyes widen almost imperceptibly. The implicit concern in his gaze was almost enough to undo her careful hold on her feelings; her eyes shimmered, she knew, but no tears fell, thankfully. She only hoped he was kind enough to ignore it.

No, no, no, this couldn’t happen…after everything, Sigrid was supposed to be happy. She wanted to yell at him—at all of them, but she could hardly be angry when Sigrid herself didn't speak up.

The look he gave her was quizzical, eyes searching her face as if he could divine the reason behind her discomfiture, but the next moment he’d turned back, eyes flicking to each person around the table as he resumed concentrating on what was going on in the room at large. Tilda stared dully, fiercely suppressing more useless tears as she watched him watch everyone else, his expression pleasant but distant. Having finished his perusal of the room, he turned back to speak softly with his kin; and if there seemed to be some urgency to his movements, Tilda couldn't divine why, and couldn’t muster the concentration to puzzle on it. She turned back to Balin, who was speaking again, about the great benefits of close ties between their people; a pretty speech that everyone there could likely recite by heart. Bain, she noticed, was nodding along in faint approval.

Through it all, Sigrid sat still as stone and with a remote expression, but beneath the table’s edge Tilda could see her hands clenched tightly together ‘till they were nearly bloodless. Tilda had stopped wanting to cry, and now thought she might throw up, instead. Sigrid deserved all the good things that were in store for her; she had spent far too long looking after her, and Da and Bain, and Tilda had thought it was finally her turn to have something, just for herself. Not that she thought Fíli a bad sort, but how could Sigrid ever come to love the dwarven prince, if her heart was already given to someone else?

Her da looked to his middle child, as if to give Sigrid one last chance to object; to give him a sign that this was not what she wanted. Sigrid, of course, gave none. His eyes lingered a moment longer, his expression kind as he took in Sigrid's calm demeanour and clear gaze.

He turned back to the dwarven contingent, and though Balin was still speaking, Da was clearly mentally preparing for his response, the one that would finalise her sister’s fate.

A scraping chair broke the near-silence of the room, though Balin of course was still speaking, startling everyone and cutting her da’s response off before the time came to give it.

"My apologies, Lord Bard," Thorin spoke gravely as he stood from the negotiating table, "but I must beg you for a moment with my kin and my advisor." Kíli, Tilda noticed, hovered behind his uncle as if uncomfortable. Fíli was frowning, but trying not to.

Da looked taken aback; indeed, murmuring broke out almost as soon as the Dwarven King finished speaking. It was...almost rude, to interrupt as he had, a fact that Thorin surely was aware of, from the discomfited look on his face.

"Westron...is not my native language," he haltingly offered, when it became obvious that he had indeed offended at least a few of those present, "and I would not have something this important in danger of misinterpretation. Please, just a few moments to confer, and be sure we are communicating correctly."

Knowing what was coming had been horrible, but Tilda couldn’t help but wonder as she watched the dwarves file from the room, if this small reprieve wasn’t worse.

Tilda could hardly remember a time when she didn’t look beyond the borders of Laketown with curiosity, or when she hadn’t been sure she would never leave it, but then the dwarves came back from their brief council, and everything changed.

Again.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

Two incredibly confused and busy days later, and Tilda was in her father’s study. It was a large room on the main floor with nice big windows from which he could see the main docks and all the fishing boats as they came in with their cargo, as well as the main market centre that spread out along the many piers and walkways. It was an open room, filled with sunlight, and Sigrid had worked tirelessly to keep it organized as more and more reports came in, threatening to bury the desk. Her father was going to need to train someone else up to do it, as Prince Adrahil was sure to come, though of course, da probably wasn’t really aware of how much of his life Sigrid kept organized. Tilda rather looked forward to Lord Fish-Face having to step in and try to deal with it, once Sigrid was happily gone.

Today, Da sat behind his desk, its large surface swept clean of everything except a heavy stack of parchment. Tilda was sure that if she looked, the pages would be filled with tight runic script, and wondered bemusedly what her name looked like in the dwarven language, for she was sure it was there.

Everyone else, even Bain, had been dismissed and it was just the two of them, and for a long moment, Bard regarded her in silence. The sadness which was always lurking in his kind eyes was heavier today, and Tilda knew he was missing her mum now more than ever.

“Tilda,” he began, and at that moment he looked tired and old in a way that she had never seen him, and Tilda hated all this responsibility that weighed on him, and aged him sooner than she was ready for.

“Do you know why they might have done this?” her father asked with heavy meaning, and she could see it in him; he would rise up to defend her if he thought for one moment that he had any cause, and it warmed her even as she was surprised by the direction of his thoughts. But what other reason could he suppose for a marriage proposal, one that was expected for months to be for Sigrid, to suddenly be given for herself, instead?

And what could she tell him? Maybe that, somewhere, the Valar were listening, and saved Sigrid? That Kíli had gazed across that shining table, to be struck mad by the beauty of a scruffy human princess, and been compelled to propose?

Or that, somehow, a dwarven prince had divined her heartbreak when even her closest family didn’t know? Divined it from across a crowded treaty-room, and acted?

She didn’t even believe any of it herself, frankly. And yet, there had been that one brief moment when she had felt like he’d looked at her, as no one in her life had ever really looked at her before, and seen her, Tilda of scraped knees and trod-upon hems, instead of a fine Lady, soon to be Princess—seen it, and liked her better for it? She pushed that confusion from her mind—it didn’t bear thinking about, as it was all likely nonsense anyway. Who knows why the dwarves did anything, after all? Sigrid was free, and that was all that counted. Even after two days, she still couldn’t quite come to terms with how things had changed, except for that one fact that superseded all others in her mind.

She forced herself to look her father in the eye, and cleared her expression of everything except open confusion, which wasn't really too hard. “Honestly Da, I have no idea," she told him, being sure to keep his gaze and not think about her silly imaginings of before, or she’d end up spilling Sigrid’s secret for sure. "I don’t think I’ve spoken with Prince Kíli more than a handful of times, and only when he was here on Mountain business.”

“I…see,” he said, and something in his expression lightened. He still looked pensive, though, and stared at Tilda heedlessly as he thought, the index finger of one hand running an absent circle on the desk’s polished surface.

“Perhaps he sought to protect his brother?” Tilda hastened to point out, not liking her da’s pensive mood. “Mayhap Prince Fíli is not inclined to marry? Or, perhaps King Thorin decreed it for reasons of his own?" She didn't voice the idea that perhaps it was what Thorin had intended all along, blaming, as he did, the dwarves' difficulty with the subtleties of Westron for the confusion. It was a convenient political lie, but no one was more than half inclined to believe it.

“Mayhap,” her da agreed, shaking his head as if trying to rid himself of questions he could not solve. For a long moment, he continued to stare down at his clasped hands where they sat on his desk while Tilda tried not to fidget, her own speculations having run round and round until she'd simply dismissed them as unfathomable. Da finally drew in a deep breath and pushed it out noisily, as if ridding himself of heavy thoughts and sad memories, and his gaze was lightened when he looked up at Tilda once more.

“So now we come to the crux of it all, my darling: I will not have you marry, if you are opposed," he told her seriously. "Would you consider marriage to a dwarf?” he asked. “You are not your sister, and you have no obligation to answer as she did.”

“And how much do we need this treaty?” Tilda raise a brow at him, daring him to be honest with her; her father had always told her the truth, even when it was to tell her unpleasant things. It was one of the things she respected most about him.

“Badly,” he admitted with a sigh, “but I would that you did not have to make a decision based on anything but your own heart. We will find a way to secure the treaty, if you cannot consider the match.” He caught her eye, and held it. “There is always another way between reasonable people, and I think we must count that the dwarves, in the end, want to find a way as much as we.” His gaze slid once more to the bank of windows, and the boats fishing far out on the lake.

“Six years ago, you would not have counted them as being reasonable.” Tilda pointed out, dryly, trying to lighten the mood that threatened to grow too serious and stifling. “I want to hear what this Treaty means to you, and what your thoughts are on Prince Kíli. Please, Da, I would have your wisdom in this—though I promise not to listen to any of your advice.”

“Cheeky,” her da grumbled, giving her a half-smile, even as his eyes remained shadowed. “You know I wish to rebuild a strong nation of Dale—in truth, you are aware that the political work is almost done. If we are to declare the Kingdom restored, to protect the lands that were once ours, we will need allies."

He sat back, re-clasping his hands in his lap, trying so hard to be casual and calm, for her sake, but he was fidgeting, and he knew Tilda saw it, too. "Dale stands in the bend of the River Running, before the Dwarven gates. We are in a position to benefit from trade, as it passes in and out of the mountain, or in a position to make trade most difficult, should we feel the need."

"And so, Erebor recognises their own interest in treating with us," Tilda agreed.

Bard nodded. "They, too, have some control of trade coming from the East, as it must pass through the Iron Hills. We both of us hold dear what the other needs to survive, and unfortunately, if we cannot become allies, we must treat as if enemies, because we cannot afford to assume otherwise.”

The sound of the fishing fleet coming in with the morning catch drifted in through the window behind them and went unheeded by either of them. "As to your suitor, I know little,” her da admitted. “He and his kin have been honourable with us, since the alliance. He seems affable, though perhaps not as steady as his brother, and is not involved overmuch in affairs between Laketown and Erebor. He is second to the throne, of course, so you are less likely than your sister would have been to ever be Queen Under the Mountain—though Thorin may rule for a long time, yet." He shrugged. "More than that, I cannot say, I'm afraid."

He was handsome, she admitted privately, in a dwarven sort of way; and she wanted to giggle at the thought, for of course her da wouldn’t mention that among Kíli's assets, despite it being a common opinion among the lasses. He was cheerful and helpful when he was in town, and first to volunteer when help was needed; she had observed as much herself. Marriages were made with far less, she knew, and so Tilda tilted her chin defiantly, to bolster her courage. “You already know what I’m going to decide,” she said, because of course her da knew her well, and despite the fact that she didn’t make much of a proper Princess —and she didn’t need Lord Denethor and his refinements to know that about herself—she loved her people and her family as much as Sigrid. If Sigrid could be brave enough to walk away from something good when she was set on accepting the dwarven proposal, Tilda could certainly be brave enough to walk toward something that might also turn out to be good, in a different sort of way.

Bard looked to his right, out the window, at all the bustling activity below and at the peaks of distant Erebor as a dark smudge on the horizon. “The mountain is far away,” he sighed, “and I will miss you dearly. I am selfish, and I don’t want to let you go.”

Tilda came around to kneel on the floor beside him, and lay her head on his knee, as she had done when she was little, and just like when she was small, his hand came up to smooth her hair, and he hummed softly under his breath. “You didn’t want Sigrid to go, either, but one of us must,” she chided gently. “I can be brave, father,” she told him. “Let him court me. I can still change my mind.”

Neither of them believed for a moment that she would, though.

So it was, when first missives and tokens, then finally visits from a dwarven prince came down from the mountain, Tilda willingly received them.

And if she still didn't feel much like a proper princess, but a fisherman's daughter? Well, she learned to ignore her muddy hems and just raise her chin a bit higher, is all.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

Chapter Three

3

The Rules or Is It Guidelines ?—of Engagement

 

 

 

Early morning in Erebor was always full of the softer sounds of industry and order as the kingdom, which never fully slept, prepared to go into full operation. There was a sense of purpose and assiduity permeating everything that was instantly calming, and it was a time of day that Kíli usually enjoyed more than any other—though he wasn’t always good at being up this early to actually witness it. This morning, he’d been helped in rising early by the loud knocking on his chamber doors, courtesy of his mother’s messenger, requesting his company at breakfast.

When he’d finally unglued his eyes enough to realize the light in his room was more dawn than morning, he only barely resisted the urge pull his blanket over his head like he was thirty again and go back to sleep, but his mother had only arrived in Erebor two weeks ago, to be a part of what would have been Fíli's courtship and union, and Kíli was well aware of the folly of keeping her waiting, so he’d dragged himself from his warm cocoon and made it to his mother’s end of the Family Hall before she decided to send a second messenger.

That one would likely have been armed.

So now, not nearly far enough past dawn for Kíli's tastes given the state of his head and the trembling in his fingers, he found himself huddled miserably at a small table, trying not to squint in the too-bright light.

“Do sit up straight, Kíli,” his mother barked, cuffing him on the side of the head on her way by. “And stop holding your head like it might fall off in a light breeze.”

His mother was a wonderful dam, and could always be counted on for a kind word first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, her son was never one who could count on it. Kíli could at least take comfort in the fact that Fíli was in no better shape than he, and his brother had to sit council with the dwarves of the Iron Hills this morning. Since it had been Fíli's bright idea to drink away his troubles, Kíli felt it only fair that his dear brother got the tonic of Cousin Dain’s voice before he’d even likely managed to fully un-gum his eyes.

Just the thought of Lord Dain’s booming voice made Kíli groan in misery. This of course got a tisk from his mother, but he was gratefully surprised a moment later when a steaming mug of coffee was placed under his nose. Of all the many wondrous things that came through their mountain, the stimulating coffee beans that grew in the far south of Khand were by far his favourite—especially at times like this. Since it was still hot enough to blister even the roof of a dwarven mouth, Kíli held his face over the steam with another small sound of suffering, hoping the aroma would help the pounding in his skull. From the smell of it, his mother had laced it with willow bark, and he silently blessed her.

“Drink up,” his mother told him gruffly. “Then maybe you’ll be fit enough to explain to me what questions you were trying to answer in the bottom of an ale keg.”

A breakfast tray had been left on the main table, and Lady Dis came back several moments later with two plates. Deftly, she plunked the one containing nothing but buttered toast in front of Kíli, and took the other plate to her seat. From the smell, she had bacon. Lots of it. Kíli glared at her, sullenly.

“Finish the toast first,” Dis told him, absolutely immune to his pathetic eyes. “I’m not having some poor maid cleaning up after you because you decide to vomit.” Belying her gruff words however, Dis reached over and grabbed Kíli's empty cup, refiling it from the carafe at her elbow.

“I don’t think that’s the kind of thing one decides to do,” Kíli muttered, but shoved a piece of toast in his mouth at his mother’s hard stare, looking as innocent as he could manage, and held out his hand for his mug.

Dis snorted, but went back to her breakfast, giving Kíli time to apply himself to a second cup of coffee and his toast. By this time, Óin's willow bark had had a chance to work, and Kíli almost felt like he might be ready to face the world.

“The consequences of your actions finally catch up with you did they?” his mother inquired, sounding entirely too put upon to be fair.

“You mean my headache?” Kíli asked blithely, knowing very well that wasn’t what she meant, but for some reason the question had irritated him, pricking at something he wasn’t sure he was ready to examine too closely—namely his feelings about anything and everything having to do with his rash offer of courtship.

Lady Dis raised an eyebrow at him and said nothing, daintily cracking the shell of her egg, scooping out the insides with a tiny spoon.

She waited.

Said nothing, as she took delicate little bites of her breakfast, the very embodiment of confidence and patience.

Kíli felt it really wasn’t fair to still be susceptible to his mother’s manipulations at his age. His throat itched. He cleared it, and shifted uncomfortably.

His mother took her time savouring her tea; a habit she’d adopted from Uncle Bilbo. Her eyes were half-closed in exaggerated enjoyment.

The silence stretched.

Kíli was sure he could feel sweat beading down his spine, and he tried to ignore it and his mother.

He failed on both counts.

Shoulders slumping in defeat, Kíli poked at his remaining piece of toast. “Yes, we were thinking about my upcoming nuptials,” he admitted, perhaps a bit sullenly.

His mother took the time to finish her bacon—also cut into dainty little bites—before asking dryly, ”Why do I not think you were celebrating?”

“I think at one point, we were. It gets a little fuzzy after the first couple of hours or so,” Kíli admitted sheepishly. He screwed up his nose, remembering the boisterous singing that may or may not have happened. “There might have been a song.”

“Indeed? Somehow, I don’t think you should sing it to anyone, especially your future wife,” His mother sounded as impressed as the song probably deserved; not that Kíli could really remember much of it, other than the fact that it was more celebratory for saving his brother...before eventually devolving into a mushy ode to Lady Tilda’s sweetness and charm. He may or may not have tried to rhyme fisherman’s daughter with a Hobbit’s larder.

Definitely not something to repeat, ever. As a matter of fact, Kíli fervently hoped that his brother didn’t remember a word of it.

“You have time yet to decide you don’t suit,” Dis reminded him, dryly. “Or maybe you’ll get lucky, and the Princess will realize what a layabout you are in the mornings, and call it off herself.”

Kíli gave that the attention he felt it deserved—that is to say, he ignored it, and applied himself to his coffee.

“Thorin told me about what happened, with the Lady Sigrid and Fíli,” she told him, quietly, and sighed. “You’re right, you know. They would have been miserable, and it would have been bad for the entire kingdom.”

Relief washed over him to hear his mother put his feelings into words. He’d been sure he was right, but a small part of him still felt tremendously guilty, despite the fact that it had been a political union, for basically forcing Fíli to call off the courtship. After all, who was he to say that his brother and the Lady Sigrid couldn’t eventually have been happy? His mum watched him for a moment, considering her next words.

“Thorin worries,” she said carefully, “that she will not be able to be useful to you in her role here—” She held up her hand trying to cut off Kíli's protest, but he plowed on anyway.

“I hardly think how useful Lady Tilda will be is a primary concern,” Kíli glared. “Besides, Uncle is one to talk.” And if he could have stuffed his fist in his mouth, he would have, because Uncle Bilbo was amazing, and Kíli hadn’t meant to imply that Bilbo was useless—only that he wasn’t a dwarf.

“An outsider would have an easier time being married to your brother,” his mother continued, calmly, not arguing the point about her brother, so she obviously understood what Kíli had been trying for. ”For Fíli, at least, is more concerned with the external politics and the Mountain’s place in the outside world. You and your Chosen will always be the face of the throne to the people, and your concern is their care.”

“Don’t you think I know what my duties are?” Kíli asked, shoving his plate with his mangled toast away in frustration. He was feeling defensive, and it was making him even more irritable that he didn’t know precisely why he felt this way. Mother spoke nothing but the truth, with no intention of implying anything negative about anyone. Knowing it didn’t help calm his annoyance one bit, though.

“Think, nadnith,” Dis told him, sharply. “Do you think she will be happy here if she feels she cannot contribute?” Her voice gentled. “All I ask is that you think this through, for once in your life.”

Kíli's groan had nothing to do with his head, and everything to do with being forced to poke at the complicated mess that was his impulsive offer to Tilda. Even the smell of bacon wafting over from the sideboard wasn’t enough to revive Kíli's appetite in that moment. Had he thought this through? Not at all. Did that make it wrong? He didn’t think so—but Mahal help him if he could explain it to someone who didn’t move through a world of the endless song of the earth; its tiny harmonies and choruses, sometimes a calming stream, but often a cacophonic welter of information and vibration that made his head hurt for hours. It was a lot of tiny things to take in and try to interpret; so much so that most of it was lost, like being in the middle of a vast hall full of conversations, all one on top of another, and, unless someone or something was metaphorically shouting, it wasn’t until he consciously tried to focus that even a tiny bit of it became clear. Even then, he usually felt as if he only had the very barest of holds of any given bit—he hadn’t felt an urge to create his First Craft yet, so even Journeyman would be a while, and it would take him ages more to reach senior Journeyman, after all—but it was a part of him, a part of how he saw the world and made decisions, and he couldn’t change it. He wouldn’t know how.

He supposed to anyone other than Biffur, it must look terribly impulsive and ill-thought out.

On second thought, putting himself in the same category as the mad toy-making Cantor didn’t seem so flattering, either.

His mum just gave him a stern look, reminding him that she was waiting for him to at least appear like he was doing some thinking. Then something she’d said came back to him, but with new meaning. “Wait—are you suggesting that Lady Tilda would be better marrying Fíli?” he blurted out, not entirely sure if he was outraged or not, but edging towards ‘yes’.

“No,” his mother corrected, “I said that a marriage between a daughter of Men and your brother, the Bakhuz: the outside king, would be easier than a marriage of a daughter of Men to you.”

Kíli settled back down in his chair, mollified, and he only hoped his mother didn’t spot the flush rising on his cheeks. “I’m not sure why we’re talking about it, seeing as how Fíli can’t marry her anyway.”

“The question is, whether you should be marrying,” Dis reminded him sharply, rapping him on the knuckles with her egg spoon.

Kíli stared at the wall over her shoulder, trying to let go of his irritation and...well, just trying to let go of those distractions and the squirmy, fluttery things going on in his stomach for right now. He let out a long, slow breath, and concentrated on what was left, pushing deep into the welter of noise for that feeling of...that feeling that he was standing on firm ground, of connectedness so fleeting and yet larger than himself that he couldn't find words for it. Took another, and still felt the same. “Yes,” he told her, still feeling sure that this was, if not the right decision, at least a good one.

His mother looked at him for a moment, and it was so exactly the same searching look Uncle Thorin had given him in Laketown as to be uncanny. She nodded once, a decisive little jerk of her chin, and if there was a tiny grin lurking in her expression, Kíli couldn’t decide. The sound in his heart was light enough that he thought maybe she was amused.

“I have inquired into her character,” she told him smugly, and the way she said it, and the look she was giving him left him convinced that she had already decided he should marry the girl, but had, for reasons of her own, wanted to make him say it himself.

Clearly, she had been put in this Earth to torture him.

Kíli quirked a sceptical eyebrow at her statement. “You’ve only just arrived from Erid Luin a fortnight ago—Mahal’s beard, I only got back from proposing the courtship last night—how in the world did you find time to ask anyone questions?”

“I looked into Lady Tilda when I sent inquires about her sister,” Dis said, primly, because of course she did. Kíli didn’t lower his eyebrow and continued to stare back, clearly conveying he was waiting for an explanation. “Lady Sigrid was set to marry your brother after all,” his mother sniffed, obviously not willing to acknowledge any wrongdoing. “I had Nori ask after her sister purely to make sure I had a complete picture of the family.”

Kíli crossed his arms and settle back into his chair, not able to suppress a grin any longer. “And what did you hear?” he asked, genuinely curious. He knew of her, even knew a little bit about her from his own observations; impressions gleaned from dozens of casual encounters over the years—but this might actually make him feel like he knew something solid about his intended, and he was startled to realise just how much he wanted to know. His mother smiled slightly, clasping her hands in her lap as she settled back in her chair, and regarded her youngest son, obviously pleased by the interest he hadn’t even tried to hide. Kíli knew he had a face like an open book, anyway, so didn’t bother to be chagrined.

“Would you like to know what she’s having for breakfast this morning?” his mother asked, archly.

He couldn’t stop his startled bark of laughter, but shook his head. “Thanks, but I think I’ll wait to learn the lady’s culinary habits on my own. Seems like it’s an important first step in a prospective suitor, after all,” he rejoined lightly. “At least, Uncle Thorin would likely say so.”

Lips twitching in sardonic amusement, his mum just shook her head, before affixing him with a dry stare. Kíli held up his hands in surrender. “Alright—what did you learn about the Lady of Dale?”

“By all accounts, she is very much involved in the daily lives of her own people, and very well thought of by them,” she told him. “Men, of course, place valuation on only specific skills when it comes to their daughters, regardless of their natural affinities or inclinations; a strange failing which, peculiarly, does not extend as much to their sons.” His mum frowned faintly, a furrow creasing her brow for this incomprehensible practice, before she shook her head to dismiss it.

Frowning, Kíli tried to imagine Tilda in this light, but couldn’t do it, somehow; she seemed so genuinely herself at every turn.

“So, it is not her skills into which we must seek her character, but her actions. As to those—” she paused, smirking just a bit.

“Muuum!” Kíli protested, smiling a bit at her dramatics, and at the relaxed feeling of it. Lady Dis wouldn't bother to tease if she were truly unhappy with her future daughter-in-law, after all.

“Well,” she relented, ticking items on her fingers as she went. “Lady Tilda is quick to put aside the duties of the home that Men value, to care after others, from elder to child, which demonstrates great compassion, and a proper commitment to her community.” Kíli nodded, his memory stirred, remembering all the times he sees her about town: helping the infirm down by the docks as they weave and repair nets; watching after the children and inventing new games for them to play; dress sleeves rolled up, knee-deep in mud helping to repair a farmer’s fence; carefully redistributing supplies she just happened to have too much of to those who, by the look of them, could use it most. Thinking on it, he hardly ever sees her indoors, or clean and tidy. “She does not bother to walk with decorum when she could run, which shows great passion in what she is doing, and a sense of industry.” Dis continued. “And,” she added softly, “she is well-liked by her people; less remote and noble than her sister, which is proper given her place as second princess, and certainly respected. All in all, she already has the deportment necessary for the partner of the Inner King, and may prove to be a valuable asset to the Kingdom.”

There was a warm flush under his skin to be discussing her like this; things he’d never considered in relation to himself, and his future, and these insights into his pale Lady slotted into places in his soul he wasn’t even aware of. “So, we know she is inclusive of community, energetic, and well-liked by those she serves,” he listed slowly, savouring how it felt to know something of her, even if it was only these very public things; and he hoped to share with her of himself in return someday.

“We will have to start arranging for a grand ceremony to celebrate; perhaps cousin Dain would agree to officiate—along with your Master Biffur of course,” his mum looked like she was already lost in the myriad of details ahead.

Kíli snorted. “Our courtship has only just been declared—if the Lady accepts, we won’t be in the second stage for another few moons—and won’t be joined for almost another year. Don’t you think you’re getting slightly ahead of yourself?”

The exasperated stare that was levelled at him wasn’t warranted, he felt. “Do you have any idea of how many details there are involved in a ceremony like this?”

“Can’t we just keep it simple?” Kíli asked weakly, wilting a bit under the weight of that glare.

Two weeks later, those complicated feelings were still pushed to a corner of his mind, and carefully ignored, when a merchant caravan coming in after passing through Dale brought him a letter from Lord Bard, welcoming him to the House of Dale and officially recognising his and Tilda’s courtship; betrothal, Bard referenced it, though betrothal implied something that couldn’t be broken—all couched in some rather subtly threatening language.

Inside, was a plain silver ring with a narrow, oblong band of golden-hued baroque pearl set into its face. Pearls were rare amongst his people, being a material that could not be obtained in any of their mountain homes, and he wondered if Tilda and her family knew that, and if it had influenced their choice, or if, being mariners by culture, the material was a traditional one; though, given the rarity of them, even in a lake as large as the Long Lake, he found that difficult to believe. The irregular surface of the pearl inlay had a glowing lustre that drew him in the longer he looked at it, and he noticed there was an overtone of pink and rose as it caught the light, and Kíli thought it felt warm beneath his fingertip as he gently caressed it.

Pearl was delicate, and easily scratched, and he wondered again at Tilda’s choice—though a rare and wondrous treasure, and was something he would have to safeguard most carefully as a prince of a mining kingdom, who could be found in the thick of things more often than not. He assumed it was meant as some kind of frivolous challenge—something he was meant to fail, and he frowned, not caring for the picture that was painting, so he dismissed it. Maker knew, he had troubles enough without borrowing any more, though the worry was there, now, and would be difficult to forget. The ring was somewhat slimmer than the styles favoured by his own people, and without any fancy ornamentation—though the simple vessel was perfect for showcasing such a rare treasure, and was apparently, as Kíli tried to parse the meaning in the letter, meant to be a ring indicating intention; a promissory or engagement token, whose design had been chosen by the Lady Tilda.

So, not necessarily a traditional material, then. The thought made Kíli flush warmly, and he firmly reminded himself that the Lady Tilda meant nothing untoward by it; her culture was highly different than his, after all, and the fact that such a token was sent through her father of all people should be enough to convince his wayward nerves that this was considered proper among Men, and not something for which he would have to fear retribution in the dark from avenging kin, out to defend her honour.

He was instructed to wear it on his second-to-last finger of his heart-side hand, and upon their wedding, it would to be stacked with a secondary band; which explained some of its aspect. Distantly, he made a mental note to look into this custom, and if he were supposed to reciprocate in kind. The though of presenting a ring—a symbol of a promise of unending love and commitment and fidelity and all that was best inside of him—to the Lady Tilda made his palms sweat, frankly.

He held the token in his hand for a long time, trying to let the weight of it settle into his bones; into his heart, along with the thought that this was a gift of Tilda’s desire; something she had chosen personally, just for him, and reflecting, in some part, her thoughts of him, though he had to remind himself rather firmly that surely she had different ideas of the meanings of pearl than dwarves did. Jewellery was considered an intimate gift among his own people, and was practically scandalous for this stage of their courtship, but he worked to force himself to understand that this was her people’s custom, and not as forward as it seemed. It didn’t help much, and Kíli had a hard time looking at it without blushing. Sliding his finger over the pearl inlay once again, an idea began to form; a way to maybe blend her tradition with his, and maybe make the ring less uncomfortable. And though pearl would be a bold choice to adorn his courting braid, it would blend the two ideas together, perhaps in a way that would speak to Tilda, as well.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

The lake was calm at this time of day as the sun sank towards the western horizon. Little boats could be seen bobbing on the waves, a small fleet of fishermen heading out to take advantage of the dusk catch, and Tilda enjoyed watching them from her perch on the rocks. The evening air still held onto some of the day’s warmth, making it pleasant with only a light shawl thrown ‘round her shoulders. It was still very early summer, and the gulls were calling in the early evening air their chorus to attract mates. Their cries did not yet have that desperate edge to it that it would have in a week or so, and were almost melodic; or as melodic as open-water birds ever got, but it was a sound that was entrenched in Tilda’s soul. Beside her, Bain was skipping stones, trousers rolled up to his knees as he stood shin-deep in the water, heedless of its cool temperature. He hadn’t said a word since they got here, just let her have her space, and she loved him for it.

Kíli's letter had arrived today. The first one since they had both committed to this courtship weeks ago.

And of course, the first communication since her father had sent the ring she had commissioned for him. It had been one of the most surreal experiences of her life; as if it were somebody else who was getting married, and she merely had the planning of it. This numb feeling afforded her a detachment that allowed her to work through the individual motions; to even put serious and considered thought into her choice of design and material. She didn’t examine her choices closely; couldn’t examine them closely, because she’d walled it off as too difficult to think about, but she knew she made choices that she honestly thought suited, and that he would appreciate. She’d gotten home, greeted her father and sister warmly, discussed her afternoon prospects and some issues with the upper-bank canal, and dismissed Mette—before locking herself in her room as soon as she was upstairs, to be alone and have a small—quiet—breakdown. Her future loomed, murky and not-so-distant as it had seemed that morning.

She wasn’t surprised at her bout of nerves in opening the Prince’s letter, honestly.

Tilda had grown used to being able to understand the language of songbirds because her grandfather had taught them when they were still small; telling them it was their inheritance from their distant, royal forebearers. Back then, it had still been fun to make-believe what life might have been like if they were really still Lords and Ladies, before life on the lake under the Master had taken their energy and taste for such imaginings. Even growing up listening to the language of the birds around her, this was the first time she had ever had a message delivered by raven. And not just any common blackbird, but one of the great ebony Ereborian ravens had come down from the mountain to deliver Kíli's message. It had settled itself on the wide sill by the front window, and refused to budge until Tilda had been summoned, though two of their housemaids had tried to shoo it away. It had croaked what might have been her name, though honestly, Tilda wasn’t entirely sure—and extended its huge wings to reveal on its back a clever little leather harness. Hands shaking, Tilda had retrieved its cargo, as careful as she could be not to muss its feathers, staring the great bird in the eye the whole time, for she’d be damned if the hoary thing would think her afraid; and the raven had stood, still as she had ever seen a bird stand, and stared back at her from glittering dark eyes that made her fingers feel clumsy and thick.

The letter was lumpy, obviously wrapped around something, and Tilda had shoved the tidy package into the pocket of her apron as quickly as she could, not liking the nervous jittering in her stomach one bit, but there was no help for it now, for the thought of her looming future that she had been able to push back since the council meeting was rising up before her like a dark cloud of the unknown. She’d honestly gone through most of the day in a haze, the little letter package feeling like it was burning in her apron pocket accusingly—as though it were a guilty secret, instead of just a letter, and she’d done her very best to ignore it as her stomach flipped and flopped with nerves and anticipation.

Bain might be quiet, but he was also observant, and he obviously noticed, because he’d snagged her elbow after the evening meal, pulling her along in his wake, and Tilda knew instantly what he’d had in mind, and it wasn’t until that instant that she realised how much she needed it. By now, they’d been out here a while, just enjoying the peace of the lake when most everyone else was elsewhere, and it wasn’t such a dreadful flurry of activity. It was a habit of years, whenever it got too much suddenly being Lord Bain, or Lady Tilda, they would sneak off, sometimes with Sigrid in tow when Bain managed to entice her along, just to clamber over the rocks like children and catch their breath in this little out-of-the-way spot they had found. And now, perched cross-legged on the rocks, it was the perfect place to finally pull out her letter.

Fine callouses on her fingertips caught at the parchment as she slowly turned the little bundle in her hands; whatever was wrapped in the centre was weighty enough to know it was there, but not too heavy to suggest that he’d sent her a rock or similar. Not that she was sure why she would even think he would, but she knew so little of dwarven ways beyond that they valued the Mountain and its products above most all else that she honestly had no idea what else he might send her.

With one last look out over the lake, she finally slipped the cord that had been holding it together, and carefully unwound it until a stoppered glass tube fell softly into her palm. Holding it up, the orange light that preceded actual dusk was just enough for Tilda to make out the tiny brown seeds inside. Puzzled, she set it aside, and unrolled the accompanying note.

 

 

 

Hail Tilda, Daughter of the Dragon Slayer and Lady of the North,

 

With this token, I do place myself before your eyes as a suitor, with wishes that yea judge it fair, and consent to allowing me to display my worth, in hopes yea may also judge that to be fair...

I am being so bold as to imagine that the colourful window boxes I noticed upon our company first invading your home all those years ago were yours, and not your sister’s—or even Bain’s. I can lay no proof for this assumption, other than a feeling; and a firm belief that their cheerfulness matches your own heart.

These seeds are from my Uncle’s garden—Bilbo, I mean, not Thorin, for Thorin wouldn't know which end of a flowerpot was which—but originally, the plants came from Bilbo’s own home far in the gentle West, in a place known as the Shire, and I remember the great feeling of homeyness and richness his gardens gave, and the beauty of these blooms all along his front walk. Their fragrance softly perfumed the air that night we descended on him and invaded his dining room, and it was an...encouraging sort of scent that wound its way into one’s nose and one’s heart. The feeling of that place, like an oasis in the middle of famine to poor dwarrow who had been wandering homeless for far too long, reminds me of those little boxes of yours—a defiant and brave touch of magic in a desolate town.

Please plant them in good health, My Lady, and I shall look forward to seeing the fruit of your endeavours come summer.

 

Your plant-illiterate servant,
who also wouldn’t know which end of a flowerpot was which,

 

Prince Kíli of Erebor

P.S. Uncle Bilbo has included some instructions, because he didn’t trust me to convey his comments faithfully. I would be wounded, but he is, unfortunately, probably correct—and it would likely be an ill-omen if my first courting gift to you were to shrivel up

 

Tilda’s hands shook, and it wasn’t until she felt the dampness on her fingertips that she realised that she was crying, and couldn’t for the life of her explain why, other than the sheerly overwhelming idea that a prince, back when she was just grubby little Tilda, scrawny and underfed, would have understood her silly little gardens of so long ago; understood them and been kind enough to remember them.

Some minutes later, and how many Tilda couldn’t say for sure, Bain plunked himself down beside her, and stared out at the glass-like surface of the lake, where it looked almost purple in the light of the setting sun. A gull cried, more desultory than the earlier chorus, before giving up, and winging silently over the far shore. Beside her, Tilda could feel the heat of Bain’s skin seeping into her pores; a comforting, and comfortable presence.

“You look a bit more settled, now that you’ve read it,” Bain finally said, his voice gruff and trying not to be uncomfortable in the quiet air.

Tilda hummed, but didn’t say anything, and neither did he, simply letting it be for now. The air, and the rock beneath her bum, were getting cooler, but Tilda didn’t really notice as they watched the sun as it started to slip below the horizon of the trees in distant Mirkwood, and she thought about all the sights the Prince must have seen on his journey home. The Shire was a distant and vague concept for Tilda, who had never been further than Dale in her whole life, and she could feel the faint thrum of excitement that thoughts of the great wide world beyond her limited borders always brought her. Her imagination ran with all the things that the world must contain, the sights she would likely never see, and holding that small glass phial cradled in her palm and its tiny seeds from the far reaches of the West—an unimaginable distance away—made her fingertips tingle and her cheeks flush with delight as the world felt just a tiny bit closer than it did before. She wanted to crow, to yell her buoyant excitement to the Lake and the gulls and the East wind, but restrained herself. Bain was watching her from the corner of his eyes with a faint, though rather fond, smirk dancing on his lips.

“Oh, go on,” Tilda complained irritably.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Bain demurred, but he was more than a little amused as he leaned in to gently knock her shoulder with his. The battle of six years ago had changed Bain; made him even more thoughtful and serious than he had been before. His arm had healed well, considering they had worried he might lose it altogether, and now only really showed with some stiffness when he made to cast a rod, or tiller a ship in the rough weather that could blow up on the lake. He continued to drill himself with sword and bow, so that he might be better prepared next time, but that though always gave Tilda a dark shiver; she had seen enough of battle to last her the rest of her life. They sat there for perhaps a quarter hour more, before the sun threatened to sink low enough to make the rocks treacherous if they didn’t hurry back. As Tilda rose to dust off her heavy skirt, she turned to gaze at the rising peak of the distant mountain; the dark smudge of purple and blue dominating the Eastern sky. Erebor had been a looming presence on the horizon since she was born, but in the years since Smaug’s defeat, it had slowly become less of a threat in the minds of the surrounding Men, and more a promise of hope and a prosperous shared future.

Beside her, Bain too stared at the Lonely Mountain, his expression serious and calm, though Tilda couldn’t begin to guess what he was thinking. “You good?” he finally asked, and Tilda nodded, pleased to find that she really was feeling settled. It took tremendous thought for Prince Kíli to connect that small past impression to a token to gift to her today, and Tilda found she was no longer quite so worried about their future.

Now nervous? That was an entirely different thing, of course.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

Chapter Text

 

Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

Chapter Four

4

A Study of Differences

 

A courtship was an awkward thing, when neither party knew much of the other, Tilda decided a fortnight later. She had been all over today, scrambling up ladders and down stairs, trying to inventory the herbs, tinctures, salves, linens, unguents and other supplies remaining after the lengthy winter and what was proving to be a protracted spring. Her hair had long since come loose from the nice dressing she had done this morning, and was now simply tied up with a spare bit of string. Her dress was dust-smeared in places, and decidedly rumpled, and an assortment of black streaks marred her from elbows to fingers. So of course, this was the time when she was informed that the dwarven prince had come to call.

Immediately, she was whisked upstairs by Sigrid and Mette, pushed into a tub, and scrubbed to within an inch of her life.

“Couldn’t you at least have waited for the water to finish heating?” she protested as more was poured over her body to wash the suds away. If she hadn’t been clenching her teeth so tightly, they would have been chattering for sure.

“No time—lukewarm will have to do,” Mette told her, but at least she sounded a bit apologetic.

Her sister did not look or sound apologetic at all, of course. “Most of us managed to get through the day without quite as much disaster,” Sigrid pointed out, pursing her lips as she considered Tilda’s form as she huddled in her thick towel. “The rose,” she gave a decisive little nod, and sent Mette scurrying for the dress she’d decided on, as she pushed Tilda into a chair to wrest her honey-blond hair into some semblance of order.

When Tilda arrived in their little parlour twenty minutes later, it was with hair that had been brushed until it shone. Her skin glowed, mainly because of the vigorousTilda might even complain, aggressive—use of a scrubbing-cloth, and her deep-rose dress was accentuated by a pretty braided leather necklace with a glass pendant, and matching ribbons in her hair. Tilda had to admit that Sigrid was really rather good at this sort of thing. Sigrid glided in behind her, looking serene; not a hair out of place to hint at her energetic efforts of a few moments before. She greeted their guests warmly, but with just the proper amount of reserve that left one with the feeling that she had everything quite in hand. It was a feeling that Tilda had been relying on to get her through this.

The parlour was bright, being more of a sun-room than a traditional receiving room, as there was nothing more fleeting or precious than the sunshine in this northern clime, and this room was purposely built to take advantage of it. The walls were painted in a pale yellow, to maximize the light, while the heavy oak furniture was stained dark and polished to shine like the lake’s surface in the sun. Soft, grey-green fabrics had been used for all the cushions and drapes, lightening the dark woods, and making everything warm and inviting. The room was shallow and long, and like her father’s study the whole length of the back wall was lined with large windows, some of which could open to catch the breeze during the short summer months. Beautiful screens of tatted lace stretched on curved wooden frames could be placed in the windows, to moderate the light during the brightest parts of the day, though for now, this early in the summer, most of the windows were left bare.

The dwarven party had been waiting for no more than a quarter hour, and Kíli, at least, had made himself comfortable in sitting down to wait. He appeared perfectly at ease, and was sitting on a bench to the right of the doorway, drumming his heels a bit as the seat was slightly too high. He didn’t seem to mind though, his brown eyes warm and alive as he looked around with avid interest, watching people scurry about the house through the open doors. He looked up and smiled at Tilda when she entered, warm and wide and inviting, with a crooked little crinkle beneath one eye—and it seemed to her that it was an easy smile to like, though she thought perhaps he was trying too hard in this moment, and it made her feel awkward. Of course, she didn’t hide it quickly enough, and, expression falling, he quickly ducked his head to fiddle uncomfortably at imaginary creases in his trousers.

A flash of milky opalescence caught her eye when he ducked; a bead, affixed to the single braid, placed prominently at his temple. The silver bead was set completely with pearl—the kind that only came from the freshwater around these parts, with its golden hue and faintly textured surface that caught the light just so. It might mean nothing...but Tilda rather thought it might, at that.

Well then.

Without allowing herself to over-think it, she plopped down on the bench beside him, clasping her hands in her lap to hide how they trembled with nerves. He peeked at her, smiling shyly this time and looking grateful.

He was accompanied by Balin, and another one of the dwarves that she had thought of as ‘hers’ back when they’d come in through the toilet to bring them all some luck so many years ago. He had ginger hair and a memorable hair-style, seeing as it didn’t so much involve loads of braids as simply styled to surround his head like a spiky halo. Balin greeted her warmly after she’d sat so unceremoniously, and Tilda swore she saw Nori hiding a smirk at her undignified behaviour, and she wanted to pinch him for giving her another thing to worry about, for now she couldn't help but wonder if she seemed a hoyden to Kíli's eyes, too. Neither of them had had a chance to sit before Bain joined them, obviously freshly dressed himself as he no longer smelled like the docks, and he gave Tilda a little wink for courage as he passed her. He reached down to accept Balin’s hand when it was offered, and greeted Nori courteously. When it came to Prince Kíli, he regarded him for a long moment, as though sizing him up, gave him a bare nod, and crossed the room to take a seat by the windows, where he could, no doubt, keep half an eye on the foreyard, which meant he was obviously still working, and just as obviously expecting to be disturbed at some point. The other half-eye he intended to keep on Kíli, Tilda thought sourly. Considering how many things Bain was trying to juggle, Tilda couldn’t remain too cross at him, when he was obviously putting off important things just to be here for her. Sigrid, the consummate hostess, had already settled herself by a tea tray, and was ready to pour out for their guests as Balin and Nori settled awkwardly into the high seats across from her. Tilda absently made note to speak to Mette about having one of the steward’s boys move a couple of the smaller chairs in here for next time, as it looked dreadfully uncomfortable for Balin, though Kíli and Nori both seemed to be coping well.

This seating arrangement left a little bubble of space around her and Kíli; a tiny suggestion of privacy that did nothing except make Tilda even more self-conscious and tongue-tied, and Kíli seemed not much better.

Just as she had predicted, once everyone else had slid into stilted conversations and small pleasantries, of course her brother made an exaggerated show of keeping an eye on them whenever he managed to catch Kíli’s gaze. Kíli didn’t seem to know what to make of Bain’s antagonism, and looked after him, considering, as the young lord began questioning Nori on the state of Erebor after the last winter, and what the hunting prospects were around the mountain.

With Kíli watching them, brow furrowed, Tilda conveniently had the chance to examine him without being caught staring. He wore a few more braids in his hair now than she’d seen him with before, but still fewer, as far as she could recollect, than was his brother’s habit, and she wondered if they were perhaps part of his dressing up for this visit, and the idea was strangely, and confusingly, pleasing. The beads and clasps looked to be of fine make, striking against his raven hair. He still had only a close-cropped beard, but Tilda thought it was rather by choice, because the growth was fuller now and not so inconsistent. It made Kíli look older, a little less boyish, though Tilda thought that nothing would ever truly make him seem grown-up. She wondered at his choice, when all the other dwarves seemed so proud of their facial hair, often braiding more intricate designs below their chins than above their heads.

He seemed to give up on fathoming Bain’s behaviour, shaking his head and turning instead to Tilda. Sigrid and Bain conversed with Nori and Balin, giving the young couple the opportunity to be as awkward as they liked without an audience, while still being there to chaperone and help encourage them should the two of them run totally aground. Kíli cradled the tea he’d been given awkwardly, showing none of his earlier ease, sipping at it distrustfully, with an air of one braving unknown dangers, and Tilda felt her lips twitch at the face he made. Tilda tried to maintain her aloof air, but couldn’t keep the mirth from her face, and with a relieved sigh, Kíli carefully set the cup on the small table at his elbow with exaggerated care.

“I hope my visit today didn’t come at a difficult time for you,” Kíli told her quietly after he’d dealt with the offensive tea. Nori was still smirking at them, but Kíli ignored him.

“Not at all, my Lord,” Tilda tried to assure him. “Your visits will of course be welcome, whenever your duties permit.”

Kíli seemed to relax as she said this, and Tilda was glad one of them could be so easily reassured. The bodice of her dress pressed uncomfortably, unused as she was to being laced in quite so tight, and it really discouraged relaxing too much. She usually needed more freedom of movement in her day-to-day, if she was to keep up with both her tasks, and the children who inevitably flocked to her whenever they found her out and about. She feared she probably looked even more uncomfortable than she was, forced by her more formal wear to sit so straight and stiff. Far from being helpful, the presence of so many others in the room only seemed to increase their discomfort, and Tilda thought it was a particularly silly idea to require a young couple to have an audience as they floundered about.

Kíli looked to be fiddling with his ring now, an ornate band worn on the first finger that Tilda suspected was a signet or crest ring of some kind, and wasn’t looking at her any longer. On his opposite hand, she saw flashes of the engagement band she had commissioned to be made for him weeks and weeks ago, and the sight of it made her swallow dryly. Next to his crest ring, she noticed, hers looked rather plain, and she quickly turned away from it. A month after she’d sent the ring, an official missive from King Thorin arrived—and with it came a slim band of platinum, set with beautiful stones she didn’t even know the name of because she was only a bargeman’s daughter and a counterfeit royal. Some kind of runic words were etched into the inner surface, and Tilda could barely grasp the kind of skill it would have taken to make those tiny, perfect letters, and she briefly wished she could read them – and then right on the heels of that desire, was intense gladness she could not, because she wasn’t sure she was ready to deal with whatever it might say. Right now, it felt like it was burning the skin where it rested on her ring finger; only partly because it was beautiful.

Mainly because the letter had indicated that Kíli had made it himself. Personally.

And that made it heavy in ways she didn’t want to poke at too much.

She wasn’t quite sure what that might mean in his culture, but she had a funny feeling it might mean something. It made her chest feel warm and tight at the same time, and her breath hitch a tiny bit in a way that was as unwelcome as it was uncomfortable. And warm, her heart pointed out. Definitely warm. One of the stones winked at her, and she fought the urge to shove her hand in her pocket. If she’d still had her apron on, of course.

She felt perfectly justified in chalking this up as another reason to hate formal wear. She also reminded herself, yet again, that she had to find a private moment to question someone on what kind of stone it was. It seemed like the sort of thing she ought to know.

Denethor could probably tell her; if the very thought of asking the arrogant lordling didn’t prick her pride quite so much, that was.

On second thought, maybe she didn’t need to know after all.

In private moments, she admired the beauty of it; usually late at night, before slipping into that dream-state that made everything seem clearer and more sensical than it was, and the beautiful shifting luminescence of the blue-green stones would follow her into her imaginings; brilliant stars hanging in the night-scape of her dreams, distant keepers of ageless secrets.

To her left, Sigrid asked after the reduced number of ravens spotted in the skies, which sparked a long discussion about the birds’ habits and patterns that Tilda found herself wishing to be part of, but dutifully keeps her attention on Kíli.

Trying to fill their silence and obviously casting for conversation, Kíli asked, “Your father keeps you busy, running his household?”

“Busy enough, my Lord. The staff need directing, and inventories must be kept. There is always supplies to be laid by, for leaner times, and weaving to be done when all else is finished.” Tilda recited her skills in household management dutifully, trying not to look or sound as if the very mention of doing those chores for the rest of her life wasn’t vaguely alarming. Even Kíli, who was wrinkling his nose faintly, seemed disinterested, and he only had to hear about it, she thought crossly.

She was prevented from having to find something else to say by Bain, who had crossed the room while they had been talking. Kíli looked up at her brother, seeming unsure if he was expected to rise or not, and for a moment Tilda was overcome with sympathy for him being surrounded by so many unknown customs, and obviously making an effort to comport himself well. She hoped she did half so well when she was eventually presented to his people.

“A gift from the House of Dale, for the King Consort, your Highness,” her brother announced gruffly, thrusting a box towards Kíli awkwardly while he frowned at the two of them sitting side-by-side on the bench. “Seeds from some of our local nut trees that he had expressed interest in, last he spoke with my father. Black walnuts, they are, and the trees are highly prized by folks hereabouts.”

“Ah, thank you?” Kíli managed, clearly not expecting anything of the sort. Bain nodded once, and moved to sit down by the window again. Nori stifled a suspicious sounding cough, and Tilda swore he was grinning again behind his hand. Sigrid was shooting Bain an exasperated stare before hastily picking a new subject on which to question Balin, and the little quartet was quickly diverted. From Bain’s frown, Tilda would bet Sigrid had found a way to pinch him, hard.

Sigrid’s pinches were always hard.

“Have I done something wrong?” Kíli whispered to Tilda. His confused eyes hadn’t left Bain, and he still sat with his arm outstretched, clearly not sure what he was meant to do with Bilbo’s gift.

Gently, Tilda reached over to tug his hand down again, bringing the box between them. “No,” she reassured him. “Bain is simply not comfortable with the idea that his youngest sister is old enough for courting.”

Kíli continued to study her brother for a moment longer, clearly turning this information over in his head. “I see,” he finally said, turning back, but his expression was still confused. “He does realise that you are of age, doesn't he?”

Tilda had to quickly jam her fist in her mouth to muffle the burst of laughter that tried to get out, lest she draw everyone’s attention. “At eighteen, I’m more than of age, my Lord. He realises; just...doesn’t like to think about it.”

“Is it the same thing that afflicts your father?” he asked, with a wry quirk of his lips.

Tilda smiled, though there was perhaps a tiny touch of wistfulness there, too. “Is any father comfortable with his daughter growing up and leaving his house?”

“Amongst dwarrow, it is entirely a dam’s choice to accept or discard a courtship,” he informed her, head cocked slightly as he watched Tilda curiously while still keeping an eye on Bain. “Her parents find it cause for celebration; nothing is more joyous than a prospective bonding or union.” Kíli turned more fully, catching and holding Tilda’s eyes. “Was it not your choice to accept this courtship, my Lady?” he asked gently, and for the first time since Tilda had known him, the mischievous light in his eyes was in abeyance.

Tilda could feel heat creeping up her cheeks, but she nodded, slowly. “My father asked if I was willing, yes.” Somehow, that earnest gaze made her continue, “I thought, well, I thought we had as good a chance as anyone to get along. I mean, I think we might come to suit each other very well...in time.” It was already a forgone conclusion in her mind that they would wed, after all.

Kíli nodded, clearly thinking about her answer. “And they...they would not gainsay you if you were to want to...to call it off, sometime later?” he asked softly. “To declare me the very vilest of dwarrow heathen and walk away?” And his tiny hesitations betrayed the seriousness beneath his silly wording.

Tilda tilted her head and wrinkled her nose, trying to play into his teasing and pretend she didn’t notice his discomfort, since she really didn’t understand its source. She answered truthfully, “No, my father would not object were I to end our courtship.”

“Even were you to leave me at the door of my mansion, on the very eve of our union?” he pressed, and for the life of her, Tilda couldn’t imagine where these worries came from. But then, Kíli had seen much of the world, and living with Lord Denethor had certainly made Tilda aware in ways she never had been before that not all Men looked at basic rights and privileges the same way. Satisfied that she had solved the source of Kíli's concern, she was able to relax and be more natural, touched at his concern. “Even were I to leave you in the temple itself,” she assured him with a cheeky smirk.

Kíli let out an exaggerated breath at this, and winked, but his expression was kind, rather than playful. “And I am very glad to hear you say so,” he said softly.

Her answering smile was equally soft, but she winked back playfully a second later, far more comfortable with a lighter mood, after such intimacy. “If you like,” she told him cheekily, “in a way, it’s also a bit of a challenge...of sorts. I mean, if you cannot weather a few stern gazes and bluster from Bain and Da, than you are not very sincere, are you?”

The speculative look Kíli shot at Bain had her stuffing her fist in her mouth again.

He took his leave of them while they were gathered in the fore-yard. Balin and Nori had already mounted, and waited patiently, their quiet conversation a murmuring sound floating on the breeze. Though to Tilda it seemed a long way to travel for a few hours visit, neither of them had the luxury of time under the burden of duty; so small stolen afternoons like this would continue to come with the price of hard travel and a night on the road for the prince and his travelling party. She was startled to realise that she was...glad of the time they’d spent together, and the idea of his next visit brought with it a soft bubble of anticipation that caused the corners of her lips to twitch into a tiny smile.

Letting the groom, a young boy of Hilde’s pressed into an ill-fitting livery because the lad was all elbows and wrists and kept growing at an alarming rate, hold the reins of his saddled pony, Prince Kíli bowed low to Sigrid and Bain in turn while Tilda stood to the side, hands clasped tightly before her, so she wouldn’t be tempted to fidget. He bowed to her last, perhaps holding it just a second longer than before, though Tilda wasn’t really sure. “Here’s to choice, my Lady,” he murmured, and his brown eyes were warm as he looked up at her.

She never felt much like a lady, and always like just-plain-Tilda, but when Kíli said it to her, she could almost believe it.

The first truly grand gift she got, apart from her betrothal ring, was actually from Kíli's mother. Summer came, and the formidable Princess Dís had come down from the mountain to see for herself her son’s bride-to-be, and Tilda had never been so intimidated in her life as she was in that stately dam’s presence. She too had midnight-black hair, so Tilda could only presume Fíli got his golden locks from their father, and her beard was fine, and full and looked downy-soft, and was braided with fine chains and tiny charms to form a shining pattern of great beauty. Her skin was tanned, like Kíli’s and Thorin’s, and her eyes so dark blue as to almost be black. Her dress was regal, with a high collar and a dyed leather bodice and over-skirt of violet-blue with a kirtle of pale cream beneath, and the whole was finished with a wide, bejewelled belt of woven silver. And even though she had to look up at Tilda when they were presented, Tilda was left with the distinct impression that the only one who was never at a disadvantage in a given meeting, was the Princess Dís.

“Come, child, let us get to know one another,” she said in a low voice, and Tilda remembered that it was she who should be inviting her future mother-in-law to sit, and that she was making a horrible impression as hostess—and then began to wonder if maybe she had already blundered some other way, as maybe dwarves had different rules? And oh, how was she ever going to put her foot right with them, when she was constantly miss-stepping even amongst her own race? By the time it came to pour the tea, her hands were shaking and she sloshed cream, almost dropping the biscuits as she compensated, and she only barely restrained the urge to stomp her foot in humiliated frustration. A large hand on her wrist stilled her, and she looked up to see Lady Dís regarding her. She wasn’t smiling, precisely, but there was warmth in her eyes and in the tiny upturn of her lips, and she always seemed to have such an aura of calm and control—two things Tilda always found herself to have in short supply. Irrelevantly, Tilda thought that Fíli seemed to take more after his mother in temperament.

Somehow, though, the gesture helped, and Tilda was able to settle in and discuss nothing much in particular, as Lady Dís seemed intent on asking the oddest questions; about her hair, and when her mother had died; if the colour of her dress was one she favoured, or did she prefer another; the exports of Laketown, and the progress at Dale. She spent the most time asking after what Tilda had studied in her lessons, probing Tilda’s knowledge until she couldn’t hide her unseemly interest in affairs outside her own studies. Reluctantly, she finally admitted to stealing Bain’s books because she hadn’t liked her own.

Lady Dís, however, didn’t even blink at Tilda’s shameful confession. “And what did you favour, in your borrowed studies?” she asked, looking at her from over the rim of her teacup; and Tilda was distracted by how ridiculously tiny the cup looked in the dwarven lady’s broad hand, and yet how delicately she held it, as if not at all concerned for its fragility within her grasp.

“I was taught all the domestic arts, my Lady,” Tilda informed her dutifully. After all, she did study them. It was her own business whether or not she felt improved by the experience. “I am well versed in household management and accounts, embroidery and sewing. I also have some—”

Lady Dis brought her recitation to a halt with a wave. “I’m sure you are educated in all that you needed to know for your duties here; but what of your interests? What did you learn that made your heart sing?”

Tilda struggled to keep her brow from furrowing. Was this some kind of test, to judge her worthiness? What was the right answer? Would the dwarves look with more favour at her skills organizing and inventorying surpluses? In embroidery? Keeping accounts and budgets? Certainly not in her ability to never stay neat and tidy, or do what she ought. The mountain seemed so far away, and its ways so strange, Tilda stared for what must be an unconscionably rude amount of time, not sure how to answer as she tried to parse what Lady Dís was really asking, possible answers chasing uselessly ‘round her thoughts.

