The wind was heavy with the pungent stink of charred flesh and the coppery sting of blood.
Fíli’s lungs burned; legs and feet ached. His heart thudded a war-drum beat, battering his ribs and pulsing in his ears. Whistles in the air steered him as he hurtled through the forest, running and wheezing away as the castle burned behind him.
Another whizz-pop and Fíli dove forward, rolling down a small decline and hiding himself beneath a bush. Its thorns bit the exposed skin of his hands and arms, digging its teeth in and threatening never to let go. Fíli panted. It hurt so much to catch his breath. And it was too loud. He slapped a hand over his mouth to muffle his huffing and squeezed his eyes shut, praying to a god he never truly believed in to spare him from the torture that awaited should he be found.
The ground shook when the stampede passed. Only one of the ranks slowed to inspect the area more thoroughly, satisfied when they saw nothing that gave Fíli away. Afraid, Fíli stayed in his cradle of thorns until he was certain the men wouldn’t return.
He crawled out, the fang-tips scraping and nipping as the bush released him into the night. That was when a new fear took root within him.
It was winter and cold, Fíli’s breath plumed damply around his face. His teeth chattered, lips paling to a sickly blue. Fíli berated himself for forgetting to grab his cloak when he fled. It had been right beside him; the last bundle Fíli’s mother gave him before she abandoned Fíli to his fate. A low growl escaped him; Fíli was a confused blend of anger and anguish when he thought about his mother and father.
As dead as everyone else.
He treaded carefully and quietly over the hard, frozen ground, arms wrapped around himself uselessly. Fíli was hungry and thirsty and tired. He missed his bed – its pile of furs and duvets – and he missed the ritual of an evening meal with his parents. He’d even go so far as to say he missed vegetables. What he wouldn’t give for peas and carrots right then. Fíli would willingly and without fuss eat a whole parsnip.
A sound caught his attention, snapping through his idle thoughts. A creak-snap-whip and suddenly Fíli felt something grab his ankle. The next thing he knew, his stomach was in his throat and the world was upside down and he swayed like a pendulum too many feet above the ground.
The combination of hunger and surprise made him dizzy and, slowly, his eyes fell shut and he began to dream.
A simple handle, its girth almost too big for his hands, leather-wrapped gold. He pulled and strained and pulled again. The task was impossible. He gritted his teeth and widened his stance and tried again with dream-weak muscles. The sword would not budge.
A woman with no face stood over him, her voice in his head telling him to wait. His time would come. Be patient.
He had to find his voice first, and all else would become clear.
“We been ‘ere since well before the castle was taken. Just that, now, we got a bunch more folk hiding ‘ere in the woods. And Da says we can’t turn ‘em away. It would be cruel and we ain’t that.” The boy kept nattering, seeming not to care that he was in conversation with himself, never once waiting for Fíli to say something.
It had been that way since Fíli woke up three days prior, apparently under the care of this boy’s family for three days before that. He’d been found, Fíli had been told, hung from one of their tree-spring noose traps. He’d been close to death when they’d cut him down, limbs stiff and so cold they couldn’t believe he’d survived. Admittedly, his fingertips had yet to regain feeling.
Fíli was grateful. His rescuers were a band of Gypsies who’d settled their caravan in the woods. So far, they’d been kind and generous, taking care of Fíli without demanding anything in return (a relief since he had nothing to offer. Not anymore).
“ – need to find us more animals for snaring, though. Ma says we gotta settle ‘em before they can earn their keep. Whatever that means. Do you understand grown-up-speech? Bet you do – ”
Somewhere in those three days, Fíli had made a friend. Not one he asked for nor especially liked. The boy – Kíli was his name – hadn’t stopped talking since Fíli’s eyes opened to the sight of a canvas ceiling and a man with a trumpet stuck out the side of his head. Mahal, Fíli was sure the boy had been talking to him since before Fíli was roused from his fever-sleep.
“ – and Da thinks it’d be a smart idea for you to stay wit’ us. Not that you’se got much choice, what wit’ everyone looking.”
