His lips formed a big smile at the sound of metal hitting wood. It took a while for Kíli's eyes to adjust as he shadowed his face with his hand, but as the glowing spots of sunlight faded from his field of vision, he could see the arrow sitting on the very edge of the pole. That's as close to perfect as he could hope for at this time.
A voice came from his right, startling him since he didn't recognize it. "That is very impressive."
Kíli turned in its direction, stunned for the moment by this unexpected company. The voice was sharp as a blade but yet nice and friendly. The face to which it belonged - tanned and round with blushed cheeks - seemed familiar to Kíli as this Human female slowly came towards him. She was still looking at the pole with the arrow, the breeze blowing in the short ponytail of curly, chestnut hair, but when she turned to face Kíli he realized who this woman was.
He hadn't forgotten the penetrating blue eyes from the camp three days ago.
"Where'd you learn to shoot like that?" she asked. "I've never heard of Dwarf archers before."
There was a barely audible undertone of suspicion on her voice which Kíli completely ignored since it was followed by a smile. She sat down in the grass next to Kíli so that her eyes were on level with his chest. She was tall, even taller than most Men Kíli knew, and dressed like no woman he'd ever met. He was so busy taking in her appearance that he failed to realize her sudden arrival had muted him.
"Do you have a name?" she asked, almost as if she wasn't sure the young Dwarf could understand her.
"Kíli," he said plainly, still lost in her wondrous eyes, beautiful as only the Arkenstone in his wildest imaginations. "My name's Kíli."
"Alright, Kíli, my name is Dariah."
Kíli didn't like the fact that she was talking to him like an adult would address a young child. Although Kíli had yet to learn about the lifespans of Men, he realized when thinking about it that this woman probably was a lot older than him in maturity. He straightened himself and removed the surprised frown from his face and instead returned Dariah's smile.
"I saw you at the travelers' camp," he said, the only thing that came to his mind to say.
"And I saw you and your friend. I guess it was he who fired the arrow onto the road in the woods. You wouldn't make a mistake like that, would you?"
Kíli wasn't entirely convinced if he should take her words as a compliment or an insult towards his brother. The woman's eyes, however, were too hard to read. It was almost as if they were reading him. As she scanned his features, he took off his archer's gloves and pretended to be busy inspecting his bow.
"What are you doing here?" He tried to sound as polite as he could, but he really wanted to know.
"Oh, I passed by on my way to the market. I saw you practicing. I've always wanted to learn how to shoot a bow."
She looked away with an innocent smile, her cheeks blushing. Kíli could feel his whole being soften at the sight of her, almost as if, suddenly, they weren't strangers anymore. She was not one of the travelers who had thrown death glares at him and his brother, thought Kíli. Dariah seemed nice. And although he tried to ignore it, it made him feel proud to be the one with more skill for a change.
"I could show you," he smiled happily.
Dariah looked up again, eyes now shimmering with energy. She was immediately back on her feet, her full height catching Kíli off guard. She reminded him of Beidon - not a very pleasant thought - although much skinnier and way more beautiful. She took the bow and held it up, pulling the string with strong arms as far back as she dared. The weapon was not crafted for anyone much bigger then Kíli, but if she wanted to try it, Kíli would let her. At least this was only his hand-made training bow. He only took out his professional bow when leaving Ewardor on hunting trips or when training with Balin, the only other Dwarf in all of Ewardor with any earlier knowledge of archery whatsoever.
Kíli watched as Dariah tried aiming the unloaded bow, releasing the empty string to try it out. Kíli noticed her stance, and kicked lightly at her left foot with his own. "Move that one further back, you'll be steadier."
She glanced down at him and tried to copy the leg position that Kíli was now showing her. He gave a well intentioned laughter when Dariah nocked the first arrow into the bow and her shoulders were raised to her cheeks. he had fun trying to reach up to them to show exactly how to hold the drawn bow.
"You are good at giving instructions," Dariah noted, focused on inspecting every inch of the small bow after giving up on trying to hold it correctly when drawn. "Do you teach archery?"
"Only to you, now, and sometimes to my-"
Kíli was interrupted as the familiar voice of his brother called his name from the garden. "Kíli! Supper!"