“Maths,” she found herself blurting truthfully, and promptly bit her own tongue in annoyance at herself, for surely that was the wrong answer to this test of hers, as it wasn’t even really a proper occupation for a girl. Oh well, in for a penny. “Everything, really,” she added softly. “There’s just so much to know about the world, when we’re just a tiny part of it.

Dis, however, smiled at her, a genuine smile, and changed the subject to ask after her sister, and Tilda found herself daring to hope she had somehow passed—or more probably, at least wasn’t in disfavour.

Tilda's Gift

So when, three full sevendays later, a package arrived, Tilda received it with shaking hands. Too large to have been sent by raven, it had come with a merchant party coming down from the mountain, bringing a load of fine silks and teas from points further east. The bundle was well-wrapped, first in oilskin, then in heavy wool cloth, and when she opened it, she found a beautifully oiled, narrow wooden box. It was about the length of her forearm, from wrist to inner elbow, and about as wide, and patterned with painstaking precision. The top lifted off, and there was a contraption attached to the underside of it, so that when you lifted the lid off, the device came with it. The rim of the box was made in such a way that you could turn the lid upside-down, and rest it inside the lip, so that the bottom of the box became the base.

The contraption, because Tilda could think of no other word for it, was an ivory-inlaid brass cylinder, with rows and rows of numbers, and when she examined it more closely, she found that the numbers were on dials and could be twisted, and when you did, other dials turned of their own accord, to display more numbers, in answer to the ones chosen. A thin, polished steel rail ran the length of it, with a hinged arm, and a magnifying glass of brass attached, that could slide the entire length of the rail, making the finely wrought numbers easier to view.

She could use the knobs at either end to spin other dials and change the function she wished the numbers to perform, so that when she lined up the calculation she wished to make, she arrived at a different answer, depending on the function she chose, so that she could multiply and divide, find roots and squares and other calculations she didn’t even have names for yet; but oh, how she longed to learn. Bain tried very hard not to find approval with it, but it was a fact that her brother often asked to borrow it to do his own calculations when he was working with the merchant or labourer accounts, even though he often ended up asking Tilda to complete them for him.

The note inside said simply,

For the Lady of Laketown

May it be worthy of the heart that uses it.

The hand itself was not so heavy as to make her absolutely sure (okay, fine, admit) it was male, but not so fine as to be delicate; though if she were being absolutely, unequivocally honest, the writing looked no different whatsoever from any of the notes she’d already received from the mountain. She chose to believe that it had been sent from Lady Dís, anyway. It made her heart flutter less, at any rate, which she decided was a thoroughly disagreeable sensation when you weren’t sure it was warranted. The slide-rule (at least, that’s what Denethor had called it, when he saw it sitting on the desk shortly after it had arrived) held a place of honour on the desk in the small household office she shared with Sigrid, and she would often absently run her fingers along its smooth base when she was there alone.

And if, when she sometimes happened to think of the hand that crafted it, it was a certain dwarven prince, not princess, she thought of, well, that was also her business, wasn’t it?

It was a fact that she shopped with Mette in the marketplace for fabric the next time she was able, and began to carefully plan how she would cut, sew and embroider it into one of the fine formal vests her people favoured, and send it to Kíli, for surely it was only proper to send him something of her own hand, since the dwarves seemed to focus on the crafts they could produce. She also embroidered a set of linen pillowcases, though she was afraid her stitching was likely very poorly done indeed, and sent them dutifully up to the Lady Dis with the next passing caravan. The vest, of course, took much longer as she had never been more than passing fair at sewing, and never taken such care with any project before; and even with Mette’s help and Sigrid’s advise it wasn’t until shortly before the midwinter celebration, when the weather was still passable enough for caravans to travel, that Tilda was pleased enough with the outcome to send it.

Kíli continued to come sporadically before winter weather would end the visits, and though admittedly highly infrequent, Tilda found that she looked forward to his coming; she even managed to keep herself a little neater, in anticipation of a servant running and finding her wherever she happened to be, to tell her a dwarven party had been spotted on their way to the Long Lake. Today, she was in the stillrooms, helping Sigrid direct the making of preserves with the late summer harvest. It was hot work, with all the simmering vats, but the heavenly smells of fruit jams and syrups made her feel like she was stoppering summer into a jar. It was a fun day, with everyone in good spirits despite the heavy work, and Tilda hummed a little as she saw to the sealing of the jars with wax. Everyone snitched little bites as they went, the pieces already too ripe to keep well, and the sticky sweetness was like an explosion on the tongue. Tilda realised that once she married Kíli (and she has no reason to call it off; she would not deny her da the chance to reclaim Dale), she would likely never be doing this again, or having a day filled with such good spirits and comradery over a shared task. It made her a little homesick already, for what fruit grew in Erebor?

“What do you think it will be like, under the mountain?” Tilda asked, and she wasn’t sure if she was nervous or not, or at least, if she was nervous enough to be afraid of the change.

Sigrid was quiet as she finished with her jar, wiping her hands on a cloth, cleaning each finger deliberately as she thought. “Different, I suppose,” she said slowly, and Tilda could hug her sister for the comforting tone she was striving for. “I don’t think your duties will be that dissimilar though, if perhaps on a larger scale, so at least that will be familiar.” Sigrid didn’t say anything more for a long while, giving all her focus on stirring and not letting the syrup burn as it concentrated enough for storage, and Tilda had almost forgotten they were speaking, so lost was she in her own thoughts and worries of the future. It was therefore a good long moment before she noticed Sigrid’s stirring slow, and eventually stop.

“Sig?” she asked.

Sigrid looked up to catch Tilda’s eye. “Are you sure about this, Til?” she asked, and her voice was strained with worry.

Tilda busied herself with the stoppered jars, rearranging them so she wouldn’t have to look at Sigrid’s commiserating look. She couldn’t escape her own thoughts, though, and they centred on all the things that made her uncomfortable: Kíli's warm concern over her well-being, the fear of spending the rest of her life amongst people so alien, the gift of freedom to think things that maybe she hadn’t thought before and the feeling of his hand holding hers. Of course, she couldn’t hope to express any of this, so she pushed it away with a tiny shake of her head, instead. “Oh, Kíli is a merry sort, I think. We shall muddle along just fine,” she said after a moment, and though she said it lightly, she was pleased to realise that she meant it. “Besides,” she said, looking up and grinning at her sister’s serious face, “I have no particular interest with anyone else, so let me make this marriage for Dale, and you may yet have the opportunity to live a full and happy life in Dol Amroth by the sea, with your own Prince.”

“That’s hardly certain,” Sigrid protested primly, and blushed twenty shades of pink, pushing Tilda very rudely in the shoulder. She smiled, though, and Tilda knew she was making the right choice. Her sister, she noted fondly, looked softer, somehow, in these unguarded moments, since Adrahil’s arrival last week to speak with their da; like she was glowing from inside, somewhere, with a happiness that couldn’t be contained. Unfortunately, with that happiness also came more than her share of trepidation.

“Certain enough,” Tilda reassured her, meaning it. “Da will get over it, and he and Adrahil’s father will come to suitable terms.”

Sigrid blew out a breath, causing the strands of hair that had come loose from her braids to dance about her brow. “Yes, but Adrahil’s father, Prince Angelimir, is not in favour of the union, and Da is very offended.”

“As he should be,” Tilda asserted with a decisive little nod. “Angelimir should be so lucky to have you for a daughter-in-law.” And the haughty and prim look Tilda gave as she said it had Sigrid in stitches, forgetting her worries for a moment, so Tilda was happy with herself.

When Kíli inevitably chose that day to make a visit, it was a flushed and sticky Lady who met him, as even Sigrid didn’t have time to work one of her miracles to clean her up. Kíli shot her an amused smile, but it was pleased instead of judging, so Tilda decided she liked him fine enough indeed when he looked at her like that, plum-stains on her sleeves and all.

She couldn’t help but wonder how King Thorin felt about her as a potential relation, before deciding that he must not have anything specific against her, or he would have found some way to make his displeasure known by now. And Bilbo, his King Consort, had sent her a lovely letter of welcome shortly after Kíli's seeds were sent, so if nothing else, she seemed to have one half of the royal couple on her side. He’d even sent her a handkerchief, sweetly embroidered with a motif of little leaping fish. Kíli later told her when she showed it to him, that it was a hobbit custom of some sort, and he grinned fondly down at the finely-pressed linen square before wrapping Tilda’s fingers around it gently, as if encasing something delicate and special.

She was beginning to suspect it might be; she smiled softly back at him, as he easily enveloped her hand, precious handkerchief and all, with his. His skin was roughened with calluses, and his hand was huge compared to hers; it gave her a peculiar feeling in her stomach, fluttering and warm, when he flushed under her scrutiny, ducking his head. They’d smiled shyly at each other until Bain had given a very disgruntled sounding cough from across the room, breaking the moment, and they had shifted apart again, and talk turned to more innocuous things.

Her hand tingled for the rest of the afternoon, and she couldn’t look at Bilbo’s gift without the confused warmth blossoming in the pit of her stomach, or her cheeks flushing embarrassingly. It went into a small box, beneath her bed, along with his few letters.

Their courtship had been very formal, with not nearly enough time spent together to truly know one another, but Tilda found herself approaching her wedding day with a sense of embarking on an adventure, as opposed to something to be feared. She had been right, all those months ago, when she told Sigrid that she thought they would suit each other well enough, and she thought that given time, they might even be happy.

If nothing else, she thought perhaps she could get him to teach her to shoot a bow as the dwarves did, for it looked very fun indeed.

.o.♔.o.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Five

5

Crucible

~Or, in which The Difference Between Family and Bullies is Slim, indeed~

.o.♔.o.

It was the eve of her wedding, or more accurately, the eve of the eve of her wedding, and she was disembarking from the boats, on what would be the final leg of her ceremonial journey from the house of her parents, to the place of her marriage and the subsequent celebration. Actually, since the dwarves had been courteous enough to agree to it—had even suggested it—her wedding was going to be in Dale proper, instead of the Mountain, and her people couldn't be more excited or full of pride at this celebration of the new Kingdom.

Her father was waiting for her, in Dale itself, as it was traditionally the groom's family's responsibility and honour-bound right to escort her on her journey, and the showing of warriors and other precautions was considered tribute to herself, and how much her groom valued her inclusion in his family. Tilda had to suppress a nervous giggle, for if this was the case, then she would be forced to conclude that Prince Kíli and his family must value her very much, if it weren't for the sneaking suspicion that Dwarves might be prone to go overboard on such things, for the rumour among the staff was that King Bard had initially been in shock at Thorin's proposals for her safety, and had talked the other monarch down somewhat.

Looking around her, Tilda had to conclude with some exasperation, but mostly fondness, that her Da hadn't tried to talk him down all that much.

A full company of twenty accompanied her, which was such an excessive display as to be unheard of, even in stories of older, prosperous times. King Thorin had surprised her further with his thoughtfulness and diplomacy by approaching not just Bain, but also Sigrid, and asking if they would join their number, for which Bain had been forced to give his first grudging approval of her new family, and Sigrid had been quick to don her bow and belt her slim short-sword, staring down Lord Denethor's surprised spluttering when he'd seen her with only a cool gaze. As far as Tilda knew, this was the first time Denethor had ever directed his disapproval towards Sigrid, and she rather hoped it might make him re-think some of his ideas, but she doubted it. Prince Kíli had left a day ahead of them, with a small force, including the Princess Dís, to clear their way of enemies, and Tilda was forced to accept that though this was a formality meant to be a silly showing of wealth, Kíli and his kin, at least, took this very seriously. Fíli, whom she had learned always carried an excessive number of knives, now seemed to bristle with them, clinking and rattling with every step, while Dwalin, in addition to his huge battle axes, also had an obscenely large sword strapped at his side, a mace, and what appeared to be a sling tucked into his belt. His knuckle-dusters shone faintly in the light.

Something Kíli had once said, or, or...reacted to at some point, tickled her thoughts. Perhaps, they saw it as some in kind of challenge? Some heroic deed to be accomplished?

In the end, Tilda just shook her head at the incomprehensible.

The boats, which had sailed them up the long distance of the Long Lake, before rowing up the River Running, were newly outfitted with dwarven constructions that fired arrows in dizzying rounds by means of a crank (she'd managed to talk one young-faced lad, Regi, into a demonstration that had earned her a stern look from Bain, but a gruff wink from the bald dwarf who had once threatened to rip Bain's arms off.) For four days those guns had been dutifully manned, day and night, despite the fact that the Lakemen hadn't faced a threat of raiders on this lake for decades. Once they departed the Long Lake, Tilda spent her time glued to the rail, watching the horizon as, hour by hour, the shining stone spires of Dale grew on the horizon. The late afternoon light was just beginning to wane into the hint of dusk when they debarked, no more than a handful of miles outside of the city. Her dwarven entourage would deliver her to her father's house at the outskirts of town for all to see on the morrow, but for tonight, they would sleep on solid ground instead of the cramped boats, and enjoy a proper fire and a hot meal.

Glóin got a fire going while the rest scattered, each seeming sure of what they were supposed to do; even her siblings took no more than a glance around before heading off to help, seeming to know instinctively where they could be useful. Tilda looked around, awkward and uncertain as to what she was expected to do, but invariably was drawn to the warmth of the crackling fire as it began to catch. Bombur, with Sigrid's help, was setting up a rough cooking station, directing Óin and Dori in arranging his tools to his satisfaction, and she remembered Kíli once telling her that the large dwarf was one of the best cooks in Erebor, though actually an architect by trade. The soft look of pleasure as Bombur hefted a truly enormous iron ladle was enough to convince Tilda that he missed his kitchen, and she smiled to herself watching him approach his pots and pans like dearly-missed friends as he discussed various techniques and methods with Sigrid.

"He truly can do miraculous things with just a bit of cram and a handful of dried-out leftovers in the bottom of a trail-sack, you know." The soft, affectionate voice of the King Consort made her jump as he came up behind her, which drew complaints from all of her stiff and cramped muscles, sore after her long confinement to the ships.

"My goodness, dear," he tutted, reaching out to steady her by her elbow. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"My apologies, your Majesty," Tilda stumbled, not at all sure if she had missed something she was supposed to be doing. "I didn't know if I should—I mean, I was just—"

"Catching a quiet moment while you could," Bilbo smiled at her, and it was a kind look, full of commiseration. "The lot of them can be a bit overwhelming, when they're in their element." He wrinkled his nose a little, and added, "Or out of it, for that matter."

Tilda giggled before she could catch it, but Bilbo just looked amused, and not at all put out, so she let it go. For a moment, the two of them just stood there, side by side, watching as the rest of camp worked around them, like a well-rehearsed dance, and Bilbo just simply let her be. Everyone around her was busy and involved in something, but her eyes kept drifting to Thorin, looking not at all kingly but perfectly comfortable as one of his company. His easy and relaxed manner was...strangely dichotomous for reasons Tilda didn’t fully want to think about, but had much to do with the dark kingly figure of six years ago that still plagued her dreams on occasion. Looking open and at ease—in truth, looking as much a king as her father did, day to day; Thorin had collared Fíli and Balin, the three of them heading out into the woods, presumably for more firewood. Tilda couldn’t help but stare after them, lost in thoughts that wouldn't fully coalesce for her. Bofur had left to fill waterskins and pots down at the river, while Nori, along with Bain, was evaluating flat sections of ground to set up tents. Nori was whistling, the sound vaguely harmonious with the sounds of industry all around them, and Tilda shook off her momentary unease and felt herself grinning, just to be a part of this.

"We haven't had much of a chance to speak, before now," Bilbo mused, as he reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a leather roll, which turned out to contain his pipe and a pouch of weed, and it only took a moment before practised fingers had his pipe packed and lit, and in a thrice the earthy scent of pipeweed smoke was hanging in the air. It was a comforting smell, reminding her of her da when he would have time to sit around at home with them, smoking his pipe and repairing his lines as the three of them gathered 'round his feet for tales and stories as he worked, and Tilda found herself breathing in a bit deeper, trying to hold that feeling inside. It was a long, quiet moment before she remembered that Bilbo had spoken.

"No, we haven't," Tilda finally agreed. "You don't leave the mountain that often, I don't think."

The hobbit made a wry face. "Rather, I do, but usually whenever an envoy is needed in the Elven realms. I can trust the dwarves to handle relations with Laketown without too much disaster."

"If you think that so far our dealings have been only acceptably disastrous, I shudder to think what would happen if you left them alone with the Elves," Tilda observed, feeling full of sass and perhaps too tired to remember to hold her tongue, as this was definitely not a very diplomatic thing to say.

"You have no idea," Bilbo huffed dryly, sounding not at all offended, drawing on his pipe with renewed vigour, as if he could exorcise past vexations. He glanced at Tilda, side-eyed, and she tried not to snicker but then they were both laughing softly. Glóin had finished with the fire, and now he and Nori were arguing animatedly some ways off, over the correct way to set up the tents. Most of the words were lost to her, but some of them definitely sounded like curse words, given their heated inflections. Beside her, Bilbo began blowing smoke rings, and Tilda stared, amazed by his skill; she'd never seen rings blown so large, or so perfectly round, even by old William, and he was fully in his seventh decade, and been practising for six of them, he would proudly boast. "I would like to offer you a piece of advise, and two observations, if it's welcome?" Bilbo said, after he'd blown a string of particularly fine rings.

Tilda flushed, but nodded; not at all sure what he might share, but eager none the less, for Bilbo, however much ease he was treated with now, started off as an outsider amongst these dwarrow, too.

"First, if I can tell you one thing, the one thing that probably would have made the early months with Thorin much smoother, is this: inevitably, dwarves will always think like dwarves, no matter how much you might wish it were otherwise."

What? Tilda blinked at him, trying to digest this, but no, it still sounded silly. "What was that, again?"

Bilbo's lips quirked. "Just so. Dwarves do not think like 'outside' races, so you will be much better off trying to learn to think like them."

Somehow, this didn't come as a surprise to Tilda, who had already observed the very secular dwarves who ventured to set up shop in the market places of Laketown and Dale. The few times she'd tried to engage them in conversation, hoping to learn something of her new people, she had been met with taciturnity and suspicion. "Oh-okay," she nodded. "Try to learn to think like a dwarf."

"Well, at least learn to appreciate things from their point of view," Bilbo amended. "If you can anticipate their reactions, it will save you a lot of aggravation; Yavanna knows they don't think with any kind of sense most of the time."

Tilda tried to suppress her smile, but was pretty sure she was failing. "And the observations?" she asked, valiantly fighting the urge to giggle.

Blowing out on his pipe, Bilbo paused, watching the wispy ring dance on the evening breeze. "Just these:" he said carefully, speaking more to the fire than to her, "Kíli is a good lad with a warm heart, no matter what else he may be. And," He paused, still not looking at the girl at his side as he spoke to the fire, voice careful and kind, and for her ears only. "And, you could do far worse than to keep an open heart in the face of the...unexpected."

Well, that was vaguely alarming. But she was more amused than alarmed, given the obvious concern and kindness radiating from Bilbo's words as he stood there with her companionably, one hand stuffed in his trouser pocket as he smoked. She leaned in a little bit with her shoulder, acknowledging and appreciating his concern, while Bilbo turned to her and smiled back, reaching up as if to ruffle her hair, before drawing his hand back with an embarrassed huff.

At Tilda's bemused expression, Bilbo waved his hand in the air in exasperation. "First lesson on thinking like a dwarf, lass; hair is important. Far too private for something that hangs out in the open, for all to see, frankly," and this last part was directed over Tilda's shoulder, and she turned, surprised and a bit uneasy to find that Thorin—and Fíli, had come up behind them while they talked.

"Perhaps, âzyungel," Thorin rumbled, looking at Bilbo sternly; and for a moment Tilda’s breath caught, for the light caught his countenance just so, and his face was shrouded in shadow, calling up menace and bile. A heartbeat later, the clouds scuttled, and his expression was once again merely stern, and Tilda scolded herself for her foolishness, especially when this dwarf was to be her family very soon. And that felt about as reassuring to think on as knowing there was a wasp in the room, but not knowing where.

Tilda was sure she kept her expression under control, but something must have shown, in her split-second of unease, because Thorin shot her a look, even as he continued to address Bilbo. "But perhaps,” he rumbled, “these are things that my nephew will explain to the Lady Tilda in his own way."

Bilbo just gave the King a most unimpressed stare, and Tilda was fascinated to see Thorin actually flush, and avert his eyes. Fíli muffled a laugh behind his hand and his uncle shot him a sour look, making the young prince raise his hands in surrender, though laughter still danced behind his solemn expression. An embarrassing sound, halfway between a snort and a giggle, burst out before Tilda could stop it, to see them so, and Thorin looked at her with mild rebuke, but there was no sting in his expression. She pressed her lips together, but couldn't stop another mirthful sound from escaping, and Thorin threw up his hands.

"I see how it's going to be," he grumbled, and never would Tilda have imagined this—that this intimidating King would be so relaxed as to allow his kin to nettle him so playfully; or, stranger still, that he would allow her to witness it, and she relished how seeing it made her feel a little more comfortable about her reception at the mountain in a few days’ time. Perhaps the dwarves weren't so strange, after all.

Tilda continued to linger by the fire, deciding the little bit of guilt she had over not helping was manageable, in the face of feeling warm and comfortable for perhaps the first time in three days. A little latter, Fíli rejoined her, dragging a log over to the fire with Dwalin's help, which he presented to her with a silly little flourish. "It's not a fine couch, but hopefully you'll find it comfortable enough," he told her, with a warm grin that somehow reminded her of his brother. Dwalin grunted, in a vaguely deferential way, if such a thing could be done, and stalked off, motioning curtly for Fíli to follow.

Reaching out to grasp his elbow, tangling her fingers in the softly worn linen of his tunic before he could move away, Tilda almost thought better of her hasty action when he turned back to her, looking confused. "More comfortable than the ground, certainly. Thank you," she told him honestly, squeezing his arm gently. He finally met her gaze, blue eyes looking back at her with openness that she found reassuring, and something shifted in his expression, becoming softer, or maybe more relaxed. His lips curled into a slight smile and he nodded once, holding her gaze easily as he did so, before he left her to stay warm by the fire as he hastened after Dwalin to where they looked to be arguing over tents. Dori could be heard scolding one and all impartially as Nori kept inserting unhelpful little comments and Bofur wrung his hands, playfully miming distress.

It was only after she gasped for air, that she realized she'd been holding her breath while she watched.

Tent, she realized suddenly. Not tents. The dear, daft company were arguing over the proper way to set up a tent, just for her and Sigrid, and she resolved, fondly, to be impressed—even if they managed to hang it upside-down. Their thoughtfulness warmed her far more than the fire, and she smiled happily to herself, even though she was going to miss the experience of sleeping on the open road, like a true adventurer out of a bard's tale.

Eventually, it was Bofur who stopped playing about and got assertive, and her tent was pitched with a minimum of fuss thereafter. Especially with Dwalin there, to enforce the affable miner's words with hard glares. Fíli, she was startled to see, could be found rolling in the grass, laughing his fool head off at the whole affair. So much for his regal image, Tilda thought, but she couldn't help but like him better for it, especially when she tried to picture Lord Denethor in his place.

She wasn't all that surprised to find that she couldn't do it.

Bain, she noticed, was watching the proceedings with tight-pressed lips, obviously almost pushed past his limit to not laugh even as he eyed Fíli enviously.

Dinner was a simple affair, cooked in iron pots in the coals of their fire, tasting just as delicious as promised by the enticing smells that had permeated camp while Bombur worked, and Tilda was entertained in turns by song and stories as the dwarves of Thorin's company seemed bent on outdoing each other in their merriment. Bofur had just come by to collect her bowl when Thorin approached her, looking stiff and formal and altogether uncomfortable. "If you sit all evening," he warned, gruffly, leaning in to speak as Nori told a very animated tale that seemed to involve a previous mishap with Dwalin, and one of his axes, "you may find yourself too sore to move tomorrow." He paused, before asking stiffly, "Would you walk with me, while there is still some twilight to be had?"

Not really being able to refuse, Tilda sprang up from the log before he could offer her a hand, though she reluctantly took his elbow when he provided it, and he lead her away from the company at an easy pace, mindful of her slippers, which were not at all as good as boots in this terrain, she reflected wryly, feeling a bit put-out about it.

"We have not had much occasion to speak together, you and I," he mused, his voice low and rumbling in the night air, and Tilda tried very hard to be unaffected by him… She had been too young, perhaps, to really blame Thorin for bringing the dragon down on them—that was a more abstract sort of blame, after all, but this was the dwarf who had faced her father at the gates with madness in his eyes; who loomed large in stories, threatening to throw poor Bilbo off the ramparts of the mountain to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below, and who had abandoned his kin in the town so he could chase his gold. It may have been a while since Thorin Oakenshield had been a shadow, haunting her nightmares, but he was still an intimidating, unapproachable figure that hearkened back uncomfortably to childhood bogies in the night.

Thorin, of course, felt her unintentionally stiffen beside him and stopped, turning her slightly so he could see her eyes. "Do I frighten you?" he asked, and it was a truth Tilda would never have suspected that Thorin Oakenshield could sound so gentle, and she realized that he was genuinely hurt at the thought that she might be scared of him.

She shook her head, because there was no way she could force words in this precise moment, but of course this didn't come across as very convincing.

Thorin sighed, and bowed his head, eyes on the dirt beneath their feet as he pondered this. "I know I have given you little cause to believe it, but I would never have you afraid of me, child," he told her, and there was such old sadness in his voice, that Tilda had reached out to him before her thoughts could even direct the action, laying her hand on his shoulder as she would have never before dared to do.

Thorin stiffened under her fingers, uncertain, and still. For the first time, she could see the dwarf her father saw, the one who was tormented by past decisions, who genuinely cared about his people—who now, apparently, included herself. This was the dwarf who had saved Bain in battle, she knew, and the one that Kíli looked up to so much, and she finally felt able to put that old spectre of a gold-mad king to rest. "Not anymore, Your Majesty," she told him softly, sternly quelling the urge for her voice to shake, lest he misunderstand, and she give him even more reason to flagellate himself.

When he lifted his head to look at her, his eyes were softer, less remote, and he gently grasped her hand, the brief contact full of genuine warmth. "That is good, Future Daughter of my House," he murmured, and Tilda politely ignored the raspiness of his voice, not wanting her own eyes to get damp. Thorin nodded once, swallowing hard, and turned back to the woods, guiding her hand to his elbow once more as he resumed their comfortable pace.

The woods had grown darker, as the sun sank below the level of the trees, leaving everything in deep shadow. A small bunny, obviously one of this year’s, darted across their path and paused, poised on its hind legs as it took them in, little nose twitching fast as a hummingbird’s wings, and Tilda had the urge to hold out her hand and see if it would allow her to pet it; to see if the bunny’s tan fur was as soft beneath her fingers as she imagined. It regarded them with bright brown eyes for several heartbeats before bounding off again into the underbrush and, holding still beside her, Thorin huffed.

"I think I have been examined, and found wanting," he said dryly, and Tilda was glad to see some of the tension bleeding from his frame as he momentarily relaxed, morphing once again before her eyes to show a side that, before today, she would never have believed him to possess. But here he was, a dwarf who accepted teasing from his kin and husband with good grace, and who indulged in dry, self-deprecating humour with an air of comfort with his own shortcomings, and she knew she would never again have difficulty seeing him as everything he was now.

...you could do far worse than to keep an open heart in the face of the...unexpected...Bilbo’s words drifted back to her, but no longer seemed so alarming.

For a long moment more, he stared sightlessly into the underbrush after the vanished rabbit, the mirth slowly sliding from his face and he became once more withdrawn and stiff. If she looked hard enough, she might be able to find a parallel between a careworn, distant but underlying-ly loving monarch and a close-knit mining kingdom...at least, enough of a parallel to give her courage, perhaps.

"My sister is not here, to offer you any traditional words of wisdom," Thorin said awkwardly, and his moment of ease had disappeared as if it had never been. "But I wish for you...I am aware it may not be comfortable for you to come to me with any questions you may have, but I would have you know that we are here to help you, in whatever way we can. The Mountain shelters its own, as we shelter each other. You will be one of us, very shortly, and...I am glad it is so, Tilda; Lady of bravery and vision."

.o.♔.o.

The trip from Erebor had seemed to fly by, in Kíli's mind—the three days short as a heartbeat as he rode to Laketown with his kin, where his uncles and his brother would escort Lady Tilda to Dale, with as much of a show of strength as Bard had allowed them. Honestly, the terms of the Men's challenge confused Kíli, for if the purpose was a show of strength to do honour upon the daughter of Men who would be coming to the Mountain, then Thorin would have heaped armies upon her—all that was his to command. And yet, when they had presented their pledge of numbers, Bard had had the most peculiar look on his face; Kíli was hardly an expert at the body gestures of Men, but it looked to him like Bard was trying to breathe through his ears: without much success, if the colour of his skin was anything to go by. Cousin Dáin himself had pledged an entire battalion of his Iron Hill dwarves, especially for the chance to ride a few companies of smelly, pig-mounted warriors so close to Thranduil's borders.

So, if the purpose was not a show of honour by numbers and strength pledged, would it not be a show of heroic strength? Of Kíli's own ability to provide for and protect his intended? Then why did Bard give the counter-proposal of not Kíli alone—who was apparently, by tradition, supposed to be waiting for his intended in Dale; but a mere company—hopelessly over-matched for anything they would encounter in the wilds, so no challenge would be present, but yet not large enough to truly do any honour to the House of Dale? Uncle had been equally baffled, but Balin seemed to feel that the Men were satisfied, and so they had let it go, though of course provided all the armaments and support allowed within the wording of the agreement, as was proper.

Cousin Dáin had been most disappointed.

What really unsettled Kíli, though, was that his pig had seemed even more disappointed.

Of course, Dáin had been boisterous in his acceptance of Kíli's invitation to join his Gebrathsu Mayasthûn. They would scout ahead of the main company, to clear out any foe before Tilda's escort encountered it, which was an entirely fitting activity for the traditional pre-wedding period a dwarven groom usually spent with only the closest of friends and family. Each night he spent meditating, firmly connected to the earth as he sought to cleanse his soul in preparation for a future he could not see. He missed having his brother and his uncles here with him, but would have no one else stand in his stead in this important duty, and the honour they did him left a warm ember in his heart. For her sake, Kíli hoped Lady Tilda was not too disappointed with the arrangement; but if Balin was right, then she should hopefully feel that honour was being heaped upon her, as Erebor intended.

The sparse stands of woods were dark and thick in Wilderland, even outside of Mirkwood, and Kíli had had two whole days of it to appreciate just how cold and dark and unpleasant these primordial forest copses could be. He'd come to the conclusion that if he ever saw another forest thicket again, it would be too soon, and longed for the deep hallows of his mountain in ways he had never experienced on their original journey. At least this time, unlike their sojourn in Mirkwood, there was no question of not having a big blazing fire to ward off the chill, and they all sat close around its warmth at the end of day.

It had taken time—nearly fourteen months, for the initial reactions of his people to calm, and settle into wary acceptance. A human princess would have been one thing for Fíli to marry, expected, even; but not for him. As inner prince, he was, symbolically, at least, the representation of all his people's secrets—their dwarfness, though that certainly wasn't a very good way of putting the concept that was so ingrained, so completely dwarven, it had never before needed to be put into words. His people had been slow to warm to the idea of it at all, but from everything Kíli has gleaned in his painfully strange courting of her, Tilda had the courage and heart to win the mountain over.

And in three days time, it would be their wedding day.

Wedding day.

The Manish custom was certainly different than theirs, but if Kíli understood how the Men understood it, it was a firm union, and a solid base for a bond if they could but learn to work together. From what he'd come to appreciate of the Lady in question, he had little doubt that they could manage just fine in the years to come; if they could find an accord between them.

At least Balin had eventually relented, no longer feeling the need to shadow him on his visits, lest he somehow blunder so badly as to scar relations between the Mountain and the Men; the unspoken thought that Fíli wouldn't have needed such supervision because he was the heir who was bloody well trained to deal with the outside races had been both galling and something of a source of pride for Kíli, because he was always ready to be proud of his brother and his accomplishments. Not having the old adviser looking over his shoulder had allowed him to relax a bit more during his time with Tilda, no longer quite as self-conscious, and he thought their little time together had benefited from it. Nori, of course, had accompanied him often, being the Master of Outside Affairs, or whatever fancy name the thief and his brother had cooked up between them; Dwalin had resented Nori's presence over his own on those trips, but Dwalin, like Kíli himself, was more concerned with the goings-on of Inside, and Balin would like as not have felt that Dwalin needed the supervision, too.

Kíli had never before appreciated his uncle's struggles as he did now. Like Kíli, Uncle Thorin had been the Dohyar-Melhekh to his brother Frerin's Melhekhur-Bakhuz. He had no more been trained to take on his brother's role than Kíli would be to take over Fíli's, and yet after the battle that had taken Uncle Frerin's life, and Grandfather's sanity, Uncle Thorin had been obligated to be both—the one and only king of the Long-Beards, and he had learned to work with the other races very quickly. Uncle Bilbo may become exasperated sometimes with his bond-mate's difficulty with outsiders—especially Elves, but Kíli could fully appreciate that struggle now as never before.

Maker help me be better at it than Uncle, he prayed, and it wasn't for the first time.

It wouldn't be the last, either.

His scalp itched where the unfamiliar braids pulled—braids of lineage and rank, and even a few scattered accomplishments that he didn't normally bother to put in, except that, somehow, he wanted Tilda to be proud of him: of having him pay court to her. And so, before each and every one of his visits, he'd painstakingly woven them in; every bit as much a part of his formal wear as his wearing of Durin blue, or his royal crest. He didn't know why it mattered so much, except that it just did. Tilda had gone from being an abstract concept—a wife he had never intended to take—to slowly becoming someone he very much wanted to get to know. Her eyes, so often full of mischief, promised a confidant; her generous mouth, prone to smiles, spoke of joy and understanding. Her hands, faintly callused and clever and strong, showed him that she was not afraid to work for a shared future, and her frequent appearances of less than perfect comportment told him that she was not one of those who demanded coddling, but was willing to share in life's burdens, as well as finding its joys.

Tilda was very much proving to be someone whom he wanted to court properly—as a dwarf courts, so that he understood what was happening; not this Manish ritual that was mired down by too much obscured meaning and formality. As things stood right now, he wasn't sure if they were supposed to be allies, strangers, or eventually, possibly, be open to something more. The customs of Men allowed for a marriage without those roles being defined, and Kíli could not understand why Men seemed to rely so much on their strange forms of body language and other imprecise communications, when none of it had agreed-upon meanings and even they seemed to misunderstand each other with regularity.

Westron may be a mushy language, full of words meant to mask one's meaning behind polite nonsense, but at least it was better than wondering what someone meant when they gestured without words, or flushed, or blinked, or cocked their head—especially when the answer to that conundrum was usually personal to the person making the gesture.

If you didn't know the person not-speaking to you well enough, how were you suppose to communicate with them?

Master Bifur, in that unpredictably mercurial way that was distinctly his, had counselled him patience; that perhaps Lady Tilda would discuss with him at some time in the future just what their roles were to each other, before making several rather rude suggestions that were definitely not proper by anyone's standards, and gave him some rose quartz to meditate with.

That, of course, had definitely not been helpful. At all.

His Master really was a bastard, he reflected, also not for the first time.

"You're thinking too hard," Ori's gentle voice interrupted him and his useless thoughts as he joined Kíli where he sat by the fire. The day had been a long slog through the kind of misty rain that never really fell, but still managed to soak through whatever layers you wrapped yourself in, and everyone was glad of a big blaze while they tried to dry out. Dáin and his mum were arguing amicably over how to make dinner, while Master Bifur hummed quietly to himself while lounging against a tree, whittling happily; though until that moment, Kíli had been too lost in his own thoughts to notice any of it.

"Hmmm?" Kíli hummed, having, of course, not been paying attention as he tried not to look like he was considering the merits of full-blown panic.

Ori bumped his shoulder into Kíli's, not hard, but enough to pull his attention back to the conversation. "Sorry, Ori. What were you saying?" The amused look he got was unwarranted, he was sure.

"You're likely over-thinking things." The young scribe sounded amused, and not at all put out by Kíli's distraction.

"I thought my problem was I didn't think enough?"

"Yes, well, it seems to work for you," Ori told him slyly.

"Nori is a bad influence on you," Kíli grumbled sourly, and Ori just smirked.

They sat in companionable silence, watching the fire pop and hiss as damp wood caught. Kíli too far gone in his non-thoughts to even notice the quiet, and Ori just as obviously allowing him a bit of space. Ori had been his friend, even before the quest; there hadn't been a lot of dwarves of his own age in Ered Luin, nor had there been any real distance between the royal family and the subjects they ruled, so it had been easy for their friendship to form. Though shy and effacing on the surface, Kíli had come to appreciate Ori's sharp wit and sly observations. Now, Ori was fiddling with a finely-wrought steel pen, the gift Kíli had made to ask him on this journey, and Kíli smiled at his friend's obvious happiness with his token.

"Is it so bad?" Ori asked, still staring down at his fingers as they continued to worry at the pen in his lap, and Kíli frowned.

"No-oo," he said, slowly. "But..." he blew out a long breath, thinking. "What if I muck this up? I mean, what if she ends up unhappy? Or I end up damaging relations with Dale? What if—"

A surprisingly hard cuff to his ear stopped his tirade before he could gain any more steam. "Ow!" he complained, glaring.

"See? This is why you do better not thinking," Ori told him primly. "When you do choose to exercise what little rests between your ears, you don't seem to know when to stop."

Startled, Kíli huffed with amusement. "It really could end up that way, though," he said, softly.

Ori nodded. "Yes. And she could arrive at the wedding naked," and he said it with such quiet conviction that it took a moment for Kíli to process what he'd said, though once he did, he couldn't help the immediate image of Tilda, eyes glowing like grey-blue jewels, standing at the water's edge, pale and slender and ethereal in a way no elf could hope to match, because her perfection was living; a testament to everything that changed and moulded her... and it really, really wasn't an image he needed in his thoughts right now.

Face flaming, he shoved Ori, hard. "Why would you even suggest that?" he groused. Ori just smirked at him.

"You have agreed to form a union with her; to join your life and your goals with hers," Ori reminded him. "Are you planning on ignoring Her Highness's needs?"

"Of course not," Kíli frowned. "But, what do I know about what the daughters of Men need? I mean, what if I don't understand what it is she needs of our union, or of her life under the Mountain?"

"Then you learn to listen very, very carefully," Ori shrugged. "I know it wasn't always easy, but Thorin manages to make Bilbo happy, does he not?"

Remembering a certain Tea ceremony, Kíli flushed. "Yes," he agreed.

"Well then? It could be just as likely that Her Highness will be disinclined to nurture a partnership in this union, as it is for you to muck it up, you know."

Thinking back to all he had come to know of Lady Tilda's character, Kíli shook his head. "Somehow, I don't think that's likely," Kíli told him, slowly, and the certainty of that settled into his heart as a hopeful ember, and helped to burn away the darkness of some of his doubts.

Ori's smile was soft. "See? You may not be Fíli; but I think you'll do just fine. Maybe...maybe you'll do even better than he would have, because you're still you, and maybe being Kíli is all the skills you need to understand—not an outside race, but simply a young girl, one who is brave enough to join with someone she doesn't understand, either." He gave a little, rueful laugh, embarrassed by his own outburst. "I think, in the end, that might be more important than being the King's Hammer—the Melhekhur-Bakhuz , right now."

And that right there was what made Ori truly special, Kíli knew, and he felt humbled by his friend's faith in him—and his ability to see him as anything other than as a prince, or as an extension of the people or even as half of a whole when it came to the monarchy; but simply as his friend, with messy braids and a well-oiled bow and a silly smile that tried to hide too much, most days.

"If you'd like, I can look for some books in our repository," Ori offered, trying not to sound hopeful at the idea of having an excuse to study something new—and to drag Kíli into the libraries. "If you can research a bit, perhaps you can understand Men a bit better, and maybe make things smoother?"

Snorting, Kíli shook his head. "Somehow, I think this is not something I can learn from a book; probably especially one written by dwarves, but I give you full permission to gloat, if I change my mind!"

Ori nodded, once. "Just so long as you understand that there will definitely be gloating," he said, and there was definite Nori-esque smugness in his tone.

It took almost five days for them to reach Dale, as they were going by foot, and scouting besides. Their small band made for a perfect advance party, and Kíli could think of no better dwarrow to have at his side during such an important task as had been set by Tilda's kin. Since this journey was also to serve as his own traditional escort to the Hall of his bride's kin and place of his wedding, Kíli had been obligated to make formal request of those he would choose to accompany him. It had taken him a fortnight to craft suitable tokens with which to formally ask each of his chosen for their presence, but in the end they had all; Dáin, his mother, Ori and of course Master Bifur—consented with honour to his honest and heartfelt plea. Of course, they had all taken the opportunity to rib him over the course of their journey, but that was an expected part of the Gebrathsu Mayasthûn, and was accompanied by plenty of carefully considered advice, ribald jokes and bits of lore that made the deep dark of the woods less dreary, and kept Kíli from looking reflexively over his shoulder every hundred yards or so, convinced he heard one of those Father-cursed spiders rustling overhead.

It would be a long time before he lost that particular urge, he was sure.

The wide lands between Laketown and Dale were by no means tame, and they cast a wide net in their march northwards, encountering some small resistance and eliminating a few orc scavengers roaming the river valley as they went, and flushing out a pack of wargs where they had denned in an old collapsed lookout tower, probably part of the old Laketown's defences, decades ago, before the dragon and their subsequent decline. That, more than anything, for some reason, drove home to Kíli just what the Men stood to reclaim in all of this. No wonder Sigrid was content to resign herself to a loveless union; the Men knew, as his own people had known, that taste of something better; something that had brought them pride, and as he stood atop that stony ruin, upon stairs that had likely been made by Men two hundred years ago or more, he could see what the future might hold for them, if Bard was successful in his plans, and he was glad that the Mountain would be part of it.

At the end of the journey, his future loomed, distracting and heavy and more than he could wrap his mind around as he tried to lose himself in the mindless work of eliminating orcs, or setting up camp, or marching endless miles, and as they gathered around the fire that last night, it was with laughter and support and Kíli couldn't help but be buoyed by it. Dáin teased him in a loud, booming voice for his distraction; his mother clucked and smiled with warm affection and amusement, and tried to offer advise he was in no state to mind or remember; Ori shared sly little observations and jokes with barbs than held no sting, and continued to commiserate as best he could. His Master, eccentric, strong and ofttimes whimsical Bifur, had clapped him on the shoulder, looked around the fire-circle, and told him nonsense wrapped in what sounded like wisdom—or was it the other way around? With the toy-maker, it was sometimes hard to tell.

The whole way, his thoughts had been a jumble as he was in turns terrified and humbled, excited and impatient, but by the time they had reached this place, for the first time, Kíli began to feel ready.

The Gebrathsu Mayasthûn was a blazing forge—a crucible, into which went that which was imperfect, and through meditation and soul-reflection, and the efforts and advise of friends and family, what emerged was a dwarrow ready to face the future, to be crafted anew on the alter of their union into something neither of them had been alone—something more, and different, and hopefully greater than before.

By the time he reached Dale, Kíli felt at peace, and ready to give himself over to his Maker's will, and find what it was that he and Tilda could be, together.

 

.o.♔.o.

Chapter Text

 

Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

Chapter Six

6

Honouring Commitment

 

.o.♔.o.

The ships favoured by the men of the Long Lake were narrow for maneuverability, constructed of tight-fitting overlapping planks held in place by iron rivets. Their high, curved prows were carved with fanciful figures and boasted colourfully stripped square sails. They were small boats, suitable for navigating the deep dark waters of the lake, as well as the dangerous waters of the River Running. These were not the broad-beamed fishing vessels used for every day, but rather travel and merchant ships that hadn’t been built for anyone but the Master in over twenty years, and the first day that the shipyards were able to take commissions for newly prosperous citizens had been a day for celebration. Over the last few years, the carved boats had once again started to challenge the waters of the Long Lake, and a respectable fleet beginning to form in Dale as more and more people arrived to live and work there.

Now, they would form the procession that would take Tilda to her wedding.

Fanciful figures of mercurial water-sprites, fierce wolves, and loyal bears dotted her flotilla of beautiful vessels; bright sail-cloths standing out against the dark river boldly, proclaiming the Lakemen, the Men of the North, were coming like the conquering hordes of old; ‘ware all who would stand in their path.

Two years ago, her father had commissioned one of these long boats of his own with great delight, for it was a sign that the prosperous times of before the dragon were returning, and a good omen. He ordered something well appointed, to support the local crafts and to show the world their industry and pride had returned, and his eager impatience for the two years it took to build it was a glimpse into a much younger Bard, one who hadn’t been hardened with the cares of a town under the yoke of bad leadership. The ship would be Da’s pride and joy, and when Tilda’s wedding was decided, he had insisted that Black Zephyr's maiden voyage would be hers: the last honour he could heap on her, his youngest child. Her sister had overseen the weaving of the woollen sail cloth herself, stripped in rich blue-green and white. The crafting of it had taken most of the winter and everyone in the household had helped; even Tilda had taken her turn on the looms, watching as, row by row, her fate crept closer. Sometimes, she would slip down in the late hours of the night, when everyone else was asleep, and just stare at it in the flickering light of the lamps, trying to imagine what her future might hold.

Now, that sail snapped crisply in the wind above her, a banner and a yoke, and she tried not to tremble with it.

Be brave. And breathe.

It wasn’t fear, precisely, for Kíli had never given her cause for it; but nerves could neither be reasoned with nor banished, so she did her best to hide her hands beneath the sleeves of her dress and tried to concentrate on the comforting motion of the boat as the company of oarsmen behind them rowed with the wind.

Kíli, of course, seemed to notice her mood anyway. He caught her eye then looked around them, as if encompassing all the noise and cheering, the music and ceremony, and turned back to her with a small smile of commiseration. His brown eyes were warm as he looked at her, and he seemed almost shy when he held out his hand in offer to her. He was right, there was far too much noise to try and converse with any privacy, so Tilda tried to convey her gratitude for his kindness with a soft squeeze of his fingers as she reached out and let him envelope her hand in his, and she felt braver for it. His fingers, she noticed, were thick and calloused, but still smoother than she would have expected, feeling limber and lithe beneath her own despite their bluntness, and she imagined this had something to do with his preference for the bow; a preference so marked that even she, who had only the most formal contact with him, knew of it.

Usually, Kíli seemed less rigid than his formal countrymen and kin; his hair was often left mostly free, excepting when he called on her, and no complicated badges or braids adorned his hair or clothing, making it easy to think of Kíli as being, well, casual. Approachable. But on this day, he was dressed in his best clothes, with priceless jewellery and ornamentation highlighting their and his worth, and Tilda wasn’t sure that she’d ever seen him looking so much like the Prince he was. She was startled to realize she was seeing him with new eyes—that he could be intimidating like this, far more royal and regal than she had ever suspected he could look; this was a dwarf who looked like he could give commands, and expect to be obeyed.

His wore a complicated design of fine braids woven with embossed metal disks, while the rest of his dark hair fluttered freely in the breeze of their passage. His tunic was finely woven and dyed the rich, deep blue that came from the indigo plants hereabout. Over it, he had leather bracers that sat flush along his inner wrist and forearms, fastened with polished buckles and adorned with shining gems, and a dark leather vest that laced closed and emphasised a solid build. Kíli's finery was accented with shining white metals; whether platinum, finely wrought silver or even some other form of gold, she didn’t know, but the bright gleam stood out strikingly against his dark hair and richly-coloured clothes, and, beneath his leather outerwear, she could see he wore the traditional felted vest she had made for him months ago. It was one of her only courting gifts to him, besides the official things like his ring, and the only thing made by her own hand.

The kindness of his gesture warmed her.

He seemed strangely vulnerable there beside her, wearing so little of his normal armour; though his kin could easily be spotted, even from their position in the middle of the river, by the way their assorted ceremonial armaments shone in the summer sun. She wasn’t sure why, but the fact that he was there with her, in finery of a style closer to her own, was oddly reassuring, and made her stomach feel warm and full, like she’d eaten a bowl of honey’d oatmeal fresh from the hearthfire. Tilda was surprised by how comfortably he sat in the rocking boat, without any of the unease she had seen in King Consort Bilbo when the hobbit clambered into his own vessel, with King Thorin and the Princess Dís, who, while not as distressed as the Hobbit, still didn’t look entirely at ease. Even now she could still picture the King, uncharacteristically tender as he held his Consort’s hand, murmuring distractions and words of courage and comfort, and the sweetness of that moment had been almost too intimate to witness.

Tilda herself had never been dressed so well, though she was surprised as to how much she was enjoying it. Sigrid had come into her room before the early-rising summer sun had even peaked over the horizon of the lake, carrying a mug of mint and honey tea in each hand; and the two of them had sat in bed together for perhaps the last time, burrowed under a goose-down comforter as they whispered, because some things were too personal to share any other way. Sigrid had helped her with her toilette, brushing out her hair before massaging in the barest touch of scented pomade and hair powder to keep the thick mass under control, and fussed and hid her tears very badly as she tried to share what advice she felt their mother would have given. Seeing as how Sigrid had no more experience in the marriage bed than Tilda, what had ensued was a highly speculative conversation that had dissolved into hushed giggles more often than not, but it had been perfect, and just exactly what Tilda had needed to ease the ache in her chest at the thought of leaving home.

Mette had arrived shortly after the breakfast bell, bringing a heavy-laden tray for the three of them to share, and she and Sigrid had helped Tilda dress, layer by painstaking layer. Over her chemise; so much finer and softer than her normal shift, was a kirtle of snowy white. The sleeves were long, falling nearly to her knees, but gathered at each elbow with three tiny gold buttons, and draped to leave her forearms bare. The wide cuffs were edged with a thin band of golden embroidery, which matched the stitching at the hem. Over this, she wore a sleeveless gown of the finest woollen weave, known as scarlet, dyed brilliant crimson and edged with golden silk brocade running the full length of the front of her gown, and laced from just under her bust to her waist. A wide sash of the same soft material, dyed the same crimson and accented in white, belted at her waist, with the tailing ends hanging down the front. There were golden ornaments embossed with a stylized water bird; something that looked too pretty to be true in Tilda’s opinion, but Bain told her that they really existed somewhere, and used to exist here—but that might have just been him wanting to know more than her because he was older. It was a fact, though, that it was being adopted as the symbol of the house of Dale and her family’s ability to speak with the avian.

It was the culmination of a lifetime of deprivation—a gown finer than any she had ever even thought to dream of before, even after she ceased to be poor Tilda of Laketown and became a Lady instead. The real golden thread had been sent down from the Mountain as a wedding gift: the expensive crimson fabric was the finest her people had produced in decades, and the delicate potpourris used to fragrance her trousseau had been traded for from the Woodland Realm. All in all, it was heavy, and lovely, and far too overwhelming for Tilda to even think about.

So she didn’t. The look on the prince’s face when he’d first caught sight of her may have been another thing she was trying not to think about, because she didn’t want her hands to shake. Especially when her hand was currently being held so gently in his. She would think about it later, though, when she was free to indulge in the warm fluttery feelings tied up in that brief memory, and flush to her hearth’s content without an audience.

The lead boat in their procession, done up with a carved prow like an exotic and graceful bird, held three of Laketown's best fiddlers, while the last held the drummers, and the music they created was gay and bright in celebration of their Lady’s marriage. In Laketown, the procession would have lead from her house around the outskirts of town, and wound its way along the snaking waterways until arriving at the central square, where all important ceremonies in the town were held. Here in Dale, the convoy was starting at the southern end of the river, and travelling around the town’s perimeter, until reaching the northern bend, where everyone would debark and continue the procession on foot. Everyone in town would have a chance to line up along the processional route, to cheer and celebrate Dale’s first royal wedding, and Tilda thought it was very good of Kíli to suggest their marriage here so that her people could have this moment. After everything that they had lived through, it would mean a great deal to the citizens of their newly fledged kingdom to have a chance for such a grand celebration; and Bard, ever a popular and wise ruler, had been very generous with his commissions to all the local trades.

The wedding itself had been joyful and full of pageantry, as was the custom of her people, and she noticed King Thorin frowning from time to time as something, perhaps the lack of solemnity, seemed to unsettle him. In contrast, Prince Fíli seemed perfectly at ease, sharing grins behind Thorin’s back with his uncle’s Consort, Bilbo, until Thorin caught them at it and frowned heavily at both of them. Tilda wouldn’t swear that she saw Bilbo elbow him, but it was indeed a fact that the King stopped looking so dower rather abruptly. Her own da was smiling larger than anyone, doing his duty in encouraging and reassuring one and all that this was a reason for Dale to celebrate. Her sister had held rings for them; and the fact that Tilda’s very own husband-to-be was likely the one that forged them was also something on her every growing list of things to ignore.

There was no mention of love during the service, no words that fairy-tales were made of as one of the senior handmaidens of their tiny Temple spoke at length about the duties they were about to undertake in each other’s name, of the rights agreed upon in their marriage contract, the obligations of their union, and, eventually—finally!—consented to bestow fate’s blessing upon them in about as stern a voice as if she were scolding them, and the entire thing just felt absurd. Kíli turned to her, looking as solemn as he could probably manage, but nothing would ever truly dim that gleam of laughter in his eyes, and suddenly Tilda was grinning in return, but trying desperately to press her lips together, and Kíli was looking at her with shaking shoulders and it was only a hard nudge from Sigrid that had Tilda under control again, but she knew she couldn’t meet Kíli's eye without bursting into giggles, so she kept looking at him side-eye while they managed to fumble their rings to their respective fingers, only to find he was doing the same thing to her.

Cheeky.

They continued to stand there, heads bent close together and neither of them moving from this intimate little bubble in a moment that seemed apart from time, like it existed outside the world and contained only they two, united in understanding and honour and duty. For some reason, Tilda couldn’t take her eyes off her newly-paired rings where they sat on her finger—the bright, still-foreign gleam of precious metals against her pale skin. Her wedding band was made of silver-or maybe it was platinum, or even white gold; Tilda had no way of knowing, inset with tiny, impossibly perfect rubies and diamonds and sapphires, to make two little leaping fish along the face, and her heart swelled with emotions she couldn’t name, and had no time to examine. For a moment more, they stood there, until all she was aware of was the quiet passage of his breathing, the faint wind as it stirred the strands of her hair that had escaped her many pins, the warmth radiating from their closeness, and the way it seemed to force out everything else.

“Ready?” Kíli whispered in the small space between them.

Was she? Tilda wasn’t so sure.

She nodded anyway.

Kíli smiled encouragingly, a gentle little quirk to his lips that made Tilda smile tremulously in return, and grabbed her hand as they turned to face the crowd of her people. He raised their joined hands above their heads, like they were proclaiming a great victory, and the assembled throng cheered and cheered until Tilda didn’t think she could discern individual voices in the throng any longer. Somewhere, there were bells ringing, and gragers whirring to drive off any evil spirits who might otherwise mar their union, and Tilda found that the noise made it blissfully impossible to think.

She grinned out at the crowd instead, and allowed Kíli to hoist their hands higher, and the people’s redoubled cheers would stay with her for the rest of the day for a feast that lasted well into the evening hours before the last trays were cleared away, and Tilda still felt like she was in a bubble: safe and protected from events that were quickly carrying her away.

And now twilight had fallen, the wedding and subsequent ceremonies and obligations were over, and she and Kíli were seated at the high table, overlooking the crowded square as everyone danced and drank and made merry. Tonight was a good night, and the mead and beer flowed easily, as evinced by some of the less-coordinated dancing in the square. Folk songs were belted out in spontaneous pockets, to be picked up by other enthusiastic voices whenever the other musics lagged, and these songs were always accompanied by small drams of strong clear liquor that was a speciality of the region that they called brennevin. Kíli looked about them constantly, obviously trying to see and hear everything in his ever-present curiosity, and Tilda smiled at his interest, thankful that he didn't seem to share his Uncle's expectation of decorum. Dwarven customs must be very different, she supposed, and thought she must ask him about it one day.

Her marriage had also been her coronation as Princess of Dale, and the delicate golden crown that now rested on her head was woven with ivy and myrtle, and snowy edelweiss blossoms, and was getting heavier as the evening wore on. Sigrid seemed to find hers no more comfortable, and Bain had found the first opportunity he could to ditch his, which he was sure to get scolded for, later. Tilda would wear hers for just this one night, before putting it away; she would receive a new one when she was crowned as a Princess of Erebor.

And who was the Princess of Erebor? Tilda wasn’t sure how she was going to fit in under the mountain, but she knew, deep down, that somehow, the daughter of the Dragon Slayer, what was more, a daughter of the Long Lake; a fisherman’s daughter; would find a way to make the role her own.

Their wedding feast was being held outside a cottage her da had ordered built for her; incentive, he said, to make sure she visited home whenever she was able. Tonight, she was glad of it, for it felt good to enter into this union with a place of their own, even if it was only for such a short time before they made their way to the Mountain, and their new life, on the morrow. At the very least, it gave her a breather, before she had to find her courage.

Maybe tomorrow, she would wake up, and know who the Princess of Erebor was supposed to be.

.o.♔.o.

The circuitous trip from Erebor to Laketown, and then finally back to Dale, had seemed to fly by in Kíli's mind—even while his backside reminded him of every moment of the time spent in the saddle, and he was forced to acknowledge that he was out of practice, having not had much occasion to spend long days on horseback in recent years.

Nearly six days and Kíli was sure that, despite occasionally thinking he missed the time spent on their journey, he’d now lost the desire to ever set his backside to a saddle again. Especially if that journey involved his mum and cousin Dáin, and three days of their amicable bickering.

He was also sure that whatever peace he’d acquired during his Gebrathsu Mayasthûn had been fleeting—in fact, it fled the moment he entered Dale and saw the undeniable preparations taking place around him; saw the temple with its garlands of flowers; saw the waterways lined with torches and lanterns, and everywhere he went was filled with the smell of roasting fish and baking confections and spitted meats. Everything gleamed, as if scrubbed by an army of maids, and every neat little home was painted gaily, and was made welcoming with flowers and wreaths at doors and windows. Lawns had been raked, streets had been swept and not a single piece of laundry could be seen fluttering on the lines.

