The baying of the wolves split the silence of the woods, the jarring noise echoing, but close. Too close. A shiver of dread rocketed down Fíli’s spine. His whole body trembled, his legs burning with the effort of cutting through the snow. A fiery knot had spread itself across his ribs, catching the breath that rattled past his chapped lips.
"Fí? Nadad, m’scared." A little voice whispered miserably beside him, icy fingers worming beneath Fíli’s furs to clutch at his hand.
Fíli returned the grip silently, glancing down at the lump Kíli made jammed into the crook of his arm, and felt his heart clench in silent distress. There was frost beginning to form in his brother’s dark hair, his lips bloodless. Even without the wolves, they couldn’t stay here. The snow was up to his knees and freezing rapidly as an icy wind swept down from the mountains. He had never been so cold he burned before, and the temperature was still dropping. Fíli didn’t have to turn around to know the other five dwarves tagging along behind them were faring much the same.
"It’s going to be fine, Kí," he whispered, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice.
Being brave for his brother was second nature, but usually he could turn that bravery into a solution. Kíli always needed rescuing from some trouble of his own making. But this time, Fíli didn’t have an answer. Every winter he’d seen Thorin and Balin study maps of the mountains with strained faces, talking about patrols and traps and perimeters. Hushed whispers about missing chickens, tracks and blood whenever the snow came, until his Amad would look at he and Kíli pointedly and they lapsed into silence. He knew that when the wolves came, the adults were afraid.
Fíli choked as another long howl quavered into the dusk, biting back the lump that pulled at his throat. He thought of his Amad, and prayed to Mahal she was safe. She had been by the mountain gate with other adults, watching their snowball fight when the wolves had appeared. Had thrown herself at the pack when they had cut the children off from Ered Luin. As they’d fled, he’d seen the guards. And his Amad was tough like granite. She had taught him to use his knife, after all.
She would be fine. She had to be.
"Fíli, what do we do?" Another tearful voice said over his shoulder.
He turned, losing grip under one boot and fighting for balance. When he had righted himself, he looked hopelessly at Hathí, who clutched her younger brother with the same iron grip he did his own. She was younger than him by a few years, and there was a look of trust in her eyes that made Fíli want to vomit.
Fíli floundered, wiling himself to calm down. How he’d become the leader of their undignified escape was beyond him. They were staring at him like everyone stared at Uncle Thorin, he thought bleakly. True, he had screamed for them to run, had led them here. But the only reason they were in the woods at all was because there was nowhere else, not because he had any idea what he was doing. Just an hour ago they had been running and laughing together – they had been his friends. Thorin might be his uncle but Fíli has never even compared – he cannot possibly do what they are expecting -
‘You have a duty, Fíli.’
The voice cut through the scattered threads of his thoughts, unbidden, and Fíli cut short another harsh breath as he recognised it. Thorin. Mahal, he wished his uncle were here. The memory was patchy at best. The most Fíli could picture were the glittering ends of his uncle’s braids and the wide expanse of his lap, warmed by the fire. And yet the words were strong, clear.
'You might not feel it yet, but one day you'll understand. You carry us all, magabshûn.'
More snatches of it came back the longer he stood, Hathri calling his name fruitlessly as loudly as she dared. His mother had told Thorin off afterwards, Fíli remembered, having listened at the door when he should have been in bed.
" - burdening him! For Mahal’s sake Thorin, he’s just a child!"
"Dís, he needs to know. Things are always going to be different for him, even away from Erebor."
There was a pause, one that Fíli knew from experience contained a glare. “Sometimes I can’t help wishing you’d had your own children.”
Suddenly a dark shape crossed the ridge beneath the trees, shattering the picture in front of Fíli’s staring eyes. His insides gave an almighty leap as one of the younger children began to cry. They’d been found. It felt like his stomach was crushing up into his lungs, every beat of his heart thunderous. He muttered a word he’d heard Dwalin use last week, when he’d stubbed his toe on an anvil. It would have made Amad threaten to wash his mouth out.
“Fí,” Kíli squeaked, his voice strained like it was caught between a scream and a whisper.
Kíli’s dark eyes were huge, glassy, his hands clutching Fíli’s clothes so tightly he could see the outline of each tiny knuckle bone. Five more shadows streaked over the hill. Every second was as valuable as gold. Fíli cast his eyes around every tree, leaping between their options. There were very few he could think of. Maybe there were things he was missing – Balin hadn’t taught him strategy yet. He’d been looking forward to it. He caught sight of a pine tree with low branches and swallowed hard. A mixture of dread and bile rose in his throat, as an idea congealed, half formed. It would have to be enough.
He very much agreed with his mother; why hadn’t Thorin had his own children? He knew what they called him – Durinul’rayad. Knew what he must do.
You have a duty.
"Shh, it’s going to be all right," he said as loudly as he could without his voice cracking. "Hathri, do you see that pine tree over there, the one with the lower branches?"
He hoped with every bone in his body that she couldn't read the fear in his face.
"Yes, but the little ones –"
"I have an idea. Run!”
Nobody needed telling twice. Kíli was almost dragging Fíli behind him, moving with frenetic energy. Fíli squeezed his tiny hand.
"Kí, I have to drop back. I’m going to be fine, nadadith… Let me go, I must. I have to help the others, keep running."