Cold dread stopped Fíli in his tracks. The last thing his mother had told him, demanded of him, was that his name not be discovered; to keep himself a secret. He shouldn’t trust anyone, no matter how kind and generous and chatty. Already, he’d failed.
“Don’t worry,” Kíli said, looking at Fíli with a steady gaze, “I won’t tell.”
Fíli studied Kíli; the hard set of his jaw, chin jutted out, daring Fíli to find the lie. Fíli wouldn’t. He knew Kíli was telling the truth.
He cocked his head to the side, silently asking Kíli how he figured it out. Kíli shrugged a shoulder, motioning to Fíli’s neck.
“You’re necklace. The dragon.” Kíli said, stepping closer until he was able to reach for the leather cord strung around Fíli’s neck. Kíli pulled the gold pendant from Fíli’s shirt gently and held it in his palm, admiring it before glancing back up to meet Fíli’s gaze. Kíli smiled wide, “You’re the prince, right? It’s the seal: The Gold Dragon of Erebor. Da’s talked about it.”
Fíli cleared his throat, eyed darting to his feet.
“Hey,” Kíli ducked his head, chasing Fíli’s eyes until Fíli finally surrendered and looked back. “I swears I won’t tell. And a Gypsy’s word is his bond.”
They sounded like someone else’s words, someone wiser, but Fíli knew Kíli meant them.
Everyone had to hunt for themselves if they wanted meat. Those were the rules. Some would take responsibility for the old and lame; most fended for themselves, sparing scraps and bones if asked. Kíli kept them alive with his bow, killing a stag once that filled their bellies for days after.
Fíli slept with Kíli’s family, safe within the wooden frame and cloth walls of their nomadic home. He had his own bed, which was nice, Kíli’s right beside it, only a sliver of space in between which meant Kíli talked Fíli’s ear off with soughed stories of all his triumphs. There weren’t many and yet Kíli managed to tell a different one every time, until Fíli drifted off.
Fíli hadn’t decided if he appreciated Kíli’s constant stream of words or if he hated it.
“Are you ever gonna say anything?” Kíli asked as they sat in front of the fire for supper. He tore off a piece of crusty bread and shoved it into his mouth, cheek bulging as he spoke through his mouthful, “It’s been weeks and you haven’t said a word.”
Fíli appeared scandalized as he watched Kíli dig in without any sense of propriety, mindful of Kíli’s observation, which was ridiculous, of course. He ate far more delicately than Kíli, using his bread to sop up the stew and spoon chunks of meat and veg into his mouth. He did this twice more before he tried to tell Kíli that that was impossible, he must have said something since they met.
But no words came.
He tried again and again but he felt the words stick in his throat. His head throbbed as he whimpered what should’ve been a plea for help but was instead more of a strangled noise.
Fíli paddled for Kíli’s hands, his breath quickening as the world began to spin, his bowl and plate tumbling to the ground. Kíli grabbed him by the shoulders and urged him to turn around. Fíli didn’t want that, he wanted Kíli to help him. Why was he turning him away?
“C’mon, sit. down.” Kíli asserted, wrenching Fíli to sit between his legs, back to chest. Kíli put a hand over Fíli’s frantic heart and began to take deep, even breaths. “Do as I do.” He instructed into Fíli’s ear, breath tickling the sensitive skin beneath it. “Calm now, c’mon.”
Tears stung Fíli’s eyes as the realization that he hadn’t spoken in that long overwhelmed him. Was he broken?
Did everything have to be stolen from him? His parents, his home, and now his voice?
He missed his mother. He hadn’t let himself think too much about it before now but, Mahal, he missed her. She always knew what to say to make things right. And now she wasn’t here and never would be again and he missed her and wanted her back give her back!
What had he done that was so wrong, he had to be stripped of her love?
It took a second for Kíli to figure out that Fíli wasn’t under threat of fainting any longer and was, in fact, weeping. He stiffened, not sure what to do. He’d never been confronted with sorrow and upset before. The most he’d dealt with was Little Ori wailing when he’d tripped and chipped a tooth.