He couldn’t help but wonder if there had been a royal proclamation about that last bit...and then wondered how you would word such a thing.

Bilbo would probably know.

The whole place fairly glowed with burnished anticipation for tomorrow, and when all these little things finally solidified somewhere in his hindbrain and became...too immediate, too real, Kíli's gut contracted. Bard shot him an amused glance when he presented himself, dusty and saddle-weary and gut still clenching, and Kíli knew he must look a little green. An advisor told him and his party that ravens scouting the skies had spotted Tilda and her entourage not more than a few hours behind, looking to have encountered no problems during their journey thanks to their advance-party’s efforts. Relieved, Kíli wanted nothing more than to collapse in a soft bed, and maybe sleep until his nerves saw fit to go away and bother someone else. Instead, a pointed look from his mother had him out about town, greeting the people of Dale and smiling and just generally trying to uphold their festive mood and acquit Erebor well.

Once the rest of his family arrived, Fíli and Uncle Bilbo joined him, and it became a fun day spent in the market, and visiting all the craftsmen and guilds around the city; just being seen, and reassuring the people of Dale that their princess was not marrying anyone other than an affable young dwarrow. By the time the late-setting sun sank, Kíli felt almost like he was existing in a bubble, encased by his own exhaustion. His face ached, feeling more like a clay mask after holding that smile firmly in place for hours, and the inside of his skull seemed like it was bigger than the confines of his head as it throbbed from trying to block the overwhelming wealth of impressions and emotions contained within the rock’s song whenever so many people were present. He’d completely burned through whatever mental reserves he possessed, leaving him feeling scrapped raw and uncomfortably exposed, and by the time he was finally released from his duties, all he wanted was the sanctuary of a private space to piece himself back together.

Thankfully, Bard had given them generous quarters in one of the houses kept for official visitors; a place for Kíli to smile and nod as his kin turned in for the night, and then unobtrusively creep away to nurse his headache, and privately have one last bout of nerves at his rash decision. It was while he had finally found his moment alone―a moment in which everyone else was supposed to be asleep so that he could be quietly terrified in peace―of course that was when his brother would find him.

It had been the middle of the night, and the fire had burned down fairly low; not that Kíli was feeling the chill. He was curled into one of the slightly too-large chairs, cradling a mug of ale that had gone warm hours ago, lost in blind panic for tomorrow, interspersed with wistful wonderings at everything from Tilda’s breakfast preferences to which side of the bed she might want as hers, or whether she would be able to adapt to life underground, or if he would have to consider some kind of accommodation for her comfort and happiness.

“Kee?”

Kíli hadn’t been startled like that in years, not since he’d first become aware of his gifts and had learned to sense most people coming. It was only quick reflexes that saved him from dropping his forgotten mug, and he shot a half-hearted glare at his brother as he sucked the slopped ale off his fingers.

Fíli just snorted, and crossed the room to build up the fire.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked while his back was still turned, offering Kíli a bit of privacy to compose himself.

“Funny, the last time you offered to talk about it, you convinced me that several kegs of ale was a great way to begin getting used to the idea of marriage,” Kíli groused playfully.

Fíli shrugged. “It seemed to have worked, up until now. Should I see if I can rustle up some more tonight? It won’t do to send you off to Lady Tilda’s side tomorrow with your hands still trembling.”

“Do that, and they’ll be trembling from a hangover, instead,” Kíli pointed out dryly. “And I will be sure to place the blame solely at your feet.”

“You’re right,” Fíli agreed, wincing theatrically. “I don’t think it would do me any good to get on the bad side of my brother’s-wife, right off.” With that, Fíli plopped down on the floor somewhere near Kíli's feet, lounging and leaning back on his hands. They were both quiet for a long moment, watching the stirred fire grow within the grate as the darkened room turned golden red in its renewed light. Kíli tried to keep his shifting discrete as he became aware of the renewed throbbing of his abdomen. Fíli saw, of course, and snorted.

“Serves you right for getting your wedding tattoo done right before a week-long journey,” he told him, with absolutely no sympathy.

Kíli glared back. “I wanted—look, never mind.”

Fíli's teasing expression morphed into one of contrition. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Is it really bothering you?”

“It’ll be fine by tomorrow,” Kíli told him shortly. “Just irritated from being jostled around in the saddle for the last few days, is all.”

“I’ve got some of Óin’s salve with me—the one he gave me last week, for that burn; give me a moment.” And Fíli was off, leaving Kíli to rub absently at his still-healing mark and stare at the fire, with nothing more than his earlier thoughts to chase uselessly ‘round his head.

A pot of ointment was thrust beneath his nose, smelling of comfrey and calendula, and Kíli blinked himself back into the moment.

“Take off your shirt, I’ll help you with this,” Fíli told him, that same brotherly note to his voice that he would get when Kíli was a wee badger and would come home scrapped and wounded from another misadventure.

“I can manage,” Kíli told him, voice muffled as he stripped.

“Let me help,” Fíli said quietly, and Kíli nodded with a fond smile.

Pulling the bandaging off felt moderately horrific, and Fíli hissed softly when he saw the angry pink of the skin where sweat and grime had crept into the healing mark, but the feeling of Fíli smearing ointment over it was perhaps the best feeling Kíli could imagine right then and he sighed with relief. “Óin put clove oil in it, didn’t he?” Kíli asked gratefully, when his skin went slightly numb under his brother’s ministrations.

Fíli chuckled at his relieved expression, and wiped his fingers on the used bandages. For a moment, Kíli just sat there, enjoying the relief from his earlier discomfort, and entirely unmotivated to put his tunic back on until the salve had a chance to really soak into his skin. The heat of the fire felt good against his bare chest, so he got up to build it up once more now that evening’s chill was creeping in enough that dwarven hides would notice.

“So, why did you get it?” Fíli asked softly at his back.

Kíli froze for a second, before continuing to poke the logs into place. “It’s traditional, you nit,” he said, and there was a bit of sharpness to his tone that he couldn’t quite keep out.

Behind him, Kíli could hear Fíli’s beads make a faint rasping sound against his braids as he shook his head. “I know, but that’s not why you got it—you could have waited until you got back to the mountain, when you wouldn’t have to ride a bloody horse for three days, to get it done. Hell, Tilda could have been there for it, if you were that concerned about traditional.”

Kíli could feel his shoulders hunch protectively as he stared down at his hands, and at the black ink under his glistening skin. He sighed.

“Come one, Kee, obviously you had a reason,” Fíli prodded gently, and there was absolutely no trace of mocking humour in his voice now.

“Honestly? It just...felt right. Necessary, even. I have to go into this union marked; not after.” Kíli clenched his fists at his sides, slowly, just concentrating on the feeling of the skin stretching over his knuckles, and admitted hesitantly, “I...can’t explain it.”

He could feel Fíli's eyes on him, weighing what he’d said, he was sure; probably wondering just what the hell went on in his brother’s head, and if it was contagious. He normally kept a tight lid on his Cantor stuff—except of course when he was supposed to be using his gifts for King and country, but the rest of the time? Yeah, it made him look like a loon. Better an impulsive, devil-may-care prince than that.

Fíli squeezed his shoulder in support, and Kíli let go of the breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding.

“So, do I get to have a proper look at it, now that we’ve cleaned it up?” Fíli asked, instead.

Kíli nodded, his throat dry as he silently thanked Mahal for having a brother like Fíli, and stood up straight so that the limited light caught the design.

His brother took a long look, peering closely at the mark before giving a low whistle between his teeth. “It’s got a bit of a watery feel to it, doesn’t it?”

Heat rose on Kíli's cheeks at this observation, because of course, nautical or otherwise water-related was not really a dwarven theme at all, given how they rarely left their mountain homes, let alone ventured away from land entirely. Fíli noticed him blushing and held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “It’s fitting, is all,” he murmured, and Kíli smiled gratefully. “You’re right, now that it’s clean, you should be mostly fine by morning. Just don’t sleep on it, and maybe leave the tunic off for tonight,” he admonished lightly, and gave Kíli a gentle shove towards bed.

Just before Kíli left the room, Fíli's voice halted him in the doorway. “You were never able to get one…for being Cantor and all, were you?” and his voice was hesitant as he broached the oft-avoided subject.

Kíli felt his lips twist painfully. “Not exactly something I’m taking much joy from right now, is it?”

“Kee—” Fíli's voice was entreating and sad at the same time. Kíli turned back, and held up his hand.

“’s fine, really. I’m tired and a bit cranky when I’m this short on sleep.” he blew a breath out, slowly, measuring. “Yeah, I mean, it would be nice, but it’s not that important in the face of everything, is it?”

Fíli winced. “I wish...”

Kíli managed a more natural smile. “Yeah, but it’s fine. Really. Besides, maybe this kind of stands in for my Heart Craft Mark, too, right? I mean, a case could be made that the craft of my heart from now on will concern Lady Tilda, right?”

Fíli snorted, but smiled back, though sadness still lurked in his eyes. “Go to bed, brother. You’ll have a busy day tomorrow,” he told him.

Kíli gave him a jaunty little salute that may or may not have been somewhat rude in nature, and a cheeky grin before leaving to find his bed, and Fíli's soft laughter followed him down the hall.

.o.♔.o.

Torches had been lit at intervals along the perimeter, while a large fire roared in a pit where spits turned for hungry revellers and Kíli was absolutely captivated by the gleam the firelight put in his Lady’s eyes. Their courtship had been so formal and difficult to navigate, what with the mystifying traditions of Men and the near-impossibility of trying to wed them to a Dwarven concept of proper, and in the end their ability to get to know one another had suffered for it. It had taken months, but Kíli had finally convinced his mum to abandon the idea of a dwarven celebration, and all the intricacies that would entail, when Kíli couldn’t even share the meanings and significance behind it with her, as she, by dwarven law, was an outsider until they completed their union. The courtship of Men, unfortunately, was equally difficult, and Kíli still found himself frequently baffled by the whole thing.

They hadn’t spent any time alone at all, for apparently this was taboo in Men’s traditions until the night of the wedding, a concept that had worried Kíli greatly until he’d simply decided that their courtship proper could take place after the Manish union, for then they would have the luxury of time and space to themselves. He had at least managed to learn a few things about his bride; superficial things that still left her feeling only slightly more than a casual acquaintance, as opposed to a virtual stranger. He knew she was partial to the colour green, when it touched on blue; he knew she preferred informal clothing, but had a fondness for rich fabrics; he knew she loved wild daisies and irises more than the stately roses grown around the new royal residence; beneath these superficial things, he knew she had a kind heart, and hoped she knew the same of him.

Tonight, though, seeing her in the twilight in all her finery, with a soft flush on her cheeks from excitement for her people’s happiness, he also knew, with deep and startling certainty, that his heart was in her keeping, and his chest swelled with the feeling of it taking root, and he was as frightened as he was elated. It was months of little moments of witnessing her bravery, her joyous spirit and something so indefinably Tilda, coming together and creating a glowing jewel in his breast; and the heat of it suffused him, until he felt full with it in the night air; as if she had found a way to trap a star in his heart, that burned with such precision and purpose, that only truth could exist within him; a deep resonating truth that welled up from the earth beneath his boots.

And the truth of his feelings was terrifying and intense and yet a gentle revelation that changed everything and nothing in that instant, for he had always been made for her, and she for himself.

And of course, now wasn’t the time to get lost in the feeling wrapping around his heart; he still had a celebration with her people and her kin to get through, and he ruthlessly, painfully, tried to push the feeling down—box it up and lock it away until he had the leisure to examine it fully, and figure out what in Mahal’s name he was going to do. Would she even want his devotion; his One, his heart and soul and all that was bright and best in him?

Would she even be able to understand how very much she meant to him?

The terrified was winning out over the elated, and Kíli knew his expression must be a sight from the amused look he was getting from Bain, sitting at a table facing the small dais upon which he and his Lady sat. He quietly prayed to the bedrock beneath them for strength, and resolutely turned his attention back to the here-and-now of the celebration.

His heart still burned within him, and he had a hard time suppressing the euphoria in his soul, so apparently the rock had answered his plea by numbing him to his own fear.

Brilliant.

Sometimes he wished for greater training—or perhaps it was greater ability that he needed, so that he could direct the rock where he would, as opposed to simply asking and hoping it responded the way he wanted.

Still, people would likely forgive him for looking the besotted groom, so perhaps the rock had the right idea.

He didn’t have any time to learn her dances, and looking at the vigorous steps and enthusiastic jigging taking place below him, he was perversely glad it was so, because he knew he’d have spent the whole time terrified that he’d stomp on poor Tilda’s toes in his big heavy boots, so he contented himself with holding her hand, and was deeply glad she wasn’t afraid of him, and comfortable enough to allow it.

The celebration had lasted for hours, and the moon beginning to sink in the sky overhead when he began to wonder when it would be appropriate for him to escort his Lady away. She had danced herself ragged, accepting anyone who asked in what he suspected was her people's custom, and her energy seemed to be flagging as her fingers, softly tapping in time to the spritely tunes, were occasionally losing rhythm. He was caught up in watching her, and the moonlight on her unfamiliarly-pale skin, and when the music changed, Kíli might not have noticed if it wasn’t for the air of expectation building within the crowd. Bard was frowning from where he stood along the perimeter, but was trying to hide it and was still clapping along.

Tilda leaned in to whisper in a hurried rush of sweet breath, “We have to dance now. Don’t worry; it doesn’t matter that you know the steps or not. They will clap and cheer and make sure we can’t escape—” and with that ominous warning, she was being pulled to her feet, and so was he, and ushered to the middle of the mob. She was right, everyone was cheering and laughing, so he put his hands on her hips and took a deep breath, incredibly glad that he hadn’t taken more than a dram of the blistering liquor the Lakemen seemed to favour, and stuck instead to the lighter mead and cider.

Tilda looked down to him, her eyes wide with nerves and her pale cheeks flushed with excitement. She slipped her hands along his shoulders, until her fingers loosely clasped behind his neck and he could feel the heat of her skin where she touched him, like pinpricks of fire, burning painlessly. Men and women surrounded them, and Kíli caught a brief glimpse of Fíli and Nori in the crowd, so he knew someone had pulled his people into the fray, too.

The tune was lively, and Kíli had the strong suspicion that the couple wasn’t meant to keep their feet, and the fiddlers kept speeding up the pace as he and Tilda spun and stepped until the clapping crowd was going by at a dizzying pace, and the laughter would swell gleefully every time they misstepped. Kíli was beginning to lose track of everything except trying to keep his feet, until eventually he simply pulled Tilda up, so that she could stand on the tops of his boots. She clung to him, laughing and breathless as he tried to acquit them with aplomb, if not grace, and he laughed at the infectious joy surrounding them.

The circle of those surrounding them kept closing in on them at regular intervals of the music, so that they were being herded to the door of their cottage in an ever-tightening band of laughing guests. When they finally stood on the steps to their home, out of breath and grinning foolishly, the dance ended and everyone joked and cheered and catcalled them, as Kíli grasped the door handle and, with a silly flourish and a bow at the crowd, ushered them both inside. The heavy wood door closed with a solid sound, and the noise of the revellers was suddenly diminished, though the party would continue without them, and Kíli was suddenly conscious of being alone with his bride for the first time.

Kíli fancied he could still smell the freshness of new construction; the tang of uncured mortar or the clean smell of fresh-cut timber, though he knew that it was unlikely Tilda would notice over the other smells of the party on the air. It had been a present for his wife; Bard had bade the small cottage be built, and he expected that it would see use in the coming years. Kíli knew this, because the formidable man had told him so, pointedly, in a private aside when Kíli’d presented himself yesterday upon his arrival. Almost tripping over himself in his haste, Kíli had scrambled with assurances that Tilda would be visiting as often as she was able. Bard had stared at him—and really, Kíli couldn’t help but notice that the man’s gaze had gotten no less grim over the years—as if weighing his future son, and Kíli had the urge to fidget under his eye. In the end, Bard had grunted, and told Kíli that he expected that he would be accompanying his wife, at least as often as he was able. He’d been left in the hall, blushing furiously, but appreciating what it was the man was trying to tell him.

Now, Kíli had no difficulty looking around and seeing themselves here in the future, on a cosy little holiday, perhaps. Everything about the place was welcoming and bright, and even from their place, just inside the entrance, Kíli could see the care in every detail. A glow from an open doorway down the hall was enough to guide them, hand in hand and exchanging shy glances, to a cosy bedchamber. The linens had been turned down, and a fire started by a helpful guest, likely Tilda’s kin. The early summer evening was unseasonably pleasant, so the fire wasn’t strictly necessary for warmth, but the homey feeling it gave was reassuring, and gave Kíli an excuse to let go of Tilda’s hand while he went to build it up again, and got his thoughts under control. When he’d longed for time alone with her, to understand her heart and let her see his, he hadn’t really thought of the fact that, because of the customs of her people, their first time alone would be in a bedchamber, or that he would just have realized he was hopelessly in love with his brave girl.

The distracting and all-encompassing feelings of his heart; of his soul recognising his One, was definitely something he hadn't had the audacity to even contemplate.

He didn’t know how to address the situation or to overcome the gulf of differences between Manish customs and Dwarven; wasn’t quite sure what he could say to calm his pounding blood or ease her nerves without spewing forth words of feelings he had no idea of how to deal with all over her slippers. He decided instead to let her lead him where she would; and hopefully, when she woke up in the morning unmolested, she would know she could trust him and allow him the gift of truly getting to know her and to court her for however-long it took to win her affections in return. Thus resolved, he took a deep breath, leaving off trying to tend an over-hot fire, and turned back to her.

Tilda still stood near the last trunk of her belongings, the rest having already been sent up to the mountain. Wide grey eyes stood out against her ivory skin as she watched him, her fingers working at untying her outer-gown where the cords laced under her breasts; there was a curious light in her eyes and a solemn expression on her face, and the dichotomy of it was enough to make Kíli smile fondly, because wasn’t that just his Lady all over?

Drat. Tilda could feel the flushing rising on her cheeks under his gaze as she got caught staring; her pale skin would hide nothing of her embarrassment, of course, and she could feel her cheeks burning as she and Kíli stood there, caught in an awkward tableau, each waiting for the other to say something.

“Do you need a hand, my lady?” Kíli finally asked her, and Tilda wasn’t sure if his voice actually was breathless, or if she was imagining it, but she blushed even harder when she thought of his helping her with the laces of her fancy dress. But of course he should; they were married now, after all. She rolled her shoulders slowly, shrugging out of her vibrant outer gown, carefully draping it over a chair-back so as to put off the moment she had to face this, before resolutely turning back to face Kíli where he hovered. She stood before him in her white kirtle, which laced up the back and was, of course, fiendishly difficult for her to deal with on her own, chewing her lip with uncertainty. Kíli stood patiently while she dithered, waiting on her decision.

She knew she nodded because her voice was stuck in her throat, but she took a step towards him, and turned around. They were well-matched for height, as she was likely only four inches taller, but he was oh-so-much wider with his thick limbs and broad shoulders; slender for a dwarf, but so much sturdier than her own frame. He lacked the same barrel shape of his kin, looking positively lithe next to them, but that was misleading, as Tilda was beginning to appreciate, because she was acutely aware with him standing at her back of just how much bigger he was than her, despite her actually being the taller one.

She could feel the heat of his skin, even through the remaining layers of her finery, and she wondered if it was a dwarf-thing, or if he was nervous, too. His fingers were deft as he unwound the laces that held her dress together, and while he worked the only sound she could hear was that of silken cord sliding against the fine woven wool of her gown, and it was loud in her ears, despite being no more than a whisper on the air. His breath stirred the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck; feathering moist heat against her skin. As the last stay was loosened, warm hands—huge hands!—grasped her by her hips and gently turned her to face him once more.

Kíli's eyes were almost completely dark in the golden lamplight, but his lips were curled in a faint smile that she found reassuring as he obviously was trying to keep her comfortable and not overwhelm her, and she appreciated it fiercely even as she swallowed against the heavy feeling in her throat. Reaching for her hand, he drew her arm close, his fingers warm and dry against her skin as he dropped his gaze to work the tiny buttons at her elbow loose. His hair looked fine and soft, and she had the sudden wild urge to touch it, but stopped herself before her fingers could do more than twitch at her side, remembering Bilbo’s admonishment as to how carefully the dwarves tended their hair. Finished, he reached for her other arm, gently cradling its weight as he worked. Seconds later, he’d finished with the last of her fastenings, and her arm dropped back to her side; her skin felt cold now, with the absence of his heat. Kíli looked back at her, lips working as if searching for words, but finding none. He swallowed, instead.

Tilda dropped her gaze to stare at her toes where they peeped out from beneath her gown, and she could feel how the dress, made heavy with the golden embellishments, needed only a little encouragement to slide from her shoulders. With a tiny prayer for courage and without giving herself time to over-think it, she gave a little shrug and allowed it to fall to the floor and pool at her feet.

Kíli was absolutely still before her; she couldn’t even hear his breathing anymore, so she thought he might be holding his breath, and when she steeled herself to look up, it was to find such an honestly flummoxed expression on his face that she immediately grinned, delighted by his look, and ducked to plant a kiss on his upturned lips. His mouth was so soft beneath her own, and moved so hesitantly and gently that Tilda couldn’t feel afraid when he suddenly groaned, and his hands abruptly tightened on her hips until she could count his fingers just by the feel of each one as it pressed into her skin. The featherlight kiss became something more; his beard tickled as it rasped against her jaw, and she gasped when his tongue teased wetly along the sensitive skin of her lips. She found herself pressing more tightly to him, so that she could feel enveloped by the heat of him through her thin shift, and maybe draw a bit of courage from it. The feeling was shockingly intimate, and if Tilda weren’t completely distracted by the sensation of what his tongue was doing against hers, she would have blushed fit enough to burn.

Heat and the terribly intimate feeling of his moist breath ghosted over her jaw, and the sensitive skin over bone made her shiver as his scruff scrapped her, and his lips returned to soothe along the same path. She could smell the scent of musk and pine needles and something else; something that reminded her of granite in the rain, only...more so, and she was leaning in that extra smidge to press her nose against his skin and breathe deeper, as if she could hold that scent within her, where it would warm her from the inside out. There was a stretchy feeling, burning without heat or flame and her heart was full of emotion she could hardly identify, but before she could even think to be afraid, Kíli's lips returned to hers; softly, slowly, as if he were trying to map every inch of her skin with his and she felt like she was sliding into him, somehow. One kiss was melting into another, and then another as he would pull away and murmur her name, only to come to her again, completely scattering her wits and leaving her feeling expectant and trembling in anticipation and no small amount of apprehension. She didn’t know that kissing could be so...so much, but his hands, which still held her hips tight, were still somehow gentle, in that his grip didn’t make her fear him in the slightest, but rather made her marvel at the controlled strength he possessed.

She didn’t know what to do, to make him show her what it was that came next, so she concentrated on trying to meet his affections without trepidation, to show him she wasn’t afraid even as she tried to quell her knocking knees. He groaned, a rumbling sound that came from deep in his chest, and she realised she’d tugged his hair where she’d tangled her fingers unknowingly; he’d sounded like he’d enjoyed it, so she tried to do it again. She must not have done it right, for with another sound, this one almost strangled, he was pulling back, drawing her to him so that her forehead rested against his as he simply stayed there, panting softly as his thumb ran light patterns on the nape of her neck where he held her to him. His hand was huge, his palm almost completely enveloping her neck where he held her, and yet he cradled her as gently as if she were made of spun sugar. Perhaps to him, she was. His fingers were certainly thick and powerful enough to hurt her, if he were incautious, and the thought made her shiver for a different reason.

“I won’t take anything from you, Tilda,” he finally said, and his voice still held that funny, breathless quality from before, though his words came out more like a vow; like he was trying hard to convince her of something, though she had no idea what. “Not before I’ve had the time to lay myself before you and be deemed worthy of such affections.” His voice trembled slightly, an uncertainty that she couldn’t explain, for they were married now, and he had no reason to be uncertain in his dealings with her. She could feel the soft strands of hair that had escaped his braids tickling her cheeks, smelling of clove oil and earth. “Tonight,” he said in the small space between them, “I ask that you lay by my heart, and know you have a place there, at my side, and I at yours.”

His thumb feathered along the edge of her jaw line, and Tilda let her eyes slide closed at the gentle sensation as the tumult in her breast threatened to make her cry. Relief; she’d be lying if she didn’t admit to having some concerns over the physical acts of marriage, and how they would fit together. Disappointment; contrarily, she had anticipated finding out just what those physical acts would entail, beyond what she’d gleaned from tending livestock, and the idea of experiencing it with Kíli made her belly squirm in unfamiliar ways. Worry; was something wrong with her? Was there something more than what he was saying? Was it because she wasn’t a dwarf? Resolutely, she tried to shove it all down, because now that they had stopped, she wasn’t sure she was brave enough to start again. Instead, she disentangled herself from Kíli's embraces. She stared at him for a moment, seriously, then gave a sharp nod, because she could think of nothing to say, before disappearing into the bathing room to finish changing.

She washed mechanically, and splashed some cool water on her face until it no longer felt over-heated and to try and wrestle her wayward emotions under control. It took some time, but eventually she felt ready to rejoin her dwarven husband, thought that word still made her stomach flutter pleasantly, like it was alive with butterflies, even as it twisted uncomfortably in her thoughts.

With a deep breath to bolster her courage, she re-entered the bedchamber, only to falter almost immediately. Kíli was already on the bed, dressed in loose sleeping pants and feet bare. He was sitting up cross-legged against the headboard as he ran a fine-toothed comb though his unbound hair, chanting lowly in his guttural language, though Tilda thought it sounded almost like a song. His voice was softly baritone, almost husky, and Tilda decided she liked it very much, but it was the play of light off his chest muscles as he worked that had caught her attention. She hadn't expected this; was finding it was quite a bit more than she was prepared for in this moment. His upper body was toned, she couldn’t help but notice, with fine black hairs on his chest and lower down, near his navel, that looked as soft as a baby’s hair did. As his arms moved, biceps shifting as he brought the comb up to work a different section, her attention was drawn to the dark lines of a tattoo tracing some kind of scrolling design, starting somewhere just above his navel, in the gap created between his ribs, and tracing upwards along his left side, over his heart and stopping just shy of curling around one flat nipple.

The sight transfixed her, as little pieces were hidden and revealed by the motions of his arm as his song curled around her senses and she forgot that she shouldn’t be staring—she wasn’t sure why, except that she didn’t feel ready for this stretching, twisting, warm feeling inside herself; for the way it made her feel like she wasn’t quite herself anymore. She must have made some quite movement to alert him, and Kíli looked up at her and smiled shyly, breaking the spell. The moment was strangely even more intimate than what came before, and Tilda smiled hesitantly in return, before quickly averting her eyes, and sliding in the other side of the bed. She tried to be casual about pulling the light coverlet up around her ears as if it were armour, though she wasn’t sure one could look anything other than like they were hiding when doing that, and she tried not to hear his soft singing voice, or feel the confusing way is was twisting her in knots.

Despite her anxieties, the day caught up with her, and she was asleep almost as soon as her head hit her pillow, the quiet rasp of the comb and the sound of Kíli's chant following her into dreams.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

 

Chapter Text

 Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

 

Chapter Seven

7

New Beginnings

 

 

The sun rose far too early at this time of year; something Kíli hadn’t had to deal with much in his life underground, and he only barely managed to muffle his groan when he was woken the next morning by warm golden light he couldn't keep out, no matter how tightly closed he screwed his eyelids.

Drapes, he thought irritably, realizing that there had, of course, been curtains to close; he just hadn’t thought to do so after putting away his comb and nervously crawling into bed after Tilda had settled in to sleep the night before. He thought briefly of burrowing down under the coverlet to escape, but his first tiny shift made him aware of Tilda’s warm weight beside him, and he immediately stilled, a whole host of...things rising in his chest; chiefly, the feeling that he wasn’t ready for his wife of only a few hours to wake.

Opening his eyes only made it worse.

The coverlet had ended up bunched at her waist at some point during the night, leaving the narrow expanse of her nightgown-clad back and shoulders exposed to the cooler morning air. Kíli knew he should pull it up, keep her warm, but as she didn’t appear to be chilled, he guiltily allowed himself this unguarded opportunity to simply examine her, alone with his thoughts.

He was someone’s husband, now...responsible, in part, for his Lady’s wellbeing, as well as for giving some of the responsibility for his own cares into her keeping. No longer separate, but joined, perhaps even more fundamentally than he was to Fíli.

Great Father, was he ready for this?

Despite the months of preparations, of meditation and ritual, he couldn’t help the bit of panic crawling around his belly as he contemplated the sheer depth of the change that had occurred, quite literally overnight. It could be the beginning of a grand, reckless adventure, if Tilda were willing, and part of him, the part that was usually responsible for getting him into trouble, was almost impatient for it to begin.

That, of course, would require his wife to wake, and thinking about that brought the panic crawling back.

Beside him, the lady in question slumbered on undisturbed, oblivious to his floundering, and Kíli couldn’t help but be soothed by her peaceful presense.

That wasn’t to say that Tilda wasn’t animated, even in sleep, he was discovering; as if she were filled to the brim with mischief and humour, impossible to subdue. Though she appeared to be resting soundly, she would occasionally give a little wriggle, as though enjoying something where she walked in her dreams, and a tiny smile curled her pink lips. Her chin, faintly pointed and lengthening her otherwise round face, would be nuzzled lightly into the pillow, once; twice; three times, as if resisting the moment of waking or testing the downy softness of her pillow, and a faint hum would slip from her chest, sounding altogether pleased, and Kíli's heart expanded, wanting that sound to settle into his bones. Her nose would twitch, or her toes curl restlessly where they peeked out from their blankets, and Kíli found he was quite happy simply watching her dream.

Most of the men, at least nearby, and all of the dwarves, if he were honest—likely suffering the effects of good party—were still fast asleep. The quiet this offered Kíli was a rare gift, leaving his senses relatively free of the presence of others; a thing that almost never happened to him, as the Mountain rarely slept and was full of industry even in the dead hours of the night. Smiling at the uncrowded feelings in his head and in his breast, Kíli let the simple, faint sound of the riverbed sing to him as he carefully eased out from under the cover and sat up, propped against the headboard and watching over Tilda as she slept.

His Lady slept on her stomach, her back fully exposed and her face turned towards him; Kíli was humbled that she felt so safe in his company that she would sleep in such a position, that made reacting to any kind of threat, or reaching for weapons—and it was a fact that his own bow sat easily within reach, as well as a short sword—almost impossible. Both arms were crooked under her pillow, cushioning her head as she slept. She seemed unbothered by the daylight invading their chamber, and the steely-gold light of early morning made her freckles stand out along the bridge of her nose and picked out the brighter highlights in her hair where it stuck up around her head in chaotic little snarls, and his fingers twitched, wanting to smooth through the strands. Of course, he kept his hands to himself, but the joy she seemed to possess drew him in, pulled at his soul until all he could focus on were her upturned lips and the tiny little purse there, as if waiting for a kiss.

It was the fact that he was already leaning in, before thought had even entered into it that had him jerking back and—carefully!—flinging himself from the bed, scrambling into his clothes and out into the front yard to clear his head.

Roäc blinked at him where the old raven sat roosting in the rowan tree in the yard.

“Did you spend the night there?” Kíli asked crossly, still taking deep breaths and feeling not at all settled.

“It was a party, wassn’it?” the bird croaked back, sounding unimpressed by Kíli's temper.

“What would a raven care if it was?” Kíli asked, feeling exasperated by the whole conversation.

Flicking back one dark wing, the leader of the Erebor ravens fixed Kíli with a clearly offended stare. “Par-ty,” he croaked with clear emphasis, and a touch of reproach.

Sighing, Kíli waved a hand in Roäc’s general direction in a vaguely contrite gesture, before scrubbing his face roughly. Nearby, Roäc settled his feathers again, seemingly having forgiven his prince and content to start preening wayward feathers once more.

“Seems t’me, yer on the wrong side of the door, highness,” Roäc observed, words muffled with a primary feather tucked in his beak.

“Yes, well, I fancied taking in the view,” Kíli muttered, acutely aware that the only view he could currently concentrate on was the one he had just left behind, in their bed.

“Shouldn’t be leaving the missus alone in the nest so soon. Proper impressionin’ and suchlike. Like chicks, that way, you newly-mated are.” The arthritic old bird stretched awkwardly to straighten out feathers where his wing joined his back, which still, disturbingly, allowed him to stare at Kíli from one beady eye.

“Just needed a bit of air,” Kíli said, hoping to put an end to the conversation and be left in peace, even as faint guilt at the old bird’s words was crawling around in his belly. Which was ridiculous, of course. What in Mahal’s name did a raven know about it, after all? And Tilda, of course, wasn’t even aware that she was alone in their nest—er, bed.

Roäc squinted at him, which was surprising, as Kíli hadn’t been aware a bird could squint. “Unless you were planning on bringing her sommit? Nice worms would go over a treat,” he observed, hopefully. “Some big fat meaty ones, down by the gate, or those narrow litt’ wrigglers under the window? Makes the right impression, that, and she’ll be dead appreciative yeh thought of her.” In that moment, Kíli was absolutely sure the raven would be waggling his eyebrows, if he had any, and he turned instead to stare at the remains of the party scattered over the lawn and stretching all the way down to the river some yards distant, in some vague hopes that Roäc would kindly shove off.

He was getting suggestions from a bird. Clearly, he was hopeless. Of course, old Roäc seemed to have no intention of leaving him in peaceful misery, and behind him, the raspy sounds of a raven trying to sing rose up; responding to some kind of instinct for the rising sun, or warming temperatures, perhaps. Or irritating princes in completely un-disciplinable ways. Unfortunately, ravens had never been noted for being very melodic to begin with, and this one might possibly be worse than most.

“Thanks for the advice, Roäc,” Kíli murmured, hastily sidling off, hoping to slip in the back door—empty-handed—without anyone, or any-bird, the wiser. Thankfully, not only did the cottage prove to have a back door, but it was also unlatched, swinging closed behind him, and cutting him off from uncomfortable conversations, with a satisfyingly solid bump. For a long moment, Kíli simply stood there with his back pressed against the door as if holding it closed, as he enjoyed the quiet here in the small kitchen.

Worms, he thought with a shudder, but his eye was caught by the shine of the brightly polished copper teapot, waiting on the stove. He didn’t even notice when his brow furrowed with an absent sort of consideration as the pot winked at him in the early morning light.

Somehow the conversation nagged at him, like a persistent bur, throughout the rest of the day.

And outside, a raven continued to sing.

...and sing.

Kíli wondered briefly if he could stuff his ears with wax.

.o.♔.o.

The raucous chorus outside her window was enough to wake Tilda. The fact that the sheets beside her were cool, was somewhat of a shock...and, much to her surprise, it stung, for reasons she couldn’t quite identify. Of course, she forgot it almost instantly when a voice startled her nearly silly.

“Good morning, dear-heart.” And of course it was Sigrid, her dear, wonderful sister, and a warm bowl of gently steaming porridge was being thrust under her nose even as she struggled to turn over and sit up, all while tangled haphazardly in the covers. For some reason, the nutty-warm smell rising up to envelop her: of toasted oats and walnuts, spiked just enough with raisins and maybe apples and a touch of brown sugar, just embodied home and everything that she was going to miss, and she found herself hugging Sigrid tightly as her sister slid into the empty place in the bed beside her.

“When did you get here?” Tilda mumbled softly against Sigrid’s shoulder, trying to extend this moment just a little while longer. Her sister seemed to have similar ideas, and was running soft fingers through Tilda’s unruly hair, carefully working through the snarls as she went. Sigrid smelt faintly of edelweiss water, which she liked to dab in her hair and on her pulse-points, and was so quintessentially Sigrid, in Tilda’s mind, that she felt herself calming, just like when she was a little girl.

“Not much more than half an hour,” Sigrid told her, fingers never stopping their rhythmic motion through her hair.

“Was Kíli—?” Tilda wasn’t sure how to ask, and felt rather embarrassed that she even had to ask in the first place.

“Already seeing to the packing and such with his kin,” Sigrid supplied. “Saw him down by the stables as I walked over.” She gave Tilda a side-eyed, playful look as she added, “ Probably taking a special interest in seeing to his new wife’s comfort for the journey.”

“Oh, go on,” Tilda muttered, flushing pink and giving her sister a good, hard shove.

Forbearing any more teasing, or awkward questions—at least for now, Sigrid smiled knowingly before giving a deliberate nod over to the wide sill under the window, because of course there was no fooling Sigrid about what she was feeling.

The sill was lovely, big enough for a girl of questionable decorum to crawl onto and read or sketch or simply sip a warm cup of tea and watch the world come awake around her, and in her minds’ eye, Tilda had already been mentally dressing it with soft cushions and maybe even a drape on the outside of the sill, so that it could be enclosed as sort of a private little bower, like a child’s tree house. Of course, that hadn’t happened yet, and for now, it was simply a smooth sanded wooden sill cut to mimic the angle of the bayed window it sat in; but this morning, it boasted a single, solitary teacup, and Tilda felt all her discomfort at waking alone when she hadn’t expected to, melt away.

The dainty porcelain cup was tightly packed, and simply overflowing with flowers. Tiny little bluebells, and nodding lily-of-the-valley; daisies and purple irises mixed with pink phlox and bright yellow butter-and-eggs, and Tilda had to wonder if her neighbours’ gardens may have been pillaged for the sake of her bouquet, or if Kíli had actually gone searching in the fields and lanes for them all, but found she really didn’t care. It was, altogether, a lovely way to wake up, and she reached for her porridge as her stomach rumbled, realising with a start that she was actually incredibly hungry. Sigrid leaned her cheek against the crown of Tilda’s head while she ate, and they both stared at the view of the garden as they talked, and if Tilda’s eyes spent more time on her flowers than they did anywhere else, well, she was simply glad that Sigrid left her alone about it.

A very lovely way to wake up, indeed.

Sigrid seemed to hesitate, clearing her throat softly, and asking in a hushed rush, “You’re alright, though? Nothing is amiss after...after your night in the marriage bed?”

Face burning hotly, Tilda closed her eyes in hopes that the right thing to say would come to her. Nothing happened, while true, was too...personal, to share, somehow, because Tilda strongly suspected, after picking apart Kíli's words of the night before, that his restraint—and she had just about convinced her pride and embarrassment that it was restraint, and not some kind of lack on her part—had been meant as some kind of...gesture, just for her. The thought was sweet and reassuring, and left a warmth in her gut that felt like butterflies dancing on a summer wind. It was, moreover, hers; hers and Kíli's, and she was surprised to find that for the first time in her life she had a secret she didn’t want to share with Sigrid; she wanted to savour the emotion of their moment without her sister’s logical insights, no matter how well-intentioned or accurate.

It was a profound sort of shift in her family-centred thinking; or possibly just the beginnings of a shift in who her family circle comprised of, now.

“He has a tattoo,” she shared instead, and that was intimate enough to leave a hot stain on her cheeks and earned a look from her sister that was both delighted and scandalized and they lapsed into giggles and speculation that still managed to skirt the truth and remain comfortably surface talk and left the events, or lack of certain events the night before, firmly private.

“You’re alright, though?” Sigrid asked, during a lull in their silly banter. “I could run you a bath, if you’re sore...” she offered, carefully looking out the window and politely pretending not to notice Tilda blushing again beside her. “I’ve heard that it helps.”

Tilda just shook her head, wondering if she could hide her head under her pillows until Sigrid went away. Even as she wallowed in her embarrassed misery, now that Sigrid had so firmly brought it up, she couldn’t help but think of the night before; her curiosity, and her enjoyment of Kíli's embrace. Vainly, she tried to push those thoughts from her mind as soon as they got there, because they were definitely not helpful if she were ever going to stop blushing like a fool.

“I’m going to miss you something terrible, you know,” Sigrid admitted as they both sat there, together, watching as Dale woke under the morning sun, talking sporadically in hushed whispers about the past and future, simply soaking in each other’s presence once last time.

Hours later, she and the dwarves had stood before King Bard and Prince Bain to take a more official leave of the city. Bain had been full of whispered advice as he bade her goodbye, his voice wavering slightly even as he smiled for her. But Bain had been her playmate, and confidante for a lifetime’s worth of imaginary adventures and real-world woes, and something inside of Tilda was sad to realise that they both had grown beyond that, now; had likely grown beyond it a while ago. Realising it, she actually took happiness from that fact; in knowing that they were forging a new relationship, a new closeness that would survive whatever distances life put between them, and she grinned up at her brother when he winked down at her. Taking leave from her father had involved a strong hug neither of them had wanted to break, standing on the steps of her family’s new official residence, for all the people to see. They had both shed a few tears, and Bilbo had given her a compassionate smile when she had finally left her father’s arms and turned to descend the stairs to where Kíli and his kin waited. Tilda looked back only once, to see her family watching her departure with such solemnity, she had to quickly turn away.

They were on the road by late morning, with the rest of Thorin’s company making up their travelling party. Other dwarves were making their way as they would, some already ahead of them on the road, and many more still back in town, sleeping off excesses of the night before.

The road to Erebor was much improved with recent traffic; even so, Tilda was surprised, and pleased, when no one questioned her choice of wishing to ride, instead of travelling in the carriage Prince Fíli offered to arrange for. The were travelling lightly, as her belongings had been sent up to Erebor the week before in one of the new longboats that was to make up the bulk of her dowry, as the dwarves had no use for the livestock that might normally have made up the largest portion of it, as a Princess of Dale. All the linens she had made in the years since the dragon, and what few personal possessions she had, would be waiting for her to unpack once she got there—but that chore was ages and ages away; for now, they were unencumbered under a bright blue sky, and taking their time along the road. Tilda was revelling in every sight and sound as she realized that though she may have to worry about setting her foot wrong with the unknown mores of the dwarves, her new circumstances may also come with some unaccustomed freedoms.

Before leaving, Kíli had carefully saddled her pony for her, insisting he could do that much to ensure her comfort. He’d blushed when one of the others—she thought it was Dwalin, gruff and intimidating with his axes and tattoo—said something in their language and the others had all laughed, but Kíli still handed her gently into the stirrup, helping her get her seat before making a gesture to the others in return that she was fairly certain was rude and it was followed by more catcalls as Kíli moved on to his own pony. And why wouldn’t they? she realized, with a vicious clenching in her gut. Newly married, and newly bedded as they assumed him to be, she was sure he was in for a lot of ribbing over the course of the day, and she was suddenly excruciatingly glad she wouldn’t understand a word of it, so that she could ignore the way those thoughts had butterflies dancing in her stomach even as it churned. Especially when she considered that maybe they didn’t expect anything of the sort, given their differences in culture; but not knowing for sure didn’t make the feelings go away, of course; she thought it rather made it worse.

For a time, Kíli kept pace with her as they travelled, and they’d glanced at each other shyly as they rode, but eventually Thorin called for him, and Kíli joined his uncle at the front of the column and they were soon deep in discussion, leaving Tilda free to watch the approach of her new home as the mountain grew on the horizon until it took up the whole sky, it seemed, and she enjoyed the sights and freedoms she'd never been afforded before. Their pace was gentle; even unaccustomed to riding as she was, Tilda could recognise that they were definitely not pushing the ponies one bit.

She would be offended by this, if it weren’t for the fact that she suspected she was going to be grateful by the time they arrived.

Given their late start, it took them most of the day to make the journey, stopping only twice, at Dís’s insistence—though again, Tilda suspected that was more for her sake than their mounts’. She was saddle-weary and sore in unaccustomed places by the time the sun sank in the late-afternoon sky. Despite feeling a bit like she’d been coddled the whole way, the discomfort felt earned somehow, and she wouldn’t have traded the sweeping views as they had travelled for all the fancy carriage rides in Arda.

The last place Thorin had picked to stop (and she knew she should think of him as His Majesty, or King Thorin, but that had ended after spending the day surreptitiously watching the intense, brooding king caring for a small hobbit as if he were something better than gold, better than treasure.) was a sheltering pine grove close enough to the river’s edge that Tilda suspected she would be able to hear its comforting burble once everyone settled down to stretch their legs. She watched from atop her pony as the others dispersed, hobbling the ponies with practised hands, chatting and laughing with the ease of years of travelling together—not to mention their journey to reclaim a mountain.

From up here, she could also see a lovely patch of moss-covered boulders that looked perfect for sitting on. Unfortunately, Tilda wasn’t sure she could unlock her thighs enough to actually make it to the ground, and she didn’t even want to acknowledge the pins and needles in her toes right now.

Could one sleep in a saddle?

She was still contemplating the pros and cons of trying to get down—and falling because she was fairly certain she couldn’t feel parts of her behind, or wait until she actually fell asleep and fall out of her saddle anyway, but maybe with less people to witness it, when she was startled out of her thoughts by Kíli's hesitant voice at her elbow.

“Would you like a hand down?” he asked, and his smile was shy as he held up his hand to her. Tilda blinked down at him, contemplating the distance carefully, when Nori ambled by and laughingly reached up and swung her down. Tilda gasped, because she really wasn’t prepared for the sudden release of tension in her strained muscles, but he set her down gently, spinning her a bit until she was off-balance and Kíli had to reach out to steady her.

“Nori!” he hissed, glaring at his companion, but the shifty-eyed dwarf simply smirked and gave a half bow.

“Highnesses’.” He grinned, winked, and sauntered off, looking entirely too pleased with the situation.

Which left Tilda standing awkwardly in Kíli's half-embrace, contemplating all the ways she might kill a dwarf whom she suspected might have something to do with security. Security-ish, anyway. And probably had more knives than an estate kitchen.

“Interfering sod,” Kíli muttered mulishly, still glaring at Nori’s retreating back. The hand gesture waved back at them seemed to indicate that Nori had heard him, despite Kíli's low voice, and she could feel him huff in irritation next to her.

Tilda raised her chin a little bit, and glanced at Kíli, side-eyed. “You know, I’m sure there is important reconnaissance that could be done somewhere unpleasant—say, the dessert in Khand?”

The grin that overtook his face was rather like watching a sunrise over the lake, Tilda thought, bemused and utterly helpless to its infectious power. She wasn’t sure who started it, but soon they were giggling, still clutched onto one another as they tried to keep their amusement quiet, earlier awkwardness entirely forgotten, though she refused to actually thank the spiky-haired, sneaky beggar, of course.

After a stern look from Thorin, and an amused wink from Bilbo, they managed to stand up straight, and at least try to act like they weren’t two breaths away from another fit of giggles as they carefully didn’t look at each other, lest they start all over again. A soft touch from work-roughed fingertips made Tilda look down at where Kíli's hand hung next to hers—fingers splayed slightly in invitation even as the Prince himself was carefully looking anywhere but at Tilda, but when she slipped her hand into his offered grasp, the back of his neck flushed softly pink and he hummed quietly in contentment.

They stood there like that for a long while, just staring off at the mountain rising above the trees, lost in thought. Birds chirped above them, while lazy insects buzzed about the flowers, and a light breeze lifted the wispy hairs that had escaped from Tilda's hair dressing, and smelled of the nearby river, and Tilda thought that this moment might be perfect.

"Do you think you might find happiness, with us?" Kíli asked quietly, after a pause so long Tilda startled to hear his voice.

Tilda looked around for a moment, the proper of course I will already on the tip of her tongue, but she surprised herself by asking instead, "Will you help me?"

Turning to face her fully, Kíli brought up their clasped hands between them to rest gently against his chest as he looked first to her, then down at their joined fingers, a small, happy smile tugging his lips. "As my Lady commands," he said, with a tiny touch of sass, and Tilda flushed and glared at him for his foolishness, even as she enjoyed the feeling of his teasing, and the earnestness behind it. The pearl bead that Kíli always wore so prominently flashed golden in the sunlight, and Tilda resolved that she would finally ask him about what it might mean. Someday. Soon, of course, but not now. White teeth stood out against tanned skin as he grinned at her playful display of temper, and his brown eyes were warm and inviting. This close, she could see that they weren't plain brown, at all, but a striking mix of shining amber and topaz, burnished copper and cinnamon, before finally darkening to burnt umber near the edges, and were entirely too easily able to distract.

Oh dear. Perhaps soon-ish; once she figured out a defence against those eyes.

By the time they had to mount their ponies again, Tilda had quite forgotten her sore backside and numb toes, to be honest, but she was no less flustered, much to her annoyance.

The rest of the ride was mercifully short, and Tilda continued to be transported by the sight of the countryside around her. The wind in her hair was lovely, and went a long way to ease the cooped-up feeling she hadn’t even really realized she’d had, and she had the most ridiculous urge to raise her arms, and see if she could fly.

She had never been to Erebor, despite the improved relations between their two peoples, and her first glimpse of the great outer gateway towering above them was enough to drive home how very far away she was from everything she had known. Their egress was a massive stone arch, spanning the gap between the two arms of the encircling rock outcropping, and ran more than fifty feet across—so impossibly large that you didn’t even realise it wasn't a natural opening, shored and improved by the dwarves, until you looked closely, and saw the perfectly laid, perfectly squared blocks that made up the massive structure. Kneeling dwarven figures were carved into the feet of that arch, armoured in a style that reminded Tilda of the armour of King Thorin’s armies, during the battle with the orcs, instead of the more formal, ancient attire she had seen in old tapestries back home. The rock was dark grey and green, with streaks of quartz running in veins that caught the light, and she could see little guard stations tucked into the rock-face as she passed through behind Dori.

Once through the gate, the obstructing rock outcroppings cleared, and Tilda beheld Erebor for the first time.

The road ran at a slight incline all the way to the grand mountain entrance, past practice yards and outbuildings and merchant encampments with tents of colourful southern silks interspersed with ones of well-tanned northern hides, and when the breeze blew just right, Tilda could smell a dozen different things cooking over open campfires. Closer to the road, were parties of dwarves, obviously finishing their day, laughing and arguing as they made their way back to the mountain, or out to the outbuildings, but always talking in that unfamiliar tongue. Dozens of polished weapons gleamed, and everywhere Tilda looked was muscle and armour and fierce expressions, and she allowed her pony to drift to a halt.

Nori caught her looking, and nudged his pony up alongside hers.

“Don’t you worry none, Missy. You’ll have the lot o’ them eating out of your hand within the month,” Nori turned to her and winked. “Just keep yer chin up, and never let them see any doubt. What do they know about the ways of Men, after all?” And with that astonishing piece of advice, he clucked his pony ahead until he was able to torment Dwalin, instead. The strange dwarf, Bifur, murmured soothingly at her, as if she were a colt about to bolt, and patted her hand before he too moved to rejoin the line.

Passing through the outer walls, beneath the massive stone arch held up by two towering statues, felt like an act of courage—as if she were crossing some invisible barrier to her new life, and Tilda was a bit surprised at how hard it was to nudge her pony into motion again, but she lifted her chin and crossed under the gate with a certain amount of defiance, and a white-knuckle grip on the reins.

They made their way to the main entrance, where they were met by Balin, and a couple of groomsmen who took charge of the ponies once they dismounted.

“Welcome, Princess Tilda of Erebor,” he said, smiling kindly down to her from his place on the stair. It was the first time she had been addressed as such, and it left a warm glow in her breast to be identified as being a part of the mountain, and, she was glad to find, eased some of her feelings of displacement.

“Thank you, Balin,” she murmured, not really sure of exactly how she was supposed to address him within dwarven society. Balin didn’t exactly strike her as a servant, and she felt wrong about treating him with the crisp command she had seen other royals who came to Dale use with their own retainers.

No one batted an eye at her tone, so she supposed she must have got it right, or at least, not too wrong. What do they know about the ways of men? When it came to Royalty, possibly more than she did, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. She straightened her shoulders and warmly smiled back at Balin as she felt Kíli move to stand beside her.

“Would My Lady care to see her rooms?” Kíli asked with a playful smile and a silly bow, and Tilda laughed, as she was sure he had intended her to.

“Yes, thank you,” she agreed, and accepted his arm shyly when he offered it.

The mountain was vast, with huge corridors and carven pillars, and a surprising number of walkways extending out over the abyss that had absolutely no handrails whatsoever, much to her discomfort; none of which, she was incredibly thankful, did they have to navigate today. It was full of confusing twists and turns, and Tilda despaired of ever getting the hang of it, though Kíli said she’d be running races through the corridors soon enough. She wasn’t really sure if she should be worried by that comment; if he was simply being playful, or if he was suggesting that she lacked propriety, and Denethor’s chiding voice echoed in her ears. She couldn’t help but feel the prick of shame at his imagined disapproval, even as she got angry at herself for it; she had held so much anticipation for Lord Denethor’s arrival―an actual Lord of Gondor, and possibly even a Numinorean himself―that she couldn’t help the tiny part of her that continued to give his opinions great weight, despite Denethor himself proving to be every bit as susceptible to being an arrogant prat as any of the young boys of her village had been. Her thoughts were conflicted, and left her feeling self-conscious as they made their way down the cool hallways, struggling to keep her chin up and meet the curious glances of the dwarves they passed.

She felt better when they reached the set of rooms that was to be theirs, and she could at last close the door on all the unfamiliar stares. Boxes and bales of her belongings were already stacked neatly against the wall in the outer room, and would take a bit of time to arrange; a pleasant prospect to help settle her nerves until she knew what else might be expected of her.

They were deep inside the mountain here, so the only sunlight filtered in through vents, though Kíli had once explained to her that there were mirrors placed along their tracks that helped make the light brighter so deep underground. Whatever it was, it wasn’t nearly as gloomy as she feared, and with the addition of the light-coloured fabrics used throughout, the rooms actually felt airy and, if not bright, then certainly not oppressive.

The main room held a freshly-waxed dining table with six places, and an area obviously intended to receive visitors, with a settee positioned in front of the fire, and a couple of large padded chairs to either side. An oak desk sat tucked in a corner, its surface tidy, but obviously much used by the looks of all that was on it. To the other side, a cunning workbench sat tucked neatly into an alcove off the main room, and when she investigated, she found the surface strewn with half-finished arrows waiting to be fletched.

Already she could mentally place what few possessions really mattered; her painted miniature of herself and Sigrid would go nicely on the shelf by the table, while the blanket she and Mette had worked on that winter would be warm in front of the fire; her slide-rule, the box Lady Dis (though she secretly imagined Kíli) had sent, that would have to go on the little niche above the desk…. She moved slowly throughout the space, taking in all the details of the room, and it surprised her how easily she could envision stepping into this place. It wasn’t incredibly huge or opulent or any of the things she’d worried that would make it a Princess’s set of rooms, without any room for Tilda; this space felt lived-in and inviting, without any pretensions.

Kíli was quiet, simply watching her as she took in her surroundings, and when she finally had completed her final turn and was once again facing him, his relief at her obvious approval was almost comical, and she felt her lips twitch as she fought not to smile, lest she make him think she was laughing at him.

“You truly have the countenance of dolomite, my Lady,” he told her, with evident sincerity. Tilda had no idea what she was meant to make of that comment, or even what a dolomite might be, beyond possibly rock, but felt far too tired—and overwhelmed, right now, to pursue it. She wanted to take his hands again, like she had when he’d tried to reassure her in the boat, but felt shy, so she turned to busy herself with her belongings instead and never saw the disappointed look before it fell from Kíli’s face.

Perhaps he meant she lacked polish. Or was hard and durable...or common. A small part of her acknowledged that he could just as easily have meant something nice, but it was a quiet voice, and easily ignored in the face of so much that was strange to her. Right now, it was much easier to think of linens, and tinctures and all the other sundries that waited to be organised. With luck, she would be exhausted enough to fall asleep easily tonight, without any more bothersome questions.

She was pleased to find later that she was.

 

The yellow light of early morning was subdued this far underground, despite the clever mirrors along the length of the vents, but the gradual change was enough to eventually pull Tilda from sleep’s embrace. The busy thrum of the Mountain was so different from the familiar sounds of creaking wood and splashing water of everyday life in Laketown, and she’d slept poorly.

Her dreams had been uneasy, but she couldn’t recall any of them when she woke, only the vague sense of restless energy that ended up leaving her feeling twitchy all morning, like a cat who’d had its fur stroked the wrong way. Kíli was stirring on his side of the bed, and Tilda felt embarrassed when she realized that she was disappointed that there was still a good foot of space between them. She pushed it aside, scolded herself for being foolish, and resisted the, entirely counterproductive, urge to pull the counterpane up higher on her breast. Instead, she met his gaze as calmly as if she were sitting in her parlour back in Laketown. “Good morning,” she said softly, but wasn’t sure what more she should say, so bit her lip.

Somehow, in all of her new manners and deportment lessons, this situation had never been covered.

Stupid, really, as just about any young lady of quality would eventually be married off and find herself facing it, Tilda reflected crossly.

Kíli closed his eyes tightly for a moment, perhaps scolding himself as well, though Tilda couldn’t begin to guess for what, but when he opened them again, his gaze was warm enough. “Good morning,” he said, and his voice was sleep-husky and rough. “I trust My Lady slept well?”

Laying down while talking to him like this felt too intimate, like lovers sharing secrets, so Tilda wriggled until she was sitting up against the board before answering, “Well enough, My L—Kíli, thank you,” she hesitated to return the formality. Somehow, when Kíli said it to her, it sounded warm, like a secret compliment and a joke he was inviting her to share, but calling him by his honorific in return just felt stiff on her tongue. She hoped she wasn’t being rude, or anything, by his culture’s standards by calling him so informally, but again remembered Nori’s advice, and decided to go with what felt comfortable, though even among her own people, many wives still addressed their husbands formally...she was beginning to get a headache, just trying to unravel it all.

Kíli had pushed himself from their bed, and was padding across to the outer room, leaving the connecting door open behind him. Tilda could hear him potting about; the soft clink of porcelain and slosh of something pouring, and she realized a breakfast tray must have been set out for them. When he came back, it was with a crust of something in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other. The crust he shoved into his mouth, while the cup he brought to her, dropping a sticky buss on her forehead, and blushing slightly as he did so. “I think you have a bit of time yet before they come looking for you,” he shuffled his feet a bit, before heading back towards his dressing room. “I’ll be back around mid-watch this evening, and we can have dinner, then, if you’d like?”