No more needed to be said - Kíli was starving. He was given back the bow and two arrows from Dariah, who was looking towards where Fíli had just been with keen eyes and a plain expression. Kíli figured she'd enjoyed the archery lesson and didn't like that they'd been interrupted. He, too, wished that they could continue, but his stomach was telling him otherwise.
"We could continue this some other time, if you'd like?" he offered encouragingly.
"Yes," Dariah mumbled, still looking towards the garden, then turned back to face Kíli with a bright smile. "I'd like that very much."
Then she turned and walked back towards the road from where'd she'd come. Kíli watched her for a moment, thinking of calling goodbye after her, but chose not to. He retrieved the arrow that sat in the pole, jumped over the fence into the garden and ran for the front door to the house. From the outside it was a small house, built against the rocky hills leading up to the city market. It was painted in colors of nature, matching the big garden in front of it. The house had been expanded over the years when Kíli and his brother had grown too old to share room. Two more rooms had been hacked into the hill - one was Fíli's and one was their uncle Thorin's.
When Kíli stepped inside the door into the hallway, the smell of food hit him in the face, intensifying his stomach's growling. He threw off his boots and left the bow and arrows in the corner. Dís wouldn't want him to put them there, but he told himself he'd remove them later. In the dining room the table was already set with one of the delicious suppers that was an old speciality of Dís'. The scent of steaks and turnip sauce overwhelmed Kíli as he sat down next to his brother, across from the empty chair where Thorin would soon occupy.
"You took your sweet time," noted Fíli and reached over Kíli's plate for a loaf of bread. Kíli pushed his arm away jokingly, almost spilling out his own glass of water in the process. "Who was that lady?"
Fíli's choice of words caught Thorin's attention. He glanced expectantly at his youngest nephew under dark, bushy eyebrows. Last he'd seen Kíli an hour ago he'd been all alone outside the garden.
"Her name's Dariah. She saw me practicing from the road. She's from the caravan."
In an instant, Thorin's happy mood was blown out like a candle and he frowned. "The caravan," he repeated and snorted. "You shouldn't hang around those people too much."
"What about it?" asked Kíli, not intending to sound so cocky. But he couldn't help but take offense at Thorin's remark.
His eyes locked with his uncle's while Fíli watched awkwardly from the side. There was a moment of silence in which Dís came into the dining room with the last bowls of onions and mushrooms, immediately noticing the tension between her brother and her youngest. She sat down next to Thorin, gathering her long, copper hair onto her back not to have it hanging onto the plate. She looked from Kíli to Thorin and back, both still staring at each other, then met her eldest son's gaze for a seconds before pouring ale into her cup just to seem unaffected.
"What's going on?"
"Yes, what is going on, uncle?" repeated Kíli, annoyance on his voice. "What's wrong with the travelers?"
The reactions to Kíli's question were immediate, and he could feel it around him. Fíli leaned back slowly into his chair, eyes down, and their mother sighed quietly and looked to her brother, telling him wordlessly to say whatever it was Kíli did not know. The youngest Dwarf's temper cooled off considerably and he became curious. What was it about the caravan that made his family so uneasy, and why didn't he know about it?
Fíli sighed. "You haven't been into town lately, have you?"
No, he hadn't. He had little reason to go there unless sent on an errand by his mother. He was too young to work in the forges like his uncle, or take up apprenticeship like his brother. His training grounds lay outside of Ewardor, as did the homes of his friends. He hadn't been further into the city than the house since…
"… since the caravan arrived," he thought.
The shadow of loathing could be seen in Thorin's face, but it wasn't directed at his nephew. "Since they arrived, there's been a several severe bar fights, with injured. Durin's Folk, mostly. They all claimed that they provoked and attacked… by newcomers. Not to mention they're disrespectful, sickening urkhâs-"
Dís shot Thorin a disapproving look, not wanting such terms to be used across the dinner table. He silenced immediately, but Kíli had already got the point. His head spun with thoughts - the looks of hatred he and his brother had got when leading the caravan to Ewardor, the attacks that his uncle spoke of. They didn't add up to Ric and his cheerful chattering or Dariah's friendliness and interest in his archery. They weren't the same, how could they be? Uncle Thorin generalized them all. How could he do that? It was too late for Kíli to calm himself down when he realized that Thorin's statement had angered him.