“I – ” Kíli stuttered but got himself together, holding Fíli who turned in his arms and buried his head in Kíli’s chest. “You’re safe here.”
Memories bombarded Fíli from all sides. Images of his mother, beautiful and fearless as she cut men down in a dance of slaughter and bloodshed. But her ferocity hadn’t been enough, and Fíli watched, once again, as she was struck, sliced from groin to breast and spilled open. He was wracked by a pain he didn’t understand. It didn’t result from a wound but from his heart though it hurt just as much. Perhaps more. Because wounds healed but Fíli couldn’t believe this ever would.
It didn’t matter that Fíli couldn’t speak because the scream he unleashed told Kíli everything. Kíli gulped and held Fíli tighter when Fíli pressed his hands to his ears, trying to muffle noises only he could hear.
“Hush,” Kíli said, his voice quivering, “I’ve got you – ”
The sword-handle was no longer so broad in his grip. He pulled again and felt the blade loosen the slightest amount. The task still felt too large for him, he would never be able to accomplish it. Still, despite that thought, he continued to pull and heave.
The woman appeared again, this time curling around him from behind and placing her hands over his. Her voice in his head whispered riddles.
Find his voice and all would become clear.
“ – I’ve got you.” Kíli soothed, stroking Fíli’s hair as he trembled, fighting through the sluggish transition between dreams and wakefulness. “You’re alright, Fee, I’m here.”
Fíli groaned, mollified as the smell and feel of his best friend enveloped him.
Over the years, Kíli assumed the responsibility of comforting Fíli in the aftermath of Fíli’s dreams. Kíli spent more time in Fíli’s bed, wrapped around him to better rub the tension from Fíli’s back, than he did his own.
Kíli guided Fíli to lay down, bringing a gentle hand up to cup Fíli’s stubbly cheek. He stroked a thumb under Fíli’s eye and watched the fire in it diminish.
“They’re more frequent.” Kíli murmured, visibly worried. He nibbled his lower lip in thought and Fíli couldn’t help but be distracted. He’d been distracted by a lot of things Kíli did lately …
He leaned up and placed a chaste kiss on Kíli’s mouth, as he’d done many times before – the only way he knew how to express his appreciation for Kíli’s devotion to him since he was still without a voice. Well, that wasn’t entirely true: He had a voice, it merely dissolved in his throat whenever he attempted to use it, words banished by the bloody spectre of his mother. To avoid conjuring her, he accepted the silence. Instead he learned to speak through gestures. Such as a kiss.
The first time he’d kissed Kíli, Kíli had sat in stunned silence for enough seconds that Fíli had started planning his escape. But, eventually, Kíli relaxed and embraced him and told him, I’ll always be there for you, no matter what.
After awhile, it became a regular exchange. Kíli used his words and accepted Fíli’s kisses and that was that.
Kíli pressed their brows together, holding Fíli there by the back of his head and said what he said every time: “Always.”
Seasons came and went. With every kingdom felled, their numbers grew and Fíli and Kíli grew with them, battling their way into manhood. Their camp traveled, collapsing and erecting their homes as many times as needed to avoid the Bone Soldiers and their Death March. It was tiring but necessary. There were few men among them, having been conscripted and killed for a king who was conquered in the end. The wives and children left behind were strong, strong enough to fight, but refused to risk the lives of their children.
Fíli agreed. And thus, the camp continued to wander, thankful when they were able to stay in one place more than a month.
When Kíli’s father passed, the role of leader fell to Kíli and, somehow, also to Fíli. They shouldered the onus together: Kíli with his wise heart and Fíli with his strategic mind. Fíli had some knowledge of how to rule, had been groomed for it until his King Father and Queen Mother were slain, and he used that knowledge to protect the lives of their people as well as he could.
They had become much closer in recent years though Fíli was reluctant to call it love. Whenever Kíli made advances, Fíli shied away, pretended to be oblivious. He’d felt the sting of losing loved ones before and wasn’t brave enough to face it again. Kíli either didn’t mind or was the most patient man in all the lands because he never angered, never walked away, never sulked. He simply continued as if nothing had happened.