Tilda nodded, not really feeling up to much more, and sipped her tea in bemused silence.

He’d made it perfectly, and she wasn’t entirely sure what she should think of that, either.

After Kíli had left in a flurry that told her he was probably late for something, she lingered over her tea, finding comfort in the warm cup in her hands, but she couldn’t hide in bed all day, no matter how much she may want to, so once she’d finished, Tilda set about making herself presentable for the day. Most of her trousseau was still waiting to be unpacked, which kept her choices agreeably simple, and it wasn’t long before she’d settled on a butter-yellow gown over a white kirtle, tying her hair back with matching ribbons. Yellow felt like such a brave colour, down here, and she dearly hoped it gave her strength today.

She had finished her toilette and took her time over a spot of breakfast, and had just settled down for a second cup of tea when a knock on her door was the only warning she received before someone was barging in.

The dwarrowdam facing her—and the delicate way she wore her beard and sideburns made Tilda reasonably sure it was a dam staring at her—had the most piercing ice-blue gaze Tilda had ever seen, despite growing up in a town where tow-headed, blue-eyed children were common. The filigree pattern of braids in her beard sparkled with tiny gems and fine electrum chains. Her hair was so blond as to be almost silver-white, and her skin was pale, more like Balin’s complexion than Kíli's tanned hue. She wore leather leggings and a fine linen tunic with an embossed felted vest with braided cords adorning the shoulder like a badge. Her gaze was neither friendly nor condemning, but was most certainly judging.

Tilda simply stared back, feeling that she could hardly be faulted for being rude after such an entrance and examination.

The dwarrowdam peered critically at her for a long moment, seeming unconcerned by Tilda’s wide-eyed return gawking. She finally grunted, seeming to finish her assessment and apparently finding Tilda no better than she expected. “So, you’re it then?” she asked, and Tilda found herself nodding before she even thought about it.

“Yes, my Lady…?”

The dam waved it away, as if to forestall further questions with a gesture that still managed to look delicate. “Bylgja, Your Highness,” the dam told her brusquely. “The Lady Dís is unavailable to oversee your induction as she’d like, so she’s asked me to see to it that you know your way around without looking too much like a silly elf while you’re at it.”

Tilda could only blink after this brusque pronouncement. “Goodness. Well, you’d better call me Tilda, then, if you’re going to try and accomplish all that.”

Lady Bylgja tisked at her cheek, and tried to hurry Tilda to finish her tea. She couldn’t be certain, but Tilda was reasonably sure that Bylgja’s eyes held an approving gleam, and she had a sneaking suspicion that they would get on fine. She hid a smile in her cup, and let Bylgja berate her in her impersonal manner, despairing that if they didn’t get on with it, Tilda would have no chance of even improving to the level of elf.

 

.o.♔.o.

 

Kíli couldn’t concentrate: the image of Tilda, still sleeping in their bed, ready to be recalled in minute detail each time he tried to focus his mind. He was working with Master Bifur today, a whole morning freed of other duties so that he could devote time to his training—training that was even more important now than ever before. Mahal, look at what he had done to Uncle Thorin and Uncle Bilbo, and that was before he’d even consciously called upon his gifts.

A vague sense of unease had been bothering him all last night; a tiny niggle that left him restless and unable to alight to any specific task for long. His frustration and inability to accomplish anything finally drove him to bed, and he lay there in the dark for long hours even before Tilda joined him. He feigned sleep, and she settled easily in beside him, and her presence both soothed his irritation somewhat and yet still fanned the feelings plaguing him.

The thought, when it had finally occurred to him with blinding clarity sometime in the middle of the night, drove him bolt upright from his sleepless tossing and turning.

Once, before he had even acknowledged to himself that he had these abilities, he’d formed the path for Uncle Thorin and Uncle Bilbo’s Bond without any training or idea of what he had been doing—what if he could do something worse to Tilda? He wasn’t sure what he feared; not completely, but there were dark and vague and horrifying enough possibilities that he knew he had to pull his thoughts back from her—shield himself from her, lest he unintentionally take something so fundamental and precious from her that he would never be forgiven.

Cantors were unique, each one with strengths and weaknesses as personal as their thoughts, because each one brought a different perspective to the song that they heard. Bifur had once speculated that the ease with which Kíli had identified the potential between his uncles suggested that his strengths lay with relationships, and the way that people thought and fit together. Great news for his diplomatic aspirations, not so great for a mining kingdom that needed someone adept at dealing with the firmament.

And certainly not great for a young human girl, who was now trapped in a marriage that certainly wouldn’t have been of her choosing had she known the risks.

He felt sick. Cantors rarely married; at least, he couldn’t remember mention of a single Cantor who had—but Cantors were also never princes, either, and frankly Kíli was beginning to feel a bit strained under all the different roles he had to hold. But, wishes seldom were, as his mother was fond of saying, especially when they had lived years of leanness and wanting.

But it was a fact that the moment back in Tilda’s cottage, and the brief feel of her pliant lips beneath his own, was seldom far from his thoughts. Unfortunately, now that the thought had finally occurred to him, he couldn’t help but doubt whether or not her response to him in that moment had actually been her own; or a result of what he wished it to be. It was a sorry mess, and his heart burned with shame that he might have forced her in any way in that moment; a moment that he had thought was special and momentous and perfect now tasted like ash.

The resolve that nothing further would happen that he wasn’t absolutely certain Tilda was initiating completely of her own volition, was made before he had even had to think about it.

His Lady came first. His One would always come first.

Meditation was the order of the day, and Bifur had set him to his lessons in the lower caverns. Like many pockets in Erebor, the stone here was tetchy, not resting solidly after the dragon’s occupation, and there was worry of cave-ins that had them calling for a Cantor’s assessment. Ostensibly, Kíli was honing his ability to commune with Mahal’s firmament, supposedly acting as a liaison with Bifur as a fully-fledged Cantor, with only a few outside his kin knowing his training went any further than that. Bifur, on the other hand, was an orc-faced task master, Kíli felt, considering he had only just returned to the mountain after getting Men-style married two days prior. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the fact that this was so important, Kíli would have begged off, in hopes of spending a little more time with his Lady.

Unfortunately, it was only going to get worse. Cantors were rare—it’s why the calling superseded anything else. Currently, there was only one official Cantor for the whole mountain population of six hundred, and given that dwarves had such low birthrates, and then adding that any Cantor who was born wouldn’t actually be helpful for another hundred years...and Kíli found himself spending more time working with Bifur than was probably wise for someone who was trying to hide his true abilities. As a prince of Erebor, he had a duty to be instructed in a wide variety of Crafts, to better manage the Mountain’s economy and inner politics; Fili had his own list of crafts to learn, and between them, they would cover the major guilds and halls within the Mountain.

Canting, of course, being the Craft closest to their Maker, and the closest thing dwarven society had to a religion, was sacred, and never included in that rotation. Until now, that was. Uncle Thorin’s edict ‘forcing’ him to be introduced to the Canting craft, along with the traditional list in the rotation, had thankfully done its job to help veil the situation, allowing Kíli to hide behind ‘traditional duty’, and still be trained. The mountain was aware of course, that Master Bifur was spread thinner than thin, so Kíli being called to help more often as an unskilled ‘apprentice’ wasn’t too suspicious.

Yet.

Right now, he had to push that from his mind. It couldn’t be helped, and this needed to be done.

The cavern was largely ancient igneous formations, deep in the cleared part of their mountain, and Kíli struggled to bring his wayward concentration to bear. He rather thought that might be why Bifur had tasked him with this today—his mentor was both less than sane, and a real bastard when he felt like it. The lewd grin he’d given Kíli when he’d gestured for him to struggle with the rock left him with the impression that this was both some kind of post-marital hazing rite, and that the Cantor was aware of the distracting deposit of ruby and garnet under their feet, which kept directing his focus until all Kíli was thinking of was the soft texture of Tilda’s skin and what it might feel like if he ever managed to court her properly, and earn her affections as well as her willingness.

With a frustrated groan, Kíli again wrested his attention back to the matter at hand, working hard to gentle his mental voice, and reach out to the skittish stone for the root of the problem, and the source of the instability. The deeper Kíli pushed, the harder it got. He had to hone his focus like a thin blade, slipping in between the different voices of rock without disturbing the uneasy stability of the cave structure; if he was too firm, he could easily agitate the whole cavern, and bring down the very rock-slide they were trying to prevent. Sweat dripped unheeded into his eyes as he concentrated on negotiating the difficult relations between the fault-lines. Nearby, Bifur watched his struggles and grinned, humming cheerily and off key under his breath, either supremely confident in Kíli's abilities, or completely uncaring of the risks they courted. Had Kíli been paying attention, he frankly would have given even money on either choice.

In the end, encouraged by the warm voice of the crystal-stone itself, he found it easiest to simply give his thoughts and worries of Tilda into the ruby’s keeping. When he finally managed to slip into the proper place within the voices of the rock, he was no longer aware of the hard stone beneath his knees, or the way his thighs had cramped after an hour of kneeling, and Tilda’s voice was a faint echo coming from somewhere outside himself and beneath his feet.

There was something almost religious about the experience, which he supposed was fair, given that he was listening to the echoes of Mahal’s voice in the vibrations of stone, but now his Maker’s voice was tinged with bright laughter that had never been there before, and in his heart a new shape began to glow, that stayed with him even as he finished coaxing the stone to rest more easily, and identifying the places that would require patching and shoring. He wondered briefly if Fíli's First Craft had come to him like this, as if some unseen hand had reached in to carve his very soul, planting its shape—its essence, and leaving a perfect ideal he would struggle to do justice to.

Remembering the hours his brother had spent pouring over designs and schematics, hours he really hadn’t had, Kíli suspected the compulsion to do, to complete, had been every bit as strong.

He did know he would have no rest until he finally managed to bring it into the world and give it form with his own hand. Excited as he was by the growing yearning in his soul, he knew with a sinking feeling of dismay that he was going to be very, very short on sleep in the coming weeks, trying to find even more time in his already crammed schedule.

What he also knew, was that he needed to learn from his Uncle Thorin’s mistakes. Tilda was not a dwarf, and he could not make the assumptions that she would understand as if she was. He could learn to conduct his courtship as a Man; he was the clever brother, after all. Dozens of merchants, from points West, East and South, all converged in Erebor’s great marketplace; it shouldn’t be too hard to find out what he needed to know.

 

 

Chapter Text

Courting Habits of the Hopelessly Unprepared

Chapter Eight

8

Secrets and Circumstance

 

Four Months Earlier...

She would turn nineteen in a week, amidst the cold damp of the late winter, when the worst of the bitter storms had passed, but temperatures still stayed stubbornly close to freezing most days, and the snow was still upon the ground in great drifts. It was with some joy for the relief from being cooped up all winter that Tilda accompanied her Da to inspect Dale’s progress, and more importantly, to see how well its few inhabitants and their industry had weathered the season. Thankfully, they had planned to sail, for the Long Lake was deep enough to never freeze even in the darkest parts of winter, and the River Running too swift. They journeyed in a small flotilla of three ships, each carrying armed men, and packed with supplies to supplement Dale’s needs. Tilda’d had to argue hard for her inclusion, but Da had relented when she reminded him that he would need to take stock of shortages and inventories, and Tilda’s ability to do more complicated sums in her head was a useful one.

Would she still get a chance to be useful like this, among the dwarves? More than that, was it even appropriate for a true princess to do sums and figures better than any tightfisted money-changer?

Depressingly, Tilda rather suspected it wasn’t.

Not that she had any idea of what to expect of her life, once she took up residence in the mountain. An event which was looming closer every day as her wedding approached with the coming of summer. The dwarves who came to town had been remarkably curt with her the few times she tried to talk to any of them, and all of her attempts to learn more of them had been rebuffed with brusque courtesy. Only Kíli and his travelling party had been warm with her, though his visits had largely stopped once winter had set in, leaving her with only the glowering shopkeepers and traders in town to try and glean any information from. Perhaps there was some kind of prohibition for royalty speaking with more common folk amongst the dwarves?

Or perhaps, she has already shown herself as being a poor substitute for a real princess.

It was a disheartening thought to keep her company on what would be her last chance to travel with her own people, so she decided she wasn’t going to think on it any longer.

Sometimes, it even worked.

It took two days to sail up the lake, and a further two to make it to Dale, and by the end of each day when they debarked, Tilda welcomed the blazing fires they built after the chill of the day had worked through her heavy wool and felt clothing, and, after dinner, she looked forward to crawling into her bedroll with a heated, hide-wrapped stone by her toes to keep her warm and comfortable through the cold night. She loved trips like this, where she could see the stars as they shone like white fire in the sky above. Without the haze of lamp smoke to obscure them, it looked like a vast shining sea of jewels, impossibly far away, but still feeling so close she had to stifle the childish urge to reach up with her fingers, as though she could hook the edges of that dark expanse and pull the glowing heavens down to wrap herself in like a blanket. The night was black as black, and yet alive as the north-lights played their game of chase across the sky, reflecting their colours upon the patches of undisturbed snow below.

Dale had weathered the winter well, they found, and the settled families and others who were part of the reconstruction were cheerful and optimistic despite the deep snow. The sun had begun to rise and set so that they had six or even seven hours of daylight again each day, and spirits always rose with the sun as the dangers in the dark seemed to recede again for another year. It was a thriving community, and Tilda looked forward to the city, and the kingdom, being declared officially restored. Given the staggering amount of work still to be done, Tilda could hardly see how it would all be ready come the beginning of summer—just three short months away—for her da and their people seemed bent on everything being complete for her wedding day.

She was wandering the streets, bundled tight but enjoying the weak winter sun and getting to be out and about with ease again. People greeted her as she passed, curtsying in shop doorways and on the street in a way she feared she would never get used to, and it was only with practice that she kept herself from turning, to see if perhaps someone important were behind her. The buildings around her no longer loomed in threatening decay, for stonemasons from the Mountain, bargained as part of her betrothal, had been helping rebuild the old city so that it looked vital again, and streets like this one, that were finished, just looked expectant, like the buildings were simply waiting for their new families of Dale to move in once more. It was a friendly feeling, and Tilda smiled at all she saw as she kicked the little mounds of snow from last night’s fall with her deer-hide boots. Spring would see a huge influx of settlers; families and professionals her father and his council had hand-picked and approved and Tilda was excited to imagine this city so vibrant again, as it had only existed to her in her grandfather’s stories and her and her siblings’ imaginations.

There were a few scattered dwarven merchants to be found in the market square, and the way their eyes followed her, hard and distrustful, obviously judging and finding the pale human lacking, made it perfectly plain they had little welcome for her as Tilda found herself slowing, and eventually stopping, to watch them curiously.

And Tilda could feel her dratted temper rising up, despite her best efforts; annoyance at the dwarves for dismissing her so casually, and, more rightfully, at herself for letting them.

Of course, it was just as likely that she was misinterpreting the whole thing. Everyone knew the dwarrow were secretive folk, after all. What interest would one tiny human girl hold to them? Even one set to marry their prince?

As suddenly as it appeared, her ire burned itself out, but it left behind a bit of recklessness that often lead her into trouble, and a renewed sense of self. She was a Daughter of the Long Lake, after all: the people who lived under the Dragon, descendant of the Northmen, and possibly even the distant Numenoreans; what had she to fear from a few dwarves?

“You’re going to be leaving them alone, aren’t you Mistress?” Mette asked her, her voice warning as she perhaps recognized the particular tilt to her mistress’s jaw, or the set of her spine.

Tilda looked over her shoulder at her companion with an impish grin. “If you have to ask in that tone, then you already know the answer, don’t you?” And she turned to make her way over to the first stall that caught her eye, leaving Mette’s hissed scolding behind her.

The stall she’d chosen was actually a wagon, different types of wood interlocking in patterned bands and varnished to a pretty sheen. The side was cleverly designed to fold down into a counter, displaying various wares for sale, and even had an awning held up by two poles to protect against inclement weather. Beside the counter lounged a stocky dwarf in, while not full armour, more armour than Tilda was accustomed to seeing in a polite setting, and that, combined with his distinctly closed expression, had Tilda faltering for a moment. Don’t be silly. If you can’t deal with a few merchants in your own city, how are you going to manage when you’re alone under the mountain?

The merchant seemed to see when her resolve stiffened, because his expression became even more dour, but Tilda would swear there was a gleam in his eyes, as well. She used it to bolster her nerve, anyway, and approached. The counter was neatly laid out with everything from small household items to daggers and hunting knives, and Tilda quickly picked up the first item to come to her hand to try and hide her flustered state, which turned out to be a leather harness for the sled dogs used for winter travel. She looked at it blankly for a moment, before the dwarf reached out and took it from her.

“Good afternoon, Master Dwarf—”

“Don't you go Master’ing me, Silvertongue,” the merchant glared. “It’s Mister Haugar, an’ don’t go trying te make it other’n that.” Behind her, Tilda could feel Mette tug on her dress, discretely trying to get her to leave, but Tilda ignored her, determined to try and win a, if not a friend, at least some respect.

“Mister Haugar, then,” she said in the most conciliatory tone she could, but Haugar just glared even harder, for some reason, and Tilda had to work hard not to physically step back. “I can tell you have fine merchandise here,” she tried, “And I have need of—”

“There’s nothing for the likes of you here, yer Highness,” he told her, pushing himself up from his bench to turn away from her. “I sell useful stuff. Go try down the street for the ribbon and frivolities merchant.”

Tilda just stood there, stung and gaping at this rude treatment, and before she could stop it, she burst out; “Of all the—presumptive twaddle!”

Haugar paused a moment, as if waiting for her to continue, but Tilda was too busy being shocked at her own outburst and the dwarf frowned at her. “Go away, lass, and go bother someone else,” he waved at her, before clumping his way towards the back of his wagon—and a little door there, Tilda saw.

This felt like an important battle, though she had no idea why, and unfortunately her temper continued to get the better of her. “Then I am surprised, Mister Haugar, to learn of both your limited wares, and your limited opinion of my tastes.” Dammit Til, when are you going to learn to control your tongue?

Haugar turned back slowly, and there was a fierce gleam in his eyes now, but a tiny smile curling his whiskered lips. “Ye’ll not find better quality outside of Erebor; I’ll tell ye that fer nothing, Highness”

Her knees were trying to quake beneath her, but there was no way Tilda was going to allow it. So she lifted her chin instead, and tried to figure out how to bull through this mess, when a rough booming voice cut in.

“At least yer remembering the proper courtesies, now,” and suddenly two other dwarves where there, making Mette crowd up against her as though to protect her from these new arrivals. The speaker was large and bald, and Tilda wasn’t sure if she was relieved or not that she recognized Dwalin, Erebor’s burly guard captain.

To her right, the other dwarf, this one even larger—a thing Tilda wouldn’t have thought possible—leaned against a lamp pole, arms crossed casually around his rather impressive middle as he watched them, as though watching street theatre. When he caught Tilda looking, he shot her an amused wink. “Don’ mind us, lass—yer doing just fine without any help.” The large dwarf had what looked like boar tusks worked into his beard, she noticed, and he seemed content to simply watch as she floundered.

Haugar harrumphed, but settled down once more, looking over Tilda’s lifted chin and crossed arms with an amused eye. “All right, yer Ladyship. What is it that wouldn’t be too presumptive of me to offer yeh, then?” It was possible his manner was a touch softer—in the way that marble was softer than granite, maybe, Tilda thought crossly.

“I was...That is,” and her eye drifted again to the harness she had been caressing. “I was considering a...quiver! Some of the leather work had caught my eye.” With a quick glance at Haugar’s expression, that somehow still managed to look both offended and faintly approving, she hastened to add, “That is, if Mister Haugar has anything he thinks it fit to offer?”

For a long moment, it hung there, before the merchant gave a coarse laugh, slapping a hand down on the counter with a loud smack!

“I think I might have something at that, for such a discerning customer,” he told her sarcastically, heading to the back of the wagon to rummage through his stores.

The wind was picking up, and Tilda found she was glad for Mette, standing loyally behind her, even as the blond girl trembled faintly. “Stop it, Mette,” she chided, warningly.

“Finish up here, then,” Mette hissed back, but she made an effort to stiffen her spine when the crusty dwarf made his way back to them.

The quiver he brought out was...beautiful. Even Tilda, who had grown up where weapons were expensive and crude for the most part, and never had occasion to examine a truly fine weapon in her life, could tell that this was a cut above. Leather of deep green and dark, oiled brown were used to striking effect on both the main body and the sling, and the whole was stitched with neat, tiny stitches that almost disappeared in the design. The buckles were of expensive oiled brass, and Tilda would bet her favourite book that it was light and comfortable in its construction.

“I’ll take it,” she told him breathlessly, not at all sure what she would do with it, but aware there was no way she could pretend such a well-made item wasn’t good enough. It was another test, though she had no idea why she was being tested, or for what, but it would be an insult to refuse the quiver now, she knew instinctively, and not one that was part of the apparent dance they had been performing. The knowledge was unbidden from some little corner deep inside, and she had no idea where, or how, she might have learned it, but she didn’t doubt its accuracy for even a moment.

“Done then!” the boar-toothed dwarf boomed, and a large, meaty hand clapped her on the shoulder, nearly making her knees buckle. “And a well-done dicker, if I do say it. If the young miss is free, perhaps she’d care to sample the tavern’s offerings of ale with us, then, while she celebrates her victory in proper style?”

Tilda looked instinctively to Dwalin, being the only dwarf she did know in this bizarre situation, but he was looking at the other with a mildly put-upon expression. “Really, Dain? Don’ ye think yeh might introduce yerself to her Highness, before ye take her drinking?”

Dain. Dain. It took her a moment to place it, but when she did, Tilda wasn’t sure if she were more horrified or terrified. This was the boar-riding general—the one who made her da glad he had Thorin to deal with, instead. “Lord Dain! But you’re K-Prince Kíli's kin!”

Dain, for of course that’s who it was, clearly Tilda didn’t have a lick of luck, broke off from his bicker with Dwalin to raise an eyebrow at her. “An’ that changes whether or not I make a good drinking companion? I promise, no matter if the lad can’t yet hold his ale, I’ll make a fine figure at the tavern with yeh,” And Tilda was blushing even as she wondered if it would be the wrong thing to do if she were to stalk off, before this had a chance to degenerate into more trouble than she could extract herself from. Beside her, Mette squeaked in indignation, fixing the Iron Hills Lord with an affronted glare, and Dain laughed at them as if it were all a fine joke, before actually chucking Mette under her chin with a broad wink, which just left her hissing and confounded like a wet kitten. Tilda had to suppress her giggle when Mette spluttered, blushing and yet trying to be angry but not at all sure how to go about scolding a Lord.

Dwalin reached around and cuffed his ear. “Mind yer manners, you, or Kíli’l have a thing or two to say to yeh. An’ if not the lad, then Lady Dís.”

Dain made a face at his companion. “Yer not nearly so much fun as ye were before yeh became all official,” he complained, but he took possession of Tilda’s arm, placing her hand in the crook of his elbow, and scooped up her quiver in his other arm, waving at Haugar lazily as he did so. “Send the Lady’s bill to her at home,” he instructed, pulling Tilda along as Dwalin continued to grumble at his cousin in their wake.

“Maker, he doesnna know when to shut it,” Dain whispered to Tilda, with every intention of being heard.

“Oi! I’ll have you know you’re behaving like a horse’s backside,” Dwalin told him, and Mette sniffed.

“I’m surprised you noticed,” she grumbled quietly, but quickly pressed her lips together at Dwalin’s unimpressed stare.

The public house was only a street over, and Tilda found herself on its doorstep before she could decide if she should be concerned or not. “I really don’t think I need a drink at this early hour,” she told Dain, gently extracting her hand.

The Lord winked at her, not seeming at all put out, and even a bit more serious. “No, I don’t imagine you would lass, but it got you out of there, didn’t it?” and Tilda laughed, despite herself.

The four of them had drifted into a small knot at the side of the street, and before Dwalin and Dain could leave them, Tilda blurted “Back there,” and she waved her hands around in a vague gesture, trying to encompass the whole of her experiences with dwarves recently, and not just one merchant, though she wasn’t really sure it could be communicated effectively in hand gestures, “What was all of that about?”

Surprisingly well, apparently.

Dain’s jovial expression dropped, and he sighed, looking to Dwalin before nodding his head. “I think I’m going to go and see if I can find that ale, cousin. See that you aren’t too long, or you might find yer tankard’s a bit dry.”

Dwalin grunted, but didn’t really take his eyes off of Tilda, except to give Mette a side-long look. “Go away,” he told her bluntly.

“No,” she told him, equally bluntly.

Dwalin stared at her briefly, sizing her up. “Keep yer mouth shut then for a few minutes, so I can pretend it’s just me and the princess here talking.”

They glared at each other, as Tilda shifted uncomfortably in the cold.

“Mister Dwalin, what was all that about?” Tilda asked again, breaking their tableau. She wasn’t really sure why, but she knew, somehow, that something else had been going on besides one cranky dwarf. A lot of cranky dwarves, for that matter, because she’d gotten the same, closed-off treatment every time she’d tried to approach one of the dwarven merchants around the city this year. And today was just strange; Mister Haugar seemed far too...composed, for one thing, to have been truly angry; more calculating, or evaluating, she realized, startled.

Dwalin scowled, but eventually decided to answer. “Eh, they’re just distrustful.”

Confused, Tilda stared back at him, refusing to drop it.

With a sigh, Dwalin ran a scarred hand over his bald head. “Thing is, Kíli is...very close to the people,” he struggled, obviously trying to choose his words with care, “and very important to them. It’s not...usual for someone like him to marry an outsider.”

“Someone like him?” Tilda asked, slowly.

“Well, he’s not Fíli, is he?” Dwalin frowned.

Tilda cocked her head, trying to think about that. Fíli was...in line to be king, so she supposed it made sense for him to be the one more likely to marry a foreign princess; she just never would have guessed that Kíli was so...beloved, mayhap?...by his people that they would seek to shelter him so. It was humbling to realize, after all the trust her own people had had to learn over the last few years, that she was the one who might be found wanting. Selfishly, the thought had never even occurred to her; she’d though that kind of distrust was behind them.

Clearly, something of her disappointment must have show on her face, because Dwalin scowled at her. “Look, whatever it is yer thinking is probably wrong. I can’ tell yeh much, its too.... Yer still an outsider; but...it’s not...” and his struggle to convey whatever it was he was trying to tell her, almost as if he were trying equally hard to not say certain things, would be truly comical if it weren’t leaving Tilda feeling cut-off and very unwelcome to her new people. Giving up, Dwalin rolled his shoulders, as if to relive tension, and stared her in the eye. His voice was level, and less gruff, and Tilda was struck by the thought that he was trying to be reassuring.

“Yer just not a dwarf, right? It’s not you, it’s that, and they’ll get over it, as long as you continue to be straightforward like you were with old Haugar. Don’t go hiding yer thoughts like you Men do, with your fancy words that don’t mean anything at all, and you’ll be fine.”

“We call that politeness,” Tilda frowned.

“Yeah, we have a word for it under the Mountain, too, but it isn’t so polite,” Dwalin smirked, gave them both a little bow that managed to be thoroughly cheeky and disrespectful, and left them to go and find his threatened tankard.

She looked down at the quiver Dain had left with her, running her hands over the soft leather absently.

“Whatever are you going to do with it, Miss?” Mette asked.

Tilda blinked. What the devil was she going to do with it?

She couldn’t help but think of her meeting with Dís, last summer, and being worried that she might somehow, unknowingly, give offence to her future mother-in-law by breaking some Dwarven taboo, or failing to be polite according to their standards.

Looking at today’s encounter, she could now say she’d been right to worry that day; that maybe she should have been worried more. Still, somehow, she seemed to have muddled through, and the though was light and made her want to laugh at everything, especially the sight she must have made, arguing on a street corner like a fishwife.

Straightening her shoulders, she grinned. “I’m going to give it to my Da—with Dain’s compliments, of course,” and she laughed. Somehow, it seemed fitting to give her da this, a tiny sign of her victory; and she thought it was a victory, and one that maybe he could appreciate. Someday. When she found the words to explain it to him.

She’d make sure to give him the edited version, though.

-..-

How long ago that had been, and yet, today, her first real day under the mountain, it came back to her like it was yesterday. The stares she was receiving as Bylgja lead her around were by no means welcoming; assessing was perhaps the kindest term, possibly even resentful in a few cases, though there was a fair bit of curiosity, too. Tilda wasn’t sure what advice Dwalin would have for her now, because she wasn’t sure she could walk up and argue with each and every one of them. Still, she tried to remember what Dwalin had said about her Mannish manners, and worked to speak more directly when expressing herself. It felt odd to be discarding years of training, and she only hoped it helped.

Bylgja saw to it that Tilda at least had a rough idea of how the location markers on each hallway and junction worked, though since she didn’t know Khuzdul, she’d have to content herself with memorizing the various symbols, and by the end of the day Bylgja was reluctantly admitting that with practice, Tilda would eventually stop looking so foolish.

She saw workshops and shops and public spaces, and the tour had also included a visit to the communal kitchens when her stomach began to rumble embarrassingly. She learned that as she went up, the various floors were called levels, while those floors below the main gate were called deeps, so that she now knew that her quarters fell on level five, while the main iron mines began on the seventh deep, but each deep and level were further divided into quadrants and numbered sections, increasing the total quantity of markers she’d have to memorize to dizzying numbers, but Tilda was determined, and squinted fiercely at each new one, trying to will it into her memory.

The main Market hall was crowded and noisy, and Tilda couldn’t help but keep an eye out for Haugar’s familiar scowl, despite knowing the cranky merchant operated out of Dale. Still, she felt, the faint touch of something familiar would have gone a long way to helping settle her nerves. Maybe the memory of a challenge bested was enough, because even the faint snippet of memory was enough give her some heart in the face of so many stares.

It was also true that the merchant’s boast appeared to be correct, because Tilda saw many things that morning, but none of it seemed to her so fine as the quiver she’d bought that day.

Her favourite place by far was Clock Hall, a space on one of the main public levels where people of all kinds could be found—and Tilda was surprised to see Men and even the occasional Elf included in the crowds, but then Erebor was a thriving merchant kingdom, with caravans in and out of the mountain all the time. The vaulted cavern echoed with voices and dialects from dozens of different locales, and snippets of conversation hinted at long distances travelled and exotic destinations still to reach. The vast array of colourful clothing and diverse cultures on display was almost enough to distract Tilda from the rest of the cavern, but the cavern itself was equally arresting and foreign, with its angular lines and carvings. The rock in this part of the mountain was a rose grey with the occasional milky banding of quartz, and here in the Hall it had been polished to a vibrant sheen. There were benches and tables and even a couple of splashing fountains that Tilda was delighted to find actually contained fish with scales of brilliant gold and silver.

Even better than the fish and the fountains, or the freedom of being lost in a crowd, was the large clock itself, slowly marking the passage of time. It stood twice as high as herself, and nearly half as wide as it was tall, and unlike the water-clock that had marked time in Laketown, this one was driven by gears and pulleys and other devices she’d only ever seen mentioned in one of the books in her father’s house. The housing of the clock was an encasement of clear crystal, so that the chains and weights and gears that drove it were completely visible for her to watch, and she could have gotten lost in the precise movements it made if it weren’t for Bylgja there to chide her along. Reluctant to be pulled away, she promised herself that if she found a quiet moment to herself, she would make it back here at some point, and perhaps see if she couldn’t figure out a few of the strings of calculations that must go into making such a precise mechanism work.

All the while, Bylgja was instructing her regarding the craft halls and guilds, the hierarchy of which was mind-spinningly complicated, which she suspected was the main point of today’s lesson.

Bofur, the dwarf who may or may not have a drinking problem, the one with the funny hat, found them about midday, just as Bylgja had succeeded in pulling Tilda away from the clock case.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, now,” and he did look most uncomfortable, twisting his hat between his hands as he looked up, down, and around; anywhere but at the Mining Mistress. Tilda thought it was most curious; she knew she was staring, but she’d never seen the normally jovial miner behave this way. The manner in which he was peeking at Bylgja from the corner of his eyes, though, made Tilda suspect the cause of his discomfort had nothing to do with his message, and everything to do with the imposing dwarrowdam before him. The barely perceptible upturn of Bylgja’s lips said that she was aware of Bofur’s nervousness, and wasn’t opposed to it. Tilda wanted to grin at the sweetness, but honestly, she was slightly afraid of Bylgja, too.

“What is it?” Bylgja asked him, and her voice was even gruffer than when she had told Tilda to stop slouching.

“Master Bifur has finished his assessment of the main shaft in ol’ thirty-six, and Prince Kíli has sent a team down to begin shore-work, my Lady.”

When Bofur continued to fiddle with his cap, Bylgja frowned, impatiently. “And?” she barked.

“Well, now, Master Bifur did say as how we shouldn’t let any o’ the lads down there to do work, when the tunnel hasn’t been sung to proper yet.”

“What is he talking about?” the Mining Mistress asked, frowning thunderously.

“He says that it looks like some of the lads maybe tried to work on the tunnel therselves, as there’s signs of them moving stuff about, yeh see, but—”

“No one is supposed to be down there—and none of our miners are fool enough to go where a Cantor has declared off-limits.” Bylgja sniffed, dismissively. “With all these outsiders mucking about, it’s no wonder some tourist has wandered where they’ve no business being.”

“Da’s had problems with minor break-ins and mischief around town, since the traders have begun inundating us, too,” Tilda offered helpfully.

Bofur nodded sagely. “Happens a lot; those that’r just passing through don’t always have much respect.”

Bylgja, having clearly dismissed everything in the conversation after the mention of the shaft being reopened, was already spinning around to Tilda, before Bofur even finished speaking. “Can you make your way back from here?” she demanded.

Tilda tried not to look around her, and make it obvious she wasn’t entirely sure she remembered where she was anymore, or how it related to anywhere else in the mountain, because recklessness and pride were her worst flaws, leading her into more trouble than she could count, but she’d be thrice damned before she’d give up now. “Of course I can, my Lady,” she assured them, with as much confidence as she could project, while still trying to appear serene and poised, and all the other things her etiquette master had tried to drill into her.

Bylgja looked at her with shrewd eyes. “No you won’t. You’ll get lost. But it will probably do you good,” she said, and turned on her heels, striding off and already issuing orders as poor Bofur hurried to stay in step.

Finding herself alone in the Mountain for the first time, Tilda freely indulged her earlier urge to look around, or perhaps even gawk at all the noise and colour and strangeness, privately admitting that she might be in over her head. But in this room, at least, she was just one more of the Men, and not someone to take note of if she were to do something indecorous, like say, sticking her hands in the fountain to see if she could tickle the fish. Not that she would, of course; it would be most unseemly for her to be seen doing so, she reminded herself, eyeing the crystal clear water speculatively.

It was with a damp frock, and a pleased grin, that she eventually left the Clock Hall, determined to find her way back to her chambers. Looking around, she made her best guess, and marched off, thoroughly enjoying being anonymous for the time being—at least until she got further from the Market levels, and the camouflage of others of her own race.

So, Kíli was a working prince, after all. She hadn’t suspected anything different, but still, it was another piece in the puzzle as she tried to unravel her husband, and the place he – they- held here, though she suspected that Bylgja hadn’t been talking just to hear her own voice this morning, and that her eventual duties might include working with one of more of the groups that helped keep the mountain running. The idea thrilled her; she had absolutely no love of any of the domestic duties in which she’d been involved in all her life, as any number of tutors would swear to, but she’d always known personal preference had little to do with duty, and that she needed to bring those skills with her to any potential marriage. The idea that maybe her future here held something more made her want to whoop and jump and run in the halls like a kite released from its string.

Bylgja was right; Tilda did get lost, but wasn’t terribly concerned about it. She was studying a marker-post, staring at it fiercely as if daring it to give up its secrets, when Erebor’s fearsome Guard Captain found her.

Again.

What was it with this dwarf and his sixth-sense for when she was in over her head? she thought crossly.

“Yer lost,” Dwalin grunted.

“Of course I’m not,” she protested defensively, very conscious of her rumpled appearance as she straightened up and clasped her hands decorously before her, hopefully hiding the worst of the damp patches from view.

He gave her a very obvious side-eye that told her he found her to be full of shite.

She simply held her chin a bit higher, refusing to admit anything. His lips twitched, and he relented. “Well, how about you let me escort you, for my peace of mind? I’ve lost enough hair worrying about the badger princes; I don’t have any more to spare for you.”

He turned, holding his elbow out as he waited for her to take it and fall into step, before leading the way back down the corridor. “Yer headed for the stillrooms, I suppose?” he asked after they’d passed two or three identical-looking passages.

That would make sense; it was the kind of occupation that would be expected of a gentle woman; maybe Bylgja had just liked to talk, after all. Tilda tried to push away the disappointment, and found herself biting her lip, weighing her options before blurting, “Am I supposed to be there? Only, I’m not really sure…”

Dwalin gave her another one of his sideways looks, and she resisted the urge to fidget when she suspected he saw more than she was comfortable with. “No wonder yer lost, then,” he told her, giving a slight tug to get her moving again. “I only thought as how you were right around the corner from them, s’all. What is it yeh want to be doing, lass?”

“I—I don’t know, exactly. What is it I’m supposed to be doing?” And now, now she felt like she was going to cry, and she hated that feeling, so she scowled instead, screwing up her eyes and frowning fiercely at her slippers.

“Looks te me like yeh got some stuff to figure out,” Dwalin shrugged, and the way his broad shoulders moved looked a bit like the mountain itself might, if stone took a notion to shrug. At the moment, for no accountable reason, it just irritated her further.

“Where on earth did you get all those muscles? I mean, how do you move with all of that?”

Barked laughter met her mulish complaint, and Tilda found herself amused despite herself. “I beat the snot out of deserving princes, and occasionally a king, out on the training fields. Helps with my stress levels.” He grinned at her, and said, “And I move just fine, thank yer Ladyship for asking.”

Tilda declared haughtily, “Well, I’ll have to see it to believe it.”

Dwalin just smirked and continued to lead her she knew not where, though she supposed he was taking her back to her quarters.

It was therefore a complete surprise when he led her out of the mountain, and into what appeared to be a training field. The dull thwack of wooden practice swords was familiar from the days her da had indulged her, before she’d had to become a proper lady, and the wind on her cheeks carried the hint of grass and heather. The ground sloped down from where they stood, to form a level field with several separate training arenas within it. A series of weapons buildings stood at the edges, all manned by a weapons master, Tilda was certain. All around them was orderly activity, and Dwalin let her take it in for a moment.

He shouted at one of the dwarves below, who startled, and then trotted off, and when the dwarf returned, he was bearing a short bow and a full quiver. “Here, lass, I reckon yeh could use a bit of a breather,” Dwalin took them from the other dwarf, and shoved them in her hands without looking at her. “Though I don’t suppose we’ll be letting yeh wallop on Thorin or his nephews just yet. This should be something ye can have a go at, without too much risk o’ killing us all.”

Tilda just stared at the bow and quiver in her hands, not entirely sure what she had done to merit this, but wanting to hold them to her breast all the same with joy. The burly Captain was obviously under the mistaken impression that her father, being the bowman, had taught her some fundamentals. She knew she should probably admit that she had no idea of how to shoot, but she’d be dammed if she was going to lose this opportunity. With a jerk of his chin, Dwalin directed her over to a corner of the field that seemed unoccupied, tucked away from the rest of the noise and activity, before he turned back to the sparing matches below with more bellowed orders and criticisms.

It was a noticeable fact that with Dwalin’s glowering presence, everyone seemed to be applying themselves to their lessons much more diligently, and, laughing softly at their ostentatious industry, Tilda hurried away just as quickly as was dignified. Once she felt certain that she was out of immediate sight, she picked up her skirts and finished the rest of the distance at a dash. There was still dew in the shadier places, being protected from all but the most direct few hours of sunlight by the surrounding peaks, and her slippers might have been the worse for wear from her madcap ramble, but she decided that was something to worry about after she had her fun.

The shooting range to which she’d been directed was indeed unoccupied, and Tilda had to guess that the bow was not a favoured weapon amongst the dwarves, which suited her perfectly. She still felt like she was doing something illicit, that someone would come looking for her at any moment, and scold her, so she was going to make the most of this while she could.

Not trusting herself to have it properly on her back to draw from, and not wanting to wast any time figuring it out, she propped the quiver up against a post, thankful it was properly plain and not at all as fine as Haugar’s, so she didn’t mind it sitting on the damp ground.

That quiver now hung in place of pride in her da’s office, though in the end she had decided to spare him the details of her encounter, and simply told him it was a gift from Kíli’s people.

In a round about way, she reasoned, it could be argued that it was.

She grabbed one of the arrows from the bunch given to her, and examined it, finding that the fletching notched nicely against the string, helping her to hold the arrow in place. Drawing the string back took all the muscle she’d ever developed hauling nets and line and she scowled, trying to keep her arm from wavering. She sighted down the shaft of the arrow to the target some dozen yards distant, took a deep breath, and let go, ready to watch her arrow take flight.

It was therefore a profound disappointment when it landed at her feet, instead.

Grimly, she glared at the offending arrow, before picking it up to try again.

And again.

She was sweating by the time she managed to make the arrow travel any distance downrange. Her hair had come loose from the dressing she’d given it that morning, which was impressive given that she’d put enough pins in it to give herself a headache, and her fingers and arms ached from the unaccustomed strain.

But, much to her frustration, the arrow still wasn’t reaching the target.

“Here, try this,” a voice interrupted her, and she found that Kíli was wrapping his arms around her, and before she’d even had a chance to be flustered by his sudden appearance and unaccustomed closeness, he was using his knees to nudge her, correcting her stance almost absently as he took hold of her arms, adjusting her grip on the bow so easily that she barely knew what was happening before he’d stepped back, waiting for her to shoot again.

With a mental shrug, Tilda took a deep breath, and let fly, and was pleased to see the arrow made it all the way downrange this time, but she was prideful enough that the arrow bouncing off the target, instead of sinking in with satisfying force, was a profound let-down. Her arms throbbed in protest to trying again, reminding her that this had been an hour or more of very unaccustomed exercise, so she prudently decided to call it a win.

“See?” Kíli told her, grinning at her accomplishment. “If you practice enough, you’ll develop the arm strength to sink it, no problem.”

The idea that he would want her spending enough time doing something so…well, she wasn’t sure exactly what, but she knew Lord Denethor could likely supply her with a list of reasons why this was further proof that she was a terrible princess; but the idea that Kíli would want her to do it was confusing, to say the least. His mother wouldn’t be happy with her daughter-in-law's new occupation, she was certain.

“Thank you, my Lord,” she said instead, taking a further step back as she let her arms, and the bow, drop to her side as she faced him awkwardly. His grin wavered, but she only saw it for a moment before he was scooping up her quiver, and accompanying her to return her ill-gotten gains to the quartermaster, then keeping step with her as they walked back to the mountain.

Their quarters were a familiar haven from the stares of all the dwarrow they passed in the halls. To be fair, Tilda was sure she looked like a mess, and the stares might have been mostly curious instead of antagonistic, but it was still a relief to shut that door once again, and not feel like she was again failing at being anything other than Tilda Grubby Knees.

Tilda knew that slowly, she would get used to the pace with which the Mountain operated; though at this moment, she was counselling her stomach that it was fairly certain that dinner was still a while off. Dwarves, Kíli had explained to her during their many stilted, and not-so-stilted, conversations, reserved the evening hours during which she was used to eating for home-crafting and other activities that required clear thought, while the small time remaining after the meal seemed to be spent in conversation and other quiet pursuits, so she looked around their chambers, trying to decide what to do with her time. She had stitching she could do—embroidery work with which she’d ever been occupied at home with Sigrid; or she could begin questioning Kíli on reports on stores, or still-room inventories—things she had been responsible for at home since those first years after rebuilding.

Her eyes, traitorous things that they were, kept sliding to the desk...and her slide-rule.

“I have a project I’m going to work on for a bit. I believe they’re planning on sending dinner up, given that...well, I suspect they will, anyway,” Kíli stumbled, and his face was flushed with twin rosy spots, high on his cheeks. Tilda’s eyes slid to the desk again, and she nodded absently.

“I’m sure I have plenty to keep me occupied,” she told him lightly. Kíli reached for her hand, and gave it gentle pressure before he took himself off to the other room, where his workbench was. Ten minutes later, Tilda still stood, staring at her slide-rule, and the unimaginable treasure of a pile of clean, fine paper left on the small desk beside it, clearly for her use, as she absently listened to his quiet humming, or possibly it was chanting as he worked on whatever it was his project entailed.

Why not? Tilda thought, when her eyes returned to that pile of unspoilt, blank paper for the fifth time.

It was no more than a few minutes later, surely, and she was being shaken out of her thoughts by Kíli's voice behind her shoulder.

“What’s that you’re working on?” he asked, and Tilda’s startled out of her fierce concentration to find that she’d filled several full sheets of parchment with her number-scribblings as she idly strove to work out various equations; both real and of her own imaginings. She stared at the wall of numbers before her with some bemusement, realising that she’d been so lost in it that an hour or more must have passed without her marking it at all.

It was far too late to sweep the lot of it out of sight before Kíli was peering over her shoulder with interest, and she could feel her shoulders hunching slightly, defensively, because despite the fact that his mother—or possibly Kíli himself—had given her the slide-rule, old shame died hard. “Nothing, My Lord,” she fumbled, feeling awkward, and annoyed with herself for feeling like this.

Kíli gave her a strange look, at her defensive posture and formal tone, no doubt, but a moment later his expression softened. “Don’t say that,” he told her. “It’s certainly not nothing, though many dwarrow are secretive of their major crafts; it was rude of me to put you in the position of refusing.” He gave her a smile, and there was really no hint of hurt in his expression that Tilda could discern, and made to turn away. Before she’d even thought about it, because if she did she most certainly would have told herself it was a bad idea, she’d snagged his sleeve.

“I...thank you,” she told him, feeling shy, because this was something personal, something that felt like she was flayed before him, and yet, he was understanding...in a peculiarly dwarven way. She had no idea why dwarves would feel secretive of their learning, of their...crafts, in a society that seemed to encourage such things, but she would accept the understanding that Kíli was offering her, even if he really understood nothing at all of a girl longing to learn more than it was felt she needed to know, and the permission to hold her secrets if she wished.

She wondered if she would be as understanding in his place—as willing to ignore secrets he might wish to hold, and it was this thought more than any that prompted her to add, “It’s nothing, really, just numbers...but I enjoy working with them, when I have the paper to spare.” The fact that there had never been paper to spare for something as frivolous as her scribblings was something she didn’t bother telling him.

Kíli's grin was brilliant, inviting the recipient to share mischief and secrets and warmth. “There is always paper to spare, my Lady,” he told her, and for a moment she wondered if he could read her thoughts. Much to her horror, her eyes watered as something deep inside gave a strangely painless little lurch, like her heart trying to creep into her throat, maybe. She kept her eyes firmly focused on her fingers tangled together in her lap, screwing them up to try and mask the sudden surge of emotion his words had wrought before he could ask after what could possibly be bothering her about something so simple as paper.

There was no way in the world she wanted to explain that—or to tarnish the image he so casually believed, as if her scribblings were of merit enough to be considered a Craft.

There were any number of Domestic tutors back home who would be quick to set the Prince straight.

Faint noises, rustling and scrapping, could be heard in the outer chamber, and Tilda suspected their dinner had just been delivered.

“Excuse me,” she murmured with relief, “I’d like to clean up.” Her voice was low to mask any hoarseness; enough that Kíli was giving her a strange look, but she was pushing away from the desk, and up and out the door before he could question her. A few moments alone; that’s all she needed to set herself to rights, and a few splashes of cool water from the little washing stand in their bedroom took care of her flushed cheeks and misty eyes. The reflection looking back at her from the little mirror behind the basin wasn’t large enough to show her whole face at once, but it was enough to assure herself that she once again looked normal and unaffected by simple things like what her...her husband thought of her use of any spare time.

One final stern nod to herself, as if to banish more foolishness, and she left to join Kíli at their small table for, what she realised with some trepidation, would be their first meal completely alone together.

But the memory of Kíli's smile as he looked over her shoulder at her silly equations, and the causal assurance of paper that had tripped so easily off his tongue, like somehow her little hobby—but more than that, her thoughts, mattered…that was enough to bolster her courage, and she slide into her place at their table with only slightly awkward grace.

In return, she got another one of those bright smiles.

She really wasn’t entirely sure how many of those she could handle.

Her stomach rumbled, and she propped her forehead on her hand, groaning in embarrassment.

Kíli smothered a snicker, and she quickly lifted her head to stick her tongue out at him.

He didn’t bother smothering his snickers any more and laughed outright, and Tilda couldn’t help but giggle along with him, sheepishly when Kíli passed her a plate.

Dwarven cooking, Tilda had come to learn, tended to lean heavily in the direction of meats, but Tilda was pleased to see that there was a vegetable course as well—possibly solely in deference to her, the way Kíli eyed it before sheepishly helping himself to some when Tilda arched an expectant brow at him.

“So, were you able to get the repairs started in the mine shaft, then?” she asked after a moment, remembering Bofur’s earlier conversation.

Kíli gave her a startled look.

“I was with Bylgja this morning,” she told him, by way of explanation.

Kíli pulled a face. “Better you than me. That dam has ice and mithril in her soul.”

“So, are you a miner, as well as a prince?” Tilda teased, choosing not to inform him that she rather liked Lady Bylgja, because she suspected he did, too.

Surprisingly, Kíli seemed to hesitate, before shaking his head. “Nope, just a lowly prince, I’m afraid,” and his tone was so light that Tilda thought she must have imagined his hesitance.

“Dwalin must certainly be a force to be reckoned with on the field, what with how the others all jump when he’s present,” Tilda said after a moment, not really sure what else to say about her day, as Kíli didn’t seem to have anything to volunteer about his own. She knew it was to be expected, that they would be this awkward with one another, but she desperately wished they could just skip this part, and go right to comfortable companionship, or even more hopefully, to something that involved a bit more kissing.

Kíli snickered. “S’what happens when a dwarf is lucky enough to work in their Heart Craft, I suppose.” Seeing Tilda’s curious look, he elaborated. “All dwarves have a Heart Craft—our one craft that calls to us over all others. Mahal plants the seeds of it in our souls, and we begin to feel the calling as we mature.”

The idea was alluring—to know what it was you were supposed to be, without a doubt, like some kind of divine signpost, and for a moment, she was overcome with a fierce longing to have it be that simple. She’d never had any kind of special niche to fill, beyond her occasional usefulness with numbers; Sigrid was the mothering one; she ran the household, and always seemed to know what to do in a crisis, from big to small. Bain was the eldest, and then later, the heir, with a whole slew of responsibilities as he became first a young Lord, and then Prince; he had tenants and farms, taxes and public works that he devoted himself to, and did an admirable job for one who hadn’t had the chance to grow into it but rather been thrown in headlong. Tilda hadn’t ever had a specific job, or role. She was the one who had needed Sigrid’s mothering, and Bain’s protections; the only thing she had been was a very untidy, disappointing princess.

But Kíli had wanted her, a voice in the back of her thoughts reminded her, and she hugged that thought close. He had offered for her, after all, even if it was all political; he had offered and Fíli had not, and somehow, that made her feel a little less like a disappointment.

Fascinated by what this could reveal about her husband, Tilda put her fork down and folded her hands before her, leaning forward as if sharing a conspiracy. “And what is your Heart Craft?” she questioned, trying to keep her tone light despite her rampant curiosity. What would his Craft be? Somehow, though he seemed skilled at any number of things, she just couldn’t settle on one within her, admittedly limited, knowledge that seemed to define, well, define Kíli. “Or am I not allowed to ask?” she realised that it might not be proper to inquire something so intimate when she saw Kíli hesitate again, and this time she was sure she wasn’t mistaken.

“I’ll ah, I’ll tell you about it, sometime,” he finally said, and he seemed so subdued, that Tilda wished she hadn’t asked.

Tilda picked up her fork again, and gave her attention back to her meal. Kíli watched as she desultorily chased her peas ‘round her plate, obviously lost in thought, and he sighed. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said, and Mahal he felt so tired. They’d been married little more than a handful of days and he was already managing to cock things up.

“It’s of no matter, my Lord,” she said stiffly, and then promptly looked like she wished she could take it back. Kíli's lips twitched, then he was chuckling, though it contained very little mirth.

“We’re both of us a pair this evening, aren’t we?” he offered as a truce. Tilda was clutching her hands under the table, fork caught tightly between them, but when he spoke, she looked up at him once more, so he decided to take that as a good sign. “You have every right to ask,” he told her after a moment.

“Do I?” she asked, and he hated how she seemed to be hunching in on herself, as if she’d overstepped. “You certainly have the right to keep your private business private, after all,” she told him, still not meeting his eyes, while her hands continued to worry her fingers under the table edge.

“Horseshite,” Kíli stated firmly, and the shocked look on her face was good, because she finally looked animated again. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want one of those unions where we’re strangers to each other who just happen to occupy the same chambers on occasion.”

“No?” she quirked an eyebrow at him, and he could have sworn there was a small smile lurking under the twitch in the corner of her lips. “And what do you want from our union, then?”

“A partner?” Kíli asked, reaching across the small space of their table, to gently pull one of her hands up to hold it in his.

“Partnership?” Tilda looked at him, tilting her head to the side as she considered him. “I think we can manage that.” Her smile would really be his undoing, he swore to the Father.

And it was possible he wouldn’t even mind.

He gave her hand a slight squeeze before disentangling himself, because he really, really didn’t want to do what he was about to do, but he wasn’t an idiot—she did need to know, he just hadn’t expected the subject to come up quite so quickly.

“As far as the rest of the mountain is concerned, I have no Heart Craft,” he told her, and he wished he didn’t have to look her in the eye for this part, but he needed to know that she understood the implications of what he was telling her, and that she knew that this was a secret that she had to keep.

“You say, as far as the rest of them are concerned?” she asked slowly, obviously trying to take in the problem carefully. “So you do in fact have one?”

Kíli nodded, and only force of will kept his shoulders from slumping. “And I need you to promise me that you can keep it completely secret; it’s very important.”

Tilda regarded him, cocking her head and assessing him with intelligent eyes. “As I’m guessing having a Heart Craft would be good, what is the problem with yours?” She bobbed her head, an apologetic gesture, when it struck her what she’d said. “Sorry; I’m sure the problem is theirs, obviously.”

Kíli snorted sardonically. “I honestly don’t know. Yes, Heart Crafts are good—they are the greatest gift from our Maker, and our deepest joy. We feel a sense of…harmony when we work at our Craft,” he struggled to find the words in her language to explain, and wondered briefly how Uncle Thorin, not the most skilled orator in any language, had ever managed to explain these kinds of things to Bilbo. “Like we are in tune with our own hearts, I guess. Dwarrow tend to look with great suspicion at those rare few of us who do not have our Maker’s blessing.” And now he really had to force himself to hold her eye, and not flinch, but she deserved to know the rest, too. “Such ones are usually whispered about—considered defective.” And of course, what affected him, affected her now.

She really does have delicate skin, he couldn’t help but muse as her brow wrinkled as she tried to take in what he’d said—and what he’d not said; lightly tanned, and glowing from time spent outdoors with a scattering of freckles above an upturned, mischievous nose and across her cheekbones. Some kind of inner decision seemed to have been reached, because she looked up, and took his hand again with a determined air, as if girding herself for battle, like her ancient warrior ancestors when they came down out of the North, and he fantasised briefly that this brave, beautiful girl would be willing to fight for him, with him, and scolded himself for such romantic nonsense.

“Alright, so now that we have the unpleasant part out of the way, why don’t you tell me what it is about your Heart Craft that makes that kind of scorn preferable?” she asked, and if Kíli secretly got a bit of a kick out of her stern tone, as if she would scold the rest of the mountain on his behalf, well that was his business, wasn’t it?

He gently squeezed the hand holding his, and marvelled again that this girl would leave all that she had known for him. Frankly, he didn’t see as how he was any kind of prize, and she had to be realizing that right now, as well, so he was so, so grateful for her willingness to make the best of it, with him. Of course, now that they were joined, married by her people’s custom, his position affected her standing in the mountain as well, so it could all be her own motivated self-interest, but he rather fancied that maybe she saw something between them—in him?—to make it worthwhile.

“You’re right, of course, I do have a Craft,” he admitted. “Certain Crafts have very specific connotations within our society; Weapon Smithing, for example, is held in high regard, and considered a good indication that the dwarrow is smart and stable, and quick thinking, which makes it a good omen for one of Royal blood.”

“Not Thorin, I think. Fíli?” she asked, and he rather thought that with her cleverness she might have made a good weapon smith, too—or perhaps an architect, if her earlier number-crafting was anything to go by.

He snickered, but nodded at her guess. “As a boon, I won’t tell Uncle you implied he’s a half-wit.” She pinched his finger for his generous offer. “Alright, yes, Fíli is a Weapon Smith, and newly made Journeyman. Purely artistic Crafts, like Painter or Sculptor, are viewed as belonging to dwarrow who have flexible minds, and changeable ideas, which can make some regard them as unreliable or easily influenced, though they also tend to be our revolutionaries. Each Craft tends to encourage, or find, certain traits.”

Tilda nodded, and a grin was lurking in her smooth countenance, Kíli was certain of it; a love of learning, even something so serious. “So, what does your Craft say about you?” and the way she asked it, so gently, it was like she was worried that his esteem had been damaged by some arbitrary definition that branded him; as if a Heart Craft could ever define you. You were who you were, and that defined your Heart Craft: not the other way around. Still, he was touched by the gesture, though perhaps it did bring into perspective the great gulf in understanding between their two cultures.

“My Craft says that I am unable to be Prince,” he told her, and braced himself for her reaction.

He didn’t have long to wait. “To borrow your colourful exclamation, horseshite,” she exclaimed heatedly. “You are the Prince, regardless of your Craft, or whatever it supposedly reflects about you. Of all the ridiculous—”

Kíli wished that were so, but it was definitely a fact in ways she would probably never be in a position to understand, but he thought he grasped where her misunderstanding lay. “Tilda,” he tried to get her attention. “Tilda, my Heart Craft doesn’t say I’m unworthy of being Prince,” he tried to clarify. “Rather, that I can’t be Prince.