Kíli whimpered, but a little bit of his usual fire came back into his eyes. He nodded with a genuine scowl that made him look like their uncle. Hiding a shaky smile Fíli let the others draw ahead, falling in behind Brak and hauling the youngling forwards when his feet got stuck in the deep snow. The wolves howled again as they closed in on their prey.
The dwarf children piled in around the base of the pine tree. Fíli struggled his way to the front and looked at the branch high above their heads, the sick feeling in his stomach rushing back again. He had to be brave. Had to look after his brother.
"Hathri, together we can push them into the tree," He muttered to her, feeling his stomach loosen a little at the relief and consternation bleeding onto her face.
In a fraction of a second she nodded, hoisting her little brother onto her hip. He helped push the little dwarf upwards until his hands gripped the lowest branch, making sure he was secure before reaching for the next child. Two, three, four…he reached out for Kíli, who looked torn between getting up to safety and staying with his brother. A wretched frown of stubbornness and indecision carved itself into his forehead.
"Just get into the tree. Do not argue," Fíli told him shortly, nodding at Hathri.
She hooked Kíli around the waist, and between the two of them they managed to avoid his flailing feet as he gave a yell. The other children reached out willing hands to pull him up, Fíli’s anxiety lessening the minute Kíli’s fight went out of him and he settled for perching in the branches, wrathful. There was a calm acceptance settling over his mind as he looked behind him one more time. The wolves were close enough that he could see their eyes gleaming out of the darkness. Pale like the moon. He put one hand on the pommel of his knife.
Hathri screamed and froze, staring. The whites of her eyes were ghostly in the unfolding darkness. Fíli opened his mouth to call her name, thought better of it, and just grabbed her.
"Step on my hands," he muttered, careful not to let his brother hear. Best Kíli didn’t realise what was happening until it was too late.
"What about you?" She choked.
"I – I will be fine," The words felt like lead in his mouth. "It is what I must do."
She stared at him, torn, but at another howl didn’t argue again. Fíli knelt in the snow, creating a little platform with his hands to push her into the tree.
"Fíli!" Kíli screeched. Realisation had dawned over his little face, followed by horror. He lurched like he was going to launch himself from the branches, but the hands of the others held him down.
Alone, Fíli tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. He met Kíli’s eyes once, trying to apologise and knowing it was inadequate, then unsheathed his knife with shaking hands. It had never felt so cumbersome. Every nerve in his body was screaming, telling him to flee. He looked up at the tree, but there was no other option. The branches were too high to reach on his own.
For one empty second, Fíli wondered whether he was going to die. It wasn’t fair. He had always been proud of his blood before now – had known before he could talk that he was a Son of Durin, favourite of the stone. He didn’t think he had ever realised before what that truly meant. Had never wished he’d been born someone else until this moment. His phantom crown felt like a noose.
The wolves slowed, circling the base of the tree. Hemming him against its trunk. Kíli was howling, the kind of anguished scream Fíli had only heard once before, when their Adad had gone back to the stone. The leader of the pack lifted its muzzle and snarled. It had so many teeth. Fíli’s breath came in hyperventilated little gasps, white plumes that escaped into the sky.
He gripped the knife tightly in one hand. Point up, knees bent, he remembered sluggishly, his body struggling to obey through the cold and his own fear. Use your senses.
The leader pounced a split second later, Fíli’s knees contracting to take the blow, his arm coming up to shield his face. Sharp pain tore down his forearm, a hysterical scream bursting from somewhere deep in his throat as he was driven into the snow. Hot teeth slashed down. Fíli jerked his head to the side to keep his unguarded neck out of range, the putrid smell of the animal's breath almost knocking him out on the spot. His knife, where was his knife? He cast his hand through the snow at his side, palm catching the blade. He didn’t even feel its bite.
In a second it was in his hand; he drove it upwards. There was a soft push of resistance and then the slick feeling of warm blood over his hand, the iron tang of it hitting the close space between them. The wolf bayed and jerked. It’s jaws snapped down at the crook of his shoulder, and this time Fíli wasn’t quick enough.
The world flamed red.
Fíli howled in agony as its jaw closed like a hunter’s trap, his heels digging fruitlessly into the snow. He drove the knife home, again and again, the squelch of torn flesh nothing compared to the hell coursing through his body.
As the wolf went slack Fíli slashed at it one last time, catching it across the neck. A fountain of red sprayed across his face, across the snow, and the beast collapsed. Fíli whimpered as the heavy weight crushed into his ribs. This must be what it was like to be burned alive. It had to be. Every inch of him screamed. There were tears wet on his cheeks, sobs shuddering beneath his ribcage. He couldn’t move.
All around him the other wolves howled. Fíli gave a desperate moan. He was going to die, and worst of all Kíli was going to see. Amad was always telling him to watch his brother, to protect him. He had done his best, but he had never meant to leave.
Measured thuds next to his ear. Fíli glanced up at the next approaching wolf, his vision swimming with tears.
Suddenly it was gone. There was a rush of cold air next to his face and then a crimson stain spread into the snow, an inch from Fíli’s nose. He stared dumbly at the arrow protruding from the wolf’s side, not understanding until he heard a familiar roar.
Fíli let out one more wretched sob and shut his eyes, the hand on his knife slacking.
Thorin had found them.
With a small sigh and the tiniest hint of a smile, Fíli let himself drift into unconsciousness, his burden lessening. But though it would ease, it would never leave his shoulders again.