"It's true, Kíli," said Fíli matter-of-factly. "I've seen them in town, harassing our people. Never the Men, just us Dwar-"
Fíli fell silent and looked at his brother, puzzled. From across the table, Dís and Thorin shared his surprise. But Kíli just looked down onto his plate, breathing heavier than he should trying to compose himself. "You're all wrong, they're not like that. You don't know her!"
He hadn't shouted, he'd only raised his voice, but it had been enough. The moment Kili's voice had died out, Thorin's had awakened and it became time to evacuate. He'd left as soon as his uncle had opened his mouth to reprimand him. He didn't want to make matters any worse than he already had. He'd taken his boots and the training bow from the hall and just walked off down the road, heading nowhere. The air was cooling off now that the sun was hidden behind the great mountains, covering Ewardor in shadows. The path was chilly to his bare feet and he considered stopping to put on his boots, but couldn't find the will to slow down. A part of him, deep down, couldn't believe that he'd been so enraged. He'd felt like he needed to protect Dariah from Thorin's harsh words.
He took a deep breath. "They haven't met her. They don't know how kind she is. Thorin doesn't know, or else he wouldn't say things like that. Urkhâs. Not Dariah, and not Ric."
How his brother had not aided him in defending their names was beyond him. If Fíli got to meet Dariah, then he'd realize just how sweet she was. Maybe he should… but no. He wouldn't go back. Fíli wouldn't want to come with him anyway, not this late on a mid-week day when the caravan was on the other side of Ewardor. He kept half walking, half running up the darkening path, the slipstreams brushing through his shoulder-length hair. He knew where he was heading now, although his feet had decided for him a while back. This road tunneled under the Imril Peak, the southernmost part of the Blue Mountains around which Ewardor was built, a shortcut to the other side of the city. He hoped to talk to Ric. Maybe he could even find Dariah so that he could ask her.
He needed to be sure that what his brother and uncle had told him was not true.
The trees lining the road prevented the last of the dusk from illuminating it, but Kíli had walked down this path so many times he could probably make it in his sleep, if he hadn't already. The households he passed were as spots of warm light in the shadows of the mountain. When he rounded Imril Peak, the fires of the forges could be seen a yellow stars upon the mountainside, high above the city.
Had Kíli not been looking behind him to the forges, he might have missed the movement around the house he just passed.
He came to a dead stop in mid-pace, startled by what he saw. There were two, maybe three shadows lurking in the garden of the Dwarf residence, cloaked so that they were nearly invisible. Had he not been sure he'd seen them move just a moment ago, Kíli might have mistaken them for trees. But now they stood entirely still, only the soft summer wind disturbing their cloaks, and stared at the young Dwarf. Kíli put down his boots and his free hand went to his back, but his fingertips only brushed the fabric of the shirt where his quiver of arrows should have hung. Stupid! He had taken the bow with him but forgotten the arrows.
Through the darkness he could see light reflecting in the eyes of the closest figure when its hood moved in the wind. Although he couldn't identify their color, it felt like they could see every single detail in his own brown eyes. Kíli dared not move as long as the figures stood still, since he felt threatened by the cloaked Men. He was sure that they were Men, for no Dwarf stood at those heights and Elves did not come unexpected into Ewardor, least of all at night. It wasn't long before Kíli's suspicions were confirmed as a fourth shadow came out of the darkness and took four long strides toward the road.
"Leave, Dwarf-scum!" the new figure spat silently, just loud enough for Kíli to hear the assurance of pain should he not obey this order.
He moved slowly back the way he'd come, not turning his back until he could no longer make out the silhouettes of the mysterious Men. Then he started running, as fast as his bare feet could carry him, not realizing that his boots lay forgotten on the road where he'd dropped them. When he finally stopped he was half-way home again. He bent over, puffing and sweating. As his heart rate slowly returned to normal, Kíli thought of what he'd seen. He knew he recognized that fourth Man from somewhere, and he knew that he had heard that voice before…
Realization hit him like a blow to the back of his head, and it might as well have been. "How could I have been so stupid?" he blamed himself. "Uncle Thorin and Fíli… could they have been right?"
That voice and the hatred in it, the pure disgust that had made Kíli feel so helpless, so worthless and so utterly small! He had never met anyone else like that, and it made sense although he didn't want it to. It could only have been him.