“I’ve been Called to be a Cantor to my people. It’s a position that’s…sacred. Few of us are born into Mahal’s service, and it’s considered to be more important than anything else. Once Called, no bond, no oath, no promise can hold you.”

Tilda blinked, because this hadn’t been what she was expecting. “So, sort of like a cleric, then?”

“I…guess?” he hazarded.

“And is being prince so important?” she asked him. Her voice was very gentle, and he found himself scrubbing his face with his hands, feeling exhausted and two centuries older than he was. At the same time, a part of him couldn't help but be touched by the simple offer embedded in her gentle statement; obviously, to Tilda, giving up being royal was worth it, if it meant his happiness.

“Yes,” he told her honestly. “Fíli and I—we’re partners, since birth; he will be king, but so will I. Second King, maybe? I don’t know that you have the concept. I don’t want Fíli to have to do this alone; not like Uncle Thorin. Or Grandfather—he lost his Doyar early, too, and they both lost themselves to some cursed gold. Because they lacked balance. I won’t—I won’t make this harder for Fíli.”

Mahal, he was just so tired. He’d little enough to recommend himself; now she would have to keep his secrets for him, too, and court the possibility of enduring whispers and ill-favour to do it. Right now, he was popular enough amongst his people, with his affable demeanour and status from the Quest, that the whispers were all kind, but that could change in an instant, especially with such a black mark already against him, and Tilda would be forced to bear the derision with him if the tides of favour turned against him. For a moment, he was tempted to break his resolve, and try to reach out to her with his gifts, see if the rock could tell him what she might be thinking, but he sternly repressed it.

She was back to regarding him, with her chin cocked to the side and her eyes squinting and far away. It was a classic Tilda look, he was beginning to think, and pleasure bloomed in his heart at this little piece of familiarity; that he had managed to learn something of the girl, all on his own, without the use of his gifts. It gave him a small measure of hope. “Then you shall have to teach me how to keep this secret; and the best way to start, is to tell me everything you can about being a Cantor,” she told him firmly.

He wanted to laugh at how positively gleeful she sounded.

And so that second night within the mountain, they sat up until all the candles burnt down. He told her everything he could—answered more questions then he even knew existed in all of Arda as she gave free reign to her rampant curiosity.

Not once did Tilda recoil from what he was telling her, or seem unsettled or put off, or any other kind of reaction he would have expected, if he had not known her to be so reckless and brave. His abilities had always been something to be kept under wraps, kept secret, so his family rarely even mentioned it, and Kíli hadn’t realized until that moment how freeing it was to actually talk about the Craft of his heart with someone who didn’t feel guilt or pity for his situation, but who honestly just wanted to know.

Everything, apparently; if the sheer amount of questions she asked were anything to go by.

All it all, it was a surprisingly good evening.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

9

Because You Can’t Spell Assumption Without an Ass....

 

Six Years Ago....

Laketown wasn’t there anymore; somehow, and eleven-year-old Tilda was too exhausted after everything that had happened this last year to be able to deal with that, and for the first time in a long time, she just wanted to sit down where she stood and cry, her little heart overflowing with just too much; too much hurt, too much disappointment and too much ugliness.

The orcs had come, again, and even the flimsy houses they had managed to build after the dragon’s fire had been pulled down, like some great Oliphant had gone clumping through their town, smashing everything they had managed to salvage since the dragon to bits.

Now, the muddy streets were strewn with broken boards, and bodies and worse, and though Sigrid and her da tried to keep her from seeing, she knew even then that these were things she would never un-see. They would go in that place inside of her that still held the images from before: of her da charging a grinning ogre, balanced atop a hurtling cart as she and Sigrid screamed and screamed; or, of the people she had grown up with, people like Hilda Bianca who had taken in washing—and later had chided all the women folk into brave action—becoming ugly with anger and shock. Tilda’s arm had throbbed where Alfrid twisted it behind her there amidst the wreckage on a lonely beach, as the mood of the whole crowd had shifted around them, making Tilda uncomfortable of her neighbours’ dark mood now that their fear had finally been given a target; afraid of them as much as she had been of Alfrid.

In the end, she stomped on his foot as much to escape him, as to escape the heavy feeling of that mob.

This time it was Laketown, not Dale, and the dwarves had marched and sailed down from their mountain trying to defend their town, though Tilda didn’t see as the town had fared well in the process. Still, the near suffocating feelings of anger that had tainted everything in the months before, while they huddled in their scavenged hovels and waited for they knew not what, seemed to be gone, and though Tilda didn’t fully understand, she was glad of it.

It was the only thing she was glad of. Bain was in the healers’ care, and so was King Thorin, and somehow the dwarf king was responsible for Bain being nearly dead, and not dead-dead, though there was a great deal of fear for both of them changing that designation. Tents had been set up, again, to house the wounded—and how Tilda was beginning to hate the sight of them! Sigrid let her into the one in which their brother and Thorin rested, and Bain was there, with his arm swathed from shoulder to fingers in crusted bandages. Though she couldn’t see the damage that lay beneath, something in the way it was sitting was all the more horrible for its suggestiveness. Blood still seeped from various cuts, and most of his face was purple and blue with deep bruising and Tilda fell to her knees—which had remained sturdy and strong through the actual battle as she tried to keep the women and children together just as Sigrid would—unhinged, leaving Tilda sitting in the dirt, and she did cry then, great big choking sobs that felt like they were taking all the air she had, leaving none of it for her, and certainly none left to make any noise as her eyes ran with tears and her nose streamed with snot and she didn’t even have the energy to lift her hands to cover her face as she choked and heaved and finally threw up bile, adding to the muck.

She cried for Bain, and she cried for Dale, but mostly she cried because she hadn’t yet cried and far too much had happened in the last year for her to handle, and sometimes she felt that it was swallowing her whole.

Sigrid just watched, horrified and unsure how to help, and it was the one time Tilda could ever remember her sister not knowing what to do.

And then her da was there, scooping her up, despite her being almost twelve and far too big to be picked up with such ease anymore, murmuring over and over into her hair, and she let herself close her eyes, trusting that if not better, her da would at least make sure things at least didn’t get any worse before she opened them again.

When she finally did awaken, some hours later, it was mid-morning, and she was lying on a soft rug, with another one draped over her. Someone’s coat had been bundled beneath her head, and she was warm and rested for the first time in days. In the corner, two heads were bent close, and when the last of the sleep faded from her eyes, Tilda saw it was Sigrid and Prince Fíli, talking quietly together, and something her sister said made him laugh, an easy, warm sound that went further to making Tilda feel better than all the false-sounding reassurances from the healers last night. But here, right now, her sister was chatting with a dwarf that she had heard girls of her town gossip about with much admiration, and doing so seemed to make her happy, as her lips were upturned, despite her worry. Sigrid was almost seventeen, and was old enough for things that Tilda was becoming more cognizant of all the time; things that would have suitors and offers of marriage in her future very soon. Tilda wasn’t sure if she should close her eyes again and pretend she didn’t see this stolen moment, or if it wasn’t that at all, but merely shared experience that made things easier for them both to bear.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the choice was taken from her when the grumpy dwarven healer entered, calling out his greetings in a too-loud voice as only the deaf tend to do. Far from jumping apart as if caught, Fíli turned to Óin, asking for an update and falling immediately into conversation in that strange language of theirs.

When, years later, it was expected that an offer would be coming from the Prince Under the Mountain for her sister, Tilda would remember that moment with older, wiser eyes, and decide that she needn’t have been so circumspect in interrupting a moment of camaraderie. The Prince had no real emotion for her sister, and therefore she didn’t need to worry about his hurt feelings when she inwardly cursed him for interfering in her sister’s private courtship with Lord Adrahil of Dol Amroth.

It was good to have a clear conscience about it, really.

Because she really did direct an awful lot of curse words his way that spring. Now that he was her brother-in-law, she supposed it was best to keep that fact to herself.

-o.O.o-

Dearest Tilda,

To think you’ve been gone only a few short weeks! Already, I miss you so much I wonder how I will ever get on without you, and your unending faith in my abilities. I hope that you are settling in, and perhaps beginning to find some common ground with the dwarves. Da worries that you will be lonely, but I don't think there has ever been a person who hasn’t responded to your smile and your kindness, so I know you will land on your feet eventually.

You have always been so much braver than I. I wish I had your confidence, especially now.

With Kíli, though, I’m sure things are more complicated. I hope you were right last year, when you thought you would get along. A merry sort, I believe you called him; I very much hope that this has proven to be the case, and that your life together is starting to be filled with much laughter and joy.

I only want your happiness.

I...I don’t know how I will ever be able to repay you for what you have done—for the opportunity you gave me, but Til—and I can hardly believe it even as I write this, because despite pinching myself until bruises form, I still can’t help the feeling that this is all some lovely dream, but—Da and Prince Angelimir finally worked out their differences.

Adrahil and I are betrothed—in truth, now, though he claims he would have given up Dol Amroth and wed me anyway, if his father wouldn’t see reason.

He is remarkably impractical sometimes. Somehow, I think you would approve of him.

Prince Angelimir sent me a letter, welcoming me to the family most cordially. My hands were actually shaking to open it, and I had no Tilda there to comfort me and bolster my courage by telling me how lucky ‘the musty old Lord’ was to have the House of Dale ally with his.

I pray that you are right; but, considering that you are also a part of the House of Dale, I think he is very lucky indeed.

I shall leave by mid summer, to be wed in Adrahil’s country upon the sea. His House is sending two ships to take us up the River Anduin, all the way south to his home. I know...I know it’s too soon after your own marriage, and the signing of the Treaty, for you to leave the Mountain, but perhaps next year, when travel is again possible...?

I would dearly like to have my sister with me.

And to think, this time it can be you giving me marital advice—and probably doing a better job of it, though I hope you are kind enough not to point it out.

At least, more than once anyway.

In the meantime, Adrahil continues to ply me with completely unnecessary trinkets; tokens of his undying affection, he tells me, though for my part, I need nothing more than the agate necklace he gave me so long ago...

...

 

“And are you settling in alright, brother’s-wife?”

Fíli's soft voice was so unexpected that Tilda nearly dropped her lunch in the fountain, and only barely maintained her grip on Sigrid’s letter. The day had seemed a fine one for seeking a bit of relaxation, and she had come to dearly love this cavernous hall for the presence of that glorious clock, and for the bit of familiarity the small pools, fountains and fish gave her. It also offered a much-needed refuge from the scrutiny and aloofness of the dwarrow around her. At least here, people of many races could be found, giving her relief of the constant tension she carried around everywhere else, knowing that though tolerated, she was by no means accepted or even wanted by her husband’s people.

Today, she’d come here to think, to tell the truth; and because the object of her thoughts was her very own husband, she somehow felt awkward holing up in the chambers they shared to do her thinking, where he could walk in at any moment. Hence, the Clock Hall had seemed like the perfect spot. To be found here by her brother-in-law was most unexpected, and for a moment Tilda worried that she was somehow doing something she ought not to.

But no, Bylgja had brought her here originally, she remembered, relaxing slightly. So it must not be unseemly.

Thoughts of Kíli had been plaguing her ever since… well ever since she knew that he intended to court her, honestly, but back then it had been vague thoughts of what her future might hold, but mostly thoughts of how bright Sigrid’s future was going to be; now, those thoughts had given way to the realization that the hazy sort of space Kíli had occupied in her thoughts before had gradually been overtaken with the thought that this Kíli was very much someone she would like to be the wife of. Not partner, though that was indeed a fine thing, and rather aligned with what Tilda dearly wanted, but even more than that, she wanted him to look at her again, the way he did for that brief time when they were alone in her cottage, and he was kissing her like she might be the very air he breathed. Obviously, it had been a product of the moment, because in the almost three weeks since their arrival at the mountain, Kíli had been supportive and kind, but not in the least prone to amorous intent, much to her disappointment, and she didn’t know how to go about changing that.

Kíli was off with Thorin today, listening to petitions, and then she thought he had mentioned craft-training—though after the way he had closed up at first with the discussion of Heart Crafts, Tilda was reluctant to question anything craft-related at all. She had to admit, she had assumed Fíli would be with his brother; but of course that was silly, as surely they would have different duties, seeing as how Fíli would one day be King, while Kíli, with luck and his brother’s good health, would only ever be a prince, or some kind of second-king, whatever that meant.

“Brother’s wife? Sister’s sons? You do have such odd ways of tallying relationships,” Tilda observed, more to cover her startled state as she bent to retrieve her apple. Fíli had already grabbed it for her, and handed it over with an apologetic grimace.

“And what could be more important than tallying all the ways we are blessed in those relations?” Fíli answered back, his broad wink belied by the sincerity of his words, and Tilda was forced to chuckle at his earnestness.

“Alright then, husband’s brother, what is it you would have of me, today?” Fíli grinned at her, clearly amused by her willingness to play, and took a seat on the bench beside her. He looked about them, taking in the many groups within the hall. A small knot of youths, likely errand boys for their various Merchant Masters, were laughing as they lounged, passing ‘round pipes between them as obviously some could not afford the weed on their own. The smoke rings they were trying to blow were hardly recognizable, but most of them were only barely old enough to smoke the weed without choking, and trying desperately to appear worldly amongst their peers. To the left was another gathering, of older men; probably the boys’ masters, dickering lazily as they ate, obviously a long-practiced game where no one and everyone was keeping score. Several groups of craftsmen could be seen, some deep in discussions, others relaxing with small board games or even just smoking a well-deserved pipe or sneaking in a quiet nap.

Hearing the hall echoing with its motley, ever-shifting mix of languages and dialects never failed to stir Tilda, and sometimes she longed to hitch a ride with these traders, to just chuck everything and fly away, knowing that many of them would see sights so far distant that she could only dream; the great grasslands of Kand, where Men lounged in near-nakedness to ward off the heat of the sun, or perhaps the seaside ports so far to the west, havens kept sacred by their Elvish lords. Maybe they would see oliphants, or even the giant shell-dwellers that carried their houses upon their backs. How she longed to know those places sometimes, because, where once her world had seemed so small and confined, it now seemed larger than Tilda could comprehend, and she but a tiny part of it.

Fíli took it all in, perhaps trying to see it from her eyes; he was a compassionate dwarf, she had come to learn, with much thought for others, and Tilda knew if it wasn’t for the Lord who carefully held her sister’s affections, she would have been pleased to have this prince as Sigrid’s husband instead.

Of course, that would have meant that Tilda wouldn’t have needed to marry Kíli. And she was honest enough with herself to know that that fierce swell of No! that arose from that thought was entirely her own heart, and nothing to do with anything else. She was glad that things had turned out as they had, she accepted. Maybe that made her a tiny bit selfish, and she was also glad that her sister’s impending happiness meant that she didn’t have to examine or acknowledge that selfishness too closely.

“Me? Only to know that you are happy, here with us. Or at least, beginning to feel comfortable.” He turned to look at her more fully, and squeezed her hand with his. “I know that Kíli can be all rushing enthusiasm and motion and blur, but he really can settle down, if you explain it to him.”

Tilda laughed at this observation, as much because she found it missed the mark—Kíli was so much more than that: strong willed, careful and kind, though he certainly carried with him an energetic approach to life and all the things it held—as because she was quite certain there were many who would also apply that description to herself. “I shall keep that in mind, Your Highness,” she sassed.

“I am serious, though; If you have any questions, things you haven’t thought to ask Kíli, or maybe things you don’t…maybe don’t feel comfortable asking him, I hope you know that we are family too.” Fíli told her, glancing at her from the corner of his eye as he pretended to stare out into the crowd instead. His voice rang with so much quiet sincerity it actually brought a lump to Tilda’s throat to hear.

“I would hold your confidences just as dear as I have always held his.”

Tilda wasn’t entirely sure what to say, because that was possibly the kindest offer she’d ever had, though she thought it might be rather mortifying to ask any of the very personal questions that had been keeping her already active mind running in circles, so she kept a light and teasing tone, asking instead, “I rather thought you would be stuck in court with Thorin today, too, or does elevated rank have greater privileges?”

Fíli laughed, waving it away. “No, unfortunately, I rather think Kíli has the better of this particular deal; his duties include listening to the petitions to the Throne from the general populace,” he told her, good-naturedly allowing her to divert the conversation.

“How does that make him lucky?” Tilda asked, wrinkling her nose. “That sounds difficult and tiring, frankly.”

Fíli grinned. “It is, but I have the far worse job; since Kíli is generally the one who deals with the Guilds on a day to day basis, he’s hardly in a position to be neutral in ruling on their claims. Therefore, I get to attend Court on days when it’s scheduled to be petitions to the Throne from the Craft Halls and Guilds,” and he pulled such a silly face that Tilda burst out laughing.

“I had not realised that he was so involved in…”

“In ruling?” Fíli supplied, gently. “I think you will find that things work quite a bit differently here than you are used to. I’ll get Ori to run through the basics with you, should you wish it—with all he’s read, he probably knows the most about things outside our own ways, and will probably be better than I to anticipate your questions, and help you acclimate to your new circumstances.”

Tilda could never remember a time in her life when so much knowledge had been offered so freely; at least, not for skills that she didn’t immediately need. All her life, it had been a rush to learn enough to help Sigrid with the household chores, and then later, to learn enough to make a respectable lady and useful princess. No one had ever offered to teach her the bow, or how to ride a pony, or count to numbers she couldn’t yet reach; and yet, these dwarves, these taciturn, bristly, confusing dwarves were so generous with their knowledge, and didn’t seem to care a tinker’s damn that it was just a girl that they were teaching.

It was overwhelming and wonderful; like someone had pointed out a door that Tilda had never even known to look for; one that lead, not just to a new room, or even house, but a whole land. It made her feel as if she had somehow found a way to stow away, in one of the caravans passing through the mountain. “Thank you,” she told him, meaning every bit of it.

He grinned at her; a boyish, happy grin that should have looked like Kíli's but was entirely Fíli, and they sat there affably, Tilda leaning back, eyes closed and just enjoying the faint moisture in the air given off by the fountains, and Fíli leaning forward, elbows on his knees as he continued to survey the Hall with easy interest. They sat like that for several moments, companionably silent and comfortable before Fíli cleared his throat, and coughed awkwardly.

“I uh, I heard that your sister is to be married,” Fíli finally said, not looking at her. “I mean, we—Erebor has received an official announcement of her betrothal.”

“Yes,” Tilda agreed with a happy grin, barely resisting the urge to caress the precious letter she still held. “Sigrid’s to marry into the royal house of Dol Amroth by the end of summer.”

Fíli looked startled, his expression caught somewhere between deciding on outrage or confusion. “The end of summer?” he questioned, and his voice sounding as tight as the expression on his face. Tilda gazed back at him, wide-eyed and with no idea what had upset him.

Well, other than possibly pricked pride. Despite her now being sure that Fíli held no real romantic care for her sister, it still might sting to find that she was actually to be married to another.

Fíli raised an eyebrow at her, but the lines on his face relaxed slightly at Tilda’s obvious confusion. “Not even a scant handful of months?” he asked. “Does the house of Dol Amroth not think the sister of my sister worth the honour of a proper courtship period?” And his voice was so stern, as if he would leap up and defend what he considered Sigrid’s, and by extension her, honour. Of course, to Men, a more lengthy engagement between her sister and Lord Adrahil would only be seen as a sign that the House of Dol Amroth valued her sister very little indeed; would in fact be seen as the very insult to honour that Fíli sought to avenge.

Tilda couldn’t help it; she laughed. “Men do things a bit differently, Fíli,” she told him gently. “It’s a long journey so far south and west, to Dol Amroth, and travel there and back again will not be possible later in the year,” she went on, staying only to the simplest of explanations, rather than delve too deeply into the mores of Men right now. “Besides,” she smiled impishly at her brother-in-law, “The only reason Kíli and my courtship was so long was because Da wanted me to have every chance to back out.”

Fíli spluttered at that. “At only fifteen months, yours and Kíli's courtship was already short—almost scandalously so,” he groused like an old auntie, a hint of humour in his eyes as he conceded the differences between their people. Tilda stared at him, bemused that fifteen months could be considered scandalously short to a dwarf. Fíli eyed her from the corner of his eye, before chuckling sheepishly.

“And this offer to your sister,” he asked, his tone shifting into something more neutral, looking out over the hall once more, and decidedly not looking at Tilda, “Was it perhaps the reason Kíli felt my suit wouldn’t be welcome; to your sister, or to yourself?”

Tilda blushed, realising with a start that Kíli must have divined her distress that long-ago day, much as she had scoffed to herself at the idea back then; divined it and decided to act to save his brother the heartache implied by her feelings. She looked commiseratingly over at Fíli, unsure what to say.

Fíli obviously caught her expression, despite his far-away gaze, and he quirked a smile at her, seeming unbothered. “Do not trouble yourself. I’m pleased that everything has worked out as it has. For everyone.”

Tilda let out a small breath, relieved, and placed her hand on Fíli's where he clasped them between his knees. “Thank you,” she told him sincerely.

Fíli’s expression was understanding, but he sassed back, playfully turning the tide of the conversation to easier waters. “Your people are descended of the fierce Northern Warriors—how could I possibly court incurring your wrath without trembling?”

Tilda pushed him, and he obligingly allowed himself to be knocked off balance. “Wise of you to realise that those ancient North-Men also believed in arming their women folk,” she told him, hoisting her chin haughtily as she tried to look intimidating.

Fíli grinned and it was fierce and approving. “We dwarves do, too.”

And suddenly, Tilda had an idea of how she might get Kíli's attention; a brilliant one.

-o.O.o-

The Mithraeum was a place of worship deep within the mountain. It was a place reserved for Cantors, and though not forbidden to any dwarrow, it was rarely visited by anyone outside those of the Father’s calling. In every dwarven Mansion, the Mithraeum was the same, placed in the exact heart of the mountain, carved from the bones of the earth in perfect harmony with the voice of the firmament to capture every sound, every nuance of its unending melody.

Where the heart was located in each mountain, of course, varied, but it was the place where the most perfect resonance could be found; the origin of that mountain range’s individual sound. In Erebor, the heart was deep within the mountain, but well off-centre in its placement, existing in the periphery of the kingdom’s hub of activity. Surrounded by a network of unused tunnels left behind from the original excavations, the whole area was referred to as Durin’s Way, or just The Way. Never well-travelled, the tunnels that serviced this whole area were plain and utilitarian, and among the most unstable passageways still left after Smaug’s assault, though the ones that lead specifically to the heart, and the Mithraeum, were of course, at least partially repaired.

The walls within this citadel were carved in orderly patterns and motifs of deep-set runes; dedications and veneration to Mahal, as well as spells and invocations for the prosperity and longevity of their people. The stone here was never quiet. It held the echoes of all the songs ever sung, all prayers and incantations ever invoked within its carven halls, an ever-changing melody as new voices entered and old ones faded into the overall oratorio. It was a faint sound that all dwarrow could hear, at least on some level. To Kíli, it was a deep, many-layered chant full of complex beauty he could only hope to one day being able to understand; at times it was so hard to not get swept up in it and miss what was going on around him.

The main area had two long tables with benches running their lengths as the main feature; it was primarily a meeting room and communal place in which to work and think and discuss. The ceiling of this room was painstakingly set with images from the Dwarven creation myth, all done in tiny mosaic tiles of brilliantly-coloured enamel accented with gems and precious metals, images that refused to be contained to only the ceiling, spilling down onto the walls in places as ideas simply got too big for the canvas.

Several smaller chambers were connected to this central one, mostly used as workrooms for Cantors who needed space to Craft, though some of the chambers were intended for meditation. The last chamber, at the apex of the communal space, was perhaps the most sacred place in the whole mountain. The doors were filigreed, polished bright as moonlight and covered in Dwarven incantations engraved along their entire length that made them glow faintly blue with the inner light of Dwarven magic.

Inside this room was a forge, set on a stone dais like some kind of altar. Made of iron, the forge itself was not, as some other races might expect, decorative or polished or anything other than the very embodiment of Function and Purpose; the altar upon which ideas became reality, and the greatest symbol of how thoughts shaped the world around all of them. The black slate walls reflected nothing but the dancing light of the holy Light of Mahal’s Forge, a sacred flame that lived within the great forge, paying fealty to their Father’s mighty workshop, from which that flame had given his creations life and purpose. This flame, and all the ones like it in every Mithraeum in every Dwarven kingdom that existed, had been patiently tended by their Cantors: it was never to be extinguished, existing as a testament to their Father, and a reminder of the gifts he had given his children.

Truth was, it was largely powered by underground geothermal energy, and rarely, if ever, needed their intervention, but that was just down to good design, and their Maker would expect no less of them.

Kíli tried really, really hard to stay out of these chambers. It made it too hard for him to keep that part of himself pushed down the rest of the time, because lapsing into introspection might work if you’re supposed to be a bit of a vague religious figure; it didn’t work so well for a prince. Instead, he found himself trying to do the fine work of carving and working on his First Craft in his own chambers—trying to time it for periods when he knew for certain Tilda would be otherwise occupied, because her presence, no matter how peripheral, was something he would never be able to tune out enough to achieve the deep level of meditation and concentration needed for this most important Crafting. Of course, until she was settled, and found a place to focus her energies, that was a little challenging to do, as she was constantly in and out and about, like a cat cautiously exploring the limits of a new home.

Originally, Kíli hadn’t seen why someone didn’t just sit down with Tilda and have a conversation with her about what it was she might want to do, and how she might like to contribute to the Mountain in her new position within it, but his mum had been adamant that it must be come at gently, and as Kíli got to know his wife better, and to better understand the culture to which she’d been raised, he saw the wisdom of his mum’s thought. Lady Dis had seen it as soon as she met her; Tilda had every desire to pull her weight, but had so much more potential than the ridiculously confined roles that Men saw fit to give to their women for tending.

Kíli could frankly care less if his wife could sew; with all his time spent on the road, he could do enough minor stitching for the both of them, if it came to it, and anything larger they could send out to someone who was actually good at it. The same for cooking, or preserves or floor wax or whatever other household nonsense her head had been stuffed with.

Mahal, sitting there, in her family home’s parlour, listening to her as she listed off the skills she felt she could contribute to their union, had made him almost physically sick to his stomach, for it was obvious from her demeanour that she took no joy of any of it; was, in fact, prepared to spend the rest of her life at tasks she hated out of the expectation that that was all life held for her. She had a keen mind, and seemed so desperate to learn everything she could, and yet, she always seemed to withdraw when someone noticed, as if she’d been caught doing something she’d be taken to task for, and it broke Kíli's heart to think of what might have happened if she had remained with her own people; those moments of joy and inquisitiveness slowly extinguished until there was nothing left of the girl he knew.

She had no real experience choosing—truthfully, she probably didn’t even have exposure to half the things she might encounter here that she could be involved in, since women seemed to be actively discouraged from anything outside of domestic arts. He’d been shocked on the practice fields to see how little familiarity she’d had with the bow, given the fact that her father was considered to be the bowman; and Bard hardly seemed to be one to limit his children based on gender expectations, so obviously this was so ingrained that the man had never even given it any thought. Kíli knew from a few disgruntled comments of Tilda’s that she had once had some rudimentary lessons with a sword, so obviously Bard wasn’t wholly infected with this biased thinking, and Sigrid had certainly seemed comfortable enough belting one on to join in her sister’s escort to Dale.

If he wanted to be honest with himself, he’d enjoyed the opportunity instructing her had presented, though. He’d been hopeful that it would give them a bit of common ground; an activity they could maybe spend some time at, together, and mayhap it could smooth the way into other interactions.

Of course, she’d immediately withdrawn, as if she expected to be scolded by some invisible societal figure, shaking a finger at her from the depths of her conscience.

She’d obviously been fine enough with Dwalin for him to give her the damned bow to begin with, so what was her fear of Kíli himself?

Did she really think so little of him?

Honestly, it probably had very little to do with himself, Kíli knew, at least objectively, though it still stung when he wasn’t actively reminding himself of all the reasons it probably wasn’t personal.

But what was true, was that if asked now, she’d likely go looking for whatever place she felt she was supposed to serve, and that wouldn’t be helpful to anyone if her heart wasn’t in it. She needed time; time to explore and find that the confines of her reality weren’t where they had always been any longer; time to unfurl her wings and discover she could fly.

Frankly, Kíli couldn’t wait to see it.

So while his fingers deftly strove to shape the intricate piece on his workbench, his heart poured forth all his images of his brave lady, and how magnificent she would someday discover that she already was, infusing his chanting and invocations, as she had already infused his soul with her fierce presence.

And slowly, his hopes for her happiness took shape beneath his hands; his muse, calling forth all that was best in him for this, his First Craft, even as he kept an ear cocked for the sound of her footsteps in the outer chamber when she returned.

-o.O.o-

“Master Dwalin,” Tilda was using her best wheedling tone, and she knew it. She’d perfected it as a little girl, when she needed Bain to do her chores for her. Somehow, she was sure that the grizzled warrior would see right through her attempts, but if she was lucky, would be entertained by the attempt.

She was right. The unimpressed look he was giving her did little to conceal his reluctant amusement. “Just Mister Dwalin, Silver-Tongue,” he corrected sternly, and crossed his arms, as if that could disguise the fact that he had a soft spot for just about everyone. “Now, what is it you want?”

“I was thinking, you must know a lot about weapons—perhaps more than anyone…”

“More like, more than anyone you currently have access to. What’s yer scheme, your Highness?”

Tilda grinned at him, tossing her head slightly, to get the loose strands of hair out of her face, because some always seemed to work their way free. “Caught me. Actually, I enjoyed trying the bow out on the range last week, and I was curious if you could show me how the arrows are constructed?”

Dwalin’s eyebrows really were very bushy, and perfect for making the most creative expressions when he raised them, as he was doing now, attempting to decipher what Tilda might really be up to. Finally deciding she was harmless, he dropped his arms to his side with a gruff snort. “I won’t have you mucking about in a forge, untrained as you are, or anything like that, so get that notion right out of your crafty little head.”

“Oh no, but I’m sure once the parts are made, you could maybe show me what to do with them?” she asked, hopefully.

He stared at her again, hard. “And why would you be wanting to know how to make arrows for?”

She’d have to tell him something, she realised. He was hardly stupid and it was an odd request; though she was rather counting on it not being as odd as if she had asked one of the Men back home. It was really Fíli who’d given her the courage to do it, anyway. With all his talk, it occurred to her that this mightn’t be considered too scandalous in a society that seemed to see little difference between the sexes, at least when it came to weapons.

She sighed, allowing herself to sound put-upon. “Even young dwarves—badgers!—know more about the basics of weapon-crafting than I do. I thought, maybe, this was something relatively safe, that I could at least not feel quite so inadequate here…”

He grimaced, and immediately softened. “Of course, lass. It’s a hard thing to be away from all yeh know. I can show you that much.”

A small part of her felt guilty, but she squashed it. Surely Dwalin wouldn’t mind, after all, and would probably take it as the greater kindness to not have any details of Tilda’s romantic attempts with his Prince laid out for him.

She told herself that anyway, and it helped, a little.

And nothing would stop the Guard Captain, but to march them both off to one of the workshops used for training purposes. As it turned out, constructing arrows, even once the shafts were whittled and the heads forged, was still considerably involved. In truth, it was more like Dwalin did most of it as a demonstration, guiding Tilda’s attempts until she had a small pile of projectiles just waiting to be fletched. This part, at least, she felt she caught on to quickly; her fingers were deft and clever with the gut and feathers, and she felt competent enough after the first couple to beg to take the rest with her, to finish later. By this point, it was almost the mid-afternoon bell, and she would be missed if she disappeared for any longer. Lady Dis would be wanting to sit with her this afternoon, to further Tilda’s knowledge of Mountain politics and assess how well she was settling in.

A pell-mell dash down the corridors, and a few wrong turns, and she barely managed to make it back to her rooms to drop off her bundle, before skidding into the main family dining room down the hall. This was to be the first of her weekly luncheons with her formidable mother-in-law, and the last thing she wanted to do was be late. As it was, Lady Dís had arrived before her, and was already seated, looking calm and poised and all of the things Tilda had never managed. She raised one black eyebrow at Tilda’s out-of breath entrance, but simply held up a hand when Tilda would have launched into a stumbling explanation.

“No, better you don’t tell me,” Dís decided, wryly. “I’ve seen that look on Kíli or Fíli's faces often enough to know when plausible deniability is the better part of wisdom.”

Tilda mumbled an apology and slipped into her chair, cheeks burning.

“Heavens child, don’t look so chastised,” Dís laughed, and resumed eating her soup. “Who do you think taught them what they know, after all?”

When Kíli skidded into the hall a moment later, no less out of breath, Tilda looked to Dís and both ladies laughed while Kíli looked on in confusion.

They got all the way to after-lunch tea before her mother-in-law sprung her new idea on her.

“I’d like you to consider working in the Nursery Hall,” Dís told her, and the smile on her face told Tilda that the princess thought she had come up with a brilliant idea. Tilda had to school her reaction so that she didn’t look horrified. As a foreign princess with absolutely no idea of proper behavior or custom, she was probably the last person who should be setting an example to dwarven younglings.... But of course Dís didn’t mean her to work with the actual children….”You mean, with the babies, don’t you?” she asked, to clarify, but Dís was already shaking her head.

“No, dwarven babies stay within the halls of their parents, before entering into public care; usually around the third or fourth year,” Lady Dís clarified. “There are rooms for basic schooling, as well as for organized play and tasks. Badgers stay within the Hall until they are of an age to seek more advanced training and apprenticeships. You have such a keen mind, I think you would be a great asset there.”

“But I don’t know anything about how to be a dwarf!” Tilda burst out.

“They don’t need to know how to be a dwarf—they already know that,” Dís told her, for a moment sounding eerily reminiscent of Lady Bylgja. “But they do need guidance, and being exposed to other ideas and other ways of doing things can only be good for future generations of our people.”

“Blasphemy!” Kíli laughed. “You’ll have the Council in paroxysms with your revolutionary talk.”

Dís' smile could only be called smug. “Exactly. This is much more effective, anyway.” Tilda was not quite brave enough to question her on what exactly this was more effective than. Lady Dís turned back to her daughter-in-law, and her expression was positively brimming with conspiratorial mayhem and satisfaction. “What do you say, my dear?”

Somehow, when the formidable lady put it like that, with that devilish gleam in her eye that looked a great deal like Kíli's, it sounded like great fun, indeed.

Enough to quiet Tilda’s nerves, for the moment anyway.

 

-o.O.o-

It wasn’t until well into the evening hours that Tilda was able to put her half-conceived plan into action. Everyone knew that the way to the dwarvish heart was through their weapons, after all. How hard could this be?

It turned out, very hard.

Very, very hard.

To say the project didn’t go well would be an understatement.

She brought out her arrows, and set up at the little table in the main room, spreading everything out in what she hoped was an enticing manner. Kíli was sitting at the desk by the fire, looking over some paperwork. He’d looked up when she’d started, giving her an encouraging smile before going back to whatever dragon-curst petition was taking up his attention tonight. A tiny flare of doubt at his nonchalant reaction almost had her questioning whether or not this would work, but she pushed it aside. Everyone knew dwarves courted with weapons and symbols of wealth; even Lady Dís had hinted as much, and since she didn’t have a hope of creating the later, it would have to be the former. As she worked, she hummed the few vaguely warish ballads and songs that she knew, peaking over at Kíli whenever she could do so discreetly.

He wasn’t showing any signs of being overcome with her overture. Truth be told, he wasn’t showing any signs of paying any attention whatsoever, but was frowning as he made notations on the report in his hand.

To make matters worse, the fletching, that had gone so easily earlier, when she had been doing it with Dwalin, was now getting tangled and snarled in her fingers more often than not as she struggled with it. A few of her arrows looked decidedly rumpled when she finally managed them. She did her best to straighten out their feathers, and by the end, she managed to get them turned out, and looking reasonably neat and presentable. She’d even tried to match the fletching, using the blue he seemed to favour and contrasting it with black raven’s feathers she’d collected herself from up on the hill. Roäc had even helped direct her to where she could find the best ones, with the assistance of a roosting thrush that had been kind enough to translate. The end result was very striking, she thought, and hoped it was pretty enough to compensate for all that was undoubtedly lacking in her skills.

“What have you been working on, all evening?”

She hadn’t even been aware of Kíli coming up behind her, so lost had she been for the last quarter hour or more, but this played into her hand perfectly—perhaps he had finally realised what it was she was doing? Warm hope blossomed in her belly, making her insides squirm, and temporarily robbing her of the pretty speech she had worked out, so that she barely had the presence of mind to step out of his way so that he could see the product of her labours.

He looked them over, and his countenance did not warm with recognition and appreciation at her gesture; nor as she’d dared to hope in the very height of her optimism, did he kiss her again. Instead, his expression could best be called dubious, Tilda was forced to concede. Those tiny niggles of unease were now becoming full-blow mortification, as this was obviously not going how she had envisioned.

“Did you do this to learn more dwarven skills?” and his voice was finally warm like she’d envisioned, but she would have hoped for a little less amusement. He took her hand, though, and the way his skin felt against hers was enough to make the squirming inside become full out dancing butterflies and she was blushing and squirming for real now under his gaze. “You didn’t have to do this, my Lady; the children will learn their weapons skills outside of your care. It was a very thoughtful gesture, though.”

She was frankly too humiliated to correct his assumption, especially in the face of his happy smile, and his offer to teach her further, if she was still interested in learning ‘properly’.

 

-o.O.o-

 

Cermië arrived, and summer was finally in full swing in the North.

Somewhere south of midnight, and the sun was just beginning to fade into the dim grey-orange glow of twilight, which was about as dark as it would ever get for the next couple of weeks. The light had a funny quality to it during this false night; a flat glow that didn’t carry as far as it seemed, and gave everything a cool cast, as if you were looking through tinted glass. Dwalin wasn’t sure how the surface races dealt with it.

Dwarven eyes really didn’t do well in lighting conditions like this and it always made Dwalin’s shoulder blades itch, like someone was fixing to decorate him with a dagger, and once again he reflected that he was getting too old to be hanging out on the battlements in the middle of the night.

But he hadn’t been able to sleep.

Old instincts, the ones that he relied on time and again to know when Thorin was about to sneak out to do something abysmally stupid, or that there was something slightly off about an envoy, or to know when a warrior under his command was about to be pushed past their limit, recklessly endangering all through sheer loyalty...yeah it was a feeling that Dwalin held a healthy respect for.

The problem was, tonight, there wasn’t a feeling—nothing he could dig his scarred hands into and wrangle for answers.

All he had right now was the fact that he couldn’t sleep.

But because Dwalin knew enough to respect his own healthy paranoia, it was enough for him to know not all was right in his Kingdom. Somewhere, someone thought they could muck things up; now he just needed a bit of time to work through his instincts until he figured out what the blighters were up to.

A heavy tread upon the battlements caught his attention, though he recognized the sound of the footsteps almost instantly, so didn’t bother stirring from his slouch. Dwalin knew all the sounds—and, in some cases, smells, unfortunately—of his travelling companions.

As the shuffling tread neared, he spoke. “An’ what exactly are you doin’ up here at balls o’clock at night?” Dwalin growled, not bothering to push himself off the stone crenellation, against which he had been leaning the last quarter hour, or even to turn around.

“Much the same as you, I suppose,” Óin replied, leaning against the stone battlement beside him. “I think that guards and healers both have a sense about when things are not as they should be.”

Dwalin huffed, but shuffled over to make more room. There was no moon to be seen in this murky light, the aftermath of the midnight sun—it had to be exceptionally full to make it through the early morning twilight, so the result was the flat grey light that made distance difficult to judge. Didn’t stop either of them from peering out into the gloom, like it somehow held the answers to their unease.

“I got this itch between my shoulder blades, like something’s in my blind spot, just biding time,” Dwalin admitted gruffly, figuring that one of them had to start, and Óin was a far more patient dwarf than he was.

“I got a cream for that,” Óin murmured vaguely, clearly not really paying attention—or determined to be more of a bastard than usual. With him, it was hard to tell.

Grouchy though he was, Óin was not stupid by any stretch, so when he continued to stare out into the night, Dwalin let him alone, turning over his own instincts until Óin saw whatever it was he’d come up here to see.

It was easy to forget sometimes, but Óin was, in addition to anything else of course, a seer; a reader of portents and omens. Dwalin wasn’t sure if he was more vindicated that his feelings of unease were being validated, or uneasy that whatever it was was bad enough to disturb an actual mystic.

Dammit.

He’d take comfort from the fact that Kíli wasn’t up here, too, with his strange gifts, but newly married and thoroughly besotted as the lad was, his head was hardly screwed on straight these days. It might take something a whole lot more obvious than a vague feeling to get the young prince’s attention right now. Still, Bifur wasn’t here—though the toymaker was half mad, so who knew with him?

Minutes spun out, and the longer they stood out there, the more absolute the silence began to feel; like the whole kingdom was holding its breath too, just watching the old dwarf.

Waiting.

Óin continued to watch, eyes sharp and glittering, and totally at odds with his slouched stance.

More minutes sauntered by, and Dwalin was beginning to wonder if Óin was fucking with him.

A breath of wind stirred, rustling the banners minutely but doing nothing to offer any relief from the humidity in the air. The tiny air movement died back down, as the wind attempted to rally, finally becoming an actual faint breeze. It still didn’t do much for the humidity, but Dwalin was no longer really aware of the sweat sticking his tunic to his back as Óin suddenly stood a little straighter, watching as a pair of antennae, bushy and gold, appeared over the edge of the parapet. They twitched, waving back and forth as, slowly, little feet pulled the body of a luna moth up and over the wall and onto the flat surface of the crenel, and Dwalin would swear Óin was holding his breath, staring so intently that if the damned thing had spoken to them in that moment, Dwalin wouldn’t be more than half surprised.

They weren’t common this far north, but Dwalin didn’t have to be an aurelian to recognize one; there was no mistaking a palm-sized, vividly green moth. Distinctive ivory eye spots decorated each lower wing segment, just before they turned into trailing swallow-tails, and dark ebony edged each leading wing-edge in a way that almost looked like Ori’s fancy scroll work.

Apparently satisfied with its new perch, the giant moth daintily pulled its antennae forward to groom with its tiny feet; the better to sense things in this murky light, Dwalin supposed.

Óin waited, not even twitching, looking so focused and intent, that Dwalin found himself watching the creature like it might hold the secrets of the Father’s forge stuffed up its wings somewhere.

The breeze died down again, no more noticed than its arrival except for the moth, which promptly dropped its grooming as if this was what it had been waiting for.

The moth unfurled its wings, a truly impressive sight in an insect that size, flaring them as if to catch the non-existent wind, seemed to crouch down—did moths even have knees with which to crouch? Dwalin wondered bemusedly—and launched itself.

Beside him, Óin stopped breathing again.

Quick as an arrow in flight, an owl launched itself off the merlons above the tower battlements, swooping silently after what would be a sizable morsel.

Óin's grip on the stone wall was positively white-knuckled as he watched, gaze narrowed to a fierce stare, as if he could see things that ordinary dwarves couldn’t.

Daft bugger probably could.

Bloody Seers.

Speeding like a tawny assassin on the still air, the owl plunged after the moth, snapping it up out of midair. Dwalin swore he could hear the little thing crunch between the predator's beak.

Óin frowned, pulling out his pipe and lighting it absently as he stared at the spot the moth had been.

“Well, what kind of a portent is that?” Dwalin finally asked, exasperated by the silence, and the vague and ominous feeling left in the wake of the attack, though the sharp edge of his unease was gone, as if a wire, pulled too thin, had snapped.

“A cryptic one,” Óin murmured reflectively while he pulled on his pipe. “Whatever it is,” he said brusquely, straightening up, “We shall know soon enough. One thing is certain; change is coming, but we can’t prepare for what we don’t understand, yet.”

That, of course, earned him the grunt of annoyance it deserved. “I’d say we’d be better off preparing for anything, then, an’ make sure we’re able to head off whatever it is,” Dwalin grumbled mulishly, knowing full well that Óin was likely right, but not having the ability to sit gracefully and do nothing.

“How do you prepare to confront the West Wind?” Óin questioned sharply. “Why waste effort now, when we may need it later?”

Dwalin blew out a breath, surprised that he’d been so unnerved, so invested in Óin finding the root of his unease, that he was reduced to being scolded as he himself had scolded over-eager recruits for decades. He knew better, and yet, something in his gut felt that this was different than the norm of orc uprisings in the hinterlands, or Easterlings rampaging on raiding sweeps. The thought occurred to him that maybe it was the Healer in Óin that had been roused, more than the soothsayer; a physician attuned to the body of his kingdom, reacting to an internal threat or virus? Fanciful notions, Dwalin was forced to concede.

“Sorry,” he mumbled finally, embarrassed.

Óin sniffed, but let it go. A moment later, his pipe was thrust roughly in Dwalin’s direction as a peace offering, one that was gladly accepted. Companionably, side-by-side, the two smoked and stared out into the night.

Watchful.

Whatever it was felt like it was sleeping, for now, but the memory of his unease, and the way his bowels had churned in the moment of the owl’s attack wouldn’t leave him this night.

Or for many nights after.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

10

Mishaps & Misunderstandings

 

 

Mist surrounded him—or perhaps the world was actually made of mist; the shapes perfect, but somehow lacking, as if something essential had been removed, leaving nothing but an echo behind. Everything looked normal to Kíli's eye, but inside, he knew that it was all very, very wrong.

That something was still here, a heavy vacuum, a void pulling at him from all around, inescapable and horrible and relentless. Kíli could feel himself, feel his shields, shaking, being drained as opposed to battered as he fought to keep his senses his own, keep his...self, his own, but still the pressure opposed him, tinting the world around him muted and grey while his limbs felt turned to stone, or maybe ash—weightless and ineffective.

And all the while, that Voice spoke to him. Without sound or words, but still Kíli knew it, knew it would sound sweet beyond words, if he could only hear it, and part of him yearned for it even as he knew to fear it. And still, it spoke, leaving the memory of its words within him, without speaking at all.

Persuading.

Reasonable.

Relentless.

And Kíli had the distinct impression that the only reason he’d been able to resist was that the Voice that was not a Voice, did not yet know him; his shields still held, and some corners of his soul were still his own, and the Voice did not yet have the right combination of levers; of enticements or fears or promises, to make Kíli bend to its will.

But it would.

The feeling was pervasive, like the air around him: not an enemy he could get his hands around, not a single thing, but simply emptiness; a void that could not be filled, that would suck everything dry without being satisfied.

And it was creeping past his shields; cold little tendrils that deadened things inside of him that he thought immutable. The feeling of being perfectly in alignment, when he was fully immersed in his Craft and in the voice of Mahal? Gone. The absolute knowledge that Uncle Thorin would move the very earth itself if he had to, for the love he bore his nephews? Meaningless and cold. The absolutely amazing ability Uncle Bilbo had to banish darkness and fear with simple logic and a few taps of an impatient foot? Now the actions of a stranger.

He fought. His soul screamed at the invasion, though Kíli could no longer feel it as the dead feeling crept deeper...reaching.

The feel of Tilda’s skin when he gripped her hand? A memory beyond recall; completely lost to him; unremembered and unimportant.

The perfection of her absolute acceptance—

No!

He woke up, violently throwing himself into consciousness, feeling sweaty and clammy, and with the urge to vomit so strong he had to bite the inside of his cheek to lock his jaw against it as he shook and shook and waited for the tremors to pass. Beside him, Tilda stirred, and the profound relief he felt at seeing her there, untainted by any mist or darkness, was enough to get his stomach under control, though there was still nothing he could do about the shaking.

He felt as though he’d fought a battle. The dreams, infrequent as they usually were, had never been this strong.

“Mmmm?” Tilda murmured sleepily as she shifted towards him, not actually awake, but responding nonetheless to Kíli's disquiet, and his lips curled faintly as he slowly began to feel unfrozen, the memory of the horrible, deadening cold receding in the face of his wife’s simple, genuine concern.

There is still warmth in his world.

Hands still trembling faintly, he reached out to gently stroke his fingers over her hair, once, twice, in a slow, soothing motion until Tilda slid back into sleep once more. For a long moment, Kíli sat there, hand still resting lightly in her hair—an action he would normally never allow himself—as he watched her gentle breathing and allowed it to quiet the remnants of fear in him.

He didn’t want it to be starting again; this horrible feeling of something rooting around inside his head—or at least trying to; not even with a purpose, simply nosing around, as if Kíli's deepest truths were a shop it was browsing. Much as he would find it easier to rationalize away in the light of day, right now, he was wearily certain he knew exactly the source.

Restless and unsettled, Kíli had to move—had to check, because he knew from experience he wouldn’t sleep again tonight.

The rug was soft beneath his feet as he carefully slid out of bed, being sure to pull the counterpane up around Tilda’s shoulders in the space he’d left. Quietly, he fumbled into the tunic and trousers that he’d left haphazardly on the chair, slipping his feet into a pair of soft leather boots more suitable for wearing around their chambers than anything else. The summer twilight was in full effect by now, bathing the room in slightly brighter darkness that had none of the moon’s silvery, calming light, but instead made everything look tinged with fire and soot.

The dwarves believed that this strange glow was Mahal’s forge; this time of year being reserved for the greatest of creative endeavours and magics, and considered full of omens and auspices.

Kíli felt he could really use some of that right now, and allowed himself to cast up a tiny prayer to the Father, like he hadn’t done since he was little more than a badger, but right now, he was feeling shaken enough to be willing to cling to the reassurances of his youth to banish the darkness.

There were guards in the Royal Halls of Erebor, of course; a few sentries and patrols that watched over the royal family, though Kíli and Fíli had long ago learned how to avoid them, and with the practice of decades, Kíli was quickly free of them and scuttling his way down to the Deeps.

He felt furtive.

Well, honestly, he was being furtive; slipping out of bed in the middle of the night and creeping down the darkest, most un-used corridors he could find, it was fair to say the Crown Prince of Erebor did not wish to be seen.

Really, really didn’t want to be seen.

He hadn’t encountered anyone in a few levels, but he still stayed vigilant and alert. Though he couldn’t explain exactly what he feared in being discovered, he couldn't deny his instincts were screaming at him to remain anonymous, and so he crept, and kept to the shadows as much as possible, and cursed and wished he had Nori’s talents the few times he kicked a piece of loose stone to clatter down the hall, or felt the urge to cough or sneeze or just simply give it all up and go back to bed, like a normal person after a nightmare.

He wasn’t normal, though, was he?

For once, Kíli thought, it would be nice to actually know the whys of what he was doing, instead of always operating on impulse and instinct. Even as the thought occurred to him, his lips twisted, sardonic and amused.

Why change now, after all?

He’d left the grand corridors and open spaces of the upper levels almost a quarter hour ago, the hallways down here giving way to utilitarian design and plain architecture, being as he was far down in the Deep levels; almost at the very bottom of the mountain. Here were housed all the Halls that kept the mountain running: pipework to run fresh water hundreds of feet up and then into every corner of the kingdom, geothermal ducts, to redirect heat as the seasons changed, sanitation aqueducts, and even gas works to keep thousands upon thousands of lamps lit in the levels above. The background noise here had nothing to do with Kíli's senses, and everything to do with the contented purr of well-maintained gears and cog-works. The whole collection of interconnected systems was so precise, so harmonious, that engineers tasked with keeping the mighty kingdom running could tell much just from the slight variances in that hum, able to head off problems before the rest of the mountain was even aware.

Even now, nervous sweat slicking his palms, Kíli's thoughts couldn't help but stray to Tilda, and he wondered if his inquisitive Lady might not like to visit, sometime.

It wasn’t that what he was doing was bad, per se, but it certainly wasn’t a good way to ensure Uncle Bilbo’s lost ring stayed, well, lost.

He wasn’t even sure what had pulled him out of his bed tonight, rather than just forcing himself to set the dream aside and go back to sleep, other than a looming, and increasing sense of...expectation. Like a heavy cloud permeating the air and just waiting for the right sort of spark to ignite. It felt entirely too familiar, and Kíli's mind shuddered back from thinking too closely on that moment, seven years ago, when he’d reached out and actually touched the ring—and felt it reach back to him.

That moment—when he’d felt like his mind was being shorn in two, while still feeling enticed and cajoled by a presence not his own, a compelling voice, to just...give in, because it could give him everything he ever wanted, and many things he had yet to dream of—was a moment he’d tried to bury deep, and never repeat, even in the safety of memory.

He had a paranoid feeling that there was nothing safe about Bilbo’s ring.

And an even stronger feeling that he wasn’t being paranoid enough.

Most of the time, thoughts of the ring were far from his mind; though in those initial months after Jústi’s death, and the ring’s subsequent immuration, he’d been plagued with nightmares, and found himself compelled from his bed near nightly, needing to make sure the damned thing stayed safely encased in its rocky prison. Slowly, that compulsion had lessened, gradually diminishing for months, and finally years, before rising again—the feeling of....looming potential would grow; like electricity heavy in the air, right before the lightning struck.

In Kíli's nightmares, he fancied that the sleeping ring still stirred; a restless interloper in their mountain.

In those confused moments after rousing, he feared that perhaps the ring really was waking, the subtle discord it caused in the Mountain’s song invading his senses, until he was compelled once more to check on it so that he could reassure himself that he was imagining things, and go back to ignoring it again.

The ring is not alive, idiot.

But yet, something had reached back for him that day, had followed the thread of his thoughts back into a mind he hadn’t known how to shield back then, and that flash, that biting, enticing moment could not be forgotten, no matter how much Kíli tried to tell himself that he was imagining things.

And so, the nightmares would eventually stir again, and, sleepless, he would check.

Again.

Finally, he’d reached the trapdoor that lead to the very root of the mountain; to where the underground River Running flowed through their basement. The tunnel from here was more or less natural, not actually a part of Erebor’s design but preexisting their settlement. The oldest part of the kingdom, as the first thing those first miners would have needed was water, and lots of it, to power a large-scale mining operation—everything from drinking water to water wheels and steam power. Jústi had blown a hole through the foundation to reach it, and Thorin had set this trapdoor in place after those events, convinced of the need by Kíli's ashamed admission that he would need to learn more about his Craft to do a better job at actually locking the ring away...and to do that, he would need access.

It had been the highest priority of his training, that first year. Master Bifur told him it was a measure of how much the rock responded to him that it had been convinced to hold the ring for him at all, and though Kíli knew he had done the absolute best an un-trained Cantor could have, he still felt disappointed with himself that he hadn’t done better. If he had allowed himself to admit what he was earlier; if he had sought training earlier, then he would have been a proper cantor in the moment when it counted and it would have been sealed away, under his own power, not at the uncertain will of the bedrock.

If he had been properly trained, then, maybe, he would have had proper shields in place when he had first touched it, and the damned thing wouldn’t be tormenting him now.

Or maybe it was simply all in his mind.

Of course it was all in his mind.

The ring was just a thing, after all.

Right?

Somehow, try as he might, he couldn’t quite convince himself of that, and it made the nightmare of the ring calling to him much harder to dismiss.

The tunnel air felt damp here, as he got within the final dozen yards or so of the river’s underground shore. Certain veins of mineral gave off faint phosphorescence that was plenty of light to see by, and reflected blue-green in the mica and Northern spar exposed in the rock walls, causing the whole tunnel-mouth to shine like fabled the gates of Moria in the semi-darkness.

The shore itself was smooth granite, a gently rolling hill before falling away to the water’s edge, and it was because of this slight rise that Kíli didn't at first notice that he wasn’t alone.

Standing ankle-deep in the dark water of the river, was Bilbo, and for a moment Kíli was so startled that he stopped, dead in his tracks, not at all sure of his Uncle’s mindset in that moment, and wanting to be cautious, in case Bilbo was having one of those days.

Because what other reason could he have for being down here? In the dead of night, on the same night that Kíli himself felt compelled to be down here?

Suddenly, Kíli was sure that, no matter the call of the blasted ring, this is what had driven him down here; his uncle’s distress enough to call to him, even from a deep sleep. The very mountain, disturbed by their unwanted prize here in their bottom-most basement, had summoned him to deal with Bilbo’s distress, because the Mountain and Uncle Thorin, its King, were connected profoundly, and Bilbo, as Uncle’s bond-mate, was a part of that, whether he understood it or not.

“Uncle?” Kíli called softly, not wanting to startle the hobbit, least he step out deeper and lose his footing in the swift current.

“Uncle Bilbo?” Kíli spoke again, edging closer when Bilbo didn’t respond at first. This time, though, he was sure he was heard, so he didn’t hesitate to close the remaining distance to the water’s edge, a handful of feet from where his Uncle wadded in his bare feet and familiarly hobbitish trousers.

“You should be sleeping, you know,” Kíli chided gently, knowing from experience that Bilbo heard him right now, and would eventually follow the sound of his nephew’s voice back to himself, if only Kíli would keep talking to him so he could find his way. “And just imagine Uncle Thorin’s hen-pecking if you go and give yourself another cold, from this icy water.” Kíli paused, then added with a light chuckle, “You do remember Laketown, don’t you? Even once Óin promised that you were going to be okay, Uncle still fussed and bothered him so many times I think he deliberately lost his ear-trumpet, just so he had an excuse to not listen to Uncle badger him any more.”

A short burst of air, an involuntary huff of indignant amusement, told Kíli that Bilbo was more aware, now. He stood there, a solitary figure calf-deep in cool water, and Kíli watched quietly, not wanting to crowd his Uncle when he was like this, and hoping for an indication that Bilbo had truly found his way free of his own mind and shadowy anxieties; the all-encompassing mist of his own earlier dream, perhaps. The tiny moment of mirth seemed to have released something in him, and Kíli could see when the tightly-coiled tension released from Bilbo’s frame. His shoulders sagged from his previous, painfully rigid, pose, his hands shook before he clenched them tightly into fists at his sides, and he finally, finally, turned to his favourite nephew.

The look on Bilbo’s face, when he turned, was heartbreaking.

Bilbo, normally the rock that Kíli and Fíli—and Uncle Thorin, and probably the whole kingdom, if truth be told—relied on...slipped sometimes. Those closest to him knew it; supported him and shielded him as best they could from situations that seemed to agitate him, and the hobbit always shook it off eventually.