Speaking of Kíli …
Fíli emerged from the tent they shared, greeting those he passed with a nod as he made his way toward the stream. As he thought, Kíli was there, filling caldrons for cooking. It was dusk, too late to be this far away from the fires and safety their numbers offered. Fíli watched him for a moment, let his eyes linger over Kíli’s form as he bent and stretched, dunking and lifting the caldrons one by one, the muscles of his back and shoulders rippling with each movement.
Kíli was still the crass and untamed wildling Fíli met in their youth, but his edges had softened. He’d grown into a fine man who understood when to be kind and when to be firm. When to fight and when to retreat. When to sleep and when to make conversation …
The last change was the most impressive.
“You’re finally free,” Kíli said, not needing to look and see who approached. “I expected Truïk to keep you busy ‘til dawn.” Kíli looked at Fíli over his shoulder, his wide grin contagious. “Did he mention fabric! We need fabric, Fíli!”
Fíli laughed at Kíli’s impersonation until he had tears in his eyes.
Fíli flopped down beside Kíli who finished filling the last caldron, placing it with the others. He took a seat, knees bent and elbows propped on either one, and together they stared at the sky as it bruised purple and blue, reluctant to acknowledge that night was coming earlier.
“Do we go south?” Kíli asked, “Do we bother? The attacks are coming from every direction now, Fee. We can’t possibly keep running and expecting to find anywhere different – ”
Fíli placed a hand on Kíli’s shoulder and squeezed.
“You know I’m right.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes until, “Do you want to tell me about the dream last night?”
“You whacked me in your sleep. That can only mean they’re getting worse. Or you hate me.”
Fíli snorted and shrugged again.
How could he explain it? The dreams weren’t exactly getting worse so much as more intense, more vivid. The woman visited him almost every night now, her voice in his head still telling him things he couldn’t make sense of. However, the sword was gradually loosening. He had yet to slide it free of the stone, but he was getting closer; it was only a matter of time.
“You know, there’s a legend about a boy and his sword-in-the-stone. Maybe it’s something to do with that?”
Fíli raised an eyebrow and rolled his hand, gesturing for Kíli to elaborate.
“What? You’ve never heard it?”
Fíli shook his head.
“Well, it’s rather simple. There’s a sword trapped in stone and no one can budge it ‘til one day a boy gives it a try. He frees the sword and ends up becoming king.” Kíli hummed contemplatively and added, “I just – I wonder … If it’s something in the stone that chooses the king, or something in the man?”
A stone that makes kings? Fíli scoffed.
“You can make fun all you want but you’re the one dreaming it.” Kíli countered. “I wouldn’t have thought of it if the dreams weren’t so persistent these days. You never know, could be a premonition.”
Was it some sign from the future? Fíli considered what would become of the dreams when he finally freed the sword (if he freed it). Would he recover his voice? The woman kept insisting he needed to find his voice, after all. He imagined he’d have to have found it before the dreams would cease –
“Hey, where’d you go?” Kíli’s voice dragged Fíli away from his spiraling thoughts.
Fíli released a deep exhale and ran his hands through his hair. When he returned his gaze to Kíli, his breath caught. Without his noticing, Kíli had swayed closer, face hovering so close there was hardly a sliver of air between them.
“Maybe it’s not really about a sword.” Kíli murmured, the butter-soft skin of his lips grazing Fíli’s, sending sparks from mouth to scalp to stomach and everywhere else. Fíli flushed petal-pink and swallowed hard. “Or a stone.” Kíli brushed his nose over Fíli’s, a gentle bump, his lidded amber gaze floating back and forth between Fíli’s eyes and partially open mouth. “Maybe it’s about you, somehow. What you have. And what you should take.”
Fíli felt fever-hot and tingly. The weight of Kíli’s hand cupping his neck, the dizzying scent of woodsmoke and pine on Kíli’s skin, the sensation of Kíli’s breath in his lungs as Kíli sealed their mouths together.
It was different than the kisses they normally shared. Fíli kept those light. Not loaded with emotion and sex like this. Kíli moaned, the sound rumbling through Fíli like a promise of forever.