It had started after his uncle’s experience with the blood-traitor, Jústi. The old lord had done things to Bilbo—had forced him well beyond the limits of the fledgling Bond he and Uncle Thorin had been trying to forge. The resulting strain of those events had very nearly killed Uncle Bilbo, and would have killed Uncle Thorin, too, but for a certain hobbit’s stubborn nature that rivalled that of any Durin in strength, though Bilbo would protest vehemently that it was only his own unawareness of what was really happening in the face of more important things that needed doing—like defending their Kingdom from invaders, and trying to ensure that Uncle Thorin and Fíli had a home to return to.

As Kíli said; stubborn.

But the incident left wounds; scars on the inside where no healer could reach, and no salve could heal, and since then, Bilbo had difficulties sometimes. He would be strong and laughing and present, and suddenly he would...withdraw. His mind would go elsewhere, and his hands would tremble. His gait might falter, and his eyes might get misty, and there wasn’t always a clear reason, or trigger, for these behaviors that his family or the Company could see. So they made plans; were carefully aware of Bilbo’s limits and how to step in and help him when he had his moments of anxiety. It was second nature, after all, to make accommodations for injured comrades, like Óin and his deafness or Bifur and his...multitude of issues.

The Mountain sheltered its own. It was a motto and creed of aid and accomodation that dwarves everywhere rallied to, though this translation into Westron was...a little more passive than the actual Khûzdul meaning.

And, Kíli knew, the storm of Bilbo’s emotions usually passed quickly enough; leaving his one Uncle terribly embarrassed, and his other feeling protective and ineffective that he couldn’t slay his bond-mates dragons for him.

It didn’t happen often anymore; the last incident had probably been more than two years ago, and the episodes rarely lasted long, but being here, in the place where his tormentor had died, was bound to bring out the worst.

Come to think on it, the last time Kíli had these dreams had been around the same time...

But, right here and now, the eyes looking out of his uncle’s familiar face were pale and watery...and frightened, and Kíli pushed further thoughts of rings and curious coincidences from his thoughts.

“It calls to me, sometimes....I can’t help it; can’t keep it out,” he said, and his voice sounded old and frail, and it wounded Kíli to his soul to hear his strong, unflappable uncle like this. “I...have to check; make sure it’s still locked away.”

“I know,” Kíli reassured him, because he did know. Though his uncle didn’t have the Cantor’s skills that Kíli had, and so never truly touched the ring’s black core, his experiences with it during Jústi's attack had marked him, deeply. While both Kíli's uncles lay recovering in the Healing Halls, the quiet hobbit had confided all the details of his experiences with the ring; about how it seemed to deaden things inside of him, and made Thorin’s presence within him almost impossible to detect. It had left Kíli increasingly unsettled to hear how it touched Bilbo’s mind and soul in ways that only a bond-mate should be able to.

Kíli was convinced that a large part of the damage done to Bilbo hadn’t been from the bond being stretched to almost breaking, but from the ring itself; it didn't seem to be able to exist in the same space as something as pure and full of love as a soul bond, like oil and water could not blend, and so the two forces had been in opposition. The fact that the ring was obviously the stronger of the two forces had shaken both Kíli and Uncle Thorin to their core. Thorin immediately ordered Kíli to focus his training on containing the ring, until Gandalf showed himself again, and could be cajoled to take it away somewhere—with luck, far, far away.

“I don’t like the way it makes me feel....” Bilbo told him, staring out at the river for along moment. Kíli watched him, not touching him, but close enough to let his presence lend support, and close enough that he could feel the faint disturbances in the air caused by Bilbo’s shudders as they lessened. Slowly, Bilbo straightened, as if casting off his pall, starting to look more like himself, and Kíli breathed a tiny breath of relief. “I don’t like the way it makes me feel, and yet, somewhere inside of me, I am still susceptible to its blandishments, and I crave it.” Bilbo said, frustration and disgust clear in his tone.

“It makes the Bond dead inside of me,” he continued, softly, “as if this were all a summertime dream of madness. But yet, it promises things...horrible, wonderful things—and it frightens me what Jústi could have done with it, had he succeeded.” He shook his head, an absent motion as he looked down at his hand, and the new ring that sat there. One made with love and the utmost attention to detail, because Kíli knew Uncle Thorin had made it for him. He’d stayed in the forge for a week, just working the intricate piece until it was perfect, and had presented it to Bilbo on his last name-day, despite Bilbo’s protests that he was supposed to give the gifts to them.

Made of polished platinum, with a distinctly rounded design that somehow managed to suggest the rolling hills and rounded lines of the Shire, it had quickly proven to be one of Bilbo’s favourite pieces; in truth, one of the only pieces of jewellery he seemed comfortable wearing, and he was rarely seen without it. It was set with verdant-coloured emeralds, and buttery citrons...and it had to be biting into Bilbo’s hand with how tightly he’d clenched his fist.

“I don’t think the ring can exist with that kind of love,” Kíli said slowly. “In the end, that may be the best defence we have against it.” That, and making sure no one else ever finds out about it.

Bilbo quirked his lips in a rueful smile, clearly trying to allow Kíli to comfort him. “So, Tilda and Thorin are our shields, then, are they?” he asked, with sardonic humour.

Startled, Kíli couldn’t help his snort of amusement at that image, for Thorin would most surely place himself bodily in harm’s way to protect his bondmate if given half the chance; shielding him from everything from invading orcs, to hoards of roving elves. And somehow, the image of Tilda, hair coiled back in a warrior’s braided crown, bearing a shield almost heavier than herself to guard him didn’t seem as ridiculous as it should. As a matter of fact, he privately felt she would look rather glorious, and he smiled at the thought.

“Does this mean that you are considering a Bond of your own?” Bilbo asked slyly, a teasing glint in his hazel eyes as he caught Kíli's little smile.

Kíli just shook his head in exasperation. Really, he never would have believed the match-making tendencies of hobbits all those years ago, when presented with such a fussy little creature. He knew better, now.

“It’s sleeping, Uncle,” he told him, deflecting. He gently grasped Bilbo’s shoulders between his hands, encouraging the hobbit to turn back to the tunnels.

As he turned, he caught the eye of his Uncle Thorin, waiting so quietly but a dozen yards away that Kíli hadn’t even been aware of his arrival until now. The deep sadness in his uncle’s eyes was plain to see as he stared back at his nephew; grateful for the help Kíli could provide, but also deeply pained at being unable to do more than simply watch over Bilbo as he was driven down here by his torment.

“Sleeping,” Bilbo mused tiredly, already reaching out a hand for Thorin to take as he slipped from under Kíli's arm to his husband’s embrace. Thorin buried his nose in the crown of Bilbo’s loose curls, as if drawing strength and reassurance from the heat of Bilbo’s skin, or the scent his hair, or perhaps just from the familiar shape of him tucked under Thorin’s chin, and for a moment Kíli longed for that sort of connection so deeply it ached.

Though he’d be unable to curl Tilda under his chin like that, she would still feel so fragile in his arms. Her height would make it easy for her arms to loop around his shoulders, though she was so slender compared to his stockier build—honestly, the only time he’d really felt stocky in his life—he would practically envelope her in his embrace, a single hand wide enough to span the small of her back, or the whole curve of her hip. The honeyed-gold of her hair would be soft against his skin, and the scent that clung to her would fill his senses until he knew she was safe, and there, trusting him to bear her up in her distress, or being able to offer her the same sort of vulnerability in return.

The longing was so unexpected and fierce, it took him a moment to remember to breathe.

So this is what it feels like, he thought to himself vaguely, not entirely sure what he meant by it but having no other words for the sensation. It was soul-deep, like some sort of primal recognition, and if he hadn’t already known she was his One, there would be no mistaking it now. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and caught Thorin’s eyes where his uncle had cracked them open just enough to give Kíli a knowing, commiserating look, and Kíli was forced to remember that Thorin knew exactly what it felt like to be in close proximity every day to the other half of your very soul; to long for them, hoping for more, but unsure how to go about achieving it. Kíli smiled back ruefully at the reminder, and Thorin’s lips quirked in return.

“Come. We are accomplishing nothing more here,” Thorin rumbled, visibly shaking off his previous mood. “I think it is time for all of us to return to our beds.”

“A cup of warm milk, first, I think,” Bilbo said, firmly, sounding so much like himself that Thorin laughed.

“And a biscuit?” he teased, voice low and fond as they walked away slowly. The soft murmur of their voices was quickly lost in the heavy air.

As Kíli turned to follow them back up the tunnel, he couldn’t help but turn back to take one last look at the dark river’s surface once more.

It’s sleeping, he’d reassured Bilbo.

But somehow, he wasn’t entirely sure.

 

 

-o.O.o-

The Nursery Hall would prove to be a lot of work, Tilda was quickly discovering, but it was fun and rewarding, too. A small staff of dwarow, both dwarf and dam, worked here amongst badgers ranging in age from about three up to about twenty—and how strange for Tilda to realise that some of her charges were actually older than herself.

Dís brought her on the first day, and stayed part of the morning to help Tilda get her feet under her. Everyone was a little standoffish, and rigidly proper, at first, though it was nice that they were only nodding-ly deferential to her position, as the people of Laketown had been, so it was a comfortable sort of treatment. A Lady, as opposed to a Princess; and it went a long way to making Tilda comfortable; that, and this was something she was used to. Hopefully, others within the mountain would unbend in time.

She’d entertained and herded the youngsters at home when the adults were busy with reconstruction and there no other hands to spare; it was, perhaps, the one thing she did better than Sigrid, who was always far too practical and organized to be comfortable surrounded by tiny embodiments of chaos. Tilda's duties may have changed as the town changed, but she was always the one the children came to find. They didn’t seem to care about her being Just Tilda, and a very poor excuse for a lady; at any rate, she still made a fine playmate.

So it didn’t take her long to slip in and see what needed to be done, and by the time Dís had left her, Tilda was easily bumping along with both her staff and her charges, the latter of which, at least, got over any kind of guarded behaviour in short order when it became obvious that here was a new source of games and stories.

Such a community approach to family was unique, to say the least. In her own town, children sat lessons with whatever Old Auntie or Uncle in the neighbourhood was too old or infirm to work, until becoming old enough to secure an apprenticeship, or be put to work labouring, whether in the market, on the docks, or in the boats. Those with money could, of course, pay for extra lessons from those who had the skills. It meant that children like her, who honestly had had an aptitude for learning, would never get to exercise it, unless their parents were in funds enough to support it; if it hadn’t been for her family’s change in fortune, Tilda knew she would likely have ended up working whatever her husband’s business was, or caring for his lands should she have been lucky enough to wed well, when she wasn’t consigned to the home to raise children of her own.

Here in Erebor, children were considered more valuable than any treasure—and honestly, Tilda found it natural to adopt the same mentality. It really brought it into sharp focus when there were so few tiny voices calling in the corridors, or running in the halls. Laketown had been full of children—they were a commodity of the future; insurance that a given family would have enough hands to take care of all. Erebor had so few little ones, that you noticed every one. In just the two weeks she’d been here, she felt she could identify on site most of the children in her care, and it was humbling to realise that was the entirety of the children in the mountain older than a babe in arms.

Every child was encouraged, and given access to more resources than Tilda could have ever dreamed of having at that age. Parents took whatever time away from their endeavours they needed, until they could leave their younglings to the care of the Nursery Rooms, where they would be cared for, assessed, and encouraged, but above all, and this was the part that surprised Tilda given the dwarven dedication to work, the children were played with.

Dwarven badgers were quick-witted, and less inhibited than the children Tilda had dealt with, and it took all of her considerable creativity to keep them amused. Eventually, she’d taken them outside to the memorial garden, and showed the older ones how to fashion little wooden boats like the children in Laketown had done, using a belt knife and some withies. It wasn’t long before they had created boats for the little ones as well, and the whole fleet was racing in the ponds, and Tilda could finally catch her breath.

Eilin, one of the dams concerned primarily with teaching lessons in the early afternoon, she was given to understand, tapped her on the shoulder. Her guarded expression could only be vaguely called a smile, but she handed Tilda a hot cup of tea, so the princess was ready to take it as a sign that maybe not all were unwilling to bend towards her.

“Good job!” Eilin told her briskly, fussing with awkward, though genuinely-meant, familiarity at Tilda’s braids, getting the twigs out of it, and trying to shake the wrinkles out of the folds of her dress, before making a shooing motion with her hands. “Now we’ve got them occupied for a bit, go get a bite to eat before they exhaust the possibilities of the boats.”

 

Lunchtime, then, and she was more than ready to take the opportunity of rank to retreat to her favourite haunt in the Clock Hall for a few minutes out from under scrutiny. Somehow, she wasn’t too surprised when Bylgja joined her ten minutes later.

“Are you following me, now?” Tilda asked waspishly.

“Of course I am, your Highness,” Bylgja responded with asperity. “You’re hardly to be trusted on your own until you lose those silly elf tendencies.”

Tilda snorted, and tipped her bowl to offer Bylgja some of the greens therein. The lady miner took a piece daintily and ate it with a sour look. Tilda smirked at her, knowing the dwarvish view on ‘green things’.

Tilda raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, you did take it.”

“I could hardly refuse the offer,” Bylgja said primly.

“It’ll do you some good. Can’t have you getting scurvy on me—then who would keep me straight?”

The truth was, Bylgia had become a friend, or at least, the closest thing she had to one under the mountain, and she didn’t deserve Tilda’s bad mood, especially since it wasn’t the dwarrowdam’s fault.

Bylgia apparently didn’t think so, either. “What bug has crawled up your nose?” she demanded, surreptitiously fishing out another cress green from Tilda’s bowl. Tilda just tilted it to give her better access, without acknowledging the theft. When she didn’t answer, Bylgia swiped the back of her head with one thick palm.

“Ow!”

“Speak up, then,” Bylgia told her, unrepentant. “You don’t have all day for lunch, and I’d like to get to the bottom of your foul mood, before it becomes endemic.”

Tilda nibbled her lunch, considering. On one hand, it was mortifying to admit; on the other hand, Bylgia was the only one she could talk to who wasn’t related to her husband in some way. And Tilda was pretty sure she would keep her confidence—also a huge plus in the close-knit society of the mountain. Making a quick decision, she took a deep breath, and couldn’t help looking down at her hands instead of at the competent lady miner. Hunching her shoulders as she shared, “Things since the wedding have been…well, I don’t know if Kíli thinks of me as a child, or if he’s simply not interested in anything…er. With me. Like that, I mean.” By the end, she was sure her cheeks were tomato red, but she looked up at Bylgja as defiantly as she was able.

Bylgia, for her part, simply looked skeptical. “Is all that muttering and stammering supposed to tell me that you don’t have the physical relationship with your husband that you would like?”

Did Tilda forget to mention to herself the complete lack of tact possessed by most of her subjects? She wasn’t even sure she dared to open her eyes at this point, she was that embarrassed, and her cheeks and neck positively burned with mortification.

Bylgia apparently took her misery as clear indication she was right. “And you know his Highness is not interested because…?”

“I, um, I tried to make arrows for him, to show my interest?” And oh, how her voice wobbled. Tilda would be ashamed later, when she remembered this conversation. Which would be as infrequently as she could possibly mange, to be honest.

Bylgia wrinkled her nose at Tilda’s words. “Is this some sort of custom of Men?”

Tilda just stared, gobsmacked, and actually forgetting to be embarrassed. “What do you mean, a custom of Men?” she hissed, looking around to make sure there were no witnesses to this humiliating conversation. “It’s a dwarfish custom!”

Bylgia turned her eyes heavenwards, before speaking very, very slowly, which Tilda thought was a bit much. “Did a dwarf tell you this was our custom?”

No; but it had been common enough knowledge in Laketown. Her stomach felt like there was something horrid congealing at the bottom of it, and for a moment, words stuck to her tongue. “But there was a whole ballad about it!” she couldn’t help but wail. “Lady Alta and the dwarf smith Björn? It was a classic—and three whole stanzas were devoted to her wooing him with her appreciation and care for his weapons!”

Bylgia sniffed. “I’m sure it wasn’t written by dwarves. What utter nonsense. If a dwarf had written it, it would be a much better chronicle of weapon care than just three stanzas.”

“So what are the courting customs of your people?” Tilda asked, and her voice was wobbling again, and she hated to feel this way—gauche and provincial and not at all like she was a capable Lady in her own right.

She got another smack to the back of her head. “Stop that!” Bylgia barked. “Don’t feel woebegone, like some gutter waif. You are a princess; command like one.”

“Tell me how your people court!” Tilda commanded, and gave Bylgia an irritated look and felt supremely silly.

“Except me,” Bylgia told her, swiping the last of Tilda’s lunch as Tilda glared at her. “I don’t respond to commands; not when you believe twaddle like human ballads about dwarves named Björn.”

At that point, Tilda felt completely justified in sticking her tongue out at her.

“Save that for the prince. He’d have more use for it anyway,” Bylgia told her calmly. “Now, if you’re done being a silly elf, you might what to listen.”

What followed was a very edifying afternoon; well worth the theft of her lunch.

 

-o.O.o-

“You’re joking.” Kíli stared at the Kandish merchant. The Ereborian Market was loud; it was always loud, but Kíli wasn’t usually trying to hold such an important conversation in it, so it seemed especially loud today. Everywhere one looked were colourful displays of merchandise ranging from the prosaic to the bizarre. Merchant practically stood upon merchant to hawk their wares at anyone they could convince to listen. Frankly, Kíli knew that Thorin was practically desperate for Dale to open its markets again, to take some of the pressure off housing all of these hecklers in a mountain that was ill-equipped for the sheer number of invaders. Erebor had always had a great market, but the kingdom relied on Dale to take some of the brunt of it; to act as a buffer against the outside world for an insular and secretive society.

There were elves in Erebor, for pity sake. Three of them. Grandfather would roll in his grave if he knew; notwithstanding the fact that each one had one of Nori’s ‘specials’ assigned to keeping an eye on them at all times.

“No lie, young Master,” the man hastened to assure him. “And if, after his feat of bravery, his suit is accepted, her noble father would pledge an oliphant to the young couple, in blessing.”

“Where would I even get an oliphant?” Kíli asked, bemused. “Or stable it, for that matter?”

“I could arrange for one for you, a very good price for such an impressive beast….” one of the merchant’s companions waved him away with a derisive curse.

“I thought the father gave the oliphant, idiot?” This merchant was younger, wearing the traditional leathers of the nomadic horsemen of Rhovanion. His curly beard was sandy coloured, and his padded clothing green and brown. “Of course, what use would you or your fair lady even have for an oliphant?” he asked, giving his peer another disgusted look. “A warrior, when he finds the fair lady of his eternal affection, wishes to woo her with his strength, his ability to lead and to provide! A gift of his foe’s head taken in battle is an excellent way to begin. It should be presented while still fresh, and before her parents, so that they may be assured of their daughter’s suitor’s prowess.”

“Sounds…impractical,” Kíli hedged, carefully, though at least this had some thoughtful consideration behind it. “At least, at present.” Did Men really court this way? Did none of them do anything that made the least bit of sense? And, more plaintively, Why did they have so many different customs to court? Kíli had finally cleared an hour or so to spend down at the markets and tracked down a likely looking group to insert himself in. He’d always been charismatic, and it wasn’t long before he’d been invited to join in for a pipe and to ‘Talk of Affairs’. It really didn’t take much to direct the conversation to courting customs; an affable grin, and slightly-too-young, wide-eyed demeanour….

Aaaand, that’s where the mine cart derailed, because none of these buggers seemed to be able to agree how Men courted, which only furthered Kíli's bewilderment at how to proceed. But Tilda was hardly a dwarf, and it was the least he could do to try and respect her traditions, given that she had given up so much to come and live amongst strange people and their equally strange customs.

But an oliphant?

“A head?” The Gondorian factor had been sitting rather stiffly during the whole conversation, aloof and prim in his companions’ company. He was a factor for a shipping merchant, in Dol Amroth, and considered himself rather far inland for his tastes. His clothing was refined, with much of the velvet and brocade the Gondorians, like the Stewardling, Denethor, seemed to prefer; and none of the cooler linens usually worn by the people who actually were born and raised in the port city, such as Lord Arahil. Kíli would lay heavy odds that Glaeron was actually from some minor holding outside of the White City, hoping to work his way to importance and employment within. “What a horrid notion,” the man pronounced. He turned to Kíli with a disdainful sniff that excluded the others. “A man of quality will be sure to call upon his Lady during her hours of receiving, bearing with him an apple in one hand, and a horse whip in the other.”

What?” Kíli strangled, almost choking on his pipe-smoke.

“For if she should take the apple and throw it over her left shoulder, then it goes poorly for him; signifying that she will not suffer him, nor abide his suite or offer of support and provision. But, if she should take the whip, signifying her willingness to trust her lord to guide her, it goes well for him, and it is up to him to break it, signifying his commitment to her freedom, as long as he is able to protect it.”

“And if he does not take the whip back and break it?” Kíli wasn’t sure what horrible fascination made him ask, but he was sure it was the same that always had gawkers watching an overturned cart in the road.

Glaeron tutted. “Then he should be prepared for his suit to fail, for instead of throwing the apple over her shoulder, his lady is as likely to throw it at his head.”

Kíli smirked. “Spirited,” he said, sardonically.

“I do not think love is always so combative,” the last of the group spoke. He was a sailor by his clothing, and spoke with the soft, loose accents and long vowels of the scattered seafolk of Enedwaith. “Nor a negotiated contract of fealty and protection. But rather an offer given without restraint or gifts of large beasts.”

Arden endured the mocking, huffy catcalls and complaints of his companions with a calm smile, absolutely at ease with their derision.

“What do you think is a suitable gesture of the heart, then?” Kíli asked him, ignoring the others who were still heckling the seaman.

“The Men of Enedwaith are often away from the fair ones of their heart, and will undertake to carve a symbol of their pledge while they wait until they are ready to present it as a token of troth, that their lady may keep it in trust, until they return to them from the sea once more.”

“What kind of symbol?” Kíli asked, intrigued, for this at last sounded promising—something he could do with his own hands for Tilda, that wasn’t likely to drip unpleasantly on the carpet, or require special stabling.

“A spoon. Usually carved of lime wood, for it is common enough in my homeland, and durable in water. It will be intricately carved, using symbols of meaning to represent a lad’s feelings and hopes for the union, as well as of family.”

Kíli admitted, at least to himself, that he felt somewhat disappointed. “A wooden spoon?”

“Aye, for it is practical, and in itself a symbol of home and hearth, and all the things a man wishes to offer and build; a shelter of custom and feeling for two people to live and grow together in. It is the veriest token of a man’s heart; an offer sweetly given in the upmost of earnestness and honesty.”

Kíli blinked slowly, digesting this thought. “Arden, I think you Men are very wise, indeed.”

A spoon. It had possibilities.

And nothing would do but Kíli began shaping one that afternoon. Finally, something Tilda would understand.

He really was far more clever than his kin.

-o.O.o-

Most mornings were still full of shy and awkward encounters, despite it having been well over two months since Tilda’s arrival in the mountain. Kíli had truthfully hoped for better by now, but if he was being honest with himself, had to acknowledge that his hopes were probably unreasonable. Despite his knowing, bone-deep, that his wife was the Lady of his heart, his Umùrâel, Men didn't work that way. They didn't have Ones, and that thought was enough to frighten the hell out of Kíli. What if Tilda couldn’t return his feelings? Tilda hardly knew him beyond the essentials, and their busy schedules did not allow for much more than shared evenings when they would linger shyly together in their small sitting area and work on various projects until it was late enough to retreat to their bedchamber.

Each morning found them waking on opposite sides of their bed, Tilda often wrapped in the counterpane like armour. They might exchange a few soft words—Kíli always strove to make some small conversation as they still lay cocooned away as if the world was on hold, just outside that door, and this space was just for they two. Fanciful notions, but he couldn’t help himself from trying to make her smile, all sleep-tousled and languid and utterly vulnerable to his charm, as she was too quick-witted to be when she was fully awake.

Tired though he was, it was his favourite time of the day, and he’d be twice-damned if he was going to miss it for a little thing like lost sleep from another nightmare; this one without a subsequent midnight excursion, thankfully, though dawn had nearly broken before he could get back to sleep. This morning, the pale golden sunlight played nothing but homage to his lady, and her freckles looked particularly fetching to his, admittedly—possibly slightly—biased, eye. He had to stifle the silly urge to pull her in and kiss them all, and see if he couldn’t count them with his lips.

“Good morning, my Lady,” he told her softly, and she gave him the same shy smile she always did when he greeted her thus in the morning; soft grey eyes peeking up at him from beneath her lashes, and the corners of her lips upturning as the bridge of her nose flushed ever so faintly pink. It never failed to make his heart beat an extra beat, and warmth blossom within him, as if he were flushing under his skin, where no one could see, and the feeling of it settled just a little more into his bones with each passing day. His One, his Umùrâel, taking root within him as their souls met and blended around the edges. Not a true soul-bond, like Thorin and Bilbo had, of course, but there was no mistaking the feeling of her presence within him, and he thrilled to it, even as it frightened him that this was all he would ever have of her.

He pushed the feeling away. There was no room for fear during this part of his day, after all.

“Good morning,” she returned, stretching her toes beneath the covers as far as she could point them as her fingers reached for the headboard. What a long, lean line she presented! And Kíli was thankful the coverlet was still mostly wrapped around her, or he might see more than he needed if he were to keep her from his thoughts today while he was in court. She tucked her arms back into her sides, as if suddenly realising how uninhibited she’d been, and blushed scarlet.

“Hey now, none of that,” Kíli chided her gently, allowing himself to brush a strand of her hair and tuck it behind her ear. He didn’t allow his fingers to linger, though. It was important to know one’s limits, after all, and the last thing he wanted to do was to make Tilda feel he was crowding her, especially here in their bed. He closed his eyes to cut off the sight. If anything were to happen here, it would be of her own initiating, he promised himself firmly.

With that stern reminder, he opened his eyes once more, to see her regarding him, chewing her lip. “Do I have something on my face?” he teased, hoping she would share her thoughts with him, and enjoying the fact that she had already allowed herself to linger longer in his company than was usually her wont. He felt he could hoard every moment like a shining jewel.

“N-no,” she stuttered, not anticipating being caught out, apparently. “Only—”

“What is it?” he asked, curious. He could feel his lips twitching with the effort not to grin at her adorable awkwardness as she struggled to find her words. When she finally did find them, though, she managed to completely steal his own.

“Could I...Could I maybe put your braids in your hair for you this morning?” she asked, and the words came out so quick and soft that Kíli probably wouldn't have caught them at all, if they weren't something he wanted to hear so badly.

For a moment it felt like his heart stopped beating there was so much joy in his thoughts—she wanted to braid his hair—! But it took only a second for him to realise his mistake and his heart fell, for of course Tilda knew nothing of the deep significance of what she was asking; she hadn’t been brought up in their ways, after all. He tried to arrange his expression into something bland, something safe, but he worried what he must have looked like to her for those few unguarded seconds—a fear that was only confirmed when she hastened to clarify.

“I used to brush out Sigrid’s hair all the time, and, well, I miss it. A bit of homesickness, perhaps.” And she looked like she regretted it as soon as she said it, so she must not have meant to share as much. Kíli smiled, trying to look reassuring and easy, as if this wasn’t going to be a torturous experience. She blew a frustrated breath, and his smiled wavered. Was this not what she wanted? She’d asked, after all…but a moment later and she was pushing herself from the bed, fetching his comb from his dressing table, and Kíli sat up so that she could crawl in to sit behind him, an action that was a flurry of dressing gown and ankles and tantalizing glimpses of knees and collarbones as her wrap was certainly not up to the task of preserving modesty for a scrambling young lady. It did little to ease the tense knot that had formed in his belly, unfortunately, though he was sure under normal circumstances, he would have enjoyed the view immensely.

Kíli found it easier to simply close his eyes, and let her have free rein over his senses, while he fantasized that this actually meant something beyond comfort to a homesick young woman; that this was real, and he held his wife’s affections in the way he wanted. Their room was filled with the warm golden glow of early morning, a time of day that Kíli jealously thought of as theirs; a time filled with as much conversation as he could coax from his wife before she left him to prepare for her day with the children.

This morning, though, there was no hushed voices to fill their room; Tilda was unusually quiet as she worked, and Kíli knew if he was foolish enough to open his mouth, something very soppy and adoring would come out of it. Her breath ghosted warm and moist on the back of his neck as she worked, and he could practically feel her fierce concentration as she teased out each tangle with nimble fingers until she could drag the comb through the whole unruly mass from root to ends. The soft scrape of the silver tines against his scalp, and more importantly, the knowledge of who wielded them, was only slightly less pleasurable than the last sexual encounter he’d had—which had been his hand—and when she added her fingers to the mix, it quickly overtook that hurried moment of physical release. How he kept from groaning aloud, he had no idea, but he desperately fought to keep his lip buttoned. Focusing on how she had no idea what this actually meant helped, but that way lay equal danger if dwelled on too long while she still had her hands in his hair and around his heart. He was caught between being glad that he normally wore so few braids, and wishing he wore more, to prolong the experience.

In the end, he was still undecided.

A scent clung to her, faintly floral and yet earthy, like the water lilies that bloomed in Bilbo’s garden, and Kíli half hoped the scent would cling to his skin, too. She did a good job—in truth, probably neater than he usually bothered to make his braids; all except the braid of their union he’d put in for the first time in Dale—that one he always took his time with. He’d hoped one day to explain the significance to her, and ask the privilege of placing one in her hair as well—but such thoughts were best left for the cover of darkness; when his wife’s breathing had slowed and he was able to slip into the bath as she slept for a few moments of privacy. The rest of the time, he suppressed such thoughts ruthlessly, lest he accidentally influence Tilda’s regard in ways she would not want. As much as working with the deep voice of the earth brought him joy, he felt bone-deep weariness for the roles he had to play, and being constantly on his guard around those he loved.

The soft snick of the clasps closing, and she was done, ending what was possibly the most painfully wonderful quarter hour in recent memory. Tilda pulled away, sliding off the bed to put his comb away, no doubt, and Kíli caught her hand. “Thank you, my Lady,” he managed, though he couldn’t do a thing about how husky his voice sounded. He was going to make a show of clearing his throat to try and pass it off, when the look on Tilda’s face stopped him. She looked surprised, but pleased somehow, and her cheeks held that faint flush that enticed him so. Instead of dissembling, he instead tugged her closer. Turning her hand over in his, and, without allowing himself to think too closely on it, he leaned forward, placing a soft, unhurried kiss in the centre of her palm, and he swore he felt her tremble beneath his touch. She watched him with wide, luminous eyes, then promptly turned and all but fled to her dressing room, muttering about being late. Kíli grinned to himself, not entirely sure what had just happened, but feeling good about it all the same.

This morning might not have been an utter disaster, after all.

-o.O.o-

Tilda practically flew out of their chambers that morning, absolutely, positively, totally…unsure about everything and anything that had happened—except maybe to think she might like it to happen again, only this time when she was better prepared for it. She’d had no idea implementing Bylgja’s advice would end up like that. When she’d asked him to braid his hair, the look on his face had made her heart constrict in her chest, and she’d lost her courage not knowing what that look meant. When she’d blurted out that bit about her sister, and being homesick, she would have happily bitten her own tongue if she could have just taken those words back, and had some blasted courage. But somehow, he must have understood her intent; if she were honest, it’s not like her excuse was really all that convincing

She arrived at the Nursery Rooms, checks still flushed, and heat still suffusing her chest, and a smile on her face that she couldn’t hide even if she wanted to. Working with a gaggle of dwarven badgers quickly got her mind off her butterfly-inducing morning; though, it was a fact that their antics were more likely to be met with a wink and a bit of co-conspiratoring this morning, than a scold.

She found her work with the children fulfilling; she knew she wouldn’t be here forever, that eventually she would be moved into a more public role, but in the meantime, Lady Dís couldn’t have come up with something that suited Tilda finer. She was never very good at staying clean to begin with, nor was she afraid of getting knocked about in the rough and tumble games the children came up with. She could sit in on lessons throughout the day, filling in the gaps of her own furtive studies back when she was reading Bain’s books by candlelight, and she found that her understanding of the intricacies of family groups and dwarven society were becoming clearer, and the children had endless questions about Men, and Laketown and Dale and even Smaug and fishing and farming, that Tilda was suspiciously sure that she was fulfilling some purpose of Dís' by being here, too.

Her mother-in-law was truly formidable.

Whatever Dís' purpose may be, though, Tilda found that the children had warmed to her, and even their parents, when they came to fetch their young, had come to greet their princess with, if not smiles and warmth, at least not the stiff mistrust and guarded looks she had been met with at first, and that was more than enough to let Tilda feel that maybe, someday, there might be a place for her in this mountain after all.

When she finally did escape her charges for a bit of lunch, her thoughts slid back to Kíli without her conscious intervention to prevent them. What was he doing now? He would have tried to get in some time to work with his Master this morning, she knew, and she wished he didn’t have to be so furtive with his Heart Craft. Midweek usually meant he was working in the markets, and with Nori, thought what precisely he did with Nori she was unsure. Some kind of security, she thought, but that somehow didn’t seem completely right.

Idly, she wondered if he were as pleased with their morning as she was…

“What’s got you smiling like a simpleton this morning?” Bylgja plunked herself down beside her, and Tilda didn’t even flinch, despite not having been paying attention.

She was in the Memorial Gardens today, wanting to take advantage of the fine weather of late summer, and apparently she wasn’t the only one who had thought of it, with the number of dwarves out walking the paths or enjoying a spot of lunch or a pipe. Even Bifur was there, sitting on the grass under a tree.

“Don’t you actually have some kind of a job?” Tilda groused at the intrusion. She tilted her head back and let the sun warm her nose and closed eyelids.

Bylgja made a noise that Tilda would like to call a snort, if she didn’t know that Bylgja would deny it vehemently. “Of course I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t have time to be nosy,” Bylgja told her primly, then gave Tilda an expectant, sideways glance. “Well?”

“Well what?” Tilda grumbled, not sure why she was prolonging it—Bylgja would get it out of her eventually, anyway.

The dwarrowdam didn’t even bother to say anything, just turned to Tilda with an unimpressed glare.

“Fine!” Tilda gave in, because honestly, she kind of wanted to talk and share and other normal things one did with friends who weren’t children. “I had an enjoyable morning. With Kíli. And yes,” she forestalled the miner’s impatient interruption, “there was braiding. And that’s all I’m going to share about it.”

Bylgja just gave her a smug look. “Was there any mentions of weapons, or smiths named Björn?”

“You are a truly horrible friend, you know that?” Tilda decided that she’d had enough teasing, and cast out for a change of topic. “Bifur is a Master Cantor, is he not?” she asked, delighted to realise that this was a perfect opportunity to get some information about what it was Kíli did, without there being any danger to her husband.

Bylgja followed her gaze to where the Holy dwarrow was sitting, smiling gently as he whittled small toys for a group of children who seemed to be making excited requests. “Yes, he is the only Master Cantor currently under the mountain.”

Tilda hummed in thought. “And Cantor’s are terribly important, aren’t they?” she asked carefully, not after any specific information, simply wanting to know whatever she could.

Bylgja huffed. “Not much happens in the mountain that the Cantors aren’t involved in, at least potentially. They could be wanted to sit in with foreign dignitaries, consulted about decisions of alliance or war; to listen to the voice of our Maker and glean from it what they can of the impact of our actions or the feelings our allies or enemies leave upon the earth. Here in Erebor, Master Bifur has the added duty of singing to all the stone; no mine shafts can be reopened until he has assessed them for damage from Smaug, deep damage—the kind that can only be felt and not seen.” She sighed, sounding tired, and Tilda realised that if Cantors were involved in so much, and were needed for so many things, Bylgja might have so much free time on her hands because new mineshafts weren’t being struck, and old ones not being reopened. And Kíli could help alleviate the problem, only he daren’t, in case he was found out.

Poor Kíli!

“If Cantors have so much status, why is Bifur alone? Why isn’t he married?" Tilda asked. "I mean, in Laketown, such an important person would have his choice of wives.' She rushed on, as another thought occurred to her. "Is it because of his...of is injury? I mean, I thought it was only his Westron that was affected?”

“Injured or no, Master Bifur wouldn’t marry anyway," the Mining Mistress told her, sounding amused. "Many dwarrow never feel the love of another; they choose love of craft instead. Cantors, especially, never bond. They are filled with the voice of Mahal, and have little room in their hearts for aught else.”

Never bond.

Curious how hearing the death of all her hopes struck her; Tilda could remember each individual second like it was its own event: The one in which her heart contracted in her chest, and the feeling was so swift it took her breath away; the long stretch of them while she forgot to breathe while she concentrated on this new pain, until it finally dulled enough that she could make her lungs work once more, but all the while she held on furiously to her curious expression, not wanting any hint of the turmoil in her breast to show.

She remembered the second in which her heart broke; and the one in which she stiffened her spine.

“They never fall in love?” she asked, and was distantly proud of how even her voice sounded. “Surely, in all your history, it’s happened before, at least once?”

Bylgja shook her head. “It has always been thus. The Voice of Mahal, and its mysteries, are all encompassing. Cantors are devoted to that alone—they just, don’t have anything left over to give someone else.”

This was…not what she’d hoped, obviously. The really horrible part, was that it changed nothing. She was still Tilda of nothing in particular it turned out, and she still had a role to play.

But that wasn’t quite right—she had her people, who were depending on her—her!—to carry on, and she found, deep in her heart, that she couldn’t be angry at Kíli for what he was unable to give. She would still support him, be his partner—and oh how she rued not listening closer! That’s all he’d ever asked her for, after all. She could be his Lady, his princess and support him as she’d agreed to do. And somehow, she would find a way to put away her hopes and smooth out the edges of her pain. Looking back at the last few months together, things rearranged themselves in her mind, fitting too easily with this new information. Kíli had never had romantic designs on her; all he had been was supportive and affectionate. Even his sweet gesture of this morning was just that—sweet and affectionate, and altogether chaste.

A friend, he’d asked for; a partner.

They could be friends, of that she was sure. In time.

Just…not right now.

Something must have slipped, because her companion was looking at her with concern. “What—”

“If you’ll excuse me, Lady Bylgja,” Tilda cut her off quickly. “I...I feel a headache coming on. I think I need to see Óin.” And with that, Tilda swiftly got to her feet, and hurried from the garden. Fiercely, she focused on walking sedately, and not running to hide while so many eyes were still on her, as her heart wished her to do. For some reason, she couldn’t banish the cold creep of hostile eyes watching her as she left, and she scolded herself for her over-active imagination.

It had been weeks, after all, since she’d truly felt like an outsider here.

It was just indigestion...

...or, more likely perhaps, heartbreak.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eleven

11

Hope, Love, And Other Four Letter Words...

 

Another month slipped by, and Kíli wasn’t sure where it had gone; or how things had gone arse-ways with Tilda. Apparently he’d been wrong in thinking that they had shared anything more that morning when she’d asked to braid his hair—or if they had shared anything, he had somehow scared her so badly she’d retreated behind an unbreakable wall of propriety. Gone was the quick wit and lively humour of before; the spirited lass who seemed to fear nothing. She had been replaced with a perfect lady, a woman of considerable charm and poise and good manners…and not at all what Kíli loved best about Tilda. Kíli wasn’t a fool; he knew this was all designed to keep him at arm’s length; or if not him, to keep something at arm’s length. If it wasn’t for the brief flashes of…longing he occasionally saw, he would be giving up entirely. As it was, Kíli wasn’t afraid of humiliation or getting his heart bruised, as long as there was still some hope.

Mahal, let there be hope, he prayed.

Faint circles, like fading shadows, had begun to appear under her eyes, and sometimes the whole facade seemed about as brittle as blown glass; like she was one shiver away from flying apart. Something was weighing on her, but he’d be thrice damned if he could figure out what it was, or how to reassure her, especially when she seemed so determined to be fine.

Sometimes, he thought it might be better if she did fly apart—anything, to shake that awful politeness the Men seemed to value so much.

Instead, he endured. And prayed a little harder.

And the dark patches under Tilda’s eyes continued to stand out against her pale skin.

In the meantime, it was true that he was furtively slipping from their bed in the middle of the night, leaving Tilda deeply asleep as he crept from the room, helpless to ignore the pull as the shape and feel of his First Craft called to him. The Longing drove him relentlessly to find extra hours in his day; to work in the forges until his Craft was finally whole and real, the way it existed in his soul. A dwarf’s First Craft was perhaps the most anticipated, joyful event of their early adult life; deeply personal and private, it was the first, and for many dwarves, the only, time that they experienced such a profound connection to Craft and Maker.

And frankly, Kíli wished he could put it all on hold for right now.

His concerns for Tilda’s happiness were hardly the only thing clamouring for his attention; the growing worries of his Kingdom and the heavy mantle of Royal Duty versus the Mountain’s crying need for his unacknowledged abilities meant that the twined obligations of Prince, Husband and clandestine Cantor were already more than enough to make him wish he could set this milestone of Dwarven life aside for a year or ten, but the feeling could no more be denied than a sunrise.

His worry for Tilda’s withdrawn behaviour was enough that he found solace in the quiet workrooms of the Mithraeum—and he was fully aware of the irony of that, when this was usually a sanctuary he strove to avoid. The voice of the rock surrounded him as he meditated, soothing him until he could let go of his worries and approach his Craft with nothing but the voice of his Maker in his heart and his hand. It was mostly successful, but there was a corner of his heart from which, he found, Tilda’s presence could not be exorcized; his pale muse, guiding him even as she slept.

The piece coming to life through his patient work and his song was an armlet—though admittedly, it wasn’t the artistry of the cuff itself that was his First Craft—it was how well and with what complexity he managed to imbue this vessel with his will. Spell stones, like the one his mum had given him at the start of the quest, were most commonly kept as a talisman or token, as he had done. It was moderately difficult, though inlaying such a thing into a setting, like the cuff he was working on, both heightened the power and reach of the stone, and increased the difficulty of process. Twining the setting itself into the spell, making it less of a vessel and more an integral part of the talisman itself, was far more difficult than simply spelling the stone alone. For one, it took a more delicate touch, as the soul, or purpose, of the various materials used had to be blended together harmoniously for the spell, or imbued intent, to work the Cantor’s will.

It would make a suitable challenge for his Craft offering. The fact that it was most definitely shaping itself as a woman’s armlet, and a style much too delicate for the average dwarrrowdam, was something Kíli was ignoring for now.

Problems he could solve versus hopes he couldn’t and all that.

Besides, he’d heard once that it was better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. Apparently, the line of Durin was starting a new tradition, in stiffing their Masters when it came to the gifting of a First Craft, for Kíli had known in his stone heart from the very moment the shape of his Craft had struck him that this piece was for no other than Tilda, and there was no way he could present it to Bifur. If he was very lucky, perhaps his Master would consent to examine it, but receive a token in its place. Given that his brother, Fíli, had not only crafted a token for Master Loni, but also given him Orchrist in place of his First Craft when he gave it to Uncle Thorin instead, Kíli wasn’t sure he possessed anything valuable enough to make up for the grievous transgression he was knowingly going to commit.

In the end, it didn’t matter; his First Craft was fit for no one else’s frame but his Lady’s. The air around him was quiet as Kíli passed the darkest part of night immersed in his gifts as he rarely was able to be. In the safety and peace of that place, he sang. He sang to the armlet; the rose-gold and the platinum. He sang to the stones; the aquamarine and the pearland try as he might, the only thoughts he could not banish were of the girl currently asleep in their bed, hopefully dreaming of sweet things.

He sang for the wisdom to understand her disquiet; for the patience to wait for the gift of her heart; and for the strength to avoid influencing her towards ends for which he yearned.

In the quiet of the Mithraeum, the voice of the rock picked up his song, and sang back, and his other gift, a carved wooden spoon, burned a hole in his tunic pocket, tucked close to his skin. Soon, he sang to the rock. But the voice that sang back was elusive and gave no wisdom tonight.

-o.O.o-

 

Their chambers were still dark, probably several hours yet before the mountain at large began to wake up, and the space in their bed beside Tilda, the space that Kíli should have been occupying, was empty.

Again.

She rolled over, clutching the covers around herself more tightly. Despite the fact that her husband had apparently built up the fire before he’d slipped from their quarters; she still felt cold. Most days, Tilda really wasn’t sure what to make of Kíli's behaviour; and though she was thankful for the rather gruff friendship she’d cultivated with the Mistress Miner, Bylgja, circumspect questioning still wasn’t enough to shed any light on the prince’s strange nightly absences. Several bleak options had wormed their way into her heart in the emptiness of their chambers, but scrutinise all she would, she still could detect nothing in Kíli's demeanour with her that supported her worst fears, and so she was able to quiet them; for now.

She didn’t know where he went, or what he did, but he always returned to her, slipping back into their bed wearily, where he would almost immediately drop off, and sleep straight through until the ringing of the mid-dawn watch-bell caused him to all but fall out of bed and onto the floor. Tilda, of course, did not sleep those nights, but would lie awake, stiff and unmoving, thinking her useless thoughts as she listened to his soft breathing in the darkness, counting each breath as if it could lull her to sleep. For now, though, he was gone, and the sheets were cold without him. Exhaustion whispered to her, and she gratefully allowed it to pull her under; she would wake when Kíli returned, she knew. Even if she wished she wouldn’t.

When he crept into their chambers, hours later, the shadows had deepened and settled as the moon set somewhere above their mountain hall. Kíli was barely a darker part of the tenebrosity as he quietly discarded his outer clothes in favour of soft-worn sleeping pants. Tilda of course, kept her eyes barely cracked, but the tiny noises of fabric rustling were unmistakable.

Eventually, the mattress dipped beside her, and Tilda forced herself to stay relaxed and supine while she waited for her husband to settle. A long moment passed, in which the faint sound of his breathing seemed to keep time with her beating heart. The air above her crown stirred, faint warmth upon her brow that could have been imagined, before withdrawing and with a puff of air that could have been a sigh, Kíli finally settled down beside her.

Tilda couldn’t help but be amused when, moments later, Kíli's slow, even breathing told her he was already asleep.

She could be his Lady, his perfect partner, during the day, but somehow she couldn’t stop her traitorous heart at night; perhaps because she was already so close to dreams. Still, she was sure that with time she would be able to smooth away her feelings, and they could settle into being friends, which, while no grand passion, would be a very pleasant life in its own right. She just had to keep her distance until she healed. Everything would be fine.

Her traitorous heart wasn’t so easily swayed, it seemed, and for long hours, she lay there, simply counting Kíli's soft snores, sternly refusing to think of anything more complicated for now.

It didn’t work, of course, and dawn’s light brought no further illumination or answers. Exhaustion finally brought a bit of peace, letting Tilda slide into an uneasy doze until she heard the maid deposit a breakfast tray in the outer room.

“Good morning,” Kíli greeted her when she finally exited her bath. Thanks to her dozing, for once, he was up before her when he had been out on one of his midnight wanderings; which meant that, for a change, he wasn’t running late. His smile was easy, and not at all tired as she knew he must be feeling—knew it, because she felt it herself, after another late-night vigil.

“Good morning, Kíli,” she greeted, and smiled tiredly as he handed her a cup of tea. She’d never worked out precisely how it was he always knew exactly how she wanted it, even though it changed with her mood—sometimes with honey, sometimes a splash of milk, or lemon, and sometimes combinations of them all. Somehow, Kíli always handed her the perfect cup. If she’d known nothing else about him but that when the marriage contract had come in, she’d have agreed to it for this ability alone, she thought ruefully.

Today the tea was heavy in milk and honey, yet still somehow piping hot. She sipped it contentedly, cradling it with her whole hand, and curling it into her chest and letting the warmth seep into her breast, and ducking her head so that the steam wafted over her cheeks and eyelids, stimulating her as if wafting away the fog in her head. She was relaxed in a way she had been avoiding lately; maybe this was a sign she was starting to put away her girlish fancies, and growing up just a little.

She was making peace with the things she would never have, and she was fine with it.

Really.

Kíli hummed, pleased with himself at her obvious enjoyment of her tea, and oblivious to her inner turmoil. “My Lady looks awfully content this morning,” he told her.

She laughed, for what a sight she must look, but didn’t bother to lift her head. “It is a glorious way to start the morning,” she affirmed softly.

“That is good,” he agreed. “But perhaps this is even better?” and she could see that he fidgeted with a wrapped bundle in his grasp. “I have…I have a token for you; a gift of my hand,” he told her, and the way he said it almost sounded ritualized, like it was some practised turn of phrase.

Reaching out with his free hand, he snagged her tea from her lax grasp and set it on the dressing table against which she’d been leaning. Solemnly, he handed the bundle to her, after seeming to weight it in his hand; as if assessing it. A pale yellow silk handkerchief was securely wrapped around whatever it was, and for a fleeting moment, she was transported back to her Da’s parlour, where Kíli had closed his hand around hers as she clutched Bilbo’s gift, his warm tenor voice filled with undisguised fondness as he explained the value of a handkerchief to a hobbit. The juxtaposition of moments was so unexpected, her fingers became clumsy in her distraction, and it took Tilda a few fumbling seconds to work the cloth free under Kíli's expectant gaze. When the last knot in the silken cords came undone, she was utterly surprised by the fact that what fell into her hand, was...a slender, carved spoon.

“Thank you, my Lord,” she told him, honestly confused, but made sure to smile at him, nonetheless. If she hadn’t known better, known he meant nothing by it but a kind, if somewhat odd, gesture, she knew her heart would be beating willy-nilly in her chest with hopeful expectation. Right now, despite it saving her a whole lot of useless heartache, she hated knowing better and not being able just simply be a young girl, happy and flustered over romantic attentions from her husband.

Kíli seemed to be gazing at her expectantly, so she held the little spoon up to the light, and dutifully examined it. “It’s lovely,” Tilda assured him, a moment later, and wasn’t really surprised to find that she meant it. He was obviously very skilled, and the woodwork was unlike anything she’d ever seen before, seeming almost too delicate to be used except for the solid feel of it between her fingers. He searched her face, looking for something, she knew not what, and his smile seemed to stutter, dim slightly, but he was grinning at her brightly enough a heartbeat later, and she let it go as too much thinking before she’d even had a chance to eat her eggs, or have more than a few sips of her tea. “Does it have some sort of meaning?” she asked, dutifully, trying to be surreptitious when she set the spoon gently aside and reached for her tea instead while she waited for his answer.

Tilda couldn’t decipher all the expressions that flitted across his face; he looked at her for a moment, as if disappointed—she was meant to recognise this, whatever it was, then, and she had failed. She straightened her shoulders. She would learn, then. For obviously though there was no love in their union, there could be meaningful gestures, so whatever it was she should know, she would make sure she learned it. Perhaps the young scribe, Ori, could help her.

Kíli finally sighed, and managed to smile; but it was pasted on and they both knew that they both knew it. “Its fine, I promise,” he told her, but the rest of their interactions that morning felt stilted and quiet.

It was a fact though, that she swept it into her pocket before she left. It was rather pretty, and the fact that Kíli had made it for her, regardless of the reason, was enough to put a bit of a warm flutter in her heart. As she made her way to the Nursery Hall, she slid a hand into her pocket to run her fingertip along the polished surface with growing fondness for her gift. She even allowed herself a wholly silly grin; when no one was looking, of course. Still, she resolved to concentrate on her duties, and to not think about it any further.

Perhaps it was meant like a showing of skill? she wondered sometime later. But that didn’t exactly make any sense, because if that were it, it wouldn’t be a spoon that he showed her, but some kind of singing or communing with rocks, she supposed, though she couldn’t even begin to fathom what that might be like. She realised suddenly that she’d really like to experience it, one day.

She was doing it again, she realized, exasperated. Even with the children as a distraction, she’d been unable to completely leave useless speculations alone; chasing her thoughts ‘round and ‘round until they blended together in a useless puddle. For right now, she’d decided what she wanted was to experience the weapons range, and her arrows doing some questionable damage to a practice target. It would be blissfully all-consuming, and maybe give her a bit of peace, if not perspective. Mister Dwalin always seemed to sense her moods, and would be sure to accommodate her, even if he had to clear the range for her to do it. Normally she would be cross at him for such over-blown displays, but today, she thought she’d let him.

Just this once.

It was a bit of a walk from the nursery hall to the practice yards, and Tilda was using it to try and not think about anything; especially spoons, husbands and...well, there was actually a whole lot she didn’t want to think about, to be honest. Instead, she tried to occupy her mind with planning games for the children tomorrow, when these thoughts were pushed from her mind again.

The skin along the nape of her neck prickled; a sharp tingle that instantly made the pale hairs along her arms rise and she had to resist the urge to whip around and stare into darkened doorways and barge belligerently down dimly-lit halls. Ever since discovering the truth of Kíli's feelings, Tilda had been so distracted by her attempts at being a proper princess, at trying to hold up her end of the partnership, that she’d become paranoid; everywhere she went, she now felt hostile and disapproving eyes following her, which was incredibly self-absorbed and ridiculous. Where just a few short weeks ago, she had felt comfortable and relaxed in her new home, she now feared censure and judgement out of the shadows. Utterly hen-witted behaviour, she scolded herself, and she would straighten her spine, being sure to be extra decorous and polite, to try and quiet her paranoid thoughts, which had the unfortunate habit of sounding a lot like a certain Gondorian lordling. All her careful behaviour had done for her so far, was to earn her a few concerned looks, and a scolding from Bylgja.

Still, she couldn’t help but glance around every so often, trying to be stealthy, and not at all sure what she even expected to find. More and more, the people she saw were becoming familiar, so at least her silly preoccupation of late was serving to make her more able to recognize the faces within the mountain; though so far it had done nothing to diminish her feelings of unease.

So deep was she in her thoughts; and more truthfully, so involved was she in her furtive attempts to watch behind her, that she failed to realise she wasn’t exactly watching where she was going until she bumped right into someone, and a soft clatter told her that something had been dropped.

“Nori!” she exclaimed, as she bent to retrieve the dropped item, which turned out to be a small dirk. She handed it back, suppressing the urge to examine it curiously. “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I wasn’t doing a good job of watching where I was going.”

Nori was an information specialist, or at least, that’s all Tilda could really glean about what it was that Nori actually did, other than the fact that he worked quite closely with Kíli; not exactly under him, but off to the side maybe? She wasn’t stupid; she understood the type of shadowy position someone like Nori held, and how important it could be to the Crown. Right now, he was dusting the front of this tunic, as if Tilda had done him far greater harm, but winked at her when she huffed at him. “There now, no harm done, yer Highness,” he told her in his signature easy drawl that could slip from wheedling to sassy and back effortlessly. “Where are you off to?” he asked, and Tilda watched fascinated as he slid the small knife back into a hidden recess in his sleeve. Even now that she knew it was there, she couldn’t detect its presence. Impressive.

“Ah, I wished to speak with Mister Dwalin, actually…” she hedged, hoping he would take it for some kind of official business, because she still wasn’t exactly sure if it was entirely suitable for her to be spending time on the training field, no matter how grand Kíli seemed to have thought it was to find her there. She suspected that Kíli was hardly the best barometer of what was proper.

After all, she couldn't help but remember their earliest conversations; how careful Kíli—and herself presumably, by extension—had to be to not upset public perception, because of the deep suspicion held for those who lacked a Heart Craft. It frequently left her feeling wrong-footed; not sure where the best course lay, and deeply conscious of anything that might contribute to Kíli's precarious position.

Nori winked at her again, jarring her from her worries, and turned so that he was now facing down the hallway she had been scurrying along. He had his hands in his pockets, but he stuck his elbow out and waited patiently for her to take it before setting off down the corridor at an ambling pace. “No wonder ye didn’t see me, Highness. You were too busy looking over your shoulder.” The question in his statement hung in the air between them, where Tilda did her best to ignore it even as she blushed. It was so much foolishness, anyway, and she had no intention of being anyone’s amusement; especially the sharp-witted dwarrow beside her. After they’d walked in silence for a few moments, while Tilda steadfastly looked straight ahead, Nori looked away, tacitly letting it drop.

“Well, our good Guard Captain may not be the brightest diamond in the pile, but he’s got a certain straightforward way of dealing with stress that has its own charm, doesn’t it?” And Tilda cursed whatever deity had decided to send her down Nori’s path, as she knew she didn’t have the patience today to play a mental game of chess with the Information Master.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she told him calmly.

“I’m sure you don’t,” he grinned at her, lazily. A gaggle of younger dwarrow, probably no older than Fíli, passed them. The group gave a bit of a start when they noticed their princess walking towards them, and since this corridor only lead to the practice yards, they obviously hadn’t expected to ever see her here. Nori gave them a knowing look as they approached; full of his own amusement, and topped it with some kind of hand gesture that had the lads shooting them furtive looks and giving them a wide berth.

Whispered words of Khuzdûl erupted behind them as soon as they had passed.

“Must you draw attention?” she muttered crossly, trying not to fidget with all the uneasy feelings still rolling around in her belly; silly, pernicious thoughts of lurking shadows and imagined transgressions.

“What do you mean, Highness?” Nori cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at her. Tilda suspected various criminals—and probably Dwalin—would attest that he was at his most dangerous when he looked like this: lazy, and only mildly curious.

Glaring at him, Tilda decided there was no safe answer that didn’t involve admitting to nonsensical paranoia of various kinds, so instead she diverted “I don’t want to keep you from your duties. I’m sure you have more important things to be doing than escorting wayward princesses.”

Nori grinned at her, over-bright and clearly knowing she was trying to get rid of him, and having no intention of co-operating. “Nope! Not at thing.” He winked at her, and to Tilda, it looked decidedly mocking.

She groaned, frustrated and fidgety, and gave up what little pride she still had in this encounter, which she suspected wasn’t very much anyway. “Look, I know it’s not very proper to be mucking about in the practice yards—”

“Ifn’ you keep cranking your head around like that,” Nori interrupted her, “You’re going to get an awful crick in yer neck, Highness.”

Tilda nearly jumped at this sharp observation. “I’m sure—”

“You don’t know what I mean,” Nori finished for her, and there was no mistaking the mocking edge to his grin, now. Amusement radiated from every pore as he watched her gape, before she hastily arranged her expression into something bland.

“If you know that, why did you ask?” she hedged, trying to sound haughty and poised, but suspecting she sounded more like a fish, realizing the morsel just swallowed had a hook in it.

Thankfully, they had arrived at the yards, and Tilda tried not to appear as thankful as she felt when she was able to drop his arm and step away, making a sweeping, and rather vague, motion to the entranceway.

“A word of advise, Highness?” Nori said, his words catching her before she could make her escape. “Ask Lady Dis about her Lochaber axe, next time you’re feeling so much like a daughter of Men, instead of a Princess of dwarves.”

This time, Tilda couldn’t stop herself from gaping stupidly in the middle of the corridor.

Nori just grinned at her, all sardonic amusement, but with a hint of kindness, too. He turned to leave her, and he was already a few paces down the hall when he spoke again. “I’ll tell you something else fer nothin’, Highness,” he said, not bothering to turn around. “People were right encouraged to find out the funny foreigner their Bedzak Prince had to marry was such a sensible, kindred spirit.”

And before Tilda could think of what to say past the sudden lump in her throat, Nori was off, whistling tunelessly as he went.

Strangely enough, long after he’d taken his leave of her, and long after she’d managed to use a hapless practice target to work through her lingering doubts and confusion relating to anything and everything dwarven, from husbands to information masters, she’d slipped a hand inside her pocket and found, not only the spoon that she’d expected; but Nori’s sandalwood-handled dirk, and the thin leather wrap used to secure it to one’s wrist.

She clearly remembered him putting it up his sleeve. And how on earth did he manage to remove the scabbard for it, too, without her noticing?

There was a note, wrapped around the handle:

In case Dwalin's supply of arrows are not up to the task.

She didn’t miss that he was as much poking fun as he was being thoughtful, but that seemed to be Nori by default; nothing he did was straightforward, and every meaning had to be couched in obscurity and riddles. She could only wonder what other purpose he might have, besides just tweaking her temper and her heartstrings in equal measure, but she quickly gave up; Nori’s motives were inscrutable, and she was probably better off not knowing anyway.

It was a fact, though, that she decided that she had time to stay a while longer, and see if she couldn’t land the throwing dagger with any accuracy.

Perhaps her work with the bow had helped, but she happily admitted that she showed some improvement after the first hour or so.

The oiled wood handle felt comfortable in her hand, weighty enough to have heft and accuracy when thrown—at least, by someone other than Tilda—and was decorated with an intricate carving of an owl, caught mid-lunge, talons extended and wings drawn back. She liked the symbolism; the silent approach of the owl made it easy to mistake it for being soft and harmless.

Tilda thought it looked rather grand.

-o.O.o-

The usual council chambers were inner chambers, vented for light but very much a part of the mountain that surrounded the Throne, where most of the government chambers could be found. But once each quarter, for each solstice and equinox, Council was moved to an outer chamber, one that, at least in theory, was easily accessible to those outside the mountain. This large chamber opened up, so that the outside half of the room was actually an open-air balcony, overlooking the mountain vale and road leading to their gates—a symbolic openness and accessibility meant to mirror their intentions; a closed society, and the distrust it engendered, had done enough damage to his people’s relations with the outside races over the centuries. It had been Bilbo’s suggestion, at first; apparently hobbits had such an open council meeting at these quarter-year intervals, where all could air their concerns, and the hobbits felt it kept anything from festering, as everyone, from the ‘hair-brained Bracegirdles’ to the ‘dour Stoors’, had a voice.

The dwarves had thought it mad, but the Company, at least, had learned to take any advice Bilbo gave as good, so Thorin immediately set Fíli to seeing it implemented. And so it became Erebor’s first tentative goodwill gesture; the day that their allies could freely bring concerns before them and be heard, and though the council dwarves grumbled about the necessity, none were stupid enough to grumble very loudly, and before long, even the dimmest of them could see that it was working. Mostly visited by merchants as they made their way through their kingdom, though emissaries from other lands also turned up occasionally—but even more importantly, common folk from Dale and even Laketown had arrived. Tentative and frightened in many cases, but belligerent in their desire to be heard—and their equal belief that they wouldn’t be, they came to bring their concerns before the throne; petitioners wishing to discuss things ranging from tariffs and competition, to hunting parties frightening their livestock, or requests for land grants within the vale itself for various endeavours

And were heard.

These meetings were chaired by Fíli, and gave him tremendous practice working with the Men, and even, occasionally, the Elves, as slowly, they began trickling into these proceedings; so that what started five years ago as a symbolic gesture, today was widely utilized by the various races as word spread that the dwarves were listening. Kíli was always a part of these sessions, as were either uncle Thorin or uncle Bilbo, or even both, as often as they could manage, because Bilbo hated leaving Thorin alone anywhere he might possibly have to deal with elves.

What Kíli had never considered, was that, with the wide access to the open air from the balconies, the Ravens might find it a convenient way to communicate with the Throne, as well.

Roäc perched stiffly on the polished agate and teak railing, not comfortable being fully inside the mountain and finding this compromise much more to his liking, and no one of Erebor’s Council would dream of disagreeing with the aged spokesmen of the Conspiracy of Ravens of Ravenhill, unlike those jackanapes who occasionally came down from the Iron Hills. Unpleasant things tended to happen to dwarrow who were foolish enough to invite the ire of the ravens, and a wise dwarf would look to the skies, lest a moist surprise was deposited by an overflying bird bent on target practice.

Grey had definitely begun to overtake the coal black in old Roäc’s wings, but his mind was still keen, and he had grand-chicks and great grand-chicks to take over the more strenuous bits of ruling for him. He only stirred himself for truly important events, these days, and the fact that he had made the several-hour flight to the mountain meant he considered his communication to be vastly important—too important even, to trust to his son, Gudrún, and he had everyone’s attention from the moment he’d finished ponderously settling his flight feathers and turned to face those assembled with a black, beady eye.

“Been months, Highness,” the old bird croaked, nodding a bobbing sort of bow to Kíli. “You settled in with yer missus yet?”

Hiding a wince at being called out like a child before the council, Kíli nodded back, as graciously as he could manage. “The Lady Tilda and I are well settled,” he lied baldly. “Her Highness will be pleased by your asking.”

Roäc cocked his head, sizing the young dwarf up. “You bring her any worms yet? Good for fertility, is worms. Especially the small, wriggly ones.”

There were several stifled snorts among those gathered, and Kíli just knew it was going to be a while before he managed to live this one down, though if he found a box of worms in his room later, it would be a toss-up if he should blame Nori or Fíli; two of the most consummate pranksters he’d ever known.

He could just kill both of them, and save himself some trouble.

Thoughts like these helped distract him enough to not blush, as he nodded in a vaguely agreeable way, and hastened to ask, “The journey is long, Roäc, and while I am grateful for your concern, I’m sure you have matters more important to your kin to discuss today?” The snort that he heard this time was from Uncle Bilbo, probably at how smoothly he managed to deliver a line of bullshit.

Roäc shook his head, and Kíli realized the bird was laughing at him, too, the bastard, but he quickly resettled his feathers, and somehow gave the impression of looking very grave, as he stared around the room, at each council dwarf (and one hobbit) there.

“There are birds missing from their nests,” he said, his rough voice sounding older than it had a moment before. “For many long months, we have been declining in numbers. Some losses, we take due to natural predation; some from injury or accident. But the losses are too many, for too long. Something is preying on the Ravens, my lords, and we demand your help.”

Unease stirred among those assembled, and Uncle Thorin looked especially serious as he looked to Dwalin.

“A den of wolves, perhaps?” he asked.

Surprise quickly gave way to determination, though Kíli was puzzled when Dwalin cast a quick glance to the crenellations lining the battlements along their top wall, but when he turned back to Thorin he looked positively thunderous. “Not wolves, I think, yer Majesty, though it’s possible. But I’ll be taking a contingent out that way within the hour.” He sighed in frustration. “It could take months, though.”

Beside Kíli, Bilbo startled. “Months?” he asked, clearly confused. “Why so long?”

“Because the outreaches of our mountain, like the one that form Ravenhill, are riddled with tunnels,” Fíli admitted. “Most of them date back to the founding of the kingdom, near the middle of the third age; or even earlier, and most of them are collapsed, or in severe disrepair, but its hundreds of miles of passageways to search. At one time, you could walk all the way to the Iron Hills underground. It was a secret supply line, left over from the War of Dwarves and Dragons.”

“No one here has living memory of those passages,” Thorin added. “We will have to comb the Great Library for whatever details remain to us.”

Respectfully, he inclined his head to Roäc. “This is a grave issue, for your kin and ours, and we take this with the utmost seriousness. We will send our Cantor, and a contingent of warriors, and see what we can find.”

And with that, they all had to be satisfied, at least for now, but no one was easy. What would prey on the ravens?

 

-o.O.o-

 

It was two days later, and they were sitting out together in the Memorial Garden. They had all done their best to push the strange concerns of Ravenhill behind them, for the moment, seeing as there was nothing more they could do until someone reported in with something useful.

It was late enough that the gardens were virtually devoid of anyone else, and for right now it was just Kíli and Tilda, and his uncles, sitting under the stars. Kíli had flopped back on the grass, and Tilda was sure his tunic must be soaking up the fine layer of dew that had already formed, but the prince didn’t seem terribly concerned about it. Honestly, she longed to join him—the grass would be cool and lovely against her skin, and the smell in her nose would be the heady smell of late summer. Instead, she sat on the blanket, legs crossed and demurely tucked beneath her dress. The remnants of their picnic lay scattered about them, but everyone was too stuffed and too lethargic to move just yet to pick them up.

“That was an excellent meal,” Bilbo said, looking extremely content as he leaned back on his elbows, his head cushioned on King Thorin’s midriff. The King was stretched out on his side, head propped up on one hand, and looking decidedly less than regal and far less intimidating than Tilda normally found him. At one time, of course, she would have been shocked the distant King even knew how to relax, let alone so utterly, but she’d learned his Consort seemed to have magic powers in that regard.

Bilbo had requested that they have this little picnic out under the stars, saying that it was a special tradition in the Shire at this time of year to celebrate the coming harvest and the height of summer bounty and all the sweet things that had happened before the year ended in a few more months. Kíli had thought it a grand idea, and had promptly begged Bombur for a picnic. The fact that he was a prince, and could therefore command, didn’t seem to even enter his mind, especially when it came to members of their long-ago quest, and Tilda was glad it was so.

Sometimes, the fact that he had been old enough to be considered an adult, and going on dangerous quests, at a time when she had been young enough to believe in luck-bringing, toilet-dwelling dwarves, was enough to have her questioning how it was she didn’t seem impossibly childish to him, even now that she’d grown. But, to her, he looked almost exactly the same as he had on that fateful day, though he seemed more settled now; calmer—but that may be because he was no longer dying of orc-poisoned arrows. Fair was fair, after all, he had hardly been at his best that day.

“I never thought I would say anything like this, but sometimes I think I actually miss being on the road, and sleeping under the stars every night,” Bilbo mused, sounding drowsy. Thorin gave him a disbelieving side-eyed stare.

“Really, beloved?” he asked, and it was truly amazing how much disbelief he could muster in such a mild tone of voice, Tilda noticed, lips twitching in amusement.

Bilbo seemed far too comfortable to do more than wave an irritated hand. “Yes, well, obviously there were many, many parts I could have done without. You, for example, for the first oh, thousand leagues or so.”

Kíli sniggered, trying to muffle it in his sleeve; Thorin merely reached out to kick him as sharply as he could manage with his toes. “As I recall, I was busy trying to lead us on a great quest. I can hopefully be forgiven for my lack of manners.”

“You mean, you were leading a gaggle of the mentally challenged on a madcap escapade,” Bilbo retorted

“I hate to point it out, Uncle, but doesn’t that make you a bit mental, too? You followed us, after all,” Kíli pointed out, smiling with nothing but false innocence.

“Cheeky lad. Yes, I think it definitely qualifies me as mad,” Bilbo sighed. “Though, it seems to have turned out alright for me,” he added, glancing warmly at Thorin.

“You only say that because you do not have to deal with the Guilds,” Thorin rumbled with a laugh.

Bilbo just grinned at him. “Exactly.” He turned to look at Tilda where she sat, and winked, and Tilda found herself grinning back. Of course, Fíli and Thorin had both inquired into how things were progressing between them in their own terribly awkward, if well-meaning ways, but Bilbo was far more subtle, and Tilda suspected that half the reason for the Consort's insistence on this nostalgic inclusion of Hobbit tradition was to see and assess for himself the state of things between herself and Kíli.

She wondered what it was he saw.

Whatever it was, apparently he felt he had seen enough for tonight, for he was levering himself up from his reclining position, urging Thorin up as well. “I’m afraid that’s it for this old hobbit, so we shall leave you to enjoy the rest of the night,” he told them, leaning down to brush a kiss to Tilda’s forehead, and pat Kíli's shoulder. Thorin nodded to both of them as he took Bilbo’s arm and they left, strolling slowly across the park in the warm evening.

There were very few clouds in the late-summer sky, and the stars made it look like the heavens were strewn with jewel-light and fire. Soft sounds rustled in the grass and in the leaves; tiny insects and mice enjoying the warm breeze and welcoming darkness. True night had returned to the North, and the moon was huge in the sky, as if making up for its earlier absence. Everything glowed under its cool luminescence, and Tilda enjoyed how different all the familiar sights in the garden looked in that fey light. In the peace of this moment, her earlier uneasiness and paranoia seemed impossibly exaggerated and far away. How could anything sinister exist in a moment like this?

A faint noise had been teasing her ears, for how long she didn’t know, when she realised that it was Kíli singing or chanting something softly into the night air.

“That’s lovely,” she told him. He hummed, pleased, in response, but continued his song to its end, a faint, barely discernible counterpart to the night noises around them.

For several moments they just sat there, lost in their own thoughts, while Tilda secretly swore Kíli's song seemed to hang on the air, despite the fact he’d stopped singing; she’d even checked. The idea that she was imagining his voice like that made her blush, and she was glad of the cover of darkness that made it unlikely he’d notice. Somewhere deep inside, something throbbed painlessly.

“What about you? Do you miss being under the stars? Tilda found herself asking when they had both been silent too long. She decided it was time to give up on propriety for the moment, because her knees were cramping, and straightened them out to cross her ankles and lean back, supporting herself on her hands on the ground behind her.

“Sometimes,” Kíli admitted, watching her shift without really seeing her. “It’s just, things were simpler then,” he said slowly. “Not always as comfortable, but…”

“I miss Laketown,” she blurted out, knowing exactly what he meant. “Sometimes, anyway. The old Laketown, before the dragon. In a house that shook in a strong breeze, and stank of fish if the wind was wrong…but yes, simpler.”

Kíli reached out with one hand to squeeze her ankle briefly, before resuming his fiddling with something he’d fished out of his pocket.

“What is that?” Tilda asked, sitting up and trying to get a good look at it.

“This?” he asked, pushing himself up into a sitting position, and carefully holding whatever it was out in the palm of his hand for her to see.

A blue-grey stone lay there, oval and smooth, with a line of runic writing scored into its surface. It was fairly large, almost the length of Kíli's palm, and when he tilted it to catch the light, the surface lit up with glowing blues and greens and golds. She gasped, delighted by the unexpected sight.

“It’s Labradorite—it always shines like that in the right light,” he told her, smiling at her reaction. “We mined it in Ered Luin.”

“It’s beautiful. What’s it for?” Tilda asked, running her finger along its polished surface.

“’sa rune stone, or spell stone. Mum sent it with me when we left for the quest, to remind me of my promise to her, and to give us good fortune.”

“A spell stone?”

“Yeah. The stone, it all has different properties, right? Each one slightly different?” at her tentative nod, he paused, seemingly trying to organize his thoughts. “Well, a Cantor can shape that, sort of…encourage it to resonate to their need, imbuing it with purpose and power. It’s all about pitch and resonance, and...” he trailed off when she looked blankly back at him.

Instead, he brought the stone even closer to her, and turned it slightly so that she could see the writing better, though of course she couldn’t tell what it said. “This here, underlines the intention of the spell, or the covenant between the Cantor and the stone.” He took her finger, still resting on the stone, to run it gently over the carved runes. “Innikh dê,” he said, slowly. “Return to me,” he repeated in Westron, and he helped guide her finger over the words again as he translated. His hand was warm and dry as he held hers, and he was slow to let her go; and when he did, hers felt uncountably cool in the balmy night air.

“The stone was for luck to smile on us, and facilitate our quest,” Kíli told her, voice husky and rough with past memories. He bent his head, staring down at his fist clenching rhythmically against his thigh, possibly remembering some old injury. “Sometimes I wonder if we would have gotten so stupidly lucky if I hadn’t carried it with me, up on Ravenhill that day.”

“I’m glad you did,” she told him, still staring at the shining surface. Such a deceptively ordinary token, to be responsible for so much; and her heart clenched at the thought that all this could have been lost, for something as deceptively simple as the lack of a stone on that cursed battle on the hill.

“Can you…can you make things like this?” she asked, after a moment spent stroking the smooth surface, too full of complex emotions to make sense of any of them right now, but mostly just enjoying being here with Kíli on relatively relaxed footing, for there had been far too little of it of late.

He nodded, still looking down. “I’ve been taught how. My Craft offering, my…my First Craft, is intended to show what I’ve learned; the best of what I am, so far.”

“And you made one of these imbued spell stones?” Tilda guessed, fascinated. Impulsively, she asked, “Would you make something like this for me? Someday, maybe?”

Clearly, she’d startled him, because he looked up suddenly, studying her face.

“I’m sorry—” she started, trying to take it back, because clearly this was a lot to ask; her stupid mouth was always leading her into trouble...

“Shhh, no, no apologies,” Kíli told her, trying to hide the beating of his heart when he pressed a finger to her bottom lip, just briefly, to halt her apology. “You just surprised me, is all. I didn't really know if you'd be interested in something so...well, it's not at all like you're used to," he trailed of, lamely.

“I think that sounds so grand, to carry about a piece of magic like that,” Tilda smiled at him, animation returning to her countenance at his reassurance. Her eyes danced in excitement, as they always did when she was discovering something new, and his heart swelled, just a little bit more. “Kíli, would you…could you make one for me? Just a small one,” she hastened to assure him, as though anything she could ask of him would be too much. As if he didn’t long for the day he could heap her with gifts of his own hands. “Only," and her face fell, as the thought occurred to her, "I guess if it’s a secret, you might not be able to.”

Truthfully, he’d carried the cuff in his vest, close to his skin, ever since he’d finally completed what he’d been compelled to make it; waiting, terrified, for the right moment to gift it to her. Somehow, the timing had never seemed right, never like they were in accord anymore. This was the most relaxed she had been with him in ages, and he wanted to seize the moment; almost as much as he wanted to run from the possibility of making things worse. Hesitantly, he reached into his inner pocket to retrieve the effort of weeks; the loss of which Master Bifur still hadn’t reacted to, which only heightened Kíli's nervousness of his eventual punishment. He pushed those thoughts from his mind for right now, though, not wanting to think of anything but Tilda, and himself and her hopeful acceptance in this precise moment.

“Everyone will expect that Bifur made the stonework,” he told her. “But it’ll be nice for people to see you adorned in my own hand; that they know how much I would give for the gift of your...of your companionship,” he stumbled, because of course, the gift he truly wanted was her love; but since the failure of his carved spoon, he’d felt even further from any kind of courting success than before.

More worries he didn’t need in this precise moment. Holding his breath, he uncurled his fingers to let her see what he had made her.

The work of weeks of effort and lost sleep, the jewelled armlet shone luminous in the moonlight from patient polishing. Made of a combination of precious gems and metals; a harmony and chorus of all his wishes and dreams and what was best in him to give, and he watched her eyes sparkle with delight as she took in what he had done, and that he had done it before she had even known to ask—and he willed her to think on that, and know his heart, but he feared he would be disappointed.

It was a significant piece: a solid rounded band that was designed to sit along her upper arm and wrapped to curl lengthwise as if reaching with caressing fingers along her skin, trailing up along her bicep and down towards her elbow with tapering tendrils. Made primarily of platinum, with a thin band of rose gold inset along the centre, it was far more valuable than Kíli would ever let on; befitting a princess of the Mountain, and the chosen of his heart.

The whole thing had been made to be durable, because he knew his Tilda was always to be found in the thick of things; from the choice of platinum, long-lasting and unchanging, to the sturdy design that lacked a lot of filigree and accents that could get caught or snagged. That wasn’t to say that it didn’t possess embellishment, merely that Kíli had taken care to keep the decorative touches set close to the band, with lots of inlay work and a fluid grace that suited such a low-profile design. It had a certain flair that might hint at ancient Belegostian design, being one of the only two Dwarven kingdoms that had ever been close to the sea, but held a distinctly un-dwarven style that was uniquely its own.

A style that would now mark Kíli's own work, forevermore; imprinted on his soul through Craft and Muse.

Slowly, Tilda reached out with her nimble fingers to trace the line of runes carved as a circular mandala into the surface of the largest gem, set in the middle of the central band; a beautiful green-blue aquamarine that had reminded Kíli of the waters of the Long Lake, when the weather was fine; like the day they were wed. The band of shining rose gold running down the middle formed decorative embellishments like tiny leaping fish along the gem settings of the golden-pink pearls—so precious to his land-bound people—and the smaller, rose-hued diamonds adorning the length of the piece. Two large tear-drop secondary gems were set, one at the end of each wrapped arm, anchoring the central stone. Like that larger gem, they were the deepest-hued aquamarines he’d ever seen produced in their mines, and all three sat in settings meant to mimic water lilies, these settings further inlaid with tiny diamonds.

Each of the focal stones had been set with a specific invocation; a wish he held for her, carved with tiny, precise runes and anointed in specially blended oils and infusions to coax the stone as he sang it to his will.

“What does it mean?” she asked softly as she stroked one of the smaller, teardrop aquamarines, and traced the patterns again and again.

“This part,” he said softly, trying very hard to keep the wholly-inappropriate husky edge from his voice, as he took her finger in his and guided it to the beginning, “Translates, roughly, to good fortune, and ease in hardship.”

He swore she shivered under his hand, whether from the faint thrum of life within the stone beneath her fingertips, the feeling of his skin against hers, or even fear that her husband could manipulate things she couldn’t understand…Please let it be one of the first two reasons. He wasn’t sure he could realistically hope for the second, but he had always been optimistic by nature.

“This one,” and he dragged her finger to a matching inscription on the other anchor stone, “this means laughter and...finding joy where it is hard to find.” He struggled over the last part with difficulty.

“And this?” Tilda breathed, her voice almost reverent in the still air as she moved her finger to stroke the line of runes along the rose gold band.

“I’m not sure I know the words for that one,” Kíli lied baldly. “But it is a heartfelt wish, of longing fulfilled and great happiness.”

Tilda made a small moue of disappointment that almost had Kíli confessing entirely inappropriate secrets and desires of Soul Bonds and of Ones; of a prayer so heartfelt to his Maker it was humbling to endure; of being worthy and of having worth, and so many other concepts that he would have trouble translating, so he hastily brought her finger back to the largest gem, the central stone of the whole piece. Deep coloured, Kíli swore if one stared at it long enough, they could actually smell the earthy tang of the lake, and the faint fragrance of the water lilies that had bloomed near Tilda’s house.

“This one translates…as courage.” And her fingers were moving beneath his own, exploring the runes and the smooth surface of the gem, but he was loath to let go of her hand.

“Not grace?” she asked, and he almost laughed at the silly notion, but her voice trembled a little, and made him think his answer might be more important than she wanted him to think, though he had no idea why; likely to do with her Manish heritage, he supposed. He managed to swallow his reaction before he betrayed himself, thankfully, and squeezed her hand beneath his instead.

“You already have that in spades, my Lady,” he told her, trying to keep his tone light enough to not make her uncomfortable, for something certainly was pricking at her with this subject. If her back got any straighter, he was worried something might snap.

She did relax, infinitesimally, at his words. “But I do need courage?”

Kíli waved his unoccupied hand playfully, as if he could wave away her words. “You have more courage in your little finger than most folk do in their entire being.” He told her honestly. “I just think, maybe sometimes…you need help finding it; or at least, help remembering to keep some of it for yourself.” He turned to look at her more fully, angling his body so that she was almost cradled against him if she were to lean his way. “Why is that, I wonder?” he asked, softly, overcome by his feelings for this girl to speak when he probably should have held his tongue.

A faint tremor took her, and for a moment her face fell, exposing so many complicated emotions that Kíli couldn’t even begin to guess what she was thinking, except that he felt, in his heart, that he had touched something within her that was raw. He hoped that she would share with him, let him help her, lend her his strength to face whatever it was. Unfortunately, she quickly had herself under control again, but when she turned to look at him, she looked vulnerable somehow, and not at all like his bold and brash girl. “See?” he said softly, reaching to brush her cheek with his thumb. “Right now, I think you’ve forgotten how to find your courage, though we both know it’s there.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, and she leaned her face into his palm. That scent like water lilies was rising off her skin, so faint but yet still all he could smell, and he leaned forward to place a gentle kiss to her brow. When he pulled back, her eyes were open, and she was staring up at him, lips parted and glinting in the moonlight, as if she had just brushed them with her tongue.

The garden was quiet; the soft breeze was no more than a whisper in the grass, and the water in the pond lay still as glass reflecting all the stars of the heavens, like Yavanna had somehow set its dark surface ablaze with white fire. Tilda’s eyes blazed too, catching the moonlight to transform their normal warm grey to bring out hints of blue and green that Kíli had only suspected to be there before. She gazed at him, not pulling away as his thumb, traitorous digit that it was, began to stroke softly against her cheek, still cradled in his broad palm. She gave the tiniest hum of contentment, barely more than a wisp of breath in the still air.

Kíli felt as though time may finally be working in his favour; as if this moment were impossibly stretched. Sparks of possibility made the air between them heavy and close, tugging pleasantly at his gut as his heart tried to beat double-time in his breast.

Fuck it, Kíli thought, and leaned in, slowly, giving her time to move should she wish, but she just sat there, as if frozen, or mesmerised. Mahal knew, he felt it; enchanted by her scent and her presence, her thoughts and dreams and strength, until he could hardly think of anything but the memory of her lips beneath his, so long ago.

At the last second, she tilted her head back slightly, as if offering him better access, and he no longer cared if it was the right time, if she was ready, or if he was somehow encouraging things with his abilities unfairly. He retained just enough presence of mind to be careful; controlled. He brushed her lips once, a slow featherlight touch as he shared her breath; twice, a lingering press, with just the faintest bit of pressure as the warmth of her skin seeped into his own, letting him steal it and settle it somewhere deep inside. A third pass, and she leaned into him fully, surrendering her weight to him and trusting him to hold her up as she wound her hands into his hair and kissed back, and Kíli thought she must feel the way his heart raced against her at that intimate touch.

Playfully, he encouraged her to open for him, tracing her lips with his tongue until she met him, exploring him in turn as if joining in a gentle game. It was slow, and sweet; unlike the frantic kiss in Dale, this was more about comfort and connection than passion, though he certainly had more than enough of that to spare, too.

Her breath was sweet as it washed over his skin, tickling his nose, and he felt himself smiling into her mouth, and her lips curled in return; not knowing, simply responding to his happiness. One thumb still stroked languidly along the high point of her cheekbone, the rest of his palm—so large in comparison to her slight build—was cradling her ear and even part of her neck as they kissed, and her skin was so incredibly soft beneath his, smooth like satin or peach skin. He wondered if he could just freeze this moment, and live in it for the rest of time—except that he looked forward to growing with Tilda, and experiencing how they would change both each other, and together; like an ever-evolving work of art. His other arm looped around her, supporting her weight even as he marvelled at how nicely she fit in his arms. He wanted to tangle his hands in her hair, to muss up her hairpins and watch the whole mass flutter in the breeze between them, but that was a daring thought, and better to wait for another day. Tonight, it was enough that there was once again the heady feeling of hope in his breast.

Her tongue, so often sharp in her wit and observations, was soft against his own, in turns pliant and demanding as she quickly caught on to the rhythm of their exploration until it was no longer obvious that she had had little to no experience before him, and he was delighted by her confidence. He pulled away slowly, resting his forehead against hers as he tried to catch his breath, and think of something to say, because oh how he loved her, and it was time she knew it, too.

Gradually, she pulled back, and the expression on her face was not at all what he’d hoped, making him uneasy. It was troubled; even slightly alarmed, and Kíli was instantly seized with worry. Did she regret it? Did she get carried away? He opened his mouth to speak, to reassure her in some way—but she was standing. With a tight nod, she jerked at the fabric of her dress to settle her skirts. “Good night, my Lord,” she told him, her tone as stiff and controlled as her hands and face. “I think I am tired,” she said after a pause while her hands continued to clutch at her skirts so tightly the knuckles were white, and she seemed to be speaking to the air over Kíli's left shoulder rather than meeting his gaze. “Please excuse me.” And with that, she was walking away; leaving him sitting there in the remains of their picnic, mouth still hanging open with unsaid words, and he cursed.

Fluently.

 

What the hell had she been thinking? What had he been thinking? What the hell had that been? Tilda really did have a headache now, having found no relief from her questions or confusion.

Cantors don’t marry; Cantors don’t love.

She thought she had finally started to grow past her girlish infatuation, but the sharp edges of her pain told her otherwise. But Kíli was just so good, it was hard to not respond to his kindness and charm. Bylgja had told her that never in the history of their people had a Cantor ever loved another; Bylgja who had absolutely no reason not to be completely honest; actually, Tilda wasn’t sure she was capable of anything other than complete honesty, at least in relation to anything other than her feelings for a certain droopy-hatted miner. And even that seemed to be less a lie by omission, than a complicated dance between the two.

As much as Tilda wanted to say that tonight should have proved that Kíli seemed to feel something for her, she wasn’t some silly twit too caught up in the notion of romance to see the dung pile beneath their feet. If Kíli couldn’t love her, was, in fact, incapable of loving her, then she wanted to have more time sorting out her own feelings before playing around with what could only be a physical partnership, or affectionate friendship; a perfectly normal extension of many, if not most, marriages that she knew of.

But her parents had been deeply in love, a luxury she sometimes wondered if only the poor could afford, and it was the model of her very earliest memories. She wanted that kind of connection, desperately. She wanted more; more than Kíli was able to give her, and at times she could feel the hurt bubbling up inside of her, like she was a wounded animal wanting to lash out, to protect herself, and she felt tired and guilty...and then tonight happened; and she was just so turned around with the whole blasted situation.

She needed to think; a luxury she didn’t have when constantly being tipped off balance by charming, brown-eyed dwarves with warm smiles.

With time, she would be able to reconcile herself to everything; would probably even learn to be content and, dare she say it, happy with that, but not before she managed to stop hoping every time he gave her one of his kind looks, or exuberant grins. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them to enter into this expecting or wanting more than either of them was able to give.

And since Kíli seemed unaware of the dichotomy, then it was up to her to ensure that they preserved their best chance of marital happiness.

But oh, the kiss had been lovely. Something about it, though, had felt restrained; not like he was moved in the moment, but more like...she wasn’t sure, but like he was trying to hold back in some way. It was nebulous, but she...didn’t sense anything from her husband, and she was finally able to admit that she sort of expected to; had been curious and interested in how his abilities might feel, having his emotions brushing up against her, delicate as breath. Of course, she didn’t know that it would work that way, but she’d just sort of assumed....

But even tonight, as he’d kissed her, in what should, presumably, be the height of emotion, he’d seemed...unmoved. She didn’t know if he was afraid of hurting her, or if it was, more likely, not that he was holding back, but simply that there wasn’t anything more there, given his inability to devote any deeper feelings for her as a Cantor.

She lay alone in their bed for a long time that night, because it was ages before Kíli came back. When she heard him quietly entering their chambers, she made sure she was already curled up on her side of their bed, with her eyes closed. She knew he probably knew she wasn’t really sleeping, but he respected her wishes, and slid into his side without comment, only a low sigh.

She didn’t think either of them slept a wink that night.

-o.O.o-

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

12

Revelations

 

The next morning, he brought her tea again, and her heart trembled a little when his usual charming grin was dimmed somehow, but she ignored it as best she could. “I’m afraid I have to leave early today,” she told him, hastily grabbing her tea and sipping it in a show of hurried preparations, and though true, she was glad of the excuse it provided.

It effectively derailed anything he might have been planning to say or ask, and instead he quirked an eyebrow at her and inquired curiously, “Why such a rush this morning?”

Tilda was heading to her dressing room, tea in hand, but answered him over her shoulder, “Planning and preparations. We’re taking some of the children to the mines tomorrow; one of the older ones that isn’t being as heavily worked. It will be a good introduction for them, and I understand it will help them develop their…stone sense?”

Kíli nodded, seeming distracted. “Yes, mines are great places to start, because there is so much happening in the rock, it makes it easier to pick up on…” he fidgeted, staring at his boots.

“Whatever is the matter?” Tilda asked, pausing in the doorway to her dressing room.

“Someone is going with you, aren’t they?” he asked, obviously reluctant to imply that she needed to be accompanied, and worried about her ire.

Tilda snorted. “No fear of that—Eilin is planning to attend us most of the way; she’ll be taking a group of the older ones a small distance away for their own practice.”

Kíli gave her a sheepish smile. “I’m glad. Mines can be dangerous, if you don’t know your way around them.”

“Amazingly, that thought had occurred to me as well. Good thing I’ve had all this time to learn all I need, then, isn’t it?” Tilda gave him a look full of affectionate exasperation, and left to finish getting ready.

-o.O.o-

Songs had been the order of the day today in the nursery rooms; complicated-sounding ballads of important, or even popular, events. The children seemed especially enthusiastic in their singing of this one; voices boisterous and full as they tried to do the subject matter justice. Some kind of epic battle, Tilda was sure.

Her ridiculous feelings of being watched seemed, finally, to have faded; not gone, but enough to leave Tilda feeling exasperated at her own hen-wittedness for ever having indulged in them. She’d learned her way around in the last couple of months; she rarely got lost any more, though she was frustrated by her lack of Khuzdûl, and still had to rely on her memory; luckily for her, it had always been good. Many of her subjects greeted her in the halls and corridors now; friendly greetings from dwarves and dams she’d encountered in the markets or workshops throughout the mountain as she’d explored and talked to everyone she’d met along the way, learning as much as she could. There were always so many fascinating stories being offered, and she was glad they didn’t seem to resent her intrusions.

She’d learned a great deal about Ered Luin, and the Iron Hills; how Dain, the loud dwarf who rode a pig into battle, Thorin’s cousin, would have been next in line, had Thorin and his nephews fallen in that terrible conflict. She thought that maybe she should share that with her da, for even though he already had much reason to be thankful Thorin had survived his wounds, so that he would be alive at the right time to save Bain, even if that hadn’t been the case, the idea that he had narrowly avoided having to deal with the volatile pig-riding Lord might make him a whole lot happier about having Tilda married into the mountain.

She learned that Lady Dís had had one great love with Kíli and Fíli's father, and that he had died in a long-ago orc raid, and that part of the reason she stayed—and had now returned—to administer Ered Luin was because that was where she had met her husband, and she couldn’t bear to leave it. The story made Tilda incredibly sad for her Mother-in-law, to know that a dwarf loved like that only once, and she would spend the rest of her long years alone. She’d learned that many dwarrow never married, that the love of Craft was all-consuming for many, not just Cantors, though that was the only craft in which it was always so, and she had felt yet more hopes she hadn’t even been aware she was still harbouring, fall.

Still, it was an incredibly pleasant surprise to realize that she’d been here long enough for it to feel comfortable, just as she had felt with the people of Laketown. Perhaps, she didn’t know all of the dwarves as well as she’d known the humans of her home, but in these last almost three months, she could recognize most of them on sight, and knew a good third of them by name—knew a bit about their families and their lives, and it felt good that so many dwarves seemed happy to return her greetings, or even flushed by her attention—as if she really was their princess, and not just a foreign interloper. It felt like...like a community, one which maybe had a Tilda-shaped hole in it for her to fill.

Reinforced again and again through these conversations was the obvious belief that children were considered the greatest treasure in this culture, and the fact that entrusting a princess with their care made perfect sense to them told one all that needed to be known about just how highly badgers were prized. Royalty was different in Kíli's culture than the concept of royalty Tilda was used to; less remote, and more...well, almost working class, and maybe her less-than-regal deportment didn’t matter so much, here. She wasn’t sure if that was a Thorin-thing, or a dwarves-as-a-whole thing, but it was an attitude of which she greatly approved. How could a monarchy hope to stay in tune with the people if they stayed upon some distant pillar, unreachable and removed from the people they served?

She supposed that was the difference right there—dwarven monarchy served the people. Manish monarchy were served by the people. Both strove to uphold the good of all, to serve the Kingdom as a whole, they just had different views on how to get there.

Actually, she had to thank Lady Dís for thinking of putting her here. She could now understand the sense of it politically, for it sent a message to the whole mountain about Tilda’s place in the royal family’s eyes and paved the way for her, but, far more immediately important to Tilda’s view—it also gave her unfettered access to lessons and knowledge she had been envious of when reading by lamplight in the middle of the night.

Kíli had been amused by her enthusiasm, often asking her what she’d learned that day, never making her feel stupid, because of course this was all things he had learned years ago. He would often remind her that she knew many things that he did not, and that he’d taken far more years to learn the things she was currently absorbing; especially anything math related. For some reason, the numbers seemed to dance for her, a song or a language that was just waiting for her to discover the next bit.

She’d tried to show him some of the theories she’d only barely envisioned before, back when she’d not had paper to spare for it, equations and truths that she’d run out of numbers to try and explain and had started using letters instead, fingers flying over the slide rule he’d given her so long ago; and despite his not understanding, it seemed he found her equations, and the truths they seemed to hint at, as fascinating as she did and he offered unending encouragement to keep trying to figure it out. Leverage, force and trajectory; differential equations, complex numbers and theorems: Her whole world changed around her, becoming beautiful, complex reactions and relationships, all driven by those equations she could only ever imagine before.

She’d never tried to share her thoughts like that with Bain or Sigrid; she’d instinctively known that they would never have understood. The fact that she’d shown her work to Kíli, well, she wasn’t sure what to think about that. She tried not to think about the fact that those evenings, something she had come to cherish, would be marred now by last night’s picnic. If she treated the whole incident as though it had never happened, perhaps she could more quickly recover those easy conversations….

Useless thoughts in the here-and-now of the classroom, Tilda reminded herself firmly.

The children’s song seemed to finally come to an end—they had been exuberant today, full of energy knowing that they wouldn’t be sitting lessons tomorrow, but out and about in a practical lesson instead. Most of the children walked back to their family’s homes on their own, or were escorted by one of the older children. A few of the very young were picked up by parents or other family, and those were starting to show up, filing into the back of the room and nodding along with the ballad being sung at top volume. It seemed that none of them would even think about interrupting, a fact that made Tilda smile, and redouble her resolve to find out which battle or epic feat of craft or strength the children were singing about.

Later, when she was cleaning up the room, trying to set everything to rights for the students and teachers who wouldn’t be joining their little field trip tomorrow, Fláim, one of her especial favourites, remained behind to help her and Eilin. He was a likeable lad, affable and full of fun and mischief, but also showed the distinctive demeanour of having responsibilities beyond his years; an instinctive sense of duty and caring with which he carried himself. Tilda knew it first-hand, for Sigrid possessed it in spades, and so did Bain, to a lesser extent. She wasn’t sure what had happened to the lad’s father, but from what little she’d gleaned, he hadn’t made the caravan journey from Erin Luin; perhaps, like Kíli's own father, occupying a lone grave dotting the orc-infested countryside surrounding their home-in-exile.

Oblivious to Tilda’s thoughts, Fláim was still humming the stanzas under his breath as he swept, and Tilda laughed when she caught him at it. “Alright, now I have to know—what does the song actually commemorate? Since I now feel I could sing several parts of it from memory, I should at least know what I’m singing about.”

The young dwarf flushed at being caught singing, but turned wide-eyed at the idea that Tilda didn’t know of this super-important, awe-inspiring event that even got its own song. Thought, from what Tilda understood, the only reason Trewsdays hadn’t yet received their own ballad, was for lack of someone getting around to it. Dwarves, she found, were wont to honour just about every major milestone with a ballad, or a statue, or a battle axe. It seemed to depend on their whim.

“It’s the ballad of King Thorin and the King Consort, your Highness,” he told her.

“Really?” Tilda asked, delighted. “What is it about?”

He looked to Eilin for a moment, hesitating, but she gave him a nod and a roll of her hand, to get him going.

“It’s…about how King Thorin tried to woo the Dragon Riddler, his burglar, who was cunning and smart and talked with a real dragon and didn’t get et or nothing!” It sort of came out in a rush, and Tilda got the distinct impression that Fláim was far more taken with Bilbo’s amazing bravery and not getting eaten than in Thorin’s eventual marriage.

“Off with you, young scamp,” Eilin laughed, shaking her head at the order of importance that had been placed—or rather, lifted, from their King.

With a quick bow, the lad was off, happy to be released from further clean-up—and, any more questions.

Eilin looked over and caught Tilda’s eye, and they both laughed. “Here, I’ll fix us a spot of tea. You might as well know all of it, since you can sing so much of it yourself now.” Eilin pushed her into a chair at the small table tucked into the kitchen nook; not really much of anything except a hearth over which they could boil water or possibly make toast or warm soup, a counter, and a few cupboards. The communal kitchens prepared meals for the staff and children every day, and sent it down with runners, so this was really just a staging area anyway, and a place to catch a quiet moment when the children were in lessons.

The offer of tea was perfectly timed, since Tilda was in no particular hurry to get anywhere tonight and this was a welcome distraction. “Yes, it would be terrible if I didn’t know such important details as the fact that Bilbo didn’t get et by ol’ Smaug,” she said, imitating Fláim’s manner solemnly.

Eilin swatted her arm as she snorted. “You’re as bad as them,” she told Tilda.

“So, what am I missing?” she said, propping her head on one hand, and curling the other around her warm mug as she settled in to listen.

“Well, there is some truth to what the lad says,” Eilin mused. “A good part of the beginning bits are about how accomplished and worthy our King Consort is. And the bits about how much the King had wronged him in his madness.” Eilin looked down at her cup, poking at its contents with her little sugar spoon.

It was still strange for Tilda to reconcile that dwarf, the one who had promised them so much, and given them so little, with the one who came out of the battle, ready to help as he could. Even knowing him as she had begun to—or, more maybe because of it, it was hard for her to think of him as he had been at that time. She could only imagine what his people felt.

“He had much to make amends for, and yet, he instigated his courting—without even the aid of a Cantor! Truly Mahal forgave him his failing, to give him such a chance.”

“Normally courting requires a Cantor?” Tilda asked, surprised.

“A Bond cannot form without a Cantor’s assistance, but yet a soul bond took root at Mahal’s insistence.”

Tilda had many suspicions as to how Mahal’s will had been accomplished in this instance. She wondered if Thorin had been aware of Kíli's interference, or if it had been an accident, somehow. Without really knowing much about how such a thing would work, she could hardly guess. “A soul bond? Sounds lovely,” she said, trying not to feel envious, as it was not something she could ever have, given that Kíli was unable to love her like that.

“Aye. ‘Tis not always undertaken, being as it’s hard on both parties and can be dangerous besides, but it’s as close as two can be, to share a soul like that.”

“And so, Thorin began courting him?” Tilda asked.

Eilin smiled fondly. “He and the Consort—well he wasn’t the Consort yet, of course—so he and Master Baggins were placed in their khufdîn juzurab, their place of confinement, for their Khebabel Azyungaz, their…joining ritual?”

“And so they were married,” Tilda supplied noting Eilin’s stumble, and mind already going a thousand directions with this new glimpse of her husband’s culture. “There weren’t a great load of people there, or anything, no ceremony; just them?”

Eilin looked positively scandalized, and blushed pink.

“Sorry!” Tilda retained enough wit to realise she’d trod upon the dwarrowdam’s sense of privacy. “It’s just, it’s nothing like the ways of Men,” she offered, lamely.

“It’s alright,” Eilin said magnanimously, unbending a little, and Tilda knew she had been forgiven. “But we don’t hold much with the ways of Men, here, begging your pardon.”

Tilda just stared at her. It’s always best to learn to think like a dwarf. Bilbo’s long ago advise had served her so well, even though right now she hated him for telling her.

“No, I don’t suppose you would,” she replied distantly, unable to think of anything at the moment, beyond how, if the dwarves didn't hold much with the ways of men, and apparently had their own very private ways of doing things...she wasn't really even married.

Really, it was the final slipped trolling line; the final little disappointment she could reasonably be expected to take.

And then she got angry.

-o.O.o-

The mines were decades behind where they should be, and Kíli hated to see it when he knew he could help relieve some of the strain, but was prevented from doing so for fear of being exposed. What was the good of having the ability, if he could never aid the people? He’d been in council all day, trying to find solutions that didn’t involve his gifts, and getting nowhere. The council meeting had instead largely been involved in rationing what limited materials were being produced.

Even before the crisis on Ravenhill, Bifur’d already had his hands more than full with trying to seek out the injuries to their mountain caused by Smaug’s less-than-tender occupation. Clearing mines for renewed production was beyond what they could manage at the moment, now that a bare minimum had been reached, for every mine that they wished to open needed to be sung to; cracks and soft spots and other decay had to be soothed and healed with song before the shoring teams could come in and fix the physical damage, least they hurt the Mountain more in their efforts to find and reveal her beauty. Another Cantor would make a huge difference, he knew, and it frustrated him to no end that he couldn’t be of more help now.

His abilities were useful when negotiations came up, since he could sense a fair bit more than the average dwarf of others’ intentions echoing through the rock, but it wasn’t enough. Not when what was needed was more mines; not more treaties. But returning to his own chambers offered no comfort, for he’d managed to muck things up with Tilda yet again, and had no idea how to set things to rights. He must have pushed her last night with his own feelings, must have somehow encouraged her to respond to his own desire, even after he’d so ruthlessly cut himself off from any sense of her, from the moment he’d realised what she meant to him. He didn’t know how to stop influencing her, if indeed that was what he was doing—and he saw few other alternative explanations right now, unfortunately—except maybe to let her go back to her people, and seclude himself with his Master until he learned how to control something he didn’t even realize he was doing.

Of course, she may not want to come back to him, no matter what he promised her for safety, and that thought was like icy water down his spine.

How would he face her father, and explain how he had violated his daughter? How would he face her sister? Not to mention what Thorin would do to him; and he would let them, for it was all deserved. But he was resolved to make the offer, to try and explain to her what was happening, and beg her forgiveness. He could keep his hands to himself; it was his thoughts and desires he wasn’t so sure of.

Of course, it looked like she might have read his mind, for when, hours later, Kíli finally made his weary way into their chambers, it was to find most of Tilda’s belongings strewn over their bed. The lady herself was sorting through everything with a critical eye, carefully adding anything that met her mysterious criteria to the open trunk on the stand, and suddenly all of his intentions flew up the proverbial mineshaft in the face of the fear that clutched his heart.

“What’s all this?” he asked softly, though to be honest, there was nothing gentle in his voice tonight.

Tilda very deliberately finished examining whatever it was she was holding—honestly Kíli didn’t have enough focus to figure it out—before adding it to the others in the trunk. Her movements were deliberate as she obviously was trying to take great care in what she was going to say. He could only see her profile as she stood there with her head bowed for a long time, still clutching whatever it was she had just put in.

“You know,” she said, and her voice was low, so that Kíli had to strain to catch her words, “At one time I gave you credit for being sensitive to the needs of my people, when you suggested we get married by the custom of Men, in Dale. What a grand gesture for them and for my family, and what a wonderful way to cement the understanding of our peoples, after everything that had happened.” Her knuckles turned white as she clenched her hands around whatever the bundle had been. She still hadn’t looked up.

“What—” Kíli started but had no idea what it was he was being accused of yet, and it was easy for her to ignore him.

“I thought it was a sign of how you respected me; that you meant it when you said you wanted a partnership.”

“I do want that!” Kíli cut in, feeling thoroughly confused now. “Of course I do!”

“I know,” she sighed wearily, not sounding happy about it, at all. “I know, because you are devoted to your people, like a prince should be.” And she finally looked up at him, but her eyes were distant, looking at him, but somehow right through him, too. “But that’s…that’s all this is,” Tilda continued, “and I need some time to think about this; about my place in this.”

Kíli had never wanted to shake anyone as badly as he wanted to shake Tilda right now; until she started speaking sense, something he could understand and refute, but this? This sounded more like she had made up her mind and was shutting him out of whatever decision she had made, and he didn’t like the feeling that she felt the one she needed to protect herself from, was him.

Even if an hour ago he would have agreed it was true.

All the lanterns were lit in their brackets, making her pale features and distress that much easier to see. “What do you mean, your place in this?” But Tilda just shook her head, biting her lip and looking for a moment like she might cry.

Finally, she said, “Lots of married couples live separate lives. Give me time to put away all the things I was beginning to hope were happening, and when I come back, I will support you however you need. This marriage was about a treaty, not anything else, and it’s not your fault I’m a fool.”

Kíli finally managed to make his legs work, crossing the room quickly to take hold of her biceps, hoping to make her look at him. “Tilda, you are not a fool,” he said, trying to catch her eye, and failing. “But right now? I have no idea what I’ve done to upset you. Yes, there is a treaty, and yes, our marriage was arranged because of it, but I had thought we were starting to find our way together?” Something in the back of his throat burned as he said it, for she did have every reason to worry about him, and what he could do to her. Obviously, his training wasn’t enough—supposedly it shouldn’t be possible any more for him to influence someone unconsciously like that, but here she was, obviously upset by him and all he could think was that he’d managed to do it once, to Uncle Thorin and Bilbo before he was trained, how could he be absolutely sure he hadn’t done it to Tilda? Her distress today seemed a pretty good indication that he had, and she had figured it out.

“Kíli, I wish you wouldn’t. I promise I will be back, just…give me time.”

“No,” he said, and he didn’t think he had ever sounded so firm about anything before in his life. “I’m asking you, please, tell me what’s wrong. We can try to fix—”

Suddenly she seemed to come alive; lost that hard protective veneer. “Cantors don’t marry!” and she yelled at him, smacking her palm once, hard, to his chest as she did. She deflated just as fast, as if some kind of string had been cut, her anger and passion draining away. She obviously didn’t expect any kind of answer, which was probably best, because of all the things he’d been expecting to hear, this wasn’t one of them.

“Cantors don’t marry, because Cantors don’t love—not that way,” she said dully, and he was sure this time that she was crying, and yet he was unable to say anything—couldn’t make his head decide what it was he was supposed to say. Because she was right, as far as he could recollect; never in the history of his people had a Cantor ever been recorded as marrying, or finding love.

“I don’t care,” he whispered hoarsely, hardly able to get the words out for the fear building inside his heart; fear that she could somehow be torn from him, from his soul, for she was his One, and he had known it since that first day in Laketown, when her unhappiness had called to him over the cacophony of feelings and impressions of that crowded room, even if it had taken him months and months more to fully understand it. It was an irrational fear, and he managed to calm his heart in short order. She was in his heart, and that could not be taken away, no matter what his training may someday entail. Cantors may not love, but he did. Fiercely.

“You may not, my Lord, but I do care. I shouldn’t, I know—you never promised me love, after all; there is no deceit. I just…need some time.”

“Time?" he asked blankly, still struggling to find the right words to ease her distress, but finding nothing with his own guts churning with fear. "Time for what? I love you, Tilda—” and maybe that wasn’t the declaration he’d begun planning, or even remotely the right time, but he’d tell her every hour of every day from now on, if his silence meant that he’d lose her.

“That’s not possible!” she cried, rousing from her resignation. “You are a Cantor, and your people need you to be one, so it's not even like you can decide not to be!" She slumped against him, looking wan, and startlingly small in her distress. "Besides," she said, her voice soft, "we’re not even really married, are we?”

What? Is that what she thought? “Yes, actually, we are,” he said, and was impressed with how even his voice was.

“Except dwarves don’t pay any mind to the customs of Men, do they?”

“And what, you think I suggested we marry in your customs to avoided being truly joined?" He started at her, dumbly. "Tilda—” Be rational, he wanted to say, but it wouldn’t be fair of him to dismiss her fears like that, nor would it help.

“Well?" she demanded, straightening again to give him a hard stare. "We aren’t are we? Not according to your people. They don’t heed the customs of Men—they don’t have big ceremonies with the whole town and boats and music and dancing. Your people have a private ceremony, with a confinement chamber and—”

He laughed, though there had never been a time when he felt less mirth. His mind sheered away from even considering Tilda and himself in such a Bond, because how would he ever be sure it was what she actually wanted? “You’re talking about the Khebabel Azyungaz,” he told her tightly.You’re not ready yet—we’re not ready yet for something like that.” And almost as an afterthought; “And it has nothing to do with being married.” But he knew she didn’t believe him on that, and he couldn’t blame her—his arguments sounded weak at best, and there was nothing similar in the lives of Men that he knew of—no greater commitment one could make than marriage, so how could she understand?

“I appreciate your attempts to make this work, my Lord,” Tilda told him, her green-grey eyes shining solemnly from her pale face. Her voice, though even and controlled, sounded brittle and thin. “I know how important the work is that you do.” She looked down, letting the crown of her head be a shield from his sharp gaze. “You never lied to me, nor am I angry at you, or the fact that you aren’t able to give me any more than you have. I understand that, and I will be okay with it. We’ll still have a brilliant friendship, free of confusion…I just, please don’t ask me to be okay with it now.”

And how did he convince her of his feelings, when history itself, something Tilda respected almost as much as math and numbers, told her that he couldn’t love her? “Please,” he said, wanting to tilt her head back, wanting her to look at him again, but not wanting to use his strength right now to override her own will, not in this moment. Every action needed to be hers, even the ones he wished she didn’t make. “Let me convince you. I’ve been trying to court you; assure you of my feelings, just—”

But she was shaking her head, unheeding and pulling away from his chest. “I’m sure you do care for me; but it’s not the same. You probably don’t even realize it, because you’ve never felt the difference.” She patted his arm, as if she had settled something, though her shoulders slumped wearily, and she wasn’t looking at him. “Let’s not…force anything. We will have a great partnership, you’ll see."

“I don’t want a great partnership, unless it entails the one in which we are deliriously happy, and in love. If you don’t want me, my Lady, I will learn to live with that, but don’t walk away before we’ve even tried.” And it hung in air between them while she shook with her suppressed emotions, and he wished he could just hold her until she understood how very dear she was to him.

 

“I have to see the children on their outing tomorrow, but I’ll be leaving after that; I’ll stay at our – at the cottage, in Dale. You can tell everyone I’m checking in with my people or something while Da and Bain are in Dol Amroth with Sigrid. I’ll be back in a few weeks, before autumn has a chance to really settle in; ready to be the wife you need.’” She held up a hand when he tightened his grip, about to protest—he’d argue with her all night if he had to—but she forestalled him. “Kíli, please let it go. I can’t…I can’t any more, not right now. I’m not sure about anything, and…we’ll talk again when I get back, but for tonight, I’d just like to get some sleep."

-o.O.o-

Whack!

The impact reverberated off of Kíli's hastily raised forearm, the ringing of Fíli's blunt sword off of the steel vambrace loud in the pre-dawn hush. Mist still clung in places, laying like puddles in the low-lying dips in the landscape, and making footing a bit treacherous. The air was already humid, though, so the cool dampness of the fog went a long way towards keeping their exertions bearable. They were the only two out at this hour, a fact for which Kíli was profoundly grateful; Dwalin would have his head if he’d seen Kíli's clumsy footwork and hasty defences in the face of Fíli's solid advances as the two princes hammered at each other in the deserted Training Yard. Kíli had spent years training to be better than this, after all.

It was only practice, so they hadn’t bothered with more than simple mail coats, leather gloves and the vambraces, but, after a quarter hour of determined swings, it was enough extra weight to have sweat beading along Kíli's hairline, and dripping down the curve of his spine.

And it itched.

Kíli grunted a few words for which his mother would have washed his mouth out with soap for, and tried to ignore the tickling sensation.

He wasn’t successful, of course.

Practice had been tough. Even at the best of times, Fíli had the edge when they were fighting with short swords, especially his favoured twin blades, but Kíli was finding it even more difficult than usual to keep up with him this morning. His brother had been surprised when Kíli had offered to train with him with his preferred weapons, being as Kíli usually insisted they go for two-handed blades or axes, where they were more evenly matched, but he’d hoped the brisk exercise and total concentration required to hold his own against Fíli when he was in his element like this would help clear his head. Besides, he was a little worried, in his current state of mind, if he fought with Fíli in a weapon he was actually good at, he might accidentally hurt his brother in his attempts to exorcise his frustrations.

Adding to the mess inside his head this morning, of course, were thoughts of his honey-haired girl, currently sleeping restlessly in their bed. Kíli had woken to find he’d wrapped a strand of her hair ‘round his fingers in his sleep, the scent of it teasing him as he barely caught himself from brushing his lips against those soft strands, to take her scent in more fully, and imprint the feel of her against his skin in hopes he could keep it with him until she returned to him.

And she slept on, too exhausted by the strain of their argument and the fact that slumber had been slow in coming to either of them, remaining oblivious to his unintentional trespass, thank the Valar. The cheeky little smile that normally graced her countenance as she slept—the one that suggested her dreams were happy ones, and always tempted Kíli to watch her until she woke, so he could ask her what she dreamed of; that little smile was gone, replaced by a troubled frown, even as she unconsciously reached out with a hand that was normally tucked beneath her pillow; as if searching for something in her dreams.

Duty was a stern taskmaster though, and Kíli knew he couldn’t accomplish anything with his head and heart so thoroughly distracted and aching, so the practice yards had seemed the perfect solution. He’d only felt moderately guilty for dragging Fíli from his bed this early, but he needed to find a way to make peace with her decision to leave, if only for a few weeks—and her determination to build a wall between them by the time she came back.

All so that they could be friends.

The word, frankly, tasted like ash and piss in his mouth, and he was too blindsided and sleep-deprived to figure out what the hell to do about it, other than the fact that he had to respect Tilda’s wishes. If she wished to leave, he had to let her go.