“I think you’d make a great king, Fee.” Kíli said when he pulled away then ducked immediately back in to taste more of Fíli. “Let me worship you like one.”
But Fíli put a halting hand to Kíli’s chest and narrowed his eyes. It wasn’t what Kíli offered him that struck Fíli with anger. It was how he offered it. Fíli didn’t want to be a king. He’d witnessed firsthand what became of kings and Fíli wasn’t prepared to lose anyone else he cared so deeply for to that unforgivable fate. With a sharp shove, Fíli pushed Kíli away and stood, stormed back to the camp and into their tent.
That night he slept with his back to Kíli.
His hands curled around the hilt as if it was fashioned for him, its shape fitted in his grip perfectly. Feet planted and back strong, he pulled with everything he had. The woman glided around the stone, her voice in his head, chanting her encouragement: Find your voice and all with become clear.
He strained and tugged and felt the blade loosen, sliding halfway free from its stone sheath. He jerked forward when it unexpectedly stuck —
The attack happened at midnight. The ground quaked, thunder rumbled as the Bone Soldiers stampeded through, lighting their dwellings ablaze and spreading the fire to the surrounding trees to corral the people as they scattered.
Fíli tore himself from his bed and grabbed his sword and daggers, head whipping around to catch sight of Kíli. He wasn’t in the tent. Fíli roared when he erupted from through the canvas flap opening, dragging a soldier from his horse and plunging his blade through metal and bone. Fíli marched through the chaos like he was its master, spinning and swaying, manoeuvring his way toward the sound of Kíli’s unmistakable battle call.
Soldiers tried to his obstruct path with their violence and died for it. Fíli would not be led astray.
Through smoke and blood and battle, Fíli fought, wounded twice in his left arm and once in his right leg. Kíli fared no better; the gash on his cheek promised to scar and his side needed tending. They and their fighters managed to take back control and chase the remaining soldiers away as the sun bled the sky pink.
Despite the exhaustion, Fíli stalked his way toward the stream where he knew Kíli had gone to collect water for the injured.
Fucking avoidant bastard, hiding behind selflessness!
Kíli stood before Fíli reached him, placed the caldron at his feet and turned hesitantly. He was shaking, almost imperceptivity. His skin was blood-splattered and smeared with smoke-grime and dirt. And he was beautiful. Amber eyes watched Fíli carefully as Fíli prowled forward, growling roughly. He grabbed Kíli none-too-gently by the back of the head, hands fisting in Kíli’s wild mess of hair, and yanked him forward.
Fíli didn’t let him finish, interrupting him with a brutal kiss. He smashed their mouths together, all tongue and teeth and feeling. Because he couldn’t deny Kíli anymore. The idea of losing him without ever doing this every day scared Fíli more than he wanted to admit. Kíli buckled into him, hands frantically stripping them of their clothes.
“Fíli, are you sure?” Kíli asked when they lay on the bank, Fíli between Kíli’s thighs, shaking as he struggled to restrain himself.
Fíli leaned down and cupped Kíli’s jaw, running a feather-light thumb across Kíli’s kiss-swollen lips. Truthfully, Fíli wasn’t sure of anything. But he was sure of this: He may not have been a king – never wanted to be a king – but he was a leader, and, by Mahal, he would fight to do right by the people who followed him. For he was as loyal to them as they were to him. Fíli understood what must be done. And with Kíli at his side, devotedly shaping Fíli’s command and courage, the task didn’t seem so impossible.
This was only their beginning and Fíli was not afraid.
And so he answered, “Yes.”
Sure hands gripped the hilt, secure and unwavering. He rounded his shoulders and loosened his arms, inhaling deeply through his nose. He closed his eyes and focused. When he opened them, Kíli stood before him, eyes holding his own with heart-swelling reverence. A fierce energy pulsed through Fíli’s veins, Kíli’s presence lending him what strength he lacked.
Gazes locked, Fíli began to lift the sword, letting go a howl that reached the heavens. Bit by bit, inch by inch, the blade scraped loose from the stone.
That night, Fíli held the sword above his head.