Even if it was, quite possibly, the last thing he wanted to do.

Of course, if he kept letting Fíli get the upper hand, his brother might just kill him out here, and put him out of his misery.

Thump!

“Bastard,” Kíli grunted, backing up a half step to shake out his wrist where Fíli had struck while he’d been woolgathering.

“You’re a bit slow this morning, little brother,” Fíli grinned tauntingly, as he danced back out of range of Kíli's surly counter-strike. Fíli kept giving him the speculative side-eye, and wasn’t even bothering to try to be subtle about it, so Kíli’s mood was obvious enough that the gloves were off, it would seem. Not that Fíli was an idiot—Kíli had dragged him off to spar at an ungodly hour of the morning, after all, but it wasn’t unheard of for either of them to work through a problem this way; they had an unspoken agreement to not poke or prod, and just let each other get on with it. They would talk when they felt it was necessary. In the meantime, Fíli's job was to be distracting, and let Kíli lose himself in the absolute concentration of a well-matched physical battle.

Apparently, however, his brother was a wanker, and wasn’t playing by the rules, today.

“Were you up later than you should?” he asked, all false solicitousness and concern, and just as obviously trying to provoke a reaction. Kíli felt a bit of vindictive pleasure when he managed to take advantage of his marginally longer reach to get in under Fíli's guard, forcing his brother to do an awkward little dance to get back out of range. “Would I find Lady Tilda to be equally worn out this morning?” he goaded, trying to hide his wheezing.

“Fuck off,” Kíli warned, his voice uncharacteristically sharp. Fíli loved to tease him; considered it his brotherly duty, and he certainly didn’t mean anything by it other than to put Kíli off his footing. He’d obviously noticed Kíli's tendency to flush like an adolescent whenever Tilda so much as glanced in his direction, an entirely embarrassing thing for Fíli to be able to hold over his head, and decided to run with it this morning. Or, just as likely, picked it as the topic most likely to get a rise out of him, in hopes whatever was bothering his baby brother would be shaken loose in the process.

Fíli slowed to a stop, allowing the tip of both swords to drop towards the ground as he stared hard at Kíli, panting irritably a foot and a half away.

And, the bastard, was apparently putting two and two together, and coming up with a number reasonably close to four, for now he was all brotherly concern, looking contrite and apologetic and Kíli wondered if it would get him out of anything if he were simply to storm off right now. He was closer to Fíli than anybody, but he wasn't sure he wanted to talk about this—but was equally sure he did, and that push-pull kept him rooted to the spot, glaring at his boots like he was fifty again.

Fíli sighed. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Leave me alone?” Kíli groused, but the rebuke lacked true heat, and they both knew it.

“Talk over breakfast?” Fíli suggested. “Bombur will ensure we have a quiet corner, and your mood is always improved by food.”

Resisting the urge to flip him off for that entirely unnecessary observation, Kíli nodded, tired and dejected. “Yeah, I don’t think I was going to get much further in our spar, anyway. Talking...would be good.”

Fíli raised a blond brow in honest surprise. “You actually wanted to ask me for advise on your love life? Things must be even more dire than I thought.”

Kíli did flip him an extremely rude gesture that time. He could hear Fíli chuckling like an idiot behind him as he strode off towards his quarters, to strip off his sodden armour and wash up. He knew full well that Tilda was likely awake by now, but the ache that thought caused was nothing compared to the thought of not going; of not taking this tiny opportunity to see her, if this was going to be the last time he ever spent this precious part of the day with her.

Deep down, he acknowledged, he was more than half convinced she wouldn’t be coming back.

He was right, it was a painful experience, and he knew he’d watched her going about her morning routine with his heart in his gaze, but he’d been far too tired to help it. She’d been skittish, with marks like shallow bruises under her eyes attesting to her own sleepless night, and they’d both been awkward as they’d stumbled over themselves, trying to hang onto some kind of normal between them.

Kíli hated that he’d been as relieved when she’d left for the nursery rooms as he was disappointed—and wasn’t that just this mess all over? Frustrated, he’d left almost immediately after, heading for the kitchens and hoping that talking to Fíli might miraculously make any of this make some blasted sense.

Though Bombur was an architect by trade, his Heart Craft was culinary in nature, and once Erebor no longer was so desperately in need of his aid, as it had been in those initial few years of redesign while they waited for more and more of their people to make their way home to help with all the restoration, Bombur had been only too happy to take up Bilbo’s offer, and give up his lead marking pens to don his apron once more, happily taking over Erebor’s kitchens for good, ruling his immutable little fiefdom with a truly terrifying iron ladle.

The mountain never truly slept, and there were always dwarrow up and about, though at this pre-dawn hour, the halls and kitchens were largely deserted, making it easy for Fíli and Kíli to avoid the group of miners playing an early morning game of dice, or the gathering of tanners sitting and having a lively discussion on guild politics, and slide into a quiet table well away from all of them. It was rare for either of them to go undisturbed for any length of time when they were out in the mountain like this, being approached by all who wanted a few minutes of the Throne’s time for issues they felt should be brought to the Crown’s attention. Under Bombur’s watchful eye, they knew they wouldn’t be disturbed, though, and were able to relax for a few precious moments. It was for this reason that many of their important discussions happened here, in the kitchens themselves, or the Dining Hall...well, that and the fact that there was Bombur’s food to be had.

Fíli had listened, first patient, and then horrified as Kíli haltingly poured out the whole sorry tale, absently poking at his breakfast because he had precisely no appetite in the wake of everything. By the time he got to the argument of the night before, the hand holding his fork shook with slight tremors, and his foot was bouncing a light tattoo on the stone floor.

“Let me get this straight,” Fíli interrupted, holding up a hand to halt Kíli's increasingly disjointed tale. “She thinks you’re not even married?” Fíli looked torn between outrage and bewilderment. “Next time I tease you about your love life, remind me of this moment,” he said, ruefully. “How under the mountain did she get this idea?”

His lips curled, a crude approximation of a smile, but it was bitter. This whole situation was becoming one giant prank the universe seemed to be playing on him, and he was tired of it. “Because dwarrow don’t marry like Men,” he explained, and even he could hear the edge in his voice, brittle and sharp. “We form Unions, and have Confinement Rituals; private rites at which family aren’t even present.” And he could feel his anger at the whole damned mess, and he grabbed hold of it, firmly, knowing, if given into, it wouldn’t do anything but make him feel worse in the end. He blew out a deep breath, feeling his temper settle again. “And Cantors, in particular, don’t love, and definitely don’t marry.”

That last bit clearly took Fíli aback too, and Kíli had to wonder at what it was that made all of them overlook the precedent of history, for clearly that had no more occurred to his brother than it had to him. Probably because, Kíli acknowledged, in all their long history, he was the most unlikely candidate for Cantor there ever was.

“But, did you not explain to her—?” Fíli asked, leaving off the question of Kíli's ability to love for now.

Or, being as Fíli was far more astute than Kíli liked to give him credit for, he had already put two and two together to suspect that Tilda might be considerably more than just a political union to his younger brother.

Shaking his head, Kíli cut him off wearily. “Honestly, the question never came up, at least until she’d heard all the wrong bits and pieces, and then filled in the rest with her own conclusions.” Frustration, pent-up and suddenly boiling over, caused Kíli snarl, slamming a hand on the table hard enough to rattle the mugs sitting there. The sting helped, making his palm throb and his anger fade a bit as he turned it over, flexing his fingers as he stared at Fíli in supplication. “She was standing there, like a vengeful sprite, telling me how it obviously never meant anything to me, seeing as I didn’t even bother to secret us away in a Khufdîn.”

Fíli slumped back in his chair, regarding Kíli while the fingers of one hand toyed absently with one of the beads in his beard. Ever the strategist, Kíli recognized his brother’s ‘thinking’ face, despite the sadness there. “And she has no idea of the significance of the Khufdîn, or what it would entail?” Fíli asked, slowly, “Or even that it has nothing to do with a union?”

Kíli shook his head miserably, staring at his hands rhythmically clenching and unclenching on the tabletop. Fíli shot him an exasperated look; he could feel it without even looking up. “Does she even know that she would have to be your soul—your One, for that to work? Or how incredibly rare such an occurrence is?”

“I...I never even thought it would come up, honestly; or be an issue that she didn’t understand.” Kíli lifted his head, to give a tired grimace to his brother. “Guess I didn’t learn anything from Uncle, after all.”

Fíli gave Kíli a measuring look, his brow furrowing. “What I can’t understand is, if all this was building—if she was this hurt and confused, why didn’t you feel it? I mean,” and he took a quick look around to make sure they were not being overheard, “That’s sort of how your Craft skills work, isn’t it? Someone who’s close to you like that...and you spend a lot of time with her everyday—? How was she able to suppress all this, so that you didn’t sense it?”

It had seemed like such a solid plan, at the time.... “I actually deliberately didn’t look,” Kíli admitted, wincing.

Fíli blinked. Stared at him. Hard.

“You didn’t look?” he finally asked. Honestly, Kíli would be a bit offended at the high note of incredulity in his brother’s voice, if he wasn’t beginning to feel like he might deserve it. “I’m pretty sure you’ve sat through all the lessons on marriage rites and duties that I did. Isn’t tending to your partner’s needs the top of those privileges?”

Kíli squirmed a bit, shame-faced. “I didn’t want to...to influence her. Like that. I mean, uhm...with what I wanted.”

“With what you wanted...?” Fíli asked, slowly. “Are you still beating yourself up over Uncle Thorin and Bilbo?” he asked, exasperated. “They forgave you for that—hell, they even thanked you!”

“But what if I do it to Tilda?” Kíli shot back, angry that Fíli wasn’t taking this seriously. “I could take away her choice!” he snarled, before deflating just as quickly. “I...I...I would never know if she really chose me, or if it was all...just that. An illusion.”

“I think,” Fíli said, eyeing him carefully, clearly restraining himself from either pulling him into a hug, or shaking the ever-loving crap out of him. Kíli wasn’t sure Fíli even knew which one he wanted to do. “I think you missed some major parts of Bifur and Óin’s explanations. Maybe it’s part of being a Cantor that you have to be sort of mental.”

Humouring him was easier than fighting, Kíli thought. “Alright, what did I apparently miss?”

“The Bond can’t happen unless the people involved have deep feelings for one another—unless they are willing for it to take root.

Kíli shrugged. “As I recall, Uncle was strongly considering severing the Bond, instead of going to Uncle Bilbo with it,” Kíli told him morosely. “Doesn’t sound terribly willing to me.”

“Uncle Thorin was an idiot,” Fíli said sharply, and Kíli jerked up, startled by his brother’s tone. “And it wasn’t because he didn’t want the Bond,” he continued more gently, now that he was sure Kíli was paying attention, “But because he was afraid of Bilbo’s reaction.” He stared hard at Kíli. “Sound familiar, idiot?” At Kíli's offended glare he smirked. “Honestly, though, you couldn’t have influenced their feelings, or created things that weren’t there—you didn’t make them fall in love. You just...opened the sluice-gate, allowing the Bond to happen.”

Head cocked to the side, Kíli considered this. He’d carried the vague sense of shame and guilt for so long, it was almost inconceivable to let them go, but yet...

Fíli was right, dammit.

How did he miss that?

Fíli was going to be insufferably smug about this, for the rest of the century; possibly the rest of their lives.

“Okay, let’s stop tiptoeing around the cave-in, shall we?” and Kíli winced at his brother’s smug tone.

“Are you in love with Tilda?”

Kíli glared at him, feeling sullen, but Fíli just raised one blond eyebrow, expectantly.

“Yes, dammit. Was there a reason you’re making me say it?”

“Because I think you need to say it. Out loud, but more importantly, to someone other than me; someone with delicate features and a muddy hemline, perhaps?”

“I did say it, last night!” Kíli protested, and tried not to feel like he was behaving like child again, despite the feeling that that’s exactly what Fíli thought he was doing. “It didn’t do any good.”

“You mean, the first time you told her was in the middle of an argument, about her leaving? Of course it didn’t do any good. With the way you’ve been behaving, Lady Tilda has been getting some pretty mixed signals, hasn’t she? What did you do to prove it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re still sitting here, aren’t you? She wants to go away to Dale, then go with her. Spend some time alone; hell, make it a Confinement Ritual if you need to—because I think it’s more than obvious what she is to you, even if you aren’t admitting it. Send a raven back, and Óin can send for the anointing oil. Do whatever it is you need to fix this mess, because if she leaves now, you won’t get another chance.”

Mahal’s Forge. What the hell was he doing here? And when did respecting Tilda’s wishes become synonymous with giving up? Kíli almost laughed at the sudden release of tension; of the weight he’d been carrying lifting enough to show him how foolish he’d almost been. There was still hope, dammit. More than—for Tilda herself had all but admitted last night that her anger and disappointment came because she wanted to be married to him—wanted all the things that Kíli did, and suddenly felt that she couldn’t have them.

That was more than enough to work with. If his words weren’t enough to convince her, then he’d just have to show her. Again and again, until she believed that she was the very centre of his world.

Somehow, he found himself looking forward to it.

He pushed himself out of his chair, the scraping sound it made against the stone floor loud enough to immediately have what few people were in the hall looking their way—not that he gave a shit right now. Leaning rudely across the table and snagging a piece of cold toast off his plate to wolf down on the move, he gave Fíli a look that, while grateful, was also a touch sheepish.

Fíli just laughed. “Get out of here,” he said. “I’ll cover for you, somehow.”

Kíli shot him a wink and a jaunty salute, as he swiftly fled, trying to figure out where Tilda and her little class would be by now. A silly grin spread across his face, and he practically sprinted his way down the five Deeps, heading for the mines.

It was time to stop living in this purgatory he’d made for himself, and the realisation was freeing.

The only thought to mar this new hopefulness was the thought that, from now on, he might have to settle for being the handsome one, if Fíli was going to go around being so smart.

He supposed he could live with that.

 

 

-o.O.o-

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

13

Indelible Marks

 

There had been no tea the morning after their fight, and Tilda was surprised how much that little omission made her heart ache. Kíli had slid into their chambers just as she was getting up, dripping with sweat and obviously fresh from the sparring yards. He’d given her an uncertain smile, a thin expression with no happiness in it whatsoever, before ducking into the bathing room. Conversation as they’d both gotten ready for their day was stilted at best; neither of them knowing what to say, and so they stuttered inanely about stupid, useless things as they both struggled not to look at Tilda’s packed bags.

Kíli seemed bent on respecting her wishes and not pushing her any further, but his eyes looked a hundred years older this morning, and Tilda fled their chambers just as soon as she could, feeling confused and heart-sick and not at all sure what it was she should do any more. Still, by the time she made it to the Nursery Rooms, she’d ruthlessly forced herself to put it away, so that the children wouldn’t see her distress. She’d had plenty of practice in Laketown, after all, in the uncertain years after the dragon fell; reassuring little ones that there would be food, and water, that loved ones would survive illness when she herself had no idea if it would be so, but someone had to be strong for them, when they’d lost too much to be strong for themselves. The grin she gave to the staff and eagerly waiting children on her arrival was genuine and large, she felt, and she was very certain her eyes were dry. Róa launched herself at Tilda’s knees when she slid in the door, squeezing her calf tight in her pudgy arms.

“You’re late,” the badger told her, though her scolding tone was somewhat ruined for having her face smashed up against Tilda’s knee.

“Hardly! I think you’re just extra early,” Tilda told her with mock-hauteur. As intended, Róa giggled and released her hold. Tilda clapped her hands, getting the other children’s attention, and quickly set the older ones to organising the younger, and inside of ten minutes, they were off. Tilda was constantly amazed at how similar managing children was, regardless of race.

Truthfully, Tilda had been looking forward to this outing for two weeks. She had never seen a working mine before, it having never been deemed a lady-like interest, and she had been incredibly curious to have a chance to explore. Doing so under the guise of letting the children develop their stone sense made it seem positively responsible, even. Last night’s debacle was still a painful lump in her breast, jagged and consuming enough to have washed away her anticipation for their little trip today, and the cheerful demeanour she’d so carefully constructed on her walk hadn’t resurrected any of her original excitement.

But now, listening to the children’s carefree chatter surrounding her, she found it wasn’t very hard at all to be buoyed by it, and she whistled a jaunty little tune she’d learned on the wharf as a child, watching the ships departing and arriving on the Long Lake, and imagining how grand it might be to spend weeks at a time afloat, travelling to distant destinations far to the East.

And really, wasn’t that, in some part, what this was about? Experiencing the unknown? Hoping, maybe, to gain just a little bit more understanding of what rock and stone and earth was like inside of Kíli's head; see if she could get even a faint hint of the grand chorus that surrounded him, all the time.

Maybe, she might get some clarity.

Or at the very least, an afternoon free of other, more difficult thoughts concerning her husband.

The mine they were visiting was not in much use, at the moment, and from what Tilda understood, it was for lack of a Cantor being able to sing the passageways, since parts of it, like much of Erebor, had proven to be damaged by dragon occupation. Of course, the parts that were of concern were cordoned off, as well as clearly marked in runes Kíli had made her memorize when he’d first learned where their little day trip was headed. As Tilda understood it, this was actually an ideal situation for the younglings, as the stone was under just enough stress, at least this close to the main levels, to make it easier for their burgeoning senses to pick up. Though apparently what they would sense would be like the faint murmuring of a conversation held in another room with a thick door; a hum and buzz of voices too indistinct to identify anything more.

They slowly ambled from the main corridor into one of the main shafts, and the stone walls reflected nothing to Tilda but happy chatter. Of course, she hadn’t expected anything less, but still, she’d secretly felt that if she concentrated hard enough, she should be able to feel something, too.

The walls changed as they moved deeper, showing exposed crystal structure in beautiful shades of green; Tharak Bazan had been a gem mine, producing mainly apatite, tourmaline and peridot, along with some opal. The fact that this was something she knew no longer surprised Tilda; she could probably name most of the mines in the mountain that were currently at least partially active, and their main products. Sitting with the youngest of children as they learned their minerals had been only slightly humiliating, but helpful, and the children seemed to genuinely enjoy her presence there as they would happily recite all that they had learned to her.

She wandered with the younglings, trying futilely to stretch her own senses along with them, and wondering what it was like to see and hear the world the way that they did. Fláim, who at his age was likely too old to even be included in Eilin’s group, was instead acting as an extra set of hands and eyes for Tilda, and helping some of the younger badgers make this first important connection. Right now, Tilda could hear him as he patiently tried to encourage Róa when she complained bitterly that the mine wasn’t being friendly to her, and Tilda could see that most of the younglings had formed little groups, mostly twos. It was wonderful, seeing how the love and nurture of children filtered down so that even the older children could always be found encouraging the younger. She never would have guessed, all those years ago, just how emotional and fiercely loving her new people were.

“Be sure to keep together,” Tilda admonished the small group when a few of the ones at the back were plainly drifting as they stared about them in curiosity.

“Yes, it’s very important to stay close,” a voice broke in, and Tilda’s head was whipping around before she could stop the startled reaction.

Kíli sauntered around the corner, hands stuffed in his pockets, looking at ease and relaxed and not at all like he was wracked with the wounded hurt that had hung around him—well, both of them, just a few hours ago. He shot Tilda a grin so full of...happiness and smug mischief that her heart did a complicated compression in her chest, rather like Kíli had reached in and squeezed.

It hurt, a lot. She pasted a smile on her face, conscious of all the children gathered ‘round, now totally distracted from their lesson by the Prince's unexpected arrival.

“What are you doing here?” Tilda hissed.

“I thought maybe I could learn to work on my ability to forge connections, too.” Kíli told her, and the older children laughed, for of course he didn’t need to work on hearing the stone’s song.

And there went Tilda’s heart again, and it was still just as painful.

“Perhaps you’d like to join Eilin’s group—she’s taken some of the older students down to the selenium shafts—I’m sure you’d find their activities closer to your level,” Tilda told him, taking refuge in a sort of prim stiffness that made the children giggle again, sure that she was teasing.

“Nope, I think I like it here, just fine,” Kíli told her. “I think I might have a rather lot to learn.”

He was teasing her, she knew. Probably not with any intent to be hurtful, but trying to be charming and obviously make some kind of amends for how things had turned out, but couldn’t he see how incredibly painful this was, given everything her heart wanted to believe about his intentions? It was cruel, no matter how unintentional, and she tried to hold on to a bit of anger, to burn away the hurt, but it wasn’t working very well, because she’d never been very good at staying mad at anyone.

Especially Kíli, it seemed.

She let out a slow breath. She could do this—the children couldn’t know anything was wrong, after all; the absolute bastard didn’t play fair, tracking her down here, but afterwards she could still leave.

She was going to miss her wards, and her small staff.

The thought was unexpected, and the sadness that came with it was swift—and Tilda wished, not for the first time, that things had turned out differently.

She was going to miss Kíli.

That thought was entirely expected, and equally unwelcome, just now.

“Come along then, and keep up,” she managed to bite out through a stiff smile, and she turned to march up the tunnel, glad to have an excuse to turn her back on Kíli, and his charming grin.

“A bit strict, is our Princess, isn’t she?” Kíli stage-whispered behind her.

Tilda just ground her teeth and tried not to stomp her way up the tunnel.

“Prince Kíli!” little Róa squealed, obviously in response to some entertaining, and entirely too irresponsibly charming, thing Kíli was doing to amuse them.

Because of course the little girl would, Tilda thought, mulish and fully ready to resent any and everything that approved of Kíli right in this moment.

It didn’t take long for her temper to cool, of course, and by the time they had traversed the majority of their assigned section, almost to the crystal chamber that was the apex of their trip, Tilda just wished she could shut her eyes and ears to how wonderful her husband was with the children.

Tilda wasn’t sure children were a part of her future; wasn’t sure they’d even be able to breed together, as half-bloods were notoriously rare and difficult to birth, and, given the current state of things between them, she definitely wasn’t sure they would ever have the occasion to try, but...seeing and hearing Kíli like this, so patient and doting with the younglings hanging off him, for the first time, she found herself curious, and wondering what kind of life they might bring into this world, if they were to ever come together. Try as she might to ignore it, she was beginning to suspect her husband would make an excellent father.

He’d been full of little bits of advice—though he never, ever spoke when Tilda was addressing the class, rather adding his wisdom like he was teaching the class with her, adding supplemental observations and remarks that never undermined her, and she was sure this group of children was benefiting hugely from instruction from an actual Cantor, even if they would never know it. Somewhere along the way, little Róa had decided that she didn't want to walk any more, and Kíli had swung her up on his shoulders with hardly a break in stride as she squealed in excitement from her new vantage point.

Tilda couldn’t help but eye Kíli's broad shoulders as they flexed to take the strain, and rather thought she envied the young dam.

Which just went to highlight the whole sorry trip, because she wanted to stay angry, dammit. It was far better than this hopeful beating of her heart, the warm flush she would get on her cheeks every time Kíli shot her one of his smiles that looked far too warm to be allowed in front of children.

Watching her, Kíli just looked smug….and happy.

Tilda was thoroughly confused.

The tunnel at the entrance of the chamber was smooth, and wide enough here for the children to crowd in close to hear her words. “Beyond this point is a Crystal Glade,” Tilda told them, not really sure what to expect from that, but trying to project nothing but confidence. “We are deep in the mine, at this point, at its resonant centre, and the...acoustics of the stone’s song should be strong enough for you to get some sense of it. Absolutely do not leave the chamber! Spread out and explore.”

“Try to find a place where the stone calls to you,” Kíli said, trying to catch all the children’s eyes.

“And have a clear mind,” Jaxom, one of the older badgers, grumbled from the safety of the middle of the group. obviously intimidated by the very idea.

Instead of taking offence at the discontent interruption, Kíli nodded in understanding. “I always had a hard time with that, too,” he admitted. “Maybe we just have too many thoughts in our head?” He reached up absently, setting Róa down gently at his feet as he thought. “Try this—what kind of craft leanings do you have, Jaxom? Do any call out to you, at least a little?”

For his part, Jaxom looked startled to have his groaning taken so seriously. “Uhhh...Mining, I guess. And...uhh, well baking,” he paused, frowning in concentration. “Dunno, maybe building things, like with wood? Or...”

“Ah, I think we’ve got something there we can work with,” Kíli told him gently bringing his recitation to a halt. “Baking, huh? I know a dwarf who is an excellent baker; he helped King Thorin make a very special dessert for the King Consort once.”

If possible, the children crowded in even closer, hanging off any word that had to do with their hero, King Thorin and his even more impressive chosen Consort. “It must have been a pretty special dessert, because Consort Bilbo agreed to marry him.” And here the children all giggled, looking at each other with delight. “I asked him how he could decide what to make, for something so important. Do you know what he told me?”

Solemnly, all the children shook their heads, eyes wide and positively vibrating with excitement for Kíli's every word. It was like he had some kind of magnetic effect on them; he could order each and every one of them to eat their greens tonight when they got home, and they would do it, simply because it was Kíli who was asking. Tilda shook her head, bemused.

“He said that ingredients in desserts were kind of like gems,” Kíli told them, crouching down to better get to their level. “You’ve all learned your gem meanings, haven’t you?”

A ragged chorus assured him that of course they had, though some of them were beginning to look a bit dubious. “So, here’s what I want you to do: Don’t think on it too hard, but as you wander the glade, look at each gem and mineral you pass, and try to match it up to a treat or a candy. Like...what is the simplest meaning for emeralds?”

“Intelligence!” a few of them cried out. “Knowing the future,” came from another group.

Kíli smiled at them, “And abundance,” he said. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I know that when Bombur makes his famous chocolate torte, I can already see the future. I know I’m going to eat an abundance of it, and I’m going to have a bellyache. So, I can associate chocolate with emeralds, right?”

A few of them sniggered, and Kíli winked at them. “That’s silly!” Fláim told him, looking bemused that the prince of all people could be so.

“Of course it is,” Kíli nodded. “It’s not something you’re supposed to think about, just...whatever pops into your head as you look at all the crystals and minerals around you. As a matter of fact, don’t think about it...that’s the whole point. Just stare at the mineral that you’ve chosen, and let your mind drift and just...whatever the first thing is that pops into your head.”

And he looked around at all of them, and lowered his voice conspiratorially, “And once you’ve reached that place, where things just drift into your head like that, then you might hear the stone’s voice, too.”

“Ooooh!” a young dam crowed, finally getting it, and, laughing, the whole group broke to try Kíli's silly little game.

Which left Tilda and Kíli the only two remaining, standing on the cusp of the chamber, neither in nor out. Kíli stood there, hands shoved in his pockets again, looking shy for the first time since he had shown up. “Did you want to give it a go?” he asked her, and his gaze was soft, and intent, and she really, really didn’t know what the hell to make of it.

“I didn’t think I could. I mean, I’m not...I don’t have your abilities,” Tilda stammered, despite that being exactly what she had planned to do as soon as she could reasonably slip away for a quiet moment.

“Under the right circumstances, you could probably get a bit of a...well a bit of a sense of it. Because of me, I mean,” Kíli admitted, and he looked positively bashful now.

Tilda felt herself starring at him, extremely confused, but before she could ask him about it, Róa had come running back, babbling about the stone, and what it had to tell her. With an apologetic glance at Kíli, Tilda allowed herself to be drawn further into the glade, one hand firmly clasped by Róa’s pudgy one.

A moment later, slender, archer’s fingers laced with her other hand, giving her a gentle squeeze as Kíli glanced shyly at her from the corner of his eye. Hesitantly, Tilda returned the pressure, letting Róa’s excited chatter wash over her.

They had only gone a dozen or so yards into the chamber when Tilda was forced to stop dead, dragging Kíli to a halt beside her. Róa, with energy too boundless to contain, quickly tugged her hand free and scampered off towards the noisy groups the other children had made, but Tilda couldn’t tear her eyes away from the scene before her to even feel a tinge of guilt over her departure.

The cavern—and right now it was hard to remember she was still in an enclosed cavern—was immense; Tilda had known this, conceptually, but standing here now as she got her first real glimpse of its vaulted space, she understood just how much the innocuous term ‘glade’ had obscured the reality of its size.

The glade was truly glorious; a subterranean forest of refracted light and alien beauty, stretching out before her until the details were muted, and eventually lost, to the distance.

This far in, the greenish stone of the outside tunnels had been left behind, giving way to a single pathway of latticed bismuth crystal flowing across the floor. Oxidization, had caused the dull grey surfaces to bloom with subtle colour; a riot of soft pinks and greens and blues sliding into one another like an ever-changing rainbow. The centre of this pathway had been worn smooth, of course, but the edges still retained bismuth’s characteristically sharp construction of maze-like, interconnected boxes which shone in the light.

The walls were the grey-green of the same granite from the rest of the mine, but over this grew collections of thread-like, shimmering formations like vines over a cottage, and in amongst the milky moonstone growths, small inclusions of garnet and sapphire, citrine and lapis grew along the cave walls: clusters and cascades of blooms among the vines.

Great crystalline structures rose up out of the floor, forming formidable, towering trees in this strange garden. Some grew upright—pale, cylindrical tourmaline and single-spired quartzes like horns rising higher than Tilda could reach; while others grew along the floor—fallen logs of amber and green lepidolite and sharp-sheared erratics of fluorite and malachite. Pools of absolutely clear, aqua-blue water flooded parts of the glade, with arching bridges, like the one before them, of stone and wood so intricate and delicate as to defy belief, and yet sharing absolutely nothing with the graceful, slender construction of elves; leaving the elven design looking like a weak imitation.

The surfaces of the rock beneath their feet had been cut and polished to expose the formations within, overlain with spreading rough structures, like moss of rust and indigo, creeping across the floor, looking almost like frost crystals as they spread on a windowpane in winter, and giving everything a textured, organic look—and Tilda was startled to realise that this was alive, in its own way; a quintessentially dwarven, slow-growing garden.

Rod-like prisms hung from the distant ceiling, in places grown so large as to have joined the structure of the floor, like pillars holding up a cathedral roof, and everywhere there was an ambient glow as the crystals in the cave reflected and refracted the dim light endlessly, and Tilda was struck speechless for long minutes as she stared and stared, trying to take in what she was seeing.

“A sub-sect of the miners, the Hyushûr Bazan, are Called as rock-tenders, or caretakers,” Kíli spoke beside her, a soft almost-whisper so as not to break the spell. “They tend to the places like this, carefully nurturing a single crystal growth for decades, much like some of Bilbo’s hobbit relatives would tend to subsequent generations of tomatoes, to produce a prized strain. What you see here is generations of careful preservation and care, and dwarves from all over make pilgrimages to places like this, just to hear Mahal speak, for here the song of the rock is clearest.

“Of course, during our absence, the crystals grew uninhibited and haphazardly; but in a generation or two, the Tenders will have set the wild parts to rights.” His gaze lingered on here and there, in places that looked...no different from any others, to Tilda’s eyes, but his smile was strangely fond, and a bit wistful.

Though she’d been trying her best to ignore him, she couldn’t help but turn and really look at him here, in the closest thing to his element that anyone would ever likely see. Kíli's face was serene, a soft smile peeking out in the upturn of his lips, and though his eyes were open as he gazed around, Tilda had the distinct impression that he wasn’t really seeing any of it—or rather, wasn’t seeing what she was seeing at all, and she wished, not for the first time, that she could experience whatever it was Kíli saw through his eyes.

“How many places like this are there?” she whispered, because it seemed like the sort of place one should whisper; either that, or shriek with joy so the pure sound could echo in this hallowed place, forever.

“Here in the mountain, or all the Mansions combined?”

Tilda hummed, not really giving an answer as she wandered onto the bridge, staring around her as if in a daze. From here, the path that stretched behind them, leading back to where they had entered the glade, within yards became obscured by the gentle curve of their route, effectively hiding the cavern’s enterence from her sight. The enclosing walls surrounding them, though visible, were too far away, and too obscured by other rocky growths, to discern clearly; instead blending into these other formations and creating the illusion of a near-infinite space. Gazing around, Tilda was forced to appreciate the fact that this cavern, this innocuously named glade, was likely almost half as large as Laketown, even after the reconstruction of her hometown. The ceiling was taller than the tallest building she’d seen; distant enough to be a subterranean sky in its own right, with tiny flecks of mica and quartz winking down at her with borrowed light.

There would be no one else in the glade today, having been arranged solely for their use, and her class hadn’t taken much time, once given permission, to disperse far and wide, and even from this vantage point most of them were lost to view as they flit in an out of sight among the stone and crystal growths within the cave. Their voices though, and their happy chatter, carried, making Tilda smile.

Kíli, still tethered by their shared grip, had followed, though giving her a moment as she stared around avidly, before answering. “There is only this one here in Erebor; at least, so far. You never know what else may yet be discovered. There are three—no, I think it’s four, in the South and East of us. And...well, there were two in Moria.”

Tilda didn’t bother to ask about the ‘were’; she had learned all about the orc occupation of that most hallowed Hall, and how deeply it rankled, still. Even after the victory of reclaiming their home here in Ereobr, the Mansion lost would never be forgiven, or forgotten.

“And all this, survived the dragon’s occupation?” Tilda asked softly, helpless to tear her gaze away from the strange, luminous landscape.

Kíli hummed in agreement, sounding satisfied and pleased that it was so. “Smaug didn’t bother to squeeze himself down every corridor of the mountain, it seems, and it wasn’t like there was any reason for him to try. Dragons aren’t much interested in gems still in rock’s embrace; they want mined gems, cut and polished, for their hordes.” Kíli paused for a moment, looking both weary and yet hopeful as he contemplated the pristine state of the glade. “He damaged much, during his time here,” he murmured. “But...some things of import survived.”

Silence descended between them, and despite everything, it was more comfortable than Tilda would have believed. Kíli was staring out over the glassy water, apparently lost in thought, and didn’t even seem to be aware of her, giving her the perfect opportunity to study him from the corner of her eye.

“You’re staring,” he told her after a few moments, not even turning his head.

“Am not,” Tilda protested automatically.

Kíli’s little half-smile became a warm grin, and his fingers tightened against her own. “That’s okay,” he told her, as if he hadn’t even been listening. “I like it when you stare.”

Tilda muttered a very pithy curse under her breath, thankful that Róa had run off to join the older children where they laughingly tried to find a reason to tie limestone to sugar floss.

“I like it when you do that, too” he teased.

“Stop it,” she told him, sharply, dropping his hand. “I don’t know what you think you’re accomplishing, but just...please don’t.”

His expression lost all of its gentle humour, and his eyes were intent when he turned to face her, halting her before she really had a chance to think about marching off.

“Don’t what, my Lady?” he asked, sounding at once dangerously determined, and pleading. “Don’t let you know how much you mean to me—”

“Yes, exactly that—stop this!” Tilda whispered, furious, but conscious of the fact that though she couldn’t presently see her class, there were still lots of little ears about.

“No.”

Tilda just stared at him, because she honestly hadn’t expected that. An argument, after his determined behaviour this morning? Yes. An outright denial? Not so much. And the warm way he’d been treating her, the light in his brown eyes; it was all confusing her, and making her wish for things she was trying to put away...

“I’m leaving this evening,” she warned him—and reminded herself.

“If you must,” Kíli agreed, solemnly. “And I will follow.”

His simple declaration hung there a moment; a heartbeat, maybe two, as an almost physical weight between them, before Tilda burst out, “You will not!

Why did she never realise how infuriating he could be?

Her husband; or at least, the dwarf she had thought was her husband, but apparently only in human terms; simply smiled sweetly at her, a soft look in his eyes as he raised a hand, hesitating a moment before bridging the distance. Just barely ghosting over her skin, Tilda had to fight the urge to shiver over a touch so delicate—it was more the movement of air over her cheek than the sensation of skin on skin, and she had never been so aware of anyone in her whole life as she was in that moment.

“Trust me,” he rasped. “There is nowhere I would rather be.” Kíli stepped back, swallowing hard and obviously not unaffected, and not even bothering to pretend otherwise.

“Make your journey,” he told her. “But know that I will follow, as soon as I am able. And then, we will resolve this.”

And then, when Tilda felt like she was shaking and confused and more than a little ready to melt at his declarations, and quite angry about it—

He left.

He...left.

Turned around and headed for the tunnels again, but before he set foot off the bridge and back onto the path, he paused, and turned his head, so that he was speaking partly to the lake, and partly over Tilda’s own shoulder. “You should know, Dwarves have very few traditions when it comes to a union, or the choosing of a partner. We don’t hold much with Men, that’s true, but we don’t hold much with each other, either. A dwarrow is joined when both parties decide that they are, not before, and certainly not at the whim of someone else. Traditionally, there is no large gathering of family and friends, because it’s a private realisation that happens differently for everyone; but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen with a great big crowd and a grand feast.

What we do do, is we mark important events in our life with braids, tattoos, or even piercings. The more permanent the mark, the more...deeply the truth is felt, perhaps, though that too can change from individual to individual.”

“And all dwarves are definitely individuals,” Tilda murmured, bemused at this torrent of information, and lacking anything else to say.

Kíli gave a short, jerky nod, and strode another few steps, before halting again. His fists opened and closed at his sides a few times, but it was a long moment before he spoke, and this time he did not turn around.

“Many consider tattoos the most permanent mark of all.”

And this time he left, and didn’t stop again.

Whatever could he have meant by that?

-o.O.o-

He could feel Tilda’s presence in his soul—or at least, the space that wanted to open for her, if he were fool enough to allow it. It was like a hollow ache, deep inside, somewhere he couldn’t reach, fuelled in part by the knowledge, or rather, the soul-deep certainty, that she was his One—but even more so, by the emotions that had grown up over time; months of visits shyly learning about each other capped with weeks of watching her slowly gain confidence as she struggled to fit into a society that was terribly closed and insular.

Love.

It wasn’t something he’d ever really given much thought to, but now...now he couldn’t stop thinking about it; how to show Tilda how he felt without overwhelming her or making her feel trapped or obligated; both outcomes which would shred him to his core with shame. How to care for a girl, a daughter of Men, in an underground kingdom that differed so much from what she knew...

How much it would hurt if he could never earn her feelings in return.

How amazing it could be if he did...And didn’t that thought cause a contradictory little flutter of nervous fear, as if that wasn’t exactly the outcome he wanted.

Of course, his thoughts weren't all completely pure...the kiss they’d shared in her little cottage. The feel of her pressed against him wearing nothing more than that clinging silk chemise over her underthings; warm and yielding and utterly innocent. Memories of these phantom sensations still kept him up at night. And invaded his thoughts at all the awkward moments.

Like now.

“Kíli!” Uncle’s voice was sharp, meaning he’d probably already called his name a couple of times. Dammit.

“What? Oh, sorry,” Kíli scrubbed his face with his hand, trying to force some alertness back into his weary brain. A brain that was more than half caught up in trying to analyze his earlier encounter with Tilda—and what wasn’t thinking and worrying over whether or not he’d gotten through to her at all, was beginning to regret his early morning sparring session with Fíli. And thinking longingly of his bed.

Thankfully, they weren’t in formal sessions or anything; instead, simply working in one of the many council chambers, where they could be visible and accessible. Various knots of Council dwarves, Guild leaders and Craft masters also used this space. Working cooperatively—or as cooperatively as those disparate segments of the council ever got—they flowed in and out of the room in tiny waves as the morning progressed, providing a constant buzz of background noise and shifting emotional landscape for Kíli to tune out.

Thorin was giving him a steady stare, and whatever his uncle felt he saw in Kíli's mien had concern beginning to bleed into the space between them. “Where are your thoughts today, nephew?” Thorin asked.

Forcing himself to sit up straighter and open his eyes a little wider, Kíli did his best to project nothing but weariness back. “No thoughts today, I’m afraid,” he admitted with a small grimace. “Didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all.”

“Hmmm,” Thorin was eyeing him, and Kíli knew he was debating on inquiring further.

“Just, worried about Tilda being away for a few weeks,” he added, ducking his head as if sheepish. “Silly stuff, really.” At least it had the dubious benefit of being partly true. Thorin grunted, but thankfully let it go.

Of course, that just meant that Kíli had to actually make a better effort to concentrate on the rationing reports in front of him. Some things never change, he mused tiredly. Of course, this was rationing of materials, instead of food, but it was equally dull work, for at least Bilbo had been a godsend when it came to allocating foodstuffs. When it came down to iron and gold ore, phosphor and carbon, Bilbo washed his hands of the whole business. But the distraction over the coming weeks would be a welcome one, Kíli told himself firmly. If I don’t give up and ride to Dale to convince her to come home, first.

Of course, riding off now, and not letting her leave without him, was exactly what he wanted to do, but with Bifur still away from the mountain, investigating that dirty-minded, nosy bugger Roac’s concerns with a unit of Dwalin’s guards, Kíli had to defer any departure until he returned; he had a duty to the Kingdom, a complicated battle between his heart and his sense of honour.

Of course, after a few days of worry and regret, things might look a whole hell of a lot simpler. Kíli wasn’t sure if he’d even last the two weeks it would take for Bifur to return, but that was the limit he’d set for himself—he had to at least give her a bit of time, as requested. After that, well, he was planning on bringing gifts; jewellery he’d been envisioning just to suit her fine bones and wide bright grey eyes, books on khûzdul or math or sunsets in the dessert. And music—he’d sing to her from her garden if she wouldn’t give him entrance. Hell, he’d bring the damned Oliphant if that’s what it took, though after the failure of the, at least reasonable, carved spoon, he felt deeply suspicious of any suggestions that came from gossiping merchants.

Anything it took to convince her that he was sincere; that despite thousands of years of history, despite all logic, despite all reason, his heart was only ever in her keeping.

In the meantime, he was going to go mad.

Somehow, he didn’t think he could pull off Semi-Functional Lunatic with as much success as Master Bifur, though.

It was a depressing, and sobering, thought.

 

Uncle Thorin continued to glance at him through their morning, and all the little mini-meetings that cropped up with various officials; so obviously he was still more off than on. Frankly, he just wanted to sleep, but didn’t particularly want to go back to his quarters, and see all of Tilda’s things gone, as if he could deny it if he didn’t see it. Sounds like a capital plan. He threw himself into the reports once more, while the sound of Glóin arguing with the new head of the merchant guilds provided a dichotomous background harmony.

Of course, just as Kíli finally, finally, managed to (mostly) put aside his tangle of emotions, and actually get his mind into accomplishing something, he was interrupted by a new distraction.

Faint chimes could be heard in the outer chambers; a sound that Bilbo often, fussily in the dwarves’ (quiet; never, ever voiced) opinion, griped needed to be more melodic, though Kíli couldn’t understand it—the sound was abrupt and utilitarian, and not at all prone to making his teeth ache the way his shorter uncle oft complained. Seconds later, a soft tink announced that a message had been dropped into the delivery chute, and Thorin pushed himself away from their table-cum-office to deal with it. Kíli tried not to view the moment alone as being fraught with danger, with thoughts of Tilda and their unresolved fight dogging his thoughts, and he scrubbed at his eyes tiredly as he listened to the faint sounds of industry and the louder sounds of disagreement going on around him.

Seconds, or, more realistically, moments later, Thorin pushed a scrawled parchment message under Kíli's nose. “It seems that young Gondorian whelp from Laketown, Denethor, is requesting to speak with us,” Uncle Thorin grunted, lips pursed with faint confusion.

Kíli looked up at his Uncle sharply, “What on earth could he want?” he blurted, but almost immediately wished he’d swallowed his tongue, instead, when it occurred to him that if Tilda had sent a message yesterday, the young Lordling could be here to escort his wife....

Kíli felt sick.

With iron willpower he hadn’t even known for sure he possessed, Kíli kept his expression vaguely puzzled as Thorin stared at him, obviously expecting that Kíli, as the only other human under the mountain’s husband, would know something about this unexpected guest, but before he could say anything or probe deeper, Balin was already announcing him at the chamber door.

“Your Majesty, Highness,” Denethor greeted, bowing in a manner that spoke of drilled practice to the precise angle of incline and specific amount of deference, but with none of the comfort of familiarity and use. Kíli felt sorry for him, for it was obvious he had high expectations being placed on him, to have been drilled so, and from what he’d been able to parse from Tilda’s dissatisfied comments, he was overly concerned with fitting within what he’d been taught, with the air of one who had yet to get out from under his father and learn for himself. Kíli rather thought the Steward had been wise in sending his boy to Bard, though he might not like what he got back, if Denethor truly learned anything while he was away.

“I come with a message from His Majesty of Dale, King Bard—” and here, only years of training prevented Kíli from making a face at the man’s self-important formality, for they of course knew who Bard was. “—of unsettling happenings in Dale city and in Laketown.”

Kíli knew he shouldn’t feel relieved to hear of trouble in his wife’s homeland, but the thought of this popinjay coming to escort his wife home had been almost more than Kíli could bear, despite knowing that Tilda couldn’t stand the man.

Thorin, who had no notion of the turmoil in Kíli's breast, took this news in stride. Looking impassive as always, he motioned their guest to be seated. “And what does Bard wish to tell us?’ Uncle asked, deliberately dropping the honorific.

Denethor stiffened, a tiny betraying movement obvious only to a trained observer, clearly nettled by Uncle’s subtle rebuke. He eyed the offered seating dubiously, but managed to settle himself in a chair meant for someone a foot shorter than himself with considerable aplomb, though it couldn’t have been comfortable. A faint flush was visible above his heavy velvet collar, but his expression remained stoically bland.

He must have said something to offend Balin, Kíli decided, for their cousin to have brought Denethor down here, where there were no accommodation for tall folk, rather than sending word to Uncle and himself to meet their guest in one of the more practical receiving chambers. Still, despite it all, he was handling himself well, Kíli had to concede.

Steepling his fingers before him, trying, and mostly failing, to mask his discomfort as his knees banged the underside of the table every time he shifted, Denethor finally began. “During the restoration work on Dale, some of the old records from the original city have been recovered, and in some cases, restored,” he said.

“Bard had mentioned this,” Thorin agreed, noncommittal and waiting.

“Mostly it has been clerical records: payments, inventories, earnings, daily disbursements and the like—though there were a few memoirs and...and travel logs from some of the caravans that passed through.”

Thorin waited politely, but with every indication of a dwarf who would shortly lose his patience, and Denethor tried not to look chastised as he hurried to explain himself. “The point is, some of those records have gone missing recently; particularly ones that gave detailed accounts of journeys further east of your Mountain, past Dorwinion and the Sea of Rhûn.”

Thorin blinked, a large reaction by his standards, clearly not expecting this.

“So, someone is looking for maps and travel information to go further East? An enterprising merchant, perhaps?” Kíli broke in, to give his uncle a moment to digest this strange bit of news.

Denethor looked startled, clearly not thinking along those lines. “Possible, I suppose,” he mused, and for a moment he sounded genuine, and less stiff.

“And why did Bard feel that this information needed to be brought to my attention personally?” Uncle Thorin rumbled, still leaning back in his chair and watching their visitor assessingly.

Denethor’s expression flickered, a brief glimpse of...something, before he smoothed it out again. “A father’s concern for his youngest?” he offered, as if he couldn’t really fathom it, and Kíli realised that the distaste Tilda felt for this man was obviously mutual. “The king, of course, has departed for the long journey South, for his eldest’s wedding, and wanted you to be aware of these incidences, in case something becomes of them during his absence.”

Ah, Kíli thought, settling back in his chair. That’s the part that rankles. Bard’s left you to look after Dale while he’s gone; probably not solely, likely as part of a council, and it’s pricking your pride that he’s preemptively taking this out of your hands and subtly asking us to deal with it, instead.

Not subtle enough for you to miss it, though. I imagine that was part of Bard’s plan, too.

So, obviously Bard realises you’re a bit of a pompous prick, and has chosen to give you a set-down. Wonder what you did to anger him?

The theft of a bunch of old manuscripts was probably nothing more than an opportunistic merchant, hoping to bypass the safe passage through Erebor and Dale, and all the incumbent inspections and fees that that entailed; an agent of free enterprise, as Nori would no doubt classify them—and himself, if asked.

Probably....

But the thought that there was a free agent at work out there, while Tilda would be travelling to Dale, added to the nebulous danger already presented by whatever wild animals were loose out near Ravenhill, left a very large knot of worry balled in his gut.

At least Nori had agreed to travel with her to Dale, he consoled himself. And as soon as Bifur gets back, I will be free to see how quickly a pony can make the distance to her side.

And it was this pleasant contemplation that kept him busy for the rest of the fruitless discussion.

-o.O.o-

 

Dearest Sigrid,

You might want to reconsider who you appoint to give you wedding advice; apparently three months in, and I still don’t understand my husband.

And I think I’m about to make a big mistake...the problem is, I don’t know which course of action is the mistake...

...

In times of stress, Tilda often found herself composing letters to Sigrid, so she supposed that though this might be the most inopportune time ever, it made perfect sense that the only thoughts with any sense in her head were in the form of a letter...Sigrid, even when it was just in Tilda’s own head, always seemed to give such logical advice.

What had he meant, about the tattoos?

Of course that part, out of everything that had been said, was the part her mind kept circling back to.

It did seem a bit easier than picking apart the whole realization that partnership may very well mean something completely different to Kíli and his people...something more, well, more permanent and sacred than her own understanding of marriage, which by and large was a political alliance, or skill-share agreement. If there was some affection or even love present, so much the better, but it was hardly a requirement. If a baker had a shop, but no one to mind it, he would look to broker a deal with a local girl with some skill with numbers to watch the counter.

If a kingdom needed assurances to keep hostilities at bay, they went looking at their neighbours’ daughters.

Was it possible the dwarves looked at this differently?

Something perhaps even deeper than marriage, though that was a difficult thing to grapple with, so Tilda reluctantly put it away for the time being.

But still, Kíli's parting words hung in the air around her, and she had no idea why.

A distraction; that’s what I need, she thought. And a moment to think.

All around her, she could hear the sounds of engaged chatter, laughter and excitement as her children explored. The crystals here on this side of the wooden bridge Kíli had left her on were mostly lavender and spring-green, giving a feeling of renewal that tickled Tilda’s soul in that moment. A small grove of blue-green fluorite crystals formed a tidy little niche, with their surfaces that always fractured on fabulously, mathematically perfect straight planes. In amongst them grew a quartz vein jutting knee-height along the floor that was just about the right height for her to sit on, if she didn't mind bending her knees a bit more than usual. From this point, the main path branched into several smaller ones that meandered their way into the crystal garden beyond, but the bridge behind her was the only access to it, and conversely, the only way out, as well. Sitting here, with half an eye—and both ears—focused on the only gateway, Tilda would be able to relax, knowing none of her charges could wander off.

There was no hesitation as she picked an acceptably smooth spot, and plunked herself down, glad for the relative privacy this afforded her since all that was likely to come of her attempt was her feeling very foolish.

Alright, then, she was determined to give this a proper go.

And it absolutely had nothing to do with resolutely Not Thinking About Kíli.

At all.

Really.

And especially Not Thinking about how he planned on following her to Dale.

Which rather defeated the purpose of going, of course. How was she supposed to convince herself to forget how wonderful he was, when he was right bloody there, underfoot?

Right. Not Thinking About Kíli.

Allowing her eyes to slide closed, she first concentrated on all the noises of the children, and once she was content that she could hear them all, she began slowly trying to push past that noise, in search of this elusive ‘stone sense’ the children were supposed to be developing. Kíli had once told her that sometimes it was like meditating; that the rock resonated around you, and you had to sort of slide your thoughts in-between, so that they resonated in the same way, though he’d been much more technical about it, talking about frequencies and such.

Tilda had, of course, been absolutely enthralled.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to empty her mind. She could smell the faint tang of stone, a sort of clean mineral scent that had come to replace the smells of the lake in her mind. Róa’s little voice stood out, and her tone made Tilda think the little badger was likely stamping her foot in indignation. A soft, soothing murmur followed, probably Fláim, or even Jaxom, who could be comforting when the occasion called for it. Tilda forced herself to try and let it slide away from her, determined to capture this elusive feeling. Of course, it was a ridiculous goal; she wasn’t a dwarf, she was of the race of Men, but she never felt particularly reasonable when being told she couldn’t do something, she saw no reason to start now. Besides, it sounded like fun.

And a very good distraction from her inner turmoil.

Idly, she wondered what rock would sound like; did the agate sound like an old aunty left too long ignored? Did the emerald give regal commands, while the granite dispensed practical, steadfast advice? She could certainly use some now. Her anger of the day before had cooled, leaving behind a weary ache. The coolness of the quartz beneath her was soothing, as if she could release the heat of her temper into its keeping. Her lips quirked at that thought; Thorin was sure to find it disrespectful. She just felt so tired of trying, and not being enough; but honestly, when had that ever stopped her? She had never been proper, never been Tilda of very much, often bloodied or bruised or mussed, but she’d always been fiercely, independently herself, because if she let go of that, she was afraid she wouldn’t know who she was any more.

So, what are we doing now? she asked herself sternly. For Kíli, she’d tried, honestly tried, to be a proper princess, and to fit into that mould; the problem was, it had never seemed to be Tilda-shaped. In point of fact, she was involved in childcare, which, however wonderful and important in dwarven society, was certainly not an occupation usual for her station; someone of her station would be expected to be helping with the administration of the kingdom in some way.

So, if she couldn’t be a proper princess, would an improper one do?

Kíli seemed to think so, her mind whispered at her; or perhaps she could fancy it was the rock itself; because she wasn’t sure her own advice of late was worth trusting. They had seemed like they were heading towards something…well, something Tilda hadn’t wanted to think about since finding out that Kíli would never love her like that, and at most would remain a cherished friend.

He had seemed very pleased, that morning, when she had braided his hair for him. Reluctantly, she pushed that thought away as…as inconclusive. It could have been anything, after all. The armlet he made—hadn’t that been his First Craft? And he’d made it with her in mind, obviously, with its water theme and much more delicate design than was usual for anything dwarven…

...

Cantor’s don’t love.

They have an important job that fills their soul, leaving no room for anyone else.

...

This is a fact.

So, if she was an improper princess, could it be possible for Kíli to be an improper Cantor?

This might also be a fact. And it was one that was so very worth exploring.

...

Tattoos are often considered the most permanent mark of all…

Didn’t Kíli have a tattoo? A great big one, that covered a good part of the left side of his chest?

One that, though she hadn’t seen more than brief glimpses of since, she had most certainly been unable to stop herself from peaking at, their first night together?

It had gleamed in the firelight; obviously some kind of ointment had been freshly smeared over the pinked skin…

So, a still-healing mark?

...

Sternly, Tilda squashed the excited flutter in her stomach at this memory—and the conclusion that wanted to wriggle free. It could be a mark for anything...maybe for reclaiming the mountain, even; or Canting, or for Sunday roasts with his mum, for all Tilda knew.

But, maybe…

No. The only way to find out for sure, was to ask. She’d sort of been invited to ask, if she looked at Kíli's parting words the right way, hadn’t she?

So, step one is find out what that bloody tattoo is about, she decided. Because maybe...maybe Kíli had been trying to tell her something all along, and she just hadn’t understood the message.

Think like a dwarf, Bilbo had said.

And so she had: A dwarf thought that Cantors didn’t love, at least not romantically.

But perhaps, what she really should have been focusing on, was learning to think like Kíli.

A dwarf who was a Cantor in defiance to all his people’s most sacred laws. A dwarf who used a bow instead of an axe; who was kind and welcoming to outsiders, including muddy-hemmed young girls.

A dwarf who also didn’t live up to the rules.

Because a dwarf who also didn’t live up to expectations...and somehow, made his own niche, despite it all—that might just be a dwarf with whom she could find her happy ending, like in the fireside stories her da used to tell them; full of witches and monsters, and fairies…

...and love.

Tilda’s lips twitched, smiling with genuine happiness for the first time in weeks.

Heart feeling cautiously hopeful, and much, much lighter, Tilda hummed a little in disappointment when she realised that she’d quite forgotten about trying to feel the rock, but she did seem to give herself some useful advice, so she’d call it a win. She could almost imagine the faint vibrations beneath her, as if the rock were communicating for real—

Though it was—now that she was focusing on it—a rather jarring sensation she was getting, for some reason...

A hand closed cruelly about her arm, jerking her to her feet, and something decidedly dirty was stuffed into her mouth before she could even draw breath to protest.

“Hello, poppet,” a voice breathed against her ear, even as she was being yanked from her little bower, with an iron grip and an almighty yank that had her stumbling, struggling to get her feet under her as she kicked and fought to breathe as she was dragged, back held tightly against the chest of her assailant, and in a blink, they were off.

Across the bridge, and down the path; away from the Crystal Glade chamber; away from the faint sounds of the children still laughing and frolicking there, and away from any semblance of safety— she was dragged, pulse racing, chest struggling for air, Tilda didn’t even think it odd that panic was not among the emotions coursing through her right at this moment. A persistent ache in her abused lungs? Yes.

Honest fear for the children, and what this madman might do to them if one happened to cross their path? Most definitely.

Panic, though? Not so much. Though still feeling scattered of wit at her hasty abduction, Tilda continued to catalogue their route with careful eyes, praying to the slumbering rock that the children remained distracted, and trying not to kick up any more noise than she had to while she struggled, however futile her efforts were proving against superior positioning and strength. One part of her mind was distracted, trying to work out the necessary leverage to counteract those advantages, while the rest of her continued to try and make sense of her predicament.

Somehow, dark strangers jumping out of shadows, though highly concerning, didn’t hold a candle to dragon’s fire raining down out of the night, or orc raids in her village. After those experiences, Tilda felt it would take a lot to truly frighten her into hopelessness or despair.

Everything had happened so swiftly, and the chamber was so huge, offering too many opportunities to meld with dark stony recesses...her attacker had obviously waited for his moment, knowing the likelihood of being seen was slim indeed.

An arm was banded around her, strong as the steel bilge hoop on a barrel, pinning her arms to her sides, and practically lifting her off the floor so that she couldn’t get enough leverage to struggle to any great effect. Once they left the Glade behind, Tilda tried to kick out with her feet, to make some noise, on the small chance of alerting anyone who was near enough to hear, but she was wearing slippers and they were useless.

“Very handy of you to come this far out on your own,” the voice told her.

It was a fact that they sounded unbearably smug about the situation.

Bugger.